Storm Front by Jim Butcher

May 30, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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Detective / science fiction genre crossovers go back a long way, at least as far as Asimov’s Caves of Steel, but I’m pretty sure detective / fantasy blending is somewhat more rare. Storm Front is exactly that, however: a first person narration by one Harry Dresden, a hard-boiled detective with an Ugly Past, a Cynical Attitude, and Not Enough Money to Pay the Rent. He’s also a wizard, and therefore Knowledgable About the Secret World of Magic, a Summoner of Mystical Creatures and Spirits, Maker of Potions, and of course an Enemy to Dark Mages.

It’s all pretty boilerplate. The conjunction of two boilerplates makes it a relatively enjoyable read. The author is capable enough, but never shows any desire, much less ability, to make the story rise above the raw material. Still, it’s a quick read and it is easy to see why there are apparently 8 sequels plus an incoming TV series.

Prince of Nothing Trilogy by R Scott Bakker

May 13, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 2 Comments
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R. Scott Bakker’s The Prince of Nothing trilogy has to be one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve ever given a rating of just three stars. There is a great deal to like about the books, but while I found them engrossing, particularly the first book, ultimately I enjoyed them much less than I hoped. First, a brief warning, although I only read completed series, by many definitions this series is not over. Much is left open at the end. This didn’t bother me too much, as my no-unfinished-series policy is less about avoiding cliffhangers and more about saving time by not having to reread books to get back up to speed when sequels come out. If the second and third books are any indication of the shape of future books in the series, there will be ample “What Has Come Before” material to catch up with.

So these are fantasy books, but what sort of fantasy books? Bakker seems very interested in several things: world-building, realism, intrigue, and philosophy. By realism, I mean this is one of those series where there might be magic, but the story is told without leaving out any of the grit and grime of love and war in a medieval setting. Bakker’s done his research and his gritty details are convincing. I found the political intrigue to be very good, which was fortunate since most of the first book is spent on it. The world building seems standard at first but has some very interesting wrinkles to it, but alas these are left firmly in the background for this trilogy. Unfortunately, while it is clear Bakker has an enormous amount of work into the setting, throughout the trilogy there is such a deluge of proper nouns that some readers will bounce off entirely and many more, like myself, will find it ultimately a distancing feature. And the philosophy, well, more on that in a minute. While we’re talking about what Bakker does well, I felt that the battle scenes were particularly well done. If you are a fan of intrigue stories and epic fantasy, this is definitely worth a try.

But what went wrong for me? For starters, the animating philosophical principles for the books (despite a lot of name dropping from other sources) seem to be Nietzsche and Dawkins’ ideas about memes. In the end, I didn’t find this particularly satisfying. The basic framework from the story is taken from the Crusades and I know enough history that I don’t need three long fantasy books to remind me how pointless, wasteful, cynical, etc. they were. That’s not to say no one can write a great book about clashing religions: Guy Gavriel Kay, an enormously different writer than Bakker, wrote a brilliant book a while back with Lions of Al-Rassan. What made Lions great was its focus on the characters ensnared in the prejudices and grand movements of their time. The Prince of Nothing books also cover this ground, but the way the characters are treated is the opposite of Kay, who in all his books asks the reader to accept the idea that his main characters have modern, progressive attitudes despite being surrounded by realistically bigoted and small-minded countrymen. Bakker takes things in the opposite direction: pretty much no one demonstrates the ability to lift their head above the muck long enough to see what is going on, and so his characters spend their time getting ground up within the wheels of the machine. There’s a sort of tragedy in that, but it’s also very predictable, and in my opinion is not worth three books to get the reader there.

Of course, one character, the eponymous Prince of Nothing, is indeed capable of seeing everything for what it is. Kellhus, the Nietzschean ubermensch, comes from a monastery where he has been rigorously schooled in a hand waving philosophy that combines analytical thought with Buddhist meditation toward enlightenment. Also, he’s the product of a couple thousand years of breeding. This combination of husbandry and philosophy has given him some very useful abilities. He’s a perfect actor, capable of completely separating his outside self from whatever he really is feeling inside and further perfectly projecting whatever thoughts, attitudes, and emotions he wants using his expression, mannerisms, and speech. Additionally, he doesn’t really feel anything, because his philosophy has made him into some sort of Vulcan. On top of that, he can read other people’s faces and achieve results indistinguishable from telepathy. Oh, and did I mention he’s got the “body control” to be the equal of thirty men in combat, see a crossbow bolt fired directly at him and pluck it out of the air, and generally be a complete martial arts badass.

Bakker says in the introduction to one of the books that he worked on the first book, The Darkness that Comes Before, for about fifteen years. Unlike Kellhus I can’t read minds, but if I had to guess I would think Kellhus and his abilities are some of the earliest elements to the story, because frankly they sound more like the ideas of an adolescent than those of a talented author like Bakker has become. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe Bakker could read the previous paragraph tomorrow and not feel at least slightly embarrassed, but that’s how I see it. Don’t get me wrong: he’s too smart to make Kellhus utterly perfect. Occasionally Kellhus makes mistakes, although this is generally for lack of sufficient data rather than genuine miscalculation. However, as readers we only hear about these mistakes when the narrative is from Kellhus’ perspective, so most of the time we have no indication of it.

Now I’m not arguing that the idea of a combination of Professor X, Spock, and a stock Jet Li character is impossible. When you are waving your hands and talking about long breeding programs, I’m forced to grant a lot things as possible. After all, Frank Herbert did the same thing to produce someone who could see the future and I was fine with it. No, the problem is in addition to having a silly array of abilities, Kellhus is a dramatic black hole. Because he’s the perfect manipulator, there’s virtually no dramatic tension unless the reader is artificially kept in the dark as to what Kellhus is trying to achieve. His character cannot develop, because he actually has no character, he’s a much more fully realized Vulcan than Star Trek ever managed in that respect. Any “development” isn’t so much a change as a crack. Given that he is a parody of Nietzsche (who would not have agreed with Kellhus that freedom from society’s strictures implies amorality) he is extremely unlikable, and it is pretty frustrating to watch the likeable characters of the story sit in his clutches and know that given the powers assigned to Kellhus they are incapable of breaking free without it seeming like a cheat.

It doesn’t help there aren’t many likeable characters to begin with. Curiously, despite centering his story on a virtually perfect character, Bakker makes sure to populate the rest of his characters with a healthy number of flaws. And of course, in what has become de rigueur for “gritty” fantasy these days, the likeable characters that we are supposed to be rooting for are subjected to all manner of indignities. I mean that literally, because I think all the bases are covered when it comes to awful things that can happen to someone. Now, I don’t mind bad things happening to characters, but it helps if there’s some emotional payoff at the end of it. In this case, not really. So at least give me something I can hold on to: Iain Banks at his bleakest (Against a Dark Background) still compensates with moments of humor and wit. That is also mostly absent here.

Finally, it must be mentioned that just about every character, likeable or not, has strange sexual hang-ups of some sort. That’s not so uncommon in fantasy these days either, but in an unusual move Bakker basically defines the capital-B Bad Guys, the ones who do a lot of lurking so they can presumably become important in later books, by their carnal appetites. This is a very shallow sort of bad guy, if you ask me. I expected more from someone of Bakker’s interest in philosophy, and sure enough towards the end we find out they do actually have some interesting beliefs and convictions. That makes their, ah, cravings all the more pointless if you ask me.

This is a long review, which is very much a compliment. There’s a lot going on in these books and the reader is presented a lot to think about. I just can’t strongly recommend them because I think so many people, including myself, will find them unpleasant or unsatisfying. I’ve got high hopes that in the future Bakker will hit his stride and write fiction that is both thought provoking and effective. Until then, consider reading these but pass if they don’t sound like the sort of books you really enjoy.

Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson

May 6, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment
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One of the chapters of Red Mars is titled “The Scientist as Hero”. While I was reading it, I thought perhaps the whole trilogy should be called “The Executive As Hero”, for in a time when corporate executives as vilified for their huge salaries and lavish benefits, Kim Stanley Robinson seemed to be defending their work as both valuable and necessary. To me, this is typified in the idea of the tour of the facilities. A confession: I am not an executive or administrator, but rather an engineer. From my side of the fence, these are usually a farce, a dog and pony show too abbreviated and (if those giving the tour are at all competent) too staged to grant any real insight. I was surprised, therefore, to find touring is the structural core of the trilogy, in two senses. First, as a narrative device, some characters give tours to other characters constantly. After the initial chapters of Red Mars characters rarely do anything as such beyond attend meetings, coordinate various groups of people, and attempt to synthesize diverse opinions into a single vision. In other words, they do the sort of thing CEOs are supposed to do, and what the popular conception equates to sitting around benefiting from the hard work of the real workers. But on a deeper level, the book itself is really a guided tour, obscured only by the fact it is simultaneously a tour of several things at once: what Martian terraforming might look like, what the author views as a superior society to our present one, and the varied neuroses of intelligent, driven people.

I was forced to give the books a low rating because I had to force myself to finish them. It must be said that there are many, many people who love these books. They have some very real strengths, and if you as a reader value them then much can be forgiven. Robinson has done a vast amount of research into his subject and holds little back, spending literally hundreds of thousands of words on descriptions of Martian geography and the scientific details (both real and postulated) of the physics, biology, and chemistry involved with life on Mars. The trilogy is audacious even within the science fiction genre, attempting to chronicle the Martian equivalent of the rise of America from the first settlements to its emergence as a great power in the twentieth century. This sort of epic is rarely seen, and further the sheer length gives the reader a relatively unusual sense of the sweep of time. Events early in the trilogy feel distant towards the end because the reader read about them many hundreds of thousands of words ago. Also, I was surprised to find that while Robinson sticks to a fairly transparent third person narrative he dashes the story with some real literary flair, subtly melding his prose to the psychology of the viewpoint character. The section of Red Mars from Michel Duval’s viewpoint was particularly excellent.

Alas, if, like me, you are not entranced by the endless description of the Martian landscape or convinced by Robinson’s complicated extrapolations of economics and sociology, the books drag mercilessly. When dealing with political intrigue, Robinson is capable of telling a pretty interesting story, but only glimpses of it survive the deluge of details in Red Mars and get completely snowed under somewhere in Green Mars. The characters we spend so much time with never really escape their classifications: Frank is a Machiavellian Politician, Nadia is an Engineer, Sax is a Scientist, and so forth. They also rarely change, and such changes as we see are often attributed to biochemistry. This vision of people as static and unable to escape from their formative influences is depressing and surely untrue in most cases. Minor characters are stereotyped by nationality, a rather shocking attribute for a trilogy that was obviously intended to be very progressive. The plot is relatively focused for most of Red Mars, but the various elements drift apart as the series continues until by Blue Mars it is as diffuse as the solar system whose politics Robinson is describing: characters and plot elements swing around in their designed paths with great gulfs separating them. The characters are often (especially in Blue Mars) curiously passive, rarely influencing events for all their earnest fact-finding and coordinating.

Meanwhile, despite all the descriptions the real focus is not to describe Mars but to describe utopia. This is unfortunate because Robinson is not too convincing when he discusses politics and sociology. His vision of the Earth has dangerously overpopulated was obsolete when he wrote it and now almost comical, his idea that any nation or corporation would pour money into Mars (much less all of them) for some vague hope of mining or creating new markets seems ludicrous in light of the continued failure of the US space program to economically justify itself, and his never-justified use of “metanational” corporations as the snarling villains of his story (surprising, given what I said about his apparent vindication of the executive as a valuable entity) seems hackneyed. Normally, it’s not a big deal if predictions an SF novel makes turn out to be wrong. Brave New World predicted personal helicopters, but it’s not about helicopters, so who cares that turned out to be mistaken? The Mars trilogy is about economics and sociology, so if these age poorly, there’s not much left to like.

Ultimately, if you are fascinated by Mars and interested in an extremely detailed account of humans settling there, the Mars trilogy is definitely worth a try. Otherwise, I would give it a miss. If you read it and find yourself bogged down in Red Mars, then I would give up. I stuck with it mainly because I felt I ought to be familiar with such widely read books, but even that, in hindsight, doesn’t really justify it.

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