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!