Saturday, April 30, 2011

All the Lives He Led - Frederik Pohl

Frederik Pohl sold his first work in 1937. Now, seventy-four years later, a new novel hits the selves. I don't think many authors can boast such a long career. I've read several of Pohl's novels as well as Platinum Pohl, a best of collection of short fiction and I very much like the often slightly satiric nature of his work. The second half of the 1970s are usually considered the best period in his writing career but Pohl has been producing a steady stream of new books, sometimes in collaboration with others, in the last two decades. The only book from this late period in his career I have read was The Last Theorem, his collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke. It was also the first book by Pohl I have read so, perhaps unfairly, I saw it mostly as Clarke's last novel back then. Thinking back on it, I can more clearly see Pohl's hand in the novel.

All the Lives He Led is set in the year 2079 and tells the unusual life story of Brad Sheridan. Brad lives in a world that has changed drastically from ours after the super volcano in Yellowstone erupted and covered a large part of the USA in ash. The decline of US military and economic power has changed the balance of power considerably. In a multi-polar world, no-one is really in control, giving rise to countless smaller and larger terrorist groups with a wide variety of causes they fight for. None of that interests Brad, he is just a small time criminal whose family has lost their wealth to Yellowstone. To support his parents he eventually sells the only thing he possesses, his labour, and heads east to work under indenture in Cairo. When his slightly illegal side line trading threatens to get him in trouble again, it is time to move. To Italy this time, where is has an opportunity to work at a theme park dedicated to the eruption of the Vesuvius that destroyed the Roman town of Pompeii two-thousand years ago. It is not the end of his troubles though.

Pohl uses a first person point of view for his story, Brad tells us his story looking back on events. A choice that limits him somewhat over the course of the novel. Brad, although in the possession of a generous dose of street smarts, is not a terribly well educated man. The author makes this apparent with the voice he gives Brad. It's a straightforward way of speaking, not very philosophical or inclined to challenge the reality of his day to day life. I guess Pohl must have found it hard to keep this way of writing going for the entire novel, he slips a number of times along the way, changing into a tone of voice that does not fit what we know of Brad very well. Still, I have a weakness for first person points of view, so over all I quite enjoyed this aspect of the novel.

That is not to say there aren't aspects I had more problems with. Brad is not a character who has eye of what is going on in the world around him unless it influences him directly. He introduces what is going on in the world, and how it gets him in trouble this time, when it becomes important to him. Unfortunate that makes the plot of the novel at bit of a ramble. The objectives of the people who get Brad into trouble remains unclear for much of the novel, with the reader only finding out what is going on when the penny drops for Brad. The first part of the novel seemed lacking direction because of it. It might have been me, but it took me forever to figure out he motives of the people who put Brad in such a predicament.

When it does become clear, Pohl has some serious trouble making me believe it as well. The author has often worked environmental themes, overpopulation in particular, into his stories. One early example can be found in his 1953 collaboration with C.M. Kornbluth The Space Merchants. In this novel pops up again, with one of the characters making a good case, in a rather roundabout way, for reducing the world's population. Of course their proposed solution is so drastic that even a man who is not adverse to conning people out of money, or even outright robbery, is going to entertain the thought for more that a moment. It made the conclusion of the novel a bit bland. The moral dilemma Brad faces is not such a difficult choice after all.

Although I generally enjoy Pohl's writing, I don't think this is a particularly strong example of his work. There is the slightly satiric tone that is his trademark of course. It reads quickly but when it comes to the plot and the first person narration I'm not terribly impressed. The scope and impact of the events Brad describes seem to be a bit of far-reaching than the first person point of view can carry. All the Lives He Led is an entertaining read but doesn't reach the level of some of Pohl's other novels. Maybe something a real completest will want to read but I very much doubt it will end up on any of the year's best lists. In short, I had hoped for a bit more.

Book Details
Title: All the Lives He Led
Author: Frederik Pohl
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 347
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2176-3
First published: 2011

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

More Books in the Mail

I received a package from the good folks at Seventh Star Press this weekend containing a number interesting titles. The first two books in Stephen Zimmer's Fires in Eden series as well as a copy of Thrall by Steven Shrewsbury. There will be reviews, possibly quite soon.

From the back of the books:

Crown of Vengeance by Stephen Zimmer

On a night that begins no different from any other, strange mists engulf Janus Roland, Erika Laesig, Mershad Shahab, and several others going about their lives in a quiet midwestern town. When the mist dissipates, they all find themselves looking up into the bright skies of a new, incredible world.

Without explanation of why it has happened, or any notion of where they are, they embark upon a grand adventure within the fantastical world of Ave. Some find themselves in the lands of the Saxan Kingdom, while others have emerged within the lands of the Onan, one of the tribes in the Five Realms confederation.

Storms of war loom over both Saxany and the Five Realms, as invasion forces mass under the inspiration of The Unifier, a mysterious, captivating figure whose influence has swept across the surface of Ave ever since His rise to power in the Gallean duchy of Avanor. It is a war that will be fought in the skies, upon the seas, on land, and even in places non-physical in nature.

A majestic, epic fantasy that begins many adventures and journeys across a diverse and enthralling world, filled with races and creatures both familiar and new, Crown of Vengeance lights the flame of the Fires in Eden series, bringing to life a bold, far-ranging, and grand new venture within the realms of fantasy literature.

Dream of Legends by Stephen Zimmer

For Janus and the other exiles from a modern world, finding themselves in the fantastical lands of Ave was just the beginning. The assault upon the Kingdom of Saxany and the tribes of the Five Realms ignites, as the eyes of The Unifier turn southward, across the seas towards faraway Midragard. A desperate, dangerous time looms, when all will be swept up in the tides of war rippling out from Avanor.

Yet in the heart of the maelstrom, several lights begin to shine through the darkness. Some are on a path of discovery, to uncover the power that lies within, while others will brave perilous journeys, to seek out the things said to exist only in the faded mists of myth and legend. In the face of monstrous adversaries, massive armies, and even horrific entities summoned from infernal depths, courage and honor become the sword and shield in the hands of those who choose to resist.

Book Two of the Fires in Eden Series, Dream of Legends is immersive, epic fantasy, for those who love to explore richly developed fantasy worlds alongside an ensemble of intriguing, diverse characters. Readers of the great epic fantasy authors such as Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, and J.R.R. Tolkien will find a wondrous trove of adventure, characters, and depth in this next step of the Fires in Eden series.

Thrall by Steven Shrewsbury

Set in the mists of ancient times, Thrall tells the story of Gorias La Gaul, an aging warrior who has lived for centuries battling the monstrosities of legend and lore. It is an age when the Nephilum walk the earth, demonic forces hunger to be unleashed, and dragons still soar through the skies … living and undead. On a journey to find one of his own blood, a young man who is caught in the shadow of necromancy, Gorias’ path crosses with familiar enemies, some of whom not even death can hold bound.

Thrall is gritty, dark-edged heroic fantasy in the vein of Robert E. Howard and David Gemmell. It is a maelstrom of hard-hitting action and unpredictable imagery, taking place within an incredible antediluvian world. In Gorias La Gaul, Thrall introduces an iconic new character to the realms of fantasy literature. Thrall invites the reader to go on a perilous journey where it is not a matter of whether one has the courage to die, but whether one has the courage to live.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Land of Painted Caves - Jean M. Auel

The Land of Painted Caves is the sixth and final volume in Auel's Earth Children series. It has taken her more than three decades to complete the series, the previous part, The Shelters of Stone, appeared in 2002. Auel has sold millions of books in the past thirty years, this is definitely one of the big releases of 2011. The publisher even pushed back the publication date so that is could be released in a bunch of different languages at the same date. Although her first novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear is highly regarded, the rest of the series is not as well thought of. And with reason, Ayla's story is taken far beyond what could be considered realistic, with human technological and social development making huge jumps whenever she is around. I must admit, I mostly read this book because I wanted to finish the series. My expectations were not all that high. Despite that, Auel still managed to disappoint me.

We pick up Ayla's story shortly after the end of The Shelter's of Stone. She has been accepted into the Zelandonii, the people of her mate Jondalar, and has made such an impression that she is one of the high status members of her new Cave. With status come expectations and obligations. The spiritual leader of the Cave sees in her a successor that could one day be the most prominent among all the Caves who consider themselves Zelandonii. Training to become a Zelandoni is demanding though, Ayla finds it hard to combine her training with spending enough time with Jolandar and their daughter Jonayla. She needs to find a new balance between her family live and the spiritual needs of the Cave.

This book has so many problems I don't even know where to begin. It struggles with the legacy of the five previous parts for one. Ayla has developed into a prehistoric Mary Sue and this is not easily set aside. Nor does Auel try, in the first chapter we get a nice description of Ayla's superhuman senses and that is just the beginning. Just about all of Ayla's major achievements are repeated in the book and Auel adds a few more. The suspicion that having sex is in fact related to having babies is still niggling in the back of Ayla's mind. When this fact is revealed to the Zelandonii, she sets a chain of social changes in motion that will lead to monogamy and marriage. I've always had a bit of trouble accepting that prehistoric man didn't make the link between sex and procreation. It seems terribly unlikely to me but Auel needs it to support her model of Zelandonii society. Having the entire plot of the book devoted to this issue wasn't likely to make me enjoy this book. I guess given the developments in previous books it was inescapable though. Interestingly enough, the question whether or not this change is an improvement, doesn't receive a lot of attention in the book.

A second major problem with The Land of Painted Caves is the fact that is has such a thin plot that it doesn't justify the large number of pages Auel needs to tell the story. This book is so well padded that I could believe it would be able to survive in an Ice Age climate. There are countless repetitions of events in previous books, all neatly summarized, inserted into the story. I think the author could have had a little more faith in her readers, most of them will have read the previous books. The repetitions don't stop there unfortunately. Surprise at Ayla's animal companions is included in every description of a new group of people she encounters. Ayla's accent is commented on over and over again. The Mother Song, the Zelandonii story of creation, is repeated half a dozen times, in part or entirely. There are countless lengthy introduction rituals, something Auel herself seems to get tired of, later on in the book most of them are mercifully abbreviated.

Another thing repeated over and over are descriptions of cave paintings. Ayla visits just about every major archaeological site in the region and Auel lavishly describes the images found in those caves. Auel probably put in too many but I must admit, that despite the fact that some of it was superfluous and slowed the plot of the first part of the novel to a crawl, I liked this aspect of the book. I've been in the part of what is now France once and saw some of the sites Auel describes back then. The paintings are an impressive sight. As usual, Auel has done a lot of research on this topic and it shows in the writing. Her knowledge of the period is very impressive and even if it does not always make for a good story, I deeply respect the time and effort Auel put in researching these books.

Another criticism that is usually directed at books 2-5 in this series is the copious amount of explicitly described sex. Personally it never bothered me but together with the general Mary Sue characteristics of Ayla, it does make some parts of these books read like a romance novel. People who objected to it, will be glad to hear the sex is mostly gone from this book. Despite the focus on procreation, Ayla has other things on her mind. I guess young children were a good contraceptive in the Pleistocene as well.

For the die-hard fans of this series, The Land of Painted Caves will probably be an acceptable offering. For me, the books shows so many flaws and has such a meagre plot that I had some serious trouble pushing though the last part of the book. If you are desperate to find out how Ayla's story ends, you might want to read it. For the less obsessed readers, I suggest you skip this one. Despite the impressive amount of research that is the foundation of the series, The Land of Painted Caves is one of the weakest books I have read this year. I suspect this book is going to disappoint a lot of readers.

Book Details
Title: The Land of the Painted Caves
Author: Jean M. Auel
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 661
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-340-82425-2
First published: 2011

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Number 200 Will Be...

I got quite a few suggestions at my question which book should be the 200th work reviewed on Random Comments, making it quite difficult for me to pick one. Thank you all for your suggestions and let's have a look at the list I've got.

n suggested three works. God's War by Kameron Hurley, Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin and The Orphan's Tales by Catherynne M. Valente. I already own an e-book of God's War. It is on the to read list for sometime later this year so for #200 I will skip it. Le Guin is of course an excellent suggestion. I have read (and reviewed) several of her books and there is another one on its way as we speak. Since Le Guin is not an author I wouldn't ordinarily have read, I am not going to pick that one either. There will be more reviews of her work at some point though. The Orphan's Tales... If I'm not mistaking, those are actually two books. They look tempting but I think I'll go with a single volume.

Elfy suggested something by either Terry Pratchett or Jasper Fforde. I have read the first eight Discworld novels but I am not familiar with the work of Fforde. Both of them are male however, so I'm afraid they are not going to be #200 either.

Moving on to The_Arnout. He suggested Among Others by Jo Walton. Again a tempting suggestion. I haven't read any of Walton's fiction but I do enjoy the reviews she is doing for a lot. In fact, the only reason why I haven't picked it up yet is because there are an awful lot of books coming out in March and April I wanted to read. Again this is one I will get to eventually but not just now.

De Herrezen Draak, for those who you who don't speak English, he seems to think he is Rand al'Thor, suggests Wolfblade by Jennifer Fallon. Her books seem to be doing well in Dutch translation. It doesn't look all that appealing to me and I think it might actually the 4th book, or the first in a second trilogy of a longer series. Don't think I'll pick this one up.

Katharina and Hélène thought it should be The Many Colored Land by Julian May. My only experience with her writing is the unmitigated disaster Black Trillium, for which she admittedly is only one thirds responsible. I don't think I'd be tempted to pick up another book by May because of this without a nudge. I guess that makes it a very good candidate. Unfortunately The Bookdepository doesn't have it available. At least not a paper version, I refuse to let someone else do my own reading for me.

Schlimanzlnik suggested The Though Guide To Fantasyland by the late Diana Wynne Jones. It's the only non-fiction suggestion on the list. I've only reviewed one non-fiction work on Random Comments so far (Dreamer of Dune, a bibliography of Frank Herbert) so that alone makes it challenging (or to put it in other words, I expect it to be a pain in the backside to review). Still, the description of the book appeals to me and it is certainly not something I would have considered myself and it is available. I guess this is going to be the one.

The Though Guide To Fantasyland it is, but I must admit is ordered a copy of Among Others as well. I guess the to read list will just have to put up with one more addition ;)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Inheritance - Robin Hobb and Megan Lindholm

One of my earlier endeavours in Fantasy was reading Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy back when they were first translated into Dutch in the late 1990s. My feeling on some of the authors I read back then, Raymond E. Feist, Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, have changed considerably but Robin Hobb has remained one of my all time favourites. So much so that I am contemplating replacing some my Dutch language copies with English ones in the not too distant future. I now own six Hobb books in Dutch translation only. The rest is in English. Before starting her writings in the Realms of the Elderings, Hobb published 10 novels under the name Megan Lindholm. Currently, I have read eight of them. The tend to be more varied in choice of setting and themes, resulting in some very interesting novels, but not the popularity of her other pseudonym. The Inheritance is a collection of shorter pieces that combines the authors two voices. It contains seven pieces published under Megan Lindholm and three as Robing Hobb.

To highlight the difference between these two pseudonyms Voyager has made an edition with two covers, more of less in the style of the old Ace Doubles. The back cover is printed upside down but you can start reading at the back, the text assumes the Robin Hobb side of the book is the front. I've seen a lot of criticism directed at the Voyager covers for the Robin Hobb books. Personally I kinda like this one. Maybe because I am a cat person. The author provides brief introductions to each of the stories, usually with a bit of information about how the story came to be. I very much enjoyed reading those. One thing I think is missing from this edition is a publishing history of the stories it contains. I am pretty sure there is at least one, possibly two original stories in the collection but I have no idea when some of the others were first published. Bit of an oversight if you ask me.

While the front of the book features the name of Robin Hobb, the collection starts with the Megan Lindholm pieces. It opens with A Touch of Lavender, the longest Lindholm piece in the collection and one most clearly recognizable as science fiction. It is set in a world were an alien race referred to as Skoags have landed on Earth. In a effort to pry their secrets of interstellar space travel from them, the US government is taking care of them best they can. Much to disgust of some of the people living on welfare. The aliens are paid from their budget. We see the story through the eyes of a young boy from a broken family. He lives with his mother in a crappy apartment in poverty and soon ends up in a circle of hope, disappointment, neglect and substance abuse. If there is one thing that Hobb and Lindholm share it is their tendency to make their characters suffer. This story works very well for me on two levels. There is of course the question what these aliens are doing on Earth, something that will intrigue the science fiction reader. On the other hand there is also the drama of a dysfunctional family, something Lindholm highlights when one of the aliens steps into the role of father figure. It's an interesting mix and a strong opening of the collection.

Silver Lady and the Fortyish Man is the second story in the collection. It is written from the point of view of a 35 year old woman. She's an aspiring author and works not quite enough hours at Sears to make ends meet. She's also lonely, unhappy with her job and stuck in her writing career. Then she meets the Fortyish Man, who, with a dash of the supernatural, brings back joy in her life. Hobb has put events from her own life in pretty much all her fiction but this one is probably closest to autobiographical we get in this collection. She wrote it for her husband on the occasion of his fortieth birthday. It's very personal. I strongly suspect those two are the only two people on the planet who can really really see it for what it is.

There are a couple of Lindholm stories in this collection that are written to make the reader very uncomfortable. Cut is one of them. It deals with the question of how far someone can go, or should be allowed to go, in changing their bodies. Should a person be allowed full control over such matters are tattoos, piercings, burns or cosmetic surgery? Where do you draw the line between necessary and cosmetic? What if someone wants to voluntarily undergo a (female) circumcision? And how far would you go to stop someone from making the mistake of a lifetime? It's unsettling, though-provoking and brilliant. If you only ever read one story by Lindholm, make it this one.

Cats are quite common in both the Lindholm and Hobb stories. The Fifth Squashed Cat is one of three with a reference to the creatures in the title. It's a rather unusual Fantasy. We get to see the story through the eyes of the person who does not believe in magic. How many stories have you read where the protagonist is forced to admit there is magic in the world and continues to develop their talents in that area? What if you make another choice? This story features both the sensible choice and a taste of missed opportunity. And for a change it is the cats that get abused.

In Strays we get to see cats in quite a different form. Like the opening story of this collection it features a child growing up in an environment of abuse, neglect and drug use. This time we see the story through the eyes of someone from a more privileged, but still single parent, family. It's a nice Urban Fantasy but not my favourite of the collection. It's pretty clear in which the direction of the story is heading early on. I must admit Lindholm managed to write an interesting and incredibly strong character in the neglected girl Lonnie though.

Finis is the only story in the collection I didn't like. It's a vampire tale with a twist I suppose. The fact that a story has a vampire in it was never a recommendation in my mind, even before the onslaught of sparkly vampires I didn't really like these kind of stories. To make matters worse I saw the shape of the story on the third of twelve pages, after which it failed to hold my attention. It may work better for other readers though.

The final Lindholm story in the collection is The Drum Machine. It's one of the stories that is written to make the reader uncomfortable again. I guess you could call it a dystopia. It is set in a future where having children as perfect as possible is the norm. Random combinations of genes and the risk of hereditary disease is seen as an unwanted burden on the tax payers who eventually have to cover the cost of these less productive members of society. Lindholm draws a parallel between music and making babies that is quite interesting. Allowing randomness and experimentation is a risk. One that might make the composition, or the baby, better. Or worse. The society Lindholm describes doesn't take risks, something the main character approves of, both in music and procreation. The result is disturbingly mediocre. Great story, I think it his one of the originals, might make a good one for awards season next year.

The last three stories were written under the Robin Hobb pseudonym and all three are set in the Realm of the Elderlings. They take up slightly more than half the pages in this collection and this is one of the main differences between Hobb and Lindholm. Hobb writes epic fantasy, Lindholm writes more to the point. The first Hobb piece in the collection is the only one I have read before. Homecoming was published in Dutch as a novella in 2005. I enjoyed reading it back then and my opinion of it hasn't changed.

Homecoming is written as a diary and set well before any of the novels in this setting. It set well before any of the novels and deals with an exiled Jamalian noble couple, who's only chance to regain their rulers favour is in a successful colonization of the aptly named Cursed Shore. Her husband, who is of the opinion that women should be occupied with the arts and other less worldly pursuits and leave politics and economy to the men, hasn't seen it fit to tell her of their desperate situation. As the voyage progresses, the reality of it sinks in.

There's a great rift in this story between people who keep themselves going by fooling themselves into thinking they will one day return to Jamalia rich, and those who see that survival should be their first priority and that the chances of ever returning are minimal. Hobb shows the breakdown of old social structures very well. The author of diary is convinced of her status in the first stage of their journey but forced to let go later on. Something other members of the party have more trouble with. The lack of planning ahead, fulfilling immediate desires and chasing impossible dreams take disturbing proportions in the tale. It's a very nice look at the origins of the Rain Wilds settlements. Also note the subtle shift in language. The first entries are written by a well educated lady, a bit verbose, quite formal. In later entries the language becomes more direct.

The second Hobb story is the one that gives the collection it's title. The Inheritance is set in Bingtown for the most part. It deals with Cerise, a young woman who is turned out of her house after her grandmother, whom she's been taking care of, dies. Her inheritance consists of a few pieces of jewellery, among than an pendant made of Wizard Wood. It tells her the life story of her grandmother and how she lost her fortune. The pendant can help her get her inheritance back or so it tells her. Like other art made from Wizard Wood the pendant struck me a quite manipulative. On the one hand you feel sorry for Cerise, on the other hand, it smells of ordinary revenge.

Cat's Meat is the final story in the collection and I think this may be another original. It takes us to the Six Duchies where Rosemary is trying to make ends meet after her dashing lover left her for an other woman, leaving her to take care of their young son. After several years of absence, he returns, telling her he has come home. Rosemary can't just turn him out, the cottage she lives in is the legal property of their son, not hers. She is not happy to see him again though, with good reason as it turns out.

As with the previous two Hobb stories, it features a strong female character and an irresponsible, selfish male. The story also shows us a bit of the Wit, one of the two forms of magic found in the Six Duchies. All cats have it, something most cat owners would agree with. Rosemary's tomcat is quite surprised that she allows this rival into their house. The cat's point of view in this story is quite interesting. Again, the story leaves the reader with a sense that justice has not quite been served here. Cat's Meat is a thrilling tale, I read it in one go and I think most readers would have trouble putting it down. I think I like Homecoming better but there is not much between these very different novellas.

This collection is not a complete overview of the short fiction Lindholm and Hobb have produced but it clearly showcases that variety of works the author is capable of. Overall I thought The Inheritance is a strong collection. There's only one piece I consider weak, which is about as good as most collections get. It's also a good introduction to the Megan Lindholm side of the author's writing. Although I love the Hobb stories, I think this pseudonym does limit her to the more traditional epic fantasy. Lindholm's work shows she is capable of much more. Sometimes it is a gamble, not all of it is great, but some of her best work has been released under the Lindholm pseudonym. Which makes me wonder if The Drum Machine is not trying to tell us something about writing as well.

Book Details
Title: The Inheritance
Author: Robin Hobb and Megan Lindholm
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 400
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-00-727377-5
First published: 2011

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

WWW: Wonder - Robert J. Sawyer

The final part in Robert J. Sawyer's latest trilogy was released earlier this month. I liked the first novel, WWW: Wake, a lot so I've kept an eye out for the sequels. Unfortunately I thought the second part WWW: Watch, which I read earlier this year, was not nearly as strong as the first. I hate to leave series unfinished however, so let's have a go at the third book. WWW: Wonder is the sixth book by Sawyer I've read, and in all six he has the tendency to bludgeon the reader with his views on science, religion and society. Even for me and, by and large, I agree with his views, this does not make for good reading. The previous novel in this trilogy was particularly marred by this and as a result I enjoyed it a lot less than book one. WWW: Wonder does not escape it entirely but my fear that the WWW trilogy would end in a disappointment similar to the Neanderthal Parallax, didn't materialize either. It does have a few aspects I am not thrilled about though.

The secret of Webmind's existence is out, he has introduced himself to the general public and launched a PR-offensive by eliminating all spam e-mail from the Internet. Still, not everybody is convinced of Webmind's good intentions and the pressure to find a way to get rid of him persists. In the mean time, Caitlin Decter is enjoying her 15 minutes of fame. She has been taken from school after a run-in with the Canadian intelligence service and is now being home schooled. Although Webmind is now free to chat with just about everybody on the planet with an Internet connection, Caitlin, or prime as he sometimes thinks of her, remains special. Her input will be crucial in creating a place for himself in human society.

In WWW: Watch, Sawyer managed to create and atmosphere of subdued suspicion. The people at WATCH, who are paid to be suspicious, didn't quite manage to convince me that Webmind was a genuine threat. On the other hand, Webmind wasn't too successful in convincing me otherwise either. It was one of the stronger parts of the previous novel. Sawyer is much more explicit in that respect in WWW: Wonder. The character of Colonel Hume, someone who is determined to see Webmind cleansed of the Internet, uncovers some disturbing facts. Some of the best hackers known to the intelligence community, people whom Hume considers capable of writing the code necessary to achieve Webmind's eradication, are disappearing. Suspicious, but not really Webmind's style.

While Webmind sets off all Hume's alarm bells, his behaviour as witnessed by the rest of the planet becomes increasingly that of humanity's saviour. One of the works is finding a cure for cancer, or more accurately, combining all human knowledge (found on the Internet) on it and combining it in new ways that suggests a possible cure. He reunited people who have lost track of each other, prevents crime and uses his Big Brother capabilities for a lot of other good causes as well. Where in the previous novel Webmind makes you suspicious, these two extremes are so far apart that is seems almost impossible we're talking about the same entity here. I appreciate Sawyer's attempt to break away from the line of reasoning, and countless science fiction novels, that an artificial intelligence will automatically see humans as inferior and a threat (or worse, a pest to be exterminated). It is definitely a theme that sets this trilogy apart from other novels, but a slightly more subtle approach would have been nice.

One other fascinating idea that pops up in this novel is what happens if part of the Internet is disconnected from the rest, thus splitting Webmind in two parts. Somewhere along the line, I can remember if it was in the first or second book, perhaps both, Sawyer already mentions that a certain threshold, a minimum of complexity in the system needs to be reached in order for Webmind to remain conscious. Here, both parts are seriously diminished, causing the smaller of the two parts to behave erratic. Again, Sawyer chooses to go for an extreme here and portrays the smaller part of Webmind as some sort of evil twin. I thought this part of the story a bit underdeveloped. Why does one part of Webmind seek to reunite the two entities where the other doesn't even seem to be aware of the other or the loss of such a large part of itself? It could have made a very interesting story line, with possibilities for parallels with certain psychological conditions for instance. Its a pity the author doesn't dig a bit deeper here.

I don't consider WWW: Wonder a great novel but there is still a nice mix of ideas on consciousness, information technology and the sheer impact the Internet is having on today's society. Sawyer also includes a little less Canadian peculiarities into this book, which is a good thing. I am all for cultural diversity but if you do decide to include it, please make sure it is relevant to the story. Despite my quibbles with some aspects of the novel, it was an enjoyable read. Sawyer concludes the book with an epilogue reminiscent of the writing of Arthur C. Clarke, which I though was a nice touch. On the whole the trilogy left me with the feeling that it leaned a bit too heavily on interesting ideas at the expense of a good plot. I guess Sawyer's book is not unlike Webmind in that respect. Good at combining already existing information into new patterns, but a little light on artistic creativity.

Book Details
Title: WWW: Wonder
Author: Robert J. Sawyer
Publisher: Ace Books
Pages: 338
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-441-01976-2
First published: 2011

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Aproaching 200, Taking Requests

My latest review, A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin is the 190th work I've reviewed on Random Comments. Looks like I will hit 200 sometime in May. When I approached 100, I let the readers of this blog make suggestions of what it would be and I ended up reviewing Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Not a book I would have picked otherwise but I enjoyed reading it a lot. What's more, it is one of the most popular reviews on Random Comments. Only my review of Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel has attracted more hits. So let's see what you can come up with this time.

Which author or book have I shamefully omitted in my coverage, who do you think I should read given my reading habits (see review index for the complete list) or what book would you just like my opinion on?

A couple of rules. Since I am still failing to review a decent number of books by women, let's limit this one to female authors. It has to be in a language I can read, so Dutch or English. Please don't name book six in a twelve book series I haven't read (I will consider book one). Don't name your own book, there are other ways to get that reviewed ;) and last but not least, pick something you're reasonably sure is still in print or I won't be able to get a copy in time. The most interesting, outrageous suggestion will get the review. Motivated suggestions stand a better chance of being picked.

I'll leave comments open for a week. So what'll it be?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin

With all the attention the HBO adaptation of Martin's most popular novel has been getting, there is no way I could not reread it. Personally, I pretty much always prefer books over movies of television but I may be persuaded to give this series a go. I've been a fan of Martin's writing for quite a while now and I discovered his work though this book. The first time I read it was in Dutch translation, Het Spel der Tronen, in 2000. The other books followed soon after. Since reading A Game of Thrones for the first time, I have read much more of Martin's work and I must admit, I like his short fiction better. When it comes to novels The Armageddon Rag is probably my favourite, although I may change my mind if he ever decides to finish Black and White and Red All Over. Martin is a pretty versatile writer, having written horror, science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction and not looking beyond A Song of Ice and Fire is a shame. That being said, this series is no doubt what he'll be most remembered for.

Once, House Stark ruled the north of the continent of Westeros as kings, but after the invasion of the Targaryens, several centuries ago, the continent has been united under one ruler. In his youth, Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, helped the current king, Robert Baratheon, overthrow the decadent Targaryen dynasty and claim the throne for himself. Now, King Robert is once again calling upon Eddard's help. Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King, the second most powerful figure in the Seven Kingdoms, has recently died and the King has realized he is better at seizing thrones than sitting on them. Robert needs someone who is not afraid to speak up to him to help him rule his kingdom. Eddard is a man of honour, he cannot refuse his old friend, even if he has doubt about the wisdom of his decision.

Eddard and his family are soon caught up in the Machiavellian politics of King's Landing. Navigating between the Queen's family, the Lannisters, aiming to increase their already formidable influence, the various fractions at the court, including the sleek Peter Baelish and the sophisticated eunuch and spy master Varys, proves to be quite a challenge. On top of this there is the niggling suspicion that Arryn's death was not a natural one. Eddard begins to suspect he was killed to cover up a secret. As if the internal politics of the Seven Kingdoms were not complicated enough, the shadow of Viserys and Danerys the last members of house Targaryen looms over the realm. These are unsettling times. The Starks would do well to remember their own motto: Winter is Coming.

When Martin started writing this novel he had more than a decade as a screenwriter in Hollywood to his name, working for such series as Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast. One of his frequent frustrations of that particular job was that his first draft always had to be rewritten because it would be too expensive to produce in terms of cast, locations, sets and special effects. A problem a fantasy novel never faces. As a result, A Game of Thrones is epic in every sense of the word. It has a huge cast and a total of eight point of views in this book (most of them Starks). Martin will add quite a few more in the sequels. It also has descriptions of large fortifications, a variety of landscapes as seven-hundred foot wall of ice etc. In other worlds, Martin did just about everything he could think of to make sure it would not end up on the big screen or on television. And still, HBO is giving it a shot.

I must admit, I am not entirely surprised someone is trying anyway. Even taking into account the vastly improved CGI techniques, Martin has not left his screenwriter past in this novel. There's lots of short, snappy chapters, some very nice cliffhanger endings, sharply draw, easy to identify with characters and of course the great tragedy of a re-imagining of one of the most dramatic periods in English history, the War of the Roses. Yes, I can believe he was still in episode writing mode when he started on this novel. I remember to pace of the novel going down and the length of the chapters increasing in later books but I will need a reread to see how accurate my memory is on this point.

So what makes this book worth investing millions of dollars in? Well, at first glance it doesn't start all that much different from many other fantasy novels. An ancient threat, thought to be a fairy tale by many, is revealed in the prologue. The honourable and slightly naive Eddard and his family, hailing from an isolated part of the continent where people follow the old ways, are dragged into an a political game against their will, playing for their lives and ultimately, salvation of the continent. The story opens with dire omens, in fact the discovery of a dead Direwolf, killed by a piece of antler in the throat, is a nice summary of the entire Westeros side of the story. On top of that there's a sense of past glory to the book, mentioning of dragons, lots of swords and armour, a medieval setting borrowed from English history, all pretty much standard fantasy stuff. It is however, written by a man who is at the peak of his ability. Tempered by years writing short fiction, novels and screenplays and editing books, Martin knows how to write a good tale, even if it is firmly rooted in some of the most overused clichés of the genre.

A Game of Thrones is a novel that stands on its own a little better than the sequels. Although it is clear Martin has not finished the tale, he delivers a good climax of the novel and reveals the answer to the riddle of Arryn's death, which sets off the whole chain of events the books describe. Structurally, he writes the story back to where it started, with a beheading and a creature not seen in living memory, which I thought was a particularly nice touch. One of the things that clearly hints at a much longer tale is the minimal connection between events in Westeros and the Targaryen story line set on another continent. The are vaguely aware of each other but so few references to the other story line is made in Danerys' chapters that Martin released it as a separate novella (and won a Hugo in 1997). Her story is definitely one of the most interesting parts in the novel. Her transformation from a homeless girl being dragged across the world by her bitter, angry and arrogant brother to a confident Dothraki Khaleesi, is one of my favourite parts of the novel.

When I first read this novel more than ten years ago, I hadn't read as much speculative fiction as I have now. Back then, I thought fantasy couldn't get much better. Martin himself and many others have proven me wrong of course. A Game of Thrones is a very good novel but not until the second and third book does the real impact of what Martin is attempting to do become clear. In a way, this novel shares a trait with The Eye of the World, the first novel of that other huge fantasy series The Wheel of Time. It starts out familiar, following the conventions of epic fantasy. It eases the reader into a lengthy series and gets you hooked on a great adventure. Martin is a much better author than Jordan was when he wrote The Eye of the World of course, none of the quibbles I had with the pacing and writing in Jordan's book show up in A Game of Thrones. That being said, it remains the start of a series that has not yet reached its pinnacle. Martin has yet to introduce some of the shades of grey that will make the at times ridiculously honourable Starks more interesting characters, or flesh out Tyrion's troubled relationship with his father and siblings. A Game of Thrones is not the greatest book Martin has ever written, I see it as something of a herald of some of the great things to come in this series. It has done the trick it was meant to perform however. After reading it, I was well and truly hooked. If there weren't quite so many more recent books on the to read stack at the moment, I'd be tempted to dive right into A Clash of Kings.

Book Details
Title: A Game of Thrones
Author: George R.R. Martin
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 835
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-00-647988-X
First published: 1996

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

This Is Not a Game - Walter Jon Williams

Busy, busy, busy this week. I haven't managed to write the review I intended to post today. Instead I'm moving an older one to keep you all occupied. I wrote this one in February 2009. It needed only a little bit of polish to eradicate the most glaring errors. I hope to read the sequel Deep State, which was published in February, sometime but it may be a while before I get around to it.

In the late 1920′s the Belgian surrealist painter Magritte worked on a series of images known as La trahison des images. One of these, a work called eci n’est pas une pipe is probably his best known work. The title of the work appears to be nonsense, the image clearly depicts a pipe, until you realize, and this is the artist’s point, that you are in fact looking at a painting, not a pipe. Or, to put it in more philosophical terms, he points out the difference between an object and a symbol (or image). I have no idea if this painting was actually an inspiration to Williams, one of the downsides of receiving advance reading copies of a book is that you don’t have the clever reviewers to figure these things out for you, but in a way it fits. Throughout the novel Williams let’s the reader wonder if you what you are seeing (or reading) is in what it appears to be. This is not a game. Or is it?

Williams doesn’t mention a specific year but this book has the feel of a near future story. He describes some gadgets that aren’t available to the general public yet, but seem to be just around the corner. At the opening of the book we meet Dagmar who is on her way to Bali for a well earned vacation. Her job is running games organized in part on the Internet and in part in the real word. Dagmar gives the players clues and puzzles that let the player follow the story she’s set out for them. Well timed releases on the Internet and the occasional live event held around the world keeps her audience enthralled.

After successfully completing her latest game with an event staged in India, she hops on a plane to Jakarta. When she arrives there she quickly finds out there will be no planes leaving Jakarta any time soon. The Indonesian currency has collapsed in record time, millions of people see their savings become worthless overnight. The military has closed off the capital and riots soon break out. The Chinese appear to bear the brunt of the rioting but the situation soon turns to all out plundering. Dagmar in the mean time, is caught in a luxurious hotel. Without means of escape, short of cash and with looters encroaching on the hotel grounds Dagmar and her multi-millionaire boss Charlie try to plan her escape from the besieged city. Professional assistance notwithstanding, Dagmar begins to realize the power of her gamer network may be the only way to get out of the city before things get really out of hand.

I guess you could say this novel is well timed. It depicts a number of financial disasters taking place in various places in the world. One of it’s messages I suppose, is that money is an idea. Or to put in in Magritte’s terms, look at a dollar and you see a symbol of wealth, not wealth itself. Somehow, I doubt this will cheer up the bankers who managed to help their business to the brink of ruin recently, but it is a good thought still. Dagmar certainly seems to see things that way. Money in large amounts is an abstraction to her. A feeling a lot of people will recognize as one billion-dollar rescue plan after another disappear into the craters left behind by dubious financial constructions collapsing. Apparently Williams doesn’t believe we’ll learn from this experience.

Throughout the novel, Williams makes the reader very aware that what is happening on the surface may not be what is going on at all. Like the novel the chapters are all titled “This is not…” Especially later in the book this creates slightly paranoid atmosphere that reflects the state of mind of the main character. As Dagmar discovers layer upon layer of seemingly unrelated events that are somehow related, the game and reality become increasingly hard to separate. For Dagmar it doesn’t matter all that much, she plays the game for all she’s worth and she plays it well.

With the story told entirely from Dagmar’s perspective, it is a more straightforward novel than some of the sprawling multiple point of view stories I’ve been reading lately. Williams sets a brisk pace, not bothering the reader with too much back story or technological detail. It makes This Is Not a Game is quite a fast and entertaining read. I would have liked to see social networks and online gaming a bit more widely accepted, Williams doesn’t quite manage to detach the phenomenon from geekdom. Given the current state of affairs, and the fact that is book is very well timed in other respects, I think it would be reasonable to expect greater acceptance in the near future.

If you enjoy a good (techno) thriller this book is as good as it gets. Events frequently outpace the main character keep her, and to an extend the reader, off balance. Williams captures the paranoia, desperations and frustration of the main character very well, without making her completely helpless. Dagmar is used to being in control of the game, when she eventually cuts the strings that move her the result in interesting, unexpected even. In short, I thought This Is Not a Game was a very entertaining read. Not bad at all for my first exposure to Williams’ work.

Book Details
Title: This Is Not a Game
Author: Walter Jon Williams
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 369
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-316-00315-5
First published: 2009

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Sea Thy Mistress - Elizabeth Bear

The Sea Thy Mistress is the third part in one of the most unusual trilogies I've read in recent years. It opened with the steampunkish, post apocalyptic and Norse mythology infused novel All the Windwracked Stars (2008). It then took a step back into history to find the root of the conflict the characters find themselves in. By the Mountain Bound (2009) is a novel that leans much more on mythology and I guess you could call it a bit more traditional fantasy. In The Sea Thy Mistress we pick up the tale of the characters we left at the end of All the Windwracked Stars again. Once again, it is quite different from the other novels. Bear shows the breadth of her skill as a writer in this trilogy, but also takes a risk. It's very unlikely each of these novels will appeal to all readers of this trilogy. Personally, I found By the Mountain Bound the least appealing of the three.

At the end of All the Windwracked Stars, our main character Muire sacrificed herself to prevent another Ragnarök. She went into the sea to become a goddess, the Bearer of Burdens, thereby giving the world another chance at life. She leaves the Grey Wolf Mingan and Cathoair, with his newly acquired immortality, behind in a world that is about to flower again. Thirty-four years after Muire's sacrifice, Aethelred goes to the sea to talk to Muire. The goddess does not make an appearance herself, but when he is about to leave, a child washes ashore, carefully wrapped in seaweed. It turns out to be the son of Cathoair and Muire. Immortal as all angels are and the first new angel to appear in the world since the last crisis.

The boy Cathmar grows up in a world slowly expanding and growing again. That is not to say everybody is happy with this new spring. Mingan is the first to notice a new threat to their new-found peace when the goddess Heythe, a character who played her part in the previous Ragnarök, appears on the scene. Her powers are vast and any direct confrontation between the angels and the goddess is bound to result in the destruction of the angels. Mingan will have to play a deeper game if he wants to survive this. One that will rip open many old wounds.

There is a great contrast in this book between the characters, who bear the burden of guilt, a sense of loss and a longing for redemption, and the setting, which is mostly that of a world on the way to full recovery. It reads almost like a book set in one long spring, even if the story covers some five decades. Time is nothing for the angels after all. This sombre mood that most of the major characters share, in this setting that is mostly young and optimistic, gives the novel a very different atmosphere from All the Windwracked Stars. In that novel Muire's desperation is matched by the sad state the world (shrunken to one city) is in.

The sole exception to this is of course the character of Cathmar. He's the only one of the major players in the novel who does not at least have one lifetime of bitter memories to carry. It is not all that surprising that a rift between him and the other major characters forms later in the novel. Something that is greatly helped along by Heythe's actions. In a way, Cathmar is this bright new world; young, inquisitive, impatient, sexy. I guess I should add gullible or perhaps naive to the list as well. He falls into Heythe's trap easily. To Bear's credit, she keeps the teenage drama to a minimum. In fact, Cathmar is very mature about it when the penny finally drops.

The prose Bear uses in the novel is quite concise. Although she manages to convey the atmosphere of this new, emerging world very well, the author doesn't need that many words to do so. At just over 300 pages it is not a long novel. Most of it is focussed on the emotional lives of the main characters. With in some cases thousands of years of history to draw from, that is more than enough to fill the pages. Although It hough Cathoair more interesting in All the Windwracked Stars, but this time Mingan is my favourite. Events in the previous book have shaped his character to something that is less outright villain but there is still a definite dark edge to him. He plays a deep game in this story, the only one with a chance of success.

I think I prefer All the Windwracked Stars slightly over The Sea Thy Mistress but whatever the reader's preference, there is something to be found in this trilogy to love. Bear uses a lot of tropes, ideas and styles that don't usually show up in a single trilogy, making it something of an experiment. In fact, I am a little surprised Tor, not a publisher to take too many risks, has been persuaded to publish it. Although Bear is a very skilled writer, I don't think much of her work appeals to large groups of readers. In this case, that is clearly a shame. Bear presents some of the most original, well written and challenging speculative fiction of recent years in this trilogy. I'd say take a chance on it, Bear's work is more than worth it.

Book Details
Title: The Sea Thy Mistress
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 334
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1884-8
First published: 2011

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Red Mars - Kim Stanley Robinson

The very first book by Kim Stanley Robinson I read, and the one that got me hooked on this author, was Blue Mars. I probably read it for the first time in 1998. That's right, the first time I read the trilogy, was out of order. The Mars trilogy spans some two centuries and by the time Blue Mars starts, the story has been under way for quite some time. Despite not getting many of the references to events in Red Mars and Green Mars, the novel made a deep impression on me. I was well on my way to getting a degree in environmental sciences at the time and sheer amount of geology, meteorology, biology, genetics as well as political and social science inserted in that novel was right up my ally. When I finally got my hands on the other two parts of the series it impressed me even more.

In 2020 American astronaut John Boone becomes the first man to set foot on Martian soil. From that moment on, a project to colonize the planet seems possible. The USA and Russia combine forces to select a first group of colonists. A hundred men and women, possessing a wide range of skills and scientific knowledge, are sent on their way in the year 2026 to set up a first permanent basis. Each of the First Hundred have sacrificed years of their lives to attaining the goal of reaching Mars. Their motives and idea differ greatly and this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to realize them. No wonder that before they've even arrived on Mars, the first cracks in their unity begin to appear.

One of the much heard criticisms of this book is that it is light in terms of character development. Despite the large cast and frequent changes in point of view character, I don't quite agree with that assessment.Red Mars is a novel full of social, scientific and political conflict and Robinson uses some of the characters in the First Hundred as personifications of certain positions, which may make some of them seem more like a policy than a person. Robinson needs more than one book to flesh some of these characters out completely but in the in he'll get there. The most obvious conflicts the First Hundred get in, and one that provides an overarching story for all three novels, is the conflicts between Reds and Greens. The Reds, their position advocated by geologist Ann Clayborne, think that Mars should be thoroughly studied in its pristine condition before even contemplating changing the planet. They feel the planet, even though it is lifeless, has an intrinsic value that ought to be weighed in any decision making. It is a position that has a certain appeal to it, but given the dire need on Earth for new resources and room to expand, driven by the relentless pressure of overpopulation and ecosystem collapse, it is not one that is politically defensible.

The Greens are in favour of terraforming. The most outspoken advocate of this position is physicist Saxifrage Russel (their names are a nice touch, Saxifrage is a type of plant that grows in the cracks in rocks, sometimes able to split them completely), Sax for short. Sax feels that Mars ought to be terraformed and made inhabitable for as many people as possible, in as short a time as possible, using any means science can provide to hurry the process along. This of course is more likely to win support at home and the terraforming process gets under way quickly. Throughout the novel the position of Ann is underlined by characters witnessing often dramatic changes to the landscape. Robinson carefully mixes a sense of achievement with the enormous risks being taken and the eventual loss of original landscape features. In the economical and political conflicts than play out in the novel it is quite clear what Robinson would prefer. I'm not sure Robinson has made his mind up about the Red-Green conflict.

The descriptions Martian landscape features on the planet are another thing I loved about this novel but will no doubt put some readers off. The landscape on Mars is spectacular, the planet has much more of a vertical dimension to it. It has volcanoes that rise 27 kilometres, a canyon system that dwarfs the Grand Canyon, spectacular cliffs and plenty of other geological features that are many times larger than anything found on Earth. Robinson describes them in a way that makes you feel you're walking on the surface of the red planet. Red Mars was published in 1992, since that time, Mars have been much more thoroughly explored. The results of the research carried out by the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity alone, would probably have been enough to require extensive modifications to the detail Robinson added. That doesn't take anything way from the sheer power of Robinson's imagination and his talent for bringing such a spectacular landscape alive.

While a lot of the scientific debate takes place along the Red-Green spectrum, social and political currents in the novel are a lot more complicated. Some of the First Hundred feel that they are offered a unique opportunity to do away with all the failures of old earth politics and economic theory. One of the greatest backers of an independent Mars is engineer Arkady Bogdanov. His political ideas border on anarchistic and he expresses his ideas about a new Martian society in his architecture. Not everybody agrees with the revolutionary approach of Arkady. Japanese ecologist Hiroko Ai, believes that in order to be fully part of Mars, they have to let go of earth's society completely. She develops a philosophy of live on Mars that shows some distinct religious traits. At the first opportunity that presents itself she and a group of followers disappear into the vast empty spaces of the southern hemisphere to build an utopian society. Some of the ideas Robinson presents using these two characters are very radical. They break with the current political and economic conventions that rule earth completely. They are very interesting to read but some of it is dreadfully difficult to implement and at times the actions of these groups are downright selfish.

These radical ideas are balanced by principles many readers will be more familiar with. There is the Machiavellian politician Frank Chalmers, who has worked for years to see Mars become his base of power and is terribly angry at the fact that he has had to share the place with his friend John Boone. A matter further complicated by the love triangle between Chalmers, Boone and Maya Toitovna, the severely bipolar head of the Russian contingent of the First Hundred. The economic equivalent of Frank's power politics can be found in the character of Phyllis Boyle. A woman who would sell Matian resources to the highest bidder and thinks mostly in terms of short term economic gain. Again most of the First Hundred are somewhere in between but events on earth eventually forces everyone to choose sides. Where Robinson shows all sides without taking one himself in the Red-Green debates, he doesn't manage to do in on the sociological and political front. His ideas are, by American standards, very left wing and if there is any flaw to be found in this book, it is making the capitalists and power politicians a bit too unsympathetic. I very much appreciate the dynamic between Frank and John but Phyllis is a bit too much the personification of religious right wing and economic neo-liberal thinking.

As I mentioned before, the entire trilogy, or perhaps one should think of it as one long novel, spans some two centuries. Robinson could have made it a generational tale. In some way it is, we'll see John Boone's offspring in the sequels for instance. But that would have been a waste of some terrific character as well as loose some of the magic of having the First Hundred around. The people who have witnessed it all, been though all the changes. It lends them a certain status of which they are very much aware. One of them, Vlad Taneev, a biologist and bioengineer, finds a way to repair damage to DNA associated with the ageing process. Using this treatment human lifespans are increased tremendously, triggering a population crisis on the already overpopulated planet Earth. It is one of the driving forces for much of Earth's policies towards Mars. Another of these driving forces is the continuing globalization and formation of a number of huge industrial conglomerates known as Transnats. They have a turnover that is larger than many a national economy can boast and the economic power to go with it. Mars is increasingly ruled by these companies and, not surprisingly, they are not particularly interested in running Mars democratically or even adhering to existing treaties that get in the way of making profits. It's a sad scenario. Many of Robinson's works have a very positive tone to it, but this one can be depressing at times.

The science in the novel, especially when it comes to Mars is getting a bit dated but there are a few other signs that shows this novel was written in the early nineties. One of the most striking examples is the way Robinson describes the Arab immigrants on Mars. Events on September 11th 2001 and the subsequent reaction by the US government have changed western public opinions dramatically. The passage where Frank questions the Arabs' treatment of their women will raise a few eyebrows these days. Then again, a reminder that Muslims are human would not go amiss at the moment either. Another aspect of the novel that will probably not stand the test of time is Russia's role in world politics. Although the balance of power shifts away from the two super-powers of the 20th century in the novel, it appears to be happening faster than Robinson envisioned. Which is one of the few things that is happening ahead of Robinson's time line. Given NASA's current budget crisis, a manned mission to Mars in 2020 seems out of the question. A shame, I rather liked the idea having this world's John Boone walking among us already.

Red Mars is simply one to the best science fiction novels I've read. The scope, attention for detail and variety of scientific knowledge and theories Robinson put into this work are just phenomenal. To me it reads like the hard science fiction written by Arthur C. Clarke (who has an asteroid named after him in the book) and the social science fiction written by Ursula K. Le Guin. It has just about everything I like in a science fiction novel it it. I love the emphasis on environmental sciences obviously, but also Robinson's descriptions of what a new Martian society could be like. What would be possible if we left some of Earth's bad habits behind. It's a stunning vision on the colonization of the red planet. I've read several other books set on Mars, including Robinson's own Icehenge, but the Mars trilogy will probably remain the definitive Mars novel for me.

Book Details
Title: Red Mars
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Pages: 572
Year: 1993
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-553-56073-5
First published: 1992

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Zoo City - Lauren Beukes

Zoo City by South-African author Lauren Beukes is one of those books that is doing well this awards season. It's nominated for the BSFA and Arthur C. Clarke. Not surprisingly, I have missed it completely when it was first published by Angry Robot. When they offered the e-book for £1 to celebrate the BSFA nomination, I decided to have a look at it. It is surely one of the more interesting books of the year. Angry Robot publishes a lot of material that defies easy classification and Zoo City is one of those works. It is somewhere between science fiction, mystery and urban fantasy. That being said, interesting is not enough to win an award. In the end I feel it is a good book, but not quite award winning material.

The story is set in an alternate Johannesburg. In the 1990s a world wide plague caused people who committed a crime to be given an animal companion and a magical talent. This highly visible sign of a criminal past stigmatizes people to such a degree that in Johannesburg at least, most of them are found in the ghetto of Zoo City. Zinzi December is one of the animalled. Her companion is a sloth and her talent consists of a knack for fining lost things. Although raised in a privileged household, Zinzi developed a bad drug habit that eventually caused her to commit a murder. After serving her time in prison she is now making a modest living finding lost objects for people. She also has a large debt with the wrong kind of people she is trying to pay off by writing scam e-mails to fleece rich people out of large sums of money. She has a real talent for it. In fact, she makes the Nigerians look like amateurs.

One line of business Zinzi usually avoids is finding missing people. Her talent isn't limited to objects but she finds the mess and risks involved in missing people cases much more trouble than it is worth. One day she is approached by a couple of animalled working for the somewhat notorious music producer Odi Huron. He wants her to find the missing half of a brother-sister pop act he is currently promoting. The girl has gone missing several days ago. Against her better judgement, Zinzi accepts the case.

I guess the greatest attraction of this book is the concept of the animalled. Apparently it is (partly) inspired by Philip Pullman's dæmons in the His Dark Materials books. I haven't read those so I must admit I missed it completely. The idea of an animal companion shows up in fantastic literature a lot after all. I thought Beukes' way of going about is was a bit ... impractical. We see all manner of companions, from relatively small and harmless creatures like a butterfly or a hedgehog to big cats and even six meter Nile crocodile. Keeping one of those in an urban environment must be a bit of a pain. Not to mention the trouble of keeping some of the creatures with more delicate dietary requirements alive. And keeping them alive they must, having your animal die on you, or even just being separated, can cause intense pain and often death. It's an intriguing idea but there is something of a contrast between the concept of animalled and the setting that requires a large dose of suspension of disbelief. Despite the near future setting, this might put off the hard science fiction fans.

The novel is written in first person and the present tense, a technique that appears to be popular at the moment. In this case it gives the reader a vivid view into Zinzi's mind. Her past weighs on her and there is an ever present sense of guilt for her crimes, as well as a certain discomfort about the necessity of participating in an e-mail scam. She's intelligent, resourceful and very capable of taking care of herself in the harsh environment of Zoo City. Although she is no angel, Zinzi is clearly a character you can sympathize with.

Beukes' use of language is another area where opinions are going to be divided on. One of the things that struck me about the writing is the use of Afrikaans and various African languages in the novel. For someone who's native language is Dutch, Afrikaans always has a certain attraction to it. I thought the phrases themselves and the way Beukes works them into an English text very interesting. It might be a bit confusion for someone who does not have the benefit of speaking Dutch though.

A second thing that drew the attention is the way Beukes describes Zinzi's environment. Especially early on in the novel, witty descriptions of what Zinzi sees around here tend to be overwhelmingly present in the text. To give an example from the first chapter of the novel:
The apartment had been Art Deco in a former lifetime, but it had been subjected to one ill-conceived refurbishment too many. But then, so had Mrs Luditsky. Her skin had the transparent shine of glycerine soap, and her eyes bulged ever so slightly, possibly from the effort of trying to emote when every associated muscle had been pumped full of botulinum or lasered into submission. Her thinning orange hair was gelled into a hard pompadour, like the crust on crème brûlée.
The tea tasted like stale horse piss drained through a homeless guy's sock, but I drank it anyway, if only because Sloth hissed at me when I tried to turf it surreptitiously into the exotic plastic orchid next to the couch.
Zinzi meeting with a client - Chapter 1
It is entertaining is a way but the clever descriptions and witty metaphors are not going to be universally loved. Personally, I think she overuses it a bit in some sections of the novel.

Rereading Angry Robot's mission statement I think this book is the embodiment of what they are looking for:
Traditional SF and fantasy has been ploughing an entertaining furrow for many decades, but to our way of thinking much of it is missing a trick. To the new generations of readers reared on Dr Who and Battlestar Galactica, graphic novels and Gears of War 2, old school can mean staid, stuck in a rut. “Crossover” is increasingly the way forward and you’ll find plenty of it here, without batting an eyelid. New heroes and new settings, or maybe just reinventing the wheel, we’re not fussed – if there’s an energy in a book that gets us jumping up and down, we’re all over it.
Zoo City is certainly not traditional, it contains elements of many genres. It's unusual in many ways. The writing, the setting, the themes are all elements that will generate debate. The novel challenges preconceptions of the genre, it made me think about fantasy, science fiction and its many sub-genres in a much wider sense than just this story. It's a novel that is sure to gather a wide range of opinions about it. I don't always like the choices the author has made, I think there are people who are going to thoroughly dislike this novel for all the genre fusion Beukes put into it, but I've seen a number of rave reviews as well. Personally, I think it is worth reading just for the discussion this book could generate alone. An intriguing novel. If you are looking for something out of the rut, as Angry Robot puts it, you could do worse than Zoo City.

Book Details
Title: Zoo City
Author: Lauren Beukes
Publisher: Angry Robot
Pages: 296
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-0-85766-056-5
First published: 2010