Friday, March 23, 2012

Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds

 I just finished up this short story collection by my favorite former ESA research astronomer, Alastair Reynolds.  Reading these all in a row was an interesting experience, since as it turns out I’d read most of them before without really paying attention.  Out of the eight, I believe that five of them had been collated in Gardner Dozois’ yearly anthologies, which I’d read at a time when I hadn’t really been that aware of who Reynolds was and hadn’t read any of his other Revelation Space novels.

But now I’ve read the Revelation Space trilogy, and the two stand alone novels, and the side novellas, and so I actually knew what was going on this time.  Well, that’s perhaps unfair.  These stories are actually quite good, which is why I remembered them in the first place, but it was very interesting to come back to them with a better understanding of the back story.  For instance he’ll mention the Demarchists as a faction, but depending on the story he might not explain that they use neural implants to perform real-time polling and maintain an anarchic society.  Or, if he does, there isn’t necessarily the space to go into all the implications of what that entails, like the study of their golden era in The Prefect.  There’s also not as much background about the strange, sharp trading spacefaring Ultras or the hive-minded Conjoiners, nor is much explained about the hyperpigs or why all their dolphins are raving psychotics.  Interesting background detail, and it makes perfect sense in retrospect.

Most of the conflict in Revelation Space dealt with the encounter between humanity and the Inhibitors, a quasi-malevolent machine race which wipes out starfaring species.  I say quasi-malevolent because they’re not mustache twirling supervillains exactly, they simply have an more-or-less orthogonal sense of morality to anything humans would recognize and they’re trying to make it easier for everyone to survive the Milky Way’s collision with the Andromeda Galaxy – in three to five billion years.  They think long term.  (There’s some indication that the Inhibitors are beginning to glitch and slide somewhat into outright villainy by the time that humanity encounters them.)

Most of the these stories don’t deal with anything quite so dramatic, but instead deal with more human concerns.  In fact, some of the stories even take place in the Sol system (although none take place on earth), which isn’t something gone into much in the rest of the Revelation Space universe.

The stories, as far as I can tell, are arranged roughly chronologically by their occurrence, with the possible exception of “Galactic North”, which spans the vast majority of the Revelation Space timeline and then far beyond it.  So “Great Wall of Mars” begins (appropriately enough) on Mars, in the not-too-distant future.  This is an interesting choice, because it doesn’t match the publication or writing dates, meaning that some of the stories are less developed than others.  I believe “Dilation Sleep” was the first written, and in the afterward Reynolds says that he didn’t really have the backstory worked out then but decided to leave it the way it was.

I liked the majority of these stories, especially the first two, “Great Wall of Mars” and “Glacial”.  These deal with Nevil Clavain, a character from the novels, showing how he first got involved with the Conjoiners and detailing some of his adventures in the meantime.  These are really good traditional hard SF stories, and “Glacial” adds something of a mystery element.  There’s lots of good characterization, possibly even more than in some of the novels, and good resolution.

I mentioned in my review of Revelation Space that Reynolds has something of a predilection to throw in unpleasant characters in his writing whose horribleness doesn’t really seem to serve much purpose.  In this short story collection, there’s also a bit of that, and the stories that I didn’t like as much tend to go for Twilight Zone-style nasty twist endings to people who deserve it.  In “A Spy in Europa”, the main character is a secret agent for a faction called Gilgamesh Isis who goes around murdering people and generally causing havoc.  In “Grafenwalder’s Bestiary”, the story follows a security consultant who is really a total bastard and collects sentient beings.  In both of these cases the guy gets a suitably horrible punishment (and ironically enough they were on opposite sides of the conflict).

Normally I wouldn’t be against nasty twist endings quite as much, although they’re not my favorite and they can seem a little cheap and telegraphed.  The real reason to object in this instance is that “Nightingale” does it so much better.  This story starts out like a standard military SF setting and quickly shifts into a horror story, inflicting pretty bone-chilling results on people who don’t necessarily deserve what happens to them.  In comparison, the other two twist-ending stories don’t hold up as well.

Then there’s the eponymous “Galactic North”, which may have been a prototype for House of Suns and also involves a relativistic chase over unfathomable lengths of time.  In this case it also serves as an overview for the Revelation Space universe and follows the progress of the Greenfly, which the protagonist may have unwittingly released and which eventually destroys the entire galaxy by mistake.

Oops.  Talk about the ultimate kick in the teeth. 

I think it’s supposed to be hopeful because some people eventually escape, but since the Greenfly can follow them forever it seems like sort of a downer ending.  Well, Reynolds is all about confronting the unfathomable, and that’s about as hostile and unfair as it gets.  So if you don’t mind a bummer ending this is a worthwhile collection.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson

So here is the conclusion of the Sprawl Trilogy, begun in fine style by Neuromancer and continued in adequate style in Count Zero.  In my post on Count Zero I mentioned that one was almost entirely self-contained and didn’t really require any knowledge of or interest in the events of Neuromancer to understand.  In this final volume Gibson’s come full circle and I think you’d really have to have read the first two to understand what’s going on here – or at least to make the attempt.

This one continues Gibson’s strategy of split up plot elements which merge together in the end, only this time instead of three threads, we’ve got four.  The first follows Angie Mitchell, daughter of the Maas scientist that Turner was hired to extract in Count Zero.  Her father made a deal with the fragmented Wintermute/Neuromancer entities in cyberspace to help his career, in return he modified his daughter to access cyberspace without using a computer.  Somewhat creepily, the neural implants that allow her to do this aren’t detectible because the AIs in the matrix know if she has a brain scan and falsify the results.  She’s become a huge media star, and finds that the drugs she’s been taking interfere with her ability to commune with the AIs.

In the last novel, Angie was in a relationship with Bobby Newmark, a.k.a. Count Zero, who’s also back in this novel, although they’ve broken up in the interim and they’re both somewhat carrying torches for each other.  The specific reason that they’re not together at the moment – or at least why Angie can’t seem to locate him - is revealed in the second thread, which finds Bobby immersed in a comatose state in a vat, constantly accessing the matrix.  A raft of secondary characters finds themselves having to take care of him, and we’re left wondering why exactly he’s done this to himself and what it is that he's trying to access or discover in there.

The third thread deals with Mona, a young naïve prostitute with an uncanny resemblance to Angie Mitchell, who gets mixed up with some bad people in a plot to kidnap Angie.

And the fourth deals with Kumiko, the young and innocent daughter of a Yakuza high-up who is sent to London for a while so her father can get through a spot of unpleasantness.  While there, she meets up with a lady by the name of Sally Shears – formerly known as Molly Millions, who’s running around on her own, trying to get out of some of her own problems.

That’s just the main bits.  Each of these threads also contains a fair number of supporting characters who are all trying to jockey for position or achieve goals of their own.  Just listing all these people and what they want would make this post a surprising percentage of the original novel.  Perhaps the most surprising returning character is Lady 3Jane, whose body is dead but whose mind is still somewhat around – for a given value of around – in a device called an aleph, which theoretically contains a simulation of the entire universe.  (I believe that’s a reference to a short story by Borges, only in that case you could go to this one spot and experience the whole universe at once.  It appears in comic books fairly often too, most recently in Mike Carey’s Lucifer.)

I haven’t read Gibson’s entire bibliography, but none of the ones that I have read have quite so much going on.  My guess would be that this one proved to be a little much and he scaled back from here; it’s got so many characters all trying to accomplish so many different things that it is very hard to keep track of.  If I had one critique of this novel, and in fact I have several, it would be that it lacks focus.  But that’s sort of a big one, in my estimation.

The other major critique that I have is also simultaneously something that Gibson does really well, paradoxically.  In many cases, when some person or entity is supposed to have “a plan beyond human comprehension”, it turns out that it’s totally comprehensible, just sort of dumb and pointless.  Gibson obviously realizes this tendency, and veers out entirely in the other direction.  In this book (and in the others in the Sprawl Trilogy, for that matter), if some entity is said to have a plan beyond human comprehension they mean it.  In Count Zero, the AI entities in the Matrix wanted to kill a guy and went through a lot of hoops to do it, but this was just a sub-goal on their ultimate aim, which was unclear.  In this one, we’re told that they have some unfathomable reason for some of their actions, but Gibson never tells us what it is.  At the very end of the novel, some of the characters are going to go find out Why It Changed, but even the conversation leading up to that suggests that even with the new information they’re about to get they’ll still have to guess.  And then they go off and the novel’s over.  I felt at the end of Count Zero that I had some idea as to what happened, but here not only do I not have any confidence that I understood, but also think that the text affirmatively states that I couldn’t reasonably understand it.  I’m not even really sure who survived exactly, or if they did how long they will continue to survive in whatever form they continue to exist in.

Thematically, that’s all right, because the whole point of this novel as far as I can tell is struggling to understand your place in an incomprehensible world.  As literature goes, that’s cool.  As SF, perhaps not so much – I like to see people taking actions and solving problems.  But I have to give credit to Gibson for realizing that if the plan is beyond human ability to understand then he can’t know what it is, and if he somehow could then he wouldn’t be able to explain it to me.

Now that said, there are some nice setpieces here where people manage to solve human problems by more direct means, such as Molly kicking the ever living hell out of people who irritate her.  She’s an awesome character who’s developed quite a bit from the rakehell cartoon she was in Neuromancer.  Having lost her first love to the Yakuza and the possibility of love with Case to her own wanderlust, she’s thought a lot about her situation and matured remarkably.  She also gets to have one of the better endings on her own, human terms.

Some of the other characters I don’t think are as good.  Mona’s all right, but she’s kind of dim, takes a lot of drugs, and isn’t educated.  Even if the plot she is involved with was explained to her (which it isn’t), she probably wouldn’t really understand anyway.  I guess she gets a happy ending, if you consider celebrity to be something to aspire to (personally I'd rather jump off a bridge.)  Kumiko’s a lot sharper, but I found her to be so sheltered and reserved that I couldn’t really relate to her.  In both cases these characters are passive and having things done to them for reasons they don’t really understand.  The characters who are actually taking the actions have motivations which sort of make sense (e.g., they’ll get some money out of it), but they themselves are being manipulated by other, sinister forces, which are sometimes explained and sometimes not.

Angie Mitchell gets manipulated directly, when she’s not drug-blocked, since the AIs can take control of her body, which means that at any point they can intrude on the narrative directly, and sometimes they do so.  Nonetheless, Angie’s experience of a super-saturated media world is probably the most interesting story told here, and her desire to reunite with Bobby is both a human and comprehensible desire.  I liked both her and Bobby far more in this novel, not least of which because they had more to say and do.

This may very well be the best written of the trilogy, but it lacks the direct urgency of Neuromancer and the character moments of Count Zero.  There’s one especially interesting thing revealed here, which is the ultimate fate of Case – we find he made a couple of additional scores then got out of the game, settled down and moved on.  Gibson chose to do the same thing, moving on to other pastures, having given some sort of closure to this one, even if it’s not exactly what I’d like to see.  So I respect that, even though I thought this one was a little fragmentary.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Courtney Crumrin by Ted Naifeh

I promised Mona Lisa Overdrive, and I’m getting through it, but I recently got a birthday care package which included the most recent Courtney Crumrin story and I found myself going back through all the first ones as well.  I hadn’t read them in a while, and had somewhat forgotten how solid (and scary) they are.  Ted Naifeh is a familiar name in the comic book scene, and Courtney Crumrin is his best-known solo work (he does a lot of illustration for hire, this one is his baby.)  I didn’t realize this, but apparently there’s an ongoing series about to start in April, so this is probably a good time to look at this, in any event.

So stop me if you’ve heard this one before – Courtney Crumrin, aged somewhere between about nine and twelve, has to uproot herself from the life she’s familiar with and move in with her parents to her creepy great-uncle Aloysius’s house (or maybe it’s her dad’s great-uncle?  possibly even her grandfather’s great-uncle?  wait, how old is this guy anyway?)  While there she gets crossways with the local brats but discovers a secret world of fairy creatures and even discovers magical powers within herself.  Sound like just about anything you could find in the YA Harry Potter ripoff section at the local bookstore?  Uh-uh, not this one.

First unique thing about Courtney – she’s got a super well developed personality, and it’s informed by everything we know and see about her.  I’d be tempted to say that her parents “aren’t bad parents, but . . . “.  However, that would be wrong, since they are bad parents.  Well meaning, but inadequate to the task.  They’re small-minded wannabe social climbers, without any of the wit or resources needed to actually socially climb, and they find themselves utterly incapable of dealing with the daughter that they’ve actually got as opposed to the one they’d like to have.  They compensate by neglecting Courtney’s actual needs, and she, in turn, compensates by pretending not to care and acting like she doesn’t need the help.  She’s sullen, unpleasant, bratty, and doesn’t even take much comfort in the fact that she’s usually right.  Courtney’s so used to being alone that she pushes away even those who might be friendly, and is so used to being miserable that she sabotages herself at every opportunity so she won’t have to deal with the unexpected.

An altogether typical pre-teen, in other words, if a little bit more prickly than most.  It’s unusual to see a protagonist with this many relatable flaws in this genre.  What makes it even better is that her discovery of magical powers doesn’t actually affect any of this – she’s still equally unlovable and now she’s even scarier.
The series so far has comprised of a few limited series, compiled into four trade paperbacks, and a prequel story which focuses on Aloysius as a young man.  All of these are at least pretty good.  Actually, the first one is a little disjointed and features somewhat flat antagonists.  In my personal opinion, the second one, Courtney Crumrin and the Coven of Mystics, is so far the real standout.

There’s a great overarching antagonist in that one – it’s a hobgoblin that’s feared for its apparent bloodlust and imperviousness to any sort of magical assault.  Naifeh’s art style and character design match perfectly here – you almost never quite see it all in one shot, since it’s usually blending into the background, but what you do see is jaw-droppingly horrific.  It’s all hunched over, but still twice the size of a man, has ridiculously long limbs, looks to be dripping moss and/or gore, and has a skeletal face with too many incisors and what you imagine are sunken, glowing eyes.  It’s an excellent nightmare creature, and as it turns out it’s really as bad as you’d expect, although it’s also relatively urbane and has a sense of humor.  And although it’s certainly terrible enough, the real villains are the humans – it’s still a monster, but that’s just according to its nature.

Naifeh has a lot of control over the narrative in that one.  Aloysius doesn’t suffer fools lightly, nonetheless he’s the go-to guy when the other magicians in town have a problem that’s too tough for them to deal with, which makes them resent him even more.  Later on he manages to make a strong case very badly, essentially arguing that the magical council should find in his favor because they’re too stupid to understand what’s going on.  Naturally he manages to lose, dramatically demonstrating that being right doesn’t always mean you’re effective.

Another nice thing is that adults aren’t totally useless.  Aloysius isn’t (he literally wrote the book on dealing with Night Things), neither are a couple of Courtney’s other teachers.  Nonetheless, she decides to take matters into her own hands – something not entirely uncommon in YA fiction – but takes them perhaps a little bit too far.  Now, it’s certainly possible to argue that what she does is justified (after all, the person she does it to surely deserves it).  Nonetheless, she manages to ignore all that due-process stuff and go straight to vigilantism.  It’s also pretty profoundly disturbing, since you have to wonder about her mental stability at that point.  The book establishes that working around magic can make you a power-mad lunatic, and you have to wonder if Courtney’s not only a neglected girl but possibly just bad.  The book is surprisingly agnostic on the subject; it's certainly possible to argue either way.

Her actions end up having repercussions not just for her but for many other people as well; these are explored in the third volume, which is also pretty solid.  There will no doubt be ongoing problems for her as well as a result of her actions, since it’s not the sort of thing that can be undone or really ignored.  But she does manage to come out of her shell a little bit and possibly learn from her (and Aloysius') mistakes about interacting with people.  Even stupid, annoying people who don't know as much as she does and aren't nearly as powerful.

The fourth volume deals with her trip to Europe on vacation with Aloysius where they basically cement their relationship and deal with more traditional monsters.  I thought this one was OK, especially in its subversion of audience expectations regarding true love conquering all, but was not quite as strong as the second and third collections.

So with Courtney starting out in a reasonably good place, at least as far as she is concerned, I’m interested to see what Naifeh has in store for her in an ongoing series.