Posts Tagged ‘culture’

When the Devil Doesn’t Show by Christine Barber

When the Devil Doesn't Show

One of the reasons I enjoy reading is the chance to see into different cultures and to gain insights into how “other” people live. Obviously in science fiction and fantasy, the settings are “fictional”, i.e. they may be extrapolations from what we have now or recreations of what we had in the past. Either way, the human characters should react credibly. If aliens or supernatural creatures play a role, we can expect them to be “different”, but we still hope they will conform to basic standards of rationality and credibility. If an alien can develop interstellar transport, we expect to find signs of intelligence even though it may not be applied in ways we expect. When I come to fiction supposedly rooted in contemporary cultures, I value the chance to learn about different places. That’s why I enjoy work translated from other languages. Such books offer a different pair of eyes through which to view the world. I suppose my first exposure to American fiction came as a shock or surprise. It really was different “over there”. Now after more than fifty years of books, film and television, I’ve become rather blasé, accepting the amorphous lump of America as just another bit of my cultural understanding.

Except, that is, when books like this appear on my pile to be read. When the Devil Doesn’t Show by Christine Barber, (Minotaur Books, 2013) is the third mystery novel featuring Detective Sergeant Gil Montoya of the Santa Fe Police Department and Lucy Newroe, who has only just kept her job at The Capital Tribune while continuing to volunteer as an emergency medical technician, which includes rushing into burning buildings to save people from the flames (or not if they are already dead). The relationship between this pair is complicated because he’s a self-righteous prick who doesn’t trust journalists, particularly those who have problems with alcohol. So at first sight, this looks like a routine police procedural thriller. But it’s set in Santa Fe and, to all intents and purposes, that’s not America. Detective Montoya’s partner, Joe is from the America I know a little about and he’s a literary device so the author can tell is about the Santa Fe area, its people, and customs as the investigation progresses. It’s completely fascinating. We start off with Las Posadas on the Santa Fe Plaza. This is the local equivalent of a British mystery play. It tells the story of the innkeepers turning away Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem leading up to the Nativity. And then get into the detail of how people introduce themselves, the different social structures and how they map on to the different gene pools and ethic groups. Membership of these different groups and maintaining the traditions they represent can lead to slight conflicts of interest, an issue explored through the eyes of police officer Kristen Valdez. The glimpse into the lives of the mountain men is also revealing. This makes the book one of the most culturally interesting I’ve read so far this year.

Christine Barber

Christine Barber

The plot is also better than competent. We’re presented with a series of home invasions which leave bodies behind. When the second occurs, there appears to be a link to the preproduction work being done to film in a local prison where a notorious riot took place. However, after the third invasion, Lucy Newroe comes up with the real connection. There’s just one problem. She’s been arrested for drink driving and Gil Montoya is refusing to talk with her. She promised to quit at the end of the last book and he feels betrayed. And this points to my problem with the book. I find the character of Gil Montoya difficult to accept. I’ve met men like him. They appear happy and reasonable in their home lives. Meet the family and this is the Dr Jekyll side of the personality. But meet this person outside, particularly in a job context involving the use of power, and they become Mr Hyde. I have no difficulty in relating to people who are focused and committed. These are the obsessional people who work their way through to the right answer by hard hard and some inspiration. Sadly, this is a self-righteous and judgmental man who moralises over the behaviour of others and reacts aggressively when criticised. Indeed, this idiot just will not be told when he’s wrong. If Joe did not literally force him to listen, he would be dead. Such men should never be in positions of power because, by definition, they are abusing that power every second. Were it not for Joe, Lucy Newroe and Kristen Valdez, he would blunder off into the wrong investigation and more people would die. As to Lucy, she’s an alcoholic who’s just emerging from the denial stage. I can understand and forgive her erratic behaviour because of her addiction.

So this completes my learning experience from the book. Culturally, there’s a higher level of machismo on display in Santa Fe and many men allow the power to go to their heads when they join the police force. Assuming the worst, i.e. Gil Montoya is a prevailing stereotype for this part of America, I make a vow never to visit. I would undoubtedly be killed within minutes of arriving. When the Devil Doesn’t Show works well as a police procedural even though the key breakthrough is made by a drunk journalist, and there’s some pleasing chasing about for the thriller bit. Overall, it’s an above average book.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks

November 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks (Orbit, 2012) is the ninth Culture novel. For the record, although there’s an internal chronology, it’s actually largely irrelevant to the enjoyment of individual books. You can more or less read them in any order and still understand what’s going on (and enjoy them, of course).


Most of the species in the Culture are humanoid but, even when they are insects, there’s a fairly pervasive laid-back quality about them all. Yes, some are militaristic and competitive, particularly when they are still relatively young, but in this galaxy where no-one ever experiences poverty or is denied the opportunity to work (if that’s desired), the active pursuit of individual satisfaction is the main dynamic. This means, for most practical purposes, the business of running the galaxy has been handed over to the Minds, the AIs who look after the shop while the native species play at being adults. They are a combination of quartermasters and police officers with powers comparable to the gods of Ancient Greece or Rome. As with those gods, the machines are capable of great deeds but equally capable of amazing disasters. They epitomise the old paradox that an AI may have access to a vast amount of knowledge but that does not, of itself, make the machines wise. They are just better informed when they fuck up.


This leads to a more general question. If a society claims to be liberal, how far will it go to defend the liberties of its citizens? The answer, of course, is that the AIs have a kind of militant agenda but they long ago decided they should apply a set of moral principles as a limit on their interventions. In a modern context, they are somewhat similar to the United Nations which is only allowed to act when there’s a consensus. But like the individual species, the Minds game the various political and practical systems, and often decide to intervene in real-world affairs simply because they are bored by just floating around not being involved. After all, sitting with all this fire-power at their virtual fingertips and never having the chance to pull the trigger is deeply frustrating. Even if only to satisfy themselves the guns are still working, they have to fire them every now and then.


In almost every society at some point during its development, religion becomes important. It reflects a need in those societies. Usually, it’s a way of fostering a greater sense of security. Fear can be reduced and happiness encouraged if the people form and maintain illusions about the benefits to come in the next life. As Karl Marx says, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature. . . It is the opium of the people.” i.e. it’s a form of escapist fantasy that can relieve people who are in distress and/or take away their pain. Except, of course, if you take opium as a medication, it does not cure the injury causing the pain, and religion does not actually remove poverty in societies that often care little what happens to the economically disadvantaged. Indeed, societies that are heartless exploit religion as a distraction. Without it, there might be revolutions with the powerful deposed.


The Sublime is a different dimension to which individuals or, if desired, entire civilisations, can relocate. They end up in a state which we cannot understand, more or less out of contact with those who remain in current reality. One of the Minds who has been there and come back says very little about the experience, but describes being back in reality as an extreme form of asceticism. The Gzilt civilisation has a Book of Truth that, uniquely in the history of the galaxy’s religions, has been found an accurate prediction of events through time. As this civilisation prepares to enter the Sublime, a ship bearing information about the Book is destroyed. This suggests the possibility of a conspiracy and the AIs interest themselves in an investigation. In a parallel move on Gzilt, Vyr Cossont is called out of her retirement from military service where she’s trying to master the titular Hydrogen Sonata, and tasked to go off in search of an ancient survivor who may be able to shed light on how the Book of Truth came into existence.

Iain M Banks looking out at the world


Thematically, the book is about how we decide what represents personal fulfillment. The Hydrogen Sonata is a metaphor for the Sublime. Vyr is trying so hard to play an essentially unplayable piece of music, she’s even had an extra pair of arms added to give herself the best chance of being able to play it, note perfect. We can see this is only personal fulfillment because everyone with ears agrees the work has no intrinsic musical merit. Why then does she pursue this? A part of her motivation comes from having heard an Avatar of one of the AIs play it without error. At first this was demotivating. As merely a competent musician, she felt she could never hope to recapture the level of perfection achieved by a machine. But as she winds down her life in the real and prepares for the transition into the Sublime, the struggle to replicate that perfection gives her remaining days shape and meaning. She has heard perfection. Now she wants to get there through her unaided effort. This is an ironic endeavour because it’s essentially futile. There’s no-one around who will appreciate or understand the extent of the physical challenge to play the instrument, let alone enjoy the resulting performance.


If we now scale up to the Gzilt decision to enter the Sublime, the people could be seeing this as the next logical step in their progression to perfection. The Book of Truth has been guiding them but it has run out of predictions (or prophesies if you prefer). This silence in their holy book has been one of the factors moving the debate forward. If the Book says there’s nothing left for them to achieve in the real, it must be time to transition. But let’s hypothesise that the Book of Truth is a fake, perhaps sent by another race as a joke or some kind of social experiment. Would revelations of manipulation by another race affect the decision to transition? With only a few days left and the majority of the population already in storage to ensure everyone makes the transition at the same time, would the need to suppress this debate be a motive for murder? If so, it would be the final gesture of a heartless society that knowingly plans to move its people to a different dimension even though there’s no guarantee such a move will be an improvement on their “living” conditions. When they do relocate, the scavenger races will come to homestead on the now vacant planets and take such of the technology as they can understand. There’s no sense in letting all this good stuff go to waste. And then the final question: suppose the AIs find out the truth and the Book is a fake, do they tell the people? How far should the Minds go in interfering in the lives of a people that have decided to move on into the Sublime?


Hydrogen Sonata is not one of the best Culture novels but, ranking it against other science fiction books published this year, it’s still very good. In the main, this is due to the quality of the ideas which are outstanding. The problem comes in the more general lack of pace. Those of you who are Culture addicts will find a lot of new information to collate and enfold. But the ordinary reader is likely to find much of the information supplied is irrelevant to understanding the plot. It’s Culture background and not essential to advancing the story.


For other Culture novels, see:
Surface Detail.


This novel has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.


The Shadowed Sun by N K Jemisin

August 18, 2012 1 comment

Imagine a world in which any system of magic is proven real. Magic is, by definition, the application of supernatural power with practical results in the real world. Obviously, it can take many different forms and manifest in many different ways, but each of these forms and ways is a means to access and wield power. Those with more limited abilities will only be able to influence outcomes in their immediate vicinity. Some of the top exponents will be able to produce results over wide areas. One or two may even approach god-like powers which can affect the entire world. Once the reality of the power is demonstrated, there will be people who plan to control it. In the first instance, the magicians will be bribed or intimidated into doing what they’re told. But there will always come a point when the individually powered magicians assert their own independence and decide their own fates. Quite how this works out will depend on whether the magicians feel the need to take revenge for the way they’ve been treated and whether they remain personally vulnerable.


The Dreamblood duology by N K Jemisin which began with The Killing Moon, continues with The Shadowed Sun (Orbit Books, 2012). As before, the book focuses on the path from temptation to corruption and its results. In every culture, people respect and revere those of ability who can contribute to the society’s greatness. In most cases, these will be people with positive abilities but, when there’s internal strife or external threats, people with negative and violent abilities must also be accorded a place for they are the means of practical control and defence. In the world created by this author, there have been two cultures based on a form of dream magic. Among the Kisuati, the magic evolved into a dangerous form and the non-talented naturally protected themselves by killing all the magicians. Among the Gujaareh, there was a benign veneer spread over the use of magic. It offered the people free benefits and bribed the wealthy. However, in this peaceful coexistence, there was a deeper purpose at work. In order to advance the evolutionary power of those able to wield the magic, a selective breeding program was secretly put in place.


What makes the breeding program particularly intriguing is the way in which it differentiated between the sexes. The gatekeepers positively vetted all the men for ability. When boys were found, wherever possible, they were taken into training. One element in the regime was to persuade those found most powerful to accept celibacy. The intention was to prevent their genetic lines from developing through the generations. But the women were not vetted. Women were simply encouraged to assume they had no magical abilities. In fact, there was no reason in principle why men and women should not equally come into power. Significantly, although this was never admitted, the failure to train the most talented women to control their talent often led to mental instability — something that would be passed of without comment. In the midst of this controlled culling and manipulation, one or two families were allowed latitude because their genes seemed to promise personal benefits. These men were encouraged to take multiple wives and/or concubines. This group produced a lot of talented people, some of whom have very dangerous abilities.

N K Jemisin awaiting three more rings for Olympic success


At the end of The Killing Moon, the plan to attack the Kisuati has been thwarted and we’re now into the period of military occupation as the Kisuati decide what they are going to do about the paradox of Gujaareh society. At a superficial level, the entire culture is one of peace yet it has produced a leadership bent on war and destruction for personal gain. Wise heads on both sides have produced some degree of stability. It was not the fault of the people that their leaders were corrupt. Punishing them for the sins of the few benefits no-one. Equally, the new leadership of the Hetawa in the worship of Hananja has purged the old corrupt leaders and now keeps the people in check, thereby avoiding heavy-handed repression from the occupying troops. Yet it’s obvious this situation cannot continue as the political temperature in Kisuati shifts to policies of more naked exploitation. The remaining wealthy nobles and merchants plan their own rebellion while out in the desert, Wanahomen, the surviving son of the Gujaareh king, rallies support among the tribes. The crisis comes to a head when the Hetawa chooses sides and places a powerful but inexperienced healer, Hanani, in the desert tribes.


The book’s study of culture is significantly enriched by the exploration of the desert tribal community which is not unlike the Tuareg. Wanahomen has to some extent been accepted into one of the tribes, but his position is not completely secure. The arrival of Hanani is an opportunity for all sides to review their relationships. She has broken the mould by being the first woman accepted into the Hetawa. Not surprisingly, she has been the victim of considerable discrimination. To then find herself unceremoniously dumped into a radically different social system is disorienting, particularly when, at an early stage, she’s forced to defend herself against a rape attack. While she struggles at a physical level, a different form of threat emerges on to the dream scene. In the end, a positive political and social balance is struck with the immediate dream threat defused, a rapprochement reached between the desert tribes and the rebellious wealthy, and the Kisuati accepting the invitation to leave. This is easily the best and most emotionally satisfying book N K Jemisin has written so far. Whereas The Inheritance Trilogy was somewhat mechanical, The Shadowed Sun manages a significantly better blend between the world-building and the characters, and reinforces my view that this author is well worth watching for the future.


For reviews of other books by N K Jemisin, see
The Broken Kingdoms
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
The Killing Moon
The Kingdom of Gods


Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

March 23, 2011 6 comments

Sometimes the eye can be seduced and not understand the reality of what it sees. Indeed, perhaps that’s the real point of Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks. In our mundane world, people can wear different uniforms or be decorated with tattoos to suggest membership of one group yet, under the skin, they may be wolves dressed up as sheep, or vice versa. A novel based on this theme should come as a cautionary tale, encouraging the reader to look beyond the obvious to find the real beef (as Walter Mondale might say).


So we open up for business with the outside of the package. The jacket and endpaper designs by Lauren Panepinto are actually exploiting one of those mathematical things that we’ve adopted as art. Those who have the right computing power start off their machines with a Mandelbrot Set and then stand back with a critical eye as the equations propagate into infinite fractal patterns. Then it’s just a matter of waiting and, with the reflexes of a trained hunter, the trap is sprung just as the right visual effect walks into view. In this case, the eyes have it and, for the benefit of those who like a bigger image, I’ve posted one of the wallpaper versions from the Orbit site.


This is not a distraction from the book itself because, like much of the fiction by both the standard and the M-enhanced versions of Iain Banks, the book is very much about both the need to look beneath the surface of reality and the rich patterns that form the tapestry of life, or death, for that matter (pun intended). Looking back through time, there’s always been a stick and carrot approach to controlling people while on Earth. You have a great place everyone could go to when they die. The price of entry is to do whatever keeps the priests happy. But, if these poor supplicants step off the straight and narrow path devised by their priests, there’s a place of terrible punishment waiting. Well, in primitive times, this kind of threat system works rather well. As we grow a little more sophisticated, the potential for manipulation becomes more obvious and this can inspire us to a more cynical view. If we choose, we can look for evidence of what might be real.


Now the SFnal idea: everyone knows about the possibilities of virtualisation — a system that allows us to create a virtual rather than an actual version of reality. Modern technology is limited, but let’s suppose we can develop immersive systems where a user’s awareness of their surroundings is limited or excluded, leaving all the senses perceiving the virtual as real. With massive processing power, we could create entire artificial environments that users could experience as if physically there. So here comes the justification for the title. Without a helpful label floating somewhere in the mind’s eye saying “simulation”, there might be no way in which to see beyond the virtual surface to the real. It all comes down to the metaphysical paradox explored by many philosophers, writers and film-makers. How do we know we exist? We could just be dreaming this life, or death, for that matter (still punning).

Iain Banks models the new handheld blinkers


Perhaps entire civilisations might decide to create virtual hells and, on death, personalities that had offended local behavioural norms could literally be transferred into a purgatory. This then changes the balance of power within the civilisation. When there was no evidence to show a heaven and hell existed, religion would slowly wither as rationality replaced faith. But suppose you could actually organise visits to the virtual hell. It would be a really dramatic, not to say traumatic, experience for the living to be presented with a short experience of what it could be like for them if they are disobedient.


So now we have a major ethical debate across star systems and the civilised universe. The pro- and anti-Hell camps square off but, with no obvious way of resolving such emotional issues in a real way, perhaps they might agree some kind of contest. Not quite along the same lines as a chess match to decide the winner, but champions could be nominated. They could fight it out over a predetermined period of time in virtual space.


Yet what would happen if one side felt they were losing in this virtual conflict. Might they attempt to hack back into the real world to find some advantage to tip the final scales in their favour?


So we set off on another Culture novel and, from an early point, we meet one of the best and most engaging villains I’ve experienced in quite a long time. Veppers is a complete delight. He’s the key stimulus forcing the other characters, both real and artificial, to react. We can say approving things about Leddedje, an “owned” human, magnificently tattooed to demonstrate her status. Veppers murders her in the first chapter — unbeknown to him, she’s rescued by Culture technology. Or the wonderfully enthusiastic Demeisen, avatar of the appropriately-named ship, Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints, who revels in the chance to relive the excitement of being able to fire off all his weaponry in anger. But they are all slightly pallid shadows in pursuit of Veppers who, for various reasons that become clear as the plot unwinds, is at the centre of the debate about the virtual hells.


This is Iain Banks at his very best with a sly and engaging fable in which we can rehearse old arguments about superstition and its role in society, while enjoying full-blown space opera with AI ships blasting enemies without caring too much about the casualty rate in the various species that might be operating said enemy ships. For once, this is science fiction with a real sense of humour. While not laugh-out-loud, it certainly brings smiles of appreciation as wit positively crackles across the many worlds, both real and imagined. Whereas the last two Culture novels, Matter and Hydrogen Sonata, were a bit dowdy, this is a bright and hugely enjoyable romp through all the major SF space opera tropes. It’s definitely worth seeking out and reading.


This is a finalist in the 2011 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.


Matter by Iain M Banks

February 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Those of you who follow the genres will know there are two authors for the price of one in this name. Just as those of you into English accents will understand the intrusive ‘r’ as in my native Newcastle with the southerners’ version, Newcarstle, so we have an intrusive M in Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks. He wears his M hat as an SF author. In both modes, he usually provokes us into thinking about the world we inhabit. In Matter, we are invited to consider both the nature of societies and how they resolve disputes. At one level, the disputes may be completely internal, involving subgroups within subcultures. When you move up the scale, you may reach the level of conflicts between societies as countries. In those cases, where the relationships are not codified, it may be possible to go to war with little formality and no internationally accepted causus belli. You just make bellicose threats and when, as expected, the “enemy” ignores these words and matches the megaphone power of the rhetoric, this is an invitation to begin actual fighting. Yet, when there are treaties, memoranda of understanding and deeply entrenched commercial interdependencies, it may be too expensive for our two countries to fight directly. They must therefore find different ways of competing with each other militarily. This can be through proxies with some power. For example, China and the US cannot actually fight each other, but North Korea may offer a different way for China to rattle its sabre. Or the countries can fight using minions where there’s less at stake.

Iain Banks without the M


Let’s now take a look at one of the central metaphors of Matter, that of the shellworld. No developed society is homogenous. It’s always multilayered. There are social constructs, like pillars, supporting each layer. In theory these are also towers offering mobility between the different layers. But, as most people who live in a society with a class structure understand, it’s easier to see the appearance of mobility than actually move upwards. Hence most of the visible towers have been artificially shut off and the “open” towers are carefully guarded. In the galaxy, the same stratification also applies with different races and groups each accorded their own position in the hierarchy of the Culture, and respect must always be shown. A strict policy of non-interference applies. So, just as some shellworlds can suddenly become slaughterhouses as inhabitants accidentally trigger long-hidden systems for wielding death, the Culture moves tentatively across the interspecies minefields to avoid setting off any explosions that cannot be managed.


In all this, we must remember that the elite in each strata of culture can, to a greater or lesser extent, avoid direct participation in any real conflict. Fighting through proxies most of the time enables them to preserve wealth and status. Thus, in much the same way that some will queue to watch men batter each other in a boxing ring, the alien voyeurs may become fans of fighting. They do so because they are never directly emotionally involved. It’s all vicarious. If they had to live with the consequences of destruction and death, they would quickly lose their appetite for the reality of wars.


As to the story of this book: once upon a time, there was a King. The first born was a daughter. Even though she was highly intelligent, the fact of her gender was a great disappointment and, at the earliest opportunity, she was palmed off on to a mage who managed to perform a neat trick. He armed the girl and turned her into a warrior, albeit one with a conscience. The other two children apparently had the better fortune to be boys but, since our King was always off fighting wars, their upbringing was of indifferent quality. When the older decided to join his father on a battlefield, he chose a wonderful uniform and rode a conspicuously white horse. The younger formed his character as a negative. He aimed to be everything his brother was not. This was good as far as it went, but failed to define his hopes and aspirations in positive terms. When their father was killed, this forced the three children to decide what was important. Had this been a simple mediaeval world, it would have been straightforward. Everyone would have pulled out swords and fought to the best of their abilities. But this being science fiction pitches everyone into a universe where different beings and AIs dance elegantly in ways that avoid wars except when fought in shellworlds by proxies.


The whole novel is an elaborate shell game (pun intended) in which we watch the individuals and various races slowly come together for the final showdown. It’s fairly clear from an early stage why the various parties are manoeuvring for position. Think of that as the outer husk of the shell. What only becomes clear later on is the extent of the mistake being made. Self-evidently, the interested parties think they know what the buried treasure is. As in all such cases, the reality is rather different. In this, Iain M Banks plays perfectly fair. In all the info dumps that slow down the opening third of the book, there’s more than enough information to tell you what the real problem is likely to be. All you have to do is have the patience to read through it all, paying complete attention throughout, and then apply a little Sherlockian thought.


This should give you a clue as to my final reaction to this book. It does start rather slowly and there’s rather a lot of information to digest about the history of the shellworlds and how they fit into the politics of the Culture. But, if you’re prepared to work your way through it, the pace slowly accelerates and there’s a pleasing climax in which the truth we suspected all along is confirmed. As an afterthought, we’re also given a brief glimpse into the meaning of the phrase “domestic bliss”. It’s well worth reading if you enjoy Banks but, if you have not tried his science fiction before, there are better Culture novels to open first.


Jacket art by Mario J Pulice.


For the next Culture novels, see:
Hydrogen Sonata
Surface Detail.


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