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The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

July 31, 2009 1 comment

For this review, I’m travelling back in time a little. I’ve been putting off reading this second in a trilogy by Brandon Sanderson until I had the time to read the last two books together. It avoids the cliffhanging ending being too much to bear for a year and more until the last episode comes along. So, off we go with another strength-enhancing dumbbell of a book. Weighing in at almost 600 pages, The Well of Ascension continues the fantasy saga of the Mistborn. But rather than a “conventional” text, it’s written with very clear postmodernist sensibilities. It would be easy to see this story as only about a small group, mainly magicians of varying degrees of power, trying to cobble a government together using democratic means while being threatened by invading armies. But there’s a lot more going on in the text.

Michel Foucault proposed in a series of articles and books that the best way to understand the present is to interrogate the past. He described this process as a type of intellectual archaeology. Researchers dig down into the early layers of documentation. Every new piece of evidence being important not only for what it says, but also for what it does not say. The lacunae are just as important as the finds. This process is central to this book as the Terris Keepers are walking archaeologists, each carrying a datastore of the accumulating knowledge about the past and present. As new facts are uncovered, the researchers cross-reference and annotate, creating an ever more comprehensive view of past events. All this scholarship does, however, rest upon a simple assumption. That no-one else can change the records they find or keep. Just imagine how distorted the research would become if someone was able to manipulate the records.

This theme directly links into the second proposition that access to control over people depends on a linkage between pouvoir and savoir — power and knowledge. Societies are built on and driven by a continuing stream of discourse. In their most refined form, the discourses of constitutional law and political influence dictate the shape and operation of the state. At the lowest levels, the discourses of class and culture determine how people present themselves to the others with whom they interact. Everything is essential from the clothes they wear, their body language, the accents with which they speak and so on. Leaders dress in particular ways to communicate their right to lead. There are deliberate borrowings from semiotics in this fantasy as Tindwyl, one of the Terris Keepers, tries to instruct Elend, the potential leader, in the theories of communication and the manipulation of signs and symbols.

In this story, there is access to all parts of the discourse at a metalevel with only the records engraved on metal outside direct control. Lower down in the layering of discourse, access follows the real-world structures of political power brokers and increasingly less influential classes. But, interestingly, two of the magical skills are soothing and rioting which allow those with the power to directly interact with the emotions of those close to them. Thus, the combination of words, body language and magical ability (substitute “charisma” in the real world) endows speakers with the maximum ability to influence their audience.

Then there are matter of the heart. Hardly the concern of a postmodernist but Sanderson rises to the occasion with an extended parable about choice. In one set of relationships based on romantic, courtly love (albeit not quite in the real-world mediaeval European style), the Mistborn finds herself between two brothers who could not be more different. She is young and inexperienced in love, but the need to make a choice between the two brothers becomes increasingly real as the book continues. In the second relationship between a mature couple, we are presented with two Terris Keepers. Male Keepers like Sazed are eunuchs. Tindwyl has her own reasons for preferring to remain platonic. In this trilogy, Sanderson’s central preoccupation is on the relationship between love and trust. He muses on how people might transcend their differences and find comfort in each other. It could be an entirely rational and somewhat dispassionate process. Or it could be intuitive as the couple try to see beyond surface impressions. It might be driven by the genetically-programmed desire to continue the race by producing children, or the couple might be intellectually compatible while incapable of producing children. As a separate but allied thread in the plot, we also have the developing relationship between the Mistborn and her kandra who, by reason of his ability to take on the shape of humans and animals, is not who he seems to be. With the kandra, we have a person who feels bound by the strict letter of his race’s agreement with humanity, yet is tempted by the freedom to choose.

The danger with books of this kind is that they become too preoccupied with the discussion of ideas. Every author walks a fine line. One of the best examples of the problem is The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. As an academic specialising in semiotics and literary theory, Eco could have sidelined the mystery to identify the murderer in a mediaeval abbey, but the primary narrative of how William of Baskerville “solves” the case manages to rise above its context. Although not quite on the same level as Eco, Sanderson also drives the plot along as the imperial capital of Luthadel finds itself surrounded by two armies. The threatened arrival of the third non-human koloss army keeps everyone on their toes. The merits of a democratic as against various kinds of more direct power structures are pivotal to the unfolding of events, but they remain sufficiently a subtext to let the narrative to drive forward. The emerging interest in religion also hints at future developments.

On balance, I found this an intelligent and pleasing book. I hesitate to limit it by genre. Yes, it’s ostensibly the second in a fantasy trilogy, but Sanderson’s willingness to explore the ideas and relationships gives an added depth and resonance to the otherwise simple story of daring-do. For once, I swept through a long book and immediately picked up the concluding volume, The Hero of Ages, to see how it all turned out. Five hundred and seventy two pages later, I had the answer.

For a review of the sequel, The Hero of Ages, and two YA novels set in different universes, see Alcatraz Versus The Scrivener’s Bones and The Rithmatist. There’s also a stand-alone novel called Warbreaker and a novella The Emperor’s Soul.
You also have the first two novels in The Stormlight Archive:
The Way of Kings
The Words of Radiance.

We Think, Therefore We Are edited by Peter Crowther

There often comes a point during a session organised in a holiday camp or on a cruise liner when the poor sucker charged with the task of keeping the group entertained picks up the microphone and asks, “Are we having fun yet?” There can be levels of desperation about this question. Sometimes, it can sound like a threat. This scene arises out of the expectation that “one size fits all”. No matter what the race, gender, religion or social class of those in the group, an organised form of entertainment will keep everyone happy. This is, of course, a hopeless myth put about by those who market camps and cruises. They must convince a sceptical public that all customers will have fun if they part with their money and come along.

So it is with themed anthologies. The editor is the guy with the microphone who has picked out the games. Now everyone has to survive the next few hours in the session to discover whether the choices made and the manner of presentation “sell” the fun part. The problem to overcome is that too narrowly defined a theme can constrain the creativity of the authors and the results can be monotonous. We have all struggled with endless parades of vampires and zombies. So it’s a great pleasure to pick up We Think, Therefore We Are, edited by Peter Crowther who is one of the best editors around. The title is derived from the now somewhat clichéd proposition formulated by René Descartes, cogito ergo sum. As a brief to the authors, Crowther looked for an exploration of artificial intelligence. The assumption is that, at some time in the future, machines will achieve something approaching the human capacity for independent thought. The alarming possible outcome would be an endless recycling of terminators as they batter the few remnants of humanity into submission. Victor von Frankenstein must always be superseded by his creature.

In fact, the anthology offers fifteen variations on the theme without anything approaching Schwarzenegger muttering incoherently about his return (although, I suppose, the salvaged monks in Eric Brown’s story have a similar mindset aimed at world domination). By and large, the intelligences are rather subdued and tragic figures whose only interest in life is to get on with the business of living. So are there overlaps with conventional tropes? Obviously, it’s very difficult to avoid the “classic” ideas. We have two reworkings of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and space opera sized AIs that build themselves as Dyson spheres around stars and, in one case, a black hole. But, what sets this anthology above the pack is the willingness of the authors to transcend the predictable and claw at the soft underbelly of conventionality. So James Lovegrove gives us a beautiful piece of metafiction about a secret government research project that relies on human short story writers to produce wholly original fiction. Adam Roberts gives us a deeply ironic reworking of Adam’s temptation to eat the forbidden fruit. As a robot might observe, why give me a verbal instruction when you could write the code to make it an absolute command? Then we come to the love stories. Steven Utley sees the potential for virtual reality as an aid to seduction, while Eric Brown and Brian Stableford see self-sacrifice as one possible outcome to the relationship between machines and the humans they must perforce relate to. Robert Reed and Keith Brooke examine the possibility that cyber systems might soften the impact of death (albeit the latter also foresees a unique method of killing — quite the most original idea I’ve seen so far this year).

Paul Di Filippo gives us another of his delightfully wry stories, this time looking at the trials and tribulations of two massive AIs as they try to go back in time to grab a few humans with which to repopulate the galaxy. Ian Watson demonstrates why radio communication between AIs across interstellar distances can be a slight problem and Gary Kilworth reminds us that not everything in the garden should be “just so”. John Searle and Alan Turing are inspiration for stories about how those inside a Chinese Room might perceive the world and how a trained psychologist might react to a discussion with a disembodied voice. Which leaves us with two final issues. How should the world react to the reality of human enhancements and machine intelligence that do become sentient? There is always an argument for exile, sending them off into Earth orbit — out of sight, out of mind. But there must come a point when the injustice of their predicament overcomes even the most died-in-the-wool objections to justice. Then there is the reverse of this. How should a machine react if it becomes the instrument of murder? It would be all too human if it retreated into a fugue state but, if the machine was responsible for running a star ship, this could be very inconvenient for the crew. Let’s leave the final word to Tony Ballantyne who opines that the best of humanity should always be surprising to AIs (in the nicest possible way, of course).

I applaud Peter Crowther for his unrelenting search for originality and great writing. I also applaud Daw for allowing a predominantly British cast of authors to appear in an original US publication. Everyone is a winner in this combination. This is a great value-for-money read.

For a review of his latest novel, see Darkness Falling: Forever Twilight Book 1 and a collection Jewels in the Dust.

Duplicate Effort by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Sometimes you encounter an author who inspires the worst of human emotions: envy. Here is someone who can throw words on to paper and produce something so compulsively readable that you just have to read it through to the end to see how it comes out. Why are some authors just so good? I suppose it’s a mixture of an instinctive ability for storytelling and the craft of being able to tell the story in words so well chosen that the reader is immediately seduced. As an aside, I’m reminded of a famous English radio and television personality called Johnny Morris. He had the verbal magic of accent and cadence. You only had to hear a few words. He was instantly recognisable. Someone once said of him that he could read the telephone directory and make it sound interesting. So it is with some writers. They can take the most pedestrian of ideas yet transform them into immediately likeable text. It’s a rare talent and Kristine Kathryn Rusch has it. More importantly, she also has a great command of narrative development. Combine plot with simple and elegant writing, and you have a winner.

Duplicate Effort is the seventh in the Retrieval Artist series. There comes a point for some authors when they begin to find the development of a series a challenge. They have set up the basic cast of characters and, in the tradition of television soap operas, they have all loved and hated each other. Then, for the average author, this basic formula just runs out of creative steam and, no matter how interesting the plotting idea for the latest instalment, the characters feel tired. Yet, I am pleased to report, all the characters in this series continue to grow and develop. Miles Flint, the eponymous retrieval artist, now has a daughter to worry about. In the previous volumes, he was never vulnerable to intimidation or blackmail because there was no-one close to him. Now he must think defensively for two. Talia, his daughter (although, in some respects, her legal status as a clone may be somewhat blurry) is struggling to come to terms with the death of her mother and the sudden appearance of a father whom she had thought long dead. Naturally, as a precocious teenager, she has an independent streak that makes her a challenge for a man coming late to the role of “father”. Noelle DeRicci has risen from the position of “mere” detective to Chief of Security. Bartholomew Nyquist, a senior detective, is out of rehabilitation following the murderous attack on him in the last volume and now picks up a new case that is bigger than he first realises. Maxine Van Alen, a lawyer who always seemed in control of her fear of physical retaliation for her excellent legal skills suddenly finds new vulnerability as danger comes knocking on her door. And then there is Justinian Wagner who, as the Éminence Grise of Wagner, Stuart & Xendor, controls the operations of the most powerful firm of lawyers in this novel’s universe.

The most pleasing aspect of this series is that everything is woven together as an emerging tapestry. All that has gone before is remembered and resonates for the characters who must struggle and come to terms with the consequences of their past actions. Unlike the so-called “butterfly effect”, the series of events unfolding in this series is rather more an African buffalo tramples. The characters seem to have been set on a path designed to subject them to extremes of fear and danger but, in all honesty, that is the stuff of a mystery story set in an science fictional universe. You would expect there to be dangerous aliens lurking and even more dangerous humans in plain sight (some of them on the “right” side of the law). In this latest episode, Miles Flint suddenly becomes aware that Ki Bowles, the ambitious investigative reporter from previous volumes, has been murdered along with one of her security detail and the owner of the security firm. It looks a distinct possibility that Miles and, possibly, Maxine may be next on the hit list. So it becomes a race to identify the source of the threat and to deal with it before anyone else dies. In this, there are three completely separate lines of enquiry to represent the “duplicated effort” of the title (although, since Talia is a clone, the duplication process may be more personal). Miles and Talia work on their own ideas while Nyquist and his new partner follow the clues from the murders. Sitting in her high tower, Noelle DeRicci also has a problem to solve.

Although everything hangs together perfectly as a metanarrative, the ending has a slightly unfinished feel about it. I suppose the intention is to leave the consequences for the next instalment, but a few more pages would have left Nyquist, in particular, in a less ambiguous position. Overall, this is another tremendous contribution to the continuing saga. As with other series, this book should be read in context. If you have not read the earlier volumes, you should start at the beginning with The Disappeared. If, like me, you have been steadily consuming each instalment, this will not disappoint.

For my reviews of other titles by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, see:
Boneyards
City of Ruins
A Dangerous Road (writing as Kris Nelscott)
Diving into the Wreck
Duplicate Effort
Recovering Apollo 8

Cryptic. The Best Short Fiction of Jack McDevitt

And so it was on a bright shining morning in early Spring that the Lord Accountant did glance from the window in the high tower above the estate he so lovingly tended. He smiled for what he saw was good. Below, on display, were the serried ranks of books. The latest volumes to issue from the mighty printing presses that churned endlessly and ensured a constant supply of text to satisfy the cravings of the masses. “More pages for the dollar. A bigger bang for your buck,” he crooned happily to himself, having been brought up by a grandma whose proverbial wisdom came down to, “Never mind the quality, feel the width.” In the distance, he spied a new 600-page behemoth and knew life was good.

In all the wide world of publishing, the collection is a curious beast. Since all the stories are by the same author, there can be a certain monotony about the writing itself and the themes explored. For better or for worse, authors tend to have their own interests and obsessions, and these show through what they choose to write about. But, the truth is we buy collections because we like the way the author writes. We are seduced by the hope there will be a transcendence in the content to get us through any sense of repetitiveness. In a collection like Cryptic. The Best Short Fiction of Jack McDevitt, the challenge is even greater. There are some 587 pages of fiction in the same volume and, because it is a “best of”, a proportion of the stories are drawn from earlier collections. There are thirty-eight stories to hand. My copies of the three previous collections are in storage, but I think only about ten of these stories are uncollected. None of the stories are original and appear for the first time in print. Reading through the work is therefore a mixture of remembering what happens next and occasionally making new friends.

Writing the review also becomes more challenging. The main reason I was faintly unhappy was so many of the stories were familiar. I wish I could hold my hand up in solemn form and declare reading each story faithfully to the end. Actually, I confess skipping through those I remembered. I cannot conveniently unremember and read “as if for the first time”. So this is a volume for those with poor memories or who come to McDevitt for the first time. In this surging 600-page heavyweight, you will find everything from short, short stories that demonstrate a wry sense of humour to longer works that explore issues of morality or the paradoxes of time. There’s a moderately consistent theme: how do scientists relate to the world, or vice versa.

Having been engaged in research efforts as a younger man, I have struggled with the problems of reconciling the scientific method with the reality of the subjective observer. We all have our cherished beliefs and view the world through the lens of what we take to be self-evident. Even if you make those beliefs explicit at the outset, there can be a continuing subconscious distortion of what we see and choose to report. This is not to decry the scientific method in any way but, simply, to argue its limitations. It may work well in some contexts but, in what we choose to research and the actual methodologies we adopt, religious, political and other considerations will always have roles to play. So, what would the inventor of a time machine say to a pastor who found his faith threatened? And, if you could go back to establish the reality of the past, what would you go to observe and would you report it? And, even if you made the greatest discovery in the scientific world, who else would care? People have their lives to live regardless. Ironically, this can place burdens of responsibility on those who make discoveries. That you might be one of the few to realise the danger in what you have found means you have to deal with it. No-one else is going to understand or care until they are directly threatened by which time it may be too late.

This is not to say that the collection is bogged down with high-minded debate. McDevitt is never anything but accessible in the writing style and exploration of ideas. But there is a tendency to pick targets and take aim. With a title like “Cryptic”, you would expect meanings to be concealed to some extent. Sometimes the results hit the bull’s eye. The set-up and storytelling combine into a singularly pleasing whole, often capped with a “twist in the tale” ending that provokes thought and/or a smile. I will not play the game of picking favourites. There’s much to like here and, with the wide variations in the taste and sensibility of you, the readers, I leave it to you to find your own “best”. With thirty-eight stories from one of the top writers in the science fiction field (three of the stories are collaborations), there’s a lot of good to excellent material to explore and some interesting aliens to meet, albeit sometimes only in the carved form.

For further reviews of Jack McDevitt, see Time Travelers Never Die, The Devil’s Eye, Echo and Firebird.

Corambis by Sarah Monette

Sometimes my grandma would illuminate an evening with comments and asides. In her day, she had been a great hostess, born into a famous family and used to the need to create entertainment in the days when Marconi was still experimenting with radio waves. As she grew older, she yielded the playing field of entertaining discourse to my mother who, by my standards, never knew when to stop chattering on. Consequently, I have become something of a recluse and never socialise unless I am forced into it. But back to the earlier generation. My grandma, having been the victim of a private tutor, was well versed in history and had perfected the famous Parthian shot which she delivered with devastating effect without ever feeling the need to leave the room.

In Corambis by Sarah Monette we have the author storming out of the room with a parting shot to conclude the tetralogy which passes under the name of The Doctrine of Labyrinths. I say “conclude” with a wry smile because the key characters are all still alive and could, if Monette was offered a suitably large sum of money, continue their adventures in the next destination called Grimglass. Indeed, there are hints to that effect in the latter parts of Corambis.

As in any series, a balance has to be struck between “stuff happening” and character development. Taking the four books overall, Monette is charting the growth in the characters, Felix Harrowgate and Mildmay Foxe, as individuals and in their relationship as half brothers. To achieve this, she adopts a multiple point-of-view structure with, in this case, each of the three major characters having their own first person sections to carry on the story line. It allows three different interior monologues to illuminate events. From a purely technical standpoint, the mechanics of the narrative are well developed with Felix, Mildmay and Kay each given a reasonably distinctive voice. Unfortunately, as in the previous books, there is just too much padding. This would have made a really good trilogy.

There are some interesting and completely unexpected developments in the realisation of the world. Suddenly, we are pitched into a comparatively modern society which has significant urbanisation including an underground railway system, paddle steamers for river navigation and ocean crossing, and a social system in which the upper class takes coffee “in the library”. Frankly, I had not realised Mélusine was such a primitive backwater. However, this does allow Monette to quietly examine how social attitudes to a heritage of magic might change as society becomes more sophisticated. This includes comments on how novelists and historians may conspire to shape the discourse and reinterpret the inexplicable as something altogether more prosaic. In this, there is a nod in the direction of a clichéd Brave New World where Felix (as Mr. Savage) becomes an object of fascination and fear in a world more used to railway trains running on time than practising magicians plying their trade.

That said, stuff must happen — in a fantasy novel such as this, it is mandatory that the readers are exposed to magic and there must be a threat to be neutralised. As to the magic, we are given the now customary gay rape with fairly routine S&M thrown in along the way — at least, as a source of magic, there is something here for the local historians to gloss over and quietly forget. The local political scene is coloured by the presence of some magic but only unremarkable routinised magic (save, perhaps, for the medical arts). For what it’s worth, I think more could have been made of the functionality of the labyrinths all round the world. As to the threat: in the opening chapter, we are introduced to the machine at the heart of the labyrinth under Summerdown. Monette is laying down a marker. This is going to be the literal engine of destruction that Felix and Mildmay must confront and subdue. Indeed, to whet our appetite, it kills all but one of the men seeking to bring it to life, striking the one survivor blind. Unfortunately, this is never realised as a ravening machine laying waste to the countryside. Some trains stop unexpectedly when passing by the site of the machine, some sheep die and it may be connected to one or two suicides. But everything else is all rather hypothetical. We come to the view that it’s probably very dangerous and might be able to cause the deaths of many, but there’s no real sense of menace. Indeed, when Felix does finally confront it, the ending is comparable to a driver taking the ignition key out of the car and walking away. It feels like a plot element that has to be there so that Felix can finally forgive himself for all the bad things he has done.

So, as with the earlier three books, Corambis is too long and, while it does have some good ideas and is, for the most part, well written, I was bored towards the end. I read it to find out how it finished rather than because I was driven by the energy of the narrative. I think Mélusine, the first book in the series, remains the best and, if you have not read any of the series, confine yourself to Mélusine and the second, The Virtu. The remaining two books are rather more portentous and overblown. If you have read the three in the series, Corambis does tie up most of the loose ends and it’s moderately interesting to see how it all turns out.

For my other reviews of work by Sarah Monette, see: A Companion to Wolves and its sequel The Tempering of Men jointly with Elizabeth Bear, The Bone Key and a joint review of Guild of Xenolinguists and The Bone Key, and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves

The Long Fall by Walter Mosley

July 15, 2009 1 comment

Authors build up a routine, a template to follow when constructing a novel. They have experience in what works well and, as those who like idioms are wont to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” So it is with Walter Mosley. Having reached a “Reichenbach falls” moment with Easy Rawlins in Blonde Faith, we are off with a new series character called Leonid McGill (that’s Leonid as in Brezhnev and a not-quite nod in the direction of the Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald). The latest book is called The Long Fall, a reference to both a nightmare that plagues Leonid and the fact that, despite his best efforts to reform, he may be unable to prevent himself from becoming as criminal as many of his New York clients.

The question asked by all who want to write a novel about a private investigator is what elements to add to the plotting mix. The answer is easy to give. The series character must have a shady past. He may have done time or had close encounters of the legal kind. Many of those he knows are active criminals or work very close to the edge of criminality. He must have relationship problems with women and at least one of the women he meets will be stunningly beautiful. Surrounding him are an unofficial team of helpers and at least one of them is his muscle — a feared figure on the local scene who will always back him up in a crisis. The majority of the cops will be on the take but one may be honest and respect what the PI does. The work he is given will always potentially require him to break the law. Indeed, the majority of cases will be resolved in ways which do break the law, but he always manages to avoid prosecution so he can return in the next book. More often than not, he is honourable and loyal to his friends. He will be righteous and protect the innocent wherever possible. Stir well and throw in other less clichéd ideas and, all other things being equal, a reasonable narrative will emerge.

Whether it will be worth reading is another matter. There are remarkably clear dividing lines between the wannabe writers, the average published writers and the best. Walter Mosley is one of the best writers around, not just in mystery fiction, but in all fiction and non-fiction. In his fiction, he contrives to maintain interest in the narrative through credible characterisation and an ability to pick just the right words to describe each mise en scène and capture the spirit of events. Although there are a number of key similarities between all the main protagonists created by Mosley, each one manages to emerge as his own man. In this case, Leonid has been afflicted by guilt and wishes to reform — his past employers prefer him to continue to offer his services. He is caught between two women, the children in his life need a watchful eye and now an emerging series of murders may soon include his own death. To escape from impending doom, he must tap into his contacts and call in a few favours. Escaping from the women will obviously take several volumes in the series.

The subtext of race relations in the US is slightly understated. As a work set in contemporary times, it allows a more cynical, if not sardonic, view to stand on the page with only a few direct comments. There are events with a clear racial element but Mosley is not crusading. People are who they are and portrayed as more comfortable in their own skins than the characters in many of his other novels.

At the time I wrote this review, this was a stand-alone novel of a PI trying to earn a crust in contemporary New York. If you have not tried Mosley, this is as good a place to start as any. I strongly recommend it. And, when you have finished this, go on to the next three in the series, Known To Evil, When the Thrill Is Gone and All I Did Was Shoot My Man. There’s a new stand-alone series of pairs of novellas The Gift of Fire/On the Head of a Pin and Merge and Disciple. There are also two Easy Rawlins novels, Blonde Faith and Little Green. Finally, there’s a new ebook, Jack Strong.

Steal Across the Sky by Nancy Kress

I find myself faintly annoyed by Steal Across the Sky by Nancy Kress. The set-up is simple. Aliens appear on the moon and announce that they wronged humanity ten thousand years ago. Ten thousand years is an awfully long time. Even allowing for the relativistic time issues of interstellar travel, ten thousand years on Earth has seen a rise from basic agricultural communities to relative technological sophistication in an urbanised environment. I suppose, because they are alien, it does not matter that they do not explain why they feel the need to atone. We are left to speculate what might cause them to feel the need to seek forgiveness. In human cultures, the ethical situation would be more pragmatic. If people have managed for ten thousand years without understanding what happened, no-one would consider the need to supply that information now. They have adapted and adjusted to the new reality. If the original acts ten thousand years ago were ethically bad, why is disturbing the status quo any better today?

The aliens seem to have been conducting a piece of research, setting up socio-cultural experiments using groups of humans they removed from Earth. They paired planets and put matching groups of humans, modified and unmodified on each pair. Presumably, they then monitored each group’s development and, in line with their hypothesis, used the evidence gathered to determine whether the hypothesis was proved. I suppose it was a proposition testing which groups would produce better societies. On the evidence we have, the progress has been stunningly poor. After ten thousand years (or however long it has been on the distant worlds given the time dilation effect) one group has reached stasis as Eskimos on a “cold” planet while the other seems to be a kind of Aztec empire. Frankly, I’m not impressed by the transplanted humanity’s ability to transcend climatic constraints or despotic rulers after ten thousand years (or so). We seem to be doing better on Earth.

Nevertheless, the aliens feel the need to apologise to us and, perhaps, to repair the damage they believe has been caused. What alarming arrogance (typical of aliens who have superior technology and can more or less do what they want)! Who are they to say Earth has done badly and needs to be repaired? Frankly, if this means resetting the cultural clock to an idyllic agrarian culture or reimposing militaristic monarchy, I wish they would go home immediately. I accept we do not know how or why these transplanted communities turned out so slow in their development, but Earth is definitely making better progress with whatever it was the aliens left us with (or without).

Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress

Then we come to the witnessing — quite why the aliens should decide to “tell” the Earth what they had done by using this particular group of individuals is typically alien, i.e. incomprehensible. If their moral imperative is so strong that they have to atone in some way, they could just sneak in and make whatever changes they feel are expedient, or they could make an open admission with scientifically verifiable evidence from the outset. Allowing Earth the chance to dispute and debate the quality of the information the witnesses provide simply opens the door to chaos. If the aliens had acted covertly, Earth would evolve as if this was a natural human development. As it is, Earth could be destabilised.

The key people the aliens pick to discover the “truth” of what has been done are, to put it mildly, an odd bunch. We meet three of them. Camilla Mary O’Kane is a loose cannon, happy to pull out a gun and shoot defenceless natives and, although her breaking the rules to carry a dying native from one paired world to another does help identify the “truth” of what the aliens did, she proves to be a narrow-minded and unstable spokesperson for the aliens on her return to Earth. Fortunately for her, it seems not to be the crime of murder if she kills humans on another world. Lucca Giancarlo Maduro is also intellectually stubborn and somewhat crippled emotionally. Unlike Camilla, he goes into retreat when he returns to Earth and hardly speaks to anyone about what happened. Frank Olenik is a police officer manqué and such a strict Roman Catholic that everything he does is seen through the fixed-focus lens of his religion. Of the others who were sent into space, the only other of significance is Soledad who stays on the shuttle to co-ordinate the witnessing while Camilla and Lucca go down to their respective planets. I assume the aliens picked people so predominantly from the US so that an American author could pitch a book at the US market. The result is distinctly monochrome when it comes to characterisation.

Although the writing is clear and the plot moves along at a good clip, the result is only interesting if you switch off your brain and stop worrying about the credibility of what the characters (including the aliens) do. I understand that, in a science fiction novel, the readers are expected to go with the flow and just accept impossibility as possibility. But here the different individuals and factional interests have remarkable abilities to discover what each other are doing and seem not afraid of shooting first and asking questions later.

I suppose I was mildly interested to read it through to the end, but saddened that unilateral action had potentially destabilised the Earth for no good reason and left a trail of bodies on several worlds in the process. I offer no more than a tepid recommendation.

As an added note, Steal Across the Sky was a finalist in the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, 2010.

For the review of another book by Nancy Kress, see Yesterday’s Kin.

Buyout by Alexander C. Irvine

Some watchmakers are guilty of exploiting the sin of pride. They denote themselves as artists rather than mere craftsmen, and introduce glass panels into the casing of their creations so that those who have the money to buy these extravagant works can not only admire the engineering, but also use the watches as tokens to tell the world of their status. In semiotic terms, the prevailing culture  attributes greater meaning to the watch which becomes more than a mere “teller” of the time. Every society has a discourse devoted to the definition of success. Newspapers, magazines and the visual media project images showing what the successful wear and use. They establish templates for those who wish to demonstrate membership of this social class. In the case of a watch, the normally hidden machinery — the boring bits that twist and twirl to enable the watch to perform its function — must be labelled beautiful in its own right. The thing must become more important than its function and, because of the high price paid for all the labour to produce it, the watch becomes a signifier of wealth and status. Those who can afford such luxury hold themselves out as having taste and discrimination. They are the leaders who build up a set of clothes and other symbols of status to follow the plot and become one with the narrative of success for that society.

In literary terms, a plot is the author’s roadmap to get from the start of the book to the end. In the best writer’s hands, the narrative flows with a “natural” feel. The readers instinctively feel the characters have credibility because they react to fictional events in ways that match our own experience and expectations. Sometimes, the plot must be extremely detailed, say, as in a mystery story where all the clues must be worked in to ensure the detective can solve the crime and catch the bad guy(s). The danger is that this forces characters to act in strange ways simply to enable the plot to come out “right” in the end. I am reminded of John Brunner who wrote a novel as an exact re-enactment of a famous game of chess. The Squares of the City is a wonderful invention until the endgame forces a set of character moves that are somewhat arbitrary in literary terms. Any author can compensate for this distortion of credibility by the quality of the writing or the adoption of other literary devices which distract or pacify the reader in some way, e.g. because aspects of the story pander to the reader’s particular likes. Brunner more or less succeeds overall because it remains a good story despite the ending.

However, when it comes to books like Buyout by Alexander C. Irvine, we have a novel where the plot has become so dominant that absolutely nothing can buy off the readers — it’s like someone wearing an expensive watch on each wrist, thereby demonstrating a lack of true taste. Buyout is a “mystery” story set in a “what if” future world (i.e. not quite a science fiction novel). The result will be strongly polarising. Those that like this kind of puzzle and its solution will say, “Well, gee whizz. Who’da thought it!” and reverently place it on their book shelves. In my case, I was sorely tempted to throw it out of the window. Yes, there is some good writing here. Yes, I recognise the basic set of characters as they begin their journey through the plot. But the subordination of everything to one arbitrary fact contorts the plot into an inevitable death spiral. The critical fact becomes the lever to move the fictional world with everything moving to produce the outcome hinging on that one fact.

Worse, I am not really convinced by the economics of the “what if”. The buyout scheme as proposed in the book allows those convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole, to commit suicide for a money payment distributed as they direct. In the real world, the state uses taxpayers’ money to pay the cost of imprisonment following sentencing by the courts. This applies no matter whether the prison service is publicly owned or privatised. If the latter, the ongoing cost falling to the state will be more significant because the prison operators are for-profit. In the case of young convicts, the total payable will mount up to several million dollars for each individual. This suggests the state would save money by paying the prisoners a proportion of the future costs to commit suicide today and free up the cell for another. Thus, instead of a steadily increasing prison population necessitating the building of more prisons, there can be a steady state of prisoners released on parole or suiciding to free up cells for the newly convicted.

This seems to reverse current economics without any obvious benefit. As it is, current state governments kick the can of future costs down the road to future generations to deal with. Who is to say what will happen to the law or penal policy over the lifetime of any given generation of prisoners. Thus, if the plan as proposed by Irvine were to be adopted, the state government would use existing capital, borrowed funds or a proportion of the existing tax revenue to buy out future costs. The day-to-day operating costs for cell occupancy will stay more or less the same as new prisoners come into the system but, with several million being paid as directed by each prisoner who dies, the budget deficit will inevitably rise. Just as the US will not spend money on preventative medicine because that defeats the vested interests of doctors and hospitals, I cannot see states being prepared to spend additional capital on today’s prison service to reduce potential costs tomorrow.

So, as you will gather, I do not recommend anyone to bother with this book unless they like obscure puzzles and their solution.

Mr. Gaunt and other uneasy encounters by John Langan

When you set the bar for yourself, the main danger is that you set it too high. In Mr. Gaunt and other uneasy encounters, John Langan approaches the potential use of horror tropes with the dangerous assertion that he hopes to come up with something new. Characters in short stories, novels and films have been finding or digging up “things” for more than a hundred years. To inspire anticipatory terror in the reader (or watcher), there’s usually a curse and, at its heart, the only question is how many will die before the malevolent force is assuaged. Given that every reader (or watcher) almost always knows from the outset what’s going to happen, the author (or screenwriter) is left to wrestle with the technical challenges of building and maintaining suspense.

In “On Skua Island”, Langan adopts the traditional frame of a club or group of people exchanging stories of their “adventures”. When a timid voice pipes up from the back, we are launched into a calm recital of the “facts” and, overall, it’s a satisfying romp with a paranoid twist in the tale. However, I find the context for the story overcomplicated. All we need is cannon fodder for the “mummy” to slaughter. I know that films like Dog Soldiers have popularised the idea of soldiers being picked off by supernatural forces, but an approach by MI5 to our hero is faintly surprising unless the point of the exercise is to tear up the island to make an outpost for GCHQ. In such a case, I suppose some kind of archaeological survey might be authorised before the destruction takes place. As a matter of record, MI5’s role is primarily domestic. It’s MI6 that deals with external threats from Russia. Whoever the “soldiers” work for, they would take listening or surveillance equipment if they were really tracking and monitoring submarine activity. Then, why would the UK security services pick a non-national when there are plenty of loyal British scholars? Our hero would also have to sign the Official Secrets Act so all the dreams of public glory for supervising the excavation would turn to dust. All unauthorised disclosures describing the site and the circumstances surrounding the dig itself would almost certainly be a criminal offence.

Further, even the real-world Achill Island does not have a bog on top of Slievemore, so I doubt the presence of conditions on fictional Skua Island’s hilltop sufficient to produce a bog body. The pillar would have been seen frequently by passing boats if it was on top of the hill. To give credibility to bog conditions sufficient to produce the body and to explain why no-one had previously investigated the island’s mysterious grave marker, it should have been on flat boggy ground and only visible to a boat very close in to shore. This would have set up a better narrative device of a local trawler captain approaching our hero with photos taken from offshore. They could both be regular drinkers in the same pub. Despite the out-of-focus pictures, our hero would be tempted by the thought of a completely new neolithic or Viking site. So they organise a dig on a shoestring with men from the fishing fleet who are finding times hard. Our hero would promise them a share in the glory for helping to dig up something wonderful and unique (all archaeological finds in Scotland belong to the Crown and are treasure trove unless the contrary is proved). Then all the more guilt when only he and the original trawler captain survive. It’s all very well to invite the reader to suspend disbelief, but there are limits.

Nevertheless, Langan gets everything right in the titular story of “Mr. Gaunt”. It’s completely satisfying on every level and the explanation of how Mr. Gaunt came to be as he is demonstrates a genuinely pleasing, if somewhat mordant, sense of humour. There is also some academic humour attempted in “Tutorial” but, on balance, the story goes on too long and does not have a clearly enough defined rationale. It’s common ground that those with the right tools can manipulate their target readers. I’m not sure that these motives for attempting the suppression of more complex language are sufficiently worked out.

“Episode Seven” is a curious conflation of post-apocalyptic science fiction, fantasy and weird. I suspect that if I had read it in a magazine, I would have been more impressed. As it is, the story sits somewhat uncomfortably in a collection which, to this point, has been primarily supernatural in theme. It is an “action story” rather than an “uneasy encounter”. Although, perhaps, there is a supernatural transformation in progress as (Bruce) Wayne slowly assumes his alter ego. The final story is simply too long. I accept that some academic exploration of the mythology surrounding Laocoön and Doris Lessing’s analysis of the statue now sitting in the Vatican adds a powerful layer of irony to the story but, at this length, it slows down the development of the plot. This is a variation on the transmission system for passing on the characteristics of a vampire, werewolf, etc. and, although this particular plot is a clever step forward in the development of the trope, I find it overburdened with a catalogue of the author’s own interests and ideas. That said, there are some delightful touches such as the son’s nightmares about Darth Vader.

As a first collection, Mr. Gaunt displays some highly encouraging signs and, for all their faults, the stories gave me considerable enjoyment. The “Story Notes” are also illuminating. I shall definitely add this author’s name to my list of people to watch.

For a review of John Langan’s first novel, see House of Windows.

Gears of the City by Felix Gilman

July 9, 2009 1 comment

As age has taken away the essential vitality that used to encourage me to action as an entrepreneur, I have turned to this strange new virtual medium. I come from an antediluvian world of publishing in which typesetters were the masters of hand compositing. Their work was the essential precondition to the printing of physical copy. In those days, we all knew the costs of what we did at every stage of the process of snatching words from the aether and transforming them into text. Now, with an amused detachment, I watch the accretion of millions of my words in this paperless environment. For my commercial output, I know who commissions and buys my words, and I understand how their business models work. But the economics of free sites like this puzzle me. The costs of the servers and bandwidth cannot be absorbed out of altruism. Yet, in sites like this, the masses have access to a virtual publishing system with no apparent costs. It’s as if we have suddenly strolled from a real world into a metareality where different rules apply and the machinery of commerce works in a counterintuitive way.

The Gears of the City by Felix Gilman is a sequel to the Thunderer and I confess to some trepidation when I picked it up. Having been less than enthusiastic about the first, you may raise an eyebrow in surprise that I should even bother with this second volume. But, despite its flaws, I had seen enough in the quality of the writing to hope that Gilman would rise above the episodic and overwritten recycling of old plot devices.

To my surprise, Gilman has returned with a seriously good book. Gone is the insistence on extravagant gestures. There are no giant birds capable of sharing their power of flight with escaping boys. Pestilence does not literally walk the streets. Instead of juxtaposing set-pieces, he adopts a carefully understated form of narrative in which the development of events is more natural and flows more coherently from the initial proposition.

It seems that our primary character from the Thunderer, Arjun, has ben able to penetrate the defences of the mountain in search of his lost God of music. This was a distant and enigmatic peak, always somewhat out of focus in the first volume. Since he could not find his God in the city, the mountain would have been the next logical place to search. Yet he has not only lost his memory, but he is also pursued by implacable enemies — presumably guardians of the mountain. From this starting point, a taut plot operates as a form of mirror image of the first book. In Noises Off, Michael Frayn leaves the proscenium arch in place but allows us to see behind the scenery and reveals the mechanics of a stage production — see it in a theatre and avoid the ghastly film version. In some respects, Gears of the City has a similar metafictional aim because, having seen the big magical bird in the first volume, we are now given theories as to what it and the other “Gods” may be and possible explanations of their function. As the title suggests, the author is disassembling the engine that drives the city so we can see more clearly how it works.

Although we have yet to meet the original builders of the mechanisms that power the mutability of the city and provide the opportunity for magical beings to exist, there is a clever exploration of the tendency of both real and metaphysical systems to degrade. This is not, strictly speaking, entropy because the city and its machinery might have the capacity of a Phoenix: out of destruction might flow the energy to create new possibilities — a kind of big bang. Alternatively, the machinery and its current operator may have reached a point where age brings an end to everything. For example, if the city was no more than the dream of a dying man, it would cease to exist when the man died. You may justly find this notion confusing. How could the characters in a possible dream affect the direction of the dream? Some day, you must ask an author whether the characters of the protagonists in a work of fiction determine the narrative arcs involving them or set the ending of the novel.

Thus, this book is on a mission to rescue the excesses of the first in what could become a successful series. More clearly rooted in a dystopic version of the city sited in the foothills of the mountain, Gilman is exploring the idea of how we perceive the world around us. In the real world, there is a structural layering of tangible and intangible values. Neighbourhoods vary in the physical quality and amenity of their local environment. The commercial values of the properties reflect the desirability of living in each area. Cultural and class boundaries overlay the physical structuring. Yet the majority of citizens remain largely oblivious to all the socio-cultural rules that restrict their freedoms. This gives the few who “see” their surroundings clear opportunities to transcend the rule systems. This may result in manipulation to preserve the status quo or represent a form of rebellion. How much progress in any direction a given group of activists makes is determined by their strength of will.

The main characters in this novel are archetypes including an organiser who builds for the future, a senior police officer who believes the end of stability justifies all means, a debauched man who seeks insight through excess, a pilgrim in search of his God, etc. Each character represents a virtue or a vice and it’s through their interaction that a satisfying conclusion is reached. With this second book, Gilman demonstrates a better command over the craft of writing and deserves watching in the future. It’s a shame you have to wade through the first to get the greatest enjoyment out of the second. But that’s all part of the cost you have to pay to get to the metareality.

For reviews of other books by Felix Gilman, see
The Half-Made World
The Revolutions
The Rise of Ransom City.

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