Archive for the 'Sci-Fi' Category

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.

Manifold: Time

Friday, December 5th, 2003

I keep giving Stephen Baxter more chances. Manifold: Time wasn’t nearly as depressing as Evolution, but I wouldn’t put it up there with Raft. Like Manifold: Origin, Manifold: Space is populated with unsympathetic characters - in fact, the same unsympathetic characters. They’re balanced by cool science, including, as usual, other sentient animals - in this case, squid. All the science is real and annotated at the end.

While the science was good so far as it went, there are nine theories listed on the last page and they don’t mesh together in the plot particularly well. The elements are interesting individually, but it’s not clear how the “probabilistic doomsday prediction” was initially avoided in the main timeline, nor why the climactic event had to come as early in the evolution of the universe as it did. The whole squid thing seemed unnecessary as well, but you can’t really knock squid.

Snare, Contact

Saturday, November 1st, 2003

Word count: 1000

I picked up Snare by Katharine Kerr because of the future Islamic fundamentalist angle. The Right Novel, which I didn’t start writing today after all, deals with the far future of Earth and post-Earth religions, and I’m curious how other people have addressed it. I also hadn’t read any Kerr, who’s known mainly as “the author of the beloved Deverry series,” and I’ve been picking up authors I’ve never read lately just to check out their styles.

I enjoyed Snare but it never quite came together for me. The genre was fantasy with misunderstood technology substituted for magic - I’m not sure whether that makes it swords-and-sorcery or not - and at a length of 600 pages it fits the fantasy genre better than sci-fi.

Four cultures inhabit the crowded world of Snare: the medieval Islamic fundamentalists (with three prophets and still counting), the comnee, who are lizard-hunting variants of American plains Indians, the post-French science types in the Cantons, and the oversized ChaMeech aliens. Only the aliens are interesting as a culture - the others haven’t changed much from their pre-modern roots. I was especially disappointed in the Moslems because I had hoped for the most from them.

The plot involved a bit of intrigue and a lot of travelogue revolving around the evil Khan, those who served him, and those who hoped to replace him. One of the bad guys turned out to be Misunderstood, the comnee try to save him from himself using psychobabble and tough love. When the ChaMeech get involved, the story perks up. Both ChaMeech and comnee have a problem with their gods, and all four cultures eventually discover the Truth about Snare. For Truth with a capital T it could have been more impressive or more intuitive, but it did pull the threads together well. Snare was a good yarn, but not as creative with the future as I’d hoped.

I’d heard good things about Contact but neither seen nor read it. Dr. Deb lent me her DVD and was glad to be rid of it. I can see why she didn’t like the movie, and why I did. Contact wasn’t at the level of M. Night Shyamalan, but like Signs it was a tale of faith rediscovered. That theme isn’t one you expect from sci-fi (whence comes Dr. Deb’s disappointment) and it included an anvil or two, but overall it worked well.

The romance disappointed me, however. Our Hero (Matthew McConaughey) wasn’t nearly as believable as Our Heroine (Jodie Foster). Celebrity demi-priest and New Age author isn’t as common a career as astronomer, (and there really aren’t that many astronomers out there). We don’t have much reason to respect Palmer Joss, and neither his offense nor his excuse for it later (because he “loves” her) are forgivable. When you consider exactly what his “love” almost cost Our Heroine, it’s truly horrifying. But take that one lame excuse out and you have a very good movie.

Otherland IV, Fine Prey

Sunday, October 19th, 2003

Besides the title titles, I recently spotted that cool top-bound edition of Philip K. Dick’s “The Minority Report” in the library. I have to say, I liked the plot of the movie better. In the original short story, John Anderton pre-kills an army general and ends up in the middle of a conflict between a power-hungry army and the equally suspicious police force. The story rolls along at a faster pace than its internal logic can handle - no surprise for Golden Age sci-fi. (The original copyright was 1956.) I did enjoy the resolution, but the movie wins on technical merit.

On to the real books: My seven-month struggle with Tad William’s Otherland behemoth is finally over. I read I in the spring and II and III over the summer. Volume IV, Sea of Silver Light, brought the series to an end, but it didn’t resolve my problems with the books.

I’m not saying the books sat on my windowsill for months with bookmarks in the middle - far from it. Each was an engrossing read; only their length (3270 pages total in paperback) kept me from finishing them in a day or two as I would any other good sci-fi novel. At no point in Otherland did I experience the eternal suffering of Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars. I will pass the books on to other people, rather than shuffling them off to the sell-to-a-gullible-used-bookstore pile.

Despite the wonderful characterization and vivid VR worlds, I let months go by between volumes. I cared what happened to the characters, especially Orlando and the Aussie policewoman, but not enough to pick up the next volume in the infinite series. I wasn’t getting something out of the individual volumes, and having finished the series, I haven’t gotten that same thing out of the work as a whole.

Though nominally sci-fi, Otherland wandered, as fantasy tends to, across the vast tapestry of its own setting. The quest was there and did succeed in the end, so I wondered whether it was the structure alone that put me off. I’ve complained already about the plot shifting in every chapter from one set of Our Heros or Villains to another. If those chapters had been grouped together Lord of the Rings-style, however, it would have become even more obvious that nothing was happening. Yes, the characters went from place to place, collected clues, met one another or were accidentally separated, etc., but nothing of sufficient plot-significance happened in books I, II, or III to make me want to see what happened in the next volume.

Otherland is certainly days of reading enjoyment, but it’s too big and diffuse to be a novel. The action at any particular time isn’t quite important enough to the plot - there’s a different proportion of action to meaning than I’m accustomed to. (There was also a gun on the mantle the whole time that was never fired - the little construction robots on Mars. I was really looking forward to them.) If like me you prefer the lean style of most sci-fi (Kim Stanley Robinson always excepted), you may not want to commit to a long-term relationship with Otherland. If you’re the sort of person who reads or writes trilogies, though, this is the series for you.

I’d like to coin a new term, to add to the novelette/novella/novel sequence, that signifies this trilogy style of writing. Novelogy is unfortunately taken, and refers to a series of short stories, probably by different authors, that together form a novel (more or less). Trilogy itself is from the Greek and refers to three dramas, rather than one drama taking up three times the space. Maybe novelitis or noveloma

Anyway, on to Fine Prey, a novel of the usual length by Scott Westerfeld. It was in the first person, and it took me chapters to figure out what gender the main character was. I suspect it took the author a while, too. I turned out to be a she. In no way did Our Hero ever act like a woman. In fact, I suspect she started out male and got neutered somewhere in the editing process.

We meet Our Heroine at the approximate age of seventeen. She has been cloistered at an alien school for most of her life, but she likes to spend her summers participating in an up-close-and-personal blood sport involving alien animals killing one another while she’s wired directly to the predator’s brain. Just what I’ve wanted to do since I was five years old!

On this particular summer off, Our Heroine gets addicted to drugs as part of her involvement with a sado-masochistic woman. I’m not calling her a lesbian because no mention (never mind motivation) was made of anyone’s sexual orientation. Our Heroine and her lover are the only people in the book who appear interested in sex at all, and even their relationship was just filler.

All along, Our Heroine retains her abiding interest in language, especially the alien language Ayan which is all she studies in school. She knows next to nothing about human culture, except for her favorite blood sport. The parts of the novel which deal with the alien language are a bit overdone, but still quite interesting, and the resolution is about language. It’s a good read, marred only by the fact that Our Heroine isn’t male.

The story would have made a whole lot more sense if she had been a he. When Our Heroine falls for Miss Right, she behaves like a male teenager, not a woman. (I didn’t know her gender at the time, and the scene did not entirely clear it up.) Soon afterwards she has a fit of teen rebellion in which she blows off her lifelong blood sport ambitions with no particular new goal in mind. Under the influence of Miss Right, she starts doing drugs, neglecting her summer reading, and running with the bad boys. All of it would have made much more sense if she had been a boy. Because women (of any age) are so much less likely to (1) sleep with women, (2) kill animals for sport, (3) dive headfirst into the bondage scene with a strange lover, (4) get addicted to recreational drugs, (5) blow off school, or (6) alienate their entire social circle than men are, Our Heroine requires that much more motivation for doing all these things. As a Hero, she would still have been largely unmotivated, but many times more believable.

Raft, Blind Lake

Friday, September 26th, 2003

I picked up Raft because I haven’t quite given up on Stephen Baxter yet. It’s an old juvenlie of his, which is to say it’s a boy’s coming-of-age story, so characterization, even of said Boy, is a bit sketchy. Raft makes up for it in spades, though, with a truly original milieu.

Boy is the descendent of the survivors of a unique shipwreck - somehow his forebears took a wrong turn into a high-gravity universe where trees fly and miners walk on the surface of dead suns. The plot turns on the consequences of high, and apparently increasing, gravity, as Boy explores the decaying human societies and meets the wildlife. It’s a wonderful example of the genre.

I also found Blind Lake in the library right before it was slashdotted. Robert Charles Wilson writes some odd stuff, and this one is no exception. An observatory spies on lobster-shaped aliens using a technology no one seems to understand. A group of science journalists come to the Blind Lake installation at the wrong time and are caught in a security lockdown. But how can an observatory threaten to contaminate Earth - with memes?

The characters are well-drawn and their problems unusually normal for science fiction - joint custody, annoying bosses, the trials of being a science writer - but my favorite was the young girl in the middle of the custody battle. Blind Lake manages to be both a a good novel and good sci-fi. I’m not sure it could have been better on either side without a loss on the other.