Transition by Iain M. Banks

December 6, 2009 at 10:31 pm | Posted in 1 star, Book Reviews | 1 Comment
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I’m sure Banks has his die-hard fans, but for many of us his output is very uneven.  Just sticking to his two most recent books, I enjoyed Algebraist despite some issues with it but didn’t care for Matter.  Well, I didn’t find this to be a return to form.  I liked Transition even less than Matter.

First, let’s get the genre out of the way.  Although published sans-M in Britain, this is very much a science fiction novel.  There are a vast, possibly infinite, number of parallel Earths, but the secret of how to send human consciousness between them is controlled by a group called the Concern.  They use their power, which also includes some limited ability to see the future, to make as many worlds as they can better.  One of the viewpoint characters is a veteran “Transitionary” who goes from world to world making various interventions–a comment here, a shove there, a murder somewhere else–based on orders from above.  He has no ability to see the future and thus no way to know for sure that following his orders, which often involve hurting or killing an apparently crucial person, are producing better outcomes for the worlds he visits.

If you’re familiar with Banks at all, you might be thinking the Concern sounds a lot like the Culture.  And you’d be right, or almost right: the Concern is pretty much identical to Special Circumstances except there’s no Contact or Culture behind it.   Unfortunately, that makes it a lot less interesting.

If you’re familiar with Use of Weapons in particular, you might be thinking the character I mentioned sounds a lot like Zakalwe.  And you’d be right, or almost right: he’s an assassin instead of a general, and is vastly less interesting as a character than Zakalwe.  From another author, I think the degree of similarities here would raise some eyebrows.  The one defense against the charge is that very little of what made Use of Weapons great survives the transition (sorry).  Where Zakalwe’s story builds up to an important climax, this character is given new, unprecedented powers by the author at plot-convenient intervals leading up to the immensely contrived ending.

There are a lot of viewpoint characters, but about two thirds of the book is devoted in one way or another to this much diminished remake of Use of Weapons.  The rest is split between the life stories of two characters.  One, an over the top caricature of a hedge fund trader, is a vehicle for Banks to preach about the evils of capitalism and how they led the world to utter disaster in 2008.  The other, a torturer who has moved on to middle-management, is a vehicle for Banks to preach about the evils of torture.

You might be thinking that the evils of capitalism don’t have a lot to do with the central conflicts of the Use of Weapons rehash, and you’d be right.  That character’s connection to the rest of the novel is extremely tenuous.  You might be thinking that the discussions about the morality of torture might indeed be usefully placed within the Use of Weapons rehash, and you might well be right, but here too Banks provides only the most tenuous of connections between that character and the rest of the novel.  The book smacks of a fix-up, where after finding his Use of Weapons rehash wasn’t long enough, Banks picked two current events issues out of the newspaper and wrote preachy short stories about them and crammed it all together into a novel.

Based on this review, you might be thinking my recommendation is to read Use of Weapons instead of this book, even if you’ve read it before.  And you’d be right about that too.

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Neuropath by R. Scott Bakker

December 5, 2009 at 7:38 pm | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Like it or not, one thing is certain: Neuropath is a book about Big Issues.  And not the usual ones.  If the idea of a novel whose plot and emotional center are both grounded in the latest research in the neurological basis of consciousness sounds exciting, then you should probably ignore the rest of this review and read the book.  If it sounds like I’m being sarcastic, I’m not.  It sounded exciting to me and I read it for that reason.  So if you’re interested, go ahead, because novels about consciousness are pretty thin on the ground.  I almost feel obligated to support the book, just to encourage more writers to have the courage to tackle interesting (and very difficult) issues.

Unfortunately while as I’ve just made clear I admire the book a great deal, I also feel obligated to say that I didn’t enjoy reading it and suspect most potential readers won’t either.  What went wrong?

From the beginning, Neuropath is playing defense.  Before the book begins there’s an author’s note saying that although it is fiction, the novel is “based on actual trends and discoveries in neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive science”.   Obviously this was included because Bakker or his editor felt that much of the actual science in the book will not be recognized as such.  This is an unusual problem for a science fiction novel.  Instead of the usual suspension of disbelief, Bakker is trying to achieve something else, uh, I guess an animation of belief?

I’m guessing that, for this material at least, it’s going to be a lot harder for the reader to be lead towards belief instead of away from disbelief.  I can’t say for sure: I came into the book at least somewhat familiar with the research that Bakker based it on so I didn’t really need any hand-holding.  But throughout the novel I could see the author straining to be convincing, walking the reader through this or that difficult element of modern cognitive science and trying to anticipate and then address objections.

If you’re read very much science fiction you probably think I’m saying there’s a lot of infodumps, since they are an ever-presence scourge particular to science fiction and fantasy.  And yes, info gets dumped.  But normally books just dump the info and move on, and as long as it is kept within reasonable limits most of us have learned to deal with it.  Here, because as I’ve said the author assumes (correctly I think) that the info he’s dumping isn’t likely to be believed, you end up with these Socratic dialogue infodumps where The Layperson goes back and forth with the Scientific Authority, slowly being led to question their assumptions and glimpse the truth.  Bakker does the best he can to smoothly place these within his narrative, but these exchanges feel utterly out of place in a thriller.

I haven’t mentioned until now that this is a thriller, because it’s not.  Oh, it wants to be.  See, the book is about a neurosurgeon-turned-serial-killer who is old friends with the protagonist, a psychology professor, and…well, mileage varies, but I found it all fairly derivative.  After Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, etc. I’m pretty burned out on serial killers.  But really, this just isn’t a thriller.  I don’t know anything about how Bakker came to write this book, and certainly I could be totally wrong, but my impression is that for Bakker the science came before the story.  He wanted to write a novel that contained the science, so he pieced together a thriller story as best he could around the Socratic exposition he’d need to explain the facts.  And the thriller is not very good.  For one thing, it is crowded out by the science, which gets the lion’s share of the book’s emphasis, so there’s just not a lot of space to develop either the plot or the characters.  For another, the expository nature of the scientific sections undermines the tension and sympathy the thriller needs to work well.  And finally (but this is the least important issue) the nature of the science itself tends to undermine sympathy with the protagonist.

I don’t really blame Bakker for this, or rather, having set out on this course I don’t know if there was much he could have done differently.  Science fiction is great for showing the implications of science, but I don’t think it’s a very good vehicle for science itself.  Non-experts must judge scientific claims based on the authority of the one making the claim, and fiction writers, to put it bluntly, are professional liars.  Even though Bakker has twisted the story into contortions for the benefit of the science, much to story’s detriment, he’s still working in a literary tradition in which the usual practice is to twist the science into contortions for the benefit of the story, much to the science’s detriment.

Still, Bakker should be saluted for aiming high here, and the maybe some will find the result more enjoyable than I did.  For people interested in what modern neuroscience is learning about the mind, I recommend V. S. Ramachandran’s surprisingly readable non-fiction book Phantoms in the Brain, which I suspect was a major source for Bakker.  As time goes on hopefully the readership will get to the point where SF novels incorporating this kind of work can be novels first.

The City & the City by China Miéville

December 5, 2009 at 12:59 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 4 Comments
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When I heard China Miéville’s new novel was a fantasy / detective hybrid, I was intrigued.  I loved The Scar but was not impressed by Iron Council, so I figured changing gears was a good thing.  Alas, the result was disappointing.  The City & the City is artistically ambitious, but ultimately it ends up neglecting both genres that it hybridizes.

Without spoilers there’s not much to say about the detective story except that it starts out engaging enough but soon becomes extremely predictable.  I should probably give career detective fiction writers more credit…it’s a difficult form, demanding a surprising but retrospectively predictable ending.  Most fiction tries to hit that target, but with a detective novel, the discovery of the truth, along with the detective himself, is basically the big selling point.  Here I’m afraid the plot is not just predictable but very tame, a surprising failing in a Miéville novel.  The detective character isn’t annoying but not a major presence either, as he is required to be the reader’s window into this alternate world instead of an interesting voice.

What about the fantasy side?  There isn’t much fantasy here, actually.  This is a one-difference world, albeit with quite a bit of worldbuilding based off that difference.  Compared to the detective elements, it was more interesting, but in the end I felt the explanation to the setting’s major mystery, Breach, didn’t add up.

But the elephant in the room is the one way in which the book’s setting is different from our world: the joined cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma.  The cities are intertwined geographically but separated…well, I’m not sure there’s a good word for how they are separated.  Politically?  Functionally?  And it’s more than intertwined.  Physically there’s one city.  Some areas are wholly in Beszel, others are wholly in Ul Qoma.  Some streets have one sidewalk in Beszel and the one across the street is in Ul Qoma.  And the streets themselves are often in both at the same time.  But despite this proximity, the citizens of one city never go into the other, and in fact never acknowledge the other’s existence.  They are taught from an early age to “unsee” the other city whenever some aspect of it enters their visual field.

That’s quite a mouthful, and Miéville spends the first two thirds of the book trying to defend this situation and convince you it’s possible, even close to realistic.  And reading the book, it’s clear that he’s getting at something interesting here.  When a typical businessman walks down a city street, doesn’t he do his best to “unsee” the homeless man sleeping on the bench?  Even though poor people and rich people almost always live in different areas, there’s close proximity and even overlap in areas…

But this is not an allegorical novel.  Beszel, although poorer than Ul Qoma, is not an allegory for poor people.  Ul Qoma, although Muslim, is not an allegory for the Muslim world.  For the novel to really work, we have to accept the novel’s internal reality.  Or to put it another way, to really listen to what the novel is saying about human nature, we must first accept that humans could create and maintain the novel’s world.

For me, that proved impossible.  It’s too much of a leap from ignoring a homeless person to ignoring half the vehicular traffic on the very street you yourself are driving on.  Yes, Miéville doesn’t paint the system was working perfectly, but I felt such a system wouldn’t work as well as depicted, and more importantly even if successfully attempted could never last more than a couple years (in the book the cities have been joined for many centuries).  But even worse, Miéville tries so hard to sell this notion that in the end a huge portion of the novel’s prose is dedicated to fighting for this (for me) lost cause, much to the detriment of the characters and plot.

I’ll say this for the book: it might have failed with me, but it was an ambitious failure.  Better to fail through overreaching than from insufficient aspirations.  I don’t recommend this one but I’ll be eagerly awaiting Miéville’s next novel.

Lighthouse Duet by Carol Berg

December 3, 2009 at 11:44 pm | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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A lot of people, including me, complain that fantasy is obsessed with trilogies.  The trouble is, when you go to a somewhat more manageable two-book length, you end up with…what, exactly?  Carol Berg’s Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone are published separately but are very much the same story.  I’ve gone with what the author calls them on their site here, but “Lighthouse Trilogy” would seem a lot less awkward, wouldn’t it?

Typically I wait until a strongly connected series like this is finished before starting so I can read them all at once.  This time was a bit unusual in that I read Flesh and Spirit quite a while ago and didn’t get to Breath and Bone until recently (then I didn’t get around to writing this for at least another month, but that’s another story).  I think the gap there expresses my general feeling about these books: well-disposed but unenthusiastic.

This is probably an audience problem, namely I’m not quite in it.  These books are written well, but just aren’t quite my cup of tea.  I started off really impressed by Flesh and Spirit.  The main character’s cartographic magic was an unusual power and the backstory, involving a prince taken by angels to Heaven, raised to adulthood, and then brought back by the character’s grandfather after using map-magic to go there…that sounded pretty wild, in a good way.  The “current events” of the novel, involving feuding princes and ominous but somewhat distant evil forces, were more ordinary, but fair enough.

Two things sabotaged Flesh and Spirit for me, and I stress “for me” because I think these were unusually personal responses.  First, despite the broad fantasy landscape most of the action centers around a monastery.  A Christian monastery, actually, although the religion has the serial numbers filed off, which unfortunately means a lot of the justifications for what monks do and why they do it were lost as well.  But ultimately there’s nothing wrong with setting a book in a monastery other than I found the world outside to be far more interesting and so always wanted more of the book to be happening out there.

The second problem was the main character, particularly his drug addiction.  Addictions show up enough that if I think hard enough I’m sure I can think of a book I loved with an addicted main character, but generally I really don’t like them in protagonists.  Not for any important reason, really, but more superficial ones.  For one thing they’re frustrating.  For the most part I don’t like having to watch characters do things that I know are going to be disastrous, and having the character know that too but be unable to resist is even worse.  I know, I know, Shakespeare called and wants a word with me.  Well, like I said, it’s a personal preference.  The other and probably more serious problem with an addicted character is that you end up spending a lot of time talking about a storyline that is almost perfectly predictable.  If a main character is addicted it always plays out the same way: struggle, rock bottom, go clean, relapse, struggle, victory.  The only uncertainty is whether the author is trafficking in “gritty” and thus will omit the victory in favor of indefinitely repeating the cycle.

So while I wasn’t a huge fan of Flesh and Spirit, I liked it well enough, and so I eventually read Breath and Bone.  Well, the main character was still an addict.  But virtually no time is spent in the monastery!  Excellent.  Unfortunately, the monastery scenes were swapped for an even more tired setting: magical training scenes.  I can’t say I’ve read a fair amount of monastery fiction, I just wasn’t particularly interested by that one, but I feel like I’ve read enough training scenes to last a lifetime.  Again, the writing is fine: Berg puts a lot of effort into describing the feeling of magic, the broadened horizons, and so on.  I’m sure a lot of people will enjoy it (I mean, there must be a good reason why so many of these scenes get written, right?) but I thought it was boring.

Unfortunately Breath and Bone also revealed new things about the world that made it vastly less interesting to me than the initially presented information.  It used to be that trendy fantasy writers would write something that initially seemed like a Standard Fantasy Setting and then try to subvert it.  These two books seem to have wrapped around so that they started out with something fresh and new and then reverted it back to the Standard Fantasy Setting.  If the whole book isn’t going to be fresh and new I think I prefer the former.

So I guess this amounts to a very long-winded “Your Mileage May Vary”.  If you don’t think you’ll care about the issues I had and you like fantasy than I can definitely recommend them.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

December 3, 2009 at 12:04 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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I feel like I’m the last person to read this book.  Given that it involves time travel, it’s theoretically science fiction, but really it is more properly filed under romance.  I don’t read enough romances to really evaluate it as part of that genre, though, so all I can say is on that score is that while the story can be justly criticized for being melodramatic, Niffenegger is pretty successful in pulling the strings.

You may be wondering how a story that has time travel in it can be anything than other science fiction.  Well, definitions of genre vary.  The book’s Wikipedia page quotes a critic as saying “uses time travel as a metaphor to explain how two people can feel as if they’ve known each other their entire lives”.  So there’s your answer, I guess.  I don’t think the book “explains” anything of the sort, but again, I come from an SF background where you start by assuming a spade is a spade.  Especially space spades.  That doesn’t mean that SF novels don’t have the symbolism, metaphorical interpretations, and so forth, but they are expected to take their surface elements seriously.

I can’t help but approaching it as a science fiction novel, however, and in that role the book is lacking.  The time travel is unexplained, but that’s more a relief than a problem.  The problem is the plot is a large time travel paradox.  If the past and future can’t be changed, yet you can travel into the past, how are we to resolve a case where a man meets and marries a woman precisely because he later time travels back to before they met?  The novel shrugs off this concern.  If you’re interested in the mechanics of time travel, this isn’t the story for you.  Ted Chiang’s story “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” actually uses the very same “system” of time travel to rather profound effect.

So, leaving aside the science fiction elements, what’s left?  A chronologically dislocated romance between two people that’s written well enough that I enjoyed it even though I didn’t particularly like either of them.  The book is so thoroughly about their relationship, to the exclusion of just about everything else, that it feels as though they don’t really have lives.  Harry is a librarian, but he never seems to care too much about his job.  He doesn’t need a job since he can use his time travel to generate plenty of money, but he goes to work anyway.  Not because he is passionate about what he does, but because he wants to live a normal life.  His wife, meanwhile, grew up in an extremely wealthy family (complete with servants…how many people had servants in 1980?) and, having completed her liberal arts education, becomes a professional paper sculptor.  That’s fair enough, I guess, but little time is spent on this.  They put a studio in the house for her and she has puts together a show of her work, but I didn’t get the sense she had major artistic aspirations.

But these criticisms don’t really matter.  The book is focused on the relationship and for most people, including me (despite coming in expecting to not like it, I’ll admit), it presents an entertaining narrative.  So as long as you’re expectations are appropriate it can be widely recommended.

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