Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

The God Box, Analog

Sunday, May 30th, 2004

I’ve been reading too much fantasy lately, and after a few trilogies the religions all tend to run together. I suppose that’s only to be expected when the novels are all set on the same feudal island/peninsula with the same pseudo-Oriental neighbors, but I keep hoping for more than just n gods who are actually one god (where n ranges from 4 to 7) from the religions.

The God Box by Barry B. Longyear is kind enough not to number its deities so precisely. It also achieves what LMB has been trying to do with her fantasy - brings its gods to life and makes true believers out of damaged characters. Like Bujold, Longyear started out as a science fiction writer; The God Box was his first fantasy novel. In it, Our Hero, an unsuspecting carpet salesman, inherits a mysterious box that answers prayers. Like the gods themselves, though, the box answers in its own inscrutable way.

Our Hero soon finds himself on a Quest foretold in ancient scriptures, in which he meets bird people, skunk people, fish people, gods and giants. The biggest sign of the author’s sci-fi background is the god box’s ability to show Our Hero alternate timelines. That sort of reset button can undermine the seriousness of a story (as all Trek fans know), but despite the deep themes of prayer and trust this isn’t a serious novel. It’s short and fun, yet a far better combination of religion and fantasy than many doorstops I’ve seen.

The June Analog also has a couple of stories that stray into religious territory without quite convincing. “Time Ablaze” by Michael A. Burstein is the cover story, in which a time traveller goes back to the Lutheran community of turn-of-the-century NYC. As an adventure it works well, but I never quite got the feeling that Our Hero was dealing with a world that has since disappeared.

“Greetings from Kudesh” by J.T. Sharrah was equally effective as a story, and similarly problematic in its view into the mind of Our Heroine, the first Christian missionary to visit an alien planet. She comes off like the first interstellar Deist, which might have been interesting had that been the author’s intent. There are things a Deist might do to promulgate his religion that a Christian probably shouldn’t, and Our Heroine does one of them without any theological consideration of the problem.

It’s the differences between Christianity and Deism, between pantheism and monotheism, that make them the religions they are. I suppose if sf writers can’t make me believe their characters are real live practitioners of actual religions, then fantasy writers don’t have much of a chance of making up convincing new religions. Even The God Box was about faith qua faith, rather than a particular religion. Yet we owe our oldest stories to pantheons full of overactive imaginations - you’d think fantasy writers would get in on the act.

Pastwatch, Walk to the End of the World, Motherlines

Saturday, May 15th, 2004

I’ve read a few politically correct sci-fi books lately - one because I know the author and the other two because I’d never read that author before. Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card manages to blame Columbus for everything from smallpox to World War III, yet gets him off the hook in the end. A post-war PC future uses time-travel TV’s to watch Columbus and other horrors of the past, making for two intertwined plots. Eventually the future TV technology improves, revealing an unexpected connection between the future and the past, and allowing Columbus to choose another path.

I suppose I should explain what I mean by a PC future. There are all sorts of sci-fi future - the paramilitary space opera future (LMB, David Weber, Gordon R. Dickson), the cyberpunk future (Gibson, Stephenson), the free love future (Niven, Allen Steele), the transhuman future (Egan, Vernor Vinge), the hell-in-a-handbasket future (Ayn Rand, Walter M. Miller, Jr.), the same-as-today near future (Connie Willis, Paul Levinson), the tech turned into fantasy future (Walter Jon Williams does it a lot), and so forth. The politically correct future is an extrapolation of multiculturalism, environmentalism, holism, and other PC trends - for example, Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre, anything by Octavia Butler, and possibly some late Ursula LeGuin. Despite being politically incorrect myself, I don’t object to the PC future - in fact, I think it’s relatively difficult to pull off, so when you find one it’s likely to be well done.

So I wanted to read some Suzy McKee Charnas and I found a two-in-one edition of Walk to the End of the World and its sequel, Motherlines. These are fairly old works of feminist sci-fi so the 70’s Armageddon backstory (down to the folk etymology of “bra-burning”) is cheesy and distracting, but the post-apocalyptic societies are interesting in their own right. The society of the first novel has enslaved women (an anti-PC future), and the second one has eliminated men for maximal PC-ness. Of the two, I found the first more interesting - slavery and oppression are always good for the plot. In a way it’s more reprehensible in its misandry (ascribing ludicrous levels of misogyny to your neighbors is misandry in my book) than The Handmaid’s Tale, but the post-nuclear setting makes it easier to set aside the fact that the author blames her own male contemporaries for this state of affairs. (I know they’re handicapped by the broken chromosome, but really, they’re not all that bad.)

Singularity Sky, Eastern Standard Tribe

Thursday, April 29th, 2004

Today’s reviews of works by up-and-coming authors were made possible by the new book shelves of the Boston Public Library, without which my reading would be restricted to old and hoary writers. Singularity Sky by Charlie Stross is the tale of an outlying colony of a backwards, faux-Russian bureaucratic empire visited by the mysterious Festival. The visit swiftly turns their society hilariously upside-down.

Whenever you see the word hilariously associated with a work of science fiction, it’s a safe bet the author is British. Usually these imported novels that never quite take themselves seriously annoy me, but in Singularity Sky the flaw is minor. I found it hard to care about the menagerie of loosely-associated characters - the novel follows some of the hapless colonists, a civilized engineer working for several parties outside the Empire, the secret policemen assigned to spy on him, a UN liaison, a shipload of the Empire’s inept forces, and possibly others I’ve forgotten.

But for sheer fun, it’s a must-read. You’ll never forget telephones dropping from the sky, the goose that laid the golden egg, or the poor engineer’s difficulties convincing the locals that the UN isn’t a world government.

Eastern Standard Tribe by Cory Doctorow hangs together much better, perhaps because it’s hardly more than a novella. Happily, the dimensions of the hardcover fit the reduced length. That the world can be divided up into tribes living in different timezones is just one of the witty reflections of our slightly unbalanced narrator. He’s an idea guy with girlfriend problems who’s contemplating a new musical toll system for the Mass Turnpike - things get crazier from there. The novel held lots of gratifying local interest for me, being a resident of both the EST time zone and the city of Boston. Perhaps a member of one of the enemy tribes would have been more annoyed.

EST is short, fun, twisty and snarky - you really can’t go wrong with this one.

Dream Park, Paladin of Souls

Saturday, April 17th, 2004

Superior link of the day: Khaaaaan!

I knew I was asking for it when I picked up Dream Park by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes. Usually I run screaming the other way at Niven’s name, but I thought this one was new and thus possibly up to the higher standards of characterization and believability that the genre has acquired since the alleged Golden Age. Instead, Dream Park turned out to be a reprint. The only reason imaginable for this piece of fluff to still be in print is also the only thing that keeps the umpteen indistinguishable characters limping along in a plot better suited to a crime thriller than a sci-fi novel - the Park itself.

Dream Park is the Disneyland of role-playing games. I suffered through it because I’ve been toying with a similar story idea and I needed to know what had been done. Let me say, not much. The park covers a significant area which is remodeled for each game - this time, with imported Brazilian fauna. The characters go in armed, but their weapons have holographic blades so as not to hurt any papier-mache monsters or actors playing the orcs; the computer records the virtual hits. This is where my disbelief blew out its suspension - how do you swing a holographic sword? This isn’t Star Wars with its solid lightsabers; presumably there is no way for one weapon to hit another weapon or a person - no experience of the padded broadsword thunking into the padded shield the way the real SCA does it. The basic physics of momentum have been overlooked.

Fantasy it ain’t, but if you want a mildly interesting tale of industrial espionage without any baggage of believable characterization involved, then give it a shot. Dream Park has two sequels - not many, considering the potential for milking the concept dry. Judging from the Amazon reviews they’re even worse than the original, if that’s possible.

After all that, Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold was a relief. LMB can be counted on for good characterization and a plot that rolls along, and I was drawn in to this novel. It took a while for the pseudo-Spanish titles (Royina, etc.) to stop annoying me, and I didn’t remember enough of The Curse of Chalion to know whether I should know anything about Ista or not. As always, LMB manages to fill in the series details smoothly.

I didn’t mind so much when I discovered that The Curse of Chalion was all about Miles, renamed Cazaril for the occasion. I was more disturbed to find that Ista was Ekaterin in disguise (right down to the oh’s), and not at all relieved when she morphed into Cordelia halfway through the novel. It rather undermines the fantasy background to have your characters acting so much like your space-opera characters would - and so I return to my old complaint that Chalion isn’t enough of a fantasy.

The world is stolen medieval Spain (others call it Renaissance, though there’s nothing being reborn here besides demons); the castles are nice, but I don’t really get the feeling of a medieval world, real or imagined. Chalion isn’t nearly as solid in its execution as Barrayar. The quintitarian theology is interesting, but religion supplants magic - cutting off yet another fantasy angle. Paladin does have some demon-wrought magic (a subplot that makes the novel for me) but then the gods get involved again with their dii ex machina and I’m left feeling that they are more real than the world of Chalion itself.

It occured to me that maybe this supernatural thriller/fantasy crossover counted as one of those genre-crossing works of which true literature is made (according to John Gardner). If so, I really need to get that suspension of disbelief repaired, because I’m dragging an axle here.

Blood Music, Oryx and Crake

Tuesday, April 13th, 2004

I’d heard good things about Blood Music by Greg Bear, and it didn’t disappoint, though I’m not sure it was quite the groundbreaking work I’d been led to believe. What begins as a typical tale of viral carnage cooked up in a lab by a young, overreaching Frankenstein takes a sharp turn into a Singularity scenario. I’m no fan of the Singularity because true transhumanity is as difficult to convey as true alienness, but this one is reasonably well done.

The sudden break in the middle drops several characters, picking up an almost entirely new cast - not a good sign for characterization. It took me too long to realize that one of the new characters was mentally retarded rather than poorly written. I thought there was a bit too much hand-waving over the “biologic” to make up for such sins of characterization. The Singularity tends to do that to writers - it’s as hard to write post-humans science as post-humans themselves. I’m impressed Blood Music worked out as well as it did.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for, either. Normally, I’d enjoy a nice post-apocalyptic disaster novel, but this one broke a few too many rules. The suspense of the novel is generated by the reader wanting to know what the main character, the Snowman, already knows - that is, what the heck happened to the planet? Eh? Eh? Getting the truth out of the author/narrator/Snowman one flashback at a time is like pulling teeth, so that by the time I found out I didn’t care anymore - and it’s not like me not to care about wiping out the human race.

There are amusing moments of plot, especially Snowman’s encounter with a sounder of pigoons, and the buildup to a climax of the non-flashback action -
but all is lost in the typical mainstream novel non-ending, in which Our Hero is faced with a pivotal choice and…the end. If you want to know what happens at the end of the novel, I advise you to read a different novel.

Hugo Nominations 2003

Sunday, April 11th, 2004

The 2003 Hugo Award nominations are out! I haven’t read much on the list beyond Blind Lake and “Walk in Silence”, but it makes a good reading list and reminds me that I really ought to subscribe to Asimov’s.

I’m not eligible to vote, so don’t bother sending your minions…

Schild’s Ladder, Days of Atonement

Sunday, March 7th, 2004

Educational movie of the day: the famous Italian Electron Interference Movie

Today’s reviews are of two of my least favorite books by two of my favorite sci-fi authors, Walter Jon Williams and Greg Egan. It’s always sad when good authors go bad. Fortunately, they haven’t jumped the shark, just overtaxed the genre.

Days of Atonement by Walter Jon Williams is a gritty cop novel with more religion in it than sci-fi. It’s a great “police procedural,” if that term means gritty cop novel and isn’t just more false advertising from the cover blurbs. The science fiction comes into the Gritty Cop’s depressed mining town by way of a high tech company and a suspicious disappearance. Physics is involved, but it’s way beyond Gritty Cop’s understanding. This is sci-fi the way a mundane might see it - maybe I’ll pass my copy on to my mother.

If Days of Atonement is short on the sci, Schild’s Ladder lacks something of the fi. Greg Egan’s characters are immortal and immutable - the extraordinary events seem to leave the leads untouched. Though that hardly distinguishes them from, say, Larry Niven’s characters, it’s a step backwards from my personal favorite of his, Distress. The scence was out of control from the get-go - I know more than most readers about loop quantum gravity and graph theory, so if I had trouble following it I pity the average reader picking Schild’s Ladder up for fun.

If you can get past the heavy going at the start, though, the middle of the novel is the best part. There’s research and conflict and a flashback to the lead’s childhood that would make a nice short story. The final third gets into ththe wild handwaving that seems unavoidable at this level of physics. It was pretty, but more like fantasy than WJW’s alleged fantasy, Metropolitan. Sometimes I enjoy that sort of thing, but after the extra-hard science at the start I was still in trying-to-understand mode so it just annoyed me.

Maybe that’s just me.

Doomsday Book, Passage

Tuesday, February 24th, 2004

For some reason I thought that Doomsday Book was a recent novel, but it was published in 1992. Connie Willis is one of those authors that go on racking up the Hugos and Nebulas (Doomsday Book won both) without anyone figuring out who she is. That’s the way of the genre, I suppose - people are still fixated on Heinlein (whose writing was inconsistent at best) and Clarke (who at least deserves his fame), or if you’re lucky they’ve heard of Ursula LeGuin, but the last couple of decades of science fiction go unnoticed.

Why? If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because sci-fi and fantasy are the literature of childhood - in a good way, of course. Children have plenty of time to read it, and plenty of classics in the genre to read. Everyone knows fantasy classics like the Narnia books, but sci-fi also has a large body of juveniles, as well as pulps that may as well be juveniles and adult sci-fi that children read anyway. (They can bear the writing in, say, Foundation better than more mature readers.)

You can force a child to read Ethan Frome but you can’t force him to like it. Mainstream literature is an acquired taste, and other genres (mysteries, medical thrillers, etc.) have no particular association with childhood. (I’m leaving out Westerns, which do have that association, because the genre seems to have faded away.) It’s only in fantasy and sci-fi that we find an audience who’s been reading this stuff since see spot run. But not consistently. So sci-fi fans are more familiar with the works of twenty or forty years ago than with recent releases.

But I digress. Doomsday Book is a comedy of time travel, like To Say Nothing of the Dog, but in this case an undergraduate is visiting the Middle Ages during Christmas vacation. The acting head of the history faculty is on vacation in Scotland and his replacement is stunningly unqualified to oversee a foray into the century that burned Joan of Arc at the stake.

One of my other misconceptions about Doomsday Book was that it involved Joan of Arc. Though there are plenty of similarities between Joan and Our Heroine Kivrin, she spends her time travel time in a small village in medieval England. Meanwhile, back in the future, a series of farcical accidents prevent the incompetent Head and his more competent colleagues from getting the fix on Kivrin.

At first the farce bugged me - the annoying/stupid/incompetent characters just kept multiplying and making the situation worse. Then I realized that life is really that way. It’s not quite as well-plotted, but the stupid people you will always have with you, and anyone who’s ever ridden the T knows that humanity has a boundless capacity for sheer idiocy. Even back in the Middle Ages we see stupidity at work, though it’s nowhere near as comic.

I really admire Connie Willis’ technobabble. There’s no hard science in her time-travel stories at all, yet she gives her black box to the past the look and feel of real technology - so much so that the rest of her future seems technologically backward in comparison. Time travel and slight medical advances aside, 2050 Oxford could just as easily be 2000 Oxford. Fortunately, she makes much finer distinctions in 1320 Oxfordshire, and those are the ones that count for this novel.

Back in the Middle Ages, Kivrin meets some typical “contemps” and becomes attached to them. But she’s lost track of her landing site, and her new friends have their own worries. Back in the future, the comedy continues apace, with unexpected twists, turns, and medical complications before the final resolution. Beware of spoilers - if you haven’t read Doomsday Book just pick it up and skip the blurbs.

Passage is also an easy story to spoil; I’ve read some reviews that give away too much. One also suggested that the book could have used a good editor. Passage is certainly more ramified than the analogous Bellwether, but I never found the redundancies troublesome. The humor is pleasantly low-key and the setting typifies the theme. (I can’t explain the latter statement; you just have to read the novel to see it.) They’re both set in the present and could be considered mainstream novels - in fact Passage was published under Bantam Books rather than the Bantam Spectra sf line that put out Doomsday Book.

Bellwether was about scientists studying bellwethers; Passage has Joanna Lander and Dr. Richard Wright investigating near death experiences - you know, the tunnel, the light, the relatives telling you it’s not your time. Their comic nemesis Mr. Mandrake has made a career out of spiritual interpretations of the NDE’s; Joanna and Richard are looking for a scientific explanation.

I’m a big fan of pathos (as opposed to angst), and Passage, being set in a hospital, has more than its share of the dead, dying, and hopelessly ill. I can’t think of any other book that addresses death quite so thoroughly and lyrically. In the end, though, if you write a book about dying you’re pretty much doomed to take the middle road between heaven and annihilation. Connie Willis was almost brave enough to give the question of what happens after death a definite answer. In fact she does give a powerful answer, but then pulls the punch in the final couple of scenes. As Ian McEwan said, one has to have the courage of one’s pessimism. Greg Egan has it; Connie Willis does not.

I’ve seen in interviews that she wanted to give the answer she gave, though she knew that readers on both sides would be put off by the obvious ambiguity. My criticism is that she could have done it more subtly - with fewer anvils - and gotten a Hugo or Nebula out of it. (Passage was nominated for both.) Maybe that’s an issue of editing - maybe she’s so famous that she’s beyond editing now.

Whatever its faults, Passage is an engrossing novel. Both it and Doomsday Book will keep you up all night if you’re not careful. Open them with caution.

Roma Eterna, The Worthing Saga

Saturday, February 7th, 2004

After I got it home, I was looking at the title of Roma Eterna by Robert Silverberg, trying to figure out what was wrong. Eventually, it hit me. The word is aeterna, from aeternus. I could understand if the publisher was scared off by the ligature (æ), but ae without the ligature is perfectly correct. For a title that was supposed to be in Latin, this was a bad sign.

Matters did not improve from there. Roma Eterna is a collection of short stories set in an alternate history in which Rome never fell. Harry Turtledove could have done wonders with such a premise (and for all I know, already has), but Silverberg never seems to take full advantage of his world.

Nor does he do well with the genre. Alternate history is difficult to read when you don’t know the real history - it’s like reading a fanfic AU without being sufficiently familiar with the universe of the show. If you have the background, alternate history is rewarding. You don’t need the background to read Roma Eterna however, and even a slight knowledge of history may prove to be an obstacle when reading this otherwise entertaining collection.

Rather than take advantage of the possibilities before him, the author tends to repeat himself. Two stories deal with dissolute younger Imperial brothers who make something of themselves. One of these, “With Caesar in the Underworld,” isn’t bad. In two or three stories, good men slaughter hundreds of nobles in order to reform the Empire - part of a focus on the nobility, and in fact the relatives of the Emperors, that makes the novel more soap opera than alternate history. “An Outpost of the Realm” is part and parcel of the soap opera, though it’s a good story and the only one with a complex female character.

Two stories deal with speculation on “what would have happened” if circumstances hadn’t allowed the Christian or Islamic religions to arise. Said speculation is, of course, impossibly accurate, so that it comes out sounding like a silly trick on the part of the author. Two other stories handle ventures to the West. In one, the Magellan-analogues act more or less like Magellan’s men did - what ever happened to this being alternate history? On the other hand, seven Roman legions sail for Nova Roma (America) and are slaughtered by the natives of the Yucatan. The excuse for this turn of events is unconvincing; most notably, the Romans bring no noticable diseases to the new world. The author doesn’t explain this huge historical lacuna either.

The novel ends with a story about the Jews planning an Exodus to space. (Yes, that’s a spoiler but I read it on the flyleaf and the rocket is front and center of the cover art.) From the blurbs, you’d think this plot accounted for more than 20 pages of the book - no such luck. I found the outcome surprising, but disappointing.

Back in the “what would have happened if Christianity had never arisen” story, we found out that the Jews never made it out of Egypt - Pharaoh cut them off at the Red Sea and brought them all back. However, later in the book Jews are spread around the world, following their own peculiar laws which don’t differ in any notable respect from non-alternate history. Where did they get that law? If Pharaoh recaptured them, then there was no trip to Sinai and therefore no Law. Yes, it’s a minor point, but the world is full of Christians and Jews who know what order the Red Sea and Sinai go in. If you’re writing alternate history, you can’t be that careless. I was hoping for an interesting treatment of religion - something you almost never find in sci-fi - and instead I got some crazy people in a desert with no feeling of history behind them and an uncertain future in front.

So, to be briefer, The Worthing Saga by Orson Scott Card is also a collection of stories set in a single universe. Some of them he wrote quite far apart, having forgotten (and lost, to boot) the earlier stories. His internal inconsistencies manage to give the book a real sense of the passage of time that Roma Eterna lacks. This being science fiction, OSC can get in much grander moral themes, but then that may just be OSC. He’s a great writer all around.

The book isn’t perfect - some of the stories in the middle were too medieval and mystical (which is to say, obscure) for me - but it started out strong and ended strong as well, and that’s more than enough. Besides, I’m a sucker for a moral theme. If you’re interested in the danger of helping people too much by making life too easy, pick up The Worthing Saga.


Wednesday, January 28th, 2004

Mac program of the day: Unison, a newsreader

I found the first issue of The Internet Review of Science Fiction while I was catching up with the rasfc newsgroup with Unison. Usually I refuse to read articles that you have to register to see, but I really wanted to know what Peter Jackson and the Denial of the Hero by M. Garcia was all about. So, some excerpts (a fair use):

As the trilogy of films unfolded, it became evident that Jackson had fundamentally rewritten the characters and their motivations, and in so doing, had quite stripped the essence of heroic fantasy out of the story. In the film trilogy the heros are weak and hesitant, while most of the villains are denuded of their tragedy. […]

It might seem that all of Tolkien’s character development involves the acceptance of destiny, depicted in (sometimes overwrought) mythic language. But an even more curious reversal takes place in the person of Frodo. Frodo alone of all the major characters in Tolkien’s work chooses his destiny. […]
Jackson portrays Frodo as a lost creature through the last leg of the journey. He is so burdened by the ring, and so baffled by Gollum’s tricksy talk, that he even turns against Sam.

M. notes that a pivotal Frodo scene is omitted from the movie, the one in which Frodo binds Gollum with the Ring: “If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom.” Which, of course, he is. There’s no mention of the Faramir or Denethor character assassinations, but if you thought Gandalf and Aragorn were (at least occasionally) heroic this article will set you straight. There’s no room for heroes in Jackson’s world:

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings remains unfilmed and, since it seems increasingly unpalatable to contemporary sensibilities, probably unfilmable.

I wonder, did Peter Jackson see the real story and revise it consciously, or was he, like the literary critics quoted in the article, unable to read the story as it was intended to be read? Are there stories that cannot be told because the audience just can’t see them? It’s a disturbing thought, since those are probably the stories I’d want to tell.