Monday, May 28, 2012

Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett

So how on earth did I come to overlook this one?  I suppose the answer is that I was only a casual Pratchett reader at the time, and I was a little busy in 2003, but I’ve read all the ones before it and all the ones since, only having a perfunctory glance through Monstrous Regiment.  Until now.

It’s not really a regiment, as it happens, more of a squad, and a pretty run down and pathetic one at that.  But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.  I mentioned in my review of Snuff that the later Pratchett works tended to lean more towards plausible horrible things as opposed to evil witches or the Fair Folk or whatever, and while Night Watch was probably the tipping point of that process by this point it’s fully in bloom.  And while this made aspects of Snuff and I Shall Wear Midnight so realistically horrible that it diminished my enjoyment of them, this is one of the strongest standalone Pratchett novels that I’ve ever read.  I’m actually embarrassed for not reading it sooner.

Also, fair warning – this book is nearly 10 years old and any in-depth discussion is going to involve massive spoilers.  Don’t keep going unless you’ve already read it or don’t care.

The heroine of this novel is one Polly Perks, who lives in a crappy small town in the Discworld equivalent of Eastern Europe.  Her nation, Borogravia, is provincial and constantly at war with its neighboring small countries over one thing and another, particularly religion, with which Borogravia is heavily afflicted.  Their deity, Nuggan, has a living testament which is gradually declaring more and more things to be Abominations; going beyond typical stuff like women wearing trousers and other sorts of traditional bugbears into the deranged, such as forbidding jigsaw puzzles, crop rotation, rocks, and the color blue.  It’s mentioned that since basically everything is an Abomination that daily life is something of a series of overlooking things and technicalities.

They’ve also got something like Salic law there, so Polly can’t inherit the tavern which is the only thing of note her father possesses (her mother’s dead).  There’s an older brother, who is kind and somewhat mentally challenged, but he got drafted into the army and hasn’t been heard from in a while.  If Polly’s father dies without the brother around then she’ll be either on the street or at the mercy of her worthless drunk uncle – possibly both.  This is intolerable.  Therefore, she resolves to join the army herself, find her brother, and bring him back home by any means necessary, and be damned to the fact that this is also an Abomination.  So she goes to the next town to enlist and finds out that she passes for a male just fine, possibly because there aren’t many other young men around left to recruit and all the other recruits are just as skinny and nervous as her.  And they also all turn out to be women in disguise too.

I can’t emphasize enough how in control of the narrative Pratchett is here.  Borogravia is a crappy country that (probably) started this latest war; nonetheless the individual people are sympathetic without taking that left turn into maudlin.  It’s pretty easy to remember that in many traditional books the Borogravians would be the bad guys, and they sort of are; at the same time they may have responsibility but they are not guilty.  As such.  In addition, the head of Zlobenia, the opponent de jure, is also portrayed as a huge asshole, for instance assuming that all women will be sufficiently impressed with his exalted position to want to sleep with him, and that protests that this is not correct are simply for show.  At one point he attempts to molest Polly, who is ‘disguised’ as a male soldier disguised as a barmaid (it’s complicated), and so we’re pretty happy that he gets kicked in the junk and left naked and hogtied in an outhouse.  At the same time you are painfully aware that if he succeeded in conquering Borogravia that things would probably be a lot better around there.

Polly’s squadmates are the motley crew you’d expect.  Three of them are refugees from a reformatory for Bad Girls (think the Magdalene Laundries, including beatings and sexual assaults); one’s trying to find the soldier who impregnated her and ran off, and then there’s a troll, a vampire, and an Igorina, all of whom have their own motivations for joining the army.  The actual males in the squad are a sleazy political informer and Lieutenant Blouse, a man of privileged upbringing who manages to cut his own sword hand while practicing but is somewhat smarter than he appears, at least regarding mathematics if not gender issues.  (At one point he declares that his squad couldn’t convincingly disguise themselves as women and that he’d have to do it himself.)

Then there’s Sergeant Jackrum, a soldier of unascertainable age and considerable girth, one step ahead of some discharge papers, and who in the tradition of fine NCOs everywhere elides all simple moral concerns and simply tries to keep everyone alive.  Mostly Sergeant Jackrum, of course, but if all the sqaddies make it that’s also ideal.  Jackrum’s not easy to fool and spots all the women right away, but again in fine NCO tradition, doesn’t really care all that much as long as orders are followed.

Oh, and in the other corner is Sam Vimes of Ankh-Morpork, who’s been sent with some military forces to win the war on behalf of Zlobenia for the greater commercial benefit.  Or in general to do whatever it is he feels necessary to restore order.  You may remember that he once solved another war by arresting both armies, and although that may not exactly be an option for him here Vimes also figures out what’s going on pretty quickly and drives a lot of the action.

This book heavily subverts the idea that the world would be better if women did the fighting.  Polly notes that it’s always the old women in town who turn out for the public executions and who lead the way in turning over other women to the religious police, and as it turns out to make it in the army the women have to be even better men than the men are.  Polly’s squad isn’t the first set of women in the army, and it eventually becomes apparent that quite a few of the thickheaded senior commanders are also women in disguise.  With the other gender disguising plot it quickly becomes apparent that women can more easily disguise themselves as men since they live in a men’s world and actually understand it, while the men think they understand women but really have no idea what women really have to go through in life.  All of this is done fairly gently but the message is loud and clear.

There’s no peace as long as people are willfully stupid, so the ending of this book is probably a lot more bittersweet than most of Pratchett’s other works are.  Nonetheless, things probably improve a little and they at least had relief for a season, so it’s not entirely bad.  Still, this turned out to be surprisingly moving and memorable, altogether one of the stronger stand-alone Disc novels.

Friday, May 18, 2012

More Parker Novels by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake)

While on vacation I also caught up on quite a few of the Parker novels by Donald Westlake (writing under his pen name, Richard Stark).  Since they tend to clock in under two hundred pages they’re excellent travel material, and their potboiler construction makes them effective there as well.  I’ve previously talked about The Hunter, where Parker made his debut, and with the new Kindle editions of the entire Parker oeuvre I managed to knock out The Mourner, The Score, The Jugger, The Seventh, The Handle, The Rare Coin Score, and The Green Eagle Score.

If I want to finish the series, that leaves only fourteen more to go.  What can I say, Westlake really liked to write.

Some of these stories are more effective than others, but they are all at least pretty good.  I probably liked The Mourner and The Seventh best out of the bunch, but The Jugger also had some very nice bits, and the rest were by no means terrible.  Although I do have to say that some of them do have some slow parts.
I really appreciate the effort that Westlake went through to try to mix up the formula from time to time, although for dramatic purposes they do tend to have common elements.  In no case does the proposed crime go off without a hitch, since then there would be no particular point in the story.  The most common theme introduces Parker going to a meeting where someone suggests doing a crime.  Parker’s not sure about the job or about one or more of his co-conspirators, but he agrees to do it anyway either because he needs the money or (one assumes) because of some sort of professional pride.  Then the job is executed, and either fate intervenes or someone flakes out and Parker has to try to escape with the loot, his freedom, and his life.  This isn’t to say it always happens that way; The Seventh takes place after the job has already taken place, and The Jugger doesn’t involve a crime at all (or at least not a typical sort).

I mentioned in my last review that Parker is basically a private eye who works on the wrong side of the law; he’s got his own idiosyncratic code of conduct and essentially no other moral values.  He’s kind of an asshole, isn’t good at making small talk, and has a completely alien perspective on most human interactions.  In one of the books he suspects he’s being followed and confronts the guy, who stupidly pulls a knife.  Parker immediately kills this sucker with his bare hands and later finds out he was working for the guy who Parker was on his way to meet up with to ensure he made it to the meeting.  Everyone is horrified by this but Parker points out that you shouldn’t pull knives on people unless you mean it.  Then he sits down and waits for the sales pitch.  He's also open to robbing just about anyone - coin collectors, an illegal casino, an Air Force Base, an embassy, and even an entire town.  If you can make a pitch that it's possible, he'll at least listen.

In one setup he’s told by an associate of his that a wannabe amateur criminal has hit on the perfect heist.  Parker’s not so sure about this, and then asks if maybe the job checks out but the amateur doesn’t, does the associate have any strong feelings that they shouldn’t kill him afterwards.  As it turns out he’s dating the associate’s ex-wife and it might upset her if they get rid of this guy.  Parker gently feels out the guy on how he feels about his ex-wife, which sort of shocks the associate – Parker then points out that he wouldn’t ask the associate to kill the mother of his child.  The associate, in relief, states that he thought Parker might suggest bumping off the kid too.  “I didn’t think you’d go for it”, says Parker.  That’s a pretty dark joke for the reader but I’m not 100% sure that Parker’s kidding, he’s never shown to have much of a sense of humor whatsoever.  On another occasion he’s feeling out someone to see if he needs to kill her or not, and after deciding not to explains as much to her.  In relief, she asks him if he kills only in self defense; he responds that he’ll only kill if “it’s the only way to get what I want.”  Which of course isn’t the same thing at all.

In fact if these books have a weak spot it’s in this sort of contradiction in Parker’s character.  We’re told that he lives a pretty sybaritic lifestyle when he’s off the job, but then slows down and emotionally cools off as his funds run low and he thinks about going back to work.  However, we’re never really shown that particular aspect of his and it seems kind of hard to believe based on what we do see.  I guess he likes swimming and he does pick up rather a lot of women off the clock, but that’s about it.  He’s also a little bit weird about keeping his word – he’ll pretty much always do it, but sometimes he’ll just know that someone’s going to cross him and he’ll take them out preemptively.  He’s never wrong about this, so Westlake doesn’t have to deal with that particular complication of oathbreaking.  In fact, he basically just keeps his word to people he intends to work with again in the future, maybe meaning he’s playing some sort of game theoretic strategy without really understanding it himself.

These books are actually pretty funny, in a dark, dark way.  A lot of the humor comes from just following Parker around and knowing what he’s capable of doing when other characters don’t necessarily have that luxury.  We know that it’s suicidally insane to try to cross Parker or try to take something away from him, but other people don’t necessarily know that, even if they suspect he’s a pretty hard guy.  In fact they generally are making pretty reasonable assumptions about what would be an appropriate response to whatever it is they plan to do.  Imagine their surprise when Parker will take his beef with them far, far beyond what any reasonable person would expect.  Chapters from the perspective of these chumps are some of the highlights of the novels, who include such various foils as a Communist secret agent, a coin collector, and a psychoanalyst.  All of these folks assume that crime is easy and Parker is an idiot, and all end up pretty spectacularly screwed.

This isn’t to say that it always works out well for Parker; he (obviously) never gets killed and hasn’t been caught by the law since the first novel in the series, but that’s not to say that he always gets away with the score.  He occasionally doesn’t get anything, and more often than not gets less than what he was expecting for one reason or another.  In fact karma tends to bite him on the ass more than not, which I’m not sure isn’t Westlake putting the screws to him just a little bit for being such a heinous person.  In fact, in The Jugger, he isn’t trying to commit any crimes and in fact accomplishes some justice, only to end up very badly off in the end.  Try to do something nice, Parker, see where it gets you.  I’m not sure that these are great literature, but they demonstrate Westlake at his craftsman’s best, accomplishing what he can.  Just like Parker himself.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Accelerando by Charles Stross

Sorry about the lack of material, but I’ve been on vacation, which means that I actually had a chance to do some reading, but I’ve also been trying to dig my way into and out of my work obligations and haven’t had a chance to do a lot of writing, either.

Anyway, this was one that I read during my lovely and relaxing trip (to Ireland, which I’d recommend visiting; even their talk radio is awesome.  I could listen to those people speak all day long).  I’d been meaning to get around to it for a while and it seemed like good traveling literature, in the sense that I figured it was the sort of thing to read when I didn’t have just a whole lot of other options about what to do.  Not to harsh on Stross here or anything, but this material was pretty difficult to work with and I can’t really say that I really enjoyed it as such.  Nonetheless, I’m happy that I did stick with it because it was actually quite rewarding.  Eventually.

As it turned out I’d read the opening chapter of this book before in one of the Dozois collections, although I think it had been slightly modified for flow purposes.  After returning, I discovered that it had originally been published as nine separate short stories which do have something of an overarching narrative structure.  However, there is occasionally a bit of variance in the characterization between the stories and it can be a little bit hard to keep up.  For instance, Sirhan, the main character of the last three stories, is the son of Amber Macx and Sadeq Khurasani, major protagonists of the middle three.  However, the versions of Amber and Sadeq that we follow in their narratives didn’t get involved in any relationship, as they were forked versions of the individuals in question who were off doing galactic exploration in digital format while their physical bodies stayed home.  The explorers didn’t even really like each other all that much.  Imagine the surprise to come home to child support demands.

In the Singularity, this sort of thing happens all the time.

The characterization is also all over the place from chapter to chapter; sometimes characters really won’t like each other, and other times they will.  There’s also quite a bit of tension between different variants of people, for instance one version will be successful and another will be a failure.  Family reunions in the Singularity are no easy task either.

Describing “what happens” in this book is actually sort of pointless, since there is actually an amazing, outlandish amount of stuff that occurs.  Since I’ve been keeping this blog I find myself outlining reviews as I read novels now, and about halfway through I realized that summarization would be not only pointless but would cause my brain to explode.  So let’s just say that over the course of this novel the entire solar system with the exception of the sun is disassembled to form a computational framework called a Matrioshka brain, which is powered by the entire output of the sun, and is inhabited by various weakly-godlike intelligences.  These intelligences amuse themselves by constructing simulacra of people like H.P. Lovecraft and perpetrating complex financial schemes against each other.  After about the fifth chapter no one even bothers explaining what these entities want or what their objectives are, it becoming apparent that anyone who doesn’t want to become a digitized entity in the Matrioshka systems better get the hell out of Dodge.

The first couple of chapters could basically happen in the world we’re familiar with, even if everyone is a bit wired up and by the second chapter folks are keeping their memories outside their bodies to an increasingly large extent.  Still, the ideas just get thrown out there left right and center just to see if anything sticks; sentient lobsters running on old Soviet NT servers! Dominatrixes with encyclopedic knowledge of the Internal Revenue Code! Mind-jacking through tooled-up spectacles!  It just keeps coming.  Even the dismantling of the Solar System is just one of those things, it's happening in the background, nothing to see here.

In some senses this is rather silly.  In other ways the metatext is much more interesting than what’s actually on the page.  I’ve mentioned the Fermi paradox before – with all the planets, where’s the life?  Alastair Reynolds answered this question by postulating that there’s a malevolent force out there that wipes out the life, and the life that does survive ends up hiding as a consequence.  In this book it’s suggested that the end result of tool-using is the creation of the digitized environment, and that it’s more of a bandwidth issue that it’s not detected.

The post-humans who are running in virtual format don’t like to leave home, you see.  Everything’s going so fast in there that they have to keep going full out to not get left behind entirely, which means that they aren’t really interested in exploration.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the purpose of this book is actually a veiled critique of a lot of other post-scarcity utopian SF.  We don’t know what the digitized entities are up to exactly, but we do know that they’re running something called Economics 2.0 in there, which to an unaugmented sort of person is like Charles Ponzi crossed with every fictional riverboat gambler.  Some of the space explorers run into something similar in an alien computational framework and are lucky to escape without themselves being turned into a sort of virtual currency and obliterated.  It’s implied that the end state of a bunch of tool-using civilizations is to eventually be engulfed by their trading programs, since the processing power of the Matrioshka brain isn’t infinite, and these programs manage to trade for computational cycles and storage space.  What they want with that is to obtain more cycles and storage.  There’s no real end goal, it’s just that they’re really good at doing that, so they keep on going until they acquire it all.  Then they have nothing to do but wait for other rubes to show up and try to cannibalize them.

It would be easy to dismiss that as silly, but think of all the people right now on non-fictional Earth who die every day for lack of clean drinking water while computers trade stocks at one another.  The idea that similar programs might simply dismantle the planet out of pitiless indifference and different priorities isn’t that silly.  Also the idea that we’ll ever be able to have “enough” of any resource is questionable, and I’m interested to see Stross challenge that thought.  I'm not sure it's exactly a "take that" to anyone in particular, but I think it's quite reasonable to see it as a counterpoint to some stuff by Iain Banks, Vernor Vinge, or Greg Egan, which deal with similar sorts of scenarios in slightly more positive lights.

So I’m glad that I read this before some weakly godlike intelligence caused a vacuum metastability event, but it wasn’t the easiest read ever.