Saturday, December 27, 2014

Review: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Published: Atlantic Monthly Press/William Morrow & Co. (2008)
Awards Nominated: British Science Fiction Association, Campbell Memorial, Arthur C. Clarke, and Hugo Awards
Awards: Won: Locus SF Award
The Book:
“On the unusual but strangely familiar planet of Arbre, those who study science and math generally live in monastery-like communities that are isolated from the saecular world. Every year, decade, century, and millennium, gates open to allow different groups of these scholars to mingle with the outside world for ten days. Fraa Erasmas is a member of the Decenarian math, whose gates open once each decade. 
During the first opening since he was collected as a child, Erasmas and his peers notice certain hints that something unusual is on the horizon.  Though their information is limited, they begin to apply their reasoning skills to determine what truth lies behind the things that they are capable of observing.  It soon becomes clear that their world is at the cusp of a cataclysmic change, and that he and his friends are going to be pulled right into the center of it all.” ~Allie
I bought Anathem because the e-book was on sale, and because I usually enjoy Neal Stephenson’s novels.  I had also decided that this would be a good choice for the “I just HAVE to read more of that author” Challenge, in which I am participating. It’s also the first book I’ve read for Stainless Steel Droppings’s Sci-Fi Experience.  When I first started reading, I thought I might have picked a little too ambitious a book for a holiday season in which I was already exhausted.  However, I’m really glad I stuck with this one to the end!   
My Thoughts:
Arbre is a really immersive world, and I especially loved the details about life in the concents, the monastery-like communities where the scientists live.  There were a lot of little interesting touches, such as multi-plant-species ‘tangle’ agriculture and library grapes, which contain the gene sequences for all varietals.  Of course, with the existence of grapes and wine, you can see that there are a lot of similarities between Arbre and our world.  There are actually story-related reasons for this, but I appreciated how it gave the reader a kind of handle to understand the world and its history.  Earth languages (especially French) are also used as a basis for creating a lot of the new vocabulary used by the characters, and I thought this really helped to keep the meanings clear. I enjoyed how Arbre was unusual enough to be intriguing but familiar enough to not be confusing.
I also loved that the story was basically about people in academia, and that it featured an average academic (i.e. not a genius).  The story followed Fraa Erasmas and his fellow fraas and suurs from the Concent of Saunt Edhar. Erasmas has a pretty apolitical view of the world, and generally refers to the ‘Saecular Power’ as a monolith. I enjoyed the focus on the communities and relationships within the ‘mathic world’, and most especially that between Erasmas, his closest friends, and his mentor Orolo.  I found it refreshing that the concents were co-ed, and that they did not forbid romantic relationships.  There is a bit of romance in the story for Erasmas, but relationships (and, honestly, characterization) have a lower priority in the story than the events and discussions that are changing their world.
While the story follows Erasmas’s adventures across Arbre and beyond, I think the core of the story revolves around two opposing philosophical ideas. In general, it is the argument of whether words have inherent meaning, or whether they are only symbols that we assign meaning. The first position leads to the idea that words refer to an ideal form, which exists in an idealized universe (see Platonic Ideal/Form). This ties in to the more physical idea of multiple universes (‘polycosmic’ theory), where (in the simplest case) each cosmos could be closer to or farther from the ideal universe.  There are also pretty interesting explanations for the nature of consciousness, if you take interference from multiple cosmos into account. I think it’s pretty impressive that Stephenson has managed to craft a story around this clash of ideas, and one that I felt was really engaging.
I was quickly drawn in by Erasmas’s journey from his small concent to the center of a dramatic change to the infrastructure of his entire world.  There were many exciting events along the way, such as his dangerous crossing of the pole and the events at Ecba.  However, a lot of the story also involves Erasmas discussing ideas and information with his peers and mentors, and constructing their picture of what is happening. I really enjoyed seeing how much they could figure out from just a little information.  Of course, there are also a lot of dialogues about ideal forms, the nature of consciousness, and polycosmic theory. These conversations are pretty long and frequent, so I think that a reader who doesn’t enjoy them would have a hard time getting into the story.  I thought that all the discussions helped to build up the foundation for the conclusion to make sense, and I enjoyed seeing how things might change for Arbre in the future.
My Rating: 5/5

I think Anathem may be my new favorite novel by Neal Stephenson.  The planet of Arbre was fascinating, and its similarities to our world kept it easily accessible.  I enjoyed the wordplay vocabulary and small creative touches that made the world unique.  The characters may not have been a major focus of the story, but I thought they were well enough developed to be emotionally engaging.  The real heart of the story is in philosophical ideas pertaining to ideal forms, the nature of consciousness, and multiple universes, and how these ideas would be involved in a very unusual first contact scenario.  I felt like there was enough action to move the story along, though the novel was also definitely heavy on interesting discussions and explanations.  I loved this book, and am happily anticipating reading more Stephenson in the future! 

Friday, December 19, 2014

Review: Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone

Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone
Published: Tor, 2013
Series: Book 2 of the Craft Sequence

The Book:

Shadow demons plague the city reservoir, and Red King Consolidated has sent in Caleb Altemoc—casual gambler and professional risk manager—to cleanse the water for the sixteen million people of Dresediel Lex. At the scene of the crime, Caleb finds an alluring and clever cliff runner, Crazy Mal, who easily outpaces him.

But Caleb has more than the demon infestation, Mal, or job security to worry about when he discovers that his father—the last priest of the old gods and leader of the True Quechal terrorists—has broken into his home and is wanted in connection to the attacks on the water supply.

From the beginning, Caleb and Mal are bound by lust, Craft, and chance, as both play a dangerous game where gods and people are pawns. They sleep on water, they dance in fire... and all the while the Twin Serpents slumbering beneath the earth are stirring, and they are hungry.”

This is the second book I’ve read by Max Gladstone, and I really loved his first, Three Parts Dead. I’m planning to pick up Full Fathom Five, his latest in the same series, sometime in 2015.

My Thoughts:

Two Serpents Rise is set in the same world as Three Parts Dead, but since it is otherwise unrelated, I don’t think it’s necessary to read the series in order.  Gladstone’s Craft Sequence takes place in a very creative fantasy world where magic is wielded by both humans and deities, and the flows of power are determined by faith and economics.  I was delighted by the originality in Three Parts Dead, and it has been a lot of fun to see yet another corner of the world in Two Serpents Rise.  Some parts of the story in the first novel, especially those relating to graduate school, hit a little closer to home for me than the business and romance of Two Serpents Rise.  It was still really exciting, though, and I was easily drawn into the story.

The main characters this time around are Caleb and Mal, though there’s also a handful of memorable minor characters–such as the Red King, Caleb’s best friend Teo, and Caleb’s father—that play important roles in the story.  Caleb’s position is a difficult one, as he has to handle his troubled relationship with his father and his loyalty to the company that has replaced his father’s religion. Mal is mostly seen through Caleb’s eyes, but I thought the narration did a good job of showing that his perception of her was not altogether accurate.  I enjoyed the complexity of the characters, but I felt that they were not quite as intelligent as the protagonists and antagonists of the first novel of the series.  Part of that might have been due to the romantic subplot of the story, since Caleb tended to go a little stupid when he was struck by his attraction to Mal. I’m not a huge fan of romance in general or this particular character trait, but I thought it was handled pretty well within the larger story.

The religion this time is clearly inspired by Mayan/Aztec culture, though the details of the specific ‘Quechal’ religion and culture are fictional.  There is a lot of focus on the morality of human sacrifice, which is central to the Quechal religion.  I think this particular inspiration and its link to human sacrifice are pretty commonly incorporated into fictional stories, so it did not feel quite as fresh as the Alt Coulomb of Three Parts Dead.  However, I appreciated that it took a closer look at the idea of sacrifice as an important aspect of supporting a society.  The idea of killing a random person to appease a deity is hard to defend, but the infrastructure of their society depends on the micro-sacrifices each citizen makes, as well as the suffering inflicted on the surrounding land to extract the resources needed to keep the city running.  In general, I appreciated that the story does not take a simple approach to this and other topics, and that it instead portrays a more complicated world, where the way forward is not always clear. 

My Rating: 3.5/5

I preferred Three Parts Dead to Two Serpents Rise, but the second novel is still an interesting addition to a very promising series. I enjoy the way Gladstone combines ideas of business and economics with human magic and deities, and he has managed to use that to tell yet another exciting story. The fictional religion involved in this novel is based on Aztec and Mayan culture, which is something that seems to come up pretty often in fantasy stories.  This novel also had more of a romantic focus, and the characters seemed a little less intelligent than those from the previous novel. However, I appreciated that the moral situation was a bit more complicated this time, and that it was not easy to see how the problems within the story could or should be resolved. It was fun to see another corner of this unique world, and I’m looking forward to reading Full Fathom Five!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Current Challenges: Sci-Fi Experience & Vintage Sci-Fi Not-A-Challenge

I meant to do an introductory post on this earlier, but a series of work crises and an illness ended up derailing the beginning of my month.  It's time to celebrate science fiction with Stainless Steel Droppings and Little Red Reviewer!

The Sci-Fi Experience, hosted by Carl V. at Stainless Steel Droppings, takes place during the months of December and January, and focuses on sharing experiences of science fiction.  More information on the Experience can be found here, and the site collecting reviews from participants is here.

There are still a few fantasy books I need to finish off this month for my 2014 challenges, but I'm already starting in on some good science fiction.  My first Sci-Fi Experience novel will be Neal Stephenson's Anathem, followed by Christopher Priest's The Separation, which I have enjoyed on audiobook.  After that, I suspect it will be time to dive into the overlapping non-challenge...

The Vintage Sci-Fi Not-A-Challenge, hosted by Andrea of Little Red Reviewer, takes place during the month of January, and more information can be found here.  For the purposes of the challenge, 'vintage' is defined as science fiction that was published in or before the year 1979.  There are a lot of books I'd like to read for this challenge, but we'll see how far I can get in a month! I'm planning to start with C.J. Cherryh's The Faded Sun: Kesrith, possibly leading into the rest of the trilogy.  Other books I'm hoping to read are Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama (I really should have read it years ago!), Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, and Robert Heinlein's Farmer in the Sky.  If by some miracle I finish all of those, I suppose I could finally start reading the notorious Hugo winner The Forever Machine!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Review: The Dragon and the George by Gordon R. Dickson

The Dragon and the George by Gordon R. Dickson
Published: Ballantine Books, 1975
Series: Book 1 of the Dragon Knight
Awards Won: British Fantasy Society
Awards Nominated: World Fantasy Award

The Book:

Jim Eckert was a dragon. He hadn't planned it that way, but that's what happened when he set out to rescue his betrothed. Following her through an erratic astral-projection machine, Jim suddenly found himself in a cockeyed world - locked in the body of a talking dragon named Gorbash.

That wouldn't have been so bad if his beloved Angie were also a dragon. But in this magical land, that was not the case. Angie had somehow remained a very female human - or a george, as the dragons called any human. And Jim, no matter what anyone called him, was a dragon.

To make matters worse, Angie had been taken prisoner by an evil dragon and was held captive in the impenetrable Loathly Tower. So in this land where georges were edible and beasts were magical - where spells worked and logic didn't - Jim Eckert had a problem.
And he needed help, by george!

This is the first book I’ve read by Gordon R. Dickson, and I chose it for the 12 Awards 12 Months reading challenge.  I bought a really old copy of the book at a used bookstore, so this is one of my relatively rare physical books.  The Dragon and the George kicks off a very long-running series of Dragon Knight novels.

The Book:

I had the feeling that The Dragon and the George might have been intended to be a parody of a standard good-vs-evil fantasy, but it also seems to simply be that sort of a novel. There are a lot of jokes about various clichés along the way, but it doesn’t really go very far beyond them.  For instance, there’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek type stuff with a sorcerer who talks about a magical IRS, but he still fulfills the standard role of the wizard who guides the hero’s quest and provides support at the darkest times.  In another example, Jim becoming a dragon kind of subverts the ‘knight’ hero, but it doesn’t actually change his fellowship-gathering or damsel-rescuing in any major way. The characters were mostly stock, though often amusing, and everything progressed as you would expect in this kind of pseudo-medieval quest fantasy.

Because it does seem to be intended as light and comedic, there are a lot of things that just seem to be hand-waved away.  For instance, the whole story takes place because Jim’s fiancée is accidentally transported to a magical medieval land during a University astral projection experiment.  I guess astral projection was a popular topic in the 70s, but it comes across as pretty silly today.  I also found it kind of weird that everyone seemed to accept that the fantasy land—with its dragons, magic, etc.—actually was medieval Europe. Given how aggressive a few of the characters were about mentioning their nationalities, I wondered if this was to allow for some kind of tongue-in-cheek social commentary.  If so, I think it is probably too specific to the time and place of publication to be particularly meaningful to me. In these ways, as well as in its simple story structure, The Dragon and the George felt really dated.  However, I still think it would be an entertaining story for a reader in the mood for this kind of light fantasy.

My Rating: 2.5/5

The Dragon and the George felt to me like it wanted to be a parody of a generic fantasy novel while still being a generic fantasy novel. It was pretty cute and funny, but it never strayed very far from the expected. I think it may have been more unconventional when it was first published, but now it feels rather predictable and dated. It’s still an entertaining, undemanding, comedic novel, though, and I think it would be a pretty fun beach read for fans of light medieval-Europe style fantasy stories.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Review: Abaddon's Gate by James S.A. Corey

Abaddon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey
Published: Orbit, 2013
Series: Book 3 of The Expanse
Awards Won: Locus SF

This is the third book of a series, so bewares spoilers of the first two books!

The Book:

For generations, the solar system -- Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt -- was humanity's great frontier. Until now. The alien artifact working through its program under the clouds of Venus has appeared in Uranus's orbit, where it has built a massive gate that leads to a starless dark.
Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are part of a vast flotilla of scientific and military ships going out to examine the artifact. But behind the scenes, a complex plot is unfolding, with the destruction of Holden at its core. As the emissaries of the human race try to find whether the gate is an opportunity or a threat, the greatest danger is the one they brought with them.”
I’ve been really enjoying Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck’s series up until now, and Abaddon’s Gate is even better than what had come before.  I’ve also been thrilled to hear that the series is going to be adapted into a television series. I have always thought this series would translate well to visual media, and I can’t wait to see how Syfy will handle the adaptation!

My Thoughts:

This third novel in the space opera series The Expanse keeps up the excitement and adventure of the previous two novels.  The wonder and horror of the alien protomolecule once again plays a major role, and the story’s heart lies with its strong cast of memorable characters. I enjoyed Caliban’s War, but I felt that it was in kind of a holding pattern with respect to the overarching plot of the series.  The story repeated a lot of the elements of the first novel, and the protomolecule spent most of its time stewing on Venus. In Abaddon’s Gate, things are moving forward rapidly again. Much is revealed about the purpose of the alien protomolecule, though many dangerous questions remain unanswered. Even without running afoul of impersonal alien technology, conflict seems unavoidable between the different political factions that rush to investigate the gateway structure. There are so many future possibilities opened by the events of this book, and I can’t wait to see the direction the story takes in Cibola Burn.

I feel like Abaddon’s Gate also shows an improvement on its predecessors in terms of its antagonists and the complexity of its plot.  While I felt that the first two novels suffered a bit from one-dimensional villains, the antagonists this time around were much more carefully developed.  One of them, Melba Koh, is even a viewpoint character. While her personal motives are relatively simple and I don’t see her actions as forgiveable, I appreciated the internal conflict that haunted her each step of the way.  Other antagonists are genuinely doing what they think is best for humanity, but good intentions don’t guarantee good results. Of course, the gathered spacefarers also have to contend with the danger represented by the alien technology of the gateway, and what may lie beyond it.  There’s a lot going on in this novel, and I appreciated how well all of the pieces fit together.

In terms of the characters, Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are still central to the story, and I appreciate seeing how they change as a result of their difficult experiences.  Holden is no longer the idealist of Leviathan Wakes or the violent, traumatized man of Caliban’s War. There were also hints about the histories of the other crew members, which highlight how little we actually know yet of their lives before they joined the ice hauler in Leviathan Wakes. The new viewpoint characters this time include pastor Anna, who has come to discuss what the gateway means in terms of her faith, and an outer-planets security officer, Bull, who is determined to keep the political situation from falling apart. I thought they both provided interesting new perspectives, though I would have enjoyed a bit more philosophy from Anna.  The touches of humor in character interactions helped to lighten up some otherwise grim situations.  I am looking forward to seeing where the Rocinante will go next!

My Rating: 4.5/5

Abaddon’s Gate is an excellent addition to a highly entertaining space opera series. Familiar old faces, like Holden and his crew, are still a major force, but a handful of new major characters also bring life to the story.  I felt like the antagonists were much more well-rounded characters this time around, as opposed to the one-dimensional villains of the previous two stories, and I think this helped support a more complicated plot. The novel provides some exciting reveals about the purpose of the protomolecule, and raises yet more questions.  The conclusion opens many possibilities for the future of the series, and I am excited to see which the story will follow!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Review: Replay by Ken Grimwood

Replay by Ken Grimwood
Published: Grafton, 1987
Awards Won: World Fantasy Award
Awards Nominated: Arthur C. Clarke Award

The Book:

Jeff Winston was 43 and trapped in a tepid marriage and a dead-end job, waiting for that time when he could be truly happy, when he died.

And when he woke and he was 18 again, with all his memories of the next 25 years intact. He could live his life again, avoiding the mistakes, making money from his knowledge of the future, seeking happiness.

Until he dies at 43 and wakes up back in college again...”

Replay is the first novel I’ve read by Ken Grimwood, and it seems that it is his most well-known work.  It appears that a few of his other novels were connected to details in Replay, which I think is a really interesting idea.  Unfortunately, Grimwood’s lesser-known works are currently a little difficult to find, so I don’t know when or if I will be able to read them.  

My Thoughts:

I had high expectations for Replay, but it took me a while to really warm up to the book.  I started reading it twice in the past few years, only to get distracted and put it down. I can trace my lack of interest to an ironic difficulty I have in identifying with ‘everyman’ protagonists.  Jeff Winston, in the beginning, seemed to be exactly that, and his first replay started with the pursuit of fast money and fast women. I’m very glad that I finally settled in to read the novel, because the story became so much more than it first appeared.  Jeff’s subsequent replays of his life began to build on one another, such that his mental state and identity became increasingly complicated and compelling as the story progresses. In retrospect, I can see how Jeff needed to get those juvenile dreams out of his system when he was first faced with inexplicable new youth, but he was not the kind of shallow person who could accept their fulfillment as the end of his journey.

The replays carried with them great promise, but also great sadness, since every life was self-contained.  Jeff had numerous lifetimes to explore the limits of his capabilities and to learn how he could affect the world, but he could never move past his 43rd year of life. Jeff could never grow old with his family, and he had to start each new life knowing that everything he had accomplished, every relationship he had developed, had been wiped out as if it never existed.  I thought it was a very interesting situation—giving a person the opportunity to shape their lives as they wish, but also repeatedly erasing everything they achieve.  It’s such a strange balance between optimism and meaninglessness, and I enjoyed seeing how characters would react to being faced with this again and again.  Jeff was not one to passively accept his situation, and his search for understanding of himself and his situation propelled the story.

Given the repetitive nature of the premise, I was surprised that the story did not actually feel repetitious.  Each of Jeff’s lives go in very different directions, both in terms of his external situation and in terms of how he has changed as a result of his experiences.  The story also has a few surprising game changers that Jeff uncovers as he searches for meaning in his ‘replays’, but I don’t want to spoil them here.  At points, I feared that the ending would be a bit sappy and trite, but those fears turned out to be unfounded.  I felt that the ending was neither altogether happy nor sad, but instead filled with a sense of hope and uncertainty. Replay was published nearly thirty years ago now, and it is set in a particular period of history, but I think that the story will continue to resonate with readers for many years to come.

My Rating: 5/5

I had high expectations of Replay, and after I made it through Jeff’s first replay of his life, the rest of the story exceeded them.  It is a story about the risks people take or avoid in their lives and what they could accomplish with the assurance of second chances. It’s also a story about coping with circumstances outside of one’s control, and of facing the reality that one’s accomplishments will be swept away as if they had never existed.  Jeff starts out chasing juvenile dreams of money and sex, but with his many lives, he has an opportunity to see what kind of a person he is capable of becoming.  Several plot twists make the story delightfully more complicated, and I felt that things came together into a surprisingly hopeful and clear-sighted conclusion. Though it is set in a time that is growing increasingly distant from modern day, I think this is a story that can pass the test of time.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Review: The New Moon's Arms by Nalo Hopkinson

The New Moon’s Arms by Nalo Hopkinson
Published: Warner Books, 2007
Awards Nominated: Nebula, John W. Campbell Memorial, and Mythopoeic Awards

The Book:
The New Moon's Arms is a mainstream magical realism novel set in the Caribbean on the fictional island of Dolorosse. Calamity, born Chastity, has renamed herself in a way she feels is most fitting. She's a 50-something grandmother whose mother disappeared when she was a teenager and whose father has just passed away as she begins menopause.

With this physical change of life comes a return of a special power for finding lost things, something she hasn't been able to do since childhood. A little tingling in the hands then a massive hot flash, and suddenly objects, even whole buildings, lost to her since childhood begin showing up around Calamity.

One of the lost things Calamity recovers is a small boy who washes up on the shore outside her house after a rainstorm. She takes this bruised but cheerful 4-year-old under her wing and grows attached to him, a process that awakens all the old memories, frustrations and mysteries around her own mother and father. She'll learn that this young boy's family is the most unusual group she's ever encountered—and they want their son back.”

Nalo Hopkinson is an author I’d whose work I’ve been meaning to check out for a while, so I was happy to see that The New Moon’s Arms fits nicely into one of my 2014 reading challenges.  This is the first book I’ve read by Hopkinson, but I doubt it will be the last.

My Thoughts:

The New Moon’s Arms is a story in part about a woman’s difficult transition from youth to middle age. Calamity (born Chastity) is entering menopause, but she is still clinging desperately to her youth and to the life history that has defined her.  Not only is her sense of identity shifting, the world in which she was a young woman is also beginning to no longer exist.  From the long-ago destruction of her childhood home and loss of her mother, to the recent death of her father, to the new perspectives of a younger generation, everything is disappearing and changing. She must come to terms with the mysteries and painful memories that fill her past before she can move forward into a future that threatens to leave her behind.  Part of this digging up the past comes through her re-awakened ‘finding’ ability, which causes lost artifacts of her childhood to resurface, and part is through interacting with the people that have caused her to become the person she is in the present.

While Calamity’s life has shaped her into an energetic, fiery woman with a sharp sense of humor, it has also left her with some glaring personality flaws.  From the beginning, she comes across as very immature, impulsive, and prejudiced, with a level of self-absorption that prevented her from seeking to understand anyone outside herself.  At her best, she can be charming, but at her worst, she is a trial to the people who attempt to love her.  Her rescue of the sea child reflects her best and worst qualities—she is a woman who would care for an abandoned 4-year-old with barely a second thought, but her lack of capability or desire to understand others prevents her from even learning the kid’s name.  Though I can’t say Calamity is exactly likeable, I thought that her progression as a heroine felt realistic.  People don’t change overnight, and Calamity’s growth as a person is an inconstant and slow process.

On a last point, I really loved the language of The New Moon’s Arms, and the vivid physicality of the descriptions of the islands where Calamity lived.  Everyone in the story spoke with a local patois, which gave a pleasant rhythm to their speech, and Calamity’s voice, in particular, gave the narration a casual, conversational style. I am wholly unfamiliar with Carribbean speech patterns, but I thought that the narration and dialogue both felt very natural and easy for a reader to follow. I am curious to read Hopkinson’s other novels, and to see how they are similar or differ from the style of The New Moon’s Arms.

My Rating: 4/5

The New Moon’s Arms is a story of growing older and of having to face the person you’ve allowed yourself to become.  Calamity has not had an easy life, but she is a difficult person to love. Calamity’s story in told a distinct and interesting voice, and the weaknesses of her character are shown with an unflattering honesty.  Calamity was not always an especially likeable character, and the fantastical elements reflected her tendency to cling to the past and her self-absorption.  She was an engaging flawed heroine, though, and I was eager to see her find some way to grow into a life where she could be happy. I enjoyed A New Moon’s Arms, and will look forward to reading more of Hopkinson’s work in the future.