Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is a very famous SF author who’s won the Hugo several times (both for this work and a couple of volumes of the Mars Trilogy), which makes it a little strange that I’ve never read anything by him before.  Well, I don’t have time to do everything.  I started here because, as mentioned above, it’s a Hugo award winner, which is almost certainly a sign that something will be interesting, if nothing else.

After reading through it a bit, I checked the publication date against Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and sure enough it came out about five years later.  I wouldn’t say that the two are related, exactly, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Robinson read Diamond’s book and took a little while to think through some alternate history.  Of course, it could be totally unconnected for all I know, but at least I found it a little plausible.  Guns, Germs, and Steel deals with the question of why European civilizations were the incubators for what we’d call modernity and exported it to the rest of the world, as opposed to the other way around.  In Robinson’s book, that doesn’t happen, since they’re all dead right from the very first chapter.

In this novel, the Black Death was way more virulent than in real life (or perhaps Europeans were just a little more susceptible to it) and instead of 30-40% fatality rates it was more like 99%, essentially depopulating Europe entirely.  Instead of a shock which took centuries to completely recover from, it was something so devastating that no recovery was possible.  Some pockets of Europeans survived, but in nothing resembling modern nation-states and the populations were vulnerable to raids and enslavement.  White people are extremely rare (one of the only “pure” populations are some Irish captives kept in a harem, and unless I’m mistaken no white character has a single line of understandable dialogue in the whole thing) and Christianity is a fringe sect with nothing resembling an orthodoxy, since the Christian populations surviving tended to be outliers anyway.

This leaves the world to be explored, and discoveries made, by other civilizations.  Which they do.

The scope of the book takes place through the remainder of human history up until an alternate 2002 (although with the Christian calendar not in use that’s not a date that people in the book would identify).  This leads to something of a narrative problem, namely, how one manages to have characterization in a 650-year narrative.  Robinson solves this problem by applying Tibetan Buddhism and the concept of the “bardo”; there are four or so characters bound together in a jati, or collective of souls, and they meet up in the afterlife before reincarnation.  In each incarnation they have the same basic personality and their names start with the same letter for ease of reference, I guess.

So you have B, who’s a basically gentle, practical go-along type of person; K, who is impetuous, hot-headed, and vengeful; I, who is something of a cold technocrat but means well enough; and S, who is a selfish jerk and causes more trouble than anything else.  These four are reincarnated repeatedly and run across each other time and again in different guises and forms; sometimes as allies, sometimes as enemies, sometimes as lovers (they tend to switch genders between incarnations) and sometimes as family.  This is kind of a weird plot element, but as an approach to have some sort of consistent characterization throughout it’s probably a good solution.  As a plot hook, frankly I find it a little weak, since it appears at times that something will come of all this time in the bardo, but it basically doesn’t happen; the characters constantly talk about the need to improve stuff in their next lives but they end up saying the same thing every time, I don't think they ever really manage to accomplish it.

So there’s sort of an overriding narrative arc, but the ten chapters are primarily self contained, and each one deals with events at a particular time and place.  The first one is told in the style of “Journey to the West”, and deals with introducing B and K.  In this incarnation B is a foot soldier for Tamerlane and ends up in slavery with K; starting a typical theme of the novel, K attempts to get revenge for something which was done to him and ends up making everything worse.

This chapter could have almost happened in real life, it deals with the appropriate Chinese emperors of the time period and other historical personages.  As the text diverges farther and farther from the world we know, the tales become more and more unusual; for instance the third chapter deals with the Chinese expedition that first discovers North America, and the fifth describes how Japanese refugees from the Chinese conquest of Japan teamed up with the Iroquois League to industrialize and hold off the colonizing Chinese from the west and Muslims from the east.  So clearly by that time we’re no longer in Kansas, or maybe we are but they don’t call it Kansas, or nevermind, you get the picture.  Some alternate history has recognizable figures show up, but past the first couple of chapters that doesn’t happen so much.  It’s a different world.

I really liked parts of this book, I can see what all the fuss is about.  At the same time, I found other parts of the book bland and tedious, and some other aspects that were by no means bland were so raw and emotional that it was almost painful to read them.  This sort of paradox may be inherent in the human condition but it isn’t necessarily enjoyable.  Robinson really looks into the idea that life for most people throughout most of human history has been nasty, brutish, and short, and really gets into that idea by taking an unflinching look at it.

For instance, in the first chapter of the second section of the book, B and K have been reincarnated as peasant girls in India who are friends.  K gets sold off into an arranged marriage at age fourteen and her husband’s family treats her as a combination of livestock and slave; B gets seduced by a cad who is related to K’s husband, then abandoned and dies in childbirth.  K poisons her husband and the other guy to death for revenge, immediately gets caught, and the village executes her as a witch.  Bam.  Right back to the bardo for another try.  For her actions K gets reincarnated as a tigress, then killed by villagers.  Bam.  Back to the bardo again.  Only in the third reincarnation of the chapter does the narrative really kick off, until that point it’s just study after study of human squalor and misery.  And then there’s still plenty of squalor and misery, or everything will be going pretty well and then suddenly there will be a political change, or an epidemic, or a natural disaster, and everyone will die horribly or get thrown into prison and die horribly there and that will be that.  Back to the bardo.  After one particularly galling chapter even the characters sit around in the afterlife bitching about how everything seemed to be going so well.

That’s also not talking about the treatises that start to populate the last half of the novel.  The idea of a samurai leading a Native American resistance against the Chinese is pretty neat, but really it mostly involves him getting drunk at a lacrosse game and giving a long (long, long) speech about all the stuff that they need to do.  Then the elders go off and say they’ll think about it.  Cue a brief epilogue assuring us that all sorts of cool stuff happened to them after a full life, but that which we don’t really get to see.  This also becomes a problem in the last couple of chapters which deal with an epic conflict between the world powers, and are described in a series of somewhat tedious academic lectures.  By the last chapter, B is literally an academic and gives a bunch of lectures of the sort that any self-respecting sophomore would want to sleep through.
I’m also not entirely sure that I buy some of the things that occur; the world ends up in the alternate 2002 very similar to our world, albeit through different paths.  I don’t know if it’s really that plausible that they had a similarly timed Industrial Revolution, or that they ended up with similar ideas regarding democracy and feminism through different routes.  I guess it’s possible.  I’d be more inclined to believe that things could have happened either faster or slower.  In any event, the jati is involved in some of the changes, but by no means all of them, and some of my favorite parts of the whole thing are when they are living normal lives and just trying to get by.

As far as I can tell, the point of all the lectures is that it’s good to take care of the earth and leave it in even better shape for your descendants.  Which I’m all in favor of.  But I feel that Robinson’s trying to get some sociological points across that don’t necessarily get conveyed clearly despite all the page space devoted to them, which is too bad.

So basically this one novel contained parts that I really liked and parts that I really didn’t, although the very strong opening chapters were enough to make me not regret it.  Therefore I can’t give this an unqualified recommendation, but it certainly does provide work outside the typical SF framework and it plays with some interesting ideas.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Dreadnought by Cherie Priest

I first got turned on to Cherie Priest by the buzz around Boneshaker, her 2009 novel which was on the Hugo ballot in a very strong year (the eventual winner was a tie between The Windup Girl and The City & The City, both of which are among the very best recent SF I’ve seen.)  She’s continued to make waves with her Clockwork Century works, including this one, as well as other projects.

I had very mixed feelings about Boneshaker.  I genuinely admired its craftsmanship – Priest is a devastatingly skilled writer.  In the words of Mark Twain, the difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between the lightning and a lightning bug, and Priest rarely missteps.  In addition she created very strong characters for her world and the plot deals with a mother-son dynamic that both felt right and isn’t a very common theme to see in SF works.  That said, I’m not a huge fan of steampunk.  And I’m pretty much sick to death of zombies.  Therefore a steampunk zombie novel is not, perhaps, the best way for me to spend my entertainment dollar.  I was left with the feeling that it was done well but not necessarily done for me, and I moved on.

But I was intrigued by it well enough to pick up Dreadnought more or less without knowing anything about it (especially since I got in off a big table at the Borders liquidation sale at a big discount), in the hope that it would contain more of what I liked and less of what I didn’t.  Alas, no.

So I guess in a sense this is the inverse of the review I had for Aloha From Hell, where I stated that I couldn’t personally vouch for the objective quality of the work but enjoyed the hell (sorry) out of it anyway.  In this case, the book is actually pretty good, has solid writing, nice command of tone, OK (but not outstanding) characterization, and admirable attention to detail.  I would say I think it’s a little weak in pacing in parts, but I’d honestly have to say that it wouldn’t be a deal breaker for me for a book whose subject matter I liked better.  Nonetheless, I just don’t like it very much, but this may say more about me than the book.

The first thing that simply doesn’t work for me is the suspension of disbelief required for an alternate history work.  In Priest’s Clockwork Century novels, it’s 1880 and the Civil War has been ongoing for twenty years.  Texas isn’t part of the Confederacy, though, although they are allied – in the 1840s the Republic of Texas discovered oil at Spindletop earlier than in our world and this began fuelling all sorts of coal and diesel powered machinery, for war and otherwise.  So, Texas never joined the US at all and has become an industrial power in its own right.  The Confederacy has, too, and both the Union and the Confederates have various airships, mechanized weapons, war walkers, and various other steam-powered armored horrors to inflict an early World War I style trench massacre upon each other.

But wait, you might say (as I did), if the sides are basically industrialized and evenly matched, then what was the Civil War being fought over in the first place?  We’re told that at this point it’s just a grudge match that is continuing because it’s there and no one has won yet.  We’re also told that the Confederates early on realized that mechanization was the way to go and gave up slavery so that everyone could pitch in to the industrialized war effort on a grand scale.

I don’t buy it.  Say what you will about the good aspects of the antebellum South, but any sort of racial equality was not part of it.  In the real Civil War, the idea of using slaves as soldiers was floated a few times throughout the real Confederacy, and rejected in horror as the concept of slaves with weaponry strikes terror into the collective hearts of all slaveholding societies (such as Howell Cobb’s famous line that if slaves could make good soldiers then it was wrong to keep them as slaves.)  The South was also famously lacking in railroads and factories of all kinds.  So as an alternate history, it doesn’t make any sense that things developed this way.  It seems like more of a gimmick so you can have more sympathetic Confederate characters for a modern audience, characters who are fighting for hearth and home (as they were in real life, too) but not necessarily defense of slavery, which is really the whole basis for the war in real life in the first place, and inextricable from the Confederate cause.  I mean, I don’t think Priest is a Lost Cause apologist or anything, I think she’s just trying to tell a good story, but I studied this era pretty substantially at one point and I just can’t get over its massive unlikelihood.  I’m far more willing to go along with the diesel powered war walkers than the 1860s American South collectively deciding that black people should be full citizens.  So an alternate history that tries to use an interesting setting but elides the bad parts is jarring for me.

The second thing that I didn’t really like about this is that the zombies are back.  Zombies are of course in every single goddamned thing these days, which started off okay in my opinion but now I'm just tired of it.  At this point I’m basically okay with zombies in comedy (such as Shaun of the Dead) or in straight-up supernatural works (Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels or Richard Kadrey’s Kill the Dead) where you can basically hand-wave the whole zombie thing away by saying it’s magic or just ignore it to tell a good joke.  But in allegedly realistic settings they don’t work for me.

If you read Boneshaker you know that the zombie epidemic began in Seattle after semi-malevolent inventor Leviticus Blue accidentally breached an underground pocket of some sort of gas with the titular badass steampunk excavation device.  Breathing in the gas makes you a zombie, being bitten by a zombie might make you a zombie also, but it’s not a guaranteed thing.  They’re decaying and dead, they pursue the living and eat them.  Apparently now there are pockets of the undead throughout the Southwest too, and of course some assholes are trying to figure out how to weaponize them.

I guess the reason that I’m all right with supernatural zombies but not with “realistic” ones is that this work is supposed to take place in a real world with rules we’re familiar with.  If the guy is dead, then his metabolic processes don’t work, so he can’t move at all, much less chase the living.  If he’s alive in some sort of form, then due to the laws of thermodynamics he can’t be a Perpetual Motion Zombie, just sitting around indefinitely waiting for some protagonist to come by and get chased.  He’ll starve!  The narrative purpose of Perpetual Motion Zombies is for them to be faceless, hostile antagonists like orcs, so that you can have thrilling violence without having to deal with the moral implications of actually committing violence against, you know, people.  It’s OK to do whatever you want to a zombie.

And so these are the reasons that I can’t get into the worldbuilding here; you’ve got a world cleanly excised of troublesome moral issues to set up a conflict with some enemies that you can kill with impunity.  I will say that in both this novel and in Boneshaker the zombies are not the primary threat, but instead people are the fundamental problem in both cases.  And that’s a good thing, so I like that.  But these are troublesome issues for my enjoyment of the book.

Now, all of that and I haven’t even gotten to the plot yet.  We join one Mercy Lynch, a nurse in a Confederate hospital in Virginia, who in short order finds out that her soldier husband has died in a POW camp, and her ailing father wants her to visit him in Seattle before he dies.  With the dead husband she’s conveniently unattached, so she packs her bag and heads off on a thrilling adventure.  Just getting to the train station requires her to navigate a war zone, and once she’s there the only available transport is a forbidding Union war train, but she bites the bullet and gets on board.  From there it’s a series of confrontations with bandits and Confederate raiders, not to mention saboteurs and the underlying question of what’s in the last car and why it’s more enticing than all the money and deeds stuffed in the train too.

Quite a bit of this is exciting, don’t get me wrong, but it’s interspersed with much quotidian concerns like queuing up at the ticket counter and engaging in polite conversation with other (occasionally stupid and dull) people on the train.  There’s a Texas Ranger in there too, which is pretty cool, and Mercy is an interesting character, but I don’t know, it just wasn’t my thing.  And I thought that the end was almost shockingly abrupt, although upon reflection it makes a little sense, as Mercy was trying to accomplish something and she did and there’s really no point in carrying on about it.  Still, not a lot of denouement here.

So after all of this I’m left with the same feeling I had about Boneshaker, which is that this is probably a really good niche book for its intended audience, which doesn’t include me.  If Priest ever writes something without zombies in it sometime I’ll probably be, if not first in line to get it, along presently.