The Thief by Megan Whelan Turner

January 17, 2010 at 9:49 pm | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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Picking up a copy of the YA fantasy novel The Thief that promised “bonus content” in the form of, among other things, an interview with the author, I flipped to that section.  When she was asked what other books she would suggest for her readers, I expected her to mention some current YA and perhaps something older like the Prydain books.  She did mention some along those lines (Diana Wynne Jones for instance, if I remember correctly), but her first suggestion was Thucydides and his History of the Peloponnesian War.  If there’s a better anecdote demonstrating the modern YA respect for its readers, I haven’t heard it yet.

The funny thing is, it turns out The Thief is not at all a demanding book, maybe even by YA standards (though I admit I’m not widely read when it comes to YA).  Narrated in an irreverent first person by the titular thief, it describes how the protagonist is dragooned into an expedition to retrieve a long-lost artifact.  This artifact is rumored to have magical powers, but its real importance is as a means to legitimize the monarch of one of a handful of small, squabbling kingdoms.  Some of the cultural details of the kingdoms are based on ancient Greek culture (hence the connection to Thucydides) but most of the important elements (monarchies, dungeons, weapons) are bog-standard medieval.  Most of the narrative is spent outside of the cities, in any case.

The narrative has a couple of reversals of varying degrees of cleverness, but really this is a very simple novel: relatively short, maybe a half-dozen characters, and no real thematic complexity.  Some of the twists towards the end rely on the narrator withholding information, and while I don’t think that’s cheating, it obscures his character to some extent.  However, the execution of all this material is excellent, and while I would prefer more complexity, the sequel (which I’m currently reading) takes the characters in some very interesting directions.  Recommended particularly for YA readers, but any fantasy fan will enjoy it.

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Air by Geoff Ryman

January 10, 2010 at 9:52 pm | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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I think it’s fair to criticize a lot of science fiction for focusing too much on characters perched on the bleeding edge of technology. Insomuch as this is true, this goes all the way back to the beginnings of the genre with Verne and Wells. But what about the people without access to the best technology? In recent years there’s a been a rise in SF set in non-Western countries…but usually in scenarios where at least the elite still have access to the cream of global technology. The only book I can think of offhand that deals with the people struggling to keep up with technology is Vinge’s Rainbows End.

Geoff Ryman’s Air is now the second book I can think of, because it is entirely concerned with how an isolated village in central Asia struggles to cope with technological transformation. At the very beginning, the village is connected to the Internet, but it turns out the developed nations have already come up with the Internet’s successor, a sort of wireless virtual reality called Air. The main character, Chung Mae, has previously supplemented her husband’s living by designing dresses in imitation of the styles from “town”. For her, the arrival of first the Internet and then Air is a threat to her business…but also an opportunity.

Air turns out to be a mix of old and new forms of SF. Much of it feels very modern, with its non-Western setting and knowing nods towards the Singularity and other SF concepts, but the actual story is a very traditional one. The main character, by virtue of her cleverness and work ethic, rises from low beginnings to undreamed of success and influence. This is a compelling formula that long predates the SF genre itself, and it shines here thanks to Ryman’s evocative prose. I’ve never been to the central Asian countries that Chung Mae’s fictitious nation is based on so I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the depicted culture, but I was utterly convinced.

I’ve heard Air praised highly, and for the most part I agree, but in the end I had a problem with the book. Just one, but one that keeps it from becoming one of my very favorites. The trouble is the Air of the title, specifically the utter implausibility of it. Air, we are told at the very beginning of the novel, is a wireless technology that allows people’s brains to connect directly to central servers with no additional hardware. Well, to be blunt, this is nonsense. Later we learn more about Air. It’s more than just a wireless protocol, it seems, and has metaphysical implications. These revelations are crucial to the story.

It’s that my thorough disbelief in all this can’t be suspended. Heaven knows I’ve read about far crazier concepts. But in every other way, this is an extremely down-to-earth novel. I felt I could catch a flight to Mongolia, drive out into the countryside, and meet people just like Chung Mae and her fellow villagers. These people seemed like real-world people, in other words. And the characters’ struggles keeping up with the pace of technological change are surely similar to the problems that their real-world analogues are going to have in the next fifty years. Why, when the rest of the book is so solidly grounded in the plausible world, does the important technological change have to amount to magic?

It’s too bad I can’t completely enjoy this otherwise great book, but it’s still one of the best science fiction novels I’ve read in a long time, one I can recommend without reservation.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

January 5, 2010 at 1:14 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment
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Religion has always had an interesting relationship to science fiction. Most often it appears as a straw man for the enlightened protagonist to beat down. Even in work like Dune and the Hyperion books, which are more sympathetic than average, cynicism is the order of the day. The Sparrow is therefore incredibly unusual in that it is science fiction about religious people dealing with religious questions.

The setup goes something like this. The SETI program detects signals from intelligent life on Alpha Centauri. While the world’s governments argue about what to do, the Jesuits privately fund an interstellar spacecraft and make first contact. Right at the beginning of the book we discover that the mission was a horrifying failure, and the rest of the book is split between the mission’s sole survivor trying to deal emotionally with what happened and flashbacks that tell the story of the mission.

While it’s refreshing to read a book which doesn’t really have an axe to grind when it comes to religion, I am a little skeptical when it comes to the way the Jesuits are portrayed. They seem more like what outsiders would want the Jesuits to be rather than what they actually are. I confess I don’t know any Jesuits and am not terribly familiar with them so I’m only guessing, but..the novel portrays Jesuits as smart and very thoughtful people, which I can readily believe, but also utterly tolerant of other beliefs and religions. They don’t say outright that theirs is not the only truth, but they seem to act that way. They’ll tell you about Jesus if you ask but they would never–heaven forbid!–mention him to you otherwise. To do so might make you feel uncomfortable! This is how non-religious people prefer religious people to behave since even a moment’s awkwardness is too high a price to pay for having someone tell you about nonsense. To someone who strongly believes in Christianity like, oh, a Jesuit, the calculation looks more like moment’s awkwardness vs. doomed to hell and so there’s a different answer.

Oh well. This isn’t a huge problem, except when it comes time to plan the mission. It’s odd that a novel about the planning and execution of a Jesuit space mission should be so vague about why the Jesuits are making the trip at all. Since these Jesuits seem more or less uninterested in winning people to the faith, it’s no surprise they aren’t going as missionaries. Instead they claim to be going for the sake of knowledge. But knowledge to what end? This is the Society of Jesus, not the Royal Society. It would make sense if they were hoping to find further evidence for their faith there, perhaps an Aslan-like Christ-analogue, much as the Mormons funded anthropological studies of native Americans expecting to find evidence that corroborated the book of Mormon. However that is never mentioned. There’s the slightest hint that the fact finding mission will pave the way for future missionaries but this is never stated clearly.

At any rate, the fact is everything about the way the mission is planned requires disbelief to be suspended in massive doses. The Jesuits pay a fortune to sponsor an apparently purely scientific mission and then partly staff it with people who are not only not Jesuits but in several cases not even Christian. Well, it’s true it’s just a scientific mission, but then why send any Jesuits? Surely there are more qualified scientists and engineers? But actually the non-Jesuit crew members turn out to be generally quite a bit less qualified than the Jesuits: the fundamental qualification for going seems to be previously having been friends with the main character.

I know I just got through a lot of nitpicking. I could keep going with complaints about certain details of the mission when it arrives and lands on the alien planet. But in spite of these issues, I still enjoyed the book a great deal. The book is primarily concerned with three things: the friendship of the crew, the anthropology of the aliens, and, most importantly, the problem of evil. The personalities of the various crew members were so engaging that even as I wholeheartedly disbelieved in the plot contrivances that were sending them on the mission, I still enjoyed watching them tackle it. The alien culture is interesting and on the whole struck me as very effectively constructed. Finally, since I really liked the characters and was interested in their mission to understand the alien society, the failure of the mission and the subsequent soul-searching about how God could allow it to happen was poignant and interesting.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the author fails to provide a solution for the problem of evil, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem worth studying. The Sparrow has a lot of faults, and its subject matter won’t be of interest to many genre readers, but if you’re still interested after reading this review I definitely recommend it.

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon

January 4, 2010 at 4:51 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction | Leave a comment
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This short and engaging work is subtitled a “a story of detection” and indeed it follows a detective solving a mystery in 1944. The main character is never named but it is clear from the start that he is Sherlock Holmes, an extremely old Sherlock Holmes who has long since outlived his few friends and retired to the countryside. But although as the title implies Holmes comes briefly out of retirement to solve one last mystery, the novel is not too concerned with the mystery. The situation Holmes unravels is a clever enough little construction, but it’s straightforward and not especially interesting. Although published as a standalone book, this is really a novella not a novel, so there’s not enough space to spin a more typically convoluted web.

While the author isn’t particularly interested in the mystery, the “story of detection” label remains accurate. Holmes was defined, both for us and in his own mind, by his mental powers, but he feels these slipping away. The aches and pains of his joints are unwelcome reminders of the more subtle decay of his mind. Meanwhile he finds himself in a world that has moved on from the one he knew. He may be able to solve one last mystery, but he no longer can fully understand what happened and why.

As a premise for a novel this is a little thin, so it’s fortunate that Chabon stuck with a shorter format. The Final Solution makes its points and gets out before it outstays its welcome. It makes me wish more prominent authors were willing to aim for brevity.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

January 1, 2010 at 11:34 pm | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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In David Mitchell’s remarkable book Cloud Atlas, a young composer, Robert Frobisher, spends perhaps a paragraph describing an unusual piece he’s writing. Named Cloud Atlas Sextet, he describes it as “a sextet for overlapping soloists: piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color.” He goes on to describe the sextet’s structure: In the first of two sections, each instrument performs its solo but is cut off halfway through by the next solo, which is cut off by the next, and so forth. Then, in the second set, each solo is resumed and completed by the instruments in reverse order.

In just one of several metafictional games being played in the novel, the structure of the Cloud Atlas Sextet is, in fact, the structure of the novel, Cloud Atlas. The novel is comprised of six different stories, and as with the soloists, each story is cut off by the next and then finally all resume in sequence. Just as each solo is performed by a different instrument, each story is in a different time period, narrated by a different character, in a different style, and the story told is in a different genre. Most astonishingly, this bizarre structure actually proves to have a subtle, nearly profound effect.

Cloud Atlas was on a lot of people’s best of the year lists back in 2004, and recently I’ve seen it on more than a few best of the decade lists. It’s easy to see why. One of the most difficult challenges in writing fiction is providing a first person narrator with a voice distinct from that of the author. David Mitchell provides six completely distinct voices in the same novel, all forming layered characters, and that’s an extremely impressive accomplishment. His facility with different genres is somewhat less unusual but still quite good. Despite their incredible diversity, each story is compelling and interesting.

There’s no doubt the book is very good, but for me it falls short of being a masterpiece. As dazzling as the novel is technically, the actual content seems to fall short of its high aspirations. Part of the problem is that the stories are connected only superficially. That’s not to say there aren’t some strong thematic resonances, particularly between the first (Adam Ewing) and sixth (Zach’ry) story, but ultimately these just accentuate the lack of resonance in the third (Luisa Rey) and forth (Timothy Cavendish) stories. Various commentators, including the author himself, have identified the book as being about human nature in general and “predacity” in particular, but in my view it has surprisingly little to say on these subjects. The result, for me, is a novel where the whole is only barely greater than the sum of its parts.

I say for me, because judging by the reactions of others, there’s an excellent chance you’ll like this even more than I did. And I liked it quite a bit. Even if Cloud Atlas is not my new favorite book, I feel more confident recommending it to anyone than anything else I’ve read lately.

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