Tags: Ted Chiang
Today, most science fiction authors are known for their novels or not at all. Ted Chiang is one of the very few exceptions. His reputation has reached the point that when one of his stories appears on the Hugo ballot, he’s the favorite to win, but unlike authors of similar gravitas he achieved this without a popular novel, without a blog, and without saturating every available market with dozens of short stories a year. In his twenty year career he’s published twelve stories. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of writers who have more published stories to their name, but few have written as many great stories. Recently SF Signal asked a variety of people to contribute lists of stories for their idea of the “perfect short fiction anthology” and while it wasn’t surprising that Chiang was frequently mentioned, what impressed me was how each person mentioning him picked a different story.
“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is Chiang’s twelfth and most recent story. At just over 30,000 words (about one third as long as a typical novel) it’s also his longest by a fair margin. It was originally published as a book by Subterranean Press, but it was reprinted in their online magazine after selling out and so can be read online.
Most of Chiang’s work has struggled with the question of humanity’s role in the universe. Sometimes, as in “Tower of Babylon”, “Seventy-Two Letters”, and “Hell Is the Absence of God” he has explored this by writing stories about the ramifications of religious ideas. He has also considered what the implications of a cold and deterministic universe are in stories like “Understand”, “Story of Your Life”, “What’s Expected of Us”, and “Exhalation”. One of the reasons I consider “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” Chiang’s best work is that in that story he manages to consider the question from those two angles at the same time.
In “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” Chiang turns to consider the place of artificial intelligence in a human world. The struggle of something other to integrate into society has a very long history in science fiction, going back at least to A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan, but in that work as well as more recent examples like Daniel Keys Moran’s Emerald Eyes and Nancy Kress’ Beggars in Spain it’s assumed that society will be frightened and hostile. Chiang is one of a comparative few (M.A. Foster’s Gameplayers of Zan is the only other example that’s coming to mind, and it’s not a perfect fit either) to predict a different response: apathy.
Chiang’s AIs, to which his applies the unlikely term “digient” (a word both unsightly on the page and difficult to say), are created by a tech startup to make money, and when the money dries up so does people’s interest. The idea of AIs as virtual pets is a pretty simple step from precents like Tamagotchi and The Sims, but in terms of sophistication digients represent a difference of many orders of magnitude. They learn from their experiences and can even acquire speech.
True to the title, the story charts a particular brand of digients from their creation as a product through a burst of faddish popularity into decline and obsolescence. Two employees of the company that created them, Ana and Derek, theoretically serve as main characters, but in fact most events are simply related directly in the third person narration. Although there’s a very low intensity kind-of romance between Ana and Derek, this is a science fiction story very much of the old mode. The reader is expected to be primarily interested in it as a meditation on AI and society’s attempts to integrate it and the story is balanced accordingly.
Though I appreciated most of Chiang’s extrapolation, I didn’t quite buy one technical aspect that unfortunately was extremely important to the plot. The story’s digients were created as programs that run on Data Earth, a virtual reality environment along the lines of today’s Second Life. When the Data Earth platform becomes obsolete, it’s an existential crisis, because although the digients can continue to live on a private instance of Data Earth they are cut off from wider Internet society, which has moved on to a different platform called Real Space. Unless their code is ported to run on Real Space, we are told, they can’t use it. This is, I’m sorry to say, pretty unbelievable. Why not just connect to it from their private instance of Data Earth and use avatars like everyone else? They can’t, the story says, because “the keyboard and screen are a miserable substitute for being there, as unsatisfying as a jungle videogame would be to a chimpanzee taken from the Congo.” It’s been four years since the release of the Nintendo Wii. By the time we have consumer AIs that can talk, are we going to be interacting with virtual environments with keyboards? And while something a little more immersive than a screen hasn’t quite made it to the market yet, a decent head mounted display or at least display wall seems also likely to beat AI to the hands of consumers.
More broadly, I wasn’t very convinced with Chiang’s speculations about how society would conceive of digient rights. In the story, digients have the same rights that people in The Sims do today. That is, zero.
Artificial-life hobbyists all agree on the impossibility of digients ever getting legal protection as a class, citing dogs as an example: human compassion for dogs is both deep and wide, but the euthanasia of dogs in pet shelters amounts to an ongoing canine holocaust, and if the courts haven’t put a stop to that, they certainly aren’t going to grant protection to entities that lack a heartbeat.
First of all, dogs actually have certain legal protections from cruelty which digients would apparently benefit from, since in the story depraved people broadcast records of them being tortured. Second, digient intelligence is farther above dogs than ours is above that of the digients. For most of the story, digients as intellects are compared with apes: capable of using tools and basic communication, but categorically below that of humans. This is initially persuasive but falls apart on even basic examination, for digients are in fact dramatically more intelligent than apes.
How much more intelligent? You’d expect some quantitative assessment. IQ goes unmentioned, presumably because of its increasingly bad reputation as a measure, but even more accepted metrics like vocabulary size, mathematical achievement, and reading level are not discussed. However, from the story the facts are: digients can speak, they can make logical inferences, they can read, and they can write well enough that on forums they can pass for adolescents.
Ultimately it’s a judgment call as to how society would react to AI capable of these feats. For me, I can accept a future in which they have no rights, but not one in which this wouldn’t at least cause an enormous controversy. There’s a religious argument against them, but even there I would expect to see religious people on each side. Meanwhile, if a near-future story expects me to believe the developed world would horribly persecute a minority, I demand that it pass what I think of as the Oprah test. I originally up with this in relation to the short story “The Cage”, and while I didn’t mention it in my comments on that story, it goes like this: would someone from this minority be able to go on Oprah and effectively plead their case? In “The Cage” I felt the werewolf baby’s sobbing mother would make a great Oprah episode, and here we have cute, childlike AIs that aren’t in the slightest bit dangerous. It’s not that everyone around the world would be convinced by this kind of appeal, just that more than enough would be to fight a long and powerful battle in the court of public opinion, regardless of the final verdict.
Although I don’t agree with some of Chiang’s vision, there’s no question it’s a novella that’s more thought provoking than most science fiction novels. As a story, “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” with its told-not-shown narrative and its half-hearted characterization isn’t really that impressive. As a meditation on AI and society, however, it’s definitely worth your time to read.
Tags: Steven Erikson
If there’s one thing you can say about Steven Erikson, it’s that he’s not afraid to take risks. Gardens of the Moon was a novel that refused to compromise its vision, even if many readers were left struggling to keep up. Deadhouse Gates, the second book in the ten book Malazan Book of the Fallen series, requires similar concessions on the reader’s part, but they are concessions of a different kind. At the end of Gardens of the Moon there’s a fair amount of narrative momentum leading into the conflict with the Pannion Domin, but this is left entirely for the third book, Memories of Ice. Instead, Deadhouse Gates leaves almost all the characters from the first book behind in favor of a different story set on a different continent.
Although there isn’t a lot of carryover from the previous novel, readers new to the Malazan series are still advised to start with Gardens of the Moon, which I reviewed at length last week. One reason is that even if there’s not a lot of direct continuity here, there are revelations about the history and nature of the world that are much more effective in their proper context. Another is that, in my opinion at least, Gardens of the Moon is a significantly better novel.
It turns out that most of the shortcomings I identified when reviewing Gardens of the Moon have been addressed. The narrative is more focused. There are fewer characters trying to do far fewer things. The timespan of the story is much longer, stretching across months instead of days. All these things give the characters a great deal more room to breathe than in the previous novel, which always felt in a hurry to get to the next scene.
Unfortunately, many of the virtues I celebrated in Gardens of the Moon are likewise absent. Where Gardens suffered from a conclusion that felt diffuse, most of the main story threads in Deadhouse end poorly, or else not at all. Meanwhile, although it’s more focused, Deadhouse Gates is actually quite a bit longer than Gardens of the Moon. For vast stretches of the novel, characters are stuck traveling from point A to point B, thinking back to what happened at A and planning what they should do at B. This has been a problem for fantasy novels since Tolkien (and some would say Tolkien suffered from this as well). Generally a few of these scenes go a long way, since all things being equal I think most readers would rather read about the points of interest instead of the trip between them, but this sort of traveling is responsible for a considerable portion of Deadhouse Gates‘s length.
It’s also, frankly, a rather dreary novel. The characters spend most of their time worrying about dying, whether from starvation, thirst, or through attack by the many powerful and malign forces around them. Not a few of them do, in fact, die, and almost all of them are in various stages of despair. Erikson tries to lighten the mood periodically but for me most of these “light” moments fell flat. Worse, they threatened the suspension of disbelief that is so important in secondary world fantasy. In particular, scenes with the courier service and Coltaine’s sappers felt completely out of place with the rest of the story. The only exception was Iskaral Pust. I haven’t looked around for other people’s reactions but, like Kruppe in Gardens of the Moon, he seems like the sort of character a lot of people would find tiresome. For my part I thought he was hilarious, and his behavior seemed more or less believable given what we’ve seen of Shadowthrone.
Although it’s too long and suffers from other problems I’m going to dive into momentarily, I do want to point out that this isn’t really a bad book. The vast detail of Erikson’s world is still a big selling point, and its unique attributes (briefly, the vast sense of history and the grand disparity of powers) still make for some very nice moments, like Icarium standing in the ruins of a city trying to understand the survival of his timekeeping device or the dragons flying over and then through the vast mosaic. Erikson’s background in anthropology continues to provide a fairly unique sense of history to the landscapes his characters must travel, and when they fight and die it is always clear that these are just the latest verses of an old, sad song.
The plot of Deadhouse Gates can be split fairly cleanly into four distinct narratives. All of them concern the rebellion in Seven Cities and each has a few links with each of the others, but they could have been published separately (or, the cynic in me mutters, not at all in some cases) without losing very much in the process.
Of the four storylines, the one readers will have the most initial affinity for concerns Fiddler, Crokus, and Apsalar, since along with Kalam they are the only holdovers from Gardens of the Moon. They get off to a bad start, however, mired in authorial contrivance. At the end of the previous book they were, after all, heading for a completely different continent. Why did they come to Seven Cities instead, and having come there, why does their best plan to reach their real destination consist of traveling to a place whose location and even existence is not certain, all so they can take advantage of a a means of travel that is even more hypothetical? It’s not that the book doesn’t provide answers to these questions, but they are not very satisfying. This is the sort of novel where the characters frequently ask, “What are we doing here?” or “Why am I doing this?” It’s probably unfair to suggest they are channeling the author’s subconscious, but since I was asking the same questions and was unimpressed by the answers, I couldn’t shake the suspicion.
On the positive side, Fiddler and company meet up with Icarium and Mappo, whose situation is intriguing and eventually even somewhat moving. Unfortunately some of the power of the Icarium/Mappo scenes is lost through overuse. Again and again we are treated to Mappo’s angst without him being able to arrive at any sort of decision. Considering he’s been traveling with Icarium for centuries, it seems like Mappo ought to have thought things out a little better. When push finally comes to shove, the reset button is hit and nothing changes in their relationship. Fiddler, Crokus, and Apsalar meanwhile finish the book having had almost nothing to do throughout.
The same can’t be said for Kalam, since he plays a key role in the uprising. However, it’s a role that comes on him suddenly and is dispensed with almost immediately. The scene where Kalam takes shelter with Malazan soldiers and has a Deck of Dragons thrown at him is great, but it’s downhill from there. Kalam incites the uprising, becomes linked with a demon, inexplicably acquires a love interest, and fights pirates, but he does all these things essentially by accident. He himself doesn’t seem to know why he’s doing any of these things and certainly doesn’t feel very strongly about them. For a series widely considered the epitome of swords and sorcery, the climactic ninja battle in Malaz City is hopelessly silly and reads more like a parody of the subgenre. Finally, after a conversation that lasts about a minute, Kalam decides that everything he’s been doing for the past few months was a waste of time. I’m not sure why, as a reader, I shouldn’t conclude the same about his portions of the book.
The chain of dogs storyline is a different matter entirely. This is by far the best material in the book, not to mention the most memorable (it was the only part of the book I remembered from my original reading a few years ago). It’s still longer than it needs to be, but because it’s a story of endurance the slow pace isn’t as harmful here as it is to the novel’s other narratives. It reads something like a sports story, in that you know the team is going to get to the final game, but you don’t know where the author will go once they get there. It also has some similarities to Ender’s Game in that they both concern a military genius using trickery to defeat stacked odds again and again. It also indulges in some of the hoary cliches of military fiction, setting selflessly noble soldiers against morally bankrupt savages and painting both the high command and wealthy civilians as utterly craven. This use of over-the-top villains is a regrettable first for the Malazan series and mars what are otherwise the strongest elements of the novel.
The last of the four groups of characters centers on Felisin, sister of Captain Paran from Gardens of the Moon. Felisin’s an unusually unsympathetic viewpoint character, although her character goes through some changes that some readers probably find interesting. I’m afraid I found them quite disappointing. She undergoes two wrenching experiences that change her personality, but the first happens completely off screen. She then spends most of the novel being contemptible until going through the second shift, and this one happens only at the very end, so we don’t see the woman she becomes. While I appreciate what Erikson was trying to do, I find it mystifying that he didn’t spend more time on the changes and less time on the long period in between when Felisin is completely unlikeable.
It doesn’t help that Felisin and her various companions spend most of the book undergoing constant deprivation, exhaustion, and attack. The similarity to the vastly more effective chain of dogs scenes doesn’t do either storyline any favors. Meanwhile, her mostly helpless group is subject to constant attacks by vastly more powerful forces. On occasion these result in characters dying, but the there’s a crying wolf effect. After the tenth time they are attacked by a deadly foe, it doesn’t seem that important any more. Again, this is aggravated by the presence of another narrative, in this case Fiddler’s, since that group is under similar threat, making the reader even more inured to it. When someone finally dies as a result of one of these attacks after there was no lasting damage from the previous fifteen, it feels arbitrary. Sometimes arbitrary catastrophe can provide a sense of realism, but here it never feels very likely that these underpowered characters could survive as much as they do.
It’s possible that many of my problems with this novel are a result of treating it as if it stood alone when it’s the second book out of ten. This is obviously only the beginning of the story for characters like Felisin and Icarium. But some of the blame must also be laid at the feet of Erikson’s refusal to provide context for his characters. This was probably a strength in Gardens of the Moon, since it gave the world a feeling of depth. But in Deadhouse Gates the lack of information caused me to have real problems sympathizing with the characters. We have no idea what Felisin was like before her arrest, for example, so there’s absolutely no way to tell how much of her personality afterward was warped by that experience. Much is made of Heboric’s loss of faith in the god Fener and his partial reconciliation, but it’s never made clear exactly how and why Heboric fell away from the god in the first place. Nor is it explained what Fener is like, what demands he makes of his priests, and what rewards he confers on them. Without this information, it’s impossible to make heads or tails of Heboric’s issues. Kalam and Fiddler are perhaps the worst off, since their feelings about the Malazan Empire and the Empress are crucial to their aims in the novel, but again we have no reliable information on either of these things. Laseen and Kallanved in particular and the Malazan Empire in general are all ciphers. Kalam, Fiddler, and the other Bridgeburners from the previous book all seem like good people whereas Laseen and Kellanved do not, but they dislike Laseen and revere Kellanved. I assume this will all be filled in later, but it’s asking a lot of readers to make them go for so long without this information given how important it is to understanding the main characters and their motivations.
Thematically, given how impressed I was with the way Gardens of the Moon dealt with violence and war, it’s surprising that Deadhouse Gates doesn’t seem remotely as nuanced. At first, Coltaine’s chain of dogs seems like a continuation of the first book’s modern spin on warfare. Everything about the setup and the mission itself is anachronistic. Not only do I doubt an ancient army in our world would protect poor refugees, the sheer number of refugees wouldn’t make sense in previous eras. Including the many who die along the way, the chain of dogs probably had about fifty thousand refugees. Considering that far more civilians were killed in the cities and the surrounding countryside, it seems like a million people would be a reasonable guess at the total number of Malazan people in Seven Cities. This is a preposterous number of colonists by ancient standards, especially considering their home country is on an entirely different continent.
However, this tale of modern war is built on a foundation of, and there’s no way to sugarcoat this, imperialist values. Most people today are pretty sympathetic to the concept of self-determination of peoples, but that principle makes no appearance here. The Malazan Empire conquered Seven Cities fair and square, it seems, and they need to just accept it. At best, the opponents of the Malazans are primitive people being manipulated by a god. They are fundamentally dishonorable opponents: they attack civilians, they commit all manner of atrocities, and they violate the terms of truce on multiple occasions. Again and again we are invited to compare the steadfast Malazan soldier bravely fighting to defend civilians with the undisciplined rabble they are fighting. Unlike in Gardens of the Moon, we are given no viewpoints from the other side to humanize this opposition. And whereas in Gardens of the Moon death in battle was seen as an almost meaningless sacrifice on the altar of a vast Imperial war machine, the chain of dogs story is rooted in the view that dulce et decorum est. The tragedy here, we are made to feel, is that there are not more righteous Malazan soldiers available to put all these vile rebels to the sword, with the caveat that Coltaine and his army are winning great glory for themselves and their nation thanks to the absence of same.
That’s not to say that Deadhouse Gates is completely lacking in self-awareness. Running through all its disparate narratives are questions of responsibility. Icarium is judged not to be responsible for the results of his violent rages and this is sufficient reason to preserve him from imprisonment, even though it endangers countless future lives. Felisin is absolved of responsibility for her constant hateful behavior by Heboric on the grounds that it is her suffering that has made her this way. Many people, meanwhile, are proposed as being responsible for the Seven Cities rebellion. There’s Kalam, since in his autopilot wandering through the novel he helped Sha’ik get everything started. Kalam’s opinion, shared by several other characters, is that the Empress and her negligence is to blame, although this is mostly dropped about halfway through the novel. At other points the Whirlwind goddess seems to be responsible, since the rebels are, after all, religious fanatics. Yet by the end, Felisin tells us that no, the goddess was horrified, absolutely horrified, by what is being done in her name, and those awful prophecies emerged from the warped mortal soul of Sha’ik. Even Emperor Kellanved is put forward as being responsible since the T’lan Imass army theoretically under his command committed mass murder at Aren, an atrocity not forgotten by the people of Seven Cities. He wasn’t responsible, Kalam and Fiddler insist, on the grounds that he didn’t actually order the slaughter, although they don’t contest the fact the Emperor brought the ancient army of undead to Seven Cities in the first place.
No matter who is responsible, this seems to be the latest in a cycle of violence that began with the Empire’s invasion of Seven Cities many years before. In another break from the previous book, there isn’t really any acknowledgment that this cycle ought to be broken. The Empress hisses that Seven Cities will pay for their rebellion, much to Kalam’s approval. Fiddler even enlists to go with the Adjunct’s army and fight the rebels, presumably because he considers the mission of wrath to be a righteous one. Coltaine several times tells Duiker that being a historian makes him the most important person in the chain of dogs, for the memory of what has happened must be preserved. The implication, I think, is that the efforts of Coltaine and his soldiers must be recorded as an example for future Malazan armies to follow, but this memory will necessarily preserve a record of the unspeakable atrocities committed by the rebels. “Possessing these memories enforces a responsibility,” Apsalar tells Icarium, “just as possessing none exculpates.”
The Malazan Empire seems more in need of exculpation than responsibility, I think, and perhaps the Empress agrees, since her purges of the Emperor’s men are frequently said to be a deliberate attempt at effacing the record of his reign. There’s no doubt that the Malazan forces sent to put down the rebellion will make the Seven Cities answer in blood for what was done to Coltaine’s army. “Eventually a man reaches a point where every memory is unwelcome,” Fiddler tells Mappo at another point, and it seems the Malazan Empire and its enemies reached that point a long time ago.
Tags: Mishell Baker
The final short story club story is “Throwing Stones” by Mishell Baker, published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. As usual, I found a lot of things to dislike about this week’s story. This is a story about a society with inverted gender roles, but the story feels like it was written about a woman in a male dominated society, then had all gender references inverted in revision. Certainly it doesn’t read any differently than its opposite, except perhaps to readers so new to the genre that they haven’t encountered a story challenging gender roles before. The story finally approaches interesting territory as the narrator is given a transient female body via magic, but the author seems like she’s in a hurry to reach the ending by this point and nothing much is done with it. As for the story’s plot, very little actually happens, and the story ends with the narrator doing exactly what he intended at the beginning, just a little faster than expected. I guess there’s nothing wrong with mood pieces and character sketches (this story could be called either or both) but I prefer stories with more things happening.
But…but…all that said, I found myself won over to large degree upon finishing the story. Nothing about the writing jumped out at me as really superlative, but as a whole I was impressed with the execution: the slimy, amphibian true form of the goblin, the narrator’s hatred for his own body, the way the goblin’s chaos infects and destroys the narrator’s life in a way that he observes but doesn’t see as important, and then the implication that the goblin is here acting as an agent of Ru, the very goddess in whose name the matriarchs suppress the men in their society. These elements weren’t enough to turn this story into one more to my particular tastes, but they did make it unexpectedly enjoyable to read.
Tags: Steven Erikson
Steven Erikson’s The Crippled God is coming out in February 2011, finally bringing his ten book series Malazan Book of the Fallen to a close. My usual policy with series is to wait until they are finished, read them all at once, and review them as a single work. However, a few years ago, after being told the early books stand on their own, I read the first few Malazan books to see what the fuss was about. That was during a period where I’d succumbed to laziness and stopped updating this site with what I was reading, so you’ll have to just take my word that I enjoyed the books. Having heard the series gets more tightly linked as it goes on, I stopped pretty early…to be honest I’m not completely sure where, but I think after the third book, Memories of Ice. With the series about to be completed, however, it’s finally time to read the whole thing. I’m starting a little early, but with nine books totaling almost three million words to read, I don’t think I’m likely to be done before February. Since the early books in this series, while linked, have distinct plots and often distinct sets of characters, I’m going to review them separately, at least for now.
Enough about that, let’s actually start talking about the first book, Gardens of the Moon. From the beginning this was described as the first of ten books. What kind of story needs that sort of space? As the novel opens, the 2nd Army of the Malazan Empire has been fighting for years against the Free Cities of the continent of Genabackis. Although only two cities remain outside Malazan control, the campaign is in danger of failing. Malazan morale is dropping rapidly, and the officers, if not the entire army, think they are being set up to fail by their Empress. To their opponents, resistance against Malazan tyranny is a patriotic struggle for freedom, but one they can’t hope to win in the long run. This is more than enough to sustain a novel, but as the book goes on, all this turns out to be just the tip of a vast iceberg. Perhaps the highest praise one can offer a book of this size is that after finishing it I was eager to keep reading more.
Like most fat fantasy novels, this is a very broad book. There’s a huge cast, many of whom serve at least briefly as viewpoint characters, and although the action of the book ultimately centers on the Free City of Darujhistan, it first ranges through other cities and even other continents. Insomuch as it can be boiled down, there are two main threads. In one, the few survivors of an elite 2nd Army regiment are given a new captain they don’t trust and a mission they believe impossible. In the other, a diverse group of friends in Darujhistan struggle to stay afloat amid the corruption and intrigue of a city in the shadow of an invading army.
When summarized so briefly, it takes on a realistic air, but this is very much of the swords and sorcery branch of the fantasy genre. Magic use is restricted to a small subset of the population, but that subset is large enough for it to be far more pervasive than in most fantasy novels. The range of power, meanwhile, is as wide as any novel I’ve read. The army has fairly weak “squad mages” mixed in with its soldiers, but there are High Mages capable of leveling armies by themselves. Beyond the human majority there are various types of immortals, from the elf-like Tisti Andii fighting for the Free Cities to the undead army of T’lan Imass commanded by the Malazan Empress. Complicating matters still further, gods and near-divinities called Ascendants are interfering in mortal affairs so much they make the gods of the Iliad look like the Swiss. There’s a ton of people groups, concepts, and powers to digest, and no doubt readers new to fantasy must find it all pretty dizzying, but for the experienced reader there’s nothing very unfamiliar. While it sounds harsh to call Erikson unoriginal, the fact is just about all the fantastic elements he uses have precedents from other prominent genre works. What distinguishes Erikson’s work, apart from its scale and ambition, is the mood he strikes.
You see, as with most sword and sorcery stories, and especially given its kitchen sink approach to fantasy tropes, there’s a danger that Gardens of the Moon won’t quite pass the giggle test, what with its floating mountain, assassins and thieves guilds, and hulking fantasy stereotype Anomander Rake. Erikson defuses this by starting off grim. By present standards, Gardens of the Moon is not a really dark book, but its darkest moments are at the beginning to set the tone. Before sitting down to reread this novel, I had forgotten almost everything from my original Malazan reading, but you can be sure that I still remembered the aftermath of the siege of Pale.
From this bleak beginning, Erikson moderates the tone and eventually introduces various elements that, considered in isolation, would seem pretty silly. But these are defused by the inertia of that serious beginning and the constantly down-to-earth attitude of the main characters. This is still high fantasy, but where most novels would feature a larger than life character like Anomander Rake prominently, Erikson is smart enough to leave him on the periphery, just as remote from the experience of the main characters as he is from our own (alas, whoever designed the cover pictured at the top of this review wasn’t so circumspect). Although some of the main characters are more powerful and influential than others, all are at the mercy of larger powers they cannot control, a surprisingly unusual theme for a genre that always seems to put the fate of the universe in the hands of the main character in the penultimate chapter.
The book’s relentless narrative momentum contributes to this feeling of being tossed by the winds of history. It might seem hard to believe given the length and complexity of the book that this is actually a very fast paced story, but with so many characters doing so many different things, Erikson is actually pressed for time. In traditional fantasy, diverse groups of characters band together to achieve some sort of goal. In Gardens of the Moon, everyone has their own thing going on, resulting in not just one plot, but over a dozen. Only strong unities of place and time keep the novel from feeling more like a short story collection.
However, it must be said that in the end it gets pretty messy. There is a point where it seems everything will come together explosively at a Darujhistan socialite’s party, but there are so many storylines to resolve and so many characters who need to take a bow that the ending is denied much of its punch. The result isn’t bad, per se, but it’s certainly not as effective as it would have been with a little more focus. With barely enough space to resolve the many stories, it almost goes without saying that there isn’t a lot of depth to the characters. Some are more effective than others (I really enjoyed Kruppe’s third person monologues, though I can see how some might find them annoying), but the timespan of the book is short enough that they don’t have very much time to change. As a standalone book, then, the characterization seems fairly shallow and very much beholden to the plot, but hopefully in the context of the longer series there will be better development.
Since I think the plot is messy and the characters are nothing special, you might be forgiven for wondering why I enjoyed it so much, and why this novel was successful enough to launch a ten book series. I think there are two factors. The first and probably most important is the world Erikson creates. The second, less important but more interesting to discuss, is the novel’s worldview.
Let’s start with the world. While some settings are more interesting than others, I sometimes make the mistake of treating them like a commodity, assuming that since every published fantasy book will have its own world, the mark of a strong book is its plot and characters. Reading Gardens of the Moon was a reminder that no, not everyone does this equally well. In fact, Erikson’s setting is the most effective of any I’ve encountered besides Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
Given the by now well-known story of how the Malazan series came to be, I guess that shouldn’t be too surprising. If you don’t know, Erikson and a friend, Ian Esselmont, created the Malazan setting for a pen and paper roleplaying game back in the early eighties. Later, they tried and failed to sell a screenplay based on it to Hollywood. Finally, Erikson wrote Gardens of the Moon. By the time it was published in 1999, there was well over a decade of thought put into the setting. Middle Earth had the depth it did because Tolkien spent literally his entire adult life working on it. Erikson perhaps hasn’t spent quite so long, but he had the advantage of a partner in Esselmont.
Right from the beginning of the novel, the depth of setting is obvious. Unlike Tolkien, who eased readers into his world one step at a time, Erikson dives into the deep waters almost immediately. Some people report bouncing off the book because of this, and I don’t blame them. It’s a lot to process. But for those who manage to integrate it, the result is powerful. Again turning to Lord of the Rings as a useful model, the timespan of that story caught almost every important event. Aragorn had been alive for over a hundred years when he meets Frodo, but little of what he was doing had much impact on the outcome of the story. The same is true for most of the other characters. Ask a character after the events of Lord of the Rings when the important time of their lives was and all would point to the War of the Ring. Gardens of the Moon is completely different. The older characters (and even some of the younger ones) have been active for years and this is just the latest situation they’ve had to confront. It’s serious, but they’ve seen worse, and they’re worried they may someday see worse still.
But the setting’s history goes back a lot farther than just a few decades. Tolkien probably felt our world was about 6,000 years old and so was his Middle Earth. Erikson no doubt sees our world as much older, and this is likewise reflected in his fiction. The Malazan Empire is just the latest of a thousand civilizations, a tiny sliver of hundreds of thousands if not millions of years of history. And this being a fantasy, there are immortal characters who have seen a sizable fraction of that history. Unlike Tolkien, who maintained a generational distance from the events of myth (Elrond was present only for the events at the very end of the Silmarillion), the influential immortals of Erikson’s present were just as influential in past millennia. This results in a unique effect where the past can feel extremely distant in one scene and very immediate in the next, depending on who is present.
Now, having made such an extended comparison to Tolkien, I have to make clear that although Erikson’s world has a depth similar to Tolkien’s, he is a very different writer. He doesn’t share Tolkien’s gift for languages, nor does he lavish nearly so much attention on the landscapes. Erikson was a professional anthropologist, so the details he emphasizes are those of culture. When Tolkien described a hill topped with ruins, he spent most of his time on the hill, whereas Erikson lingers on the ruins. The result is that Erikson’s landscapes are not beautifully evoked, but they come off as being genuinely inhabited (whether now or in the past) in a way that Tolkien’s empty countryside does not.
It’s worth continuing this contrast with Tolkien when we turn to the novel’s worldview. Tolkien’s setting was a conscious evocation of the high medieval period, however idealized. Most of his lesser successors have followed him in this, although they both loved and understood it less than Tolkien did. Erikson goes back much farther, and while his Malazan Empire is not an exact replica of any previous society, the closest analogue is probably the early Roman Empire. Whereas Tolkien’s world was fundamentally Christian, Erikson’s is thoroughly pagan. His gods are capricious and quick to interfere in the affairs of mortals. There’s no sense that humanity has dominion over the earth…the opposite, in fact. The distance between gods and men is small. Dangerously small, since the difference in power is vast. That disparity in power is perhaps the most old-fashioned element here. It’s easy to forget that for all the inequalities of wealth in our era, most people deny there is much difference between the average person and, for example, the American president. But to the ancients, there was an enormous gulf between the lowly peasant and Pharaoh, son of Ra.
However, mixed into this authentically ancient outlook is a very modern flavor. Unlike traditional Tolkien-influenced fantasy, the past is not considered better, nor is the present a slide down into a faded future. Oh, there were still powerful races and empires in previous eras who forged mighty artifacts and fought incredible battles, but while they are certainly due some respect, ultimately there is an assumption that modern magic is just as good as the old stuff, if not better. Even the Jaghut Tyrant, an ancient evil feared by all and the closest thing in the novel to a Dark Lord, is implied to be somewhat obsolete and rather out of his depth.
As for the gods, they may be active in the world, but ordinary people seem to mostly ignore them and hope to be ignored. Although there are cults and priests, we don’t see sacrifices being made or rituals undertaken to maintain the balance of the world. The only thing that resembles the consultation of omens or oracles is the Deck of Dragons, the ingenious tarot-like game that allows certain talented people to visualize divine affairs. The gods are of the ancient conception, then, but religious practice is about as pervasive as it is in the modern developed world (that is to say, not very). The pagan deities in, say, Rome could be capricious, but ultimately their favor could be bought through sacrifices and their protection assured through the proper administration of rituals. Erikson’s deities are complete free agents, depriving the masses of any hope of influencing the world around them.
This lack of influence extends to the characters, although Erikson does something rather tricky there. Again and again, he shows us that his characters are other than what they appear. Kruppe is a bumbling fool, Crokus is an insignificant thief, and Paran is a neophyte officer. Or are they? The named Bridgeburner characters all act like war-weary soldiers from gritty military fantasy like that of Glen Cook: despite cynicism about high command, they push forward and follow orders. Right? Actually, it turns out that Sergeant Whiskeyjack is no mere Sergeant, that Quick Ben isn’t a lowly squad mage, and so forth. The Bridgeburner characters are slumming. They are far more powerful than they appear, but that just makes them a target of the world’s great powers. For the moderately powerful in such a dangerous universe, false humility is the only alternative to destruction.
Since they are both long fantasy series, it’s inevitable that Malazan Book of the Fallen is often compared to George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, and it’s interesting that they end up being exact opposites in the way their characters interact with the world. A Song of Ice and Fire is full of ordinary humans who act just like we would expect historical nobles to act, bickering and self-centered, but they are caught amidst the events of high fantasy. Erikson’s characters, meanwhile, are surrounded by what are really quite mundane events. The Empress takes the throne through assassination, slowly purges those who were personally loyal to the previous Emperor and replaces them with her own partisans, and finally bleeds the armies dry trying to win military glory. But for the fact the person in charge is female, this could easily refer to any number of Roman Emperors. But in fact no one’s motivations, from high officials like the Empress and High Fist Dujek to seemingly ordinary grunts like Sergeant Whiskeyjack and Quick Ben, are even remotely like what they appear. They have the motivations of high fantasy characters, but these play out in a way that resembles the mundane games of empire.
Perhaps the most modern element of the novel is the depiction of the military. Although I said that the Malazan Empire feels similar to Rome at times, it has armies, not legions, and they are broken down into squads the way modern armies are. The participation of women and the use of winged animals for airlifts also has a modern ring. But by far the most modern aspect of Erikson’s warfare is its carnage. It’s caused by magic or supernatural powers rather than technology, but nevertheless the capacity for mass destruction is unmistakeably modern in nature. The empires of our past were capable of inflicting horrifying atrocities, but they did so slowly and deliberately. In Gardens of the Moon thousands of people can be killed by a single errant magical attack.
This modern and therefore very high destructive potential is combined with ancient and therefore low valuations of human life. Since World War II, the ever-escalating cost of war between two developed nations has become so frightening to contemplate that asymmetric war is the only kind anyone is willing to fight. In Gardens of the Moon, leaders are not so squeamish. To his credit, Erikson makes sure the terrible cost of the resulting warfare is put front and center. It’s no accident that the novel opens with not just one but two horrific battlefields where the soldiers who died never had a chance to fight back. Despite the huge number of characters who are soldiers, assassins, mercenaries, generals, etc., fighting is never glorified. Even the Bridgeburners, who are indeed glorified as a legendary military unit and present some of the most interesting and sympathetic characters, turn out to be ambiguous at best, given they attempt to orchestrate murders and then prepare a terror attack on a civilian population. They are well-intentioned, but so are their enemies who live in Darujhistan. When they meet in the right circumstances, people from the two different sides even become fast friends. Yet the intentions of ordinary people cannot change their world, so the conflict continues, grinding up human lives in the vast gears of ambition and intrigue.
It’s this theme that motivates the book’s odd title, whose meaning escaped me in my original reading. After finding the corpse of a man killed in the political infighting surrounding Darujhistan’s panicked politics, the naive but supernaturally attuned Apsalar tells her friend Crokus about the oceans on the moon:
Its oceans. Grallin’s Sea. That’s the big one. The Lord of the Dead Waters living there is named Grallin. He tends vast, beautiful underwater gardens. Grallin will come down to us, one day, to our world. And he’ll gather his chosen and take them to his world. And we’ll live in the gardens, warmed by the deep fires, and our children will swim like dolphins, and we’ll be happy since there won’t be any more wars, and empires, and no swords and shields. Oh, Crokus, it’ll be wonderful won’t it?
Crokus’ initial reaction is to consider this absurd. It’s Erikson’s achievement (and this is, in my opinion, a considerable achievement) that not only do we as readers immediately have the same reaction as Crokus but we have it for the same reason. Immersed in the Malazan world with its manifold deities and deep magic, there’s nothing implausible about the idea of beautiful gardens under an ocean on the moon tended by an elder god. No, the only thing that seems unbelievable about Apsalar’s description is its last image: “There won’t be any more wars, and empires, and no swords and shields.” An end to suffering and war? That’s just fantasy.
Tags: Megan Whelan Turner
When reviewing this series’ previous book, King of Attolia, I commented that I was impressed Megan Whelan Turner didn’t just churn out books similar to The Thief but instead kept developing her characters and taking them to new places. She does that again in the series’ fourth book, Conspiracy of Kings, but also takes the even bolder step of demoting Eugenides into a supporting role and making Sophos the main character. I suppose it would be easy to overstate the risk here, since the series has acquired most of its fans not through Eugenides’ particular traits but instead through Turner’s depth of characterization, and that is definitely on display once again.
Like many fantasy protagonists, Sophos has an interest in books instead of fighting and horseback riding and thus is a disappointment to his father. Unfortunately for his hopes of living a quiet life, he finds himself tangled in the schemes of barons hoping to replace the King of Sounis with a puppet they can control. Since Sophos doesn’t have the physical gifts Eugenides’ does, he’s a more thoughtful adventurer, enduring hardship but wondering as he does whether his goals justify his sacrifices. His friendship with Eugenides is his one chance of coming out on top of the situation, but they have to figure out how to position their friendship against the needs of their respective countries first.
If I had to criticize the book, it would probably be for the way it feels “small” despite a reasonably epic storyline. Sophos meets a number of people in his adventures, but it seems like his only lasting acquaintances are the royalty of Eddis and Attolia. The same is true for those monarchs as well…they seem to know each other far better than they know anyone in their actual countries. However, in a genre usually featuring sprawling casts and overcomplicated stories (adult fantasy that is), the economy on display in Turner’s books is a little refreshing. Maybe I should read more YA fantasy.
Anyone who enjoyed the previous three books in the series will like this one too. It’s a much more straightforward novel than King of Attolia, but it still handles its central character conflict with an impressive degree of subtlety. I feel like the interactions between Sophos and Eugenides would have gone straight over my head when I was reading YA books, but perhaps I’m selling kids short. Readers new to the series should start with The Thief.
Tags: Paul Berger
This week’s short story club story is “Stereogram of the Grey Fort, in the Days of Her Glory” by Paul Berger, published by Fantasy Magazine. Of the twelve stories so far, this is my favorite by a fair margin. Now, I’ll admit that I am a complete sucker for stories that show the same events from widely different points of view, but even aside from that, finally this is a story whose ambition matches its length.
Although the stereogram conceit was enough by itself to make me like the story, as used there are a few weaknesses. According to Loran, taken separately each image of the stereogram means nothing, but the story didn’t quite meet this standard. By backloading a lot of context into Jessica’s point of view, the story mimics the feeling of something clicking into place, but in fact if we were just given Jessica’s point of view we would have almost the entire story. As a result the story feels at least as much like the Onion’s point-counterpoint articles as it does a stereogram. Another feature it shares with the Onion’s point-counterpoint is that after you see the way the second part begins, the rest is relatively predictable. I did like the way Jessica took advantage of Loran’s war injury to incapacitate him, though. Finally, Berger cheats slightly by having Jessica’s narrative extend a little farther than Loran’s, but the story’s more than good enough to forgive these small issues.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the setting, and probably the concept the author meant to actually show in the story’s “stereogram”, is the nature of the colonial government. Loran’s narrative makes it very clear that the Elves only respect strength and were in fact disappointed when they finally defeated humans. Unlike the colonial powers of our world, they don’t seem to be extracting labor or natural resources. There’s likewise no equivalent of the White Man’s Burden, or at least, not since the war ended, since they see humans as only being worthy of respect when they are capable of fighting the Elves. Yet Loran says that in his role as a sort of regional governor he is responsible for “teaching” the humans under his control. What could he want to teach them, then, if not to fight back again? It seems like we are meant to conclude that he has essentially planned his own murder. Although this level of manipulation seems well beyond his ability to comprehend human psychology, even Jessica’s despite the link between them, at least we can say he shaped the outline if not the detail of what happened. Thus what might have seemed like a rousing stick-it-to-the-man ending becomes fairly ambiguous. As readers we’re predisposed to be sympathetic to Jessica’s stand, but when we realize that in doing so she’s adopting the values of the colonial power, suddenly it doesn’t seem like such a good idea. Loran has made her into a William Wallace when humanity would be better served by a Mahatma Ghandi.
Tags: Megan Whelan Turner
I frequently wish fantasy authors would write more standalone books and less one story, multi-book series, but my experience with Megan Whelan Turner’s books suggest they know what they’re doing. After reading and really enjoying The Queen of Attolia, I just kind of didn’t get around to reading the sequel for months. A chapter into it, I was wondering why on earth I had waited so long, because I was enjoying The King of Attolia far more than most of the books I’d read in between.
This is the third book in the series, so readers know pretty much everything about the main character, the retired (sort of) thief Eugenides, when they start. Unlike Queen of Attolia where his motives for most of the book were purposefully obscured, in King it’s pretty obvious to the reader what Eugenides is up to. Turner wisely tells the story almost entirely from the perspective of characters who don’t know him. I strongly dislike books whose viewpoint characters spend most of the plot doing what the reader knows are dreadfully stupid things, but here the viewpoint characters are reasonable people so the device works beautifully.
Of course, when considered dispassionately, Eugenides is basically a superhero, able to sneak around like a ninja but also fight even the most experienced warriors to a standstill in a straight-up fight. He’s still fun to read about, partly because of the quality of characterization, but also because Turner doesn’t bother trying to make the reader wonder if he’s going to win. Instead, she lets us wonder just how much collateral damage will be done before he gets what he wants. Like Dorothy Dunnett’s somewhat similar heroes Lymond and Nicholas (although not to their extremes), Eugenides is a dangerous person when under pressure, both to those around him and himself.
It would have been easy for Turner to have started churning out copycat Eugenides books after The Thief was a success. Well, maybe not easy, but certainly easier than what she’s been doing. The second and third books of the series have both challenged Eugenides and forced him to mature, and Turner resisted the temptation to hit emotional reset buttons, unlike so many authors (not to mention screenwriters, since serial TV is a big offender here too). Readers new to the series should definitely start with The Thief. Theoretically this is all YA, but if it wasn’t for the length (a nice change in itself from the multibook epics) I probably wouldn’t have noticed if not told. I definitely recommend the series for fantasy readers be they young adults (whatever that is) or actual adults.
Tags: KJ Bishop
This week’s short story club story is The Heart of a Mouse by KJ Bishop, published by Subterranean Magazine. It’s about a guy, who’s been turned into a mouse, trying to keep himself and his son, who’s been turned into some sort of gopher-like rodent, alive while journeying across a post-apocalyptic landscape. It seems that this variety of apocalypse involved all of humanity being instantly converted into one of about six or so animal templates, most with only rudimentary intelligence. The landscape has been converted too, so that almost all vestiges of our world have been replaced by the support system to keep this strange pseudo-society moving.
Boiled down like this, this seems like a parody of the post-apocalypse genre. This apocalypse makes no sense whatsoever, but really, do they ever? Meanwhile it literalizes what is usually implicit in the subgenre: the loss of humanity, the emergence of animal instincts, and the destruction of the artifacts of civilization. It’s a situation, and in fact a whole world, that the reader can’t possibly take seriously. Even the characters–the hard-edged father, the naive son, the mother whose death haunts both of them–are right out of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
But the story is completely deadpan. The cartoon world around the characters isn’t even remotely as frightening as McCarthy’s, but the relationship between the narrator and his son is far more dysfunctional. Where McCarthy’s narrator invested his son with his hopes for the future, almost to the point of religion, Bishop’s narrator veers between different shades of despair while his son is the one with the religion, in this case a ludicrous belief system oriented around his dead mother. The story ends on a note of relative optimism, but there doesn’t seem to be much justification for it. The cognitive improvement in the narrator and his son seems to be associated with their proximity to the hut, a last unclaimed bit of our world, and with it gone it seems likely they’ll revert to what they were.
An interesting story, and well written I thought, but while it’s clearly a story in dialogue with the rest of the post-apocalyptic subgenre, I don’t understand what it’s saying. It feels a little like steampunk, having fun indulging in unusual scenery, but ultimately telling an overly familiar story.
Tags: Kay Kenyon
I’ve never been very impressed with “science fantasy” as a label. In my fairly limited experience, most stories end up being either science fiction or fantasy. I don’t want to go down the well-traveled road of defining what the difference might be…wherever you draw the line, you know it when you see it, and I usually feel like the line is narrow enough there’s nothing that’s somehow both. For example, to me Star Wars and Book of the New Sun (how often are those two lumped together?) are fantasy while Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series is science fiction.
All that said, I would characterize Kay Kenyon’s four book series The Entire and the Rose as science fantasy. I do so because this is the only story I can remember reading that manages to be simultaneously fantasy and science fiction. How is this possible? I was going to draw an analogy to quantum superposition, but now that I think about it, if I’m going to butcher physics in the name of metaphor, I think the wave-particle duality of light is a better example. Just as light sometimes acts like a particle and sometimes acts like a wave, The Entire and the Rose alternates between its two natures. I think this failure to commit to one genre or the other substantially weakens the series (whether or not the same is true of the nature of light, I couldn’t tell you) and I hope to explain why.
The story opens with an uncompromising SF voice: on a space station many light years from Earth, the powerful AI that controls an FTL-enabling wormhole has essentially gone mad, causing a major disaster. From there we are given a brief look at the Earth of this future, nexus of a fledgling interstellar civilization but also a corporatist dystopia. Because only geniuses can understand the physics and information theory required to be productive in the future, the vast majority of ordinary people just cash generous unemployment checks and play virtual reality video games. One of these geniuses is our protagonist, a pilot named Titus Quinn. His brother is, alas, only several standard deviations smarter than average and thus is constantly in peril of losing his job and having to go on welfare (that this would be a fate only slightly better than death is taken for granted by all the characters from Earth, and I suppose by the author, but I was not convinced the dignity of working for a living would be so alluring as to be preferred to life of ease and entertainment).
So far, since the gears of FTL travel are greased with a healthy portion of quantum mechanics terminology, this is all fairly standard science fiction. Getting to know the main character, Titus Quinn, we find that he is a broken man. While piloting a passenger vessel through the book’s hyperspace-analogue, Something Went Wrong and the ship was lost with all hands…except him. That he would be feeling sole-survivor guilt is hardly surprising, but it turns out he also came back with fragmentary memories of getting into an escape capsule with his wife and daughter and then spending years in some mysterious alternate universe. The multinational corporation (really a multistellar corporation I guess) who employs him swept this crazy talk under the rug and stashed him in comfortable but isolated early retirement on Earth. No fantasy reader (for the series is making a slow transition into fantasy here) will be surprised to find out that Titus’ hazy memories of an encounter with the fantastic were in fact real and that everyone else was wrong. The fact is, Titus’ story sounds a lot less crazy when you consider he appeared out of nowhere on a totally unrelated planet months after the accident, but this is only the first of many times that circumstances bend to the needs of the plot.
In any case, eventually some people realize Titus was right all along and have to come and apologize. It seems there’s a universe next door that’s accessible using quantum mechanical means, and they want to send him back to…well, it’s not totally clear what he’s supposed to do there. He had learned the language, so he certainly would be a useful member of a team, but why send him alone? As with any new technology there’s a lot of risk involved, but surely evil corporations aren’t too afraid to risk human lives? In fact, given he’s the only one who knows the language, he’s probably too valuable to send at all. But it makes a better book if he goes back alone, so go back he does. He’s supposed to get the lay of the land so that the evil corporation can evilly profit from it, but he goes along with the plan so that he can find his wife and daughter.
I know I’ve spent a lot more time than I usually do with summary, but I haven’t even begun to cover everything from the opening quarter of the first book. The other universe is called The Entire, and it’s by far the most impressive part of the series. Unlike our universe, the Entire was created by a super-advanced alien race called the Tarig, and it is constructed far differently, with an endless landscape instead of planets and stars and vacuum. The Tarig have created a variety of intelligent species to live in their universe, but unlike the Entire, these races are not wholly novel, but are copies of species the Tarig saw living in our universe. So the Chalin people are human-analogues, for example, and there are a range of other species as well. From a science fiction perspective, these other species are not very impressive. Most are either animal-based like the telepathic horse-analogue Inyx or else seem like man-in-suit Star Trek aliens.
The exception is the Tarig themselves, who struck me as impressively alien. Throughout the series they are a constantly intriguing cipher. Where did they come from? Why did they create the Entire and its peoples? What do they want? While the ultimate answers to these questions are not, in the end, particularly compelling, their odd behaviors, strange mannerisms, and unpredictable decisions amount to a very successful portrait of an alien psychology, one which makes the Entire’s other aliens look uninspired by comparison.
However, upon reaching the Entire it swiftly becomes obvious that, although the language of science fiction is still used when discussing the Tarig and their universe, the story has transitioned into fantasy. This is a crossing-over fantasy, and the Entire draws heavily on traditions about faerie. The strange, capricious ruling Tarig are startling and fresh when viewed through the lens of science fiction, but when considered within the tradition of fairy kings and queens they seem much more run-of-the-mill. Their alternatively cruel and possessive attitudes toward Titus and his family, for example, are never satisfactorily explained, but are similar to fairy interactions from stories about changelings and human kidnappings. As another example, the fact that the Bright, the ever-glowing sky of the Entire, grants long life to races living there cannot possibly be explained scientifically, but life extension is a familiar property of otherwordly locales.
Reading Bright of the Sky, the series’ first book, none of this bothered me very much. It’s not afraid to take its time, introducing the reader first to the science fiction world of future Earth and then, in an even longer and more meandering sequence, to the fantastic world of the Entire. Despite the slow pace, eventually matters come to a head, swashes are buckled, and Titus Quinn saves the day. Sort of. Actually, from the beginning, Titus Quinn is something of an odd duck as a protagonist. When we first meet him, he’s emotionally ruined, perhaps even mentally ill. His grueling experiences in the Entire, and whatever caused his memory to fragment upon leaving, has left him a shell of his former self and almost incapable of relating to other people. Upon reaching the Entire, however, he immediately becomes a ultra-competent protagonist, navigating difficult social and cultural situations and without even meaning to enchanting the people around him. I found that a difficult transition to swallow, but was willing to roll with it. The new Titus Quinn is a good fellow with some hard edges, and sometimes the series comes close to becoming an interesting depiction of the callousing, or even corruption, of a conscience. At one point he has an ethical lapse of almost Thomas Covenent proportions, but the series lets him off the hook for it later on.
As the series goes on, however, its flaws become more manifest. One of these, the rather loose plot, is perhaps the most serious, but also the least interesting, so I’m only going to discuss it briefly. I’ve already alluded to the series being guilty of taking shortcuts to move the plot along. Sticking just to the very beginning so as not to spoil anything, I’ve already asked why send just Titus? To that can be added, why did Anzi make her original and very important choice? Why does Helice want to personally go to the Entire? All these things are explained, usually many times over, but the explanations are always “small” when compared to the enormous risks involved. These are just at the beginning of the story, but similar issues crop up throughout the series (for example I found Lamar’s actions in book three to be a long series of non-sequiturs).
I also had a problem with Kenyon’s mechanics. Normally I don’t go in for style criticism. Generally I appreciate distinctive styles but I don’t mind science fiction’s trademark “transparent prose” however maligned it might be in some quarters. Kenyon is mainly on the transparent side of the spectrum, but she does one unusual thing, and that’s use a third person perspective that’s not limited. Or if it is limited, one that swaps points of view in mid-conversation. Being a style agnostic I never paid much attention to the interminable (or so I find them) debates among authors and would-be authors about third person omniscient, third person limited, etc. but frankly switching viewpoints so abruptly is flat out confusing. There were many occasions where I had to stop and back up a few lines to properly attribute a thought or feeling. The story didn’t seem to be getting much mileage out of this, so I’m surprised it wasn’t written in third person limited like (I think?) most modern science fiction and fantasy stories are.
Before I get to my more interesting criticisms, I must warn you that spoilers will crop up, though I’ll try to minimize them.
For a series that is, at its heart, a combination of adventure fantasy and space opera, the villains of The Rose and the Entire suffer from (to borrow a phrase from that dean of modern space opera, Iain M. Banks) a significant gravitas shortfall. Initially Titus Quinn faces off against the Tarig, and their combination of power and unpredictability make them entertaining enemies. Unfortunately, while there are many different Tarig with fairly different personalities, Titus’ particular antagonist Hadenth is by far the least interesting. Where the other Tarig are strange, Hadenth seems to be mentally ill, but the book never makes clear if this is true, and if so why (yes, it implies that his earlier interaction with Titus left him much the worse for wear, but his aberrant behavior seems to go much farther back). Why the other Tarig, generally represented as subtle and intelligent, respected someone who invariably acts either insane or like a mustache twirling psychopath isn’t explained.
But as the series’ scope expands and the stakes climb, Hadenth and even the Tarig are left behind. When Helice takes over as one of the main villains, she’s a substantial step down. Whereas the Tarig, fairy associations or not, were never far from the science fiction side of the story, Helice’s quest to destroy our entire universe is more in line with a fantasy story. Her plan makes her sound like a Saturday morning cartoon villain, but she’s supposed to be the smartest character in the story. It’s important to note that even if she completely succeeded, all she would accomplish would be to create a tiny human colony in the Entire, a colony living under the thumb of the Tarig. Meanwhile, like a black hole, her ridiculous scheme is so beyond the pale it distorts the story, forcing characters whose morals could accurately be equated with Adolf Hitler’s on to the side of the good guy protagonist. Finally, while the idea that a successful, socially adapted person like herself would be such a monster is just barely believable, the fact she somehow convinces thousands of people to join her conspiracy without any leaks made it utterly impossible for me to suspend any disbelief. Here the combination of fantasy with science fiction is working against the series. When the dark lord Sauron tries dominate the world, I don’t have a problem, but Helice and her enormous number of co-conspirators are humans from Earth and I expect a few of them to at least occasionally act like it.
Of course, the final villain is Geng De, who comes out of nowhere in the middle of the series. As a character he is wholly of the fantasy genre, wielding magic powers over reality, attempting to fulfill a prophecy, and one-upping Helice by seeking not only to destroy one universe but to mind-control everyone in all the others. Unlike Helice, Geng De is not a high functioning individual, and he’s not associated in any way with the science fiction side of the story, so he’s much easier to swallow. But he’s even more of a cartoon villain than Helice (who at least is the subject of some unsuccessful attempts to humanize, especially towards the end of her run) by virtue of being a cackling child predator on top of everything else.
In a long series like this, villains like Helice and Geng De are boring. For one thing, there’s not even a whiff of dramatic tension surrounding their plans. While there’s a small chance the Entire could be destroyed, as readers we know that never in a million years is Helice going to succeed in destroying our universe, and that Geng De will certainly not win either. For another, although both these characters are theoretically human, neither of them follow plausible psychological routes to their villainy, which makes them feel like they are evil from authorial fiat.
But the tension between fantasy and science fiction goes beyond just the villains. Again and again, situations crop up that would be fine in a fantasy novel but seem inappropriate in one using the language of science fiction. For example, whenever push comes to shove, the Tarig–creators of an entire universe, wielders of unimaginable energies, ancient beyond human reckoning–settle their differences with Titus Quinn and even each other by fighting with swords or knives. When Frank Herbert insisted that his far less technologically advanced humans fight with knives, he at least came up with a cute science fictional reason. Kenyon doesn’t venture an explanation, and again, if this is fantasy, why not? Although even in a fantasy, you’d think a race of wizards would know a fireball spell or two.
The worst of these problems, however, was the politics of the Entire. In City Without End and Prince of Storms most of the political plot points have to do with several leaders jockeying for power. It’s taken for granted that, while control of the bureaucrats and the armies are nice, legitimacy is ultimately derived by appeal to the people, who seem to quickly form powerful allegiances to specific individuals. But the people, in this case, are scattered across a landscape that stretches light years, and while there is reasonably fast travel, news moves very slowly if at all. We see no newspapers, and in fact no mass media whatsoever save the dreams of the Inyx. Yet in the fourth book, a wholly novel form of government is introduced on the realm essentially by slight of hand and it somehow assumes a very strong inertia. It’s true, incidentally, that the Inyx sendings are a form of mass media, but other than the extremely implausible discrediting of the Tarig (why their nature is universally considered disgusting throughout the Entire is one of those plot shortcuts), most political alignments take place without their assistance.
To me, in contrast to fantasy sword fights in a science fiction setting, this is a case of a science fiction regime change in a fantasy setting. In just about every attribute important to politics (to name but a few: the speed of travel and communication, the sophistication of its populace, and the complete lack of historical precedents for political chance) the Entire works according to the rules of the past, yet the political turmoil follows patterns of modern societies. Instead of distant regions rebelling or putting forward their own candidates, people simply line up behind one or the other coalition. No mention is made of buying the loyalty of the army even though that’s been the only legitimacy that matters in virtually every similar situation right up to the present.
It’s a common foible of both science fiction and fantasy to have the good guys defeat the evil government at the end of the story and simply take it for granted that replacing it is no sweat, so I appreciated that most of Prince of Storms was concerned with creating a new and better order. It was extremely disappointing, however, that this new and better order meant replacing Tarig oligarchy with a monarch. Much is made over the danger that power is corrupting the man in charge throughout the fourth book, yet somehow the solution to that is just giving the throne to his daughter and letting her be the absolute monarch. Ignored in this happy ending is the fact this same daughter has spent two books being completely corrupted by much smaller amounts of power, not to mention the woman she regarded as a mother seems to have been a racial supremacist.
Now, look, if we’ve learning anything in the last few years, it’s that creating a democracy in a place that’s never had it before isn’t easy. Had the characters considered democracy and rejected it, I might or might not have been convinced by their reasoning, but at least they would have thought about it. As it is, characters from an Earth that probably hasn’t seen anything resembling a monarchy in a hundred years or more all take it for granted that monarchy is the appropriate means of governing the Entire.
Now in fantasy novels monarchy is frequently taken for granted, although in the last few decades that’s been changing. But again, The Rose and the Entire isn’t really a fantasy series and there are plenty of examples its characters could draw from. Its Earth seems to be governed more or less like it is now and the super-advanced Paion govern themselves using a computerized hive-mind that seems to achieve similar results to city state direct democracy. Admittedly, the Earth is portrayed as dominated by greedy corporations, but these same greedy corporations save the day in City Without End, and in any case surely things aren’t so bad enough to warrant throwing out a millennium of political thought? Usually I find that fantasy novel protagonists are inexplicably modern, full of anachronistic ideas about class and gender equality. This is one of the only times where I’ve found them far too old fashioned.
From the nature of these complaints, I’ll guess that if The Rose and the Entire were rewritten as wholly fantasy or wholly science fiction, I would probably like either better than the actual series. I don’t know that this is a problem I would have with all science fantasy stories since, for one thing, my definition of science fantasy is obviously so narrow that there probably aren’t very many. In any case, although the series is really one continuous story, Bright of the Sky doesn’t do a bad job of standing on its own, so it may be worth checking out. Certainly the Entire is an impressive bit of worldbuilding, and most of the reviews of the series have been far more positive than mine. Unfortunately, for me the series as a whole is more interesting than it is good.