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The Diamond Deep by Brenda Cooper

November 13, 2013 Leave a comment

The-Diamond-Deep-Ruby-s-Song--351119-ba45b5654228bb6a6a33

The Diamond Deep by Brenda Cooper (Pyr, 2013) is the second book in a duology called Ruby’s Song that began with Creative Fire, the story of revolution on a generation star ship on its way back home. Without FTL, travelling over interstellar distances takes several hundred years. This means some degree of degradation in the ship itself. No matter how robust the initial engineering, mechanical systems wear out and the hardware to run the ship’s control systems no longer works as efficiently. Similarly, the crew that left has long died off, to be replaced by subsequent generations. No matter how determined the crew may have been to maintain the knowledge and skills of the original crew, there’s inevitable loss in cognitive abilities. There was high competition to secure the places and, for the most part, only the very best of a large field of applicants was selected. Running a star ship rapidly becomes a boring routine of maintenance and repair. This allows time for the emergence of politics and the birth of conflict. The ship is now on it way back. Ruby Martin and Joel North have been doing their best to restore some degree of harmony following civil war.

With tensions still running high, the ship first encounters essentially silent attackers who send spider robots into one of the cargo bays. Ironically, at a time when all should be pulling together to defend the ship against external enemies, one faction seizes the opportunity to attack the bridge. That the current command survives is not, of itself, laudable. They control the atmosphere in the corridors approaching the control centre and suffocate the attackers. In due course, the ship arrives at the titular space station. If our heroes thought the return home was going to begin with a welcome, they are sorely disappointed. Imagine the problem of a major group who fought for George Washington landing in modern day America. They would find it rather difficult to understand the culture and the practicalities of everyday life.

If the first book is about the problem of a society in which a rigid hierarchical structure outstays its welcome, this book is about the unequal distribution of wealth and power in what is, to the returnees, akin to an alien world. Although the problems of social inequality between the two situations are broadly comparable, the space station has a different feel to it. In both halves of Ruby’s story, we’re dealing with space opera seen through the soft sciences lens. The trope of the generation star ship is well-established and the only difference between this book and other first contact stories is that this contact is with the home world displaced through time. To that extent, there’s nothing very original about the plot. If the book is going to be saved, the characterisation must be good and the social world building must be credible. Constructing a ship-based society is easier because the author begins with a command structure and very clearly defined roles for flight crew, engineering, defensive military forces, policing forces and the civilian crew. If status and entitlement to roles is passed down by inheritance rather than on merit, it’s inevitable there will be conflict as less competent children grow up in command or holding powerful roles. It’s significantly more difficult to create a future world that has comparable credibility when our innocent generation returns.

Brenda Cooper

Brenda Cooper

Brenda Cooper makes great play of asserting she based the character of Ruby on Eva Perón. Broadcasting such an explicit link is a considerable risk. The reputation of Peronism and of Eva’s role remains somewhat controversial. What’s clear is she was one of the first twentieth century political operatives to recognise the power of show-business celebrity to garner populist support and manipulate the electorate. In this book, Ruby comes from a “poor” background as a robot repair technician, but has a rare talent as a singer, a talent she uses to begin building a political consensus on the ship, and later to foster acceptance of the need to change when the ship reaches “home”. The problem is twofold. First, we all know how Eva Perón ended up so, if Brenda Cooper is basing her novel on the true story, we know how it has to end. Second, what’s wrong with allowing a book’s primary character to develop along original lines?

The whole point of fiction is the freedom to allow anything reasonably plausible to happen. Creativity can mirror real-world events, of course. There’s always great potential with allegories, parables and, if you’re in the mood, satires. But it worries me when some aspects of history are replayed as the plot of a science fiction duology. In a sense, I suppose I’m missing the red meat of real analysis or commentary. The best elements in allegories or satire arise from a critique of the society being explored. This is not to say the authors intend to educate readers. But everyone has a chance to reflect on the issues when they are presented as something more than mere space opera.

At this point, I’m forced to sound somewhat more patronising than usual. This is a very professional package. The prose smoothly presents the plot and the plot has plenty of stuff happening. But I found it all rather underwhelming. As written, the character of Ruby is worthy and well-intentioned, but rather uninvolving. The sociopolitical context for the action is also somewhat superficially presented. Hey, the folk from/of/with Creative Fire beat the stodgy power-brokers who want to rip them off. The best soft science fiction has more effort invested in the world building to explain the forces that produced this particular set of social structures. This is supposed to be a far future culture, yet it’s far from alien or difficult to understand. It’s just repeating the same mistakes humans have always made. The result is about average for this type of book, failing to match the greatness of books exploring political systems or the effects of the environment on the psychology of those who must live there. Rather The Diamond Deep is an adequate story with an emotional heart about a woman who wants to save her people from oppression. By way of an encore, Ruby will now sing “Kumbaya”.

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

Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey

September 7, 2013 Leave a comment

Corey_AbaddonsGate_TP

Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey (Orbit, 2013) The Expanse 3 sees us reaching the end of the first narrative arc (apparently the publishers are sufficiently impressed to commission more). Co-authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck have pushed on through all the tropes based on alien invasion, and now come to the BDO. For those of you not into acronyms, this is a Big Dumb Object that humanity is required to confront. As you would expect, this “thing” is really, really big and, for want of anything better to fear, we have to go and investigate to see whether it’s likely to exterminate us or ignore us. In most examples of this trope, a hand-picked team of scientists and soldiers gets to approach the object and, in most cases, find a way inside. There will always be at least one spy and/or saboteur and/or thief who’s out to steal as much of the advanced technology before attempting to destroy it so no-one else gets any of the high-tech gizmos. Think Ringworld by Larry Niven and Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C Clarke. For a closer match to this book’s object, think Spin by Robert Charles Wilson which introduces the Archway — a variation of the Stargate film and television series.

The new wrinkle on the gateway theme has the alien protomolocule turn its attention away from having fun on the surface to build a BDO out Neptune way. Not surprisingly, the three armed forces from Earth, Mars and the Outer Planets Alliance set up watch around the object and try to figure out what it does and, of course, prevent the other two from sneaking a march by turning it into a WMD capable of wiping out life on one or more planets. In a sense, everything has entered a period of stability in this version of a Mexican stand-off when a young thrill-seeker decides to sling-shot himself through the centre of the object. When his on-board cameras send back pictures of a rather large space inside, scientists are fascinated and military strategists are alarmed. So all available resources converge just outside the apparent reach of the object to discuss what should be done. Needless to say, this discussion hardly has a chance to begin before a large monkey-wrench is thrown into the diplomatic works and all the key players end up going through the gateway into the “space” beyond.

Daniel Abraham

Daniel Abraham

The essence of any good thriller, whether it be set on Earth or in some other place, is to take a small group of characters and put them in danger. In this case, we have representatives from the three formal groups at daggers drawn with James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante acquiring universal hatred. Even in planetary space, this would be likely to produce a shooting war but, when you take this trigger-happy group and dump them inside a BDO, they suddenly find there may just be something more dangerous than each other to confront. More importantly, this more or less completely dumb object gets the impression the warring humans are a threat to it and so it takes measures to protect itself. Since it controls the physics inside itself, this means a large number of people end up suddenly dead or seriously injured. This gives the other POV characters a chance to shine: Annuska Volovodov, aka Pastor Anna, Clarissa Mao aka Melba Alzbeta Koh who’s out for revenge, and Carlos de Baca aka Bull, an Earthman brought out of retirement to work on the OPA’s largest spacecraft as a professional soldier to counter the less experienced Captain and XO.

Ty Franck

Ty Franck

In a way, this is a story about redemption, not in the overtly religious sense even though one of the main POV characters is a Pastor. At different times and for different reasons, each of the POV characters has to make choices, moving out of their more usual comfort zones into unexpectedly dangerous circumstances. Pastor Anna, for example, has left her family behind to come on this trip but, until quite late into the plot, she’s never completely honest with herself as to her motives. For someone used to being supportive and mildly proactive in her religious role, she’s slowly forced to acknowledge the political context for the behaviour around her and to understand how little she’s done to interact with the crew in a way that might help them. She has a lot of catching up to do. Bull is the other way round. From the outset, he understands his role is highly political and that he needs to build support among the OPA crew. Sadly he can’t be everywhere and so the situation does get away from him. Now it’s a case of rebuilding and trying to recapture the lost initiative. Then there’s the trigger for this situation. Clarissa is on a mission to kill Holden which, morally speaking, sets her off on the wrong foot. Were it not for her, hundreds of lives would not be lost. But equally, it’s her action that triggers what may be Earth’s most important discovery.

The Big Object proves to be pretty dumb as readers might expect but there’s plenty of excitement among the humans as they flex their muscles and get down to mutiny and countermutiny. I’m still not a fan of the overlap in situational descriptions when switching from one sequential POV to another but, other than this, this is a very smooth piece of writing. I’m not sure it’s quite as good as Caliban’s War, but Abaddon’s Gate certainly does deliver real space opera style with a lot of pizzaz.

For reviews of other books by Daniel Abraham, see:
An Autumn War
A Betrayal in Winter
Caliban’s War written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Dragon’s Path
The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs
The King’s Blood
Leviathan Wakes written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
Leviathan Wept
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer
The Tyrant’s Law.

Jacket artwork by Daniel Dociu.

On the Razor’s Edge by Michael Flynn

On the Razor’s Edge by Michael Flynn

On the Razor’s Edge by Michael Flynn (Tor, 2013) Spiral Arm 4, continues the story of the dispute between the Confederacy of Central Worlds, a dictatorship run by Those of the Names, and the United League of the Periphery. What could have been a galactic conflict is scaled down to a form of conflict between groups of agents. On the side of light, well the less dark side, are the Hounds. Opposing them are the Shadows of the Names. For our immediate purposes, we’re concerned with Gidula, one of the rebel Shadows, who holds as a “prisoner” the multifaceted Donovan aka The Fudir aka The Scarred Man aka The Teller of Tales or Geshler Padaborn before he was fragmented. To engineer his rescue, his daughter Mearana arranges for Ravn Olafsdotter to kidnap her. She believes this will persuade her mother, Bridget-ban, to call together some of the Hounds to rescue Donovan. I should explain that Donovan and Bridget-ban are going through an extended “not-speaking-to-each-other” period in their relationship and Bridget-ban is highly resistant to the idea of rescuing her “ex”. So with that as the set-up, the novel meanders gently through initial manoeuvres and then launches into the build-up to the “big climax”.

In theory, this series is interesting. It takes place a long way into the future. Humanity has made it to the stars and then replicated its usual factionalism. Initially this drives technological development forward. The tendency to militarism always does that. But, after a century or two, quite a lot of the technology falls into disuse. People forget. Politics establishes different ways in which order can be maintained or the balance between forces adjusted. Inertia becomes more acceptable although, on the periphery, there’s much scrabbling for advantage. Hence the need for the Hounds to suppress piracy and generally keep the peace in what would otherwise be an anarchic environment. Also exerting an influence are relics of technology from pre-human times. Humanity is alone (probably), but there was a former silicon-based civilisation and it may have been exerting an influence.

Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn

At this point, I feel the need for a brief digression. One of the constant unresolved issues for me is the question of how, if at all, a writer should replicate accents and different speaking rhythms in dialogue. I confess that I tend to “hear” characters talking and, to some extent, try to capture that in the dialogue I report. It gives me a peg on which to hang the characterisation. A is from a particular place, speaks in a particular way, dresses in styles appropriate to that place, and so on. But there comes a point when I draw back from a full realisation of an accent. What feels right to my ear is not so easy for others to read when they don’t have my background and may find my notation difficult to translate into sounds for the inner ear to hear. So I try to avoid it for fiction but go some way in that direction for a documentary or journalistic style where accuracy can be more important than immediate comprehensibility. My sensibilities are therefore on full alert when reading this series. Its primary and many walk-on characters are given very distinctive verbal styles. The predominant feel is Celtic, i.e. as a generalised Irish, Scottish accent with occasional vocabulary suggesting Gaelic roots. Other speech patterns suggesting Chinese and Indian roots also appear. Personally, I think this overdone but, if you are happy to plough through all this approximated Celticism, the plot improves from poor to acceptable as the book progresses.

At issue here are two simple questions. If you have a culture that, over the centuries, has been an oligarchy with the ruling minority of wolves oppressing the sheep, what would it take to make the leadership fall? Second, even if it were to fall, what could replace it since leadership qualities have been bred out of the sheep? I suppose, after a while, anything will fall under its own weight, much as we might imagine a space elevator will rust and weaken until it breaks at an intermediate point and falls to the ground. Through the eyes of Donovan, we’re therefore allowed to watch the implosion of this dictatorship. The Hounds push it a little out of self-defence but, in a sense, it’s like watching a major structure collapse under its own weight. By my standards, the language in which this is delivered has some moments of interest but a lot of depressing dialogue to wade through. As language, there’s also a role in decoding old meanings in current corrupted usages. The distortion of language and history is quite well managed. But the whole flounders under its own weight. The opening third is ponderous and slow with little happening apart from different people “talking in funny accents” to each other. Yes, there’s some espionage and low level space opera fighting, but not enough to save the whole from being immensely tedious to read. Surprisingly the door is left open for a further book in the series. I definitely will not be lining up to read any more. If you’re a fan, On the Razor’s Edge will delight you. Otherwise, don’t bother.

More impressive artwork from Sparth.

For a review of the second in this series, see Up Jim River.

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

The Orphaned Worlds by Michael Cobley

The Orphaned World

Because I read about two-hundred books a year, I’m frequently in the position of having to come into a series at an intermediate point (note to publishers: not everyone likes series or serials). Under normal circumstances, this is not a problem. Although not entirely writing each book as a stand-alone, most authors take the time and trouble to structure the narrative so that newbies like myself can be given necessary background information as we go along. It’s also helpful to seniors like myself who often forget what happened in the last book we read in the series and need reminding as we start the next. The longer the gap between each new instalment, the more necessary the infodumps become.

The Orphaned Worlds by Michael Cobley (Orbit, 2012) Book II of Humanity’s Fire kicks off with six-and-a-half pages summarising “what has gone before”. I was filled with hope. The author and publisher had decided to help out everyone except those lucky enough to have inherited an eidetic memory. Except when it came to the text of the book itself, I didn’t find the summary of much use. I understood we were on a world called Darien and there were bad guys locked away in a hidden prison under the planet’s surface. So far so good. But the way in which this book begins completely failed to catch my attention. In part this arises from the author’s decisions about how the narrative is structured into separate chunks with different points of view and no apparent link between them. But my problems were enhanced by the prose style. I’m usually prepared to soldier on with the story if I find the prose accessible and interesting in its own right. Sadly, I found this turgid and indigestible. The result is that this book has become the first book of 2013 to be thrown away. I managed to get one-hundred-and-fifty or so pages through it, but just couldn’t take any more.

I see from this author’s website that all three books have been published in the UK and that he’s on to the next exciting book called Ancestral Machines. So if you enjoyed Seeds of Earth, the first in this trilogy, this is no doubt more of the same and The Ascendant Stars, the concluding volume, will be out in the US shortly. Otherwise, this is not a book I can recommend you pick up, let alone open.

Great North Road by Peter F Hamilton

January 7, 2013 4 comments


This smaller image is in place because Lionsgate maliciously alleged that the use of an image on this page was infringing its copyright.

This smaller image is in place because Lionsgate maliciously alleged that the use of an image on this page was infringing its copyright.

Great North Road by Peter F Hamilton (Del Rey, 2012) is a remarkable work of fiction. It runs to 951 pages plus prefatory timeline and cast list. This makes it one of the longer books on the market. So before you even think of buying it, ask yourself whether you have the time and patience to read it through to the end. Even at my probably higher than average reading speed, I spread it over three days. This leads me to make a somewhat facile point. There’s a phenomenal amount of detailed work involved in writing a book this long. First you have to devise a plot with enough complexity to unwind in an unforced way but hold the reader’s interest. It must be peopled by reasonably credible characters and what they do must make sense in the context. Second, this is both a police procedural and an interplanetary dispute involving the themes of colonisation, cloning and life extension, with potential aliens waiting to strike. This requires the creation of future technology to make the medical breakthroughs, support law enforcement and develop the hardware to transport humanity to different planets “out there”. More importantly, there has to be a sufficient link between the homicide investigation in our future version of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the events happening elsewhere (and elsewhen), i.e. the identification of the murderer on Earth has to have a pay-off in interplanetary terms. In all these purely mechanical features, I can report a modest triumph. The investment of effort by the author has produced a stunningly coherent plot with the twin narrative arcs intertwining most effectively as we build up to the climax and the emotionally satisfying epilogue. Unfortunately, this demonstration of writing craft does not prevent the book from growing rather boring for all it tends into “alien monster” and space opera territory.

 

At this point, as a Geordie, I should disclose my interest in books that purport to show Newcastle and its culture. For the record, the Great North Road is the route taken by coaches out of London heading north. For a while the old A1 used to follow it but, as towns and cities were bypassed, few today will remember it. Making allowances for this novel being set in 2141 AD, it keeps the layout of the city substantially in line with current reality and, albeit somewhat repetitively, it replicates some of the speech rhythms and uses some of the more common endearments and expressions. This came as a slight surprise since I’m reading the ARC of the US edition. I’m not sure what American readers will make of some of the dialogue. Not that it needs subtitles, of course. It carefully avoids anything that might take us into the dialect (the little that remains of it today). But some of the speech pattern is captured and it might be a little “alien” to modern ears. To be honest, I’m not sure this is a success. I think southerners should stick to writing in a language they know.

 

Anyway, we start off following Sidney Hurst as he picks up the political hot potato of a murder involving the North family. This is a multigenerational family of clones that have come to dominate the world economy by developing an oil substitute on the planet called St Libra. Using “gate technology” the family is pumping some 60% of Earth’s needs as the book starts. The enduring problem for the detectives is their inability to identify which of the clones has been killed. Despite their best efforts, all they manage to do for the early part of the book is to identify where the body was dumped into the River Tyne using one of the fairly anonymous taxis as transport. However, it’s the murder method that sets alarm bells ringing. It matches a multiple homicide just over twenty years ago on on St Libra. At the time, a woman who was initially considered a survivor, was later convicted of the murder. Since the method is identical and the woman is still in prison, the file has to be reopened. She has always alleged that an alien was the killer. This has never seemed very likely because, apart from extensive vegetation, there’s no life on St Libra. Equally, there’s no obvious way an alien could have come to Earth for this killing. Indeed, since local gang members were actively involved in dumping the body, it seems even less likely an alien could have recruited them. The more probable explanation is some kind of corporate dispute between different factions in the North clan. Except. . .

 

So on a safety-first basis, our convicted murderer is given the chance to go back to St Libra on a search for evidence that there really are aliens in the jungle. At a stroke, we therefore have the potential for a rerun of Predator (1987) on St Libra and Predator 2 (1990) in Newcastle. Both films have the great virtue of relative brevity as the humans are whittled down to Arnold Schwarzenegger or Danny Glover. Unfortunately, after 200 pages, we’re still chasing taxis in Newcastle. Hardly the same level of economy to get us into the thick of the action. Indeed, I would go so far as to say this would have been a great novel at half the length. Even when we do get ourselves to St Libra and the sun begins to misbehave, the jungle encampment and forced withdrawal sequence is interminable. I stopped caring who the different characters were. The rather strange religion of some government officers is also an unnecessary complication. Although I understand the slightly paranoid stance of the Earth government, their doomsday approach is a nonstarter if this means affecting the substitute oil production on St Libra. Earth cannot so casually threaten to cut off 60% of its fuel supply. There’s also a strange disconnect between the unstoppable terraforming performed by the Zanth and the immediate problem. Although it does tie together in a somewhat ironic way as part of the climax, I’m still not quite sure whether the threat of the Zanth was actually resolved. There’s a hint on the last page that it is, but it would be nice to have a little more detail.

 

Overall, I rose to the challenge and read it all. I don’t think the test of my patience made me a better human being. I ended up feeling frustrated that I was being buried in a morass of potentially relevant information but without any certainty that it would all be important in any way. If you like a slow but steady read with a lot of political and economic background to flesh out the setting for the action, Great North Road is for you. If you prefer a page-turner thriller set in the future with guns blazing and crazed aliens leaping murderously out of the jungle, watch Predator again.

 

The artwork from the UK edition is by Steve Stone and rather beautiful.

 

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

 

Up Jim River by Michael Flynn

September 8, 2012 1 comment

There are times when you think you’ve hit pay-dirt (an evocative term from the mining industry which signals the possibility the humble-looking earth you’re digging through contains ores in sufficient quantity so that, after extraction and refining, you’ll be able to afford that island in the Caribbean you’ve always promised yourself) yet proves to be just more dirt to move out of your way by hand. So it is with Up Jim River by Michael Flynn (Tor, 2010) Spiral Arm 2. The January Dancer II which starts off like an express train with wonderfully evocative language and a not-wholly-original quest, then slows to a walking pace, and soon gets bogged down in its own pretentiousness. This is such a shame because, with a little more wit and a savage pruning, this could have been excellent.

This is a sequel to The January Dancer with the action picking up some twenty years later (i.e. long enough for Bridget-ban’s daughter, Lucia Thompson aka Mearana, to have been born and grown up into a determined young lady). Mummy Hound has disappeared and the Kennel, spy agency to the stars, has officially declared her probably dead. Lucia refuses to accept the probability of death — Mummy spies are very hard to kill — and tracks down The Scarred Man aka Donovan aka The Fudir, one of the three people who were with Bridget-ban on the earlier mission (both Greystroke and Hugh offer assistance in this quest — I hope you’re keeping the numbers of people here straight). We now come to the core of what could have been fascinating.

I’m heavily burdened by memories of characters like Miro Hetzel and Magnus Ridolph from Jack Vance, Retief by Keith Laumer, and so on. These are men of action who roam the galaxy, righting wrongs and fighting incompetence wherever it raises its ugly head. More importantly, they do it with a swashbuckling smile and a marked reluctance to engage in violence unless it’s absolutely unavoidable. This preference for jaw-jaw over war-war was at odds with the mind-numbing stupidity of much space opera of the day but, when it came to gentle peregrination about the galaxy, there was no-one better to accompany you than a character created by Jack Vance. There would be moments of travelogue description, a wry nugget of previously unacknowledged history, and some derring-do when required — Vance was not averse to blowing up a moon if it would make an artistic point.

Michael Flynn relaxed with belt and suspenders

So The Scarred Man could be a modern recreation of this time-honoured character as we set off to find the lost Mummy. Indeed, every word in the first twenty or thirty pages is Vancean and gives rise to such hope and expectation. . . Ah well, such are the dreams of frustrated old readers. Even the idea of the character is inherently interesting. For reasons not clear, the mind of this former spy has been fractured into separate personalities. To get anything done, there must either be a committee meeting and something approaching a democratic decision, or one mind must assume control, e.g. Brute to fight, Sleuth to investigate, and so on. At times, this lack of instinctive response leaves our hero literally paralysed as disputing personalities argue what should be done. While experiencing the equivalent of an epileptic fit is not inherently dangerous in ordinary life, it can be a distinct disadvantage to an ex-superspy trying to make a come-back. So unless Brute can take over in an emergency, this is an essentially vulnerable man attempting to shepherd an inexperienced young woman around the galaxy on what may be a fruitless search for her mother. On the way, they acquire a couple of helpers, meet up briefly with Hound Greystroke and Pup Hugh, and catch up with the absent-minded academic who’d been doing the initial research that had so fascinated Missing Mummy. This leaves them planet-hopping and later stuck up Jim River without a paddle. All this could have been delightful if there had been more inherently interesting action, or more comic interludes. As it is, the whole enterprise grows tiresome, not least because of all the ghastly reproduced accents and garbled languages that the various people speak. I could have coped with travelogue if it had all been in English but this gaelic (punning reference to galactic — yes, the humour is this desperate) is just so annoying, it swamps any enjoyment that might have come from the plot. Ah, yes, the plot. Frankly, it’s fairly obvious what they’re going to find at the end although the nuts and bolts of the final discovery are quite well thought out and the reason for Mummy’s failure to return is quite satisfying.

So Up Jim River has its moments but, like one of the characters they meet — a leader who’s held prisoner because no-one else wants to be the leader — you just end up thinking life’s too short to read every word in space opera books like this. Skipping gives you the story and allows you to escape the enveloping mind-numbing before it completely shuts down the brain.

Magnificent artwork from Sparth.

For a review of the fourth in the series see On the Razor’s Edge.

Caliban’s War by James S. A. Corey

September 4, 2012 Leave a comment

By way of introduction, I need to remind myself of the definition I use for space opera. When I was young, I read through an uncountable number of pages filled with “wow factor” fiction. That’s the technical term for essentially stupid things happening on a vast, not to say unimaginable, scale. It’s not due to chance that the opening words of Star Wars resonated with those of use who had grown up during the so-called Golden Age. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” Never mind the lack of any scientific explanation for what was happening. It was all Boy’s Own adventure fiction transferred to outer space where rampaging evil could be thwarted only by the gismos dreamt up by superscientists like Captain Future in their shiny laboratories or wunderkind throwing random stuff together in their bedrooms. This was all about “going out there” to confront foes unimaginable and still be home in time for tea. And therein lay the problem. When you’re placing your characters against a background of colliding galaxies and you only have fourteen hours to save the Earth, it’s difficult to come up with a plot that’s operatic enough to fill the stage and keep us occupied for however long it takes to read the book. Those of you old enough will remember there was a myth floating around the publishing houses that no author could write intelligent space opera. The moment people started actually thinking, this became serious SF and so no longer fun. To be space opera, like B movies, the work had to represent the lowest possible common denominator of old-style shoot-em-up Westerns transferred to outer space.

Daniel Abraham — regular guy and top-notch writer

Then along came Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Hyperion by Dan Simmons, and so on. This is a much more ambitious approach to the notion of what should constitute contemporary space opera. The books still ignore the laws of physics and lack realism, but continue with the “wow factor”. They are imaginative but have an underlying political context and economic logic. More importantly, they also have a certain optimism. Whereas steampunk looks to the past with a nostaligic eye and shakes its head in sadness that we didn’t have proper Babbage Engines crunching numbers for us back in Victorian times, new Space Opera reaches for the stars and thinks about the possibility the human race can set aside its tribal differences and built an interstellar culture. For all enemies may lurk in the darkness, we’re never without hope. No matter what the difficulties, we strive to overcome them. It’s inspirational stuff.

Ty Franck explaining how the books came to be written

All of which brings me to Caliban’s War by James S. A. Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) (Orbit, 2012) Book 2 The Expanse. I confess to being unimpressed by the first half of Leviathan Wakes. Yes, it was nominated for the 2012 Hugo for Best Novel but I’ve never been afraid to disagree with the masses. I was, you will understand, still sufficiently interested to read this second volume and I’m glad I did. If ever you needed a book to hold up to the world and say, “This is new Space Opera!” Caliban’s War is it. Although the action is limited to our own solar system (sadly, no colliding galaxies in this one) the threat comes from “outside” and is building up rather nicely. The feature that makes the book so entertaining is the predictable infighting between the different human factions, the most aggressive believing they can control the threat to make super weapons. This has to be the ultimate head-in-the-sand approach to fighting an alien invasion. First study the composition of the alien and, when you vaguely understand it, weaponise it and use the results to start a war. Obviously, when the different factions have finished fighting each other, there won’t be many left to fight the aliens but that’s not such an important factor in this pissing contest. Needless to say, the voice of sanity trying to keep the testosterone levels under control is a supergranny who pulls the strings inside the UN, while the self-righteous Jim Holden is once again going the best of three falls to decide the winner in his fight to save everyone from themselves.

Although there are two slightly overlapping interludes when point-of-view switches between characters, it’s less jarring than in the first volume and, more generally, the prose reads with a pleasing fluency. So what we have is a genuinely exciting read with the appearance of an alien monster setting the UN and Mars at each other’s throats, while the Belters look on with interest and whoever released the monster waits for the benefits to accrue. I have the sense that Ty Franck has settled into the team and is improving in the craft a converting a gaming manual into a novel. For once I’m probably going with the flow and rate this as one of the best SF books so far this year. It’s certainly up there with the Culture novels by Iain Banks as being one of the leading space opera books of the last decade.

For reviews of other books by Daniel Abraham, see:
Abaddon’s Gate written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
An Autumn War
A Betrayal in Winter
Caliban’s War written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Dragon’s Path
The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs
The King’s Blood
Leviathan Wakes written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
Leviathan Wept
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer
The Tyrant’s Law.

Jacket artwork by Daniel Dociu.

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.

 

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