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.