Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold

June 26, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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In books, movies, and other forms of popular art there are works which are nauseatingly popular. I don’t know how well the Miles books sell (but they are all in print, I believe) but with the Internet’s chattering class they have armies of fans. Approaching extremely popular work for the first time, I am always cynically predisposed to not liking it. What does anyone else know anyhow? Depending on why something is popular, of course, I am often won over anyway. Such was the case with the Miles books. When I first read Shards of Honor and Barrayar I was unimpressed. Then I read the first Miles books and was finally won over. Her writing, I felt, improved so that I didn’t mind it (although I still don’t see why it is so often exalted), and Miles truly is a very likable character. I read a couple of the books, not quite addicted but not really stopping for anything else either, until I bounced off Mirror Dance.

My reviews for those earlier books generally go something like, “Well, it’s a Miles book, so it’s a good lighthearted romp.” My reasons for giving up almost immediately on Mirror Dance are a matter of taste: I really don’t like watching characters slowly get themselves into ever-deeper trouble, as happens at the beginning of the book. This sort of empathy with fictional characters is a somewhat embarrassing reason for not liking a book, so I decided to come back to it.

The fact is, I was halfway through Mirror Dance when I realized what was really bothering me was a matter of expectations, for it is not light like the previous Miles books were. In fact, for long stretches it is very serious, with only occasional winks to Bujold’s fan club. I still feel the writing is clunky at times, but these times are rare enough they can be overlooked. But what surprised me was in taking Miles seriously there really is a lot of interesting material. I saw his alter ego as wish fulfillment before, but now it seems to be about a lot more. It’s someone who through force of will bends the world away from what it really is into what he imagines. It’s someone who plays two roles and isn’t sure which one he really is.

Although Mirror Dance goes into these themes in more detail than the previous books, the ramifications of Miles’ life are not new, so perhaps some fault lies with me, the reader, for not having noticed it earlier. Still, Mirror Dance forces the reader to confront the realities of Miles’ various personas. To my mind it is the first of the Miles saga to really aspire for something more than engaging reading. That it is not wholly successful in its psychology is not a huge problem, nor is its disappointing shirking of some of the military ethics issues that earlier books in the series admirably faced (in particular, I felt the ethics of medical triage by rank…a crucial plot point…needed a bit more examination than just one or two characters mentioning they had vague bad feelings about it). People who liked the previous books, and that should be most people, will find much to like here and maybe some deeper themes besides. Readers new to Bujold should, in my opinion, start with Warrior’s Apprentice.

The Eyes of the Overworld by Jack Vance

June 23, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Unlike The Dying Earth which takes place in the same world, The Eyes of the Overworld is a novel and not a short story collection, but it is easy to forgive the reader for suspecting otherwise. Like many writers in science fiction’s short story era, Vance has here written a novel whose structure can be described as profoundly episodic. There is, from what I can tell, a little more going on under the hood here than in Dying Earth…the setting remains impressive, the writing remains strong, and now there are some real ideas worth considering, starting with the objects named in the title. Unfortunately, whatever gains this helped the book make in my mind were erased by my distaste for the character. There’s nothing wrong with antiheroes on the face of it, I suppose, but making the reader like a book but hate the protagonist is a difficult task for any author. It is also a device unsuited for an episodic story, in my opinion.

Of course, a cursory search of the Internet will reveal many people who are huge fans of this book and its main character. It’s not worth going into spoilers to discuss it in detail, but suffice to say I was not won over. Ultimately, this is the sort of book which justifies the existence of the word “picaresque”. Don’t worry if you don’t know what that means (“depicting in realistic, often humorous detail the adventures of a roguish hero of low social degree living by his or her wits in a corrupt society”)…picaresque stories are so out of style that the word has for the most part fallen into disuse. I suppose I am nothing if not a product of my culture, since I feel like they are out of style for a reason. Recommended only for those who have especially liked Vance’s other work.

Dying Earth by Jack Vance

June 22, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Jack Vance is considered in some quarters to be one of science fiction’s great literary authors. It is easy to see why: he is a writer possessing creativity and evocative power to a degree that is much rarer in science fiction authors than it should be, given the nature of the genre. Vance’s stories in the Dying Earth setting are among his most widely known and influential. I absolutely love Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun which owes much of its setting to Vance. So why does this just get three stars from me?

The first problem is Vance, like many writers of his era (the stories in Dying Earth date back to around 1950) is very much a short story author. Unlike some of his other work, this book is really just a short story collection where the stories share a common setting and, occassionally, common characters. The stories are pretty good, thanks to Vance’s qualities I mention above. But if there was any depth there, I could not detect it (and indeed the only reason I have any doubt is the notoriously subtle Gene Wolfe’s liking for Vance). Both the novelette The Dragon Masters and the novella Last Castle that I reviewed a week or two ago had a great deal more going on than these stories do. I’m sure the setting and writing were amazing…in 1950. While the stories have a certain historical interest due to their influence, I really don’t think it is worth the effort to seek them out.

2005 Hugo Award nominees: Novelettes

June 15, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in Fantasy, Science Fiction, Short Stories | 2 Comments
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I’m not going to review the other two Hugo categories, because the novels I have read I’ve already reviewed, and a couple of the novellas are unavailable. However, here’s my thoughts on the stories nominated in the novelette category. This time around no spoilers so don’t worry about reading them. As before they are all available online. I was very disappointed in the quality of the short stories, so I was delighted to find the novelettes are much, much better.

  • “Biographical Notes to ‘A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes’ by Benjamin Rosenbaum” — I was not optimistic when I saw the title as it seemed to scream, “Something twee this way comes.” Well, the story is definitely caught up in being cute, but unlike most such stories, it is very cleverly written. I’m not a huge fan of alternate history, but this is only superficially in that genre. The ending doesn’t 100% work for me, but it was nevertheless both an engaging and a thoughtful story.
  • “The Clapping Hands of God” — This is probably a favorite to win, and although it is not my choice, I won’t be disappointed if it does. My only trouble was at this point it is really difficult to do a first contact story without having it feel like a retread. I found the plot painfully predictable. Fortunately, the characters and writing kept the story interesting. Flynn actually does something very sneaky here by making the human civilization one that is dominated by Islam. As the explorers in the story are slowly piecing together the alien culture, the (western) reader is piecing together the explorer’s culture, using exactly the same kind of observational hints. I can’t evaluate his portrayal of Islamic culture for accuracy, but I found it fascinating. Definitely recommended even if the plot is more of the same.
  • “The Faery Handbag” — Probably the weakest story of the bunch (though at least as good as the best nominated short story), this is a pretty simple little fairy tale that doesn’t really do anything to rise above the conventions of the genre. It’s a nice story, but not really thought provoking on the level of some of the other novelettes.
  • “The People of Sand and Slag” — Reading some reactions online, it seems a lot of people were turned off by this story because the characters seemed inhuman, transformed by their dystopic, ruinous future into horrifying un-people. Me, I thought it an interesting take on cultural taboos. We perceive these people and their world very negatively, but only because it is so different. No one from our society could be happy in theirs, but they were doing just fine. No doubt they would have the same problem with our society. Of course, the author may well have just been trying to do a dystopia, but that’s why it is good to just put the story out there and let the reader take the side.
  • “The Voluntary State” — This was my favorite story and if I were voting it would be my choice. A society warped by technology and people trying to cope…that’s what science fiction is all about. Wrap this in excellent writing and some decent character work and you have what modern science fiction is all about. I could nitpick a little bit how the last third of the story is handled, but honestly this was the most enjoyable piece of short fiction I’ve read in a very long time.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

June 13, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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I had to think long and hard about rating Stardust. Generally I feel like a book that succeeds in everything it sets out to do should get 4 stars. But I can’t shake the feeling that Gaiman sets the degree of difficulty far too low here. Stardust is a nice fairy tale, and I believe that’s exactly what he wanted to write. The book is completely devoid of anything beyond the superficiality that one associates with fairy tales. It’s practically a stereotype. Of course, such eminences as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien are famous for defending fairy tales, but their precepts for good stories are not followed. Even if you don’t agree with their arguments, I don’t think too many people who are interested in most of the books I review on this site would find much to appreciate in Stardust except perhaps as something to read to their children (and maybe not even that, since while the novel is juvenile in style it has some scenes clearly intended for adults). For a good adult version of a fairy tale, people are better served with Gaiman’s own Neverwhere.

War of the Flowers by Tad Williams

June 6, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment
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This is a very solid fantasy novel. No one will ever mistake it for a great book and I doubt it will show up very high on any lists at years end or anywhere else, but it delivers a consistent level of quality. Most of the time these days, when I read something I tend to find that the author is very good at one area while quite lacking somewhere else. Williams is something of a jack-of-all-trades, as his novel has good writing, good plot, good setting, etc. That it is not exceptional in any category shouldn’t be held against it. The story is of the “crossing into faerie” subgenre. The big idea of the story is that faerie has a concept of science. There are railroads, power plants, and so forth. But faerie’s “science” is our “magic”. On the surface this is kind of cute, I guess, but in the details…well, Williams doesn’t explore the details, so you have to pretty much take it or leave it. While I would have liked a little more detail in the politics, science, and so forth, the book works as presented and maybe it’s for the better. It is reassuring to see a standalone novel that moves at a brisk pace, not least because Williams has been guilty of the overweight epic as recently as his last work (Otherland). While the book was missing the startling idea, unusual character, or surprising twist that would make me recommend it wholeheartedly, you could do a whole lot worse if you are looking for solid if procedural fantasy, especially in the era of editorless n-book series.

2005 Hugo Award Nominees: Short Stories

June 6, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in Fantasy, Science Fiction, Short Stories | Leave a comment
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I won’t be casting a ballot for this year’s Hugos, but for once I am making an attempt to at least read most of the stories. Thankfully, this year all the stories shorter than novel length are available online. I started with the short stories. I read very few short stories, so I am not well-versed in past stories, what’s been done, etc. NOTE: Spoilers ahead.

  • “The Best Christmas Ever” — I would categorize this story as “solid”. Human as pet in simulated environment is hardly a new theme, but the story takes it in some interesting directions. I thought the ending lacked oomph. Others called it uplifting or somehow hopeful despite the grim situation, but I thought it was depressing. For the ending to be happy, I demand the protagonist acquire some sort of meaning or direction in his life beyond just surviving. Not a bad story, but IMO not award quality.
  • “Decisions” — I would sum this up as a bad Star Trek episode. Not only did it not make much sense, I found the alien philosophy (which, I thought, the author seemed to paint sympathetically) to be ridiculous. The idea that the goals and motives of a race (a race, mind you, not even a culture) would be static and thus unreformable is absurd. Also, the idea that humanity is exceptional in this regard is also pretty lame. Definitely not a fan of this one.
  • “A Princess of Earth” — Some people found the use of Burroughs’ John Carter to be charming. It’s been a while since I’ve read any of the Mars books, but it sure didn’t sound like John Carter to me. I wasn’t too impressed with the main character’s disfunction, either. Or the solution, for that matter. Or, as I’m sure is clear, the story.
  • “Shed Skin” — This was the most typical of the five stories in structure, but it really fell down in content. Ugh. I’m not sure what was the worst part of the story. The “shed skin” concept destroyed any suspense of disbelief right away. I can’t imagine a society at all like ours allowing this. Then there were pages of tedious “As you know Bob” exposition that covered very basic ramifications of mind-copying in gruesome detail, not trusting the reader to have the wit to understand unless told clearly and in simple terms. Then came the hostage negotiator who knew nothing about hostage negotiating. His ineptness, however, was matched by the sniper. The ending was, though bland and predictable, at least inoffensive. Of course, watch it win…
  • “Travels with My Cats” — This was ably written but, if you ask me, not a story. Although I’m not found of horribly disfunctional characters this one was slightly interesting. The central conceit of the story was simple and little was done with it. I guess this story lived and died by its ability to jerk the reader’s emotions, and it didn’t make the grade with me, so it didn’t come off too well.
  • “No Award” — Definitely my vote. Believe it or not, I do like some short stories. I’ve read some very good stories by Dick, Sturgeon, Wolfe, etc. But…man, I really hope for the sake of Analog and Asimov’s subscribers that these aren’t really representative of the best of the year. Eesh.

The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance

June 4, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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This is the first book I had read by Jack Vance, but I was familiar with his reputation as the favorite author of some people whose opinion I really respect (Gene Wolfe, Michael Dirda). I didn’t really know what to expect given the generic fantasy title and cover art. I certainly didn’t expect what I got, which was a very subtle and clever science fiction story that made use of bio-engineering in a way I would consider impressive in a current work. And it’s from 1962. The portrayal of alien thought process was also absolutely top-notch.

Basically, the story is everything people claim the Asimov/Clarke Golden Age was, but wasn’t actually. Sure, those stories were inventive, but the invention often didn’t age well. The wooden dialogue and clunky prose seems hopelessly awkward now. On the evidence of this story, Vance was five times the writer that Asimov and Clarke were in terms of mechanics and at least their equal when it came to invention. I recommend it highly. My copy includes a novella called “The Last Castle” which is almost up to the same standard.

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