Sunday, April 19, 2015

Ségou II: De verkruimelde aarde - Maryse Condé

Ségou II: De verkruimelde aarde is the second part of the duology Maryse Condé wrote about the city of Ségou in present day Mali. Like the first part, which I reviewed earlier this year, I read it in Dutch translation. The original is in French and appeared under the title Ségou: La Terre en miette. It has been translated in English as well under the title Children of Segu but that edition appears to be long out of print. The second part is generally considered to be the lesser of the two. I tend to agree with that. Although I did enjoy this reread, some repetition works its way into the narrative. That being said, it does a very good job of showing the reader the developments that affect the city.

The second book covers the period from the fall of Ségou to the Toucouleur Empire of El Hadj Omar Tall in 1861 to the arrival of the French in 1890. It again follows the lives of the sons of the Traoré family, who spend lot of time outside the city. The book is essentially divided in four sections. The first deals with the life of Mohammed, who lost a leg in the war against the Toucouleur and desperately tries to reconcile his religious convictions and the goals of El Hadj Omar with his Bamambara heritage. The second section covers the story of Olubunmi, who worked for the French and knows what is in store for the city. The third section deals with the journey of Samuel. Raised by his devoutly Christian father and educated by the English, he decides to seek out his Trelawny ancestors on his mother's side of the family and gets caught up in the Morant Bay Rebellion on Jamaica. The final part of the novel is seen from the point of view of Omar, son of Mohammed, who is trying to understand the father he never knew and end up trying to start a jihad against the French. More than enough material for drama in other words.

There is an element of repetition in these novels. The Traoré men are often idealistic, with grand plans to change the direction of the city of Ségou, the Bambara people or even the continent. They inevitably clash hard with the realities of the world around them and end up disillusioned or dead. Sometimes both. Where in the first novel, fate carried the Traorés all over the world, the characters in this one are more likely to make their own choices. The outcome of these choices are usually not much better than the lives forced upon the four sons of Dousika in the first novel.

The main characters spend relatively little time in the city of Ségou. In fact, most of the main characters are somewhat estranged from their Bambara roots. Mohammed for instance, feels he should be a good Muslim first, and despises his people for the mixture of Islam and traditional beliefs that is practiced in the family. Where the family as a whole, seems to manage a balance, he cannot and it gets him in a lot of trouble. It is a conflict his son Omar will relive to an extent a generation later.

Samuel is even more cut of from Ségou. He has a very poor relationship with his father and that influences his decision to leave for Jamaica. His grandmother was part of the Maroons. Escaped slaves who resisted the British and managed to establish a free community in the 1700s. While the British did not defeat them, they did manage to get them to agree to hunt other escaped slaves for them. Samuel is severely disillusioned when he sees what has become of the people who he considered heroes. It is one of the many examples in the novels of how dealing with white people, one way or another, always ends in disaster for the black characters.

The relationship between Africa and its diaspora is a theme that shows up in many of Condé's novels and it is very prominent in this particular storyline. In the previous novel it was the descendants of Naba who show the problematic relationship between the slaves and their descendants and the Africans who remained on the continent. Samuel shows us another side of this. Because of his education and upbringing, the blacks on Jamaica tease him by wondering how he can be a white man even if he is from Africa. Condé drives how the dramatic consequences of their displacement and the loss of their cultural roots home thoroughly in this book.

Another tragedy that is well represented in this novel is the way in which the colonizing powers manage to control vast stretches of the continent with minimal resources and manpower by exploiting the internal divisions among the local population. Omar's slogan, 'we are one' (against the French) mostly falls on deaf ears or is considered a somewhat controversial interpretation of a sura in the koran. The Bambara try to get rid of Toucouleur rule by enlisting the help of the French, the result of which is the establishment of French rule. While the white men seem to be unable to tell one black person from another, they know how to exploit the differences. The sheer racism and disregard of local culture, traditions and economies and even human life is staggering even to a people who have experienced a jihad a generation before. Condé may well have spared us the worst by ending her tale in 1890.

Once again the women in this book suffer even more than the men. Their men, caught up in wars, religious conflicts and political games do not precisely make life easy for them and neither the Bambara traditions nor Islam treats them kindly. Under the French things would not improve either. Whichever way they turn, they are at the mercy of men who, while not always uncaring, see them as little more than possessions or in some cases distractions from their attempts at living a devoutly religious life. Condé chooses to tell her story almost entirely from male points of view. I can't help but wonder how this novel would have turned out with a bit more sections form a female perspective.

Where we started the tale with a proud, independent nation, over the course of two books we see the city of Ségou decline ever further. Their absorptions into French Sudan seems inescapable. What little hope remains in this book can be found in the roots of the extended Traoré family. It is a family who have weathered all storms for almost a century. Despite religious disputes and all manner of conflict, they have managed to keep that in tact at least. Condé leaves us with a profound sense of loss at the end of the novel, where one of the charters muses on the state of the city and how he is going to lead the family though this. Although the continuing downward spiral in both books suggest an answer, it is up to the reader to decide whether or not to go along with that. Whichever way you choose to look at it, Ségou is a remarkable piece of historical fiction.

Book Details 
Title: Ségou II: De verkruimelde aarde  
Author: Maryse Condé
Publisher: Rainbow Pocket
Pages: 550  
Year: 1990
Language: Dutch
Translation: Edith Klapwijk
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 90-6766-086-8
First published: 1985

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Tuf Voyaging - George R.R. Martin

Early in his career George R.R. Martin was not particularly good at finishing series. A lot of his 1970s stories leave openings for sequels that never got written. Tuf is a bit of an exception in that respect. Martin wrote enough of them to fill a book. In a way, we have to commercial failure of The Armageddon Rag (1983) to thank for it. Martin couldn't get his fifth novel sold and abandoned it eventually. He had a contract for a Tuf collection though, and he needed money quite badly at the time. The result is this book. Not that it is a complete of course. Martin had ideas for more stories, after the publication of this collection in 1986 there was even talk of a full novel. None of that ever happened. Martin left for Hollywood and got into A Song of Ice and Fire later. It looks unlikely that more Tuf stories will appear. Not any time soon anyway. A shame really, rereading this collection left me with the feeling Martin was not yet done with this character.

Tuf Voyaging is sometimes mentioned to be a novel, sometimes a fixup and sometimes a collection. I think it is the last. In fact, if you approach this work as a novel, you'll be disappointed. Martin wrote them as short stories and although there is a bit of development in Tuf's character, there isn't much of an overarching storyline. The oldest story of the bunch, A Beast for Norn  appeared in 1976 but Martin rewrote it quite a bit for this collection. The original version can be found in the massive collection Dreamsongs and was first published in an Orbit anthology called Andromeda I. All others Tuf stories ended up with Analog between 1978 and 1985. That last year was particularly productive for Tuf, with no less than four stories appearing. Martin also added a brief prologue to the collection to gather everything together.

The collection  presents the stories chronologically and starts with The Plague Star (1985). It tells the tale of Tuf taking a group of adventurer out to a derelict spaceship that the party's leader thinks is a huge, ancient seedship from the a huge war fought more than a thousand years ago. The builders had very advanced knowledge of genetics and ecology, making the ship, if intact, very valuable. In this story we meet a Tuf that is almost comic. He's calm and very much in control of the situation even when it appears he's not. He's also verbose, eccentric and seems a little naive. He seems blissfully unaware of the backstabbing that is about to break out yet somehow seems to come out on top.Tuf has reinvented himself as ecological engineer. He now wields the power to shape or destroy entire planets. He has, in other worlds, become a god.

There is a lot of religious symbolism in these stories. Lots of biblical references are sprinkled throughout the text. Martin uses the miracle of loaves and fishes, the ten plagues brought down on Egypt and the manna that feeds the Jews in the Sinai in Exodus all find their way into the stories. At one point Tuf even pretends to be Yahweh to bring a wayward religious leader to heel.  Absolute power and the use of it is an important theme in these stories. Tuf uses his power as he sees fit and seems to have inhibitions about ending ways of life forever, wiping out whole ecosystems or waging biological wars. Tuf feels entitled to make these decisions without consultation. He goes from unassuming to almost tyrannical over the course of the collection. If Martin does write a sequel, it would be interesting to see what Tuf would do if he screws up.

Having taking control of the Ark, as the spaceship is called, Tuf proceeds to the planet of S'uthlam where he hopes to get the damage to his ship accumulated over a millennium fixed. As the name suggests, the planet is in a permanent state of Malthusian crisis. The majority of the population beliefs it is their holy duty to procreate and does so at an alarming rate. Tuf himself, when he finally finds out the size of the population of the planet, responds with a typical understatement.
"Since you solicit my opinion, Portmaster, I shall venture to say  that while the world above us seems formidably large, I cannot but wonder if it is indeed large enough. Without intending any censure of your mores, culture, and civilization, the thought does occur to me that a population of thirty-nine billion persons might be considered, on the whole, to be a trifle excessive."
Tuf talking to portmaster Tolly Mune in Loaves and Fishes.
Mune, interestingly as much opposed to the enormous growth the the population of the planet, is one of the few characters in the story who seriously tries to make Tuf see the problematic way in which he uses the Ark and makes his decisions. Mune and her troubled planet appear in three stories in this collection, making it the spine of Tuf's adventures. Loaves and Fishes, Second Helpings and Manna from the Heavens were all first published in 1985 and contain most of Tuf's development as a character.

Tuf's adventures on S'uthlam can also be seen as commentary on the overpopulation that is one of the main driving forces in environmental degradation all over the planet. One of the strategies Tuf (himself a vegetarian) proposes is the replace all sorts of inefficient foodstuffs (read meat) by much higher yielding, if not always tasteful, alternatives. Tuf realizes that in the face of exponential population growth, this is just a stopgap measure however and that the real solution much be found in birth control. That is one theme where I think the collection could have used a bit more depth. The ethical dilemma is outlined but never really discussed or shown in much detail.

In between de stories dealing with S'uthlam, Tuf visits several other planet. In Guardians (1981) he brokers a piece between humans and an, until Tuf's intervention unrecognized, sentient species. In A Beast for Norn (1976) he end animal fighting in a roundabout way and in Call Him Moses (1978), he stops a fanatical religious leader with a few biological tricks up his sleeve. It's in these stories that you can tell Martin's knowledge of ecology is basic. In the stories dealing with S'uthlam, he needs to employ the entire ecosystem for food production, basically redesigning it completely. In the other stories, he just meddles and the consequences of this could be dramatic.

Tuf tends to introduces species to fix certain biological problems. If experience on Earth is any guide, this almost always backfires in some way. Think of rabbits overrunning Australia, the unbelievable damage rats can do on islands where they are introduced, the devastation caused by the Nile Perch in Lake Victoria, the list of examples in endless an costly in both ecological and economical sense. In A Beast for Norn, in which Martin introduces two dozen alien species to a planet, when confronted with the fact that he ruined the planet's ecosystem and crashed it's economy he remarks:
"Unlikely," said Tuf. "My experience is these matters suggests that Lyronica may indeed suffer a certain interlude of ecological instability and hardship, yet it will be of limited duration and ultimately I have no doubt that a new ecosystem will emerge. It appears unlikely that this successor ecology will offer niches for large predators, alas, but I am optimistic that the quality of Lyronican life will be otherwise unimpaired.
Tuf speaking to one of his customers in A Beast for Norn.
Now that would be a remarkable feat of ecological engineering. Doing away with an entire trophic level of an ecology doesn't strike me as a good way to keep the productivity and complexity of an ecosystem in tact.

Ecology is still a subject a lot of science fiction steers clear of. Martin gives it a try in this collection but on the whole it is closer to a satirical work than a scientifically accurate one. That being said, I did enjoy reading this collection again. The humour is part of it, but I also simply enjoyed the writing. Despite writing them out of chronological order, Martin manages to get a development in the character from a humble and eccentric trader in The Plague Star to a near megomaniac Manna from the Heavens. I've seen many review stating there is no character development in Tuf. I respectfully disagree with that. It is more subtle than in some of his stories, but it is most certainly there. One other thing I appreciate about Tuf Voyaging is that it underlines that Martin is just as comfortably writhing short stories as he is writing huge fantasy novels. Martin is a versatile writer, capable of writing more then fantasy novels alone. As much as I like A Song of Ice and Fire, I still think Martin's best work is in his short fiction and Tuf is one example of that. Don't approach it as a novel and don't expect epic fantasy and you might just end up liking what Martin has done here.

Book Details
Title: Tuf Voyaging
Author: George R.R. Martin
Publisher: Meisha Merlin
Pages: 440
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 1-59222-004-5
First published: 1986

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Elysium Commission - L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Although much of his output is fantasy, L.E. Modesitt, Jr. delivers a science fiction novel every other year or so. The Elysium Commission is the most recent of these I own and it is already eight years old. It's been on the to read stack for over six years now. I came across it while digging for Terry Pratchett's Small Gods that suffered a similar faith. Like many of Modesitt's science fiction novels, The Elysium Commission is a standalone, although it does have many links with his other works. The novel will not surprise readers familiar with Modesitt's work. It is, as always, solidly written, well plotted and fairly fast paced but it does rely on views Modesitt expressed in many other novels as well.

Blaine Donne has settled into a career as private investigator after serving in the military. He does moderately well and manages to get enough clients to pay for the considerable expenses of his job and his more altruistic side activities. One day, he gets a request to look into the connection between a wealthy entertainment mogul and a scientist. It seems straightforward but is soon becomes clear that Donne looking into the matter is not appreciated by the object of his investigation. After the first attempt on his life, he is caught up in a series of events that unveils a conspiracy large enough to threaten the very existence of the planet.

The novel is set in a fairly distant future on a planet colonized by humans. The city most of the action takes place in is modeled after Paris and many of the names of places, institutions and people have a French flavour, often referring to some of the French literary greats. I couldn't help wondering how much of this novel was inspired by Hugo's Les Misérables for instance. The dynamic between Donne and a police officer named Javerr reminded me of Valjean and Javert and the name seems obvious. Names are big thing in this novel. Modesitt refers to a lot of science fiction and fantasy writers in the novel as well. There are references to Robert Jordan, David Harwell (Modesitt's editor at Tor), Gene Wolfe and Paula Volsky, among others.

The planet appears to be unified but there are several factions in human occupied space with different outlooks on society. One of them is a faction based on the Mormons that shows up in a number of other books. Although the balance of power between these factions is only vaguely discussed, it does limit the effectiveness of the  planetary government and it's space to maneuver. Something that has far-reaching consequences for the plot of the novel.

Modesitt's approach to the novel is familiar. Donne's career path is similar to that of Daryn Alwyn in The Octagonal Raven (2001) and Jonat DeVrai in Flash (2004) for instance. He strikes out for himself after a career in the military. He keeps in shape, keeps up his piloting skills and has a more or less similar outlook on society. Much of what Donne thinks of society, and what other characters contribute over the course of the novel can be linked back to the Paradigms of Power, a set of principles that govern society in his novel Adiamante (1996). One of the factions mentioned in the book may also refer to a faction in his novel The Parafaith War (1996). I haven't read that one myself and he changed the spelling a bit bit so I might be wrong there. The Parafaith War and it's 2003 sequel The Ethos Effect (which I have read) do share the same outlook on society, ethics and the use of power though. Although none of these novels appear to be set in the same future, Modesitt's vision of socety is very consistent across these novels and often voiced by Exton Land, the philosopher Modesitt named after himself.

Where Donne does deviate from other characters is his activities as knight of the shadows. He walks the streets of the city exposing criminals after their intent is clear but before they can do physical harm. In a high-tech society is true identity cannot remain hidden of course and in the later stages it becomes a fact used to put pressure on him. So a dark knight looking to foil a plot by a super rich megalomaniac. If you put it that way, the plot sound downright simplistic. Entertaining perhaps, but not something that you'd remember long after finishing it. Modesitt once stated that he thinks a book should first entertain the reader or whatever else you try to do with it will not matter as the reader will abandon it. This plot creates opportunities for entertainment but it is the deeper layer that makes of breaks the novel in my opinion.

What I liked about it, is that the dark night can't just take a gadget out of his pocket and neutralize the villain. He is hemmed in on all sides by the need to comply with laws and regulations, by public appearance and by his own moral standards. These limitations don't just work for him, it is something everyone, from the highest level of government to the lowest level in law enforcement have to deal with. Not everything they do is legal, but is has to appear legal. Not even the villain, who is not above assassination, bribing or mass murder if it suits his purpose, escapes these restrictions. It is one of the examples of the internal logic of Modesitt's worlds that can be found throughput his novels. As a result, no actions without consequence, excellence cannot be achieved without hard work and no victory is without a price. It's this rigorous consistency that allows the plot to attain more depth than my dark knight versus megalomaniac villain comment suggests.

I do think that Modesitt leans on what he has done before a bit too much in this novel. Not so much in terms of characters (an often heard criticism of his work) but thematically. Over the course of many novels he's laid out a structure of ethics, views on society and human nature that is so central to his work that it is almost misleading to consider The Elysium Commission a standalone story. The author builds on the foundations he has laid in earlier books. They are so interlinked in a way that you will get more out of this novel if you have read more of his work. If you like Modesitt's writing you can't really go wrong with this one, but if you are looking for a good entry point into his oeuvre I'd look elsewhere. 

Book Details
Title: The Elysium Commission
Author: L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 356
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-5654-3
First published: 2007

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Small Gods - Terry Pratchett

On March 12th Terry Pratchett passed away. I never met him in person by he was by all accounts a remarkable man. He'll be remembered for his novels, which includes some of the finest satires ever written, but his attitude towards Allzheimer's disease and his own impending death made a big impression on me too. Besides supporting research into his condition, he was also an advocate of assisted suicide. I watched the documentary Choosing to Die, which Pratchett presented, a while ago. It's a very impressive piece of work but awfully hard to watch whatever your position on the issue. There is much more to remember Terry Pratchett for than just his writing.

Some people devour his books as soon as they appear. He has a large number of fans no doubt eagerly anticipating the final Discworld novel Pratchett wrote. It is scheduled to be released later in the year. I've been poked and prodded to read his books for years from various sides. In early 2008 I finally caved and started on The Colour of Magic. In a the space of 18 months I read the first twelve Discworld books and then, in the summer of 2009 I stalled for some reason. Small Gods, Discworld book number 13, sat on the self unread for over five years until Pratchett's passing reminded me I really ought to read it. I may not be the most hardcore Pratchett fan but his passing deserves attention. And what better book that the novel that tackles the one subject even more explosive than assisted suicide? In Small Gods Pratchett the central theme is religion.

The nation of Omnia is the bastion of the Great God Om. It is a theocracy completely devoted to this God and living by the countless commandments his prophets have laid down for them over the generations. The time of a new prophet is fast approaching but the god Om has a bit of a problem. In all the realm, there is only one true believer left and not the most formidable human either. His name is Brutha and he is a novice in one the religious institutions in Omnia's capital. With few options open to him, the Great God speaks to his chosen prophet. It is the start of a series of events that will change the course of Omnia's history.

Small Gods is one of the singleton Discworld novels. Apart from Death, Lu-Tze, and, very briefly, the Librarian, no characters from other books show up. You could probably read this without having read any of the other Discworld books. Apart from a few minor references to other stories, the novel is completely self contained. I'm not entirely sure it is a good point to start reading Pratchett though. He takes on controversial topics more often but this book is the only one I can think of that has the potential to be offensive to just about everyone. Not even the atheists are safe. What the novel shows clearly, is Pratchett's ability to write about such topics without being heavy handed. Fairly recently Neil Gaiman in an interview with the Guardian said about Pratchett that he is angry rather than jolly. That statement makes sense in a way but still there is nothing bitter or sarcastic in Pratchett's writing, even if between the lines you can see he has strong opinions on the topic. It's a quality that makes you read on and smile even if he is in the process of tipping your particular sacred cow.

Pratchett bases is story on the idea that people make gods, not the other way around. A small god is a potential really. If they can manage to find true believers the may grow to become something. The gods with real powers are the ones with a large following. Gods who  lose their believers, lose their power. Which of course is exactly what happens to Om after the nation that worships him turns into a huge bureaucratic religious order. What people follow is the structure, the ritual, the dogmas, but no longer the god. In one sweep Pratchett fells god the creator, monotheism an organized religions.

One of the cleverest bits of satire in the novel is the dogma of the Omnians that the world is a sphere (when in reality it is a disc carried on the back of four elephants, standing on the back of a huge turtle, any sailor can tell you) that is challenged by those who believe in the observations made from an island on the rim. The way Pratchett not only lampoons church dogmas but uses it to make fun of science and atheists, who in the face of evidence of their existence, refuse to belief in the gods. In the end it is the story's one true believer who, not though is belief in any particular god, but through a mix of humanism, ethics and pragmatism, achieves peace and prosperity and changes a god's mind. With a nudge from an unseen force of course.

Brutha himself reminded me a bit of Rincewind. He's basically clumsy and not very talented in anything relevant to his chosen career. Like Rincewind he has one great talent. He never forgets anything he's seen. His flawless memory gets him in trouble more than once because he is incapable of forgetting anything even when told to so by his superiors. It does come in handy at other times though. It would be tempting to think of him as not very bright, but in reality he's not really a fast thinker. His ideas, when they do pop up are noting short of revolutionary. He's also often the voice of reason and compassion to balance the insanity around him. It took me a while to like him but I must admit he grew on me later in the book.

There will no doubt be an awful lot of readers who won't like this book, simply because Pratchett's humour doesn't spare anyone. For readers familiar with Discworld that will hardly be a problem. What Pratchett does in this novel is not so much attack religion (or science or philosophy), but rather make fun of closed minded people, wherever they may be found. It's human stupidity and short-sightedness that angered Pratchett according to Gaiman. Whatever Pratchett's exact feeling on the subject of religion and the way it expresses itself in society, he channeled them into a book that is both hilarious and possesses great depth. It will leave the reader mulling over the ideas he put into the text long after the last page has been turned. Small Gods is one of the better Discworld novels I've read so far. If I don't read another anytime soon poke me to get on with it.

Book Details
Title: Small Gods
Author: Terry Pratchett
Publisher: Corgi Books
Pages: 380
Year: 1993
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-552-13890-1
First published: 1992

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Lagoon - Nnedi Okorafor

For some reason, in just about every alien invasion movie I've seen, the aliens land somewhere in the US if they don't outright park their ship on the White House lawn. Why they would pick that particular spot on the globe, which covers only a small percentage of the earth's surface and doesn't look particularly special from orbit is beyond me. The makers of the movie District 9 must have wondered about that too because they decided to have their spaceship appear above Johannesburg, South Africa. Okorafor mentions that this movie was what triggered her to write Lagoon, so I decided to watch t. It's a curious movie and I can see why it pissed of just about the entire nation of Nigeria. For a movie which main theme is xenophobia, the portrayal of Nigerians in District 9 is downright offensive. The story must have gotten away from Okorafor's initial inspiration though. The movie and the book have very little to do with each other.

On Bar Beach in Lagos, Nigeria, three complete strangers meet and witness something huge striking the ocean a few miles of the coast. It is the start of a series of strange events that will turn their lives upside down and reshape the history of the city, the nation and the world as a whole. Aliens have landed and they bring change. Before that, our three heroes must save the city from tearing itself apart. Accompanied by an alien ambassador they head out into chaos.

Given my introduction you might expect a more positive picture of Nigerians to emerge than the criminal cannibals in District 9. And in a way that is the case. Lagos is described as vibrant and diverse. That being said, she is not blind to the problems the city faces either. Poverty, prostitution, homophobia, corruption,  internet fraud and religious intolerance all show up prominently in the novel. Riots soon break out after the cause of the strange phenomena that wash over the city becomes known. They are opportunistic and extremely violent. In the midst of all this chaos however, sacrifice, compassion and remorse show up time and again. It is a far cry from the dehumanized criminals in District 9.

Nigeria is a nation with many ethnic groups. The three largest, Yoruba, Haussa and Igbo, make up about sixty percent of the population, with countless others making up the rest. Throughout the novel we find the characters constantly aware of the ethnic and cultural divisions and the linguistic complications that can cause. As happened in many places in Africa, the lingua franca of the nation is that of the former colonial power: English. For everyday use, it has evolved into a pidgin language with many influences from various African languages. Okorafor uses this pidgin English extensively in the novel and provides a list of key terms in the back of the book. It took me a bit to get into it. As a second language speaker of English I always have a bit of trouble with English that deviates too much from the school-taught standards. It does give the reader the feeling it has been written by someone who knows Nigeria. I assume Okorafor had to hold back in a few places to keep the novel from becoming incomprehensible for those who are not familiar with the country but it is the kind of detail I appreciate in a book. There is an audiobook version of this novel, someone probably had a lot of fun putting that together.

Their is more than a bit of religious tension in the book as well. Nigeria is divided in roughly equal parts Christian and Muslin communities and violence between them has flared up periodically. Okorafor works that into the novel at various point but perhaps more interestingly, she also reaches back to the traditional  beliefs of the Yoruba and Igbo peoples. Several mythological figures show up in the story and in those parts it is most obvious that the novel is written for a western audience. Explanations about who these figures are are worked into the text. Especially later on in the novel, these occurrences are used as a herald of change. A departure from the oil addicted, corrupt economy by reaching back to the roots of the land, bringing to the surface a Nigeria that cannot be erased by the evils of colonialism, religious strife and environmental degradation. It is a change that needs a catalyst though, barring alien invasions, it is not easy to see what other development could provide it.

Okorafor uses quite a large and varied cast in this relatively short novel. There is liberated marine biologist Adaora and her fundamentalists Christian husband Chris, the compassionate soldier Agu and the famous Ghanaian rapper Anthony, the corrupt priest Father Oke and the unnamed Nigerian president (probably based on Umaru Musa Yar'Adua who was president of Nigeria from 2007 till 2010) and of course the alien ambassador Ayodele. They all play important parts in the chaotic and dramatic events in the novel. I grew particularly fond on Adaora and Anthony, which in my opinion are the most rounded characters of the lot. That is, if you want to see the people are the main characters. One could very easily argue that this is one of those novels where the setting is the real main character. Lagos after all, is the one that undergoes the most profound change in the novel.

Lagoon is an alien invasion novel like you probably never read before. It's wildly different setting and its clear break with the conventions of this particular subgenre make it one of the most interesting science fiction novels I've read in a long while. There are so many interesting aspects to this novel that I get the feeling I can't possibly do this book justice in a thousand word review. It is another novel in a movement to make science fiction more international and multicultural, one of those books that even a decade ago, would have had a hard time finding an audience. I thought reading it was an amazing experience. It's one of those 2014 books that ought to be in this years awards ballots. I can't recommend it enough. Go read it.

Book Details
Title: Lagoon
Author: Nnedi Okorafo
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 301
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-444-76276-1
First published: 2014

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Jacaranda - Cherie Priest

According to Priest, Jacaranda is the final work she will write in her Clockwork Century setting. The series consists of five novels, one short story and, including this one, two novellas. I've had great fun with the previous entries in the series, even if they are not the most challenging works in the Steampunk genre, so I really wanted to read this one as well. Like the previous novella in the series, this one was published by Subterranean Press and like pretty much everything they publish, it is a beautiful little book. Great attention has been paid to the design and artwork. Subterranean books are not cheap but they always make sure you know that you paid for quality. The number of hardcovers is very limited so if you want one, better be fast.

On an island off the coast of Texas a hotel built with the finest technology the late nineteenth century has been making a name for itself. The place is thought to be haunted. Two dozen people have already died under mysterious circumstances. The authorities can't be bothered to investigate the deaths anymore and so an unlikely crew of a nun, a Texas ranger and a Mexican priest gathers at the hotel to investigate. As a hurricane barrels down on them, the terrible truth about the Jacaranda Hotel slowly reveals itself to them.

Jacaranda is set in the Clockwork Century but it is only very loosely tied to the rest of the stories. There is a reference to the rotters, the zombie-like victims of an addictive substance introduced in opening novel  Boneshaker, a few references to the alternate version of the American civil war the series covers and a reference to one of the major characters on Ganymede, the third novel in the series. That is all there is to be found of the Clockwork Century really. With a few minor bits of rewriting the whole thing could have been completely separated from the Clockworld universe. As a consequence, it can be read independently without missing much of what is going on. Jacaranda is not a novella meant to close of any dangling threads or answer any remaining questions. The climax of the series is clearly the final novel Fiddlehead.

In essence, Jacaranda is a haunted house story. The plot is not all that original and so the success of the story depends on the execution. Such stories need a certain atmosphere, a buildup of tension at just the right place, revelations at the right time. Priest realized this and paced her story accordingly. Where her first Clockwork Century novella Clementine felt constrained by the need to keep the word count under a certain number (it was intended for Subterranean but for contractual reasons Priest would have had to offer it to Tor first if it got above a certain word count), this one feels about right in length. In fact, take out a few of the plentiful descriptions of a storm approaching and it might even have been a bit shorter.

Atmosphere is important to the story though, Priest uses the approaching hurricane to ramp up the tension. The gradually darkening sky, the preparation for the storm, the subconscious nervousness caused by a rapidly dropping air pressure and the ever prescient threat of the hotel all  add to the sense of dread in the story. People die in it of course, but there is no need for buckets of blood or dozens of bodies. Like in a good horror movie, what you don't see is scarier than what is explicitly shown. It will not surprise the reader that in classic horror tradition, the climax of the story coincides with the climax of the hurricane.

Priest uses another element in her story pops up often in horror movies: guilt. Who gets to die and who is involved in the story in the first place is decided by often peculiar notions on who is deemed guilty and who is considered innocent and free of sin. The visitors of the hotel all bear the burden of guilt until it is too late. While none of them can actually be touched by the law of morals, each of them has broken a vow or a promise that weighs on their conscience. It is what draws them in an keeps them from running. At some level, the guilty want to be punished and the hotel is ready to extract a kind of justice from them. I guess guilt is not a surprising theme in a story where two of the main characters are Catholics who dedicated their lives to god. Especially later on in the novella, this biblical view on sin and guilt becomes more important. I can't say that was my favourite part of the story.

I must admit that this book was not quite what I was hoping for. It certainly doesn't deliver what I read the Clockwork Century books for. The hotel has  few gadgets but they are not important to the story, nor is the alternative history Priest has laid out. Haunted house stories are not really my thing either. They tend to be so stuck in horror clichés that they rarely make for challenging or interesting reading. Putting my personal preferences aside for the moment, I do see a story that is well executed. Some readers may not be entirely convinced by the climax but it worked well enough for me. Jacaranda was entertaining reading, but as a postscript to the Clockwork Century, it is essentially unnecessary. Read it if you enjoy a good haunted house story or if you can't stand to leave a series unfinished. If those two don't apply to you, there are more interesting book out there.

Book Details
Title: Jacaranda
Author: Cherie Priest
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Pages: 181
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59606-684-7
First published: 2015

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Galaxy Game - Karen Lord

I read Karen Lord's novel The Best of All Possible Worlds about a year and a half ago and was very impressed by it. The Galaxy Game is a sequel of sorts. We get to see some familiar characters again but she shifts to a new main character, who played only a minor role in the first novel. It could probably be read independently, although the rich cultural background might be lost on some readers without having read the first book. The Galaxy Game has not been quite as well received as Lord's previous novel and I can see why. It is a decent  read but nowhere does it come close to achieving the level of The Best of All Possible Worlds.

Rafi's father had a psychic talent that he used to abuse his family for many years. When he was found out the authorities imprisoned him. Rafi has inherited his father's talent and to prevent him from ending up like his father, he is sent to Lyceum, a place where is supposed to learn to control his powers. His education is not going well though. Rafi has friends at the Lyceum but he is miserable there anyway. His mental abilities frighten him and progress in learning to deal with them is minimal. If he is to learn to accept and control his gift, he will have to go elsewhere. It is the start of a journey that will take him to several planets, but the real destination is adulthood.

Rafi, as you might have guessed is the nephew of Grace Delurua, the main character of The Best of All Possible Worlds. She plays a minor role in this novel. Grace is mostly busy with the Sadiri and their precarious position on the planet Cyngus to pay much attention to Rafi though. After leaving the Lyceum, a move that could turn him into a renegade, he leaves for a place where his abilities are more common and more widely accepted. It is a place that also embraces the one release he has from the nightmares and the stress of leaving home. The game is called Wallrunning and is of great cultural importance. It is played on a wall where gravity varies and tests the agility and three dimensional orientation of its players to the maximum. The rules of the game never become clear entirely though. Later on in the story, a link between interplanetary travel and the game pops up. The mechanics of this way of traveling are never explained but apparently the spacial orientation skills of the players has something to do with it. For the fan of hard science fiction this is a somewhat frustrating novel.

Hard science fiction is not what Lord is aiming for though. Her story is much more interested in cultural diversity. Rafi is exposed to a number of cultures during his travels and he doesn't understand most of them. I can't say I blame him. The variety is bewildering and the main reason why I think you should read The Best of All Possible Worlds first. Although on the level of the character, the story revolves around Rafi, another layer concerns itself with interplanetary politics which are almost impossible to understand without a bit of background information. The various races of humanity are in a major political and military struggle, the outcome of which will shape the universe for centuries to come. Rafi is caught right in the middle of it and, on top of his personal problems, has to find a place in the power structure of am alien culture he hardly understands. His choice in this regard is crucial to his personal safety and happiness.

Something that contributes to the bewildering tangle of cultures, faction, and races is the fact that while Rafi is the focal point of the novel, the point of view frequently shifts to other characters. They are mostly from different cultural backgrounds and face their own challenges. For one of the characters, she switches to a first person narrative, which makes the transitions between characters a bit bumpy sometimes. The plot itself is not all that complicated, it is after all a fairly straightforward Bildungsroman, but along the way Lord does her best to distract us with all sorts of other attractions. She does so to the point where I wondered once of twice why all this was relevant to the story.

Where in some areas, information seems hardly relevant, in other areas explanations are completely lacking. Some of the characters rely on modes of communication that do not rely on words and can be very difficult to follow. Rafi is supported and taking in by characters whose motivations remain largely unclear. For Rafi, who would most likely not have understood any explanation until much later anyway, this is more easy to accept than for the reader.

There is a great deal of background to this galaxy. A history that, despite all the things Lord has put into these two novels, is not yet fully revealed. There are a few hints in the novel that the situation on Earth might be explored further for instance. Given what we've learned of it so far that would certainly be interesting but it is but one of many possibilities. Lord has created a universe that allows many more directions for good stories. In this novel, she doesn't quite manage to find a story that allows her to show us her all of her creation though. Too often the reader comes across beautifully phrased but confusion bits of future history or interesting but only marginally relevant cultural observations. The Galaxy Game is not a big book but I think that in the hands of another author, it might have been a novella. I enjoyed at some level but compared to The Best of All Possible Worlds it was a mild disappointment.

Book Details

Title: The Galaxy Game
Author: Karen Lord
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 320
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-345-53407-1
First published: 2015

Sunday, March 1, 2015


I've been busy this week and I haven't finished any of the books I'm reading at the moment. As much as I hate to do this, I'm going to have to skip a week. Not entirely sure what next week will look like but I'm almost though with The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord that one will probably be next. So instead of reviewing I wanted to show you a bit of another project I'm involved in.

The Dutch blogshpere and online communities when it comes to fantasy, science fiction and horror has always been a bit scattered, often very divided. Blogs and communities pop up and go down frequently but none of them had much outreach beyond the small circle of regulars that visited them. The only magazine that published fantastic short fiction stopped a couple of years back, leaving only and number of short fiction contests as a platform to reach an audience.

All of this is quite strange when you considered that fantasy in particular, is quite popular over here. a number of publishers are active in the field, releasing quite a few, mostly translated works. On top of that it is not unusual to read in a second language over here. The Netherlands has several bookshops that are almost entirely specialized in English language books for instance. There is, in other words, quite an audience but they are not being very well served.

The book portal Hebban (the name is derived from one of the earliest bits of writing in the Dutch language) has jumped into this vacuum. It is quite an ambitious project, aiming to become a kind of Dutch language Goodreads. The company behind it set up a professional website with a number of community features, a blog function and cover just about the entire literary spectrum. There are giveaways, articles by authors, interviews, short fiction and of course reviews. And that, as you will probably have guessed, is where I come in.

Although individual uses have the opportunity to add reviews, Hebban also maintains a group of reviewers and writers to create content for them. I've been writing for the Fantasy portal since July, aiming to produce a review or article every month. Quite a lot of it have been reworkings of things I've done for Random Comments but I've also done an interview with WFA nominated blogger Mieneke van der Salm (A Fantastical Librarian) and written an article about two upcoming publications that promote a more diverse SF&F genre.

It's been quite an interesting experience writing in Dutch. I have done a number of reviews in both languages and they tend to come out slightly different. I don't translate. Translating is an art I haven't really mastered, so it is simply faster to just write it again. Mostly I do the English version first but in one case, Kaleidoscope, it was the other way around. Besides taking into account the different audience, my vocabulary in Dutch still very much exceeds my active vocabulary in English so the texts do have a different feel to them. My next project will be a series of articles, probably nine in total, but I'm not quite ready to discuss it until I'm a bit further along in writing them. It might appear in some form on Random Comments too.

So if you read Dutch, head on over to Hebban and check them out. This site has the potential to grow into the place to be in the Dutch language area when it comes to books. There's a list of what I've written for them here but there are plenty of other articles by people who are much better at it than I am as well.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Breath of War - Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard has been producing a steady stream of outstanding short fiction in recent years. Her stories have won her several awards and have been nominated for for a whole bunch more. It should be no surprise that as the nominations for the upcoming awards season are trickling in, her name appears on the ballots again. This year, her story The Breath of War is on the shortlist for the Nebula Award in the short story category. The story first appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #142 in March 2014, in a special Science-Fantasy edition. It can be read on their website for free. The author mentions it is 'sortof' set in her Xuya alternate history but it works as a standalone. In fact, it stands out a bit in the company of other Xuya stories.

In the aftermath of a war, a woman is making a difficult journey into the mountains. Her baby could be born any day now and before that happens, she needs to reach her destination. The journey is not going well though. Well short of reaching their goal, their aircar breaks down. What follows is a dangerous race against the clock. Along the way, the reason for the hazardous journey becomes clear.

I can see why De Bodard set is was 'sortof' part of the Xuya setting. It's the only story in the series where a supernatural element is included in the the plot. On the other hand it does include the Rong space faring civilization and references to the war I suspect we've seen form other corners of the universe in various stories as well. I guess The Breath of War is the odd one out but in a way it does fit in.

As far as I know it is the first time De Bodard mixes fantasy elements into what could be considered a science fiction story. It works very well on an emotional level but I do think that it leaves so much of the worldbuilding vague and uncertain that for the fantasy reader it can be a bit unsatisfying. The vague background of the is a problem I have with a lot of fantastical short fiction though. The reader is often asked to accept a lot of things as a given because the story simply isn't long enough to waste words on details. Sometimes it suffers because of it.  The Breath of War mostly escape this problem. It allows the reader to ignore that background of the planet's culture and the cause of the war by focusing on the character.

The main character Rechan is a woman who is facing the consequence of a choice she made during the planet's unique rite of passage. Rechan is something of a puzzle for the reader. There is a constant tension between choice and conviction and fate and inevitability. The choice she made more than a decade ago was influenced by the war taking away opportunities she feels she should have had. On the surface she is a rebellious teenager finding out the world is not always fair, doing something rash without thinking it through.

That being said, there is also the sense that her choice is not completely her own. The supernatural aspect of her rite of passage leaves the reader with the feeling that what happens is not entirely a conscious decision. Later on in her life, Rechan develops into a woman willing to go against tradition and social conventions and choose her own path, despite (or maybe because of?) longing for some parts of a traditional family life. Her unorthodox ways might have surfaced under other circumstances but you could also see this as inevitable given her past. The choice she makes as a teenager sets her apart, maybe even forces her to consider alternatives she might otherwise not have needed. The reader gets to make up their own mind about how to view Rechan.

De Bodard packs quite a lot of characterization into a 7000 word story. There is regret and loneliness in Rechan, but also resignation and hope. There is the feeling of a permanent goodbye and the start of something new. The Breath of War is an emotionally powerful story and an example that you don't need a novel to create a memorable character. Rechan is one of those characters that will stay with you for quire a while after finishing the story. It is another example of the excellent short fiction De Bodard is capable of creating. I've said it before and I will say it again, it is past time someone put a bunch of them together in a collection.

Book Details
Title: The Breath of War
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Pages: 13, approximately 7000 words
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: E-book
First published: 2014

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Caliban's War - James S.A. Corey

In the summer of 2011, I read Leviathan Wakes the first book in this series. James S.A. Corey is a pseudonym of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, both form associates of George R.R. Martin. I have read quite a bit by Abraham and some of his books are very good indeed. Leviathan Wakes was quite a fun book to read which I thought did more than just be a the space opera it was supposed to be according to the publisher. The second volume appeared in 2012 and I decided to order it. It then lingered on the to read stack for almost three years. What pulled me back to it was the fact that the shooting for a television series based on this series (the fifth book of which, Nemesis Games, will appear in June) is under way. Having read Caliban's War I must admit it might make of a decent television series. That does not necessarily make it a good book though. I feel it is a step back from the first book in the series.

James Holden is now in the employ of the outer planets. In his liberated Martian spaceship he patrols the outer reaches of the solar system with his crew. It is a decent living but tensions are rising within the crew and the relationship beween Holden and his girlfriend Naomi is strained. Their situation changes radically when on Ganymede, the breadbasket of the outer solar system and a moon coveted by Earth, Mars and the outer planets, a firefight appears to break out between Martian and UN forces. The truth is more complicated than that though. The alien intelligence that almost killed Holden on Eros station. Once again he is sucked into events that could plummet the solar system into war, or worse, wipe out the human race completely.

Leviathan Wakes was a space opera with noir elements mixed in. In this book a mystery is included too, the disappearance of a young girl is a key part of the plot, but the space opera clearly has the upper hand. Corey shifts from two main points of view to four. Besides Holden, we get to see the story from the point of view of the Martian marine Bobbie, the only survivor of the incident on Ganymede, the scientist Prax from that same moon and father of the missing gril, and  UN official Avasarala who tries to prevent a war from engulfing the system despite her superior's stupid actions. These two men and two women shape the events described in the book. Unlike in Leviathan Wakes, the UN official in particular, can pull strings all over the system, making it much more a political story.

The novel is dedicated to Arthur C. Clarke and Alfred Bester, two greats of science fiction. I haven't read Bester but I can see traces of Clarke in this novel. I suspect that Heinlein was probably a greater influence on the novel though. There are quite a few political statements in the text. Bobbie in particular seems to hold strong views on Earth's social security system. The novel does take us all over the solar system however, and that is something Clarke would have appreciated. It is a story on a grand scale, with characters who, despite making it their home, are still in awe of the vastness of space. Corey might not be able to pull it off for the more experienced science fiction reader but the characters themselves, clearly exhibit a sense of wonder when they have a moment to reflect on their situation.

As I said in the introduction, this book lends itself well to television. It has four clearly defined main characters with clear wants you can easily sympathize with. Holden wants his girlfriend back, Bobbie wants to kill the bastard who wiped out her squad, Prax wants to find his daughter, and Avasarala wants to stay in the game. That is what they work for, it is what drives them and there is very little left over for any other concerns. It makes all of them fairly shallow characters. Holden is the only one who escapes this to an extend because he has a book worth of backstory. I found Avasarala's chapters the worst in this respect as she has the annoying tendency to see every little action in the perspective of her political games and is willing to use anyone to get what she wants. She is refreshingly outspoken about it though, I have to give her that. Still, she struck me as a character who plays the political game for its own sake, regardless of who many people get ground up in her machinations. Corey tries to put things in perspective by anchoring her to her family. Her husband in particular is important to her to keep things in perspective. I can't say I found him very convincing in that role.

Bobbie on sees things more of less from the other end. As a marine too much thinking is not encouraged and she reflects that almost to the point of stereotype. Bobbie is the common sense in this book. Where Avasarala's thinking is convoluted, Bobbie's way of thinking is simplicity itself. Which doesn't mean she doesn't show surprising insights at times. What I didn't think was convincing about her story is that she very easily lets go of her loyalties to Mars to serve the other side in the conflict. She does feel bad about it to an extent but she caries on anyway without, especially early on, a clear idea on how it would help her achieve her revenge or help improve the situation in general. On the one hand she is portrayed as a smart woman, on the other, she can't seem to think further ahead than the next five minutes. The early stages in the novel pay attention to post traumatic stress, something more novels dealing with war situation should take into account. That is definitely one of the stronger elements of her story line.

Prax is the third character with only one thing on his mind. His search for his daughter consumes him to the point that it could easily have cost him his life. He sees his world falling apart and is one of the few people on the station with the knowledge to slow the process enough for help to arrive. He doesn't do it though. His daughter is much more important to him. You can see the insights into what is going on on Ganymede bounce of him. They make no impact whatsoever. It is not until the very end of the book that he reconsiders his verdict on Ganymede as a lost cause. Prax is potentially a very interesting character but like the others, his is completely consumed by the immediate desire to find his little girl. It is a touching story but not one that allows Prax to develop any real depth.

Corey keeps the pace up in this novel. The chapters are not too long, to very the point and alternate between the four characters. The often end on cliffhangers, making the reader want to read just one more chapter. In that sense it is almost a compulsive read. The ending of the novel also contains a clear hook for the third book in the series. Structurally, you can almost see the episodes of a television series in it. It is a plot that is constructed in advance and then filled in as each of the authors making up Corey delivers their chapters.

The sense that is constructed rather than written is much more present in this second book and that is probably the main reason why I think it is a step back from the first novel Abraham and Franck seem to have settled in a routine and delivered a routine book. Caliban's War is not a bad read mind you, it did keep me entertained and I never considered putting it down, but this time it really is what it says on the package, a soap opera in space. I think these gentlemen are more talented than that. Still, it might make for a good television series. I think I am going to give that a go when the first episodes are aired. I'm not sure about reading Abaddon's Gate, the third book in the series though. I'll have to think about that.

Book Details
Title: Caliban's War
Author: James S.A. Corey
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 595
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-84149-990-1
First published: 2012