The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

November 2, 2015 at 12:35 pm | Posted in 2 stars | 1 Comment
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Half-Made World coverWhile reading The Half-Made World, I was wondering why on earth I had waited so long. The writing was superb, the setting was fascinating, and the conflict between the Gun and the Line was a surprisingly compelling metaphor. I had heard all these things praised when the novel came out in 2010, so as I read I was kicking myself. True, I’d also heard that it didn’t really provide a sense of closure, but when the rest of the book is this good, does it matter?

After finishing, I am forced to conclude: it does matter, at least a little bit, at least to me. It’s a weakness of mine as a reader, I guess: no matter how wonderful the writing, no matter how elevated and literary the sensibility, I still want an interesting plot that really goes somewhere. The Half-Made World starts off strong as Liv Alverhuysen leaves the old east to travel west into a literally new world that congeals around its new settlers. Liv hopes to…well, her motivation isn’t totally clear, but she hopes to change her life somehow for the better, let’s say. But while the west is a place of new possibilities, it’s also more dangerous and less human than the thoroughly mundane east. And it’s a battleground for two great powers, inhuman in both scope and motivation: the Gun and the Line. Guns are demon-possessed guns who glory in chaos and bloodshed, granting their servants superhuman powers of healing and athleticism in return for acts of violent barbarism. The Engines of the Line are demons of a different sort, imposing by force their vision of order on the wildness of the new West, an order that leaves no room for any human freedom.

Being new to it, Liv is a neutral in the west’s great conflict, but we see it not only through her eyes but also through those of a Linesman, Lowry, and an Agent of the Gun, John Creedmoor, as they each are sent to capture an old General. And while Liv is a reasonable heroine, good-natured and courageous in the face of difficulty, she’s something of a cipher and essentially the straight woman to Lowry and Creedmoor as they careen across the west. In his devotion to duty, his fear of disorder, and his petty scheming, Lowry is a bit too one-note, more parody than portrait. He’s enough of a cartoon that he doesn’t feel like something a human could really become. Not so John Creedmoor, whose charisma and self-destructiveness are emblematic of the Gun he serves. His self-hatred and his real but rarely-acted upon desire to escape his masters make him the novel’s most well-rounded and sympathetic character.

But the plot becomes less and less interesting as the narrative plunges further and further westward. Maybe this is a brilliant literary device: the plot loses focus and becomes disordered in step with the world around the characters. But maybe this is just a young writer losing his way and then struggling to the finish line. In truth, the story’s MacGuffin doesn’t make much sense from the getgo. For twenty years no one knew the General survived, yet now the Gun and the Line somehow both know not only that he’s alive, not only that he discovered some secret weapon, but also exactly where he is. After chasing him for half the novel and then being chased with him for the other half, finally and for no discernible reason he reveals his secret to Liv: a sort of treasure map to some superweapon created by the setting’s Native American analogue fairies.

Just the fact the story treats Native Americans as fairies is dubious. Yes, this is not the real American West, it’s a fantasy world consciously built upon the mythologized West. But this mythic West only ever existed in non-Native minds, a fact that calls into question the whole project of the novel. The real west was not new at all, it was as old as anywhere else, and had been inhabited by humans for thousands of years. It was not shaped by settlers out of a formless void, it was reshaped from a previous form.

Even granting that this is a fantasy about an idea of the West that never existed, the native superweapon feels like a thematic misstep. Explicitly baked into the setting is the idea that the Line cannot be stopped. Its victory is sure because it’s the inexorable march of progress. The Gun can delay it for a time, but it will always lose, it will always pull back to the ever-shrinking frontier. That this is acknowledged not just by neutral characters but even the Guns themselves is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the conflict. Yet the Guns seem to think the superweapon offers them the chance at victory. What is victory, to the Gun? Within the novel’s conceptual framework, a Gun victory is unthinkable because the Line must win, the Gun must lose.

Now if we take a broader view, we must admit that victory for the Gun doesn’t seem so hard to imagine. According to the second law of thermodynamics it is the Line that is sure to lose in the end and entropy that will reign supreme. And human history is rife with examples of empires falling and civilizations collapsing into chaos and disorder. But the Gun and the Line aren’t about physics or the grand sweep of history, they are an evocation of a specific mythos, a twisted manifest destiny that played out in the American psyche for a hundred years.

So: The Half-Made World is a glorious exercise in metaphorical fantasy that, alas, doesn’t quite come off. It’s got a brilliant setting and a standout character in John Creedmoor, but it’s not able to take those wonderful pieces and assemble them into something greater the way, say, China Mieville did in Perdido Street Station. In a way, it is a victim of it’s own initial success. The Gun, the Line, and the still-forming west are such wonderful metaphors that they themselves can never be as interesting as what they signify, even for someone like me who almost always prefers to accept speculative fiction on its own terms. For example, consider the nature of “the Lodge”, the place where all the Guns meet and perhaps their true home. Is it simply a psychic connection between the physical Guns? Are the physical Guns just drones controlled from within the Lodge? Is the Lodge accessed through fire because it is a sort of hell for the servants of the Gun? These questions can be asked, but rarely without the follow-up: Does it matter?

It doesn’t, and personally, I prefer novels where it does.

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Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

April 23, 2014 at 12:39 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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Three Parts Dead coverTara Abernathy has a degree in necromancy from the prestigious Hidden Schools which float among the clouds, but as Three Parts Dead opens Tara’s falling out with a professor leads to a literal fall back to earth. After an unsuccessful attempt to return to her home town, she finds herself unexpectedly hired by Elayne Kevarin, a sort of high-powered necromancer/lawyer from a major firm, and thrown right in to work on a huge case. Kos Everburning, fire god and patron to the steampunk metropolis Alt Coloumb, is dead. The god’s city and church want him raised, but so do his creditors. Successfully litigating the restoration of Kos will require discovering who killed him and why, and that in turn sends Tara searching through the church’s archives with an acolyte named Abelard and the city’s underworld with an addict policewoman named Cat.

Three Parts Dead flirts with a couple different genres, borrowing courtroom scenes from legal thrillers and a huge pile of tropes from fantasy, but in its bones it’s a noir detective story. Tara reviews documents and goes to court a couple times, but she spends most of her time questioning uncooperative suspects and casing seedy bars. Judged as a detective story, however, Three Parts Dead is thoroughly mediocre. The character voices aren’t very distinctive, the setting is interesting but not very atmospheric, and although information is withheld such that the mystery is not solvable in detail, all of the twists and the eventual outcome are quite easy to guess well ahead of time. But the by-the-numbers mystery isn’t what gained the novel considerable acclaim since its release in 2012 and a Campbell nomination for its author, Max Gladstone. Some of the good press stems from something that is mostly outside the text: the cover, which in a refreshing change from the norm is unapologetic about depicting Tara as a person of color.

But Three Parts Dead has also earned much praise for its distinctive world. It starts with the relatively simple observation that if magic involves, as it does in many traditions, blood-sealed pacts and dangerous deals with supernatural forces, then it stands to reason there would be lawyers who would litigate those contracts. When viewed through this unusual lens, fairly conventional wizards, vampires, and gods feel fresh and different. Wizards become lawyers, necromancy becomes bankruptcy restructuring, and gods become corporations. It’s a clever bit of speculative alchemy that makes the novel stand out from the crowd, but it’s not actually all that successful.

A common criticism of Three Parts Dead has been that no rules are laid out in advance for the magic system, making the magical resolutions to Tara’s confrontations with her opponents seem arbitrary. This is true, but stated so simply it suggests that only the magic-as-physics approach of authors like Brandon Sanderson is legitimate. Unexplained magic can seem numinous, as in Tolkien, or capriciously dangerous, as in Miéville. Rules need not be stated, but it’s fair to say that a story with unexplained magic needs to do a better job than average convincing the reader to suspend disbelief lest events appear to proceed by authorial fiat.

On this point, Three Parts Dead‘s colorful world works against it, for while its constituent elements are very colorful, they never congeal into a consistent world. The fire god Kos seems like something out of a pagan pantheon, but its church is far more like the Catholic Church than any pagan analogues and the discussions of personal faith and individual relationships with the divine are straight out of Protestant theology. The steampunk tropes lightly sprinkled through the text are derived from the industrial age, vampires come from Eastern European legends, and the concept of gargoyles who turn from stone to flesh and back again comes, as far as I know, not so much from folklore as from the 90s cartoon show. Then there’s Keverin’s law firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao which, as the structure if not the sound of its name implies, takes its organization straight from modern legal firms. Mixing material from different traditions can help reinvigorate old concepts, but things can’t just be dropped in as-is, they have to be integrated with each other.

Three Parts Dead is far from the first fantasy novel (nor the last) to deploy the familiar cadences of the Catholic Church without stopping to consider whether these things actually make sense in their new milieu, but the biggest problem here is a reliance on punchline worldbuilding. You won’t know this term–I made it up while writing the previous sentence–but you are probably familiar with the technique because it’s used extensively in the Harry Potter series. The formula is to take something familiar from our world and give it a thin fantasy veneer that makes it humorous and interesting. Harry Potter has page after page of this: fantasy candy with funny flavors, fantasy books with funny titles, fantasy sports with funny equipment, and so on. Three Parts Dead isn’t so densely packed with punchlines, but they remain the core aesthetic of the worldbuilding, giving us moments like a legal document review that involves an out of body experience and drug addicts who get high on being bitten by vampires. In both Harry Potter and Three Parts Dead this material can be fun, but trying to build a serious story on such a superficial foundation is perilous. For example, addiction is obviously an extremely serious subject, but when an addict is impaling her wrist on an unconscious vampire’s fangs to get a fix, it smacks more of satire than something real. The light, gee-whiz tone also prevents the reader from ever being concerned that Tara might actually lose. Worst of all, at least for a reader like me, humorous punchlines rarely stand up to serious scrutiny.

For an example, take the premise of wizard lawyers in wizard law firms. Here Gladstone is on to something really clever, because to a layperson the law is an occult force they can only vaguely sense, a force that manifests in ancient language and strange rituals. Someone could write a great book leveraging this alignment, but Three Parts Dead is not that book. Its Craftspeople, typified by Elayne Kevarin, are not wizard-lawyer hybrids so much as characters who sometimes act like lawyers and sometimes act like wizards. There’s a mistake here that feels fundamental. Like any stereotypical fantasy wizard, Elayne Kevarin can blast people with energy, invade someone’s mind, raise zombies from corpses, and in general wield enough power to beat back an entire army of mundane people. All well and good, but then she goes to a courtroom to argue her cases. Gladstone tries to have it both ways by having Craftspeople “argue” using magic, but the contradiction is never resolved. What seems to have been forgotten is that lawyers are not themselves powerful. True power lies with the state, the leviathan of Hobbes, that compels obedience to the law. Lawyers are only powerful because they can channel some small part of that power through their knowledge and persuasive speaking. If Elayne Kevarin can blast her opponents into submission, why does she try to beat them by arguing cases in “Craft court”? Are her clients hiring her because of her magical power, or because she understands the law? If she merely understood the law and had no magical power of her own, could she still litigate? And who is the state that enforces this law which binds gods and humans, churches and nations? There is no monopoly on violence, that much is clear given the events of the novel, nor does it seem possible there a police force or even a military to enforce the court’s judgments, since these things are explicitly said to be controlled by the litigants.

A reasonable objection at this point is that this is a fun low fantasy novel, not a relentlessly serious epic like Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire, and that what I think of as “serious scrutiny” is just killjoy nitpicking. To some degree that’s true. This is a matter of taste, and those looking for beach reading won’t be too disappointed (though they might still wish for a tighter narrative and more surprising twists), but Three Parts Dead invites this scrutiny when it quotes Bertrand Russell with its title and pauses its narrative to try to make serious observations about faith and law. It’s always good to see an author trying to break new speculative ground, but it’s also more disappointing when such efforts fail.

Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder

October 17, 2012 at 11:01 pm | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 4 Comments
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There have been many responses written to Paul Kincaid’s exhaustion article, but I cannot help but feel that out of all of them Sun of Suns may be the most decisive. Mind you, it was written in 2006, but I read it for the first time recently and can’t help viewing the book in light of the recent discussions. Different people have taken Kincaid’s essay in very different directions, but the original assertion was that (in “best of the year”-anthologized short stories, at least) science fiction authors have lost confidence, conviction, passion, and even their identity as members of a genre distinct from, or at least within, the broad sweep of fantastic literature.

Sun of Suns is full to bursting with all these things. The first in a four book series, it introduces the setting of Virga, a planet-sized enclosure filled with air, water vapor, and floating rocks. The implications of this for its human inhabitants are complex. Light is provided by artificial fusion reactor “suns”, but even the brightest of these generates many orders of magnitude less light and heat than a genuine star. Distance from a sun or even the shadow cast by a city can render a volume of air too cold and dark to inhabit. Gravity must be created through artificial means as well, since with most people not living near the edges, Virga can’t be approximated as a point mass. To get close to the Earth-gravity to which the human body is adapted, Virga’s people must spin their houses, their ships, their villages, and their cities. It is clear that Schroeder has put an enormous amount of thought into how all this would work, and the result is a setting that has more sense of wonder than anything I’ve read in years. As the story progresses the reader is treated to cities of countless linked wheels, three-dimensional “lakes” of globular water, and floating icebergs that fall off the frozen edge of the world and plunge inward toward the core. It is impossible to imagine the author relating these details with anything other than a big smile on his face, and it’s a smile that I think most people with an interest in science fiction will find infectious. I can’t speak for the whole genre, naturally, but I can’t recall ever encountering a setting that felt so new and yet so confidently realized. I’m usually an energetic nitpicker, but I found nothing that in any way shook my belief. I’m not a physicist, so I can’t tell you whether it all is worked out perfectly, but boy does it ever feel like it’s been worked out perfectly.

Sun of Suns strikes me, therefore, like an exemplar of the sort of thing Kincaid is asking for in science fiction. It’s true that Virga is convincing as an object without there being a plausible route by which humanity would come to build such a thing, and if we must label Schroeder, we should probably label him a Singularity author. The society within Virga is deliberately constrained to a pre-Singularity state, a sort of Bizarro version of Vinge’s Slow Zone, but the greater universe outside appears to be populated by a mix of Vingean transcended intelligence and Iain M. Banks decadent humans. The fact I’m invoking other authors here may make it seem like I’m backing away from my assertions of novelty, but the outside is not visited in this novel, only hinted at, with the understanding that genre readers will fill in the blanks until more is learned later in the series. This is, to my mind, an appropriate use of genre tropes. The other Schroeder novel I’ve read, Lady of Mazes, was a very impressive rendering of a far future society, so I think if he does take the story outside Virga the setting will still be in good hands. In any case, despite the association with the Singularity, what Kincaid dislikes about Singularity fiction isn’t present. The comprehensibility of the world is not rejected, nor is there a resort to the language of fantasy or theology. The part of the universe in focus in Sun of Suns is fully rendered.

But if Sun of Suns is an exemplar of Kincaid’s aesthetic, it’s also a criticism of it, because while the setting is fantastic, the same can’t be said for the story. Right from the beginning I took a strong dislike to the protagonist, Hayden Griffin. Griffin is orphaned at the beginning of the book when the navy of the oppressive Slipstream attacks and destroys the sun being built by Griffin’s parents. Had it been completed, the sun would have given Griffin’s home community Aerie its own source of light and freed it from dependence on Slipstream, but instead Aerie is incorporated into Slipstream’s growing empire. Intent on revenge against the admiral who led the attack, Griffin becomes a servant in the admiral’s household and waits for an opportunity to murder him. In another story he might do so and earn some sort of freedom for his homeland, but almost from the very beginning it is clear this isn’t that sort of story. Instead, it’s the sort of story in which the world and people in it are painted in shades of gray. That’s all to the good…except Griffin is so naive he takes nearly half the novel to even begin to realize this. In some other respects Griffin is your typical protagonist “nice guy” but ultimately he’s not very bright, not particularly good at anything, and however tragic his backstory, it spurs him to pursue an idiotic revenge for much of the novel and then ceases having any effect on him.

The story’s other thread concerns Admiral Fanning, the man Griffin considers responsible for the deaths of his parents, and his scheming wife Venera, who has somehow constructed a personal intelligence network and stumbled on a foreign plot to destroy Slipstream. Admiral Fanning turns out to be a generic good guy who happens to work for a morally suspect regime. His wife is an incarnation of Lady Macbeth, unethical and ambitious, but her efforts to save Slipstream drive the story nearly from beginning to end. All right, but why should I care about Slipstream? Griffin’s “Aerie good, Slipstream bad” ideology is eventually portrayed as the product of naivete, but in fact no defense of Slipstream is even attempted. I can only assume this was an effort at Martin-style political realism on Schroeder’s part, but unlike in Martin’s fantasy the characters here aren’t compelling enough for me to care about the political order just because the characters care about it, nor is there the idea that a good guy needs to seize the reins to end the anarchy-fueled humanitarian disaster. Also unlike Martin, as the story progresses the politics fade further and further into the background as even Griffin decides he’d rather his homeland be ruled by the devil he knows than the devil he doesn’t.

The second half of the story has some well-executed set piece battles for Admiral Fanning’s fleet to fight and lots of exploration of the wonderful Virga setting, but I found less and less reason to care about what was going on. Griffin’s sudden romance with that most exhausted of science fiction tropes, the smart beautiful exotic savvy woman inexplicably attracted to the protagonist who is none of those things, was the final straw for me. I finished the novel sure I was done with the series, though the process of writing this review has seen my conviction waver. Well, I’m thinking, the second book is in the same amazing setting and but it’s a different story with mostly different characters. And I did like Lady of Mazes. Maybe it’s worth another go.

Maybe. But Sun of Suns is a reminder that while we’d all love it if every science fiction book was full of startling new vistas, for a novel to be successful it still needs decent prose, characterization, and an interesting plot. The author’s conviction in their invented future isn’t sufficient, and ultimately I’m not sure I agree it’s even necessary. If I have to choose between a novel with good fundamentals and one exercising the unique virtues of science fiction, I’d rather read something with the former. In his essay Kincaid was talking about short stories, and at the short story length, I consider what I’ve described as the fundamentals to be less important (relatively) than the story’s ideas. Well-written short stories that don’t really amount to anything are a dime a dozen, and at the short length there’s no room for depth in characters or plot, which means that a compelling idea (or three) can plausibly be said to be the mark of a great short story. Having to put up with characters I don’t care about for 300 pages instead of 10 completely changes the equation. Sun of Suns doesn’t refute Kincaid, but it’s a warning against applying his argument to long form fiction.

Redshirts by John Scalzi

September 26, 2012 at 11:17 pm | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 2 Comments
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Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas begins by asking what it would be like to be one of the low ranking bit players in Star Trek. Ensign Andrew Dahl arrives at the Universal Union flagship Intrepid expecting to work on the front lines of xenobiology, but he finds himself on the front lines of a different sort of conflict. It turns out that serving on the Intrepid, particularly on away missions, is essentially a death warrant…unless you are a senior officer. The crew has reacted by doing everything possible to avoid going on away missions, leaving the duty to new recruits like Dahl.

Has there been any show mocked more thoroughly than Star Trek? Over the decades it’s fought a losing war on two fronts, assailed from the mainstream for being geeky (things like pointy ears and funny uniforms) and attacked by geeks for not being geeky enough (things like technobabble and…yes…the red shirt phenomenon). In its opening section Redshirts makes a few of the usual “not geeky enough” complaints, but after dipping a toe into the waters of parody it turns and walks away from the pool. If he set out to do it, I think Scalzi could probably write a funny novel-length parody of Star Trek, or even of science fiction in general, but that’s not his objective here. It’s probably to his credit that he has higher aspirations than beating a horse that, if not dead, has already endured more than its fair share of beatings. Unfortunately, Scalzi’s ambition rather exceeds his execution. I’m reminded of his Hugo-nominated short story, which started out as a serviceable parody but needlessly lurched into trying to Say Something.

Redshirts at least manages the transition better. The early stages where Ensign Dahl begins questioning what is going on around him are the best part of the novel. Questioning the standard account of the world around you has become a cliche in YA, where the adults are always lying about it, but it ought to be more common in adult science fiction. Actual science, you know, that process by which we learn about the world around us, is surprisingly rare in science fiction, so it was nice to see Dahl using scientific methods (well, someone else does the heavy lifting, but Dahl is at least persuaded by those methods) to discover the truth of his world. I won’t spoil the answers he finds even though they arrive less than halfway through the novel because, as I said, the process of getting to them is the best part of the book. In fact, it’s the only part of the book I liked.

That the answers come around the middle of the book signposts a part of the problem: the answers are clear but not really all that satisfying. If they were satisfying, Scalzi would have left them to the end. Instead, Dahl discovers the truth of the world, and then spends the rest of the book wrestling unconvincingly with the consequences. This part of the book wants to be about taking control of your own fate, but Dahl comes up with a solution to his problems which, in fact, makes even less sense than the television-logic the book elsewhere criticizes. But even then it’s still not over: the story is then doused in unconvincing melodrama that only intensifies as the novel enters its titular three codas.

Rather than nitpick the specifics of the story, I will note that the metafictional maneuver Scalzi makes is a well-worn path in fiction. It may be new to many of his readers, since Scalzi is a popular writer and popular fiction generally stays away from metafiction. But popular fiction stays away from metafiction for good reason: it is inherently unsatisfying, and the more you think about it the less satisfying it is. Great writers can get away with this because the reader is too busy admiring the great writing or the insights into the human conditions, and perhaps also because their readers tend to be other writers and (ahem) reviewers who enjoy literary pyrotechnics even if they come at the expense of plot and character.

In a way Scalzi may actually be a great writer, but it’s a way that hurts his fiction. Over his many years of blogging he’s cultivated a very distinctive voice that has made it one of the most popular genre sites on the Internet. This voice is clearly audible not just in his blog posts but also in the mouths of his characters…all his characters. It had been more than three years since I’d read a Scalzi novel when I started the opening scene of Redshirts and the “witty banter” was, well, bracing. Because Scalzi’s debut novel Old Man’s War was a military adventure story, it was easier to forgive the failings of the dialogue and characterization. Here the book is depending on the reader’s connection with the characters to sell the melodrama, but for me at least there was no connection. In fact, looking back at my review of Old Man’s War (the contents of which, needless to say, I had completely forgotten) virtually all of my complaints there can be repackaged for this review. The main character of Redshirts has a really interesting backstory: he went to seminary on an alien world, spent years immersed in their culture, became essentially a pastor in this alien church, and then got kicked off world due to political instability. That sounds like it might be a great novel right there! But alas this backstory is mentioned once or twice and then ignored, and despite it Andrew Dahl is a completely bog standard good guy protagonist. Oh, at one point there is a gesture made toward Dahl’s religious inclinations leading him to use the aforementioned scientific reasoning to question the world when others do not, a bizarre idea that would be simultaneously offensive to the story’s religious and non-religious readers were there any sense that the author actually believed it, but it’s immediately dropped.

And that’s another element of Old Man’s War that continues to lurk years later in Scalzi’s writing: his habit of pointing out some interesting feature of the world or the protagonist’s situation…and then ignoring it. This may be an idiosyncratic reaction but I find this to be a really irritating authorial tic. Scalzi seems to want to assure us that, yes, he is clever and self-aware enough to have noticed this or that issue, but he’s not going to bother to actually write anything about it. The worst instance of this in Redshirts is when the protagonist raises a moral objection to the way the more experienced crew avoids away missions and dispatches new recruits who don’t know any better to their death. This is a real can of worms, because while it is intuitively obvious it is an Immoral Thing these characters are doing, what would be the more ethical alternative? Lottery? A utilitarian calculation of each crew member’s remaining potential utility? Well, no solutions are in fact proposed and absolutely nothing is done about it. The protagonist has a moment of righteous anger and then the whole thing is dropped.

Toward the end of the novel Scalzi has a character mention some similar books and movies. If this was an attempt to pre-empt comparisons, if failed, because I hadn’t read or seen any of those he mentioned except Last Action Hero, a movie which isn’t much like Redshirts in that it succeeded or failed as an adventure piece, not something dramatic or thought-provoking. Instead, what came to mind for me was Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners”, which is also a metafictional story about what it’s like to be a character on a geeky television show. Unlike Redshirts, it has dazzling prose, believable characters, and the metafiction doesn’t fall apart upon examination. Also unlike Redshirts, it’s nearly impenetrable on first reading and thus is probably inaccessible to a lot of readers, but anyone interested can find a link on Kelly Link’s site (and my own explication here).

REAMDE by Neal Stephenson

August 23, 2012 at 2:42 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews | 2 Comments
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Reamde CoverSince the publication of Cryptonomicon in 1999, people have been having a hard time putting Neal Stephenson in a box. It was his science fiction that first catapulted him to prominence with first Snow Crash and then the Hugo award-winning Diamond Age. Cryptonomicon felt similar somehow to Snow Crash, with its irreverent style, technological speculation, and (it must be said) paper-thin characters, but its two storylines were set in the present day and World War II, not the future. In the genre subsection of Wikipedia’s article on the book, it first notes that it was nominated for science fiction awards, then admits that the book is really closer to a hybrid between historical fiction and techno-thriller. Since then, Stephenson’s work has been more easily classifiable, from his enormous historical fiction trilogy The Baroque Cycle to the solidly science fictional Anathem. But his latest book, REAMDE, brings us back to something like Cryptonomicon‘s genre, whatever that was.

Now the above paragraph isn’t bad evidence for the argument we should dismiss genre as a marketing device and ignore it when we talk about books. The reason I bring it up, however, is that provided we all operate from the same definitions of the terms involved, genre distinctions allow us to say some complicated things quite concisely. Cryptonomicon was a novel that used the techniques of both historical fiction and the techno-thriller in service to a science fictional sensibility. Specifically, it was saying that technology had changed the world in interesting and not entirely understood ways, and entertaining though it was, the novel was attempting to illuminate those changes. That’s the mission statement (well, one of them) of science fiction, which is why the novel as a whole felt like science fiction even though none of its individual parts were.

Conversely, REAMDE uses some of the techniques of science fiction in service of a techno-thriller sensibility. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on how you feel about science fiction and techno-thrillers. Anyone who has read this blog, or even just the right-hand sidebar, will be able to guess how I feel about it.

REAMDE is set in the very near future, a future that is almost exactly like the present except that World of Warcraft is no longer the dominant massively multiplayer role playing game. The new king of the hill is T’Rain, and Stephenson invests a fair amount of time in explaining the game’s development history and what differentiates it from what has gone before. He does so with his characteristic humor and clarity, and an ignorance of existing games is probably no obstacle to enjoying the novel. Unfortunately, as someone who does know something about the games industry, I never found T’Rain believable as an actual game. I’ve had this problem with Stephenson before. Snow Crash was the novel that introduced virtual reality to what seems like an entire generation of people, but when read closely many of the details didn’t make sense. In the case of T’Rain, Stephenson has a couple of interesting ideas about game economies and gamification, but he doesn’t seem to care much about actual games, so many of the details of the virtual world that he casually drops are jarring and bizarre. For example, we are told T’Rain is set on a virtual planet that is the exactly the same size as Earth and are treated to an in-depth discussion of the geological simulation software used to generate the terrain. Anyone who has played these games would know that’s absurdly large, and that in real games it is common for a game character to be able to jog across the entire “world” in less than an hour. That’s not to say it’s impossible to make a much larger game, or that it wouldn’t be an interesting thing to attempt, but it would have a lot of implications both for the gameplay as well as the development process, none of which are discussed in the novel. That’s just one example, but almost every gameplay detail that’s mentioned is like this (another example is the fact characters continually get stronger and there’s no level cap). These apparently throwaway details can’t be combined into a model of T’Rain the game that makes sense, presumably because the author doesn’t particularly care.

Since T’Rain is the center of almost all the book’s speculative content, if REAMDE was really a science fiction novel my difficulties with the game would have been a nearly fatal obstacle to my enjoyment. Instead, it didn’t matter much, and the true obstacles lay elsewhere. The novel’s actual plot begins with an extortion racket run by Chinese hackers. As described, their method for stealing data and selling it back to its owners is, if not completely impossible, then deeply implausible. It works almost perfectly, of course, and through an incredible series of coincidences they accidentally steal data from a Russian crime syndicate which in turn takes some Americans hostage and brings them to Xiamen to try to recover the data. Through a further string of coincidences, one of these hostages ends up taken prisoner by Islamic terrorists and brought with them back to the United States as they prepare a 9/11-style attack.

From the preceding paragraph it should be clear REAMDE is one of those stories that sounds utterly absurd when briefly summarized. I would put forward that whenever you notice this is true about a story, you resist the urge to immediately rule out the possibility that this is because the story really is utterly absurd. For much of the first half of REAMDE, Stephenson’s prose is amusing enough that I was willing to just go with it in spite of how increasingly silly it all seemed. But around the halfway point either the author or the reader ran out of steam and the whole thing became more and more of a slog (I want to blame the author, but it could have been my patience…though it’s worth noting that REAMDE is an extremely long novel and reader endurance, or lack thereof, is one of the reasons most authors avoid this kind of length).

Thanks to the T’Rain material, there’s a novella’s worth of good science fictional ideas contained within REAMDE‘s plus-size length. As I’ve said it wouldn’t be a good novella, but it’s worth mentioning that inside that novella is a novelette about the two fantasy authors contracted to write T’Rain’s lore that’s a funny and effective satire. But all of this is a sideline to the novel’s real business.

REAMDE‘s true identity as a techno-thriller is revealed by its deep interest in questions of tactics. What’s the fastest way to find a Chinese hacker in Xiamen if you know their IP address but can’t leverage local law enforcement? What should an MI6 operative do if their espionage operation’s cover is blown? How do you take a stolen plane from China to North America without the authorities detecting you? Stephenson has what seem to me believable answers to these and many, many similar questions, culminating in the novel’s “climax”, a large gun battle described in excruciating detail across hundreds of pages. Stephenson has choreographed every second of this afternoon-long engagement, frequently slowing down to inventory the orientation of a character’s hips and the inclination of each arm. The result is like watching a tabletop wargaming enthusiast demonstrate their favorite game by playing both sides for hours while you sit and watch, and about as interesting.

Throughout this process no attempt is made to address any questions more substantial than this endless tactical trivia. You’d think a writer as thoughtful as Stephenson wouldn’t be able to write such a long novel with Islamic terrorists as the bad guys without saying something about Islamic terrorism as a phenomenon. But no: though Stephenson is careful to draw his terrorist characters from a vast variety of backgrounds, he never presents any thesis about why they are doing what they are doing. This is particularly noticeable with the chief villain, Abdullah Jones, born and educated in the West and portrayed as culturally distinct from most of his fellow travelers. Why would a man with Jones’ background become an Islamic terrorist? It’s not that I didn’t like the book’s answer, or found it unconvincing, but rather that the novel does not provide even a banal answer to this question. Maybe we shouldn’t expect psychological realism from a novel with a plot as hard to take seriously as this one, but for me it was frustrating to read a book so focused on answering how at such incredible length without ever discussing why.

This is why I began with a discussion of genre, because this is not a flaw unique to REAMDE, but rather one it shares with many techno-thrillers. While there are other antecedents, what most people think of as techno-thrillers were born out of the Cold War of the late 1970s and early 1980s in America. The American military had changed dramatically since Vietnam but the long-awaited fight with the Soviets failed to materialize. To a certain type of person, this aroused an intense curiosity in the form a modern war would take. Writers like Tom Clancy did their best to provide realistic renditions of the mechanics of a modern first-world conflict, but they had to resort to increasingly implausible geopolitical measures to generate these narratives. There were good reasons, after all, this sort of war wasn’t happening in the real world. In Clancy’s case, this meant he eventually was delivering impeccably researched descriptions of the American military in cartoon strategic settings, like a Japanese invasion of the Marianas islands. In REAMDE, Stephenson posits there are Islamic sleeper cells in the United States and Canada with an operational strength of several dozen suicide-willing people unknown to American intelligence. A few people really believe this is the case, but you never get the feeling Stephenson is one of these people. He just wants to have enough tokens on his final battle gameboard to make it interesting.

Because REAMDE has a plot that punishes any attempt to look at the big picture, I’ve so far ignored the characters. By Stephenson’s standards they are pretty good, especially at first, but the longer the story goes the less impressive they are. Richard Forthrast appears to be a stand-in for Stephenson himself, being about Stephenson’s age and interested in most of the same things. The main difference is that Richard is incredibly rich…make of that what you will. Other than being a vector for the author’s opinions, Richard never gets to do all that much, and the book’s real action revolves around Zula, who is sympathetic but very generic, despite what should have been a fascinating background as an African war orphan. Beyond them there are a dozen or so minor characters, all of whom are characterized by applying a single adjective to a national stereotype. So there’s the crazy Russian man, the competent Russian man, the friendly Chinese woman, the geeky Chinese man, etc. In a startlingly old-fashioned maneuver, at the end of the story the author hands out relationship assignments for three pairs of characters.

Like many of REAMDE‘s problems, the characters would have seemed stronger if the book had just been shorter. Stephenson’s chief weakness, in my estimation, is that he has the stamina to write at such incredible length (and so much success that editors have no desire to rein him in), a length which magnifies other problems while undermining what is clearly his great strength, his wit and humor. What we need is for some hero to offer Stephenson an incredible amount of money to write an 80,000 word self-contained novel. I say hero, but actually everyone would make out like bandits when Stephenson’s usual sales volume rolled in and weren’t weighed down by production costs (the costs of editing and production should mean a bigger margin on shorter novels, even for ebooks).

I can’t end this review without mentioning the title. Thanks to the slow pace of book publishing, before the book even came out I had many months to consider it. Well, actually for the first month or two I misread it and thought the book was going to be called README, a reasonable title for a book I thought was about the Internet. Then I realized it was, in fact, REAMDE. Although for years I have wanted to write a post on this blog about SF titles, I’ve never wanted it quite enough to actually do it, so I can’t link to my criteria. You’ll have to take it on faith that REAMDE is a bad title, record-setting bad, by all but one (whatever its other faults, it’s very easy to Google). A lot of genre books have bad titles for understandable reasons, but it turns out REAMDE is called REAMDE because the Chinese scam uses a file called REAMDE. Why is that file called REAMDE, you ask? The answer provided by the novel, which you recall analyzes everything in tedious detail, turns out to be that REAMDE is just what the file was called. It doesn’t mean anything. So perhaps it’s an apt title after all.

Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge

May 27, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 2 Comments
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It’s no surprise that Vernor Vinge decided to revisit the Zones of Thought setting of A Fire Upon the Deep for his next novel, A Deepness in the Sky, published seven years later in 1999. What was surprising was that A Deepness in the Sky was a Pham Nuwen-oriented prequel set entirely in the Slow Zone. I remember feeling slightly disappointed and even a little perplexed by this. I really liked the Zones of Thought setting, but a story set in the Slow Zone is in basically the same setting as every non-FTL SF space opera. Admittedly that’s not a crowded genre, exactly, and certainly my disappointment quickly faded when I read and enjoyed the actual book, but it still seemed like an odd choice.

Fast forward to the end of last year, when after leaving the setting on the shelf for a decade, Vinge published Children of the Sky, a true sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep…that is nevertheless set entirely in the Slow Zone.

Now that I am older and theoretically wiser than I was in 1999, I recognize that the same Singularity theory that made the Beyond and the Transcend so interesting in A Fire Upon the Deep also ties Vinge’s hands. It is sometimes forgotten that he made the allusion to black holes not because, or not merely because, he thought technological process would become faster and faster, the way something falls faster and faster into a black hole. The real analogy was with the black hole’s event horizon, for Vinge thought that it is impossible to predict what will happen once superintelligence was achieved. To then go and tell stories about it would be fatally inconsistent with his thinking.

With the benefit of having recently reread A Fire Upon the Deep, I could see an additional plus to a sequel that focused solely on the Tines’ World: the Tines strand of Fire‘s two-sided story was considerably stronger and had more interesting things to say even if it lacked some of the glitz and special effects of the space opera portion.

Children of the Sky is a sequel, then, but although Ravna is now the main character it is really a sequel to the setting and concerns of the Tines’ World portion of A Fire Upon the Deep. Though Ravna casts plenty of nervous glances skyward and there is a lot of foreshadowing in the direction of a rematch with the Blight, this is left for a further sequel and this novel remains firmly on the ground. Given that I really enjoyed the Tines in A Fire Upon the Deep, I still had every reason to expect to enjoy the novel.

But I did not. One of the things I liked about A Fire Upon the Deep that allowed me to overlook its flaws was the flood of new and interesting ideas. Children keeps the Tines concept more or less unchanged. Oh, it fills in some detail about the massive group minds in the tropics that were alluded to but not explained in its predecessor, but although there are hints that the tropical Tines aren’t the mindless savages the temperate Tines believe their hive lifestyle requires, nothing ever comes of it. Perhaps this too is being saved for a later sequel.

What does change are the characters, but alas, with results that ill-serve most of the sympathetic (and some of the unsympathetic) Tine characters. Woodcarver becomes foolish thanks to a breeding miscalculation, Pilgrim is assimilated into society enough that he’s now just a generic nice guy, and the most intriguing character of all, the mad scientist/naive schoolteacher hybrid Flenser Tyrathect, is left languishing on the story’s sidelines. Stepping into the spotlight is a boring villain and a cipher called Tycoon. Tycoon appears to have been intended as a vehicle for extending the first novel’s concept of the fluidity of Tine identity, but because he spends the entire novel being easily manipulated by the real villain (who is even more dull), it’s hard to see him as anything more than a naif.

One reason the Tine characters aren’t very compelling this time around is the narrative focuses almost entirely on the human characters. Here Vinge has the germ of an interesting idea: everyone but Ravna was a child during the High Lab disaster that unleashed the Blight at the beginning of the first book, and they have only her explanation about what happened, an explanation that positions their parents as the idiots whose recklessness caused a galactic cataclysm. Dissatisfied with the implications Ravna’s historical narrative has for their own identity as well as the slow, measured pace she has adopted for technological uplift on Tines’ World, conspirators create conditions for a coup d’etat to drive Ravna from her position of power over human society. Behind all this is the question that A Fire Upon the Deep also asked: how do you decide who to trust in a world where information is perfectly malleable and even dangerous?

That’s an interesting question, but the way Children answers it varies from dull to dreadful. Right from the beginning, the narrative leaves no room for doubt that Ravna is right about everything. Her intentions are completely good, her policies are optimal, and if she’s ever done anything wrong in her life, it’s that as a truth-loving scientist she’s not cynical enough to play politics. Her political opponent, who I will not name because his identity is carefully concealed for the first portion of the book (though it will be blazingly obvious to most readers), presents a wise and caring face to the world but in fact turns out to be both foolish and monstrously evil. Why he behaves like this is never explained. At the beginning of the story, every human character from Ravna to his fiancee to his friends and acquaintances are convinced that he’s literally the most reasonable and responsible human on the planet. But it turns out they were wrong. Not just a little wrong, but completely wrong. Somehow no one else saw his true nature even though everyone has known him since he was a small child. Apparently he was not only just born evil, he was born with the capacity to completely conceal it from everyone around him. Late in the story, a sympathetic character wins an argument with Ravna and the other good guys with the following completely serious observation: “So far no one has overestimated [character name]’s capacity for evil.” No responses are even presented, the narrative just moves on, accepting her conclusion as self-evident. His capacity for evil, as far as this story is concerned, is more or less unbounded and cannot be overestimated.

Now in a wild space opera like A Fire Upon the Deep, this sort of cartoon psychology might be a little annoying, but cardboard villains are par for the course in adventure stories. But unlike its predecessor Children of the Sky is not a space opera, it’s an intrigue story that’s full of plotting, characters speculating about other characters’ motivations and whose side they’re on, and so forth. The lack of any sense of psychological realism makes much of this incomprehensible. It also deprives the novel of even the slightest shade of gray. Ravna is Right, her enemies are Evil, and the humans and Tines who don’t realize this are Wrong and will be Very Sorry when they are shown the error in their ways. The only room for discussion is how best wake them up to these facts. Some of this might be defended as an attempt by Vinge to ground the third person narrative within Ravna’s subjective frame of reference. The young pack member within Woodcarver who causes her to doubt Ravna’s intentions, for example, is referred to by the narrative as The Puppy from Hell without any qualifiers linking the label to Ravna’s internal thoughts, so even though the story uses other viewpoints to relate plenty of scenes Ravna isn’t present for and never learns of, perhaps we’re to understand the entire story as being somehow told from her point of view? But then you see that the puppy’s name, surely a detail we can assume is an objective fact and not a subjective element of the narrative, turns out to be, I kid you not, “Sht”, and you realize that, no, the author is just doing everything he can to stack the deck.

As is usually the case with such narratives, this deck-stacking has the effect of draining events of anything that might complicate the story’s simplistic world and thus make it genuinely interesting. Earlier I said Ravna is unseated by a coup d’etat because that’s how the narrative presents it, but what really happens is there is a transition to democracy. Is this a bad thing? Of course, Vinge tells us, because this allows a demagogue to take power. Any doubts can be put to bed because this demagogue turns out to be history’s greatest monster, and the fact he fooled the electorate means they need a return to Ravna’s benevolent despotism. Never mind that Ravna herself was among those fooled. Her response to all this is to go and, in a scene which I reread searching in vain for signs it was some sort of parody, read ebooks about how to manipulate electorates so she can outwit him. This is a society of about a hundred literate and educated adults, incidentally, without any of the bureaucracy that diffuses responsibility in modern governments.

I can imagine some arguments justifying the book’s politics. Maybe losing their parents has left the Children too emotionally unstable to be trusted with democracy. Maybe the dislocation of being stranded on a low technology world after living in the Beyond has them unmoored. Maybe they aren’t sufficiently educated to understand the technological path toward high technology. The novel doesn’t really make any of these arguments, and it is wise not to do so, because Ravna doesn’t come off looking too great as an alternative. As an adult she might have been better able to withstand having her parents killed by the Blight, but she was probably more impacted by the loss of her entire civilization. Like the Children she was a product of a high technology civilization and had to learn everything they’re using on Tines’ World from the same tutorials they used, and when it comes to technological adaptation being older is if anything a disadvantage (a theme Vinge thoroughly explored in Rainbows End).

One gets the feeling that Vinge passed up the chance to tell a psychologically interesting story because he was more interested in the psychology of the reader. All of Children of the Sky‘s biggest failings stem from the author’s desire to maximize the narrative impact at the expense of nuance. The reader is encouraged to empathize with Ravna, who is not only the protagonist but the only one who shares the reader’s knowledge of the space portions of A Fire Upon the Deep. The other holdover characters from Fire who might share this allegiance are given comparatively little time. Ravna (and the reader) know what’s true, and therefore she knows the right thing to do, but almost everyone doubts her and believes the lies told about her. Toward the end of the story, when they finally realize how wrong they were, they beg Ravna to save them. This is a powerful narrative template, one that Vinge has deployed far more successfully once before already with Pham Nuwen in A Deepness in the Sky and to a lesser extent also in A Fire Upon the Deep.

Over the years Vinge’s writing has had its ups and downs and hasn’t always fulfilled the potential of his ideas, but this is the first time he’s written a book that seemed almost devoid of new ideas at all. He didn’t win his awards and get close to the genre’s A-list because of his mastery of character or even plot, and without the lift from new ideas that was so powerful in his best work, Children of the Sky never gets off the ground.

The Sundering by Jacqueline Carey

December 11, 2011 at 11:31 pm | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 2 Comments
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Long ago, the inhabitants of the world lived in peace with the Seven Shapers, the godlike rulers of the world. But eventually Satoris, third-born among the Shapers, refused to obey a command from the eldest, Haomane, and in the resulting war the world was sundered. The other six Shapers were cut off from the world and its people, leaving them alone with the rebel Satoris. In the fighting, Satoris was gravely wounded but not destroyed, the dragons who fought for him were mostly killed but not wholly extinguished, and his fjelltroll servants lived still in the mountainous west. Satoris now bides his time, building his forces in his great fortress of Darkhaven, but a prophecy says that one day he and his servants will be cast down and the world will be healed.

It has been said that all epic fantasy can’t help but be in some sort of dialogue with Tolkien, but since the practice of making shallow copies of his work finally went out of style in the mid-1990s, it’s rare for a story to cleave as closely to Tolkien’s model as Jacqueline Carey’s two book series The Sundering does. The backstory is full of equivalences to The Silmarillion, with Shapers instead of Valar, Soumanie instead of silmarils, dragons instead of balrogs, ellyon instead of elves, and fjelltroll instead of orcs. The actual story told in the two novels is likewise similar to that of Lord of the Rings, with easily discerned analogues for Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, Elrond, Legolas, and so forth. That’s not to say the story is exactly the same. In this story, for example, the Gandalf-analogue recruits a fellowship in order to retrieve the Water of Life and use it to extinguish marrow-fire that protects Godslayer, the only weapon capable of harming Satoris. But as in Lord of the Rings, the fellowship is eventually broken, the Frodo and Sam analogues must journey on alone into the enemy’s land, and their surviving companions go on to take a hand in the general war.

Carey clearly expects her readers to have read at least Lord of the Rings, and the point of all these close correspondences is to subvert them. The story is mostly told from the point of view of Satoris’ followers, particularly the Ringwraith analogues Tanaros, Vorax, and Ushahin, though lesser members of Satoris’ army also get a fair amount of time. Even though the world has been told Satoris is the dark lord, the equivalent of Sauron and Morgoth, it turns out he’s…just misunderstood. He doesn’t want to enslave the world, he just wants to be left alone, but the Ellyon and humans are being manipulated by the Gandalf-analogue into starting a pointless war with him.

Well, is your mind blown? The answer to that question, I think, depends on how much fantasy published in the last twenty years you’ve read. There’s no question that Lord of the Rings involves lots of relatively unimportant people accepting without question a narrative given to them by powerful elites, then fighting, risking their lives, and sometimes dying to realize the ambitions of these elites. The relationship characters have to authority in Lord of the Rings should absolutely challenged, and The Sundering does so with gusto. My only question is whether, in light of everything else that’s been going on in the fantasy genre, this was really necessary. Lord of the Rings was published in 1955, and dozens if not hundreds of stories have since re-examined its assumptions. Just to mention a few examples, the Thomas Covenant novels went after the concept of the destined hero, Glen Cook’s Black Company series considered the moral complicity of those fighting on the side of evil, and many books, most recently those of Joe Abercrombie, have rejected the good/evil dichotomy entirely. But those examples I just mentioned position their stories much farther away from Tolkien’s work and do a much better job standing on their own while still making their points about the assumptions of epic fantasy.

That said, the two novels that make up The Sundering were published in 2004 and 2005, so we can guess they were probably written while the Lord of the Rings movies were coming out and Tolkien’s story was being brought to the vast cinematic audience, most of whom haven’t read and won’t ever read genre fantasy. I’m not sure how many of those people are likely to read The Sundering, but it’s also true that Jacqueline Carey’s popular Kushiel series has earned her a following that may read more from other sections of the fantasy genre. Your mileage may vary, but for me at least, just subverting Tolkien tropes isn’t enough to impress me any more.

Unfortunately, the extremely close relationship The Sundering has with Tolkien often works against it. Whenever The Sundering introduces characters, concepts, and places that have clear Tolkien equivalents, it’s hard to resist comparing Carey’s prose to that of Tolkien. People who find Tolkien long-winded and dull may not have a problem here, for Carey doesn’t share his fascination with landscapes and tends to focus much more on the interior feelings of characters (but then again, they may still, for Carey does follow Tolkien in employing an elevated and archaic grammar, and unlike Frodo and Sam her protagonists aren’t positioned to mediate between the reader and the secondary world). Whatever you think of his style, however, Tolkien loved the world he had created, and that came through in his writing. Carey has taken someone else’s setting and filed off the serial numbers, so it’s only natural she should be more interested in the points of divergence, but the result is that she tends to tell just enough about a setting or a minor character to allow the reader to figure out the Tolkien analogue, then she moves on. The result is a world that feels like a pale shadow of the Middle-earth it constantly evokes. It doesn’t help that shifting the perspective to the other side has relegated the many fleshed out characters of Lord of the Rings to bit player status, causing their characterization to inevitably suffer in comparison to the original.

The characters who get the most time are those who are most independent of Tolkien, namely the servants of Satoris and the vaguely Arwen-equivalent Cerelinde. If there’s a main character, it’s Tanaros, who while distantly connected to the Witch-King of Angmar has a much more fleshed out and interesting backstory. Centuries ago he was the childhood friend and chief lieutenant of the human king, but when he found out his beloved wife had slept with the king, he killed them both in a rage. Fleeing justice, he was granted immortality by Satoris in return for training the fjelltroll army and leading it into battle. More than even Satoris himself, Tanaros has a villainous past to go along with his reputation as an evil servant of the dark lord, but Carey paints him in sympathetic tones as a deeply conflicted person who still feels guilty about what he did, but who has learned to love Satoris and believe in his cause.

Tanaros and the others who fight for Satoris are well-drawn characters, but they are part of a story that becomes progressively less interesting. In Carey’s world, the “good guys” aren’t bad, per se, just manipulated and gullible, while the “bad guys” are flawed but honorable. Through the first book, Banewreaker, that and some fairly large plot departures from the Lord of the Rings template make for a reasonably good story. But as the story goes on, it tracks closer and closer with the standard epic fantasy plot. Having encouraging us to sympathize with the bad guys, she lets the reader feel their frustration as the protagonists see their various strategies to stop the ringbearer-analogue and disarm the prophecy all come to nothing. Much of the tragedy of the ending stems from its predictability, but the fact remains…the ending is extremely predictable. Toward the end of Godslayer, Satoris even announces he has essentially lost interest and takes steps to get the story over with as fast as possible. If even the leader of one side of an epic fantasy war can’t stay interested, it’s no surprise if some readers feel the same way.

This plodding predictability is built into the metaphysics that Carey has constructed to replace the dualism of Tolkien. Satoris is not the evil demon everyone thinks he is, but he’s not a saint either. He occasionally does genuinely evil things, usually because he’s been driven into a rage. It seems that Uru-Alat, the one God who created the world (or perhaps is the world) and birthed the seven Shapers, didn’t just create the universe, he created an overarching story and assigned roles in that story. Satoris feels he has been assigned the role of villain and forced to play that role against his wishes. This theme plays out in all the major characters of the book, who are forced by circumstances to take on the good or evil roles of the epic fantasy story regardless of their personal desires. This theme is, finally, something that strikes me as completely unique to The Sundering, but it means that the sort of surprising ending modern readers expect would undermine the nature of the world as it has been constructed. Worse, however, this whole “forced to be a villain” business seems to me like a more problematic world view than the one she’s attacking.

Lord of the Rings doesn’t have a whole lot to say about fate beyond some vague allusions to providence, but destiny is at the center of The Silmarillion. In its mythological opening section, The Silmarillion explains that the angelic servants of Eru, the one God, sang the world into existence according to Eru’s theme. This divine music doesn’t just create the world, it creates time, and contains the entire sweep of history and the lives of every person who ever lived. Melkor, the Satan-analogue (for The Silmarillion is built off Christianity almost to the same degree The Sundering is built off The Silmarillion) wants to sing music of his own creation, music that is in discord with Eru’s theme. In response Eru changes his theme so that it incorporates and builds off Melkor’s discord, and says that though Melkor meant to twist the music into something of his own control, he has merely been a tool by which Eru has enhanced the music and made it even greater than it would have been otherwise.

The point of this summary is that Tolkien was using his fantasy setting to construct an argument about the Problem of Evil. If a good God is supreme in the world, how can evil exist? Tolkien’s courageous answer, developed throughout The Silmarillion, is that the world is a better place with evil in it. This isn’t a review of The Silmarillion so I’ll leave for another day the question of how persuasive Tolkien is on this point, but what are we to make of Carey’s metaphysics? There’s no such thing as evil, she seems to say, just people whose circumstances have forced them to play antagonist to self-appointed good guys. In The Sundering, Uru-Alat seems to be like Eru in that he has laid out the story of history, but he didn’t get his characters quite right and has been forced to jam square pegs into round holes.

I have two major problems here. The first is that The Sundering seems to say there’s no such thing as evil. Personally, I think there are people, albeit not many, who can usefully be called evil. I suppose Hitler is the canonical example. I know some people reject this, and while I’m not convinced, I understand where they’re coming from. Maybe seemingly evil people are just warped by their circumstances. But the Problem of Evil isn’t just about human behavior, it’s about the world. What are we to make of natural disasters, disease, and all the other pointless suffering in the world? If there’s no God, that’s not an issue, but once you posit an Eru or an Uru-Alat they become responsible for these things. I suppose that Carey never says that Uru-Alat is good, but there are subtle aspects of the narrative that make Uru-Alat and his plan seem good in a way that Haomane and Satoris aren’t.

The other problem is Carey’s idea that her bad guys are forced into doing bad by their circumstances, and even by the expectations of those around them. This is a seductive idea and she does a good job encouraging the reader to sympathize when characters like Satoris and Tanaros do bad things after being painted into a corner. But at the end of the day, those things are still bad. Discovering the adultery between his wife and the king deeply angered Tanaros, for example, but that doesn’t excuse murdering them. For his part, Satoris frequently complains about how he never wanted a war, but that doesn’t stop him from fighting a long and bloody war when it is “forced” on him.

This issue is best demonstrated when the “good guys” gather armies and attack Lilias, a sorceress who uses a silmaril-equivalent to unnaturally lengthen her life and mind-control people into serving her. Carey puts all her considerable skill as an author into making Lilias sympathetic and succeeds. But Lilias, more than any other “evil” character in The Sundering, is actually, you know, evil. Like Satoris, she didn’t want a war and hoped to be left to her own devices, but her own devices consist of using magic to brainwash people into serving her. That’s it. That, and giving herself eternal youth and beauty, was all she ever did with her considerable magic power, though it had many other possible uses. The active evil of twisting the wills of other people and the passive evil of not using her power to better ends make her a genuine villain, but the worst comes when the armies of humans and ellyon come to end her reign and she sends her brainwashed servants to fight against overwhelming odds. At first, she thinks she can win thanks to an arrangement she has made with Satoris, and honestly tells her defenders that they only have to hold out for a few days to win. Soon, however, she learns that due to a catastrophe elsewhere, Satoris’ forces won’t be able to come to her aid, and the fight really is hopeless. Her response? She lies about the situation to those fighting for her and lets the pointless fight continue until just about everyone who served her is dead. She, of course, is captured alive.

Why, she is asked later by her captors, did she not surrender when she learned that Satoris could not save her? She had genuine affection for her servants, so why allow them to needlessly die? She doesn’t give a straight answer. Before the armies reach her, she rejects the idea of running away on the grounds that this is her home, and if she can’t continue living there the (horrifying) way she has been, she doesn’t want to continue living. But after the armies fight, it seems she allows the slaughter to continue just because she feels like she’s a victim of unprovoked aggression and she wants to hurt her attackers as much as possible. Lilias is so contemptible when the facts are dispassionately considered it is difficult to describe just how sympathetically the narrative actually views her. Although questions about her behavior are briefly raised, her status as a victim is never given the strong challenge it deserves.

What is Jacqueline Carey trying to say with characters like Lilias, Taranos, and Satoris? It’s not clear from the text, but my best guess is she’s saying that reasonable people sometimes do things they later realize were bad, but if they acknowledge their crime and submit to the justice of others, they are accepting guilt not just for their true crimes, but also for all the false allegations that have been slanderously applied to them. As bad as Lilias is, she’s not as evil as she is said to be, and with Tanaros and especially Satoris the discrepancy is even wider. Giving in to the “good guys” means accepting their false narrative. It also means implicitly endorsing them as good guys, but they aren’t perfect either, the argument seems to run. They’ve committed their own crimes, so not only would surrendering accept too much guilt, it would help them to whitewash their own actions.

I can accept that this sort of thinking exists in the real world, but the text seems to go farther and actually endorse it. The author, English majors will remind us, is different from the text, so perhaps Carey herself thinks otherwise. She might have been trying to get the reader to understand how evil people aren’t evil in their own minds, but if so, she leaves a lot of work for the reader to do. As far as the text is concerned, these characters really aren’t evil at all. They’ve done some bad things, but they feel guilty about them, so if anything that means they’re better people than those on the side of “good” who aren’t self-aware enough to realize they also have done some bad things in their day.

The determination of Lilias and later Satoris to fight on against overwhelming odds is another theme The Sundering has adapted from Tolkien and taken in problematic directions. In The Silmarillion, the Elves keep fighting against Morgoth even though they know they can’t win. Because Morgoth is a genuinely destructive force to which there can be no possible surrender, the Elves’ fight mirrors the real human struggle against death. We can’t actually defeat death, but there’s very good reasons not to surrender either. This idea is present in The Sundering but in a very strange form. Though they don’t realize it, the good guys in the story are serving the cause of death. Each Shaper has a “gift” they can give to the mortal races. Haomane’s, for example, was “thought”, given to humans and ellyon but not to fjelltrolls. Satoris’ gift was sexual pleasure and fertility. He gave his gift to humans, but Haomane didn’t allow him to give it to ellyon, and as a result humans reproduce and become ever more numerous while the ellyon diminish in numbers. To prevent the ellyon from being crowded out, Haomane demands that Satoris revoke his gift from humans. Satoris refuses, and this is the cause of the original falling out. After the sundering, Haomane’s Gandalf-analogue (not so subtly named Malthus) incites humans into massive wars against Satoris that seem genuinely intended to defeat him, but the carnage also pares back the excess human population. When another race, the Were, actually do surrender to Malthus, they are allowed to live but are forbidden to reproduce, apparently dooming them to extinction.

There is a case to be made, then, that the “bad guys” really are fighting against death in some way and that therefore they are correct to not surrender. But no one actually makes this case, not Satoris, Tanaros, or Lilias. Whenever the question of why keep fighting comes up, the answer always seems to be pride and spite. In any case, valorizing the fight against population control is an odd stance for a modern story to take. The real Malthus was wrong about his predictions of famine, but no one disagrees with his general observation that population can’t increase indefinitely. I say no one, but The Sundering seems to say that if Haomane had just allowed the ellyon to have Satoris’ gift, everything would have been fine. It also hints that the prophesied marriage of a human and ellyon will be a mechanism for finally allowing the ellyon access to Satoris’ power, and implies that this was probably Uru-Alat’s plan all along.

Once again, this all made more sense in Tolkien’s original. There, the conceit was that Middle-earth was in our past, and so we could take it for granted that nothing would halt the decline of the Elves, since there self-evidently aren’t many Elves, if any, left in our time. What the future holds for The Sundering‘s world is anyone’s guess. Malthusian collapse as ellyon and humans populations (or a single hybrid of both) grow without bound, or else the fantasy equivalent of demographic transition, I suppose.

I like thought-provoking stories even if I disagree with a position they seem to be arguing for, but I’m afraid I can’t recommend The Sundering. The story is too predictable, the world is too derivative, and the ideas those two weaknesses were intended to serve just aren’t coherent enough to justify them. I’m glad Carey took time away from her Kushiel books to try something different, but for me this one is in the category of interesting failure.

The Rose and the Entire by Kay Kenyon

November 5, 2010 at 1:17 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 2 Comments
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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.

Neuropath by R. Scott Bakker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The City & the City by China Miéville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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