The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean

December 31, 2022 at 12:29 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

From the outside, Devon looks like an ordinary young woman, but she has a secret. Several secrets, actually, but let’s start with the fact she has hidden fangs and superhuman agility and strength. “Right,” you say, “she’s a vampire.” Ah, but she doesn’t use those fangs to suck blood, she eats books. “Okay, okay, she’s a book-vampire,” you say. “That’s…a little precious, but it’s still basically a vampire thing, surely.”

I don’t think it’s a vampire thing. Obviously the author, Sunyi Dean, is leveraging that imagery, but the themes of the story are very different from those of most vampire stories. This might seem like critical navel-gazing stuff but I put it up front because if you’re like me, just living through the Twilight era of books and movies has left you skeptical that anyone has anything to say about vampires that you haven’t seen plenty of times before.

Devon, as we see in flashback chapters interleaved with the main story, grew up in the small, secret society of British book eaters. Women are born only rarely among book eaters, which makes them very valuable. Too valuable, perhaps. “Marriages” are arranged by families as time-limited contracts: go to some other family, have a baby, then come back. Book eaters aren’t great at “passing” in human society so their culture resembles that of a reclusive religious cult that controls every facet of women’s lives.

This seems like the basis for a story in a genre that turns out to be much closer to what The Book Eaters is trying to do: dystopian YA. Devon needs to slowly learn there’s a wider world than her repressive family admits, realize their ways are unjust, and then find love and overthrow them! The bad previous generation is an interesting but not groundbreaking blend of the Harry Potter series’ wizarding world and Handmaid’s Tale. But this is just the flashback chapters. More than half the book is spent in the present narrative where Devon is not a young adult, she’s a woman who’s had two children. She’s already escaped from her oppressive family and is living as a fugitive while struggling to raise her son. If this was a typical YA book, the arranged marriage would have been the breaking point for Devon, but for her what turned out to be unbearable was being separated from her firstborn daughter. So when she had her second child, she took him and ran.

But not only is her son not a normal human, he’s not a normal book eater either. He was born with a somewhat rare condition: instead of eating books, he eats human minds. He must eat them or he’ll die, even though this means murdering a person. Making this weirder is that he takes on aspects of the victim’s identity each time he does it, so it’s debatable he’s even the same person he was when Devon went out on the run. In the culture Devon ran away from, men like her son are treated as dangerous but useful tools.

Here The Book Eaters‘ true colors come to fore: it’s a horror story. Devon loves her son and can’t bear to let him starve, but following her very noble maternal instinct, the instinct that made her break away from the evil society she was born in, means helping a monster–her son. It means becoming a monster herself.

The setting combines so many different influences and genres I doubt any reader can recognize them all. The idea of mind eaters clearly owes a debt to Gene Wolfe, both the alzabo of Book of the New Sun and the inhumi of Book of the Short Sun (turns out book eaters can’t write…). In a few delightful passages we learn that the book eaters have passed down a story through the generations for how they came to be the way they are, a science fiction story involving an alien probe and genetic engineering. A human character, hearing it, is dismissive. Book-vampires are one thing, but aliens? That’s ridiculous! 

But Devon’s feelings and choices are the center of the story: her love for her children, her guilt over what she must do to keep her son alive, and her anger that the book eater society made this necessary. I can’t recall reading a book where the main character has such an easy out. At any time, Devon can disappear into the surrounding human society. She can leave the United Kingdom for Ireland or America and her parochial family will never find her. But she’s trapped, not by any scheme of theirs but by the love she feels for her children. It’s a fascinating fantasy visualization of the two sides of parenting: love and obligation.

The plot is a well-executed but not really extraordinary series of investigations punctuated by action set pieces as Devon lives the life of a fugitive while navigating different book eater factions in pursuit of a substance that will allow her son to survive without harming humans. What makes this book stand out–it does stand out, it’s taken me a while to have time to finish this review but unlike most novels it remains clear in my memory–is the focus on the conflicted feelings of motherhood. Considering motherhood is such an important part of life, it’s curiously underexamined in science fiction and fantasy, genres which are a bit too focused on the teenage experience even when dealing with older characters and themes.

I really enjoyed The Book Eaters even though a lot of the genre material (horror elements, vampire-adjacent creatures) aren’t really my cup of tea, because its central, conflicted mother/son relationship was so compelling and thought-provoking. Book eaters experience a “taste” from a book based on its text; I’d call this one savory but with astringent notes that mean it won’t be to everyone’s taste. I’d still highly recommend The Book Eaters for any genre reader, because if you do like it, it’s a taste I don’t think you’ll get from many other books.


Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

October 22, 2015 at 11:48 am | Posted in 4 stars, Science Fiction | 2 Comments

Aurora coverKim Stanley Robinson is one of the great authors of the modern era of science fiction, but he’s also a polarizing one. I’ve known people for whom reading his Mars Trilogy was literally a life-changing experience, but I’ve known just as many who bounced off it. He’s quite unusual in that he writes hard science fiction in the old mode, not only unafraid of exposition but embracing it, yet he also has a strong literary interest in the interior life of his characters and the style with which he tells a story. It feels unusual to say this so far into a writer’s career, but Aurora might be his best novel as well as the best place for a reader new to his work to start.

I say “might be” only because I haven’t read enough of his novels to be certain. I did manage to finish his Mars Trilogy, but only on my second attempt. I liked 2312 a great deal more, but it was paced strangely and largely centered on a character I found annoying. I read Aurora because I heard several early reviews to the effect that “I wasn’t a huge fan of his earlier books, but this is great!” I am often comically off-the-mark in my impressions of a novel before I read it, but in this case I finished the novel thinking: I wasn’t a huge fan of his earlier books, this was great!

Aurora is the story of a generation starship that, as the novel begins, is seven generations into its voyage and decelerating toward its planned colony site at Tau Ceti. Everything is going as well as can be expected, but over two hundred years little problems have been building into large problems, complicated by the fact that some parts of the ship are not–or are no longer–redundant enough to be shut down for maintenance without endangering the people on board. Devi is an engineer whose skill as a problem-solver means she spends her days traveling between the starship’s various biomes investigating soil chemistry, mineral buildup, equipment malfunctions, and all of the other little problems that by themselves aren’t fatal but, taken together, constitute a threat to the ship.

Most authors would have made Devi their main character. She’s smart, an inspiring leader, and a supremely talented engineer. She’s the classic SF “competent man” protagonist, except she’s neither a man nor the protagonist. The narrative instead centers on Freya, Devi’s daughter who is “slow at things”, finds math class to be excruciating, and ends up doing menial, unskilled work. Worst of all, she knows that she’s not like other kids and especially not like her mother, who is a genius engineer but not a good enough actor to conceal her disappointment. At first Freya is just a sympathetic figure whose utility to the actual story seems limited to happening to be in the same room when her mother is discussing important matters. The passive protagonist, who goes around like a movie camera seeing things happen on behalf of the reader, is a familiar device from countless science fiction novels, but Freya develops from these humble beginnings into an influential leader. Whereas Devi is a leader who goes around telling people how to solve their problems, Freya becomes a leader who listens to people talk about their problems. It sounds a bit cheesy when summarized, and the book makes it clear that part of the respect given to Freya is due to her mother, but Robinson made me believe that Freya could make this unusual path work and come to influence people who are theoretically far smarter than she is.

A protagonist living in the shadow of a far more accomplished family member is not a new theme for Robinson. In 2312, one of the two main characters, Swan, was the granddaughter of someone famous throughout the solar system. Swan was energetic but obnoxious, traveling all over the solar system and pissing off other characters (and many readers) but not really accomplishing anything. Freya travels a great deal as well, but she’s agreeable and sympathetic to both other characters and the reader. She’s far less frenetic than Swan yet has much more of an impact on the actual story than Swan ever did.

But although Freya is clearly the protagonist of the first half of the novel, by the end it’s hard not to feel as though the ship itself is the main character, and not in the figurative sense people say that Mars is the main character of the Mars Trilogy. The ship is operated by a quantum computer running an artificial intelligence. This isn’t a wisecracking AI out of Iain M. Banks; it’s not obvious whether it is even self-aware. Worried that the human crew won’t be able to cope with the ship’s increasing problems, Devi does her best to make the ship more intelligent. She gives the ship a challenge: write a story about the journey. The result is Aurora, and the way in which the story is told provides a window into the evolving intellect of the ship AI. From what I can tell (and this is the only technical aspect of the story I am even slightly qualified to assess) Robinson’s portrayal of AI is grounded more in his intuition than science. For example, the “halting problem” has a very precise scientific meaning but whenever the narration mentions it, it does so metaphorically, and even when discussing metaphors: “A quick literature review suggests the similarities in metaphors are arbitrary, even random. They could be called metaphorical similarities, but no AI likes tautological formulations because the halting problem can be severe, become a so-called Ouroboros problem, or a whirlpool with no escape: aha, a metaphor.” But even when I started to get annoyed by the imprecise usage of technical terms from computer science, the character always disarmed my objections. There isn’t any groundbreaking thinking here about AI, but there’s a great character, and that’s reason enough to celebrate.

Some people may still bounce off the novel because the beginning is somewhat slow as Robinson shows the reader the ship and the society living on it through Freya’s eyes. The pace quickens, however, and by the time the ship arrives at Tau Ceti about a quarter of the way through the novel the story begins a crescendo of tension and conflict that sustains it for the rest of the book. For most of its journey, the ship’s humans lived in a peaceful communitarian society on the ship. It wasn’t perfect, but it had many of the features of the post-capitalist utopias that have figured prominently in Robinson’s past work. Arrival at Tau Ceti puts a severe and ultimately stress on the political system and sets up the social and technical challenges that the characters spend the rest of the novel trying to solve.

Aurora is very much a hard science fiction novel, as was Robinson’s 2312 and his famous Mars Trilogy. Although he himself is not a scientist, Robinson has worked hard to take the old idea of a generation starship and try to envision how it would work. Most generation ship stories of the past have explored fascinating but unlikely scenarios of technological collapse: what if the passengers forget they are on a ship? Robinson is willing to let his ship’s passengers enjoy a fairly stable and well-ordered society for most of their journey, but he carefully scrutinizes the ship itself. Not how any individual piece of the ship works–most of the ship’s constituent pieces, like its propulsion, quantum computers, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology printers, are all handwaved into existence–but instead how the various pieces work together in an almost entirely closed system. The printers can create things, but where do the raw materials come from? Can material get “stuck” in a way that can’t be reclaimed? Can anything be repaired? Based on what ecologists have learned about island species, how big does a population have to be to be stable? He has much to say about these questions that will be new even to science fiction veterans.

It may not be fair to either book, but since I recently read Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, the urge to contrast them is irresistible. Both novels tell stories that span many years, both depict humans struggling to survive in the difficult environment of space, and both have a coda that certainly makes a point but which they probably would have been better off without.Seveneves is much longer, has many more characters, and has more intricate detail. For its part, Aurora has characters who feel like real people, far more convincing science, and a much more reasonably-sized point-scoring coda. And while it’s probably foolish to try to predict this sort of thing, Aurora‘s core ideas about interstellar travel strike me as significant enough they will be part of the conversation for decades.

Describing those core ideas necessarily involves spoilers, so the spoiler-averse should head out now and come back when they’ve read the book.

The novel makes two arguments against the feasibility of generation ships. The first is that the greater speed with which bacteria evolves means that if a few thousand humans are isolated, the bacteria inside the humans will change, causing the people to sicken and eventually die out. The second argument is about extrasolar planets and first stated by Euan, dying on Aurora: “…they’re either going to be alive or dead, right? If they’ve got water and orbit in the habitable zone, they’ll be alive. Alive and poisonous…Then on the dead worlds, those’ll be dry, and too cold, or too hot. So they’ll be useless unless they have water, and if they have water they’ll probably be alive.”

It’s hard as a layman to evaluate the strength of the scientific claims being made here. Robinson is very convincing when he establishes that island devolution presents a problem, but less so when he implies that there’s no solution. This is a novel, after all, that has hand-waved its way to .1c interstellar travel and strong AI. The “live worlds are poison” problem is less impressive. While a microbe from a completely different world and ecosystem could be a sort of interstellar smallpox, it seems more likely it would simply be unable to interact with human amino acids and vice versa. Even granting the discovery within the novel, the characters conclude that “all live worlds are poison” from a single data point. That’s like trying to make statements about all planetary systems based solely on observations of our solar system, something which astronomers did in fact do out of necessity, but the moment we started being able to observe planets in other star systems, those theories crumbled.

The best argument the novel makes against generation starships is ethical: maybe the initial crew volunteers, but their children don’t. The children will see the grandeur and vastness of Terran civilization dwindling behind them but remain trapped in a relatively tiny starship for their entire lives. If anything Robinson underplays this argument, which I found completely convincing, because in his story no one seems to pay much attention to the Earth they’ve left behind. There is a feed of information, 8.5 gigabytes per day, but other than Devi people seem to just think it an odd curiosity. My take is that a few thousand people linked in this way would be totally dominated by Earth’s culture and would be avidly consuming Terran entertainment, and that entertainment would prevent them from forgetting the opportunities they were being denied.

In a very strange move, Robinson undercuts his best arguments by allowing a workable cryosleep to be discovered. The consent of children is not a barrier to exploration when generation ships become sleeper ships, nor is island devolution an issue if the bacteria are quiesced along with their host. The book’s principal characters remain adamantly opposed to exploration despite benefiting from the technology themselves. I assume Robinson was willing to do this because for him there are even more convincing arguments available, but they aren’t clearly stated in the book. In interviews, however, he has commented that dreams of interstellar colonization make people willing to allow Earth to be ruined, that people countenance irreparable harm to the planet and therefore the species because they think there are alternatives that are not, in fact, viable. That’s fair enough, but probably better refuted by drawing attention to the grave difficulties of constructing a durable spaceship of the scale required and achieving the required levels of propulsion, all problems glossed over in Aurora.

Each reader will have to come to their own conclusions about this, but I don’t want to end this review without a reminder that Aurora stakes out its position on all this by means of a story that is often exciting and nearly always fascinating. It may not perfect, but I would be shocked if it’s not on my nomination list for the Hugo awards in a few months.

Passage at Arms by Glen Cook

August 3, 2015 at 12:13 am | Posted in 4 stars | 1 Comment

Passage at Arms coverAs I write this, Glen Cook’s Wikipedia article consists of two paragraphs about his life and one paragraph about the Black Company series. That’s not really a surprise given how influential it’s been, but as best as I can count he’s written an astounding thirty-eight other novels. In the cruel reality of the book business, most novels are lost in obscurity the moment they are published, but while this fate is usually amply justified by their quality, there are surely a few babies in all that bathwater. One such was Glen Cook’s standalone space opera novel, The Dragon Never Sleeps, which is just short of a masterpiece. Having so enjoyed the one Cook standalone I had read, it seemed reasonable to move on to his best-known standalone novel, Passage at Arms, published in 1985 and usually characterized as Das Boot in space.

If that sounds appealing, then rest assured, Passage at Arms delivers amply on that promise. The novel is set on board a Climber, a spaceship that “climbs” into another dimension. The farther it goes, the less space it takes up in our normal three dimensions. By climbing far enough, a nine hundred ton spaceship can occupy the volume of a molecule in normal space. This means that it is impossible to detect, but it also means that if an explosion happens even vaguely nearby, it gets jostled by the shock wave. If an explosion happens close enough, the ship can be destroyed. Add in the fact that during the climb, conditions on the ship deteriorate due to heat buildup, forcing the ship to eventually “surface”, and it becomes clear that Cook is using some invented physics to get something that looks very similar to submarine warfare. Instead of going underwater, the Climber goes into another dimension, instead of being menaced by depth charges, it is jostled by missiles, and so on.

The obvious question is, if one is to read a book about submarine warfare, why not read a book about the thing itself instead of something like Passage at Arms that puts its submarines in spaceship costumes like it’s Halloween? Although readers of this blog aren’t likely to be sympathetic with that sort of complaint, it’s not a question that should be lightly dismissed, for it’s the basis of a common critique of science fiction and fantasy as a whole. Admittedly it’s an argument somewhat out of fashion at the moment as mainstream literature goes through a phase of borrowing genre concepts, but Passage at Arms makes for an interesting test case.

First, it should be stated that unlike some space opera based on past precedents, Passage at Arms isn’t an exercise in nostalgia. Glen Cook served in the US Navy (though not on submarines) and one constant across his fantasy and science fiction is his down-to-earth depiction of military life. There’s no glory or glamor to working on a Climber, just hard work, deprivation, boredom, and terror.

Second, Cook is after more than just a recreation of submarine warfare. He’s particularly interested in how men (and the Climber crew of Passage at Arms are all men, though we are told some Climbers are crewed entirely by women) cope with the intense stresses of warfare. A Climber crewman must serve on ten missions, then they are allowed to retire from fighting. Missions rarely last more than a month, so it’s not all that much calendar time, but the downtime between missions can be many months, waiting that takes its own toll. Everyone is acutely aware that Climbers are so often destroyed, whether by enemy action or through mechanical failure, that the few are fortunate enough to survive ten missions. Death is likely, then, but it’s not completely certain, so the men focus on their day to day activities, comfort themselves with superstitions, and cloak the gravity of the situation in euphemisms, such as calling the enemy “the gentlemen of the other firm”.

To better draw a psychological portrait of the Climber crew, Cook uses a narrator who wants to draw that portrait himself. The first person, present tense narrator is a space navy man but one who served on battleships, not Climbers. After leaving the navy, he became a journalist, and now he has requested the opportunity to embed with a Climber crew so he can capture what it’s like. He knows the Commander from the old days, but time has changed them both. The narrator hopes to hold himself apart from the Climber’s crew and just be an observer, but as the mission drags on and the situation deteriorates, he is forced to become more and more of a participant.

The psychological response of men to combat stress is the very core of the novel, but the results are strangely uneven. Cook is absolutely brilliant at the big picture. The mood of the men, the difficulty of their experience, and the diversity of their coping mechanisms are all wonderfully realized. I certainly have no experience with such things, but for me the novel was utterly persuasive. Yet as individuals, the characters never quite come alive. Cook elects to keep the two most important characters, the narrator and the Commander, as ciphers for much of the novel, and the supporting cast are little more than a series of names, differentiated but in ways that are hard to keep straight. The result is a narrative that is gripping and even fascinating, but not nearly as powerful as it might have been had there been just a bit more clarity and a little less artifice.

So far it might seem like I’m dodging the question I said was fundamental, for all this could have been done in mundane historical fiction. But there’s one more element that I’ve purposefully left out until this point: the war itself. I left it out because Cook largely leaves it out of the novel. Although it’s a standalone story, Passage at Arms is set in the same world as Cook’s earlier Starfishers trilogy, so it’s possible such details are explained there. I don’t know, not having read them, but from online summaries it seems they don’t involve the Ulant war at all. Certainly there are none of the accomodations that are usually made for readers who likely (given the mediocre commercial performance of the earlier trilogy) aren’t familiar with the setting. All we get are the absolute essentials: humanity, it seems, is at war with an alien race called the Ulant.

Who are the Ulant? Why are they fighting humanity? What will happen if humanity loses? These questions aren’t really answered, beyond the narrator’s aside that they are “guys pretty much like us, only a little taller and blue, with mothlike antennae instead of ears and noses.” To the men fighting it, the war just is. Their lives are lived in present tense, just like the narration. They don’t want to think about the the past, full as it is of things lost, or the future, where they will likely die before their time.

This is where the use of science fiction becomes apparent. For most readers today, it is nearly impossible to think of World War II as anything other than a morality play. There’s Good Guys and Bad Guys. Even if the Good Guys aren’t always as good as we’d wish and the Bad Guys weren’t all as bad as their leaders, in the end it’s most people’s first (and sometimes only) example of a just war, a war where a soldier might give his life and have it really mean something. But in this respect World War II is by far the exception, not the rule. By setting his story amid a war between humans and aliens, Cook is able to tell a story in the simplest of terms. Us vs. Them. We are humans and so can readily identify with the characters, but are they the Good Guys? Is it a just war? We don’t know, and Cook’s point is that to the men on the Climber, it doesn’t matter. They didn’t start the war and they can’t end it either. All they can do is try to survive, and that means doing their job and somehow being lucky enough to live through ten missions.

Its opaque characterization means Passage at Arms isn’t a complete success, but it’s one of the best and most psychologically realistic novels of space combat I’ve ever read. Its focus is too narrow for it to be universally recommended as a must-read for any genre fan, but it’s well worth the time of anyone interested in the psychology of combat.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

February 15, 2014 at 9:57 pm | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

Ancillary Justice coverIf you’re at all plugged into the online genre community, you’ve probably heard of, if not already read, Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice. By the time it was published in October of last year, advance copies had already netted rapturous reviews from book bloggers and other authors. For those who need a little background, it’s a space opera set in an interstellar empire whose military starships are piloted by powerful artificial intelligences. Beginning years after one of these ships, the Justice of Toren, was lost under mysterious circumstances, the novel is narrated by Breq, a tiny fragment of the Toren‘s AI, as it attempts to get revenge on the person responsible for the loss of the ship. The narrator is an “ancillary”, a human corpse implanted with mechanisms that allow the AI to control it like a robot. Ancillaries are operated by remote, but a small piece of the overall AI is stored locally, allowing Breq to survive, albeit in much diminished form, even though its ship did not.

I almost always arrive late to trendy books like this and some sort of contrarian impulse tends to lower my expectations, but the combination of enthusiastic acclaim and an interesting premise meant I couldn’t stay away forever. Once I started reading, I’m happy to say it didn’t take long for the book to win me over.

The narrator was simultaneously a little disappointing and a pleasant surprise. As an AI in a human body, Breq turns out to be a relatively familiar sort of character, and one not nearly as inhibited by getting cut off from the main unit as I would have preferred. But in flashbacks we spend a lot of time with “Justice of Toren One Esk”, a subunit within the overall Justice of Toren AI, and all of that material is handled quite well. As someone with a computer science background, it’s rare to read a treatment of computers in general and AI in particular that doesn’t require a lot of eye-rolling, and I was pleased to find that, within its speculative parameters, One Esk was quite believable.

What really impressed me, though, was the Radchaii empire. Space empires passed from trope to cliché long before most of us were even born, but it’s rare to see one that feels as if the author actually spent more than a few minutes thinking about how empires function. The Radchaii and its emperor are oppressive, but many of those in its ranks are good people, and even the emperor’s theoretically absolute power turns out to be limited in certain ways. Most importantly, although the empire has survived for countless centuries, it hasn’t done so unchanged. Over the years, demography and economics have taken their toll, and a society that was implacable in its youth is starting to come apart. Just like historical Rome, ever the model for space empires everywhere, there are factions clamoring for a return to the old virtues and others who want to change the empire to adapt to its new circumstances. The novel illustrates this for us in the character of Seivarden, an officer who served on the Justice of Toren a thousand years before the start of the narrative and then ended up in stasis, emerging to find the same empire led by the same emperor is nevertheless a very different world. Leckie clearly put a lot of time into working out her setting, sprinkling in a variety of intriguing details without feeling obligated to explain everything.

So if much of the hype is justified, does that mean someone has finally written the perfect science fiction novel? Well, no. There are some rough edges here. As already mentioned, Breq is surprisingly bland. For much of the novel, the narrative alternates between Breq’s present-day quest and a set of linked flashbacks to the events leading up to the Justice of Toren‘s demise. This structure positions the revelation of the Justice of Toren‘s fate it an appropriate place and allows us to contrast the cut-off Breq from the days when all the ancillaries were functioning normally, but as is common with split narratives frequently one thread is much more interesting than the other. In this case, it’s usually the flashback, because although far more interesting in theory, the quest for revenge involves a lot of sitting around and waiting as Breq slowly pursues a macguffin that ultimately doesn’t feel very essential to the story. I really like the way the climax of the novel is really a conversation and doesn’t hinge on which character is a better shot, so the fact that Breq spends most of the novel acquiring a particularly shiny gun is, in retrospect, just a little unfortunate.

There’s also a bit too much reliance on coincidence. I could, just barely, accept Breq stumbling upon its old comrade Seivarden at the beginning, or else accept Breq and Seivarden just happening to meet another of Breq’s old comrades when they cross the border back into the empire. But both in the same story?

Finally, while in most respects the details about artificial intelligence were handled unusually well, and this isn’t a hard science fiction novel and probably shouldn’t be judged on those terms, the concept of ancillaries seems absurd. This is a technological civilization that can make massive AI-driven starships, but they can’t make conventional robots for their AIs to drive around? And when ancillaries become politically untenable, they have to use human foot soldiers? Sorry, I’m not buying that, no matter how nifty the moral and political questions ancillaries as described introduce into the story.

But those are relatively small quibbles. Just in terms of its story, Ancillary Justice is a fun space opera, and there’s a lot more to it than just that story. Much has been made, and deservedly so, of the narrator’s inability to distinguish gender and the consequent use of the female pronoun as a default for both men and women. Unfortunately, I think knowing about it ahead of time defused much of the effect for me. Also, the book is a little fuzzy on exactly where this ambiguity comes from: is it because One Esk is an AI? Is it a Sapir-Whorf consequence of the Radchaii language’s lack of gendered pronouns? Is it cultural? One suspects that even today, we have surveillance systems that are probably better at distinguishing biological gender than humans, so it’s odd that One Esk can’t do it.

Beyond that interrogation of gender, there’s not a lot new in Ancillary Justice, but its real value is in its smooth synthesis of concepts from throughout the genre. A lot of comparisons have been made to Iain M. Banks, but the Radchaai empire is no utopian Culture even if it does use large AIs in its warships. The better comparison, I think, is to Glen Cook’s still tragically underread novel The Dragon Never Sleeps. Both novels are about a crisis in a powerful empire whose military power is based on AI starships. Both novels examine how over centuries even the most durable of political systems will drift and change. Both novels question whether the security that an empire provides its citizens is worth the brutality required to police it, and if it’s ethical to destroy such an empire when countless millions will suffer in the subsequent anarchy.

The Dragon Never Sleeps provides a fascinating answer to the ethical questions central to both novels, and for me Kez Maefele is a much more interesting character than Breq. For its part, while Ancillary Justice doesn’t really provide answers to the ethical and political questions it poses, it’s better written and much better edited. It’s also less weird, which is a bit of a knock against it for me, but certainly makes it more accessible. It’s also not over, for while it ends on a reasonably conclusive moment, the setup for the sequel Ann Leckie is said to be writing is obvious and there’s reason to hope that future books will build on this excellent foundation.

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks

May 27, 2013 at 9:38 pm | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 5 Comments

Hydrogen Sonata coverThe Hydrogen Sonata is the ninth (and sadly, almost certainly the last) novel in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. Readers who haven’t read any Culture books might infer from that fact they should start elsewhere, perhaps with the first book, if they want to try this popular and influential series. In fact, despite sharing a setting, each Culture novel stands alone and really one can start anywhere and be fine. Conventional wisdom says Player of Games is the best place to start, and that from there readers should move on to Use of Weapons. Usually people say they are more accessible, especially Player of Games, but really if accessibility is the only concern then one might as well start with the first book, Consider Phlebas. The reason why I wholly endorse starting with Player of Games and Use of Weapons is that I think they’re head and shoulders better than every other novel in the series, making them not only the best place to start but also a surprisingly good place to stop. But a detailed discussion of their particular qualities will have to wait for another day; having provided guidance to readers new to the series, I can in clear conscience spend the rest of this review discussing The Hydrogen Sonata in the broader context of the series.

The setup this time is that the venerable Gzilt civilization has been winding down for some time and is now mere weeks from Subliming, a process by which a civilization irrevocably transfers its individuals out of our universe and into a new and incomprehensible plane of existence. But as they prepare for their society-wide death and rebirth, a message sent to the Gzilt by a long transcended civilization is intercepted and destroyed. Vyr Cossont is sent to the Culture to discover the message and the dangerous truth behind it, a revelation that could change the course of her entire people.

That’s a barebones plot summary of The Hydrogen Sonata, the sort you might find on the back of the novel or on its Amazon page. It’s conventional in such writing to avoid even vague references to the ending, but if it weren’t, the summary would be made much more accurate by appending the sentence, “But, in fact, nothing comes of it.”

Nothing coming of it is a surprisingly common ending for Culture novels, starting all the way back in Consider Phlebas and showing up in Excession, Look to Windward, and especially in the penultimate novel Surface Detail. When I finished reading Surface Detail, I was frustrated by the way all of its many viewpoint characters turned out to be irrelevant to the outcome. If anything, Hydrogen Sonata doubles down on this concept. I would have expected this to be even more frustrating, but it forced me to start thinking harder about why Banks insists on writing stories this way. It’s far from the best Culture novel, but I think it might be the one that best captures what Banks has been trying to do with the series for at least two decades. In light of that, and it being the last book, it seems appropriate to discuss the entire series in addition to just The Hydrogen Sonata.

In a recent post, Andrew Rilstone argued that the Star Trek universe is a general purpose “story-making machine” in ways the Doctor Who universe is not. The accuracy of that proposition, hotly debated in the comments on his blog, need not detain us here, but I mention it because I think the Culture universe is a story-making machine…but a very narrow one. You can, of course, tell any sort of story within the Culture setting, but it would contribute nothing more than scenery to, say, a detective story, a comedy of manners, or even a generic SF space opera story. The Culture as an idea has special relevance to two particular themes: the ethics of intervention and the search for meaning in an atheist universe. Even when Banks tries to use the setting to talk about something else, like the idea one might create afterlives in virtual reality for uploaded minds, the presence of the Culture warps the story back toward its two core ideas.

All of which is to say, while each Culture book is independent from the others and theoretically unique in its concerns, they all tend to be talking about the same things. But if they’re all about the same thing, why does nearly every reader agree that Player of Games and Use of Weapons are at least very good while opinions vary wildly about the merits of the other seven novels? There must be something that sets them apart, yet in many respects all nine Culture novels have similar qualities. Banks’ facility for witty dialogue, his excruciating character names, and his believable if not profound characterization are all remarkably consistent across nine novels and twenty-five years, and if anything the prose is more polished in Banks’ later work. I believe that while every Culture novel discusses intervention, after the first three there was a significant shift. To explain that shift, I have to start with the observation that in addition to having two themes, the Culture setting presents Banks with two problems.

The first is that if Culture Minds are nigh-invulnerable, nigh-infallible, and nigh-omnipotent, what do they need humans for? From the start, Banks acknowledges this problem, explaining in the 1994 “Notes on the Culture” that humans have a status “somewhere between pets and parasites”. The trouble is that as readers we enjoy hearing about the exploits of people at least recognizable as humanish if not actually human. It’s a common observation that the Culture is too utopian for Banks to find enough conflict to tell stories there, forcing him out to the fringes, but it’s actually more troublesome that the protagonists are at best pets. If it’s hard to tell stories about happy people, it’s even harder to tell stories about happy dogs.

Banks begins by resorting to special cases. In Consider Phlebas, he posits a planet from which both Culture Minds and Idirians are barred but the human-equivalent protagonist is allowed to land. In the next novel, Player of Games, the idea is that a human is needed to enter an alien culture’s game tournament. But already this approach was showing worrying cracks. Why not just claim a Mind’s avatar is a human? It’s not like Special Circumstances isn’t willing to lie for the cause, and surely they could put one over the the Empire of Azad? In the “present day” storyline of Use of Weapons, the Culture needs not Zakalwe’s talents per se but his special relationship to a foreign politician, but he formed that relationship on one of his many Special Circumstances missions. The whole narrative falls apart if Zakalwe isn’t valuable as an agent.

Now we must pause to note that as a flaw goes, this isn’t serious. After all, despite these nitpicks Player of Games is very good and someday I will argue that Use of Weapons is a genuinely great novel. Yet though a small issue, if it’s a minor itch in the back of some readers’ mind while they spend a few days reading one of the early Culture books, one imagines that it may well have become magnified in the mind of the author, immersed for months and years in the creation of the novels.

And so in Excession, the narrative focus shifted and while there were humanish characters involved in the story, the story’s conflict is both caused and resolved by Minds. Excession is popular among Banks fans because it foregrounds the Minds and lets them chew the scenery, blowing things up and cracking wise. But it pays a heavy price for what might only slightly unfairly be called fan service. It rapidly becomes obvious that the longer Minds remain on stage and in the spotlight, the harder it is to take them seriously as vast intellects far beyond the ken of humanity. No matter how we might try to forget it, when the Minds move their massive starships, they move them at the behest of the author of the novel, a mere human somewhere between pet and parasite. When they speak, he is throwing his voice to speak on their behalf. It’s not impossible for this to work, but like all illusions, it works best in small doses.

Perhaps Banks concluded the same thing, for in the rest of the Culture series he lets human protagonists come back to the fore. In Inversions, he just dodges the utility question and again leaves himself open to nitpicking. If two human operatives disagree on how best to intervene, why are they running parallel operations instead of having a Mind settle the question for them? In Look to Windward, Matter, and Surface Detail human Culture agents don’t contribute much and even people from outside the Culture find themselves mere cogs in the games of their betters if not totally irrelevant.

Unfortunately, while marginalizing the human characters makes logical sense, it goes a long way toward undermining reader satisfaction in the stories being told. If these people can’t contribute, why did we just spend the novel watching them stumble around the story happening around them? Many great novels have been written in which the protagonists are utterly passive, of course, but the Culture novels are space operas that spend a lot of time on action and adventure. We expect that action and adventure to produce an important outcome, as in Player of Games, or failing that, to produce genuine insight into character, as in Use of Weapons. In most of the later Culture novels, nothing much comes of it.

But the Culture novels aren’t merely action adventures, they’re novels of ideas. If I’m right about the Culture setting’s affinity for the two ideas I mentioned earlier, a great Culture novel must have fascinating things to say about one of them, if not both. That brings us to the other problem Banks has encountered with the Culture setting: in the real world, the politics of intervention shifted dramatically over the course of the series. I haven’t heard Banks describe a specific influence for his conception of Contact, but given the Culture is intended as a perfected left-wing society it’s reasonable to suppose he was looking to a left-wing antecedent, the Communist International. Of course, as soon as the novels were published readers began drawing connections closer to home: the anti-Communist agents of the Western governments, in particular the United States.

Whichever model he had in mind, Banks took the idea of a powerful state interfering in a weak one, an idea opposed both by the right (when they thought Comintern agents were sabotaging capitalist economies) and the left (which saw the quagmires of the Cold War as a rebranding of colonialism), and presented the strongest possible argument in its favor. Unlike the United States or the Soviet Union, the Culture’s superintelligent Minds really do know better than the “savages” they are manipulating, and the values they promote are difficult to argue with. How could anyone object to such wise assistance? Right out of the gate, Consider Phlebas gives us a protagonist who does object and starts exploring the consequences. Player of Games and Use of Weapons go considerably farther down this road, and their development of this theme is much of the reason they are still worth reading two decades later.

But after the fall of the Soviet Union brought about a new, supposedly unipolar world in which intervention became inextricably linked with American hegemony, Banks no longer seemed comfortable telling stories about perfected intervention. When in 1996 Excession depicted a less advanced race, the Affront, unknowingly being used as a chess piece in internal Culture politics, it was the first crack in the idea that Culture Minds are nearly perfect. Look to Windward, dedicated “to the Gulf War veterans”, takes this further with its meditations on costly mistakes made in the Culture’s war against in the Idirians and, especially, the Chelgarian civil war, a tragedy resulting from a botched Culture intervention. Matter repositions the Culture as just one of a delicately balanced group of great powers, each supporting less advanced civilizations who themselves have their own spheres of influence including still less advanced cultures. And in Surface Detail, the Culture is for political reasons carefully neutral in the novel’s central conflict despite clearly favoring the anti-Hell side (and working covertly on its behalf).

The effect of all this is to considerably walk back from the first three novels’ picture of the Culture as only just short of all-knowing and all-capable. It goes some way towards preventing readers from taking the Culture as an endorsement of the American neo-conservatives Banks loathes, but it does so by reducing the distance between the Culture as an entity and present countries, particularly America. The Minds are no longer just talking like humans, they’re making the exact same sorts of mistakes humans make.

It’s not that people shouldn’t write stories about misguided or failed interventions. Quite the opposite, it’s obvious those are enormously relevant and important scenarios to think through. But is the Culture the right tool to examine questions of foreign policy and national guilt? No, I would argue, because somehow after nine novels it’s still not clear how exactly the Culture decides to do anything. Supposedly it is a democracy, but we never see the sausages actually getting made, and the impression is always that the Minds decide among themselves what to do without much concern for their lovable pets and parasites. So it’s all and well and good for a Culture citizen to wring their hands and feel a distant and diffuse sense of guilt over the Chelgarians or the conduct of the Idirian War, but is there anything one person, or even one Mind, can do differently? Should they become activists and try to convince their fellow citizens to their own way of thinking? Should the system be reformed? It’s hard to say when we never understand the system in the first place.

For anyone who’s familiar with Thucydides even in summary, contrast the Culture’s botched inventions against his description of the Athenian democracy’s calamitous invasion of Sicily. Sure, that failed intervention has the advantage of having actually happened, but more importantly, we are shown the series of decisions that led to the disaster, allowing us to discuss in concrete terms whether Athens failed in spite of its democracy or because of it. No similar judgment is possible with the Culture. Characters inside and outside the Culture complain about Special Circumstances and say there needs to be more control, but is control even possible in the Culture’s system? The only real civic action we ever hear about is secession.

Another way of putting this is that the Culture series supports stories about the experience of utopia but not the politics of it. This isn’t an inevitable outgrowth of the setting itself, but it’s the way Banks writes it. With a few quick asides, he establishes but never fleshes out the Culture’s fusion of democracy with anarchic consensus, then never challenges the effectiveness of this non-government even while writing stories that are increasingly critical of its outcomes. If we conclude, as is extremely tempting, that the government he’s really criticizing is not that of the Culture but those of the present day, then we give up on the idea of the Culture as an ideal utopia and it becomes just another Earth-analogue space government.

Beyond intervention, there is the series’ other great theme, the search for individual meaning. This isn’t actually as separate as it sounds, because from the beginning Banks’ best answer to the question of what people should do when all their needs are met is that they should help other people. People outside the Culture, that is, since by definition Culture citizens don’t need anything.

That’s not to say it’s his only answer. The series gives the impression that the vast majority of Culture citizens fill their days with varying combinations of sex, drugs, thrill-seeking, and creative expression. It’s for this reason, by the way, that I always hesitate when people say the Culture is a communist utopia. The Culture citizen does not own everything in common with their fellow citizens; they merely can afford to own whatever they want. This strikes me as, if not a capitalist utopia then at least a consumerist utopia. Freed of scarcity, most Culture citizens happily gorge themselves on their preferred mode of consumption no matter how expensive.

But although this is generally the part of the Culture people are thinking of when they say that, unlike most speculative fiction settings, it would be a wonderful place to live, Banks carefully rations exposure to this side of the Culture and most of his protagonists have an eye-rolling disregard for the intoxicated masses. If life isn’t just about gratifying one’s own desires, what then? If we aren’t to turn inward, then we must turn outward, but toward what? The divine is a popular answer in our world, but the Culture (presumably following the author’s own preferences) has little time for religion. Another outward option is to serve the inanimate world, but while the Culture are described as fervent environmentalists, in practice this never comes to the foreground in the novels, nor does Banks seem to have ever put much effort into making their beliefs on this subject consistent (they oppose planetary terraforming as wilderness-destroying, Banks says in the Notes, right after describing how comets and asteroids are strip-mined to create enormous orbitals).

That basically leaves helping other people as the only option left, and this is where the series’ loss of faith in intervention comes into play. If intervening in other cultures is too risky for even Culture Minds to manage, what’s left for the thoughtful Culture citizen?

For the answer to that, we should turn, finally, to the ninth entry in the Culture series, the novel you surely assumed I had forgotten I was reviewing, The Hydrogen Sonata. I’ve described my theories about the series’ trends in such exhaustive detail not because Hydrogen Sonata breaks with them, but because it takes them to their logical conclusion.

The plot concerns, as usual, a Culture intervention in another civilization’s affairs. Or rather, a theoretical intervention, because after much posturing and scurrying around, nothing comes of it. The not-all-that-momentous secret from the beginning of the Culture is discovered, but then not disclosed. The Gzilt head off to wherever it is they’re going, just like they’ve been planning to do for centuries. Previous Culture novels have ended in whimpering anti-climaxes, but this one is on another level. The matter is decided in an Excession-style Mind conference, with the rhetorical equivalent of unenthusiastic shrugs and mumbling without eye contact. The tepid debate is won by the following argument: “If we do nothing then any disaster that befalls the Gzilt over the next few hours is entirely theirs. If we intervene we become at least complicit.”

This argument is so ghastly that I don’t want to think Banks means to endorse it, but all the allegedly super-intelligent Minds agree with it, even the previously skeptical Caconym. What can be said objectively is that everything possible is done to leech the decision of any drama. It’s as if Watchmen ended with Veidt saying, “Look, this is a weird situation and it’s hard to say what’s best, but the path of least resistance is just to keep lying about this. Right? I don’t know. What do you guys think?” To which, of course, Rorschach would respond, “Well, I’ve bitterly opposed it until now, but I find I can’t be bothered to argue for my position. So yeah, I guess so. Whatever.” Many past Culture novels have ended with some or all of their characters’ efforts proving meaningless, but at least the characters themselves cared right up to the end. Now Banks has made the obvious refinement and allowed the characters themselves to perceive and acknowledge the unimportance of their actions.

The novel pays a heavy price in reader engagement for this anti-climax, but in return, it has a clarity to its ideology that was missing from the previous five novels. Against the ultimately intervention-friendly depiction of the first three books, Hydrogen Sonata portrays intervention as a ridiculous, self-centered exercise that gratifies the egos of the Culture Minds in idle moments but is at best without effect and at worst destructive. I’m not convinced, but if a story makes its case honestly I don’t penalize it if I disagree.

But rejecting intervention means the series needs a new answer to the search for meaning. As a correspondent of Adam Roberts (quoted in the comments of his Hydrogen Sonata review) points out, the novel’s diverse cast try to find meaning from an equally diverse set of sources: truth, glory, duty, and art. No previous Culture novel has given the question such a thorough examination, but none of the answers turn out to be at all convincing. Characters motivated by social concepts, like the Gzilt politicians and its military factions, achieve nothing in their struggles. Characters who pursue experience or art, like QiRia and the sand sculpting drone, have become anti-social almost to the point of mental illness. Art earns the strongest rebuke, despite being the answer one might expect a novelist like Banks to prefer, in the form of the titular Hydrogen Sonata, a piece of music Vyr tries to play even though no one, least of all herself, wants to hear it. Only a few musicians have ever managed to play it through correctly, yet a Mind’s avatar plays it perfectly on the first try, tearing down any sense of nobility in Vyr’s struggle for struggle’s sake.

In that same review, Roberts complains that the martial, religious Gzilt don’t seem to represent the highest possible stage of societal development. But Banks is clear on this point: societies don’t Sublime because they have become smarter, wiser, or more ethical than other cultures. They Sublime because they can’t think of anything better to do. Apparently after millennia of experimentation, civilizations finally exhaust all possible sources of meaning and, in desperation, they Sublime in the blind hope of finding something better in a realm they can’t hope to understand until they get there.

This civilizational lifecycle wasn’t clearly illustrated in previous Culture novels, but the same idea has always been lurking unspoken in Banks’ speculation about human lifespan in the Culture. Humans, we were told, generally live about four hundred years. While there are some exceptions, it’s usually at that point that people for some reason decide four centuries of drugs, parties, art, and meddling in other cultures is enough and they choose to die. People who “stabilize” biologically and never age are regarded as defective in some way. In the Notes, Banks justifies this with some platitudes about death being natural and giving shape to life, but it’s always struck me as dubious. Natural human lifespans are definitely too short, Banks is arguing, but surely four hundred years ought to be enough for anyone. Until medical advances allow the hypothesis to be tested we won’t know, but this seems predicated on a misunderstanding of human nature.

Regardless, the underlying philosophy here seems to be that the search for meaning in life is hopeless. There is no real reason for living, and that having at last satiated our inborn drives for pleasure, friendship, and expression, there is nothing better for us to do than die. If Banks believes this to be true of individuals, we shouldn’t be surprised to see this same logic repeated at the civilizational level, right down to the Culture being viewed as vaguely immature because it seems uninterested in Subliming (because, we can assume, its preoccupation with intervention is tying it to reality).

And so with Hydrogen Sonata the Culture series ends much as it started in Consider Phlebas: mired in bleak despair. From the standpoint of ideas, Hydrogen Sonata strikes me as the most articulate of the last six Culture novels and the only one that presents a viable argument against the worldview of the first three. Unfortunately, being loyal to these ideas necessarily undercuts then novel’s effectiveness as a story and the narrative is correspondingly weaker. Of the last six Culture novels, I’d say Hydrogen Sonata was the worst as a story, yet it’s the one I’m most likely to reread at some point in the future.

A Fire Upon the Deep

January 30, 2012 at 12:25 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 4 Comments

It’s by no means his first novel, but although in the end Vernor Vinge will probably be best remembered for coining the term Singularity, his reputation as a fiction author is founded on A Fire Upon the Deep, his first book in the Zones of Thought setting published twenty years ago in 1992.

Vinge posits a universe in which the physics of relativity vary according to one’s proximity to the galactic core. The Earth is in the “Slow Zone” where nothing moves faster than the speed of light, placing harsh limits on travel and computational complexity. In the “Unthinking Depths” even closer to the core, even computation of the sort performed by the human brain becomes impossible. But in the “Beyond” on the fringe of the galaxy, starships can cross between stars in days while weak AI, nanotechnology, and antigravity all become feasible. It’s only in the “Transcend” between galaxies, however, that the limits on computational complexity allow for the creation of the superintelligence discussed in Singularity theory. While the Beyond is home to many human and alien civilizations, the Transcend is an almost divine place, populated by, well, transcendent entities that are the creation or sometimes descendants of civilizations from the Beyond. It’s the realm of gods, alluring but extremely dangerous.

The story begins when a human civilization in the Beyond discover a long-forgotten ancient archive just across the border in the Transcend and end up accidentally releasing a malevolent superintelligence, a demon instead of a god. Whereas typical Transcend entities mostly ignore the Beyond and evolve so quickly they are gone in less than ten years, what the humans found is a “Blight” that is not only obsessed with dominating all life the Transcend and the Beyond, but one obsessed in a stable, long-lasting way.

From there the story plays out in two arenas. A single family, the lone survivors of the ill-fated investigators, flees the Blight down into the slower depths of the Beyond, almost into the Slow Zone, eventually crash landing on an uncharted planet populated by aliens with only medieval technology. Meanwhile, in the middle Beyond, a human librarian named Ravna teams up with two plantlike aliens and Pham Nuwen, a human who is some sort of reconstruction of a Slow Zone interstellar trader, on a desperate mission to recover the crashed ship in hopes that their escape preserved some weapon the embattled civilizations of the Beyond can use against the seemingly unstoppable Blight.

One might think that the story taking place on the backwater alien world would be dull compared to the epic space opera of the story’s other strand, but in fact this turns out to be the more interesting of the two. The aliens, eventually called Tines, are pack intelligences whose single mind is comprised of several individuals whose thoughts are linked by constant sonic communication. Although psychologically the Tines are similar to humans in desires and motivations, this difference in their nature has a number of interesting effects that make them seem convincingly alien no matter how familiar their thoughts might be. For example, two packs can’t come closer than a few meters to each other before the crosstalk of their thoughts makes it hard for either to think, meaning Tines live in a sort of physical isolation, almost never drawing close to anyone else. More significantly, while individual members have limited lifespans, each overall pack can take in new members to replace those that die and thus can theoretically live forever, though each change in members alters pack’s personality to some degree. Traditional Tine societies have allowed this process to occur more or less at random, but the ship fleeing the Blight crashes near the frontier kingdom led by Woodcarver, who has spent centuries working toward a rational approach to self-improvement. Woodcarver’s rationalism makes her ready to accept the opportunity for technological change offered by the arrival of a starship, but perhaps even more ready are the followers of Flenser, her former student. Flenser, feeling that while Woodcarver had the right idea her ethics were slowing her down, created a society that worships mental discipline and cultivates it through the most ruthless of means. If his followers can control the starship’s technology, they’ll have the means to dominate their world.

I’ve spent more time than usual describing the novel’s setting because the setting is a lot more interesting than most. Both the Zones of Thought space civilization and the Tines’ pack psychology could easily serve as the foundation for an entire novel by themselves, so taken together they provide a formidable array of situations and ideas, formidable enough to carry a novel with mediocre characters and plot. And so it proves, for although Vinge’s writing in Fire Upon the Deep is much improved from his earlier week, it was the novel’s ideas that won it enough votes to tie for the 1992 Hugo for Best Novel.

That’s not to say the plot and the characters are bad, exactly. The book’s “good guys” are pleasant-enough company, with the exception of Pham Nuwen, who displays none of the charisma the narrative imputes to his character (and which Vinge would more convincingly render in 1999’s sort-of prequel Deepness in the Sky). Vinge takes his characters to interesting places, forcing them to try to work out who they can trust and how far while under the greatest possible stress, but their reactions to the unprecedented events of the narrative (the destruction of multiple stellar civilizations for the Beyonders, the arrival of aliens for the Tines) are often less than convincing. As for the plot, it’s a widescreen adventure yarn that’s a good deal less exhilarating than it ought to be due to some awkward pacing and an ending that needed some better setup to be truly satisfying. It’s a good novel, but its parts are greater than their sum.

One of these great parts is the principal antagonist, Lord Steel, who at first seems to be a laughably cardboard villain. Like a Nazi in an Indiana Jones movie, he’s willing to kill anyone who gets between him and the power offered by the crashed starship, and do it in the name of a poisonous ideology. Although the Flenserist philosophy’s rejection of empathy and worship of cold-blooded rationality could have been used to satirize or otherwise comment on the excesses of techno-futurism, Vinge never seriously explores their ideas. Lord Steel is just a Bad Guy, the sort of Bad Guy who is fully aware and totally comfortable with the fact he is a Bad Guy, which is disappointing and fairly boring.

Except Vinge takes boring Lord Steel and throughout the novel puts him in situations that force him to play against type. Lord Steel wants nothing more out of life than to be the boring Bad Guy, but the only way he can harness the power of offworld technology for world domination is by convincing a young human boy he’s actually a good guy. Rather than twirling his metaphorical mustache, he has to endure hugs and act as a surrogate parent for both the human boy and a young Tine. Worst of all, he has to do this under the gaze of his feared master, Flenser…kind of. If Flenser was really present, he’d be in charge and Steel would be comfortable in the familiar role of chief minion, but Flenser is only kind of present. Trapped by traditionalist enemies before the novel began, Flenser took the radical step of breaking his six member pack into three pairs that were forced into three other packs. Avoiding detection, one of these packs, originally a schoolteacher named Tyrathect, returned to Flenser’s stronghold as the starship crashed. But the others did not survive, which means Lord Steel is still in charge, struggling to play the part of gentle father figure while someone who is two thirds schoolteacher and one third history’s greatest monster watches and critiques his performance.

The Lord Steel character is a fun element in what is overall a fun and idea-filled book, but I suspect readers who prefer character-driven narratives or stylish prose will find the novel unsatisfying. Judged on its ideas, it still stands out from the science fiction crowd, and (no doubt in part due to Vinge’s computer science background) has held up surprisingly well for a twenty-year old book. It’s been too long since I’ve read Deepness in the Sky to compare them, but Fire is easily the best of Vinge’s other novels, including the recent sequel, which will soon be reviewed in this space.

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

November 14, 2011 at 1:31 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment

Tigana coverGuy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana is the first of his historical fantasies. It was the novel that made me a Kay fan and, according to the mental shorthand one is forced to use to compare novels read years apart, my second favorite of his novels after Lions of Al-Rassan. I reread it recently for the third time, but the first since 2004, when I called it “a great book” with only a few reservations.

Unfortunately, on the most recent reread I liked it less. Oh, it’s a good book all right, but great? The writing seemed creaky in places, especially near the beginning, and the seams in the story were more obvious to me, giving the novel a texture like premodern writings assembled from divergent sources. Dianora’s story is a tragedy that owes a great deal to Hamlet (though it hides it well enough I didn’t notice until just now) whereas Devin and his happy-go-lucky musician revolutionaries are upbeat and optimistic despite dangerous setbacks and bloody battles. The Ember Nights and Castle Borso segments feel like they are from still a third and perhaps fourth source.

But while I don’t like Tigana as much as I used to, I find it more interesting than ever. It’s a useful book for thinking about the fantasy genre in general because it stands with one foot in the Tolkienian tradition and one foot in the modern world (and occupies a similar position in Kay’s career, between the Tolkien/Lewis derivative Finovar Tapestry and his almost completely mundane historical fantasies).

Prince Alessan certainly feels like an old-fashioned character. Much like Tolkien’s Aragorn, he’s a hero who risks his life for the common good. Not only is he intended to be a role model for readers, within the story he’s a role model for the regular-guy-turned-hero protagonist Devin. This is old-fashioned because in what I would call a modern fantasy novel, characters like this are not allowed to succeed. His closest analogue in A Song of Ice and Fire is Eddard Stark, whose sense of honor and even mercy lead to disaster both for him personally and his entire nation. In Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy the equivalent character is the wizard Bayaz, for whom virtue is a cloak for his ruthlessly self-interested motives. In Tigana, no one comes out and says that Alessan is a good person because he’s noble (they don’t even say that as the Prince’s heir he’s the only legitimate ruler of Tigana) but all the characters from the nobility are good and honorable (Alessan, Sandre, and Brandin) whereas the true villain of the novel is a rich man trying to buy his way to power (Alberico).

That much was common in the epic fantasy of the 80s and 90s, but Tigana is also old-fashioned in its strong emphasis on nationalism. The setting is based on medieval Italy and the story is centered on the effort to unite the disparate provinces of the Palm into a single nation that can rule itself rather than be dominated by foreigners. An analysis of the degree to which the modern English-speaking world is post-nationalist is out of the scope of this essay, but I would argue that for all the patriotic symbolism and rhetoric that remain in politics, nationalism is on the way out and has been since World War II. Yet Tigana, published in 1994, is unashamedly a cheerleader for national pride.

But Tigana is also at least in part a modern fantasy novel, and as such it is not at all unaware of the critiques of nationalism. Epic fantasy outside the “gritty realism” brand of Martin and Abercrombie is frequently accused, and often justly, of being counter-revolutionary, where the revolution being referred to is that of France. Whatever the results of the French Revolution specifically, few would argue the revolutionaries weren’t on the right side of history in the debate about the divine right of kings, so the unconscious monarchism of stereotypical epic fantasy tends to inspire ridicule. Anyone who writes such a novel, the thinking goes, is either hopelessly ignorant of the real conditions of life in the middle ages, or else they haven’t thought about it at all and are mindlessly following the tropes of Tolkienian fantasy. The nationalism of Tigana isn’t quite so retrograde, but on the other hand there can be no doubt that within the novel nationalism is consciously espoused, challenged, and defended.

It is a measure of how committed Tigana is to questioning its own nationalist premise that the characters do not agree about the central conflict of the novel. The saintly Prince Alessan is the last Prince of Tigana, which has been under foreign occupation for many years. At the beginning of the novel Alessan recruits the protagonist Devin by a patriotic appeal to Devin’s Tiganan identity. Since many of the other characters are also from Tigana, it would be easy to assume that their goal should be to free Tigana from occupation. Certainly his mother thinks that to work towards anything else isn’t just a bad idea but a betrayal of Tigana’s lost generation.

But that is not Alessan’s goal. He wants to free the entire peninsula from occupation, not just Tigana. Early in the novel he makes his case to men of a different province conspiring against a different foreign occupier:

“Two facts,” the man called Alessan said crisply. “Learn them if you are serious about freedom in the Palm. One: if you oust or slay Alberico you will have Brandin upon you within three months. Two: if Brandin is ousted or slain Alberico will rule this peninsula within that same period of time.

This is a pragmatic argument: the whole Palm must be freed and united or else foreign powers will dominate it. But even here it is couched in ethical language about the “freedom in the Palm”. What Alessan means when he says freedom here, and what everyone means using the word freedom throughout the novel, is different from the modern use of the word. This is not freedom spoken of in the Declaration of Independence or the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the freedom to live one’s life without the King or Congress infringing on one’s natural rights. This is a strictly nationalist conception of freedom: freedom from foreign rule.

Typically, modern stories that advocate nationalism will do their best to conflate these two meanings of “freedom” to prevent the audience from questioning the virtue of the protagonist’s cause. For example, in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart the English are shown repeatedly abusing the natural rights of the Scottish, making them unfit rulers by Thomas Jefferson’s definition rather than forcing the audience to consider what might have motivated the historical William Wallace. Tigana doesn’t take this way out and even goes out of its way to show that foreign rule has had many beneficial effects. The presence of the Tyrants has ended the chronic feuding and constant wars of the various Palm provinces, saving countless lives. The Tyrants have also nearly exterminated bandits and brigands, making the roads much safer. Their courts support musicians, poets, and other types of culture, no small concern in a novel where most characters are musicians. Why endure war and all the inevitable suffering that accompanies it just to return to what will likely be less effective rule?

It’s all the more interesting that Tigana introduces these critiques given Kay doesn’t have any intellectual answer to them. That his sympathies lie with Alessan is made clear by the novel’s two sideplots, the Castle Borso scenes and the Ember Night sequence. Alienor and Castle Borso seem to be present in the novel solely to set out an idea (clearly author-endorsed but nevertheless extremely dubious) about the effects of “tyranny” on sexual practices. I put tyranny in scare quotes because the Alienor’s relationship to her foreign overlord seems unlikely to be different in any way to her previous arrangements with the duke of her province. The Ember Night section is an ill-conceived effort to give a political revolution cosmic significance by introducing a metaphysical threat against the whole world (well, it’s a little unclear, so perhaps just the peninsula?) and dispensing with it after about thirty pages. Here again, it is the “tyranny” (i.e. foreign rule, no matter how enlightened) of the Palm that has left it open to cosmic disaster.

All of this comes to a head toward the end of the novel, when love for Dianora and lingering anger at the loss of his son spur Brandin into renouncing his home of Ygrath and acclaims himself King of the Palm. Viewed dispassionately, to modern eyes this represents the fulfillment of everything Alessan has fought for. Brandin has lived on the Palm for twenty years, surely enough time to be considered naturalized, and he’s marrying a native. Moreover, he’s campaigning to defeat Alberico and unite the Palm into a single nation strong enough to resist future invasions. Inspired by this new nationalist platform, the common people rally to his banner, so he even has a democratic mandate (not that any of the novel’s characters ever seem the least interested in democracy). Although Brandin still maintains the spell that prevents people from hearing the name of Tigana, he even removes his punitive taxation on “Lower Corte”, providing them with the same benevolent rule his other provinces enjoyed. Surely this is wonderful!

But this just makes Alessan afraid. This is exactly what he said he wants to happen, but there’s just one problem: Brandin is unacceptable to him as king. The closest thing to an explanation the novel offers for this is the fact that Brandin still maintains the spell suppressing Tigana’s name, yet Alessan previously prioritized the “freedom of the Palm” over the restoration of the word Tigana even to the point of becoming estranged from his mother. If he brings his small force into the final battle on Brandin’s side, the result is sure to be unification of the Palm, but he’s willing to jeopardize the victory over Alberico in a far less likely scheme to defeat Brandin as well. The cynical explanation is that Alessan’s true desire is that he and no one else rule the Palm, but I think the real message is that Brandin is unacceptable because he was born in Ygrath, and that while he may have spent twenty years in the Palm, he’s not a native and never can be.

This isn’t stated, because as I said, Kay doesn’t offer any intellectual defense of the critiques of nationalism. His argument on behalf of nationalism is emotional, something typical of nationalist art but less common in modern fantasy. Characters in most fantasy novels love and hate other people, but few authors are better at showing characters who love their country than Kay. In Lions of Al-Rassan he puts this talent in service of a story that shows how patriotism can put friends on opposite sides of a destructive war, but in Tigana all his efforts are put toward making the reader understand and sympathize with the characters love for the Palm in general and Tigana in particular. It is this patriotism for a province he never knew, for instance, that drives Devin to abandon an increasingly lucrative career as a singer for the life of a revolutionary, a life to which he brings no applicable skills except that same patriotism. While reading the novel, I can almost buy into the idea myself.

But when I put the book down and think about it, nationalism doesn’t seem like such a good thing. I called Tigana a historical fantasy, but it is far less connected with real history than Kay’s later books, and no where more so than the thoroughly ahistorical depiction of nationalism without liberalism. The hero of Italian unification, Giuseppe Garibaldi, was a passionate advocate of universal suffrage, land reform, and the emancipation of women. In this his ambitions were frustrated and none of these things were achieved in the reunified Italy, because the real historical equivalent of Alessan (Victor Emmanuel II) didn’t see any reason to give up the power he had risked so much to obtain. Tigana presents a much more positive and successful version of the Italian reunification (and tells a fun adventure story while doing so), but in the process it purges what to a modern observer seems like the most important goals of the original unification movement in the first place.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

September 16, 2011 at 2:49 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment

Genre fans (including me) like to complain that mainstream critics prefer fantastic or science fictional elements in stories to be symbols or allegories. Respectable literature, in this line of thinking, should be relevant to the real world, real world elements are relevant by a sort of literary reflexive property, but anything not real must be transformed somehow back to mundane reality or else the work cannot be taken seriously. There are many examples of this, past and present, but for me the one that jumps out is from a critic named Marc Mohan, who is quoted by Wikipedia as saying the that Time Traveler’s Wife “uses time travel as a metaphor to explain how two people can feel as if they’ve known each other their entire lives”.

This isn’t a review of Time Traveler’s Wife, but bear with me while I assert this is nonsense. Time travel is not a metaphor for anything in Time Traveler’s Wife, it’s just time travel. The thing in itself. Despite its mainstream publication, Time Traveler’s Wife sets out in a very science fictional way to sift through all the ramifications of its particular flavor of time travel. To reduce time travel to being only a metaphor is to ignore the large portions of the novel spent examining the many aspects of the protagonists’ relationship that are unique to their science fictional situation and therefore completely absent from any real world relationship.

That said, it’s very easy to overstate the degree to which modern criticism, mainstream or otherwise, forces science fiction and fantasy into allegorical or metaphorical boxes. Even if it still shows up from time to time in reviews and interviews by mainstream critics and even authors, these days mainstream fiction is full of fantastic and science fictional elements that are mostly played straight. Genre started out as just a marketing category and to a marketing category it has returned.

I feel the best way to understand How to Live Safely in the Science Fictional Universe is to realize that, despite the trend away from the reductive approach to science fiction by the mainstream, this is a novel which is committed like nothing else I’ve ever read to employing science fictional elements for allegory, allusion, metaphor, and symbolism but never, ever for their literal meaning. I just said that today science fiction is just a marketing category, but when people suggest that it is something else, they usually are referring to an approach to fictional speculation. The author posits something that does not currently exist and then works out the implications. Not only is this technique central to most (not all) of what we call science fiction, it’s the foundation for alternate history and even quite a bit of fantasy as well.

But this is not a technique employed by How to Live Safely. It’s true that various science fiction tropes appear. The protagonist has a time machine. He has a job, in fact, as a time machine repairman, journeying to where time travelers have broken down and fixing their machines for them. The fulcrum of the book, as revealed in its opening lines, is the protagonist shooting his future self. You could write a literal science fiction novel about these things, and so many time travel stories have been written I am confident someone has already, perhaps several times over. But right in the opening pages, Charles Yu signals that none of this is to be taken literally. The time machine has a “Tense Operator” and as the book opens it is in “Present-Indefinite”. If that’s not enough, the fourth (or fifth, depending on how one counts) paragraph is as follows:

The base model TM-31 runs on state-of-the-art chronodiegetical technology: a six-cylinder grammar drive built on a quad-core physics engine, which features an applied temporalinguistics architecture allowing for free-form navigation within a rendered environment, such as, for instance, a story space and, in particular, a science fictional universe.

That pretty much lays it out there, if the reader actually reads it. That might not happen, for at first glance this looks like technobabble, like Star Trek namedropping tachyons or more recent fiction’s handwaving about string theory or nanotechnology, and thus one’s eyes may skim over it. But it’s not really technobabble, or rather the technobabble is confined to the adjectives “six-cylinder” and “quad-core”. Most people will have to look up the word “diegesis” but otherwise a little scrutiny should reveal that what this paragraph is saying about the TM-31 is that it is a vehicle for navigating a science fiction novel.

I almost feel like that’s a spoiler, but that paragraph really is the fourth one, and that’s really what those words mean. What’s amusing about this is that the typical science fiction reader will assume those sentences are meant to be allusive, not literal. They might think to themselves, as I did when I first read this paragraph, “He’s using language and tenses as a loose metaphor for the physics of time travel…that’s pretty clever!” But no: this paragraph is literally true, and perversely that means that time travel in this novel is not literal time travel at all, but instead a loose metaphor for the way people think about the past and the future.

Consider the matter of the “Present-Indefinite”. This means he’s not in any particular time or place, but rather sitting between universes. He’s been doing so a long time, in fact. If you’re like me, your mind immediately starts trying to massage this into something that’s consistent with the way you think time travel and multiple worlds might work: “Let’s see, so there are multiple universes, and his machine lets him move between them, but in doing so he travels through some sort of intermediate zone, like hyperspace in Star Wars or that business with the tubes in the Bill and Ted movies, but that zone isn’t part of anything we would call a universe, so maybe it’s like the “space” between branes in m-theory, except he’s experiencing linear time while he’s there, which means his time machine is really a sort of pocket universe with its own space-time…”

Were this a typical science fiction novel, further developments would allow me to refine my internal speculations about the nature of this curious between-universes space and lead me through an exploration of the implications this sort of travel has for humanity. But, in fact, it is never developed further, and other revelations about the story’s metaphysics mean all of the Present-Indefinite concept makes progressively less and less sense, not more. My error was trying to apply concepts from (speculative) real world physics. The Present-Indefinite isn’t really the gap between universes, it’s a metaphor for the way an person sometimes feels stuck in their circumstances, unable to progress to something better or even to regress into a worse situation. The genius of the novel is that despite the Present-Indefinite only being a metaphor and not actually making any kind of physical sense, it is still consistent with the story’s metaphysics, because the metaphysical system of the novel is not that of the real world or a supposed physical universe, but that of, well, a novel.

The author has a great deal of fun developing his peculiarly literal metafiction. The protagonist’s name is Charles Yu, just like that of the author. Also like the author, this protagonist writes a book called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and in Escherian fashion this fictional book is literally the same book we are reading. He has a dog that “doesn’t exist” in that it was part of a different story, got retconned out, and then through some physically incoherent process ended up getting taken in by the protagonist. The story takes place in “Minor Universe 31”, which is described as follows:

Thirty-one is a smallish universe, slightly below average in size. On the cosmic scale, somewhere between shoe box and standard aquarium. Not big enough for space opera and anyway not zoned for it. Despite its relatively modest physical dimensions, inhabitants of 31 report a considerable variance in terms of psychological scale, probably owing to the significant inconsistency in conceptual density of the underlying fabric of this region of existence.

Tolkien referred to the building of a fictional world as subcreation, and the here we see a science fictional interpretation of that concept: the novel as a pocket universe. When you translate the terms in the quote above from those describing universes to those describing novels, you get the following accurate description of the novel: “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is a smallish novel, slightly below average in length. Not long enough for space opera and anyway shelved with literary fiction. Despite its short length, it intensively develops a few characters, but necessarily this depth comes at the expense of the rest.” Elsewhere, the physics is described as being “only 93 percent installed” by the “builder-developer” of the universe, which I read as a metafictional apology for things like the Present-Indefinite not actually making sense when taken literarlly.

What you think of all these layers of elaborate metafictional artifice is a matter of taste and expectation. If you haven’t read it yet, hopefully reading this review will help you set your expectations properly, but that still leaves us trying to account for taste. It will strike some as too pleased with itself, too distancing, too affected. Others will find it fresh and stimulating. There’s nothing new about metafiction, but rarely is it pursued so exhaustively as it is here. But even though there is no genuine science fiction world underlying all the sly winks and inside jokes, there is a genuine story. All of this material is working in service to a single theme, best summed up in a sentence from relatively early in the book:

Within a science fictional space, memory and regret are, when taken together, the set of necessary and sufficient elements required to produce a time machine.

Once again, interpreted in terms of physical reality, this is nonsense. “Within a science fictional space” it says, again pointing to the fact we are speaking of a story’s reality, not a physical reality. Now, there’s actually a pretty good argument to be made that even on these terms it’s still not true. The thesis of How To Live Safely is that, when given a time machine capable of taking them to any point in all of the universe’s vast history, people use it to relive some unhappy moment of their life, even though they know the metaphysics of time travel prevents them changing it. This strikes me as untrue even (or especially) in stories, where there are plenty of examples of characters using time machines to go to all sorts of places far removed from their own lifespan. But if I can humbly venture a small correction to the text, I would say it would have been true had the sentence instead begun: “Within this science fictional space…” Within this particular novel, time travel is a metaphor for the human memory and imagination. Within the human mind, memory and regret are indeed necessary and sufficient to “time travel” in one’s imagination back to the low points of one’s life. Likewise, the relationship of this metaphorical time travel to paradoxes is clear: you can cry over spilled milk, but you can’t change the fact you’ve spilled it. Thus time travel in the novel must obey the maxim popularized by Lost (“Whatever happened, happened”), even though when considered as a rule of physical reality this concept doesn’t harmonize well with the novel’s assertion of the existence of multiple universes (an assertion made necessary by the conceit that the novel is a pocket universe, seeing as there are, after all, a lot of novels).

The novel’s story is an emotional development of this memory/time travel metaphor. The protagonist grows up in a somewhat unsettled home. His father is obsessed by his conviction that he can invent a time machine and thereby become rich. Too distracted by his hobby to do well at work, his father’s efforts impoverish rather than enrich him, while also robbing him of almost all the time he would otherwise have spent with his wife and child. His wife is deeply unhappy about this but can do nothing to change his mind. His child, the protagonist, does the only thing he can think of to get access to his father and joins his father’s efforts as soon as he’s old enough to help. The father eventually uses his time machine, which may or may not be working correctly, to disappear into the future and leave his family once and for all. The mother, despairing of the present and still longing for family togetherneess, immerses herself in a “time loop”, a sort of virtual reality recreation of a happy family dinner, complete with a young virtual protagonist and his virtual father, that replays again and again for years. As for the protagonist himself, he gets a job as a time machine repairman and eventually goes off to sulk in the Present-Indefinite, the point at which the novel begins. The backstory, then, provides examples of a father whose mind is stuck in a future that may never come, a mother who is pining for a past that may never have happened, and their now grown-up child who is stuck in the present.

All this is established early on, and the rest of the novel simply deepens the portraits of these three characters while constantly elaborating the story’s metafictional architecture with further tricks and jokes. Although the time travel metaphor is the novel’s centerpiece, the narrative never stops referencing scientific concepts and then undermining them via metaphors, like in this passage from the protagonist’s retreat to the Present-Indefinite in the opening of the story:

[The TM-31’s door insulates] against temperatures ranging from, at the low end, about half a degree above absolute zero to, at the high end, about a million degrees Kelvin. Hot, cold, people’s opinions. All of it just bounces off. In addition, you can install an aftermarket cloaking device, so that the unit can be made invisible with the flick of a switch. You can just sit in here, impervious and invisible. So invisible you might even forget yourself.

I’ve used a lot of quotes in this review because this is an unusual novel and one that by its nature will spark a wide variety of reactions. The book was very well received when it was released last year, both in mainstream and genre circles, so certainly many people really enjoyed it. Personally, I liked how clever and well-thought out the metafiction was, but my enthusiasm is limited by the nagging feeling that there was too much artifice and not enough story. Your mileage can and will vary. If you go in looking for serious scientific speculation, the story’s habit of introducing scientific concepts only to pivot them into metaphors, demolishing any sense it is describing a functional world in the process, is just going to tease and infuriate you. If you admire clever writing, or at least don’t let it keep you from connecting emotionally with a fairly poignant story about a family that, despite good intentions, doesn’t quite fit together, you might really love it. I’m glad I read the book, but I found myself somewhere between those two camps, enjoying the creativity on display but still wishing the world depicted was internally consistent.

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

June 12, 2011 at 11:46 pm | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 2 Comments

Once again, I’m a little late to the party on a novel that a lot of people have been talking about, but this time it’s not my fault.  Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief has gotten a great deal of acclaim since it was first published last year…in Europe, that is.  We live today, we are constantly told, in a far smaller world than of old, but in book publishing it’s still rather larger than it really ought to be, and the book only managed to cross the Atlantic a few weeks ago.  Rajaniemi has previously published some short stories (including one I’ve read, “Elegy for a Young Elk”) but this is his first novel.

Since I decided early on I would read the novel as soon as it was published in the US, I only skimmed last year’s reviews and didn’t know anything about it.  Fairly or not, however, knowing it had made such a big splash, I couldn’t help but expect a dynamic new voice.  Instead, while reading The Quantum Thief I frequently wondered whether the story reminded me more of William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons.

The male protagonist of Quantum Thief begins the story in bad shape.  At one time he was a player, but now he’s out of the game.  Someone in need of his talents fixes him up and, joined by a female operative and a talking computer, he takes on one last mission.  This describes Quantum Thief‘s Jean le Flambeur, but it also describes Neuromancer‘s Case and Use of Weapons‘ Zakalwe.  The present day story of Quantum Thief sticks fairly close to the Neuromancer template, while Jean le Flambeur’s past is slowly explored much as Zakalwe’s history is the backdrop for Use of Weapons.

I don’t consider this to be a severe criticism.  Originality is overrated, and in my view most SF novels would be improved by a little more similarity to those two books.  Also, when I finished reading the novel and went back to those early reviews I had skimmed before, I found comparisons being made to other novels as well…but different novels.  Rich Horton lists no less than seven authors that he and others saw as influences, but not, alas, Gibson and Banks.  The closest, albeit the most obscure, is John C. Wright, whose Golden Age trilogy also depicts a far future society with a dizzying array of novel technological and social constructs.  Although Wright and Rajaniemi’s stories both begin with the protagonist encumbered with technologically-inflicted amnesia, they are otherwise quite dissimilar.  From early in the trilogy’s first book, it is clear that Wright is chasing some large philosophical questions about reason and human values (and later is willing to subordinate the story to long discussions of same), whereas Quantum Thief is focused on telling an entertaining story.

That’s not to say the novel has nothing on its mind.  In the opening section of the book, the story gestures toward a number of genres and subgenres.  There’s a space battle that suggests we are in for a Peter Hamilton-style space opera, there’s an engaging chapter where a detective solves a mystery and seems to be set up as a foil for le Flambeur (Holmes to his Moriarty, or perhaps Javert to his Jean Valjean), and the description of the Martian city of Oubliette with its use of Time as currency and its citizens’ alternation between slave and master raises the prospect of a Banks-style investigation of life in the far future.  All these prove to be feints.  If the novel has a subgenre within SF it would actually be that of the Big Dumb Object, for Oubliette proves to be an elaborate and intriguing creation, but in the end the novel’s concerns are primarily personal, even psychological, in nature.  Jean le Flambeur has led a long and interesting life, most of which he no longer remembers, but one thing is clear: he is a thief.  Rajaniemi carefully shows us this is not just his profession, but his hobby, and even his personality.

The course of the novel takes us through an exploration both of the Oubliette (the outer world) and Jean le Flambeur’s personality and personal history (the inner world), finally coming to a conclusion that brings the two together very neatly.  A little too neat, actually.  I feel bad criticizing a carefully planned and executed ending when most novels seem to go off the rails in the final third, but I can’t help but feel the unification of the novels’ inner and outer worlds rather cheapens the outer world.  Oubliette is much more interesting, and just plain cooler, when it is a strange future city with bizarre customs, as it is for most of the novel, instead of what it ultimately becomes: a puzzle out of his past for the protagonist to solve, a clockwork nostalgia piece.  This feels like the world of a solipsist, where everything encountered reflects back on the person at its center. This is a convenient device for a novel of psychological discovery, but it makes what otherwise is a huge and wildly diverse solar system seem small and lonely.

The novel has a reputation as hard SF, and depending on your definition it may be, but I think a lot of this stems more from Rajaniemi’s biography (he has a Ph.D. in mathematical physics) than the novel itself.  Though the word “quantum” is in the title and name-dropped in various ways throughout, the novel’s quantum mechanics and nanotechnology are generally indistinguishable from magic. The one exception is the use of entangled particles to communicate.  I am not a physicist but I am given to understand this is, well, nonsense. For some reason it keeps appearing in science fiction anyway.  I am a software engineer, however, so I was pleased to see an interesting use of public key cryptography in the story (though I couldn’t tell you if anyone not already familiar with it will make heads or tails of the presentation).  More unusually and without explanation, the story seems to take a position against strong AI. It’s never mentioned, but in a novel often reminiscent of Banks it is conspicuous in its absence. There are talking computers aplenty, but they all function using “gogols”, which turn out to be uploaded human minds.  Here the worldbuilding did not quite convince me.  Many jobs that seem like they would be automated in the far future, like shopkeepers, taxi drivers, and groundskeepers, are performed by physical human beings working for a paycheck, while gogols are used in ways that seem to belie their software nature.  For example, Oubliette’s automated systems require hundreds of thousands of gogols to operate.  Each of these gogols is the uploaded mind (the soul, really) of a different person.  Unfortunately, this menial labor is boring and even degrading.  So why not just use a single mind (of a particularly loathsome criminal, perhaps, or else a public-spirited volunteer) and copy it?  Some SF stories employ pseudo-scientific explanations to prevent the copying of uploaded minds, but the fact such copying is possible is established in The Quantum Thief‘s opening scene and is a key element in the ending.  Perhaps Oubliette is an unusual case (it is implied that using “real people” to keep the city running has beneficial effects on the psychology of the citizenry) but if so the main characters, most of whom are new to Oubliette, do not find it surprising.

It might not be surprising that a novel so evocative of earlier genre stories isn’t very accessible, but there are far more obstacles to the unschooled reader than just the many tropes and allusions. As someone who loves John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and who liked Neal Stephenson’s Anathem a great deal, I am willing to be patient and learn some vocabulary to read a good book.  But a few chapters into Quantum Thief, I was feeling anxious: I had absolutely no idea what most of the terms being thrown around meant and I was starting to wonder if I ever would. If you find yourself in the same position, take heart and soldier on.  This novel is the product of a decades-long backlash against the infodump, and its merciless barrage of new terms made me start to question my own sympathy for the anti-infodump cause.  Unlike Brunner and Stephenson, Rajaniemi for the most part does not coin neologisms, instead using words from other languages.  Neologisms often sound silly, but at least they carry clues as to their meaning.  Rajaniemi’s terms will prove difficult for all but the most polyglot of readers.  Unlike Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, which used latinate words so that his English-speaking readers would glimpse a hazy sense of the meaning but not the specifics, Rajaniemi takes words from modern languages distant from English: gevolut and tzadik from Hebrew, zoku from Japanese,guberniya and sobornost from Russian, and so forth.  There might be a sort of globalist realism in this approach, like the TV show Firefly‘s use of Chinese, but I’m not sure the effect is worth the effort it requires from the reader.  The good news is, once the story settles down into its primary Martian setting the avalanche of new terms ends, allowing the reader to finally get a solid grip on the language through context.  I just hope readers don’t miss out on a good novel because of this learning curve.

And this is a good novel, despite my various complaints.  It’s deep in conversation with past stories to an almost unique degree. I doubt I’ve ever referenced so many other works in a review, and out of ignorance I’m sure I’ve missed plenty more (the protagonist’s name is apparently a reference to a French film, for instance). I should say that although the book has a better and more satisfying ending than many standalone novels, the story is not actually finished, and some number of sequels will be forthcoming. Hopefully these will better explore the colorful solar system Rajaniemi has created and spend more time working out the implications of its societies.

The Dragon Never Sleeps by Glen Cook

May 16, 2011 at 1:34 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 5 Comments

Glen Cook is best known for the Black Company fantasy series he began in 1984, often cited as one of the first major steps toward the low fantasy approach that has become quite popular in the last decade.  He’s actually a quite prolific author, and for many years, his 1988 standalone science fiction novel The Dragon Never Sleeps was one of his most obscure books.  Shortly after it was published, some combination of poor sales and a troubled publisher sent it straight out of print.  Under these circumstances you would expect it to be forgotten by everyone except the author, but instead the book acquired a reputation placing it among science fiction’s greatest space operas.  When fans talk up a hard-to-find book as a masterpiece, one always wonders if this is just a form of snobbery.  A few years ago I searched out a copy to see for myself.

Almost immediately after I found it, the novel was reprinted for the first time in twenty years and it’s still in print today, so for good or ill the rarity is gone.  Does the book itself live up to its reputation?  Reading it a few years ago, I indeed thought it was a masterpiece.  Maybe it’s for the best that I read it during a lapse in this blog, because I was so impressed I doubt I would have had anything intelligible to say.  It’s a complicated book and from the moment I finished it, I was looking forward to reading it a second time, but rather than dive right back in I decided to wait so I’d have a little perspective.

I ended up waiting a little longer than I intended, but I’ve finally reread it, and I think I understand it a lot better now.  I’m afraid it’s not quite as great as I initially thought…that is to say, it’s “only” an extremely good novel.  This time, I was less awed by the setting and the ideas, so I noticed that the characters were thin, the plot was tangled and confusing, and above all the story’s pacing was all over the map.  The Dragon Never Sleeps is an epic space opera story that stretches across many years, and some of them pass in just a few pages.  Some online reviews say that Cook made major cuts to what was originally a much longer manuscript, and while I haven’t seen anything from the author himself confirming this, it certainly reads like this happened.  Genre books are usually accused of being too long, but this is one book that definitely would have benefited from being longer.  There are a number of brilliant scenes, most notably the battle in “end space” midway through the novel, which I think is probably the greatest space battle scene I’ve ever read, but these only make the points where the story suddenly lapses into summary all the more frustrating.

If there are problems with aspects as important as the plot and the characters, you’d be forgiven for wondering if this is really a good novel.  To that I can only say, I read a lot of books with good characters, and…well, somewhat less, but still a fair number, with good plotting and pacing, but books with truly interesting ideas are rare.  The Dragon Never Sleeps has a lot on its mind.  Like most such novels, it’s simultaneously in conversation with the genre’s past while pointing toward the future.  The connection with the past is in the book’s use of tropes from Frank Herbert’s Dune.  Like Dune, this is a novel of squabbling feudal houses who rest uneasily beneath the Imperial yoke and endlessly plot to advance themselves.  As for the future, the novel’s “Artifacts” (human-like people grown in vats with often fanciful physiological alterations) reminded me strongly of China Miéville’s Remade, although this book was so obscure I doubt there was any direct influence.

All that said, the closest association is probably with the fiction of Iain M. Banks.  The Dragon Never Sleeps was originally published in 1988, just a year after Consider Phlebas, so again I don’t think there’s a direct connection, but the two space operas cover a lot of the same ground.  I have purposefully delayed providing any kind of plot summary until now so that you can see how closely it tracks with Banks’ work, particularly Consider Phlebas.  Thousands of years in the future, humanity has spread across a huge span of the galaxy and no longer has a clear idea of its own origins.  Order in Canon space is kept via huge spaceships with idiosyncratic names that house powerful artificial intelligences.  Although billions of beings both human and alien live peacefully in human space, there are powerful alien species who not only do not share the values that animate Canon government, but actually despise them.  Given this antipathy, war is inevitable, a war that spirals into a clash of civilizations spanning many years and countless star systems.

If you changed “Canon” to “Culture” that would be a pretty good start to a summary of Consider Phlebas.  I really enjoy the Culture novels, particularly the early ones, so it’s not surprising I really enjoyed The Dragon Never Sleeps.  I also like Dune and Miéville as well, for that matter.  The Dragon Never Sleeps doesn’t have the elegant plot of Dune, the fantastic imagination of Miéville, or the humor and cynicism of Banks, but it’s at least as well thought out as the rest of them.  What makes it especially interesting is the fact that, once you get past the surface similarities with the Culture I mentioned, the two settings are completely different.  These days the Culture tropes are so strongly identified with Banks’ own thinking that it’s startling to see them deployed for Glen Cook’s very different aims.

I cheated a bit when I said Canon ships have “idiosyncratic names”.  The Culture is rooted in the values of our modern world, so the irreverence and irony of its famous ship names, like So Much For Subtlety or What Are the Civilian Applications, fit perfectly.  In contrast, here are a few names of the Canon’s Guardships: VII Gemina, XII Fulminata, and XXVII Fretensis.  The first time I read the novel I only learned the source of these vaguely familiar-sounding names after I had finished, but I’m sure Glen Cook expected his readers to recognize them as names of Roman legions.  Sure enough, the government of Canon space is rooted not in the modern world but in the declining Roman Empire.  It’s an old system that has outlasted the conditions surrounding its now-mythological founding and expanded with a series of  invasions until it’s overstretched and under significant pressure both from outsiders eager to tap the wealth of Canon space and from the presence of aliens within Canon space itself, where conquest and immigration have brought them in greater and greater numbers until they are now are a majority.

There’s nothing innovative about putting the Roman Empire in space, and indeed Dune did pretty much the same thing (albeit with the Byzantine Empire rather than the original Roman Empire as such).  But this is allusion, not allegory, and the Roman Empire was just the start of Glen Cook’s thinking.  For starters, there’s no Emperor.  At least, we’re never told of one.  There’s talk of a civilian bureaucracy, but the power lies with the legions…in this case, the Guardships…and they don’t pretend to follow any orders but their own.  Cook hasn’t made the mistake of just transplanting a primitive government into space.  The Roman legions were loyal to the person of the Emperor, a crudely effective mechanism but problematic when it came time for succession.  The Guardships’ allegiance is not to an Emperor or even a government, but to Canon law.  Canon law is only a few steps up from the law of the jungle, true, but the Guardships enforcing it are ruthless and, owing to a technological advantage that is enforced as part of that law, nearly invincible.  Warships of any kind besides Guardships are illegal in Canon space, so they have a complete monopoly on violence.  When an entity outside Canon space provokes them, they invade, destroy, and annex the offending civilization.

Since no force internal or external can challenge the might of the Guardships, the resulting system is extremely stable.  A person can be killed, a ship can be destroyed, but no one, whether an alien from outside Canon space, a human citizen, or even a Guardship commander, can change the system.  The dragon of the book’s title is not a real dragon, or even a person.  It’s the Guardships, or to be even more accurate, it’s the procedures the Guardships and their supporting bases follow.  The system is effectively immortal, but in maintaining itself it necessarily must hold the culture it protects in stasis.  Technological progress has been halted lest anyone acquire Guardship-equivalent technology.  Cities on a hundred planets are constructed from the exact same prefabricated habitats.  Power is concentrated in a quasi-feudal commercial nobility so that the only ones with any power have too much to lose to dare crossing the Guardships.

But nothing lasts forever, and Cook shows how the system has drifted over time.  Slowly the aliens outside Canon space are catching up to the Guardships’ technology levels.  When Canon law was written, humans were the vast majority and so were the only ones with citizenship and the franchise.  Now, millennia later, aliens are the majority, with much of the rest made up of Artifacts that by law aren’t considered human either.  Even the Guardships themselves prove not to be immune to the passage of time.  Although each Guardship has an artificial intelligence at its core managing the automated systems, they are commanded by human crews.  When not needed, humans are stored in suspended animation.  When they are killed, they are recreated from vats using brain scans.  This means that even the youngest soldiers were “born” thousands of years ago at the dawn of the Canon era.  Humans who distinguish themselves are “Deified” through personality uploading and serve as a sort of Senate to advise the two Dictats (read: Consuls) who command the ship in a manner reminiscent of the Roman Republic.  These two types of immortality have kept the Guardships from changing the way the outside world has over the long years…in theory at least.  Guardships aren’t often in contact with each other, and ship cultures have diverged.  Worse, the artificial intelligences have grown eccentric.  Most Guardship crew characters in the book are from VII Gemina, a ship that initially seems to have weathered the centuries more or less without major changes, but others are…different.  One character groups the various Guardships into “Normal”, “Strange”, and “Weird and Deadly”.

The Dragon Never Sleeps has a large ensemble cast, but ultimately the narrative is focused on Kez Maefele, who (like the protagonist of Consider Phlebas) is a longstanding enemy of the Canon and therefore gives us a detached perspective.  Most of the those opposing the Guardships do so out of a hunger for wealth or power, but he’s different.  Long ago, an alien species called the Ku fought a long war against the Guardships, and during their war they used increasingly elaborate genetic engineering to improve their soldiers.  Maefele was the culmination of this program, a strategic genius who led the legendary Dire Radiant, a Ku fleet that refused to surrender with the rest of the species.  Born too late to turn the tide in the war, Maefele watched first his species’ government but then his rebel fleet ground into dust by the implacable power of the Guardships.  He escaped the final defeat and has been in hiding for uncounted years, for his engineered genes are not programmed to age.

All that time has led him to question the morality of fighting the Guardships in the first place.  He hates the inequality of Canon society, but he knows that if the Guardships were overthrown, Canon space would be at the mercy of outside powers who would be significantly worse.  But when he is recruited by the latest faction hoping to destroy the Guardships, he finds himself agreeing to help.  Like the Mule in Asimov’s Foundation series, he is an individual of such genius he can destroy an otherwise invincible organization, but as someone who was created and not born, he is also a cog in the Ku war machine even a thousand years after their defeat.  Fighting the “dragon” is his purpose in life, something he ultimately can’t turn his back on even if the war will mean the unnecessary deaths of countless innocent people.

Reading Dorothy Dunnett showed me that the proper use of a genius character is not to simply face him off against lesser antagonists (surprise: the genius wins) but to leave the reader wondering if the genius should win.  Kez Maefele has both the desire and the genius to defeat the Guardships, but doing so would mean abandoning his moral principles.  This seems like a contradiction that’s impossible to resolve, but Cook has a solution.  Narratively, the ending to The Dragon Never Sleeps is a mess, but for readers willing to endure a few bumps on the road the underlying story being told is at least the equal of Iain M. Banks’ best works, like Player of Games and Use of WeaponsThe Dragon Never Sleeps is a novel that shows just how great space opera can be, even if in some ways it falls short of its own potential.

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