The Quiet War: Epic Hard SF

March 12, 2009

Alastair Reynolds recommended The Quiet War on his Blog. I love Alastair Reynold’s books (especially the Revelation Space universe) so I thought I’d pick up a copy. It was a bit of a gear change going from the deeply immersive work of Ian McDonald to the drier hard SF of Paul McAuley. The Quiet War is a cold-war type novel set 300 years from now. Due to ecological catastrophe in the 21st century, humanity sort of split – with the groups that had already colonized Mars, the Moon and near earth orbit (mostly today’s Western nations) being driven further out into the solar system by the more radicalized new powers. These include Greater Brazil (who now govern most of North and South America through a feudal oligarchy). The radicalized new powers basically haven’t forgiven the old powers for messing up Earth with oil and resource wars in the 21st century and the outer colonies are about all that’s left of that way of life. There are interesting hints of an earlier war (Mars dropping a small asteroid on China, Earth exterminating the first Martian colonies with a series of comet strikes) and hints at what occurred during the global catastrophe (large battles across the warming antarctic continent for dwindling fossil fuel resources) – but these tidbits are a background to the main story in The Quiet War.

The main thing that comes across in the book is that all the main characters are pretty flawed. Just as you think that you are going to like a particular character they do something you don’t really like. It is a lot like BattleStar Galactica where everyone is looking out for themselves and it is hard to take sides. Which hints at the novel’s complexity. A lot of authors paint one side as good and the other as bad (some even set up a flip to occur so that you suddenly realize that your assumptions were wrong), but few let you make up your own mind. The war happens and one side wins, but you come away from the book thinking that the side that won probably wasn’t the “good guys”.

I wasn’t roped into the book like I am with McDonald’s “un-put-downable” stuff, but I did find myself coming back to it, which is why I recommend picking this one up in paperback if you manage to see it somewhere (I got the TPB version).


Cyberabad Days – River of Gods short stories

February 25, 2009

It isn’t a secret that I think that Ian McDonald’s River of Gods is a brilliant book. Imagine walking through the streets of crowded India in the Blade Runner universe and you’ve started to understand the setting of River of Gods. As I’ve said earlier, the author doesn’t immerse you, he drowns you. It is hard to describe how fucking awesome this guy’s ability to paint a picture with words is (though if I could write like McDonald does, it might be possible to do so). The difference between this guy and other SF writers is the difference between watching Blade Runner on video cassette and then watching it in HD (and if you haven’t watched the remastered HD Blade Runner, do yourself a favor!). Both show a picture. One of those pictures is a lot clearer.

Cyberabad Days is a set of short stories/novellas (one of which won a Hugo) set in the India of River of Gods. Most of the stories are set around the same time (2047) as when River of Gods takes place, so these stories work almost as an addendum or companion piece to the original rather than as a sequel.  Sort of the way that the books Diamond Dogs/Turquiose Days or Galactic North sit within Alastair Reynold’s Revalation Space universe. Each of the stories leaves you wanting more. Each of the stories looks at the world of 2047 India through a different prism (the way that each of the character perspectives in River of Gods did).

Although this collection of short stories stands alone, you are better of having read River of Gods first. Given how awesome River of Gods is, that isn’t a particularly onerous requirement.

Six Directions of Space: Short and Sweet

February 4, 2009

Six Directions of Space is a limited edition novella written by Alastair Reynolds. There were 1000 copies printed (my signed copy is somewhere in the 400’s), though, like other Reynolds stories that appear in limited edition collections (such as Zima Blue) Six Directions of Space will probably turn up in a later Reynolds compilation (it also appears in the collection Galactic Empires (linked below) with stories by Peter F Hamilton, Ian McDonald and Neal Asher). This alt-history story primarily revolves around a space-faring Mongol culture that was not wiped out during the invasion of Japan in 1274. The empire has found a series of hyperspace conduits, called the Infrastructure, which allow it to build an empire spanning several thousand light years by the equivalent of our 23rd century. The infrastructure was built by a long since extinct race and is starting to decay. This decay causes the mystery that is central to Six Directions of Space which is that the Mongol Empire has charted most of the Milky Way and found no other active intelligent races, yet from time to time ships travelling through infrastructure conduits encounter starships that are both alien and familiar.

What I liked about this novella is the density of complex ideas covered in a very short amount of space. Reynolds manages to build an interesting universe and present an interesting mystery in a very short amount of time. Given that he has gone back to other universes that he’s created in this fashion (House of Suns evolved from a similar shorter fiction effort), I’d be enthusiastic about him returning to the one explored in Six Directions of Space.  

This story has also been reproduced in the collection Galactic Empires with other authors I love like Hamilton and McDonald – so you might prefer to get that collection as a way of picking up this story (if you can find it).

The Steel Remains: Hardcore Fantasy

January 30, 2009

If Richard K Morgan had written Lord of the Rings, Bilbo would have had a steamy one night sex fest with Galadrial, told Samwise to man the fuck up, and Gandalf would have made a whole lot of orc heads explode through the judicious application of magic fireballs. The saga would have ended with Bilbo gruesomely decapitating Golem, shoving the one ring into Golem’s eye socket, drop punting his head into the fires of Mount Doom while shouting “whose birthday is it now motherfucker?”

So you can kinda guess where Morgan goes with “The Steel Remains”.

Morgan’s writing has the attitude of that dude who revs the crap out of his V8 at 3am before depositing six inches or rubber on the road outside the front of your house. It isn’t fancy pants elves singing songs of the enchanted woods, it is fantasy of the sit down, shut up, strap in and hold on school of writing.

If you don’t like the liberal use of expletives, you are going to hate this book.

If you don’t like a bit of gore in the descriptions of your sword fights, you are going to hate this book.

If you only like laid back narrative arcs that move sedately along their own meandering paths, you are going to hate this book.

What may surprise some readers is that Morgan’s lead character is gay. Well that isn’t all that surprising, but what will surprise some and that Morgan doesn’t shy away from the explicit shenanigans detailed in his earlier books just because there are two dudes involved. He dances around it for a while and the other characters all get on with the business first, but it is still a bit unusual to see a mainstream novel be explicit about such things. Probably a little less unusual now that Morgan has knocked down that particular wall with all the subtlety of an asteroid impact. Morgan is throws a lot of stereotypes out the window and a big one he chucks is the idea that the biggest, baddest, coolest dude in the kingdom might prefer princesses to princes.

The Steel Remains is apparently the first in a trilogy, though enough gets wrapped up by the end of the book that it doesn’t feel as though you are left hanging. More a “okay, what is going to happen next” rather than “damn, I wish I didn’t feel as though I’d been hit by a great big “too be continued” at the end of the book. I enjoyed it and I think that we’ll see a lot more of this type of “gritty pedal-to-the-metal hardcore fantasy” in future.

House of Suns: Wait for the Paperback

January 28, 2009

House of Suns is the most recent book by Alastair Reynolds, best known for the Revalation Space books. Reynolds is a former physicist from CERN and for the most part the universes he creates prohibit faster than light travel. The universe that House of Suns is set in is the best part of the book. Humanity has colonized the galaxy and, through genetic maniupulation, separated into many wildly different sub-species such as those that are adapted to live on water planets who are part dolphin, those that live on planets with higher gravities who are more like elephants. One group of very long lived, if not immortal, clones travels the galaxy compiling a database on each civilization they encounter. It takes them about 200,000 years to make a circuit of the galaxy after which time they meet up and exchange data with each other. They use this information for trade purposes on each circuit, though generally any civilization that they have gathered data on during a circuit has fallen by the time any individuals from the line of clones return to that part of the galaxy. It seems that only groups that are constantly on the move around the galaxy don’t experience the inevitable fall of their civilization, though this could also be due to the time dialation effects of spending most of their extended lives travelling at near the speed of light. The main part of the novel involves an attack on the meeting that occurs once every 200,000 years. This attack wipes out all but a handful of the long lived soujourners and they spend most of the rest of the novel trying to figure out who in this galaxy of constantly rising and falling civilizations has the resources and ability to plan and execute such a long term strategy.

So the setup is great.

The execution of the novel can be a bit confusing, especially at the start as the author doesn’t clearly define which character currently has the point of view (they are all clones and the author swaps in and out). You pick up what is going on eventually, but it is a bit of a speed bump at the start of the book. The other problem, once shared by most novels that rely upon an elaborate conspiracy, is that when the conspiracy is unwound at the end, things fall a bit flat. The conspiracy is always more entertaining than the perpetrators of the conspiracy. The first three quarters of the book is great and the last a bit of a let down. The first three quarters make the book worth reading though and the let down isn’t staggering – its just that you go from reading a five star book to a three and a half star one near the end.

Reynolds “The Prefect” was one of my favourite reads of 2007. It is a stand alone book set in the Revalation Space universe and something that can be easily picked up by someone not willing to commit to a trilogy (or quadrilogy if you count Chasm City – even more if you count the short story collections) and a much better mystery. “The Prefect” was a tough act to follow (just as Anathem will be for Stephenson and River of Gods for McDonald), but would be my recommendation for those new to Reynold’s writing. The reason I haven’t reveiwed it more fully is that I’m trying to concentrate this blog on recently published books that people probably haven’t read, rather than stuff that has been around for a few years that they are more likely to have picked up.

Anathem: Worthy of the investment

January 19, 2009

Anathem is a book that not everyone is going to understand. The guy from XKCD certainly didn’t, implying that the chances of a book being good were inversely proportional to the number of made up words it included. So in Mr XKCD’s universe, Dune sucked, while books without invented words, like, I dunno, Mills and Boon, are top notch! In the Anathem universe, it is pretty clear what side of the concent walls Mr XKCD would live on.

Stephenson introduces a large number of created words to describe his world. Some people have had a real problem with this. I found it bound me to the world even tighter – just like words like Bene Gesserit, Kwizach Hadderach and Sardukar bound me to Frank Herbert’s dune. The book includes a glossary, but you have a good general idea what the word means by its context. Each new word is there because there isn’t a direct mapping between a concept in our world and a concept in Stephenson’s (an example is Bullshyte which refers to the half truths that marketers and politicians use when talking – something we don’t really have a word for). Stephenson is clever and his use of words is also clever, but some lazy readers want to be spoon fed. If you want to be spoon fed, you’ll hate Anathem.

The setup is a world in a parallel universe where all the smart people are rounded up and put into monasteries. These monasteries are called concents. The civilization outside the walls of the concent rises and falls like the tide and the people that live inside have gotten pretty good at predicting how long it will be until the next big fall by noting things how reliant everyone outside is on gadgets (JeeJahs) and how their literacy drops correspondingly. It has been several thousand years since this civilization first reached a point roughly equivalent to where ours is now. It has oscillated between the medieval and technological since. One of the reasons all the smart people is locked away is to stop the development of weapons that will completely wipe out civilization. Essentially you can only knock yourself back so far when you’ve made sure that dudes that would come up with stuff like singularity bombs are safely tucked away in a monastery without access to stuff like electricity. Except that, like in Dune where they got rid of smart computers, the dudes behind the concent walls have developed the mental acuity of mentats.

Stephenson is famous for his digressions and Anathem digresses across philosophy, science and mathematics like a whirling dervish with middle ear problems. If you aren’t into philosophy, science and mathematics, you are going to hate Anathem. My undergraduate degree is in philosophy of science, so following this wasn’t problematic, but I can imagine how people who haven’t encountered these topics might find the text a bit hard to wade through.

But if you are interested in this sort of stuff and you loved books like Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, System of the World and Diamond Age you’ll realize that Anathem is Stephenson at the peak of his abilities. All his previous books have been working towards this. If you like the other books more than Anathem I suspect its because you saw the shiny stuff like Hiro Protagonist the elite samurai hacker delivering pizza but somehow missed the protracted discussions of sumerian mythology and epistemology. All the stuff that is in Anathem is in the earlier works, its just that some of the earlier works had Michael Bay window dressing.

The only word to describe Anathem is brilliant – and I mean it in the sense of it being a work of genius rather than “dude, that’s awesome!”. It is a book that requires a lot of its reader – but, if you are the sort of reader that is willing to intellectually commit to a book – you’ll find it thoroughly rewarding. The only reason that I’ve said “River of Gods” is my favourite of 2008, and not Anathem, is that River of Gods is an immersive experience, Anathem is primarily an intellectual one.

I really wanted to like Zoe’s Tale, but didn’t

January 14, 2009

Zoe’s Tale is the retelling of the events of “The Last Colony” through the eyes of the daughter of the main protagonists in the earlier novel. What drove me nuts about this book was how perky it was. Well perhaps it was the main character that was perky, but dammit, way *too* perky. Annoyingly perky. And a bit too well adjusted to the point where I thought “look, other than on Disney DVDs, no teenage girl is this perky and well adjusted”. I’ve liked the other books in Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” series, though I did feel that he didn’t make a convincing argument for the premise of the first book, that old people in new bodies make better soldiers (I don’t think he really sold the “old people in young bodies” thing all that well). That aside, I liked it because the style was reminiscent of The Forever War and Starship Troopers – basically a squad of badasses being badasses and kicking alien butt (sorry Blarkon).  Zoe’s Tale doesn’t go in this direction. It cloyingly retells The Last Colony and the angst that you’d expect from a teenage girl dragged along behind their parents through an interstellar conflict never really eventuates. Where does a character that is extremely well adjusted at the start of the novel get to go emotionally by the end? What lessons can they really learn when they appear to know it all (and don’t just think they do – as I said, the character both way to bubbly and ahead of the curve). 

I think I recall Scalzi saying in some of the notes at the end of The Last Colony that he wouldn’t be revisiting the Old Man’s War universe. By revisiting events that have already transpired, I guess that still stands. I like Scalzi and I’ll read anything he publishes, but, without putting too fine a point on it, this one wasn’t my favourite book he’s written.

Ender in Exile

January 12, 2009

Not sure if this one is on the shelves here in Oz, but I picked up my copy from Amazon. Continues the Ender cycle and wraps up a bit of the Bean cycle. I liked the first book in the Bean cycle (Ender’s Shadow) – but felt that the latter books didn’t come together as well as they should have. I also found that Achillies was a bit to contrived as a villain – he was implausibly ahead of the main character who was supposed to be to tactics and strategy what Mozart was to music.

Ender in Exile meanders along at about the same pace. Card doesn’t reach the heights he hit with the original Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide and Ender’s Shadow (I found Children of the Mind also a bit lacking) – and this fits more into the Shadow of the Hegemon, Shadow Puppets and Shadow of the Giant level of fiction. Which is perfectly fine for a throwaway read – but won’t knock your socks off like Ian McDonald’s River of Gods.

The story takes us from the end of Ender’s Game through the first few years of Ender’s post war life (though due to relativity effects several decades pass). The story saunters, never really reaching a climax. The second part of the novel, Ender’s encounter with one of Bean’s children (subverted by Achilles) is over almost before it began. Card indicates in a postscript that there was meant to be a whole lot more going on here, but that the first part of the novel (Ender as governor of Earth’s first colony) took over. Which is fine, except that Card spends more time getting Ender to the colony and some shipboard shenanigans than he does presenting Ender as leader of the colony where nothing really happens.

It looks as though we are going to get more of these “filler” Ender stories. The brand works and it is a comfortable read. If you are an enderphile you can wait for the paperback of this one while you seek out and devour River of Gods.

Looking Glass: Meh

January 6, 2009

Finished Looking Glass by James Strickland this morning.

The book is strong until the final lap. Then it sort of devolves into one of those “am I in reality or am I in a simulation” fights between an AI and a hacker where the hacker can’t be entirely sure whether she is jacked in to the environment or not. What most disappointed was the lack of payoff for the brutality with which the hacker’s colleagues were taken out at the start of the book. The motivations of the person responsible for the attack and cover up are glossed over in a sentence or two and what comes across for 90% of the book as a tale about seeking revenge for your team getting killed is really about a bit of a corporate fuck up – which made it all rather a bit unsatisfying. Compare this to something written by someone like Richard Morgan who, if he’s going to build up a revenge story, makes sure that arses are extensively kicked before the final page. In short – if you are going to invest me in a character getting revenge for an injustice (and you aren’t trying to teach me a moral or philosophical lesson about revenge (which this book is not)) then make sure that I get my payoff.

Worth Reading: River of Gods – Ian McDonald

January 4, 2009

Ian McDonald’s “River of Gods” was one of the best books I read in 2008. This one came as a bit of a surprise to me as it was one recommended to me by Amazon based on previous purchases and wasn’t sure how I’d take to “Bollywood Cyberpunk”. I’ve since learned that McDonald is a master of not just throwing you into the deep end of the pool, but drowning you in it.  McDonald drowns so skillfully that you simply don’t want to surface for air, you just want to keep breathing the world. I’ve just finished his Brasyl and you come away feeling similarly drenched by the author.

The structure of the novel reminds me a lot of the classic Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. 

Stories thread around a large number of separate characters, briefly merging and spliting as the plot dictates. One of the main threads follows an AI cop who tracks down emergent intelligences before singularity events (the AI improving itself to godhood) can occur. Other threads explore India of the 2040’s where a thriving technology based economy butts up against millenias old culture. I’m not much of an India-phile myself, but McDonald’s style drew me in, immersing me in something totally alien from my own experience. I read perhaps a hundred or so books a year and it is rare for me to become so engrossed. River of Gods is a classic worthy of a readers time and something that will stay with you a long time after you put it down.