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.


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

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Lana Reviews: The Stand - Stephen King

Writing must be a great profession, - you can kill off entire worlds and get away with it. Having been a Stephen King fan for about 20 years now, I suppose it is quite an achievement to never have picked up The Stand in all those years. Until a few weeks ago anyway. The novel, which was originally written in 1978 and set in 1980, was re-released in 1990, and this newer version is the one I have read. Here, the story is set to 1990, and the book is over 500 pages longer than the original 1980 novel. It is, one might say, a brick of a book. Did it need those extra 500 pages? Since I haven't read the original version, I have no idea which parts were 'new,' but I didn't feel that any parts were particularly superfluous or dull.

The year is 1990, and in an army lab doing research on biological warfare, something goes horribly wrong. A virus breaches the lab's safety measures, and everyone in the facility dies, save for one man who manages to slip out, gather up his family, and get them out of the area before anyone can stop him. They make it to a small village in Texas before they die, bringing along a gift package containing a virus with 99,4% communicability, - a constantly shifting antigen virus that, once contracted, a human body would be unable to produce the necessary antibodies to get well again. The plague spreads through the country like wildfire killing nearly 100% of the population.

Those few who are left, who never got sick in the first place, struggle to take in the enormity of what has happened as they are forced to face this new world. Their loved ones are gone, everything that made up the order of the old world is no longer valid, all the rules have changed. And as the handful of characters we get to follow are drifting from their homes in search of something more, in search of others in a now too empty world, that's when the dreams come. And they are all urged through the dreams to choose sides, urged to travel in one of two directions. One is supposedly toward evil, the other toward good. It seems as if someone, or something, is setting them up for some great conflict or battle that only one side can win.

The funny thing about labeling one part of what is left of mankind good, and the other part evil, is that nothing is ever that cut and dry, nothing is ever that simple. And King points this out too, several times through the story; most people who ended up on the evil side of the conflict were not that much different from most of those that aligned themselves with the good side. And both sides had people drifting away when they felt they had gotten something different than what they had bargained for. Both sides also had people who aligned more with their chosen path (or side) than the rest, people who were more morally good or bad than the average person. But even some of the main characters, who even played key roles at the resolving of the conflict, never fell clearly into any of the two categories even though one might think they should have when they are chosen to champion one side. I liked that. That is exactly how humans are: we are all a mix and there's good and bad in all of us to some degree, that is just human nature. What truly matters in the end, is the choices we make.

As for the two characters who spearhead each side, they are both rather interesting. Both have some larger power behind them, backing them up and using them as tools, and I think they are both very aware of it. The story is pretty much telling us that the larger power behind mother Abigail is God, while the one behind Flagg is the devil. Flagg himself is always described as a jolly fellow, a could-be cousin of Santa himself - most of the visual descriptions of him stand in stark contrast with the fear that both his own side and his enemies have of him. Even when things go wrong for him though, he has very few doubts about what he is doing and is fully committed to the cause. Mother Abigail on the other hand, keeps questioning her role and begging to be released. As much as she trusts in her God, he is not very kind to her. And God and the devil, or whoever is behind it all, seem only to be interested in the great game they are playing, and not in the untold lives that are lost because of it.

I love disaster movies, even most of the bad ones (though I do draw a line at the Sharknado franchise. That was a bit too much, even for me). I am also a big fan of The Walking Dead. I guess it only makes sense that I would enjoy a book where today's world crashes down so severely and completely. I remember that at one point in the book I was wondering what would happen if the lone survivor of a town or village was a child. At that point, King had stuck to his main characters, mostly, and all of them were 16 or older. There were also a few characters I hadn't come across yet. Either way, and fortunately for my curiosity, it turned out King had thought to cover that too. All of a sudden, there was a chapter telling stories of a handful of those people who had survived the plague, but didn't make it in the first month (or first weeks maybe) after, due to other circumstances and incidents. One of those stories is about a little boy, and it is short and heartbreaking, but it sure answered my question. I don't doubt there were other children who ended up similarly to that poor boy, but fortunately, some were also luckier.

To me, The Stand was a lot about the journey. It starts off with a frantic journey to get away from death and ends with a soul-searching journey toward death, and in the middle there is a lot of traveling too. I got a feeling of how lonely and empty and big the world had become, but it felt kind of nice too at the same time. Often, people would see animals about that you hardly ever see anymore because they're too afraid to come out of hiding, or there just aren't that many of them left. It was like a reset of mother nature, and while humans might have gotten the short end of the stick (our own fault though), other species seemed to be thriving in our absence. I had no trouble believing that that's probably how it would be if something like that ever came to pass, and I think perhaps I liked the idea better than I should have.

I have read a lot of Stephen King books through the years, but I have to say that this is, without a doubt, my new favorite of his. It is a huge and slightly intimidating-looking book, and I was honestly wondering as I picked it up whether I could actually get through all those pages (I have had a bit of trouble lately, finishing the books I try to read). As it turned out though, I was never bored. Never did I feel as if parts were dull and shouldn't have been there, and never did I want to give up and put it away. The biggest trouble I had was the actual weight of the book, and being slowed down by the breaks I had to take when I got too tired to hold it. As such, I would heartily recommend this to anyone who likes Stephen King, or a good disaster story, or awesome settings and interesting characters. Now, if I could just get my hands on that TV mini-series they made in the 90s...

Book Details
Title: The Stand
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Gramercy
Pages: 1152
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-517-21901-8
First published: 1978, 1990

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories - Ken Liu

Chinese-American author Ken Liu's star is rising in speculative fiction. He started selling stories in 2002, but the bulk of his work appeared from 2010 onwards. He has nevertheless managed to produce around a hundred short pieces in that time.  At the moment the focus seems to be on novels. His début, The Grace of Kings, appeared last year to much critical acclaim. Later this year a sequel titled The Wall of Storms will be published. It is one of the most anticipated books of 2016. As if he wasn't busy enough already, Liu also works as a translator, bringing Chinese science fiction to a western audience. Last year's Hugo Award winning novel The Three Body Problem was translated by him. Liu, one could say,  is on a roll and publishing a collection seems like an obvious thing to do.

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories contains fifteen pieces of short fiction, ranging from short story to novella. There is one original piece to the collection, the short story An Advanced Readers' Picture Book of Comparative Cognition. All the others were published before between 2004 and 2014. The selection contains some of his best known stories as well as a few pieces that received less attention. It contains stories that have been nominated for Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Sturgeon and World Fantasy Awards, with a few winners among them. It is, in other words, a collection I expected a lot from. And for the most part, Lui delivers.

His fiction is hard to categorize, it ranges across genres and subgenres without ever fully being caught in one. As Liu states in the introduction, genre or mainstream is not something he pays attention to. In that same introduction he states: "For me, all fiction is about prizing the logic of metaphors - which is the logic of narratives in general - over reality, which is irreducibly random and senseless." That is certainly an approach readers will encounter in this collection. Liu loves metaphors. Some of his best stories are built around them.

Perhaps Liu meant to underline this with the opening story of the collection. The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species (Lightspeed, 2012), is certainly filled to overflowing with that. The story doesn't really have a plot, it is more a collection of descriptions on how various intelligent species around the universe store information, relay it to future generations and how all of it is eventually lost. Liu comes up with some fascinating possibilities in the story. There is something very sad about the all things must pass theme but on the whole I thought it was a good opening.

Given Liu's background it is not surprising that a number of stories contain Chinese elements. The most well known of these is probably the story that gave the collection its name. The Paper Menagerie (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, 2011) deals with the growing distance between and American born Chinese man and his mother. I've read it before and commented on it here. Another example is the longest story in this collection. All the Flavors (Giganotosaurus, 2012) tells the tale of an ancient Chinese warlord Guan Yu as well as that of the Chinese man that at one time made up a large part of the population of the Idaho territory. Structurally it is probably not the most refined novella but the history he discusses is fascinating.

The Literomancer (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, 2010) is also a story with two strands. It introduces the reader to a (much simplified) Chinese fortune telling using written characters. It is set on Taiwan and set in 1961, at the height of the cold war between an American backed Taiwan and mainland China. It's a brutal story but I thought it was also a bit predictable. Where many of these stories have a Chinese and western element to them, The Litigation Master and the Monkey King (Lightspeed 2013), is set in Qing dynasty China and deals with a repressed bit of Chinese history. It is again a brutal story with interesting historical roots. The book the main character tries to save would later play a part in the final rebellion against the Qing dynasty.

Chinese influences may be dominant in the collection but Japan pops up regularly too. China and Japan have a long and complicated history and they have not always been on the best of terms to put it mildly. Liu examines Japan's aggressively imperialistic politics of the late 19th and early 20th century in a few of them. Particularly harrowing is The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary (Panverse Three, 2011). It deals with Japanese war crimes in the 1930s and 1940s. I've read it before and commented on it here.

A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, 2013), takes a different approach. It is an alternative history in which Japan avoided being defeated in the second world war. To combat the economic crisis of the 1930s they strike a deal with the USA and build a trans-Pacific tunnel. Although not as violent as some stories, the Japanese nationalism is very clearly present, and human rights abuses are mentioned several times. The main character is scarred by them, both as a victim and perpetrator. The story contains a wonderful alternative timeline but the characterization is perhaps even better.

Mono No Aware (The Future Is Japanese, 2012) has a Japanese main character in a more positive role. It is a post-apocalyptic tale in which a Japanese boy is one of the few survivors on board a spaceship with a mostly American  population. It's a story about sacrifice and heroism. One might say the act of sacrifice and the main character's heritage are a bit too obviously linked in the story. It won a Hugo but I'm not sure it is Liu's finest work.

As with all collections some stories worked better for me than others. The two stories I had read before are some of the strongest Liu produced and The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species is another strong one too. Liu doesn't reach that level in many of the other stories. They are good stories, often thematically very interesting but not always as refined where they might have been. That being said, there are some fine examples in this collection of the excellent short fiction the genre is producing at the moment. Liu at his best is an author to keep an eye on.

Book Details
Title: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories
Author: Ken Liu
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Pages: 450
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-784975-67-8
First published: 2016

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Wurms of Blearmouth - Steven Erikson

The Wurms of Blearmouth is the fifth instalment in Erikson's Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novellas. In the fourth, Crack'd Pot Trail, Erikson tried something different. The characters that gave the series its name were only a minor presence in them and the book was a lot longer than the previous entries. Stylistically there was also a difference. Personally I loved what Erikson did with that novella but many other readers preferred the format Erikson used in the earlier novellas. Those readers will be most pleased with The Wurms of Blearmouth. Our two main characters and their unfortunate manservant Emancipor Reese once again step into the spotlight. Murder and mayhem ensue.

The town of Spendrugle is a miserable site on a stormwracked coast. It has been ruled by a series of tyrants, the latest of which believes himself to be a great sorcerer. When the ship carrying Bauchelain and Korbal Broach sinks after their adventures in The Lees of Laughter's End, the locals are confronted with a series of strangers on their shore. The necromancers have made more than a few enemies along the way and some of them are in hot pursuit. Soon, several different parties enjoy the hospitality of Spendrugle. They know how to welcome visitors but this time they may have bitten off more than they can chew.

Tyranny is the theme for this novella and Erikson shows it to us in many guises. The lord in his keep, so insecure about his position that he feels the need to make the life of everybody in the community even more miserable, the tax collector faced with corruption, death threats and financial ruin and the innkeeper ruling her establishment (and her daughter) with an iron fist. All of them gleefully and sometimes violently prey on those lower on the social ladder. What sets Spendrugle apart is that this kind of behaviour is widely accepted, one might even say encouraged. It leads to a number of hilarious observations on human greed, cruelty and aggression.

Most of the characters are more than they appear to be on the surface of course. There are hints of forgotten gods, strange magics and of course necromancy throughout the novella. A bigger story not told lurking beneath the surface. I must admit it has been a while since I read one of Erikson's novels so I may have missed a few references. I don't doubt the real Malazan fanatic will find some though.

With each novella Erikson is getting better at writing witty, at times outright hilarious dialogue. The overblown rhetoric of the tyrant is a great counterpoint to Bauchelain's understatements and mildly amused observations. It reminded me a bit of his disastrous meeting with Quick Ben in Memories of Ice. He was on the receiving end then of course...  His confrontation with the tyrant must be the highlight of the series so far. Reese's role also seems to have changed a bit. He is more resigned than completely terrified in this novella. Settled into his role as it were. It will be interesting to see how he continues from there.

Like all of the previous novels these novellas are interesting and a welcome change of pace for Erikson readers. They offer a more concise view into the world of Malaz, with more emphasis on Erikson's talent for satire. Personally I liked what Erikson did with Crack'd Pot Trail a shade more but The Wurms of Blearmouth is most certainly on of the better entries in this series. One that will probably prove more popular than its predecessor. Sometime in the near future the sixth novella titled The Fiends of Nightmaria will appear. I can't wait to get my hands on that one. I might even be ready to face Fall of Light, Erikson's latest novel and a massive tome, after that.

Book Details
Title: The Wurms of Blearmouth
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: PS Publishing
Pages: 121
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-848634-78-7
First published: 2016

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Nebula Nominated Short Fiction

For some reason I never get around to reading as much short fiction as I'd like. Collections and anthologies are a pain in the backside to review so I tend to go for novels instead. It's a shame given the huge amount of quality short fiction out there. So this week I tried to read as many short stories as I could find time for. I used this year's Nebula awards as a guideline. All of these stories can be read for free  online.

Our Lady of the Open Road - Sarah Pinsker

This story was published in Asimov's in the June 2015 issue and went on to snag the Nebula in the novelette category. It is available to read at the author's website. It is a near future science fiction story. The main characters are members of one of the few bands still touring. A technology called StageHolo can give you a performance right into your living room. People don't go out to see musicians any more, and bars can get holographic projections of the biggest stars to their stage, putting the smaller bands out of business. For some people, performing live music is more than a profession however. The ageing guitarist Luce refuses to give in to the temptation of recording with StageHolo or just calling it quits. They go on, no matter what.

Pinsker is a musician as well and in part Our Lady of the Open Road is a love letter to the touring way of live. To the crappy van, the even crappier food and the great music. There's probably a bit of commentary on the state of the current music industry in there as well. Another way to look at it is tied to the observation that in this future people prefer to stay at home rather than go out among strangers. This unwillingness to leave the comfort zone is already visible on the Internet. Various communities are designed to surround yourself with the familiar, the people you know, people who like what you like or who believe what you believe. In Pinsker's future this effect seems to have spread to the physical world as well.

I'm not entirely sure why this story won the award. It works well enough in some ways, but in others it feels lacking, even unfinished. It is written in the first person, from the perspective of Luce. This works well for the most part. Luce is feeling her age but clearly loves to be on the road and play. There is an undercurrent of discontent at the state of the world as well and Pinsker lets it come to the surface when she encounters a representative of StageHolo.

That conflict is the part where the story doesn't deliver unfortunately. Luce is never seriously tempted despite the decent arguments (delivered in a slick sales pitch tone) the representative offers. The climax is a bit rushed, and rather unbelievable. There is a kind of weariness about her in those final paragraphs that sharply contrasts with the Luce on stage. It mutes the end of the story where you would expect anger or determination. I'd say it is good but not great.

Damage - David D. Levine

This story is one of the hundreds that can be read for free at Tor.com. It is once again a first person perspective, this time from the point of view of a space ship. Levine received Nebula and Sturgeon nominations for it. Damage is something of a space opera. Space stations, a war in space, lots of explosions and so forth. It is also a look at an aspect of war many novels, not just science fiction, conveniently overlook: post traumatic stress.

The main character is a space ship cobbled together from the wrecks of two other ships. It is run by a self-aware artificial intelligence programmed to feel extreme love for its pilot. It is also endowed with human emotions such as fear and pain. Having died twice already, the ship is well beyond any other in terms of war experiences. Its engineer doesn't quite know how to handle it.

Levine draws a parallel with Mary Shelly's classic Frankenstein to convey the mental state of mind of the ship. For the most part it is the violent past that haunts the ship though. It struggles with feelings of loyalty to its pilot, and pride at their achievements in the light of the certainty that the fighting is pointless and the outcome inevitable. The ship is an artificial intelligence and with its programmed properties, it does not quite feel human. If you can bridge that gap and see it as a fully formed character Damage can have quite an impact on the reader. I'm not entirely sure everybody will be able to make that leap though.

Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers - Alyssa Wong

This story is the winner in the short story category. It appeared in Nightmare, a magazine specializing in horror and dark fantasy, and is still available to read on their website. Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers is definitely a horror story. The main character is a creature (not sure I would call her human) feeding on the depraved thoughts of others. The darker, the more violent, the better. She hungers for them in a way that can never quite be satisfied.

Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers is not a story for the faint of heart. The pleasure she derives from taking in these horrible thoughts is stomach-turning at times. Wong uses a first person point of view in the story and keeps her character human by showing us the struggle between her hunger and her desire for company. Her mother -  much more experienced in dealing with the hunger and resigned to her loneliness - tries to guide her to an extent, providing another relationship that keeps the character from being perceived as wholly evil.

As a horror story it is very effective. It is not so much a scary kind of horror but more a creepy kind. Creep you out this story will, as almost all characters are creepy in their own way. With one exception perhaps. If this is your kind of horror, you probably can't do much better than Wong. I was quite impressed with this story.

Cat Pictures Please - Naomi Kritzer

This story is the only short story to be nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Award. She slipped onto the Hugo ballot when one of the nominees withdrew over the rabid puppies antics and seeing how things unfolded last year, she might just win. Cat Pictures Please originally appeared in Clarkesworld and can be read on their website. The story could be called science fiction, although it is not heavy on science. The most unusual thing about the story is its perspective. It is written in the first person (this perspective seems to be very popular at the moment) from the point of view of a sentient search engine.

Cat Pictures Please revolves around the realization that most stories about artificial intelligence speak of the dangers. Computers turning on their creators. This search engine (Google is implied but not mentioned by name) is aware of this sentiment and has kept its sentience secret. It doesn't want to be evil and after an exhaustive study of human ethical systems it decides to experiment with doing good.

Kritzer is going for a contrast with the readers' preconception of artificial intelligence. It is portrayed as friendly, almost benevolent, and slightly naive. What it shares with many artificial intelligences in science fiction is that it fails to grasp human nature. It's probably the story in this batch that I enjoyed reading most.

Four very different stories from the Nebula ballot. I picked them more or less at random so it's quite interesting that all of them would be first person narratives and only one of them features a fully human main character.  It might be a coincidence of course.  Maybe I should have a look at the rest too. Next week it is back to a novel though.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

De Klauw - Adrian Stone

Adrian Stone made his début in 2007, with the self-published novel Profeet van de Duivel. It was later reissued after an additional round of editing by one of the major publishers of fantasy in the Netherlands. Two more novels in the same series appeared to round off the trilogy. It was followed by a duology set in the same world. Now, Stone is ready for a new challenge De Klauw (literally: The Talon) is the first book in the Magyker trilogy. It is set in a new world, with a new system of magic and new characters. Readers who liked his previous novels will probably think he hit the bullseye with this novel. It offers the same fast paced, straightforward epic fantasy found in his previous novels. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I found it to be a frustrating read.

Marit and her brother Auric are living in the city of Oftenooi. Their past is a mystery to them. After they left the Magyker city of Aimerey their memory was wiped. Now the Magykers are visiting their city to perform one of their spells. During the operation an unexpected talent surfaces in Auric. He can memorize and reproduce a spell after hearing it performed just once. To the Magykers, who have always guarded their monopoly on magic jealously, he is a threat to their wealth and power. He can't be allowed to live. Soon Marit and Auric are on the run. They find themselves in the (unwanted) company of the mysterious Eamon, who has his own reasons to dislike the Magykers. Reasons he is reluctant to share.

Stone certainly knows his audience. He aims for the kind of fantasy that has been doing very well here for the past decade. It is a tried and successful recipe. Magic, dragons, reluctant heroes and a world on the verge of a cataclysmic change. Stories told in accessible prose, that keep the reader's attention form the very first page. Stone's story has all that. I suspect the manuscript made an editor somewhere very happy.  He has grown as a writer as well, the pacing in particular is has improved compared to his first novel, and his worldbuilding is more confident as well.

Of course, the novel should be a bit different too from what has come before. The spiritual themes of the previous books have disappeared into the background. Where the intersection of religious fanaticism and power is studied in detail in those books, attention shifts to economics in De Klauw. The power their monopoly provides the Magykers with is felt throughout the world and is one of the driving forces of the conflict Stone describes in the novel. This theme is woven through the entire novel, if perhaps not as prominently as it might have been.

Stone picks an unusual saviour too. Auric is not only magically talented, he is also autistic. It makes him a handful for the people around him. He is highly unpredictable, lacks social grace and has the tendency to be brutally honest at exactly the wrong moment. I'm not familiar enough with the autism spectrum to say where in this range Auric could be placed but his behaviour is certainly recognizable. Stone uses it cleverly to keep the readers on their toes. Many tense situations arise from the question of how Auric will respond to a certain situation. Although he usually doesn't do it consciously, his actions determine the shape of events to a large extent.

So interesting world, good pacing, unusual choice for a messianic character, why did I call this book frustrating? Partly because of the things it doesn't do. Yes, Stone has a good grasp of what the reader expects of epic fantasy and he ticks all the boxes. Along the way he passes up on quite a few opportunities to give his creations a bit more depth however. As an example I'll turn back to the economics Stone describes. It is touched upon but only very lightly. A few lines here and there  to point at the problems the various nations face. Stone studied business economics and worked at ING, one of the largest Dutch banks, as an investment strategist for many years. To say he has an above average grasp of economics is probably an understatement. He could have done much more with it if he had wanted to.

Imagine one of the characters writing a fantasy equivalent of Das Kapital, as a response to magical monopoly deforming society. Or if you prefer more recent developments,  a parallel with the Greek debt crisis in one of the kingdoms in financial trouble, or perhaps the recent Argentinian crises as a parallel for a private organisation to hold a government at ransom using financial (magical) means. A nod to Thomas Piketty when discussing the appalling inequality the characters see around them would have been possible, or Milton Friedman when discussing the lack of economic freedom. Some of these things can be read into the text but it is buried so very deep that it is clear these things were not where Stone focused his attention.

Another thing I found frustrating about the novel is Stone's tendency to lay out the motivation of characters, leaving virtually no room for interpretation. Show, do not tell is a bit overrated as writing advice in my opinion. Books that only show end up being impenetrable for a lot of readers. But that doesn't mean you have to tell everything. A fine example of how this can derail the story is the character of Valdana. She is one of the more ambiguous characters in the novel. Her motivations are unclear for a while. She seems to be not fully committed to the cause she has joined. Stone then proceeds to bluntly confirm the reader's doubt and then dumps an explanation for her every action on the reader in the final pages of chapter 21. No big reveal, confrontation or angry scene. Just a bit of internal monologue and there you have it.

To an extent something like that happens to Marit as well. One of the things she struggles with in the novel is the lack of knowledge about her past. she yearns to know more but on the other hand fears what she might find. It's a dilemma she faces at the end of the book. Memories are intensely personal and messing with them has a profound impact on the character. Interestingly enough the climax of this part of the story is mostly described from the point of view of other characters. What could have been an emotionally powerful scene ends up a muted affair. We don't get a peek into Marit's thoughts until after the dust has settled.

All things considered this new series is of to a rocky start. On the one hand Stone delivers a story set in a fresh, imaginative and interesting world. He populates it with interesting characters, definitely not the standard dungeons and dragons party. It has all the elements of a successful epic fantasy novel. On the other, he leaves so many of the opportunities he creates for himself unused and leaves the reader very little room for interpretation. De Klauw is very readable, uncomplicated fantasy. A very good read if that is what you are looking for. Personally, I would have liked for it to be a little more, and I think that was entirely achievable in this set up. It was not quite what I had hoped for but, as always, your mileage may vary.

Book Details
Title: De Klauw
Author: Adrian Stone
Publisher: Luithing-Sijthoff
Pages: 350
Year: 2016
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-6836-9
First published: 2016

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Ninefox Gambit - Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit is the first of three novels in The Machineries of Empire series. It is Lee's début in the long form. He  has several dozen short stories in the past fifteen years though, a selection of which can be found in the collection Conservation of Shadows (2013). Lee's work shifts between fantasy and science fiction. There are magical and mythological elements but also a fondness of mathematics and far future narratives present in his stories. I know of one other story set in the same universe as Ninefox Gambit. The Battle of Candle Arc (2012)  is set centuries before the novel but features one of the characters in this book. The story is included in the aforementioned collection. The publication of Ninefox Gambit casts the story notes at the back of Conservation of Shadows in a different light.

In a far future the Hexarchate rules over a vast volume of space. Their powers is based on calendriacal mathematics. It allows them to shape reality but only works in very specific circumstances. The calendar is a religion, one guarded by ritual torture and endless warfare to crush heresy. Captain Kel Cheris is one of the soldiers ensuring the unity of the empire. She has a talent for mathematics that makes her both dangerous and useful to the hexarchate. Cheris is recalled after a mission and asked to file a plan to retake a strategically important fortress fallen into the hands of a new heretical movement. Cheris sees no other option than to request the aid of general Jedao, the empires most brilliant general and its worst traitor. Jedao is a dangerous weapon to use, as Cheris will find out when trying to retake the fortress.

Ninefox Gambit is pure space opera. It is set in a far future, on the largest possible canvas. There are powerful space ships, huge battles and strange technologies made possible by copious amounts of handwavium. It took me a while to figure out the internal logic of the novel but once that falls into place it quickly becomes clear the characters are playing for high stakes. It's a fast, exciting, and action packed plot. A Hollywood CGI company would have a field day recreating some of the battle scenes. There is a bit more to the novel than just big explosions however.

In my review of Conservation of ShadowsI said some of the characters reminded me a bit of Frank Herbert's characters. Particularly the ones in the final two Dune novels, where quite a few characters can fall back on the wisdom and experience from generations past. The ancient general Cheris is using for her mission has long since been executed. He is brought back very infrequently. On very few occasions the gain outweighs the risk of letting him loose on the universe. They release him by attaching him to another character. He does not, in other words, have a body of his own. For the moment he is stuck with Cheris, who is the only one who can communicate with him directly.

Lee makes good use of this lopsided relationship in the novel. A brilliant general with centuries of experience and a reputation for being unpredictable and more than a little mad, ought to be in the driving seat when dealing with a captain bumped up to general, used to obeying and very much out of her element. Cheris has one skill Jedao lacks however. It is not very apparent in most of this novel, but I suspect it will be important in future books. There is a good balance in the novel between the immediate demands of present developments and the interplay between these characters and their clashing agendas.

In the background of the novel there is another element that will probably run through the entire trilogy. The state Lee describes is a totalitarian one. The power of the calendrical mathematics is great but also results in a lot of repression. As the title of the series suggests, it is a machine crushing the individual who steps outside the narrow boundaries acceptable to the hexarchate. The machine of the state devours heretics but is not too careful with its Kel, the soldiers of the empire, either. It instils a scary kind of fanaticism in its soldiers. A good Kel soldier will die rather than disrupt the formation. Formations, much like society, need to stay within very narrowly defined boundaries to reap the benefits of the calendrical system. It's gleichschaltung on a frightening scale.

The system is also very inflexible and surprisingly vulnerable. The mathematics behind it, is only fully understood by one of the leaders of the six factions that make up the hexarchate. Heresy rears its head with depressing frequency and the empire seems to have external as well as internal enemies. Cheris, doesn't know half of this at the opening of the novel and completely accepts this situation. Obedience is drilled into her by the Kel after all. Her changing attitude during the novel is a fine bit of character building.

Ninefox Gambit is very much the setup for a series. It ends at a natural point in the story but it also leaves many questions unanswered. It is a book that is very hard to rate until the shape of the overall story becomes known. I enjoyed reading it a lot tough and I think the series has great potential. Lee balances a fast paced story with enough reflections on power and characterization to make it an intriguing read. He does all of this in a fairly concise novel. Where some space opera is bloated to epic fantasy proportions, Lee keeps the page count reasonable. This novel may well be the start of something special. I look forward to reading the second volume.

Book Details
Title: Ninefox Gambit
Author: Yoon Ha Lee
Publisher: Solaris
Pages: 259
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: E-ARC
ISBN: 978-1-84997-992-4
First published: 2016

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Ecotopia - Ernest Callenbach

Last year I reviewed Rachal Carson's book Silent Spring. This work is very influential in environmental circles and although it clearly shows its age, it is in some ways still a relevant book. Where Silent Spring is a scientific work, Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach (1929 - 2012) is fiction. It nevertheless has a reputation of being very influential. The novel first appeared in 1975 and more than forty years later, it is still in print. Callenbach published a prequel titled Ecotopia Emerging in 1981, which didn't do nearly as well. Calling it a novel is probably a bit generous. My edition is 182 pages long. This includes an afterword and an essay by the author. The introduction by Malcolm Margolin is in roman numerals. It would probably be considered a novella by today's standards.

In the near future (as seen from 1974) the states Washington, Oregon and northern California has seceded from the union. After a brief war, a new nation is founded by the name of Ecotopia. Its policy is to create a sustainable society. A stable state as they like to put it. All ties with the United States are broken and for almost twenty years, nothing but disturbing rumours reach Washington. Now, for the first time since the founding of the new state, Will Weston, an American journalist is granted access to the country. His columns swing between disbelief and admiration. His private journal on the other hand show a man very much hit by a culture shock. Ecotopia profoundly alters his view on the world and before he knows it, he is faced with the most difficult decision in his career.

Callenbach was a staff of the University of California Press in Berkeley, California for many years. In the 1970s, Berkeley was a bubbling cauldron of social experiments and it is not surprising that such an environment produced a book like Ecotopia. While the novel is usually praised for its vision on sustainable living, the story goes much beyond just the environmental aspect. Reaching what Callenbach calls a steady state is not possible without a complete overhaul of the economic and social structures currently in place. The society he depicts has changed many of its core concepts such as family, community, government and ownership. It is a large version of what many of the communes in the 1970s were experimenting with.

The story is told entirely through the rather dry and thoroughly biased columns Weston sends back east, alternated with the more personal journal entries. There is quite a sharp contrast between the columns and the journal entries. While in the first he keeps the worst of his prejudice to himself and makes an attempt at being diplomatic and impartial, in the second his true opinion is related in more direct terms. The image that emerges from these pieces is that he is, to put it mildly, a bit of a prick. The plot is more or less based on the idea that is he is unwilling to face up to his own preconceptions and faces a serious personal crisis because of it.

In his columns Weston covers a variety of topics. From the exuberant cultural life of the Ecotopians to their peculiar government and from their unusual economics to their alternative educational system. In the columns he portrays  a society that would be completely unacceptable to the average American. I haven't looked into it too deeply but I would not be surprised if every concept Callenbach mentions was a real experiment at some point. Consumption, corporate ownership, energy generation and healthcare are all designed to support the steady state Ecotopians aim for. A free market capitalist would have nightmares about this level of government intervention and Weston, at least initially, agrees with that low opinion of Ecotopian society.

Callenbach combines a number of very interesting environmental and social theories into this novel. The major turn the Ecotopians make is letting go of the idea of perpetual growth. The idea is that the land can only produce so much sustainably, so that is what society can use. A decline in population is even considered desirable to reach this goal. Despite the common perception  that environmentally friendly living means returning to more primitive modes of existence, there is a lot of technology in this novel. It is very selectively applied however. A lot of it goes into public transport, energy production and development of biodegradable materials. Callenbach has managed to predict the available technology (which is set around the turn of the century) quite well. None of it sounds impossible.

From an environmental point of view there are two very obvious weaknesses in Callenbach's vision. The first is that an ecosystem is never completely stable. Some oscillate rather wildly, most are always in the process of changing into something else. That is not even taking into account outside influences on the system from places that do not practice ecological principles. Basing a complete, stable and mostly selfsustaining economy on that, in a society that is still very much in flux strikes me as nearly impossible. The second objection is simply that in many places on earth the human population has overshot the carrying capacity of the ecosystem by such ha huge margin that reaching the desired state would take generations. A simple revolution won't do. Callenbach seems to recognize these problems but doesn't address them in the novel.

That being said, there is something very appealing about the society shown in the novel. Despite what some would see as an insanely high level of government influence on every aspect of society, there is a freedom for the individual that is hard to match in any existing economy. The extreme differences in income we see in modern society is eliminated, women seem to be much more in control of their own bodies and even dominant in politics. Weston himself still shows a worrying level of sexism, another reason why he clashes with Ecotopia. I can see why people would want to give this a try.

Surprisingly, the issue of race is not dealt with in the novel. In fact, segregation is taken a step further by the creation of semi-independent black city states. Something similar appears to be going on with a group of Japanese. Many other groups are simply not mentioned in the novel at all. It also includes a few rather problematic references to Native Americans (the novel shows its age by calling them Indians) that reduce them to an inspiration for sustainable living based on the image of the noble savage. Ecotopia may have made progress but it is clearly not utopia yet.

In the essay included in the back of my copy titled Epistle to the Ecotopians, written in 2012 shortly before his death, Callenbach doesn't seem optimistic about the state of the world. He seems to think society is moving away from the conditions needed to bring his Ecotopia into being. Between the lines you get the idea that he thinks the window of opportunity seems to have passed. He may well be right in that assessment but even if his vision will not become reality, it may still serve as an inspiration to move towards a more sustainable society. I suspect the book will remain popular for some time to come.

Ecotopia is very much a novel of its time. I suspect that if it had been published as little as five years later it would have sunk like a stone. This is likely true for many successful novels though. As a novel I wouldn't rate it too highly. The characterization in particular is not very well done. His struggle is obvious from the beginning and not particularly well portrayed. The society Callenbach describes, despite the obvious problems with it, is a fascinating one though. I can see why people would want to try it. I can also see that with a world population of more than seven billion - that's 3 billion more than in 1975 - it would not stand much of a chance. So read it as a source of inspiration and you may well get something out of it. Look for a roadmap to Ecotopia and you'll be disappointed.

Book Details
Title: Ecotopia
Author: Ernest Callenbach
Publisher: Heyday
Pages: 182
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-59714-293-9
First published: 1975

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Not Dark Yet - Berit Ellingsen

Berit Ellingsen is a name that has been cropping up in various magazines and anthologies over the past few years. She is a Korean Norwegian author writing in English who prefers to spend as much time as possible on Svalbard. I first encountered her writing in The Apex Book of World SF 3 (2014), which includes her story Dancing on the Red Planet. It is a humorous vision of the arrival of the first humans on Mars. It's one of the better stories in a strong anthology. In November last year Not Dark Yet, her second novel was published by Two Dollar Radio. I completely missed it of course, but under the motto better late than never I got a copy recently. It's a near future science fiction novel with a strong environmental theme but also one with a lot of attention for character development. I liked it a lot but it is one of those novels that are not likely to get the attention they deserve.

Brandon Minamoto is a man with a military past. He has left service however and now makes a living as a photographer. The world around him is feeling the impact of irreversible climate change and Brandon is ill at ease with all these changes. Meeting the scientist Kaye, who hires him to take photographs for his research project, ends in a violent drama that brings back his past. Bandon leaves the city and moves into a cabin in the mountains. He applies to the space agency for a position on a proposed manned mission to Mars. But ties to family and lovers are not that easily severed. They keep drawing him back in.

One of the first things many readers will notice is that Ellingsen is very careful to hide where the story is taking place. Names of cities are abbreviated or not mentioned at all, continents are mentioned as northern, southern and so on, the local language is never named. The story could take place in just about any place on earth. Bergen in Norway seems like a reasonable fit, but so does San Francisco. Or any number of other cities around the world. Where many authors would use the setting to create a specific atmosphere, or to confirm or challenge people's preconceptions, Ellingsen keeps it as vague as possible. Maybe to make the story as universal as possible? The theme of climate change is a global development after all.

In the background climate change is always making itself felt. Reports of natural disasters on other continents, the ever rising food prices, the unusual weather and lack of snowfall and eventually a hurricane that will hit Brandon's home town. Part of the world is trying to pretend it is business as usual, but here and there people are trying to adapt as well. Brandon is drawn into a project that attempts to grow crops at an altitude where it would have been impossible in the past. It is a risky venture but he is soon caught up in the optimism of the initiators. There are other currents working their way into his thoughts too. From the temptation to leave it all behind and try again somewhere else, to forcibly changing the world's economic system. The world is not a simple place and Brandon has trouble making sense of it.

The main character is exposed to various moral dilemmas over the course of the novel. They range from very personal, obligations to friends, lovers and family, to larger social issues like how to treat his newly acquired land and the earth in general. He is constantly distancing himself from certain people and then being drawn back in. Brandon, in other words, is not a man at ease with the world. Ellingsen examines this through a series of decisions Brandon has to make. Pull the trigger of his sniper rifle or not? Kill the research owl attacking Kaye or not? Allow the agricultural project to use his land or not? They are decisions with far-reaching consequences for Brandon and the people around him. He spends quite a lot of time unsure of whether or not he got it right.

The author pushes the character to consider extreme and often mutually exclusive options with these choices and the character's indecision. There is the impulse to leave it all behind sign up for the Mars mission (a long shot, the selection criteria are tough) but also the temptation to (literally) put down roots and try to adapt to climate change. He could let himself be drawn back into his familiar circle of lover, friends and family or join Kaye's radical movement and go underground. It is not an easy choice.

Not Dark Yet is a novel that emphasizes character over development of the plot. Various events in the novel are not so much part of one story arc but rather examined in the light of how they influence the main character. As such, this novel is probably not a good choice for very plot oriented readers. Personally I found Brandon to be a highly interesting character though. Every time you think you have a handle on him, Ellingsen explores a new facet of his personality. What the outcome of Brandon's soul searching will be remains uncertain until the very end of the novel. All things considered I think it is a very successful novel. I'll definitely keep an eye out for the next one.

Book Details
Title: Not Dark Yet
Author: Berit Ellingsen
Publisher: Two Dollar Radio
Pages: 209
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-937512-35-4
First published: 2015

Monday, May 16, 2016

Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman

Some time ago I read Neil Gaiman's American Gods (2001) and it is, in my opinion a masterwork. Anansi Boys is set in the same world and appeared four years after its hugely successful predecessor. I hesitate to call Anansi Boys a sequel though, both books have very little to do with each other. In fact, you need not have read American Gods to enjoy this novel. It is more of a spin off really, following the son of one of the minor characters in American Gods. Most people seem to feel this novel is the lesser of the two. I'm not sure I agree with that. They are very different works so for readers looking for more of the same, Anansi Boys will be a disappointment. Judged on its own merits however, it is a very good novel.

Fat Charlie is not actually fat. It is a nickname he got from his father of all people. His father is, to put it mildly, a constant source of embarrassment. It is no wonder Charlie has put an ocean between them and went to the UK to live and work. Now he is engaged to Rosie who, not fully understanding Charlie's predicament, insists on inviting his father to the wedding. When Charlie relents and phones one of his father's neighbours to make inquiries, she tells him he has just passed away. At the funeral he learns that his father died in a karaoke bar in a most embarrassing fashion and that he was in fact the spider-god Anansi. To make matters even more confusing, Charlie finds out he has a brother named Spider. When the two meet, it quickly becomes apparent his bother is everything Charlie is not.

Although the novel is very dark at times, Anansi was a trickster god and not a very pleasant one at that, it is a comedy at heart. Poor Charlie is at the receiving end quite often. He is a bit of an anti hero. I'm not too fond of that type of characters. Dutch literature is overflowing with losers of all kinds and in the few years my teachers tried to instil some appreciation for this type of writing in me. I'm afraid they achieved the opposite. Keeping that in mind, it is perhaps not surprising I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction. I'm a bit more tolerant of Charlie because of the way Gaiman uses him in the novel. The contrast with his brother enables Gaiman to move the narrative from Monty Python-esque absurdity to deeply tragic moments and back again. 

Spider is the one that got all the god stuff, as one of the characters puts it. He is a trickster, a player of confidence games. He is also completely hedonistic and not one to take other people's feelings into account. He feels no remorse at taking over Charlie's life including his fiancée. Having a fiancée is new to him however, women were never more than temporary entertainment. Rosie makes him think Charlie might be on to something. Charlie on the other hand, is finding out that standing up for himself, makes him appear more like his brother. The drifting from complete opposites to men who could in fact be related is one of the things I liked most about it. Gaiman builds it up very well.

There are a number of secondary characters in the novel that contribute to it being hilariously funny at times. Charlie's future mother-in-law Mrs. Noah, the embodiment of everything negative people say about their mother-in-law, and Mrs. Maeve Livingstone, a very British vengeful ghost, are the two I enjoyed most. Gaiman doesn't stop there though, the cast is very colourful as a whole and he makes excellent use of them. They include Charlie's sociopathic boss, four voodoo practising old ladies and a disappointed police woman who refuses to give up on a murder case. Their characteristics are a bit exaggerated for the comical effect of course, but Gaiman is careful not to overdo it.

Gaiman's work is often infused with fairytales and mythology and this novel is no exception. In American Gods he borrows liberally from a number of different mythologies. In this novel it is more contained to Anansi stories. Anansi is a Caribbean deity of West-African origin. Other than that he is a trickster, not unlike Loki in American Gods, I don't know that much about the mythological figure, but he is so widely known that there are probably many variations for Gaiman to borrow from. I'd be interested in hearing what someone more familiar with the material makes of Gaiman's treatment of the myth.

Anansi Boys is a fast and very entertaining read. I wasn't sure if this book would work for me but despite the lighter tone of the novel, it is a complex piece of writing. Gaiman juggles the characters and their individual stories expertly and finds a good balance between the comical and darker parts of the stories. The tone of the novel makes it easy to read, without making the story seem simple. Gaiman delivers his tale as confidently as Spider must be feeling when he bends the world to his will. It is perhaps not quite the book readers who loved American Gods were hoping for. He simply takes his writing in an entirely different direction. It is a very well written novel though, one that certainly encourages me to read more of his work.

Book Details
Title: Anansi Boys
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: Review Books
Pages: 348
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-7553-0507-8
First published: 2005