Thursday, November 9, 2017

J.G. Ballard's THE UNLIMITED DREAM COMPANY

There are few genres of literature I loathe more than the mid-century White Male Narcissist novel, so given that, as much as it is anything, The Unlimited Dream Company is one of those, well,  it's a good thing I went into it cold out I never would have touched it. Especially not a used copy of it, because it would doubtless fluoresce under black light, if you know what I mean.*

That aside, this is still a J.G. Ballard novel, and hey, it's not as "bad" as, say, Henry Miller (whom I also admire even as he makes me roll my eyes a lot). Indeed, one might even point to this book as an example of what a Henry Miller sci-fi/ fantasy novel might have been like had Miller ever bothered to try these genres.

Interestingly, though, what drew me in, and drew me in so far that by the time I realized what I really had on my hands (ewwww), was this novel's resemblance to the work of one of my favorite film directors, Peter Greenway. Specifically, to one of his most eccentric and experimental feature films, The Falls.

This book, which starts off sounding so much like the "Tulse Luper" story "The Cassowary" that I all but screamed, could easily be taken as a description of the Violent Unknown Event which caused all of the effects catalogued in The Falls. The film, you see, is presented as a series of biographical sketches of VUE victims, with attention to their physical symptoms, their new languages, their dreams and new obsessions, all resulting from, it's generally understood, their sudden and unexplained, simultaneous and incomplete transformation into birds. A major feature of The Unlimited Dream Company is the frequent metamorphoses of the protagonist, a Mr. Blake (a nod to the poet / print artist William Blake, of course), and, at one time or another many or all of the population of a London suburb, into birds, as well as fish or various mammals.

So, I put up with all of the constant references to and descriptions of Blake running around naked and being all but worshiped for it, Blake causing luxuriant tropical plants to sprout everywhere that he sprays his considerable volume of semen (dude is a firehose), Blake entertaining taboo sexual fantasies about everything with a pulse, Blake daydreaming about one woman's body odor, etc. He never gets quite so self - aggrandizing as Miller (well, okay, he comes close on occasion, but never at Miller's, umm, length), nor as opaque as Greenway, at least.

By which I mean the prose is as clear and readable as ever, without ever getting too banal or clinical as one might expect a science fiction writer might do when getting explicit with a capital X. Hey, I'm surprised, too.  But I shouldn't be. I am a Ballard fangirl for life, and am now convinced that he'll never let me down.

I might just need to chill out with some nice Sigrid Undset or something for a while once I'm done with some of my current projects, one of which is a review of D. Harlan Wilson's critical biography/ bibliography of J.G. Ballard, which I'll be posting soon to Skiffy and Fanty. Hence my deep dive into Ballardiana I hadn't yet read!

*And if you don't, I envy you.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

J.G. Ballard's THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION

The Atrocity Exhibition is best read as if one were the poor schmuck who has to pick up after a colossal accident in which a fairly banal narrative of obsession, injury and celebrity was dropped from a very great height and shattered into dozens of pieces, each composed entirely of very jagged and sharp edges. It's impossible to handle them without being injured by them, and it's useless to even think of trying to reassemble them into what they "originally were" because The Atrocity Exhibition wasn't finished until it was dropped from a very great height and shattered into dozens of pieces, each composed entirely of very jagged and sharp edges.

The annotated edition, which is the one that I read, at least comes with a few band-aids in the form of remarks made by the author years later, about what was going on historically or culturally that might be opaque to readers who weren't there for the original happenings, but band-aids is all they are, and your mind's body is still brutally slashed and hemorrhaging terribly and getting worse with each turn of the page, but still you read because you can't look away, and you wonder where Ballard is going with all of this, if he's going anywhere but into a more conventionally told version of the car crash angles when he gets around to writing Crash (which I've seen the film of but have yet to read).

It's one of the worst books that I've ever read twice, and one of the best books that I've ever screamed at and wanted to throw against a wall. It's gross and demented and beautifully written. One GoodReads reviewer brilliantly arranged its lines of prose into free verse a la The Wasteland and it works amazingly well that way.

It also gave me a new appreciation for the works of Max Ernst. I will be eternally grateful to The Atrocity Exhibition for this, even though this means that I'll never be able to look at an Ernst painting without thinking of car crashes and an imaginary breast reduction surgery performed on Mae West and the "protagonist's" "lovers" rendered in extreme closeups, reduced to geometry, and projected onto billboards that crowd the landscape from every angle. And lots of sex scenes that are most certainly not sexy. And...

Ouch.

Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach Trilogy

It's proven impossible for me to regard the Southern Reach trilogy (Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance) as anything but an inversion of the Strugatsky Brothers' Roadside Picnic and, by extension, Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker.

Both story worlds feature a section of territory that has been mysteriously alienated from the rest of the planet, reverting to an appearance of pristine nature while also becoming a place where the laws of that nature as we know them do not necessarily apply. As I detailed in a prior post, in Strugatsky's, the area seems to have been created by careless accident and its interaction with the rest of the world is based mostly on people sneaking into it and retrieving objects with strange properties, some useful, some harmful, and some unfathomable, for scientific research or for profit. Paramilitary authorities exist that seek to curtail this trade in Alien Crap but aren't terribly successful. A scientific bureaucracy exists to try to unravel the area's mysteries and origin (the Roadside Picnic metaphor being only one of many theories about the place), but it's mostly just reverse-engineering Alien Crap or otherwise trying to find practical human applications for it.

As I dove into Annihilation, I was quick to conclude that the Southern Reach, which is a scientific bureaucracy with strong ties to both the military and intelligence services, was basically the Strugatsky's Institute and that I would be getting it's side of the story to counter-balance the Strugatsky focus on ordinary schmoes trying to make a living off the Zone.

But then I realized there are important differences. The Zone in Vandermeer seems to have an intent, for one. Something or someone deliberately caused it. And while much human effort is made keeping the riffraff out of it, the Zone does a pretty good job of it all by itself. There is only one way in, though there might be many ways out. And while people sneak into Strugatsky land and bring stuff out, the Vandermeer Zone sends stuff out on its own accord, for its own mysterious reasons, by its own unknowable ways. A lot of the time the stuff it sends out is people, or seems to be. As in sometimes members of the official expeditions come back, but not through the entrance, and they're physically, medically and psychologically altered.  Maybe it's not really them. Maybe it's copies of them, sent back to perform particular functions, with the expedition members' identities as camouflage.

What the Zone intends is never really made clear, nor are many theories put forward by the Southern Reach, for all its thrity-some years of study. But to read these books as whodunnits or whydunnits seems to me a mistake; these are works of speculative phenomenology, more interested in the people trying to figure it all out and what their efforts do to their lives, than in the Truth.

Each of the three books concerns itself with different people, though there is considerable overlap. A biologist we only come to know as Ghost Bird (her husband's nickname for her) tells us first-hand (sort of) of her adventures on what turns out to be the very last Expedition into the Zone, in the company of a Psychologist whom we learn in the next book is actually the Director of the Southern Reach. They find a "tunnel" that Ghost Bird insists on thinking of as a "tower" that has simply been sunken into the ground. The Anomaly is its official term in Southern Reach-speak, and its inhabited by, among other things, a long and discursive, vaguely sermon-esque stream of consciousness written on the walls in letters picked out by living masses of plant and fungal material, material which periodically dusts visitors in a pollen that is more than pollen, and begins to colonize those visitors and transform them for the Zone's purposes. There is also a Creature, but it's so central to the trilogy and yet so unfathomable that I can't even find words to talk about it right now.

Then there's, apparently, nobody's favorite of the trilogy, Authority, which concerns itself with the guy chosen to take over as Director of the Southern Reach after the last Director disappeared on the expedition in Annihilation. Trained from childhood to think of himself as, and to ask others to call him, Control, this new Director has his work cut out for him. Nobody's cleaned up after the last Director, physically (her office is a cluttered mess full of weird stuff) or bureaucratically (her assistant director is none too pleased to find someone else got the job she thought would naturally fall to her), and then there's his own weird background to contend with, as he's a third generation public servant in that special cloak-and-dagger way, but it's his mother who was the apogee; he's just some schlub who gets by on being her son. Authority largely concerns itself with bureaucratic struggles as Control tries to find out what really happened to his predecessor, what his job is really supposed to be, and what the Southern Reach, long in decline, underfunded and raided periodically for talent, is actually for. A lot of people found this book unbearable, but I wound up liking it quite a bit. Even more than Annihilation, it felt like one of those maddening early computer games like Myst, long on mystery but, in my experience, short on solution (I sucked at Myst and have never finished it, yo). The Biologist, or something strongly resembling her, makes an appearance, as a subject Control must question endlessly but fruitlessly for explanations as to how she survived, how she got out of the Zone, and why she was found just sort of aimlessly hanging out in a nearby vacant lot. She becomes his obsession, even as he comes to realize that she's actually just some kind of copy of the person who went with the last exhibition (partially in pursuit of her own answers about what happened to her husband, who "returned" from a previous exhibition as an imperfect copy of himself that died of cancer, just like all the other returnees from his group).

The final novel, Acceptance, divides its narrative into three pieces, in three different time frames. Control and, eventually, the Biologist, in the overall narrative's "present" meet up in the aftermath of the last novel's climax, which involved, among other things, the Zone overflowing its previous boundaries behind the triumphant striding return of a copy of the Director who has become larger than life in more ways than one, and decide to follow a weird pathway back into the Zone the Biologist literally coughs up into the ocean and see what they can discover there, now that the Zone might well be everywhere.

In other narratives, the Director's own story, including her childhood in the exact region that became the Zone and later career with the Southern Reach (under an assumed identity because we're all pretty sure they wouldn't let an actual native of the Zone head up Zone studies because who knows how those people have been affected), unfolds in the middle-past, and a figurant from the first novel, the Lighthouse Keeper, becomes a proper character as his story unfolds in the more distant past. And yes, the Director knew the Keeper when she was a little girl and he was a man in his late middle-age. He went on to become the Creature in the Anomaly, once the Zone became the Zone; she was removed from the area by external circumstances just days before it happened, and always wondered what happened to her friend the Keeper.

We meet the Biologist again, the original one, unmistakeable but irrevocably altered (and freaky), and we get some answers, but not all of them, about what's been going on with this place all these years. I'm still making up my mind about whether or not I'm satisfied with it all, but I did read the trilogy straight through, non-stop, and that says something about its quality. I'll probably return to it again after I've seen the first movie. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

G.K. Chesterton's THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY

Mention Gilbert Keith Chesterton to most people nowadays, and they'll probably know him as the author of the Father Brown mysteries and not much else (unless you're mentioning him to Roman Catholics, who might know him for a lot of excellent apologetics for their faith). Unless that person was me, for I have mostly thought of him as that guy who wrote that epic poem about "the last knight of Europe" and the Battle of Lepanto, and I'd have said, "oh, he wrote prose, too?"

So he's kind of like the elephant encountered by all of those blind men who could never agree on what kind of creature they were meant to describe, which is of course hilarious because G.K. Chesterton was himself a pretty large and imposing figure of a man, much like the enigmatic driving force of The Man Who was Thursday, a fantastic allegorical thriller/detective story that (REMEMBER THE VERY BLOG DESCRIPTION TEXT ABOVE SAYS "WARE SPOILERS" SO, YOU KNOW, NO BITCHING) pits a small army of secret policemen against another small army of not-so-secret anarchists, only to eventually lob a bomb of a revelation into the reader's lap that there's actually just the one small army, yuck yuck yuck.

I say yuck yuck yuck as if to mock the story's attempts at humor, but those attempts are actually quite successful. Each plot twist and reveal is skillfully done even as the broad slapstick silliness of each ramps up the broad slapstick silliness of the whole. But where humor usually relieves tension in a scene or story, Chesterton's humor, here, actually manages to make the tension "worse" -- scare quotes here because the worsening of the tension is just so damned enjoyable, whether the reader has yet figured out the final punchline of the joke or not.

I suspect that nowadays, most readers will have anticipated that punchline by at least halfway, if not a quarter of the way, through the story, but as I often maintain (especially when people complain about spoilers), a story that relies solely on surprise for its ultimate effectiveness is not really much of a story. Citizen Kane is still enjoyable if you first heard the secret of Rosebud decades before you actually got to see the film; ditto The Man Who Was Thursday if you've figured out who Sunday "really" is early in the reading.

I put "really" in scare quotes because, of course, Sunday (the characters' names are all their day-of-the-week code names within the anarchist society, the governing board of which meets in glorious public view the better to make the public and the police assume they're just a bunch of ridiculous dilettantes) has an allegorical identity quite beyond his dual role within the world of the story, though both within and without the story, he is the puppetmaster, and seeing him as that and no more is just fine. Seeing him as God, as some chose to do, has about as much impact on the enjoyability of the work as seeing Aslan as Jesus does for the Chronicles of Narnia. Well, aren't you clever.

Regardless of whether one is the kind of reader who seeks to decode literature, who, I suspect, might not like this work quite as much as the kind of reader who is happy to enjoy a surface narrative and maybe idly speculate a little about its Deeper Significance does, The Man Who Was Thursday has quite a lot to offer, quite apart from the slapstick humor of its plot twists and reveals. There are some exquisitely intense scenes when the protagonist provocateur might be about to have his cover blown; there are some genuinely thrilling chase scenes that, as I said before, are even more exciting because they are also funny as hell.

It's a classic for a reason.

Hilary Mantel's BRING UP THE BODIES

As a title, Bring Up the Bodies sounds to a modern book-browser like it must surely concern the uncovering of a previously unknown mass grave, or at least of an exhumation, but as Hilary-Mantel-As-Thomas-Cromwell explains in this sequel to Wolf Hall, it's an old phrase meaning simply to bring the accused into the courtroom or other facility in which they are to be tried, as opposed to just leaving them in their cells while their fates are decided. The bodies, in other words, are still alive.

For now.

As the previous book chronicled the rise of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife, as documented by one of the chief architects of that rise, so this second chronicles her fall, and, incidentally, that of several brash young noblemen who all, coincidentally, once staged a simply hilarious masquerade play in which several demons dragged the soul of Cardinal Wosley to hell. Wosley was Cromwell's patron, and so Thomas was not impressed with these theatrics, except in that they gave him a bit of an Arya Stark list of people who needed to eat turd before he died. He remembers the performance so vividly that, despite their masks, years later he is given to referring to them in his mind based on which of the pretend Cardinal's limbs each man held during the dragging scene.

The suggestion that maybe not all of Anne Boleyn's supposed lovers actually were her lovers is only occasionally entertained, and not all that seriously, both in the world of the book as a whole and in the internal musings of Cromwell as viewpoint character, but this habit of Cromwell's of referring to them by limb strongly suggests it anyway. Maybe some of them did help her cuckold Henry VIII, but pretty much all of them were on Cromwell's list, from the play and from some other events.

The list joins the looming fact of Wolf Hall (family home of Jane Seymour, lady-in-waiting to both Queen 1.0 and Queen 2.0 and, of course, destined to become Queen 3.0) and its inhabitants, and also Cromwell's eventual fate as another cast-off of Henry's*, as sort of haunting omnipresent ghosts-to-be in a way that really distinguishes these books from more ordinary and straightforward works of historical fiction -- though of course this is less apparent in the television adaptation. Expressive as Mark Rylance's face is, you can't really tell which bit of his list is being checked off after a conversation, unless you have read the books and have very good recall. A lot of nuance and ambiguity gets lost in the translation.

Speaking, though, of ambiguity, Bring Up the Bodies is a bit easier reading than its predecessor, with a more conventional prose style and a lot fewer ambiguous pronouns -- though it's still a good idea to remind oneself that if it's not immediately obvious that a "he" or "him" is referring to somebody else, it's probably Cromwell, even if he's not the subject of the sentence or paragraph in question. It still amuses me to no end to see this, for, of course, in any ordinary account of this period the He who needeth no attribution is Henry VIII.

The focus on Cromwell, self-made and no-nonsense and sympathetic without in any way seeming like the kind of guy who'd have wanted anyone's sympathy (though his loss, last novel, of his wife and daughters to the "sweating sickness" is delicately and tragically portrayed), is a refreshing change from the kinds of fictional biographies of kings and queens that I mostly seem to come across in, e.g. Jean Plaidy or Philippa Gregory, or of the larger-than-life heroics and histrionics of Dorothy Dunnett's unbelievably accomplished heroes. Cromwell feels more accessible and believable than any of these, sound and unflashy (but never boring) and perfectly transparent of motivation and still very firmly in control of it all as the Bodies are Brought Up.

I almost don't want to read the legendary and long-promised third book of this series, whenever it sees the light of day, because watching his fall might be more than I can bear.... But who am I kidding? Of course I'll read it, if and when it happens.

*Cromwell, instrumental in the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn and in the rise of Jane Seymour, when called upon to find yet another wife after Jane's sad demise, finally failed in that mission, after a fashion, when he helped arrange Anne of Cleves' becoming Queen 4.0. This Anne was great on paper, an eligible Protestant who seemed okay looking in official portraits, but in person was not attractive enough for Henry, who never consummated the marriage, tucked her away in a nice estate with a decent little household far away from him, and referred to for the rest of his life as his dear sister (I'd argue that she made out the best of all of his wives, since she never actually had to put up with him). Cromwell's standing with the king never recovered, and he was eventually himself executed on the king's orders.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Lois McMaster Bujold's THE WARRIOR'S APPRENTICE

It's considered simply scandalous in many of my circles to have never read any of Lois McMaster Bujold's famous and sprawling Vorkosigan saga, but as it turns out, I'm pretty glad that I hadn't until now, because that scandalousness landed me in the best and most amusing circumstances in which to read these books at long last, to wit, I am a Reading Ranger over at Skiffy and Fanty*, part of a revolving crew of podcasters who occasionally get together for a group geek-out over them now. Some of us are Vorkosigan veterans (of the likes of Alex Acks and Paul Weimer) and some of us, including Stina Leicht (yes, that Stina Leicht) and myself, are reading these books for the very first time. There are two episodes of Reading Rangers so far, covering the first two books (going on narrative internal chronology, rather than publication order), Shards of Honor and Barrayar, over at Skiffy and Fanty, so if you want to hear my thoughts as well as the rest of the gang's, go give those a listen. I'm only a little bit of a heretic over there.

But so, this time around I'm not in the rotation for the show, so I'm just treating this third novel, The Warrior's Apprentice, as a regular read here at Kate of Mind.

Spoiler alert: I loved it.

I wasn't entirely expecting to, mind. As those who've already listened to Reading Rangers know, I was quite taken with the heroine of the first two novels, one Cordelia Naismith, who is the mother of the hero of, I gather, pretty much all of the other novels. When I learned that the focus was going to shift rather abruptly (from my perspective) to her son, Miles, I was a little let down, because Cordelia is everything I never get in a space opera hero: not only a woman, but a single and middle-aged woman, who nonetheless kicks a lot of ass and only takes names when she marries maybe the only dude in the universe possibly worthy of her, a crusty, battered, smart and tough-as-nails artistocrat from another world.

But so, Miles. Remember Miles? This is a book about Miles. Except to understand Miles one needs a bit more backstory: Cordelia's aristocratic military husband, Aral Vorkosigan, is a man of such high position and influence, and so incorruptible, that he has a ton of enemies, some of whom want him dead, one of whom actually tried and almost succeeded, but Cordelia, while pregnant with Miles, was also affected by the attempt, and fetal Miles even more so. So he's short, a little malformed, and has extraordinarily brittle bones. And he's grown up in a culture that is equal parts Roman and Russian Empires, meaning that quite a lot is expected of aristrocrats' sons, including excellence in military service. Which means it's a wonder he's even been allowed to live.

So Miles has grown up watchful and wily, smart and observant and thinking around corners and pretty much like the literary bastard offspring of Tyrion Lannister and Francis Crawford of Lymond, except he's not a drunken lecher, nor is he a pretentious emo pain in the ass. One of the greatest characters ever to grace genre fiction, is Miles Vorkosigan.

Here in his first novel we meet him as a young man, struggling through the entrance requirements for a military academy/officer candidate school. He's aced all the written stuff but as for the physical stuff, well, not-quite-dwarf and not-quite-straight-spine and brittle bones, what do you think? Soon his career is under a cloud and no one is quite sure what to do with him, so he gets sent off to visit his maternal grandmother on Cordelia's home planet, which has a very different and more accepting culture, by the bye.

Not that he's there long, either. Along with his bodyguard, the gruff and dangerous Konstantin Bothari (who has a long and complicated history of his own and whose fortunes are very much tied up with Miles' parents) and his beautiful daughter Elena (Miles' childhood friend, very much an Arya Stark type, as her father is trying to shoehorn her into a life of genteel femininity, but she likes to fight and think and drink and know things), he's soon off on a half-assed adventure out in space on an obsolete freighter he's mortgaged himself to the hilt to lease/purchase because of reasons and he's running blockades and bluffing mercenaries and telling lies and meanwhile, back at home, his adventures are having bizarre and Byzantine consequences because did I mention his home world is an honor culture nightmare?

All this told in a great, elegant prose style with a lot of vivid imagery and analogy. We like, at Reading Rangers, to linger and dote over our favorite bits, and I have a lot of them, but probably my favorite favorite bit is really Bujold's style in a nutshell. As Miles prepares to go into battle, he thinks "This must surely be the worst part, waiting helplessly for Tung to deliver them like cartons of eggs, as fragile, as messy when broken." Oh man, that is the stuff!

So, it's with difficulty that I'm not plunging right into Miles' next adventure, but I'm waiting for more Reading Ranger adventures, and meanwhile, I've got lots of ARCs piling up for review over at Skiffy and Fanty. And other things.

And I'm not sure what Vorkosigan book we're doing next anyway.

*Speaking of Skiffy and Fanty, I'm now a book reviewer over there, too, which is why I've not been posting on books to this blog as often as I once did. It's a WordPress blog so I'm having difficulty creating an overall link to my posts there, but the most recent one, on a recently Kickstartered anthology called Strange California, is here.

Michael Lewis' FLASH BOYS: A WALL STREET REVOLT

I always pick up a volume of Michael Lewis' special brand of financial crisis literature expecting a whole lot of anger, a whole lot of despair, and a whole lot of edification about just how messed up our System of the World* really is. As I've mentioned before, it's kind of a sickness of mine. I can't stop reading about it, but to no end other than to raise my blood pressure, it would seem, because what can I do about it? I'm not an investor and never will be. I've been a politician and don't ever want to do time in that barrel again. And since my arms and hands went to hell, I don't even write much anymore. But still, these books.

But then comes Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, and what's special about it is all there after the colon in the title. For while of course this book lays out in gruesome detail yet another way in which the world of high finance is designed to screw over the little guy, right alongside its anatomy of a giant scam is the story of a handful of very smart and very strange guys who not only figured out how it all worked, but figured out a way to fix the problem and actually put their plan in motion and created a whole new stock exchange built on the principles of fairness to the investor.

The problem these Flash Boys tackled is the kind of thing that should make any decent person's blood boil: with the computerization of all of the world's stock markets came a myriad of opportunities to rig the game against not just the ordinary Joe Blow investor throwing a few thousand dollars around trying to get rich, but also against all of the even more ordinary Joe Blow workers whose pension funds are being thrown around Wall Street, too. And of course those opportunities were not overlooked.

It's all to do with High Frequency Traders (HFTs), many of whom invested ungodly amounts of money in high speed data connections to the stock markets and to investment banks' dark pools, and in computer server placement as physically close to the machines that actually run these as possible, because this allowed them to engage in front-running. When their software bots saw someone buying shares in a particular stock, they triggered other software bots to buy up all of that stock that was available in fractions of a second before the original schlub's order was fulfilled, and thus to drive the price of that stock up a little, and make the schlub pay more for the stock than he should have, to the slight profit of the HFT. Thousands and thousands of times a day. Meaning ungodly amounts of money was transferred from small time investors, hobbyists, pension funds, hedge funds, what have you, to these HFTs, making an incredibly handsome return on their ungodly investment in fiber optic cable, land easements, construction fees and server real estate. Yeah, I know. And it gets worse, because this was all made possible by some newish Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rulings. That were, of course, made by members who have worked in and later tend to go back to jobs in the big investment banks, etc. Foxes, henhouse....

But so, most of Lewis' books that I've read so far have been concerned chiefly with financial villains, and this book certainly felt like another one of those for quite a while. I was hunting up my pitchfork and rounding up some torch-bearers (this was before Charlottesville, OK?) and ready to go knocking on doors in New Jersey, if not Manhattan itself.

But that's not who Lewis' Flash Boys are. The Flash Boys are Brad Katsuyama, once an obscure employee of the Royal Bank of Canada, and the team he put together to figure out why his trades had suddenly become impossible, and then to try to figure out how big the scheme was, and lastly to design and build a stock market that leveled the playing field again. I could almost cheer them as heroes, but in doing so, I'd be celebrating something that in itself still makes me mad, because this is what regulators are supposed to do, except over the years we've cut back on regulators' power, numbers (as in staffing), scope and compensation, all assuring that the revolving door between the public and private sectors of Wall Street keeps spinning faster than Karl Marx does in his grave. How many Brad Katsuyamas has this world produced, this man who would rather figure out a problem and fix it than figure out a problem and profit handsomely from it?

At bottom, Flash Boys is a pretty good detective story, unraveling and explaining very well a very complex and bewildering scheme in a way that gave me a nice strong illusion that I sort of understand it now, but am still powerless to do anything about it except vaguely cheer for Katsuyama and continue to nurse a major hate-on for Wall Street, even as I know that most of what makes my life possible is inextricably tied to its machinations, for good or ill.

Dammit.

*To borrow Isaac Newton's phrase by way of Neal Stephenson.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Libbie Hawker's HOUSE OF REJOICING

Ever since my mother got a Kindle Paperwhite of her very own and she and I joined into a single household on there, all kind of surprises await me every time I hit the "cloud" tab and start sorting through the backlog for my next read. And as I've mentioned before, my mom has pretty excellent taste in books, for all that she likes murder mysteries a lot more than I do.

She also likes historical fiction, especially about Egypt, especially about Egyptian women, so this first book of Libbie Hawker's "Book of Coming Forth by Day" trilogy probably didn't linger long on her TBR pile -- nor did it on mine, once I knew it was a thing.

House of Rejoicing is set early in the reign of the Pharaoh we mostly know as Akhenaten, and concerns itself with four women who are usually just decorative bits in the background of his story of attempted imposition of monotheism on the land of jackal-headed and crocodilian deities: his mother, Tiye, her daughter Sitamun (whom first Tiye's husband Amunhotep III and later Akhenaten himself married, and yes, Sitamun was Amunhotep's daughter, too; this is Egypt, remember? Targaryens except for real, yo), and two of Akhenaten's other wives, the famous Nefertiti (of the iconic bust) and the lesser-known Kiya.*

In the style that has become fashionable since George R.R. Martin first started singing of Ice and Fire, the story is told in point of view chapters that shift the focus among the four women, though overall this first book seems chiefly concerned with the experiences of Kiya, who serves as our naive guide into this world as she discovers how different it is from her native land, and Tiye, whose power is waning at the worst possible time. As in Martin et al, the narrative voice does not shift, as it's all written in the third person, but the experiences of the four queens are different enough to keep the reader from confusing them, and their stories are all compelling and full of convincing and appealing detail.

Being the first novel of a trilogy, House of Rejoicing mostly just lays groundwork for tensions to come. We are given a multifaceted look at the man who will be Akhenatenm, from his mother's disappointed concern to Nefertiti's disgusted scorn (she was supposed to marry his handsome and talented older brother, but he died in what might not have been an accident, of course), to Sitamun's resigned acceptance, to, perhaps surprisingly, what often seems like genuine love and affection for the man on the part of Kiya, to whom he was the only one who really paid attention when she came originally to marry Akhenaten's father. We get just glimpses of what this man's eccentricities are going to mean for his realm later on. I hope that the later books broaden the scope a bit, but only if Hawker can pull that off without losing what makes her take on these characters unique, which is largely the perspective of Kiya and what Hawker portrays as her genuine love for the young Akhenaten.

I'm down for the other two!

*Whom many have suggested might have been the same person as Nefertiti, but I think most scholars nowadays them to have been different people, with Nefertiti being a daughter of native Egyptian nobility and Kiya a foreign princess from the kingdom of Mittani. This is the history Hawker follows for these novels, anyway.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Dorothy Dunnett's THE UNICORN HUNT

I've already had one bout of impatience with Niccolo, his opacity, his motivations and his less than stellar treatment of his companions, but things got much, much worse in The Unicorn Hunt, even though I once again got to see sights and have experiences that are really not available to me in meatspace life. Niccolo has just become a real jackass of a tour guide.

Of course this is all fallout from the knife-twist of an ending that Scales of Gold brought us (spoilers for that novel follow. What are you even doing reading this review if you haven't read that book anyway?). Gelis van Borsalen, once just the bratty younger sister of Niccolo's lover Katelina, took the virago route to better hound Niccolo about her sister's sad fate, for which she and all of Niccolo's other enemies still blamed him, and forced herself on him as a traveling companion, the better to simultaneously berate him and get the gory details about what became of poor Katelina. But of course, of course, of course, she wound up sleeping with him. A lot. And they decided that maybe they liked each other well enough to maybe get married when they got home from their African adventures. Which they did, but only after Gelis spent some time in Scotland as a maid-of-honor to Princess Mary. Where her orbit intersected with that of Niccolo's very estranged maybe-father, Simon de St. Pol*. Very intimately. Oh, look, she wasn't through trying to punish Niccolo, was she?

So now Gelis claims to be pregnant, but not by her shiny new husband. And her shiny new husband is still reeling from the news that Loppe (whom we now call Umar because that was his actual name all along) was killed along with his entire family in a massacre back at Timbuktu.

So what with one thing and another, The Unicorn Hunt is one giant traveling temper tantrum on the part of Niccolo. As we travel with him from Bruges to Scotland to the Tyrol to Egypt to Cyprus to Venice, we are meant to understand that a very elaborate and subtle game is going on between our hero and his crafty wife, but it really just looks like Niccolo has gone right off the rails, picking fights with former friends, viciously attacking old enemies in unconscionably harsh ways, lying to his companions (well, he always does that, but it's usually in some way for their own good? Or at least not seemingly just for the sake of being a jerk?) and generally just causing trouble for everybody. There are allusions strewn throughout the narrative to things being "steps" in a "plan"  but I could never figure out what the plan really was or even what it was supposed to accomplish, save finally flushing out Gelis, who hid herself away after their wedding night, claims to have given birth but keeps spiriting away the alleged child before Niccolo can even lay eyes on it, but if that's all that was aimed for, it's the most unnecessarily convoluted Rube Goldberg machine of a plan, maybe ever, and it didn't work too well anyway.

What saved this novel for me was a new character, a sort of proto-Phillippa Somerville named Katelijne, niece of Niccolo's one time good friend and protector Anselm Adorne, whose antics in Niccolo's train and wake are highly original and entertaining and who takes no crap from anybody, even when she's mortally ill. That and my love for many of the secondary characters in Niccolo's company, especially physician Tobie, sailor Michael Crackbene, Grigorio the lawyer and his mistress, Margo... I'm always happy to see any of them in a Niccolo novel (and many of the others besides, but some got left in Bruges, or Scotland, or Venice, etc.).

And believe me, this novel needed saving, because not only has its hero turned into a world class asshat, but he's also, midway through an eight-volume series of highly realistic, plausible and naturalistic historical fiction, suddenly manifested a supernatural talent that then serves to get him out of all of his plot difficulties: he's a diviner. Not just a water witch, though he is that; he can also divine seams of precious metals waiting to be mined, find stashes of already coined precious metals, and even, via the trick of tying an object to a string and swinging it over a map, find people who are hiding from him. Dudes, I'm about ready to give up right here.

But still, it's Dunnett. And despite all of the things that made me want to tear my hair out, there are still wonderful things to be had from this novel. Her ability to evoke exotic settings and celebrations, her descriptions of places I'll never see and places that don't exist anymore, and the cultures that inhabit-or-once inhabited them, is second to none, and no matter how much she wound up cheating us of an amiable hero and a plausible plot resolution, she did not cheat us on any of her scenery porn.

So I'm going to keep going in a while, but right now, I need a break from Niccolo and his tantrums. He can still and think a while about what he's done. I've got a summer of Wolfe to get on with.

*Who, for his part, is unknowingly raising a child born to his late wife, Katelina, that is not, in fact, his, but was sired by one Niccolo.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Tatyana Toylstoya's THE SLYNX

It's not every day that I come across a novel that seems destined for the "among the strangest things I've ever read" category simultaneously as it also just never quite winds up feeling strange enough, somehow, but such is Tatyana Tolstoya*'s The Slynx, a post-apocalyptic and satirical fantasy that is couched very much in terms of a folk tale.

The setting is sort-of-rural Russia, some 200 years after a violent unknown event referred to by its survivors as, simply, "The Blast", which was pretty obviously a nuclear war that didn't quite destroy the world, but sure did change it, starting with the aforementioned survivors. Those in our little corner of what's left of the world who managed to live through The Blast and its immediate aftermath just kept on living unless murdered or killed by a freak accident or finally just sickened of it all enough to commit suicide. But get this: they don't really age, and, if they were of childbearing age at the time of The Blast, they could keep on having children, and did, and so repopulation happened at a good rate.

Only about those children. Yes, about them. That's where mutation sets in. Everybody's got some kind of disfigurement, some visible, some not. And these children age, and die off, and basically enjoy the lifestyle and span of your average Russian serf, circa the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It could be almost idyllic, if your idea of an idyll is a return to pre-mechanized agriculture, ignorance, superstition, and boredom. Oh, and of a whole new sub-race of people who are human but alas, are also quadrupeds and are thus used in place of draft animals.** Draft animals that drink too much vodka and talk back to their owners and occasionally maybe try to stage a revolution...

Enter one Benedikt, son of an "Oldener" woman, who works as a copyist of old pre-Blast manuscripts. His calling is kind of noble and it lends him a certain weird distinction -- in order to copy one has to read -- but the 200 years between the last of these books' publication and his own time have wrought changes that make a lot of the knowledge he can gain thereby useless or nearly so, because it's all about context, and the context has changed. For instance, while books are precious in Benedikt's world, it's chiefly as testaments to the wonderful wit and wisdom of Dear Leader, one Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. He wrote them all, you see. All the novels, all the how-to books, all the chemistry text books. War and Peace, by Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. A Manual of Applied Organic Chemstry, by Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. The 1972 Sears Catalog, by Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe.

And yes, he is a despot, ruling from afar with the help of the dreaded Saniturions, secret/thought police in the guise of public health officials, who punish freethinkers by treating them as vectors of disease. Straight out of the movie Brazil, these guys. All that's missing are the weird baby masks.

But so, the plot of The Slynx (the Slynx being an imaginary monster that attacks and tears apart lone villagers in the night, and pretty much serving as a metaphor for all the woes of this world, especially ignorance and oblivion, because this book is all about what happens when a culture's memory is obliterated and everyone is just trying to make sense of it all from random pieces) is pretty much that of Snowpiercer. Benedikt is very like Curtis, if Curtis was more of a lovable doofus who marries above his station than a guilt-ridden antihero who kills his way to the front of the train, who advances uncomprehendingly through the several strata of a very confined society and learns that its very top/front isn't all that different from the rear/bottom and that it's all pretty much just a sad little cemetery of a society he's living in. But funny. Darkly and deeply funny.

You know, like life is. We're having a Blast. And maybe that's all that we deserve to be remembered for?

*Yes, she is from the same family as that War & Peace guy.

**Not a lot of animals survived The Blast. Mice are the primary food animal, and also serve as a kind of currency, for example. There are other, barely recognizable, creatures around, but most of them are not safe to eat.

Dorothy Dunnett's SCALES OF GOLD

Oh, Niccolo, Niccolo, Nicollo. It's been too long since I followed your adventures. So long that I had to catch up again by listening to all of the books I'd already read as audio books*

There is a stinger of a surprise ending to Scales of Gold, the fourth in the House of Niccolo series, that threatens to blot all that comes before it from memory. I'm not going to give away that ending, because it's a doozy, but in so resolving, I'm making this a harder blog entry for myself.

The machinations of Niccolo's enemies (his very estranged supposed father and grandfather, and the rival mercantile house, the Vatochino, chief among them) have left Team Niccolo cash poor but rich in responsibilities, so the need becomes immediately evident that the gang needs money. Hard money. The very hardest. And where, before the New World ripened for the plundering, did gold come from?

Africa. And where does Niccolo's best friend and maybe sometime lover (last novel the King of Cyprus said sooner or later Niccolo would either have to send him away or make him his lover), Loppe the polyglot omnitalented African, a former slave who has mentioned betimes that it would be swell if he could go home and show Niccolo the sights and they could maybe get some gold...

But meanwhile, other fallout from Niccolo's previous adventures is falling out. His maybe-father, Simon de St. Pol, has a sister, who had a Portuguese husband that died last novel (and of course some people blame Niccolo, but we know the truth), leaving behind a young son and half of a trading company (Simon owns the other half, dun dun DUUUUUNNNN), and it, too, is on the brink of failure, but Niccolo has a plan to maybe save it and blah blah blah everybody is on the island of Madeira (not yet famous for its wines) but oh, they're too late -- Simon has been there and decided to sell off his half of the company to... The Vatochino! His sister and nephew will be destitute, unless Niccolo and Loppe can save the day!

But wait, they don't think they're going alone, do they? Because no. The nephew, Diniz Vasquez, must go with them. And so must... Oh jeez. So must one Bel of Cuthilgurdy, Simon's sister Lucia's best friend and traveling companion**, and also... Gelis van Borsalen. Last seen as Katelina van Borsalen's bratty little sister back in Niccolo Rising. She's all grown up now, as attractive as her late sister, and pretty damned sure that, whatever the official ruling, Katelina's death is also Niccolo's fault. And she's not going to give him any peace, going to follow him wherever he goes like a buxom young Fury.

Many of Niccolo's other friends are involved in this venture as well, but the significant one aside from those already named is Father Godscalc, originally the house chaplain to the Charetty Company (Niccolo's original employer as well, whose widowed owner he married by way of positioning him to help her to expand its scope and get him a good start in business in his own right, and from which he wound up inheriting many excellent advisers, partners and helpers, some of whom are keepers of various of his secrets and some of whom can barely stand him and some of whom are just in it for the money. Of these, Godscalc is one of the secret keepers, of course), who also wants to go to Africa, but not for gold; he wants to find a land route from the continent's western coast to Ethiopia, believed to be the true home of that legendary Christian king, Prester John. Goldscalc envisions a great evangelical pilgrimage to Prester John's kingdom, saving souls and making converts all the way, and securing from that great king a pledge of money and manpower to help save the rest of Christendom from the Turk. Niccolo, Niccolo kind of owes him one.

But so, adventures. Lots and lots of adventures, including an entertaining sea battle on the way from Madeira to the mouth of the Gambia, in which a ship that Niccolo was given by Emperor of David of Trebizond back in The Spring of the Ram but was originally owned by, you got it, Simon, must attack a ship sailed by the Vatochino without being recognized as both companies race for the gold. Whoever gets there first has the upper hand in contacting the natives and making the deals for that season's haul.

But all of that's just preamble. The heart of this novel is in, that's right, Timbuktu, a city of clay and mud that dissolves when it rains, only to be built again because it is a city of scholars, holy men and entrepreneurs, and its position makes it the crossroads for much of western Africa's commerce circa the 15th century. Everybody in Niccolo's party has something to learn there, as well as things to acquire (like copies of scrolls from the impressive libraries repositories of Timbuktu). The interlude here is as lovely as anything Dunnett has written, and as satisfying. But Dunnett is never satisfied merely with being satisfied, and Prester John beckons.

A lot of people point to this novel as a turning point in Niccolo's development as a man and a character, and they are right to. Up to this point he has been largely passive and protean, exercising his talents in mostly hidden ways, often only when others have forced him to. Here he finally takes his fate and that of others deliberately into his hands, realizes he is an adult and that his life doesn't have to be solely one of avenging the circumstances of his irregular birth. He leaves Africa interested in finding for himself the pleasures of family life, which he has tasted with the Charetty company -- his late wife had two nearly-grown daughters who eventually came around to being okay with having a stepdad just a few years older than they -- but now wants for real. And now I'm not going to say anymore about that because it's all tied up in the twist ending, a real emotional cliffhanger that had me plunging straight into the next novel, the Unicorn Hunt.

Dorothy, Dorothy, Dorothy!

*Which, these are pretty good, but I could have done without all of the accents, especially on the female characters. Most male narrators don't do female voices well anyway and really shouldn't even try, but they sound much worse when they're also given comic Italian or Flemish or Greekish accents.

**Which, get ready for Bel. She's late middle aged, fat, Scottish, fiercely intelligent, stubborn and altogether awesome. She may be my favorite Dorothy Dunnett character yet. I love her so much I had to consult the oracle of internets to make sure she appears in later books, because if she got killed off (spoiler: not in this novel) I was going to be very, very angry.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

James S.A. Corey's NEMESIS GAMES

While the planetary adventure on Ilus kept Cibola Burn interesting and lively and was a logical expansion (heh) of the overall storyline of James S.A. Corey's series, it also all but fridged Naomi and, to a lesser degree, Alex, while Amos was mostly relegated to being Holden's smarter-than-he-looks-but-still-basically-a-thug thug, and so left this reader a teeny bit dissatisfied when the dust had settled.

And while the return to the confines of our own solar system might make Nemesis Games seem like it's backing off from the bigness of the Expanse's story, it also brought a welcome focus back to the characters we've traveled through four novels with: the crew of the Rocinante, Avasarala and Fred Johnson. But really, it's the Rocinante Four who shine here. And it's about damned time.

Having barely made it back to Tycho to get their beloved gunship repaired, the crew now look to be stuck for a while; it's going to be a good six months before the Rocinante flies again. A nice and well-deserved rest is great and all, but it doesn't make for much of a story -- or a life for people who are used to being on the move and at the center of system-spanning events. Which is to say that they get bored with hanging around the space station and so...

They split up.

Ordinarily, this would annoy me, because generally when the crew has broken up it's become the Holden show with the rest of the crew just sort of appearing here and there as supporting characters. But not this time; this time all four crew members get to be the central figure in their own stories, all of which are exciting, challenging and at times heartbreaking. We see their resourcefulness, learn more about their backgrounds, and while each of them quickly comes to regret their decisions to leave Tycho for a spell, we, the readers, most certainly do not.

The novel still manages to explore the consequences of what has gone on before -- the opening up of the rest of the galaxy or universe to human exploration and colonization via the protomolecular Gate -- as the "land rush" commences. Mars threatens to become a ghost planet. Earth might have to struggle with being the seat of an ever-larger empire (or give up on hegemony). And as for the Belters, well, who's going to need them? There are thousands of habitable exoplanets within reach now, with all the resources humanity could want for centuries to come. Who needs a bunch of malcontents, barely adapted to life in space (just enough to make life down a gravity well pretty much impossible for them), who only know how to live in tin cans, mine asteroids, keep junky spaceships flying, and carefully husband resources that are no longer scarce?

What population like that has ever gone down without a fight, though? Look at our current political situation in the U.S. (and, increasingly, elsewhere): superfluous labor, unwilling to be sidelined and forgotten, has lashed out and is (yes, along with misguided Christian fundamentalists and short-sighted plutocrats) largely responsible for putting a terrifyingly incompetent narcissist in control of the nuclear football.

So, too, the Expanse. The Belters aren't going to take things lying down, and they have a handsome, charismatic, possibly Alexander-caliber leader in (eyeroll) Naomi's ex-lover Marco, who unleashes about ten different kinds of hell and devastation on the Inner Planets (Earth & Mars) and on the legacy power center of the Outer Planets Alliance (Fred Johnson and Tycho -- and the Nauvoo Behemoth Medina Station. Except... He's really kind of a self-appointed leader. Those in his personal orbit of course follow him gladly because hello, but the rest of the Belt? Was everybody down for the kind of massive attack he and his coterie unleash here? It's a question not really addressed in this book, which is concerned chiefly with the buildup to this attack and the experiences of the Rocinantes in trying to reunite, but I'm really hoping this doesn't get dropped the way the "Mormons are going to be pissed" got dropped when their generation ship was appropriated to try and redirect Eros way back when, IYKWIM.

But anyway, our heroes once again manage to find themselves at the centers of all of these plots in some fashion, though some more than others. Amos just gets an escape plot but Naomi and Alex both wind up playing crucial roles in the unfolding disasters and humanity's response to them, and well, of course Holden and Fred and Avarasala do. I'm done fussing over the unlikelihood of this same small group of people always winding up with the fate of human space in their hands, though. I just give up. It shouldn't be allowed to spoil my enjoyment of these very enjoyable books. And stuff.

I might pause for a while before picking up the current last novel in the series, Babylon's Ashes, though. I'm not ready for the experience of having to wait for more. This way I can pretend I'm somewhat in control, you know?

Monday, February 27, 2017

Henry James' THE PRINCESS CASAMASSIMA

It's been a while since I spent some time with good old Henry James, America's greatest social novelist.* And it's only because I stumbled across a nifty-looking biography of the man when Open Road Media had a 24-hour free-for-all on Amazon that I realized I hadn't read any James since Portrait of a Lady. But which to read, which to read?

Then I encountered, somewhere I don't remember, an observation that Princess Casamassima was likely an inspiration for Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, probably my favorite Conrad after Nostromo, and so there I went.

But so anyway, stop me if you've heard this one: Boy meets Princess. Boy falls head over heels for Princess.  Princess loves communists. Boy pretends to be communist to get closer. Princess sees through him but figures she can get him to bring her some real communists. Boy complies and brings her tiny half-French bastard bookbinder. Princess will love bookbinder and pet bookbinder and hold bookbinder and squeeze bookbinder and she will call bookbinder George. Exeunt Boy, with blue balls. Exeunt bookbinder, by his own hand. As such.

Which is to say that neither the Princess Cassamassima, nor the bookbinder, Hyacinth Robinson, is the driver of this plot, even though the book is named for the former and the latter is the point of view character. Hyacinth is so passive that even his choice of profession only comes about via the vigorous exertions of others; the Princess is equally passive, at least until someone finally brings her what she wants and she must work a bit to keep it. 

Doing all the actual work of the novel is a character who hardly appears in it, at least at front and center: the gentlemanly, the cosmopolitan, the conventional Captain Sholto (the Boy), who manipulates everything behind the scenes: he's even partly responsible for the radicalisation of Hyacinth, who might have stayed a drinking dilletante himself had he not been presented with Sholto's annoying example of same. 

And the romance- and- radicalization plot isn't even the only thing. James has at least as much fun with two other stories, both of which would be right at home in a modern high school dramedy: The competition between Hyacinth and Sholto over who a picturesquely poor family " belongs" to (settled, inconclusively but forever, when the Princess sails in and takes it over. They're hers.  They were always hers. You boys were just keeping the sofa warm for her), and the even more brittle-ly funny one between the Princess and one Lady Aurora, better born than the Princess but a middle aged spinster, whose lifetime of actively visiting and nursing and spending her meager allowance on the genuinely poor is somehow made to look amateurish and gauche when the Princess announces that actually, she owns nothing  ( probably because her estranged husband took it all away?) and "when thousands... haven't bread to put in their mouths, I can dispense with tapestry and old china." 

Straight out of, say, Clueless, or maybe Mean Girls, am I right?

What this all amounts to seems to be James' version of social satire,  a take on the class war that doesn't take it very seriously. James' socialists don't really seem to understand socialism, and spend most of the novel trying to hide this from one another while also trying to simultaneously impress each other with how aware and committed they are, and to discreetly pump each other for information as to what they should be doing to further their cause. Thus there are moments of actual humor, genuine laugh-out-loud moments, that I did not expect from James.

Does that mean a re-assessment is in order? It may. But I've got a lot of other stuff going on, so don't hold your breath for one, K?

*Indeed, the last time I took him up, I was just beginning to have joint problems and thought recording audioboo blog posts was a temporary solution until they got better, ha ha ha ha ha ha sob...

Jack Vance's EMPHYRIO

Despite its originally having been penned in 1969, it's really hard not to see Emphyrio as a sort of allegory of our current predicament, you guys, so I'm not even going to try. Hey, it's not like this is the first time. Remember how I read Philip K. Dick's The Penultimate Truth in terms of the 1% versus the 99%? Yeah, like that.

Only more so.

Emphyrio is a coming of age story set in a world not very much like our own except in all of the ways that it is, or could be. A world in which a populace of extremely skilled and worthy artisans are required to craft only one-of-a-kind originals and sell them via their guilds for a pittance, which is pitched to them in the language of a Welfare State but is really just starvation wages the artisans are indoctrinated to believe could become, if managed correctly, Financial Independence, but let's be honest, are just enough to keep them slavishly creating astonishing works of art that middlemen can get rich on. A world in which a really, really silly religion (as in prayers are performed as intricate, acrobatic dance routines that no one ever really masters but everyone feels more or less obligated to keep trying to learn) combined with a Welfare administration that is slavishly following regulations laid down by a government that no longer exists (and thus can never be amended or updated, no matter what changes in the rest of the universe) and ruled over by a parasitic elite that is still profiting from "investments" made centuries ago, investments in basic infrastructure that was destroyed by war and mismanagement on the part of the government that no longer exists and... See where I'm going.

Enter Ghyl, son of an especially talented artisan who is also a bit of a sneaky non-conformist, who enjoys a rare free-range childhood before settling into the family craft, who is raised on legends of an ancient non-conformist named Emphyrio who once exposed lies, spoke truth to power, saw the universe, and then... Well, that part of daddy's ancient manuscripts didn't survive the centuries so, really, who knows how that story ended?

Ghyl's story, then, is mostly a gentle coming-of-age, but also the story of how a myth can become a self-fulfilling prophecy that can repeat in ways no one imagined. Ghyl follows in Emphyrio's footsteps as he strives to learn how Emphyrio's story ends and to find out if Emphyrio ever really existed, and winds up changing everything, just like Emphyrio maybe did.

That's all great right there, but this is also Jack Vance, whose Dying Earth novellas are not only gorgeous prose masterpieces in their own right but are also major inspirations for an obsession of mine, yep, Gene Wolfe's Solar Cycle, which means tons of heady ideas, extravagantly beautiful prose, wry and satirical observation, and sensual details of color and aroma and tactile sensation and longing and all of the good stuff that one reads quality escapist literature for.

And it's a book that is (barely) older than I am. Yet it still resonates perfectly. Truly, it is an SF Masterwork, and one I'm kicking myself for only reading now (and that only because my good pal Jonathan Green asked me recently if I've read much Vance and I realized that it's been a LONG time since I read those Dying Earth novellas but I'd bought tons of Vance on the strength of those, only to have them just languishing on my e-readers unread).

Near damned perfection.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

James S.A. Corey's CIBOLA BURN

"Apocalyptic explosions, dead reactors, terrorists, mass murder, death slugs, and now a blindness plague. This is a terrible planet." -- James Holden
After three novels taking place inside asteroids and moons and space stations and vast bizarre alien artifacts, and aboard spaceships plying the void between all of these things, at last we come to the surface of what most people would think of as a planet. There's breathable atmosphere, sort-of-normal gravity, a close-to-normal day/night cycle, something like plants and animals, and even buildings and food.

Only it's not Earth. Or Mars. Or something settled via a generation ship like the Mormons were building in the first Expanse novel. Oh, no.

It's in another star system altogether. Only we don't really know how far away it is. Or how the technology that gets us there works.

So now we're sort of in Frederick "Heechee" Pohl territory as events unfold in Cibola Burn, the fourth Expanse novel by the two-headed alien we call James S.A. Corey. And we have the protomolecule that has wreaked havoc in three prior novels back in our good old Sol system to thank for it, but that's all we know; we done passed through the gate that was built for us, but when we got to where it led us, there was nobody home. Ruins that might be described as Lovecraftian if not Cyclopean, yes. Aliens (except for the flora-and-fauna analogs found on the first planet we settle), no.

It's refreshing, this being on a planet business. But lest we think this is just going to be a novel of exploration and discovery... Have you read the other books in this series? Or at least the epigram above? Yeah...

So this planet, called New Terra by the Earth-based corporation that claims to own it but Ilus (as in an early name for the city of Troy) by the people who first settled it* is quite a place, but not a great one for human habitation for all its abundant clean, breathable air and fresh liquid water. The local life forms' biology is incompatible with ours, for a start (much is made early on of bugs that persist in biting people, only to drop dead minutes after feasting on human blood). Crops have to be grown in soil imported from our system, etc. All in all, seems like more trouble than its worth, except for two things: scientific curiosity and mineral wealth in the form of vast and easily mined deposits of lithium (the stuff that makes the batteries in most of our consumer electronics work).

Before you can say "space opera", Ilus is at the center of a major conflict, as the colonists try by various and violent means to fend off the corporate/scientific mission that is just landing there as the novel opens. The colonists don't want to lose their colony; the scientists don't want to lose the opportunity to study a fresh and uncontaminated new ecology (oops); the corporation wants to assert ownership and control.

Ut oh.

Enter the crew of the Rocinante, whom our old friends, UN muckty-muck Crisjen Avasarala and Outer Planets Alliance honcho Fred Johnson, have dispatched to mediate between these parties because Holden is the only moral high-horse riding uncompromising asshat for the job, they both agree. Holden is not thrilled with this, but the protomolecular ghost of [REDACTED] wants him to go, too, and is capable of haunting even Holden's dreams, so yeah, off they go.

All this alone would make for a pretty interesting story, especially with its two new viewpoint characters, colonist-turned-reluctant-terrorist Basia, corporate security dick and former partner of [REDACTED] Havelock, and brilliant biologist Elvi** keeping things interesting, but this is an Expanse novel, so it's never just going to be about human politics. The protomolecule is still very much a thing, and the long-vanished aliens who made the protomolecule also made the gate through which everyone gets to Ilus -- and left a lot of ruins on the planet.

And a lot of stuff inside it as well. Stuff that is triggered by the arrival of Holden and protomolecular puppet [REDACTED].

Cue epic shitstorm eloquently described by Holden above. It's a terrible planet, you guys.

I'll confess to having occasionally been annoyed at some aspects of Cibola Burn, most notably how the vast world of the Expanse still seems to contain a paucity of characters. Did [REDACTED]'s old partner really have to be the guy on the corporate spaceship? Wouldn't it be more probable that an entirely new guy held that role, since there are billions and billions of humans out there now? Of course, by that same argument, mightn't that vast human Expanse also contain someone more qualified and capable than Holden, Amos, Naomi and Alex to handle the powder keg of politics on Ilus? Not that I don't love these guys. It's just getting increasingly less probable that these same four people are at the center of every major develop in human history, over and over again. But I accept that this is a probably a bow to the necessities of series writing; few readers, I expect, would want to read a series that realistically kept throwing new figures into the forefront with every plot development. We read sequels for the characters, most of us, way more than for the world-building. What happens to so-and-so next is more important to us than what happens to all of humanity next. We're just wired that way. Dickens knew this without having been told by science. So do we.

Now the Rocinante and the rest of humanity is poised for yet even more difficulty and adventure. That gateway didn't just offer up Ilus to us, but thousands of other planets. All of which, as Avasarala points out, don't need to be terraformed to be habitable, like poor old Mars. Who's going to want to stay there now that it's so easy to go somewhere with free air and water and shelter from radiation? But then, what happens to Mars' formidable arsenal of heavily armed spaceships and missiles and nukes when there's just a skeleton crew left behind on Mars to govern them and their use? Collapse of the USSR anyone (insert your favorite Red Planet joke here)?

So yes, onward to Nemesis Games very, very soon.

*Who are themselves refugees from the disaster on Ganymede that was the centerpiece of the second Expanse novel, Caliban's War, refugees who were turned away from every human population center they tried to stop and and so finally just sailed on through the gateway and started their own illicit colony on this new planet.

**Which, I've run into a lot of reviews online in which people complain very loudly about Elvi, because she is portrayed as falling hard for Holden and letting it cloud her judgment to a dangerous degree. They don't like that she has this weakness and regard it as regressive and anti-feminist that so much of her story seems to revolve around this. And I can see their point, as I rolled my eyes a bit at her, too (even though she fully recognizes her feelings as dangerously distracting and unprofessional). But I say this rounds her out nicely. AND I'll point out that, as a friend of hers correctly diagnoses, what is really going on isn't that she's fallen in love with Holden, but that she's spent two years on a spaceship without receiving any physical affection (by her choice; she's declined to participate in the partner swapping and teepee creeping behavior of her fellow scientists) before crash-landing on an alien planet just in time for ALL THE CRISES TO HAPPEN and, being a mammal still, what she really needs is some intimate human contact. Which her friend is happy to provide. Which clears her head just in time for her to do the important work, have the important breakthroughs, that basically save the day. In conclusion, I'd like the point out that this is pretty much exactly the same situation Randy Waterhouse finds himself in, in Cryptonomicon, and nobody complained about sexism or stereotypes or regressive gender attitudes in that book.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Alastair Reynolds' REVENGER

I had a few false starts with Revenger, I won't lie. I think it was mostly because my brain insisted on trying to turn it into a Revelation Space book, even though it patently is not. There were just enough similarities between the superficial character traits Reynolds gave to his red shirts and those of characters from his earlier books to make that a temptation, though. Any of the crew of Monetta's Mourn could fit right in on board the Nostalgia for Infinity, is what I'm saying.

But there are no Ultranauts in this universe; the setting is very much our own solar system (I think), although it is changed beyond recognition by thousands (millions?) of years of natural processes, alien invasion and re-engineering, decay and resettlement. Humanity lives on a system-sized version of the Glitter Band/Rust Belt; lots of space stations and somewhat terraformed asteroids and planetoids -- but, apparently, no planets like you and I know them. There have been at least 13 "occupations" and all of them were long ago. Valuable and bizarre and bizarrely useful relics of all of those occupations can be found inside chunks of rock surrounded by force fields that open up an somewhat predictable intervals. Some people make a living exploring these "baubles" and selling off what they find.

Among the weird Roadside Picnic-esque treasures to be found are alien bones and skulls, which, studded with implants, can be "read" by young people with certain neurological traits and used as a kind of system-wide radio communications system.

Enter our protagonist, Fura, a young woman who, along with her slightly older sister, is found to have the talent for reading these bones and thus has a chance to escape her privileged but kind of creepy life on one of those barely terraformed rocks by signing on to read the bones for a crew of bauble miners.

So, I mean, of course she does.

And then terrible things happen. Terrible, violent, pirate-y things. Some people aren't into doing all the work to get loot to sell; some would rather lie in wait for other people to do the work and then rob them. And some like to get all Reaver-y about it.

The rest is the story charts Fura's journey from helpless fugitive to cold-blooded embodiment of revenge. We get to explore a little more of the world she ran away from and see more of the creeps who wanted to keep her there, spend some time on a brand new but less ambitious ship that she and a fellow survivor decide is their best vehicle for vengeance, and see Fura's plan unfold. It's all by turns creepy, exciting, violent and might remind you more than a little bit of a Jack Womack novel. Don't want to cross this young lady, no, no.

So this is an Alastair Reynolds who is exploring something new. Absent his galaxy-spanning atmospherics, the story is very tightly character driven, with mixed results. We get to know Fura very well, but no one except her friend Prozor gets terribly well-developed -- but I, at least, didn't mind this a bit. The tight focus on Fura's teenaged single-mindedness felt like the right way to go. No distractions, no stupid romance plot, just Find My Sister and Make Those Bastards Pay.

Hey, the Count of Monte Cristo didn't develop a lot of characters beyond Dantes, did it?