Sunday, April 24, 2016

Central Station - Lavie Tidhar

Between 2011 and 2014 a series of short stories by Lavie Tidar appeared in such magazines as Interzone, Clarkesworld and Analog, as well as a couple of anthologies. All stories centred on Central Station, a space port facility located in the vicinity of Tel Aviv that has grown to become a city in itself. Tachyon Publications is now publishing a book containing rewritten versions of these stories with a few original pieces thrown in. The result is not quite a collection and not quite a novel. Publisher's Weekly calls it a mosaic novel in their review. Perhaps that is the  best description of this work. It is not a book that easily falls into a category whichever way you look at it and all the more fascinating for that.

Gathered around the foot of Central Station are a quarter of a million people from all corners of the globe. They have created a society with a huge number of cultural influences, a place where human and robot form a gliding scale, where genetically engineered beings are commonplace and where the boundary between the physical and virtual world is thin. In this melting pot of cultures, religions and advanced technology, Boris Chong returns after a long absence. He will have to deal with an old lover, a father in poor health, a child he's helped create and someone who has followed him down from space among other challenges.

I name Boris Chong the central figure in the book but that is probably not entirely accurate. Many of the story lines are connected to him but the real centre is Central Station itself. Tidhar is in search of the genius loci as much as the motivation of his characters. Throughout the book you get the feeling that the place is on the verge of awakening, of achieving self-awareness. It's a looming presence, always watching over the shoulder of the characters. It reminded me a lot of China MiƩville's Perdido Street Station in that respect. Central Station is a book with many influences and that novel is probably one of them.

The text refers heavily to the greats of speculative fiction. From Bram Stoker's vampires to Frank Herbert's Sandworms, just about every creature or technology you can imagine seems to have found a place in the chapters. There are so many of them that I probably missed half during this first read. There's a dash of New Wave, a helping of Cyberpunk and a pinch of Philip K. Dick. All these ideas are mixed into an almost surreal world, one that pays homage to almost every subgenre in science fiction since the Golden Age. It's a book that has got a lot to offer for the experienced science fiction reader.

The plot meanders quite a bit. Through the eyes of several characters we explore the various aspects of Central Station. Some characters are very old and give us an insight into the past of the place. Others see it for the first time and experience the bewildering environment with fresh eyes. There are lots of tragedies worked into the stories. Characters struggle with imminent death and the possibility of immortality, drowning in perfectly stored memories, complicated old and new love affairs and how to deal with intelligence that is not quite human. Despite meeting most of them only briefly, the reader is made intensely aware of their state of mind.

With so many cultural influences on the society that has formed around Central Station, it is no surprise that the language is influenced as well. Most characters speak several languages, and Tidhar introduces a pidgin language early on in the book as well. There is a bit of English in it but a lot seems to come out of other languages. There's bit of Yiddish in the novel too. Throughout the book Tidhar pays a lot of attention to the surroundings. The descriptions of the city and its institution are colourful,  rich and tantalizing. There is constantly the feeling that you really want to explore one of the elements of Central Station further. Tidhar keeps us on track however. Many of the fascinating things that can be found in Central Station are only mentioned in the passing.

All in all Central Station is one of the most peculiar books I've read in a while. Tidhar could have made it into a collection but chose to rewrite the stories to make them fit into one narrative. It would probably have worked as a more traditional collection, but I must admit the rewrites add something to the book. The meandering plot will not please everybody. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that Tidhar refers to so many classics in science fiction, yet chooses a structure for his work that not many of those writers would have considered. It's a work in conversation with the genre but not afraid to go off the beaten track. As such it is not a book for everybody, but if you like a book that is a bit different, Central Station might be your thing. Personally,  I thoroughly enjoyed it. I wouldn't be surprised to see this one on the Nebula shortlist next year.

Book Details
Title: Central Station
Author: Lavie Tidhar
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Pages: 290
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: E-ARC
ISBN: 978-1-61696-215-9
First published: 2016

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Dancer's Lament - Ian C. Esslemont

In 2014 Ian C. Esslemont delivered Assail, the sixth and final novel of the Malazan Empire, a series that intertwines with Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen. Like Erikson, he has now chosen to delve into the rich past of their shared fantasy world. Dancer's Lament is the first novel in a series describing the rise of the Malazan Empire. It's a period Erikson has not published any material on, leaving Esslemont a bit more free to find his own path. It seems to have done him a lot of good. The story works well for veteran readers but it might also be a good entry point. Let's face it, there are significantly less unknown terms, unexplained histories and strange magics dropped on the reader than in Erikson's first books.

The continent of Quon Tali was once unified, but in recent decades various regional powers have vied for control. Most of this has passed the city of Li Heng by, however. Ruled by a powerful sorceress, the city has known generations of stability. This is about to come to an end when the armies of the Itko Kan arrive. Their ambitious young king is aiming to conquer the city. He is not the only arrival however. Two young men with ambitions that stretch far beyond controlling one city, slip into Li Heng just before the besiegers arrive. The game of power is played on several levels and as usual in the world of Malaz, the use of power attracts the powerful. What starts out as a simple siege ripples though the Malazan pantheon.

As I understand it, Esslemont is under contract for three books in this series. This first book doesn't quite feel as the setup for a traditional trilogy, however. I would not be surprised to see the author take it beyond three books. The Malazan timeline is notoriously (and intentionally) vague so it is hard to pinpoint when exactly this story takes place in relation to other books in this universe. My best guess is that this story is set at least a century before the events in Gardens of the Moon but I could be a few decades off.

Although the history of this universe goes back a lot further, Erikson is currently writing books that are set many thousands of years before the events Esslemont describes here, Dancer's Lament is something of an origins story. We meet a number of young characters who will go on to become big players. The title is giving one of them away. Dassem Ulthor makes an appearance, Kellanved shows up and the Crimson Guard, before undergoing the ritual, pays Li Heng a visit. There is, in other words plenty for the reader familiar with the Malazan books to recognize.

All these familiar characters in the story could have the drawback that the observant reader will guess the shape of the story early on. Between them, Erikson and Esslemont have given quite a few hints on the past of some of the key players in the story. I have a nagging suspicion that later books might become more predictable. It will be interesting to see how Esslemont handles that. In Dancer's Lament, predictability is not (yet) a problem. We are a long way from Malaz, the empire is a distant dream. It will take the reader the better part of the book to figure out who is who, and more importantly, what they are capable of. Names are fluid in this series. They are often earned rather than given, and quite a few characters still have to earn theirs.

As usual the conflict in the novel plays out on several levels. The worldly politics of Quon Tali is intermingled with the struggles of gods and ascendants. This last conflict is reflected in changes in the Deck of Dragons, where as of yet unaligned cards start to appear. The origin of the house that is forming is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel for me. For characters who are, in later books, seen to be playing the long game, meticulously plotting their moves, their actions in this novel appear rash. In fact, they cause the nearest thing to panic among the  ascendants I've seen in this series.

Despite the multilayered conflict, the novel is fairly concise as Malazan books go. It is just over 400 pages in hardback. Some of the bigger novels in the overall series are easily twice as long. Esslemont starts his new series in a relatively contained setting and with, for Malazan standards, a fairly limited cast. Where in some of his previous novels I had the feeling he had trouble juggling the characters, writing his novels in between Erikson's parts and pulling all strands together for a good convergence, he doesn't have any such problems in this book. It is a tightly written novel with a satisfying climax. Sure, there are lots of open ends, it is the first book in a series after all, but structurally, this novel may be the best Esslemont has produced to date.

All in all, I am quite taken with this novel. Dancer's Lament is a fresh start for the series, and that seems to be just what Esslemont needed. It is one of the more accessible books in the universe of Malaz, but still contains enough links to the other works in the series to make it interesting for readers who have read the other books. This novel shows that, whatever we think we know about this most complex of fantasy worlds, Erikson and Esslemont will keep surprising us with their stories. Even if Esslemont's earlier novels didn't convince you, this one is well worth the read.

Book Details
Title: Dancer's Lament
Author: Ian C. Esslemont
Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 401
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-593-07434-3
First published: 2016

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Always - Nicola Griffith

Always is the third and final novel featuring the American-Norwegian ex-police officer Aud Torvingen. These novels are usually considered crime novels, which I don't read very often. Putting them in that genre might be a bit of a stretch though. There is a crime being investigated in the novel but large parts of it deal with other subjects entirely. Whatever you want to call them, the first two were very good reading so a copy of the third volume was under way before I finished the second book. Griffith takes a slightly different approach in this book (I don't think I've seen her do the same thing twice in  a novel) and I suspect it will divide readers. Personally I liked it a lot but some readers will probably feel it is a bit too long.

Aud is back on her feet again after the events in Stay. Right in time to face a new set of challenges. Her mother, whom she has a complicated relationship with, is coming to the US, Seattle to be exact, and she is bringing along her new husband. Aud could have done without that but she can't very well refuse. Since the inheritance of her father includes property in Seattle which appears to be mismanaged, she sets out for the west coast to sort things out while she is there. For moral support she brings along her friend Doran who, as usual turns out to be a blessing and a curse.

The novel is divided into two narrative strands. The first covers a class in self defence for women Aud is teaching and is set in Atlanta. The second takes place in Seattle. Griffith alternates the chapters but chronologically the self defence class takes place some time before the events in Seattle. They are loosely connected, Griffith only refers to the classes a few times in the Seattle chapters. She does so very cleverly though. With every class you feel the tension mounting, partly because of the hints in the Seattle strand of the story.

That being said, the Atlanta chapters are stuffed to overflowing with details on self defence, the statistics of violence against women (depressingly relevant despite being decades old in some cases) and detailed descriptions of techniques and exercises. There's a lot of discussion on the subject too. The plotline in these chapters is not too complicated. The observant reader will see early on where it is heading. It's a huge contrast with the more complex mystery, and intense pressure Aud faces in the Seattle chapters. Maybe that contrast is intentional and what Aud has to tell about violence against women certainly needs to be heard but I did feel the Atlanta chapters slowed down the book a bit beyond what was necessary.

In Seattle Aud has to deal with an attempt to drive her out of business, with putting a strain on her relationship with Doran by meeting a new woman, and with finding a new balance in her relationship with her mother. Over the space of a few weeks she pretty much needs to come to terms with every emotional scar she has gathered over the course of her life. Where in the Atlanta chapters we see a self-assured Aud, she is constantly confused, distressed or angry in the Seattle chapters, heading from one crisis to the next. In terms of character development there is a lot of interesting stuff going on in these chapters.

The most interesting part in my opinion is Aud's confrontation with her mother. She has appeared briefly in the first novel but most information we get about her is contained in what Aud thinks about her. Which, it turns out, is not always reliable. Aud is surprised by her mother in many ways. Although Aud doesn't appear to be particularly happy with her mother's marriage she has to admit to herself that her mother seems to be genuinely happy. The woman we meet appears milder than the image formed in the previous two books. Milder is clearly not the same as soft though. Like Aud, her mother knows how to get things done and she demonstrates it at several points in the novel. While she lets Aud sort out her own problems for the most part, she is not shy about letting her opinion on a few matters be known.

I'm not sure they would agree with me, but Aud and her mother are alike in many ways. They like being in control and they both have a keen insight into the human mind and use that knowledge to get things done. Aud's approach is often more physical, she relies on body language an awful lot, but the principle is the same. What her mother might be better at is judging at when to speak and when to act though. Aud has the tendency to notice something needs doing and then to take care of it without regard to anybody else's opinion on the matter. Even if you are right, and it has to be said she usually is, this is bound to piss people off. She doesn't discuss things and doesn't doubt her own judgement until later. Her reliance on her own judgement is a trap she falls into every once in a while.

The woman Aud meets in Seattle is the first potential long term relationship since the drama in The Blue Place. As usual it is complicated. First by Doran being interested in her as well and then by a series of misunderstandings and communication breakdowns. It takes Aud most of the book to become comfortable with the idea of being in a relationship again. To start taking someone's needs into account and be aware of their feelings is complicated for her. The risk of adding another scar to an already large collection looms over their romance. Aud, in other words, has some things to work through to make this relationship work. In the final pages her mother throws in a bit of painful relationship advice that makes me glad Aud retained her scepticism towards her mother in this respect at least.

After all that one would almost forget there was a crime to be solved in the novel as well. This time Aud gets to deal with a money crime and some modest local government corruption. In Atlanta she would probably have buried the responsible parties in under five minutes but Seattle is a strange city. Figuring out who to talk to and who can take care of what problem takes a bit of time. Although solving the matter is not without danger, the experience gives Aud a clear goal for the future too. Which makes this book a fitting end to the series.

With Always Griffith once again delivers a fascinating novel. It is an impressive bit of character development. The author pulls no punches when it comes to making her main character suffer. The crime element in the novel is not quite as present as in the first two volumes. If you approach this as a whodunit, the novel will probably not satisfy you. Personally I was much more interested in seeing if Aud would manage to find some stability in her life and heal some of the scars that are so prominently present in her story, and in that respect the novel absolutely delivers. If you enjoyed Griffith's science fiction and are not afraid to try a different genre don't hesitate to pick these up.

Book Details
Title: Always
Author: Nicola Griffith
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Pages: 516
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-59448-294-6
First published: 2007

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Xuya Universe Short Fiction by Aliette de Bodard (Part 3)

Aliette de Bodard's Xuya alternative history is a fascinating project. One that I have returned to regularly on the blog. It's been three and a half years since I did one of these posts however, and since I did mention I might do a third, I guess it is past time. Especially since I got hold of a few of the harder to find pieces recently. I once again picked a pair of contrasting stories. Should there be a part four (you never know) this is going to be a bit harder to keep up. I have exhausted the stories set in the recent past in the Mexica Empire.

Fleeing Tezcatlipoca

This story originally appeared in Space and Time Magazine #111, the Summer 2010 issue. Until De Bodard made it available in Ships in Exile, a collection put together as a reward for a fund-raiser, it hadn't been published anywhere else. The story may be hard to track down. It is a novelette, with a word count of approximately 10,000. As the title suggests, this story is set in the Mexica Empire. According to De Bodard's timeline the events take place in 1990.

The Mexica Empire is in turmoil as the weak Revered Speaker tries to consolidate power by crushing any opposition. In a Tenochtitlan with checkpoints and barricades at every turn and priests and Jaguar Knights enforcing loyalty to the regime, life is slowly becoming unbearable for the main character Necahal. When Palli,  a member of her extended family, asks for her help to cross the border into Xuya, she agrees to come with him. It will be a dangerous journey but before she can ask herself how well she actually knows this man, she is in way over her head.

The story is set some years after The Jaguar House, in Shadow, and shows us a glimpse of how the conflict has developed in the mean time. Stylistically The Jaguar House, in Shadow is a bit more refined. Fleeing Tezcatlipoca, is told in a more straightforward fashion. If not for the alternative timeline you could almost see it as a thriller. There are certainly possibilities for one in this setting. I don't feel this story is the best De Bodard has produced. It lacks something of the grace of her other stories. I do like Necahal though. She does something drastic and clearly hasn't thought it through properly, but she does face the consequences of her actions. I don't doubt she landed on her feet.

Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight

De Bodard recently won the BSFA award for this story. It was published in Clarkesworld 100, January 2015 and can still be read for free on their site. This story takes us into the future a century or two. The story is set on a different planet in a corner of the universe where a space faring Chinese/Vietnamese culture has established itself. It touches upon the concept of Minds, AIs with a biological core brain capable of piloting spacecraft, found in several other Xuya stories as well.  That sounds like space opera but the story is actually very intimate. Grief is a clear theme but in a way, so is identity. And tea, there is lots of tea.

A son, a daughter/Mind and a colleague are faced with the loss of eminent scientist Professor Duy Uyen. Because of the value of her work, the Empress goes against tradition and decides to give her memory implant to the colleague instead of her son, to make sure her unique knowledge won't be lost. Each of the three will now have to deal with their loss in a way none of them expected.

Three characters. One wants the implants but doesn't get them, one gets them but doesn't want them and the third comes to realize she doesn't need them. Family and honouring your ancestors is important in the culture De Bodard portrays, which makes the decision of the Empress controversial. One of the characters explores what it is to lose a mother and have what he thought was left of her taken away as well. Another deals with having a supervisor look over her shoulder from the grave. The third has to face up to the fact that she will never experience loss the way her family does.

The role of technology in the story is also very well done. The implants have been completely incorporated in the culture of the main characters. It offers possibilities they wouldn't have had otherwise but also raises new dilemmas. Readers agreeing with Theodore Sturgeon's definition of science fiction will approve of this story.

Two very different stories. I think they are about as far apart as you can find them in the Xuya universe. I still haven't read them all though. I guess I should get on with that. The more of these stories I read, the more this alternative history fascinates me.