Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Fiends of Nightmaria - Steven Erikson

The Fiends of Nightmaria is the sixth instalment in Steven Erikson's Bauchelain and Korbal Broach series of novellas. These two necromancers  appear as minor figures in both Erikson's and Esslemont's Malazan novels. As far as I know, there is no US edition of this novella yet. I ordered the PS Publishing edition, which is expensive but also beautifully illustrated. Erikson has several more of these novellas planned and I for one, can't wait to find out where he is taking it. That being said, this novella is not the strongest in the series.

Bauchelain, Korbal Broach and their unfortunate manservant Emancipor Reese have reached the kingdom of Farrog. Tired of travelling, Bauchelain usurps the throne and appoints Korbal Broach his Grand Bishop. Soon their tyrannical rule is making itself felt throughout the kingdom. The new monarch is facing more than a few problems however, his enemies are still in pursuit, the local population is about to rebel and tensions are rising between Farrog and the nearby kingdom of Nightmaria. Claiming the throne is easier than holding on to it.

Most of the novella takes place in a single night in which Bauchelain's enemies converge (this is a Steven Erikson book after all) on his position. Erikson covers three groups of enemies and Bauchelain himself in barely a hundred pages. It makes things a bit chaotic in the novella. I almost never get this feeling when reading Erikson but I would almost say it feels rushed. This feeling was not helped by the fact that two of the groups consisted of powerful but idiotic characters. While entertaining, these groups seemed to serve almost the same purpose in the story. One provides a link to the pervious novellas but that is about as far as the difference goes.

Throughout these novellas Erikson has explored various forms of tyranny. In this novella he casts his eye on the external enemy. What better way to distract the populations from hardship, economic problems, internal power struggles, discontent and oppression than to focus on an external threat. If one doesn't exist, well you just create one. Currently a masterclass in using this principle to stay in power is being given by Vladimir Putin. He seems to be getting away with it too.

Bauchelain, it turns out, is not quite as good at it. He seriously underestimates his chosen foe. He picks an obvious candidate. The lizard like people of Nightmaria are isolationists, suspicious of outsiders in the extreme and by their scaly skin alone can easily be cast as inhuman. The main target of Eirkson's satire is very dark in this novella but also works very well. Bauchelain's cynical views on tyranny contrasts nicely with the Nightmairian ambassador's mild amusement at his aggression and the general's blind confidence in victory.

There is the usual banter in The Fiends of Nightmaria, but looking at it thematically, this one is definitely the darkest of the bunch. As such, I didn't come away from it with the same amused feeling I had after reading The Healthy Dead or Crack'd Pot Trail, probably my favourites in the series. It is nevertheless an interesting addition to the series. Since it, typically for the necromancers, ends with our heroes on the run, I'll keep an eye out for the next novella to see what sorts of trouble they will find themselves in next.

Book Details
Title: The Fiends of Nightmaria
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: PS Publishing
Pages: 99
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-786360-10-6
First published: 2016

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Slaap zacht, Jonny Idaho - Auke Hulst

Earlier this year the inaugural Harland Award for novels was awarded to the novel Slaap zacht, Jonny Idaho by Auke Hulst. The Harland Award for fantastic (read F, SF and H) short fiction has been around since 1976 and now they have expanded to longer works. It really is named award. I can't get over the irony of using the English word for an 'award' instead of the perfectly adequate Dutch word 'prijs'  when celebrating the best fantastic novel published in the Dutch language. But never mind that, let's move on to the book.

Liberally translated the title means something like 'Sweet Dreams, Johnny Idaho.' It's the first novel I've read by Hulst. From what I have seen of him, he is an author who doesn't seem to be bothered by labels like literary and genre. His inspiration is drawn from a number of classic works of literature - Melville's Moby Dick is often referenced - but also from science fiction greats such as Frank Herbert and Kurt Vonnegut. The novel uses elements of both, fusing it into a story that can be approached from either direction, although it is probably best to leave literary conventions behind completely.

After the financial meltdown of 2008 and the years of government involvement, regulation and other hardships, the financial world has decided to try a new approach. Somewhere in one of the world's oceans an archipelago arises. A place governed by corporate principles, where society is stratified by economic success. It is a place where people live to work and consume, and where Big Brother makes sure that is what you do. The story follows three people drawn to this capitalist paradise. Dutch investment banker Willem Gerson, promising, young, Japanese researcher Hatsu Hamada and traumatized, American teenager Johnny Idaho all have their own reasons for coming to the Archipelago. Although their economic status separates them, their lives are inexorably pulled together.

Slaap zacht, Johnny Idaho is a full blown dystopia. In the book we are shown the relentless pressure to perform, to rake in the big bucks, to consume and to do all of it within the contracts the archipelago offers. All of it is overseen by a nasty police force and ever present electronic surveillance. Society shows no coherency beyond economic status. It is a multinational group of people drawn together by greed and desperation and kept in check by the self-imposed laws of capitalism.The archipelago is tailor-made to suit the needs of corporate entities rather than people.  It is, in other words, a nightmare beyond what Orwell imagined in his 1984. A book that clearly inspired Hulst.

It is not surprising then, that the characters spend most of their time being completely miserable. They cover the full spectrum from pitiful to pathetic. In true dystopian style this novel is a very depressing read. I've always considered it a failing of Dutch literature in general that it cannot seem to discuss the human condition with even the slightest hint of optimism. The Dutch literary canon is a parade of losers, anti-heroes and tortured souls that, after being forced to read a bunch of them in school, made me wary to pick up more than one or two a year. I have to admit that in this case it is fitting. Mirroring their dismal environment, the characters explore greed, jealousy, revenge, guilt and, perhaps above all, mortality.

One other striking feature of the novel is the way it depicts loneliness. All three characters are intensely lonely. Social interactions are all business, there doesn't seem to be any room for something as intrinsically human as friendship or love. Everything is reduced to business or entertainment. Sometimes it is even hard to tell which is which. The characters are always connected to the rest of society, but more connections and more surveillance seems to result in more superficial contact. Human interaction is completely based on physical rather than emotional needs.

There's quite a bit of social commentary in the novel. Corporate greed is perhaps the most obvious one. On the Archipelago the mindset that caused the system to crash in 2008 is still thriving. The winners of this event are the ones that managed to push the losses and responsibility to someone else rather than the ones with a stronger sense of morality. Hulst has a few things to say about how modern means of communication, surveillance and data storage is changing the way people interact. A third one is the way the Archipelago deals with refugees. They allow a number of them in to keep wages low.

The language Hulst uses is something one does not come across often in Dutch genre novels. Most of them tend to be more focused on plot and storytelling. Prose is functional but rarely beautiful. Hulst approaches it differently. There is a lot of attention to descriptions, metaphor and internal monologue. Hulst emphasizes parallels between the situation of the Archipelago and the state of mind of his characters. One of the most obvious examples of this is the volcanic ash cloud that hangs over the islands. It nicely mirrors how Gerson's success in business turns to ashes in his mouth in the face of his imminent death for instance. Dialogue is used as an expression of loneliness and the superficial contacts the characters have with other people. Rarely do the characters have very deep conversations. If they do, suspicion and misdirection are often part of these conversations. Another interesting thing is how Johnny Idaho is telling his own story whereas Hulst uses a more standard third person narrative for the other two main characters.

In the end, Slaap zacht, Johnny Idaho is a very well written novel but also a very depressing read. Not just because of the miserable lives of the characters but also because the near future setting is so frighteningly plausible. While Hulst's corporate dystopia might not be the most original, the execution is very good indeed. Of course it is too 'literate' to market as science fiction and probably too genre to do well among the more science-fiction-can't-be-literature crowd. If you consider yourself not to be stuck on either side of the genre/ literature divide you could do worse than try this novel though. I was a bit doubtful when I picked it up, but it turned out to be well worth the read.

Book Details
Title: Slaap zacht, Johnny Idaho
Author: Auke Hulst
Publisher: Ambo|Anthos
Pages: 383
Year: 2015
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-414-2483-9
First published: 2015

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Infomocracy - Malka Older

Infomocracy is the d├ębut novel of Malka Older. It has to be said, the timing of this book, right in the middle of a hotly contested US presidential campaign, is impeccable. This book is a fine example of the axiom that science fiction is always about the time it is written in. It's also a book that fits right into's profile of politically progressive stories. Charged as the genre currently is with social and political debates, this novel cannot fail to find an audience. Whether or not the novel, like some of the candidates, survives much beyond the elections remains to be seen. I thought it was a very interesting read but certainly not a flawless book.

The world's political system has undergone a radical change. In a bid to stamp out warfare between states, a new form of democracy has been introduced in vast areas of the globe. Each government now rules over approximately 100,000 people, who get to set their policies and create their laws as they see fit. Some parties are local, others contest in many of these centenals. The system is made possible by the strictly neutral search-engine Information. Its output is universally available and can keep people informed of global developments almost instantly. Every ten years worldwide elections are held and one such event is rapidly approaching. The big prize is a super majority of centenals that gives the winner a powerful position in global politics. In the past two cycles, a party called Heritage has won the super majority. A third win in a row would entrench them even further in a position of power. Not everybody is keen on this idea. If the elections cannot produce the desired result by democratic means, why, it just needs a little push in the right direction.

The story is seen through the eyes of a number of main characters. Mishima works for Information and is constantly looking into attempts to illegally manipulate the system. Ken is unofficially campaigning for Policy1st, a party that believes political parties should be policy driven, instead of motivated by religious, nationalistic or corporate motives. A third character, Domaine, sees the elections as another form of oppression, a system that only appears to give its citizens freedom and must therefore be overthrown. All three run into hints that someone is trying to seize power using the elections.

This book could quite easily have turned into a political manifesto. The system Older describes is pretty much the opposite of what we see happening around the globe. To be able to wield influence on a global scale all sorts of international treaties and structures arise, attempting to do what microdemocracy in the novel seems to have achieved. From the European Union to huge free trade agreements, in politics every area seems to be scaling up. And resistance against this development is mounting. Brexit, the stalling of the TTIP negotiations, Donald Trump's railing against TTP and other trade agreements, the seemingly endless struggle to achieve any form of meaningful global action on environmental issues, the list is endless. Many people seem to think that if they can only decide for themselves, everything will be better.

Whether or not that is true is debatable of course. Many politicians feel it is necessary to take refuge in wishful thinking, racism, fearmongering and even outright lies to sell this particular message, which in itself ought to be enough to make people suspicious. Older's vision is interesting but also very vulnerable. It completely depends on instant access to information. Imagine a city divided into dozens of centenals, where each is allowed to set its own rule. On one street smoking would be allowed, one block further down the road it might be illegal. How do you tell without instant information? Knock out your connection and you'd be hopelessly lost, breaking laws left, right and centre without even noticing. Even if you have a connection, information can be manipulated, slanted or simply omitted. Add to that human tendencies like confirmation bias and you have an unstable system indeed. No information, it seems, is neutral and navigating what Information has to offer takes serious talent.

It is in the handling of information where the novel shines. Older shows us how information can be used to manipulate public opinion, how analysis of huge datasets can give you a crucial advantage and how pressuring certain tipping points can completely change the global picture. The kind of data and analytic power Information has access to is a spin-doctor's wet dream. The way Older handles these themes is bound to make the reader think about where their information comes from and how it shapes their opinions and behaviour. It also makes some scary points about the people who have access to such treasure troves of information. The Googles and Facebooks of this world are quite aware of their potential power.

All of this does result in a rather dense narrative. It took me a while to figure out how this microdemocracy works for instance. There is a strange contrast in the opening chapters of the novel. Older's style is to use relatively short chapters with very frequent switches in point of view, giving it the impression of a fast pace. Nevertheless the novel takes a while to get going and Older tests the patience of her readers beyond what some of them will be willing to invest in a book. I can only say persevere and it will pay off. What I thought more problematic about the book is the character development. Mishima, Ken and Domaine are political positions as much as characters. Their interactions and the internal monologues we are privy to are almost entirely taken up by viewing the political situation from their point of view. They are completely absorbed in their work, all their social interactions are with colleagues or voters and we get absolutely no back story on any of them. Add to that the fact that, apart form a few hints in the final chapter, their positions don't really change throughout the novel and you end up with fairly two-dimensional characters.

Infomocracy is clearly a big idea novel. If it wasn't set a century or so from now it might be called a political thriller. It leans very heavily on debate about the political system and the parallels with current events in our own time. In that respect, I think it is a very successful book. I mentioned but a few of the political topics that are discussed in this novel. It could be an almost endless source of debate going over all the politics that is worked into it. Looking at the execution however, there is clearly room for improvement. Still, a novel that hits on so many ongoing political debates as this one, is more than worth your attention. I'd say read it. Preferably before the US presidential elections in November.

Book Details
Title: Infomocracy
Author: Malka Older
Pages: 380
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-07653-8515-4
First published: 2016

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Necessity - Jo Walton

Time travel, robots, Olympian gods and Plato's Republic, how do you manage to stuff those elements into one coherent story. In Jo Walton's Thessaly trilogy she  attempts just that. The first two novels, The Just City and The Philosopher Kings, both published in 2015, turned out to be some of the most unusual works of speculative fiction I've read in ages. Necessity, the third book, took a bit longer to write and contains the conclusion of a story that takes us from Iron Age Greece to a far future exoplanet. In many ways, it is just as fascinating as the previous two volumes but you also get the feeling Walton nearly tripped over the implications of time travel in this book. Even the gods have trouble keeping things straight it would seem.

Forty years ago the cities were moved from Iron Age Greece to a planet circling a distant sun. All of the masters have died of old age by now and the children are very old men and women. When the inevitable happens and Apollo's mortal body gives out, he returns to his divine self only to find his sister Athena missing. He soon finds out that her curiosity has driven her to explore the nature of the universe beyond the bounds of time, a thing expressly forbidden by their father Zeus. A desperate search for Athena is about to begin. On the mortal plane another potentially dangerous development is taking place. A space ship has entered orbit around the planet and it is carrying humans. The Just Cities are about to rejoin the wider human society.

Since mortals can't really influence the labours of the gods that much, you'd think they would be more concerned with the end of their isolation. Most of the book deals with Athena's antics and theie consequences however. There is quite a bit of Ancient Greek cosmology and the nature of the gods. Subjects the ancient Greeks seem to have disagreed on quite a bit themselves. The gods exist out of time but can visit it if they want to. They are not bound to any period in history but can visit each moment only once. It is quite possible that a god meets a mortal who have already met them before in their experience but the god in question still has to visit that particular point in time. When this happens, the gods feel the pull of necessity. An urge to make the moment in time they just visited come about by performing a task earlier in time. Encounters like these wreak havoc on the timeline in the story and only with great difficulty has Walton managed to make something comprehensible out of it. It is another fine example of why time travel is not one of my favourite tropes. It just keeps tying itself in knots.

The gods get to have their fun in this novel but first contact seems to be a very muted affair. After a lifetime of trying to make Plato's republic a reality, the community on the planet has drifted quite far from the human main stream. Language is the first obstacle but not as it happens an insurmountable one. Although you can feel the tension among the characters in the book, they are prepared for this eventuality and it is dealt with, with a minimum lack of fuss. I would almost say that a stoic couldn't have done it better.The conclusion of the series feels like a bit of an anti-climax but that may have more to do with me not liking the other main subject of the novel that much.

The one main character that was with us for all three novels, Apollo, is also not quite as interesting as in the previous two novels. In those books Walton uses him to explore issues like consent and sexism, but also loss and sacrifice. In this novel he is done learning and mostly broods over how his new-found knowledge fits into his wider view of the universe. By regaining godhood he has lost some of his humanity, making him a more bland character than he was in previous novels.

All of that doesn't sound very positive, but there are more than a few things to enjoy in the book too. Walton again included numerous references to history and art in the novel. She discusses the importance of art partly through the point of view of the robot Crocus, who has managed to become quite a philosopher and artist in the years since we've last encountered him. Walton deftly avoids making him want to be human. Crocus is striving for excellence, not humanity and is enough of a thinker not to confuse the two. In fact, robots - not distracted by the sexuality Plato so deeply misunderstood - may be much more suitable to achieve the Platonic ideal than humans are.

On the whole, I don't think Walton finishes the trilogy as strong as she starts it. It is not a book that adds that much to her vision of Plato's republic. I enjoyed reading it quite a bit but not as much as the previous two volumes. As a whole, the trilogy is a work to remember though. Walton takes on complex subjects and ideas in these books and yet manages to keep them very accessible. I would not be surprised to see a few people pick up some of Plato's works (note that Walton does not recommend starting with The Republic). Walton pushes herself in these books but she also pushes speculative fiction as a whole in a new direction. There are not many authors that can claim to have done that. Maybe she falters slightly on the home stretch but it is still a noteworthy work of fiction. I recommend you read it.

Book Details
Title: Necessity
Author: Jo Walton
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 331
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-7902-3
First published: 2016