Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Reality Dysfunction - Peter F. Hamilton

The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton is the massive first novel in his Night's Dawn trilogy. Hamilton is one of a group of British writers producing what can be considered a reinvented form of space opera. He is usually listed with people like Alastair Reynolds, Iain M. Banks, Stephen Baxter and Paul J, McAuley. I haven't read too extensively in that particular subgenre, the only author on that list whose work I am familiar with is Alastair Reynolds. While I can see the similarities in their approach to science fiction, this novel leads me to believe Reynolds is the better writer. In The Reality Dysfunction the emphasis seems to be very much on the soap opera part of the subgenre.

In the twenty-seventh century, humanity has colonized many planets and made contact with alien species. Genetic engineering has made widespread adaptations to living in space or alien environments possible. Space ships can be grown as well as built. With this increase in technological capabilities, the destructive power of weapons has increased as well. The Confederation navy is keeping the peace however, and a prosperous future for all of humanity is within reach. Then, an indentured criminal makes contact with a truly terrifying entity. It has made contact with sentient species before and caused the suicide of an entire species. This extinct species called the phenomenon the reality dysfunction. A nightmare of galactic proportions is about to descend on humanity.

The first thing that will strike the reader about this novel is that it is huge. I read it during my trip to Norway two weeks ago and its very size is why I picked it. One book that would take a while to finish but doesn't take up much space in the suitcase. My mass market paperback weighs in at 1,225 pages. I think it is probably in the 400,000 words range. In other words, there are trilogies shorter than this novel. It has to be said that Hamilton paints on a large canvas but that still does not excuse the excessive length of it. The novel is in fact severely bloated. So much so that more than a few readers will find it exhausting or even unreadable.

It takes the author about 200 pages to even give us the first hint about the nature of the threat humanity is facing. Most of the first  half of the novel is reserved for worldbuilding and introducing a very large cast of characters. Every location the novel visits is introduced with an  infodump of several pages on the history, settlement, development, society and environment of the planet. Reading a lot of fantasy, I can admire a good bit of worldbuilding but Hamilton manages to make it tiresome in this book. With a bit of editing and a better balance between pace and worldbuilding this book could have been, and should have been, a lot shorter.

The cast is huge but it does have two more or less central characters. The first is a trader and captain of the star ship Lady MacBeth Joshua Calvert. He could have been modelled on Poul Anderson's David Falkayn. Roguish, independent and resourceful, Calvert has a good eye for the best deal and an even better eye for opportunities to fool the authorities. He also has a way with women that is rather grating. Not until the very end of the novel does someone point out to him that he essentially treats them like shit. The sex scenes involving Calvert are another repetitive element that could have been axed to keep the page count down. I had mixed feelings about this character but he is the best developed one of the bunch. Most of the other characters are much more in service of the plot.

Where Calvert can be thought of as the protagonist, Quinn Dexter is clearly the antagonist. Originally from Earth, a place crippled by overpopulation and environmental degradation, he is convicted to indentured service on Lalonde. He is a rather stereo-typical villain. Egoistic (a trait he shares with Calvert), ruthless and determined to carve out a position of power for himself on his new home planet. He does so by any means necessary, until he runs into someone even more dangerous than he is anyway. I could say that there is not much development in his character but that would strictly speaking not be true. He more or less transforms into another person. Going into that would give away too much of the plot though.

Although the threat encountered by colonists on the planet Lalonde is the main conflict in the novel, there is quite a bit more going on in human occupied space. Humanity has split into two branches: the Adamists and the Edenists. The Edenists are extensively genetically engineered humans. They form a mostly atheist society without much in the way of social stratification. The Adamists are more diverse but tend to keep the genetic engineering down to very basic levels, like eliminating hereditary disease. There is a good deal of mistrust between the two, which I suspect Hamilton will exploit in the next two volumes. This dichotomy is one of the many present in the novel. Hamilton likes doing things in two, which does not always result in the most nuanced of visions.

While there were quite a few things I wasn't too impressed with in this novel, I have to admit it is compulsively readable after the first four hundred pages or so. You really want to find out how the story of this or that character continues even if you have to wait a hundred pages for them to show up again. In essence, The Reality Dysfunction is a great beach read. It'll keep you reading while not being overly demanding. There is much better written space opera out there in my opinion, but I can still see why Hamilton has acquired an audience. Maybe I'll even pick up the second volume the next time I'm travelling.

Book Details
Title: The Reality Dysfunction
Author: Peter F. Hamilton
Publisher: PAN Books
Pages: 1,225
Year: 1997
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-330-34032-8
First published: 1996

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Blood of the Hoopoe - Naomi Foyle

The Blood of the Hoopoe is the third volume in Naomi Foyle's Gaian Chronicles. The series combines Gaia theory, Middle Eastern culture, and a post-apocalyptic future in unexpected ways. I got the first book in a giveaway a couple of years ago and decided to stick with the series. Although these books might not be everybody's cup of tea,  I enjoyed reading the previous two volumes a lot. This third volume picks up right after the end of Rook Song. While this third volume is an enjoyable read, I did feel that it lacked a strong story arc of its own. If this series was a trilogy I'd say it suffered from middle book syndrome.

Astra is striking out on her own again. Together with Muzi she is heading into the desert in search of her father. She is still uncomfortable with the role of prophesied unifier that has been cast upon her. This journey may help her find a direction. She leaves behind the Is-Land/Non-Land border in turmoil. The violence has claimed many lives and the situation is rapidly deteriorating towards all out war. With the Sec Gens, Is-Land is well defended, but their defences may well be stretched if more Non-Landers join the opposition. What's more, the leadership of the Sec Gens is beginning to show a worrying disregard of human lives. The rot within is perhaps an even bigger threat than the external enemy.

We get to see quite a bit more of the world than Is-Land and its borders in this novel. Astra takes us further into the polluted wasteland that lies beyond the paradise she grew up in. It is a place littered with the remains of crimes against Gaia and the evidence of the foolish wars fought in the region. It gives Astra new insights into the world and its history, some of which the Gaian elders did not think needed to be included in her education. The place she travels through is a fascinating mix of truly ancient references and more modern history and mythology. It ranges from references to ancient Sumer and Akkadia to early Arabic writing and then on to a lengthy passage containing an account of the ongoing civil war in Syria (including a very unflattering depiction of Bashar al-Assad) turned into something that is part history, part legend. I'm pretty sure I missed half of it.

Part of experiencing life beyond Is-Land is Astra's collision with patriarchal societies. Her upbringing included a level of sexual freedom and gender equality that is unprecedented in the world beyond Is-Land. When she falls in love with Muzi, a complicated relationship fraught with cultural clashes, miscommunication and arguments evolves. They are almost completely on opposite sides of the issue. To Astra sex and marriage are not linked, while Muzi feels he must marry her and gets frustrated when she doesn't agree to a permanent arrangement. Quite a few of the characters in the novel have more pragmatic opinions on the issue but Astra and Muzi are young and sure of how the world is supposed to work. There is something endearing about the whole affair but sometimes you just want to tell them to stop being idiots too.

The novel follows events closer to Is-Land as well. Partly through the eyes of Peat, the Is-Land Sec Gen and Astra's brother. He spirals deeper in the corrupt mess that is Is-Land's border guard. His leader is a man with a distinct sadistic personality and a complete disregard for human life. His ideas on what is acceptable if he can (genetically or psychologically) manipulate the subject into consent is sickening and some of it is quite explicitly described. Through Peat's eyes we see the image of an ecologically sound but morally corrupt state. Astra will have her work cut out for her trying to fix that mess.

Foyle also shows us the conflict from the site of Youth Action Collective, the main organization fighting with the Sec Gens. Their internal conflicts and the impact the huge loss of life has on their community is described in some detail. Military they are clearly inferior so they look for other ways to gain the upper hand. It's a good view into the mind of people desperate enough to fight impossible odds. While such a fight is not exactly rare in genre fiction, the way Foyle links this struggle with cultural expression and identity is very interesting. The movement goes well beyond resistance. It is a political part, art collective, provides community service and so forth. It reminded me a bit of how the Palestinian Hamas movement is organized, sans the religious extremism.

Each of these three strands of the story is pushed forward but with the exception of some of the more personal aspects of Astra's journey, none of them reach any kind of conclusion. While Astra's trip has shown us many interesting things, it is clear that the real resolution of the control conflict in the novel is to be found in Is-Land. Which is where I suspect we'll be going in the fourth volume of the series. In terms of structure it is probably not the strongest book in the series. It does continue the parallels with the current conflicts in the Middle East, as well as the region's history and culture. The Gaia theory inspired politics are slightly less prominent in the book but still very noticeable. It's a combination that continues to attract me. It will be interesting to see how Astra will juggle the competing demands on her time and attention in the next novel.

Book Details
Title: The Blood of the Hoopoe
Author: Naomi Foyle
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Pages: 320
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-78206-922-5
First published: 2016

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Death's End - Cixin Liu

Death's End is the concluding volume of a science fiction trilogy that started with The Three-Body Problem. These novels have been translated from Chinese, and that alone makes them stand out. Translations into English are rare in science fiction. Translations that win awards - The Three-Body Problem won a Hugo Award - are even rarer. Slowly, more attention for science fiction from outside the anglophone sphere is emerging and this series certainly played a part in that. Death's End takes Liu's vision to extremes. It is a book with a scope grander than we have seen in the previous volumes and as such, a fitting conclusion to the series.

The threat from the Trisolarans has, at least for the moment, been neutralized. By finding a way to expose the position of their home world to the galaxy, Earth now has a powerful weapon of deterrence. It is, in a sense, back to the cold war. The Wallfacer project was not the only one humanity started to deal with the crisis however. In this age of deterrence, a young Chinese aerospace engineer wakes up after many decades of hibernation. Her knowledge of one of these programs upsets the carefully maintained balance between the two species. Soon, Earth plunges into another crisis. This one even more lethal than anything they have encountered before.

The translation is once again in the hands of Ken Liu. As far as I can tell he did a splendid job. Liu translated the first novel, before handing over the reigns to Joel Martinsen for the second book. They obviously compared notes because the English version appears seamless to me. Although many of the characters are Chinese, the story takes place on a global scale or even beyond. Liu only needs eleven footnotes in a 600 page book, to explain a few phrases where the context might escape the western reader.

The main character is the Chinese engineer Cheng Xin. She is born in the twenty-first century and lives pretty much through the entire period of the Trisolaran crisis. Cheng takes a decidedly different approach to dealing with the crisis than Luo Ji, the main character in The Dark Forest. Where he sets humanity on a ruthless path of mutually assured destruction, Cheng doesn't care for the responsibility to condemn whole species to death and decide over the fate of whole solar systems. Her compassion proves to be costly in a universe where everybody is out to destroy everybody else.

I must say the parallel Liu draws between society and his main characters annoyed me a bit in this novel. Society swings from 'masculine' values to 'feminine values' and back again. From bellicose and ruthless, to compassionate and passive, and back again. These qualifications will have feminists all over the world up in arms. The idea that humanity needs an utterly ruthless man to survive the crisis and that by not following the examples of Luo and Wade (another powerful figure in the story, and a man devoid of any sense of morality), our species condemns itself to extinction. Whether or not it is desirable to follow a tyrant in wartime is debatable but surely this theme could have been handled without making it into a gender issue.

In the previous novel, the Trisolarans imposed limits on human technological development. After the start of what Liu calls the deterrence age, these limits disappear and humanity once again progresses in great strides. Liu's cosmology becomes ever more complex. His fondness for playing with dimensions and perspectives is given free reign in the book, leading to a number of memorable scenes. Once again, some parts of the novel reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke (Rendezvous with Rama and the Fountains of Paradise in particular) but there is also a bit of Poul Anderson in the book. Specifically his novel Tau Zero.

Although we follow Cheng for most of the novel, Liu inserts sweeping passages where he explains global developments. They are none too subtle for the most part. Humanity in Liu's vision moves as a whole. There is little room in the narrative for dissent or debate. When presented with irrefutable evidence (something not many people in the west seem to believe in these days), the Earth as a whole decides to follow the inevitable path. Liu breaks the show-don't-tell rule on a massive scale in this novel. If that bothers you as are a reader, this novel is clearly not for you. Personally it didn't bother me beyond the fact that humanity seems to behave a bit more rational than I would expect them to do.

Liu takes the story to the end of the universe and beyond. It is a dark journey, one that offers little hope for any of the creatures inhabiting it. There is just a glimmer at the very end though. While this universe may be doomed, from its ashes, a new one may arise. Since it is a worst case scenario, the salvation of the universe relies on many parties doing something completely selfish. Given all that has gone before, it is no more than the barest hint of light in the dark forest universe.

Liu's trilogy evolves into space opera on the largest possible canvas. It is a trilogy that will awe the reader with grand vistas of the universe. While not flawless, the series has already shown that it is more than capable of finding a global audience. This novel manages to raise the stakes to dizzying heights, and forms a worthy conclusion of the series. I suspect it will turn out to be a favourite for many readers. If I had to pick a favourite it would probably be the first book. It shows us a bit more of Chinese society and that adds to the story in my opinion. For the pure science fiction fan, Death's End is probably more appealing. I do hope that the success of this series has opened the door a bit further for other translations. If anything, these novels show that there is a wealth of material to discover beyond what is written in English.

Book Details
Title: Death's End
Author: Cixin Liu
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 604
Year: 2016
Language: English
Translation: Ken Liu
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-765-7710-4
First published: 2010