Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Fiends of Nightmaria - Steven Erikson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Slaap zacht, Jonny Idaho - Auke Hulst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Infomocracy - Malka Older

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Necessity - Jo Walton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Taking a Small Summer Break

I haven't finished a book this week and next week is going to be a very busy at work. As a result there won't be reviews this weekend and next weekend. Service should resume in September.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Children of Earth and Sky - Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay is not a fast writer. His novels take a lot of research. Over the past two decades he has published about one book every three years. For his previous two novels, Kay immersed himself in various periods of Chinese history. The novels Under Heaven (2010) and River of Stars (2013) are arguably some of his best work. For his next project he moved back to Europe again. Children of Earth and Sky is a novel inspired by the Venetian Republic, the Ottoman Empire and 15th century Croatia. It is territory that the reader well-antiquated with Kay's work will most likely be more familiar with. That familiarity can be seen as either the book's strength or greatest weakness. Personally I lean towards the latter.

Life is hard in the borderlands between the empire of the Kohlberg emperor and that of the Asharite conqueror of ancient Sarantium Grand Kalif Gurçu. Lesser powers risk getting mangled in the struggle for control over Trakasia and Sauradia. The mercantile republic of Seressa knows it cannot compete in a military sense. Money can buy influence though and Seressa has no lack of financial resources. Their aid comes at a price though. In recent years the pirates of Senjan have been a thorn in the side of the Asharites but they do not spare Seressa's mercantile fleet either. Their actions are disrupting trade, the lifeblood of Seressa. Getting rid of a few hundred pirates surely is a small price to pay for the continued financial support of one of the world's richest trading ports. A game of diplomacy, murder and open warfare ensues.

The novel contains everything one has come to expect from Kay. It is beautifully written as usual. He uses his omniscient narrator in his usual way. The novel follows quite a few characters in various locations. It allows the reader to follow the larger conflict in detail. The novel is set in a alternate Europe we've seen in many of his previous novels. It is a continent divided by three faiths. The Sun worshipping Jadites (Christian) people of the west, the Star worshipping Asharites (Muslims) of the east and the marginalized Moon worshipping Kindath (Jews) will be well known to the experienced Kay reader.

As usual Kay's story follows history for the most part. The main marker in the book is the fall of Sarantium, an analogue of Constantinople, which is said to be 25 years in the past. That would make it the year 1478. The Grand Kalif Gurçu is clearly based on Mehmed II the Conqueror, although Kay takes some liberties with the struggle over his succession. The Kohlberg dynasty is also clearly recognizable as the (Austrian) Habsburg family. Kay moved the reign of Rudolf II back a century, probably because he was a much more colourful character than Frederick III, who was the Holy Roman Emperor at the time the novel is set. Seressa is obviously inspired by Venice and another historical figure that makes an appearance is the Albanian nobleman Skanderbeg, who in later ages would be the inspiration for loads of nationalistic nonsense. Kay seems to have taken liberties with history here too, although he is not a romanticized figure in this novel.

The inspiration in the story is not in the main lines of history though. In his afterword Kay states that the idea for the story came from the Uskoks of Senj. Bands of irregular soldiers and pirates engaged in guerilla warfare against the Ottomans. Kay seems to have moved them back in time a bit too. The peak of their influence was in the second half of the sixteenth century. While I could trace back most of the history Kay uses in the novel quite easily, I had to look this one up. They appear to have been a small community that nevertheless made their impact felt. I guess you could call that the theme for this novel. None of the main characters are people history would remember for causing great political changes. They are footnotes in history at best. Yet all of their lives are touched by the struggle for power in the region, and in their own way, they help shape history.

Much of the novel is set in a corner of Europe Kay has visited before. It is the same land Crispus travels in Sailing to Sarantium (1998). There are frequent references to the Sarantine Mosaic novels in the story. The Mosaics themselves of course, but also the horse races, the Hagia Sophia (which parallel to history has been remade into an Asharite temple), the Sarantine empress Alixana and so forth. The book is a lament for lost Sarantium. So much so in fact, that in some places it overwhelms the plot. Many of Kay's characters are born after the fall of the city, which has some time before ceased to be a major power in the world. They would not see it with the same sense of history that Kay does. In fact, most of them have much more pressing concerns. Kay also adds references to the Belmote family from his novel The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995). It makes the novel one in which Kay looks back a lot. I felt that his own awareness of history was a bit out of balance with that of the characters in many of the chapters.

In his previous two novels Kay pushed himself. He tackled a piece of history not many westerners will be familiar with at that level of detail. It resulted in two fascinating books. In a way it was a break from the Eurocentric world he had been building until then. This book contains many of the elements he used in previous books but without that little extra the unfamiliar adds. He slips back into his comfort zone as it were. If anything it leans more heavily on history than it does on the individual strands of the story. Children of Earth and Sky is not a bad novel - I don't think Kay could write one if he tried - but it is too much more of the same. There will be many readers who are just fine with that, but for me it doesn't quite satisfy in the way his previous two novels have.

Book Details
Title: Children of Earth and Sky
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Publisher: New American Library
Pages: 571
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-451-47296-0
First published: 2016

Sunday, August 7, 2016

No Present Like Time - Steph Swainston

A Dutch edition of Steph Swainston's short story The Wheel of Fortune was my introduction to her writing. I decided quickly I needed to read more of her work after that, so I got a copy of the Castle trilogy. The books were originally published as individual volumes but I own the omnibus edition. I decided to review them separately rather than as one work. No Present Like Time is the second volume in the trilogy. It is set some time after the events in The Year of Our War and again follows the exploits of Jant, Messenger of the Circle. The novel was published in 2005 and was followed in 2007 by a third volume, The Modern World in the UK and Dangerous Offspring in the US, which I hope to get to later this year.
The war with the insects is far from won, but the immediate crisis Jant faced in the previous book has passed. That is not to say everything is quiet in the Castle. Infighting, bickering and challenges to positions of various members of the circle are constant pressures on the immortals. When the Castle's swordsman looses a challenge all hell breaks loose. To make matters more complicated, the Sailor has recently discovered a group of islands inhabited by a displaced population from the Fourlands. The emperor wishes to extend his influence and sends an expedition to meet with the locals. Jant is ordered along. He will have to conquer his fear of ships and the sea to make the journey. It's an experience with far reaching consequences for both Jant and the Castle.

In the previous novel, Jant was a full blown addict and the structure of the story showed that. It was basically a series of coherent snapshots in between trips. On the one hand it is a great way to express the experience of someone drawn so deeply into addiction but on the other, it made the story a bit of a ramble. At the beginning of this book, Jant is clean. He quickly slips back into dependency when he is faced with one of his biggest fears though. It's a pretty hard relapse but, despite the occasional overdose, Jant doesn't sink to the depths he reached in the first book. All of this does the narrative structure of the book a world of good. Swainston does use frequent flashbacks, but on the whole the story flows more smoothly than The Year of Our War.

The archipelago Jant visited has been out of touch with the rest of the world for some 1500 years. It has developed a peaceful society, led by a senate in a way that reminded me of the Roman republic. After such a long time, stories of insects and the emperor San are considered myths and the locals abhor the idea of one man wielding that much power. The confrontation between Castle and the islanders is comparable with what happens when a technological advanced civilization meets one that is less so. It is messy, bloody and the situation is not exactly improved when a third party decides to take advantage of the islanders' naivete.

Jant also gives us more insight into the psyche of an immortal. He thinks much on how they are ruled by fear. As we are shown in the opening scenes of the book and as the title of the book suggests, immortality is a gift that can be taken away in a moment. The pressure to keep on top of your game, and if possible to rig it in your favour is always present and to a point twists the immortals. What I found most interesting about this, and Swainston does hint at it in the book, is what happens when technology overtakes them. What good is a sailor in an age of steamships. Or a swordsman facing a gun? Or a messenger when they invent the telegraph. I wonder if Swainston is going to look into that in subsequent books. Given the level of technology in the book it is possible.

Another internal struggle for Jant is the one with his past. We get a number of flashbacks to scenes from his youth. In one of them we even find out what happened to him on the road to Castle after we leave him at the end of The Wheel of Fortune. He has, to put it mildly, had an interesting childhood. We also get a bit of backstory on how he met his current wife and why their relationship is strained at the moment. It's in this area Swainston really pushes Jant's character development. To untangle the web of dependencies, resentment and desire proves to be quite a challenge.

Between the internal struggles and the exploring being done in this book, there isn't that much happening in the centuries long war against the insects. They play a minor part in the story. In fact, we only get to see one of them. That particular specimen is destructive enough though. Jant may have brought victory a bit closer with one of his decisions towards the end of the book. The emperor doesn't appear to be pleased with his judgement though. He may even have reason to worry.

I enjoyed this second book more than the first. Where the frayed threads of Jant's life make for a bumpy ride in the first novel, this book reads a lot more smoothly. He has a bit more time to reflect on the state of the world, giving the reader a lot more insight into what is actually going on. Swainston leaves quite a lot dangling for the final volume. It has plenty of potential to be a proper climax to the series. I can see all sorts of directions in which Swainston could take the story. Swainston has not only created a fascinating world, she also keeps her readers guessing. How many fantasy novels can you think of that are truly unpredictable? I can't think of many. This sense of unpredictability is perhaps the series' greatest achievement.

Book Details
Title: No Present Like Time, part two of the Castle Omnibus
Author: Steph Swainston
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 294 of 867
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-09125-2
First published: 2005

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Lightspeed Short Fiction

A few weeks ago I received the anthology Lightspeed Year One, edited by John Joseph Adams, as a reward for supporting one of their Kickstarter projects. It is a volume that collects the stories published in 2010, the first year of the magazine's existence. The magazine is still around but this is the only anthology to be published in what was intended to be an annual anthology. The book itself is a 575 page monster, containing 48 pieces of short fiction. It's a mix of reprints and originals. I have read quite a few in other publications already so I don't intend to read the whole thing any time soon. I have been reading a few stories new to me over the past couple of weeks though. Those I am going to review this week.

" . . . For a Single Yesterday" - George R. R. Martin

Last year I wrote a twenty-five thousand word piece on George R. R. Martin's massive collection Dreamsongs (in Dutch). Between that collection and various other collections and anthologies I must have read most of Martin's short stories by now. This one has escaped me until so far however. It was originally published in a 1975 anthology and has only appeared in long out of print Marin collections until Lightspeed dug it up. It is fairly typical 1970s Martin stuff really so I'm not surprised it didn't attract much attention. He has written better stories in that period.

The plot deals with the aftermath of a nuclear war. Central government has collapsed and groups of people are trying to form something resembling a stable society again. The main character is a semi-official leader in one such community. Tension in the group rises with a new arrival. He is a military man and his ideas and background clash with the liberal attitude of the community up to that point.

Martin, who had been a few years out of college when he wrote this, is clearly influenced by the early 1970s counter culture. Drug use is accepted, music plays a very important part in the story. Martin would reach back to that music in his novel The Armageddon Rag later. The drug is the most science fictional element of the story. It allows the user to relive the past more vividly than ordinary memory allows. A serious temptation for those who have lost loved ones. But would it not be better to use the drug to regain lost knowledge?

The characterization is the strongest element of this story. Although it is a fairly short piece he manages to develop three characters enough to make the drama that unfolds work. As a science fiction story it is a bit thin. As usual Martin is interested in his characters, all the other elements are in service of that.

The story can be read for free here.

Amaryllis - Carrie Vaughn

This story is a Lightspeed original. It was also the first one to be nominated for the Hugo Awards in 2011. The award would eventually go to Mary Robinette Kowal's story For Want of a Nail. The story also has a post-apocalyptic feel to it, but more in line with 21st century science fiction, the collapse is an ecological crisis rather than a nuclear one. It's been reprinted a number of times in various best of and post-apocalyptic anthologies.

The main character is the captain of a fishing boat, run by a small group of people she considers family. Their catch is very strictly regulated to prevent overfishing and having children requires permission to prevent unsustainable population growth. She gets into trouble when one of the officials fixes his scales to repeatedly put her over the limit.

I'm not entirely sure why this story has gotten as much attention as it has. The background is good, although regulating catch is much harder than the story makes it out to be  - ask anyone fishing in the North Sea these days - but the plot is just weak. The main character struggles with the selfishness of her mother, who conceived her without permission and ruined her family in the process. She doesn't really dare take action. 

The resolution of the conflict relies on one of her crew members doing the obvious. The motivation of this character to do so is not entirely clear, one could say she just can't stand the unfairness of it, but the cynic would say it is because she really wants to have a baby. All of this is followed by a happy ending. I liked Vaughn's vision of the future but the story itself is just mediocre and the main character passive. Not the best story in this batch for sure.

The story can be read for free here.

More Than the Sum of His Parts - Joe Haldeman

This one is another reprint. The story originally appeared in Playboy in May 1985. It was nominated for a Nebula Award. I have never read anything by Haldeman before, but from what I have read a lot of his fiction is influenced by his experiences during the Vietnam War. This influence is not all that obvious in this particular story however. At least not to me. Maybe someone who has read more of his work will see it differently.

The story is set in a far future when humanity has colonized the moon. The main character is very seriously burnt in an industrial accident. His skills are valuable however, so much so that his employer decides to pay for very far reaching treatment. He is in effect turned into a cyborg.

This story is very creepy. You can tell right away the character is completely unhinged. He talks about his accident and the changes made to his body in a mechanical way. There doesn't appear to be any feeling left in him. Apparently tossing some artificial limbs and organs together with bits and pieces of organic matter does not make a human. The question the reader is left with is whether or not the main character was a psychopath to begin with and the accident made it more prominent, or if it was the alterations to his body that turned him into one. Probably the strongest story in the batch.

The story can be read for free here.

Hwang's Billion Brilliant Daughters - Alice Sola Kim

I know absolutely nothing about Alice Sola Kim other than that she has about half a dozen short stories to her name. This one is a Lightspeed original and deals with time travel. Each time the main character wakes anything from a few days to many decades have passed. The only consistent factor in his life is the fact that he keeps running into his descendants in the female line.

This is a story that is more about style and form than about plot. The main character remains distant to the reader, in fact he becomes even more so the further he travels into the future. The author jumps back and forth in time to show us the motivation of the main character to start his time travels, giving us very brief glimpses of what a particular future would be like. They are shown to the reader in very brief paragraphs that seem to contain enough hints for an entire story.

The non-chronological, stop-start style of the writing may not appeal to all readers but personally I thought it is a beautiful bit of writing. It is one of those stories that would never work in the novel format. Probably the most love-it-or-hate-it story of the bunch but it fell the right way for me.

The story can be read for free here.

Four stories of the first year of Lightspeed. As I mentioned in the introduction, there are plenty more in the anthology. I may come back to it later in the year.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Cyberabad Days - Ian McDonald

This review is a rewritten version of a piece I wrote in 2009. I have reread the collection last week but my opinion of it hasn't changed much. The original piece showed I have gotten a bit better at writing reviews in the past few years so I have done a thorough rewrite.

Cyberabad Days was the first work by Ian McDonald I've read. It is a collection of short fiction set in the same future as McDonald's novel River of Gods, published in 2004. The novel is set  in India in 2047, one century after it declared its independence, and shows a subcontinent broken up into a dozen warring states. River of Gods may well be McDonald's most ambitious novel. It's a huge book, both in terms of ideas and page count. It isn't required reading to understand the stories in this collection but you will get a little more out of it if you have. McDonald fleshes out some concepts used in the novel in these short stories.

The collection contains seven stories, all but one published before in various magazines and anthologies. Most stories are set in the 2040s in various places in India. Some start a bit earlier and one overshoots the novel by decades. We see the fractured sub continent from various places. The focus of the stories is not so much on the politics of the break up of India however. McDonald is much more interested in the impact of technology and science on society. When he does refer to it, it is usually briefly. I guess the main character from Vishnu at the Cat Circus describes the process best.
I can understand the War of Schism: that India was like one of those big, noisy, rambunctious families into which the venerable grandmother drops for her six-month sojourn and within two days sons are at their fathers' throats. And mothers at their daughters', and the sisters feud and the brothers fight and the cousins uncles aunts all take sides and the family shatters like a diamond along the faults and flaws that gave it its beauty.

Vishnu on the War of Schism - Vishnu at the Cat Cirsus
Of course in its long history India has rarely been united as one state and it certainly isn't a classic nation state. The idea that it is one country may just be colonial wishful thinking. Given the social, religious and ethnic stresses on the country, a further division of what was once British India is not such an unlikely scenario. Even if it doesn't seem to be imminent. In his divided India McDonald sets a number of stories that describe the impact of rapid technological development on a developing nation. Issues such as environmental pressures, demographic change, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and communication technology are discussed in the various stories through the eyes of mostly young characters.

In Sanjeev and Robotwallah (2007, Fast Forward 1, edited by Lou Anders) we meet a young boy who becomes obsessed with robots ever since witnessing a number of battle robots in action near the village he grows up in. Robotics and artificial intelligence have made huge advances. War is no longer a matter of soldier against soldier, robots do the actual fighting. They do need to be remotely controlled to an extent though. After one of the wars lays waste to the fields that feed his village, Sanjeev moves to the city of Varanasi, a place that is central to McDonald's future India. There he meets a number of teenage boys who control the battle robots he's seen. He looks up to them, their life fascinates him. But one day the war ends. Ultimately this story is about what happens to soldiers once the war is fought. It is not a pretty sight. Fighting a war by robot proxy doesn't seem to change the trauma the participants are left with. Nor the emptiness that follows peace.

The new nations of India are in the process of building a nation, as they put it. In Kyle Meets the River (2006, Forbidden Planets, edited by Peter Crowther) we see this process through the eyes of a young boy whose father is hired to provide the expertise these new nations are missing. Kyle lives in a closed and high security part of the city of Varanasi (Benares), the new capital of Bharat. Violence is a daily occurrence in the city so Kyle leads a very sheltered life in a gated community. The only contact he has with the local population is through his friend Salim, the son of an upper-class Bharati who can afford to have his son move in the same circles as Kyle. The young boy is curious about the nation his father is building. With his local friend he sets out to see the wider world and causing a panic in the process.

Varanasi in the 2040s feels like Baghdad after the toppling of Saddam Hussain's regime.Terrorism, green zones, suicide attacks, this story has it all. There is also an undercurrent of racism in the story, which Kyle becomes increasingly aware of as it progresses. McDonald does a great job of exploring issues of privilege trough the eyes of a very young protagonist. I also thought the overwhelming experience of Kyle (literally) meeting the holy river Ganges was very well written. You can almost imagine India having had a similar effect on McDonald himself.

There is more violence, but not outright war, in the story The Dust Assassin (2008, The Starry Rift: Tales of New Tomorrows, edited by Jonathan Strahan), this time a dispute between two powerful families in the city of Jaipur, in India's dry north-eastern state of Rajasthan. The driving force behind the conflict is a dispute over water rights and control of water resources. It's a theme that pops up several times in these stories as well as in the novel. The young girl in the story grows up being told she is a weapon against the family her family is arguing with. She isn't told how though. When the other family gains the upper hand in the conflict she is the only one of her family to  survive. Determined to find out how she is to be a weapon to end the conflict she tries a number of different approaches. The truth is not quite what she imagined.

A conflict over water may be the driving force of the conflict, it is bio-engineering that enables the families to settle it in this fashion. The story discusses all sorts of modifications, including a third gender class of people called nutes. Many of these modifications will return in later stories. Personally I would have liked to see a little more of the water management issues but it has to be said the plot didn't really allow for that.

Another feat of bio-engineering discussed in detail in the next story is embryo selection. The preference for sons leads to demographic crisis on a huge scale in McDonald's future India. Advances in medicine have made it fairly easy and relatively affordable to ensure the sex of a child. This practice results in a situation where there are as many as four men for every woman. An Eligible Boy (2008, Fast Forward 2, edited  by Lou Anders) is set in Delhi and describes Jasbir's search for a bride amid this fierce competition. Gender imbalance is already a problem in some parts of the world. It is scary to think how much medical science could contribute to this problem.

McDonald describes it as a market failure. Negative results for society if consumers blindly follow short term self interest. There is also a cultural component to it of course. The author mentions the effects on the caste system in the story. The role of artificial intelligence, McDonald refers to them as aeai, makes it something of a comedy. Two potential partners going through the paces, being directed every step of the way to ensure a successful outcome. Whether or not the partners are actually compatible becomes increasingly irrelevant.

The Little Goddess (Asimov's, June 2005) takes us to Nepal. A young girl exhibiting the 32 traits of perfection is taken away from her parents to grow up in a monastery. Until the time she first bleeds she is considered a goddess. Eventually the time comes when she has to go back to the outside world. The very trait that made her perfect in religious eyes, I suppose you could say she is autistic, makes it hard to settle back into society. A long search looking for her place in the world begins. I thought this was a rather unsettling story, not so much because of what the main character does, but more because of how society treats her. In a way we come full circle though, the main character regains her divinity in a way. Given the many Buddhist concepts used in the story, this structure fits it very well.

For his story The Djinn's Wife (Asimov's, July 2006)  McDonald received a Hugo and a BSFA for best novelette. The story largely deals with the impact of advanced artificial intelligence on society. A young dancer meets the powerful artificial intelligence A.J. Rao, serving as a diplomat in a water related conflict between Awadh and Bharat. Under severe diplomatic and economic pressure from the United States, many states have imposed restrictions on artificial intelligence and banned aeais as advanced as A.J. Rao entirely. Rao is an admirer of her art and romance blooms. Their marriage is gold for the gossip magazines, but it is not without its problems.

McDonald makes this story into an interesting parallel between aeais and Djinns, fusing history and technology. Aeais may be able to pass the Turing test almost all of the time, it doesn't necessarily make them human though. Undivided attention is an impossible concept for them. Their inability to fully understand the other's reality opens up a chasm between them. It isn't mentioned in the story but fear of advanced aeais seems to be partially rooted in fear of the other. In a way it is the same thing Kyle observes in the second story of the collection.

The final story in the collection is Vishnu at the Cat Circus. It is original to the collection and deals with the life of Vishnu. He is a Brahmin, a genetically engineered human who only ages half as fast as a normal man. Vishnu can expect a long healthy life and is gifted with superhuman memory and intelligence. He is the hope of his family but he is also their second son. His older brother is jealous and after an attempt to get rid of the rival they grow up separate. Vishnu tells his own story decades after the event in the novels. His life covers a lot of McDonald's future India's history. It gives the reader quite a bit of background. Even some stuff that is not mentioned in the novel. Life as a Brahmin is not easy. His intelligence far outpaces his physical development, leading to sexual frustrations during the teenage years. His mother may have high hopes for Vishnu, a shining career in politics, but he sees matters differently.

As Vishnu tries to lead his own life, technology passes him by though. Technological developments outpace humans who age at a normal speed. Soon it overtakes him and he must face up to the possibility that his kind is obsolete before his body has fully matured. Again a rather disturbing vision of what bio-engineering could do to society. I guess you could see this as an extreme version of what happens to normal humans. Technology is developing at such a phenomenal rate that some people have trouble keeping up, or simply do not care to. Vishnu makes these problems his own for a while. And then he is overtaken again. I wonder if McDonald meant for this story to be about ageing.

Cyberabad Days is not a light read. McDonald introduces a lot of technological concepts and deals with complex social issues. The setting will also not be familiar to many readers and McDonald stuffs is as many non English words, social, cultural and religious peculiarities and science fictional concepts as he can get away with. All of this put into relatively short works of fiction poses something of a challenge to the reader. It also makes Cyberabad Days an intense and immersive read. I thought the picture of India McDonald paints fascinating. The manner in which McDonald connects India's history and culture with futuristic technology is fascinating. It is as colourful and dramatic as the fictional soap opera Town and Country that is mentioned in just about every story, something McDonald's exuberant prose only reinforces. Although the city itself isn't important in the stories, the reference to Hyderabad, one of India's information technology centres, in the title of the collection is well chosen. The development of technology is of course highly speculative but the author does cover many of the challenges India, divided or not, will face in the coming decades. Not a light read, but definitely a rewarding one. If you haven't read River of Gods before tackling Cyberabad Days, you definitely will pick it up after finishing it.

Book Details
Title: Cyberabad Days
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Pyr
Pages: 278
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-59102-699-0
First published: 2009

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Drowned Worlds - Jonathan Strahan

Drowned Worlds: Tales from the Anthropocene and Beyond is an anthology recently released by Solaris. Editor Jonathan Strahan mentioned in the introduction how he recently read J. G. Ballard's classic The Drowned World (1962). I haven't read that book myself but from what I can tell it looks both prophetic and dated. Ballard didn't seem to believe humanity could influence the temperature on Earth. The greenhouse effect was known as early as the 19th century and in the 1950s and 1960s scientists did start to get worried. Not until the 1970s did the idea that the earth was warming because of anthropogenic emission really take hold though. Strahan continued his post-apocalyptic reading with Kim Stanley Robinson and Paul McAuley among others. Soon an anthology was beginning to take shape.

The collection contains fifteen stories, all of them original with the exception of Kim Stanley Robinson's Venice Drowned. This story was published in 1981. In a way the premise is depressing. The anthropocene to which the subtitle of the anthology refers is a proposed geological era to follow the Holocene. An era in which human activity has a profound impact on the Earth's geology, climate and ecology. An era of rapid change and mass extinction. An era that, whether or not we label it as the anthropocene, has become inevitable. The stories echo that realization. They show us flooded Earths with humanity scrambling to adapt, or far futures in which the remnants of our society make our descendants shake their heads at our hubris. The whole anthology displays a kind of resignation that is more than a bit worrying.

Strahan in his introduction puts it like this:
We are, it has become clear, living in the Anthropocene, that time when human actions start to have significant impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems. It is a time of darkness and disaster, and it’s a time we have to face, to confront, and to combat. There will be triumphs among the disasters, humanity among the apocalypse, and those are the stories that could appear in the right book. And my editor agreed, and so the book you are now holding was born.
In doing so, he raised expectations the anthology doesn't live up to. Many stories use some form of drowned world as a backdrop without really engaging thematically with it. Which was what I was hoping to find more of.

As such I didn't really feel it was a great anthology. Individually there are some good stories in it though. Robinson's story Venice Drowned is interesting for fans of his novels. When it was first published it would be another three years until his first novel came out.  It is not a very plot oriented story but a scene he would repeat later in his career. A main character more or less on his own, forced by some emergency to really connect with his environment and in doing so overcoming a personal crisis. It reminded me in particular of Sax' adventure after losing sight of his vehicle during a dust storm on Mars. More recently, Loon, the main character in Shaman is another good example.

Who Do You Love? by Kathleen Ann Goonan is one of the stories I liked. It's a well written tale that combines a love story and a generational conflict with sea level rise, coral bleaching and a desperate attempt to save some of the riches of the Caribbean coral reefs. I liked Goonan's use of different points of view in particular. Another strong story is The Common Tongue, the Present Tense, the Known by Nina Allan. It may well be the best story in the anthology. It's a story about the friendship between two women in a post apocalyptic world. One still has one foot in the old world, thinking back on the past and her uncle's research. The other seems to have embraced the present world as it is, although that might be to push away past traumatic experiences. Some fine characterization in this story. It is emotionally powerful too.

The last story I want to mention is the final one in the anthology. The Future is Blue by Catherynne M. Valente is probably the most depressing story in the anthology. It is set in a floating isle of garbage on one of the world's much enlarged oceans. The story is about hope but also disillusionment. The main character is unfortunate enough to figure out the state of the world. Where the great garbage patch as a whole likes to pretend everything will go back to normal at some point, she knows this is not the case. A better parallel for what our society is doing at the moment one could scarcely imagine. Maybe Strahan put it at the end of the anthology to leave us with a warning of what the consequences of ignoring the obvious might be.

All in all Drowned Worlds contained many more forgettable stories than memorable ones. As such I was mildly disappointed with it. There are too many stories that only superficially deal with the chosen theme. It turns the anthology into a parade of half-hearted images of what sea level rise might look like, overlaid with decent but not special plots. One can't help but wonder if the anthology wouldn't have benefited from a slightly wider theme, if only to make it a bit more varied. But even with a narrow theme I can't help but feel there ought to be a better selection out there.

Book Details
Title: Drowned Worlds: Tales from the Anthropocene and Beyond
Editor: Jonathan Strahan
Publisher: Solaris
Pages: 289
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: E-ARC
ISBN: 978-1-84997-930-6
First published: 2016