Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review: Axis by Robert Charles Wilson

Axis by Robert Charles Wilson
Published: Tor, 2007
Series: Book 2 of the Spin Sequence
Awards Nominated: John W. Campbell Memorial Award

The Book:

In Spin’s direct sequel, Wilson takes us to the "world next door"--the planet engineered by the mysterious Hypotheticals to support human life, and connected to Earth by way of the Arch that towers hundreds of miles over the Indian Ocean. Humans are colonizing this new world--and, predictably, fiercely exploiting its resources, chiefly large deposits of oil in the western deserts of the continent of Equatoria.

Lise Adams is a young woman attempting to uncover the mystery of her father's disappearance ten years earlier. Turk Findley is an ex-sailor and sometimes-drifter. They come together when an infall of cometary dust seeds the planet with tiny remnant Hypothetical machines. Soon, this seemingly hospitable world will become very alien indeed--as the nature of time is once again twisted, by entities unknown.”

This is the third book I’ve read by Wilson, after Spin and The Chronoliths, and I am planning to eventually read the final Spin Sequence novel, Vortex, which I have already purchased.  I think I hold a minority opinion, but I enjoyed Axis as much as if not more than Spin.

My Thoughts:

Axis is a sequel in the same universe as Spin, but it follows an almost entirely new cast of characters.  One could argue that the story is still about ordinary people attempting to cope with unexplained (and potentially unexplainable) phenomena, but that would also be a fair description of every Robert Charles Wilson novel I’ve read to date. The main active unexplained phenomenon this time is the ashfall, though humans are also still coping with the Arch that connects the Earth to the planet that has been named Equatoria.  In terms of the new planet, I enjoyed reading about what kinds of people moved there and what sort of organizational infrastructure developed.  It was kind of interesting how ordinary such a strange thing can become when it is a constant in everyone’s lives. The ashfall was more disruptive and undeniably strange, and attempts to understand it drive most of the plot.  In the end, I felt like the story was more about the ways people approach the search for understanding, rather than the answers they may or may not find.
The many ways to search for meaning were illustrated by the many viewpoint characters, each of which was trying to find or understand something. Lise was a recently divorced woman who was trying to learn what happened when her father vanished years ago.  Her ex-husband Brian provided a viewpoint from within a questionably corrupt organization, and he was set on his own path of discovery by Lise’s inquiries.  Lises’s sometimes-lover Turk aided her in her search, while also trying to figure out his own future.  Their investigation led them into a Fourth community, a group of people who had taken the Martan longevity treatment to gain a fourth stage of life.  This Fourth community was focused on the idea of communication with the Hypotheticals, with the Martian Sulean Moi and Avram Dvali supporting opposing views on the path to accomplish this.  In addition, there was the wonderkid Isaac, who some hoped would play an important role in understanding the Hypotheticals. With so many characters, there was naturally a bit less time to develop them all.  For this kind of story, though, I think it was more valuable to have many perspectives on the situation than to know one or two characters especially well.

The story may revolve around the search for the answers to various questions, but I think the novel was more concerned with the process of their search and the value of what they are able to understand.  In short, one should not really go into this novel expecting to get a definitive answer about the nature and purpose of the Hypotheticals.  There is some progress on this front, but much is left unexplained.  I was pretty satisfied with how the story wrapped up, both in terms of many of the characters’ arcs and with the new direction that it looks like the final novel will take. I’m looking forward to seeing the final conclusion of the series, in Vortex!

My Rating: 3.5/5

I thought that Axis was an excellent sequel to Spin, though it is a very different sort of book.  Axis is the story of many characters over a short time span, most of which characters are newly introduced in this novel. The characters may not be as deeply explored as in Spin, but I appreciated having many different perspectives on the events of the story.  I enjoyed seeing what happened with the world through the Arch, and how humanity managed to make this new marvel feel commonplace.  The ashfall and a Fourth community’s goal to communicate with the Hypotheticals provided a new mystery, and the ending still left many questions unanswered. I am curious to see how the final novel will (or maybe won’t) answer them!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Published: Orbit, 2013
Series: Book 1 of the Imperial Radch
Awards Won: Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke and BSFA
Awards Nominated: Philip K. Dick, John W. Campbell

The Book:

On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.
Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was the Justice of Toren--a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.

An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose--to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.”

Ancillary Justice is Ann Leckie’s debut novel, and one that is garnering quite a lot of attention, both on blogs and in award committees.  I’ve seen so many reviews of this one online lately that I feel a little silly for being so late to the party.

My Thoughts:

Ancillary Justice has reminded me once again how much I love space opera.  It may not bring all that much new to the subgenre, but it makes use of some of my favorite conventions and approaches many topics in way that I especially enjoy.  The dominant culture in this universe is the expansionist Radchaai empire, but there is enough interaction with other worlds to imply that the universe is culturally diverse.  Through the Radch, we see an unforgiving view of colonialism and the philosophy behind it, as well as the kinds of justifications reasonably decent people use to defend their support of corrupt and unjust systems.  The story switches between the present day vengeance quest of Breq and the back-story that gradually provides a narrative and emotional context for the present.  I found both stories equally engaging, and I appreciated the chance to see the different formats of consciousness that Breq/One Esk experienced.

The spaceships of the Radch are run by complex AIs, which also control contingents of ‘ancillaries’—humans forcibly co-opted into the AI’s group mind. ‘Breq’ is a single body of one of these ancillaries, and One Esk is the group of bodies that formed her consciousness in the back-story sections.  I was impressed by the clarity with which scenes from the group mind were portrayed.   The narrative constantly head-hopped from one body to the next, but it managed to keep the actions of each segment clearly distinct and yet still communicate the overall personality of One Esk.  Breq seems like less of a narrative challenge to portray, but I also appreciated how her biases and priorities shaped the focus of the narrative.

The main supporting characters, Seivarden and Lieutenant Awn in the present and past stories, respectively, are both intriguing in their own right and as reflections of the convictions and values of Breq.  Lieutenant Awn gained her rank through merit, rather than family connections, and she is a person of integrity stuck in a difficult situation.  One Esk works closely with her, and thinks of her highly.  Seivarden, on the other hand, is an arrogant classist who can’t cope with a future that seems to be moving away from her ideals, and One Esk detests her.  However, Seivarden is a dynamic character throughout the story, and I enjoyed the way her relationship with One Esk developed.  It is the character of One Esk, and her relationships with Seivarden and Lieutenant Awn, that drives the story forward.

Those who have read the novel may now want to correct my pronoun use, since Seivarden is a male human, which brings me to Ancillary Justice’s famous gender treatment.  Radch culture and language does not distinguish gender, so everyone is referred to as ‘she’, by default. I did not find that this made the novel any more difficult to read, since gender is basically irrelevant to the story that is being told.  Seivarden is a case in point, since knowing that she is male tells us much less than basically any other given detail of her personality or history.  To me, the complete absence of gendered personality traits, gendered behavior and gender-based roles felt like a breath of fresh air.

My Rating: 5/5

I pretty much loved everything about Ancillary Justice, and I think it is both a highly impressive debut novel and one of the best novels I’ve read this year.  The novel is very character-driven, and I loved reading about One Esk/Breq, as well as the major secondary characters, Seivarden and Lieutenant Awn.  The use of female default gender was an interesting idea, and I liked how it highlighted the irrelevance of gender in the story. I am excited to see what is in store for the upcoming sequel!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

News: Loncon 3

I’m back from attending my first WorldCon, Loncon 3, and it was as amazing as I expected it would be!  I was only there for Sunday, and that made for one incredibly full day. In the future, I hope I can make it for the whole convention, because there is so much to experience.

In the morning, I went by the art show and bid on a few pieces—I ended up winning a nice poster by Fred Gambino (of this piece). The book stands were also a major draw for me, as a long-time addict of buying books. They’ll all be showing up in my reviews soon enough.

After lunch, I had the opportunity to meet Kim Stanley Robinson, Alastair Reynolds, and Stephen Baxter, who were signing books. It meant so much to me to meet a few of the authors I’ve loved since I was a little young adult, and to find that they seem to be really friendly people! 

Alastair Reynolds gave an interesting talk about interstellar travel in science fiction.  Among other interesting ideas, people have long been telling stories of the rapid development of technology–that a generation ship may be made obsolete before it reaches its destination. Afterward, Reynolds, Baxter, and several others discussed interstellar travel in science and fiction.  Most of the panelists agreed that manned interstellar travel was still lifetimes in the future, but the general consensus seemed to be that unmanned could well happen this century.

My time at WorldCon concluded with the Hugo Awards Ceremony.  I couldn’t be happier with the results, even though they did not all match up perfectly with my picks. Here’s a quick rundown of the Hugo winners:

Best Novel – Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
As I’m sure is obvious from my previous post, I was thrilled to see Ancillary Justice take home the Hugo Award!  This must be an exciting year for Leckie, with all the awards ceremonies she must be attending!

Best Novella – “Equoid” by Charles Stross
This was one of my favorites of this year’s novella nominees, and easily the most disturbing Lovecraftian unicorn story I’ve ever read!

Best Novelette – “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal
I really enjoyed this story, and Kowal wore a beautiful dress (which I heard her say she’d sewn herself) to accept her award.  In her acceptance speech, she said she’d believed that this Hugo was probably going to Aliette or Ted. I think any of the three would have been a great choice, so lots of congratulations go to Kowal!

Best Short Story – “The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere” by John Chu
John Chu had a really touching acceptance speech.  He said that he’d always been told that no one would want to read the kinds of stories he wrote.  It seems like winning a Hugo Award is an excellent way to prove them wrong.

Best Related Work – “We Have Always Fought” by Kameron Hurley
Best Fan Writer – Kameron Hurley
Best Fanzine – A Dribble of Ink, by Aiden Moher
Kameron Hurley had a lot of success at this year’s Hugo Awards, and Aiden Moher even attributed half of his rocket to having hosted Hurley’s award-winning “We Have Always Fought” blog post. 

Best Graphic Story – “Time” by Randall Munroe (XKCD)
I used to read XKCD regularly, but I missed this somehow.  It seems like a really cool idea, and I’m a little sad I missed experiencing it while it was happening.  Here is the description.

Best Dramatic Presentation – Gravity
Best Dramatic Presentation (Short  Form) – Game of Thrones “The Rains of Castamere”
Gravity was a really entertaining movie, and "Rains of Castamere" was definitely a very memorable and effective episode.  At the awards ceremony, they played a clip near the end, right up to the point where Catelyn Stark realized what was happening at the wedding.  After the clip ended, there was some relieved laughter as people realized they weren’t going to show the rest.

Best Editor – Short Form – Ellen Datlow
Best Editor – Long Form – Ginjer Buchanan
Congratulations to the editors! Buchanan's award comes at the conclusion of 30 successful years as an editor, and in the year of her retirement.

Best Professional Artist – Julie Dillon
I’ve seen a lot of her art around lately, and she has a very distinctive style. You can check her out on Deviant Art.

Best Fan Artist – Sarah Webb
Webb is a stunningly talented young artist. Her compositions are positively gorgeous, and I hope I can buy some of her prints soon! You can also find her on Deviant Art.

Best Semiprozine – Lightspeed Magazine
Best  Fancast – SF Signal Podcast
Congratulations to SF Signal Podcast and Lightspeed Magazine, which are clearly things I should really be listening to and reading :).

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (Not A Hugo) – Sofia Samatar

I’ve now finished A Stranger in Olondria, and I think this is a well-deserved award.  Samatar was actually not far off in nominations for getting on the Hugo ballot.  Really, I think all of the nominees for the Best New Writer Award show that there’s a lot to look forward to in genre fiction!

What are your thoughts on the outcome of the Hugos this year?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

2014 Hugo Awards: Best Novel and Best New Writer

Tomorrow is the Hugo Awards Ceremony, so I have just about run out of time for putting up thoughts on the novel nominees!  Here’s a quick rundown of my opinions on the nominees for both the Hugo and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.  I’ll have an update congratulating the winners after Loncon3 is over!

Hugo Award

For the Hugo Award, my first choice for the winner would be Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. As you’ll see in my next review, I really loved this novel. It may not have brought all that much new to space opera, but it served up a story with all of my favorite ingredients.  I also really liked some of the themes—loyalty, anti-classism, and responsibility people have to act on their convictions.  Of course, I have to mention the default-female language quirk, where everyone in the story referred to as “she”, regardless of their gender.  It highlighted how irrelevant gender was to the story, and I found the complete lack of gender roles and gender-based characterization refreshing.   

I would also be happy to see Charles Stross win the Hugo Award for Neptune’s Brood. I read this one without reading the first book of the series, Saturn’s Children, but I get the impression that the book stands well on its own.  Neptune’s Brood is an intelligent, far-future heist story, but one that was also delightfully humorous.  I was not a fan of the long future-economics infodumps, but I’m not sure how well the heist would have come across without them.

The other three contenders also have their strong and weak points.  I’ve read roughly 80% of the Wheel of Time series, mostly back when I was in high school.  I remember enjoying the adventures, but I also remember thinking that the characterization was a bit weak.  Mira Grant’s Parasite was a neat (if gross!) idea, but I noticed a lot of similarities to the Newsflesh books.  Larry Correia’s Warbound reminded me a bit of X-Men, and it was a lot of fun in a supernatural action-movie way.  

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

I was really excited by this year’s nominees for the John W. Campbell Best New Writer Award, because I have heard good things about all of them. My first choice for the Best New Writer award would be Max Gladstone, who now has three novels in his Craft series (Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, and Full Fathom Five).  I have currently only read his first novel, but the rest are on my (very long) to-read list.  My review of his debut novel, Three Parts Dead, can be found here.

As for the other entries, I have to give the disclaimer that I have not quite finished A Stranger in Olondria and The Lives of Tao, though I am over halfway through reading both of them. 

Ramez Naam’s Nexus is a fast-paced near-future techno-thriller. I have some philosophical disagreements with the main character, but I really enjoyed the exploration of the consequences of the existence of mind-altering/linking technology. Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria has some lovely writing, though the story moves at a very slow pace.  I’m not sure I yet understand the reasoning behind some of the decisions of the main character.  Wesley Chu’s The Lives of Tao is a funny and exciting secret-society/spy story so far, though I’m not a huge fan of the whole ‘everything important that happened in human history was because of aliens’ idea. Benjanun Sriduangkaew is also nominated for her unusual short fiction, of which a lot is available for free online.  I was most interested by “The Bees Her Heart, the Hive Her Belly” (which can be read here).

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Review: The Integral Trees by Larry Niven

The Integral Trees by Larry Niven
Published: Ballantine Del Rey, 1984
Series: Book 2 of The State
Awards Won: Locus SF Award
Awards Nominated: Nebula and Hugo Awards

The Book:

When leaving Earth, the crew of the spaceship Discipline was prepared for a routine assignment. Dispatched by the all-powerful State on a mission of interstellar exploration and colonization, Discipline was aided (and secretly spied upon) by Sharls Davis Kendy, an emotionless computer intelligence programmed to monitor the loyalty and obedience of the crew.

But what they weren't prepared for was the smoke ring-an immense gaseous envelope that had formed around a neutron star directly in their path. The Smoke Ring was home to a variety of plant and animal life-forms evolved to thrive in conditions of continual free-fall. When Discipline encountered it, something went wrong. The crew abandoned ship and fled to the unlikely space oasis.

Five hundred years later, the descendants of the Discipline crew living on the Smoke Ring no longer remember their origins. Earth is more myth than memory, and no recollection of the State remains. But Kendy remembers. And just outside the Smoke Ring, Discipline waits patiently to make contact with its wayward children.”

I chose The Integral Trees as the Locus SF award winner for my 2014 12 Awards in 12 Months Challenge. 

My Thoughts:

Above all, the setting in The Integral Trees was extremely cool. It’s a colonization story, but instead of settling on a planet, the humans settled in a gas torus around a neutron star, in a binary star system.  It was clear that a lot of thought went into what kind of environment this would create, what kinds of creatures would develop in that environment, and how humans would adapt to survive over time, with their planet-evolved biology. The origin of the system, the mechanics of how it persists, and the forces that would be exerted on lifeforms within the torus (especially the large integral trees) is also explored in a lot of detail.  This is definitely a story where the science is very fun, very thorough and very creative.
While the story begins 500 years after the colonization, their society still has lingering marks of their past as a part of a civilization of higher technology.  For instance, words have persisted through the years, though many have drifted in pronunciation or meaning.  They also still value science, and each community has their own Scientist, who is able to access information from ancient machines.  It’s not so long since I was a grad student myself, so I enjoyed that the scientist’s apprentice was known as the Grad. The adventures of the main group led them through many different communities in the Smoke Ring, and it was neat to see the differences and similarities between them. Some of these communities, though, show a pretty dark view of future-humanity, with respect to slavery and the sexual exploitation of women.

The main party is a group of community misfits, sent out from their home in search of food in a time of lasting famine. The party has some of the usual adventurer types—a scientist, an alpha male (and his small harem), and a promising young man—but it also includes some more unusual people, such as a bitter elderly man, and several people with physical handicaps.  They also meet up with others along the way, including a woman warrior. While the ‘promising young man’ Gavving is probably the main character, the story follows different party members at different points.  They were a pretty interesting group of people to follow, but I think that having so many of them limited the amount to which each could be developed.

In the end, I feel like this is almost a setting-driven story, where the plot and characters are primarily focused around showcasing and exploring different parts of the physical and human environments. The events of the story were very action-oriented and exciting, but it seemed mostly like a series of adventures designed to propel the characters through different parts of their world.  This, in addition to the way Kendy’s situation concluded, led to the ending being a little underwhelming. However, I still enjoyed cheering on the group of explorers as they struggled to stay together and survive through many different hardships.  

My Rating: 3.5/5

The Integral Trees is a basic party exploration adventure story, but with a really fascinating environment to explore.  Instead of colonizing a planet, humans colonized a kind of space ‘trees’ living in a gas torus within a binary star system.  I was really drawn in by the amount of thought and creativity behind the description of the physical setting and its extrapolation to how native life would develop and humans would adapt.  The characters were a little simple in comparison, but they made for a fun group to follow as they traveled through such an impressive world.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Review: Dinner at Deviant's Palace by Tim Powers

Dinner at Deviant’s Palace by Tim Powers
Published: Ace Books, 1985
Awards Won: Philip K. Dick Award
Awards Nominated: Nebula Award

The Book:

Gregorio Rivas is retired from the Redemptionist trade - at thirty-one, he's no longer willing to risk his life rescuing new recruits from the savage religion of the Messiah Norton Jaybush, no longer eager to track the caravans of the faithful through the mutated wildernesses of Los Angeles. Once he was the best Redemptionist for hire - once he even tracked a victim right up to the walls of the Messiah's perilous Holy City in Irvine - but that's all over now.

Or it was - until he's approached to perform one last Redemption. And this time the victim who has been brainwashed and carried away by the brutal faith is his long-lost first love, Urania. And so Rivas sets out to save her, beginning a violent pilgrimage that will take him through the landscape-of-the-damned which is 22nd Century California, and into the very heart of the Jaybush cult - and finally to the nightmare city of Venice, and the fabulous, feared castle at the core of it... Deviant's Palace.”

This is the third of Powers’s novels that I’ve read, and I definitely plan to read more of his work.  Thus far, I have had a consistently very positive experience in reading his entertaining and unusual style of fiction.

My Thoughts:

Dinner at Deviant’s Palace throws the reader down in the middle of an exceedingly strange world, without very much information to guide the way.  The world is clearly a post-nuclear wasteland, but many of the stranger aspects of the world—like Venice and its ‘blood’, hemogoblins, and the jaybird cult—were also not necessarily entirely understood by the protagonist.  I enjoyed the slow process of figuring everything out, especially since almost all of the world-building details ended up being essential for the story.  I also appreciated how this approach allowed the increasingly weird details of the world to be uncovered at a gradual pace.  I think introducing too much information too soon would have risked startling readers off with too much strangeness.
As usual, I loved Powers world-building and the physical way he incorporated the more fantastical elements into the story. I even recognized some ideas that I’ve seen show up again in later works. For instance, the idea of particular music or rhythms providing protection from inhuman power (here the jaybird cult) comes up again in protection from djinn in Declare. However, I was struck by the feeling that this seemed like an early work, and that the prose and the story were not quite as polished as in other novels I’ve read.  Since Dinner at Deviant’s Palace was actually published after The Anubis Gates, I am suspecting that it is just not quite as timeless a story.  It might be that the fear of nuclear apocalypse, and of the mental damage that comes from cult indoctrination or heavy drug abuse, is more rooted in the 20th century experience. 

The basic story also seems a little old-fashioned, focused as it is on a hero’s quest to rescue, and rekindle romance with, his long-lost love.  It seems a little bit like the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, especially given the way Greg uses his musical talent during his quest.  However, the story is not quite that simple.  I felt like the deeper story involved the importance of discarding illusions and interacting with the world as it is.  This is true for Greg’s idealization of Urania as his tragic muse, his romanticized view of himself, and for other things, such the comfort that can be found in the Jaybird’s damaging Sacrament.  I really enjoyed Greg’s journey and his development as a person. While I thought the epilogue seemed unnecessary, I thought the ending of the novel made for a fitting conclusion of Greg’s story.

My Rating: 4/5

Dinner at Deviant’s Palace is a strange post-nuclear science fiction novel from a skilled storyteller.  The wasteland of California feels well-developed, and increasingly strange details crop up as the plot progresses.  Greg Rivas begins on a quest to redeem his long-lost ex-girlfriend from a dangerous cult, but his journey will force him to face some difficult truths about himself and the world he lives in.  This story feels a little more dated than some of Powers other novels, but I still enjoyed it thoroughly.