Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 in Review

Another year has passed. I have run my last review of the year on Saturday so I guess it is time to look back. 2013 has not been a particularly good year on the blog. I have been seriously distracted by a number of things in my personal life. I must say it was worth it though. I've climbed out of the low that was 2011 and although there is lots more I still need to take care of, I do have the feeling I've pulled my life together again. If that goes at the expense of a book blog I guess that is a small price to pay. I hope to be able to put a bit more time into the blog next year but I can't make any promises on that account. There might be another move for one thing, those are always huge time sinks.

I only reviewed three works in the first three months of this year. All things considered it is a small miracle that I have managed to get up to 50 reviews for the whole year. It is still 10 down from last year but all things considered it is not a bad score. I hope to do better next year and get it up to sixty again. I reviewed 40 novels, 4 collections/anthologies, 5 short stories or novellas and 1 work of non-fiction this year. On top of that I read 2 novels, 1 novella and 1 work of non-fiction I didn't end up reviewing, which brings the total to 54. According to Goodreads they contained a total of 20,514 pages. Considerably more than last year, when it was less than 17,000.

Of the 50 reviewed books, 23 where written by men, 26 by women and one contained work of both men and women. This is the first year that I've read more works by women than men. The Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge clearly had something to do with that. It exposed me to a number of books I probably wouldn't have read otherwise. It will be interesting to see if I can keep it balanced without the reading challenge to push me. Note that I might still not have made the 50% by Lady Business' count. I put a work into one category so each work only counts once, they count individual authors. So A Memory of Light by Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan is one man for me but two men for them. Hunter's Run even has three male authors. The count for the single anthology I've read this year, We See A Different Frontier, may shift the balance a lot. Given the almost continuous debate on sexism in publishing this year I do hope they repeat there experiment. It would be interesting to see if there is any movement at all.

Best of 2013
Given the small number of books I have to choose from I'm going to limit myself to 5 again this year. The five best books I've read this year in no particular order:
  1. Immersion by Aliette de Bodard. Simply one of the best short stories I've ever read. It did well in this year's awards season and deservedly so.
  2. Hild by Nicola Griffith. I was very impressed with this historical novel. Griffith manages to create a fascinating tale on the scraps of history that have survived the ages.
  3. Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson. It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of Robinson. I guess some people might prefer his science fiction but this prehistoric novel is very good reading too in my opinion. 
  4. We See A Different Frontier edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad. I'm probably biased here, I helped fund this project. I'm nevertheless impressed with the selection of stories Fernandes and al-Ayad managed to get their hands on. It's an anthology the genre needed and I would not mind if it got a bit more attention that it has received up to this point. Or see a second volume put together for that matter.
  5. Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. The list is rather heavy on recent works but I did read a few classics this year. Vonnegut is simply a must read. I don't think anybody approaches science fiction with the kind of grim humour that can be found in this novel.
Despite only having reviewed 50 books, it was hard to limit myself to 5 works. Books like The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord, Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear and River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay are also very much worth reading. They missed the list by a fraction.

Traffic is down by 45 percent this year. I lost a lot of readers in the first three months of 2013. Not surprising given the level of activity back then. What also hurt the numbers is stat I apparently haven't produces a bit hit. Last year the reviews of The Hunger Games and Catching Fire drew an awful lot of traffic. This year nothing really jumped out like that. Maybe I should have reviewed Ender's Game after all.  The top ten most visited reviews of last year were:
  1. The Valley of the Horses by Jean M. Auel
  2. The Ice Dragon by George R.R. Martin
  3. The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel
  4. The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince - Robin Hobb
  5. Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd
  6. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  7. The Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson
  8. Immersion by Aliette de Bodard
  9. A Feast of Crows by George R.R. Martin
  10. Blood and Bone by Ian C. Esslemont
I can't really make much of this list. Four titles were in it last year as well. Both Auels, the Martin and the Collins. I guess the debate over whether The Ice Dragon is part of A Song of Ice and Fire still rages. Personally I'm still of the opinion Martin didn't write it with that intend but that if the reader insists it can be passed of as one of old Nan's tales. The Lucky Strike is back on the list. I still suspect it is being used in some kind of literature class because I get a lot of search queries trying to find the answer on very specific questions about this work. Fortunately the review is suitably vague. I'm afraid they will have to read it for themselves. There are four 2013 reviews on the list, none of them very high. The first title in the list got approximately double the number of views as number ten. Things are much closer together than last year. Roadside Picnic had been on the list for the last three years. It has now dropped the the eleventh spot. I guess the new translation that has been released means there are more reviews recent reviews out there.

Nothing to specific at the moment. I'm considering signing up for next year's reading challenge over at WWend but since they haven't released any details of what it might be I haven't decided on that yet. I trust them to come up with something good though. I want to continue working my way through the works of Frank Herbert and Kim Stanley Robinson but I haven't decide on specific titles yet. I also plan on rereading A Dance with Dragons before Martin overtakes me and delivers the sixth volume. I'm also looking forward to reading the final book in Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century and the final book in Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky. I understand Robin Hobb will have a new Fitz book out next year. That one is also high on the list of books to read. Then there are some loose ends from the Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge I want to follow up on. In particular Lord's Redemption in Indigo and the short fiction of Carol Emschwiller.
I indicated that there might be a few movie reviews in the near future on Random Comments. That project has stalled and I don't know yet if and when those will start to appear. We'll have to wait and see I guess.

So that is it for this year. I hope to see you all back on Random Comments in 2014, which will traditionally open with a review of one of Alastair Reynold's works. This year it will be Terminal World. Thank you for visiting my blog. I wish you all a healthy and prosperous 2014.


Saturday, December 28, 2013

Kabu Kabu - Nnedi Okorafor

In August I read Nnedi Okorafor's novel Who Fears Death (2010). It was my first experience with her writing in the long form and I found it to be one of the most thought-provoking novels I've read all year. When I saw Kabu Kabu, a short story collection published by Prime Books, pop up on NetGalley I jumped at the chance. Kabu Kabu is a very diverse set of stories. I guess you could call most of them fantasy or magical realism, sometimes with a bit of science fiction mixed in. It's one of those collections that take a bit of time to read. I think it took me three weeks to read all twenty-one stories. It is one of those collections that work best in small portions.

The stories themselves are pretty diverse but a number of themes crop up in a lot of them. Okorafor is the daughter of Nigerian immigrants to the US, more specifically of the Igbo people. The borders of Nigeria are a remnant of colonial times and the nation is home to a ethnically diverse population with the three largest groups, Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo making up almost seventy percent of the population. The Igbo people make up the majority of the population in south-east Nigeria, a place Okorafor has been visiting regularly since her early childhood. Her experiences of visiting Nigeria have worked their way into such stories as Kabu Kabu, a collaboration with Alan Dean Forester and The Carpet. The prejudices of both sides are discussed in this story, sometimes in a humorous way, although at time exasperation also shines through.

The parts of Nigeria where the Igbo people are the majority of the population is also the oil rich part of the country. In several stories oil production plays a large part. She describes the environmental degradation caused by oil spills and the irony of the fuel shortages that plague the local population, as well as the other disastrous effects of attempts to steal fuel. In Spider the Artist, the only story I've read before, it was part of John Joseph Adam's anthology Seeds of Change (2008), she creates monstrous robots released by oil companies to protect their pipelines. It's a very dramatic story that despite the inevitable death and destruction contains a kernel of hope. The Popular Mechanic is another that blends a science fiction element with the reality of the situation in the Niger delta. This time Okorafor aims for more than just the oil companies.

Nigerian folklore shows up in a number of stories as well. The stories How Inyang Got Her Wings, The Winds of Harmattan, Windseekers and Biafra all feature the Windseeker Arro-yo, a character from an unpublished novel, is the main character. Windseekers have a number of supernatural abilities and Arro-yo is regarded with suspicion in most of the stories. Okorafor uses How Inyang Got Her Wings in particular to show the horrible treatment a woman who stands out can expect to receive. The treatment of women who dare to step outside what is deemed proper in a patriarchal society is a theme included in many of the stories. Pretty much all of Okorafor's female characters are unashamed of their ambitions or sexuality. In the Windseeker stories, featuring characters that are very obviously different, this theme is particularly pronounced. I understand Okorafor has written a young adult novel featuring a Windseeker as well. I haven't read that but based on these stories I might pick it up one of these days.

The most harrowing of the Windseeker stories must be Biafra. As the title suggests, the main character finds herself in the midst of that horrible post-colonial conflict called the Biafra War or the Nigerian Civil War. The story shows the tragedy of the conflict that to an extent still looms over Nigeria. Arro-yo is not one to takes sides, apart form separating those that are doing the hurting from those being hurt. It's a very powerful story.

Two stories are connected to other novels Okorafor wrote. In The Black Stain we return to the post apocalyptic world of Who Fears Death and digs into the history of the Ewu, children of mixed origin, the product of weaponized rape. As the subject suggests it is another tragedy. This time we see the story unfold from a male point of view. It's interesting to see how the main character swings from complete acceptance of the dehumanized status of the (fictional) Okeke people, to love for an Okeke woman so profound he challenges society and stands up for her. The consequences are nothing short of brutal.

The story Tumaki is lifted form Stormbringer, the sequel to The Shadow Speaker (2009). I haven't been able to find much information on it but to the best of my knowledge Stormbringer has not been published yet. Tumaki essentially a love story and one that once again shows the terrible consequences of a woman overstepping the boundaries society sets her. In some places, even reading is a crime. Personally I got the feeling I was missing a lot of the background of the story here. There is obviously a whole future history attached to the story and main character, a boy by the name of Dikéogu, has powers that are barely mentioned in the story. The strength of this piece is that we get to understand his fascination with Tumaki and even why it blinds him to the danger surrounding them. Given the rest of the collection the outcome of the story can't be too surprising to the reader though.

There are quite a few stories in this collection that end badly but Okorafor closes on a slightly lighter note. In The Palm Tree Bandit we see another woman doing something that is forbidden to her, but in stead of being harshly corrected, we she manages to overturn a custom. The foolishness of the men trying to figure out the identity of the bandit will make more than one reader grin. The occasional flashes of hunour in this story and a number of other ones (the opening story The Magical Negro is another one of those) are a nice counterbalance to the darker side of Okorafor's work.

The story contains a lot of different approaches to story telling. They span over a decade in the writing career of Okorafor. Her writing has obviously changed over time and since the stories, as far as I can tell, are not ordered chronologically, the collection might come across as a bit of a jumble. In fact, I'd be curious to know the reasoning behind the order they've been placed in. Personally the diversity of the stories and cross genre nature of the collection are things I enjoyed about Kabu Kabu but Okorafor does make the reader work hard to find the common ground and see the thematic links.  Kabu Kabu is a collection that requires a bit of patience and reflection to properly appreciate. If you are looking challenging reading material, stuff that crosses into territory not often visited in fantasy or science fiction, this collection might be just the thing.

Book Details
Title: Kabu Kabu
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Publisher: Prime Books
Pages: 241
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-60701-405-8
First published: 2013

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Book of Iron - Elizabeth Bear

One of the most exciting Fantasy trilogies published in the last few years is Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky trilogy. In fact, I am so impressed with Bear's attempt to show what epic fantasy could achieve if it lets go of the Tolkienesque heritage that still weighs heavy on the genre, that I am willing to make this statement before the third book appears. Steles of the Sky is scheduled for April and it is one of those must read books for 2014 for me.

To accompany the trilogy, Bear has written two novellas, both published by Subterranean. The first one, Bone and Jewel Creatures, was published in 2010. I missed it at the time and as usual with Subterranean novellas, it is almost impossible to get your hands on a new copy without paying an arm and a leg. I would settle for a digital copy only there appear to be geographical restrictions in that edition. In short, I haven't read it. Fortunately it isn't necessary to have read either the first novella, which I understand is set some 80 years later that Book of Iron, or the trilogy to enjoy it.

The story is set some four centuries after the events described in the trilogy. Technology has advanced to the level of the early twentieth century, with all sorts of modern technology making an appearance. Magic is not gone from the world though, and the sky still changes when one enters a realm where other gods are worshipped. The main character Bijou, works for the second prince of  Messaline. She is an artificer, animating dead bones and creating creature studded with jewels out of them. One day a delegation from a nation further north appears seeking the aid of the prince. It is the start of an adventure that will take Bijou and a select group of adventurers to the cursed city of Erem to keep a dangerous wizard from making a terrible mistake.

In a mere 124 pages Bear doesn't have the space to get into the details of this world but I do think she manages to work in enough to make it a fascinating glimpse into what the world introduced to me in Range of Ghosts grew into. The mix of modern technology and wizardry works surprisingly well. Bear creates the sense of a rapidly changing world where technology is pushing its boundaries ever further outward but where magic shows no signs of being replaced.

The story itself is mostly set in the otherworldly Erem. It's a location that is visited in the trilogy as well and it is a hellish place. Several of its suns kill people in minutes and the  creatures that have managed to make it their home are not the ones you'd want to meet face to face. The party has great trouble fending them off or forcing them to do their bidding. Something that is further complicated by the fact they know almost nothing about each other's abilities.

Book of Iron could easily have turned into a fairly straightforward adventure but Bear works in a lot of hints about the relationships between the characters that add a deeper layer to the text. There is mistrust in the story but also friendship, a sense of loneliness and regret but also hope and attraction. All of this is shrouded in just enough mystery to keep the reader trying to read between the lines. It's very cleverly written really. I'm fairly certain she is not done with Bijou yet, or at least she is leaving herself more than enough room to add to the story of this character. I guess I'm going to have to see about getting my hands on Bone and Jewel Creatures one of these days.

Book Details
Title: Book of Iron
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Pages: 124
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59606-474-4
First published: 2013

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Wrapping up the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge

Despite a late start and the requirement that all books for the challenge should be reviewed (for last year's Grand Master Reading Challenge it was only half that had to be reviewed) I finished with a few weeks to spare. It was more challenging to find reading material for this challenge. One of the rules was that it had to be a book by a female author I had not read anything else of before. Another  That rules out a number of my favourites and quite a few books by female authors I mean to review one of these days. It also meant I couldn't go nosing around in my bookcase for reading material. In the end I read two books that I already owned, borrowed one from my girlfriend, accepted one for review and bought seven specifically for this challenge. The remaining one is Gemsigns, my random read. I won that book in a giveaway over at Worlds Without Ends.

Here is the complete list:
  1. Grass- Sherri S. Tepper
  2. Sheepfarmer's Daughter - Elizabeth Moon
  3. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang - Kate Wilhelm
  4. The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
  5. The Secret City - Carol Emshwiller
  6. Gemsigns - Stepanie Saulter
  7. Jaran - Kate Elliot
  8. Who Fear's Death -Nnedi Okorafor
  9. Palimpsest - Catherynne M. Valente
  10. Arslan - M.J. Engh
  11. The Best of All Possible Worlds - Karen Lord
  12. Debris - Jo Anderton
Eight of these reviews have also been posted on the World Without Ends blog where they did surprisingly well in the monthly polls. You should check out the rest of the reviews that the owners of the site have selected. There are quite a few very talented reviewers hanging around on that site, reviewing a wide range of books by female authors.

I tried to make my own selection it a mix of classic and more recent work, although I must admit I didn't go back very far. Engh's Alrslan and Wilhelm's Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang are both 1976 publications. Those are the oldest. The morst recent is probably either Lord's The Best of all Possible Worlds or Saulter's Gemsigns, both of which are released this year.

When you pick books from authors you haven't read before it chance of picking something that doesn't turn out to be to your taste is always a bit greater. This set of books is a bit of a mixed bag. I didn't like Moon's Sheepfarmer's Daughter at all for instance. Okorafor's Who Fear's Death was probably the most interesting book in terms in a literary sense. I had issues with it, but I it also had quite an impact. It's one of those books one has to admire for dealing with a number of very difficult themes unflinchingly. In terms of sheer enjoyment I probably liked Emshwiller's The Secret City and Lord's The Best of All Possible Worlds best.

There is going to be a new challenge for next year but Worlds Without End hasn't announced what it is going to be yet. I trust them to come up with something interesting so I'll likely be participating. In fact, I'm looking forward to it.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Hild - Nicola Griffith

It's been a while since I read any historical fiction so when I read about Hild by Nicola Griffith it jumped to the top of my reading list right away. I haven't read anything by Griffith before but I understand she has written in several genres and often includes feminists themes and gender issues in her work. Hild certainly contains both. What drew me to the novel was mostly the period it is set in though. Seventh century England doesn't show up that often in fiction. Griffith took on quite a challenge when she started on this book. Griffith points out in the acknowledgements that the life of the main character in particular is very poorly documented. She has had to make up large sections of her life. A lot could probably be said about the historical accuracy of the novel but the way Griffith went about bringing this character to life makes for fascinating reading. It's been quite a while since I read a book I enjoyed this much.

Hild is a fictional account of the lift of Hilda of Whitby, a seventh century saint who, according to the Venerable Bede, besides being a holy woman, exerted great influence on the complex politics of the British isles at the time. Griffith doesn't mention in the acknowledgements how many volumes she expect to need but it is quite obvious from the book that there is more to come. Hild takes us from her childhood to approximately 630, when she would have been about sixteen. She is present at the court of Edwin of Northumbria, one of the most powerful kings on the island at the time. Hild witnesses the conversion of the court to Christianity, plays a pivotal role in some of Edwin's important decisions and lays the foundation for what is to become a convent.

Hild lived though a time of change on the British isles. The period is known to historians as the Heptarchy, the rule of seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in south, east and central England, which would eventually be united into the kingdom of England in the 10th century. This name doesn't do justice to the complex situation on the island at their time. Their may have been seven main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, but in practice there were a lot more political entities. Kings, earldomans and overkings ceaselessly made war on each other and vied for control over what would now be considered small pieces of land. Mix in the presence of numerous Celtic people and you have a political, linguistic and military patchwork far more complex than seven kingdoms. The history of all these entities is poorly documented but it provided Griffith with enough material to write a story full of intrigue and political and military manoeuvres.

All that is known about the life of Hild is what Bede has to say on her in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. It is one of the few surviving written sources on the periode. Bede was born a few years before the death of Hild in 680, and didn't write her history down until 731. He is unlikely to have met her in person but he could have met people who did know her. That doesn't make Bede particularly trustworthy though. His Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum is as a piece of propaganda as it is a history. He mentions her when it suits his purpose and omits large sections of her life. The image that emerges from the text is that she had been a formidable woman though. Griffith has made a translation of the relevant parts of Bede's work available on her website. It's barely enough to fill five pages. The reader will finds a few names of people who touch upon her life it that the Griffith worked into the novel.

In essence, the novel is a Bildungsroman. Griffith portrays Hild as a special young woman, but also one in a difficult position. As daughter of a deceased prince, she is growing up at the court of King Edwin. Hild is regarded as something of a seer. The author doesn't make it into some kind of supernatural talent, she is just a little better at reading the signs than everybody else. It's quite remarkable when you think about it, this young woman will be revered as a saint after her death but in her youth, religion, even the dominant Anglo-Saxon paganism, doesn't influence her thinking too much. All the omens and other superstitions she wraps her predictions in, are just for show. Het gift earns her respect from some and suspicion from many.Hild steps outside the role society deems proper for her and as a result she is viewed as a witch by many. Hild has trouble dealing with the suspicion and has a hard time finding her place in the world.

Her mother is largely absent in the story. I'm not sure how I would describe their relationship but she is definitely distant. Occasionally she is present to give advice or tell Hild she made a serious mistake but for the most part, she is busy securing her own position in the world. The death of her husband has impressed on her the importance of always having a place to seek shelter in a world where one swing of the sword can change the political landscape of a kingdom radically. Successful as he might be, the current king will not be around forever.

King Edwin may privately agree with the people who look at Hild with suspicion, as a king he doesn't have the luxury of setting aside useful tools. To an extend he allows Hild her eccentricities as long as they serve his purpose. The politics he is involved in are ruthless. A wrong move or lost battle will cost him his kingdom and his life. Very few kings died of old age back then, in fact, they were lucky to reach forty. The moment he loses the respect of his subjects or the fear of his enemies he's done for. Girffith does a good job showing this. The ceaseless moving around his kingdom may in part be to prevent his court from using all the resources of a particular area, it also serves to reinforce his authority. And he'll need all he can get, throughout the novel you can feel the conflict with Penda of Mercia building. Griffith builds the tension between all these factions very well and uses the very limited communication that was possible at the time to full effect. 

Edwin is a true power politician, the new religion the priest Paulinus (of York, a historical figure) is trying to spread in his kingdom is just another tool to him. His court takes it up because he wants them to but nowhere in the novel you get the feeling that it really takes root. Historically there would be a backlash against it after his death. Hild is baptised along with the rest of the court (one of the few things we know for certain about her). She even shows some interest in this new religion but it remains superficial. What she is interested in is the power of the written word. Learning how to write, how to communicate with people in distant places is far more important to her that the message of the Christ. The struggle going on between Celtic Christianity, the pagan beliefs and Rome's missionaries, a matter that is clearly present in the background, doesn't hold her interest for long. It made me wonder what will happen to change that. Presumably Aidan of Lindisfarne will have something to do with it in the next novel.

Her interaction with the king, important of the story as they may be, are only brief. Most of her time is spent among the other women of the court. It may, to our ears, sound like a life of luxury but the face is that in those days, almost everybody was needed to produce enough food and other basic supplies for survival. Even the seer doesn't escape her share of work and she becomes intimately familiar with the misery of those less fortunate than she is. Griffith also pays a lot of attention to giving birth. At court, providing an heir is important but the risks of giving birth are enormous. A pregnancy, especially that of a queen, that isn't progressing well can be a nerve wracking experience for the entire court. Griffith makes sure the reader knows the dangers these women faced. How they deal with it and the manner in which they use what control they have over their bodies and sexuality is an important theme in the novel, gradually growing in importance as Hild start to develop herself.

I could go on a while longer about the complexities of the story and the richness of it's characters, what it comes down to is that Hild is a fascinating piece of literature. I must admit it took me a couple of dozen pages to get into the story but after that, the vivid descriptions of life in seventh century England captivated me. With all the references to historical events and people, as well as a lot of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon names, words and titles it is quite a demanding novel. It is also one of the most rewarding reads I've come across this year. I can't wait for the continuation of Hild's story. When that book is published it will no doubt jump right to the top of my to read list.

Book Details
Title: Hild
Author: Nicola Griffith
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Pages: 546
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-374-28087-1
First published: 2013

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Debris - Jo Anderton

For my twelfth and final read for the Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge I selected Debris (2011) by Jo Anderton. It is a first part in the Veiled World trilogy. The second part, Suited, has been published last year while the third part Unbound is scheduled for sometime next year. I got a whole bunch of Angry Robot title last year for a bargain price and this was one of them. It has been lingering on the electronic to read stack for quite a while now. I even meant to read it earlier in the year for the reading challenge by every time some other book managed to sneak in first. Fortunately for Anderton I ran out of books by women I haven't read anything of before last month so the last slot is hers. As usual with Angry Robot publications, Debris is a book that is hard to put into a specific genre. Their strategy to look for books that are different has given us a number of very good novels but also some that don't work that well. Debris works for the most part but it is not the most challenging read I've come across this year.

Tanyana is one of Varsnia's most important architects. Her supreme tallen in handing the pions, the force that drives most of Varsnia's society, has placed her at the very pinnacle of her filed, in control of one of the most talented circle of pion manipulators. When working on another magnificent construction, two inspectors show up to monitor the work. Promptly, something goes awfully wrong. Tanyana and her circle are attract by a type of pions she has never encountered before and the whole collapses around her. She is seriously wounded in the accident and when she regains consciousness she is discredited, in debt and has lost her talent to see pions. Tanyana has lost everything that defined her life.

Debris is a very fast paced novel. Anderton tries to hit the ground running and in terms of pacing she certainly have. I have wondered if a more measured approach would have worked better in this case. We don't get to see any of Tanyana's life before the accident. What we do learn of it, makes her come across as spoiled and unaware of how privileged she is. Her accident is horrible and obviously not as accidental as the authorities would have us believe but I couldn't quite suppress that feeling that a bit moe humility would have suited her. Because we really can't connect the way she reacts to the trauma of her accident, her response to it doesn't add as much to her character development as it might have.

What is clear is that she has lost a lot. Her talent for manipulating poins has been replaced for seeing debris, a waste product associated with pion manipulation. To prevent the debris to interfere with the working of all kinds of pion machinery and the prevent structural damage to the city, debris has to be collected and disposed of. Like waste collection in our world, it is not the most respected or well paid job, to put it mildly. It is however, the way in which Tanyana is supposed to repay her debt to society. Before she has a chance to recover form her wounds, she is outfitted with a suit. A piece of technology fully integrated with her body, adding to the trauma and giving yet another set of scars on top of the ones she already has. Most of the novel, Tanyana is busy adjusting to her new life and, in a series of heartbreaking scenes, finding out, how much her status mattered in her social circles.

Tanyana's response to her change in status is at times a bit problematic. She is ready for a fight at some points but also easily convinced it is futile. She is livid at the injustice that is being done to her but also stunned to inaction at times. The way she hangs on to her old apartment, a place she knows she cannot afford anymore, symptomatic in that respect. When the inevitable eviction comes, it still takes her by surprise. The crisis forces her to examine the extent of her newfound talents but a more active approach in adjusting to her new life would have been more interesting. It is not the only situation in which she only reacts to the challenges she faces instead of trying to think ahead.

The way the novel takes off doesn't leave much room for explaining things. Anderton lets the reader find out how her system of poins and debris works along the way. Earlier in the novel I was wondering if there was some parallel with particle physics but the level of anthropomorphizing of the poins seemed to point in another direction. Gradually a link to the belief system of Varsnia appears. Although the lack of information can be a bit frustrating at times, Anderton manages to dose what information the reader needs very well. If the aim was to keep the pace as high as possible she certainly succeeded. What I did think unlikely about the pion/debris system is the sheer ignorance Tanyana displays about the debris side of things. Pion manipulators may not be able to see it, they certainly feel it's impact. To so completely ignore the subject and leave it to the lowly caste of debris collectors strikes me as more than a little arrogant for someone approaching their field in an almost scientific manner.

While Anderton slips in some information about the wider world, most of the novel is dedicated to Tanyana's search for the truth. The whole accident reeks of a setup of course and when the entire system that has raised her to the highest level of society turns on her, she goes in search of other ways to find out what is going on. A whole new world opens up during this investigation and at the end of the novel a motive for the actions taken against Tanyana is starting to appear. There are more than a few questions left for the sequels however.

Debris has more than a few things going for it. If you like your Fantasy with a twist, or are looking for a book that does things just a bit differently this is probably as good a read as you'll be able to find. It's not a novel of huge complexity or unfathomable depth but it will hold your attention from the first page an not let go until the final chapter has been read. I have some issues with the novel, especially the development of the main character, but that doesn't take away from the fact that I found Debris to be a entertaining read. Not a bad way at all to conclude this year's reading challenge.

Book Details
Title: Debris
Author: Jo Anderton
Publisher: Angry Robot
Pages: 464
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-0-85766-155-5
First published: 2010

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Pump Six and Other Stories - Paolo Bacigalupi

My first exposure to Paolo Bacigalupi's work was the story The People of Sand and Slag, which has been included in John Joseph Adams' excellent anthology Wastelands: Stories of th Apocalypse(2008.) Soon after I had the opportunity to read Bacigalupi's first collection for review. Pump Six and Other Stories was published by Night Shade Books and collects ten stories (eleven if you have the limited edition) from the period 1999 till 2008. The title story is original to the collection, the others have been published in various magazines and anthologies over the years. Having read it, I was nut surprised that Bacigalupi's first novel The Windup Girl (2009) turned out to be such a success. This collection displays Bacigalupi's talent. It  must be said that it is a seriously depressing set of stories though.

Many of the themes that would show up in his later novel. There are two stories with Asian settings for instance, not something many American science fiction writers without an Asian background have attempted. His environmental themes also show up in a number of stories. Climate change, scarcity of fossil fuels, genetic engineering, agricultural practices and water shortages all show up in one or more stories. Two pieces are set in the same future as The Windup Girl and one of them even shares a character with the novel. He has been renamed but is still clearly recognizable. If you want to know what his writing is about, Pump Six and Other Stories is the place to start.

The collection opens with A Pocket Full of Dharma (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 1999), a story set in  a future China. Wang Jun, a young boy, orphaned and homeless, attempts  to survive in the city of Chengdu by stealing and begging. Fortune seems  to smile on him when he sees a foreigner with an expensive pair of  glasses he intends to steal. Following the foreigner he is witness to  his murder. The killers allow him to take the glasses but only if he will carry a datacube for them. When the person he is supposed to  deliver it to, fails to show up he decides to keep the cube and  unwillingly becomes involved in the political struggles over Tibet. I was struck by Wang's will to survive and the lengths he will go to to fill his belly every evening. On the one hand you want to smack him for not seeing the bigger picture, on the other you fully understand his  instinct for self preservation. There is also an undertone in the story that comments on China's drive to grow and develop and the price its leaders are willing to pay for it. Thematically it is pretty dark but I also felt a sense of wonder about the development project described in the story.

The second story is The Fluted Girl (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 2003). Set in a world where in some places at least, governing seems to have reverted back to a feudal  system, with the subjects of of a fief are little more than property. For the rich, virtual immortality is available but at a high price. To gain financial independence Madame Belari has carefully raised two fluted girls. Girls that literally use each other's body as a musical  instrument. One of the two seems happy to go along with this treatment, expecting to one day become a star, but the other, Lidia, is not content. The death or her only friend has hit her hard and when it is time for Belari to reveal her carefully nurtured girls to the general public, she rebels. The only word I can think of that fits what his being done to the girls is "perverse" really. The disregard for the wellbeing or human rights of the girls is shocking. Ones Lidia's eyes are opened, there is no way back for her, she must find a way to free herself, or failing that, take revenge. It is the bleakest story in the collection and the fact that Bacigalupi leaves the reader with an open ending makes it even more depressing.

The People of Sand and Slag (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 2004) is a very different kind of story. Bacigalupi examines what it means to be human using the point of view of far future trans-human beings and, most unexpectedly, a dog. The nearly invulnerable humans inhabit a completely destroyed world. Having advanced to the point where anything can be a source of energy and body parts can be regrown in hours, the dog seems strangely vulnerable to them. And yet, it triggers something in at least one of these people. The casual brutality and the fragility of the poor dog are what gives this story it's punch. When I first read it I was very impressed with it and it holds up well after a reread.

The next story also has an air of far future science fiction, set after we have managed to wreck Earth. It takes us in another, in some ways more positive direction however. The Pasho (Asimov's September 2004) is something of a generational conflict. A young man from a desert tribe goes to the city of their historical enemy to learn the ways of the Pasho. His grandfather, who once led a raid that destroyed the city his grandson went to study, disapproves of what he has become when he returns.

The story is built on the idea that knowledge can be dangerous, especially when a society is not ready to handle it. An acceleration of knowledge is what ultimately lead to the destruction of the world and the Pasho are dedicated to gradually reintroduce it. A frightfully arrogant position when you think about it. On the surface the reader sympathize with the young man but he has good reasons to doubt himself. Not only is his attitude essentially patronizing, he has also brought change that will accelerate the change, or as some would see it loss, of his culture. It is not so straightforward a conflict as it might first appear.

The Calorie Man (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October/November 2005) is a story set in the same world as The Windup Girl. It is not surprising that Bacigalupi decided to produce more work in this future as it is a remarkably complex scenario for such a short work. Climate change, genetic engineering and peak oil play essential roles in the direction this world has taken. Without cheap oil to burn the world has reverted back to the calorie (interesting that he chose to use this outdated measurement for his story) to power the world. Agriculture is the sector that dominates the energy market and it is cornered by a few large companies. With a mixture of patented genetic material, sterile seeds and genetically engineered diseases they keep tight control over the market and essentially the complete economy. Some people are not ready to accept this corporate dominance however. In secret, scientists are working to create seeds that are both resistent to disease and capable of producing fertile crops.

It is a nightmarish scenario (one of many in this collection) but it borrows a lot from developments in agriculture in particular. Part of this story is a reference to the dubious business models of Monsanto for instance. Their combination of herbicide resistent seed stock and enforcement of their patents has frightening implications for agriculture and the environment. Forcing farmers to buy new seed stock every year and abandoning the practice of storing part of the harvest for next year's crops is probably not a particularly smart thing to do when considering food security. In some parts of the world it would even be a complete disaster. There is an environmental side to the story too. Herbicide resistant varieties make overuse of herbicides likely, threating for instance the local water supply, and there is also some concern that his genetic modifications could end up in wild populations. There is a lot going on in the agricultural industry that is reason for concern. The story is getting a bit dated however. A number of important patents held by Monsanto have expired or will expire soon. How this will affect the situation is anyone's guess.

For me, this story was the one that really got me hooked on Bacigalupi's writing. He hits on an awful lot of things that I encountered during my years in college. I do wonder how much someone without my background in environmental science will get out of it however. He presents a complex arguments with a lot of interlocking environmental problems. It's almost a literary equivalent of environmental systems analysis. There is much food for thought in this story, that is for sure. The Calorie Man is definitely the piece that had the greatest impact on me.

In The Tamarisk Hunter (High Country, June 26th 2006), Bacigalupi tackles another environmental theme: the water supply in the arid west of the US. Water rights in this region are notoriously complex in the legal sense of the world (Kim Stanley Robinson hits on this in his utopian novel Pacific Edge) but in environmental terms it is simple. There is not enough to support the entire population. In this future scenario we follow a Tamarisk hunter. A man who clears Tamarisks, an invasive species capable of taking in and evaporating huge quantities of water, for a bounty. Having seen California, with its legal and financial muscle taking away all the available water form his region, our hunter is not satisfied to support them and see the farmsteads around him empty out. To keep himself in business he reseeds the Tamarisks. A practice that is highly illegal and very risky. Sooner or later, he is bound to be caught.

I liked this story a lot, both for the theme and the plot. When I visited the region myself, I was amazed as some of the unsustainable and outright wasteful ways in which water was used in an area that is partly arid or outright desert. The struggle over water Bacigalupi describes seems almost inevitable. There is also a very nice resolution to the plot. In a way it's obvious but like the main character, I didn't see it coming.

In Pop Squad (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October/November 2006) Bacigalupi takes a different direction, although it could be argued overpopulation is an environmental theme as well. In this future, humanity has found a way to become immortal. The treatment will simply stop the aging process. To prevent a huge population book, an anti conceptive is added to the drug. The price for immortality is not having children. Some people are not willing to pay that price and procreate anyway. The Pop Squad is on the hunt for such rogue mothers. Their method of dealing with them is ruthless but despite the logic behind the ban on having children, one of their agents begins to wonder what drives these people.

There is a sharp contrast between the refined culture the agent is part of when he is off duty and the ugliness and brutality of his job. The way Bacigalupi uses this contrast will probably not be to everyone's liking. While he does work in some humanity into the story, personally I felt he is trying a little too hard to shock the reader. It is a decent story but in this company it doesn't stand out.

The Yellow Card Man (Asimov's, December 2006) is the second story set in the same future as The Windup Girl. In this story we even meet a character who will return in the novel. Bacigalupi has renamed him though. Apparently the name he chose for the character in this story is an unlikely one given his cultural background. The two short stories share a setting but are otherwise unrelated. Where The Calorie Man is set on the Mississippi river, The Yellow Card Man takes us to a future Thailand. The main characters Tranh, an ethnically Chinese man,  is trying to eke out a living there, after the shipping business he owned in Malaya was taken from him in an anti-Chinese pogrom.

The story is not so much concerned with the environmental situation in the world. Like the main character in A Pocket Full of Dharma,  situation of the main character is pretty desperate.He simply doesn't have the luxury of thinking beyond his immediate survival. Being used to a life of luxury and having people around him to do his bidding, he has fallen to the level of a beggar essentially. Hard labour is the only way in which he can make a living. His current life has made him bitter. The discrimination described in the story is absolutely dreadful, but unfortunately not unlike the things many refugees would face. I guess the opportunism, ugly as it might be, at the end of the story was to be expected.

The next story, Softer (Logorrhea, edited by John Klima, 2007), feels like the odd one out. It deals with a man who, in a moment of frustration has murdered his wife. It's a very character driven story without any obvious speculative element. Other than being pretty dark, it doesn't have much to do with the other stories in this collection. It's well written but I got the feeling it didn't quite fit with the rest.

The collection closes with Pump Six, the story that gave the collection its name and the only original it contains. Again, it's a fairly depressing future scenario. A man working on the systems that keep the city's sewage from running along the streets witnesses astounding levels of stupidity around him. The cognitive abilities of humanity seems to have decreased the the level where they can only act to have their most basic needs met. When one of the pumps he is operating breaks down, he tries to find someone who knows how to fix it and finds out the true extent of the problem.

I wonder if this is Bacigalupi commenting on a society that seems to crave  instant gratification as some put it. Society in this story appears to  have completely lost sight of long term planning. Whether or not it is, Pump Six  leaves you with the feeling that the main character is capable of a lot more than  he himself knows and that somehow he will fix things. A hopeful end to  what is a rather pessimistic set of stories.

It is not often you come across a short story collection that manages such consistency. The stories in Pump Six and Other Stories are simply excellent. Most of Bacigalupi's characters seem to feel they are small people,  powerless to change the world around them. He shows the effects of certain  global developments on the level of an individual, taking complex environmental and social problems and presenting in a way that makes the reader feel right in the middle of it. That is quite an achievement, given the fact that at present very few people seem to feel the need to take responsibility for the mess we're making of our planet and take action to try and lessen the impact. By creating so many broken worlds, it is a collection best enjoyed in several servings however. Most of the stories are very dark, showing us terrible visions of the future. I don't think I could swallow this slim volume, my edition weights inn at 239 pages, in less than a week. To make the most of this collection, these stories need to be digested before moving on. This collection is challenging and thought provoking, taking your time to read it will pay off.

Book Details
Title: Pump Six and Other Stories
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Pages: 239
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59780-133-1
First published: 2008