Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

In my review of Harkaway's debut novel The Gone-Away World, I compared it favorably to a bunch of SF absurdist and surrealist works, with the caveat that it wasn't for everybody.  Since then I've made sure to read all his output.  I also did a review of Tigerman, and generally liked Angelmaker without an official write-up of it - although in both cases I wasn't sure if they lived up to the promise displayed in Gone-Away World.  But a new work by Harkaway is cause for excitement, and I wasn't sure what I was going to get out of this.

Having read it, I still don't know if I'm entirely sure.  As it opens, we're introduced to the UK of about fifty years from now, where surveillance has become so ubiquitous and social media so intrusive that they're no longer considered distinct things.  Any citizen can learn just about anything about any other citizen with a simple online query, although of course the existence of the query is itself disclosable to anyone who asks.  You live in a fishbowl but so does absolutely everyone else.  As an upside there's next to no crime, since everything is recorded, and there's a benevolent search construct which monitors everything constantly - for safety and security, naturally.  And everyone is more or less happy and content with this situation, and if they're not happy then they can get adjusted until they are happy and content with it.  So far it sounds a lot like 1984 with more than a hint of Brave New World about it.

Anyhow, there's a woman named Diana Hunter who was into some sort of subversive stuff and she's brought in for an interrogation session, which means that they'll plug her in and literally read her thoughts over her protests.  They'll fix what's making her unhappy while they're at it.  And then the unthinkable happens - she dies under interrogation.  Enter investigator Mielikki Neith, since even a panopticon surveillance state can't see absolutely everything, and sometimes the human touch is required.  As an agent of the Witness, Neith is responsible for satisfying the general public that this event wasn't intentional or at least that if it was, those who did it are themselves called out.

You think it's that easy?  The first chapter outright tells you that the investigation will make her doubt everything she believes.  Which is certainly plausible, since she gets a whole bunch of Hunter's memories downloaded into her own mind to sort through, and then things get really weird.

I find myself hesitant to actually say much more about the actual plot of the book.  The comparison that I kept drawing as the book went on is actually the cult classic Illuminatus!, in that much of the pleasure of the book comes from the constant discovery that the authors are screwing with you, and that even when you know what kind of book you're dealing with, it just keeps happening.  There's nothing more trustworthy than some huckster telling you outright that the whole thing is a con, after all.  (There's also quite a bit of thematic similarity around the number 5 . . . coincidence?)

So, without specifics, let me mention a couple of high points.  It's clear from a reading of Harkaway's work that he is very intrigued by the notion of bad things which happen without any specific evil intent on the part of anyone, and he heavily advocates for people to stand up and be counted, even when it's maybe not in their own personal interests to do so.  There's a lot of that here.  And he's also deeply affronted at the idea that procedural and democratic safeguards are to be set aside in the name of safety and exigency.  There's something freeing about reading a good writer really, incandescently pissed off about morally offensive things.

Unfortunately it's not perfect.  I felt that it took a while to really get going.  Neith encounters a villainous figure in the first chapter who engages in frankly preposterous dialog, and that individual continues to do so whenever encountered.  In fact, I wasn't hooked until about halfway though the third chapter, which isn't an unforgivable failure in such a large work but might be a dealbreaker for someone who wasn't already predisposed to give it a chance.  And there are many, many different narrative threads without immediately obvious connections going on there for a while.  All that said, once I did get through the third chapter, I found myself actually really quite absorbed in the story to an extent that I don't normally get, so good on him.  He even manages to mostly stick the landing, although I'm still mulling over the last chapter.

All in all, it's a very solid effort and a good way to kick off 2018.  I'm finding it sticking with me and although I don't know if it'll be an all-time favorite, I think it's going to be at least significant for me.  If you liked any of Harkaway's previous novels, you'll probably like this one, and it's sufficiently different and weird to not be a retread of any of them.  If you want a story that combines Brexit, Facebook, Gamergate, global economic meltdown and a post-Singularity gestalt consciousness, you'll not be disappointed.  If you didn't like Illuminatus! or don't like the absurd, maybe this isn't for you.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

What the Hell Did I Just Read by David Wong

Continuing on the cosmic horror kick is What the Hell Did I Just Read, which doubles as both an effective title as well as a pithy summary of most people's reactions, including my own.  This, the third entry in the John Dies at the End series, is sublime and infuriating in about equal measure.  I think that's intentional.

The second entry in this series, This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don't Touch It, was one of my favorite books of 2012.  I was worried that this one wouldn't live up to that, and frankly I'm still thinking about it.  I can say that I didn't enjoy this one nearly as much as Spiders but on an objective level I don't know if I can say it isn't as good.  We revisit our "heroes" John and David as they return older and . . . older.  This one also focuses a lot more on Amy, still dating David.

If you're not familiar with Wong's work on this series, it's a dizzying combination.  Quite a bit of all of these novels focuses on really lowbrow toilet humor, mostly on the part of David and John.  While you're looking at that, Wong manages to sneak in some fairly trenchant social analysis and commentary.  And then when you think you know where things are going, he blindsides you with all sorts of legitimately scary and incredibly fucked-up shit.  I first noted these abrupt shifts in tone in the original John Dies novel, and Wong's continued to hone them as a signature style.  I was almost aghast at how totally vile and awful some of the situations get in this novel, almost thinking that the narrative hadn't earned the right to invoke those sorts of images.  But upon reflection, I began to consider this may be the whole point.

After all, this is billed as a cosmic horror novel.  The nature of cosmic horror is that it's not malevolent by any human understanding, it's just that it's completely indifferent to humanity.  People often make fun of Lovecraft's protagonists going mad at the drop of the hat, but forget that what they'd realized is that there was no malice but also no pity on the part of the vast forces beyond Earth.

So anyway, let's look at Dave and John.  They're high school graduates, and they're pretty smart.  But they didn't pursue any formal education and they have only spotty employment.  David in particular hasn't been able to find any work since the video store he used to manage shut down, and the only reason he has food and a place to stay is because Amy works at a call center for $9 an hour.  David drinks too much, and John does everything too much.  They hunt monsters, but the only reason they can see through the veil of reality is because they do a bunch of drugs.  This gig also doesn't pay very well.  Even Amy, who is more sensible and grounded, takes a lot of pain medication, subsists on a diet mostly composed of sugar and caffeine, and doesn't sleep so she can play her MMORPGs.

I don't know if Wong read The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman or not but I was thinking that these series are considering the same sorts of issues from wildly different perspectives.  Quentin Coldwater is also a depressive malcontent, but when his life doesn't meet up to his expectations he manages to fall upwards into a sinecure so he can wallow in his misery in comfort.  This is the difference a college education and social status makes, I guess.  There's not really that much between their mental states, but society has written David off entirely and as of this one he's basically writing himself off, as well.  Sure, there are dimension-hopping alien monsters to contend with, but the slow grind into oblivion that's claiming this whole Midwestern town is just as bad if not worse.

As for the main action, what's to say?  There's some missing children involved.  But remember that some of the antagonists in these books can mess with you past all understanding.  Case in point: Amy's missing a hand from an accident she was in as a child.  Except that she had two hands in the second book until she was touched by one of these extradimensional horrors, at which point not only did she lose the hand but she had always been missing a hand.  So things can not only change, but change to the point that you can't remember it being any different, and if you have any expectations that you know what's going on, prepare to set them aside.  Wong doesn't play fair, John exaggerates, David omits some important facts, and all three narrators occasionally outright lie.

Again, it's not for the squeamish.  Aside from depictions of horrible atrocities to every sort of sympathetic persona imaginable, there's body horror, relationship horror, poverty horror and a simulacrum of a Korean porn star made of insects.  And yet despite all that it manages to end up on a note of hope.  Ish.  Hope-ish.  Happy 2018.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Book of Cthulhu and The Book of Cthulhu 2 (edited by Ross Lockhart)

“After all that, you came here and brought a woman as well. Could it be, sir, that you are not too bright?” “I didn’t believe all them stories then.” “But you do now?” “I do."

-From "The Crawling Sky" by Joe R. Lansdale

There's a lot of things you can say about H.P. Lovecraft, many of them negative.  I ended up getting a copy of his complete works during the sale when Borders went out of business.  It's a pretty nice book, too, hardbound with a built-in bookmark and fancy pagework, with some editorial commentary in there to help make sense of it all.  I couldn't afford the edition bound in human flesh, but that's okay since they don't really do basements in North Texas and I couldn't give such a volume the solemn, freaky crypt that it deserves.  And so it sat, for some time, as I found excuses to do many other things rather than read it.  Finally, back in July 2015, I actually read through it.  And . . . it was pretty okay?  I guess?  I mean, I'd read "The Call of Cthulhu" and "The Colour Out of Space" before, so I knew what I was getting into there, and some of the others were about as tedious as I expected.  But although I wouldn't end up describing myself as a fan, I found some of the stories ended up growing on me.

I don't really think that I have much to say on the subject of Lovecraft himself, aside from just a few generalities.  That field has been plowed and planted and replowed, and I have very little to add to the work of actual scholars and literary critics.  There's really two things everyone has heard about him: first, even by the standards of the era in which he lived and worked, Lovecraft had really outlandish views on race; and second, he was prone to write prose which skips right through "purple" and into ultraviolet, possibly even into the X-ray spectrum on occasion.  Both of these things are, in fact, absolutely true.  There was a third thing which I didn't know about him before reading this omnibus, and that's that he could actually display a sense of humor when he set his mind to it - the story "Sweet Ermengarde" is legitimately funny.

That said, it's possible to read this stuff and come away with inspiration quite aside from the flaws of the source material.  He was writing at the right time to have a theme about a pitiless and indifferent universe.  I don't know if there's really a fine dividing line between horror and cosmic horror, but serial killers and your basic monsters are horror; fighting them may be tough, but you can see your angle.  The ocean or the force of gravity are cosmic horror; if the ocean drowns you it's not like it hates you, it doesn't even have what you could regard as a mind to hate you with.  It just doesn't care.  Lovecraft mined that feeling so well, everyone who's anyone in the fantasy/SF field has written at least one Lovecraft pastiche and many of them are better at it than he was himself.

But, you know, Sturgeon's Law applies to that as well as to anything else.  There's a possibly undeserved reputation that Lovecraft-style horror stories will be narrated by a protagonist writing to a journal just before they commit suicide, go mad, or are slain by a horrible cult, about how they ended up in the situation that they are in.  I say "possibly" because that actually does happen a bit.  It even ends up a bit here, in this two-volume collection of various stories by a wide variety of authors.  Despite the title, the stories aren't all about Cthulhu or even about named monsters from the Mythos, although many are.

The authors here run the gamut and so do the stories themselves.  There are some that are pure horror.  Some that take a different tack and go for pure comedy.  Others go for both (Joe R. Lansdale's story, quoted above, is a prime example of that.)  They take place in many settings - dead cities on alien worlds, live cities on alien worlds, dead cities on Earth, Mexico in the 1950s, post-Civil War East Texas, present day New York City, Massachusetts in Lovecraft's time, a futuristic interplanetary space pirate ship.  Some name-drop H.P. himself as an author, or as a visionary; some don't have anything to say about him at all.  You get some that delve into where exactly all these evil cults come from, some that take them as a given, some that ignore them entirely.  And of course there's some that end humanity when the stars come right - and some that give humans another day to carry on.

I can't say that every story in the collections is a complete winner, but there are some extremely good ones overall and even the more disappointing ones are usually only that way by comparison.  I didn't really know that I was in the mood to read something like this, but I ended up having more fun reading these stories than pretty much anything else I've been trying to get through lately.  In short, if this remotely sounds like something you'd be interested in, you probably will be.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross

It's time to revisit the Laundry Files series; I did an overview of the first five at one point, but it's now time for the eighth volume in the series, followup on The Annihilation Score and The Nightmare Stacks.

I've overall been a fan of the Laundry books, although I did think that overall the third and fourth books were the best of the bunch.  The first two were written before Stross had an overall arc or overarching plot in mind, and with a couple of exceptions the events of those books are generally glossed over as the series continued to find its own voice.  And while I liked many things about the more recent ones, I also felt they came with serious drawbacks and plot holes.  Therefore while I was always up for reading a new Laundry novel, I wasn't considering them entirely essential.  So I was pretty happy to discover that The Delirium Brief was the best one in years, and may be the best one yet.

However, it also requires a pretty thorough knowledge of events occurring in books 3-7; it's possibly the worst starting point that you could imagine.  And I'm going to proceed to talk about why I liked it so much, which involves ruining the (well done) plot twists, so if you want to read it without spoilers please go do so now and then come back when you're finished.  This will be here when you get back, after all.


All right.  One of the things that I've always liked about Stross is that he's one hell of an idea guy, and also one hell of a logical implication guy.  He comes up with some pretty nutty stuff, and he's also prepared to follow chains of reasoning to likewise unusual ends.  Unfortunately, the thing that I tend to like least about him is that he will get more interested in a new idea and drop what he's working on.  The last couple of Laundry books have had endings that can charitably be described as "abrupt" and uncharitably described with worse invective; they've also suffered from a tendency to info-dump and build unreleased tension.  As a result you tend to look forward to the next one as resolving some of these issues and then it just . . . never ends up happening.  It also seems like at least some of the recent ones have been early drafts without much revision.  For instance, in the recent case of The Nightmare Stacks this led to a frankly bizarre love subplot.  In order to work properly, the characters needed weeks or months to interact, but the demands of the main plot (an invasion of alternate-dimensional humanoids) made it happen over the course of days.  There are other issues like this throughout books 5-7, although overall they're pretty interesting.

Here, however, Stross had to go back after the Brexit vote and do a substantial rewrite of this one.  I'm not sure what exactly he needed to change (since the book takes place in an alternate 2014, before even the Scottish independence referendum), but he felt that the political situation called for it, and as a result this one is much, much better flowing than the last few have been.  It begins right in the aftermath of book 7, where over ten thousand have died following the destruction of Leeds following the invasion of the alternate-dimensional elves.  The UK government looks really bad and now they've come to have knowledge of the Laundry, that secret, hidden agency which deals with occult defense.  Accordingly, the government promises to bring them to heel and to accountability. 

For a cosmic horror novel, this one also hits a fair bit of everyday horror as well.  Bob Howard starts out by meeting with a US Postal Inspector (occult text division) who basically states that the US government has already fallen.  To what, we don't know, but apparently it's so bad that even other horrible monsters are afraid of it.  No saving throws, no additional warnings, no last-minute desperate fighting.  Just a fait accompli.  Perhaps this was the subject of the rewrites, and the comparison to modern politics is depressing.  You just turn around and suddenly your government is under the control of eldritch abominations.  I can relate to that.

Before long, Bob's been called in to testify in Parliament and on TV.  At first this looks like the civilian government is going to reassert control in a staid bureaucratic fashion, but then the decision is abruptly made to shut the whole thing down and hire external contractors to perform these functions.

As omniscient observers, we can tell this is a really awful idea, for two main reasons - first, we know and love all those scamps who work at the Laundry, so we know that they've really got the best interests of the realm at heart.  And second, which is a pretty big one, is that the proposed contractor is affiliated with Reverend Raymond Schiller, who is (gasp) an American and (double gasp) the slave of the extra dimensional soul-eating horror known as the Sleeper in the Pyramid.  Schiller even being on this plane is bad news since as of the end of book 4 he was stranded on a dead plateau on an alien world.  As it turns out he's not dead, but he's not exactly just Schiller anymore in there either.  (Schiller's also got version 2.0 of brain-controlling parasites that have moved on from just eating tongues - there's some really awful body horror going on in this one.)

However, the Laundry has always worked in the shadows and the critiques made of their operations and methods are actually pretty reasonable.  They've never managed to get any support from the press, from Parliament or from the public, and much of what they do is frankly not believable.  What did they think was going to happen on that inevitable day that they were forced into the spotlight, with no allies?  They knew that day was coming - they had Pete working on the civil defense plans - but they never adequately prepared.  And they came to widespread public attention following a massive disaster that killed thousands of people, so they look incompetent as well.  Although the government is making a very serious and in fact existential mistake, it's not done entirely without reason.

This leads back into my previous observation that Stross is good at implications; he's also good at misdirection.  He's led us into this false sense of certainty that the Laundry are the good guys here.  Yes, they are defending humanity against creatures that would happily devour the lives and souls of every person on earth.  No, they don't go to the extremes displayed by their American counterparts (the OPA, a/k/a the Black Chamber) which extensively uses demons and violence.  But we've always known that they make their employees take a binding oath which compels them to both secrecy and obedience.  At first this seems like a joke on overbearing workplace practices and maybe played for laughs a little bit, but if you really think about it that's amazingly scary and obtrusive, not much different from the slavery of the Black Chamber.  And as it turns out when the organization disbands the very first priority of the senior-most members is to figure out how to re-bind all of their employees.  You know, with soul-destroying oaths.

Bob quickly finds himself on the run, using the organization's remaining resources to accomplish a couple of missions and try to prevent Schiller from taking over (first) the government of the UK, and (subsequently) the entire remaining population.  He takes the new oath administered by the Senior Auditor and obeys his mission directives.  Here's a few things he doesn't consider - becoming a free agent.  Approaching the media.  Renegotiating the employment agreement that he's got, or reconsidering how the Laundry is organized.  Even choosing to die is an option.  But no, he simply does what the Senior Auditor tells him to do, which is probably his reflex by this point since he hasn't really had any choice in the matter up until now.  And in so doing he crosses his own personal event horizon from which there's probably no going back.

There's no good guys left in this novel, so at the end it's a pretty hefty gut punch when you realize that they've managed to stop Schiller but only by utilizing methods that are - at best - equally extreme as the threat they averted.  And we've confirmed that Bob maybe isn't really Bob anymore, or perhaps more accurately that he's still Bob-shaped and was once Bob.  I have been more annoyed than anything with the cliffhangers and non-endings but this book managed to wrap up its primary plot and still tease effectively.  I eagerly await the stories to come of Bob under the New Management; although, at this point it's pretty clear that when they talk about the end of humanity when the stars come right, they really mean it.  There's no more shutting-down-the-portal-at-the-last-minute safety to be had.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone

Interesting - it's been exactly one year since my last post.  Naturally I knew it had been a while, but just couldn't bring myself over to check.  It was about that time that I was really getting concerned about the election, and then following the election I wasn't really motivated to do much of anything for a while.  Plus we had a new baby to look after, and a larger not-baby who still needed some affection and assurance she wasn't being replaced, and entropy in the house, and work, and one thing and another.  In other words, typical life stuff.  Still no excuse, I suppose.

Nonetheless in the interim I did at least read sufficient stuff for another few years of posts.  Having utterly failed to finish up the Hugo nominees of 2016 I'll just move forward and talk about something that I enjoyed immensely and didn't know that I wanted to read until I did.

The Craft Sequence encompasses five novels (for now, there's a sixth coming soon), which are written out of chronological order but have helpfully indicative titles to let you know where you stand in the order of things.  Three Parts Dead, the first written book, is therefore the third sequentially, while Last First Snow, the fourth written, is something of a prequel.  They're all available on the Kindle store at really reasonable price points.  I suppose that the genre that you'd classify these under would be "urban fantasy", but what Gladstone has done here is explicitly analogize magic to the corporate form.  I've seen books where magicians are ninjas, kings, computer programmers, even just generally geeky, but I've never seen one before where they're explicitly lawyers or CPAs.

I'm not the sort of attorney that works at a large corporation or a huge corporate firm, but I'm familiar enough with the pressure to constantly bill more hours.  Admittedly my clients pay in good old American money and not souls, but the concepts is there.  In the backstory, there were once gods that ruled the land, and granted their worshipers with various blessings in exchange for their prayers.  And, in at least some cases, sacrifice.  The priests of these gods got some explicitly supernatural powers and Applied Theology was where it was at.

Until, of course, some enterprising souls discovered that pure human will and the power of starlight was able to perform Craft, allowing the supernatural with no god required.  The subsequent God Wars saw the gods broken and many even destroyed, and the Craftspeople ascendant.  At this point they had to sit down and actually rule the land they'd taken.  The most powerful of them transcended their mere flesh and became the Deathless Kings and Queens, immortal, unbelievably potent liches of pure magical might.

Most of this is experienced from the ground level, as it were.  The main protagonist of the first novel, Three Parts Dead, is a recent <ahem> "graduate" of one of the Craft schools, owing student loans of several dozen souls and hired on to a firm to perform a resurrection of a dead god, a task she has to worry is somewhat beyond her.  An experience totally familiar to anyone in their first professional job, if not exactly in details.

What I really liked about this series is that it tries very hard to be even-handed.  The Craftspeople definitely had some legitimate beefs about the gods, particularly those where human sacrifice was performed, so it's easy to assume that they're the good guys here.  However, there's a streak of Nietzschean will-to-power pervading the practice of Craft; many practitioners aren't especially ethical or moral, and at least some of them rule as harshly as the gods ever did.  Plus Craft is really cool and all but it runs on entropy, so heavy Craft use is making the world gradually uninhabitable.  Divine magic (being magic) doesn't have that limitation.  Some of the most unscrupulous Craftspeople are actually trying to hasten the destruction and reach out to the stars - leaving the rest of us in the lurch.

One interesting geographical feature is the desert city of Dresediel Lex, formerly ruled by sacrifice-demanding gods who also enforced a strict caste system.  They probably didn't notice or even care too much when selecting the lover of some low-class schmuck named Kopil for sacrifice; if they'd known he would become the infamous King in Red they might have maybe thought about it a little harder.  But unlike the gods, the King in Red can't just make it rain by divine will and his city is constantly growing.  As a result he's burning out more and more surrounding water and hoping to continue to buy time to do . . . something.  Do Phoenix, Las Vegas or L.A. ring a bell?

Kopil's actually something of a standout character.  He's first seen in Two Serpents Rise as a generally benevolent figure, but you have to reconsider him after Last First Snow where he puts down a revolt with excessive force, albeit for somewhat understandable reasons.  Despite his incredible power he's got a bunch of complexes, and most of his friends don't call him back anymore.  If you've ever wanted to read a book about a depressed, gay, immortal skeleton mage then this is the series for you.

I do have some questions about just how powerful the practitioners of Craft can be - even fresh out of school they're so mindbogglingly tough that it borders on unfair.  And, for that matter, like most books involving magic, some of the conflicts are resolved in unsatisfying fashions by methods that weren't previously explained to be possible.  Nonetheless, I liked many of the characters, I liked the world, and I liked the idea that first-years at Craft firms have to work nights and weekends to get enough billable hours to satisfy their dread masters.  And there's enough analogy to think about but not so much it beats you over the head, or even really gives you the suggestion of an answer for that matter.  Definitely good beach reading, if there's a beach in your future.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

I had a half-finished version of this one sitting for months, and couldn't bring myself to complete it until now.  But I'm going to talk about the four Hugo best novel nominees that I read this year, dammit, and this is one.

“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.”

So begins Neal Stephenson’s latest opus, the first line of his by-now-usual 880-page bricks full of so many ideas that any attempt to summarize the thing would probably end up nearly as long as the novel itself.  And it would be no sin if it simply failed to live up to that first sentence, because honestly how could it?  That’s possibly the best first sentence in all of SF, if not literature generally.  Or at least not that far off, anyway.

I reviewed Reamde some time ago, and summed up there my general feelings about the trajectory of Stephenson’s work, which is to say that I personally consider it somewhat erratic and less essential now than of late, although I really did like much of Anathem and didn’t consider Reamde to be outright terrible.  But here Stephenson has done both many good and many bad things, intermixed so tightly that it’s essentially an azeotrope of wonderful and questionable.  I honestly don’t know what to think about the whole thing, or whether I should tell people to run out and get it, or stay far away, or maybe to do both at the same time. 

Massive spoilers ahead, by the way.  If you don’t want to know, quit now.

Anyway, Stephenson has basically delivered three books into Seveneves for the price of one (big, fat) book.  The first is an interesting technical examination of the end of the world.  The second is a harrowing psychological horror story with an SF background.  And then the third is a very strange SF future novel.  They don’t co-exist well, and why would they?  They’re practically different subgenres.  And although each one is individually well executed (well . . . maybe not the third so much), cramming them all together is like trying to mix toothpaste and orange juice.

Anyway, the moon blows up without warning and becomes seven moonlets, plus a bunch of dust and rocks and crap.  At first everyone thinks this is not a big deal, since gravity is still in effect in the universe, so the seven pieces are basically in the same place as the moon has always been.  Then the pieces start smashing into each other and making more pieces, and now all of a sudden the scientists of the world realize there might be a problem.  The scientists of the world are represented by one Dr. Dubois, who is an obvious stand in for Neil deGrasse Tyson.  (Many of these characters are obvious generic versions of real-life individuals, such as Dubois, another character who’s sort of a combination of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, and a girl heavily inspired by Malala Yousafzai.  This is a little strange to read, honestly, since such topical characters are not exactly typical for Stephenson.)  A discussion of the orbital mechanics of these various collisions is above my skill level and pay grade, but it seems reasonably plausible.  The upside of all this is that the debris will eventually create a nifty ring system around the Earth.  There is a little downside to that, though - it will cause a heavy, mostly constant bombardment of the planet for several thousand years.

The Heavy Rain, as Dubois dubs it, is due to start in just a couple of years and will sterilize the planet.  At this point the various nations come together – sort of – and using their next-Tuesday AD level technology begin to throw a bunch of stuff into orbit, using the International Space Station (or rather, the fictional, somewhat cooler version of the ISS that exists in the novel) as a hub.  The planning and construction of the Cloud Ark, as it’s called, is rendered in loving and technical detail that will bring a smile to the heart of hard-SF buffs everywhere.  Then the world ends about 1/3 through the novel, although frankly everyone is a little bit more polite about it than I think they might actually be if such an event occurred in real life.  It might help that most of the people that are worth lifting off the planet are intelligent Stephensonian badasses, and are therefore pretty stoic about the whole thing, almost to the point of mental illness, actually.  In fact at one point Dr. Dubois thinks to himself that it would probably be better if his family was actually dead rather than just waiting to die, so he could stop worrying about them all the time and focus on his work.

You know, let’s go ahead and discuss this further.  The details given of the end are pretty clinical – when the Heavy Rain begins in earnest, the first major bolide strikes in Russia, and then more and more impacts take place throughout the world.  Manhattan is swamped by a tidal wave, the forests all over the world begin to burn, the radio goes quiet in one city after another over the course of just a few hours, and by the end of the day presumably every single human being still on the surface of the planet has died – of impact, fire, flooding, you name it.  We’re not given many ground-level details since our protagonists are literally above it all, but it’s still pretty harrowing.  And then they chin up and soldier on, despite what one would assume is horrible PTSD and depression.  I actually found it more difficult to read than it apparently was for the protagonists to live through, and this may have been the first serious tonal jarring that I had.  There are more to come.

The second third of the book then commences, with a series of major engineering challenges and minor fuckups that snowball into catastrophe.  There’s a problem with the Cloud Ark – it’s too low, and it is sort of open to question as to whether it was actually intended to work at all, or was just a method for the various governments of Earth to pretend to be doing something and avoid a Mad Max type scenario, and if so if they’ve basically just traded a quick death for a messy, protracted one.  They’ve got to raise the thing up to a much higher orbit, which involves probably the best action of the novel, as well as probably many happy research hours for Stephenson working out various sorts of orbital mechanics.

This second part of the novel is downright harrowing and outright cruel.  Space is a pretty crappy place to live, and it’s full of dangers for both the wary and the unwary.  The people that got sent up do finally start to have some manifestations of psychiatric problems, compounded by the fact that most of them don’t really have all that much to do, and they end up engaging in backbiting and crazy conflicts, made worse by the fact that they don’t know what they are doing, are starving to death, and randomly dying in various heinous ways.  Eventually the protagonists manage to lift up their habitat to the (relative) safety of the largest moon chunk left standing, but by that time there are only eight women left alive.  As in, to their knowledge that’s all that is left of the entire human species.
And this is the time that the whole thing takes a left into Crazytown and doesn’t emerge.  One of the eight women is post-menopause, but she turns out to be the world’s greatest geneticist and offers the other seven (Eves, get it?) the chance to optimize their descendants in whatever way they see fit.  One chooses raw intelligence.  A second, strength.  A third, bravery.  The fourth, kindness.  The fifth, social skills.  The sixth chooses adaptability.  The seventh declares her hatred for all the others and the whole system and declares that her descendants will compete with the rest in all their chosen fields (except kindness, because screw kindness I guess.)

You might notice that the seventh there is openly hostile to the others and essentially declares war against them from the very beginning.  You might ask yourself why the others decide to humor her vendetta.  You will ask this question in vain, among many others, such as: is this situation really survivable, given how screwed everything has been up until now?  Is it even remotely plausible that they’d be able to do advanced genetic manipulation at all, notwithstanding the terrible conditions that they are in?  And is it even conceivably possible to say that you are going to just simply create people that are smarter or stronger even if you can do as much genetic tinkering as you like?  Would it really be feasible to have seven+ human subspecies interacting in close proximity for thousands of years without substantial genetic crossover to elide these distinctions?  Is it really likely that over five thousand years, that linguistics and culture would not have shifted to the point where sagas from the founding of their orbital colony are still obsessively studied and remembered?

The third section of the book has a lot of these issues if you sit down and think about it.  In some ways this is unfortunate, because it’s reasonably interesting in its own right, if somewhat implausible, but it just doesn’t really follow from what’s gone before.  It’s now five millennia since the events in the first two thirds of the book, and the Hard Rain is over (due to time, and due to the space denizens moving the rest of the debris into the ring, somewhat ahead of schedule).  They’ve been reseeding the planet with plants and with animals, and now they’re ready to move back down.

The most plausible aspect of this scenario is that they’ve also reinvented war.  Fighting in the space habitats that are now the home for humanity leads only to mutually assured destruction, but the descendants of some of the women are enemies and they can fight just fine down on the planet.  You’ve got the Red faction and the Blue faction, but good luck really trying to care about the basis of their disagreements, or who is on whose side, or why.

Although I didn’t really like this whole last section of the book very much, I have to say that it’s certainly a bold move in a novel to suddenly shift gears completely about 70% of the way through, with what amounts to a totally new cast of characters with new motivations in what as well may be a totally new setting.  Stephenson has to start all over with the world building, and he unleashes what is basically a new quest.  It’s hinted that some people may have figured out what was behind the destruction of the moon in the first place, but if so that’s never resolved.  And if you are expecting a conclusive ending, don’t – it simply ends with another major (and implausible) reveal.  Turns out there were other options than space, and if those worked it probably would have been a better idea to focus on them in the first place.

All that said, there are some good moments throughout – snappy Stevensonian dialogue, some interesting characters, and a definitely unique and enthralling setting.  By all rights any book that covers this much stuff should be a complete mess, and it sort of is, but only Stephenson would even attempt such a thing.  The fact that it doesn’t entirely succeed doesn’t detract from the nobility of its failures.  Anyhow, I don’t think it’s ever safe to count Stephenson out of a Hugo race, since he’s a notable fan favorite, but I believe the book is overall just too uneven to beat out Uprooted and The Fifth Season this year.  But if you've been a Stephenson fan in the past, this is going to give you some of what you like about him and a dose of what you probably don't.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

What can I say?  Life intervenes and I just haven’t been feeling like writing much even when I do have time to read, which isn’t as often as I’d like.  But as it happens, I’ve read four of the five best novel nominees for this year’s Hugo awards, and I’m going to try to say something about all four of them.  (As for the fifth, I’m sorry Jim Butcher, I think I might actually like your stuff, but I’m a completionist at heart and that’s an awfully big commitment.  Please comfort yourself with your large pile of money in lieu of a little-read post on some random guy’s blog.  I’m sure you will understand.)

Starting off then with Uprooted, which just picked up the Nebula Award and is probably the favorite for the Hugo this year, and in my opinion deservedly so.  I hadn’t read anything by Novik before; apparently this is something of a departure from her usual oeuvre of Napoleonic-era fantasy novels, but I’m already favorably inclined to it by virtue of it not being a setup for a huge fantasy trilogy or more.  It appears more or less self-contained and covers a frankly staggering amount of plot in a reasonably slim volume.  She makes it look easy, which is even more impressive, since it’s the sort of thing that gets noticed when you mess up and rarely commented on when successful.

Anyhow, the novel follows Agnieszka, a 17 year old farmgirl who lives in a fantasy analogue of Poland (you should have guessed by the name, and if you didn’t, you’ll figure it out by all the other names.)  They’ve got ongoing tensions with the neighboring kingdom of Russia Rosya.  But for Agnieszka and the area where she lives, the real issue is the Wood.

Major shout-outs to the Wood here.  This is seriously a messed-up place, and clearly distinct from your average forest, even the average evil one.  If you’re stupid enough to enter the Wood, then the best thing that could happen to you is that one of the horrible monsters in there kills you.  If you’re less lucky, then you might get shoved into a corrupt heart-tree, anchoring the constant advance of the Wood and undergoing mental torture until you lose your identity, before continuing to endlessly suffer while not even understanding why.  If you’re really unlucky, then you may end up corrupted by the Wood first, betraying your kin and village before ending up with the endless suffering bit.  The Wood also isn’t content to stay behind its borders; it’s always attempting to expand, sending out spores of corruption, raids of evil creatures, miasmas, and so on.  Anyone going in there gets possessed, it’s no respecter of persons.  One of the best settings I’ve seen in a novel in some time, and despite the best efforts of everyone it’s winning.

The sensible thing to do would probably be to cut bait and run screaming the hell out of there, but you know how those stubborn country folk are, they are going to hold to the last.  (And as it turns out there is a bit more to it than that.)  The king has set up a wizard in the area to hold the line as best he can; he occasionally loses a village here and there but he does his best.  He’s allegedly immortal, and goes by the name “Dragon”.

Every decade, he picks a 17 year old girl from the local villages, who lives with him in his creepy wizard tower fortress before being released after the ten years is up.  These girls leave with a sack of money and a case of wanderlust – they go home for a bit and then skip town for the big cities or other shores.  He’s been doing this for some time, and all the girls claim that Dragon doesn’t touch them.  The villagers don’t exactly believe this, but since he’s their immortal feudal liege lord and a sorcerer to boot, no one bothers to complain.  As the novel begins, Agnieszka, who is naturally 17 years old and up for the choosing, reflects on how she’s going to miss her good friend Kasia.  Clearly Dragon will choose Kasia, she’s beautiful and kind and her mother has groomed her for her whole life in the skills that she will need to serve a nobleman.  Agnieszka is plain, and clumsy, and can’t keep herself presentable for more than fifteen minutes, and so it’s a shock to her (if not the reader) when Dragon ends up teleporting her to the wizard tower to begin her apprenticeship.

Note I said “apprenticeship” there.  It’s almost immediately clear to Agnieszka that she’s not exactly getting the same deal that the other girls usually get – she finds friendly notes from previous holders of the position that Dragon will usually just ignore them as long as they have dinner ready on time, and that it’s not such a bad gig.  However, Agnieszka is almost immediately harassed and browbeaten by Dragon, who eventually lets on to her that she’s got magical talent, and he’s required by the laws of the kingdom to offer her training in the area.  With the Wood out there and trained mages being the only real way to hold it at bay, they can’t let a single adept go to waste.

In many novels of this type, it would turn out that Agnieszka is the most powerful magic user the world has ever seen.  And that is . . . sort of true.  At first she chafes under the tutelage of Dragon, who is practically a martinet when it comes to pedagogy, but it later turns out that the areas where she’s gifted are different, and that maybe she just has different sorts of skills.  Dragon is a rigid academist, so at first he doesn’t even see why Agnieszka should bother trying to do it her way, but a couple of impressive results later he begins to come around on her usefulness, and later to both of their surprises (if not the reader’s) perhaps more than that.

One of the many things that I liked about this approach is how it plays with some of the typical clich├ęs you expect in fantasy novels of this type.  Agnieszka has some successes in simply trying things that wouldn’t have occurred to Dragon or some of the other more classically trained magic users.  However, sometimes these things also come back to bite her, since she’s not aware of the reasons why more skilled mages wouldn’t have attempted it.  (They usually have good reasons, you see.)  It also turns out that the Wood is not stupid, and is perfectly willing to try and find an upside in its losses if it can.  Her inability to comprehend the full depth of the Wood's malevolence nearly ends up having disastrous results on more than one occasion. 

There are also a couple of really impressive setpieces throughout the book – one ill-advised foray into the Wood, for one, and a harrowing account of a battle at the wizard tower, for another.  Turns out that one of the most powerful tools that the Wood has at its disposal is using people against each other.

As much as I like this overall – and it’s great, by the way, absolutely worth a read – there are a couple of little things that set me off it in parts.  Agnieszka is a great character, but she sort of randomly veers between incompetence and masterful competence in unpredictable ways.  Maybe this has something to do with being 17, but sometimes she’s really quite masterful at personal interactions and sometimes she’s not, and the disparity can be somewhat jarring.  I am also not personally a fan of the “oh I’m so clumsy and messy, mercy me” type of characterization.  Fortunately this gets set by the wayside reasonably early on, or at least dialed back to an acceptable level.

The book does benefit from a very strong ending, which I wouldn’t dream of giving away.  Suffice to say that we find out exactly why the conflict between the Wood and humanity as a whole began, and in a world where some mages spend their immortal lives forging weapons of death, that empathy can be as potent a force as spell-forged steel.  It manages all this without getting too sappy or unrealistic.  It’s a hell of an achievement.