Monday, April 29, 2013

Dodger by Terry Pratchett

I’ve been trying to get my thoughts appropriately in order on this one for a while, but every draft that I have been writing so far has ended up damning it with faint praise, when what I guess I’m really trying to do is praise it with faint damns.  So I will go ahead and do that.

Let me start off by saying that this is a quality effort from Pratchett, which means that it’s going to be a reasonable read in any event.  If I’d written this book I’d consider it a job well done.  But considering his unfathomably large and deep catalog, he’s got a lot of competition from himself and I’d put this one in the “below average” category for him.  I ended up reading it on an airplane which is probably about the best place for it, since it was about airplane ride length and it also blocked me from having any other reading options handy without retrieving my carry-on from the overhead bin.  I realize that “better than fooling around with luggage on a packed flight” is not a ringing endorsement.

I’m not entirely sure on this point, but I think this book is probably meant for younger readers and it’s also not a Discworld book.  However, it takes place in Victorian-era London, which is probably about as close to Ankh-Morpork as you’re going to get in something close to the real world.  It’s not a sanitized version of London, there is a bunch of grinding poverty and casual daily horror that is usually elided from the setting.  As to when it takes place . . . well, the book is a little cagey on that and explicitly notes that there’s a form of time compression going on to ensure the cast of characters (some real, some fictional) can all co-exist.  Pratchett’s notes say that it’s somewhere between 1837 and 1853, with the caveat that Sir Robert Peel (playing the part of Sam Vimes this evening) didn’t have the job he’s holding in the novel at any point during those real years.  None of that bothered me especially.  In fact, the world building is absolutely first rate.  I’d love to read Pratchett’s underground history of Victorian London, instead of the story that we end up with.

Anyway, we’re introduced to main character Dodger (his nom de guerre; his actual name is of course extremely embarrassing) as he goes about his business of toshing, which means he ambles around in the sewer system seeing if there’s anything worth picking up down there.  Money’s good, objects are also okay as sometimes they’re worth having and sometimes they can be ransomed.  It’s stated that Dodger is not above “finding” things in people’s pockets from time to time either.  This is a storm sewer system, incidentally, not a septic system, although some people have begun using it as such, much to Dodger’s disgust.  Dodger’s an old, experienced and crafty hand at this, having survived it a lot longer than most people do.  He’s seventeen.

On this particular night he runs across two thugs beating up a young woman and leaps to her defense.  The woman, who is going by the name Simplicity, turns out to have a few problems of her own.  Namely she was persuaded to marry a prince from some German state, only it turns out that he didn’t consult his father the king beforehand and is expected to enter into an arranged marriage with someone else.  Suddenly all the witnesses to the marriage have had unfortunate accidents and she decided that maybe returning to her ancestral homeland was a good move.  The principality wants her back and is assuring the British government that no harm will come to her if she returns.  Everyone acknowledges that “no harm” can still encompass a rather large and unfortunate range of treatment.

So, there’s the setup.  If you are thinking, hey, streetwise urban petty criminal by the name of Dodger, that sounds a little familiar, I’d say you get a cookie but the Artful Dodger is wearing his trademark top hat right on the cover illustration so you’ll have to provide your own cookie.  Yes, Charles Dickens is a character in this book and yes, Dodger manages to drop titles for many of Dickens’ novels throughout the story, usually being reminded to stop writing stuff down in case the reader missed it.

That maybe was a little harsh, but there are a couple problems I’ve got with this book which put it in the below average section.

The first one is that he’s got this really great setup and setting and then basically doesn’t do a whole lot with it.  A lot of Pratchett’s heroes tend to be awesome, but in this case Dodger basically doesn’t even break a sweat.  He starts off down there in the sewer and by the end of the month he’s got a Saville Row bespoke suit and is being received at Buckingham Palace.  I never once got the sense that he was in physical danger, that his plans would fail, or that he was ever out of his depth in any way.  There were several good opportunities for this but none was taken.  Dodger can out-think, out-talk, and out-fight everyone right out of the gate.  The Discworld novel this reminds me of most heavily is Soul Music, where the joke is supposed to be that the guy is named “Bud of the Holly”, but that doesn’t actually have much to do with anything.  I’m saying that it’s cool to have Dickens in this book, but he doesn’t actually do anything that couldn’t have been done by someone who wasn’t Dickens, and he doesn’t really seem all that much like the real Dickens anyway.

In the same vein, the story lacks a proper heavy.  The unseen prince and his father are the villains but they’re over on the Continent.  Their agents first hire the aforementioned two thugs through a fixer.  Later the agents discuss whether the fixer is any good and whether they should hire “The Outlander” instead.  This sounds spooky, right?  A good Pratchett psycho villain like Mr. Teatime or Carcer?  Then Dodger is told to watch out – someone’s hired the Outlander.  And then the Outlander is both introduced and dispatched in one scene.  This is a shame, not least of which because what little we do find out about the Outlander means that this could have been a truly classic villain, and because the actual confrontation is the only time that Dodger ever really is at any of a disadvantage even a little bit (although salvation is not that far away).

One of the other problems I’ve got is perhaps specific to me, since I’m an Oliver Twist fan from way back and one played the Artful Dodger in yet another children’s theater production.  If Dickens really did base Oliver Twist on his fictional-real-life meeting with Dodger then both Dodger and Solomon Cohen should have sued his drawers off for libel.  I didn’t mention Cohen yet but he’s Dodger’s landlord/mentor and is as far from Fagin as humanly possible.  In fact he’s not only as cool as Dodger but far more worldly.  I sort of wish the book had been about him, but he’s been everywhere and seen everything and frankly would have probably had even less trouble overcoming adversity than Dodger did.  So maybe that’s not a good idea.  And also Cohen tries to discourage Dodger from pickpocketing.  But anyway, although Oliver Twist is really enjoyable, that was Oliver’s show and there wasn’t really too much suggestion that the Artful Dodger or Fagin were admirable or aspirational in there.  Like I said, maybe this is just me, but I was really bothered that Dodger was supposed to be the Artful Dodger when he really wasn’t, in any way.

And my other major complaint is in the nature of personal relationships.  In Discworld novels, the romantic leads tend toward the fourth-date marriage (Carrot and Angua excepted).  I’ve always thought that this was sort of a throwback to the Victorian-esque setting of the novels.  So here when it seems like Dodger and Simplicity may be getting together that’s not entirely unreasonable . . . except that this is supposedly the real world.  Simplicity’s problems started with her horrible choice of romantic partners and she’s just coming off a physically abusive relationship, and Dodger is a seventeen year old street kid who frequents prostitutes on the bad side of town.  I can foresee some strife in this potential relationship.  Just saying.  I wasn’t rooting for them to get together, although I won’t say whether or not they do.

So, there’s my list of faint damns.  I don’t need those four hours back, exactly, and it’s not actively bad.  Still, not his best, sad to say.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Takeshi Kovacs trilogy by Richard K. Morgan

I mentioned in my review of Neuromancer that it must be really frustrating to achieve your greatest success on your very first time out, because then no matter what you do, some jerk is always going to be comparing your later efforts to your first one and saying that it’s pretty good but . . .  Today, I’m going to be that jerk in discussing the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy, which is absolutely one of the best SF works of the past two decades, and at least arguably one of the all-time greats.  Perhaps Morgan will surpass his own work someday, but so far I don’t think he has.  But no one can take this achievement away from him, and in my mind it puts him right up there with anyone you care to name in the field.

These three books – Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, and Woken Furies, deal with the adventures of Takeshi Kovacs (that’s the Slavic pronunciation, by the way, you uncultured lout).  By any reasonable standard, Kovacs is a huge asshole, and even that is an understatement.  He’s at best an antihero and only then because the people he’s up against are even worse than him.  If you looked at a list of his many crimes you’d see just about everything on there except possibly sexual assaults, although in the second book he does engage in some dubious erotic healing techniques on a woman who’s really in no position to give enthusiastic consent (and in any event, this is probably more related to George MacDonald Fraser’s discovery in his first Flashman novel that rapists make worse protagonists than murderers, rather than Kovacs’ firm ethical standards.)

He’s introduced in the opening of the very first novel having just robbed a biotechnology firm on Harlan’s World, a Podunk colony planet out in the middle of nowhere, and as he and his girlfriend are post-coitally discussing how to dispose of the score they are raided by the police and shot to death.  Incidentally, this was a righteous shoot since the girlfriend took down a few officers with a toxic flechette pistol and Kovacs really was reaching for his gun at the time.

Now generally being killed tends to interrupt one’s social schedule and make it difficult for you to star in an SF trilogy from that point, but in the 25th century as it turns out everyone has a “cortical stack” implanted which holds all memories and personality, and it’s of pretty solid construction.  So while it’s by no means impossible to permanently get rid of somebody by destroying their stack, it’s not going to happen in your ordinary garden variety accident or gunfight.  This technology also makes people somewhat casually dismissive of their bodies, or “sleeves”, as if the flesh wears out or gets destroyed you can always just get a new one from somewhere.  The authorities also don’t bother putting physical bodies in prison, either; they just put your stack on a server somewhere and auction off your body, and when you get out you get whatever derelict they have available.  It also means that it’s reasonable to expect Kovacs to serve every day of the 120 year sentence he draws.

Except that’s not what happens – his digital personality gets freighted to Earth, where he’s reawakened in a pretty nice body and told that he’s being hired out to an absurdly wealthy tycoon as a sort of parole.  The tycoon, Bancroft, has recently been restored from backup after someone destroyed both his stack and his head.  Official verdict:  suicide.  Bancroft doesn’t buy it and asked around to some of his friends, one of whom recommended Kovacs as a nasty dude who could look into the situation, with force if need be.

As it also turns out, Kovacs used to be a UN Envoy, one of an elite group of super soldiers who make even other hardened badasses piss themselves with fear.  They are, essentially, weaponized sociopaths.  Given that anyone can get put into a huge muscleman body grown out of a vat, what distinguishes the Envoys is their mental conditioning.  This includes, but is not limited to:  resection of normal human fight-or-flight responses, eidetic memory, language retention, disregard for social dominance rules, and general fearlessness.  An Envoy has no scruples whatsoever when it comes to mission completion and thinks nothing of killing fellow humans.  They also have whatever powers would be handy when Morgan needs it for the plot, which I’ll give a pass.  Anyway, they’re so scary that upon leaving the Envoy Corps, they’re forbidden to run for political office or hold high corporate positions because of the threat they pose to the average Joe.  Perhaps because of these restrictions, ex-Envoys account for a large portion of the violent crime in the Protectorate.

Like most really good SF, Altered Carbon and its sequels aren’t really so much about the technology itself as it is about making some point about people.  The effect of cortical stack technology has had an alarming and constrictive effect on society.  It’s all well and good to think that it would be great to be backed up in case you have some horrible accident, or get sick, or whatnot.  But what about if Stalin had access to this technology, with off-site backups and an array of new clone bodies to get reincarnated into over and over again?  Or Steve Jobs?  Imagine if there wasn’t any way to climb the career ladder because the CEO and every middle manager on down was immortal.  And imagine if these people were constantly afraid of what they had being taken away – like today, but even more so.  This isn’t a dystopia, exactly, but the UN government is oppressive and heavily captive by powerful corporate interests.  The people with money and power are planning to keep it forever.

Bancroft isn’t really all that bad as these things go, but he’s got Kovacs over a barrel in that if Bancroft is displeased then the parole gets revoked.  The remainder of the novel is very reminiscent of a postwar noir detective story, only unlike in Raymond Chandler’s stories they don’t just knock him out, but actually can kill him in virtual interrogation rooms.  There’s some loopiness, but it all ties together and it’s really great.  Kovacs makes a good hard boiled detective and even the ultimate antagonist is a Chandler-esque figure of organized crime.

It was perhaps inevitable that a sequel got made, but what is really striking about the sequels is how little they have in common with the first novel.  There’s a lot of throwaway details that come back into play (he mentions offhandedly another Harlan’s World Envoy who finally shows up in the third novel) but the genre is totally changed.  If you were expecting another detective romp in the 25th century, Broken Angels is not it.

Kovacs has gone back into military service of a sort, hiring himself out to a mercenary organization on the planet of Sanction IV, currently involved in a nasty civil war.  As an ex-Envoy he’s a desirable recruit, but mentally he doesn’t seem to be that interested in the conflict.  On one side is a corrupt group of UN affiliated, corporate backed status quo defenders, and on the other the rebel Joshua Kemp.  The UN Protectorate isn’t heroic by any stretch of the imagination, but Kemp seems like a neo-Maoist who’s more interested in erecting statues of himself than any real reform and doesn’t hesitate to use nuclear weapons on civilian populations.  Kovacs claims at one point that he just signed up with the mercenaries because that gave him the best chance at getting a new body if killed there, and given his numerous allegiance switches this may even be mostly true.

Perhaps I should amend that a little bit – in this book Kovacs is totally out for himself.  He made a noble and selfless gesture at the end of Altered Carbon, but it would be hard to imagine him doing that here.  It may be because he’s older and even more jaded than before, but when he finds that there’s a chance to obtain an alien artifact he immediately ditches his enlistment obligations and attempts to cash in on it.  We already knew that he was a morally questionable individual, but in this book he slides very close into outright villainy, although in thinking about it he was pursuing a career in armed robbery prior to the events of the first novel.  Maybe comic-book level super villainy, then.  Anyway, I think there’s a reasonable case to be made that the actual hero of this book is mercenary chief Isaac Carrera, although it appears to be Morgan’s intent to portray everyone as a huge asshole.

Having made his score and escaped Sanction IV, the third book, Woken Furies, finds Kovacs back home on Harlan’s World engaging in a little recreational murder of some people who have annoyed him.  This one takes a little while longer to get started, but also contains the most interesting antagonist – Kovacs himself.  The ruling class of Harlan’s World surreptitiously took a backup copy of his mental state back when he was younger and still had some loyalty to the governing structure, and have sleeved this younger self in an attempt to get rid of the older Kovacs.  (Double-sleeving yourself in this way is highly illegal, which doesn’t stop it from happening occasionally throughout the novels.)  This one also features the possible return of revolutionary Quellcrist Falconer, who pioneered the concept of multi-generational civil conflict well before Kovacs himself was born.  As it turns out, Kovacs was only on Sanction IV in the first place to provide assistance to Kemp’s revolution on behalf of a Quellist cell before deciding Kemp was a jerk and defecting.

This third book is probably the technically best written of the three, but also tries to get into waters a little too deep.  Morgan writes really good action and suspense scenes but is not quite as good at philosophy and religion, both of which make up a large portion of this one.  But even the characters admit that they’re not sure what they’re proposing is better than the status quo, just that they want to change the power structure to make sure it’s not always concentrating in the hands of those who already have it.

There’s a ton of good world building and detail with just enough handwaving to make it all work.  The whole series is obviously a labor of love, and Morgan keeps it moving so quickly that you don’t have time to worry if any of it really makes sense.

At the end, when Kovacs is going along with a possible new revolution, he’s still not sold on whether it’ll work or whether it’s a good idea.  He’s not an idealist or an ideologue, and most of his capacity for group loyalty ended in a viral strike on most of his squad on a planet called Innenin.  As much as I like these novels, I also really respect Morgan’s decision to stop it here on the grounds that we’ve seen enough.