Engineer’s Trilogy by KJ Parker

March 16, 2009 at 11:52 pm | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

In a medieval world, a man of low birth ends up changing the world through his intellect and ability to manipulate people, but are his motives just or self-serving?  This is a description of one of my favorites series, Dorothy Dunnet’s House of Niccolo.  By using only slightly tortured phrasing, I’ve written it so that it also applies to the Engineer’s Trilogy.  Does KJ Parker’s trilogy meet Dunnett’s standard?

Well, no.  It’s not that she’s not a good writer.  Especially in the first and third volumes I frequently paused to notice unusually well-written paragraphs, something I don’t do often when reading.  Dunnett is probably still a notch above as a writer, but really their styles are so different that comparisons are difficult.  Dunnett’s fiction (particularly the excellent Lymond books but also Niccolo) can be inaccessible due to the density of her prose and her far-ranging quotations and allusions.  Dunnett was also writing historical fiction, while Parker sets her book in a pretty standard magic-less fantasy world.

The unqiue feature of Parker’s world is the Mezentine Republic, an island of industrialization amidst what is otherwise a standard pre-indstrial world.  The Mezentines jealously guard the secrets of their technology to preserve their lucrative monopolies on the products of industry, but oddly they themselves do not allow technical innovation.  Their society reveres the “specifications” of how things are made as essentially scripture and with only a few exceptions does not attempt to improve them (holding that this is, in fact, impossible).  The plot gets under way when a factory foreman named Vaatzes commits a mortal sin: in the privacy of his home he makes a doll that is different from the Specification.  The state finds out, but he escapes before being executed.  Now on the run from his people with the secrets of industrialization at his disposal, Vaatzes’ only hope is to work for the enemies of the Mezentine state.

That’s a relatively interesting setting and a promising place to start a story (all of that is established in just the first pages of the first book).  Across the trilogy, the story careens all over the continent and involves the leaders of several other states as well as those in charge of the Mezentine Republic as well.  There are some deficiencies here: for example, the usual problem in fantasy books that the various “nations” all seem to number about 50,000 people or so.  Although this seems a little less than epic, it’s not a deal breaker…not until it is a major plot point that there are millions of nomads in the desert.  Uh, millions?  Parker seems quite knowledgable about many aspects of medieval life, so I can’t imagine why she feels that nomads would so vastly outnumber settled farmers.

But that’s not the big problem here.  No, the problem here is Vaatzes.  The central idea here is that Vaatzes is, despite his relatively humble position in the Republic, an extraordinary engineer.  His engineering abilities make him a formidable blacksmith, but as it turns out he is also an amazing manipulator of people.  Again and again, his political machinations are analogized in his thoughts to the workings of a machine.  Does this sound like any engineers you know?  Maybe not, but Vaatzes is extraordinary, after all.

Unfortunately, after three books Vaatzes intrigues turn out to have been all planned from the start.  The traditional way to handle elaborate plans is to have them go wrong and then show the character adapting.  Vaatzes does very little of this.  There’s improvisation now and then, but we are expected to believe that he planned out essentially everything that happens in three whole books in a day or two.  Meanwhile, there’s the not-that-shocking revelation that someone else was manipulating him.  Great.  My suspension of disbelief wasn’t just broken, it was ruined.  To go back to Dunnett for a moment, her manipulating characters Lymond and Nicholas are capable of things that ordinary smart people are not, but the reader accepts it because (a) these things still seem possible, although just barely and (b) everything about Lymond and Nicholas conspires to convince us they are geniuses.  Vaatzes is apparently a genius because he can set up an absurdly convoluted plot, but in terms of how he speaks, what he is interested in, and his personal life he seems like an ordinary drudge.

So much for Vaatzes.  Still, the Count of Monte Cristo isn’t at all plausible either, but it is still an enjoyable book, right?  Unfortunately Vaatzes is a hugely unlikeable character.  I was constantly rooting for him to fail, not because of some peevishness on my part but because I was supposed to, yet he never fails.  The story’s vast array of other characters are almost all portrayed as being so flawed and incompetent that I didn’t like them much either, although I still liked them more than Vaatzes so I was frustrated to see them get ground under the gears of Vaatzes’ plans.  The result: the story is depressing and not fun in the least.  There’s nothing wrong with a depressing book…if it is depressing in service to artistic truth.  But in this case, it’s depressing in service to a plot I continually rejected as wildly implausible.

I can’t recommend this trilogy at all, but I won’t give up on the author.  Perhaps with some other story to tell Parker will be worth reading.

No Present Like Time by Steph Swainston

February 10, 2009 at 2:07 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

Steph Swainston’s Year of Our War was an easy book to like. The world she created for the setting was fascinating and had all sorts of wonderfully unique elements. These made up for a great deal, starting with the deep distaste I had for the main character and ending in what was ultimately a very underwhelming main plot. I came to the sequel hoping to see more of the great setting combined with improvement in the characters and story.

Well, I certainly got more of the great setting.  Maybe it’s not fair to speak of “improvement” of the characters, since they are reasonably well-drawn, but they were and remain thoroughly unlikeable.  By itself that’s not enough to scuttle a book, but in a sequel where I came in already hating the main character especially, it really wore on me.  And the story was, if anything, a step down from the first book.  The ending is far better executed from a technical standpoint, but I didn’t find what comes before compelling in the least.  It was strange, maybe even jarring, to find such a conventional story in a book which is otherwise full of fresh and interesting concepts.  Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a group of imperialist foreigners, including our disaffected main characters, show up and contact a previously isolated culture.  That culture turns out to be just about a completely utopian society.  The result of this cultural contact is the Eden is irreversibly contaminated.

I kept searching for irony or some hint that this “tragedy befalls the noble but gullible savages” story was going anywhere interesting, but apparently not.  The economics and politics of the utopian society were unconvincing as well, though for me that’s almost a tautology.  The moral of the story seems to be that we should avoid contact with other cultures, since our demonstrably imperfect culture will only sully theirs, which being different is probably perfect.

It’s a shame, because through the two books Swainston has slowly filled in more and more interesting details of her setting.  The revelations in this book were especially interesting.  I’d love to see what she’s got in mind for the whole picture, but I don’t know if I can make it through another book.

Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson

May 6, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment

One of the chapters of Red Mars is titled “The Scientist as Hero”. While I was reading it, I thought perhaps the whole trilogy should be called “The Executive As Hero”, for in a time when corporate executives as vilified for their huge salaries and lavish benefits, Kim Stanley Robinson seemed to be defending their work as both valuable and necessary. To me, this is typified in the idea of the tour of the facilities. A confession: I am not an executive or administrator, but rather an engineer. From my side of the fence, these are usually a farce, a dog and pony show too abbreviated and (if those giving the tour are at all competent) too staged to grant any real insight. I was surprised, therefore, to find touring is the structural core of the trilogy, in two senses. First, as a narrative device, some characters give tours to other characters constantly. After the initial chapters of Red Mars characters rarely do anything as such beyond attend meetings, coordinate various groups of people, and attempt to synthesize diverse opinions into a single vision. In other words, they do the sort of thing CEOs are supposed to do, and what the popular conception equates to sitting around benefiting from the hard work of the real workers. But on a deeper level, the book itself is really a guided tour, obscured only by the fact it is simultaneously a tour of several things at once: what Martian terraforming might look like, what the author views as a superior society to our present one, and the varied neuroses of intelligent, driven people.

I was forced to give the books a low rating because I had to force myself to finish them. It must be said that there are many, many people who love these books. They have some very real strengths, and if you as a reader value them then much can be forgiven. Robinson has done a vast amount of research into his subject and holds little back, spending literally hundreds of thousands of words on descriptions of Martian geography and the scientific details (both real and postulated) of the physics, biology, and chemistry involved with life on Mars. The trilogy is audacious even within the science fiction genre, attempting to chronicle the Martian equivalent of the rise of America from the first settlements to its emergence as a great power in the twentieth century. This sort of epic is rarely seen, and further the sheer length gives the reader a relatively unusual sense of the sweep of time. Events early in the trilogy feel distant towards the end because the reader read about them many hundreds of thousands of words ago. Also, I was surprised to find that while Robinson sticks to a fairly transparent third person narrative he dashes the story with some real literary flair, subtly melding his prose to the psychology of the viewpoint character. The section of Red Mars from Michel Duval’s viewpoint was particularly excellent.

Alas, if, like me, you are not entranced by the endless description of the Martian landscape or convinced by Robinson’s complicated extrapolations of economics and sociology, the books drag mercilessly. When dealing with political intrigue, Robinson is capable of telling a pretty interesting story, but only glimpses of it survive the deluge of details in Red Mars and get completely snowed under somewhere in Green Mars. The characters we spend so much time with never really escape their classifications: Frank is a Machiavellian Politician, Nadia is an Engineer, Sax is a Scientist, and so forth. They also rarely change, and such changes as we see are often attributed to biochemistry. This vision of people as static and unable to escape from their formative influences is depressing and surely untrue in most cases. Minor characters are stereotyped by nationality, a rather shocking attribute for a trilogy that was obviously intended to be very progressive. The plot is relatively focused for most of Red Mars, but the various elements drift apart as the series continues until by Blue Mars it is as diffuse as the solar system whose politics Robinson is describing: characters and plot elements swing around in their designed paths with great gulfs separating them. The characters are often (especially in Blue Mars) curiously passive, rarely influencing events for all their earnest fact-finding and coordinating.

Meanwhile, despite all the descriptions the real focus is not to describe Mars but to describe utopia. This is unfortunate because Robinson is not too convincing when he discusses politics and sociology. His vision of the Earth has dangerously overpopulated was obsolete when he wrote it and now almost comical, his idea that any nation or corporation would pour money into Mars (much less all of them) for some vague hope of mining or creating new markets seems ludicrous in light of the continued failure of the US space program to economically justify itself, and his never-justified use of “metanational” corporations as the snarling villains of his story (surprising, given what I said about his apparent vindication of the executive as a valuable entity) seems hackneyed. Normally, it’s not a big deal if predictions an SF novel makes turn out to be wrong. Brave New World predicted personal helicopters, but it’s not about helicopters, so who cares that turned out to be mistaken? The Mars trilogy is about economics and sociology, so if these age poorly, there’s not much left to like.

Ultimately, if you are fascinated by Mars and interested in an extremely detailed account of humans settling there, the Mars trilogy is definitely worth a try. Otherwise, I would give it a miss. If you read it and find yourself bogged down in Red Mars, then I would give up. I stuck with it mainly because I felt I ought to be familiar with such widely read books, but even that, in hindsight, doesn’t really justify it.

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

July 17, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction | Leave a comment

Note: The purpose of this site is to quickly summarize my feelings about a book while it is still fresh on my mind: i.e. after I have read it. Because of this I have not gone back to write reviews for the many books that I have rated but not reviewed…it’s not fair to the books. The ones I like a lot, I will review after rereading them. Recently though some people have wondered about my low rating for Quicksilver, and since I don’t intend to read it again my recall of the book (which I read a little less than two years ago) will never be better, so I thought I would go ahead and explain my problems with the book. Additionally, though it is lengthy, there are no spoilers in this review. In fact, few books have been written that are more impossible to spoil than Quicksilver.

I really, really was looking forward to Quicksilver. Having watched Neal Stephenson grow as a writer from Zodiac through Snow Crash to Cryptonomicon, I had high hopes that he had finally developed into the great author he always seemed on the cusp of being. Certainly he has raised his aim significantly since Crytonomicon. Where Cryptonomicon was, boiled down, a witty celebration of information theory, Stephenson clearly wants the Baroque Cycle to be a witty celebration of the European enlightenment. It is almost a propoganda document for what today are called “western values” (though, hopefully, many Asians would disagree): rationality, individualism, and meritocracy.

I am certainly deeply in favor of everything Stephenson is advocating, so what problem could I possibly have with the book? Alas, the execution is unfortunate. More than unfortunate, perplexing.

Quicksilver is historical fiction. Hopefully there was no disagreement on this score, but even today there are still people who insist on defining Cryptonomicon as science fiction when it is clearly a hybrid technothriller / historical fiction novel (the only reason Cryptonomicon, to these people, must be SF is because they like the book and they hate technothrillers…yet these same people complain that critics have stripped 1984, Brave New World, etc. from science fiction’s account for precisely the same reason). The reason Quicksilver‘s genre is important is that the very qualities that make Stephenson such an amazing author of science fiction (and technothrillers) completely sabotage the basis of historical fiction. After all, most historical fiction, and Quicksilver is undoubtably in this category as well, seeks to present an accurate picture of life in the given time period. Yet Stephenson’s humor and wit pervades his writing and he is always on the lookout for a good joke or clever turn of phrase. While this makes the book engaging (I would have never finished Quicksilver without it) it also means it is impossible to know whether a given detail is present because it is accurate or because it is working in service to Stephenson’s humor. To a small extent all historical fiction has this problem: what is fiction and what is history? Yet in Master and Commander this is easy enough to parse: the setting, technology, and politics are ruthlessly researched and accurate while the characters and events are fictitious. This division does not exist in Quicksilver because Stephenson’s wit operates on so many levels: puns, one liners, the written equivalent of sight gags, situational comedy, satire, and absurdism are all at work on every part of the story, from the dialogue to the characters to the setting to the events to the footnotes. What then are we to believe?

Of course, one solution to this problem is to read Quicksilver as straight fiction (leaving aside, temporarily, the fact this leaves Stephenson’s defense of western tradition, the book’s raison d’etre, twisting in the wind). But even as such, the fiction is stretched incredibly thin across a deluge of historical trivia. I may not be able to evaluate the history to know what is true and what Stephenson is making up, but I’m sure the vast majority of it is true. The amount of research that must have gone into the book is disturbing to contemplate. The trouble is, I just am not that interested. This is clearly a matter of taste. I’m well aware that many people are interested in the history on display in Quicksilver. Nevertheless, I am not interested enough to read a whole book on it, and I think I am very much not alone.

This problem carries over when we consider Stephenson’s mission. He wants to show people just how important science is in changing the face of the world, but by drenching his novel in detail he is ensuring he is only preaching to the converted. It is my opinion that very few people not already quite interested in history will get through Quicksilver and, of these, most will already have an appreciation for the role of the enlightment.

Still, despite the tedious stretches of detail, Stephenson’s humorous writing is in full effect and he is unquestionably more skilled now than he was when he wrote Snow Crash, which frequently made me laugh out loud. Unfortunately, as part of his quest to show the reader just how privledged they are to have been born after these brave men reformed their primitive civilization into the science enabled jewel it is today, Stephenson spends a great deal of time in a very cruel type of humor. The best way to put it is that much of Quicksilver‘s humor is about making fun of the people in the 1600s for being irrational, barbaric, and, most importantly, extremely dirty. I don’t debate that they bathed rarely if at all, had very mistaken ideas about the transmission of disease, etc., but I found it poor taste to constantly laugh at them for it. If it had been one joke, or a couple hundred, I wouldn’t have noticed. Instead, practically every page somehow refers to how deplorably wretched their condition is. Again, the reason this is so prominent is Stephenson is showing the horrors that science has saved us from. And while I am glad I am living in a more enlightened age, I’m well aware of the fact had I been born in that time I wouldn’t realize anything was amiss. Humanity changes, if at all, much slower than technology, and it is odd that such a talented futurist would lose sight of this. I played along with the narrative on this for a while, but my breaking point was when someone dies of plague and the whole scene is played for laughs. A few weeks earlier I had read a book whose name escapes me where the process of dying of the plague was outlined in excruciating detail. That story brought home the heartbreak of watching your family die, and not just die, but die in fear and pain. I understand that Stephenson is not writing in that tone, but surely he had better options that to have a laugh at someone inconveniencing people by up and dying of the plague in a public place. In fact I think he misses a lot of power by never being serious, never showing the very real pain and suffering that science (particularly medical science) has saved all of us from having to face. That would be a lot more effective than just talking about how dirty it was back then, or how even the enlightened scientists keep dissecting dogs and getting the guts all over themselves.

Plenty of people love Quicksilver and the rest of the books in the Baroque Cycle. They’re welcome to it, but count me out. If I want to learn about the enlightenment, I’ll read a history book. If I want to read excellent historical fiction, I’ll read something by Dorothy Dunnett. If I want to read a really engaging narrative, well, there are many, many choices. If you haven’t read Stephenson’s other work, start with Snow Crash or Cryptonomicon. If you have, then give Quicksilver a try, but don’t be surprised if you find your patience being sorely tested.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore

April 25, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

It’s good for a comic book, but it is unworthy of the pretentious term “graphic novel” and thus quite disappointing to someone like me who cut his teeth on the brilliant Watchmen. Moore is a talented writer but he hasn’t set his sights very high here. It’s a hey-how-about-that sort of story involving characters who, for the most part, will go unrecognized by people interested in hey-how-about-that stories.

Halo: The Fall of Reach by Eric Nylund

November 4, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

With the sequel to the Xbox video game Halo coming out in a few weeks I allowed myself something of a guilty pleasure: a tie in novel. It is the first I have read in such a long time I can’t remember the last time. I knew what I was getting into: the pros were that, for a video game, Halo was a reasonable collection of SF tropes like Banks orbitals and Heinlein power armor. Also in its favor, the book was written by Eric Nylund, who is a Real SF Author. On the downside, I had read negative reviews from fans of Nylund’s previous work, leading me to assume the book was written really quickly for money and not for art.

Much as I would like to say otherwise, my impressions were correct. Halo: Fall of Reach happily steals technology and situations from Ender’s Game, Starship Troopers, and Armor. Nylund is clearly a capable writer but he did not have either the time or the desire to reproduce what made those books compelling–this book has little depth to its characters and never really feels real. A cursory gesture toward thoughtfulness is made in the form of certain characters questioning the ethics of the situation, but little is made of it and at any rate they are in perhaps the one situation–fighting to save humanity from an absolute genocide at the hands of an implacable alien enemy–that makes it easy to toss such concerns right out the window.

So there really isn’t anything to recommend the book for except the procedural back and forth of the battle scenes, which are done competently enough. Fans of “military SF” (a ghetto within the larger SF ghetto) will likely enjoy it, although I think it is not extraordinary in those terms either. Others–even if they are fans of Nylund’s other work–should avoid it.

Hammerfall by CJ Cherryh

April 30, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

Hammerfall has decent character work, an interesting world, and the solid mechanics you expect out of a veteran author. Unfortunately, all this is in service of an extremely simple plot and a setting that bored me and I suspect will bore you. If you liked Cherryh’s Faded Sun books a lot, run to the bookstore to get this. If you thought Dune would have benefited from less intrigue and more tramping around in the desert, this may be your book.

As a side note, any SF author wanting to write a story about a messianic prince running around the desert had better spend a long time thinking about how to keep the reader from making the comparison, because stastically speaking it’s highly unlikely the book will stack up in most people’s minds. Dune is “only” a borderline great book, it’s not impossible to do better, but you’re competing not with Dune but with people’s memories of it.

But the real problem this book has it tells a pretty good story that is about 20 pages long. My paperback edition is over 400 pages long. The rest is filled either with the mechanics of safely traversing the desert or the main character’s visions and his angst regarding his situation. While none of this is bad, per se, and in fact I greatly respect Cherryh’s ability to come with various events and character situations to pad out the journey, the fact is it’s not in service to the story. When the main character sets out on one of his several desert journeys, the reader knows It Won’t Be Easy, But He’ll Get There. And so he does. There’s no feeling of danger, since while the bit players are in grave danger the main characters can be assumed to be too central to the story to be mowed down by the odd dust storm. If the last 10 pages of the 20 page plot were really great, mindblowing stuff, then maybe I’d say it was worth it. Unfortunately they are not.

Madness Season by CS Friedman

April 26, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

This is proclaimed as a masterpiece in many places on its cover, so since I very much liked Friedman’s Madness Season and liked her other books, I had some high hopes for this one. Unfortunately it was a disappointment. The world-building was suspect, the characters unlikeable, and the writing dodgy. That’s not to say it was a horrible book, but I would only recommend it to Friedman fans. Those who haven’t read Friedman should start with something else.

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

March 10, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books get a lot of press for being underrated fantasy. Really, though, I don’t think fantasy is the genre. Peake is a good, maybe even great, writer and what he has managed to produce here is the novel equivalent to an unrelentingly bleak and minimalist postmodern stage play. The setting is an enormous castle more or less in the middle of nowhere. Nothing is around it except for a squat, unbelievably poor village. Right away I was bothered by the absurdity of a feudal system that doesn’t seem to have any serfs to speak of. What Peake is doing is constructing a hazy dreamscape where the world outside the castle fades to white while people struggle with their difficulties inside it. The characters are all grotesques and the events in the plot are somewhat arbitrary. Unlike Gene Wolfe, who at times evokes the same haze, this world is not poorly understood, there is nothing to understand. It is the two dimensional backdrop to the play Peake is putting on. If you enjoy getting social commentary by means of a strained allegory then this is probably a great book. I do not, but I could appreciate the marvelous job Peake did with his characters. I hesitate to call them characters, since they are not really characters in the traditional sense. They are types wrapped in massive eccentricities. Many of them are amazingly memorable, but I didn’t much appreciate Dickens and ultimately I didn’t appreciate this. It’s too bad, because at one moment, as Steerpike comes to Fuschia’s window, I could sense something that I would consider brilliant in the realm of possibilities. But Peake was after something else entirely. If you liked Dickens, this is not the same thing but it is worth a try. Otherwise, it is mainly worth reading to know what other people are talking about.

Salt by Adam Roberts

March 3, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

Salt is one of those books that has an interesting premise and not much else going for it. The setting is a new colony world, a planet whose surface is almost entirely covered in salt. To establish this Roberts has written what in my opinion is a simply beautiful opening few pages to the novel, the most memorable opening I’ve read short of Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Unfortunately what follows is merely mediocre. The setting and the ways the colonists cope with it are interesting, but the novel is really a sociological book. SF has a long tradition of writers setting out their ideas of utopia or dystopia on the clean canvas of a colony world, but in this case Roberts seems to be going more for a story about unbridgable cultural differences. The story is told in first person by two narrators in alternating chapters. Each belongs to a fundamentally different society, and the book is about the inevitable conflicts that arise through these differences. The problem is that by the end of the story both characters are thoroughly unlikable. One society is pretty much an off-the-shelf militarist totalitarian state, while the other is little-C communist. Neither works because the first has unfortunately been so common in history it is mundane and the second is so unprecedented it seems impossible, and Roberts’ narrator has thought processes that are so different they can scarcely be thought of as human. Ultimately the book goes nowhere: the plot does not resolve, the characters are completely estranged from the reader by their actions, and the book seems to make no philosophical point other than “extremes are bad”.  Not recommended.

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