Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

July 31, 2015 at 11:52 am | Posted in 3 stars | 5 Comments

Seveneves coverWhen I started writing this blog, I had a strong preference for writing one review for a trilogy, not three reviews of the individual books. Most trilogies, I felt, were intended to be one work and should be evaluated as such. I’ve learned a lot about reviewing and my tastes have evolved in the intervening…yikes…eleven years, but I still like reviewing series together.

Wait long enough, though, and an exception will arrive. Seveneves is not a trilogy, it is a single novel. It’s long, but maybe not quite so long it could be split into three books. Nevertheless, it is easily divided into three parts, and these three parts really deserve to be considered separately. As a novel, it is rather less than the sum of its parts.

Neal Stephenson has a mix of registers, so it might help to note at the outset that Seveneves is told with the relatively dry, restrained prose that characterized Anathem. Stephenson is never entirely without humor, but this is far from the over the top fireworks of Snow Crash. Also like Anathem, much of the appeal here is in the detailed worldbuilding. The difference is that instead of Anathem‘s exploration of philosophy and quantum mechanics, Seveneves wants to look at the challenges humans face living in Earth orbit, now and in the future.

The novel opens with the unexplained explosion of the moon. Stephenson does his best to signpost the fact this will never be explained and follows through on that promise, something which feels a bit unsatisfying at first but doesn’t prove a serious obstacle. The moon explodes, and after just a bit of wondering, the focus is on what humanity is going to do about the significant amount of lunar material that is about to rain down on the Earth’s surface and render it uninhabitable for thousands of years.

The first third of the novel depicts humanity struggling to belatedly create a vast space program to get someone, anyone permanently into orbit where they can continue the species and recolonize Earth when the surface is once again inhabitable. I’m not a physicist, but there’s a lot of scientific detail here that sounds fairly convincing. The geopolitical details are less believable, but there’s a decent story here.

It’s a bit flat, though. Stephenson’s never been known for his characters and won’t change his reputation with this novel, but this section necessarily spends a lot of time setting up different characters and trying to get us to empathize. Mileage will vary, but I never cared all that much about any of the cast. The whole thing has a surprising (given what is actually happening) lack of urgency. Humanity is facing a doomsday clock counting down to the death of the entire species and the characters sort of putter around ineffectually.

The problem, perhaps, lies in Stephenson’s choice of characters. Foremost among them is Dr. DuBois Harris, a popular astronomer (and really a thinly disguised Dr. Neil DeGrass Tyson). At the beginning of the novel, the narrative allows him (not very plausibly, given he’s not a full-time scientist) to kind-of discover the implications of the moon’s explosion and (also not very plausbily) to brief the President of the United States, Julia Bliss Flaherty. But in the events that follow, he’s a bystander, called on to explain to the public what is going on and to appear at ceremonies.

The other main viewpoint character is Dinah MacQuarie, a robotics engineer who happens to also be an astronaut on the International Space Station. As one of only a handful of astronauts on the ISS at the start of the novel, like DuBois she is theoretically involved in the space program, but in practice mostly an observer as ISS is rapidly built out around her.

What’s missing is any perspective on the tens of thousands of scientists and engineers who are surely pulling 80 hour weeks to create a crash space program that might barely save the species but won’t save them or their families. Stephenson’s choice of characters seems to reflect an interest in political hypocrisy, for DuBois and Dinah are both public figures who present a false image of themselves on social media. But this theoretically promising subject never develops into anything interesting. Both characters feel vaguely bad about it but decide it must be done. Each one also gets a bland romance as well for a smidgen of personal drama, but then it’s back to watching the space program happen around them.

Don’t get me wrong, the space program is pretty interesting. Stephenson has thought a lot about it and few science fiction readers will not find it amusing–perhaps even fascinating, depending on their interest in the subject–to watch him spend national treasuries on rockets and fly them around.

The second part of the novel is set entirely in space after the disaster is fully underway and depicts the embattled survivors trying to overcome a host of obstacles both political and environmental. The on-screen cast grows to include a broader range of stereotypes: the tough Russian, the lying, self-centered politician, the honest but naive scientist, the hard-working engineer.

Throughout this part there is an ugly undertone stemming from the lifeboat morality of the entire space program. If only a few can be saved, who should be chosen? Why, surely it is the scientists and engineers, the same people who are always valorized in Neal Stephenson novels (and in science fiction more generally), since their skills are needed to keep humanity alive! The story swiftly creates a division between Good Guys, who are the conscientious scientists and engineers just trying to make everything work and who, it doesn’t let us forget, deserve to be there, and the Bad Guys, who get in the way by cynically trying to get power for themselves. The bad guys are without exception people who, in the view of the narrative, don’t deserve to be there. This includes the US president, who used her power to secure herself a place on the lifeboat, but also most of the young people who weren’t part of the initial effort to bootstrap the ISS. These theoretically deserving people were chosen by a political process and therefore are suspect as well.

It’s bad enough that you took some deserving scientist or engineer’s spot, the book seems to say to these newcomers, so be grateful you’re here at all and do what your betters tell you to do. Because in one of the least likely decisions among many improbable elements, Earth authorities (first among them the conniving, dishonest US President) put scientists in charge of the space colony. They benevolently rule from the ISS while most of the survivors are spread out among a trailing swarm of small spacecraft. When the political situation decays and the swarm refuses to accept the authority of their masters in the ISS, the narrative blames this on the swarm’s naivete and the machinations of the cartoonishly evil US president. No blame whatsoever is assigned to the allegedly charismatic leader of ISS Markus Leuker, to his chief lieutenant Ivy, or to DuBois, who is supposedly a great communicator but makes almost no effort to keep the ordinary survivors informed and then is shocked, shocked when they fall into believing pseudo-scientific plans. It’s not the leaders’ fault, the book seems to say, because ultimately these are well-intentioned Good Guys who are so good they can’t even conceive of anyone else not sharing their benevolent goals. They’re no match for the vast self-centereness and political superpowers of the US President.

Yet in spite of all this, the second section of the book develops into a very compelling story. After the surprisingly low-key and unreasonably upbeat first third of the novel, out of nowhere the second section takes an incredibly bleak tone. Not only do we finally see that Stephenson isn’t going to give Earth any salvation, we also experience firsthand just how terrifyingly dangerous it is to spend any amount of time in low Earth orbit. Micrometeorites rupture hulls, supplies of food and oxygen-creating algae dwindle, and people are poisoned by radiation from the sun, Van Allen belts, and their own spacecraft. Mistakes and accidents compound and the survivors’ situation gets worse to the point that all hope is lost. Then, it gets worse again. And then still worse! There are some strange pacing decisions where time skips forward unexpectedly, passing over some major events and allowing some seemingly important characters to die off screen, but what is shown has a propulsive pace. Characters struggle and die, and with each death the end of the human species seems to draw nearer.

This golden nugget of narrative, buried though it is within a clunky shell of infodumps and contrived events, is so good it’s worth reading the novel to get it. Too bad, then, that the last third of the book is an unmitigated disaster. Jumping forward a tremendous amount of time to when humanity is prospering again, it showcases a vast space civilization locked in a cold war. Thousands of years later, it seems the descendents of the previous section’s Good Guys are…wait for it…still the Good Guys. No points for guessing who the bad guys are. The story, which is very thinly distributed now between vast sections that are content to simply describe huge space stations and orbital mechanics, involves a mission to the slightly recolonized Earth to investigate reports of humans who allegedly survived the moon disaster without going into space.

This theoretically interesting investigation plays out tediously and with a minimum of drama. None of the characters believe there could really be any other survivors, but as readers we know there are, because otherwise why would we be shown the investigation? Worse, we already can guess who they are, because in the most contrived part of a massive novel full of contrivances, there are no less than two distinct other surviving groups that were each founded by someone related closely to a viewpoint character on the original ISS.

Readers who are really interested in what enormous mechanisms a far future humanity might build in space might still enjoy this section anyway for the exposition. Certainly the space science struck me, a total non-expert, as almost entirely convincing (the one doubt I have comes from the suspicious repetition of a few pet ideas, swarms and chains). But there’s also a lot of time spent on the dubious social dynamics of the two future societies, and here the worldbuilding is less than convincing.

The first problem is the narrative is obsessed with race. I just opened the book to the final third and literally the first sentence I laid eyes on was applying a racial stereotype: “like all [of his race], he put his family name first, because it was somehow more logical”. It would be an interesting exercise to count how many times a behavior is attributed to race in this section, but not interesting enough for me to actually do it. Suffice to say, it happens constantly. At first I wondered if some point was being made about the social construction of race, something David Anthony Durham did to great effect in his Acacia series, but instead it is made clear these races are the products of genetic engineering and therefore this racial behavior is almost entirely genetically determined. This is a legitimate thing to posit about the story’s races given their genetic engineering technology, but it’s aesthetically displeasing due to its close similarity to ignorant claims about the races of the present. Readers who don’t care about that will still find it tiresome, as nearly every page slows the narrative’s slow pace still further with constant asides about the racial origins of this or that character’s minor tic.

The second and perhaps bigger problem is that glacial pace. There have been many great novels written with a slow pace, and if this third section was a novel by itself it wouldn’t be quite so much of a defect. But this is just the third section of a larger novel, a third section that follows the extremely tense and bleak second section. Compared to what has gone before, it seems so slow that it’s stationary.

Additionally, whereas the survival of the human race was endangered throughout the second section and there was a real sense everything might be lost, the stakes in the third section are quite low. Again, the cold war plot might have seemed important in its own novel, but now it seems utterly trivial. Perhaps in some other universe there’s an interesting point being made, because there’s an interesting contrast here between the survival of the species against petty political concerns and showing how the “great events” that the characters (and often we, in our lives) think are so important are really insubstantial when viewed through a world-historical lens.

But the novel doesn’t seem to have noticed this contrast, much less orchestrated it. None of the characters we meet seem to care all that much about the war, either. And with the vast majority of the third section’s narrative is given over to description of space stations, aircraft, and other technological toys, there’s no time to provide any sociological detail beyond the onslaught of racial stereotypes, resulting in contradictions like continued assertions that one Bad Guy race are all masters of psychological manipulation yet the Bad Guy faction’s propaganda channel is a cheesy farce clearly based on hilariously ineffective Communist propaganda of the twentieth century.

And so Seveneves concludes by drifting through towering forests of exposition carpeted with an undergrowth of small events until finally, as in Stephenson’s previous book, REAMDE, everyone comes together for climactic gunfight described in tedious detail. It’s not nearly so long as REAMDE‘s, at least, and once the Good Guys have of course triumphed, representatives from all the different cultures of human survivors come together and–I wish I was kidding–make hotel accommodations. The end. Somehow this is simultaneously a damp squib of an ending and also full of the sort of contrived coincidences that are usually crutches to setup something genuinely exciting. Stephenson’s irritating need to pair off characters at the end of his books also makes an appearance.

Seveneves is a difficult book to rate and recommend because its quality is so uneven. The middle section, as I’ve said, is a great piece of science fiction despite some imperfections, yet it can’t be read without reading the so-so first part for context. And no one who has read that far will want to stop, however well-advised they would be to do so. And the fact is, for readers who enjoy infodumps about spaceships there’s a lot to like throughout, even in the third section. Over the years I have heard at least one person mention every single Neal Stephenson novel as their favorite, from The Big U through REAMDE, and I think Seveneves will attract more adherents than many, perhaps even more than my own favorite, Anathem. Perhaps I should be grateful, because if books like this could be boiled down to a simple thumbs-up or star rating, there would be no reason to read long reviews!


The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman

September 5, 2014 at 1:53 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 3 Comments

The Magicians coverLev Grossman’s 2009 novel The Magicians introduces us to Quentin Coldwater, a star high school student in New York who is in the process of applying to the usual Ivy League schools. Despite his academic achievement and seemingly bright prospects, Quentin isn’t happy. The world seems boring and meaningless compared to the imaginary land of Fillory, a Narnia-like world described in his favorite series of children’s fantasy novels. Something is missing for Quentin, but he thinks he’s found it when he is unexpectedly accepted into Brakebills, a secret college where a select few are taught magic.

It feels vaguely like cheating to start referring to influnces this early in a review, but the fact is much time can be saved by saying that yes, Brakebills is intended to be a “realistic” magic college answer to Harry Potter’s fantasy magic children’s school. It’s true that Brakebills teaches magic, but its magic takes exhausting study to learn and, once learned, isn’t really all that wondrous. In their downtime, students don’t go on adventures, they get drunk and have tangled romances. But despite its prominence in the first novel’s marketing, offering a gritty take on Harry Potter is only a side interest, almost an afterthought, and so counterintuitively Quentin graduates midway through the trilogy’s first book and Brakebills is left in the rearview mirror.

The Magicians is really about Quentin’s search for happiness. Quentin doesn’t find it in his mundane high school world, so he goes to Brakebills. Although diverting, he doesn’t find it there either and gradutes. Living as a young magician in New York City proves even less satisfactory, so he and his friends end up looking for and finding Fillory, which even magicians don’t believe is real and therefore inevitably is. But just as Brakebills was a gritty Hogwarts, Fillory turns out to be a gritty Narnia. Rather than the storybook wonderland Quentin expects, Fillory turns out to have just as much pain and suffering as the real world.

If you’re reading this blog you’re probably acutely aware that “gritty” is nothing new and is actually getting close to the cliché stage of literary development. For some of us who have read a lot of fantasy, The Magicians‘ triumphant reception from mainstream reviewers was frustrating because they didn’t seem to know the fantasy genre is more than just Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling. Certainly that seems to be the extent to which Quentin and his friends have read fantasy: they have all read the fake-Lewis “Fillory” novels and they frequently drop references to Tolkien and Rowling, but they are absolutely shocked when the real Fillory turns out to be more China Miéville than CS Lewis. Prominent as he is in the genre, Miéville is not all that well-known outside of it, but even a familiarity with George R. R. Martin would have been a big help.

Still, it’s easy to see why The Magicians made a splash. Grossman has a keen eye for character, a gift for creating amusing yet telling anecdotes, and an ability to write a whole novel without allowing the quality of his individual sentences to decay. In other words, he’s a very good writer. Although he uses the third person, he lets Quentin’s acerbic wit seep into the narrative voice, making otherwise bland passages enjoyable. Although the story becomes very predictable once you understand what he’s up to, it’s also unusually accessible since it’s a reaction to books that have all become blockbuster movies in the last decade or so.

Unusually for a fantasy novel that crosses over to the mainstream, the main obstacle to the novel’s accessibility is not the presence of magic and monsters but the protagonist, Quentin. He’s privileged in nearly every possible way and then a few impossible ones too, but he spends the novel chronically unhappy and, worse, unwilling to exert himself to make something out of his life. He’s an inevtiably polarizing character. Some people find him infuriating and completely unsympathetic while others find in him compelling echoes of either themselves or people they’ve known. To some degree this is a testimony to Grossman’s ability to evoke an unlikeable character. It may be useful to note here that in interviews, Grossman has mentioned that Quentin is suffering from depression, and perhaps this would be obvious to someone with a bit more personal experience with it, but the text never makes this explicit (about Quentin, at least—The Magician King is completely clear that Julia and her friends suffer from depression).

While I didn’t identify much with Quentin, what pulled me through the first book was an interest in the philosophical point The Magicians seemed to be making. Brakebills is magical but not special, Fillory is even more magical but still not special, it’s just another place. Fantasy is just one tool Quentin uses to escape the existential emptiness of his life. Alcohol is another, and Grossman seemed to want to make an equivalence between alcoholism and the obsessive fantasy fan. No matter where he turns, Quentin comes up empty in his search for meaning because the problem is not in the world around him but himself. Meanwhile, his dissatisfaction has hurt himself and those around him, for although he comes through his first Fillory experience more or less physically unscathed, his friends are not so fortunate. Read this way, the first book’s seemingly happy ending is actually a very bleak one where Quentin relapses into an interest in Fillory, something he’d already found held no answer to his problems.

So far so good, I thought. The hidden world of magic and the more hidden world of Fillory have both been considered and rejected as solutions to Quentin’s crisis. Now how will Grossman build off that? The advantage of waiting for series to finish is that I could proceed directly to the sequels.

The Magician KingThe second book is split between two viewpoint characters, Quentin again and his childhood friend Julia, who took the entrance exam for Brakebills only to be rejected. Julia proves to be a more entertaining protagonist than Quentin in that having decided what she wants—a place in the secret world of magic—she works tirelessly to get there. She claws her way up through the posers and fakers that line the fringe of the magical world until she finds a community where she fits in. Unsatisfied with the magic they know, she and her friends turn to religion. This isn’t a bad idea, since in Julia’s world gods are as real as magic and statistically speaking contact with the divine must be the number one source of meaning in human lives historically and even today. But Julia has made the same genre spectrum mistake Quentin and his better educated friends made: like the first book, The Magician King is closer to Miéville than Lewis, and that means gods are just as dangerously capricious as magic, if not more so. Since this is conceptually the same journey Quentin traveled in the first book, there’s not a lot new with Julia’s story, but it’s the best executed of Grossman’s several takes on the idea. Julia’s struggles are compelling, her achievements earned, and the ultimate disaster horrifying.

But that’s only half the book. Quentin’s half seems at first like another repeat: having found life in Fillory—surprise!—unsatisfying, Quentin decides to go on an adventure, apparently forgetting that the last time he went on an adventure it turned out to be miserable and a close friend died. This time, it turns out to be miserable and a friend—one who is, in truth, not all that close to him—dies. That might be an improved outcome, but it feels like the story is running in place. Worse, there’s an odd lack of self-awareness in the nature of the adventure. The old gods are going to take magic away from humanity in all worlds, we are told. This is likely to destroy Fillory, magical fantasyland that it is, and leave magicians on Earth stuck without powers just like the rest of us. The first question that comes to mind is: so what? What has magic ever done for Quentin other than make him miserable? What has it done for anyone? Alas, no one in a story full of contrarian characters questions the necessity to save magic. Then, it turns out that saving magic is accomplished by collecting some plot coupons in Fillory and then going Dawn Treader-style to the edge of the world to trade them in. Fair enough, but why do some Fillorian keys affect magic throughout the multiverse? How can a few puny mortals do anything to stop the old gods, portrayed as vast and remote? Why is Ember, god of Fillory, on the side of the humans rather than the gods? Wasn’t a major project of the first book to take special wonderland Fillory and demystifiy it, making it just one world in a teeming multiverse?

These questions are never answered. And really, one suspects the answer is that the author cared more about what his characters were feeling than what they were doing and why. The result is a trilogy where the characters—within each book, at least—are consistent, nuanced, and realistic, while the world around them feels arbitrary and two-dimensional. This problem becomes worse in the third book, The Magician’s Land, which has some very satisfying character moments—Quentin finally comes to terms with himself and the world, and previous side characters Eliot and Janet are rounded out in interesting ways—but whose plot starts out contrived and eventually becomes incomprehensible.

The Magician's Land coverThe Magician’s Land opens with Fillory once again in danger of being destroyed, this time because it just so happens that after countless centuries Fillory is nearing its destined end just a few years after the events of the previous novels. This fact is communicated through ominous portents and dire prophecies. Multiple characters ask: Why must the world end? It just does, the answer comes back. Partly the apocalypse consists of the world falling apart, things like stars falling and the moon’s orbit decaying, but there’s also an enormous battle involving all of Fillory’s magical inhabitants. Absolutely no reason is provided why this should happen. Janet, who flies around giving the reader a play-by-play account, seems to think all worlds just have to end in a battle.

What really seems to be happening is that Lev Grossman is emptying his toybox and having one last hurrah. It’s not polite to act as if we know what an author was thinking, but surely these are not books that could have been written by someone who didn’t love Narnia as a child, so he can be forgiven for wanting to have his own go at sending Fillory out with a bang just like The Last Battle. He clearly has a good time writing it, and the many readers out there who like Fillory either for its own sake or out of nostalgia are going to have a good time reading it. Dour killjoys like myself who want there to be a reason for the toy soldiers to fight are left hanging. This is just the worst manifestation of a problem that underlies the entire trilogy. Fillory is a fundamentally superficial creation, the form of Narnia without its substance. Narnia ended with a battle because it was situated within a Christian universe and therefore shared its eschatology with that of the book of Revelations. Throughout the Narnia series, Aslan leads the forces of good against evil, so of course at the climax there has to be a big battle. In Fillory, Ember and Umber are deeply ambiguous “gods” without much obvious power and even less claim to moral legitimacy, more worth fighting against than fighting for, and there’s no metaphysical villain, just an angry magician who had a bad childhood who gets disposed of in the first book.

Readers like me must simply accept that Grossman is not all that interested in cosmology, and that if we want a reply to Narnia’s underlying worldview we must turn to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, which whatever its other flaws was written with an eye for philosophical rigor. The Magicians and its sequels talk about magic, keys, and gods only as stage dressing to dramatize Quentin and friends’ search for their place in the world. Taken on those terms, the final message is surprisingly mixed. After spending three books looking for meaning outside himself, Quentin finally learns to value his own feelings and emotions. The narrative makes an unusually strong allegorical connection between emotion and magic, one that renders the previous stories incomprehensible if applied at all broadly. Since most people have no ability to do magic, are they emotionless? Were the old gods trying to take away everyone’s feelings? And so on. Meanwhile, Julia, the character who seemed irrevocably scarred by her contact with a god, finds peace through…a god. And Eliot finds his purpose in Fillory, rather in contradiction to the first book’s message that Fillory was no help to anyone. If there’s a message here, it’s that different people find purpose in their lives in different ways, which is true, but also a bit tame compared to the broadsides The Magicians seemed to be taking against popular fiction.

Hopefully I’ve made it clear that there’s a lot here to like. The Magicians is a well-written if bleak fantasy that’s worth reading by anyone with a moderate tolerance for bleakness in their reading. Those who like Fillory in general or Quentin in particular should continue on to the rest of the trilogy, but everyone else can stop after the first book and feel assured they’ve gotten the message.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

October 14, 2013 at 2:12 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 7 Comments

2312 coverIt’s easy to understand why 2312 was nominated for the 2013 Best Novel Hugo. Its wonderfully detailed vision of humanity spread across the solar system doesn’t compromise any scientific rigor but still recalls the the genre’s lost, lamented models of colonization from before authors understood the implications of the rocket equation. It manages to do this without ever feeling stodgy or old-fashioned, and its two primary protagonists are impressively realized characters, a rarity in this sort of diamond-hard science fiction.

But it’s also easy to understand why it didn’t win. All the great details of the setting don’t ever congeal into a consistent world, the plot staggers from one spectacular set piece to another without regard for pacing or political verisimilitude, and however well-drawn the protagonists, one is frequently infuriating and both are almost entirely passive.

The first of the viewpoint characters is Swan, an artist who is the granddaughter of Alex, the leading political figure on Mercury and an extremely influential person in the solar system at large until her death just before the book begins. With humans now enjoying lifespans lasting around two hundred years, Swan is vaguely middle-aged at one hundred and eleven, but in many ways she acts like an adolescent, chafing under the weight of her grandmother’s legacy, living the life of a dilettante, taking foolish risks even though, or perhaps because, they infuriate her friends and family, and in general doing her best to avoid being saddled with any genuine responsibility for anything. Contrasting Swan is the other principal protagonist, Wahram, a diplomat from Titan and a member of Alex’s pan-solar political faction who is trying to pick up the pieces of their movement after her death. Somewhat older than Swan, Wahram is even-tempered to a fault, treasuring his routine and feeling anxious whenever it’s disrupted, a man who very much appreciates art but who doesn’t create it himself.

This two nuanced characters are built from, of all things, a pun. Swan, from Mercury, is mercurial, you see. She’s quick to anger, lashing out at her friends even when she knows their intentions are good, and when faced with a setback she runs and hides both psychologically and, when possible, physically. Wahram, from Saturn, is, yes, saturnine. He’s steady, measured, polite, and mature. The two meet because of their shared connection to Alex and because Wahram admires Swan’s art, and in a weaker novel they would fall in love at once. Instead, throughout the story they have an on-again, off-again association that only slowly becomes romantic. Opposites attracting is a bit of a cliche, but it makes some sense here. Wahram’s presence serves to curb Swan’s wilder impulses while Swan’s spontaneity helps expose Wahram to new things.

The big problem here is that although the congenial Wahram is a very likable person, the sort of protagonist who can easily hold the reader’s sympathies, Swan’s childish immaturity makes her very difficult to put up with in what is otherwise a very serious novel. That this is intentional–the other characters frequently remark on how annoying she can be and even Wahram admits that perhaps she is best dealt with in small doses–doesn’t change the fact that her sections take up about half the novel and the reader doesn’t have Wahram’s option of going somewhere else for a few months when she gets too hard to take. Or rather, the reader can put down the book, but whether they’ll actually pick up the book again is another question.

Mileage will vary on this and there’s no law that says all protagonists have to be responsible and adult, but Swan’s immaturity makes her proximity to the novel’s actual plot feel forced. That Swan knows the movers and shakers of the solar system via her grandmother is believable; that anyone would listen to what she has to say is not. And yet somehow Swan ends up being present for plenty of important and even secret discussions (this despite other characters’ oft-repeated concerns that Swan can’t be trusted, concerns Swan agrees with and through her actions justifies). Perhaps even more unbelievably, she always seems well-supplied and well-funded, something usually not even remarked upon by the narrative but occasionally explained by vague reference to Alex’s faction. The only consolation is that Swan rarely if ever actually influences the events unfolding around her, but then, neither does Wahram, contributing to a corrosive feeling that these characters are overlaid on top of the plot without actually touching it.

The story is basically a whodunit, with the it being a series of terrorist attacks in diverse parts of the solar system. A detective named Inspector Genette, already investigating Alex’s death, sets out to find and stop whoever is responsible. Genette would be the protagonist if this was a typical novel, but instead Wahram and Swan just happen to be in the right places at the right times to be bystanders while Genette unravels the mystery. But maybe it’s just as well, because the mystery isn’t all that interesting. It’s politically motivated, and for reasons I’ll get to in a moment the politics of the novel don’t make much sense. To patch a few gaps in the mystery narrative, a third viewpoint character, a Terran named Kiran, is introduced some way through the story and none-too-plausibly injected into the world of Venutian organized crime. Kiran is, like Wahram and Swan, almost completely passive, but unfortunately he’s also much less successfully characterized, never developing into anything more than a wide-eyed yokel.

Somewhat out of left field, the mystery turns out to hinge on “qubes”, quantum computers running AIs who can easily pass the Turing Test. Alex’s faction is halfheartedly anti-qube, using them but not trusting them, and meanwhile some other mysterious party has taken to implanting qubes in human-looking bodies. Inspector Genette is convinced that a human-looking qube is a clear and present danger to humanity in a qualitatively different way than one housed in a traditional server, or even the one that Swan on a typically contrarian impulse decided long ago to implant in her own skull. The novel doesn’t seem to consider this fear of an android qube menace a controversial position and seems to expect the reader to accept it immediately. Genette is completely convinced of it, after all, other characters question how to deal with these qubes but not the premise that they must be dealt with, and Genette is after all the only character who displays real intelligence or even agency. Except that it’s nonsense, a perplexing and perhaps even poisonous sort of nonsense. What difference does it make what an AI looks like? There’s a case to be made that a quantum AI might have intellectual capabilities that make it far more dangerous than a mere human, but surely a malicious, super-smart AI is dangerous no matter how it is housed? The Terminator was frightening because it could pass for human, yes, but viewed dispassionately was it actually more frightening than Skynet?

The real subtext of the Terminator, Cylons, and Blade Runner replicants is of course the fear of insidious infiltration by something other than us, something that doesn’t share our values. Science fiction should expose this fear for what is and question it (as Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream… do), not propagate it. That this doesn’t seem to happen in 2312 is particularly strange since Robinson stakes out a strong progressive position on sexuality. Wahram is coded male and Swan is coded female, but it turns out that Wahram is an “androgyn” and Swan is a “gynandromorph”, which basically means they’re a little of each. In their society this is totally unremarkable, and it turns out that due to some longevity benefits nearly everyone in space was altered during gestation to become intersex to some degree. I’m not totally sold on how this is handled; Wahram and Swan can be read as “male” and “female” a little too easily, as if the near-abolition of gender hasn’t had much of an impact. But this is a stylistic choice in service to the idea that gender is socially constructed and not some unshakable biological reality. Well and good, but what are we to make of Genette’s uncriticized fixation on the appearance of quantum artificial intelligences? It is perhaps telling that the novel’s otherwise comprehensive vision of the future features a related lacunae: a nearly complete absence of any sort of virtual reality, despite the presence of a number of characters (first among them the claustrophobic Swan) who would enormously benefit from altering either wholly or in part their perception of reality.

In any case, the reason to read 2312 is definitely not the plot and probably not even the characters, it’s the setting. Robinson’s achievements here are large and impressive in a way that is unfortunately difficult to capture in a review. From its opening scenes on Mercury, the story takes the reader on a grand tour of the solar system, visiting nearly every planet and many asteroids before ending, appropriately enough, near Pluto and Charon. The standout here is the moving city of Terminator that glides along rails, always staying just ahead of the sun because the rails behind it are expanding in the intense heat of the Mercurial dawn, but there are many other fascinating creations, too many to list here.

To better articulate this setting, the novel is written in the style of Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, a style known to genre readers mostly from John Brunner’s brilliant Stand on Zanzibar. Interleaved with chapters of a fairly conventional narrative are “lists” and “extracts” chapters, which pretty much contain what one might expect: lists of information and short, unsourced extracts from non-fiction contemporary with the story. From this description it might sound like a pretentious way to infodump, and, well, to an extent that’s true, but both the lists and extracts are chosen and arranged for literary effect. It’s perhaps not quite as crucial here as in Stand on Zanzibar since Robinson’s world feels less alien than Brunner’s despite its greater chronological distance. This is mainly a function of the far greater stylistic risks Brunner took, inventing dozens of slang terms and immersing the reader without context. Despite the similar structure, 2312 is written in a far less dazzling but much more accessible style.

Although it’s the main reason to read the novel and, indeed, sufficient reason to recommend it to anyone interested in a spacefaring future, the setting isn’t totally convincing. The principal problem is that Robinson dodges the fundamental question facing modern science fiction set in the solar system: why does anyone bother when it’s so expensive? Occasionally there is a halfhearted suggestion that people wanted to get away from the environmentally wrecked and hopelessly balkanized Earth, either to live free of its baggage or to preserve ecological niches in asteroid terraria, but anyone rich enough to contemplate hollowing out an asteroid or colonizing Mars can easily do both of these things on Earth itself and not expose themselves to the tremendous inconvenience and danger of space travel. In particular, the residents of the asteroid terraria are nearly without exception obsessed with ecology, which makes one wonder why they wouldn’t be happier living amid the real thing on Earth. It also seems reasonable to think that a civilization successfully terraforming Venus and Mars ought to be able to reverse a mere hundred years of greenhouse heating on Earth.

The actual settlement of the solar system is all in the past by the year 2312, of course, but without knowing the reason people could afford to go into space, it’s hard to understand how the economy works. Much of Earth’s food is grown in terraria, we learn, while people and raw materials from Earth are taken to space relatively cheaply on space elevators. Tiny micro-habitats near the sun focus light on otherwise energy-starved moons of the outer system, where again various raw materials can be mined. The picture never becomes clear, however. Wahram and Swan float around the solar system and never seem to worry about paying for anything. Perhaps they’re rich (rich in what?), but then it turns out they have to work to earn their passage from planet to planet on asteroids. And the work they do is…menial labor in fields. Now it’s believable, perhaps, that even in 2312 the humans of an overpopulated and impoverished Earth would be cheaper to hire for unskilled manual labor than robots. But in space, where not just a few but hundreds of asteroids have been hollowed out using self-replicating mining robots, why are jetsetting rich people like Swan and Wahram working in fields? There’s a weird utopian aesthetic at work, a hybrid of Jeffersonian gentleman farmers with agricultural communes. Robinson seems to see space as new New World free of the national and ethnic baggage of Earth, but doesn’t actually seem justified by the technological details we’re shown. The old New World was a nice place for poor people to move to, after all, but it didn’t allow a reset of ethnicity or the destruction of capitalism, so why would the new New World be any different?

One might reasonably expect this space-as-frontier setting to involve a lot of Wild West gunfights, but warfare apparently doesn’t fit in with the aesthetic either. This issue is at least explicitly raised, and we are told that space is too dangerous to fight in. This seems like a wild overestimation of human nature. Inspector Genette posits a slightly more plausible theory, saying the terrorist attacks are far more dangerous than they seem because until now people have somehow not realized that violence in space is possible, and once that taboo is broken there will be no way to return to peace. There is some precedent for this in political history: once violence is used successfully to create or prevent political change, a precedent is set that’s extremely difficult to shake. But again it’s difficult to imagine humans living in space for two centuries without having long since rediscovered a capacity for violence. This is not a world like Banks’s Culture where scarcity has been defeated. Energy, material, and labor are all scarce to differing degrees in different places, there is no interplanetary government to monopolize force, and successful first strikes seem far too plausible for mutually assured destruction to hold things in balance.

Nevertheless, apparently no one fights over resources, though no explanation is provided for how they are allocated. Most space habitats participate in something called the Mondragon accord, explicitly named after the Basque Mondragon cooperative but otherwise never explained. Genette works for a sort of interplanetary Interpol which for most of the novel seems to have even less power than our Interpol. Yet toward the end of the novel, Genette finishes the investigation by appropriating the largest spaceship in the solar system from an uninvolved third party, then compensates them by seizing one of Pluto’s smaller moons without so much as invoking eminent domain.

In another novel, some handwaving about economics and politics might be understandable, but much of 2312 is spent musing on how much better life is in space and how terrible things still are on Earth. Earth hasn’t changed all that much from today, so we are clearly meant to read criticism of Earth as criticism of the economics and politics of the present day. That’s fair enough, yet it feels cheap for 2312 to whine about the inequities of our world when it never adequately develops the economic and political alternatives it posits in the rest of the solar system.

I suspect that in the long run its various deficiencies will prevent 2312 from being remembered as anything more than a minor work by a major author, but despite its idiosyncrasies Robinson’s vision of what a settled solar system might look like feels five to ten years ahead of the rest of the genre, so for now it’s required reading for anyone interested in hard science fiction in general and space travel in particular.

Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

February 1, 2013 at 1:48 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 5 Comments

The Alloy of Law coverSome people have called Alloy of Law a fantasy western, but this isn’t quite right. The premise is that Wax, the main character, is coming back to the biggest city in the world after many years spent as a gunslinging lawman on the frontier. He acts like, and thinks of himself as, a good-guy sheriff, but the novel is actually a mystery set against the backdrop of industrialization. Wax isn’t just a sheriff, he’s Lord Waxillian, a previously unimportant member of an important noble house who has unexpectedly found himself running the show after some unexpected deaths. He tries to take over his family’s extensive business empire, but when a brazen group of railroad thieves start kidnapping people, he can’t help but try to take matters into his own hands as a vigilante. Making this a more attractive proposition is the fact that while he doesn’t really know what he’s doing as the CEO of a huge business, he’s an extremely effective vigilante. This owes a little bit to his hard-earned experience as a lawman and a great deal to his genetic luck, which has given him access to some rare and very useful magic powers.

From that summary it should be obvious that what we have here is not a western or a steampunk fantasy but a retro-superhero story. Wax is Batman, translated into an 1870s-analogue society and radicalized by grief in his adult life instead of his childhood. He even has a sidekick, a wisecracking deputy from Wax’s old life who has his own different but only slightly less devastating combination of magic powers and the name “Wayne”. It takes a lot of cheek to simultaneously reference John Wayne and Bruce Wayne in a book like this, but Sanderson evidently felt he could get away with it in a story that aims its tone at light, fun vacation reading. In fact, Sanderson famously wrote the original draft of the novel in a month as a way to take a vacation from writing the last three Wheel of Time books. Only someone as absurdly prolific as Sanderson (who has published 11 original novels in only seven years…and also the three gigantic Wheel of Time novels based on Jordan’s notes) would take a vacation from writing a novel by writing another novel, but the difference in attitude is unmistakable. Compared with Sanderson’s normal adult writing, the story is much shorter, much more personal, and somewhat less serious. As a superhero story, for example, it operates on what we might call a pre-Watchmen level. The idea that as one of the wealthiest people in the city Wax could help people more by deploying that wealth than running around fighting bad guys isn’t seriously examined, nor is the possibility that the police deferring to a self-appointed vigilante rich person may not be a positive step toward bringing justice to the city. In his other work Sanderson has often shown an interest in trying to reverse common tropes, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume his unironic use of the traditional superhero formula here (the formula that even Hollywood understands should be taken apart, even if it usually doesn’t know quite how to do it) is likely a conscious decision to stick to telling a fun story.

There’s nothing wrong with light reading. Viewed as “just” a fun story, Alloy of Law is reasonably successful. The mystery that Wax solves over the course of the novel has a few interesting elements and the plot moves quickly between its generous helping of action scenes. Sanderson’s normal chroegraphist tendencies are on display here, showing step by step how magic is used by combatants. The novel is set three hundred years after the Mistborn trilogy, so Sanderson is able to leverage the complicated but entertaining magic systems from those books and add a few new wrinkles.

No characters return from the Mistborn trilogy, so Alloy of Law theoretically can be read first, but I’d recommend against it. One reason is that perhaps the most interesting part of the novel, and the one aspect that elevates it above the fantasy equivalent of an airport thriller, is the way it establishes the dramatic changes that have occurred in the world since the earlier trilogy. Sanderson has never made any secret about the fact he expects technology to progress in his world just as it does in ours and that furthermore he wants to write a sequel trilogy set a thousand years in the future when the once-medieval society has spaceships and ray guns to go along with their magic. In Alloy of Law the difference in technology is less dramatic, moving from the trilogy’s horses and bows to guns and railroads, but Sanderson has put a lot of thought into how an industrializing and increasingly capitalist society would make use of his magic. Because he is writing a short, fun story there’s not as much emphasis on the setting as one might expect from a fantasy book, but better too little than too much. The good news is that the ending clearly points to a sequel, so Sanderson will be back to further explore this world.

But that’s also bad news, because while immediate matters are resolved, the ending isn’t nearly as conclusive as it might have been. The bigger problem, and the real reason I would recommend reading the Mistborn trilogy instead of Alloy of Law, is that Sanderson’s strengths as a writer are best served (and his weaknesses best minimized) by long, epic fantasy. Sanderson’s characters have never been much of a selling point and this story is no exception, populated mostly with familiar types and not spending enough time with the few interesting people (Steris and Miles). The other potential selling point of a shorter story, style, is also not Sanderson’s forte. His prose is transparent at best and while he attempts to liven up the story with humor, none of those moments merit more than a chuckle and few enough get even that far. All these things are characteristic of Sanderson no matter what he’s writing, but the reasons why he’s very much worth reading in spite of these faults are his great virtues: his rigor, his control, and his discipline. By rigor, I mean he approaches fantasy with the mentality of a science fiction writer: he establishes the rules by which magic operates and then proceeds to speculate on how those rules might be used and abused by the characters of his story. A little of that is on display here, but the magic system and therefore most of its implications are borrowed from the Mistborn books. By control, I mean he is one of the greatest writers of plot in the genre, carefully tying events in the story to revelations about the world so that the end of one of his long stories is incredibly satisfying, paying off all sorts of earlier little mysteries and unexplained elements by dropping in the last missing pieces that make everything fit together perfectly. This too is mostly absent, both because the novel is short and because when not in the epic mode there’s no chance for the sweeping revisions of previous conceptions that make his stories so compelling. And by discipline, I mean that unlike many authors, Sanderson can write very long stories without letting the structure and pace of the story fall apart and he can do it in a reasonable amount of time. Few fantasy authors can say they’ve done as well on this front as he has with both Mistborn and, to a certain degree, the Wheel of Time conclusion, but while that is a rare gift in very long form storytelling, many authors can do it at Alloy of Law‘s short length.

In interviews, Sanderson says that not every story has to be a long, epic, doorstop fantasy and that with Alloy of Law he wanted to do something more along the lines of a standalone episode in a television series. That’s a worthy goal, but good standalone television works because the audience is invested in the characters and is happy to spend forty minutes with them even if the plot doesn’t amount to much. That investment is achieved first by having very well-drawn characters and, second, by putting out a lot of “episodes” so that the audience develops a strong sense of familiarity. In the genre, this technique is most commonly used by urban fantasy series, though it’s not unknown elsewhere. But this isn’t that sort of book, and all the evidence is that Sanderson simply isn’t that kind of writer. Those new to his work should start with the Mistborn trilogy, which still doesn’t have great characters but does put Sanderson’s unique strengths to excellent use. Alloy of Law isn’t a bad, especially if approached with appropriate expectations, but it’s probably best left to big Sanderson fans.

The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

January 12, 2012 at 1:44 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment

N.K. Jemisin’s debut novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, got great reviews and was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula. As is my custom, when I heard it was part of a trilogy I put it on my “to read” list, avoided synopses, and waited to read it until the trilogy was published so I could read it all at once. This is one of those times where my all-at-once approach came back to bite me. There are trilogies that are really one story (the vast majority these days, it seems to me) and trilogies that are really what it says on the tin, three stories. The Inheritance Trilogy is an example of the latter. The three books share a setting, a few characters, and should definitely be read in the order published, but they really are self-contained. For reasons I will get into in a minute, I suspect reading them all at once wasn’t merely unnecessary but even a little harmful.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms begins with an interesting combination of character and setting. Yeine Darr is the hereditary chief of a small, unimportant kingdom who is summoned to the court of the Arameri, the hegemonic rulers of the world. For many centuries the Arameri have lived decadently in their palatial tower of Sky, ruthlessly destroying anyone who goes against their “suggestions” but otherwise enforcing a general peace. Yeine’s mother was heir to the Arameri throne but abandoned her birthright to marry Yeine’s father. Both of Yeine’s parents died in her childhood, but unexpectedly Yeine’s status as a potential heir to the throne is reinstated, putting her in deadly competition with two of her cousins. She has only a few weeks to learn to navigate the traitorous court politics of Sky, find out the real reason her mother left, and understand why Yeine has been recalled. But complicating all this are the captive gods.

The reason the Arameri have dominated the world for millennia is their control of the Enefadah, four gods who were on the wrong end of an ancient power struggle in the pantheon and sentenced by the triumphant Itempas, god of order and daytime, with an unbreakable compulsion to obey any order given to them by the Arameri. The Enefadah are a compelling creation: powerful enough to destroy the world but bound to obey mortals, they hate their imprisonment and especially despise their Arameri jailers. If an Arameri ever gives them a command vague enough they can interpret it as something the Arameri doesn’t want (especially the Arameri’s painful death) they seize the opportunity, making them a double-edged weapon.

Yeine ends up falling in love with one of these captive gods, Nahadoth. As the cthonic god of darkness and along with Itempas one of the three supreme gods, Nahadoth falls pretty cleanly into the romantic stereotype of the older, theoretically more powerful, alluringly dangerous, but in important ways helpless male. I can’t say I read a lot of romantic fiction but the use of this trope in Twilight has made it feel overused even to me. At any rate, you can take that or leave it, but apart from that emotional story there’s plenty more interesting material in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Yeine spends most of her time trying to figure out the truth behind the story’s four formative events: the war in heaven that resulted in Nahadoth and the other Enafadah being imprisoned, the circumstances surrounding her mother’s departure from the Arameri before Yeine was born, the eventual deaths of Yeine’s parents, and finally the nature of the ceremony by which power will soon be transferred to whoever is designated the heir. The answers to these questions more than pay off the setup, making what could have been a problematic ending still feel quite satisfying. Yeine ends up being a good deal more passive than I prefer protagonists to be and the ending relies a little too much on previously unmentioned metaphysics, but all in all The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a very strong novel that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.

What I don’t recommend is doing what I did and reading the entire trilogy all at once. It’s not that the two books that follow are bad. I’ve heard some people say the second book, The Broken Kingdoms, is even better than the first. Personally I would put it a notch or two below, and the third book, The Kingdom of Gods, is somewhat less effective than the second. But I think I would have liked both better if I’d read them as they came out, that is to say, with months separating the experience of each book, because Jemisin has done something a little unusual with this trilogy. Although each story advances the setting both chronologically and conceptually, all three are variations on the same theme in an unusually thorough sense. Each novel is centered around a mortal / god romance. In each case, the mortal is young while the god is many thousands of years old, but there’s something special about the mortal that draws the god in that is connected in some way with the mortal’s lineage. The god is always male, always very dangerous, always paradoxically vulnerable, always inhibited, and for most of each novel there is considerable question about how much he really feels for the mortal until the end, when of course love is fully affirmed. Although each book threatens its narrator with death in very different ways, all three resolve this side of the plot via metaphysical innovation.

I’ve had to describe the similarities carefully of course, because certainly there are differences. Yeine and the second book’s narrator, Oree Shoth, are very different people, and in the third book, the god is the narrator while the mortal side of the equation is two people, a twin brother and sister. It’s also the case that various problems that affect two of the books are not shared by a third. Where the first book has a strong intrigue plot with a number of well-drawn antagonists (and one, Scimina, who is not so well-drawn but at least acts out of a very understandable desire for power), the latter two each have cackling villains bent on destroying the world. In the second book, Oree Shoth spends a good deal of time with Shiny, but in the first and the third, love at almost the first sight sparks a romance that is portrayed as a profound relationship despite the lovers never spending very much time in each other’s company (understandable on the part of the young mortals but considerably less so for the immortals).

These similarities and near-similarities make each book of the trilogy feel very much like a variation on a single theme rather than independent stories, at least when read all at once the way I did. It’s a comprehensive elaboration on mortal-god relationships in the setting, I suppose, but I can’t help but feel this sum is rather less than the sum of its parts. One issue is that I became less interested in the gods and the metaphysics within which they operate the more I learned about them. As with most fantasy gods, these are portrayed as similar to humans in thoughts and emotions but possessing supernatural powers, but while we are told most people worship them, somehow this seemingly important element of religious life is never depicted. The three central gods of day, night, and twilight are associated with and responsible for natural phenomena like their polytheistic antecedents as well as limited in certain ways by a mysterious metadivine realm, but they are also half-heartedly said to be transcendent like a monotheist God, working together to create the entire universe, which here is depicted as the mind-bogglingly large universe of modern astronomy, not the cosy Earth-centered universe of the ancients. There are throwaway references to other stars and planets, but everything important in the emotional lives of the gods is centered around the human world, as if the entire rest of the universe is devoid of life or even interest. Below them, the countless lesser “godlings” have no connection whatsoever with the natural world but seem to be associated, at random, with various concepts. There’s a godling of wisdom, a godling of war, and so forth. Not only does their aspect drive their interest, but it provides them with antitheses that can harm or even kill them. This seems all right at first, like when the godling of obligation is weakened by even the suggestion that he would break his word, but it ends up feeling arbitrary, particularly with Sieh, the godling whose nature is explored the deepest. Sieh, we are told, is the godling of childhood, but this is interpreted rather more expansively than, say, the godling of hunger. Sieh prefers and even gains strength from acting like a child: playing silly games like tag and engaging in juvenile tricks. The problem is that not only is Sieh the oldest of the godlings, he often acts like it, discussing important issues with adult humans and other godlings. He also desires and frequently has sex. Yet in the third book it turns out the idea of being a father causes him pain. I suppose you or I could come up with a tortured explanation as to why this would be, but surely it makes just as much sense that he would have no interest in sex and want to avoid it?

These concerns weren’t an issue reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, where I was pulled along by the fluid first-person narration, the fairly unique feel of the gods’ captivity, and the questions and revelations about the past. The Broken Kingdoms carried on those first two virtues, but in place of the first book’s revelations it featured a narrative where almost every reader spends almost the entire book knowing considerably more about what’s going on than any of the main characters. That’s not bad, I guess, but it’s definitely less satisfying. The Kingdom of Gods didn’t have anything to do with captivity, the narration was undermined by an unlikeable and, worse, unconvincing main character, and the increasingly unconvincing metaphysics of god(ling)hood were front and center. The trilogy’s name is a reference to the fact that the four mortal characters destinies are shaped by what they inherit from their parents, but as the titles of the two sequels suggest, as the trilogy proceeds the emphasis of the story is increasingly on the gods, culminating in a conclusion that relegates its mortal protagonists and their concerns to the sideline. For those readers who remain interested in the mechanics of godhood right up to the end, I think the conclusion might prove stirring, but to me it fell flat almost to the point of being actively depressing.

The grain of salt I’ll toss on to all this is that I think both of the latter books shared some virtues with the first book, particularly the quality of writing and the setting, that I took for granted having just read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. While I am somewhat lukewarm on the trilogy as a whole, I definitely recommend the first book. If you like it as much as I did (and most people seem to have liked it even more) then you’ll be reading the next book no matter what I say, but my advice is to consider reading a couple unrelated books in between.

A Dance with Dragons by George R R Martin

August 10, 2011 at 12:26 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 16 Comments

A Dance with Dragons coverIf you’re wondering whether you should read A Dance with Dragons, it’s an unusually simple call. If you’re one of the many who love the series, not only should you read A Dance with Dragons, you presumably already have. If you thought the series was too sprawling or wasn’t moving fast enough, my prediction is that nothing in this book will change your mind. If you’ve never read the series and want to know what the fuss is about, feel free to give Game of Thrones a try (or its excellent HBO adaptation), but be aware this is a story that won’t be finished until 2015 at the very minimum (2020 or even later would probably be a safer bet).

Having dispensed with the easy part, let’s turn to specifics that the spoiler-averse will want to avoid. Looking around online, there are plenty of fans who are very pleased with the book, but among those less positive the main criticism seems to be that “not enough happens”. It’s true that some characters spend a very long part of the book traveling, but I would revise this complaint to: “The important things don’t happen.” To really understand why some people, and I am one of them, feel this way we have to go back to something I talked about in my commentary on the first four books and split the series into two stories, the fantasy story and the political story.

“When dead men come hunting in the night, do you think it matters who sits the Iron Throne?”  — Lord Commander Mormont, Game of Thrones

The prologue of Game of Thrones suggests we are reading a narrative that is based on a struggle with an adversary. In this case, that adversary is the supernatural evil represented by the Others. This is a very traditional story in fantasy, going back at least to Lord of the Rings, and it has a very familiar outline:

  • Evil rises in a remote corner of the world
  • Many refuse to believe evil has returned, or indeed that it was anything more than a legend to begin with
  • But our heroes are wiser, and do their best to prepare and oppose it
  • Though at first the evil acts principally in secret, but it becomes stronger and then bolder
  • Finally evil declares itself in earnest, and those who scoffed now beg the heroes for help
  • But it’s (nearly) too late as the seemingly unstoppable forces of evil crush all who oppose them
  • At the very brink of defeat, the heroes achieve an unlikely victory at great cost

After reading A Feast for Crows I commented that somehow after four books Martin had only managed to get through the second bullet. Well, thanks to the Jon Snow section of A Dance with Dragons, we have now reached the third bullet. Perhaps even the fourth. That’s progress, I suppose. Despite Martin’s reputation for unpredictability, Jon Snow’s desperate preparations throughout Dance are clearly leading to some sort of disaster, and sure enough that’s what happens. There’s nothing wrong with these scenes, and indeed Jon’s execution of Slynt was one of the novel’s high points. But surely no one reading the book thinks that the Night’s Watch has a prayer of actually holding the Wall against the Others? The logic of these stories demands that the Wall, and therefore the Night’s Watch, must be broken, and the wights and Others must march south to teach those who didn’t listen to Jon and Mormont before him to be sorry. Since the biggest culprits are some of the farthest away, the white walkers have a lot of walking ahead of them. Meanwhile, by this point it’s obvious that Martin wants to emphasize the way squabbling over the Iron Throne is dooming Westeros, so it’s fitting that squabbling among the Night’s Watch will doom them in particular.

I admit that I didn’t expect things to start coming apart quite how they did, but frankly I don’t understand why Jon thought it was a good idea to stand up and announce he was breaking his vows. He spent hours planning with Tormund before that speech, so it wasn’t in the heat of the moment. And while maybe, maybe, Jon “We must stop the Others at all costs” Snow might be baited into going south because of Arya, why would the Night’s Watch want to help him? Why not send some wildlings who’ve sworn no vows? They seem quite loyal to Mance. Oh well. I assume this oathbreaking was the cause of the Ides of March business, and I have to say I can see exactly where Marsh was coming from.

The author is certainly very much on Jon’s side. Marsh is portrayed as a bigot too close-minded to see the existential threat posed by the Others even though it’s staring him in the face, unlike the wise Jon Snow (who, incidentally, is only, what, sixteen?). It was only after I finished the novel that I realized there are much better arguments for Marsh’s position than he makes. The Wall wasn’t built to keep out wildlings, Jon says, and in so doing he implies that by defending the Wall against them for Marsh’s lifetime and the thousand years or more before that (Other-free years, by the way) the Night’s Watch was just passing time. Who’s to say that the Others are going to march south? Jon assumes that the dead will rise in ever greater numbers, forming an army that only a perfectly disciplined and prepared Night’s Watch can hold back, but what is his evidence? His best source on this is Melisandre’s apocalypticism, but he doesn’t believe anything she says for much of the book, time he spends desperately preparing. The wildlings, far more knowledgeable about the Others and certainly plenty scared, seem to think that if they can just get far enough south to be able to find something to eat, they’ll be fine. Back when it was thought Mance really did have the Horn of Winter, Jon might have had a good argument that by not using it, Mance proved he knew the Others were coming, but in Dance Tormund says they would have blown it if they could. But no matter what anyone says, as readers we know this is a fantasy story, so Jon is right, and Bowen Marsh is wrong. And until we get closer to the ending, the Bowen Marshes of the story must carry the day.

There’s not much else to say about the fantasy story because not much else happens. When I first read Clash of Kings I was surprised that Melisandre, whose fire religion seemed to make her a natural enemy of the ancient evil in the far north, seemed thoroughly evil herself. That turns out to have been something of a feint, however, and she’s been steadily more sympathetic ever since, culminating in the Dance chapter told from her perspective. She seems to have been strictly on the side of good all along, she’s just got a ruthless pragmatism and some confusion about the meaning of her prophecies. That makes her a more interesting character than the evil sorceress of Clash of Kings, but it makes the overall story somewhat less interesting. The religions all seem to be wrong, which is a bit of a twist, but otherwise things seem very traditional: good guys, ancient evil, prophecies of heroes, and so forth. Personally, I’m not fond of prophecies, but I guess they come part and parcel with the increasing prominence of fantasy elements in the story. This has been a slow build throughout the series, but the fantasy story’s other thread, the Bran chapters, have are now indistinguishable from normal genre fantasy. I have no idea what HBO will do with this material if they ever get to this point. On the page it seems like a pretty standard take on animal links, elves, and nature magic. All right, but a little bland by genre standards. On screen, even with HBO’s budget, I suspect it will look ridiculous. Apparently people who read Martin’s Dunk and Egg novellas found the identity of the three eyed crow to be interesting, but I hadn’t read them, so it meant nothing. Making matters worse, as I’ve mentioned in the past I have an allergy to magical training scenes, so for me Bran’s chapters were a complete dud.

So much for the fantasy story, but as many people told me last year, it’s the political story that keeps them reading the series. This story has the virtue of actually being told, even though Dance has done nothing to dissuade me from my belief that Mormont is correct in the above quote and it’s the fantasy story that matters. But for all its byzantine complexity and endless detail, I was just as impatient with the pace of the narrative in Dance as I was reading A Feast for Crows.

To try to explain this reaction, I’ll have to go back to the series’ structure. At first, the political story is another adversarial narrative in which the Starks and others loyal to the king must stop the conniving Lannisters. The presence of a sympathetic Daenerys who regards the Starks and their king as traitors and usurpers complicates this from the start, and by the climax of Clash of Kings it’s basically out the window as the reader simultaneously roots for Tyrion and Davos on opposite sides of a battle to decide who controls the Iron Throne while Robb Stark is hundreds of miles away doing something or other off screen. If there was any doubt, the Red Wedding ended it.

When I was writing last year, I said the main characters were Daenerys, Tyrion, and Jon Snow, and that the shocking twists and character deaths weren’t so shocking when viewed through this lens. What I was getting at, but not quite putting my finger on, was that although the political side of Game of Thrones seems to be about fighting the Lannister’s usurpation of the throne, the series is actually about restoring the Targaryen dynasty. In such a story, obviously it’s the Targaryens (Daenerys and Jon Snow) who are the protagonists. To this was added Tyrion, because he is cool. I thought the way Dance positions Tyrion as a dragon expert was a little convenient, but I guess this was adequately set up in the previous books, and if short people make the best jockeys it’s reasonable to assume they make the best dragon riders as well. There’s an argument to be made for Tyrion being a Targaryen bastard, incidentally, but this would be such a misstep I refuse to believe it (it explains Tywin’s hostility, but it also cheapens it enormously, and there’s already way too many crypto-bastards in this series).

However, any Targaryen restoration must wait until near the end of the series. In the meantime, the story creates tension principally through the separation of characters. Daenerys is separated from Westeros, of course, but also the Stark children are separated from their mother and each other. The Starks all want to reunite, and because we like them we want to see them do it, so we feel tension until it happens. Well, it still hasn’t happened, and that in turn contributes to the feeling that the series is wandering aimlessly. This brings us back to the series’ unpredictability. The reader is waiting for these things to happen, yet other things happen instead. When the series works, it’s because these other things also capture our interest. When they don’t, the cost on the reading experience can be high. One of Feast for Crows‘ problems was that it introduced a separation between Brienne and Sansa that was only minimally justified in terms of Brienne’s motivation, seemed unlikely in the extreme to resolve just based on what Breinne’s information (Brienne actually finding Sansa by randomly asking people would have been absurd), and worst of all, with the reader’s superior knowledge it was evident it could not resolve because Brienne was never even remotely close to the right place. Even on a first reading, it was obviously a pointless exercise. Now, strictly speaking there was a point, but one outside the narrative: Brienne, like Arya before her, was unknowingly giving readers a tour of the ruined countryside so we could see how both the warfare and the resulting anarchy was devastating the common people. Without a good enough in-narrative justification, this ended up being a lifeless and academic exercise.

I believe this tension issue is the big reason why I enjoyed rereading the series, even Feast for Crows, more than when I read it the first time. Knowing ahead of time that none of the natural tensions were going to resolve, I was able to focus on what does resolve, movement along arcs that are only evident in hindsight: Tyrion toward his confrontation with his father, Cersei toward her arrest, Catelyn and Robb toward the Red Wedding, etc. However, it’s important to emphasize that Martin hasn’t truly subverted reader expectations, he’s merely delayed their gratification. Daenerys will go to Westeros and the Stark children will reunite (except poor Robb, anyway). This is difficult because our minds are accustomed to resolutions that happen in about a hundred thousand words, not two million (and series that end in a couple years, not decades). This is an example of how the huge length of the series distorts the reading experience.

A Dance with Dragons suffers greatly from this distortion. It continues the separations of Bran and Arya while also introducing more as various characters try to reach Daenerys and Stannis goes to fight Bolton. That none of these separations (except the ill-fated Quentin’s attempt to reach Daenerys) end within the confines of the novel has caused a lot of complaints. With Daenerys literally out in the wilderness away from everyone else, the book ends having introduced still more tension than it resolved. Apparently it was coordinating the approach of these various characters that gave Martin problems over the past ten years, but we’ll have to wait for the next book to really see what it is he’s trying to do. I wanted Tyrion, Quentin, Victarion, and Aegon to all arrive, meet Daenerys at the same time, and get to play off each other, but perhaps Martin has a better idea.

Beyond the characters moving slowly around Slaver’s Bay, A Dance with Dragons also sets up two key questions: what should Daenerys do about Meereen, and what should she do about her dragons? The first question is repeatedly posed and never answered, for nothing gets resolved about Meereen despite a huge number of scenes set there. Meereen, it must be said, is not nearly as impressive a creation as Westeros. Martin apparently wanted to tell a story about knights, so I suppose it’s not surprising that the city which is probably the series’ furthest point geographically, culturally, and narratively from Westeros seems the least inspired. But beyond the confusing names of characters and a political situation told in summary rather than the series’ characteristic detail, the actual story struck me as far less convincing than the degeneration of Westeros that Martin has spent so much time portraying. Daenerys spends the novel helpless in the face of what seemed like the anachronistic insurgency of the Sons of the Harpy. Not only does this sort of guerrilla warfare seem difficult to do properly without guns and explosives available to kill from distance, it’s carried out by the wealthy, which goes against everything I know about how this sort of thing works. I’m not an expert, but in these circumstances the wealthy are easy to defeat because they have something to lose: property, trade, and other assets. Daenerys has the backing of the common people, so even if she doesn’t have the stomach to storm the enclaves of the rich, the insurgents shouldn’t be able to operate among a hostile population. Toward the end of the book, it’s claimed that the untamed dragons have turned the common people against her, but I find this hard to credit, and even if it’s true, it doesn’t happen until the Sons of the Harpy have already forced significant concessions (i.e. her marriage). As for the other major question, how to deal with the dragons, Drogon’s arrival at the arena is my pick for the novel’s best scene, but it proves only a further complication. At the end of the novel, the dragons are anything but settled and Daenerys seems farther than ever from achieving her goals in Meereen or Westeros.

Back when the TV show Lost was airing, fans contemptuously referred to this practice as asking questions without answering the ones already posed. I say this by way of analogy, because most fans engaged with Lost in terms of the knowledge it withheld, not the action of the plot (the hermeneutic code, not the the proairetic code, to use the technical terms). A Song of Ice and Fire has some actual questions of this kind (Jon Snow’s parentage, the identity of Coldhands, the prophecies, and so forth) but they are on the sidelines for hardcore fans to debate while they wait for more books to be written. I think it’s a useful analogy, though, because as a six season TV series with a continuous story, Lost had to face many of the same structural challenges that A Song of Ice and Fire faces now, challenges comparatively shorter works like Lord of the Rings did not. It’s worth noting that like A Song of Ice and Fire, Lost built most of its tension of action out of the separation of characters, to the point it was criticized with some justification for being a show whose characters were continually journeying between the same five or ten destinations. Many people have observed that watching Lost episodes as they aired was a very different experience than blowing through the episodes on DVD, and I think it’s clear why: each time an episode of Lost ended, viewers had a week or more to reflect on how the show hadn’t yet answered the questions they cared about. Many readers who finish A Dance with Dragons today will think about how most of what they hoped to see happen still lies in the future, and they’ll have to think about that not for a week or even a year, but however long it takes for Martin to write the next book. I don’t want to make too much of this analogy, because part of the agony of watching Lost was enduring the suspicion that the answers to its many questions were being withheld because there were no answers (and, indeed, this proved to be the case). I have never doubted that there is an ending out there to A Song of Ice and Fire, so this is a case merely of (very) delayed gratification (unless Martin dies, that is).

In light of this caveat, it would be easy to dismiss these criticisms as the inevitable result of reviewing a piece of a story rather than the whole thing, and as my usual policy of reviewing a series all at once should indicate, I’m largely sympathetic to this view. It was something Martin himself said that made me reconsider.

You know, one of the things you learn when you are working for network television, the importance of the act to break because unlike HBO, network TV requires people to come back after the commercial. So you know, you always want to have an act break that it’s a moment of revelation, a twist, a moment of tension, a cliff hanger what it is, but each act has to go out on something, you know.  — George R. R. Martin, in a recent interview with Time Magazine

What Martin seems to be saying is that a storyteller should take the medium into account. If A Song of Ice and Fire were all one book, none of this would matter. But it’s not all one book, even though in 2030 people may read it as though it were. Certainly few authors can be more conscious of reader expectations than Martin after the reception of Feast for Crows. Once again, the Lost analogy is instructive, because despite its many faults, it always had extremely strong season finales (the season finale being the equivalent of the end of a novel). They raised plenty of questions and served as enormous cliffhangers, but in terms of their action they always felt like climaxes that paid off the narrative weight of the preceding season. The concluding chapters of A Dance with Dragons don’t have anything like this effect. Aegon lands on Westeros, Jon is betrayed, Selmy betrays the King, and Tyrion signs up with the Second Sons. But these events, important though they may be, aren’t sufficiently weighty to be satisfying. We’ve never met Aegon before this book and his rapid trip to Westeros just rubs in how long Daenerys is taking, that Jon Snow would fail to control the Night’s Watch was obvious throughout the book, Selmy is a very likable guy but Daenerys’ husband doesn’t matter, and while Tyrion getting in a position to make a difference again was nice, what I wanted was for him to meet Daenerys. Considering that unlike Lost this is a story based on action, not revelation, and especially given that Martin has considerable leeway on the length of the novels, I don’t think asking for a better climax is unreasonable. Perhaps the story he’s telling simply cannot be parceled out into satisfying chunks anywhere between one and four hundred thousand words without grossly weakening it. It’s impossible to say until the series is finished, but I’m skeptical.

Having ventured this criticism, it’s worth spending a moment to think about how the HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones restructured the storyline. Abigail Nussbaum thinks rather less of Game of Thrones the novel than I do, but she makes an interesting point when she says the novel is a YA story about the Stark children whereas the HBO show is an adult story about Ned Stark. I’m not totally convinced about the novel, since taken together Ned Stark’s viewpoint chapters are longer than any other character’s (18.5% of the novel) and, together with Catelyn, the Stark parents have a third of the novel, only slightly less than the children. But statistics aside, the HBO show necessarily marginalizes the children, especially Bran and Arya, and Ned Stark is the beneficiary of the extra attention. The result is a fairly straightforward story: Ned Stark goes against the Lannisters and loses. The climax comes at the very end of the ninth episode while the last episode serves as a coda to set up the second season, even to the point of including a few scenes from Clash of Kings. By comparison, Daenerys’ story, almost completely independent from Ned Stark’s, has its climax at the very end as it does in the novel.

I never read Game of Thrones on its own so I can’t say how different it felt to read just that novel, but I think the HBO show has a more satisfying structure. What the show will do with the later books, I have no idea. Clash of Kings features Tyrion even more prominently than Game of Thrones features Ned Stark, and has the battle at King’s Landing as a grand climax to Tyrion’s efforts to defend the city, but from there the scope broadens the climaxes get harder to find.

In a novel this large, there’s inevitably a lot more going on than what I’ve mentioned so far. I thought that Dance would have a big leg up on its predecessor just because it had those I allege to be the three main characters (who are also the most sympathetic, generally), but Tyrion, Daenerys, and Jon turned out to have some of the least effective chapters. Tyrion is mostly passive, Daenerys is mostly passive and in the throes of an inexplicable crush on the deeply unlikeable Daario, and while Jon at least works diligently, it’s in service to what is clearly a lost cause. Thankfully the new characters punched above their weight. Barristan Selmy and Jon Connington had interesting perspectives, and watching Wyman Manderly, a previously insignificant character, scheme against the preposterously evil Boltons was more fun than it had any right to be. I could have done with less of all the Reek business, it’s true. All right, I could have done with a lot less, but that’s mostly down to taste. I’m rarely impressed by psychologically damaged characters in fiction unless I have some reason to think the author is especially qualified to understand mental dysfunction. If I have to trudge through page after page of a depraved viewpoint, it seems to me I ought to at least be able to learn something from it. I feel the same way about Arya’s assassin training. That is, unconvinced there’s any psychological fire under all this smoke. But in a story otherwise full of ambiguity, having the Boltons as Gregor Clegane-style monsters to root against was surprisingly refreshing, no matter how the material was presented.

That’s how it goes with sprawling stories like this: which characters and subplots interest you inevitably comes down at least in part to personal taste. Once the series is complete, readers will have the luxury of skimming through chapters they’re not as interested in to get back to whatever they consider “the good parts”, but for now the speed at which the story moves is up to Martin. It’s easy to wish for more editing, but the Manderly subplot is an example of something that is surely completely extraneous to the overall story being told and thus a strong candidate for removal. I suppose the main difference between myself and the series’ big fans may just be where we draw the line in terms of interest.

To the people who have spent years fighting in the trenches of Internet forums over the merits of this series, I’m sure that sounds like a pretty mealy-mouthed way to conclude, but I really do think a lot of this is subjective. It’s great that some people like every part of these books, but I don’t…and yet, I like enough of them to keep reading, and I’ll get in line whenever the next book is released. In the meantime, I’ll keep wondering if this wouldn’t be a lot more effective if it were shorter, and thanks to HBO we may even find out the answer.

Embassytown by China Miéville

June 28, 2011 at 11:55 pm | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 3 Comments

Embassytown coverAfter taking a year off, the other China Miéville is back. Last year’s Kraken was, whatever its faults, a product of the China Miéville who became one of modern fantasy’s most prominent authors by writing Perdido Street Station and The Scar. Embassytown, Miéville’s latest novel, is much closer to The City & The City than the rest of his work. I suppose for most people this will be great news: The City & The City was rapturously received in most quarters and won more awards than I’m willing to list here, and so far Embassytown seems to be getting fantastic reviews as well. I respected The City & The City but, alas, didn’t actually like it. Embassytown has a better story, but I’m afraid it suffers from some of the same overall problems that The City & The City did.

The initial section of the novel relates the backstory of the narrator, Avice Benner Cho, and in the process introduces us to the science fiction landscape Miéville has constructed. On the barely-explored edge of human-controlled space lies the planet of Arieka, inhabited by an intelligent alien species with impressive bioengineering but no space flight.  Humans establish a trading outpost there, a small city called Embassytown ruled by Ambassadors who theoretically represent wider human civilization, but who over the years have become a strange sort of aristocracy. Avice is a commoner native of Embassytown who escaped her simple origins to become a spacer and see the world, but she returns after marrying a linguist fascinated by Language, the language spoken by the aliens on Arieka. For most of the story Avice is basically an unemployed dilettante. Unlike her husband, she’s not much interested in Language, but when the interstellar human government tries to change the manner in which Ambassadors are selected, a crisis develops that turns upon the possibilities and limitations of Language.

Just as most of The City & The City was devoted to explaining the central concept of unsight at no small cost to its detective story, most of Embassytown is spent examining Language. Embassytown is science fiction, not a detective novel, and that’s a genre more at home with this sort of idea-heavy approach, but still the story ends up being more than a little dull in places. Avice spends almost the entire novel being completely passive, listening to what others tell her about Language, about the Hosts, and about Embassytown’s increasingly shaky government. Miéville seems to have anticipated this criticism, so Avice is proud of the fact she’s a “floaker”, which as far as I can tell is an unnecessary neologism for being passive. It’s true that in the climax, Avice suddenly becomes extremely active, but this seemed completely out of left field given how little she had done up until that point.

Perhaps not surprisingly given the narrator is more an observer than an instigator, Avice relates many scenes in what amounts to summary form, and in quickly breezing through such events she frequently amalgamates her feelings and those of other characters into the first person plural. It has often been said, metaphorically, that the cities of Miéville’s fiction are the main characters, but these long stretches of collective narrative actually go some way toward making this literally true of Embassytown the city in Embassytown the novel. This is an unusual approach for a reason: for all the insight it gives us into the crowd psychology that is important in crises, it opens a gulf between the reader and the story’s individual characters. Miéville gets a lot of mileage out of his evocative writing in these segments, but when the focus narrowed for the important, plot-critical scenes after long passages full of linguistic discussion and summary, the characters still felt like cogs of the larger story, robbing these pivotal scenes of some of their power.

But if, like The City & The City before it, this is a novel that is focused completely on its ideas, relegating the story and characters to supporting roles, what about those ideas? I wasn’t hugely impressed with the story, but there’s more thought put into Embassytown‘s central ideas than a dozen typical science fiction novels put together. So what’s Miéville up to?

There are three ways in which the Ariekei and their Language are unique. The first is that the Ariekei have two mouths and each can make sounds independently. Both “voices” must be used simultaneously in order to speak Language, so right away it’s physically impossible for a single human to speak it correctly. The second is actually not a property of Language itself, but of the Ariekei who speak it: they cannot lie. Lies can be expressed in Language, the Ariekei understand that in theory one could say something untrue, and when humans lie using Language the Ariekei more or less understand it. But something about their minds does not permit them to actually speak something they know is untrue. This means they are incapable not only of lies but also of fiction and even metaphor. They can use similes, but only if the referent is a real thing that exists in the world. At times this leads them to actually change things about the world around them in order to better express their ideas. One of the formative experiences of Avice’s life is when she “enters Language” by being used as the real referent for a simile: “There was a human girl who in pain ate what was given her in an old room built for eating in which eating had not happened for a time”. The third unique element again relates to Ariekei psychology. Not only can Ariekei not understand what the single voice of a human is saying, they don’t recognize it as speech at all, nor do they regard an individual human as an intelligent entity. Further, although human computers can synthesize two-voiced speech perfectly, Ariekei cannot understand that either. The only way to communicate with Ariekei, and in fact the only way to even get to the point where they realize communication is even being attempted, is to have two humans who are almost impossibly similar mentally speak a sentence together, providing the two voices Language requires simultaneously.

Now, there’s a lot going on here, more than I can hope to adequately summarize, but I’m afraid that last point strikes me as deeply suspect. Are the Ariekei telepaths?  It’s easy to imagine telepathic aliens, but it’s harder to imagine these aliens’ minds would be able to link with ours. The novel doesn’t attempt to explain this. Avice mentions synthesized speech doesn’t work and leaves it at that. I did my best to suspend disbelief, and since proper communication seemed to require extraordinary communion from the two human minds speaking, I figured telepathy was in play somehow. But later on, the fact that Ariekei can understand recordings of paired human speech becomes a very important part of the plot. What could possibly explain their ability to understand recorded but not synthesized speech? The only explanation I can come up with is an unpleasant one: authorial fiat. Although science fiction seems like the natural medium for an investigation of linguistics and thought, I can’t help but think that a fantasy setting would have provided better tools for Miéville to tell this story.

In any case, from this foundation, much of the novel is about Ariekei efforts to learn how to lie. I believe it’s implied this has long been an aspiration, but since contact was established with humans and they discovered paired human Language speakers can lie, the Ariekei efforts have grown more intense, to the point of holding festivals where Ariekei linguistic athletes compete to see who can get the closest to speaking a lie. I should mention here that the more I read Embassytown, the more I was interested in what sort of effects not being able to lie would have on their society, but this turns out not to be something Miéville is interested in. Confined to human viewpoints, we never get more than the vaguest possible sense of how Ariekei society is organized or the degree to which their thinking and communication is impaired by their inability to use metaphor or even ungrounded similes. A few characters believe that the Ariekei inability to lie is an indication they are in some sense prelapsarian, and that, for them, learning to lie would represent a calamitous fall from grace. This was another idea I found quite interesting, but again Miéville dismisses it without much elaboration. I suppose we can’t blame an accomplished author of fiction for being unimpressed by such arguments.

What Miéville is interested in is contact. The story takes place long after human first contact with the Ariekei, but from a certain point of view, that contact hasn’t truly occurred. Have the two species truly met each other if Ariekei do not realize that individual humans are intelligent, believing them to be unthinking biomachines like those they themselves use? Can the paired human Ambassadors really be speaking the same Language as the Ariekei if they can lie? Are the paired human Ambassadors even human themselves, for that matter, given the elaborate engineering required to make them think sufficiently alike to be able to speak Language and be understood? The novel explores these questions and leans toward a negative answer to most of them. Then, Miéville puts Embassytown under enormous pressure, forcing the characters to try to find some way of making a communications breakthrough.

In these circumstances, such a breakthrough isn’t a matter of stringing together the right sounds, but instead one of completely reorienting psychology. Oddly for a book that doesn’t shy away from colonial themes that put the Ariekei in the role of the noble, primitive natives and the humans in the position of outsiders exploiting their access to technology and trade, Embassytown takes it for granted that the psychology that should change is that of the Ariekei. The fact that the native Ariekei mind cannot express something that doesn’t exist, Miéville seems comfortable saying, is a defect that demands a solution. When a “cure” for the alien thinking of the Ariekei is found, the only disappointment is that it cannot be imposed on all Ariekei everywhere, but the narrator rather smugly comforts herself in the knowledge that the trade advantages that accrue to the Ariekei who have adapted to human-style thinking will allow them to out-compete their recidivist cousins.

I’m not sure what to make of this aspect of Embassytown. On one hand, it’s refreshing to read a novel where the protagonist triumphs by finding a better way to communicate, not by being especially effective at punching or shooting people. But this business of establishing productive communication between cultures by having one culture obliterate what is unique about the other seems rather, ah, old-fashioned. It’s so counter to modern ideas about multiculturalism that, as I write this, I’m mentally reviewing the story’s ending, looking for clues that the author doesn’t endorse what happens, but I can’t think of any, and Miéville’s past novels have never been so subtle in their politics. It’s been argued elsewhere that Embassytown is best understood through the lens of Hegel’s concept of self-awareness. I’m no expert on Hegel, so I’ll leave that to others, but I will note that if the story is trying to claim the native Ariekei are not self-aware, it doesn’t earn it. In this, Miéville’s purposes work against each other. As befitting a novel of contact, the Ariekei are seen only from the human perspective and are too alien for the reader to truly understand. This makes them that often attempted but rarely achieved science fiction triumph, the convincingly alien species, but unfortunately it also prevents any thorough examination of the affects of Language on those who speak it. Since we are never able to understand how the Ariekei live (indeed, to maximize the effect Miéville doesn’t even properly describe what they look like), we never find out what the implications of Language are.

There’s a lot of interesting ideas in Embassytown, but all this leaves me in the familiar position of respecting a Miéville novel more than I like it. How many authors have we seen hit upon a big success and then just try to do the exact same thing for as long as the they can?  Miéville could have used the success of his Bas-Lag novels to, well, sell lots more Bas-Lag novels. Instead, he’s branched out in all sorts of different directions. Even though I wish I liked the results so far as much as everyone else seems to, it’s good to see him being rewarded for taking artistic risks. I said it about The City & The City as well as Kraken and I’ll say it again: while this novel didn’t quite click for me, I’ll definitely be back for his next one.

City of Pearl by Karen Traviss

January 2, 2011 at 3:21 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment

Karen Traviss is mainly known as a writer of licensed novels, writing a number of Star Wars novels before having a falling out with Lucasfilm and moving on to some Gears of War books. Apparently something related to Halo is on the way as well. I admit to being a bit of a snob these days about licensed fiction. It’s not that some of it isn’t good (Timothy Zahn’s original Star Wars trilogy is his best work by a fair margin), but it’s hard to find the quality amongst the uninspired stuff since fans of a given license tend to have at least somewhat different criteria for judging fiction. However, one thing you can usually count on is that an author getting a lot of licensed work wrote something of their own that was well received in order to get that work in the first place. I’ve read a lot of good novels simply by backtracking down license authors’ careers, from Timothy Zahn’s early old-school science fiction in Spinnaret, Coming of Age, and Deadman’s Switch to Michael Stackpole’s clever fantasy Talion: Revanant to Matt Stover’s Heroes Die. Even Kevin J. Anderson’s Climbing Olympus wasn’t too bad.

All this brings us to Traviss’ City of Pearl, the first of a six book series that so far is her only non-licensed work at novel length. A ship full of cryogenically frozen people has made the excruciatingly long journey to a habitable planet many light years from Earth hoping to found a religious colony. Contact with Earth was lost soon after arrival, but there is reason to think these colonists made contact with intelligent aliens. The government of a future version of the EU decides to send a secular follow-up mission on a ship called the Thetis to find out what happened.

Just presenting the setup like that makes the novel sound a lot like Maria Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. There are, however, some large differences. Unlike The Sparrow‘s flashback structure, the novel is told from the perspective of the secular crew of the Thetis. And while The Sparrow used its story to interrogate the Christian values of its Jesuit main character, religious thought in City of Pearl is analyzed but not seriously challenged. The biggest difference, of course, is that the religion City of Pearl is centered on is not Christianity. Oh, the colonists were indeed Christian separatists setting up your typical city on a hill, but the Thetis arrives to find them having adapted their faith so that it fits into the value system of an alien species, the Wess’har. The Wess’har, it turns out, are fervent environmentalists.

For long time readers of science fiction, City of Pearl has an old-fashioned feel to it. The main character Shan Frankland is a woman, but otherwise she wouldn’t be out of place as the hard-nosed, omni-competent protagonist that once starred in most science fiction novels. By trade a police officer, she wound up commanding the Thetis despite having no relevant experience and skills (I’m not being snarky, the surprise and consternation of her crew is an ongoing issue and the government’s motivation for placing her in command is subject to much speculation before finally coming to light at the end of the novel) but despite her inexperience she has very little difficulty, though her take-no-prisoners attitude isn’t always to the liking of the crew. The Thetis crew is a mix of military and scientific personnel, and already you know there are two ways that might go. It soon becomes obvious this is the story of story where the soldiers are brave, upstanding people and the scientists (who work for those malign entities, corporations) are greedy and put their personal ambitions ahead of the mission. Well, fair enough, and I’ve had a long run of evil-soldiers-good-scientists so it was even a little refreshing. In a shocking twist on both formulas, the ship’s one journalist even turns out to be a decent guy. Although authorial sympathies are clear, there’s still some balance: the Thetis finds itself in a delicate diplomatic situation since the Wess’har having overwhelming technological superiority, and when the inevitable misunderstandings inflame tensions, the military and the scientists each contribute to screwing up the situation.

The book is also oddly reminiscent of Ender’s Game in that the crimes committed by the Thetis crew that so anger the Wess’har aren’t actually intentional. Perhaps this is meant to accentuate the different values of the Wess’har, who claim not to understand the concept of forgiveness (nor the distinction between murder and manslaughter) despite long association with the Christian colonists. As for their beliefs about the environment, they are the most extreme I can recall seeing in a science fiction novel. The Culture’s opposition to terraforming stays mostly off screen, and the Mars conservationists in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy were portrayed as the radical fringe. In addition to despising the consumption of meat (fair enough) and regarding all forms of life as equivalent (hmm), the Wess’har hold the somewhat paradoxical notions that the biosphere must be kept intact and that the most virtuous way to live on a planet is to dig out underground cities, because that way the landscape still looks the same. It’s not at all clear to me that an underground city has less ecological impact than one above ground, but the Wess’har merely present their beliefs, they don’t defend them. And rapidly the main character Shan Frankland comes to see the Wess’har way of life as more virtuous than humanity’s. Given what we end up finding out about her biography this is not implausible, but the process is aided by the reckless greed of both the scientist characters and the corporatist society back on Earth, so it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the author’s thumb is on the scale.

So: not really The Sparrow after all, and instead an environmentalist version of Out of the Silent Planet. It doesn’t have the philosophical content of C.S. Lewis’ novel, but its story component is much more substantial. Frankland is a likable protagonist and her struggles to chart a course between human and Wess’har demands make for an engaging narrative. While I’ve been a harsh here about ideas I didn’t feel were adequately developed, there are after all five sequels, so I’ll be giving the next one a try to see where Traviss takes the series.

Night of Knives by Ian C Esslemont

December 31, 2010 at 12:51 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment

Although Steven Erikson is the sole author of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, he co-created the setting and overall storyline with his friend Ian Esslemont almost twenty years ago. Five years after Gardens of the Moon was published and a few months after the release of Erikson’s fifth book, Midnight Tides, came Ian Esslemont’s first novel Night of Knives. Although marketed as a novel “of the Malazan Empire” and not directly part of Erikson’s series, this book as well as Esslemont’s later work are considered part of the same series canon. Night of Knives was apparently originally written before any of Erikson’s novels were published and takes place the day (well, the night actually) Laseen took control of the Malazan Empire from Kellanved, but apparently the recommended reading order is publication order, i.e. after Midnight Tides.

There are a reasonable number of examples of authors of long series writing short stories that fill in elements of the back story to their epic. Night of Knives is not a short story (despite occasionally being called a novella), but it’s “only” the length of a typical novel and so is about a third the length of the other Malazan books (including Esslemont’s later novels). That and the story’s very limited timespan (less than twenty four hours, give or take a few flashbacks) give the whole thing the feel of a distinctly minor piece of the larger series tapestry. It’s not particularly informative, either: I came in with plenty of questions about the relationship of Kellanved, Dancer, and Laseen, but either the answers were too subtle for me or they just weren’t there.

The story is told through the eyes of two Malaz City inhabitants: Temper, an old soldier with a past, and Kiska, a young spy with a future. Temper is an interesting fellow whose flashbacks actually do fill in some interesting details about the Empire under Kellanved, but I’m afraid I wasn’t too impressed with Kiska. She starts the novel as essentially a freelance spy, patrolling rooftops looking for interesting activity like a superhero. While I’m happy to grant that the presence of magic can be credited with dramatically altering societies from the examples in our past, I’ve never been happy with characters like this who you can’t possibly imagine ever existing in the real world. Kiska is particularly reminiscent of Crokus in Gardens of the Moon in that she seems to live a relatively comfortable life, has a very knowledgeable and influential mentor figure, and still pursues this silly avocation. For most of the novel, she is continually informed she should lock herself inside like all the sensible people have done already and stop trying to get herself killed. As readers we know that as one of the main characters she’s safe, but she doesn’t, so it’s hard to see her insistence on being involved as anything other than idiotic. I know that this tension between a desire to play a role in the events shaping the world and the self-preservative instinct to keep your head down when larger powers are on the move is present in Erikson’s work going all the way back to the prologue of Gardens of the Moon, but the disparity between Kiska’s abilities and her circumstances seems far greater than, say, Ganoes Paran’s situation in Gardens.

In any case, the story moves along in a reasonably entertaining manner. If you’ve read Erikson’s first five books you have a decent idea of how it ends up, but there are some interesting twists along the way. Somewhat unfortunately the climax centers on an Azath house in crisis. A lot of fantasy novels involve damsels in distress, but the Malazan books seem to prefer Azath in distress, with permutations appearing in Deadhouse Gates and Midnight Tides as well. Earlier I mentioned I didn’t see how people read the series as the books come out (i.e. with large gaps between each book) given the dizzying number of characters and storylines, but the problem with reading it all in a short time as I’m doing is there are some patterns that get a bit wearing. Even leaving the Azath out of it, there’s the matter of the endless procession of imprisoned ancient entities trying to get free. It would be interesting to go back and see just how many of these there have been: just off the top of my head, there were Jaghut in Gardens of the Moon and House of Chains, Forkrul Assail in House of Chains and Midnight Tides, the Hounds of Darkness in House of Chains…it’s not that these episodes aren’t all interesting and relevant, but it starts to get a little hard to worry overmuch about the apparently horrifying prospect of the Stormriders breaking out due to the lack of magic users on Malaz island after seeing plenty of similar and worse apparitions try similar escapes, often successfully, in previous books.

Night of Knives is worth reading if you’re a Malazan fan, just set expectations appropriately. People new to the Malazan series should start with Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon. Most people seem to agree that Esslemont’s later novels are better, and really there was nothing much wrong with Night of Knives other than a certain lack of ambition, so I’ll read Return of the Crimson Guard after Reaper’s Gale.

Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

November 24, 2010 at 3:04 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 6 Comments

If there’s one thing you can say about Steven Erikson, it’s that he’s not afraid to take risks. Gardens of the Moon was a novel that refused to compromise its vision, even if many readers were left struggling to keep up. Deadhouse Gates, the second book in the ten book Malazan Book of the Fallen series, requires similar concessions on the reader’s part, but they are concessions of a different kind. At the end of Gardens of the Moon there’s a fair amount of narrative momentum leading into the conflict with the Pannion Domin, but this is left entirely for the third book, Memories of Ice. Instead, Deadhouse Gates leaves almost all the characters from the first book behind in favor of a different story set on a different continent.

Although there isn’t a lot of carryover from the previous novel, readers new to the Malazan series are still advised to start with Gardens of the Moon, which I reviewed at length last week. One reason is that even if there’s not a lot of direct continuity here, there are revelations about the history and nature of the world that are much more effective in their proper context. Another is that, in my opinion at least, Gardens of the Moon is a significantly better novel.

It turns out that most of the shortcomings I identified when reviewing Gardens of the Moon have been addressed. The narrative is more focused. There are fewer characters trying to do far fewer things. The timespan of the story is much longer, stretching across months instead of days. All these things give the characters a great deal more room to breathe than in the previous novel, which always felt in a hurry to get to the next scene.

Unfortunately, many of the virtues I celebrated in Gardens of the Moon are likewise absent. Where Gardens suffered from a conclusion that felt diffuse, most of the main story threads in Deadhouse end poorly, or else not at all. Meanwhile, although it’s more focused, Deadhouse Gates is actually quite a bit longer than Gardens of the Moon. For vast stretches of the novel, characters are stuck traveling from point A to point B, thinking back to what happened at A and planning what they should do at B. This has been a problem for fantasy novels since Tolkien (and some would say Tolkien suffered from this as well). Generally a few of these scenes go a long way, since all things being equal I think most readers would rather read about the points of interest instead of the trip between them, but this sort of traveling is responsible for a considerable portion of Deadhouse Gates‘s length.

It’s also, frankly, a rather dreary novel. The characters spend most of their time worrying about dying, whether from starvation, thirst, or through attack by the many powerful and malign forces around them. Not a few of them do, in fact, die, and almost all of them are in various stages of despair. Erikson tries to lighten the mood periodically but for me most of these “light” moments fell flat. Worse, they threatened the suspension of disbelief that is so important in secondary world fantasy. In particular, scenes with the courier service and Coltaine’s sappers felt completely out of place with the rest of the story. The only exception was Iskaral Pust. I haven’t looked around for other people’s reactions but, like Kruppe in Gardens of the Moon, he seems like the sort of character a lot of people would find tiresome. For my part I thought he was hilarious, and his behavior seemed more or less believable given what we’ve seen of Shadowthrone.

Although it’s too long and suffers from other problems I’m going to dive into momentarily, I do want to point out that this isn’t really a bad book. The vast detail of Erikson’s world is still a big selling point, and its unique attributes (briefly, the vast sense of history and the grand disparity of powers) still make for some very nice moments, like Icarium standing in the ruins of a city trying to understand the survival of his timekeeping device or the dragons flying over and then through the vast mosaic. Erikson’s background in anthropology continues to provide a fairly unique sense of history to the landscapes his characters must travel, and when they fight and die it is always clear that these are just the latest verses of an old, sad song.

The plot of Deadhouse Gates can be split fairly cleanly into four distinct narratives. All of them concern the rebellion in Seven Cities and each has a few links with each of the others, but they could have been published separately (or, the cynic in me mutters, not at all in some cases) without losing very much in the process.

Of the four storylines, the one readers will have the most initial affinity for concerns Fiddler, Crokus, and Apsalar, since along with Kalam they are the only holdovers from Gardens of the Moon. They get off to a bad start, however, mired in authorial contrivance. At the end of the previous book they were, after all, heading for a completely different continent. Why did they come to Seven Cities instead, and having come there, why does their best plan to reach their real destination consist of traveling to a place whose location and even existence is not certain, all so they can take advantage of a a means of travel that is even more hypothetical? It’s not that the book doesn’t provide answers to these questions, but they are not very satisfying. This is the sort of novel where the characters frequently ask, “What are we doing here?” or “Why am I doing this?” It’s probably unfair to suggest they are channeling the author’s subconscious, but since I was asking the same questions and was unimpressed by the answers, I couldn’t shake the suspicion.

On the positive side, Fiddler and company meet up with Icarium and Mappo, whose situation is intriguing and eventually even somewhat moving. Unfortunately some of the power of the Icarium/Mappo scenes is lost through overuse. Again and again we are treated to Mappo’s angst without him being able to arrive at any sort of decision. Considering he’s been traveling with Icarium for centuries, it seems like Mappo ought to have thought things out a little better. When push finally comes to shove, the reset button is hit and nothing changes in their relationship. Fiddler, Crokus, and Apsalar meanwhile finish the book having had almost nothing to do throughout.

The same can’t be said for Kalam, since he plays a key role in the uprising. However, it’s a role that comes on him suddenly and is dispensed with almost immediately. The scene where Kalam takes shelter with Malazan soldiers and has a Deck of Dragons thrown at him is great, but it’s downhill from there. Kalam incites the uprising, becomes linked with a demon, inexplicably acquires a love interest, and fights pirates, but he does all these things essentially by accident. He himself doesn’t seem to know why he’s doing any of these things and certainly doesn’t feel very strongly about them. For a series widely considered the epitome of swords and sorcery, the climactic ninja battle in Malaz City is hopelessly silly and reads more like a parody of the subgenre. Finally, after a conversation that lasts about a minute, Kalam decides that everything he’s been doing for the past few months was a waste of time. I’m not sure why, as a reader, I shouldn’t conclude the same about his portions of the book.

The chain of dogs storyline is a different matter entirely. This is by far the best material in the book, not to mention the most memorable (it was the only part of the book I remembered from my original reading a few years ago). It’s still longer than it needs to be, but because it’s a story of endurance the slow pace isn’t as harmful here as it is to the novel’s other narratives. It reads something like a sports story, in that you know the team is going to get to the final game, but you don’t know where the author will go once they get there. It also has some similarities to Ender’s Game in that they both concern a military genius using trickery to defeat stacked odds again and again. It also indulges in some of the hoary cliches of military fiction, setting selflessly noble soldiers against morally bankrupt savages and painting both the high command and wealthy civilians as utterly craven. This use of over-the-top villains is a regrettable first for the Malazan series and mars what are otherwise the strongest elements of the novel.

The last of the four groups of characters centers on Felisin, sister of Captain Paran from Gardens of the Moon. Felisin’s an unusually unsympathetic viewpoint character, although her character goes through some changes that some readers probably find interesting. I’m afraid I found them quite disappointing. She undergoes two wrenching experiences that change her personality, but the first happens completely off screen. She then spends most of the novel being contemptible until going through the second shift, and this one happens only at the very end, so we don’t see the woman she becomes. While I appreciate what Erikson was trying to do, I find it mystifying that he didn’t spend more time on the changes and less time on the long period in between when Felisin is completely unlikeable.

It doesn’t help that Felisin and her various companions spend most of the book undergoing constant deprivation, exhaustion, and attack. The similarity to the vastly more effective chain of dogs scenes doesn’t do either storyline any favors. Meanwhile, her mostly helpless group is subject to constant attacks by vastly more powerful forces. On occasion these result in characters dying, but the there’s a crying wolf effect. After the tenth time they are attacked by a deadly foe, it doesn’t seem that important any more. Again, this is aggravated by the presence of another narrative, in this case Fiddler’s, since that group is under similar threat, making the reader even more inured to it. When someone finally dies as a result of one of these attacks after there was no lasting damage from the previous fifteen, it feels arbitrary. Sometimes arbitrary catastrophe can provide a sense of realism, but here it never feels very likely that these underpowered characters could survive as much as they do.

It’s possible that many of my problems with this novel are a result of treating it as if it stood alone when it’s the second book out of ten. This is obviously only the beginning of the story for characters like Felisin and Icarium. But some of the blame must also be laid at the feet of Erikson’s refusal to provide context for his characters. This was probably a strength in Gardens of the Moon, since it gave the world a feeling of depth. But in Deadhouse Gates the lack of information caused me to have real problems sympathizing with the characters. We have no idea what Felisin was like before her arrest, for example, so there’s absolutely no way to tell how much of her personality afterward was warped by that experience. Much is made of Heboric’s loss of faith in the god Fener and his partial reconciliation, but it’s never made clear exactly how and why Heboric fell away from the god in the first place. Nor is it explained what Fener is like, what demands he makes of his priests, and what rewards he confers on them. Without this information, it’s impossible to make heads or tails of Heboric’s issues. Kalam and Fiddler are perhaps the worst off, since their feelings about the Malazan Empire and the Empress are crucial to their aims in the novel, but again we have no reliable information on either of these things. Laseen and Kallanved in particular and the Malazan Empire in general are all ciphers. Kalam, Fiddler, and the other Bridgeburners from the previous book all seem like good people whereas Laseen and Kellanved do not, but they dislike Laseen and revere Kellanved. I assume this will all be filled in later, but it’s asking a lot of readers to make them go for so long without this information given how important it is to understanding the main characters and their motivations.

Thematically, given how impressed I was with the way Gardens of the Moon dealt with violence and war, it’s surprising that Deadhouse Gates doesn’t seem remotely as nuanced. At first, Coltaine’s chain of dogs seems like a continuation of the first book’s modern spin on warfare. Everything about the setup and the mission itself is anachronistic. Not only do I doubt an ancient army in our world would protect poor refugees, the sheer number of refugees wouldn’t make sense in previous eras. Including the many who die along the way, the chain of dogs probably had about fifty thousand refugees. Considering that far more civilians were killed in the cities and the surrounding countryside, it seems like a million people would be a reasonable guess at the total number of Malazan people in Seven Cities. This is a preposterous number of colonists by ancient standards, especially considering their home country is on an entirely different continent.

However, this tale of modern war is built on a foundation of, and there’s no way to sugarcoat this, imperialist values. Most people today are pretty sympathetic to the concept of self-determination of peoples, but that principle makes no appearance here. The Malazan Empire conquered Seven Cities fair and square, it seems, and they need to just accept it. At best, the opponents of the Malazans are primitive people being manipulated by a god. They are fundamentally dishonorable opponents: they attack civilians, they commit all manner of atrocities, and they violate the terms of truce on multiple occasions. Again and again we are invited to compare the steadfast Malazan soldier bravely fighting to defend civilians with the undisciplined rabble they are fighting. Unlike in Gardens of the Moon, we are given no viewpoints from the other side to humanize this opposition. And whereas in Gardens of the Moon death in battle was seen as an almost meaningless sacrifice on the altar of a vast Imperial war machine, the chain of dogs story is rooted in the view that dulce et decorum est. The tragedy here, we are made to feel, is that there are not more righteous Malazan soldiers available to put all these vile rebels to the sword, with the caveat that Coltaine and his army are winning great glory for themselves and their nation thanks to the absence of same.

That’s not to say that Deadhouse Gates is completely lacking in self-awareness. Running through all its disparate narratives are questions of responsibility. Icarium is judged not to be responsible for the results of his violent rages and this is sufficient reason to preserve him from imprisonment, even though it endangers countless future lives. Felisin is absolved of responsibility for her constant hateful behavior by Heboric on the grounds that it is her suffering that has made her this way. Many people, meanwhile, are proposed as being responsible for the Seven Cities rebellion. There’s Kalam, since in his autopilot wandering through the novel he helped Sha’ik get everything started. Kalam’s opinion, shared by several other characters, is that the Empress and her negligence is to blame, although this is mostly dropped about halfway through the novel. At other points the Whirlwind goddess seems to be responsible, since the rebels are, after all, religious fanatics. Yet by the end, Felisin tells us that no, the goddess was horrified, absolutely horrified, by what is being done in her name, and those awful prophecies emerged from the warped mortal soul of Sha’ik. Even Emperor Kellanved is put forward as being responsible since the T’lan Imass army theoretically under his command committed mass murder at Aren, an atrocity not forgotten by the people of Seven Cities. He wasn’t responsible, Kalam and Fiddler insist, on the grounds that he didn’t actually order the slaughter, although they don’t contest the fact the Emperor brought the ancient army of undead to Seven Cities in the first place.

No matter who is responsible, this seems to be the latest in a cycle of violence that began with the Empire’s invasion of Seven Cities many years before. In another break from the previous book, there isn’t really any acknowledgment that this cycle ought to be broken. The Empress hisses that Seven Cities will pay for their rebellion, much to Kalam’s approval. Fiddler even enlists to go with the Adjunct’s army and fight the rebels, presumably because he considers the mission of wrath to be a righteous one. Coltaine several times tells Duiker that being a historian makes him the most important person in the chain of dogs, for the memory of what has happened must be preserved. The implication, I think, is that the efforts of Coltaine and his soldiers must be recorded as an example for future Malazan armies to follow, but this memory will necessarily preserve a record of the unspeakable atrocities committed by the rebels. “Possessing these memories enforces a responsibility,” Apsalar tells Icarium, “just as possessing none exculpates.”

The Malazan Empire seems more in need of exculpation than responsibility, I think, and perhaps the Empress agrees, since her purges of the Emperor’s men are frequently said to be a deliberate attempt at effacing the record of his reign. There’s no doubt that the Malazan forces sent to put down the rebellion will make the Seven Cities answer in blood for what was done to Coltaine’s army. “Eventually a man reaches a point where every memory is unwelcome,” Fiddler tells Mappo at another point, and it seems the Malazan Empire and its enemies reached that point a long time ago.

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