Tags: Ian McDonald
Unfortunately I haven’t had time lately to review books I’ve been reading on this blog, but I’m still alive and, as ever, hoping to get back to writing more here in the future. In the meantime, Strange Horizons has published my review of Ian McDonald’s Luna: New Moon.
Tags: Felix Gilman
While reading The Half-Made World, I was wondering why on earth I had waited so long. The writing was superb, the setting was fascinating, and the conflict between the Gun and the Line was a surprisingly compelling metaphor. I had heard all these things praised when the novel came out in 2010, so as I read I was kicking myself. True, I’d also heard that it didn’t really provide a sense of closure, but when the rest of the book is this good, does it matter?
After finishing, I am forced to conclude: it does matter, at least a little bit, at least to me. It’s a weakness of mine as a reader, I guess: no matter how wonderful the writing, no matter how elevated and literary the sensibility, I still want an interesting plot that really goes somewhere. The Half-Made World starts off strong as Liv Alverhuysen leaves the old east to travel west into a literally new world that congeals around its new settlers. Liv hopes to…well, her motivation isn’t totally clear, but she hopes to change her life somehow for the better, let’s say. But while the west is a place of new possibilities, it’s also more dangerous and less human than the thoroughly mundane east. And it’s a battleground for two great powers, inhuman in both scope and motivation: the Gun and the Line. Guns are demon-possessed guns who glory in chaos and bloodshed, granting their servants superhuman powers of healing and athleticism in return for acts of violent barbarism. The Engines of the Line are demons of a different sort, imposing by force their vision of order on the wildness of the new West, an order that leaves no room for any human freedom.
Being new to it, Liv is a neutral in the west’s great conflict, but we see it not only through her eyes but also through those of a Linesman, Lowry, and an Agent of the Gun, John Creedmoor, as they each are sent to capture an old General. And while Liv is a reasonable heroine, good-natured and courageous in the face of difficulty, she’s something of a cipher and essentially the straight woman to Lowry and Creedmoor as they careen across the west. In his devotion to duty, his fear of disorder, and his petty scheming, Lowry is a bit too one-note, more parody than portrait. He’s enough of a cartoon that he doesn’t feel like something a human could really become. Not so John Creedmoor, whose charisma and self-destructiveness are emblematic of the Gun he serves. His self-hatred and his real but rarely-acted upon desire to escape his masters make him the novel’s most well-rounded and sympathetic character.
But the plot becomes less and less interesting as the narrative plunges further and further westward. Maybe this is a brilliant literary device: the plot loses focus and becomes disordered in step with the world around the characters. But maybe this is just a young writer losing his way and then struggling to the finish line. In truth, the story’s MacGuffin doesn’t make much sense from the getgo. For twenty years no one knew the General survived, yet now the Gun and the Line somehow both know not only that he’s alive, not only that he discovered some secret weapon, but also exactly where he is. After chasing him for half the novel and then being chased with him for the other half, finally and for no discernible reason he reveals his secret to Liv: a sort of treasure map to some superweapon created by the setting’s Native American analogue fairies.
Just the fact the story treats Native Americans as fairies is dubious. Yes, this is not the real American West, it’s a fantasy world consciously built upon the mythologized West. But this mythic West only ever existed in non-Native minds, a fact that calls into question the whole project of the novel. The real west was not new at all, it was as old as anywhere else, and had been inhabited by humans for thousands of years. It was not shaped by settlers out of a formless void, it was reshaped from a previous form.
Even granting that this is a fantasy about an idea of the West that never existed, the native superweapon feels like a thematic misstep. Explicitly baked into the setting is the idea that the Line cannot be stopped. Its victory is sure because it’s the inexorable march of progress. The Gun can delay it for a time, but it will always lose, it will always pull back to the ever-shrinking frontier. That this is acknowledged not just by neutral characters but even the Guns themselves is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the conflict. Yet the Guns seem to think the superweapon offers them the chance at victory. What is victory, to the Gun? Within the novel’s conceptual framework, a Gun victory is unthinkable because the Line must win, the Gun must lose.
Now if we take a broader view, we must admit that victory for the Gun doesn’t seem so hard to imagine. According to the second law of thermodynamics it is the Line that is sure to lose in the end and entropy that will reign supreme. And human history is rife with examples of empires falling and civilizations collapsing into chaos and disorder. But the Gun and the Line aren’t about physics or the grand sweep of history, they are an evocation of a specific mythos, a twisted manifest destiny that played out in the American psyche for a hundred years.
So: The Half-Made World is a glorious exercise in metaphorical fantasy that, alas, doesn’t quite come off. It’s got a brilliant setting and a standout character in John Creedmoor, but it’s not able to take those wonderful pieces and assemble them into something greater the way, say, China Mieville did in Perdido Street Station. In a way, it is a victim of it’s own initial success. The Gun, the Line, and the still-forming west are such wonderful metaphors that they themselves can never be as interesting as what they signify, even for someone like me who almost always prefers to accept speculative fiction on its own terms. For example, consider the nature of “the Lodge”, the place where all the Guns meet and perhaps their true home. Is it simply a psychic connection between the physical Guns? Are the physical Guns just drones controlled from within the Lodge? Is the Lodge accessed through fire because it is a sort of hell for the servants of the Gun? These questions can be asked, but rarely without the follow-up: Does it matter?
It doesn’t, and personally, I prefer novels where it does.
Tags: Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the great authors of the modern era of science fiction, but he’s also a polarizing one. I’ve known people for whom reading his Mars Trilogy was literally a life-changing experience, but I’ve known just as many who bounced off it. He’s quite unusual in that he writes hard science fiction in the old mode, not only unafraid of exposition but embracing it, yet he also has a strong literary interest in the interior life of his characters and the style with which he tells a story. It feels unusual to say this so far into a writer’s career, but Aurora might be his best novel as well as the best place for a reader new to his work to start.
I say “might be” only because I haven’t read enough of his novels to be certain. I did manage to finish his Mars Trilogy, but only on my second attempt. I liked 2312 a great deal more, but it was paced strangely and largely centered on a character I found annoying. I read Aurora because I heard several early reviews to the effect that “I wasn’t a huge fan of his earlier books, but this is great!” I am often comically off-the-mark in my impressions of a novel before I read it, but in this case I finished the novel thinking: I wasn’t a huge fan of his earlier books, this was great!
Aurora is the story of a generation starship that, as the novel begins, is seven generations into its voyage and decelerating toward its planned colony site at Tau Ceti. Everything is going as well as can be expected, but over two hundred years little problems have been building into large problems, complicated by the fact that some parts of the ship are not–or are no longer–redundant enough to be shut down for maintenance without endangering the people on board. Devi is an engineer whose skill as a problem-solver means she spends her days traveling between the starship’s various biomes investigating soil chemistry, mineral buildup, equipment malfunctions, and all of the other little problems that by themselves aren’t fatal but, taken together, constitute a threat to the ship.
Most authors would have made Devi their main character. She’s smart, an inspiring leader, and a supremely talented engineer. She’s the classic SF “competent man” protagonist, except she’s neither a man nor the protagonist. The narrative instead centers on Freya, Devi’s daughter who is “slow at things”, finds math class to be excruciating, and ends up doing menial, unskilled work. Worst of all, she knows that she’s not like other kids and especially not like her mother, who is a genius engineer but not a good enough actor to conceal her disappointment. At first Freya is just a sympathetic figure whose utility to the actual story seems limited to happening to be in the same room when her mother is discussing important matters. The passive protagonist, who goes around like a movie camera seeing things happen on behalf of the reader, is a familiar device from countless science fiction novels, but Freya develops from these humble beginnings into an influential leader. Whereas Devi is a leader who goes around telling people how to solve their problems, Freya becomes a leader who listens to people talk about their problems. It sounds a bit cheesy when summarized, and the book makes it clear that part of the respect given to Freya is due to her mother, but Robinson made me believe that Freya could make this unusual path work and come to influence people who are theoretically far smarter than she is.
A protagonist living in the shadow of a far more accomplished family member is not a new theme for Robinson. In 2312, one of the two main characters, Swan, was the granddaughter of someone famous throughout the solar system. Swan was energetic but obnoxious, traveling all over the solar system and pissing off other characters (and many readers) but not really accomplishing anything. Freya travels a great deal as well, but she’s agreeable and sympathetic to both other characters and the reader. She’s far less frenetic than Swan yet has much more of an impact on the actual story than Swan ever did.
But although Freya is clearly the protagonist of the first half of the novel, by the end it’s hard not to feel as though the ship itself is the main character, and not in the figurative sense people say that Mars is the main character of the Mars Trilogy. The ship is operated by a quantum computer running an artificial intelligence. This isn’t a wisecracking AI out of Iain M. Banks; it’s not obvious whether it is even self-aware. Worried that the human crew won’t be able to cope with the ship’s increasing problems, Devi does her best to make the ship more intelligent. She gives the ship a challenge: write a story about the journey. The result is Aurora, and the way in which the story is told provides a window into the evolving intellect of the ship AI. From what I can tell (and this is the only technical aspect of the story I am even slightly qualified to assess) Robinson’s portrayal of AI is grounded more in his intuition than science. For example, the “halting problem” has a very precise scientific meaning but whenever the narration mentions it, it does so metaphorically, and even when discussing metaphors: “A quick literature review suggests the similarities in metaphors are arbitrary, even random. They could be called metaphorical similarities, but no AI likes tautological formulations because the halting problem can be severe, become a so-called Ouroboros problem, or a whirlpool with no escape: aha, a metaphor.” But even when I started to get annoyed by the imprecise usage of technical terms from computer science, the character always disarmed my objections. There isn’t any groundbreaking thinking here about AI, but there’s a great character, and that’s reason enough to celebrate.
Some people may still bounce off the novel because the beginning is somewhat slow as Robinson shows the reader the ship and the society living on it through Freya’s eyes. The pace quickens, however, and by the time the ship arrives at Tau Ceti about a quarter of the way through the novel the story begins a crescendo of tension and conflict that sustains it for the rest of the book. For most of its journey, the ship’s humans lived in a peaceful communitarian society on the ship. It wasn’t perfect, but it had many of the features of the post-capitalist utopias that have figured prominently in Robinson’s past work. Arrival at Tau Ceti puts a severe and ultimately stress on the political system and sets up the social and technical challenges that the characters spend the rest of the novel trying to solve.
Aurora is very much a hard science fiction novel, as was Robinson’s 2312 and his famous Mars Trilogy. Although he himself is not a scientist, Robinson has worked hard to take the old idea of a generation starship and try to envision how it would work. Most generation ship stories of the past have explored fascinating but unlikely scenarios of technological collapse: what if the passengers forget they are on a ship? Robinson is willing to let his ship’s passengers enjoy a fairly stable and well-ordered society for most of their journey, but he carefully scrutinizes the ship itself. Not how any individual piece of the ship works–most of the ship’s constituent pieces, like its propulsion, quantum computers, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology printers, are all handwaved into existence–but instead how the various pieces work together in an almost entirely closed system. The printers can create things, but where do the raw materials come from? Can material get “stuck” in a way that can’t be reclaimed? Can anything be repaired? Based on what ecologists have learned about island species, how big does a population have to be to be stable? He has much to say about these questions that will be new even to science fiction veterans.
It may not be fair to either book, but since I recently read Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, the urge to contrast them is irresistible. Both novels tell stories that span many years, both depict humans struggling to survive in the difficult environment of space, and both have a coda that certainly makes a point but which they probably would have been better off without.Seveneves is much longer, has many more characters, and has more intricate detail. For its part, Aurora has characters who feel like real people, far more convincing science, and a much more reasonably-sized point-scoring coda. And while it’s probably foolish to try to predict this sort of thing, Aurora‘s core ideas about interstellar travel strike me as significant enough they will be part of the conversation for decades.
Describing those core ideas necessarily involves spoilers, so the spoiler-averse should head out now and come back when they’ve read the book.
The novel makes two arguments against the feasibility of generation ships. The first is that the greater speed with which bacteria evolves means that if a few thousand humans are isolated, the bacteria inside the humans will change, causing the people to sicken and eventually die out. The second argument is about extrasolar planets and first stated by Euan, dying on Aurora: “…they’re either going to be alive or dead, right? If they’ve got water and orbit in the habitable zone, they’ll be alive. Alive and poisonous…Then on the dead worlds, those’ll be dry, and too cold, or too hot. So they’ll be useless unless they have water, and if they have water they’ll probably be alive.”
It’s hard as a layman to evaluate the strength of the scientific claims being made here. Robinson is very convincing when he establishes that island devolution presents a problem, but less so when he implies that there’s no solution. This is a novel, after all, that has hand-waved its way to .1c interstellar travel and strong AI. The “live worlds are poison” problem is less impressive. While a microbe from a completely different world and ecosystem could be a sort of interstellar smallpox, it seems more likely it would simply be unable to interact with human amino acids and vice versa. Even granting the discovery within the novel, the characters conclude that “all live worlds are poison” from a single data point. That’s like trying to make statements about all planetary systems based solely on observations of our solar system, something which astronomers did in fact do out of necessity, but the moment we started being able to observe planets in other star systems, those theories crumbled.
The best argument the novel makes against generation starships is ethical: maybe the initial crew volunteers, but their children don’t. The children will see the grandeur and vastness of Terran civilization dwindling behind them but remain trapped in a relatively tiny starship for their entire lives. If anything Robinson underplays this argument, which I found completely convincing, because in his story no one seems to pay much attention to the Earth they’ve left behind. There is a feed of information, 8.5 gigabytes per day, but other than Devi people seem to just think it an odd curiosity. My take is that a few thousand people linked in this way would be totally dominated by Earth’s culture and would be avidly consuming Terran entertainment, and that entertainment would prevent them from forgetting the opportunities they were being denied.
In a very strange move, Robinson undercuts his best arguments by allowing a workable cryosleep to be discovered. The consent of children is not a barrier to exploration when generation ships become sleeper ships, nor is island devolution an issue if the bacteria are quiesced along with their host. The book’s principal characters remain adamantly opposed to exploration despite benefiting from the technology themselves. I assume Robinson was willing to do this because for him there are even more convincing arguments available, but they aren’t clearly stated in the book. In interviews, however, he has commented that dreams of interstellar colonization make people willing to allow Earth to be ruined, that people countenance irreparable harm to the planet and therefore the species because they think there are alternatives that are not, in fact, viable. That’s fair enough, but probably better refuted by drawing attention to the grave difficulties of constructing a durable spaceship of the scale required and achieving the required levels of propulsion, all problems glossed over in Aurora.
Each reader will have to come to their own conclusions about this, but I don’t want to end this review without a reminder that Aurora stakes out its position on all this by means of a story that is often exciting and nearly always fascinating. It may not perfect, but I would be shocked if it’s not on my nomination list for the Hugo awards in a few months.
Last week, Strange Horizons published my combined review of the second and third books in Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea trilogy.
If you like my reviews, then you probably like Strange Horizons reviews as well. Not just because a few of them are written by me, but because my approach to reviewing is very similar to what we might call the house style at Strange Horizons. That’s not a coincidence, either. As a quick jaunt through this site’s archives will quickly show, I spent years writing bare bones capsule reviews. Reading Strange Horizons reviews, and the blogs of frequent SH reviewers like Abigail Nussbaum and Adam Roberts, was a direct influence on how I write today.
I mention this now because Strange Horizons isn’t supported by subscriptions or advertisements. Each year they do a fund drive to pay for next years content. The extremely hard-working staff are, sadly, not paid–the money goes to the contributing writers. This year’s fund drive is well under way, so if you read Strange Horizons but haven’t donated, I hope you’ll consider it.
Tags: James Tiptree Jr
Here’s something a little different from my usual reviews. Monday marked 100 years since the birth of Alice Sheldon, AKA James Tiptree, Jr., and to celebrate Strange Horizons hosted a discussion of one of the less commonly read Tiptree collections, The Starry Rift. The participants were SH fiction editor and critic Lila Garrott, author and critic Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, and…me!
When I link from here to a review of mine on Strange Horizons I usually try to let it stand on its own, but since this isn’t a review I can’t resist the temptation to put on my reviewer hat for just a second and mention that people who haven’t read Tiptree should probably start with the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever and move on to the novel Brightness Falls From the Air. The stories in The Starry Rift are in much the same vein as Brightness Falls. They share their setting with it as well, though not any characters, so it’s a good follow-up for fans wanting more.
Tags: Glen Cook
As I write this, Glen Cook’s Wikipedia article consists of two paragraphs about his life and one paragraph about the Black Company series. That’s not really a surprise given how influential it’s been, but as best as I can count he’s written an astounding thirty-eight other novels. In the cruel reality of the book business, most novels are lost in obscurity the moment they are published, but while this fate is usually amply justified by their quality, there are surely a few babies in all that bathwater. One such was Glen Cook’s standalone space opera novel, The Dragon Never Sleeps, which is just short of a masterpiece. Having so enjoyed the one Cook standalone I had read, it seemed reasonable to move on to his best-known standalone novel, Passage at Arms, published in 1985 and usually characterized as Das Boot in space.
If that sounds appealing, then rest assured, Passage at Arms delivers amply on that promise. The novel is set on board a Climber, a spaceship that “climbs” into another dimension. The farther it goes, the less space it takes up in our normal three dimensions. By climbing far enough, a nine hundred ton spaceship can occupy the volume of a molecule in normal space. This means that it is impossible to detect, but it also means that if an explosion happens even vaguely nearby, it gets jostled by the shock wave. If an explosion happens close enough, the ship can be destroyed. Add in the fact that during the climb, conditions on the ship deteriorate due to heat buildup, forcing the ship to eventually “surface”, and it becomes clear that Cook is using some invented physics to get something that looks very similar to submarine warfare. Instead of going underwater, the Climber goes into another dimension, instead of being menaced by depth charges, it is jostled by missiles, and so on.
The obvious question is, if one is to read a book about submarine warfare, why not read a book about the thing itself instead of something like Passage at Arms that puts its submarines in spaceship costumes like it’s Halloween? Although readers of this blog aren’t likely to be sympathetic with that sort of complaint, it’s not a question that should be lightly dismissed, for it’s the basis of a common critique of science fiction and fantasy as a whole. Admittedly it’s an argument somewhat out of fashion at the moment as mainstream literature goes through a phase of borrowing genre concepts, but Passage at Arms makes for an interesting test case.
First, it should be stated that unlike some space opera based on past precedents, Passage at Arms isn’t an exercise in nostalgia. Glen Cook served in the US Navy (though not on submarines) and one constant across his fantasy and science fiction is his down-to-earth depiction of military life. There’s no glory or glamor to working on a Climber, just hard work, deprivation, boredom, and terror.
Second, Cook is after more than just a recreation of submarine warfare. He’s particularly interested in how men (and the Climber crew of Passage at Arms are all men, though we are told some Climbers are crewed entirely by women) cope with the intense stresses of warfare. A Climber crewman must serve on ten missions, then they are allowed to retire from fighting. Missions rarely last more than a month, so it’s not all that much calendar time, but the downtime between missions can be many months, waiting that takes its own toll. Everyone is acutely aware that Climbers are so often destroyed, whether by enemy action or through mechanical failure, that the few are fortunate enough to survive ten missions. Death is likely, then, but it’s not completely certain, so the men focus on their day to day activities, comfort themselves with superstitions, and cloak the gravity of the situation in euphemisms, such as calling the enemy “the gentlemen of the other firm”.
To better draw a psychological portrait of the Climber crew, Cook uses a narrator who wants to draw that portrait himself. The first person, present tense narrator is a space navy man but one who served on battleships, not Climbers. After leaving the navy, he became a journalist, and now he has requested the opportunity to embed with a Climber crew so he can capture what it’s like. He knows the Commander from the old days, but time has changed them both. The narrator hopes to hold himself apart from the Climber’s crew and just be an observer, but as the mission drags on and the situation deteriorates, he is forced to become more and more of a participant.
The psychological response of men to combat stress is the very core of the novel, but the results are strangely uneven. Cook is absolutely brilliant at the big picture. The mood of the men, the difficulty of their experience, and the diversity of their coping mechanisms are all wonderfully realized. I certainly have no experience with such things, but for me the novel was utterly persuasive. Yet as individuals, the characters never quite come alive. Cook elects to keep the two most important characters, the narrator and the Commander, as ciphers for much of the novel, and the supporting cast are little more than a series of names, differentiated but in ways that are hard to keep straight. The result is a narrative that is gripping and even fascinating, but not nearly as powerful as it might have been had there been just a bit more clarity and a little less artifice.
So far it might seem like I’m dodging the question I said was fundamental, for all this could have been done in mundane historical fiction. But there’s one more element that I’ve purposefully left out until this point: the war itself. I left it out because Cook largely leaves it out of the novel. Although it’s a standalone story, Passage at Arms is set in the same world as Cook’s earlier Starfishers trilogy, so it’s possible such details are explained there. I don’t know, not having read them, but from online summaries it seems they don’t involve the Ulant war at all. Certainly there are none of the accomodations that are usually made for readers who likely (given the mediocre commercial performance of the earlier trilogy) aren’t familiar with the setting. All we get are the absolute essentials: humanity, it seems, is at war with an alien race called the Ulant.
Who are the Ulant? Why are they fighting humanity? What will happen if humanity loses? These questions aren’t really answered, beyond the narrator’s aside that they are “guys pretty much like us, only a little taller and blue, with mothlike antennae instead of ears and noses.” To the men fighting it, the war just is. Their lives are lived in present tense, just like the narration. They don’t want to think about the the past, full as it is of things lost, or the future, where they will likely die before their time.
This is where the use of science fiction becomes apparent. For most readers today, it is nearly impossible to think of World War II as anything other than a morality play. There’s Good Guys and Bad Guys. Even if the Good Guys aren’t always as good as we’d wish and the Bad Guys weren’t all as bad as their leaders, in the end it’s most people’s first (and sometimes only) example of a just war, a war where a soldier might give his life and have it really mean something. But in this respect World War II is by far the exception, not the rule. By setting his story amid a war between humans and aliens, Cook is able to tell a story in the simplest of terms. Us vs. Them. We are humans and so can readily identify with the characters, but are they the Good Guys? Is it a just war? We don’t know, and Cook’s point is that to the men on the Climber, it doesn’t matter. They didn’t start the war and they can’t end it either. All they can do is try to survive, and that means doing their job and somehow being lucky enough to live through ten missions.
Its opaque characterization means Passage at Arms isn’t a complete success, but it’s one of the best and most psychologically realistic novels of space combat I’ve ever read. Its focus is too narrow for it to be universally recommended as a must-read for any genre fan, but it’s well worth the time of anyone interested in the psychology of combat.
Tags: Neal Stephenson
When I started writing this blog, I had a strong preference for writing one review for a trilogy, not three reviews of the individual books. Most trilogies, I felt, were intended to be one work and should be evaluated as such. I’ve learned a lot about reviewing and my tastes have evolved in the intervening…yikes…eleven years, but I still like reviewing series together.
Wait long enough, though, and an exception will arrive. Seveneves is not a trilogy, it is a single novel. It’s long, but maybe not quite so long it could be split into three books. Nevertheless, it is easily divided into three parts, and these three parts really deserve to be considered separately. As a novel, it is rather less than the sum of its parts.
Neal Stephenson has a mix of registers, so it might help to note at the outset that Seveneves is told with the relatively dry, restrained prose that characterized Anathem. Stephenson is never entirely without humor, but this is far from the over the top fireworks of Snow Crash. Also like Anathem, much of the appeal here is in the detailed worldbuilding. The difference is that instead of Anathem‘s exploration of philosophy and quantum mechanics, Seveneves wants to look at the challenges humans face living in Earth orbit, now and in the future.
The novel opens with the unexplained explosion of the moon. Stephenson does his best to signpost the fact this will never be explained and follows through on that promise, something which feels a bit unsatisfying at first but doesn’t prove a serious obstacle. The moon explodes, and after just a bit of wondering, the focus is on what humanity is going to do about the significant amount of lunar material that is about to rain down on the Earth’s surface and render it uninhabitable for thousands of years.
The first third of the novel depicts humanity struggling to belatedly create a vast space program to get someone, anyone permanently into orbit where they can continue the species and recolonize Earth when the surface is once again inhabitable. I’m not a physicist, but there’s a lot of scientific detail here that sounds fairly convincing. The geopolitical details are less believable, but there’s a decent story here.
It’s a bit flat, though. Stephenson’s never been known for his characters and won’t change his reputation with this novel, but this section necessarily spends a lot of time setting up different characters and trying to get us to empathize. Mileage will vary, but I never cared all that much about any of the cast. The whole thing has a surprising (given what is actually happening) lack of urgency. Humanity is facing a doomsday clock counting down to the death of the entire species and the characters sort of putter around ineffectually.
The problem, perhaps, lies in Stephenson’s choice of characters. Foremost among them is Dr. DuBois Harris, a popular astronomer (and really a thinly disguised Dr. Neil DeGrass Tyson). At the beginning of the novel, the narrative allows him (not very plausibly, given he’s not a full-time scientist) to kind-of discover the implications of the moon’s explosion and (also not very plausbily) to brief the President of the United States, Julia Bliss Flaherty. But in the events that follow, he’s a bystander, called on to explain to the public what is going on and to appear at ceremonies.
The other main viewpoint character is Dinah MacQuarie, a robotics engineer who happens to also be an astronaut on the International Space Station. As one of only a handful of astronauts on the ISS at the start of the novel, like DuBois she is theoretically involved in the space program, but in practice mostly an observer as ISS is rapidly built out around her.
What’s missing is any perspective on the tens of thousands of scientists and engineers who are surely pulling 80 hour weeks to create a crash space program that might barely save the species but won’t save them or their families. Stephenson’s choice of characters seems to reflect an interest in political hypocrisy, for DuBois and Dinah are both public figures who present a false image of themselves on social media. But this theoretically promising subject never develops into anything interesting. Both characters feel vaguely bad about it but decide it must be done. Each one also gets a bland romance as well for a smidgen of personal drama, but then it’s back to watching the space program happen around them.
Don’t get me wrong, the space program is pretty interesting. Stephenson has thought a lot about it and few science fiction readers will not find it amusing–perhaps even fascinating, depending on their interest in the subject–to watch him spend national treasuries on rockets and fly them around.
The second part of the novel is set entirely in space after the disaster is fully underway and depicts the embattled survivors trying to overcome a host of obstacles both political and environmental. The on-screen cast grows to include a broader range of stereotypes: the tough Russian, the lying, self-centered politician, the honest but naive scientist, the hard-working engineer.
Throughout this part there is an ugly undertone stemming from the lifeboat morality of the entire space program. If only a few can be saved, who should be chosen? Why, surely it is the scientists and engineers, the same people who are always valorized in Neal Stephenson novels (and in science fiction more generally), since their skills are needed to keep humanity alive! The story swiftly creates a division between Good Guys, who are the conscientious scientists and engineers just trying to make everything work and who, it doesn’t let us forget, deserve to be there, and the Bad Guys, who get in the way by cynically trying to get power for themselves. The bad guys are without exception people who, in the view of the narrative, don’t deserve to be there. This includes the US president, who used her power to secure herself a place on the lifeboat, but also most of the young people who weren’t part of the initial effort to bootstrap the ISS. These theoretically deserving people were chosen by a political process and therefore are suspect as well.
It’s bad enough that you took some deserving scientist or engineer’s spot, the book seems to say to these newcomers, so be grateful you’re here at all and do what your betters tell you to do. Because in one of the least likely decisions among many improbable elements, Earth authorities (first among them the conniving, dishonest US President) put scientists in charge of the space colony. They benevolently rule from the ISS while most of the survivors are spread out among a trailing swarm of small spacecraft. When the political situation decays and the swarm refuses to accept the authority of their masters in the ISS, the narrative blames this on the swarm’s naivete and the machinations of the cartoonishly evil US president. No blame whatsoever is assigned to the allegedly charismatic leader of ISS Markus Leuker, to his chief lieutenant Ivy, or to DuBois, who is supposedly a great communicator but makes almost no effort to keep the ordinary survivors informed and then is shocked, shocked when they fall into believing pseudo-scientific plans. It’s not the leaders’ fault, the book seems to say, because ultimately these are well-intentioned Good Guys who are so good they can’t even conceive of anyone else not sharing their benevolent goals. They’re no match for the vast self-centereness and political superpowers of the US President.
Yet in spite of all this, the second section of the book develops into a very compelling story. After the surprisingly low-key and unreasonably upbeat first third of the novel, out of nowhere the second section takes an incredibly bleak tone. Not only do we finally see that Stephenson isn’t going to give Earth any salvation, we also experience firsthand just how terrifyingly dangerous it is to spend any amount of time in low Earth orbit. Micrometeorites rupture hulls, supplies of food and oxygen-creating algae dwindle, and people are poisoned by radiation from the sun, Van Allen belts, and their own spacecraft. Mistakes and accidents compound and the survivors’ situation gets worse to the point that all hope is lost. Then, it gets worse again. And then still worse! There are some strange pacing decisions where time skips forward unexpectedly, passing over some major events and allowing some seemingly important characters to die off screen, but what is shown has a propulsive pace. Characters struggle and die, and with each death the end of the human species seems to draw nearer.
This golden nugget of narrative, buried though it is within a clunky shell of infodumps and contrived events, is so good it’s worth reading the novel to get it. Too bad, then, that the last third of the book is an unmitigated disaster. Jumping forward a tremendous amount of time to when humanity is prospering again, it showcases a vast space civilization locked in a cold war. Thousands of years later, it seems the descendents of the previous section’s Good Guys are…wait for it…still the Good Guys. No points for guessing who the bad guys are. The story, which is very thinly distributed now between vast sections that are content to simply describe huge space stations and orbital mechanics, involves a mission to the slightly recolonized Earth to investigate reports of humans who allegedly survived the moon disaster without going into space.
This theoretically interesting investigation plays out tediously and with a minimum of drama. None of the characters believe there could really be any other survivors, but as readers we know there are, because otherwise why would we be shown the investigation? Worse, we already can guess who they are, because in the most contrived part of a massive novel full of contrivances, there are no less than two distinct other surviving groups that were each founded by someone related closely to a viewpoint character on the original ISS.
Readers who are really interested in what enormous mechanisms a far future humanity might build in space might still enjoy this section anyway for the exposition. Certainly the space science struck me, a total non-expert, as almost entirely convincing (the one doubt I have comes from the suspicious repetition of a few pet ideas, swarms and chains). But there’s also a lot of time spent on the dubious social dynamics of the two future societies, and here the worldbuilding is less than convincing.
The first problem is the narrative is obsessed with race. I just opened the book to the final third and literally the first sentence I laid eyes on was applying a racial stereotype: “like all [of his race], he put his family name first, because it was somehow more logical”. It would be an interesting exercise to count how many times a behavior is attributed to race in this section, but not interesting enough for me to actually do it. Suffice to say, it happens constantly. At first I wondered if some point was being made about the social construction of race, something David Anthony Durham did to great effect in his Acacia series, but instead it is made clear these races are the products of genetic engineering and therefore this racial behavior is almost entirely genetically determined. This is a legitimate thing to posit about the story’s races given their genetic engineering technology, but it’s aesthetically displeasing due to its close similarity to ignorant claims about the races of the present. Readers who don’t care about that will still find it tiresome, as nearly every page slows the narrative’s slow pace still further with constant asides about the racial origins of this or that character’s minor tic.
The second and perhaps bigger problem is that glacial pace. There have been many great novels written with a slow pace, and if this third section was a novel by itself it wouldn’t be quite so much of a defect. But this is just the third section of a larger novel, a third section that follows the extremely tense and bleak second section. Compared to what has gone before, it seems so slow that it’s stationary.
Additionally, whereas the survival of the human race was endangered throughout the second section and there was a real sense everything might be lost, the stakes in the third section are quite low. Again, the cold war plot might have seemed important in its own novel, but now it seems utterly trivial. Perhaps in some other universe there’s an interesting point being made, because there’s an interesting contrast here between the survival of the species against petty political concerns and showing how the “great events” that the characters (and often we, in our lives) think are so important are really insubstantial when viewed through a world-historical lens.
But the novel doesn’t seem to have noticed this contrast, much less orchestrated it. None of the characters we meet seem to care all that much about the war, either. And with the vast majority of the third section’s narrative is given over to description of space stations, aircraft, and other technological toys, there’s no time to provide any sociological detail beyond the onslaught of racial stereotypes, resulting in contradictions like continued assertions that one Bad Guy race are all masters of psychological manipulation yet the Bad Guy faction’s propaganda channel is a cheesy farce clearly based on hilariously ineffective Communist propaganda of the twentieth century.
And so Seveneves concludes by drifting through towering forests of exposition carpeted with an undergrowth of small events until finally, as in Stephenson’s previous book, REAMDE, everyone comes together for climactic gunfight described in tedious detail. It’s not nearly so long as REAMDE‘s, at least, and once the Good Guys have of course triumphed, representatives from all the different cultures of human survivors come together and–I wish I was kidding–make hotel accommodations. The end. Somehow this is simultaneously a damp squib of an ending and also full of the sort of contrived coincidences that are usually crutches to setup something genuinely exciting. Stephenson’s irritating need to pair off characters at the end of his books also makes an appearance.
Seveneves is a difficult book to rate and recommend because its quality is so uneven. The middle section, as I’ve said, is a great piece of science fiction despite some imperfections, yet it can’t be read without reading the so-so first part for context. And no one who has read that far will want to stop, however well-advised they would be to do so. And the fact is, for readers who enjoy infodumps about spaceships there’s a lot to like throughout, even in the third section. Over the years I have heard at least one person mention every single Neal Stephenson novel as their favorite, from The Big U through REAMDE, and I think Seveneves will attract more adherents than many, perhaps even more than my own favorite, Anathem. Perhaps I should be grateful, because if books like this could be boiled down to a simple thumbs-up or star rating, there would be no reason to read long reviews!
Tags: Liu Cixin
To continue getting caught up, we move on to May of this year, when I reviewed Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem at Strange Horizons.
Tags: Peter Watts
This blog has been neglected as of late, but I’ve still been reviewing for Strange Horizons. Normally I link to those reviews more or less as they are posted there, but in this case the signal seems to have taken a long time to arrive. I’m not sure where WordPress’s servers are, but I don’t think this blog is a fifth of a parsec away from Strange Horizons as the crow flies. Perhaps that’s how far the signal had to go due to an inefficient path (bouncing around inside my head).
I’ve read but never reviewed Peter Watt’s 2006 novel Blindsight. That’s too bad, because it’s a fascinating book that really deserves a lot of discussion and scrutiny. Hopefully I will reread it in a year or two and write about it. In the meantime, I reviewed his long-awaited next novel Echopraxia in Strange Horizons back in October of last year.
Tags: Lev Grossman
Lev Grossman’s 2009 novel The Magicians introduces us to Quentin Coldwater, a star high school student in New York who is in the process of applying to the usual Ivy League schools. Despite his academic achievement and seemingly bright prospects, Quentin isn’t happy. The world seems boring and meaningless compared to the imaginary land of Fillory, a Narnia-like world described in his favorite series of children’s fantasy novels. Something is missing for Quentin, but he thinks he’s found it when he is unexpectedly accepted into Brakebills, a secret college where a select few are taught magic.
It feels vaguely like cheating to start referring to influnces this early in a review, but the fact is much time can be saved by saying that yes, Brakebills is intended to be a “realistic” magic college answer to Harry Potter’s fantasy magic children’s school. It’s true that Brakebills teaches magic, but its magic takes exhausting study to learn and, once learned, isn’t really all that wondrous. In their downtime, students don’t go on adventures, they get drunk and have tangled romances. But despite its prominence in the first novel’s marketing, offering a gritty take on Harry Potter is only a side interest, almost an afterthought, and so counterintuitively Quentin graduates midway through the trilogy’s first book and Brakebills is left in the rearview mirror.
The Magicians is really about Quentin’s search for happiness. Quentin doesn’t find it in his mundane high school world, so he goes to Brakebills. Although diverting, he doesn’t find it there either and gradutes. Living as a young magician in New York City proves even less satisfactory, so he and his friends end up looking for and finding Fillory, which even magicians don’t believe is real and therefore inevitably is. But just as Brakebills was a gritty Hogwarts, Fillory turns out to be a gritty Narnia. Rather than the storybook wonderland Quentin expects, Fillory turns out to have just as much pain and suffering as the real world.
If you’re reading this blog you’re probably acutely aware that “gritty” is nothing new and is actually getting close to the cliché stage of literary development. For some of us who have read a lot of fantasy, The Magicians‘ triumphant reception from mainstream reviewers was frustrating because they didn’t seem to know the fantasy genre is more than just Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling. Certainly that seems to be the extent to which Quentin and his friends have read fantasy: they have all read the fake-Lewis “Fillory” novels and they frequently drop references to Tolkien and Rowling, but they are absolutely shocked when the real Fillory turns out to be more China Miéville than CS Lewis. Prominent as he is in the genre, Miéville is not all that well-known outside of it, but even a familiarity with George R. R. Martin would have been a big help.
Still, it’s easy to see why The Magicians made a splash. Grossman has a keen eye for character, a gift for creating amusing yet telling anecdotes, and an ability to write a whole novel without allowing the quality of his individual sentences to decay. In other words, he’s a very good writer. Although he uses the third person, he lets Quentin’s acerbic wit seep into the narrative voice, making otherwise bland passages enjoyable. Although the story becomes very predictable once you understand what he’s up to, it’s also unusually accessible since it’s a reaction to books that have all become blockbuster movies in the last decade or so.
Unusually for a fantasy novel that crosses over to the mainstream, the main obstacle to the novel’s accessibility is not the presence of magic and monsters but the protagonist, Quentin. He’s privileged in nearly every possible way and then a few impossible ones too, but he spends the novel chronically unhappy and, worse, unwilling to exert himself to make something out of his life. He’s an inevtiably polarizing character. Some people find him infuriating and completely unsympathetic while others find in him compelling echoes of either themselves or people they’ve known. To some degree this is a testimony to Grossman’s ability to evoke an unlikeable character. It may be useful to note here that in interviews, Grossman has mentioned that Quentin is suffering from depression, and perhaps this would be obvious to someone with a bit more personal experience with it, but the text never makes this explicit (about Quentin, at least—The Magician King is completely clear that Julia and her friends suffer from depression).
While I didn’t identify much with Quentin, what pulled me through the first book was an interest in the philosophical point The Magicians seemed to be making. Brakebills is magical but not special, Fillory is even more magical but still not special, it’s just another place. Fantasy is just one tool Quentin uses to escape the existential emptiness of his life. Alcohol is another, and Grossman seemed to want to make an equivalence between alcoholism and the obsessive fantasy fan. No matter where he turns, Quentin comes up empty in his search for meaning because the problem is not in the world around him but himself. Meanwhile, his dissatisfaction has hurt himself and those around him, for although he comes through his first Fillory experience more or less physically unscathed, his friends are not so fortunate. Read this way, the first book’s seemingly happy ending is actually a very bleak one where Quentin relapses into an interest in Fillory, something he’d already found held no answer to his problems.
So far so good, I thought. The hidden world of magic and the more hidden world of Fillory have both been considered and rejected as solutions to Quentin’s crisis. Now how will Grossman build off that? The advantage of waiting for series to finish is that I could proceed directly to the sequels.
The second book is split between two viewpoint characters, Quentin again and his childhood friend Julia, who took the entrance exam for Brakebills only to be rejected. Julia proves to be a more entertaining protagonist than Quentin in that having decided what she wants—a place in the secret world of magic—she works tirelessly to get there. She claws her way up through the posers and fakers that line the fringe of the magical world until she finds a community where she fits in. Unsatisfied with the magic they know, she and her friends turn to religion. This isn’t a bad idea, since in Julia’s world gods are as real as magic and statistically speaking contact with the divine must be the number one source of meaning in human lives historically and even today. But Julia has made the same genre spectrum mistake Quentin and his better educated friends made: like the first book, The Magician King is closer to Miéville than Lewis, and that means gods are just as dangerously capricious as magic, if not more so. Since this is conceptually the same journey Quentin traveled in the first book, there’s not a lot new with Julia’s story, but it’s the best executed of Grossman’s several takes on the idea. Julia’s struggles are compelling, her achievements earned, and the ultimate disaster horrifying.
But that’s only half the book. Quentin’s half seems at first like another repeat: having found life in Fillory—surprise!—unsatisfying, Quentin decides to go on an adventure, apparently forgetting that the last time he went on an adventure it turned out to be miserable and a close friend died. This time, it turns out to be miserable and a friend—one who is, in truth, not all that close to him—dies. That might be an improved outcome, but it feels like the story is running in place. Worse, there’s an odd lack of self-awareness in the nature of the adventure. The old gods are going to take magic away from humanity in all worlds, we are told. This is likely to destroy Fillory, magical fantasyland that it is, and leave magicians on Earth stuck without powers just like the rest of us. The first question that comes to mind is: so what? What has magic ever done for Quentin other than make him miserable? What has it done for anyone? Alas, no one in a story full of contrarian characters questions the necessity to save magic. Then, it turns out that saving magic is accomplished by collecting some plot coupons in Fillory and then going Dawn Treader-style to the edge of the world to trade them in. Fair enough, but why do some Fillorian keys affect magic throughout the multiverse? How can a few puny mortals do anything to stop the old gods, portrayed as vast and remote? Why is Ember, god of Fillory, on the side of the humans rather than the gods? Wasn’t a major project of the first book to take special wonderland Fillory and demystifiy it, making it just one world in a teeming multiverse?
These questions are never answered. And really, one suspects the answer is that the author cared more about what his characters were feeling than what they were doing and why. The result is a trilogy where the characters—within each book, at least—are consistent, nuanced, and realistic, while the world around them feels arbitrary and two-dimensional. This problem becomes worse in the third book, The Magician’s Land, which has some very satisfying character moments—Quentin finally comes to terms with himself and the world, and previous side characters Eliot and Janet are rounded out in interesting ways—but whose plot starts out contrived and eventually becomes incomprehensible.
The Magician’s Land opens with Fillory once again in danger of being destroyed, this time because it just so happens that after countless centuries Fillory is nearing its destined end just a few years after the events of the previous novels. This fact is communicated through ominous portents and dire prophecies. Multiple characters ask: Why must the world end? It just does, the answer comes back. Partly the apocalypse consists of the world falling apart, things like stars falling and the moon’s orbit decaying, but there’s also an enormous battle involving all of Fillory’s magical inhabitants. Absolutely no reason is provided why this should happen. Janet, who flies around giving the reader a play-by-play account, seems to think all worlds just have to end in a battle.
What really seems to be happening is that Lev Grossman is emptying his toybox and having one last hurrah. It’s not polite to act as if we know what an author was thinking, but surely these are not books that could have been written by someone who didn’t love Narnia as a child, so he can be forgiven for wanting to have his own go at sending Fillory out with a bang just like The Last Battle. He clearly has a good time writing it, and the many readers out there who like Fillory either for its own sake or out of nostalgia are going to have a good time reading it. Dour killjoys like myself who want there to be a reason for the toy soldiers to fight are left hanging. This is just the worst manifestation of a problem that underlies the entire trilogy. Fillory is a fundamentally superficial creation, the form of Narnia without its substance. Narnia ended with a battle because it was situated within a Christian universe and therefore shared its eschatology with that of the book of Revelations. Throughout the Narnia series, Aslan leads the forces of good against evil, so of course at the climax there has to be a big battle. In Fillory, Ember and Umber are deeply ambiguous “gods” without much obvious power and even less claim to moral legitimacy, more worth fighting against than fighting for, and there’s no metaphysical villain, just an angry magician who had a bad childhood who gets disposed of in the first book.
Readers like me must simply accept that Grossman is not all that interested in cosmology, and that if we want a reply to Narnia’s underlying worldview we must turn to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, which whatever its other flaws was written with an eye for philosophical rigor. The Magicians and its sequels talk about magic, keys, and gods only as stage dressing to dramatize Quentin and friends’ search for their place in the world. Taken on those terms, the final message is surprisingly mixed. After spending three books looking for meaning outside himself, Quentin finally learns to value his own feelings and emotions. The narrative makes an unusually strong allegorical connection between emotion and magic, one that renders the previous stories incomprehensible if applied at all broadly. Since most people have no ability to do magic, are they emotionless? Were the old gods trying to take away everyone’s feelings? And so on. Meanwhile, Julia, the character who seemed irrevocably scarred by her contact with a god, finds peace through…a god. And Eliot finds his purpose in Fillory, rather in contradiction to the first book’s message that Fillory was no help to anyone. If there’s a message here, it’s that different people find purpose in their lives in different ways, which is true, but also a bit tame compared to the broadsides The Magicians seemed to be taking against popular fiction.
Hopefully I’ve made it clear that there’s a lot here to like. The Magicians is a well-written if bleak fantasy that’s worth reading by anyone with a moderate tolerance for bleakness in their reading. Those who like Fillory in general or Quentin in particular should continue on to the rest of the trilogy, but everyone else can stop after the first book and feel assured they’ve gotten the message.