Iron Council by China Miéville

July 28, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment
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It’s always disappointing when a young, up-and-coming author seems to take a step back. Since in the SF genre in particular old authors have a well-established tendency to fall off the literary turnip truck, fans watch hawkishly for any signs of weakness on the part of their favorite authors. I wouldn’t call Iron Council a sign of weakness per se. Miéville didn’t take a step back with this novel so much as convince me that The Scar might have been a bit of an accident. Miéville’s strengths as a writer have always been his vigorous imagination and his evocative description. Both these traits are again on display here, but Miéville set the standard so high in Perdido Street Station and The Scar that I think any story that involved New Crobuzon again was bound to be a bit of a disappointment…Miéville is most exciting when he is blazing new territory.

What makes The Scar Miéville’s best work is its interesting characters and tight plot. Perdido was a bloated, loosely woven novel where the main plot didn’t begin until hundreds of pages into the book. Iron Council is also a bloated, loosely woven novel. The plot begins more or less right away, but moves exceedingly slowly for a long time. It’s also a fair amount shorter than the previous two Bas Lag books and has more text that feels like padding than both put together. There’s nothing wrong with a slow buildup, but unfortunately Miéville isn’t able to follow through. The resolution, which I will not discuss here in this non-spoiler review, was not satisfying.

The other characteristic of Iron Council is it is Miéville’s most ideological book yet. Many of his fans probably did not realize he is a Marxist, but it’s pretty obvious here. There’s nothing wrong with holding such political beliefs or letting them tint your narrative as they did in his previous books. However, here he brings his ideas to the forefront, and if this book wasn’t so focused on New Crobuzon at the expense of the Council mentioned in the title it would almost be a utopian novel along the lines of Walden Two. The trouble with all of this is Miéville writes fantasy. The genre gives his imagination carte blanche. However, by introducing strong political themes he forces the reader to evaluate them within the context of his world. Suddenly his world doesn’t hold together nearly as well as it did. I’m not going to try to do a point by point critique here, but some questions: Where does the food for New Crobuzon’s extremely dense population come from if the surrounding land is sparsely populated wastes? How does the ruthlessly totalitarian government of New Crobuzon find enough willingly complicit servants to staff its massive bureaucratic and enforcement mechanisms? Finally, and being vague to not spoil anything, the city seems to be able to produce troops out of a hat in the last third of the book, despite supposedly being on the wrong end of a gruesome and morale-sapping war.

Iron Council is not a bad book, but I hold Miéville to high standards. His character work here (not discussed due to spoilers) is perhaps the worst of his four published novels, and it may also be the least imaginative of his books. Nevertheless it is still good enough relative to the field that it is a book I would recommend, though not as anyone’s first Miéville book. Any of his previous three would be a better place to start.

Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod

July 24, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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I had a pretty tepid reaction to Macleod’s first novel, The Star Fraction, but this book, while still not worthy of the adulation the author receives in some quarters, is definitely a step up. This time around, in a format faintly reminiscent of Use of Weapons, the book is spends half its time in the “present” situation and half its time in its sweeping biography of the life and times of its main character, Jonathan Wilde. Although this is a sequel it is my preferred kind of sequel…set in the same universe but not just an extension of the previous book’s story and characters. Wilde, if I remember correctly, was mentioned a few times in Star Fraction but that was it. The events of the first book are referenced but so nebulously they won’t at all be spoiled. As for Stone Canal, it ably employs nearly every trope of the cyberpunk genre but the world building isn’t quite as strong as in the first book…it covers too much ground in time and space to flesh everything out. Fortunately, the character work makes up for it. As before, just about every character (the self-proclaimed apolitical anarchist main character included) are so political they seem like another species. It’s a strange effect here because their politics has very little to do with anything. That, I think, is why Macleod gets away with putting so much politics in his books…all of his characters are such extremists the reader can’t believe the author would hold these beliefs (not to mention how many different political philosophies are represented) so it never seems like preaching. The biggest problem with Stone Canal is the central conflict isn’t too much of a conflict and in the end is resolved extremely easily. After 250 pages of buildup the story is resolved in a couple pages. It was all much too abrupt for me.

Brothers in Arms by Lois McMaster Bujold

July 5, 2004 at 12:01 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Another Miles book. While at times it feels a little mindless, Bujold isn’t afraid to ground her light, often humorous stories in a little bit of ethics. That–well, that and the overall quality of the writing–is why I enjoy the Miles books far above the usual stuff from this subgenre.

Borders of Infinity by Lois McMaster Bujold

July 5, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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This is a book that reviews itself. If you haven’t read any of the Miles books, start with Warrior’s Apprentice and see what you think. If you don’t like them, probably you should give this a pass. If you do like them, definitely read it. Let’s face it. The Miles books are pretty boilerplate stuff. So far Bujold has been remarkably consistent in mixing together decent characterization, clever writing, and some fun tropes. It’s not Faulkner, but I like it. I’m a sucker for secret identity stories done right, and Bujold is very good. These stories (it’s three stories collected under–I’ll say something negative at last–a cursory and redundant framing device) are a little bit darker than what went before, but it’s nothing really out of the ordinary. Miles remains the supreme con artist with a conscience. Fun, light reading.

The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge

July 3, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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This book has every story short of novel length Vinge has published (well, had published when this book was published) except “True Names”. This last omission is understandable, since it has been frequently collected elsewhere, but also unfortunate, since by all accounts the essays it usually is bound up with aren’t that special. Also, “True Names” is better than anything in this collection by a considerable margin. That’s not to say this is a bad collection, and I should point out I really am not much of a short story person. I’ve read a few collections but with a few notable exceptions short fiction just doesn’t grab me the way novels do. By his own admission Vinge is more of a short story writer than a novelist, but unlike other authors so described his short fiction is not nearly good as the two novels he has written in the last twenty years. Vinge is a clever technologist and knowledgeable both about science and about science fiction, so he definitely has his moments. However, his character work is not any better here, and the short length doesn’t give him the chance to weave his invariably fascinating worlds around the reader. The settings of these short stories are almost all as engaging as his novels, but they are over before the reader can really get into them. Meanwhile, crude characters work through standard plots. It makes for a decent collection but nothing more. Vinge has brief notes preceding and following most of the stories, but they are mainly notable for his unflattering honesty about the quality of some of the stories.

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