A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold

July 28, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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This is, like Komarr and Cetaganda, a somewhat “light” Miles book. In fact, the genre is really romantic comedy. If the idea makes you squeamish, well, if you like the Miles books, there’s more than enough here to make this a great book for you. In a rather unusual move for the series, Bujold uses a narrative with many viewpoints. From a plot and character perspective, nothing really happens (that wasn’t obvious from the end of the last book, at least), but it’s thoroughly well written and enjoyable. Like Memory there is a bit of intrigue half-heartedly tacked on at the end, and it doesn’t entirely work, but it doesn’t really matter. As with all the Miles books, the standard disclaimers apply: if you didn’t like the Miles books, you won’t like this one. If you haven’t read any Miles books, start elsewhere. I recommend Warrior’s Apprentice.

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Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

July 23, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Let’s get two things out of the way. First, this is an outstanding collection of short fiction. I strongly recommend it to anyone. Second, it fell just short of getting a five star rating, and since I think it is so good I need to explain that while the stories are all excellent, they just don’t quite have the oomph of the books I have given 5 stars to. No doubt some of this is simply my bias against short stories, and the fact novels allow the author to work up to a bigger crescendo. Nevertheless, while the stories are great, I feel like the impact on the reader is exaggerated due to the modern rarity of this type of story and not entirely from their intrinsic worth.

So having established that you should read this collection, but that it isn’t quite the greatest thing the genre has ever produced, I want to spend the rest of this review explaining just what “type of story” these are and so defend my statement. These are science fiction stories. Reading them made me realize how little science fiction I read. Oh, sure, if you look at the books I’ve rated on this site, it’s embarrassing how limited in scope most of my reading is. But out of all this alleged science fiction, some of it is admitted fantasy and much of the remainder is implicit fantasy (Startide Rising for example is all fiction, no science). And the science in, say, Book of the New Sun is extremely sparse…the book is concerned more with the human condition, metaphysics, character, etc. I knew all this intellectually before, but when I thought of “hard” science fiction (I’d rather call it true science fiction) I thought of the dreary, soulless stuff that Clarke and Asimov mostly put out.

There’s no way around it. Ted Chiang writes true science fiction. And he writes it very, very well. Each of his stories is grounded on speculation in mathematics, linguistics, neuroscience, physics, and engineering. That’s not to say the fiction is “hard” the same way the word is usually used…several stories are not meant to be plausible by any means. Instead, they are explorations of the world built upon different scientific principles. People operating logically in a world governed by different rules. You can define these stories as fantasy if you like, but throughout the collection there is always a governing principle of observation, experimentation, and applying logic to these observations.

It’s a shame how rare genuine scientifically oriented fiction is, especially well written examples of such fiction. If you have even the slightest interest in reading well written scientific fiction, you must read Stories of Your Life and Others.

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

July 17, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction | Leave a comment
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Note: The purpose of this site is to quickly summarize my feelings about a book while it is still fresh on my mind: i.e. after I have read it. Because of this I have not gone back to write reviews for the many books that I have rated but not reviewed…it’s not fair to the books. The ones I like a lot, I will review after rereading them. Recently though some people have wondered about my low rating for Quicksilver, and since I don’t intend to read it again my recall of the book (which I read a little less than two years ago) will never be better, so I thought I would go ahead and explain my problems with the book. Additionally, though it is lengthy, there are no spoilers in this review. In fact, few books have been written that are more impossible to spoil than Quicksilver.

I really, really was looking forward to Quicksilver. Having watched Neal Stephenson grow as a writer from Zodiac through Snow Crash to Cryptonomicon, I had high hopes that he had finally developed into the great author he always seemed on the cusp of being. Certainly he has raised his aim significantly since Crytonomicon. Where Cryptonomicon was, boiled down, a witty celebration of information theory, Stephenson clearly wants the Baroque Cycle to be a witty celebration of the European enlightenment. It is almost a propoganda document for what today are called “western values” (though, hopefully, many Asians would disagree): rationality, individualism, and meritocracy.

I am certainly deeply in favor of everything Stephenson is advocating, so what problem could I possibly have with the book? Alas, the execution is unfortunate. More than unfortunate, perplexing.

Quicksilver is historical fiction. Hopefully there was no disagreement on this score, but even today there are still people who insist on defining Cryptonomicon as science fiction when it is clearly a hybrid technothriller / historical fiction novel (the only reason Cryptonomicon, to these people, must be SF is because they like the book and they hate technothrillers…yet these same people complain that critics have stripped 1984, Brave New World, etc. from science fiction’s account for precisely the same reason). The reason Quicksilver‘s genre is important is that the very qualities that make Stephenson such an amazing author of science fiction (and technothrillers) completely sabotage the basis of historical fiction. After all, most historical fiction, and Quicksilver is undoubtably in this category as well, seeks to present an accurate picture of life in the given time period. Yet Stephenson’s humor and wit pervades his writing and he is always on the lookout for a good joke or clever turn of phrase. While this makes the book engaging (I would have never finished Quicksilver without it) it also means it is impossible to know whether a given detail is present because it is accurate or because it is working in service to Stephenson’s humor. To a small extent all historical fiction has this problem: what is fiction and what is history? Yet in Master and Commander this is easy enough to parse: the setting, technology, and politics are ruthlessly researched and accurate while the characters and events are fictitious. This division does not exist in Quicksilver because Stephenson’s wit operates on so many levels: puns, one liners, the written equivalent of sight gags, situational comedy, satire, and absurdism are all at work on every part of the story, from the dialogue to the characters to the setting to the events to the footnotes. What then are we to believe?

Of course, one solution to this problem is to read Quicksilver as straight fiction (leaving aside, temporarily, the fact this leaves Stephenson’s defense of western tradition, the book’s raison d’etre, twisting in the wind). But even as such, the fiction is stretched incredibly thin across a deluge of historical trivia. I may not be able to evaluate the history to know what is true and what Stephenson is making up, but I’m sure the vast majority of it is true. The amount of research that must have gone into the book is disturbing to contemplate. The trouble is, I just am not that interested. This is clearly a matter of taste. I’m well aware that many people are interested in the history on display in Quicksilver. Nevertheless, I am not interested enough to read a whole book on it, and I think I am very much not alone.

This problem carries over when we consider Stephenson’s mission. He wants to show people just how important science is in changing the face of the world, but by drenching his novel in detail he is ensuring he is only preaching to the converted. It is my opinion that very few people not already quite interested in history will get through Quicksilver and, of these, most will already have an appreciation for the role of the enlightment.

Still, despite the tedious stretches of detail, Stephenson’s humorous writing is in full effect and he is unquestionably more skilled now than he was when he wrote Snow Crash, which frequently made me laugh out loud. Unfortunately, as part of his quest to show the reader just how privledged they are to have been born after these brave men reformed their primitive civilization into the science enabled jewel it is today, Stephenson spends a great deal of time in a very cruel type of humor. The best way to put it is that much of Quicksilver‘s humor is about making fun of the people in the 1600s for being irrational, barbaric, and, most importantly, extremely dirty. I don’t debate that they bathed rarely if at all, had very mistaken ideas about the transmission of disease, etc., but I found it poor taste to constantly laugh at them for it. If it had been one joke, or a couple hundred, I wouldn’t have noticed. Instead, practically every page somehow refers to how deplorably wretched their condition is. Again, the reason this is so prominent is Stephenson is showing the horrors that science has saved us from. And while I am glad I am living in a more enlightened age, I’m well aware of the fact had I been born in that time I wouldn’t realize anything was amiss. Humanity changes, if at all, much slower than technology, and it is odd that such a talented futurist would lose sight of this. I played along with the narrative on this for a while, but my breaking point was when someone dies of plague and the whole scene is played for laughs. A few weeks earlier I had read a book whose name escapes me where the process of dying of the plague was outlined in excruciating detail. That story brought home the heartbreak of watching your family die, and not just die, but die in fear and pain. I understand that Stephenson is not writing in that tone, but surely he had better options that to have a laugh at someone inconveniencing people by up and dying of the plague in a public place. In fact I think he misses a lot of power by never being serious, never showing the very real pain and suffering that science (particularly medical science) has saved all of us from having to face. That would be a lot more effective than just talking about how dirty it was back then, or how even the enlightened scientists keep dissecting dogs and getting the guts all over themselves.

Plenty of people love Quicksilver and the rest of the books in the Baroque Cycle. They’re welcome to it, but count me out. If I want to learn about the enlightenment, I’ll read a history book. If I want to read excellent historical fiction, I’ll read something by Dorothy Dunnett. If I want to read a really engaging narrative, well, there are many, many choices. If you haven’t read Stephenson’s other work, start with Snow Crash or Cryptonomicon. If you have, then give Quicksilver a try, but don’t be surprised if you find your patience being sorely tested.

Singularity Sky by Charles Stross

July 3, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Lately I’ve been reading a lot of fantasy or science fiction so literary that in a more just universe it would be stocked with mainstream books in the store. After this, it is a somewhat refreshing change to read some nice, hard, science fiction. It would be a disservice to Stross’ novel to say it is wholly without literary pretensions, for Singularity Sky does aspire toward the same sort of respect that Neal Stephenson garners in some circles for his prose. Basically, however, it is an update of the space opera to modern science fiction tropes. In particular, as the title implies, it looks at Vingean singularity. If the phrase “Vingean singularity” means nothing to you, it might be better to give this novel a pass, because it makes only a limited effort to explain it. Likewise, it seems to expect a basic knowledge of quantum entanglement and some other bleeding edge futurist concepts. Ultimately, Singularity Sky has few new ideas, but it represents a consolidation of many far flung ideas into one story.

As such, it is a brave effort, and perhaps doomed by its own aspirations. There are three problems with the novel. First, it has a boilerplate space opera plot and off-the-shelf characters that will do little to interest a reader well-read enough to not be lost in its futurist assumptions. Second, and this is a problem with most far-future stories, while Stross does an admirable job incorporating those concepts he is highlighting, the rest of his future feels a little…parochial. It is a bit of a contradiction to write a novel about the transformative effects of high technology but have characters whose attitudes, social mores, and (minus the gadgets) very way of life would not be at all out of place in, say, New York City in 2003. Yes, I know true extrapolation is a lot easier said than done, and I know if the characters are too removed from the present the reader is alienated. Still, it caused his future to ring false in my ears. A post scarcity economy where people work 9 to 5 jobs because they need money? A person who is described as being effusive “face to face” but terse in e-mail? And, sorry Charles, I know you are British, but while I can accept one guy in 2250 who has heard of Yorkshire, I just can’t believe he would have any right to expect that someone else from Earth would have as well. The third problem is related and by far the worst. As a means of limiting the culture shock experienced by the reader, Stross sets the story in a pre-Singularity colony that has an enforced technological stasis. This is a tried and true technique familiar to, say, readers of Banks’ Culture novels among many others. That the civilization is this lame straw man dystopia (secret police, misogynist, etc.) is disappointing, but salvageable. What wrecks the book and comes close to knocking down to two stars for me is the infuriatingly smug attitude the narrative takes toward the whole business. The two main characters walk around wrapped in warm blankets of superiority, for they are from an enlightened libertarian pseudo-anarchy. Naturally, just as the reader is expected to have a basic familiarity with the technological singularity, the reader is also expected to accept the (a) feasibility and (b) superiority of this society without defense. Meanwhile, for a book with remarkably little exposition devoted to its science fiction trappings, pages upon pages are spent arguing with the poor, deluded souls who have been brainwashed into believing the idiocy of their straw man tyrrany. These arguments don’t even go anywhere, because Stross is too afraid to make any of them sympathetic enough even to be convinced of their errors. I can only assume the society would only be dissected in such boring detail if Stross felt it was relevant to current day politics, but as I said, it is a straw man. Perhaps this is another case of assumed conceptual synchronicity between author and reader: yes, of course our current governments are sliding down that slippery slope to imperialism.

In the end I can give the book three stars mainly because of the skill Stross exhibits in weaving modern SF tropes together into a single universe and the occasional humorous moments. This was his first novel to be published by a major publisher, and he’s definitely a promising author. Hopefully experience will give him the subtlety to produce more satisfying novels in the future.

Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick

July 1, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Stations of the Tide is a very good book and was extremely close to being a five-star book for me. So close, that nothing about the book beyond the time I read it need be altered for me to give it five stars, I think. This is not the old remark about authors best read when you’re 13, far from it. This is a very literary science fiction book. It’s just that the material that elevates it from a very good four star book into a lasting five star favorite is, shall we say, strangely familiar. Or to use a more explicit cliche, I really liked Stations of Tide, but I liked it even better when it was called Fifth Head of Cerberus.

I don’t want to get into an argument about just how much, if anything, is new under the sun, but I feel like my complaint here is actually pretty uncontroversial. Swanwick has acknowledged the debt he has to Wolfe in general and Fifth Head in particular, in interviews, so I think he would understand my position. Don’t get me wrong…it’s not that Stations of the Tide is a complete rip job, far from it. However, the 10% of the novel that comes from Wolfe’s masterpiece supplies about 50-75% of what I really liked.

That still leaves plenty more to like. Swanwick is an excellent writer but beyond that, he is extremely inventive. That must sound strange when I’ve just been railing about him lifting themes and ideas, but the stuff he doesn’t lift (or at any rate that I couldn’t source) is still very good. While the novel does not equal the level Wolfe spends most of his time at, it comes very close, not by excelling in other areas the way other books I rate five stars do, but by playing Wolfe’s game: carefully drawn characters struggling to understand the nature of the reality that underlies the at times surreal landscape around them. My only other complaint is that I found the world so fascinating I wish there was more, but this is really more of a compliment. I definitely recommend Stations of the Tide for anyone with the slightest predilection for literary science fiction. Just read Fifth Head of Cerberus first if you haven’t already.

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