Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: The Uplift War by David Brin

The Uplift War by David Brin
Published: Phantasia Press & Bantam Spectra (1986)
Series: Book 3 of the Uplift Saga
Awards Won: Hugo and Locus SF Awards
Awards Nominated: Nebula Award

The Book:

“It is commonly believed that all sentience arises through ‘uplift’, where an older patron race shepherds an intelligent sub-sentient client species into galactic civilization.  Through a long period of subservience, the new species is shaped into a worthy new addition to the galaxy.  The line of uplift extends backward to the mythical Progenitors.   Humanity, however, had the audacity to be sentient with no patron at all!  The origin of humanity’s sentience is still under debate, but since they had already started uplifting chimpanzees and dolphins, they are grudgingly admitted to galactic society as a patron race.

Now the humans, the chims, and the fins are stretching out to other planets.  Most of the worlds they are allowed to colonize are other people’s messes, and Garth is no different.  Garth’s ecosystem was devastated by a badly behaved young sentient species, and now the resident humans and chims are working to help the planet heal. They will not be left peacefully to their task, though. Instigated by distant events, a violent avian alien race known as the Gubru are coming to conquer and occupy Garth.  A small group of humans and their chim clients must find a way to rebel against the occupation of the powerful Gubru, while complying with the rules of galactic society.  Any misstep could have disastrous consequences for more than one species!” ~Allie

I read the first two novels of Brin’s first Uplift Trilogy before starting this blog.  Though the three novels are in chronological order, they each feature completely different stories, characters, and places.  I read them in order, but I don’t think it’s necessary to do so.  Sundiver sufficiently hooked me on Brin’s universe and style to continue with the trilogy.  Startide Rising was a highly entertaining story of the first dolphin-crewed spaceship, and with The Uplift War, it seems that Brin’s novels just keep getting even more impressive!    

My Thoughts:

The Uplift War ranks as one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and may well be among the best novels I’ve ever read.  Brin’s masterful storytelling ability raises a relatively familiar kind of science fiction story into a novel that is truly memorable.  Brin juggles several viewpoint characters, their various subplots, and tons of world-building information, but the story never loses its coherency.  There’s also a fair amount of humor, and Brin isn’t afraid to point out things that may be ridiculous. All of these things were woven expertly together to make a delightful whole, and the pace kept up a continually high level of excitement.  Altogether, it was a novel that I was always reluctant to set down, and eager to resume reading.   

Some aspects of Brin’s story are nothing new in the genre of science fiction, but he uses these clichés incredibly well.  For example, there’s no shortage of stories about small resistance forces fighting powerful alien military occupations.  However, the situation in The Uplift War is much more clearly thought through than usual.  The actions taken by both sides make sense, given their information and circumstances, and the situation is shown from all viewpoints.  Another cliché tackled is a cross-species romance, which is portrayed much more realistically than I have come to expect.  Even though two people of different species may deeply care about one another, there are some insurmountable biological incompatibilities. Brin never failed to follow through with the implications of the situations he presented, which resulted in a universe that seemed plausible and internally consistent.     

 Out of all the world-building information worked into The Uplift War, I particularly enjoyed Brin’s portrayal of the cultures and psychologies of different species.  One major alien culture is the Gubru, the avian species that occupies Garth.  To put things simply, their invasion force is built around a triad of leaders who represent military force, economics, and religion.  The formation of their policy is bound up with the power struggle, gendering, and mating of these three leaders. Other alien cultures include the adaptable, humorous Tymbrimi, and the stern, humorless Thennanin.  For the species closer to home, I also enjoyed the portrayal of the neo-chimpanzees.  I am no expert on chimpanzees but I was intrigued by how Brin combined chimpanzee behavior with sentience to create a distinctly non-human culture.  I loved the level of detail in Brin’s universe, and I especially loved how all of the information he provided was relevant and necessary to the story.

In addition to my love for the universe and the story, I also loved the well-developed characters.  I think my personal favorite would have to be Athaclena, the Tymbrimi ambassador’s daughter.  Athaclena is considered to be an oddly serious and introverted young Tymbrimi.  She must rise to many challenges after the Gubru invasion, while she is still struggling to understand her own people and the sentient species of Earth.  The neo-chimpanzee Fiben Bolger was another truly wonderful character.  He doesn’t consider himself to be ‘highly evolved’, but his intelligence, strength and resourcefulness drive a large part of the plot.  Of course, there are many other characters, and they were all as different from one another as they were memorable.  I almost regret having finished the novel, because now I know that I will only encounter them again if I choose to re-read it.

My Rating: 5/5

The Uplift War is a wonderfully entertaining novel, and my favorite of the first Uplift trilogy.  It is the third novel, but I don’t think it is necessary to read the first two novels to enjoy this one.  I loved pretty much everything about this novel, from the details of the setting, to the characters, to the exciting story.  Brin uses some popular science fiction clichés, but he makes them work through his remarkable storytelling ability.  Though there were a lot of subplots, everything in the novel fit together perfectly, and pretty much all of the characters and pieces of world-building information were important to the central story.  Overall, this was fun, adventurous sci-fi with a complex and interesting universe.  I’ll probably continue with the second Uplift trilogy, which begins with Brightness Reef.  

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Review: Genesis by Poul Anderson

Genesis by Poul Anderson
Published: Tor, 2000
Awards Won: John W. Campbell Memorial Award

The Book:

“Imagine a future where humanity does make it to the stars, but must cease to be physically human in order to do so.  The exploration can only be undertaken by machines, and by humans—such as astronaut Christian Brannock—who allow their consciousness to be uploaded into those machines.  The universe of the far future is a web of machine consciousnesses, grown immensely powerful and complex, which communicate across the emptiness of space. 

These consciousnesses still feel concern for their origin species—humanity—and their origin planet—Earth.  When Earth’s AI, Gaia, decides to allow the planet to die, the others do not understand.  There appear to be gaps in the data she is transmitting, either by accident or design.  A smaller consciousness called Wayfarer, which contains the ancient astronaut Christian Brannock, is physically dispatched to Earth.  Through closer examination of Gaia’s collective knowledge, he must try to understand her decision—or uncover her true motives.” ~Allie

This is my final novel for WWEnd’s Grand Master Reading Challenge, and my first experience of Anderson’s writing. Poul Anderson was a highly prolific and celebrated author, whose work spanned from the first Golden Age of science fiction to the beginning of the 21st century.  I imagine his style must have changed greatly over the course of his life. I would be interested to see how Genesis, a novel from his later life, would compare to his earlier work.

My Thoughts:

From Genesis, I can tell that Anderson had a talent for writing about science in an accessible way.  Genesis contains a fair amount of true information along with its speculative elements, and Anderson imparts it with a sense of wonder and poetry.  In one example that has stuck in my mind, a young Christian Brannock scales the chronology of life down to a single year.  His thought concludes with:

“Recorded history had lasted less than one minute.  And here they were, measuring the universe, ranging the Solar System, planning missions to the stars.  Where will we be by sunrise? he wondered for a dizzying moment.” ~p. 22

Like this quote, one could say that a large amount of the novel is about the passage of time, and the dramatic changes that accompany it.  In Brannock’s scaled down ‘year’, life went from a single-celled organism to a human civilization capable of exploring beyond their home planet. Given how much humanity had accomplished in one ‘minute’, it seems impossible for us to say what we will become in even several thousand years, much less the billions that Genesis covers. The sheer massive time scale of Anderson’s story, and his poetic expression of it, invites wonder.

Unfortunately, the actual plot of the story does not always seem especially coherent.  Rather than following a continuous timeline, the story seems at first like a series of short fiction pieces.  Each piece gives a brief story of a small slice of time and space.  Many of the civilizations and characters that are introduced this way simply disappear, never to be referenced again.  It takes quite some time for Christian Brannock to come clear as the main character of the novel.  It takes even longer for a noticeable plot to emerge.  There is not much tension for most of the novel, because there just isn’t much direction or character development.  By the end, I did appreciate the thematic relevance of the one-off stories featuring minor characters—I believe the intention was to show the affect of an increasingly powerful, benevolent AI on human society.  However, I still felt that this connecting thread was too tenuous to hold the meandering story together as a novel.

Despite this complaint, the book did address some very interesting ideas.  Through the all-powerful AI’s, it explored the idea of a benevolent God who allowed suffering to exist.  This brought up questions about the importance of strife to drive technological progress and the importance of free will to keep the human mind from despair.  It also explored what constitutes personhood, and the meaning of death.  If one can generate an emulation of a human personality, and it has self-determination, then is that emulation different in any appreciable way from an actual human being?  If not, then wouldn’t shutting down that program be an act of murder?  For that matter, when a simulated personality assimilates into a larger machine consciousness, is the subsummation of the individual personality death, even though their program does continue to exist? Anderson did not provide any easy answers, perhaps because there aren’t any.  In any case, I enjoyed seeing these kinds of questions addressed through the lens of far future science fiction.

My Rating: 3/5

Genesis is a contemplative story covering a huge timescale.  It uses science fiction and near omnipotent AIs to raise many ideas that are almost theological in nature, such as the problem of pain, the definition of self, and the meaning of death.  The story is also deeply concerned with questions of free will, and the effect that an actively interfering ‘God’, even a benevolent one, would have on human society.  While I enjoyed Genesis for its sense of wonder and thoughtful consideration of these and other ideas, it left me a little cold as a novel.  It took quite some time to develop anything resembling a protagonist and a plot, and it constantly digressed into seemingly irrelevant short stories about characters and civilizations that would never be referenced again.  While these stories had thematic relevance, I didn’t feel like it was enough to hold it together as a coherent story.     

Friday, December 14, 2012

Review: The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson

The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson
Published: Tor, 2001
Awards Won: John W. Campbell Award
Awards Nominated: Hugo and Locus SF Awards

The Book:

Scott Warden is a man haunted by the past—and soon to be haunted by the future. In early twenty-first-century Thailand, Scott is an expatriate slacker. Then, one day, he inadvertently witnesses an impossible event: the violent appearance of a 200-foot stone pillar in the forested interior. Its arrival collapses trees for a quarter mile around its base, freezing ice out of the air and emitting a burst of ionizing radiation. It appears to be composed of an exotic form of matter. And the inscription chiseled into it commemorates a military victory—sixteen years in the future.

Shortly afterwards, another, larger pillar arrives in the center of Bangkok-obliterating the city and killing thousands. Over the next several years, human society is transformed by these mysterious arrivals from, seemingly, our own near future. Who is the warlord "Kuin" whose victories they note? Scott wants only to rebuild his life. But some strange loop of causality keeps drawing him in, to the central mystery and a final battle with the future.”

This is the second book I’ve read by Robert Charles Wilson, the first being Spin. The Chronoliths had a lot of basic similarities to Spin, though there are many differences in the details.  Of the two novels, I ended up preferring The Chronoliths, and I am curious to see more of Wilson’s work in the future.

My Thoughts:

The basic similarities between Spin and The Chronoliths left me often reading with a vague sense of “déjà lu”. Both stories feature an unexplained scientific phenomenon (involving temporal manipulation) that has a destabilizing effect on modern society.  Within this setting, both stories focus on the personal life of an ordinary protagonist.  The protagonist is a rather self-deprecating adult male who considers himself to be mediocre in his chosen field.  His life is largely shaped by his friendship with a highly regarded genius and his protective, fragile relationship with a vulnerable young woman.  He is hired by the genius, nominally for his professional skills, but actually to provide human companionship. Because of this, he learns about the nature of the scientific phenomenon. Despite these many basic similarities, The Chronoliths is much more than a proto-Spin. The strength of the characters and the ideas explored through the time-traveling monuments shape The Chronoliths into a novel that I will not forget anytime soon.

While there are some echoes of Scott Warden in Spin’s Tyler Dupree, I personally found Scott to be a more compelling protagonist.  While Scott is pulled into the circle studying the chronoliths more or less randomly, his personality is not that of a simple bystander.  He is constantly struggling to shape his own life, and to protect the people he cares about.  Scott is also no stranger to failure, and I was impressed by his maturity in being able to recognize and address his own failings. Specifically, after he fails his wife and daughter, he does not launch a campaign to ‘win’ his wife back.  He accepts that he has damaged his marriage beyond repair, and he does the best he can to salvage his relationship with his daughter (the young woman he wants to protect).  Scott does not always make the wisest decisions, but, to me, his flaws were what made him such a sympathetic protagonist.

Aside from Scott, there are many other characters (of varying levels of development) that fill out the world.  The eccentric genius Sue Chopra and her entourage are intensely dedicated to the studies of the chronoliths.  Through the personal lives of Scott, his daughter, his ex-wife, and her new husband, we see more of the social effects of Kuin’s chronoliths—organizations with strong opinions on Kuin and his supposed ideology.  There are also others that Scott meets throughout the story, such as the ex-pat drug dealer he befriends in Thailand. Though many of the characters are minor, it seems that they all have an important role to play in the story. 

In addition to the characters, I was very intrigued by the role of the chronoliths themselves.  While they’re mysterious and overwhelming, they’re also clearly a human undertaking (though the science is pretty fictional).  Since they presumably come from the near future, understanding the science and motivation behind the structures is never seen as an unobtainable goal. Furthermore, human perception shapes the importance of the chronoliths, in what Sue Chopra calls a ‘feedback loop’.  To put it very simply, when a monument to a future victorious battle appears in the past, it creates an expectation that the battle will occur and end in a certain way.  The belief that this will come to pass makes it more likely to happen.  I thought it was an intriguing way to tell a kind of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ story within the structure of science fiction.  However, rather than being unwitting victims of fate, the characters are consciously working to understand and manipulate the forces at play.   

My Rating: 4/5

The Chronoliths was very similar to Spin in its basic story and some character dynamics, but the many interesting details of The Chronoliths set it apart.  Though it is a story about a mysterious scientific phenomenon, the human perception of the chronoliths was more important than their physical existence. The arrivals of the chronoliths were physically destructive, but their main effect on the world was through human psychology and ideas of fate.  Wilson has an excellent cast assembled to explore these ideas, headed by the flawed and sympathetic Scott Warden.  Scott is an ‘everyman’ character who is drawn into the mystery of the chronoliths, while also trying to maintain his personal life in a changing world. This was a very entertaining and engrossing story, and it now ranks as my favorite novel by Robert Charles Wilson.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Review: The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin
Published: Orbit, 2012
Series: Book 1 Dreamblood Duology

The Book:

In Gujaareh, the dream goddess Hananja is highly revered.  Her priests gather the four humors from the dreams of tithebearers to heal their people’s hearts and minds.  The most feared and respected of these priests are the Gatherers.  They kill to collect dreamblood, but they also make certain that the souls of their targets rest happily in a sweet afterlife of dreams.

Gatherers bring peace to the terminally sick and elderly, but they also seek out and destroy corruption.  When Gatherer Ehiru and his apprentice Nijiri learn that there is a corrupt Gatherer, called a Reaper, murdering innocent people in their city, they are forced into action.  The corruption that allowed such an abomination to come into existence is more far-reaching and insidious than they could have imagined, and they must follow a difficult path to cleanse it from Gujaareh.” ~Allie

The Killing Moon is the second novel I’ve read by N.K. Jemisin, and I chose it due to Calico Reaction’s Theme Park Challenge.  The first novel I read by Jemisin was her debut, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which kicked off her Inheritance Trilogy.  I read it just before starting this blog, so I sadly don’t have a review to look back to.  I did enjoy the novel, but I didn’t feel strongly enough about it to continue the trilogy.  After The Killing Moon, though, I’m quite eager to grab a copy of the second Dreamblood book, The Shadowed Sun, which is already out.  

The Book:

The Killing Moon is set in a fictional world intelligently inspired by ancient Egypt.  Some of the influences from Egyptian culture were clear, but Jemisin did much more than simply copy history.  The history, politics, class systems, gender relations, religion and dream magic of Gujaareh and its sister nation of Kisua fit together to make a fictional world that felt organic and believable.  One major fantastical feature of the world is dream magic, and I appreciated how well this was incorporated into the fabric of the two societies and their religious mythology.  Gujaareh houses a priesthood of dream magic practitioners, who use their skill to heal the weak and kill the corrupt.  Kisua, on the other hand, completely rejects dream magic as an abomination, while still revering the dream goddess Hananja.  Throughout the story, the idea of dream magic is examined from many sides, and it is clearly shown how potentially beneficial yet extremely dangerous the practice can be.  I loved the complexity and internal consistency of the world, and I look forward to returning to seeing more of it in the future.  

Though I enjoyed the world-building, I am not sure if I entirely loved the way some information was grafted into the novel. Each chapter started with a short excerpt from “Law” or “Wisdom”, explaining a point of law or culture that was typically related to dream magic. While I loved learning more about the world, I sometimes wished the information dispersal could have been more incorporated into the flow of the story.  There was also a series of interludes, where an unknown narrator explained some of the history and mythology of the two main nations.  The interludes were interesting, but they didn’t seem necessary to the main plot.  If the identity of the narrator had been revealed earlier, I think it might have given more of an emotional impact to a later plot twist.  As it was, I didn’t really get why they were included, and I’m hoping that it will become clear in the second novel.

In addition to the world-building, the novel boasted three compelling main characters and an exciting, well-paced plot.  The three characters—Gatherer Ehiru, his apprentice Nijiri, and the Kisuati spy/diplomat Sunandi—represented very different views on dream magic.  They were also delightfully flawed characters with very different, well-developed personalities.  I was particularly interested by the unusual relationship between Nijiri and Ehiru, which affects much of the story. Nijiri is completely in love with Ehiru, so strongly it clouds his judgment.  Ehiru does not return the same kind of love, but he relies on Nijiri to support him through psychologically difficult times.  The book does not shy away from the selfish nature of their love for one another, but neither does it discredit their bond.     

The plot was largely driven by the desires of the characters, and it kept me engrossed from start to finish. I appreciated that the story contained a lot of moral ambiguity, especially relating to the act of Gathering, and that even the characters that were clearly villains had understandable motives.  Some of the plot twists were easy to see coming, but the reveals still managed to be effective.  Small parts of the central mystery became clear throughout the story, but I don’t think I grasped the entirety of it until the very end.  The story seemed to move very rapidly, and it was full of intrigue and violence in addition to the characters’ internal conflicts.  If this book is a good representation of Jemisin’s recent work, then I want to read more of it!

My Rating: 4/5

The Killing Moon is an exciting story set in a fantastical world inspired by ancient Egypt.  In the main nation of Gujaareh, Jemisin has crafted a fascinating, complex society that makes sense internally, and that incorporates the interesting idea of dream magic in a seemingly natural way.  I found the three main characters—spy/diplomat Sunandi, Gatherer Ehiru, and his apprentice Nijiri—to be both sympathetic and interestingly flawed, and I liked that even the villains had justifications for their actions.  I thought that the insertion of info-dumps through Law/Wisdom excerpts and Interlude chapters seemed slightly awkward, but I was still eager to learn the information about the world that they imparted.  I’m not sure where the story will go after the conclusion of The Killing Moon, but I can’t wait to find out!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber
Published: Galaxy Science Fiction, 1957
Awards Won: Hugo Award

The Book:

Have you ever worried about your memory, because it doesn't seem to recall exactly the same past from one day to the next? Have you ever thought that the whole universe might be a crazy, mixed-up dream? If you have, then you've had hints of the Change War.

It's been going on for a billion years and it will last another billion or so. Up and down the timeline, the two sides--"Spiders" and "Snakes"--battle endlessly to change the future and the past. Our lives, our memories, are their battleground. And in the midst of the war is the Place, outside space and time, where Greta Forzane and the other Entertainers provide solace and r-&-r for tired time warriors.”

This is my second-to-last novel for WWend’s 2012 GrandMaster’s Reading Challenge.  Fritz Leiber was an author with a wide-ranging imagination, who applied his skill to many kinds of speculative fiction.  He wrote a number of Hugo award-winning science fiction stories (including this one), but he was also the author of many acclaimed works in horror and fantasy. Last year, I reviewed his horror/urban fantasy novel Conjure Wife, which may soon get its 4th film adaptation. The styles of Conjure Wife and The Big Time are so different that they seem almost written by different people.  I think that Conjure Wife was written more for wide appeal, which could be one of the reasons why it has been adapted to film so often.  The Big Time, on the other hand, is a very unusual book, and one that I could see having a smaller audience through the years.

My Thoughts:

I think that Leiber’s background in theatre is evident in The Big Time.  It is very easy to imagine the story being performed on stage, and—unless you wanted to do something elaborate with the alien costumes—I don’t think it would even be an especially expensive production.  The set and various prop pieces are very clearly described (as such) by the narrator, and the entire story takes place in a single location (called the Place).  The story is tightly bounded in time, as well, telling the events of a short period in the lives of Greta, the other entertainers, and a small group of time soldiers.  The eventual mystery and its resolution are paced well, and I appreciated that the reader is actually given all the clues to solve the mystery on their own.  As in a play, most of the surface plot of the story is told through visual description and dialogue.  I liked how Leiber gave each of the characters a distinct style of speech, reflecting their home time period, but I thought that it sometimes sounded a little too stilted.  I feel like the dialogue might come across better in a well-performed audiobook, or in a conversion of the story to stage drama.  

The strong personality of the first-person narrator, Greta Forzane, might be a major factor in whether or not one enjoys the novel.  She’s '29 and a party girl', and she tells her story in a very casual and conversational way.  Here’s an example of some of her early exposition:

…you are not likely to meet me in the cosmos, because (bar Basin Street and the Prater) 15th Century Italy and Augustan Rome—until they spoiled it—are my favorite (Ha!) vacation spots and, as I have said, I stick as close to the Place as I can. It is really the nicest Place in the whole Change World. (Crisis! I even think of it capitalized!)

Anyhoo, when this thing started, I was twiddling my thumbs on the couch nearest the piano and thinking it was too late to do my fingernails and whoever came in probably wouldn't notice them anyway.” ~Chapter 1

To me, Greta seems pretty immature and ditzy, but I don’t think that would be a fair assessment of her character in total.  She seems to strive to diminish herself in order to care for others more.  She doesn’t really have strong opinions or convictions (except that the Surgery room is awful), and thus frames most situations in terms of how they affect the people around her. Her behavior and style of narration make her seem kind of empty-headed, but she proves to have pretty good reasoning skills.  It seemed almost as if her self-dismissive party-girl persona was designed to keep her focused on her work and distracted from thinking too seriously about her life.

The different ways Greta and the other characters cope with their strange lives is what lies behind most of the conflict of the novel.  All of the characters have been permanently removed from their natural timelines to fight a war that seems to have no end or final goal.  They know very little about either side, so they don’t even know whether they’re fighting to achieve an outcome that they would consider worthwhile. Regardless, the decisions made by the “Spiders” completely govern the characters’ lives. They don’t even have control over their own minds, as the actions of soldiers in the war alter their own memories of their lives.  Since they have essentially no control over their own destiny, they are left in a continuing existence that seems arbitrary and purposeless. The characters grapple with the facts of their existence in their separate ways and consider whether an attempt at rebellion is even a meaningful gesture.  The exploration of these reactions made the story much more compelling to me, but also considerably bleaker.

My Rating: 3.5/5

The Big Time is a very short novel, and one that I think I appreciated more than I enjoyed reading it.  The narrator, Greta, with her exaggeratedly ditzy behavior and moments of clarity and insight, may be a difficult character to like, and her personality colors the entire story.  I think it’s a pretty common observation that this novel is very influenced by principles of theatre, and even that it would be very easy to convert this story into a relatively simple theatre production.  The basic plot and eventual mystery moves along swiftly, with plenty of character-based tension (prompted by circumstances).  However, the underlying existential crisis of the characters gives the story a surprisingly depressing depth.  It’s definitely a strange novel, but I think I’m glad I gave it a chance.

For more of a discussion of the philosophical content of the novel, The Hugo Endurance Project has a good review here.  

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review: Blindness by José Saramago

Blindness by José Saramago 
Published: Harcourt, Inc. (1997)

The Book:

“In a nameless city, a nameless man goes blind.  His blindness is not ordinary—though his eyes appear completely healthy, his vision has become an impenetrable whiteness.  Very soon, it becomes clear that his blindness is contagious, as “white blindness” sweeps through the population. Desperate to keep the blindness from spreading, the man and other sufferers are quarantined in a mental hospital and guarded by soldiers. 

The only eyewitness to what will happen in that place is one woman, who carefully hides her unexplainable immunity in order to accompany her husband.  Removed as the victims now are from civilization and authority, they must find a way to establish their own community or risk falling into lives of unending brutality.” ~Allie

I read this novel loosely as a part of the Outside the Norm reading group (at WWEnd), which is not active at the moment.  I’m hoping for a revival in 2013!  Apparently, there is a movie of this novel as well, which I’ve heard is pretty good.  Lastly, I feel like I should include a trigger warning about this book, because it contains some disturbingly graphic sexual violence.

My Thoughts:

Since I’m unable to read Portuguese, all of my comments here relate to the English translation of the text.  I can’t compare the novel I read to the original, so I can’t guarantee that the stylistic quirks hold true in both languages. The English language version of Blindness employs an unusual grammatical structure, with no quotation marks to denote dialogue and a high amount of commas per sentence. The text is often composed of massive sentences with many clauses and lines of dialogue spliced together by commas. For a quick example of the style, here is a sentence taken from late in the novel (cut for brevity and spoiler prevention):

“The doctor’s wife had already guessed what the writer’s reply would be, You and your wife, like the friend who is with you, live in a flat, I imagine, Yes, in her flat in fact, Is it far away, Not really, Then, if you’ll permit me, I have a proposal to make… [~1 page of text]….I do not know braille, How can you write, then, asked the first blind man, Let me show you.” ~pages 232-233, one sentence

I’ve read some reviews that suggested this style was intended to immerse the reader in the confusion of blindness, but I’ve also heard that this is just Saramago’s preferred style of writing.  There are also no names used for any characters or locations.  People are referred to by characteristics, such as “the boy with the squint” or “the girl with the dark glasses”.  My guess was that this was meant to stress the universality  of the story, and to avoid pinning it down to a specific culture or region.  It might seem strange to refer to every character by a phrase rather than a name, but I didn’t think it interrupted the flow of the story.  With the strange grammar and nameless characters, I did not find this to be an effortless read, but I don’t think that the content of the novel was ever obscured by its presentation.

The main science fictional element of the novel is the mysterious illness that topples civilization, ‘white blindness’.  However, the physical origin of the white blindness is not explored, and the story focuses almost entirely on its disastrous effects.  The real point of the blindness is as a tool to explore human nature and the fragility of civilization.  Basically, Blindness tells a similar kind of story to Golding’s Lord of the Flies, but with adults and children living in the wreckage of their own civilization. 

While the characters actions are important in the sense of portraying various aspects of human nature, they were not really very deeply developed.  Perhaps the most interesting character is the one who emerges as the leader of the group.  She is the one sighted woman,  who observes all these atrocities and reacts to them with an initially frustrating passivity.  It brings up the question of how much horror one person has to witness and experience before they are willing to take an action that might risk their personal well-being.  Rather than developing individual characters, the novel seemed more focused on observing how many different people abandoned or embraced their humanity when faced with personal blindness and the loss of the infrastructure of their society.

Due to apparent lack of accountability brought about by the changes in their world, many people begin to act out their worst impulses. This leads to some of the more disturbing parts of the book, which include violence, rape, and large amounts of human waste.  The various characters’ reactions to these things are also sometimes quite painful to read. The story does not have a completely bleak view of humanity, however.  The central group, formed mostly of the first to be struck blind, continues to attempt to hold together their small community, despite all the hardships they face.  I think that examination of the motivations and actions of the various characters could lead to a lot of interesting discussion.

My Rating: 4.5/5

In this short review, there’s no way I can even mention all the topics that would make this an interesting book for discussion.  It’s definitely not light reading, both due to the unusual writing style and the disturbingly graphic content.  The white blindness, as an illness, is never much explained, but it is used as a tool to examine how many different people would react to finding themselves in the world the blindness created.  It did not explore only the negative, but also the positive, as some of the survivors struggled to preserve at least their small community.  I’m glad I ended up reading Blindness, and now I’m really curious to see how well the English film represented the novel.    

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Review: Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold

Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold
Published: Baen, 1996
Series: The Vorkosigan Saga Book 6 (by internal chronology)
Awards Nominated: Locus SF Award

The Book:

When the Cetagandan Empress dies, Miles Vorkosigan and his cousin Ivan Vorpatril are sent to Cetaganda for her funeral as diplomatic representatives of Barrayar. But when the lifelong attendant of the Empress is found murdered, Miles and Ivan find themselves in the thick of things.

Miles tries to play detective in a strange, complicated, and deceptively alien culture, while lascivious Ivan manages to get himself involved with several noble females at the same time – a diplomatic no-no of the first order. As the plot thickens, it becomes clear that to save the Empire, it's up to Miles to do the job. He doesn't mind exactly, but... an adversary's Empire?”

Cetaganda marks the 6th book I’ve read in the Vorkosigan Saga!  I think there are still plenty of exciting novels ahead, but I’ve been enjoying the series thus far.  Next up is going to be Ethan of Athos, and then I’ll have to see about buying the next batch (they’re mostly sold in omnibuses these days).

My Thoughts:

Cetaganda was a planet-bound mystery, unlike the military adventures of the last few novels I’ve read in this series. The mystery was heavily involved with Cetagandan class politics, so developing the society and culture of the Cetagandan Empire was a major focus of the novel.  To me, the most interesting aspect of the culture was its approach to genetic engineering, specifically the way they used it to create both art and themselves.  There was also some examination of class and gender politics, and the different kinds of power people yield.  It was fun to learn more about a society that has only been briefly mentioned in earlier novels, and there were some entertaining side characters portraying the experience of various social stations.

Though the Cetagandan Empire is a focus of the novel, the main characters are two Barrayarans, Miles and Ivan.  In this foreign setting, they stumble into an intriguing mystery that leads to a humorous adventure.  The contrast between Ivan and Miles’s very different personalities lead to some of the most amusing scenes of the story.  Ivan Vorpatril just wants to have a good time on his trip, hopefully a time full of wine and the company of beautiful women.  He has little patience for Miles’s apparent mystery-mongering, and is often exasperated by his friend’s apparent inability to just let things go.  Though Miles seems to be a magnet for trouble, playboy Ivan manages to get into plenty all on his own with the local ladies.  

Miles, in his early twenties here, is intelligent but still fairly immature.  He thinks poorly of Ivan’s preoccupation with women, but he himself falls head over heels for a pretty (and completely untouchable) woman.  While Miles and Ivan are very, very different people, it’s clear that they do have a loyal friendship, which might be one reason why their arguing comes across as funny rather than mean-spirited. I hope there’s plenty of Ivan in the novels to come, because I think he and Miles have made for a highly entertaining duo every time they’ve appeared so far in the series.

While Miles and Ivan’s adventure does involve surviving assassination attempts, investigating murders, and so forth, Cetaganda still has a decidedly lighter tone than some of the other Vorkosigan novels I’ve read.  Besides Falling Free, I think it is also the most independent of the chronology of the series.  There aren’t many callbacks to characters or events from previous novels, and I don’t think that there are any major changes in Ivan or Miles’s characterization throughout the story.  It feels like more of a humorous side jaunt than a part of the central series’ storyline.  Overall, it was just a light, fun, mystery, and I thought it was well-paced and entertaining.  I don’t think this one will become my favorite of the series, but I did enjoy the time I spent reading it.

My Rating: 3.5/5

Cetaganda is a planet-bound mystery that introduces the structure of the society of the Cetagandan Empire.  I enjoyed reading about the practical Cetagandan approach to genetic engineering, and how that interfaced with their strictly class-based society. Miles and Ivan work remarkably well as the main characters, and the contrast of their personalities injects a lot of the humor into the story.   There’s relatively little dependence on past characters and events, so Cetaganda felt more like a stand alone novel than most others I’ve read in the series.  Altogether, it felt like a light, humorous side adventure that would not suffer much from being read out of sequence.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Review: Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
Published: Macmillan Publishing (2000),  Del Rey (2001)
Series: New Crobuzon Trilogy: Book 1
Awards Nominated: British Science Fiction Association, Locus Fantasy, World Fantasy, Hugo, and Nebula Awards
Awards Won: British Fantasy Society and Arthur C. Clarke Awards

The Book:

Beneath the towering bleached ribs of a dead, ancient beast lies New Crobuzon, a squalid city where humans, Re-mades, and arcane races live in perpetual fear of Parliament and its brutal militia. The air and rivers are thick with factory pollutants and the strange effluents of alchemy, and the ghettos contain a vast mix of workers, artists, spies, junkies, and whores. In New Crobuzon, the unsavory deal is stranger to none—not even to Isaac, a brilliant scientist with a penchant for Crisis Theory.

Isaac has spent a lifetime quietly carrying out his unique research. But when a half-bird, half-human creature known as the Garuda comes to him from afar, Isaac is faced with challenges he has never before fathomed. Though the Garuda's request is scientifically daunting, Isaac is sparked by his own curiosity and an uncanny reverence for this curious stranger.

While Isaac's experiments for the Garuda turn into an obsession, one of his lab specimens demands attention: a brilliantly colored caterpillar that feeds on nothing but a hallucinatory drug and grows larger and more consuming by the day. What finally emerges from the silken cocoon will permeate every fiber of New Crobuzon, and not even the Ambassador of Hell will challenge the malignant terror it invokes...”

After months languishing in my upcoming review list, I’ve finally finished reading Perdido Street Station! This novel has gotten plenty of attention from genre awards, and I’ve heard more than one person say this is the first Miéville work a new reader should try.  I’m not new to reading Miéville, since I’ve already read The City & The City and Embassytown, but those two novels inspired me to seek out more of his work.  Perdido Street Station is the first book of a series, but I believe that each novel is effectively a stand-alone book set in the same world (Bas-Lag), of which New Crobuzon is a major city-state.

My Thoughts:

The complex and gritty city of New Crobuzon is one of the most impressive parts of Perdido Street Station.  In a sense, one could consider New Crobuzon to be one of the most important characters in the story.  The wealth of information on all of the architecture, neighborhoods, species, social groups and attitudes, and political factions could sometimes be a little overwhelming, but it was always fascinating to see how all of these pieces interacted to build up the whole of New Crobuzon.  By the end, I felt like I not only had an appreciation for the geography of the city, but for the physical and psychological makeup of the population and their internal conflicts.  All of this information was slowly dispersed throughout the story, so that it seemed there was always something new to discover on the next page.  I’ve always been a fan of detailed world building, so I loved learning about the massive, diverse city of New Crobuzon.

In talking about the story, I think it is easiest to define two sections—“pre-metamorphosis” (of Isaac’s strange caterpillar) and “post-metamorphosis”.  I ended up being more interested in the “pre” section.  This part of the story was relatively low tension, and gave a feel for what normal, daily life is like in New Crobuzon.  The main characters were a rebellious scientist, Isaac, and his khepri (part-insect, part-human) artist girlfriend, Lin.  I enjoyed spending time looking at the world from their perspectives, and their existence in distinct racial and social groups gave a good view of some of the different lifestyles within the city.  They also provided a window into how one practices art and science in this fantasy world.  Aside from the perspective they gave on New Crobuzon, they were also pretty well-drawn, flawed, likable characters. I was thoroughly engaged in following Isaac and Lin’s ‘normal’ lives.  

The “post” section was basically a monster hunt.  The city was still interesting, and there were still more nooks and crannies to discover, but I found my enthusiasm for the story occasionally flagging.  One thing that might have contributed to this was the proliferation of characters in point-of-view positions and their associated subplots.  I was very invested in Isaac and Lin, and I just didn’t have the same interest in all the minor characters, especially since they were often not very fleshed out.  Adding so many subplots also made me feel as though the pace of the story was slowing down as the tension increased. I was also less interested in the monster hunt, so this section began to seem a little unnecessarily long.  Since there are very limited ways a monster hunt can end, I did not think that the ending would surprise me.  While some things went as expected, I would have to call the ending, at the very least, unconventional.  I’m not sure whether I appreciate leaving the story on that particular final note, but I’m still looking forward to returning to the world of Bas-Lag in the future.

My Rating: 4.5/5

Perdido Street Station is an impressively creative novel.  The city of New Crobuzon is such a complex setting that I felt as though I were still learning about its intricacies up through the end of the novel.  The city, its structure, its magic and science, its art, its subcultures and its various species and cultures all feel gritty and real.  The main characters for the first part of the story, the scientist Isaac and the artist Lin, are well developed and sympathetic.  I was most fascinated by the portions about the two of them going about their careers in this fascinating city.  Midway through, the novel takes a wild left turn, and I was less engaged with the subsequent story. This section exploded with many new minor characters and subplots, which seemed to slow down the pace with the rising action.  I’m still not sure if I’m satisfied with the ending, but this is definitely a novel that I will remember for a long time to come.  

Monday, October 29, 2012

Review: Audrey's Door by Sarah Langan

Audrey’s Door by Sarah Langan
Published: Harper & Row, 2009
Awards Won: Stoker Award

The Book:

Built on the Upper West Side, the elegant Breviary claims a regal history. But despite 14B's astonishingly low rental price, the recent tragedy within its walls has frightened away all potential tenants . . . except for Audrey Lucas.

No stranger to tragedy at thirty-two-a survivor of a fatherless childhood and a mother's hopeless dementia, Audrey is obsessively determined to make her own way in a city that often strangles the weak. But is it something otherworldly or Audrey's own increasing instability that's to blame for the dark visions that haunt her . . . and for the voice that demands that she build a door? A door it would be true madness to open . . .”

It’s October again, and that means I’m branching out, once again, to horror!  Audrey’s Door is the October reading selection for Calico Reaction’s Theme Park book club, so it seemed like a good choice for a Halloween-themed review.

My Thoughts:

Audrey’s Door was a fairly standard haunted house story.  Audrey was lured into moving into a home that she thought was too good to be true, and she soon found that she was right.  I don’t think that this story aspired to be especially new or different, but rather to be an entertaining new addition to the rich tradition of modern haunted house stories.  The writing style was rather plain and casual, and I felt like exclamation points and capital emphasis were employed a little too often.  Throughout the story, Langan included fictional historical documents, such as newspaper articles, which slowly built up the history of the Breviary, the haunted house of the story.  Though some of these historical snippets were pretty predictable (suicides, eerie occurrences, etc.), I was very interested in the details of the building and its architecture.

The source of the evil within the building was grounded in the idea of a cult and architectural style known as Chaotic Naturalism.  The style, which avoided straight lines and tended towards ‘chaotic’ structures, kind of reminded me of the design of Kunst Haus Wien. Chaotic Naturalism was suggested to tap into the primitive, evil side of humanity, whereas Kunst Haus Wien had more of a positive, back-to-nature vibe.  I thought it was kind of interesting that both the fictional and actual architecture seem to be about reaching into the natural state of humanity, though the Kunst Haus saw this as psychologically healthy.  In the end, I was skeptical of the dark influences of Chaotic Naturalism, but I really enjoyed all of the fictional documentation Langan had of the movement’s development. I think, in a haunted house story, the house itself is essentially a main character, and I enjoyed how Langan developed the ‘character’ of the Breviary.

The other, human characters also had quite interesting histories and personalities, though I did not find them altogether likable.    Even though I didn’t really like the characters, I don’t think it affected my enjoyment of the novel.  I have a certain detachment from mainstream horror characters, probably because I expect them to suffer and/or die pretty horribly.  Rather than really sympathizing with the characters, I tend to simply observe them.  This worked well for Audrey and her boyfriend, Saraub.  Audrey’s personality problems could be traced back to many things, such as her mental health problems and her upbringing by a nomadic woman suffering from debilitating mental illness.  However, she was still an enormous jerk to pretty much everyone she met.  Saraub was not nearly as unfriendly as Audrey, but he had his moments. I appreciated that Langan took the time to add in some development for side characters, but their subplots often seemed completely irrelevant to the main thrust of the story. Even though I didn’t feel emotionally invested in the characters, and some of the subplots didn’t seem to lead anywhere, I was still interested to see what would happen next.    

While I enjoyed the story, and it certainly kept my interest, I’m not sure that I could say it worked for me as a horror story.  From me, this is not exactly a criticism, since I don’t especially like being frightened (That’s one reason I rarely read horror!).  I tried to analyze why I didn’t find the story scary, and I think it comes down to the handling of the supernatural elements.  In the kinds of horror movies that have left me terrified of entering my own bathroom (This is totally normal.  Don’t tell me otherwise.), the supernatural elements tend to be woven in and escalated very gradually.  In that way, a sense of realism is established before anything especially outlandish happens.  I think that this connection of the horror to that initial sense of realism, which is tenuously maintained, is actually what leaves me in terror.  In Audrey’s Door, there was very little time spent establishing normality before the haunting began, and Audrey started having full-sensory visions almost immediately thereafter.  I think the historical documents were intended to establish the sense of realism necessary for fear, but that didn’t really work for me.  Of course, other people’s reactions may be entirely different than mine, but Audrey’s Door was more of a somewhat interesting story to me than a spine-tingling one.

My Rating: 3/5

Audrey’s Door seems to be a pretty standard addition to the tradition of modern haunted house stories.  The writing is pretty plain, and some tics distracted my attention, like the overuse of exclamation points.  I enjoyed the creative and entertaining history of the haunted house, known as the Breviary, as it is uncovered through fictional historical documents.  I was especially intrigued by the cult and architectural style of Chaotic Naturalism.  The main characters, Audrey and her boyfriend Saraub, are not especially likable, but they have interesting personalities and life experiences.  I didn’t find the story to be especially frightening, possibly due to the heavy hand with which the supernatural elements are applied to the story.  Overall, I thought it was a fairly entertaining novel that would probably be enjoyed by readers in the mood for haunted houses.