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

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Spider's War - Daniel Abraham

The Spider's War is the fifth and final installment of Daniel Abraham's Dagger and Coin series. It is Abraham's take on traditional epic fantasy. It has all the ingredients: dynastic struggles, an ancient wrong to be set right, unlikely heroes and heroines, war on a large scale and the fate of the world itself hanging in the balance. He didn't aim to be startlingly original with this series - although he can't help but subvert a few fantasy tropes here and there - but rather do epic fantasy exceptionally well. In the previous volumes I always had the feeling it was indeed well done but not exceptional. Time to find out how he handles the climax of the series.

The armies of the Antean Lord Regent Geder Palliako have overextended themselves. Exhausted, poorly supplied and only kept from mutiny by the power of the Spider Goddess, they face almost certain annihilation when the fighting resumes in spring. The desperate state the empire is in hasn't penetrated the court in Camnipol yet, but it  is only a question of time. In the city of Carse in the mean time, Marcus Wester, Cithrin bel Sarcour and Clara Kaliam have gathered to find a way to bring the war to an end. Preferably without razing Antea to the ground. It is a formidable challenge that requires innovative financing, military excellence and intimate knowledge of Antean politics. And a dragon of course. Can't save the day without one.

Once again it is obvious that Abraham knows exactly where he is taking the story. Where series like these sometimes get away from the author and move in unexpected directions, Abraham keeps it nicely on track. Apart from a number of brief interludes, he resists the temptation of adding more point of view characters, drawing more parties into the conflict or exploring other parts of his world. It is focussed on the four point of view characters who have been with us from the beginning. As epic fantasies go, it is tightly plotted. Abraham leaves himself the option of more stories in this setting but the main conflict is resolved. Given how busy The Expanse is keeping him, the television series based on these novels is going into the second season, I very much doubt we'll see more on this world any time soon.

The one thing that Abraham does that seems to go directly against the current in epic fantasy at the moment is the relative lack of violence, blood and gore. There is fighting for sure, people die in horrible ways. They starve, freeze to death, get stabbed, are thrown off cliffs and fried by dragon fire but none of it is described in unnecessary detail. Sexual violence is almost completely absent. One or two references that it might have occurred during the war is all this book contains. It feels like a deliberate choice by Abraham, a comment on the direction Fantasy has taken in the last decade or so. One well worth thinking about.

Economics is again the most innovative part of the novel. Abraham describes the transition from using gold as currency to paper money only partially backed by gold in the national treasury. Nobody in the novel fully understands the consequences and risks of this move but in the short run (even fantasy bankers seem to be short-sighted) it works surprisingly well. Cithrin also seems to think that monetary compensation can slake the thirst for blood of Antea's enemies. Somehow I don't think that is going to work out very well. It strikes me as a bit of a fantasy version of the treaty of Versaille, but the story doesn't take us that far. None of the characters feel their plans can prevent all future military conflict though. They are wise enough to realize that.

Despite Cithrin's innovations, in previous books I felt Geder was the more interesting character. The dark streak in his personality, the doubt and rejection that are always gnawing at him, is seemingly at odds with his desire to do what he believes is right. In all the time he is regent it never occurred to him to get rid of the heir to the throne for instance, but he is ruthless with his enemies. There is a contradiction in his actions that keeps building and eventually has to lead to a crisis. In this novel his behaviour reaches new extremes. He strikes me as a full blown manic depressive in The Spider's War. The spiders can only do so much to keep him going it seems.

The other character that is clearly headed for a crisis is Clara. After all she has been through there is simply no going back to her old, comfortable life among the Antean nobles. Too much has changed. Of course facing up to the fact that her old life is a closed book takes courage. This is something Clara doesn't lack but for the final step she needs a push.  Geder and Clara are the most dynamic characters in the book. By contrast, Cithrin and Marcus more or less keep doing what they've been doing for most of the series. She keeps banking, he keeps campaigning even past the climax of the book. It is as if they don't quite know what to do with themselves after the end of the conflict.

Their response to the events in this final volume of the series is not unlike my own. Abraham wraps up his story neatly, if a little predictably here and there. It is well executed for sure but it does leave me with the feeling that it didn't quite achieve what it set out to do. Abraham tried to do something different with his Long Price novels and, commercially at least, they were not as successful as his publisher hoped they'd be. He bounced back with this series, among other projects, and delivered a well written, entertaining, traditional epic fantasy. It does not, however, have that one ingredient that lifts it above the mass of epic fantasy published today.

The drama of Khaiem, their unique culture and language supported by poses, added something to the story that the Dagger and Coin books lack. They were more risky in the sense that these books contained elements that made as many readers bounce right off these books but for readers looking for something a little different, they worked very well indeed. Taking this risk made them stand out for me in a way that the Dagger and Coin series does not. While I enjoyed reading these books, I wouldn't mind seeing Abraham try something a little less traditional for his next project.

Book Details
Title: The Spider's War
Author: Daniel Abraham
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 489
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-316-20405-7
First published: 2016

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Year of Our War - Steph Swainston

Earlier this year I read Steph Swainston's short story The Wheel of Fortune, which has recently appeared in Dutch translation. It was my introduction to the world of Castle. While a short story can't possibly convey all the nuances of Swainston's creation, it was more than enough to convince me to try a full novel. The individual titles in the Castle trilogy are a bit hard to come by at the moment, but an omnibus edition is readily available. Besides the trilogy there is a fourth book called Above the Snowline (2010) available. A fifth novel, Fair Rebel,  is expected later this year. In an interview I did with her earlier this year, Swainston confirmed that she is working on a sixth Castle novel.

Jant is a member of the Circle, a group of immortals lead by the emperor, tasked with watching over the world until the creator returns. His role is that of the Messenger. Being the only immortal capable of flight, he uses his wings to get around the world quickly, delivering messages and reporting on what he sees. The world has come under increasing pressure from an insect invasion. Where previously they seemed content behind their wall, recently they have been pushing deeper into lands held by humanoid species. Their advance seems unstoppable and soon it becomes clear the insects won't stop until they've colonised the entire world. On top of that threat, Castle has to deal with internal conflicts as well. As the insects advance, Jant becomes ever more desperate to find a way to defeat them and restore some semblance of order in the world.

Although the author doesn't particularly care for this label, Swainston's novels have often been characterized as New Weird. Whatever you may think of that, her books  are definitely not run-of-the-mill fantasy. The world is populated by several humanoid species and interbreeding is possible. The technology level in the novel is mostly fairly modern but such things as internal combustion engines and gunpowder (or other heavy explosives) are missing. Wars therefore, are still fought with swords, pikes and crossbows and transport depends on horses and sailing ships. I had to adjust my mental image of what this world looked like several times because of this curious mix of older and modern technology.

The book is written in the first person. We see the entire story through the eyes of Jant. He is something of an anti-hero. Where in The Wheel of Fortune, set chronologically some two centuries before the bulk of The Year of Our War, Jant  is just dealing drugs, by the time we meet him again, he is heavily addicted. The only thing that has saved him from an overdose is the fact that he is immortal. At times, his constant craving for his next shot makes him intensely annoying and rather pathetic. On the other hand he is well aware of what is going on in the world and, while not always completely voluntary, he does put his life on the line during the insect onslaught in more ways than most of his compatriots are aware of. He has, in other words, quite a complicated personality. Some readers might be put off by the whiny side of him and his constant worries about where his next shot will come from. I thought it was a very good bit of characterization though.

Deeply flawed yet heroic is a pattern we see with other immortals as well. Swainston portrays them as larger than life. They assume a kind of Olympic quality if you will. There is a definite parallel between Jant and Hermes in fact. The immortals' internal bickering sends shock waves through the world and ends up killing a great many people. The members of Castle are very human in some respects. Pettiness, power struggles and jealousy are part of every day life at the court of the emperor.The various currents at court adds to the complexity of the tale and gives the world more depth. Throughout the novel there are hints of the politics in the various nations as well, leaving quite a bit to be explored in further novels.

While I liked the worldbuilding and what Swainston does with the main character, structurally it is not a particularly strong novel. Not to put too fine a point on it, it rambles along here and there. Swainston uses flashbacks to give us an impression of Jant's past in some places that do more to disrupt the flow of the story set in the present than enlighten us. Throughout the story you can also feel the strain of having only one point of view character. Jant is constantly lost in the fog of war. Events in some places in the world simply outpace Jant and he frequently  has to adjust to developments he neither foresaw or was present to witness. It's reasonable when looked at from Jant's point of view but for the reader it is not always a satisfying experience. I also felt that the ending of the novel was fairly abrupt and left an awful lot of story lines open for the next volume.

In some ways The Year of Our War is a rocky start to the trilogy, but also one that shows a lot of potential. The setting is absolutely unique and after reading this book you can't possibly not want to learn more. The story is a dark one, but it doesn't overly rely on shock tactics to keep the reader's attention. Swainston is clearly interested in the darker side of human nature and her main character is a big part of that. His addiction and personality make him a character that is guaranteed to provoke a reaction in the reader. Probably not a positive one in all readers but if you can stomach a main character you can't always sympathise with, he is bound to take you for quite a ride. I'll be reading the second volume in the not too distant future to see where he will lead us and of course to find out if he can get the monkey off his back.

Book Details
Title: The Year of Our War, part one of the Castle Omnibus
Author: Steph Swainston
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 267 of 867
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-09125-2
First published: 2004

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Central Station - Lavie Tidhar

Between 2011 and 2014 a series of short stories by Lavie Tidar appeared in such magazines as Interzone, Clarkesworld and Analog, as well as a couple of anthologies. All stories centred on Central Station, a space port facility located in the vicinity of Tel Aviv that has grown to become a city in itself. Tachyon Publications is now publishing a book containing rewritten versions of these stories with a few original pieces thrown in. The result is not quite a collection and not quite a novel. Publisher's Weekly calls it a mosaic novel in their review. Perhaps that is the  best description of this work. It is not a book that easily falls into a category whichever way you look at it and all the more fascinating for that.

Gathered around the foot of Central Station are a quarter of a million people from all corners of the globe. They have created a society with a huge number of cultural influences, a place where human and robot form a gliding scale, where genetically engineered beings are commonplace and where the boundary between the physical and virtual world is thin. In this melting pot of cultures, religions and advanced technology, Boris Chong returns after a long absence. He will have to deal with an old lover, a father in poor health, a child he's helped create and someone who has followed him down from space among other challenges.

I name Boris Chong the central figure in the book but that is probably not entirely accurate. Many of the story lines are connected to him but the real centre is Central Station itself. Tidhar is in search of the genius loci as much as the motivation of his characters. Throughout the book you get the feeling that the place is on the verge of awakening, of achieving self-awareness. It's a looming presence, always watching over the shoulder of the characters. It reminded me a lot of China Miéville's Perdido Street Station in that respect. Central Station is a book with many influences and that novel is probably one of them.

The text refers heavily to the greats of speculative fiction. From Bram Stoker's vampires to Frank Herbert's Sandworms, just about every creature or technology you can imagine seems to have found a place in the chapters. There are so many of them that I probably missed half during this first read. There's a dash of New Wave, a helping of Cyberpunk and a pinch of Philip K. Dick. All these ideas are mixed into an almost surreal world, one that pays homage to almost every subgenre in science fiction since the Golden Age. It's a book that has got a lot to offer for the experienced science fiction reader.

The plot meanders quite a bit. Through the eyes of several characters we explore the various aspects of Central Station. Some characters are very old and give us an insight into the past of the place. Others see it for the first time and experience the bewildering environment with fresh eyes. There are lots of tragedies worked into the stories. Characters struggle with imminent death and the possibility of immortality, drowning in perfectly stored memories, complicated old and new love affairs and how to deal with intelligence that is not quite human. Despite meeting most of them only briefly, the reader is made intensely aware of their state of mind.

With so many cultural influences on the society that has formed around Central Station, it is no surprise that the language is influenced as well. Most characters speak several languages, and Tidhar introduces a pidgin language early on in the book as well. There is a bit of English in it but a lot seems to come out of other languages. There's bit of Yiddish in the novel too. Throughout the book Tidhar pays a lot of attention to the surroundings. The descriptions of the city and its institution are colourful,  rich and tantalizing. There is constantly the feeling that you really want to explore one of the elements of Central Station further. Tidhar keeps us on track however. Many of the fascinating things that can be found in Central Station are only mentioned in the passing.

All in all Central Station is one of the most peculiar books I've read in a while. Tidhar could have made it into a collection but chose to rewrite the stories to make them fit into one narrative. It would probably have worked as a more traditional collection, but I must admit the rewrites add something to the book. The meandering plot will not please everybody. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that Tidhar refers to so many classics in science fiction, yet chooses a structure for his work that not many of those writers would have considered. It's a work in conversation with the genre but not afraid to go off the beaten track. As such it is not a book for everybody, but if you like a book that is a bit different, Central Station might be your thing. Personally,  I thoroughly enjoyed it. I wouldn't be surprised to see this one on the Nebula shortlist next year.

Book Details
Title: Central Station
Author: Lavie Tidhar
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Pages: 290
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: E-ARC
ISBN: 978-1-61696-215-9
First published: 2016