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

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Shaman's Crossing - Robin Hobb

Last week I ordered some new books but since none of them have arrived yet I dug a backlist title out of the bookcase for this weekend's review. Shaman's Crossing (2005) by Robin Hobb is the first book in her Soldier Son Trilogy, a series that is a lot less popular than her work in the Realm of the Elderlings. Hobb took a chance by leaving the world she had at that point published nine successful books in and, commercially at least, I don't think it paid off. She went back to the Realm of the Elderlings after and hasn't left it since. Although the setting is different, the novel is very much Robin Hobb, I enjoyed reading it like I have enjoyed all of her books, and yet, there is something about it that prevents me from being carried away by it like her novels in the Realm of the Elderlings tend to do.

In the kingdom of Gernia, the order of birth determines the career of the nation's sons. The first son is the heir, the second the soldier, the third the priest, the fourth the artist and so on, as decreed by the Good God in his Holy Writ. Nevare Burvelle is born a second son and thus destined to become a soldier. His father prepares him for his eventual enrollment in the Cavalla Academy, where he will be trained to become a cavalry officer. His father has doubts about his fitness for command however, and in an attempt to teach Nevare independent thinking, he sends him off to learn from a man who was once one of Gernia's most dangerous enemies. This shaman of the Plains People, now subdued by the more advanced Gernians, takes Nevare on a trip that will change his life forever and severely interferes with Nevare's own ambitions.

The worldbuilding in this novel is wonderful. It is set in a world that has a technology level comparable to the second half of the nineteenth century. In a recent war with a neighbouring nation Gernia has lost possession of its seaports and is now expanding east to make up for the loss. The plains to the east of Gernia were once the domain of the semi-nomadic plains people, seen as savages by the Gernians. In a series of wars, the Gernians defeated all the tribes and are now trying to push though the territory of the Specks, another primitive people, to reach the shores of the eastern ocean. Where Bingtown is Hobb's version of colonial North America, this trilogy describes the western frontier and the drive to create a nation that stretches from coast to coast.

The Gernian expansion is the first level of conflict in this novel. Hobb frames it as a technology versus magic battle but it also carries with it a number of problematic concepts that the nineteenth century United States shares with Gernia. Most notably the idea of the noble savage, forcing Gernian civilisation on the plains people 'for their own good' and of course some appalling instances of discrimination against the Plains People and Specks.

That would be plenty of worldbuilding for many fantasy authors but Hobb doesn't stop there. She inserts an internal level of conflict among the Gernians too. Gernia is a kingdom and although rapidly modernising, it does retain vestiges of the feudal society it once was. To control the newly won territories, the king has elevated some of the bravest commanders to the status of lords. Nevare's father is among them. Although these new lords are all second sons of nobility, the old nobles resent their elevation, especially since the new nobles tend to support the king in his plans for eastward expansion, for which the king needs to raise additional taxes. Nevare is raised on an isolated estate in the east and doesn't understand much of the politics when he arrives at the academy. He is forced to learn quickly though.

On the surface, the conflict between the old and new nobility is the one that affects the nation, and Nevare personally most, but the stalled expansion to the east and the Speck's resistance is much more pressing. Nevare is the linchpin in this conflict. Something he does not recognize or dare to admit even to himself throughout the book. He clings to his ideas of how his future should look to the point where it almost kills him.

Like Hobb's book about Fitz Chevalric, The Soldier Son trilogy is written entirely in the first person, with Nevare the only point of view character. Where you can sympathize with Fitz, and at times curse his stupidity, Nevare is a different kind of character. He, as his father recognizes early on, lacks a spine. He is also not a very nice guy. In fact, he is a bit of a prick. A trait that will become more pronounced later on in the trilogy. Where most teenagers would at some point rebel against the strict upbringing Nevare is receiving, he is completely convinced he is on the right path. He wants from life what the scriptures say he should want from life. To be a soldier, send his notebooks home to this father's (and later on brother's) estate, and to retire gracefully to the family holdings at the end of a military career. Even when he has doubts about his fitness for a career as a Cavala officer, he clings to these beliefs.

Hobb challenges him of course. Mostly in the form of his eccentric cousin Epiny. She is the daughter of his father's brother, the first son and heir, and that makes her old nobility. Unlike Nevare, she rebels. She refuses to become an ornament in a rich man's house. Nevare is genuinely shocked by her behaviour. He feels women should be docile and domestic creatures, wanting nothing more than to raise children and please their husbands. Her independent attitude, unladylike actions and belief in the supernatural clash with Nevare's conservatism and he actively resents her for infecting him with these unorthodox ideas. It is here, I think, that we come to the flaw in this novel. Nevare and Epiny are such extreme opposites that even with the large number of pages we spend in Nevare's head, they become black and white.

For the entire duration of the novel, Nevare clings to a military career that was doomed before it started and at the end of it, he has yet to face up to that fact. Where Fitz is stubborn, flawed, passionate and at times incredibly dense, Nevare is just conservative. He does what he feels is his duty and nothing else. The world around him is changing, the era of heroic deed (if one can call the destruction of a way of life and a culture that) has come to an end and society is slipping towards a meritocracy instead or one where nobility and the order of birth determine one's options in life. It all passes Nevare by. In fact, he doesn't even recognize these developments. Hobb created a wonderfully complex world in this novel, and then puts a character in it who is pretty much static, a boy who is constantly being led by others rather than forging his own way. His father is right, he would have made a lousy officer. But that is not his destiny, as we'll see in the second book.

Hobb's books have always attracted me because of the characterisation, but in this book it fails her to an extent. I did enjoy the novel a lot. I even think it is a little underappreciated. The themes Hobb addresses and her uses of a very non standard fantasy setting make it a noteworthy book. But almost six hundred pages of first person narrative with a main character who keeps thinking in circles, keeps denying change and keeps rationalising his society's sexism, prejudices and arrogance is a bit too much of a good thing. I liked the book well enough but I do see why it will never be a fan favourite.

Book Details
Title: Shaman's Crossing
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Eos
Pages: 577
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-06-075762-0
First published: 2005

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Rook Song - Naomi Foyle

In my review of the first novel in Naomi Foyle's post-apocalyptic Gaia Chronicles, Astra (2014), I said I would keep an eye out for the sequel. I did but it ended up on the mighty to read stack so I'm a little late reviewing this. The novel appeared in February.  I thought the first novel had some pacing issues but that it was conceptually very interesting. In this second volume Foyle continues to develop these concepts, showing us the other side of the conflict outlined in Astra. Rook Song is in many ways quite different from the previous novel but certainly no less interesting.

Seventeen-year-old Astra has been evicted from Is-Land after receiving a devastating neuro-therapy aimed to remove certain potentially dangerous bits of knowledge from her mind. She is taken in by CONC, the organisation that provides humanitarian aid to the people living in the Southern Belt, a toxic wasteland on the doorstep of Is-Land. Astra finds herself alone in a community torn by conflict, surrounded by people with unknown agendas. Not knowing what else to do, she starts the search for her biological father, who was evicted from Is-Land so long ago that she doesn't remember him. With very little to go on and few people she can trust, the search turns out to be even more dangerous than Astra expected.

This books is probably a Sad Puppy's worst nightmare. In the previous novel we already encountered a society based on ecological principles, where family structures are very different from the traditional family and where the gay/straight dichotomy is practically meaningless. In this book, Foyle elaborates on the conflict between Is-Land and the outside world, which shows distinct parallels with the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is not particularly positive about the Israeli analogue either. The book is also full of dark skinned people, depicts disabled people and people whose gender identity is not clearly male or female. It is, in other words, an unapologetically and thoroughly progressive novel.

Foyle introduced a lot of very specific vocabulary to describe Is-Land society. Words like code-father, shelter-mother, Gaia garden and many more. In this new setting the mix becomes even richer. Astra is exposed to a multicultural society, where a variety of languages are spoken and where one of the political movements prefers to express itself in free-style rap. Foyle plays  with the intricacies of translations, the difficulties of communicating with someone in a language neither of the parties speaks fluently, and with the use of personal and possessive pronouns to refer to a character whose gender is ambiguous. All of that makes for a very interesting mix. The language in this novel is one aspect of it I very much enjoyed.

Almost the entire novel is set in the southern belt which appears to be modeled on the Gaza strip. As a result of the conflict that ended the world as we know it, the area is toxic, unsuitable for agriculture and chronically short of drinkable water. Chronic disease and genetic defects are common, and proper medical care scarce. Although the place is absolutely uninhabitable, many of the people living there are staying in the hopes of regaining the property they lost in the creation of Is-land. To keep them out, Is-land has raised some formidable defenses and is ready to upgrade them once more.

Internally the Belt is divided too. The N-LA feels it is the political representative of the people and has in recent years kept a fragile armistice alive with IMBOD (Is-Land border guard). In recent years a more radical faction has arisen however. Fed up  by the status quo and inspired by religion, they lash out at the three parties and soon the belt is on the edge of war. It is all there really, the impossibility of creating a state out of the strips of land left to the Palestinians by Israel, the lack of an economic and ecological basis for such a state, Israel's controversial security wall, the conflict between Fatah/PLO and Hamas and the UN's marginally effective programs in the region. Foyle raises the stakes a bit by adding genetic manipulation and severe environmental degradation to the mix but the inspiration for this conflict is unmistakable.

Astra, who has had her doubts about the indoctrination she received in Is-Land, is still not prepared for the political currents she has to navigate. She spends most of the novel figuring out how the world outside Is-Land works and functions as our guide in the process. Rook Song is a departure from the single point of view narrative we encountered in Astra. Foyle uses quite a few in this novel, showing us what goes on in the different layers of society in the Belt as well as how the Second Generation border guards Astra was supposed to be part of are fairing. As a result, it is less introspective and a bit faster paced. Although the majority of the chapters are still focused on Astra, the shifts to other points of view help build the tension in the story. Peat's point of view in particular is very disturbing.

The gap between Astra and the Sec Gens (as they are called in Is-Land) is widening. Where Astra remains human, and gradually gains a deeper understanding of the world, Peat is dragged down ever deeper into the indoctrination of IMBOD. The booster shot that Astra avoided makes them more susceptible to this type of control but also enhances them physically. Peat is slowly changing from a boy into a super soldier and then descending into animalistic behaviour that would shock even the Is-Land population if they knew about it. The spiral of radicalisation on both sides is frighteningly realistic even with the speculative elements Foyle adds to this part of the story. If I were to venture a guess I would say retrieving Peat's humanity will be one of the topics for the third volume.

Despite being almost a hundred pages longer, Rook Song felt like a much faster read than Astra. Where the first book aimed for a rising sense of unease with the flawed utopia that is Is-Land, in this novel we meet the problems of the world head on. It makes for a faster paced novel that nevertheless finds space for a whole range of social issues. Astra has to learn fast to keep up with the changes in her life. It is mostly a matter of taste, Foyle aims for very different effects with these novels, but I think the second book is stronger than the first one. By the end of the second novel Astra is taking her life into her own hands leaving plenty of possibilities for an even stronger third volume. I have not seen a title or publication date yet but it is already on my to read list.

Book Details
Title: Rook Song
Author: Naomi Foyle
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Pages: 474
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-78206-919-5
First published: 2015

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective - George R.R. Martin (part 3)

The continuation of my review on George R.R. Martin's massive collection Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective. You can read the first part here and the second part here.

The Siren of Hollywood

Tuf Voyaging was a success and Martin even sold a second book that, as you will already have guessed, never got written. Tuf didn't bring in enough to get Martin back on his feet financially and so he moved on to other projects. The Armageddon Rag, while derailing his career as a novelist, did provide him with an opportunity in Hollywood. He sold the film rights of the novel and got to know people working in television. Soon, Martin was writing scripts for the second incarnation of the horror show Twilight Zone. That show got canceled rather quickly and Martin moved on to writing for a new series called Beauty and the Beast, starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman. It ran for three seasons and Martin wrote a total of fourteen episodes. After the series got canceled, he tried to pitch a number of projects. One even got to the stage where a pilot was shot but eventually none of them ever made it to the small screen.

Martin worked in Hollywood for ten years and to cover this period he includes two of his scripts. These texts are mostly dialogue with brief descriptions of actions and location in between. They also include information on camera angles, closeups, fadeouts and the like, making for a very unusual reading for someone who is used to novels and short stories. The first, The Road Less Traveled,  is a Twilight Zone episode. This one did make it to the small screen but was so horribly mutilated in the cutting room that Martin intensely disliked the episode that was eventually broadcast. He includes the full script as he had intended it to be shot. 

The story is about a man who dodged the draft in the late 1960s and relocated to Canada. He later returns and settles into a career as a teacher when he is suddenly confronted with a version of himself that did go to Vietnam. It probably works better on television than on paper. Shoot it properly and it can be a very suspenseful story. If you read the script you really need to try and put it on a screen in your head to make it work.

The second script included in this section is called Doorways. It is the pilot for a series Martin had hoped to make for ABC. The concept of the show was based on two travelers journeying between alternate versions of earth. The script Martin included is a bit different from the one that was eventually shot. In the second half of the pilot, the characters move to a different world and where Martin had imagined a post-apocalyptic world in the original script, they later changed it to a world without oil. If you look really hard you can still find that pilot. It was released on VHS in 1993. Despite it being quite a good pilot, the show was never made. To add insult to injury, 1995 saw the premiere of a new show on Fox called Sliders, with pretty much the same concept. It is one of many what might have beens in this collection.

Whatever caused ABC to cancel the show, it most likely wasn't the writing. The pilot is quite fun to watch and this alternative script would have worked well too in my opinion. I have no doubt that this series would have done well. Doorways is not the only project Martin tried to develop after Beauty and the Beast was canceled. The collection Quartet: Tales From the Crossroads contains another script for a pilot that was never produced and Martin tried to rework several of his short stories for television as well. In the end it all came to nothing. Maybe his disappointing experiences in Hollywood made him hold out on selling the rights for A Song of Ice and Fire for so long.

Doing the Wild Card Shuffle

Martin didn't completely stop producing works in print during his years in Hollywood. He wrote several short stories in this period, but his most important side project was undoubtedly Wild Cards. Wild Cards is a shard world in which an alien virus hit New York City in 1946. Of those infected, 90% died a gruesome death, 9% was mutilated in unimaginable ways and the remaining 1% developed superpowers. The series is clearly inspired by superhero comics, allowing Martin to return to his earliest love. Most of the books in the series are what Martin calls mosaic novels, with six to eight people doing the writing and Martin editing the whole thing into one story. The first volume of the series appeared in 1987 and by the time Dreamsongs was published, sixteen Wild Cards volumes had been released with a seventeenth on the way. Right now there are twenty-two volumes available with a twenty-third expected in the not too distant future.

Martin includes two of his own contributions to the series in this collection. The first  is Shell Games (1987) from the first book in the series. In that volume, the writers cover the years between the release of the virus and the 1980s, making it more of a short story collection than a mosaic novel. As such Shell Games can be read as a standalone easily. It introduces one of Martin's own characters, the Great and Powerful Turtle. When we meet him he is a boy with impressive telekinetic gifts but no idea of how to use them. His childhood friend helps him figure it out however. The story shows us the dark side of New York and some of the more brutal effects of the virus. It is a pretty dark story as many of the other Wild Cards stories would be.

The second piece is called From the Journal of Xavier Desmond and is taken from the fourth book in the series, Aces Abroad (1988). An expanded edition has recently been reissued by Tor but it is still on my to read list. In Aces Abroad Martin provides the parts of the story that ties the other contributions together. As the title suggests it is entirely written in the form of diary entries and not quite as readable without context as Shell Games. Desmond refers to a lot of affairs the reader of Dreamsongs doesn't get to see as well as things from the previous three volumes. It gives the reader some insight into the process of editing one of these volumes, but for the reader who isn't familiar with the series the storyline of Desmond himself (he is dying and making his peace with the world and the fact that the virus affected his life to a large degree) is a bit thin.

The Heart in Conflict

The final section of Dreamsongs contains a number of stories from the mid 1980s onwards. It is a mix, stories Martin felt were important but couldn't really be placed in any of the other sections. To find something that unifies them, he refers to William Faulkner's speech at the Nobel Prize winners banquet in 1950 in which he said that "the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing". Martin agrees with that. He doesn't want to be limited by genre conventions or the genre/literature divide. What interests him is the motivation of his characters and that is what has made A Song of Ice and Fire such a resounding success. This section contains six stories, generally longer pieces, and takes up almost 300 pages in my edition of Dreamsongs.

It opens with Under Siege (1985), which is the rewritten version of The Fortress we encountered in the first section. In this story a desperate group of time traveling nuclear war survivors try to stop the Soviet Union from forming and the siege of Sveaborg might just be the turning point in history they are looking for. I'm not too fond of time travel stories, I just can't wrap my head around the logic most of them employ, but I must admit this one is pretty good. Very little is left from the original historical piece but there is enough for people familiar with this bit of history to sink their teeth in.

The Sikin Trade (1988) is probably the longest piece in the entire collection. It is a horror novella that Martin had tried to develop for television at one point. I have a feeling it might make a better movie than a series though. The story is set in a decaying industrial town that is shaken by the brutal murder of a young woman in a wheelchair. Memories of a series of murders twenty years back begin to stir. Questions about those killings remained unanswered at the time. Now PI Randi Wade is looking into the matter on behalf of her friend Willie who knew the victim. During the investigation she finds out things about the city she has lived in her entire life that shock her to the core.

This novella is one of the strongest pieces in the collection. It is a classic horror story of the type monsters-are-among-us. It is sometimes quite bloody but Martin mostly focuses on what these events do with his two main characters. They are good examples of the flawed heroes Martin likes to write about. It's very well paced and has a great climax. As horror stories go, I don't think you can improve much on Martin's execution in The Skin Game. Someone really should make it into a movie.

Next up is Unsound Variations (1982). A story inspired by chess. Martin clearly uses his experience in organizing tournaments in this story. It is about a man invited to visit one of his old teammates who has become fabulously wealthy after they last saw each other in college. They don't particularly like each other. Rich he may be, but he wasted the opportunity to win against one of the best university chess teams in the nation by giving away a match he had already practically won. It's a strange story that combines chess with time travel. The supposed won position becomes an obsession for the characters and while I don't know that much about chess, just the very basics really, Martin manges to describe it in a way that drags you along with the characters desperately trying to find a solution to the problem.

The Glass Flower (1986) is Martin's final story in the Thousand Worlds universe. Of course he didn't actually say he wouldn't write any more but it doesn't look likely he will return to it any time soon. In the early 1990s he did try his hand at a Thousand Worlds novel but ended up writing A Game of Thrones instead. Maybe he should return to it because I can't say I particularly like this story. It doesn't really seem like a fitting conclusion to a series that produced so much interesting work.

The story is nominally a science fiction story but takes such surreal turns that for a lot of readers it will stretch the limits of what they consider SF. It deals with immortallity and one of the legends of Matin's future history finally makes an appearance in person. Kleronomas, who by the time the story opens has already lived many centuries, shows up on the doorstep of Cyrain, who deals in eternal life on an out of the way planet on the edge of human explored space. He is not looking for eternal life however, that is something he already possesses, he is looking for death. Both of the main characters in the story strike me as incredibly jaded. It doesn't make for pleasant reading. It's also a fairly slow moving piece. With eternity at your disposal I guess there is no need to hurry. Definitely not my favourite story in the collection.

More than a thousand pages in Martin treats us to a little bit of Westeros. The Hedge Knight is one of the prequel novellas about Dunk and Egg. It is set some ninety years before the main series and besides a few references to both Dunk and Egg in the main novels, the novellas are very much their own story. You can read them independently. They share the background of Westeros and the brutality of life in that world with the main series though. These novellas are quite good reads. It is interesting to see the kingdom under the Targaryens and in these stories we get to see society from one who starts pretty much at the bottom. As prequels go, it is quite successful. Martin has written three of these novellas at this point and wants to write more. They have been postponed while he works on the main series though. Yet another project that I would not mind seeing Martin return to.

The final story in the collection is another horror tale. Portraits of his Children (1987) is about a writer so caught up in his writing and fictional characters that he alienates the people around him. The last one to leave is his daughter. Alone in his house and unable to continue his writing, he broods about his family, his writing and the arguments. Then, a package arrives from his daughter. It contains a surprisingly accurate picture of one of the characters from his books. For the main characters of the story, the line between fiction, fiction based on real people and events and real life is blurred. They all seem to put it somewhere else and it is the root of many of their arguments. His wife and daughter frequently see  his writing as wish fulfillment or an expression of his dissatisfaction about life with them. All three of them get very bitter about it. It's a disturbing story, and probably even more so to writers. How transparant is your writing to people who know you well?

And with that we reach the end of over 1100 pages of Martin's short fiction. While I did not like every piece in the collection, I do think it succeeds in giving an overview of Martin's career up to that point. The essays Martin includes make for very interesting reading and the majority of the material included ranges from very good to outstanding. In a time when everything Martin wrote is overshadowed by A Song of Ice and Fire, and lately even more by Game of Thrones, it is good to be reminded that he is much more versatile than that. Do not let the collection's impressive size discourage you. Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective  is well worth reading. After finishing this reread I came away with the feeling I should have done it sooner.

Book Details
Title: Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective
Author: George R.R. Martin
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 1185
Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-08148-2
First published: 2003

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective - George R.R. Martin (part 2)

The continuation of my review on George R.R. Martin's massive collection Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective. You can read the first part here.

The Heirs of Turtle Castle

Martin has a lot of fans who see him primarily as a fantasy writer. He also has fans who know him as a science fiction writer. Some of those were mightily upset when Martin started A Song of Ice and Fire, even accusing him of changing sides. A slightly ridiculous accusation in the face of Martin's diverse output in the 1970s and 1980s. His works often straddle genres and he has written stories that could be considered historical fiction, horror, fantasy and science fiction. In this section Martin reaches back to his early fantasies. They are quite different from his sprawling novels, but fantasy nonetheless. 

The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr (1976) is what Martin considers to be his first pure fantasy sale. I must admit, I don't like it much. It is another story dealing with loneliness. Laren Dorr is punished by the Seven (presumably some kind of gods) to spend eternity on a planet of which he is the only inhabitant. Until Sharra, the girl who travels between worlds, arrives looking for her lost love. It is another story that was supposed to be the first in a series which would have had Sharra visit countless worlds. He never got around to writing them though. Often when I come across one of Martin's unfinished projects I wonder what the whole thing would have been like. With this story, being limited to one is fine with me. There is something melancholic about the story but Martin has done that better in other pieces.

I have already reviewed the children's version of The Ice Dragon (1980) on this blog. Martin edited the story a bit and released it for young readers in 2006. Dreamsongs contains the adult original of The Ice Dragon. Both versions are very good, but I think I like the adult version slightly better. It is written from the point of view of a little girl and there is a lot of adult stuff between the lines that the reader is meant to catch even if the main character doesn't. It works fine as a children's book but even with the light trimming Martin had to do to tone down the references to war and violence, something is lost. The story is unfortunately burdened with the debate about whether or not it is set in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. After rereading it, I remain of the opinion that if you want to shoehorn it in, you probably can, but that it most certainly wasn't conceived that way.

The third story in this section is In the Lost Lands (1982), the first and only story in the series on Grey Alys. This story is a dark fairy tale in essence. Be careful what you wish for is clearly the morale of In the Lost Lands. I like Alys a lot better than Sharra. She is a powerful character involved in some very shady business. Martin is simply better at writing morally ambiguous characters. Sharra is too much of a romantic heroine for my taste. Martin has sold the movie rights of both In the Lost Lands and The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr (as well as Bitterblooms from the previous section) recently so we may well see either or both on the big screen soon.

Hybrids and Horrors

In this section Martin presents six stories with a clear horror element. Half of them are not uncut horror though, but mixtures of horror and science fiction. A combination that has produced some of Martin's best work. I'm not entirely convinced by Martin's more pure horror tales though. While they are generally creepy, they seem to lack the imagination Martin is able to put into his fantasy and science fiction.

The section opens with Meathouse Man (1976). It is a story in a series that made it to three and deals with a man who is a professional corpse handler. The corpses have had their brains replaced by a device that links them to the handler. A good handler can control as many as eight at a time. They are used for hard, dirty or dangerous work. Targer is quite good at his job but his life is all work. He wants more out of it. He is looking for love. It will not surprise the readers that he is disappointed repeatedly. Meathouse Man is horrific in the fact that the corpses are seen as things to use and abuse as the handlers see fit. This includes using them for sex and the scene in which Targer explores this part of his talent is absolutely revolting. He strikes me as a character who, being surrounded by corpses most of the time, has trouble understanding his own humanity and that of others. No good can come of it of course.

Remembering Melody (1981)  is an uncut horror story about a group of people who become good friends in college. They promise to support each other should one of them ever need help. Three of the four make a life for themselves after college but the fourth ends up in a life of addiction, bad boyfriends and failed careers. She calls on the others repeatedly until they have had enough and refuse to help her. I guess you could say this story is about the consequences of broken promises. It is a decent story but I could see the clou coming a mile off when I first read it. Not my favourite in this collection.

The next story is Sandkings (1979) and of all Martin's short pieces, this is probably the most successful. It won him a Nebula and a Hugo and made him more money than most of his novels until he started writing A Song of Ice and Fire. It is a science fiction/horror hybrid set in the Thousand Worlds universe. There is an adaptation for television, a comic version and it has been reprinted more times than I care to count. If you know anything of Martin other than A Song of Ice and Fire, this is likely to be it. Despite it being one of Martin's most successful works, it is another one of those one story series. One of the many opportunities in Dreamsongs to think about what might have been had Martin followed up on this story.

The story deals with a cruel man with too much money and a habit of showing off expensive and preferably dangerous pets to his friends. When he returns from his latest and unexpectedly long business trip most of his pets have died. He sets out to find something new and ends up buying Sandkings. Cruel man that he is, he raises cruel pets and that gets him in serious trouble. The Sandkings are fascinating creatures. Figuring out their lifecycle and habits is what the story revolves around. They turn into scary creatures, partly because Martin keeps it unclear what makes them tick until the very last moment. It is one of the highlights in the collection.

Nightflyers (1980) is a horror story in space. It is also set in Martin's Thousand Worlds and was made into a craptastic movie in 1987. I've seen it so you don't have to. Don't. Read the story instead. There are two versions of this story. Martin has opted to put the longest of the two in this collection. He feels the shorter version is too constrained by its length. He may well be right there. Another author might have made this into a full novel. It would certainly have been possible.

Nightflyers is about a poorly funded expedition to find the mysterious Volcryn. Beings who have been spotted for thousands of years, traveling from the centre of the galaxy to the rim. The expedition's leader has trouble finding a ship that will stop in interstellar space and so he turns to the Nightflyer. The captain of the ship is decidedly peculiar. He will only show himself as a hologram. There is always something claustrophobic about a spaceship where all is not well and Martin uses that to the full extent in this story. The ship is the only thing that keeps them alive in the hostile environment of deep space. Where do you turn if it is also trying to kill you? It is a solid story. I have no idea how the makers of that movie managed to screw up so badly. Maybe someone should have another go at it.

The Monkey Treatment (1983) is another of the stories in this section I don't particularly like. It is a play on words mostly. The main character has a monkey on his back. Literally. The story about a man who likes to eat and is seriously overweight because of it. He feels bad about his weight and even blames his lack of success with women on his posture. Desperate to lose weight he opts for radical treatment. We see the entire story from the point of view of the main character. He clearly doesn't like being overweight and associates his size with being ugly, gross and repulsive. He does so in no uncertain terms. It is probably not a pleasant read for people who are not happy with their posture. There is nothing to balance the main character's opinion on these matters either, since he provides the only point of view in the story. I like the concept of the story but I don't particularly like the execution.

The final story in this section is The Pear-Shaped Man (1987), which is without a doubt the most creepy tale in the bunch. A young woman moves into a new apartment building. In the basement lives a peculiar man everybody knows as  the Pear-Shaped Man. He seems harmless but the main character slowly becomes obsessed with him and is convinced he means to do her harm. Martin manages to make the man creepy without him actually doing much of anything early on in the story. The unease the main character feels does grow into full blown horror later on though. I feel Martin slips a bit at the end of the story. The climax is very surreal and doesn't really seem to fit whit the rest of the story. Still a supremely creepy bit of writing though. Of his uncut horror stories, this one is probably the best.

A Taste of Tuf

Where 1971 was a big year in Martin's life, 1979 and 1985 prove to be equally important to his career. Martin produced a steady stream of short fiction throughout the 1970s. His first collection appears in 1976, followed by a second in 1977. that year will also see the release of his first novel Dying of the Light. He is selling reasonably well but still has to keep a day job to get by. He organizes chess tournaments to supplement his income and 1976 till 1978 he teaches English and Journalism at Clarke College in Dubugue, Iowa and becomes their writer in residence in 1978-1979. When his first wife graduates Martin decides to take the plunge. They decide to move to New Mexico where Martin will devote himself to writing full time. His marriage does not survive the relocation but Martin is more productive in these years than in any previous period in his career.

His second novel Windhaven, a fixup written in collaboration with Lisa Tuttle appears in 1981, followed by the historical horror novel Fevre Dream in 1982. For his fourth novel he gets his biggest advance yet and Martin uses it to finance a bigger house. While the critics love The Armageddon Rag (1983), the novel doesn't sell at all. It is a novel that is hard to place in a genre, and completely different from what Martin has written before. Personally I think it is very good but it must have been a pain to market. In 1985 it becomes clear that his agent is unable to get anyone to make a bid on Martin's fifth novel, which by that point is partially finished. Martin is in serious trouble now. He abandons what should have been his fifth novel and looks for other sources of income. Tuf Voyaging is one of the projects he takes on in this period. Part of the unfinished novel was later published in the collection Quartet: Tales From the Crossroads (2001).

In 1986 Baen publishes Tuf Voyaging. It is sometimes called a novel but in my mind it is a short story collection. Stories about Tuf, an eccentric trader and ecological engineer traveling Martin's Thousand Worlds universe, fixing all matter of ecological problems, appeared between 1976 and 1985. I reviewed the collection earlier this year so I'm not going to go into too much detail about it. Martin has selected two of the stories from that collection. Of the first one, A Beast for Norn (1976) is the oldest of the lot and was rewritten before the publication of Tuf Voyaging. In Dreamsongs Martin includes the original version. It is a bit shorter than the one in Tuf Voyaging, with a more abrupt ending. The version that ended up in the Tuf collection is definitely more polished and more in line with the other stories. It is interesting to see the changes Martin made to the story and how the character of Tuf developed but of course you do need access to both versions to appreciate that.

The devastation Tuf causes in this story also shows that Martin's expertise on the subject of ecology is limited. The casual way in which species get released into an environment they did not evolve in borders on the criminal but Tuf seems to think the ecosystem will find a new balance. Whether that new balance is capable of supporting human life is anyone's guess. The second story is Guardians (1981) which is chronologically set before A Beast for Norn. Interestingly enough, Tuf is a lot more concerned in this story about the effects of meddling in an ecosystem he doesn't fully understand. Fortunately he solves the puzzle before species go extinct.

End of part two. Come back on Sunday for the final part of this review.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective - George R.R. Martin (part 1)

Riding on the first wave of success for his massive series A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin and Subterranean  published this equally massive tome with an overview of his career up to that point in 2003. It has since been reprinted by Gollancz and Bantam under various tittles, sometimes in one volume, sometimes in two or three. I own the Gollancz edition from 2007. One of the one volume ones. It weighs in at 1185 pages and contains an introduction by Gardner Dozois, nine essays, thirty-four pieces of short fiction and a bibliography. It is, in other words, quite an exhaustive read. I've been going over it in the past few months for a Dutch language project over at Hebban. That project involves ten articles and will probably total something close to twenty-thousand words. It's a bit much to do the whole thing over again in English (it would have to be substantially rewritten for a different audience) so I figured I'd try for a more conventional review for Random Comments. With so much material to cover it turned out to be a bit on the long side so I am splitting it in three parts. The second part is scheduled for Wednesday, and the final installment will be posted next Sunday.

Dreamsongs is divided into nine sections. They are roughly chronological and sometimes thematically ordered and each cover a stage in the career of Martin. He starts in his youth and goes all the way on to The Hedge Knight (1998), which is the newest piece covered in the collection. Each of the sections is preceded by an essay by Martin in which he discusses his inspirations. They also contain quite a bit of biographical detail. Martin has selected stories that he thinks represents a certain part of his work best, and although there are a few award winning stories in this collection, it is certainly no best of George R.R. Martin. At least, that is not what he aims for.

A Four-Color Fanboy
This section of the collection deals with Martin's youth and very early writings. Martin calls them his apprentice works. He discusses what first set him on the path to becoming a writer and strangely enough, it is not science fiction. In his early years Martin read a lot of comics. He made up his own stories too and even sold them to his classmates. Later he did of course move on to science fiction and fantasy, but the foundation is still comics. Martin was a real fanboy and wrote for several of the amateur fan magazines of the 1960s. It explains something about Wild Cards I guess. Martin includes three pieces of his early writing in the collection. None of them sold, but The Fortress did get reworked in a story Marin would write in the 1980s.

Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark (1967) is essentially a comic in written form. The prose is absolutely terrible and the story a cliché superhero plot. Martin's imagination does shine through but at this point he clearly has a lot to learn about writing. Martin takes creative writing classes in college and the other two stories in this section are a result of that. The first is The Fortress (1968), which he wrote for a class in Scandinavian history. It describes the events at the siege of the fortress Sveaborg in 1808. The reasons for its surrender still puzzles historians. It is straight historical fiction. Martin does not include any speculative elements and follows history as it is known. I'm still not impressed by the prose in this story, but it has improved a lot compared to his written comics so I guess the classes are paying off.

The third story is not a particularly fine piece either. And Death His Legacy (1968) is a rather blunt political statement. Given the time Martin went to college (late sixties, early seventies) I guess the content is not even that radical, but reading it today, it mostly strikes me as immature. These stories are Martin spreading his wings, writing to learn for the more professional pieces that will follow. He is taking a chance by publishing them in this volume. They are not that interesting to read as stories, but do give a clear insight into Martin's development as a writer. As such I can appreciate them, but I am not surprised that he didn't sell any of them.

The Filthy Pro

The second section of Dreamsongs deals with Martin's early sales. He sold his first story, The Hero, to Galaxy in 1971, while still in college. After that first sale, Martin starts to publish regularly in the major magazines. The other stories in this section are from the summer that he graduated. Martin holds a Master's degree in journalism but couldn't find a job in that profession. The summer of 1971 was one of the few moments in the 1970s when he actually had plenty of time to write. It resulted in a number of stories that would help Martin establish a career in science fiction.

The Hero is the first story set in Martin's future history that doesn't have an official name. Most people refer to it as the Thousand Worlds however. The Hero is another, albeit slightly less blunt political statement. It deals with a soldier from a high gravity planet. He possesses augmentation of his already impressive physical strength, making him a formidable warrior. He feels he's getting old though, and wants to retire  before the enemy gets him. His superiors are not sure that is a good idea. Martin, who faced the draft and a likely tour in Vietnam at the time, filed for conscientious-objector status and sent this story along with his application. Given the distrust it displays of those in command of the army, I am not at all surprised it was granted. Martin spent his alternative service with VISTA between 1972 and 1974.

The Exit to San Breta (1972) is a futuristic ghost story. Martin himself insists it is fantasy and not science fiction. The story is a bit dated by now. Martin predicts the flying car sometime in the 1990s, which makes regular cars obsolete in the twenty-first century. The highways are abandoned and only traveled by those with an interest in the classics. The main character is driving his classic Edsel down a lonely stretch of highway when he is involved in a car crash. There is more to the accident than meets the eye. The story may be very dated, the one thing Martin got right in it is the status of the Edsel as a classic. It was a dismal commercial failure when it was put on the market by Ford but now an Edsel in good condition is quite valuable.

The Second Kind of Loneliness (1972) is where Martin really hits his stride. It is the first story in what was meant to be a series. Martin has written a lot of first stories but not many seconds and even fewer thirds. It is written in the form of diary entries and deals with, as the title suggests, loneliness. A theme that Martin would revisit frequently throughout the 1970s. Although Martin puts his main character in the most lonely place imaginable, a space station on the edge of the solar system, the loneliness that the main character is concerned with is the kind of someone who is awkward in the company of others. It's a very tragic story and in my opinion the best in this section.

The readers at the time probably didn't agree with me though because Martin got his first Hugo and Nebula nomination for another Thousand Worlds story. With Morning Comes Mistfall (1973) is a mood piece really. Not much to the plot but the central question. Do we really need to know it all or are some things better left a mystery? Martin clearly believes we need a bit of mystery in our lives. Martin didn't win, the Hugo went to Ursula K. Le Guin that year and the Nebula to James Tiptree, Jr. He  had settled into his writing career though, and more awards nominations would follow.

The Light of Distant Stars

The next three sections all cover work from the mid 1970s to the early 1980s. Martin attempts to present them as science fiction, fantasy and horror respectively although he admits he often blends genres. The Light of Distant Stars is the section dealing with science fiction and contains six stories, all set in his Thousand Worlds setting. It opens strongly, with one of Martin's most famous stories. A Song of Lya (1974) would get him a Hugo, Locus and Nebula Award nomination. He won the Hugo but lost the other two to Robert Silverberg. It is a heartbreaking tale and one of many in Dreamsongs that deals with broken hearts and unanswered love. These stories are in part a reflection of Martin's own love life at the time. He ceases to write them in the early 1980s, when Parris McBride moves in with him. He would marry her in 2011. Martin builds a good science fiction story out of it, but essentially it is about lovers drifting apart. I can definitely see why it is one of the most popular stories Martin ever produced.

In This Tower of Ashes (1975) we meet another character with a broken heart. He has distanced himself from everybody and broods out in the wilderness. It is not nearly as strong as A Song for Lya. The main character is being childish and petty. He keeps seeing himself as a victim and that makes him uninteresting for the readers. Not the strongest story in this section.

And Seven Times Never Kill Man (1975) is much better. It was inspired by a bit of poetry from The Second Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling in which a wolf teaches its pups the law of the jungle. Martin shows in this story what happens if you do kill man and as you can probably imagine, it isn't pretty. Interestingly enough, pacifism plays an important role in the plot. Given Martin's political leanings and his stance on the Vietnam War, perhaps it isn't surprising but I don't know many writers who would deal with the type of conflict described in the story in such a way. Another interesting element is religious madness as a theme. Something that will show up in Martin's later work as well. Maybe not quite as much personal drama as in some of Martin's other stories but in And Seven Times Never Kill Man we do get to see Martin at his best.

Martin got into editing in the 1970s as well. One of his projects was a series based on Campbell Award nominated writers called New Voices in Science Fiction. He would edit six of them although the final one never got published. The publisher Bluejay went bankrupt before it could be published. For the first edition he got to buy one of his own stories (Martin was nominated for the Campbell Award for best new writer in 1973) and that story is The Stone City (1977). The main character is a galactic traveler who gets stuck on the planet Greyrest. Apart from huge fields of ruins from an extinct civilization, there doesn't appear to be much of anything on the planet. It's a haunting tale where the main character eventually looses himself chasing his dream to see the galaxy. The main character is a bit like Martin himself in this period. Hopping from world to world, sampling each but never committing to one. It would be a while yet before Martin could make himself abandon that approach.

In Bitterblooms (1977) we see another character trapped in a fantasy. This story contains a bit of Arthurian mythology and plenty of references to the planet Avalon, a name that shows up in many Thousand Wolds stories. It is tempting to live in a fantasy, but real life and responsibilities are calling. It is indeed a bitter story about choices and their consequences. The experience changes the main character in ways that make it hard for her to really fit in her old life. It's another very good story in what is a very strong section of Dreamsongs.

The final story in this section, The Way of Cross and Dragon, takes us to a planet where Judas Iskariot has been pronounced a saint. One of the distant successors of the Catholic Church is not amused and sends in an inquisitor. Another story dealing with religion. It is very cynical really. The story is not so much about faith as about doubt, and of that there is plenty. The characters have a hard time admitting it though. It probably won't be a favourite with deeply religious people but I thought it another strong piece.

End of part one, come back on Wednesday for more.