- Beauty by David Barr Kirtley (Lightspeed #22) – This is a nice retelling of Beauty and the Beast which, as the author explains in this interview, subverts the somewhat muddled message of the original. I didn’t spot the inevitable ending coming, first time around, but even knowing this it was a worthwhile re-read to see how the tale’s constructed. Pleasantly short too.
- The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March/April 2011) – The Paper Menagerie won the 2011 Nebula Award for Short Story and is likewise nominated for the 2012 Hugo Award. It’s a moving tale of parental love, generational misunderstanding and cultural loss, in which the speculative elements are lightly played but necessary to the story’s ending. A worthy winner.
- Immersion by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld #69) – Immersion is an SF tale about the toxic effects of cultural imperialism and globalisation. It’s obviously a commentary on our own world, but as with all the best of such work, as well as being thought-provoking it’s a great story too.
- Under the Moons of Venus by Damien Broderick (Subterranean, Spring 2010) – Probably my favourite of the stories I read last quarter. An unknown force appears to have translated humanity to Venus, along with our moon, which now orbits that planet. Blackett, a psychiatrist, has been unwillingly sent back to a near-deserted Earth, where he attempts to effect his return to Venus by tracing out the dimensions of an ancient temple. He may or may not be mad. I won’t pretend that I necessarily entirely understood this story, but Broderick has beautifully captured in writing the hallucinatory qualities of a dream.
In this post, author Walter Jon Williams mentions that he was influenced to write Aristoi by Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, which posited liberal democracies as the end point of humanity’s ideological evolution. Instead, Williams decided to imagine a future in which autocracy not only survived, but was regarded as “a good thing”.
In the wake of a nanotech disaster that destroyed the original Earth, governance of human affairs has been entrusted to the “aristoi”, the brightest and best. This is a meritocracy; aspirants join the ruling class through examination. Each aristos rules a domain, a set of planets that they have crafted to their own taste, and members of the demos – the people – are free to choose in which they wish to live. It is a civilisation in which lifespans have extended, conflict and disease have been all but banished, and the aristoi and their most skillful subordinates can use independent sub-personalities, or daimones, to carry out many tasks at once. But a colleague of Gabriel Aristos warns him that one of their number seems to have subverted the Hyperlogos, the freely accessible store of all human knowledge, and may be engaged in mysterious experiments that threaten mankind.
Aristoi is an interesting and thought-provoking read, which I’d definitely recommend. Having said that, the majority of its appeal to me lay in the adroitly explored world that Williams has built, rather than the plot itself. This seems a little lacking – probably because its central struggle is between opposing forces for whom almost anything is possible – and Gabriel’s enemies are, arguably, somewhat underdeveloped and their motivations a bit obscure.
The book also exhibits an intriguing ambivalence with respect to the aristoi. We spend our whole time with Gabriel Aristos, necessarily identifying with him in his struggle to uncover his adversaries’ conspiracy. Yet he’s insufferable – so full of himself, and pleased as punch with his life as one of “the best”. This is in no way a criticism of the author; Gabriel is exactly as you might imagine a person in his position to be. And throughout the novel, we hardly ever encounter a member of the demos. Again, this isn’t surprising when we’re seeing the world through the eyes of an oligarch. But the end result is that, for all the benefits of the society the aristoi have created, it is left feeling strangely unappealing.
I should mention one other thing, which is that the author sometimes uses a two-column textual device, allowing Gabriel’s daimones to comment on the main thread of action. Similar effects in other books have, in the past, really irritated me, and to Williams’ credit that isn’t the case here. Yet I don’t think it quite works; it might be a good representation of the concurrent, competing strands of thought in someone’s head, but we still have to read linearly, one column at a time.
Well – I’m not doing very well at posting regularly here, but here’s a belated round-up of April, May and June’s books:
- River of Gods by Ian McDonald
- Sharpe’s Rifles by Bernard Cornwell
- The Accusers by Lindsey Davis
- The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi (post)
- Intrusion by Ken MacLeod
- I am Legend by Richard Matheson
- Stonemouth by Iain Banks
- Roman Blood and Arms of Nemesis by Steven Saylor
- The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes
- Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
- The Mountains of My Life by Walter Bonatti
- The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron
- In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland
A few words about some of the fiction, since I only managed to review one book at the time. Stonemouth was amiable enough Banks, though for me his non-SF books always suffer a little in comparison to the high points of The Crow Road and The Bridge, and I thought that things worked out a little too neatly and easily for his protagonist this time around. Intrusion paints a worrying portrait of a near-future society to which policies of well-meaning intervention into people’s private lives might all too easily lead. It was an enjoyable and moving read, but there’s an SF element important to the denouement that I felt didn’t quite work. Roman Blood and Arms of Nemesis are old favourites, re-read to remind myself before tackling the later books in Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series.
The only novel I didn’t really enjoy that much was the acknowledged masterpiece, I am Legend; I couldn’t make a great deal of sense out of the mechanics of its premise. But I’ll admit I’m not a fan of the “zombie apocalypse” genre whose growth it influenced, so I’m probably not the book’s ideal audience.
Hopefully I’ll put together a post on the best of the short fiction I’ve read recently in less time than it took to deliver this one…
The Quantum Thief isn’t a novel that makes too many concessions to the faint-hearted reader. There’s not an info-dump in sight, as you’re pitched straight into a whirlwind of neologisms and exotic quantum physics. It took me a long time to get through, for a relatively short book, and I didn’t find the going easy. It was, however, a worthwhile read. It’s a very ambitious book, and I think it mostly succeeds – with some caveats.
Our protagonist is Jean le Flambeur, a centuries-old, post-human criminal. He’s rescued from incarceration by Mieli, a warrior from the Oort Cloud, and together they travel to Mars, there to recover the secrets of le Flambeur’s identity. On their tail in the moving Martian city of Oubliette is the amateur detective Isidore Beautrelet.
The Quantum Thief is certainly a blizzard of invention, and I think its creativity hangs together well, when there might be a danger with such exuberance of sinking into incoherence. And it’s a brave attempt to depict a future humanity whose people have drastically changed from the those of today. This isn’t merely a 21st century society with a few technological bells and whistles tacked on.
However, I think the novel sometimes goes too far in its desire not to over-explain; I certainly feel that I would get more out of it on a second read, but that’s not a luxury that everyone would be willing to afford it. And oddly, for a book that I read so slowly, I think it would have benefited from being a hundred pages longer, and to have progressed at a less dizzying pace. The ending, in particular, felt rushed, to the extent that I’m still not entirely sure I understood everything that happened.
Apparently there’s a sequel coming soon, The Fractal Prince, and despite a few first-novel flaws in this book, I’m intrigued enough to keep reading.
A round-up of January, February and March’s reading – I got through less than last quarter, probably due to a mild case of book fatigue:
- The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe (post)
- Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (post)
- Equations of Life by Simon Morden
- Julian by Gore Vidal (post)
- Sharpe’s Tiger, Sharpe’s Triumph and Sharpe’s Fortress by Bernard Cornwell
- The Secret Country by Pamela Dean
- Atonement by Ian McEwan (post)
- Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds
- Vinland by George Mackay Brown
- Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany (post)
A few words on a couple of these that I didn’t write about before:
- Pushing Ice – This is the first book that I’ve read by Alastair Reynolds – I’ll certainly look out for more. I’m not sure I entirely believed some of the characterisation, particularly of the central (human) conflict, but that didn’t really affect my enjoyment of it. Pushing Ice contains an interesting take on life in the universe: not that we are alone, nor that alien species are commonplace, but that intelligent life appears to be extremely rare, and, given the vast age of the cosmos, such species are unlikely to overlap in time. At the heart of the novel is the way one race, the Spicans, have chosen to deal with this. As I often find with SF stories that cover immense spans of time, and the rise and fall of civilisations, I actually found Pushing Ice left me feeling rather melancholy.
- Vinland – This is a lyrical tale in which the far-ranging travels of a medieval Orcadian’s youth – he sails to Newfoundland with Leif Ericson – are supplanted, as the boy matures, then ages, with a spiritual journey to find inner peace. I really wanted to love this, but although it certainly has its moments, I found the protagonist a little too passive for my taste and the pace, at times, too slow. It did really make me want to visit Orkney, though.
I’ve also got a goal this year to read more speculative short fiction. I can’t claim that I’ve been entirely successful this quarter, but I have at least read some. Of these, the stories that I particularly enjoyed were (with links where available online):
- How Many Miles to Babylon by Megan Arkenberg in Lightspeed / January 2012
- Mayflies by Lydia S. Gray in Comets and Criminals / #2
- Braiding the Ghosts by C.S.E. Cooney in Clockwork Phoenix / #3
- Amor Fugit by Alexandra Duncan in Fantasy and Science Fiction / March/April 2010
- Stereogram of the Gray Fort, in the Days of Her Glory by Paul M. Berger in Fantasy (now Lightspeed) / June 2010
Babel-17 shared the 1967 Nebula Award for Best Novel with Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon. In my copies, they sum to just over four-hundred pages – considerably shorter together than many a lone science fiction or fantasy novel these days. For someone with a dislike of overly wordy writing, it’s great to see a rich, vibrant world and a complete plot constructed in a relatively slim volume. More short novels please!
In Babel-17, an interstellar war is in progress. Transmissions in the eponymous, mysterious alien language have been associated with a series of acts of sabotage, and it’s up to the impossibly talented Rydra Wong – famous poet, linguist, space captain – to decode them. Inevitably, for a science-fiction novel first published over forty-five years ago, parts of the story have dated – due to developments both in science and technology, and in the genre itself – but these don’t detract from enjoyment of the story or the quality of the prose. I did think that at the denouement, the protagonists wrapped matters up a little too easily, and that the true nature of Babel-17, once revealed, didn’t quite live up to its previous mystique. But, all in all, an excellent and thought-provoking novel.
This is the first of Delany’s fiction that I’ve read. But for any writers out there, I also found his handbook, About Writing, an excellent, if sometimes challenging, guide.
(**warning! humongous spoilers ahoy**)
There’s no doubt for me that Ian McEwan’s Atonement is clever, emotionally affecting, and contains some beautifully written prose. At its core is a lie told by an over-imaginative thirteen year-old girl that will destroy the lives of two young people, and for which she will spend her adult life wishing to make amends. The novel is in four sections: the first encompasses a single day in 1935, during which young Briony commits her crime, as she calls it, against her older sister’s childhood friend Robbie; the second details Robbie’s experiences as a soldier in France during the Dunkirk evacuation; the third sees Briony as a trainee nurse in London, dealing with the resulting casualties shortly thereafter; and the final short section, set in 1999, has her facing her mortality and reflecting on her career as a novelist. It’s here that the book’s “twist” occurs, which is powerful even if you’ve guessed, to some degree, what is coming. The fact that I’m still thinking a lot about Atonement, twenty-four hours later, shows the impact it had on me.
And yet. I think there’s a danger that the device upon which the book’s denouement depends could make the whole thing rather hollow. For in the last section, we discover that the previous three parts are a novel-within-a-novel, Briony’s last work, the book she has attempted to write throughout her life as reparation for the damage she has caused. In it she gives Cecilia, her sister, and Robbie, the future together they were denied in reality. It is the revelation of this fiction that packs the punch.
The problem for me is that now I begin to doubt the veracity of anything written in Briony’s “novel”, and thus I start to wonder if I care as much as I thought I did. In fact this feeling was dogging my heels throughout the book, since there are plenty of hints that what you are reading is not all it appears to be. In this light, Atonement becomes far more a novel about writers and the nature of writing than anything else. There’s an element of navel-gazing here that often puts me off reading modern, mainstream literature. I wonder if it were possible that the novel’s other themes could have been explored – with the same emotional effect – without this device.
Hmm. I think I’m going to have to ponder this one some more.