Another enjoyable and fast paced action/pulp-sci-fi Palmer book. In this book the author returns, at least a little, to the timeline/universe of Version 43. This was a surprise to me, since I always thought of Palmer's world building as a purely generative process, where each new chapter just creates technology/worlds/cultures/races/history whole-cloth. This time he actually refers back to things that have gone before, which was a pleasant shock. This story of crime and battle and murder and pirates is set slightly before Version 43, in the time period right after the fall of the Corporation. While continually readable & fun, I rated this one slightly lower than the other two, since _Artemis_ did not have the wonderful alien weirdness of HellShip, and did not have the continual revisionist narrative of Version 43. Instead the narrative is closer to that of a normal novel, with a more straight forward progress to the story. There are reveals, but each one doesn't just completely change what had gone before.
Hell Ship, by Philip Palmer
A wonderfully absurd space adventure story. If the book wasn't recommended to me, there would be no way in a thousand years that I would have opened this book up. The cover art is in 70's sci-fi pulp style, and the tagline is "Aliens, Invaders and Pirates in Space!". Which is technically true, but it completely mis-represents the book. There are aliens, invaders, and pirates in space, but those are just the building blocks. It is like taking the Bible, and giving it the tagline "It is written using 26 characters!" (or however many were in the original). _Hell Ship_ is enormously inventive and fruitful, with a continual stream of new species, locations, battles, cultures, made up technologies, humor, brutal violence, tragedy, pain, and of course, the warrior Sharrock's ultimate battle! As with _Version 43_, the other Palmer book that I've read, the story goes through numerous massive shifts in perspective, though in this case the narrators are somewhat more reliable, and the story in general is more grounded. To be clear though, _HellShip_ is more grounded only when compared to _Version 43_. _HellShip_ is still an absurd and endlessly xenophilic story.
Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett
A detective story written in 1920, about a two-fisted private detective who solves mysteries and kills every single criminal in a small town. I liked the book, though I wouldn't necessarily want to read many more like it. The writing is pleasingly sparse and to the point, and I enjoyed the constant stream of 1920's slang. There is a lot of plot in this 200 page book, and a constant stream of mid-level deception. Almost too much? Basically everyone in the town is lying to everyone else at all times, if you go with that assumption you will have an easier time of keeping up with the plots. On the downside, the general vibe of the book (constant lies, violence, and murder, navigated and instigated by a omni-competent hard man) isn't really a favorite of mine as a fantasy. I think this book might be what people are talking about when they say "toxic masculinity". :)
Perhaps just as interesting as the book itself is that it has been pre-figured for me for years. The first part of Philip Palmer's _Version 43_ is an extended homage/subversion of this book, and there is a memorable Iris Murdoch character, who is her take on the author of this book. The Murdoch character is one of my favorites and one that I think back to reasonably frequently, so it was neat seeing the source material.
That Book your Mad Ancestor Wrote
A collection of wonderful short stories that arrive from the past, the present, fairy tales, alternate time-lines, and who knows elsewhere. The stories share some of the same themes as KJ's excellent book _Etched City_, but also venture into new waters. In general the stories are quick, incisive, highly imaginative & crunchy, and just generally well written. There are some delightful 2 pages stories in there, and about a dozen seeds for novels that I would love to read. A few of the stories were a bit too abstract/surreal/negative for me (e.g. Maldoror, Last Drink Bird Head, some of the ending poems), but that problem can be solved by just flipping ahead a few pages. :)
Handling the Undead
A neatly written and quickly paced book about several thousand recently dead Norwegians coming back to life. The process seems to have happened through some sort of mystical mis-filing. The newly risen are alive but mostly inert, and they act as a mirror with which to reflect society.
On the plus side, the author rarely goes where the standard zombie cliches might lead. The book is mostly non-violent and I felt like standard zombie tropes were actively avoided. At one point the story seems to be entering a more standard zombie story, only for the narration to completely veer away from that thread. It is kind of the anti-World-War-Z. Similarly, the author thinks about the details and less common aspects of a zombie story. How do you dig an unliving out of a grave, how do you clean and care for them? Can they be re-habilitated, re-taught? What would the event be like for people in all the different configurations of loss, mothers who have lost children, wives who have lost husbands, husbands who have lost wives. How does that intersect with religion, with government, and with the press? The author has a consistent knack for thinking about details and overlooked things that the zombie genre usually skips over.
On the downside, the cosmology of the story is all kinds of dumb. :)
1 - 5 Stars
If Viriconium was depressing, The Narrator was angrifying. Like Viriconium, the book starts off brilliantly. Everything about it is wonderfully off and new and different, like it was sent from a foreign country or a different time-line. The cover art is baroque and alien and for once it perfectly fits the story. Even the typeface and page setting are different from 99.9% of other books, but still are completely readable and pleasant. The story starts in media res. Very in media. The world seems to be at an ~1890's tech level, but the countries and ethnic groups and wars and history are all strange, and the human societies seem to be ruled over by something approximating mind-flayers, as well as the mind-flayer's own little eco-system of extra-worldly organisms, mechanisms, and spirits. The protagonist and PoV character is a "Narrator", which is a sort of translator/Shaman. So far so good. And the writing can be beautiful at times; an instance of this is an early passage describing the cave of organ donations made to a mummified saint, which manages to be A) not gross, B) actually does make you think about what the color/texture of these organs are, and C) brings out their meaty, glisteny beauty.
So where does it all go wrong? The problem is that the in media res never resolves into anything fully understandable. Things start off pleasantly strange and confusing, with all these uncertainties and puzzles to solve, and then they just get more strange and confusing from there, losing any sense of grounding or attachment or meaning. Every 10 pages, the story wanders off from the PoV of the conscript Narrator, to a dream of his, or a vision of his, to the viewpoint of his book-homunculus stalker, to the ghost-memory of someone who lived at the same location, or to some other random entity. This is compounded by the often stream-of-conscious nature of the narration. Words and purposes are left out, things are rarely described plainly, and what is described is usually only the immediate sense inputs available to the Narrator. A few examples of this from a random flip through the book:
"Brightening up for a change, icy light although the day is ending, brilliance soft on the eye, not dazzling."
This isn't really a formal sentence, but it is at least understandable, which is something.
"I run, I get down, I want to ask somebody something - man splashes to within a few feet of me raises his gun aiming and it bursts in his hands swatting him to the ground and he's clawing his face and kicking on his back."
This is from one of the many fire-fights in the book; you only get the sensory information that the narrator has, and even this is garbled by the shock of events. These aren't even particularly unclear selections, they are just the standard writing for much of the novel.
As a cherry on top, there's also meta-narrative elements where the protagonist, for instance, summons up a memory, takes an item (say a rock) out of that memory, and uses it in his current situation. Trust me, it sounds cooler than it was.
So, you take a garbled world, garbled writing, garbled PoV, garbled meta-fiction, and the end result is kind of a gibberish. It would be like taking a selection of fine sauces and wines, and mixing them all together into a giant bowl. Far too much, and a waste of something that could have been quite good if used in moderation. In this story I could generally understand what was going on, but my ability to care gradually went down over the course of the book as it became increasingly clear that nothing would really be made clear. I don't know, I had a similarly hostile reaction to Bank's _A Song of Stone_, maybe I am just offended by books that make the basic communication of information into an unnecessary ordeal? Somewhat like a program that is complex, not because it has a complex algorithm, but because all the variables are badly named and jammed together into one huge function? And what is the final message of the book? That war was is bad? Yes, I was already on board for that, thanks for letting me know.
1 - 5 Stars
This is fantasy by way of Thomas Bernhard's Frost. The stories are masterfully written and terribly, terribly, demotivating. After finishing each 50 to 200 page story, I just wanted to lie down and take a nap, and gather strength for a couple of days before continuing on. The setting is completely burnt out and exhausted, both ecologically and spiritually. Insanity is just as much of a problem as pillaging barbarians from the Wastes. Everything has been tried before and failed. People occasionally find future-tech artifacts in the cold deserts that have been poisoned with heavy metals, but these machines work for a while, before breaking down, or malfunctioning, or going quietly insane. Mostly the artifacts can't be understood, and the last person who could understand their CRT screens died or went mad a thousand years ago. Farms are planted and then abandoned. Fleets are launched and founder in the ice and fog. Towns and cities disintegrate from madness, from cancerous memories, from alien dreams, from wandering fogs of entropy that infect the space-time. In 450 pages, there is approximately one healthy or warm relationship.
Honestly, I wasn't a huge fan. After the first 200 pages, I thought it was depressing but still quite good. After the first 450 pages, I just didn't see any reason to keep reading it, and I quit reading with ~50 pages to go. That is not a good sign, when the reader's motivation has been so depleted that they drop out after going that far. It's almost worse than dropping out after the first 20 pages, at least then you might have simply misjudged the book. If nothing else it did make me think why I disliked this (and _Frost_), but liked seemingly similar things like _The Road_ or _In the Valley of the Kings_. I think one reason is that while Viriconium is well written, it is also over-written. There is a ton of sensory description, which slows down the plot, and all of the description is depressing. So rather than being fast & sharp & negative, this is slow and muddied and negative, and wallows and circles over the same ground over and over. Where Valley of the Kings has the infinite void of space, layers of deeper blackness within a tomb, and a single word of madness, all in a few dozen pages, Viriconium has hypochondriac art critics, retarded kids and dumb farmers, backwards and dirty nobility living among glowing machines they will never understand, scrawled across hundreds of pages. The word choices are perhaps also not that great. The author went deep into the thesaurus, and on some pages there are a half-dozen words that I don't know the meaning of. And ok, that is unusual at this point in my life, and new words, yay, that should be good? But then I also have to think that well, if I haven't seen this word before in 35 years, what exactly are the odds that I am going to see that word again before I die? And did it really add anything to the novel to pick a series of almost entirely unknown words to describe a scene? Sorry gamboge, bullace, and pthsis. The above problems are compounded by the plotting/character choices. The book is a collection of stories, and each story is populated with different characters. However, the characters do have large overlaps, and they are frequently alternate-reality versions of the characters in the previous stories, or similar characters 300 years later, or various fun house mirrors of the characters that came before. This starts to wear after a while; it feels less like 10 separate stories and more like the same morose story told 10 times.
Anyway. The stories have moments of brilliance, but these are gradually snuffed out by slow, unrelentingly waves of depressing prose.
I would like to give some belated credit to one of the ideas in Viriconium that I come back to with some regularity. In one of the stories, a whole cohort of people stored in suspended animation are brought back to life. These are people from a far advanced technological state, and are returned to a world that is utterly broken and winding down. And the tech-people go slowly crazy? Not so much from sadness, but more from an inability to map the ontologies of their old life onto the new world, and by the ghosts of their old agendas which crowd out the new world around them. I get that! I can imagine trying to explain some of the ideologies and conflicts of today to someone from 200 years ago, things like the EFF or Snowden or all the emotions over GamerGate. And you can just imagine what it will be like once we are 50 or 100 years further into the noosphere, with AR and VR and who knows what other sensorium. The difficulty and strangeness of translating that back to a medieval farmer is excellently captured in Viriconium. Edit 2: 7-11-2016
Crap. Not one month later, and I see the word "Phthisis" in a video game. Also, on further thought I probably could explain all of the above issues to someone from 200 years ago. Though I still stand by the point that future issues related to computers, AR, and VR would not be so easily explainable. Edit 2: 6-1-2020
Yep again. After seeing so many people driven insane by Twitter, I can definitely believe that they would not transition well to a medieval society.
A Song for Nero
Yrugh. My least favorite Holt book; I dropped this one after ~70 pages. The main character's voice in this is even worse than in the previous novel. He tries to be a lovable rogue in a wacky world, but the humor is at about the level of an indie-dev programmer doing their own writing. Maybe worse.
Alexander at the End of the World
My second least favorite book by Holt. Unlike the Walled Garden, which I quite enjoyed, this historical Athenian novel did not work for me. There is a lot of dad-humor in it, and parts of it seemed written by Dave Barry, or perhaps by the Black Company's Croaker on an off day. The central idea of the novel was also poorly implemented. The book is constantly trying to sell you on the theme that the main character, by focusing on ideas and ideals, inadvertently causes terrible damage to the people and world around him. But the actions of the book usually fail to support that assertion. For instance, the main character is walking along and thinking, when the brother he hasn't seen for 20 years runs into him from behind. His brother's leg is broken in this accident. The book then tells you over and over again that it is the protagonist's fault that his brother's leg was broken? It just doesn't make sense. Similarly, the protagonist helps found a new Greek colony at one point in the book. Their neighbors are Scythians, and one of the Scythian teenagers goes on a raid, kills several of the protagonists friends, and is then mortally wounded by the protagonist, leading to an escalating cycle of violence. This violence too is blamed on the protagonist, because he killed this teenager who was on a murder-rampage? That's just kind of karma in action, not some grievous moral fault by the main character. There's plenty of other examples like this; these two just stood out. The theme in of itself is fine, and I'd be open to it, but the novel never really supports the themes. Or to re-phrase: the novel is constantly telling you a theme and then showing you something else. There's also an annoying number of anachronisms in the book. I usually don't notice these, but perhaps because the storyline didn't really work for me the anachronisms really stood out. For instance, you have phrases like "under pressure" which really wouldn't mean anything in the ancient world.
So, what is the story about? It is the memoir of a Greek philosopher, as he deals with life, tutors Alexander the Great, founds a colony, talks to his brother about military campaigns, and so on. The Alexander parts were more interesting than the main character's navel gazing, and oddly in the last 150 pages of the 450 page novel there is some more interesting, PKD type time-slip action going on.
Editor's Note: Despite the flaws of the novel, and despite disliking the novel, I mostly agree with the novel. It belongs to that small class of books which are poorly implemented, but still contain ideas which are both uncommon and correct and useful. I'm not sure how to reflect that in a 5-star rating system, but it is a book where I do agree with its thesis and find myself referencing it every month or so for years after. This isn't because the novel introduced a new idea to me necessarily, rather this is sort of the book I think about when I think of this sort of idea (where the idea is "infrastructure over ideas").
Uzumake - Spiral into Horror
Uzumake is a series of Japanese comic books, or as they call them over there, "visual novels". There are ~20 issues in the series, where each issue covers one incident in the gradual infection and corruption of a village by a supernatural terror. The terror is less of a monster and more of a platonic idea, the idea of the Spiral, which entrances and maddens and transforms and kills the inhabitants of the village.
The collection was surprisingly good, for some values of good. Visually the novel is great. The "spiral" idea lends itself very well to the comic book form, and there are dozens of neat and creative visual motifs and riffs on this form. The stories themselves are not really scary in the sense of a jump scare or an afraid of the dark scare, but rather they are deeply unsettling. I'm not sure how well I can measure this, as thanks to the internet I've already lost most the Sanity Points I have to lose in this area, but I thought that a lot of the imagery was really out there and disturbing. There is a lot of body horror, warts and growths that consume their host, corrupted placentas growing into fungal blooms, babies moving back into wombs, etc. (Ed. Keep it up Japan!) There were a number of shared themes between this and Jeff Vandermeer's Annihiliation series; you have the lighthouse and inverted lighthouse, the transformation of human into beast, the idea of semiotic contagion and corruption, the idea of a region where reality itself has been marked out and claimed by an alien power. Vandermeer is a lot more restrained with his weirdness though; here it is more balls to the wall weirdness from from page 1 through page 500. Partially as a result of that, the stories feel less grounded than Vandermeer's. That's kind of a weird criticism to have of a book of Weird Tales, but I think it can be important to have some sense of consistency or breathing room in the story. I feel like in terms of realism A) There is no way the protagonist actually stays in the village past issue 2, or maybe issue 3. I think any half-way rationale person would be packing the car at that point. And B) there is no way the protagonist survives past issue 10 or so. I can see why the stories are laid out this way (it's a monthly comic book where each issue needs to be its own self contained thing while maintaining the theme), but it makes the story perhaps less interesting than it would be if told as a cohesive whole. Still, a really well done work.
Girl with the Pearl Earring
A pleasant enough book, though I'm not sure I really understood it. The main lesson of the book seems to be that it sucked to live in the 1600's? Or that it 1.2f * sucked to be a woman back then? The story is a bit like Uprooted, with a cold master and warmer apprentice, though this time the subject is painting rather than magic, and there is laundry rather than sword battles, and in general things are woefully under consummated. I liked the tidbits about painting theory in the book, though they were generally more technical than ideological. I prefer Iris Murdoch's take on painting in the SandCastle. I did like though the small details of Netherlandic life that the author put in, and I liked the understated and calm nature of the main character. The ending was also pleasant, though I feel that the author also had a great, uncertain ending ~10 pages before the real ending. I half-wish she had just ended the book early, with all of the possible futures hanging in the air.
Nice, really nice. This is a wandering book of semi-fantasy, semi-actual literature, with a mix of adventure, crime, romance, and occasional warps in the fabric of reality. One of the two main characters is a doctor who's idealism has been hollowed out by events, leaving behind a sort of fossil of its shape that continues forward. Aside from her occasional gun fights she wouldn't be that out of place in an Iris Murdoch novel. Actually now that I think about it she has a bit of Tallis in her, though her design is not as perfect as his. The other main character is a blackguard and gunslinger, who does just fine without ideals and instead makes do with an uncanny amount of luck and engaging the world as it is. These two characters are semi-friends, and over the course of the story they move from a bitter, Wild West desert frontier, to a florid and decadent jungle city, and back again. Things happen? The plot is kind of slack or pleasantly wandering; it does not necessarily have the normal peaks and valleys that you would expect. Instead there is just continually beautiful (and frequently brutal) writing.
The tech level in this book seems to be around the ~1850's in our world, though it lacks the same sort of technological momentum and acceleration that ours has. One interesting offshoot from this book was that it made me realize how much of my own idealism is a result of that acceleration. It is much easier to look at some instance of human crappiness and say well, we can at least hope to fix that, maybe not today but hopefully in X decades when we have better tools and technology. Or to put it another way, you can say that yes idealism is completely unrealistic, but it is still not inconceivable that one day we could, Infinite Tsukuyomi style, wrap the world in thicker and more perfect layers of abstraction in order to get something halfway decent.
Version 43, Philip Palmer
An odd, brutal, funny, and well crafted sci fi mystery of shifting perspectives. The book is recent, but in many ways it reminds me of classic 70's sci-fi. Like a lot of 70's sci-fi, it is less about science and more about the fantastic. There are ray beams and space ships and such, but there isn't any sort of consistent basis to them, and they exist right along side quantum powers & magic & time dilation & psychic abilities. The book also has the sort of shifting perspectives & unstable ground that you find in Philip K Dick, or in something like _The Thing_ , where just a few new pieces of information can completely shift the narrative ground you thought you were standing on. Version 43 has many of these shifts, as successive versions of a cyborg cop are incarnated to try and deal with a bizarre murder on a lawless planet. With each iteration and reveal, you learn more about the planet, the characters, and what might be going on. This largely works and is enjoyable, even if it starts to go off the rails a bit in the last 50 pages. Still, Palmer keeps things on the rails for much longer than I thought possible, and he does a really impressive job of story telling and plotting. I particularly liked the unreliable main character, a sort of murderous but lovably arrogant robo-cop with various shifting currents in his unconscious. His beau was also quite adorable. I'm usually not a fan of mysteries, but this one was very well done.
I would give the book an extra half star, but the 70's combination of magic, psychics, time-travel, etc. kept the story from feeling grounded or consistent enough for me to really, truly connect with it. It always felt more like an clever tale being spun out of cobwebs rather than something happening to real people. To paraphrase Simone Weil, "To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the novel".
Rainbows End, Verner Vinge
First off, I like Vinge. He is a genuinely smart fellow, and while his characterization is often wooden, and his plot lines are occasionally flat, he has well thought out science fictional and programming related ideas that I usually come back to in my later ponderings. This book though, ooof. Unlike the other Vinge that I have read which deals with space ships and alien races, Rainbows End is set in the America of 2025. And because of that, and because of Vinge's less well thought out political ideas, this book often comes across as laughably unrealistic and absurd. Alien spiders, AI, FTL, sure, that sounds fun, I can suspend disbelief and think about them in the context of the story. But a hyper-competent and good hearted Department of Homeland security? Lol, my sides, they are in orbit, moving away at 0.2C. Why not add dragons and unicorns? This book also has an entirely justified American invasion that just *barely* manages to pre-empt a WMD launch; the evil doers even hid their WMDs under an orphanage! America has also switched over to a hyper efficient libertarian marketplace by 2025. And as we know, once you remove all constraints from corporations & add even more radically invasive technology, you get a really great and productive and innovative society. This idiot libertarianism lends just about every aspect of the story an air of pure fantasy. Here is one small instance: a character undergoes multiple, radical medical therapies; there is no mention of the cost or insurance paperwork. Really? Meanwhile in the real world, a pharma company just increased the price of a swathe of drugs by 5000% each. Why? Because fuck you, that's why. If you don't get the drugs you die or are crippled, so pay up. I have difficultly believing that our current situation gets better once you remove all constraint from the pharma companies/medical industry. Another instance: most of the characters make money by selling each other virtual goods; basically they are all employed making TF2 hats for each other in the Steam of the future. That's great, but it does raise the question of how they actually pay the rentiers who own the land, energy resources, app stores, medical patents, and all the existing copyrights. Oh, another small question, why does anyone want to buy the hat that a high school kid made, rather than the hat made by a professional triple A team? Or here, what about someone who isn't above average? I hear there are a lot of them these days. Or what about someone who doesn't want to keep running on the treadmill of global competition in their 50's and 60's? Is there any place in this society for them?
Ok, at this point in the review I think I've just accepted that I'm only going to list negatives.
Negative N: one of the conceits of the book is that teams of analysts can be rapidly assigned to new problems, and can evaluate and respond to these new problems within minutes. Near the end of the book, *thousands* (or even more?) analysts are added to the DHS to help with a crisis, and somehow this helps & quickly gives super-intelligent responses? I mean, a woman can have a baby in 9 months, so 50000 women should do it in 10 minutes, right? I did not get this part of the book at all; it takes time to get up to speed with a new problem, it takes time to coordinate workers, it takes security clearances & contracts to even be allowed to see the data, and even then each new person increases the risk of leaks/theft/other problems. This was particularly galling since one of the fundamental anti-patterns of computer programming is to add more people to a project if the project is taking too long. You would expect adding more people to speed the project up, but in reality it causes significant slowdowns in the short-to-medium term as the new people need to be integrated and brought up to speed on the work.
Negative N+1: At one point, a main character has their arm brutally destroyed. In the remaining chapters, that character barely thinks about the trauma of the experience, or the difficulties of going through life without a significant chunk of their body. Earlier I said that Vinge's characterization is wooden, but man, this was a new high, a towering red wood of woodenness.
Negative N+2: One of the neat aspects of the story is the augmented reality layer that people place over the real world using advanced contacts and ubiquitous sensors. Again, Vinge is a smart & technical fellow, and its neat to see his take on these technologies that are starting to come to fruition. But again, I feel like he largely glosses over the downsides of these new technologies. Things like: this.
While I am interested in some of the basic ideas of this book, and about how we might navigate between the Scylla of an all pervasive security state and the Charybdis of potential garage-level bio WMDs, this book is not the one to explore these ideas. It basically just says that "Yeah, Scylla is great, she has a good heart and will never use her tentacles to do terrible things to your orifices".
[Edit] Reading back over this review, man, I was really hard on Vinge. Part of it is that I hold authors I respect to higher standards; it is not so much that Vinge is history's greatest monster, and more that it is disappointing to find (what I think) is a blind spot in an author I like. As with his other books, I like many of the technical ideas explored in the book, and think that there is a great deal of intelligence and thought put into them, even if the resulting story isn't all that great.
Uprooted, Naomi Novik
An enjoyable fantasy story about a kingdom (and an odd-couple wizard duo) fighting a malevolent, powerful, and infinitely patient forest spirit. The forest spirit is somewhere between the omniscient antagonist in _The Wise Man's Fear_, and the distributed and near unkillable giant plant from the Ruins. I liked it! The characters were neat, the writing is snappy, the world building is fine, the magic is crunchy, the antagonist is interesting, and all together it just lays out a nice Dominions 3 scenario. Even more than Novik's other books, this one is a romance in addition to an action story. I find most romances to be boring and templated, and have difficulty paying enough attention to read them. However! With this book and with Jacqueline Carey, I've learned that I can actually get into Romances, so long as you warm me up first with 150 pages detailing the strategic/magical balance of power :) As with Novik's other books, these were not great literature, but they are at least well-constructed & enjoyable pandering that I enjoyed reading.
Consider Phlebas, Iain M Banks
This was a re-read, as I wanted to sample this novel again before giving it as a gift. And wow, Consider Phlebas is still really, really good. Let me just start listing off superlatives: hugely inventive, great detail and descriptive scenes, memorable characters, intelligent themes and layering of themes and variations of themes, exciting action, uh, and I think that covers most of it. Banks has this wonderful quality where he will just create huge, generous streams of character and detail and scenery; it is like walking through a ticker tape parade, where as most authors will just throw a sad handful of confetti at you. For example, take the recent read _The Goblin Emperor_, which was not a bad or uninventive book. Two weeks after reading it, I would be hard pressed to describe many of the main characters, except as general statements about their personality. His wife? Uh, likes astronomy and kind of nice? His secretary of state? Helpful, trustworthy, tactful, traumatized by that one land owner. Whereas with Phlebas, I could give more detailed descriptions of at least a minor dozen characters. Banks has a very crunchy & memorable writing style, the closest thing I have to it today is my favorite RPG blog, Goblin Punch.
Anyway! In terms of what the book is actually about, it is about a galactic war, and one small episode within the war. Two agents on opposite sides of the war are trying to claim an AI core that has been stranded within a planet owned by a neutral and powerful elder race. There are adventures through out the war zone, and then again within the neutral planet. People die. There are explosions, nuclear explosions, anti-matter explosions, and love making. Why, why has no one turned the Culture novels into a series of movies? They are just begging for it. Hmm, perhaps because the books are depressing? Despite the action-movie nature of the book, it is really an extended reflection on the loss and pointlessness? waste? tragedy? of war, and of downward seeking behavior in general.
The Goblin Emperor, by Sarah Monette
Editors Note: I read this entire book while on 4 hours sleep, and while stranded on a balcony. I do not claim that this review represents my normal, completely objective and impartial opinions.
So! The Goblin Emperor. It is a bit of Hamako's _Long Live the Queen!_, where a half-goblin-half-elf (or "golf" as they are called) is unexpectedly promoted to lead a tradition-soaked Elven empire. The Golf must determine what sort of ruler he will be, and must survive treacherous political waters and various threats. On the whole the book is enjoyable. The main character and many others are likeable, there are inventive and cleanly described scenes and environments, and there are some neat twists to what could have otherwise been a more standard tale. I particularly liked the interviews with the sabetours at the end. There is some difficulty/confusion in the book, since you have to learn a boatload of elven names and terms, but I interpreted this as a way for the author to convey the difficulty the protagonist has to face when first plunged into the Imperial Elven court. The writing is of a general high quality, and like with _Authority_ I enjoyed the descriptions of political/psychological/organizational struggles.
There were a few flaws in the book. The main character Maia is very likable, and reminded me of an elf/goblin version of Avatar Aang. Maia's psychology never really fit for me though. Aang is who he is because of a naturally cheerful disposition, and because of his warm and careful upbringing by Buddhist monks. While Maia had some positive early influences from his Mom, that stopped when he was 8 years old, and just about every experience after that was bad. It did not entirely fit for me that a childhood of abuse and neglect produces the enlightened 18 year old in the novel. Or to put it another way, his psycho-history didn't really ring true, and there wasn't an entirely convincing explanation for it in the novel. Still, there are worse things than having a largely cheerful and wise protagonist. A second complaint that I would make is that in some ways, the hero doesn't really do that much. He survives the plots against him mostly through other people's interventions or just luck. He would *not* have made it far in the environment of _Long Live the Queen!_. The hero does make positive changes in the empire, but again a lot of that is due to placing his trust in bystanders who happen to be trustworthy, rather than through positive or direct action of his own. Or to put it another way, he is not really a Tywin Lannister, he is more someone who exemplifies the Tao and then has that flow down through his subordinates. I think I might like a sequel more in this regard if we were to see the hero after he has come into his own, and & can play a more active role in manipulating/guiding the politics of the kingdom. Like with Ancillary Justice, I think there is a lot of promise in the universe that Monette has created.
This is sci-fi. This is a big, 500 page block of sci fi. It is not bad? It is not original in its ideas at all, but the execution is pleasingly competent and generally enjoyable. It is a bit like an actiony 1970's sci-fi book, but updated with modern graphics. The setting is a few hundred years in the future, where we have developed fusion drives and have started colonizing the solar system, but do not yet have AI's, FTL, or any truly transformative technologies. Events occur! There is tension between the wealthy inner planets, and the frontier miners of the outer planets. More Events occur! The characters are quietly likable & usually not too obtrusive. There are some brief moments when the author tries to introduce larger ideas or psychology, but these can be safely ignored. The author does a better job with the small details of Belter life, and in the thought he has put in to the habits, tics, trade, and living quarters of people who have never been in a gravity well. I particularly liked his aural descriptions, both of the everyday sounds of spacecraft and of when they are falling apart.
I'm not sure I want to read the rest of the series in my current state of supreme physical wellness (apparently the author has written enough of these novels to fill a small shipping container?), but I would definitely turn to them if I was bed-ridden by tuberculosis.
Authority, by Vandermeer
Authority is the delightful sequel to the wonderful Lovecraftian gem that is _Annihilation_. _Annihilation_ is a constant stream of action, revelation, and betrayal. From the very first the protagonist is struggling to survive in Area X, a normal seeming but immensely dangerous wilderness. _Authority_ is a slower book, and this time the deceptively dangerous environment is the government institution set up to watch over Area X. Here the operative mode of the story is not the constant physical threat of death/dissolution, rather it is in the sudden leap between normalcy and the utterly insane and alien. For this reason the book is a bit slower; it first has to setup a relative normalcy in order to later disrupt it. This is not say that the Authority is slow, there is tons of fighting, but most of the fighting is of the organizational, political, administrative, and psychological variety. I enjoyed this political infighting, even if it is not quite as compelling as the original. Authority is still in the LoveCraftian/Delta Green genre that I love, but this time it is less about the dangers of the field and more about institutional corruption and shadow wars.
I worry that in describing Authority I will fail to say how much I liked it. I liked it! I liked it enough that I read the 350 page book in basically one sitting. The problem that Authority faces is that its predecessor was basically a perfect novel in the genre, or at least perfect enough that I could not point out anything I would change. Authority is very good, but it is not quite perfect. The protagonist, a CIA manager, is not quite as relatable as the biologist from the first novel. His acerbic, absentee, and domineering CIA mom also reminded me a bit too much of Archer's Mom. :) And as I said, Authority is a bit slower. It also does not do quite enough to advance the plot/explore the mystery. We don't learn much more about Area X. The things that happen in this novel are, basically, what the biologist thought might happen in the first book. We don't get any new paragraphs of awesome, insane cultist gibberish (though I guess we do get a few neat cultist murals). In short, in terms of world building it felt like the author was just fleshing out the lines that he'd already laid down in the first book, without adding much more that was really new. Compare this to the first book, where every 25 pages there is a sudden lurch as something new is revealed and the situation completely changes. Ok, enough of my quibbles. Authority is a highly enjoyable read, and it has at least three completely wonderful, laugh out-loud, terrifying and f'd up moments. I'm looking forward to the third book in the series, even if like the second book it is merely excellent and not perfect.
Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie
A decently written but rather silly space opera. The basic (and neat) idea is that there is space emperor, who has used cloning and brain implant technology to create countless duplicates of herself. Each duplicate is linked via brain-implant to the others, so that theoretically they all have the same identity. Each one is put in charge of a different sector or system of the empire. However, as the empire has grown to thousands of worlds, propagation delays have caused the versions of herself to drift apart, to the point where after centuries of plotting the two factions of herself are now openly in conflict. So! This second book in the series starts off with the galactic civil war just getting underway. The fate of thousands of planets are at stake! Our hero has been given command of an FTL warship, and sent to a vital system with orders to protect the system. At which point our hero starts doing fetch quests. Her first order of business is to improve the plumbing and health-services for the ~100 or so people in the poor-person's block of the system space station. Not to, say, figure out the loyalties of the other warship captains, or to get her hands on the AI overrides for their ships. After her first bold move, she progresses on to similarly important tasks like making sure this one space station cadet gets out of a mildly abusive relationship, or improving working conditions for a small portion of the tea-growers on planet. Oh my lord lady. It is like in a JRPG, where there is this world-threatening evil, and you ignore addressing it in favor of doing fetch quests or finding a lost cat for townsfolk. Here is an idea; if the tea-harvesters have a crappy life, have some fricken' robots do the job instead. Now that that issue is taken care of, you can turn to the more important issues like making sure the whole place isn't nuked in the incipient interstellar war. The author does make some small nods to automation as a solution, by saying that most tea is made by automated factories, and only the prestige brands are made by hand. But that just leads to the question of why given the means of production available (mass automation and robotics, advanced AI, thousands of FTL ships, plenty of pleasant and sparsely inhabited planets, centuries of peace and reasonably competent rule), everyone is so incredibly, incredibly poor. The space ship crew can barely afford tea, a new officer can barely afford rum. Even the elites of the society are terribly poor; the grand oligarch of the planet only has a few McMansions and a few hundred indentured workers. I think the source of this problem is that the author wants to write a very social-justicy novel, and to do that you need injustices to highlight and fix. This doesn't really work though since A) the injustices the author comes up with are basically from our world and don't fit with the technology/sci-fi situation presented, and B) it often felt like pandering; e.g. have a laundry list of current social justice issues (colonialism, racism, income inequality, spousal abuse, etc. etc.), and then have our physically deadly and morally righteous protagonist slice through them. [Editors note: Someone on GoodReads described the novel as the one-sided continuation of an argument the author had on the internet; that seemed apt.] And in the end, I have to ask to what purpose? Even if the hero fixes all the inequalities in their system, she has only delivered its people into something moderately worse than a middle-class American existence. Why not have some imagination instead? You have AIs and anti-gravity and cloning and brain CRUD! Go to town! Create an actual positive vision of a humane future like Iain M Banks did, where people aren't wasting their lives as soldiers, or butlers, or manual labors. Let them flourish to the limits of baseline human potential, or let them go far beyond that if they wish. Oh! Or here is an idea, just fully accept that you don't care about the science in your science fiction, and instead write space romances, about the love between the AI ships and their captains. Make it the full focus of the novels like Termeraire did, and happily ignore the sillyness of the world you have built up.
Anyway! When the book can be bothered to turn back to the main quest line, it can be good. There are the seeds of interesting stuff in trying to suss out the loyalties of the other captains and governors and AIs in the system, especially since brain-implants and AI overrides can come into play. The main plot wasn't all that well developed, but I liked the parts that were there. And like in the first book, the protagonist is unobtrusively gender blind, which as in the first book I liked but was generally blind to. I believe this blindness is because I am similarly enlightened myself, and failed to notice the abscence of something I don't pay much attention to. Either that or I am an unobservant and lazy reader. :)