Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress

June 18, 2009 at 2:38 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment

If you had an extra seven or more hours every day, how would you spend it?  My guess is different people have different answers to that question, but in Beggars in Spain everyone seems to have just one: work like a dog.  The premise here, that genetic engineering might allow people to have children who don’t need to sleep, is fine.  But Kress feels that the kids would use the time they otherwise would have been sleeping to study advanced subjects, learn additional languages, and otherwise broaden their intellectual horizons.  I won’t speak for anyone else, but growing up when I had a snow day and thus didn’t have to go to school, I didn’t study Chinese instead, I just played in the snow with the neighborhood kids, played video games, or watched television.  Certainly if you had, say, a hundred kids without the need to sleep, there’d be some overachievers who would use the extra time academically.  But Kress says outright that all of the “sleepless” kids are academic geniuses.

I think there was a sentence or two in there that mentioned some possible side effects to the sleep-prevention genetic modification, implying that maybe these kids are smarter or at least have different interests than ordinary kids.  But if you want to write a book about super-smart kids, go ahead, but I expect to be told plainly that genetic engineering has made these kids super-smart.  The book focuses entirely on not sleeping as the crucial difference.

So that was one problem I had with the book.  As things went on, I tried to accept the Sleepless characters as having genetically enhanced intelligence and just deal with it.  Unfortunately, there’s a second area of sociological speculation where Kress lost me.  Despite the fact the number of Sleepless kids is very low, in the hundreds or at most low thousands, much of the book’s middle section concerns anti-Sleepless hysteria and discrimination.  Despite the intellectual benefits that I found so illogical, Sleepless as adults are not really distinguishable from the sort of careerist workaholics that already litter New York, Washington, and other centers of power and finance.  Some concern about a strange group with connections to power is quite understandable, but the cycle of violence and distrust depicted in the book seems way out of proportion with the amount of contact the average person would have (none), the real economic influence of Sleepless given their incredibly small numbers (nearly none), and the difference between Kress’ Sleepless and big-shot lawyers, financiers, and CEOs (pretty much none at all).  Sure, people grumble about the rich in America, some people even complain about “Jews controlling everything” and such, but these are very low-temperature hatreds and in the latter case it’s backed up by fifteen hundred years of tradition.  Let’s not forget that Sleepless are utterly visually interchangeable with normal people, too, so there’s no way to, say, ban them from your shop even if you wanted to do such a thing.

Apart from my inability to suspend disbelief in these areas, the book is pretty good.  It’s especially good in the last section, which deals much more directly with issues relating to genetic modification of intellect, albeit with a very predictable storyline.  All told it’s an accessible examination of genetic and social engineering, issues I wish would come up more in science fiction.

Mistborn Trilogy by Brandson Sanderson

June 15, 2009 at 11:43 pm | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment

The basic premise of the Mistborn trilogy goes something like this: an evil force stalks the land, causing suffering and death. No one can stop it, causing widespread despair. But the ancient prophecies speak of one man who might journey to a distant place and there discover a power that can vanquish this evil. A sage discovers an unlikely man who fits the portents, and through much adversity he eventually does succeed in his quest.

If that sounds like a generic fantasy plot, it is. The twist here is that this all happened a thousand years ago. The hero, upon vanquishing the evil force, made himself the Lord Ruler of the world he had saved. Under his reign the vast peasantry are oppressed in miserable conditions while the opulant nobility carries on at their expense. Generation after generation has come and gone, but he remains, immortal and invincible.

Apparently when the first book in the trilogy, The Final Empire, came out the marketing leaned heavily on this setup as being mind-blowingly subversive. Well, it’s nothing mind-blowing for even a moderately well-read fantasy reader, but it’s certainly a good beginning. On this foundation, Sanderson builds an entertaining heist plot in the first book, a very detailed and well-thought-out magic system, and the usual mix of action, intrigue, and romance. Unfortunately, while this is a work with multiple viewpoints, it has a main character, Vin, who I personally found to be boring. She had a hard life before her unexpected awakening into magic powers, and now she…eh, whatever. Kelsier, Vin’s mentor, is more interesting, but for me at least the attraction here is not the characters.

It’s not really the world-building, either. Sanderson is not much interested in geography, so there aren’t long Tolkienian landscape descriptions. He’s more interested in the society he’s constructed. That would have been fine by me, since I have similar preferences, except the trilogy wastes much of its time on well-travelled ground. For example, the oppressive nobility gained their status because their ancestors helped the Lord Ruler when he was a young hero. Since then, they’ve become fractious, wasteful, and even occasionally rebellious, but he tolerates them due to the fond memories he has of their long-forgotten (by everyone else) ancestors. Obviously this is not how nobility worked either historically or in most fantasy, but alas this fascinating difference was remarked upon and left alone. When it comes to the nobility most of the trilogy’s energies are spent on whether or not every one of them is complicit in the Lord Ruler’s oppression and if so what punishment they might deserve, if not who is and who isn’t, etc. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.

I should mention that Sanderson has built an elegant magic system that is complicated without being confusing. The Mistborn of the title generate magic through the digestion of various types of metal, and much of the power comes from the abilities they gain to magically manipulate metal. Sanderson has rigorously worked out the implications for magical combat, and so the fight scenes are remarkable. Unfortunately these days I have less patience for textual choreography, but if you enjoy fun action there’s no shortage of it here.

What the trilogy does really well, however, has to do with the plot and backstory. Because I’ve already said that I found Mistborn decent but not amazing in the areas we traditionally grade fiction (characters, world-building), this is going to sound like faint praise. But the fact is, there are tons of sprawling fantasy series being written these days and hardly any of them come together in a reasonably satisfying way. Either the author loses control of the story, or the ending makes no sense, or the whole thing is brutally predictable. Sanderson, displaying perhaps the same rigor he used in developing his magic system, has done a superlative job laying out a backstory and plot that never are hard to understand but also steadily dole out surprising revelations. With many series, readers complain afterward that loose ends were left untied. Here, not only are the loose ends tied up, but the whole thing is so well-orchestrated that I never realized the loose ends were there until they were dealt with. Successive revelations forced reexaminations of past events, reexaminations that made me realize things hadn’t been hanging together as well as I (and the characters) had thought, but upon learning this new information everything made sense again.

The result is a story that fits together like a gleaming crystal, each facet carefully polished to achieve the desired effect. This is not my favorite fantasy trilogy since as I discussed before it didn’t cover precisely my personal favorite themes, but it is surely the best constructed that I’ve ever read. In light of this, I recommend that the trilogy be read all at once, for the more you remember from the first two books when finishing the third the more you’ll be able to see everything fit together perfectly.

One last thing I should mention is that Brandon Sanderson has some pretty extensive “behind the scenes” type material on his site about how he wrote the book and the choices he made while writing.  It’s kind of like extras you get on a DVD.  I’m not sure how interesting it would be to most readers, as it may be a sort of inside-baseball for writers, but I found it fascinating and wish more writers did this.

First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

June 4, 2009 at 1:40 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 6 Comments

I guess this is a good news, bad news situation.

The good news is this is well-written high fantasy.  It’s a self-contained trilogy (only in fantasy would a story spread over three books earn the label self-contained) that moves its story across vasts distances and many viewpoint characters without ever losing control of its narrative.  The story is interesting, and even better, the story seems like it is really about something more than just a good story.  More on this in a moment.

Before I get to that, though, I should note that while reading The Blade Itself I figured this was high fantasy written with an eye for avoiding the “usual” glorification of combat and authoritarianism.  I put usual in scare quotes there because is it really that common any more?  I am not widely read enough to know whether we have hit the critical point after which the majority of fantasy stories are not in fact poor Tolkien imitations that mindlessly trumpet poorly understood medievalism, but if I had to guess I’d think we actually hit that point quite a while ago.

In any case, in the first book I noticed that although there are characters from every walk of life, it seemed that the band of crusty veteran warriors from the wartorn north were the ones the author was really interested in.  I thought maybe he really wanted to be writing a grunts-eye view book but felt obligated to throw in the usual tropes.   That guess turned out to be incorrect.  By the time I got into Before They Are Hanged, I realized this was not really a realistic fantasy with some high fantasy tropes, it was a point-for-point anti-high fantasy.  Every trope was introduced so it could be subverted later.  This is somewhat more rare but someone reading this site has likely read at least one other example of it, Thomas Covenant perhaps.  By setting up high fantasy cliches and then deconstructing them, at first there’s a nice unpredictability to the narrative.  However, by Last Argument of Kings, I realized that deconstruction was the entire point of the novel and that every single narrative strand would be tuned for this purpose, so the final book was extremely predictable.

This brings to me the bad news, at least for me.  I very much want to read books that have something to say, but in this case I hated the underlying message of the narrative.  Hated it.  Beyond the negation of fantasy stereotypes was something more subtle that I found genuinely distasteful.  In this trilogy’s world, those in power use their power for their own gain and nothing else.  If they espouse an ideology, they are manipulating people.  Anyone who buys into an ideology is a rube who is being manipulated by the powerful.  Yes, there are a couple people in power who are motivated by a desire to live up to some sort of ideals, but these are just dangerous rubes, for they are nevertheless being manipulated by the Nietzschean ubermensch who crafted the ideology.

I feel like this outlook isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerously wrong.  It’s true that a quick survey of history will locate plenty of politicians and other leaders who have cynically used ideology for their own gain.  Yet just as frequently, maybe even more frequently, I think you’ll find leaders who genuinely believed what they preached, and being sincere were far more persuasive and therefore dangerous.  Isn’t the lesson of the twentieth century that idealism is the poison that results in irrational actors leading states into self-destruction?

However, I won’t penalize the trilogy just because I disagree with it.  It was genuinely thought provoking, and that’s more than I can say for a lot of what I read.  Now that Joe Abercrombie has gotten this out of his system I’m hoping he will write something more to my tastes.

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