Sunday, March 29, 2015

Small Gods - Terry Pratchett

On March 12th Terry Pratchett passed away. I never met him in person by he was by all accounts a remarkable man. He'll be remembered for his novels, which includes some of the finest satires ever written, but his attitude towards Allzheimer's disease and his own impending death made a big impression on me too. Besides supporting research into his condition, he was also an advocate of assisted suicide. I watched the documentary Choosing to Die, which Pratchett presented, a while ago. It's a very impressive piece of work but awfully hard to watch whatever your position on the issue. There is much more to remember Terry Pratchett for than just his writing.

Some people devour his books as soon as they appear. He has a large number of fans no doubt eagerly anticipating the final Discworld novel Pratchett wrote. It is scheduled to be released later in the year. I've been poked and prodded to read his books for years from various sides. In early 2008 I finally caved and started on The Colour of Magic. In a the space of 18 months I read the first twelve Discworld books and then, in the summer of 2009 I stalled for some reason. Small Gods, Discworld book number 13, sat on the self unread for over five years until Pratchett's passing reminded me I really ought to read it. I may not be the most hardcore Pratchett fan but his passing deserves attention. And what better book that the novel that tackles the one subject even more explosive than assisted suicide? In Small Gods Pratchett the central theme is religion.

The nation of Omnia is the bastion of the Great God Om. It is a theocracy completely devoted to this God and living by the countless commandments his prophets have laid down for them over the generations. The time of a new prophet is fast approaching but the god Om has a bit of a problem. In all the realm, there is only one true believer left and not the most formidable human either. His name is Brutha and he is a novice in one the religious institutions in Omnia's capital. With few options open to him, the Great God speaks to his chosen prophet. It is the start of a series of events that will change the course of Omnia's history.

Small Gods is one of the singleton Discworld novels. Apart from Death, Lu-Tze, and, very briefly, the Librarian, no characters from other books show up. You could probably read this without having read any of the other Discworld books. Apart from a few minor references to other stories, the novel is completely self contained. I'm not entirely sure it is a good point to start reading Pratchett though. He takes on controversial topics more often but this book is the only one I can think of that has the potential to be offensive to just about everyone. Not even the atheists are safe. What the novel shows clearly, is Pratchett's ability to write about such topics without being heavy handed. Fairly recently Neil Gaiman in an interview with the Guardian said about Pratchett that he is angry rather than jolly. That statement makes sense in a way but still there is nothing bitter or sarcastic in Pratchett's writing, even if between the lines you can see he has strong opinions on the topic. It's a quality that makes you read on and smile even if he is in the process of tipping your particular sacred cow.

Pratchett bases is story on the idea that people make gods, not the other way around. A small god is a potential really. If they can manage to find true believers the may grow to become something. The gods with real powers are the ones with a large following. Gods who  lose their believers, lose their power. Which of course is exactly what happens to Om after the nation that worships him turns into a huge bureaucratic religious order. What people follow is the structure, the ritual, the dogmas, but no longer the god. In one sweep Pratchett fells god the creator, monotheism an organized religions.

One of the cleverest bits of satire in the novel is the dogma of the Omnians that the world is a sphere (when in reality it is a disc carried on the back of four elephants, standing on the back of a huge turtle, any sailor can tell you) that is challenged by those who believe in the observations made from an island on the rim. The way Pratchett not only lampoons church dogmas but uses it to make fun of science and atheists, who in the face of evidence of their existence, refuse to belief in the gods. In the end it is the story's one true believer who, not though is belief in any particular god, but through a mix of humanism, ethics and pragmatism, achieves peace and prosperity and changes a god's mind. With a nudge from an unseen force of course.

Brutha himself reminded me a bit of Rincewind. He's basically clumsy and not very talented in anything relevant to his chosen career. Like Rincewind he has one great talent. He never forgets anything he's seen. His flawless memory gets him in trouble more than once because he is incapable of forgetting anything even when told to so by his superiors. It does come in handy at other times though. It would be tempting to think of him as not very bright, but in reality he's not really a fast thinker. His ideas, when they do pop up are noting short of revolutionary. He's also often the voice of reason and compassion to balance the insanity around him. It took me a while to like him but I must admit he grew on me later in the book.

There will no doubt be an awful lot of readers who won't like this book, simply because Pratchett's humour doesn't spare anyone. For readers familiar with Discworld that will hardly be a problem. What Pratchett does in this novel is not so much attack religion (or science or philosophy), but rather make fun of closed minded people, wherever they may be found. It's human stupidity and short-sightedness that angered Pratchett according to Gaiman. Whatever Pratchett's exact feeling on the subject of religion and the way it expresses itself in society, he channeled them into a book that is both hilarious and possesses great depth. It will leave the reader mulling over the ideas he put into the text long after the last page has been turned. Small Gods is one of the better Discworld novels I've read so far. If I don't read another anytime soon poke me to get on with it.

Book Details
Title: Small Gods
Author: Terry Pratchett
Publisher: Corgi Books
Pages: 380
Year: 1993
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-552-13890-1
First published: 1992

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Lagoon - Nnedi Okorafor

For some reason, in just about every alien invasion movie I've seen, the aliens land somewhere in the US if they don't outright park their ship on the White House lawn. Why they would pick that particular spot on the globe, which covers only a small percentage of the earth's surface and doesn't look particularly special from orbit is beyond me. The makers of the movie District 9 must have wondered about that too because they decided to have their spaceship appear above Johannesburg, South Africa. Okorafor mentions that this movie was what triggered her to write Lagoon, so I decided to watch t. It's a curious movie and I can see why it pissed of just about the entire nation of Nigeria. For a movie which main theme is xenophobia, the portrayal of Nigerians in District 9 is downright offensive. The story must have gotten away from Okorafor's initial inspiration though. The movie and the book have very little to do with each other.

On Bar Beach in Lagos, Nigeria, three complete strangers meet and witness something huge striking the ocean a few miles of the coast. It is the start of a series of strange events that will turn their lives upside down and reshape the history of the city, the nation and the world as a whole. Aliens have landed and they bring change. Before that, our three heroes must save the city from tearing itself apart. Accompanied by an alien ambassador they head out into chaos.

Given my introduction you might expect a more positive picture of Nigerians to emerge than the criminal cannibals in District 9. And in a way that is the case. Lagos is described as vibrant and diverse. That being said, she is not blind to the problems the city faces either. Poverty, prostitution, homophobia, corruption,  internet fraud and religious intolerance all show up prominently in the novel. Riots soon break out after the cause of the strange phenomena that wash over the city becomes known. They are opportunistic and extremely violent. In the midst of all this chaos however, sacrifice, compassion and remorse show up time and again. It is a far cry from the dehumanized criminals in District 9.

Nigeria is a nation with many ethnic groups. The three largest, Yoruba, Haussa and Igbo, make up about sixty percent of the population, with countless others making up the rest. Throughout the novel we find the characters constantly aware of the ethnic and cultural divisions and the linguistic complications that can cause. As happened in many places in Africa, the lingua franca of the nation is that of the former colonial power: English. For everyday use, it has evolved into a pidgin language with many influences from various African languages. Okorafor uses this pidgin English extensively in the novel and provides a list of key terms in the back of the book. It took me a bit to get into it. As a second language speaker of English I always have a bit of trouble with English that deviates too much from the school-taught standards. It does give the reader the feeling it has been written by someone who knows Nigeria. I assume Okorafor had to hold back in a few places to keep the novel from becoming incomprehensible for those who are not familiar with the country but it is the kind of detail I appreciate in a book. There is an audiobook version of this novel, someone probably had a lot of fun putting that together.

Their is more than a bit of religious tension in the book as well. Nigeria is divided in roughly equal parts Christian and Muslin communities and violence between them has flared up periodically. Okorafor works that into the novel at various point but perhaps more interestingly, she also reaches back to the traditional  beliefs of the Yoruba and Igbo peoples. Several mythological figures show up in the story and in those parts it is most obvious that the novel is written for a western audience. Explanations about who these figures are are worked into the text. Especially later on in the novel, these occurrences are used as a herald of change. A departure from the oil addicted, corrupt economy by reaching back to the roots of the land, bringing to the surface a Nigeria that cannot be erased by the evils of colonialism, religious strife and environmental degradation. It is a change that needs a catalyst though, barring alien invasions, it is not easy to see what other development could provide it.

Okorafor uses quite a large and varied cast in this relatively short novel. There is liberated marine biologist Adaora and her fundamentalists Christian husband Chris, the compassionate soldier Agu and the famous Ghanaian rapper Anthony, the corrupt priest Father Oke and the unnamed Nigerian president (probably based on Umaru Musa Yar'Adua who was president of Nigeria from 2007 till 2010) and of course the alien ambassador Ayodele. They all play important parts in the chaotic and dramatic events in the novel. I grew particularly fond on Adaora and Anthony, which in my opinion are the most rounded characters of the lot. That is, if you want to see the people are the main characters. One could very easily argue that this is one of those novels where the setting is the real main character. Lagos after all, is the one that undergoes the most profound change in the novel.

Lagoon is an alien invasion novel like you probably never read before. It's wildly different setting and its clear break with the conventions of this particular subgenre make it one of the most interesting science fiction novels I've read in a long while. There are so many interesting aspects to this novel that I get the feeling I can't possibly do this book justice in a thousand word review. It is another novel in a movement to make science fiction more international and multicultural, one of those books that even a decade ago, would have had a hard time finding an audience. I thought reading it was an amazing experience. It's one of those 2014 books that ought to be in this years awards ballots. I can't recommend it enough. Go read it.

Book Details
Title: Lagoon
Author: Nnedi Okorafo
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 301
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-444-76276-1
First published: 2014

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Jacaranda - Cherie Priest

According to Priest, Jacaranda is the final work she will write in her Clockwork Century setting. The series consists of five novels, one short story and, including this one, two novellas. I've had great fun with the previous entries in the series, even if they are not the most challenging works in the Steampunk genre, so I really wanted to read this one as well. Like the previous novella in the series, this one was published by Subterranean Press and like pretty much everything they publish, it is a beautiful little book. Great attention has been paid to the design and artwork. Subterranean books are not cheap but they always make sure you know that you paid for quality. The number of hardcovers is very limited so if you want one, better be fast.

On an island off the coast of Texas a hotel built with the finest technology the late nineteenth century has been making a name for itself. The place is thought to be haunted. Two dozen people have already died under mysterious circumstances. The authorities can't be bothered to investigate the deaths anymore and so an unlikely crew of a nun, a Texas ranger and a Mexican priest gathers at the hotel to investigate. As a hurricane barrels down on them, the terrible truth about the Jacaranda Hotel slowly reveals itself to them.

Jacaranda is set in the Clockwork Century but it is only very loosely tied to the rest of the stories. There is a reference to the rotters, the zombie-like victims of an addictive substance introduced in opening novel  Boneshaker, a few references to the alternate version of the American civil war the series covers and a reference to one of the major characters on Ganymede, the third novel in the series. That is all there is to be found of the Clockwork Century really. With a few minor bits of rewriting the whole thing could have been completely separated from the Clockworld universe. As a consequence, it can be read independently without missing much of what is going on. Jacaranda is not a novella meant to close of any dangling threads or answer any remaining questions. The climax of the series is clearly the final novel Fiddlehead.

In essence, Jacaranda is a haunted house story. The plot is not all that original and so the success of the story depends on the execution. Such stories need a certain atmosphere, a buildup of tension at just the right place, revelations at the right time. Priest realized this and paced her story accordingly. Where her first Clockwork Century novella Clementine felt constrained by the need to keep the word count under a certain number (it was intended for Subterranean but for contractual reasons Priest would have had to offer it to Tor first if it got above a certain word count), this one feels about right in length. In fact, take out a few of the plentiful descriptions of a storm approaching and it might even have been a bit shorter.

Atmosphere is important to the story though, Priest uses the approaching hurricane to ramp up the tension. The gradually darkening sky, the preparation for the storm, the subconscious nervousness caused by a rapidly dropping air pressure and the ever prescient threat of the hotel all  add to the sense of dread in the story. People die in it of course, but there is no need for buckets of blood or dozens of bodies. Like in a good horror movie, what you don't see is scarier than what is explicitly shown. It will not surprise the reader that in classic horror tradition, the climax of the story coincides with the climax of the hurricane.

Priest uses another element in her story pops up often in horror movies: guilt. Who gets to die and who is involved in the story in the first place is decided by often peculiar notions on who is deemed guilty and who is considered innocent and free of sin. The visitors of the hotel all bear the burden of guilt until it is too late. While none of them can actually be touched by the law of morals, each of them has broken a vow or a promise that weighs on their conscience. It is what draws them in an keeps them from running. At some level, the guilty want to be punished and the hotel is ready to extract a kind of justice from them. I guess guilt is not a surprising theme in a story where two of the main characters are Catholics who dedicated their lives to god. Especially later on in the novella, this biblical view on sin and guilt becomes more important. I can't say that was my favourite part of the story.

I must admit that this book was not quite what I was hoping for. It certainly doesn't deliver what I read the Clockwork Century books for. The hotel has  few gadgets but they are not important to the story, nor is the alternative history Priest has laid out. Haunted house stories are not really my thing either. They tend to be so stuck in horror clich├ęs that they rarely make for challenging or interesting reading. Putting my personal preferences aside for the moment, I do see a story that is well executed. Some readers may not be entirely convinced by the climax but it worked well enough for me. Jacaranda was entertaining reading, but as a postscript to the Clockwork Century, it is essentially unnecessary. Read it if you enjoy a good haunted house story or if you can't stand to leave a series unfinished. If those two don't apply to you, there are more interesting book out there.

Book Details
Title: Jacaranda
Author: Cherie Priest
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Pages: 181
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59606-684-7
First published: 2015

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Galaxy Game - Karen Lord

I read Karen Lord's novel The Best of All Possible Worlds about a year and a half ago and was very impressed by it. The Galaxy Game is a sequel of sorts. We get to see some familiar characters again but she shifts to a new main character, who played only a minor role in the first novel. It could probably be read independently, although the rich cultural background might be lost on some readers without having read the first book. The Galaxy Game has not been quite as well received as Lord's previous novel and I can see why. It is a decent  read but nowhere does it come close to achieving the level of The Best of All Possible Worlds.

Rafi's father had a psychic talent that he used to abuse his family for many years. When he was found out the authorities imprisoned him. Rafi has inherited his father's talent and to prevent him from ending up like his father, he is sent to Lyceum, a place where is supposed to learn to control his powers. His education is not going well though. Rafi has friends at the Lyceum but he is miserable there anyway. His mental abilities frighten him and progress in learning to deal with them is minimal. If he is to learn to accept and control his gift, he will have to go elsewhere. It is the start of a journey that will take him to several planets, but the real destination is adulthood.

Rafi, as you might have guessed is the nephew of Grace Delurua, the main character of The Best of All Possible Worlds. She plays a minor role in this novel. Grace is mostly busy with the Sadiri and their precarious position on the planet Cyngus to pay much attention to Rafi though. After leaving the Lyceum, a move that could turn him into a renegade, he leaves for a place where his abilities are more common and more widely accepted. It is a place that also embraces the one release he has from the nightmares and the stress of leaving home. The game is called Wallrunning and is of great cultural importance. It is played on a wall where gravity varies and tests the agility and three dimensional orientation of its players to the maximum. The rules of the game never become clear entirely though. Later on in the story, a link between interplanetary travel and the game pops up. The mechanics of this way of traveling are never explained but apparently the spacial orientation skills of the players has something to do with it. For the fan of hard science fiction this is a somewhat frustrating novel.

Hard science fiction is not what Lord is aiming for though. Her story is much more interested in cultural diversity. Rafi is exposed to a number of cultures during his travels and he doesn't understand most of them. I can't say I blame him. The variety is bewildering and the main reason why I think you should read The Best of All Possible Worlds first. Although on the level of the character, the story revolves around Rafi, another layer concerns itself with interplanetary politics which are almost impossible to understand without a bit of background information. The various races of humanity are in a major political and military struggle, the outcome of which will shape the universe for centuries to come. Rafi is caught right in the middle of it and, on top of his personal problems, has to find a place in the power structure of am alien culture he hardly understands. His choice in this regard is crucial to his personal safety and happiness.

Something that contributes to the bewildering tangle of cultures, faction, and races is the fact that while Rafi is the focal point of the novel, the point of view frequently shifts to other characters. They are mostly from different cultural backgrounds and face their own challenges. For one of the characters, she switches to a first person narrative, which makes the transitions between characters a bit bumpy sometimes. The plot itself is not all that complicated, it is after all a fairly straightforward Bildungsroman, but along the way Lord does her best to distract us with all sorts of other attractions. She does so to the point where I wondered once of twice why all this was relevant to the story.

Where in some areas, information seems hardly relevant, in other areas explanations are completely lacking. Some of the characters rely on modes of communication that do not rely on words and can be very difficult to follow. Rafi is supported and taking in by characters whose motivations remain largely unclear. For Rafi, who would most likely not have understood any explanation until much later anyway, this is more easy to accept than for the reader.

There is a great deal of background to this galaxy. A history that, despite all the things Lord has put into these two novels, is not yet fully revealed. There are a few hints in the novel that the situation on Earth might be explored further for instance. Given what we've learned of it so far that would certainly be interesting but it is but one of many possibilities. Lord has created a universe that allows many more directions for good stories. In this novel, she doesn't quite manage to find a story that allows her to show us her all of her creation though. Too often the reader comes across beautifully phrased but confusion bits of future history or interesting but only marginally relevant cultural observations. The Galaxy Game is not a big book but I think that in the hands of another author, it might have been a novella. I enjoyed at some level but compared to The Best of All Possible Worlds it was a mild disappointment.

Book Details

Title: The Galaxy Game
Author: Karen Lord
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 320
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-345-53407-1
First published: 2015

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Hebban

I've been busy this week and I haven't finished any of the books I'm reading at the moment. As much as I hate to do this, I'm going to have to skip a week. Not entirely sure what next week will look like but I'm almost though with The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord that one will probably be next. So instead of reviewing I wanted to show you a bit of another project I'm involved in.

The Dutch blogshpere and online communities when it comes to fantasy, science fiction and horror has always been a bit scattered, often very divided. Blogs and communities pop up and go down frequently but none of them had much outreach beyond the small circle of regulars that visited them. The only magazine that published fantastic short fiction stopped a couple of years back, leaving only and number of short fiction contests as a platform to reach an audience.

All of this is quite strange when you considered that fantasy in particular, is quite popular over here. a number of publishers are active in the field, releasing quite a few, mostly translated works. On top of that it is not unusual to read in a second language over here. The Netherlands has several bookshops that are almost entirely specialized in English language books for instance. There is, in other words, quite an audience but they are not being very well served.

The book portal Hebban (the name is derived from one of the earliest bits of writing in the Dutch language) has jumped into this vacuum. It is quite an ambitious project, aiming to become a kind of Dutch language Goodreads. The company behind it set up a professional website with a number of community features, a blog function and cover just about the entire literary spectrum. There are giveaways, articles by authors, interviews, short fiction and of course reviews. And that, as you will probably have guessed, is where I come in.

Although individual uses have the opportunity to add reviews, Hebban also maintains a group of reviewers and writers to create content for them. I've been writing for the Fantasy portal since July, aiming to produce a review or article every month. Quite a lot of it have been reworkings of things I've done for Random Comments but I've also done an interview with WFA nominated blogger Mieneke van der Salm (A Fantastical Librarian) and written an article about two upcoming publications that promote a more diverse SF&F genre.

It's been quite an interesting experience writing in Dutch. I have done a number of reviews in both languages and they tend to come out slightly different. I don't translate. Translating is an art I haven't really mastered, so it is simply faster to just write it again. Mostly I do the English version first but in one case, Kaleidoscope, it was the other way around. Besides taking into account the different audience, my vocabulary in Dutch still very much exceeds my active vocabulary in English so the texts do have a different feel to them. My next project will be a series of articles, probably nine in total, but I'm not quite ready to discuss it until I'm a bit further along in writing them. It might appear in some form on Random Comments too.

So if you read Dutch, head on over to Hebban and check them out. This site has the potential to grow into the place to be in the Dutch language area when it comes to books. There's a list of what I've written for them here but there are plenty of other articles by people who are much better at it than I am as well.