Kraken by China Miéville

September 20, 2010 at 3:55 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 5 Comments

Kraken coverWhen Iron Council was published, I thought I had a handle on what kind of writer China Miéville was. While the themes of the three novels set in the Bas-Lag universe varied (as did their quality), they had such a distinctive voice that people essentially used them to define the “New Weird” subgenre. That King Rat had a somewhat different feel was noted, but that was a first novel, written when Miéville was quite young (although, incredibly, he was only 28 when Perdido Street Station was published…not written, mind you, published). I haven’t read Un Lun Dun yet, but I gather it was a departure, but it was a YA novel so some changes were understandable. But with The City & the City, there finally could be no mistake: Miéville isn’t content to settle down and churn out similar books. I think this is fantastic, incidentally, and it means I am always interested in his work. However, it also means that just because you liked one of his books, you can’t count on liking the rest. For my part, I really liked Perdido Street Station, absolutely loved The Scar, was disappointed by Iron Council, and felt The City & the City was an interesting failure.

That brings us to Kraken. The title refers to a giant squid kept on exhibit at a London museum. One day this prize specimen is stolen and the biologist who was responsible for studying it finds himself investigated by the police, named as the prophet of a cult of squid-worshipers, and pursued by a mostly disembodied underworld kingpin. It seems that the secret magic-using underground of London feels the squid is the foundation of an onrushing apocalypse, but no one knows how or why. In the course of discovering the truth behind these strange events, the protagonist and the reader are taken on a whirlwind tour of this shadow London.

As you can probably tell from my synopsis, this is an urban fantasy novel. To put it a little more crudely, I think this is Miéville trying to write a Neil Gaiman novel. Like Neverwhere, the normal everyday guy protagonist finds himself pulled into a parallel London where the supernatural is commonplace. Like American Gods, the novel’s metaphysics seems oriented roughly around the idea that believing something exists gives it some degree of power and even agency, even if it doesn’t (or at least didn’t previously) actually exist. Having already stated my feelings about previous Miéville novels, I guess I should now declare my position on the relevant portions of Gaiman’s work: I really liked Neverwhere and have reread it several times, but American Gods left me cold and I haven’t revisited it.

Kraken is about the end of the world and the feelings of unease and eventually despair that precede it, but despite this it is the least serious of Miéville’s novels (at least of those I’ve read, namely all of them except Un Lun Dun, although King Rat was quite a long time ago at this point). It couldn’t be more different than The City & the City in this respect. That novel was grim and unrelentingly focused on its one central idea. Kraken is light hearted and, while it never strays too far from how immanent the apocalypse is, veers wildly from one conceptual sidetrack to another. I suppose this is the China Miéville version of a fun and accessible novel, although this is still Miéville so it never quite abandons traces of horror and his characteristic dense prose.

But is it any good? Well, it’s pretty good. I think most would agree Miéville’s strongest asset is his formidable imagination and here he gives it free reign to populate London’s theological underworld with all manner of bizarre cults, weird creatures, and unusual magic. He never nails down any rules to the magic being used, and while that weakens the ending slightly, it means he can have people invoke magic in all sorts of different ways. The light tone gives him a chance to deploy a variety of jokes and puns, and while these are of course hit and miss they are, on the whole, an asset.

However, for me Kraken fell short of the mark it was aiming for. Part of the problem may be with me as a reader. Many characters in Kraken speak in British slang dialects that, as an American, were a little difficult to parse. It’s not that I didn’t know what was going on, but I think a lot of lines intended to be humorous fell flat for me because I was spending too much time decoding the slang. British readers and others more familiar with the London vernacular will probably have a better experience.

Along similar lines, I thought the depiction of London was lacking, but my experience of the city is unfortunately limited to Heathrow airport, so scenes set by unexplained reference were lost on me. Throughout the novel, however, the world building felt shallow and a little flimsy. There wasn’t a sense, as there was in Neverwhere, that this secret London could possibly coexist with the real thing. Neverwhere‘s London Below was safely out of sight and its interactions with the mundane world were mediated by homeless people, whereas there’s no metaphysical division between Miéville’s two Londons. The police are part of the real police force, the organized crime seems like it’s supposed to be like mundane criminal organizations, and everyone else just uses the occasional glamor to prevent anyone from noticing their unusual activities. How does all this work? Does Baron write reports to senior management like an ordinary officer? Does the Tattoo’s gang sell drugs and bankroll extortionate loans? For such a long novel…far longer, if I’m not mistaken, than Neverwhere…very few such questions are ever answered.

The characters are an even bigger problem. The protagonist, Billy Harrow, is nice enough, but seems inadequately motivated for the difficulties and extreme dangers to which he subjects himself. He tells Dane that he wants revenge for Leon’s death, but he otherwise almost never mentions Leon. He constantly wants to get word to Leon’s girlfriend who he barely knows, but doesn’t seem to think his family might want to know as well. Marge, meanwhile, accepting that Leon is dead, quits her job and immerses herself in the London underworld to…well, by her own admission, she doesn’t know what she wants to accomplish.

Dane at least has very understandable motivations throughout, but I had a different problem with him: I just didn’t buy him as a cultist. In fact, this is a problem with all of Miéville’s cultists. They’re people like you and me, just trying to get through the day, it’s just that when they go home they worship a giant squid, or something even less likely. The absurdity of an upper middle class Londoner kneeling before a giant squid beak is humorous, but it’s humorous because it’s out of place. In interviews Miéville identifies as an atheist, and I guess to him believing in virgin birth or reincarnation is just as fanciful as his squid cult. But there’s an important difference: established religions have the weight of tradition and, to varying degrees, society behind them. Giant squid do not. That doesn’t mean no one would worship a giant squid, but it does mean that someone who would do so has fallen pretty far out of step with society, to the point they really aren’t like you and me any more. There’s a reason cults keep their members sequestered and radicalized.

Of course, Miéville actually takes his cults-as-normal conceit a step further and has them all mix and associate. So not only do these cultists pass as normal in London society without difficulty, they interact with each other the same way rival political activists might: they argue, they share drinks, they make temporary alliances, and occasionally come to blows. Again, this seems like a misunderstanding of how cults view the world, or else, more likely perhaps, just a failure to apply any real-world psychology to the setting.

If all that wasn’t enough, there’s still one final barrier to making sense of Miéville’s cults: magic. At first, it might seem like this would make cults more likely. After all, instead of being stuck with mere rhetoric and charisma, a would-be cult leader can in fact perform supernatural feats to convince people to sign up. But the magic depicted in the novel is ubiquitous. You can’t walk five feet without seeing teleportation, a talking animal, or else people using Jedi powers. Somehow all of this is shrouded from mundane London, but once pierced the curtain falls away entirely and every magic user sees everything that’s happening around them. Since there seem to be no rules to the operation of this magic, everyone accepts that virtually anything is possible if someone is powerful or clever enough. All this seems very difficult for a cult worldview to integrate, given they must assert that they alone have access to truth and power. Surely the response to all this ill-defined magic is not faith but science? The scientist-thaumaturge protagonist of Perdido Street Station seems like a better fit than cultists like Dane.

This becomes particularly glaring at the very end of the book (if you are spoiler-averse you should skip this paragraph). For the ending to work, we have to believe several very outlandish things. First, we are asked to believe that removing Darwin would prevent evolution from ever being discovered, which is nonsense. Maybe the idea of evolution will be permanently blocked somehow, but this isn’t consistent with how the time fire was shown to work. Second, with no supporting material since his character was a cipher up until the final scene, we are told that the villain is a former creationist who, believing now in evolution, nevertheless wants to fool everyone into being creationists. I guess most readers won’t have a problem with that, but I needed a lot more reasons to buy it. Fundamentalism stems from the enlightenment and is motivated by, almost to the point of obsession, a belief in absolute truth. It would make more sense for the villain to try to create the God of his childhood, but this would highlight another weakness of the setting: if believing in things give them power, shouldn’t the major world religions be producing effects infinitely more powerful than tiny cults and minor criminals? The last issue, and perhaps the most odd, is way the book takes it for granted that eradicating knowledge of evolution somehow equates to the end of the world. Billy Harrow is a biologist and can be forgiven for feeling this way, but everyone else in the London underworld, including everyone who predicted a horrifying apocalypse, has almost no connection with science and seem unlikely to miss it. If this was Star Trek-style history manipulation then you could make the case that changing something so far back on the timeline would basically wipe out everyone alive today, but the history changes depicted in the book seem to work by altering the present rather than the actual past.

Kraken was an enjoyable read, but I felt that almost every facet of the story, from character to plot to world building, didn’t quite add up. I’m glad that Miéville is trying different things, though, rather than sticking with the “brand” that made his name. Apparently his next novel is a space opera, and I can’t wait to see what he does with it.


A Song of Ice and Fire 1 – 4 by George R R Martin

August 14, 2010 at 4:32 pm | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 61 Comments

Game of ThronesTo say I’ve arrived late to the George R R Martin party would be an understatement. At their height, I think it’s fair to say these books were as popular as it’s possible to be without crossing out of the genre audience like Harry Potter or (eventually) Ender’s Game did. Fourteen years after the first book, A Game of Thrones, and almost five years since the most recent volume A Feast for Crows was published these are still very popular books. This is really a two-for-one epic, in that by reading it you experience not only the epic storyline, but also participate (albeit as a bit player) in Martin’s epic struggle to actually complete the series. The series is well over a million words in length already, but even more words have been written about it online, so I will dispense with both the plot summary and the recap of Martin’s authorial adventure and instead relate my experience coming to these books in 2010.

I’ll begin by answering the most obvious question: given that I obviously read a fair amount of fantasy, why haven’t I read these before? Some people who had read a lot of my reviews will know that I almost always wait until series are finished before starting them. Although this was prompted in part by lapsed series that never paid off (Chtorr for example), the main concern was time. Whenever a series tells a continuous story, I don’t feel like I’m getting the full effect of the later books unless the preceding stories are fresh on my mind. This led to me reading the first book in a series, then the first book again before the second, then the first two before the third, and so forth. For trilogies this was barely acceptable but as I only have a limited time for reading it becomes quite inefficient for longer series. So I swore off incomplete series right about the time that A Game of Thrones was soaring in popularity.

Clash of KingsBut I’m sure this only raises a further question: why read them now? There are again a couple reasons. The first came when HBO greenlit a TV adaptation of A Game of Thrones. I’m one of those people who goes out of their way to read a novel before its screen adaptation, and I was definitely interested in the HBO series, which struck me as at last the appropriate way to adapt a complicated novel: spending a whole season on it instead of cramming into a movie or even miniseries. Then there was the increasing chance that the series would never in any case be finished. It has grown in projected books faster than Martin has written them, and cruelly Martin himself ages at the same rate as the rest of us regardless of how quickly the series moves forward. Who knows whether he will live to finish it? Even if he does, while I’m considerably younger than Martin, nothing is certain in life and I might not make it that long either. Tolkien founded the modern fantasy genre with a trilogy he said was about death, so I guess it’s only fitting that series like this one and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time have themselves unwittingly become grim memento mori for authors and fans alike.

But the final straw was the feeling that I had already read A Song of Ice and Fire by reading other books. Just as Tolkien spawned countless imitators, Martin is widely credited with sparking a flood of hard-edged, cynical fantasy, and I’ve read my fair share of it. For instance, Wikipedia cites no less than four prominent authors as being heavily influenced and although I wouldn’t call myself extremely well-read I’ve already read all four (Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, Steven Erikson, and R Scott Bakker). I’ve also read Glen Cook, whose Black Company books are thought to have influenced Martin, and indeed this influence was probably the reason Cook has remained prominent enough for me to seek out his work. I even make comparisons to Martin’s work when reviewing fantasy on this site. Well, not his work itself, but to perceptions of it at least. This is starting to get ridiculous, I told myself. My first real contact with epic fantasy was reading Lord of the Rings, after all. Wasn’t I grateful that I hadn’t first waded through imitators like David Eddings, Robert Jordan, and Tad Williams that, whatever their actual quality, fall short of Tolkien’s masterpiece?

A Storm of SwordsSo I started reading A Game of Thrones for the first time in the position of someone who had never read the series before but thought he had a pretty good idea what it was like. I knew nothing about the plot or characters for I had avoided all such details knowing I would eventually read the books, but from countless asides in conversations with friends and reviews of other books, I primarily associated two attributes with Martin’s work: First, an unromantic approach to fantasy that emphasized intrigue and realism over magic and elevated prose. Second, the implacable and ruthless slaughter of major characters. Beyond that, while I’d heard some criticisms of Martin’s prose and the decision to split the fourth book into A Feast for Crows and an as-yet unpublished fifth book, the overall extremely positive reception of the series made me expect an exciting, even addicting, set of books.

Having now finished the extant series, I can say that despite this apparently detailed foreknowledge, the series Martin wrote was quite a bit different than the one I had expected to read.

Let’s start with the gritty realism. It’s not Martin’s fault, but here my exposure to later writers has probably completely changed my reaction from what it would have been had I read the series as it came out. Plenty of authors have tried to imitate Tolkien’s archaic yet evocative style, yet no one has come close to equaling it. It was reasonable for me to suppose that Martin’s realistic style would work the same way. Reasonable, but wrong, and obviously so in hindsight. Tolkien’s work hasn’t been matched because he was uniquely suited both in temperament and profession to write the way he did. Throwing out the excesses of epic fantasy in favor of gritty realism is not nearly so challenging. In fact, it’s easier than trying to stay the course. It’s no surprise then that Martin’s work was not the apogee of this trend but just another stop along the way. Compared to Joe Abercrombie, just to pick one name out of probably a dozen, Martin seems like a hopeless romantic. It’s interesting that these days the people impressed with Martin’s grit and realism are the people writing about the HBO series (“It’s like the Sopranos in Middle-earth”), since when it comes to epic fantasy in television and movies Lord of the Rings is still very recent and the natural benchmark.

Feast for CrowsThen there’s the character slaughter. For me, the textbook case of this is in the film Serenity. Before that film I have to admit I thought of killing characters as cool and subversive, but afterward I started thinking about how a work of fiction has an unwritten contract with the audience. In some modes, I decided, killing a character might be an effective move while in others it is a betrayal of audience expectations. The fact is, A Song of Ice and Fire does indeed kill off characters, a great deal of them. But contrary to my expectations, I argue that it does not, in fact, kill off major characters. Rather, the reader is understandably mistaken about who is a major character and who is not, for reasons I will get into at length in a moment. So while it’s true there’s a lot more death in Martin’s series than in most fantasy (including many, like Tolkien’s, where theoretically lots of blood is shed yet almost no named characters die), it didn’t nearly live up to its reputation in this respect either, although that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

This leaves the most important issue. Is this the masterpiece of modern fantasy literature that it’s made out to be? No, not even close. I’m genuinely disappointed about this. Like anyone, I sometimes start reading a book or watching a film with some bias one direction or another (for instance, all the hype made me go into The Matrix looking for a fight, so while I didn’t think it was very good, a lot of that reaction is probably my fault), but in this case I was definitely hoping to love these books. For years I’ve checked up on Martin’s progress hoping he’d hurry up and finish so I could find out what the fuss was about. I thought there was a great chance I’d love it, along with certainly some fairly small chance that I’d hate it, or at least strongly dislike it.

I never expected to end up saying: Well, I guess it’s not bad. It’s okay.

The highlight is probably the worldbuilding. Tolkien and his imitators have emphasized the landscapes of their fantasy worlds. Even the Thomas Convenant series, which seemed at first glance like a rejection of everything Tolkien brought to the genre, spent a lot of its time (and won a lot of its fans, I suspect) on landscapes. Although there are some maps to be found of Westeros and its surrounding countries, Martin’s efforts in geographical construction and detail are merely adequate. Instead, more than any author I can recall, he has constructed a social landscape. Looking now at a map of Westeros, the names of cities, rivers, and castles bring to mind the characters who live in or near them. I can’t really tell you anything about what Casterly Rock looks like, for example, but just mentioning it evokes the wealth of detail that Martin has invested in the Lannister family and the twists and turns of their fortunes. The Lannisters are perhaps the series’ most prominent family, but by the end of the fourth book well over a dozen noble families have been sketched out in impressive detail. The variety in personality, character, and history is impressive and gives Martin’s Westeros a different and possibly greater sense of solidity than the traditional naturalistic approach.

The other aspects of the world are considerably weaker. The society seems reasonable enough, but various references to the ancient past ask us to believe that technology levels have been roughly unchanged for thousands of years, and further that not just one but almost every society is historically self-aware of their progression throughout this time. Each of the four seasons lasts for years, but after the first book it is hardly mentioned and I frankly almost forgot about it. Agriculture and economic planning don’t seem to be any different from generic feudal despite this massive climatological difference.

Although initially confined to a few children, the series rapidly expands to encompass a large set of viewpoint characters, and this works better than in most pluralistic narratives, probably because Martin is more willing to kill off minor characters and thus prevent his cast from becoming too unwieldy at least until the fourth book. After a seemingly good guy/bad guy approach, Martin shades in a surprising degree of nuance as the series progresses. That Tyrion would be a fan favorite character was obvious from the start, but I was particularly impressed by the handling of Jaime Lannister. Not every character is a success, to be sure (if I never read anything more from Cersei’s viewpoint I won’t complain) but I don’t have many complaints with the characterization. Except for the youngest, the Stark children all act about five years older than they actually are, but that’s par for the course (I’m looking at you, Ender’s Game).

Then there’s the plot. Ah, the plot. Goodness. Where to begin?

I think most of the series’ fans would point at the plot as being its strength. I can see why they might like it, but I’m going to call it a disaster. Oh, it’s not an unmitigated failure, but a tragic one, for there’s a good story somewhere in all this quicksand trying to claw its way out. It pulls the reader in, keeps them going through the four massive books that have been published so far, and amounts to nothing. To understand this, think about just what it is this series is about.

You see, in the prologue of A Game of Thrones, some throwaway characters venture past a great wall to patrol the wilderness of the far north. For millennia, we learn, the Night’s Watch has manned this wall against evil, but for long centuries this threat has been dormant, the people shielded by the wall have become decadent, and the Watch is now too weak to reliably stand against bandits, much less a terrifying supernatural evil. But now there are signs that evil might be stirring! Kill the throwaways and bam, cut to chapter one. I think it’s safe to call this an extremely conventional way to begin a fantasy novel. The ur-epic fantasy, Lord of the Rings begins with the shadow of the past stirring once more, and its Mordor was once carefully guarded before its watchers became lax. Since then thousands of fantasy books have begun this way, and I have read dozens of them, as have most of Martin’s audience. But I don’t think any of those books took Martin’s approach to developing this story in the rest of the first book: never mention it again in any way.

All right, that’s a slight exaggeration, but not by much. He spends more time on Daenerys, a young princess in exile who must overcome all manner of obstacles both internal and external before she can start walking down the road toward reclaiming her throne, but this well-worn storyline is also strictly a sideline item. The second book, A Clash of Kings, even spends a little time on a King who is increasingly led down dark paths by a foreign sorceress, but this too gets only a little space in the ongoing story. Any one of these stories, properly developed, would be enough for a fantasy novel and probably an entire trilogy. Incorporating them all would definitely make for a lively fantasy series. Mind you, anyone who has read a reasonable amount of fantasy can sketch out roughly how these stories will evolve. For example, although a few people sound the alarm most deny the existence of the ancient evil despite increasingly clear evidence, then it sweeps down and everyone is very sorry they didn’t listen earlier, and it seems like it is too late and all civilization will perish, but just at the bleakest moment some enterprising individuals manage to win an unlikely victory. Despite his reputation as an innovator, Martin doesn’t appear to be deviating from the standard storyline here. Yet by the end of the fourth book, after 1.3 million words and nine years, the ancient evil has only just begun to sweep anywhere, and the other plotlines are even further behind. And no wonder: I don’t know how much of all those words went into developing them but I think fifteen percent would be a very generous guess.

Instead, most of the series has been devoted to the titular game of thrones as countless nobles struggle for power in Westeros. Unlike the plotlines I just described, this main thread does not follow normal conventions. It is almost completely without structure. Events happen one after another without any kind of cohesion. It’s not that they don’t make sense…everything seems fairly logical and Martin proves to be a very inventive spinner of intrigue and conspiracy. Yet this all proceeds outside of the narrative structure that has characterized western literature for centuries. There is no development, there is no sense of progression of any kind, there is no climax. It’s the plot equivalent of someone banging an endless series of chords, each unrelated to the next, on a piano. Now I readily admit to being far more interested in the way stories are constructed than the average reader, but I think this has many important downsides even for those who aren’t consciously aware of the dissonance.

What was immediately noticeable to readers of the first book in 1996 was the way they had no idea what was coming next. Why should they? Long experience has taught us how plots work in almost all fiction, but here was a book that was resolute in ignoring these conventions. To be sure, the immediate result is a fairly refreshing feeling of suspense. But these narrative conventions exist for a reason. Although A Feast for Crows has other shortcomings, I think one of the biggest reasons it wasn’t as well received as the first three books was that without a sense of where the narrative is going, the reader doesn’t feel any momentum. Since there’s no plotline developing and advancing towards a climax, the reader realizes there’s no reason why the intrigue surrounding the throne of Westeros can’t go on indefinitely. And if the plot goes on indefinitely, then the individual events are completely deprived of meaning. In particular, one realizes that the characters can’t win any victory that won’t just be undone by further events two hundred pages later, so why bother rooting for them at all? When all is said and done, whoever is left standing in the ruins of Westeros will be swept aside by Daenerys and Jon Snow as they confront the evil out of the north, so isn’t this something of a waste of time?

Incidentally, I believe this was also how Martin got the reputation as a killer of main characters. Floating in a vacuum of story, readers latched on to what they assumed were main characters only to have them unexpectedly swept aside. Initially, Eddard Stark and his son Robb seemed like central characters, yet with the benefit of hindsight even from a position only halfway through the series, it’s obvious they are bit players. In a typically sized fantasy novel, they’d have a page or two of screen time. In fact, the actual main characters of the story, like Daenerys, are just as bulletproof as any normal story’s protagonists.

The unpredictable and unstructured nature of the central plotline has a literal realism to it and I’m tempted to see it as a bold artistic statement on Martin’s part, but alas all the evidence points to this being an unintended effect. This was originally supposed to be a trilogy, after all, but has defied every prediction its own author made regarding its eventual length and publication schedule. Martin surely was writing a conventional fantasy novel about an ancient evil and an exiled princess but somehow got distracted by what probably was summed up in some original one page outline in about one sentence (“Westeros monarchy weakened by infighting and succession problems”). Having fallen in love with what was supposed to be a bit of window dressing, he has continually expanded its role within the series even though it threatens to completely drown out what the series was supposed to be about in the first place. Is it any wonder that he has suffered from the contemporary genre’s most famous case of writer’s block? I’m sure that long ago he planned what would happen to Daenerys and the Night’s Watch, but now he feels obligated to give equal time to characters like Brienne who are likable yet serve little purpose to the central narrative and are instead dragged through increasingly arbitrary make-work scenes to keep them available for some later bit of relevance.

Although I’ve been critical, I will defend Martin of one charge frequently lobbed at fantasy authors. I don’t think he’s stretching things out to make more money. The typical pattern for fantasy series is to start out with an exciting and action packed first book and then to become ever more bogged down in extra viewpoint characters and minutiae. Although it’s true A Feast for Crows is somewhat bogged down like this, really Martin deeply invests himself in the minutiae right from the start, and even the fourth book moves at a faster clip than typical doorstop fantasy. Likewise, where typical slow fantasy seems to get stuck always approaching but never reaching some critical point, Martin blasts through critical points all the time. The central plotline is a meat grinder that constantly chews up minor characters, spits them out, then pulls in more. If there’s a record for the fictional work that kills the most named characters then this series is right up there with the Iliad.

I’m glad I read A Song of Ice and Fire but less because of the story itself and more because I find it interesting how unbalanced the story is. On one hand, it’s probably a testament to how a work that does one or two things really well can become extremely popular even if it does other things very poorly. Writing about Wheel of Time, Adam Roberts attributed some of its popularity to “fans who want to know every atom of the imagined world” and I think something similar is at work here. On the other hand, I think that the series’ weaknesses get magnified as the story goes on even if the quality of the books remains constant, leading me to suspect the series will never be again be as popular as it was when A Storm of Swords came out. Unfortunately for Martin, I think the series will only get harder and harder for him to write as he tries to provide some sort of climax and closure that justifies the endless profusion of aimless detail he’s provided so far. I’m even a lot more skeptical that HBO can successfully translate it into an effective television show, although being forced to provide an abridged version might end up being beneficial.

Hopefully I’m wrong and Martin eventually manages to both finish the series and somehow produce a satisfying second half in the process, but I won’t be holding my breath. Fortunately, looking back at the writers bearing Martin’s influence who I mentioned before, it seems like they have each taken something good about the series, amplified it, and then coupled that with a more conventional narrative structure (“conventional narrative” sure sounds like an insult, but that’s why reading Martin has been so helpful…breaking convention is a risky thing). Even if I never read any more of this series (the most likely possibility I’m afraid) I will at least be able to read other books that continue down the trail Martin blazed.

Update: This review has prompted a fair amount of discussion. I’ve written a follow-up post to answer some of the objections people have raised.

July 2011: I’ve written some thoughts on the HBO Game of Thrones first season, including some brief notes on how it’s made me re-examine the series’ first novel. A more comprehensive revisiting of this discussion will have to wait until I’ve read A Dance With Dragons (probably a week or two).

August 2011: I did finish Dance in a week or two, but actually writing a review of it took two more.

Way of the Pilgrim by Gordon R Dickson

February 17, 2010 at 4:25 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment

I never thought about it much, but Earth under alien dominion, as a setting, is really underused in science fiction, especially compared to the unceasing barrage of post-apocalypse books, TV shows, and movies.  Not only does it have a visceral punch, it’s useful for examining imperialism, the right to governance, and other themes which are certainly not uncommon.  Perhaps John W. Campbell’s preference for stories that exalted rather than humbled humanity is to blame, but if so he’s exerted even more of a lasting influence than I would have thought.

Anyway, Way of the Pilgrim bucks the trend and is set on near-future Earth a few years after its conquest by an alien species called the Aalang.  Only a few Aalang live on Earth, but their vast technological superiority makes their rule absolute.  The main character is a linguistic savant who is valued for his rare ability to cope with the difficult Aalang language.  He works as a “courier-translator” for the Aalang’s planetary governor.  In this role, he works unusually closely with the aliens and thus, more than just about any other human, understands their culture, respects their strengths, and fears their power.  He also hates them, and this slowly overcomes his fear and turns him to rebellion.

As a psychological invention, Dickson’s Aalang are very interesting, far more believably alien than most.  They see their subject races, including humans, as qualitatively inferior.  Their word for human is invariably translated into English as “beast”.  This is obviously galling, but in their favor, Aalang society has almost no crime, no dissent, and little inefficiency.  Needless to say, they were not impressed with the human society they found on Earth.  Aalang believe their obvious superiority gives them the right to rule, and that their rule is in fact benevolent.  The book doesn’t spend a lot of time on this allegation, though it paints a picture of a very orderly Earth free of the violent and the destitute.  Of course, this improvement was achieved by stamping out much of human culture, as well.  As cattle humans are useful only insomuch as they can meet the Aalang’s prodigious industrial needs, so they have little need of culture.

Despite their technology and social organization, the Aalang are very inflexible and frequently seem incapable of abstraction.  It’s hard to believe such an unimaginative people could have made so much technological progress, but there are intriguing hints that the Aalang weren’t always this way.  Long ago their homeworld was conquered by an alien race, and they have dedicated themselves to its reconquest at any cost.  Over the millennia, it seems, they have purged anything that doesn’t contribute to that goal.  I thought that was a particularly interesting aspect of the book’s world, how this conquered race had weaponized themselves down to their own psychology, so that if they ever reconquered their home they wouldn’t know what to do with it, but unfortunately Dickson isn’t too interested in this.

Most of the book is centered around the psychological journey of the main character, Shane, as he continues working for the Aalang while secretly fomenting rebellion.  And this is where the book runs into trouble.  Shane is, to be blunt, a gigantic jerk.  I initially hoped that this was a result of his close contact with the aliens.  Perhaps his immersion into Aalang thought has cost him his ability to relate to fellow humans?  Alas, no, the book ends up attributing it to his pre-invasion childhood.  Over the course of the book, Shane grows as a person until, by the end, he’s still arrogant and verbally abusive but he feels bad when other people die.  I’m afraid I needed a little more progress than that before I could root for him the way the book expects me to.

Even worse is the book’s approach to romance.  Dickson was born in 1923 and, well, he employs some very old-fashioned patterns.  Shane sees a pretty young woman in trouble and, probably because she’s attractive, risks his own life to save her.  Needless to say, they fall in love.  She spends the book looking nice and serving as motivation, since at the beginning of the book Shane doesn’t care about liberating humanity, but otherwise has little to do.  When they talk, she frequently calls Shane out for being a jerk, which makes it seem like she “loves” him out of some obligation since her life was saved.

At the end of the book, Dickson succumbs to a common SF failing of pulling a totally new and implausible metaphysical idea out of nowhere and expecting this to provide a satisfying ending.  I’ve read so many books whose endings are sabotaged this way I can’t fault him too much for it, but it was still disappointing, especially given how convincing the earlier psychology had been.

If you’re interested in portrayals of alien culture and thought that are successful in portraying non-human thinking, this is worth reading, but most will probably do better elsewhere.

Lighthouse Duet by Carol Berg

December 3, 2009 at 11:44 pm | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

A lot of people, including me, complain that fantasy is obsessed with trilogies.  The trouble is, when you go to a somewhat more manageable two-book length, you end up with…what, exactly?  Carol Berg’s Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone are published separately but are very much the same story.  I’ve gone with what the author calls them on their site here, but “Lighthouse Trilogy” would seem a lot less awkward, wouldn’t it?

Typically I wait until a strongly connected series like this is finished before starting so I can read them all at once.  This time was a bit unusual in that I read Flesh and Spirit quite a while ago and didn’t get to Breath and Bone until recently (then I didn’t get around to writing this for at least another month, but that’s another story).  I think the gap there expresses my general feeling about these books: well-disposed but unenthusiastic.

This is probably an audience problem, namely I’m not quite in it.  These books are written well, but just aren’t quite my cup of tea.  I started off really impressed by Flesh and Spirit.  The main character’s cartographic magic was an unusual power and the backstory, involving a prince taken by angels to Heaven, raised to adulthood, and then brought back by the character’s grandfather after using map-magic to go there…that sounded pretty wild, in a good way.  The “current events” of the novel, involving feuding princes and ominous but somewhat distant evil forces, were more ordinary, but fair enough.

Two things sabotaged Flesh and Spirit for me, and I stress “for me” because I think these were unusually personal responses.  First, despite the broad fantasy landscape most of the action centers around a monastery.  A Christian monastery, actually, although the religion has the serial numbers filed off, which unfortunately means a lot of the justifications for what monks do and why they do it were lost as well.  But ultimately there’s nothing wrong with setting a book in a monastery other than I found the world outside to be far more interesting and so always wanted more of the book to be happening out there.

The second problem was the main character, particularly his drug addiction.  Addictions show up enough that if I think hard enough I’m sure I can think of a book I loved with an addicted main character, but generally I really don’t like them in protagonists.  Not for any important reason, really, but more superficial ones.  For one thing they’re frustrating.  For the most part I don’t like having to watch characters do things that I know are going to be disastrous, and having the character know that too but be unable to resist is even worse.  I know, I know, Shakespeare called and wants a word with me.  Well, like I said, it’s a personal preference.  The other and probably more serious problem with an addicted character is that you end up spending a lot of time talking about a storyline that is almost perfectly predictable.  If a main character is addicted it always plays out the same way: struggle, rock bottom, go clean, relapse, struggle, victory.  The only uncertainty is whether the author is trafficking in “gritty” and thus will omit the victory in favor of indefinitely repeating the cycle.

So while I wasn’t a huge fan of Flesh and Spirit, I liked it well enough, and so I eventually read Breath and Bone.  Well, the main character was still an addict.  But virtually no time is spent in the monastery!  Excellent.  Unfortunately, the monastery scenes were swapped for an even more tired setting: magical training scenes.  I can’t say I’ve read a fair amount of monastery fiction, I just wasn’t particularly interested by that one, but I feel like I’ve read enough training scenes to last a lifetime.  Again, the writing is fine: Berg puts a lot of effort into describing the feeling of magic, the broadened horizons, and so on.  I’m sure a lot of people will enjoy it (I mean, there must be a good reason why so many of these scenes get written, right?) but I thought it was boring.

Unfortunately Breath and Bone also revealed new things about the world that made it vastly less interesting to me than the initially presented information.  It used to be that trendy fantasy writers would write something that initially seemed like a Standard Fantasy Setting and then try to subvert it.  These two books seem to have wrapped around so that they started out with something fresh and new and then reverted it back to the Standard Fantasy Setting.  If the whole book isn’t going to be fresh and new I think I prefer the former.

So I guess this amounts to a very long-winded “Your Mileage May Vary”.  If you don’t think you’ll care about the issues I had and you like fantasy than I can definitely recommend them.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

December 3, 2009 at 12:04 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

I feel like I’m the last person to read this book.  Given that it involves time travel, it’s theoretically science fiction, but really it is more properly filed under romance.  I don’t read enough romances to really evaluate it as part of that genre, though, so all I can say is on that score is that while the story can be justly criticized for being melodramatic, Niffenegger is pretty successful in pulling the strings.

You may be wondering how a story that has time travel in it can be anything than other science fiction.  Well, definitions of genre vary.  The book’s Wikipedia page quotes a critic as saying “uses time travel as a metaphor to explain how two people can feel as if they’ve known each other their entire lives”.  So there’s your answer, I guess.  I don’t think the book “explains” anything of the sort, but again, I come from an SF background where you start by assuming a spade is a spade.  Especially space spades.  That doesn’t mean that SF novels don’t have the symbolism, metaphorical interpretations, and so forth, but they are expected to take their surface elements seriously.

I can’t help but approaching it as a science fiction novel, however, and in that role the book is lacking.  The time travel is unexplained, but that’s more a relief than a problem.  The problem is the plot is a large time travel paradox.  If the past and future can’t be changed, yet you can travel into the past, how are we to resolve a case where a man meets and marries a woman precisely because he later time travels back to before they met?  The novel shrugs off this concern.  If you’re interested in the mechanics of time travel, this isn’t the story for you.  Ted Chiang’s story “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” actually uses the very same “system” of time travel to rather profound effect.

So, leaving aside the science fiction elements, what’s left?  A chronologically dislocated romance between two people that’s written well enough that I enjoyed it even though I didn’t particularly like either of them.  The book is so thoroughly about their relationship, to the exclusion of just about everything else, that it feels as though they don’t really have lives.  Harry is a librarian, but he never seems to care too much about his job.  He doesn’t need a job since he can use his time travel to generate plenty of money, but he goes to work anyway.  Not because he is passionate about what he does, but because he wants to live a normal life.  His wife, meanwhile, grew up in an extremely wealthy family (complete with servants…how many people had servants in 1980?) and, having completed her liberal arts education, becomes a professional paper sculptor.  That’s fair enough, I guess, but little time is spent on this.  They put a studio in the house for her and she has puts together a show of her work, but I didn’t get the sense she had major artistic aspirations.

But these criticisms don’t really matter.  The book is focused on the relationship and for most people, including me (despite coming in expecting to not like it, I’ll admit), it presents an entertaining narrative.  So as long as you’re expectations are appropriate it can be widely recommended.

Thunderer by Felix Gilman

August 15, 2009 at 5:48 pm | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

This novel is almost a remake of Perdido Street Station, with a Peter Pan subplot. I originally read this observation in Abigail Nussbaum’s review of the book. By the time I read the novel I had forgotten her review, but the connections are so clear that I remembered without having to go back and look. If you haven’t read Mieville’s book, what that means is this is a fantasy taking place in a large and well-drawn city, a city that is in many ways the main character of the book.

The city has a much different conceit than Mieville’s, in that it is a city with thousands of “gods”–not the Greek kind but the strange supernatural forces kind, somewhat reminiscent of the angels in Ted Chiang’s “Hell Is the Absence of God”. That sounded quite interesting, but past the fantastic opening section the supernatural angle is of minimal importance. Yes, it’s involved in the mechanics of the plot, but you could rewrite the book to take place in, say, Mieville’s divinity-less world without any difficulty.

If you haven’t read Perdido Street Station, I think that’s the superior book. Mieville’s language and dark imagination make his novel more interesting, original, and memorable. If you have read it, you may think (as I did after reading the linked review above) a very similar book would still be worthwhile. And you’d probably be right. The book suffers from the same faults as Perdido (namely a plot that is overshadowed by the setting and characters that are not particularly sympathetic or intriguing) but is still an engrossing piece of fiction.

The Peter Pan subplot was much less successful. While it has a more realistic approach to the band of thieves cliche than most urban fantasy novels manage, it felt like it didn’t end up amounting to anything. The book takes the structure of Peter Pan but leaves out most of the ideas that have made Peter Pan enduring and doesn’t add anything of its own.

All in all it’s a decent read, but very much in the shadow of greater works. Not a bad effort for a first novel. I’ll be back to give the author another a try.

Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress

June 18, 2009 at 2:38 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment

If you had an extra seven or more hours every day, how would you spend it?  My guess is different people have different answers to that question, but in Beggars in Spain everyone seems to have just one: work like a dog.  The premise here, that genetic engineering might allow people to have children who don’t need to sleep, is fine.  But Kress feels that the kids would use the time they otherwise would have been sleeping to study advanced subjects, learn additional languages, and otherwise broaden their intellectual horizons.  I won’t speak for anyone else, but growing up when I had a snow day and thus didn’t have to go to school, I didn’t study Chinese instead, I just played in the snow with the neighborhood kids, played video games, or watched television.  Certainly if you had, say, a hundred kids without the need to sleep, there’d be some overachievers who would use the extra time academically.  But Kress says outright that all of the “sleepless” kids are academic geniuses.

I think there was a sentence or two in there that mentioned some possible side effects to the sleep-prevention genetic modification, implying that maybe these kids are smarter or at least have different interests than ordinary kids.  But if you want to write a book about super-smart kids, go ahead, but I expect to be told plainly that genetic engineering has made these kids super-smart.  The book focuses entirely on not sleeping as the crucial difference.

So that was one problem I had with the book.  As things went on, I tried to accept the Sleepless characters as having genetically enhanced intelligence and just deal with it.  Unfortunately, there’s a second area of sociological speculation where Kress lost me.  Despite the fact the number of Sleepless kids is very low, in the hundreds or at most low thousands, much of the book’s middle section concerns anti-Sleepless hysteria and discrimination.  Despite the intellectual benefits that I found so illogical, Sleepless as adults are not really distinguishable from the sort of careerist workaholics that already litter New York, Washington, and other centers of power and finance.  Some concern about a strange group with connections to power is quite understandable, but the cycle of violence and distrust depicted in the book seems way out of proportion with the amount of contact the average person would have (none), the real economic influence of Sleepless given their incredibly small numbers (nearly none), and the difference between Kress’ Sleepless and big-shot lawyers, financiers, and CEOs (pretty much none at all).  Sure, people grumble about the rich in America, some people even complain about “Jews controlling everything” and such, but these are very low-temperature hatreds and in the latter case it’s backed up by fifteen hundred years of tradition.  Let’s not forget that Sleepless are utterly visually interchangeable with normal people, too, so there’s no way to, say, ban them from your shop even if you wanted to do such a thing.

Apart from my inability to suspend disbelief in these areas, the book is pretty good.  It’s especially good in the last section, which deals much more directly with issues relating to genetic modification of intellect, albeit with a very predictable storyline.  All told it’s an accessible examination of genetic and social engineering, issues I wish would come up more in science fiction.

Counting Heads by David Marusek

May 31, 2009 at 9:51 pm | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

It’s always dangerous to make assumptions about an author’s influences, but my guess is Counting Heads is the product of someone who grew up admiring Neuromancer and, somewhat unusually, Gibson’s later work.  The future envisioned in Counting Heads is a world shaped by advances in genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, but especially nanotechnology.  Marusek does a creditable job with this, and the result is a world which seems interesting yet comfortable if you are familiar with the many genre precedents that are being built upon.  Like a lot of modern futuristic science fiction it would probably be really bewildering to someone new to the genre.

Looming large throughout the story is the threat of a “gray goo” nanotechnology disaster.  This is an established trope, hardly something unique to this novel, so it’s a little unfair, but I personally am becoming increasingly convinced that gray goo scenarios are pretty silly.  The sort of molecular reassembly necessary for nightmare scenarios would require quite a bit of energy.  Are we supposed to believe these microscopic nanomachines are building little fusion reactors or something as they reproduce to power future modifications?

Much more troublesome than the details of the technology was the story, which I would classify as a collection of scenes presented in mostly chronological order.  Apparently this is a short story fixup, and while I haven’t read the original there’s a very clear discontinuity which I assume is where the original short story stopped.  If so, the original short story was a proper narrative with a beginning, middle, and a bewildering twist ending that seems like it has nothing to do with the preceding material.  The rest of the novel, building on that ending, was competently written and populated by relatively sympathetic individuals, but while this made for reasonably interesting scenes the overarching story was bland and uninteresting.

I’ll have to give another Marusek novel a try to see if he does better, but I’d only recommend this one to readers particularly interested in nanotechnology and artificial intelligence.

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

March 18, 2009 at 10:24 pm | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment

In one way at least, Ghost Brigades is an admirable sequel: it delivers a very similar experience to the first book without simply being a redo.  That’s a lot harder than it sounds.  It also doesn’t really result in a great book, because in my apparently somewhat minority opinion Old Man’s War was enjoyable but ultimately unsatisfying.

It would have been easy for Scalzi to simply write episode two of the military adventures of his protagonist in Old Man’s War.  Instead, he bravely leaves that character in the background, elevates a supporting character to a leading role, and meanwhile sets up a totally different opening scenario.  It’s actually pretty interesting: a top scientist betrays humanity and is working for the alien enemy.  No one knows why, so they clone him and implant the copy of his consciousness the scientist accidentally left behind when he left.  It doesn’t take, so they send the fast-grown clone off to special forces.

This is a pretty interesting premise.  Now, there’s some rough going at the beginning as the infodumps come fast and furious and there’s a lot of babbling about “consciousness” that sounds a lot like Star Trek transporter nonsense.  Then things settle down and we get Heinlein-light military adventures similar in tone to the first book.  The rest of the book doesn’t have anything wrong with it, per se, but like its predecessor it comes off feeling insubstantial.

Based on the setup I’ve described, you can probably guess what the central complication of the latter part of the book is.  It’s so obvious I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say maybe some of the traitor’s consciousness did make it in there after all.  Now I think there are some interesting places to take that idea, but Ghost Brigades is utterly predictable.  There are some other issues, too, beyond the basic plot.  Scalzi’s approach to showing this process means that the main character spends the first part of the book being a thoroughly passive and therefore thoroughly uncompelling character.  Later in the book the word “soul” is actually used instead of “consciousness” but there’s no real examination of the implications of that.

As with Old Man’s War, the politics and world-building are the most interesting part of the affair, but ultimately not too much attention is given to this.  The traitor, for example, believes certain startling things about the human government, but the main characters ignore them and the official response amounts to “haha he doesn’t know what’s really going on lol” and then the book ends.  After two books of offering tantalizing hints without ever dealing with it directly I can only assume Scalzi isn’t interested himself, or at the very least is sweeping it under the rug since his jaded main characters don’t care.  In the middle of Ghost Brigades the main characters have to do some things they consider morally repugnant, but ultimately they just complain a bit and then do their job.  Orders are orders, apparently.  Hopefully Scalzi will blow up this dubious philosophy in a later book, but at this rate I don’t know if I’ll read it.

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

March 1, 2009 at 7:27 pm | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment

It takes a lot of guts to write an SF book that strongly recalls one of the most-read books in the genre. Most of your readers will have read the older work and the danger of unfavorable comparison is very large. Old Man’s War is such a book, so faithful in its echoing of Starship Troopers that at times it could almost be a remake.

But it’s not. Scalzi stakes out his book’s reason for existence on two points of departure. First, the preachy undercurrent of Starship Troopers has been removed. It’s not just that the preaching itself is gone but more subtly this is a world that is painted in the moral grays of modern intellectual thought. The second is that, whereas the setting of Starship Troopers amounted to “war against bugs”, in Old Man’s War the world and main character have a number of very interesting elements. In an inversion of the usual practice, the human side of this war is fought by old men and women who are paid with rejuvenation. The human government is advanced but shadowy and distant, keeping Earth entirely in the dark about the war and everyone else in almost as much ignorance. The aliens are not a monolithic enemy but a vast collection of almost universally hostile species, intelligent but too alien to truly understand.

Having introduced us to this world with the crossing-over mechanic more frequently seen in fantasy, Scalzi efficiently moves the story through all the moments you expect when reading military fiction like this: training, graduation, first assignment, first combat, etc. His sparse first person narrative matches the needs of the story well and while the dialogue isn’t always totally convincing, the narrator is likable and manages to inject some humor into what would otherwise be a rather grim story.

Unfortunately, I had two problems with the novel. Big problems. The first is that although a big deal is made of the protagonist’s age, only minimal biographical edits would be required to remove this element. All of the book’s old soldiers act virtually identical to their young counterparts in the dozens of military SF books that have preceded this one.

The second problem is that without the political and social commentary, there’s not a lot to Starship Troopers. Removing that stuff makes Old Man’s War lean and more accessible, but the addition, namely the setting, is just superficial. I’ve already complained about the way age is handled, but in fact while Scalzi teases many different interesting ideas in the book there is no follow through on any of them.  To pick just one example, the soldiers have very little in common with the people they are fighting for. This fact is observed a few times but not investigated. It’s an interesting situation, and one with parallels in today’s world…wouldn’t it be great if the book really examined that?

Well, a book did do that: it was called Forever War. I’m sure Scalzi has read it, but he sticks close by Heinlein’s side for Old Man’s War even though his setting is screaming for him to update and react to Haldeman’s book. I suppose it’s possible he uses the sequels to engage with all the ideas he introduced without investigation and I’ll probably give them a try, but Old Man’s War is a finely written confection, satisfying for what it is but without the substance I would have liked.

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