Anathem by Neal Stephenson

February 23, 2009 at 12:46 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 2 Comments

When I first heard a new Neal Stephenson book was coming out, I wasn’t too interested. When I heard it was a space opera, I started paying more attention. I’m one of those people who enjoyed Stephenson’s work up to, but not including, the Baroque Cycle. I only made it through Quicksilver. I wrote about my complaints somewhat after the fact, but basically it boiled down to the book being about five times too long, historically untrustworthy, and thematically uninteresting (“enlightenment: yay”).

The good news is that Anathem is two times too long, in fact maybe even only one and a half times too long. Instead of being an endlessly discursive narrative, it’s a very focused narrative that just spins its wheels for a couple hundred pages in the middle. That’s a much more forgivable problem. Meanwhile, Stephenson is still writing all this for the greater glory of modernism, but in this time, it’s philosophy that’s on the menu, and the portion size is very large. I enjoyed this, but if you don’t like philosophy, this is not the book for you.

That said, the best part of the book is the marvelous world he has constructed for his philosophy lectures. Stephenson’s monastic theorists are probably his most interesting creation, and his social satire is more subtle than usual–that is to say, still not that subtle, but more effective. The plot isn’t bad, and while the ending wasn’t what it could have been, I always go into Stephenson expecting the worst when it comes to his endings so I was fine with it. The characters are, well, who reads Stephenson for his characters? The main characters are drawn from broad types and there’s some incredibly chemistry-less romance. The two reasons for reading the book are the world-building and the philosophy, and while that praise sounds a little faint, I enjoyed both a great deal.

Much of the online discussion of the book has gravitated towards Stephenson’s invented vocabulary. Yes, sometimes it’s clever and more often it’s annoying, but really while it’s going to shock any non-genre readers he’s picked up from Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle, by science fiction standards it is on the high end of the scale but not off it. The real problem I had with the invented lingo, which I haven’t seen much in discussions, is the fact that in reading the book I learned a lot of philosophy, but all that knowledge is filed under invented terms instead of the ones from our world. I mean, I kind of see who the Plato analogue was, but I don’t know enough real philosophy to connect a lot of the terms and the other philosophers. I’m sure someone will create a nice chart, but I probably won’t see it before I forget everything the book taught me anyway.

All things considered, this might be Stephenson’s best work. It’s not as fun as Snow Crash and not as effective as Cryptonomicon, but it has a lot more interesting world-building and didactic content than either (don’t get me started on Snow Crash‘s faux-linguistics). Stephenson’s come a long way from the bold stylist who made a name for himself with outlandish satire, and it’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here.


Commonwealth Saga by Peter F Hamilton

February 19, 2009 at 1:28 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

For reasons that I’m not totally clear on, doorstop science fiction is a lot more rare than doorstop fantasy.  Presumably it has something to do with the relative popularity of fantasy.  Peter F. Hamilton has been writing science fiction in the extra-long format for quite a while, however, and apparently that practice has paid off.  I can’t really speak for his earlier work, as in my only previous attempt I bounced off his Night’s Dawn trilogy (I actually finished an entire “book” but given the percentage of the whole I think it qualifies as a bounce), but the Commonwealth Saga holds together pretty well across its vast length.

It’s two books, not a trilogy, with far better titles than the whole thing: Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained.  Don’t be deceived, though, this is a single work.  Hamilton has a huge cast of viewpoint characters to capture his epic from all possible angles and mostly avoids the common failing of having one thread be far more interesting than the others.  Oh, there were one or two characters without a lot to do until the end, but under the circumstances I would call it quite successful.

The allure of this sort of book lies in the intricacies of its plot.  The characters are decently drawn and the ideas are fairly standard, but the hugely complicated story is the star of the show.  Gripping throughout, it stumbled only at the end, where everything resolved more or less as I was expecting many hundreds of pages earlier.  That’s not a very harsh criticism, not when the most common failing of a science fiction novel is the “you mean that was the ending?” ending.  I’ll have to read more by Hamilton in the future.

The Etched City by KJ Bishop

February 11, 2009 at 12:08 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment

This dark fantasy is set in an urban underworld infused with strange magic and populated by criminals, grotesques, and the miserable poor. If this sounds like Perdido Street Station, that’s because the setting does indeed feel more than a little similar. But where Perdido married its freak show environment with something of a swashbuckling plot, Etched City is focused more on characters, so the result is a very different kind of book. It’s not a long book by modern standards and the pace is sedate, especially in the long opening section set not in the city but in a desert strewn with the refuse of previous civilizations.

All of it adds up to what I think of as typical for modern literary SF: a well-written, thought-provoking novel that nevertheless falls short of epiphany.  The atmosphere is so morose throughout that the whole thing seems somewhat unnecessarily depressing.  If you like the literary side of the genre the book is certainly well-written enough to recommend, and a cursory survey of the usual suspects indicates most people seemed to like this book a lot more than I did.

No Present Like Time by Steph Swainston

February 10, 2009 at 2:07 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

Steph Swainston’s Year of Our War was an easy book to like. The world she created for the setting was fascinating and had all sorts of wonderfully unique elements. These made up for a great deal, starting with the deep distaste I had for the main character and ending in what was ultimately a very underwhelming main plot. I came to the sequel hoping to see more of the great setting combined with improvement in the characters and story.

Well, I certainly got more of the great setting.  Maybe it’s not fair to speak of “improvement” of the characters, since they are reasonably well-drawn, but they were and remain thoroughly unlikeable.  By itself that’s not enough to scuttle a book, but in a sequel where I came in already hating the main character especially, it really wore on me.  And the story was, if anything, a step down from the first book.  The ending is far better executed from a technical standpoint, but I didn’t find what comes before compelling in the least.  It was strange, maybe even jarring, to find such a conventional story in a book which is otherwise full of fresh and interesting concepts.  Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a group of imperialist foreigners, including our disaffected main characters, show up and contact a previously isolated culture.  That culture turns out to be just about a completely utopian society.  The result of this cultural contact is the Eden is irreversibly contaminated.

I kept searching for irony or some hint that this “tragedy befalls the noble but gullible savages” story was going anywhere interesting, but apparently not.  The economics and politics of the utopian society were unconvincing as well, though for me that’s almost a tautology.  The moral of the story seems to be that we should avoid contact with other cultures, since our demonstrably imperfect culture will only sully theirs, which being different is probably perfect.

It’s a shame, because through the two books Swainston has slowly filled in more and more interesting details of her setting.  The revelations in this book were especially interesting.  I’d love to see what she’s got in mind for the whole picture, but I don’t know if I can make it through another book.

Regenesis by CJ Cherryh

February 9, 2009 at 4:26 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

I had given up hope that CJ Cherryh would ever write a Cyteen sequel, and after almost twenty years, who could blame me?  When I heard that she was writing one, I was cautiously excited.  It took a while to get published, but it has finally arrived.  My big fear was that two decades remove from the original would make it impossible for her to recapture the tone and the characters of the first book.  Almost immediately, I knew this fear was unfounded, and I enjoyed reading the book tremendously.

All that said, the book left me feeling disappointed and a little frustrated.

It’s completely unfair, I suppose.  I’ve liked a lot of Cherryh’s books, but Cyteen was my favorite by a considerable margin.  At some point I will have to write about why, but Cyteen deserves its own article.  It wasn’t very accessible and I can understand why some people didn’t like it, but for me and for many others it was a great book.  One of its famous shortcomings is its frustratingly abrupt ending, but I had so internalized the lack of ending over the years that it never occurred to me that in writing her sequel Cherryh would essentially write a really long last chapter for the original book.

But that’s what she’s done.  Regenesis fits Cyteen‘s tone and characters perfectly, at least as far as I can tell, and I reread Cyteen about six months ago.  It begins chronologically right from where Cyteen left off.  All well and good.  But it ends, again chronologically, a few months later.  Compare that to Cyteen’s narrative, which spanned about two decades.  As far as the book’s plot, there is the same blend of interpersonal drama and political intrigue that worked so well in Cyteen, but all of it is in service to tidying up loose ends from Cyteen.

Ultimately, I have to accept that Cherryh wasn’t interested in writing the book I really wanted to read.  She wrote Regenesis with a clear agenda: solve once and for all Cyteen‘s murder mystery and depict the reconciliation of Jordan Warwick with the young Ariane Emory.  This is done efficiently, and I suspect that taken as a single item Cyteen in conjunction with Regenesis is a much more complete and satisfying work.

Unfortunately, what I found most interesting about Cyteen is on hold.  The ethics of Union’s azi society are left without further examination (in fact the Abolitionist movement is reduced to a psychological response, something that is frankly a little distasteful) and the huge cracks that the original Emory saw forming in Union society, the flaws that necessitated the entire psychogenesis effort in the first place, are largely ignored.  They’re still there, and young Emory is worried, but the implication is they won’t be dealt with for decades.  Coincidentally, that’s how long we might have to wait for another sequel.

It may not be the book I wanted, but Regenesis is still a very good book that complements a great one.  Recommended to anyone who liked Cyteen.  Just reread Cyteen first if you haven’t read it recently.

Yet There Are Statues

February 8, 2009 at 8:43 pm | Posted in Site News | Leave a comment

I put my first book review online in January 2004.  My main audience was myself.  I read a fair amount and without assistance I have a hard time remembering what it is I’ve read before.  People were asking me for recommendations and I was finding it hard to remember my favorite books.  So I went back and rated every book I could remember reading and wrote at least a brief review of everything I read from then on.

That I kept at it for 100 reviews is something of a miracle.  In the best of times I lose interest in such projects quickly, but I made it through two years of frequent updates before pretty much dropping it.  Through 2007 and 2008 I kept wanting to get back to it, but while I was proud of having made my own site entirely from scratch the time required to update it was just too much.

Time to join the twenty-first century and let someone else do the hard work of writing blog software for me.  So this is my new site.  I’ve moved over all the old content, but going forward I plan on abandoning some of the oddities of my old site.  Entries will be dated when they are posted, not when I read the book being reviewed, for example.  Also, the jury’s still out on whether I’ll actually do this, but I aspire to a higher standard of writing.  The old material was never supposed to be more than quick thoughts for myself, but a lot of people ended up reading them, so going forward I will try to do a little better.  Finally, on the old site all the writing was supposed to be fresh, but here I plan on filling in thoughts on books I read during the two years I wasn’t updating.  Finally, although I can’t say I watch very much of either, television and movies may see a little discussion too.

Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

February 8, 2009 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews | 2 Comments

Note: While moving the archives from my old review site, I found that this review had somehow slipped through the cracks after being written and never made it on to the old site.  I’m not sure when I wrote it, but it was probably in 2004.  Think of it as bonus material, like a deleted scene.

Why is it that you read fiction? What do you want to get out of it? Wasp Factory is a book that has forced many to question their reasons and motives for reading, and any book that forces people to reconsider their unconscious assumptions and think about what they have otherwise taken for granted is probably close to being great literature. The fact that I strongly doubt this was Banks’ intention cheapens it a little bit but ultimately the work must be judged outside of the author’s intentions.

Perhaps I am not giving Banks enough credit, but I don’t think so. Like many of Banks’ subsequent novels the book combines a horror novel’s gore with a mystery novel’s shock ending with the quality of writing you would expect from a Serious Author. Unlike many of Banks’ more indulgent later novels, Wasp Factory features a tighly written, very personal first person narrative. Where Catcher in the Rye meandered, Wasp Factory zooms at a breakneck pace from its beginning through its story and to its conclusion. The only trouble is, where Catcher in the Rye tried to be about adolescent cynicism and coming of age, Wasp Factory tries to be about…well…

And there’s the rub. Apparently when it came out it was quite controversial as it was perceived as almost the literary equivalent of a snuff film. To my modern not-so-sensitive sensibilities, the book is certainly dark but hardly worthy of outrage. Nevertheless the critics had a point: the reader is dragged through the mud of a criminally insane mind and at the end of the journey it is not at all certain they will feel like it was worth the trip. I’ve heard it accused that Wasp Factory is outrageous because it wants to be; that young would-be authors in Britain find that being offensive is a good way to get noticed. This may be true, although Banks’ later work is close enough in tone and spirit to Wasp Factory that I doubt he was doing it just to cash in. The difference, however, between Wasp Factory and the later Banks book that it most resembles, Use of Weapons, is that where Wasp Factory exists solely to paint an image of its protagonist, Use of Weapons paints an image of its protagonist while also covering ground in philosophy, politics, and humor. It’s no accident Use of Weapons, despite being almost as dark and taking place in the distant ultratechnological future, feels much more human. This difference is exemplified in their titles. Wasp Factory‘s namesake is a macabre invention of Banks that ultimately plays no real role in the story. Use of Weapons‘ title alludes to a theme that runs throughout the book–and in particular to a macabre invention of Banks that ultimately plays an enormous role in the story.

I’ve been comparing this book to others so much one more comparison won’t hurt. Wasp Factory is perhaps most similar to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, but where the latter work was both disturbing and educational because the condition described was real (and the author, who worked with autistic children, was at least qualified to describe it) in Wasp Factory the narrator’s mental state is arbitrary because not only does it seem unlikely that a real person could have such a screwed up childhood but even if someone did Banks isn’t qualified to speak to the results.

I would recommend Wasp Factory to fans of horror or amateur criminal psychology. It’s also probably worth reading for curious fans of Banks’ later work. Some people consider it a masterpiece, but I suspect most will consider it at best diverting.

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