2011 Hugo Nominees: Short Stories

April 30, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Posted in Short Stories | 2 Comments

Thanks to a little-known rule requiring short stories to receive at least five percent of the nominations to make the shortlist, there were only four stories nominated this year. I think that’s probably indicative not of a decline in quality but the continued fragmentation of the short story market. Only one of the four stories was published by what was once the Big Three magazines (Asimov’s, Analog, and F&SF). The other three come from online venues, two of which (Tor.com and Clarkesworld) pay more than the old guard do, at least at this length.

When doing this in the past I’ve just run down the stories, but this year I noticed a thematic connection between all four stories. It’s probably just a coincidence but all four, it seems to me, are in some way about coercion of individuals or small groups by a larger group. This isn’t the foremost idea in every story, but each at least has this as an element.

“Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn, published in Lightspeed Magazine, is set in what is by now the familiar confines of an energy-starved society. Instead of cities and spring power, however, the emphasis is on a small, sustainable community. The village employs what we would call oppressive rules to avoid depleting their fragile resource balance, restricting the amount the main characters can fish and even allowing reproduction only via rare permits.

It’s a nice enough story, but “Amaryllis” just doesn’t have enough substance for my taste. I feel bad criticizing stories like this, because the setting is interesting, the prose is good, and the characters are well done. Unlike many insubstantial mood pieces that have shown up in past shortlists, this even has a beginning and an end. The story employs a structure familiar from television, setting up an external conflict the characters must face while coming to grips with an internal conflict within the group. But both of these conflicts are resolved smoothly, without the characters really seeming to try very hard.

Although it’s my least favorite story of the four, I think it’s interesting to note that the characters in “Amaryllis” are happier than those in the other stories despite being at the lowest technology level and under arguably the most restrictions. They never question the justice of the rules that govern their society, merely the honesty with which they are enforced. But then, I guess it’s easier to be happy when the problems the author has set in your path are easily surmounted.

“Ponies” by Kij Johnson, published on Tor.com, is as different in feel from “Amaryllis” as you could imagine. This is a very short story about peer pressure. Like the protagonists of “Amaryllis”, Barbara doesn’t question the rules of the society she’s trying to live in, but in this case these are the rules not of reasoned government but of mean little girls. Maybe I’m stretching this too far to even say it’s like the others, but I think the fact children enforce these arbitrary rules is a useful reminder that not every regime is quite as reasoned and calculated as it claims to be.

I didn’t remember the author’s name nor did I recognize anything about the style, but just the emotion “Ponies” inspired was enough for me to guess (correctly) it was written by the author of “Spar”, nominated last year for both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Like “Spar” this is an extremely effective story, and of the nominated stories it is by far the most successful at achieving its goals. I’m disappointed to see that writing about “Spar” about a year ago I said it was horror, not science fiction, because looking back I completely disagree. “Spar” was horrible, yes, but it was also an examination of the boundaries of human values as well as the difficulty, even futility, of understanding a truly alien being. Today I’d say it used the tools of horror to make a science fictional point. I can’t really say the same thing about “Ponies”. It feels a little more subtle than “Spar” in that it relies less on the shock value of words, but ultimately it’s making a simple point about human nature. The talking, flying unicorns are fantastic, but they aren’t treated that way in the story, and Johnson goes out of her way to tie the setting to our present. It’s also debatable whether “Ponies” has an interesting enough point to justify the distaste it so capably inspires in most readers.

“For Want of a Nail” by Mary Robinette Kowal, originally published by Asimov’s, portrays another society that, like the village in “Amaryllis”, is severely resource constrained. This time, it’s because they live on a generation starship. Once again there are draconian laws to keep everything in balance. Unlike “Amaryllis”, however, there is a genuine conflict here. Someone has broken the rules and covered it up electronically, but Rava, an AI “wrangler”, stumbles on to the scheme and eventually discovers the truth.

I liked this story quite a bit and thought it was my favorite of the nominated stories when I had finished. It was a little odd that the difficult maintenance the protagonist performs on the AI involved plugging a cable into a hard to reach port, but overall the story has some interesting things to say about AI and forces the reader to consider whether or not the restrictions on the ship’s passengers are ethical or not.

Although by most definitions Peter Watts’ story The Things, published in Clarkesworld, is basically fan fiction of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1980) and/or the John W. Campbell story the movie was based on, Who Goes There, it also strikes me as the most original of the four stories. Alien viewpoints are difficult to achieve, but Watts does a good job placing us in the alien’s shoes and allowing us to understand its very different value system. In Watts’ interpretation, the alien is convinced humanity is broken, in pain, and in need of dramatic alterations. The alien feels it should inflict the cure on us, and in fact feels morally required to do so. Once again we have the idea of coercion, but this time from a completely external entity (representing, if its memories are accurate, a galaxy-spanning civilization) who sees humans as closer to cancer than what it considers life.

When I originally read this I liked the story but found it all a little predictable. Reading far more enthusiastic reviews since then left me thinking I was more down on the story than I actually was. I was going to say I thought “For Want of a Nail” was the best story, but after giving “The Things” a quick reread, I was less impressed by the last sentence but more satisfied by the story itself. Its ideas are as interesting as those in “For Want of a Nail” and it’s told with more style and novelty, so when it comes down to it I think “The Things” is the best story on the shortlist, even if I’m still not quite as big a fan of it as a lot of other people are.

Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness

April 26, 2011 at 1:08 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 8 Comments

The Knife of Never Letting Go coverIt’s been about ten years since I decided I would do my best to avoid reading series until they are finished.  Lately I’ve been thinking about giving up on this.  One reason is that it tends to mean arriving to conversations very late.  Three years ago, Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go was the book everyone was talking about, but I waited until the Chaos Walking trilogy was finished before giving it a try.  So here I am, fashionably late.  As I read the trilogy, however, I found that if anything the experience turned out to validate my approach.  For one thing, Knife ends with a nearly unbearable cliffhanger.  I’m not as sensitive to cliffhangers as I used to be…but still, that was a very tall cliff and I was quite glad I only hung from it a day instead of a year.

But even leaving aside the cliffhanger, I was happy to have read the Chaos Walking trilogy all at once because the second two books turned out to be so different from the first.  Had I read and reviewed Knife separately I would have spent a long time making points that would have been rendered thoroughly obsolete by the second book.  Looking at the trilogy as a whole, I can be a lot more efficient.

Let’s start with the story.  Todd is about to turn thirteen, the youngest boy in his village…  On second thought, let’s skip the summary.  Another benefit of being late to the party is there are literally hundreds of Internet reviews of The Knife of Never Letting Go available if you really don’t know anything about it.  If you haven’t read Knife, I certainly recommend it.  It may be written at a YA level, but there’s plenty here for adults to chew on (I’d hate to think all the chewing I’m about to do is just me being long-winded).

So, with the understanding there will be some spoilers, though I’ll try to avoid anything too blatant, let’s talk instead about what sort of book Knife is.  Viewed dispassionately, it’s a big collection of clichés familiar from genre and YA fiction.  An orphan boy grows up safe but dissatisfied.  He gets forced out into a wide world that he knows little about, and soon he finds what little he knew was wrong anyway.  He meets some friends and makes some enemies.  Like many YA protagonists before him, he learns he can’t trust adults, even well-intentioned ones, and further he is frequently rejected by people who don’t understand him.  Their mistake: not only would it be in their best interest to listen to him, Todd is far from the bad person they think he is.  In fact, he is Special, possessing unique virtues that make him a particular danger to the story’s villains.

I say “viewed dispassionately” but Patrick Ness makes this fiendishly difficult.  The opening chapters of Knife are a textbook example of how to draw the reader into a world.  First there’s Todd’s cute talking dog.  Then there’s Noise, the telepathic broadcast that the men and animals of Todd’s world can’t help but spew into the world around them.  Right after that, there’s the strange and tragic history of Todd’s village, populated only with men because the women died from the same process that brought about Noise.  And then there’s the mystery that awaits Todd in the swamp outside the village.  And so on.  The relentless novelty of the early chapters eventually slows down, as it must, but when it does the narrative has picked up a desperate urgency that propels the story through to the ending without ever stopping for breath.  The combination of the fascinating world with the seductive tropes (they are clichés because they work) would by itself make a fantastic novel, but the whole story is told in a beautiful first person.  I could have done without the misspellings, but otherwise Todd’s voice is a strong asset to what was already a very strong novel.

No wonder, then, that The Knife of Never Letting Go earned acclaim from critics and readers alike.  It received excellent reviews both in major newspapers and genre circles, not to mention a variety of awards.  With the benefit of a certain amount of hindsight, however, there is a little bit of equivocation in some of the book’s reviews.  Everyone agrees it’s a great read, but what exactly is it about?

Many assumed it was about gender relations, and indeed the book won the 2008 Tiptree award.  Certainly the fact that Noise is a gendered phenomenon, affecting men and not women, looms enormously over the book’s conceptual landscape.  But what does it mean?  In her review, Abigail Nussbaum wasn’t impressed by what the book seemed to be saying, but she ultimately concluded that the reason Knife “makes such troubling statements about women and the relationships between men and women is that it isn’t really concerned with either.”

In interviews at the time, the author claimed that Noise was actually a metaphor for the information overload of modern life.  Great novels could be written about this, but Knife is not that novel.  Although animals make a small amount of Noise and population centers make an indistinguishable roar, there really is no connection whatsoever between Noise as depicted and modern information culture.  On the back of the American edition of The Ask and the Answer Ness is quoted as saying “if the Chaos Walking trilogy is about anything, it’s about identity, finding out who you are.” This at least is true, but saying this about a YA novel is close to tautology.  More interesting is the initial clause, which strikes me as rather defensive.

The Ask and the Answer coverIf I were writing after only reading Knife I would be strongly tempted to say that, in view of the cliffhanger ending, the book is really just about getting you to buy the second book in the trilogy.  Reading that second book, however, changed my perspective completely.  The Ask and the Answer is in many ways the complete opposite of The Knife of Never Letting Go.  In Knife Todd and Viola never stopped running, but in Ask they are stuck in place.  They spend Knife together for most of the book, and their mutual struggle is the foundation of the bond between them.  In Ask they spend almost the entire book apart.  Throughout Knife there was a single goal that was constantly at the forefront of their minds, but in Ask they don’t know what to do.

Beyond those differences, The Ask and the Answer almost completely eschewed the tropes and clichés that Knife relied upon.  The attributes I summarized in the previous paragraph sound like the recipe for a frustrating and meandering novel.  Usually weak and passive protagonists, no matter how likeable they are, make for unsatisfying narratives.  But Patrick Ness makes it work.  Because they are separated in difficult circumstances, there are some misunderstandings between Todd and Viola, but instead of taking the usual route of having the relationship fray close to breaking and setting the stage for a big reconciliation in the third novel, Ness lets them patch things up fairly quickly whenever they are together.  This works well because the novel isn’t dependent on relationship drama, even if that relationship is prominently featured. Instead, Ask focuses on its protagonists’ struggle with the world around them.

And what a tough world it is. Knife was a seductive novel to the point of being manipulative of its readers, so I was shocked to find that Ask is brutal and uncompromising.  Todd is forced to work for the Mayor and his bullying son Davy, and although initially what he does is relatively innocuous, before long he finds himself having to do increasingly unethical things while at the same time becoming a symbol of the Mayor’s oppressive regime.  Viola, for her part, ends up with the resistance against the Mayor’s rule, but from the beginning the Answer and its leader Mistress Coyle are presented as ambiguous at best. The safe and manipulative version of this sort of story is Ender’s Game, where Ender is constantly reassured that the bad things he does aren’t in any way his fault, that he shouldn’t feel guilty, and that the fact he does feel guilty when he doesn’t have to proves what a wonderful person he is. When Todd and Viola feel guilty there’s no easy appeal to good intentions and no clear cut absolution. Most readers will instinctively feel that collaborating with the Mayor’s regime is wrong, but we watch Todd making reasonable choices every step of the way, only to find himself doing horrible things.  Seeing the results of this process through Viola’s eyes, we can’t help but wonder: are we sure those choices were really as reasonable as they seemed?

One side effect of this focus on the Mayor’s oppression and the opposition to it is the decline in importance of gender issues.  It’s true that the Answer is mainly women and the Mayor’s army is all men, but Ness makes it clear that this is a tactical choice for both.  Men with Noise can’t sneak up on someone and they can’t hold secrets, making them valuable to the Mayor and generally useless to the Answer.  But nevertheless there are plenty of men who sympathize with the Answer and help support its goals.  Ultimately, gender is eclipsed by colonialism concerns as the novel explores the relationship between the citizens of Haven and the planet’s indigenous aliens, the Spackle.  By the end of the novel it’s clear that while the Mayor is certainly evil, the citizens of Haven he’s oppressing have much to answer for themselves.

While most of the risks The Ask and the Answer takes pay off, there are a few problems.  The first is the incorporation of Viola’s perspective.  While this was both desirable given the importance of her character and necessary due to the structure of the story, Ness is much less successful at giving her a unique voice than he was with Todd in the first novel.  Worse, using very short chapters that go back and forth between Todd and Viola also weakens the effect of Todd’s voice that was such an asset to Knife.  And while I was glad that Ness didn’t make the novel all about artificial obstacles to Todd and Viola’s relationship, constant repetition of “Todd!” and “Viola!” eventually became somewhat tiresome.

Monsters of Men coverThe trilogy’s concluding volume, Monsters of Men, introduces war into the equation as the Answer rises up in open rebellion and the Spackle begin a crusade to avenge the atrocities humans have inflicted upon them.  Unfortunately, this is where I thought things started to get away from Ness.  The setting he did such a wonderful job creating in Knife becomes frayed and questions mount.  Even as armies march and forces gather, the story’s scope seems to shrink to a handful of characters and locations.  We never get a very clear idea how many people are with each faction and what they think.  Given the importance of popular opinion to the plot, this is a major weakness.  Ivan, for example, seems to be intended as a sort of proxy for opinion within the army, but this is a poor substitute for the real thing.  Likewise, when her people eventually turn against Mistress Coyle, it seems to come out of nowhere.

Each major plot event left me with questions about numbers.  After the big battle, for instance, how many troops does the Mayor have left?  His army only numbered in the hundreds at the beginning, after all, and they suffer numerous casualties.  How many humans are there outside Haven?  In Knife it was one settlement out of many, even if it was the largest, but in the next two books it seems to be all of human civilization.  And how many Spackle are there?  Sometimes the Spackle army is spoken of as being “all of them” and other times there are references to there being (as you might expect) millions more Spackle all over the planet.

It becomes clear in Monsters of Men that for all its virtues the world of the Chaos Walking trilogy is extremely thin, to the point of sabotaging some of its narrative power.  Much of the confusion over just what the trilogy is about can probably be attributed to this problem.  Looking back over the three books, there are plenty of important issues on which the story seems to have something to say, but almost all of them turn out to be feints.

Take religion.  Early in The Knife of Never Letting Go much is made about the mutually reinforcing nature of the Mayor’s rule and Aaron’s preaching.  Aaron as a villain has such a dominating presence in Knife that it never occurred to me until after I had finished to ask: just what is it he preaches, exactly?  Something hateful, apparently, but the details are never provided.  In fact, religion ought to be really important given New World is a colony founded by religious separatists, but although Christian terminology is occasionally used we never even get confirmation they are Christians, much less what part of that spectrum they might fall into.  Some reviews call them fundamentalists, but while they destroyed much of their technology in pursuit of a simpler life, those aren’t the fundamentals that word refers to.  Perhaps Ness was trying to intimate these are Christians without actually offending anyone, but surely in the post-Pullman era it’s not necessary to pull any punches in this regard?

Then there’s gender.  I’ve already talked about the difficulty in trying to read any kind of gender message into Knife, but the trilogy as whole only minimizes it further.  The fact women have no Noise is never explained and indeed becomes increasingly improbable as the trilogy reaches for universalist interpretations of Noise in the third book.  What’s particularly strange is when I was reading the beginning of Knife there seemed to be an important clue: when Todd first approaches Viola, he starts crying for no reason, and the obvious explanation is he is telepathically receiving Viola’s grief for the loss of her parents.  If that were true, then women would have a different form of Noise, not none at all.  But this is never mentioned again.  Either Ness never intended this reading (but then why the crying?) or else he got cold feet, and rightly so, about the stereotypes he’d be reinforcing by giving women emotional Noise in contrast to men’s analytical variety.

The Ask and the Answer seems to turn the focus to colonialism.  The human settlement on the planet of New World is remarkably similar to European settlement of the, well, new world.  Religious separatists come over, fight with the natives, and ultimately push them out.  But again, unanswered questions prevent any real development here.  What sort of interactions did the initial settlers have with the Spackle?  Who started the war?  Even though most characters except the protagonists lived through this history, we hear almost nothing about it.  Todd and Viola’s difficulty learning a fairly minor detail about this even becomes a plot point in Monsters.  Even worse, the New World settlers seem completely without self-awareness when it comes to their interactions with the Spackle.  No one makes any comparisons with Native Americans, Africans, or any of the other historical precedents.  They don’t even use terminology in common use today.  This seems to have been a deliberate choice by Ness because when characters from Viola’s fleet arrive they seem as astounded by this as I was, but no explanation for the original settlers’ historical blindness is ever presented.  In any event, the colonial metaphor eventually breaks down in Monsters of Men when the Spackle have to decide whether to commit genocide against the human settlers.  Unlike most natives interacting with colonizing Europeans, the Spackle eventually get a military advantage to go with their moral authority, and in their calculations of cultural assimilation they take it for granted that thanks to Noise it’s the humans who will be assimilating into their culture, not vice versa.

Monsters of Men seems to focus on war.  The title is even taken from a quote by Todd’s surrogate father Ben: “War makes monsters of men.” While that’s certainly true, exactly how relevant it is to the story is never clear.  The Mayor and Mistress Coyle are each monsters of a kind, but has war made them that way?  Were they reasonable people when they arrived on New World?  Once again, we don’t know, because no one ever talks about this extremely relevant history.  The Answer is said to have originated in the first Spackle war, for example, but what use would their methods be against the Spackle, who have no cities or infrastructure to blow up and no roads to force troops near bombs?

It’s interesting, by the way, to compare this with a certain other famous YA series.  The Harry Potter books don’t otherwise have very much in common with the Chaos Walking trilogy, but they too eventually thrust their protagonists into a mess created by the older generation.  By the end of the last Harry Potter book, one gets the feeling J.K. Rowling was more interested in the story of Snape, Dumbledore, Harry’s parents, and the original war with Voldemort given the prominence of flashbacks and backstory.  In Chaos Walking Patrick Ness seems determined to keep the focus on his protagonists in the present, but it struck me as being considerably too far toward the other extreme.  If you want tell a story about how the new generation arrives to fix the previous one’s mistakes, you can’t skip over just what those mistakes were and why they made them.

So in the final analysis, what is the Chaos Walking trilogy about?  When I quoted Ness talking about identity, I stopped before he went on to talk about how it depicts identity in the face of conformity.  Well, that’s close, but I don’t think conformity is the right word.  I would say the Chaos Walking trilogy is really about complicity.  In Knife we learn that the men of Prentisstown are bound together by a clever if impractical ritual that ensures they are all complicit in the town’s evil.  Todd is sent away to avoid this loss of innocence and he spends the rest of the book being hounded by Aaron as well as the Mayor’s pursuing army.  Knife gets into some trouble, in my opinion, when it places this at the center of the plot.  In Prentisstown, it is the ability to kill that turns a boy into a man.  Todd, in turns out, is defined by his inability to kill.  Except the Spackle that he kills midway through Knife.  Aliens don’t count, we’re told.  Meanwhile the book does a great job setting up situations where most people, including Todd, would believe it is right to kill someone.  Futhermore, it does conspicuously little to argue the opposite.  Indeed, when the fight with Aaron comes down to kill or be killed, Viola kills him so Todd doesn’t have to.  While this is presented as something of a sacrificial act on her part, ultimately nothing much comes of it.  Has Viola been irrevocably stained by the act of killing?  If she was, why is it never mentioned again?  If not, what would have been so bad about Todd doing it?

More generally, I think this all just falls apart when one stops to think about it.  If killing the Spackle didn’t count, how come Todd felt so guilty about it?  Surely that guilt, that complicity, is what’s so psychologically important about killing?  Yet for the rest of the trilogy people continue to talk about how Todd can’t kill, or perhaps can’t be allowed to kill lest he be changed irrevocably thereby.  This seems to me precisely backwards.  It’s the person being killed who gets changed irrevocably, not the killer.  And is killing really an action that’s distinct from violence, rather than one possible result of violence?

Thankfully, while the Todd’s-not-a-killer business never goes away, it becomes considerably less important in The Ask and the Answer.  The emphasis is still on complicity, but now in the context of immoral organizations like the Mayor’s regime and the Answer.  Except for the Spackle incident, Todd escaped Knife with his hands clean, but almost immediately in Ask he’s trapped into doing all sorts of unpleasant things on behalf of the Mayor.  Other than the over-the-top torture scenes, this never becomes preachy or pat.  Is Todd wrong to “just follow orders”?  The book leaves that to the reader to decide.  A few years ago, Battlestar Galactica tried to do something similar with its occupation storyline, but that was an exercise in moral equivalence.  Look, we’ve made previously sympathetic characters into extremists!  Here, Todd never becomes an extremist and is never sure whether he’s doing the right thing or not.  I think this is a much more honest (not to mention less manipulative) approach: the person being trapped here is the character Todd, not the reader (or viewer).

In Knife I was extremely skeptical that the Mayor was chasing Todd specifically, despite several characters saying that somehow Todd’s evasion of complicity represented a threat to his new order.  Plenty of people had defied the Mayor’s orders in the past, after all.  I assumed it was just a pretext for an invasion.  But in Ask the Mayor turns out to have an Emperor Palpatine complex.  Todd is strong and could be the greatest of the Mayor’s servants, we are told over and over again, although why this is so and where he came by this strength is never stated.  Midichlorians, perhaps.  Somehow the Mayor knew this even before Todd left Prentisstown and he is determined to turn Todd into his apprentice even at the cost of alienating his loyal son Davy.  Star Wars has made this a familiar enough pattern, but I’m not sure it actually exists in the real world.  Dictators like the Mayor, it seems to me, vastly prefer loyalty to ability.  Successful dictators, anyway.  Monsters adds a fairly silly redemption subplot with much back and forth over whether the Mayor, who murdered someone in cold blood at the end of Ask only a few days before, has suddenly become redeemed by his proximity to Todd’s powerful virtue.

This, then, is the one cliché that Ness does not abandon after Knife: Todd is Special.  In Knife he is Special because he cannot kill, then in Ask he is Special because he is unusually strong in the Force, and in Monsters of Men even the Spackle think he is Special.  According to the Return, Todd is the only human who felt remorse.  Really?  The only one?  This can perhaps be attributed to the Return’s limited exposure to humans, but this is still hard to swallow.  Poor Viola, the one who should actually have been important due to her connection with the incoming settlers, spends the first two books playing second fiddle before finally getting to be jointly Special with Todd in Monsters of Men.  For some reason, the two of them represent the only hope for a peaceful resolution to a war that no one actually wants.  Why they are the last, best hope for peace?  Perhaps being young, they are free from the history and prejudices of those who lived through the initial settlement, but in a simple agrarian society aren’t there lots of young people?

Unfortunately, after courageously leaving his protagonists powerless for most of The Ask and the Answer, Ness finds some fairly contrived ways to give them control over events in Monsters.  It’s not preposterous both would have influence: Todd is basically the Mayor’s adopted son while Viola is the only one the scouts from her fleet will trust.  But then Todd is talking about trying to command the army while Simone is deferring decision-making authority to Viola.  Also, none of the adults question the strength of Todd and Viola’s relationship.  All of this would be understandable if they were, say, twenty, but they’re thirteen.  Maybe Todd’s farming society has a different adulthood threshold than ours, but in most other areas Viola’s people seem fairly equivalent to us.  This is complicated by another thin point of the world: there are almost no romantic relationships other than that of Todd and Viola.  There are a couple of married characters, but they are either old or unimportant.  After the Mayor waltzes into Haven and separates the men and women, most characters seem to regard this as a logistical inconvenience, not a disruption of hundreds of existing families.  Perhaps Lee is meant to be, like Ivan, representative of a broader phenomenon, but he is separated from sisters and a mother, not a wife.

In the end, the transition of Noise from metaphor into magic culminates in some wizard duels where Todd and his antagonist cast magic missile at each other until someone loses.  This actually sounds (and sometimes reads) worse than it is, since lurking beneath all this is the idea that Todd is genuinely connected to other people while the story’s various villains merely control them.  His magic is the stronger magic for this reason, I guess.  I’m not sure that the suggestion that humanity will eventually develop a sort of hive mind is any more convincing here than, say, when Asimov did this in his later Foundation novels, but it does make for a pleasantly optimistic conclusion to the trilogy.

I don’t read YA very much, so I can only really judge Chaos Walking against the adult genre fiction that I typically read (although this would probably be a fantastic book for classroom discussions in schools).  I hesitate to call the trilogy great when, after all, I just got through making all sorts of complaints.  But even if I have reservations about how it handles some of its ideas, the fact I’m motivated to write at such length about them shows there’s a lot more here than in most books.  I would have liked a little more coherence to the ideas and a lot more depth in the world, but this is a trilogy that is constantly thought-provoking while still remaining an enormously engaging read.  That’s more than enough reason for me to recommend it wholeheartedly.

Home Fires by Gene Wolfe

April 20, 2011 at 10:32 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Elsewhere, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

My review of Gene Wolfe’s recent novel Home Fires has been published today by Strange Horizons. This is the first review I’ve written for a venue other than this site. If something possessed you to read through the archives of this blog chronologically, it would probably be obvious that a couple years ago I tried to “raise my game” as Martin Lewis later put it. This is an avocation without a lot of obvious yardsticks for how well one’s doing, so this is a fairly gratifying moment.

This doesn’t mean reviews on this site will be any less frequent (not that they are very frequent to begin with). Expect to see an in-depth review of Patrick Ness’ widely acclaimed but in my view slightly problematic Chaos Walking trilogy here later this week.

Reaper’s Gale by Steven Erikson

April 14, 2011 at 1:33 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment

Reaper's Gale coverI suspect that reader reaction to Reaper’s Gale depends largely on how one feels about Midnight Tides.  I thought Midnight Tides was one of the better Malazan books, and within the series Reaper’s Gale can be thought of as a sequel.  It continues that book’s story of the Tiste Edur and the Letherii while finally bringing it together with the characters from other books like the Adjunct’s army.  To boil it down to just a sentence, the story is about the battle to control the hybrid Edur/Letherii Empire.  Beyond that, well, I normally don’t spend a lot of time summarizing stories and this book has such a sprawling story that it defies summarization anyway.  Suffice to say, this is another entry in The Malazan Book of the Fallen and if you’ve read the previous books you know more or less what that involves.  If not, read Gardens of the Moon and see what you think.

I seem to have something of an odd/even pattern with this series.  I loved the first book, Gardens of the Moon, and really enjoyed the third, the fifth, and now this, the seventh.  The three even numbered books, beginning with Deadhouse Gates, I’ve been a little cooler on.  Although it was my favorite of those three, I thought even Bonehunters moved too slowly, especially in its first half.  I’m not sure that Reaper’s Gale moves any faster but I liked it more.  The difference, I suppose, is the injection of characters and situations from Midnight Tides, plus some interesting new elements like Redmask’s rebellion and the Tiste Edur officials struggling to assert control over Letherii society.  Despite the huge variety of viewpoints and storylines, I was always interested in what would happen next.  I can’t say for sure without going back and laboriously counting, but I think Reaper’s Gale might have the largest cast of any Malazan book yet.  The huge character list is also incredibly diverse: mixed in with the usual grumbling soldiers, secretive mages, and scheming politicians are characters like Shurq Elalle who were primarily used for comedic effect in Midnight Tides but now provide a new perspective on the other characters.  I think my favorite Malazan books are the ones like Memories of Ice and Reaper’s Gale where a lot of characters meet each other.  This is an odd criteria, but as I discussed when talking about Bonehunters, it’s these meetings that really move the story forward in the series.

Whenever you have an enormous fantasy book with a ton of viewpoints, an important question is whether it all comes together in the ending.  With Reaper’s Gale, the answer is: sort of.  Most of the storylines resolve, but instead of all tying together it’s messy and complicated.  Yet this is, if anything, a virtue.  This is a messy and complicated book, it’s true, but one thing you can say without a doubt about the series as a whole is that it believes that life itself is messy and complicated.  If everything was tied up in a beautiful bow the way, say, Brandon Sanderson wraps up his novels, it would betray the essence of the series.  And that’s not a slam on Sanderson, by the way.  His books see the world through a rationalist lens and their stories reflect that beautifully.  The Malazan series depicts a chaotic world, and fittingly the narrative itself is shot through with chaos.

From the beginning, however, the series has constantly set out one organizing principle: unveiling power invites convergence, something extremely dangerous and unpredictable.  The ending to Reaper’s Gale is perhaps the best example of this yet.  In the series’ early books, characters said that no god can directly rule a mortal empire because doing so would be such an overt display of power that it would cause a devastating convergence.  Well, as described in Midnight Tides, the Crippled God has put a mortal puppet, Rhulad Sengar, on the throne of a powerful empire, and sure enough, by the end of Reaper’s Gale there has been an at times literally earth-shattering convergence. Characters from almost every one of the book’s divergent storylines end up in the city of Letheras.  Again, in a typical fantasy epic, the author would attempt to give each character a part to play in the climax.  Erikson has way too many characters involved to make that work, and he wisely doesn’t try.  Each character gets a scene or two in the final chapters, but the climactic showdown with Rhulad involves exactly one other character.  Dozens of other characters, most of whom were in one way or another trying to reach the Emperor, instead run into each other with unexpected (and generally calamitous) results.  Poor Rhulad, vaunted instrument of the Crippled God combining strength and weakness, turns out to be far less invincible than everyone supposed, leaving him merely weak.  There are probably at least a dozen gods, ascendants, and even mortals who are stronger than him just in Letheras by the end of the book.  Somehow, despite a metaphysical system in which abilities are never more than vaguely defined, the results of all these confrontations seem to make sense.

Needless to say, in a book this size I didn’t quite like everything.  I believe I have finally put my finger on what has been bothering me about the soldiers in this series.  When discussing previous books like Bonehunters I wondered about the way the veterans seem to exercise a great deal of choice.  After reading Reaper’s Gale I think my real problem is the motivations of the soldiers in general.  I’m not a historian, but from what I understand, the closest analogue to the Malazan system of armies would be the professional legions of the Roman Empire.  And while with any human endevor there will be a range of reasons, for the most part I think Roman professional soldiers, as the term professional implies, were fighting for pay.  Whenever there was political instability, after all, the way to shore up the loyalty of the armies was to raise their pay.  The Malazan Empire is relatively young and doesn’t have the Roman history of instability, so it’s understandable that their outlawed armies don’t declare Dujek and later the Adjunct their Emperor or Empress the way Roman armies in similar positions invariably did, but still you’d think they’d be fundamentally in it for the money.

Erikson does a good job portraying the day to day life of Malazan soldiers: the grumbling, the camaraderie, the boredom…but compensation is rarely discussed.  Soldiers gamble, so they get money from somewhere, but they rarely have any chance to spend money otherwise.  The army at Aren stayed quartered in the city, but this was presented as an anomaly.  Both Dujek’s and the Adjunct’s armies seem to be permanently on campaign, not even quartering for the winter.  Nor is there much mention of the mobile village that followed ancient armies around supplying them with food and vices.  In Reaper’s Gale, we see the Adjunct’s army taking a huge sea voyage and then fighting a guerrilla war across a ruined countryside.  Their previous campaign in Seven Cities was a lot of marching around in the middle of nowhere by themselves…no merchants, prostitutes, or other money sinks.  If the soldiers are getting paid, then they must be saving it all.  Many ancient armies didn’t pay their soldiers since they were expected to loot potentially large sums from captured cities, but we’re told explicitly that Malazan armies don’t do this, or at least are expected not to do it.  One final compensation for the typical Roman soldier was retirement: after a certain number of years, once the soldiers were too old to fight any longer, they were given money and land in the countryside.  Characters like Fiddler spend a lot of time thinking about “getting out” but they seem to mean desertion.  State-sponsored retirement is never mentioned, as far as I can remember.

Fittingly, given this payroll-free environment, every character’s back story that we learn about sounds similar: born into difficult circumstances, enlisting in the military was the best way to escape.  The exception are those who were fighting for some other army and joined the Malazans simply because they couldn’t think of anything else to do, like the former Seven Cities rebels Kalam, Quick Ben, and Corabb, all of whom end up joining the exact military unit they were previously fighting without ever coming up with a strong reason for doing so.  Having signed up for military service for what it was not, rather than anything it was going to give them, it’s not surprising these characters are confused about whether they should stay in the army.  On one hand, there’s the constant risk of injury and death, not to mention a great deal of privation.  On the other hand, the army is the only functional organization they’ve ever encountered and it allows them to hang out with their friends.

I’m not sure how realistic this image of soldier psychology is, but at least it mostly avoids glorifying warfare.  Whatever these people are, they aren’t heroes.  There has been a lot of discussion lately about the place of heroism in modern fantasy (Martin Lewis has a good summary).  I was interested, then, to see that the character Udinaas spends a lot of time using his present circumstances to illustrate the difference between stories told of heroes and how things really are.  This kind of thing goes back at least as far as Sam and Frodo in Lord of the Rings, but Udinaas and his companions are on a long journey where they don’t meet very many people, so they have a lot of time for discussions like this.  I don’t want to exaggerate the degree to which this ought to be seen as Erikson commenting on the fantasy genre because throughout the series he’s shown an interest in tribal life, and a lot of what Udinaas says might apply better to the oral storytelling he’d have heard as a Tiste Edur slave.  But Udinaas is part of a disparate group of people on a quest for a magical artifact, so it’s hard to ignore the possible reference to modern quest fantasy.  Not surprisingly, there are a lot of inversions of the “generic” quest (I put it in scare quotes because I’m not sure how many books are really published anymore that unironically use the old 1980’s quest template): the members of the group mostly dislike and distrust each other, they all have different and even contradictory motivations, and the more powerful the character the less they are liked and trusted.  Silchas Ruin is certainly no Gandalf.

So far, except for the fact this is just one strand among many, I might be describing Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy (particularly the second book, Before They Are Hanged, which if memory serves is the one with most of the quest narrative).  But there’s a very different feel here than what Abercrombie was up to in his trilogy.  Abercrombie’s Bayaz was a sort of anti-Gandalf: ancient, scheming, and cynically manipulative.  Silchas Ruin is a rather different figure.  He tolerates but does his best to ignore his weaker companions, and they have no illusions about his motives, or the fact that if they weren’t so much weaker than he was, he would consider them a threat and destroy them.  There is manipulation and deception in the Malazan series, but it’s not emphasized anywhere near the way it is in Abercrombie’s work.

Erikson ultimately strikes me as far more hopeful than Abercrombie (with the disclaimer that I haven’t yet read Abercromie’s latest two novels, nor the last three Malazan books).  The end of the quest subplot in Reaper’s Gale is almost comically straightforward.  After the long trip, no miracle occurs, and everything happens exactly as expected.  Silchas Ruin is far stronger than anyone else present, so he gets his way.  Anyone who tries to stop him gets run over.  But afterward he goes back to Letheras, and facing true convergence there he’s not at all successful.  The powers of the Malazan world are far too numerous and too varied for anyone to manipulate the outcome of conflagrations of that kind.  Admittedly, the Crippled God, Shadowthrone, and Quick Ben all claim to be guiding events and one might eventually be revealed as a mastermind, but so far it seems doubtful any of them are really in control.  Earlier I called this wild and unpredictable mix of powers chaotic, and while that may not seem comforting, it still seems much better than the First Law world full of cynical manipulation.

The other dispiriting element of Abercrombie’s work that has attracted the label “nihilist” is his depiction of a world with a high fantasy veneer–quests, great struggles, and so forth–but with low fantasy motivations and outcomes underlying it.  Important people do things because they are greedy, power-hungry, or outright malicious, his work seems to say, and talk of good and evil is just their way of manipulating fools.  If people are suffering in the First Law trilogy, it’s often because they are manipulated according to the selfish desires to those in power.  Even more often, they suffer for no reason whatsoever.  Admittedly, the Malazan series is not the polar opposite of this.  There’s quite a bit of suffering due to the manipulation of others, and certainly there are tragedies that prove meaningless (and thus all the more tragic).  But the series’ high fantasy trappings have (so far, at least) not been false.  There really is a war between the gods, and despite some extenuating circumstances the Crippled God seems to be more than a little evil.  Those opposing him are rarely (if ever) wholly good, it’s true, but for most of them mixed somehow into their self-interest is the idea that this evil must be opposed.  Viewed against this backdrop, most of the suffering endured by characters in the series is dignified in some small degree by the distant context of this struggle.

I’ll have to finish the series before I can say anything definitive about how I feel about the Malazan approach to fantasy.  Personally, my primary criticism of Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy was that it seemed to ignore the possibility that those in power sometimes really do genuinely believe their rhetoric.  This is a dangerous omission, in my view, because the lesson of the twentieth century is surely that ideology can be extremely dangerous, and much suffering could have been avoided if certain political leaders really were the cold blooded Machiavellians that Abercrombie depicts.  In the huge variety of characters in the Malazan trilogy, there are many whose actions are dictated by their psychology, but ideology seems to influence only a few: Karsa Orlong, definitely, and perhaps Corabb.  But with the motivations of many of the most important characters like Shadowthrone, Laseen, and the Adjunct still obscure, all this could change dramatically over the course of the last three books.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen reviews:

The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson

April 4, 2011 at 1:59 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 2 Comments

The sixth book in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, The Bonehunters, is the third set in Seven Cities, following Deadhouse Gates and House of Chains. It is also the first not to introduce any major new storylines. Narrative convergence has finally begun and the cluster of storylines from Seven Cities have been merged with those from the Genabackis novels Gardens of the Moon and Memories of Ice. While most of the characters from the series’ fifth novel Midnight Tides do not appear, by the end of Bonehunters the story is well on its way to bringing those in as well.

At this point in the series, it is easy to recommend. If you haven’t read any of the Malazan books, start with the excellent Gardens of the Moon, not here. If you aren’t going to like Bonehunters then it’s extremely unlikely you liked the first five books enough to get to this point. As you would expect in book six of a ten book series, not a whole lot gets resolved, and my usual practice of reviewing series rather than their individual novels seems like a good idea at this point. But since I’ve already been reviewing these books individually, it’s worth considering how Bonehunters develops the ongoing concerns of the Malazan series and the degree to which it shares the flaws and virtues of the earlier books, at least as I see them.

More so than previous books in the series, Bonehunters gets off to a distinctly slow start. The first third of the novel reintroduces dozens of characters from previous books and sets them in motion. Characters are traveling every which way on the Seven Cities continent, and since mapmaking is apparently a popular pastime for the series’ hardcore fans, it would be interesting to see an animation of the various characters and groups of characters criss-crossing the continent with their journeys. Much of the content of these traveling scenes takes the form of introspection, as characters think about where they’ve been (probably to help readers who didn’t recently read the previous books), where they are now, and what they hope to be doing in the future.

It would be easy to overstate the problem here. It’s not boring, exactly. Erikson’s characters are thoughtful and have interesting observations. But in a series this long, for someone like myself who has been reading these books in a relatively short time period, it’s inevitable there’s some repetition. How many times have characters in these books looked at the landscape around them and meditated on how the passage of time has laid low cities and wrought many changes while still leaving evidence of the ancient patterns? More pragmatically, much of the first half of the book is spent with the titular Bonehunters, and their concerns are much the same as they were in House of Chains: the poor morale of the army, uncertainties about its commander, and so forth. The plot doesn’t help matters, for like several previous novels in the series there is a big set piece battle in the middle of the book, and the novel’s climax is such a direct echo of Deadhouse Gates that it must have been intentional: Laseen is confronted over her conduct (though a rather different conclusion is reached than in Deadhouse) and again Kalam has to have a cartoonish battle with dozens of disposable Claw ninjas in Malaz City.

Perhaps my biggest problem with the introspect moments is they tend to emphasize one of my least favorite elements of the series, namely the way the characters so often seem weakly motivated. Why do Apsalar and Cutter work for Cotillion? Why is Fiddler still in the army? What is Kalam doing with his life now that he’s out of it? Where is Karsa Orlong going? The characters themselves wonder about these questions to varying extents, which is never a good sign. Since one of the series’ principal themes seems to be humans standing up to their gods and seizing their destiny, it’s frustrating not to see a little more, well, seizing.

This notion of character motivations is an interesting one in light of the fact many of them are in the Malazan army. Fundamental to military service throughout history has been the abdication of agency. A soldier follows orders and therefore does not have the freedom, or the burden, of deciding what to do. Although Bonehunters spends a lot of time portraying the life of the ordinary soldier, it rarely shows the compulsive side of military service (making a joke of it, for example, when Ganoes Paran is mistaken for a deserter). Veterans like Fiddler and Gesler are frequently presented with opportunities to desert without any consequences. As these characters have some contact with the overarching high fantasy storyline, returning to the army and remaining subject to its discipline is to some degree an endorsement of the Adjunct’s objectives, and by extension those of Empress Laseen and the Malazan Empire as a whole. Fiddler, understandably, finds the choice difficult, for he doesn’t have even remotely enough information to judge Laseen, nor does the reader. Militaries in the real world can sometimes seem mysterious because their actions are the output of vast bureaucracies, but in the Malazan army the confusion stems from the leadership. The Adjunct is a mystery to everyone, and Laseen even more so. When Kalam confronted her at the end of Deadhouse Gates, Laseen seemed like some sort of mastermind. Confronted again in the similar scene at the end of Bonehunters, she seems weak and desperate, helpless in the hands of malicious advisors. Which portrait is more accurate? Who knows? Later books will settle the question, I assume.

Of course, not all the characters are aimless. Ironically, Icarium, a character who is defined by aimless wandering, finally gets a purpose in this book, and his scenes are some of the most entertaining. But the ruminations of the purposeful characters are even more frustrating since Erikson isn’t willing to give the reader more than the tiniest hint of what they know and what they are trying to do. Quick Ben, for instance, is full of plans as always, none of which are ever communicated to the reader. Ganoes Paran arrives in Seven Cities and is at the center of some of the book’s best scenes, but exactly what he knows and what he’s trying to accomplish tends to stay vague. In Memories of Ice, I was surprised I found it exciting when characters got together and talked about things. The reason, which I partially understood at the time, is that these conversations forced their motivations, ideas, and goals out into the open instead of being hoarded away from the reader’s view. This doesn’t happen often in Bonehunters, with characters sometimes going to improbable lengths to avoid cluing the reader into what’s happening (I’m thinking here of when Kalam, Fiddler, Apsalar, and Quick Ben are all traveling together and do their best to avoid talking to each other about their plans). I’m well aware of the narrative principle involved here. In a heist film, often the viewer isn’t told the plan, lest it become boring watching it actually carried out. But when this information is concealed over thousands of pages and dozens of viewpoint characters, it’s hard not to feel a little resentful toward the author, fair or not.

The differences in these two types of characters stem from the way the novel combines high fantasy and low fantasy. People like Quick Ben and Ganoes Paran are living in a high fantasy story as they struggle against the Crippled God and his allies. The soldiers of the Fourteenth Army, many of whom are colorfully fleshed out in the early parts of the novel, are in a low fantasy story about a military campaign. This allows us to view some of the same events from two very different angles, but it does make it that much more difficult for the myriad viewpoints to coalesce in the reader’s mind. The high fantasy characters tend to have strong motivations and clear goals, but they do their best to hide them from others, including the reader. The low fantasy characters are caught up in their machinations and wondering if they should be trying to free themselves, but they know even less than the reader about what’s going on.

The battle at Y’Ghatan is in the middle of the book, but it serves as something of a climax to the low fantasy side of Bonehunters. Certainly it brings the questions about motivation into sharp relief. Why are the soldiers risking their lives attacking Y’Ghatan? Is the rebellion in Seven Cities really a going concern? Leoman’s army is plagued by the same questions. Their rebellion has clearly failed, so what is there to fight for? Leoman, of course, produces a startling answer. The resulting battle is another of example of one of Erikson’s recurring motifs, the battle as hellscape. Y’Ghatan is a rather more literal manifestation of this than Pale and Capustan, though the effect is somewhat diminished by the repetition. The Fourteenth Army finds in Y’Ghatan the fires of hell, and the survivors must journey through what is again a literal underworld in order to escape. This, it is implied, is the sort of event that may forge the Fourteenth into something more than just a ragtag army. The Bridgeburners apparently had it easy: they just had to walk through Raraku. The idea that collective identities can ascend toward the divine just as individuals can is one of the most interesting in the Malazan series, and the contrast between the Bridgeburners and the Bonehunters raises the question: just what is required, here? Why isn’t it happening all the time? The mechanics of this is vague, as is everything magical in the Malazan series, and the scenes where Paran summons the ghosts of fallen soldiers muddy the waters still further.

I suppose I’ll have to wait for to find these answers until I read the concluding novels of the series. Certainly Steven Erikson said as much when he was responding to what I wrote about some of the earlier books in the series, feeling that it was presumptuous to speak about the themes of the series without seeing how they are fully developed. While the character of Ormulogun, official artist of Onearm’s Host, and his arguments with his “critic” Grumble are clearly a humorous take on the relationship of an author to his critics, Bonehunters also provides another model. In Deadhouse Gates, much was made about the importance of Duiker surviving to tell the story of the Chain of Dogs, although I was much less enthusiastic about this, assuming it would merely fuel more bloodshed. In Bonehunters we find that in Seven Cities, the Chain of Dogs is worshipped by a growing cult made up of the very rebels who once hated and feared it. In the Malazan Empire, on the other hand, slander has taken root which blames the Wickans in general and Coltaine in particular for the disasters that struck the Chain of Dogs and the army at Aren, resulting in vicious pogroms against Wickans. Only the survivors of Coltaine’s army in the Fourteenth know better. Duiker’s mission to tell the world the truth about what happened seems to have been a miserable failure. What are we to make of this? Is every historian helpless in the face of the biases and ulterior motives of readers? The answer is important because, with apologies to Ian Esslemont, surely the preeminent historian of the Malazan Empire is Steven Erikson.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen reviews:

Review indexes

April 3, 2011 at 9:34 pm | Posted in Site News | Leave a comment

I originally ran this site on my own domain using scripts I had written producing HTML I designed. While there was some satisfaction in having built it all myself, this ended up being more than outweighed by the fact it was a pain to maintain. Using WordPress was easier in almost every way, at the cost that those few ways that weren’t easier were now harder.

One of those things was proper indexes. Unlike most blogs, a blog that’s basically book reviews really ought to have an index by author and (for sites like this one that are sufficiently lowbrow to have them) rating. Years after moving the site to WordPress, I’ve finally gotten around to writing some scripts to generate them. I’m not going to update them every time I post a review, but hopefully I’ve got a process that’s streamlined enough to run every few months as stuff drops off the (very large) first page. I may add an index to my short story reviews at some point, but for now there’s always the category on the right.

I thought about changing the theme, since there are some things I don’t like about this one, but fifteen minutes in WordPress’ themes catalog revealed I dislike the other options even more.

Finally, while double-checking some things, I saw that I had spelled China Miéville’s name sans accent when reviewing Iron Council in 2004. I added it, updated the post, and WordPress in its infinite wisdom republished it to the RSS feed. So some subscribers may have seen my seven year old review of Iron Council pop up…sorry.

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