Perhaps the Stars by Ada Palmer

December 9, 2021 at 1:06 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Elsewhere, Science Fiction | 1 Comment
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Perhaps the Stars, the fourth and final book in Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series, came out recently. I’ve written an in-depth review of it for Strange Horizons. If you haven’t read the previous three books, I reviewed the first book on this blog and wrote a huge twopart joint review of the second and third books a few years back for Strange Horizons.

Having written thousands and thousands of words about this series across those four essays, plus some past and forthcoming “year in review” Strange Horizons articles, I’ll just reiterate that I highly recommend trying this series. You might not like it, but if you do, you’ll be glad you tried it because there really aren’t many other authors writing similar science fiction.

Take Back Plenty by Colin Greenland

October 15, 2021 at 11:54 pm | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 5 Comments
Take Back Plenty cover

Some time ago I was looking at some lists of underrated science fiction and came across Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty, a book I’d heard of once or twice but never read. It won the 1990 BSFA Award for Best Novel and the 1991 Clarke Award. This blog once had a number of British readers, including some involved in the BSFA, but since I personally couldn’t adapt when discussion largely moved to Twitter and in any case haven’t posted here in years, it’s probably safe to finally admit to this Internet equivalent of an empty room that I never really enjoyed much of the much-applauded “New British Space Opera”. I loved Iain Banks’ early work, it’s true, but even though I respected what authors like Alastair Reynolds and Ken MacLeod were doing and wanted to like them, they just didn’t click with me. The caveat there is I haven’t read their work in well over a decade, so who knows what I’d think now. Anyway, my choice for Iain M. Banks’ best novel, Use of Weapons, somehow lost to Take Back Plenty for both the BSFA and Clarke. Was justice done?

Alas, no. This book is objectively worse.

Just kidding. De gustibus non et cetera. And really, if you value prose style more than anything else when you read fiction, Take Back Plenty is an excellent book. I’m not going to go back and check but I bet sometimes in the past I’ve used “style” as a shorthand for “good writing”, but Take Back Plenty is a good example of how, although the latter is undoubtedly useful for the former, they aren’t the same. There weren’t any sentences that struck me as unusually good in this book. Take Back Plenty‘s writing is fine, but it achieves its considerable impact through quantity, not quality. Through description and word choice it relentlessly reinforces a given scene’s mood, creating a very memorable texture. In light of its success in this area, it’s not surprising it won an award like the Clarke that tends to go to very literary science fiction.

Okay, it’s still a little surprising, because the mood the book wants to conjure felt extremely reminiscent of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. If you were pitching this to Hollywood, you’d say, “It’s Neuromancer but in space!” (To which they’d say, “What’s a neuromancer?” because Neuromancer also depended heavily on prose style for impact, prose style that would be completely lost in any translation to the screen, and no one has been foolish enough to adapt it). I’m not one to get snippy about something being derivative, though, especially if we’re talking about being derivative of something good. I’m not sure what a set of Clarke judges would have thought about Neuromancer as old Arthur C. only created the award in 1987, but for what it’s worth it was nominated for the BSFA but lost to Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, which is pretty good for what it is but so incredibly different from Neuromancer it’s hilarious they were nominated for the same award. For my part, I loved Neuromancer when I read it as a teenager and I think it’s held up pretty well. Computers have changed enormously since then, but the cyber parts of it never made much sense–Gibson didn’t know much about computers. The punk part of it, on the other hand, has aged well, maybe not in its aesthetics but at least in its emotional content.

If Colin Greenland knew much about space when he wrote Take Back Plenty, he didn’t bother to include it, so that’s another similarity. Sometimes the book feels deliberately anachronistic as its characters traverse Martian canals and encounter dangerous indigineous animals in jungles on Venus. But it doesn’t deeply commit to retro-futurism. The spaceships are controlled by AIs and space is teeming with a rigid hierarchy of aliens that seems likely influenced by David Brin’s Uplift books.

The story’s basic format is familiar. Down-on-her-luck spaceship owner-captain Tabitha Jute needs to take a job before her debts come due, so against her better judgment she agrees to carry Marco Metz and his dubious band of misfit musicians to their show on “Plenty”, a massive alien-built space station in Earth orbit. Things don’t go according to plan, however, resulting in Tabitha and her passengers getting chased across the solar system by the police, bounty hunters, and more.

This book really wants to be described as a “fun romp” and if you look around some reviewers have gone along, but…it’s really not very fun. Chaotic romp I’d allow. Disaffected romp? Antisocial romp? I’m willing to fully endorse the book’s rompiness, so I’m at least half on the same page with what it’s trying to do. The problem is that, as should be obvious from even my extremely stripped-down summary, Tabitha Jute is a gender-swapped (and race-swapped, since for what it’s worth she’s described as dark-skinned) Han Solo. That seems like it should be great! Who needs boring old Luke when you can make Han the main character? But a lovable rogue functions best as a supporting character who can be a purveyor of sarcastic commentary, a seemingly-disinterested party who’s won over by friendship or the rightness of the cause, not to mention being a love interest with an air of danger to be, again, won over and made safe by a heroine. With Tabitha as a theoretically lovable rogue, she can’t very well pick up “better” people, so instead Marco Metz and his band have to be even, uh, roguier. Han Solo’s charm also got mislaid somewhere; Tabitha is introverted and combative with everyone except her AI ship, so she spends most of the book repeatedly, and ineffectually, telling her passengers to shut up, to get out of the cockpit, to stop touching things, etc.

One factor humanizing Han Solo from his first introduction is his camaraderie with Chewbacca. Tabitha’s equivalent is the AI inhabiting her ship, the Alice Liddell. Like Chewbacca, the AI is loyal and friendly to the otherwise friendless rogue, and also like Chewbacca, the AI is thinly characterized, in this case as a gossipy but supportive friend and not much else. The novel has a slightly complex structure where there are periodic chapters that consist solely of Tabitha telling stories of her past to Alice. I didn’t find this as helpful for Tabitha’s character as Chewbacca, though. Even though Chewbacca is unfortunately treated more like a dog than a person by the Star Wars movies, he’s at least a living being with emotions and feelings. Alice, though, is a ship. Oh, eventually it turns out she can be removed, but basically she’s a ship. A ship that Tabitha owns. It’s both the only valuable thing she owns and something supremely valuable to her because it represents her independence. She has lots of very selfish reasons to value Alice and take care of her, so it never feels quite as wholesome a relationship as it really should be.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, while the nature of Han Solo’s financial problems are obscure and off-stage and so potentially not all his fault (at least until The Force Awakens, where stupid screenwriting formulas led JJ Abrams to think it was a good idea to intentionally portray Han as a pathetic figure), Take Back Plenty isn’t afraid to make it very clear that nearly all of Tabitha’s problems stem from her own behavior. She lives almost entirely in the moment and frequently makes her own situation worse through poor impulse control. Occasionally she feels bad about this, but not for long, and she never makes any effort to change. She’s constantly sleeping with men when it’s clearly a bad idea, taking jobs that are clearly bad ideas, and antagonizing authority figures, especially police, even though it just gets her in worse trouble. In small doses this approach to life can seem admirable, but after reading about dozens of bad decisions it gets wearying, especially when there aren’t any good decisions mixed in. If you’re going to be Han Solo, it’s best to be charming, but failing that you should at least be fairly competent. We never see Tabitha being good at anything.

Characters like Tabitha show up in a lot of “literary” books, so maybe there’s a constituency out there that likes this sort of thing. I don’t know anything about Greenland so this is the worst sort of speculation, but I sometimes wonder if these dysfunctional characters are a lot more relatable for twenty-something artists loitering in the peripheries of academia, indulging mildly self-destructive tendancies toward sex, alcohol, and drugs, “broke” but able to call on their parents in a pinch, products of privilege and destined to eventually get their act together and find an off-ramp from bohemian living back to the comfortable middle class. Who knows? Look, I’m certainly not perfect, but I’m a reliable employee and I usually pay my bills on time, so it’s hard to relate to these characters. And science fiction in particular is a genre that really appreciates competence, if only technical competence.

I don’t think Greenland or most literary science fiction readers are going to be impressed by the constant references to Star Wars, so let’s go back to the Neuromancer comparison instead. That book also has a down-on-their-luck main character joining a group of misfits and going through a strange series of vaguely criminal actions. But while Case’s compatriots are weird and untrustworthy, they (and he) are all very good at something, and in Molly he finds a friend and real ally. Further, although we don’t get nearly as much of an exploration of Case’s character and backstory as Take Back Plenty gives us for Tabitha, as with Han Solo, this has the benefit that whatever Case’s mistakes, it’s plausible that he opens the novel down on his luck for reasons not entirely his fault, especially since it’s a cyberpunk milieu where faceless corporations are controlling people’s lives. So although he’s not the most likeable character, Case is a talented hacker who ends up involved with other talented people in a criminal enterprise.

Besides its style, Take Back Plenty‘s main project is probably subtextual. Gender-swapping Han Solo doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but in 1990 it was a bold move, and making the main character dark-skinned was too terrifying to the publisher to accurately depict on the cover. Beyond this representation, there’s a strange feminist undertone to the book. I say strange because, well, I guess it’s a worthwhile feminist project to take idea of a male dysfunctional antihero and turn them into a heroine but still leave them just as unlikeable and dysfunctional? It also can’t be a coincidence that by the end of the story, all the annoying male characters are dead or humiliated, while the slightly less annoying female characters are better off than they were. That’s an interesting narrative choice, but there’s no real message, no real thesis that the female characters deserved to win. Was Tabitha more oppressed than Marco Metz? The book isn’t interested enough in Marco or any of the other male characters for us to find out.

There’s some political subtext here too. I’m not very familiar with left-anarchism, to be honest, but I think there’s a lot of that mixed in here. Tabitha resists authority figures of all sorts at nearly all times, no matter how insanely a bad idea it is for her to do so, and her only real motivation in life is to somehow retain her ability to tool around the solar system in her ’57 Chevy of a spaceship despite her inability to profitably operate her small business. She punches cops, ignores rules meant to keep people safe, and when she gets an unlikely opportunity to mess up the government of the solar system, she doesn’t think twice.

This is maybe the part of the book that has aged the worst. In 1990, I guess sticking it to the man like this felt like a hip, countercultural thing to do, but in 2021, it’s hard not to see Tabitha as a car dealer instead of rebel, the sort of small business owner who in a literal sense is very well off (very few people have their own starship like Tabitha!) but who resents “coastal elites”, taxes, and refuses to get vaccinated. And although the many alien species give the narrative a sort of diversity, it’s a little gross how each species gets only a single, race-wide archetype: there’s literally a race of cop-aliens, another that apparently does nothing except get in bar fights, etc. Apart from being generally bad practice, the species/job alignment means disliking police, the one part of all this that retains some lefty credibility, looks suspiciously like racism in this setting.

So this is a book I think a minority of people will really like, and if you’ve read this far hopefully you have some idea as to whether you’re one of those people. The “spacepunk” style is relatively unique and the setting is amusingly off-the-wall at times. Alas, I developed a huge dislike for every character not long after each was introduced, so it didn’t work for me. In this case the collective memory seems accurate to me: if you want to read something from this time period, I think the better-remembered science fiction would make for better choices.

In Search of Lost Time by Karen Heuler

October 2, 2018 at 12:50 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Elsewhere, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

InSearchofLostTime-Heuler-313x500In May, Strange Horizons posted my review of Karen Heuler’s novella In Search of Lost Time.

With that, I am caught up. At this point it is customary for me to say I hope to write more for this blog in the future. Since that sort of promise usually fails to turn out well, I’ll instead say I hope to at least link to my reviews elsewhere faster and we’ll see how that goes.

Void Star by Zachary Mason

October 2, 2018 at 12:39 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Elsewhere, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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void-star1-331x500More than a year ago, Strange Horizons posted my review of Zachary Mason’s novel Void Star. This novel led me to theorize some readers read SF in hopes of learning how the future will work while others want to know how the future will feel. This is a book that will satisfy one of those two groups.

You may be waiting for me to explain why a review from more than a year ago is being posted now. The answer is should be obvious: because I didn’t do it before now!

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

March 8, 2017 at 1:26 am | Posted in 5 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 7 Comments
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Too Like the Lightning coverWhen Strange Horizons asked me to contribute to their 2016 Best of the Year wrap-up, I immediately knew my entry would have to discuss Too Like the Lightning, my favorite novel not only of 2016 but of the last decade. The natural question to ask me, then, one I certainly asked myself, is if it’s so great, why haven’t I actually written a review of it? Well, for a variety of reasons I haven’t reviewed much of anything in a while, so with the sequel arriving today it seemed like a great time to both reread Too Like the Lightning and actually write about it this time.

The novel takes place in a future where humanity has flying cars, a moon base, and robots that make full time jobs strictly optional. Humanity is also enjoying lasting world peace, having given up geographic nation states, organized religion, and even gendered pronouns. Our window into this world, the narrator Mycroft Canner, seems like an example of the best this future has to offer. Intelligent, erudite, diligent, sensitive, empathetic, and humble, he works as a sort of freelance analyst for world governments. However, Mycroft is not the paragon of this society but rather its monster, a criminal so feared and reviled that his name scares even adults. Secretly rehabilitated, Mycroft is now a Servicer, a convict doing forced labor. Most Servicers do menial tasks, but the world’s leaders recognize Mycroft’s gifts make him uniquely qualified to help protect the world that hates him. Silence of the Lambs made a cliche out of the scary captive criminal, but far from scary, Mycroft seems sensitive and even kind. You might then assume this is yet another novel where sympathy is stirred up for the narrator by making him the target of unjust accusations and hatred, but there’s something a great deal more subtle happening with Mycroft’s character.

The novel’s plot consists of two strands that at first seem unrelated. In one, Mycroft investigates the theft of a manuscript from a newspaper office, a seemingly simple crime that turns out to threaten both the stability of the political system as well as the computer systems that operate the world’s flying cars. The other storyline, which at first seems like a non-sequitur for a futuristic science fiction novel, concerns Mycroft’s efforts to keep secret a boy named Bridger who can perform miracles.

To understand what’s going on here, perhaps we should start by considering Mycroft’s own words as he opens his account:

You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described. You must forgive me my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s and ‘he’s and ‘she’s, my lack of modern words and modern objectivity. It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-Five Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.

This is not a mere preface or framing device. Throughout the narrative, Mycroft not only frequently speaks directly to the reader, he even allows a hypothetical reader to make italicized responses. He also is explicit that he is not just relating events but arguing a point. The “transformation” he describes is one Mycroft thinks is widely misunderstood and he aims to correct that understanding. This is a book much concerned with philosophy, and throughout the story Mycroft time for asides about and even quotations from eighteenth century thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, De Sade, and others as he tries to show how their ideas have shaped his world. As the presence of miracles in the narrative suggests, it is also concerned with religion. Since religious gatherings and discussion are thought to produce hatred and discord, every person is assigned a professional spiritual adviser who helps them search for truth, a truth they are then forbidden to discuss with anyone except that adviser. This is justified by the assumption that religion is a subjective matter of faith, but a boy who can produce miracles on demand threatens to turn at least part of the religious experience into observable truth.

Even though Voltaire and other Enlightenment thinkers would be comfortable with this future’s religious skepticism, there’s another aspect to the novel’s future society that has greatly departed from eighteenth century precedents. Referencing gender is taboo, and only “they” is permitted as a third person singular. And so it is used in Mycroft’s story…in the dialogue, that is. In his actual narration, as part of his invocation of the eighteenth century, Mycroft insists on using gendered pronouns despite many objections from his hypothetical reader. Here is the first of many passages in which he discusses this decision:

He nodded.

She nodded back.

Does it distress you, reader, how I remind you of their sexes in each sentence? ‘Hers’ and ‘his’? Does it make you see them naked in each other’s arms, and fill even this plain scene with wanton sensuality? Linguists will tell you the ancients were less sensitive to gendered language than we are, that we react to it because it’s rare, but that in ages that heard ‘he’ and ‘she’ in every sentence they grew stale, as the glimpse of an ankle holds no sensuality when skirts grow short. I don’t believe it. I think gendered language was every bit as sensual to our predecessors as it is to us, but they admitted the place of sex in every thought and gesture, while our prudish era, hiding behind the neutered ‘they’, pretends that we do not assume any two people who lock eyes may have fornicated in their minds if not their flesh. You protest: My mind is not as dirty as thine, Mycroft. My distress is at the strangeness of applying ‘he’ and ‘she’ to thy 2450s, where they have no place. Would that you were right, good reader. Would that ‘he’ and ‘she’ and their electric power were unknown in my day. Alas, it is from these very words that the transformation came which I am commanded to describe, so I must use them to describe it. I am sorry, reader. I cannot offer wine without the poison of the alcohol within.

Yet even this explanation is not complete. You see, Mycroft does not use the gendered pronoun that matches the biology of the character in question. Rather, he assigns genders to his characters based on his idiosyncratic notion of how to apply eighteenth century gender roles to his futuristic milieu. Mostly this is left implicit, but from time to time Mycroft mentions as an aside a character’s biological gender, then rejects it and explains why. He even engages in debates with his hypothetical reader about borderline cases. I found the resulting effect quite remarkable. Mycroft socially constructs gender right there in front of us, in defiance of biology and at times strenuous imagined objections of his readership. By the end of the novel, I knew what gender Mycroft had assigned each character and this colored my perception of them, yet I couldn’t remember who was biologically what without flipping through the book for minutes to find if there was one spot where Mycroft happens to mention it. Often he never does.

This has been much remarked on by those writing about Too Like the Lightning, but largely lost in the debate is that Mycroft was making still more interesting claims. First, he is asserting that banishing something from polite conversation doesn’t make it go away, and that his society’s supposed victory over gender bias and religion may be far less thorough than claimed. Further, he is describing a transformation, and he says that gender is essential to understanding that transformation. That some readers have glossed over this is understandable, because unfortunately the novel is only the first half of Mycroft’s text and the transformation he alludes to has yet to take place. We won’t see whether he can justify his claim that the ideas of the eighteenth century generally and its gender roles in particular are somehow essential to understanding what’s happened to his society until the sequel, Seven Surrenders, which not coincidentally has been released the very day I’m posting this.

There’s another important element in that second excerpt that also has not attracted enough attention in the discussions of the novel I’ve read, and that is that Mycroft has been commanded to write this text. This shouldn’t be a surprise, for Mycroft is, after all, a convict laborer. The book is prefaced by many messages indicating the many censorship gates his text has passed on its away to publication: “Certified nonproselytory by the four-hive commission on religion in literature”, for example, and “Raté D par la comission européenne des medias dangereux”. Further, Mycroft occasionally describes several characters in the story as being sources for scenes in which he is not present and, even more occasionally, mentions a few as having read what he’s writing and asked that this or that detail be changed.

These metatextual flourishes are fun but become quite relevant to our understanding of the story when we consider the setting. Enjoying as it does world peace, voluntary citizenship, spiritual advisers that sound a lot like therapists, and little need for labor, Too Like the Lightning‘s future has been described as utopian. Yet there are many aspects to it that seem quite sinister. A few of these are obvious, such as the complete censorship of nearly all religious speech. Many science fiction readers won’t shed many tears for religious speech, though, which is why some may overlook more subtle warning signs. How exactly were the world’s powerful existing religions extinguished? Is it really true that seven “Hives” drawn mostly from European traditions are sufficient to categorize all the world’s cultures? Why is it that the leaders of these supposedly rival Hives are nearly all related by blood or marriage and seem to be on better terms with each other than they are with their people? Why do essentially no ordinary people even appear as named characters in the book? Why is it that in this supposedly tolerant and benevolent future, the ordinary people that do appear are violent xenophobes?

The answer to all these questions could, of course, be that Ada Palmer simply didn’t think things through. Interviews she has given suggest that in fact she has, but we need not resort to appeals to her authority. Here I benefited greatly from rereading the novel, for when looking at these issues from the beginning, all sorts of throwaway remarks by Mycroft or other characters add to the impression that there’s quite a bit rotten in this particular Denmark. For example, in exactly one brief anecdote we learn that the hive system was created by the world’s rich, the postnational Davos set (though that label is of course not used), and that it was imposed on the rest through propaganda and probably warfare. Another example is the way the current rulers of the allegedly democratic Hives got where they are through family connections with the previous generation of rulers and frequently make comments that assume their own children should have ready access “to the high offices”.

But the biggest reason why it’s hard to see the future as anything but wonderful and the governments as anything but beneficent is the way Mycroft describes the Hives and their leaders. He is effusive in his praise for their wisdom, intelligence, charisma, and even beauty. He frequently stops to comment on how enlightened his culture’s system of religious repression is, how much of an improvement Hives were compared to nations, and so on. It’s very easy to assume that Mycroft loves this society, and therefore Ada Palmer loves this society, and that you as the reader are supposed to love it too. But in fact none of these conclusions follow. Again and again it is emphasized that although the novel was written by Ada Palmer, historian and science fiction author, the text was written by Mycroft Canner, arch-criminal in captivity, writing at the command of some of the very leaders he is extolling. While a full analysis must wait until Seven Surrenders or perhaps even the following two books, it seemed increasingly likely as I reread the novel that Mycroft is an insidiously unreliable narrator. I wouldn’t put it past him (and Ada Palmer) to outright lie about some fact or other, but more likely his unreliability consists of his shaping the narrative to the desires of those forcing him to write it and, he even mentions, at times literally reading over his shoulder. So of course he describes them as the good and the beautiful, born to be the just rulers of this world. Mycroft’s true feelings might be evident from the fact he asks us to apply the wisdom of the eighteenth century, yet when it comes to the ruling order he leaves this as an exercise for the reader. The reason why should be obvious: far from the wise rulers Mycroft portrays, to any of the eighteenth century thinkers he valorizes, the elite that rule the Hives would clearly be an ancien régime, a bunch of nepotistic aristocrats fighting vainly against the tide of history to preserve their petty power and dignity.

A novel this gloriously complex has many influences, but for me it’s hard to look past one obvious one: Gene Wolfe, particularly his Book of the New Sun. This is not to say that Palmer is simply rehashing Wolfe’s work; quite the contrary, she’s taking aspects of his work and carrying them in new directions. Book of the New Sun is a masterpiece but it’s hard to recommend because of it’s unlikable narrator, its questionable treatment of female characters, and, most of all, its uncompromising refusal to give the reader any assistance in understanding what’s going on in a first reading. Too Like the Lightning doesn’t have Book of the New Sun‘s beautiful language or dreamlike atmosphere, but it does have a delightfully unreliable narrator, a subtle and complex story that rewards close reading and even rereading, and a constantly thoughtful deployment of philosophical ideas drawn from sources the reader is unlikely to be familiar with. Yet it takes these aspects and puts them in a novel with a likable narrator, a thoroughly modern (albeit unusual) approach to gender, and a surface narrative that doesn’t leave the reader at sea. I love Gene Wolfe’s fiction, but it’s long since time for someone to step up and beat him at his own game. Too Like the Lightning is a first wonderful step in that direction, but the job’s not finished. Apparently this too is a four book series, so a full verdict may have to wait, but today I’m going to eagerly start reading Seven Surrenders to find out whether lightning can strike twice.

Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

April 15, 2016 at 11:01 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Elsewhere, Science Fiction, Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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luna-new-moon.jpgUnfortunately I haven’t had time lately to review books I’ve been reading on this blog, but I’m still alive and, as ever, hoping to get back to writing more here in the future. In the meantime, Strange Horizons has published my review of Ian McDonald’s Luna: New Moon.

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

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

The Echo by James Smythe

April 1, 2014 at 1:47 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Elsewhere, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

The Echo coverIn what I’m pretty sure is a first for me, Strange Horizons has posted my second review for them in two months, this time of The Echo, James Smythe’s sequel to The Explorer.

The Cusanus Game by Wolfgang Jeschke

February 18, 2014 at 12:51 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Elsewhere, Science Fiction | 1 Comment
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The Cusanus Game coverLast week Strange Horizons published my review of Wolfgang Jeschke’s 2005 novel The Cusanus Game, recently translated into English for the first time.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

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

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