Monday, October 10, 2016

2015 Clarke: STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel

If you've been reading along, you know I have a soft spot for when writers who are taken more seriously in literary circles try their hand at science fiction. This has become more and more common in the last decade or so, but awards nominators seem uninterested, so I haven't had a lot of opportunity to review many of these books under the purview of this blog (though I do sometimes anyway). The Arthur C. Clarke award, which gave its fist novel trophy to Margaret Atwood, is a little friendlier to the lit crowd than most, and their 2015 award went to this finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. I continue to think that genre and literary writers each bring something to the table.

Mandel's book mostly follows the collapse of civilization due to an extremely virulent epidemic that people call the Georgia Flu (originating in the European nation rather than the American state but quickly spreading through air travel). We get scenes of the immediate aftermath, a "present day" story twenty years after the epidemic that focuses on a traveling symphony/Shakespeare-performing dramatic company where our main character Kirsten Raymonde. We also return continually to the the life of famous actor Arthur Leander, who died onstage the night that the Georgia Flu arrived in Toronto. Kirsten likes to escape into the world of space opera comics about a character named Dr. Eleven, who lives on the titular Station Eleven. These stories of creative expression and survival in the past, present, and future weave in and out of each other throughout the novel, building a case, I think, for the idea that we influence each other in deep, abiding, and sometimes surprising ways that can leave ripples that survive past death and even the end of the world.

Mandel is a great writer, and she creates some really beautiful moments, even if this isn't the most innovative post-apocalyptic scenario or the most compelling plot. Some of the connections (and especially the reunions) here border on contrivance, and my biggest complaint is just how familiar this non-linear structure has become in 21st-century lit fic.

With its evocative prose and rich characters but unoriginal sf plot, this is almost the exact opposite of The Three-Body Problem, but I really enjoyed both books.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

2015 Locus SF and 2014 BSFA Winner: ANCILLARY SWORD by Ann Leckie

If Ancillary Justice plays like a blockbuster science fiction movie that also happens to be very smart and relevant, Ancillary Sword plays like an episode of the Imperial Radch tv show. Said tv show is also pretty smart and relevant, and it does a solid job of extending the themes of Justice, but it doesn't expand on those themes, and it lacks some of the scope of the previous work. I still enjoyed this, but it wasn't Empire Strikes Back to the first book's Star Wars, it was more random "Next Generation" episode to Wrath of Khan.

I don't think I can discuss this plot without mildly spoiling Ancillary Justice, so reader beware.

This book picks up right where the last book left off. Breq has uncovered a deep crisis within the Imperial Radch that threatens to tear the Empire apart, and at the very least could return it to the most vicious form of its colonialism which recent reforms had attempted to moderate. She is able to take command of a ship and proceed to further investigate said crisis. This takes her to Athoek Station, which seems like the jumping off point for a big quest that will delve into the big mysteries of split identities and possible alien infiltration raised by the previous novel...but instead, Sword settles in while Breq meets the locals, tries to do some reforming of corrupt colonial policies and gets involved in some old-fashioned detective work. In other words, it reads a lot like the flashback scenes of the previous work, but it lacks the interspersed bits that contained some more action, nor does it have the big revelations and big galactic-stakes climax of that book.

I'm certainly not saying this is bad, it's just not what I expected. The conflicts and mysteries of Athoek Station are interesting, and Leckie does a good job developing the place and its characters. But the first book introduced three or four really strong concepts that really hooked me in, and this book doesn't add much new to the mix or really advance the overall plot significantly. Breq also began to wear on me a bit - it's interesting that she has a lot of empathy while working on behalf of a largely unempathetic empire, and so she is always fighting for the justice that is supposed to be one of the cornerstones of the Radch. In practice, however, this involves a lot of scenes where she lectures people on why their policies are wrong (I came to refer to this, probably unfairly, as Breqsplaining). I was also bummed that the most interesting character from the last book, Seivarden, is mostly sidelined, as is a promising new character with an interesting hook named Tisarwat, who doesn't get enough to do after the early chapters either. And I'm still not entirely taken by the prose, though again, there is a good excuse for its occasional stiffness.

So, a slight disappointment, but it does set the stage for an exciting third entry, which I will be reading, thanks again to Locus SF voters.

Grade: B-

Thursday, August 18, 2016

2015 Hugo Winner: THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM by Liu Cixin

Over sixty awards in, and the Hugos still have some new ground to break. With this work from Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin, 2015 gave us the first translated winner ever. This was, of course, in the midst of "sad puppy" reactionary slate voting. Again, the actual winner has everything you'd want in a classic science fiction novel - mystery, problem-solving, and big ideas - which undermines the only puppy complaints that are anywhere in the neighborhood of valid. This novel's win was part of a strong anti-sad puppy final result that included "no award" winning many categories that the slate had dominated (though the book had some support from puppy voters, which may have skewed the results).

The Three-Body Problem begins during China's Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, in which activist students fought viciously over Communist ideology in an effort to renew the principles of China's Revolution. This included widespread persecution of intellectuals, and acts of humiliation and violence against anyone believed to have committed ideological crimes. Not only is this an interesting place to start a novel set in China, it gives Liu a couple of thematic points that will recur in the novel: the sense among some of the characters that humanity is too depraved to continue to exist as it is, and also a belief that empirical science should transcend political ideology.

Ye Wenjie witnesses the brutal beating of her father, a theoretical physicist, during the cultural revolution before being sent off to Red Coast, a Chinese SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life) program, for political rehabilitation. Her story is told in flashback at various points in the book, though once an author introduces a SETI project in a science fiction book, you probably have some hint about the plot. In the present (well, near future), we follow nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao. Wang is contacted by the Chinese police, including the book's most colorful character Investigator Da Shi, along with the CIA. They're investigating the recent deaths of several scientists around the world. After having his own surreal experiences (some of the best parts of the book), Wang ends up exploring a virtual reality video game called The Three-Body Problem. In the game, Wang has to figure out the seasonal cycles on a planet that has irregular periods of intense heat and cold.

My description of the plot may sound rather scattered, but all of this comes together really brilliantly in the last third of the novel, and there are some really fantastic ideas that I haven't even delved into yet. I think I can say this without spoiling anything (because it will sound like nonsense until you get to it) - the building of the sophon is one of the best science fiction sequences I've read in a long time.

I really came to enjoy this book a lot. In fact, it has just about everything I want out of science fiction - big ideas that don't ignore human societies and historical thinking and context. I will say the prose was a little plain. In a translated work, it's hard to say where the blame lies, but I've read a fair number of Ken Liu's stories, and I think he's a fine writer, so I'd wager that Liu Cixin's prose is probably fairly unadorned (though very clear) in the original Mandarin. A bigger problem is with the characters. There is attention paid to their motivations, but beyond that they're all pretty flat. Ye Wenjie is the most well-rounded, detective Da Shi is a fun archetype, the main character is kinda dull, though that maybe helps him as a point-of-view character - he is easy to project onto. Actually, I have to say that adding together the stock characters and unadorned prose alongside the great ideas and logical storytelling, I was reminded a lot of Isaac Asimov (who gets name-checked at one point). Asimov was very influential in my early sf reading, so it was a pleasant association, even though not all of those characteristics would be considered virtues in most novelists.

Grade: A-

Monday, August 1, 2016

2014 Nebula Winner: ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer is the kind of active and well-liked leader in the science fiction community to whom the SFWA often seems to award Nebulas. I've hinted in the past that this seeming emphasis on the writer over the work hasn't always led to the strongest winners, in my opinion, but things worked out well with this choice. Annihilation is a strong and intriguing work of speculative fiction with literary ambitions - in other words, just what I'm looking for in these winners.

The novel is written as a journal of an expedition into a mysterious place called Area X that has a strange ecology and dramatic effects on the minds of any humans who enter it. The biologist of the twelfth expedition narrates, and we never learn her name or the names of the other expedition members (a psychologist, a surveyor, and an anthropologist). Things, of course, go wrong immediately, The results are pretty trippy with a heavy focus on how perception shapes behavior. VanderMeer can accomplish a lot, for instance, with the simple fact that expedition members can't agree on whether to call an artifact they find a "tunnel" or a "tower." I haven't always been a fan of very surrealist sf, but it works well here, as the images offer some great surprises and puzzles that stimulated my imagination, Interspersed with these events are flashbacks to the biologists pre-expedition life that build a very convincing character - she is surprisingly well-rounded despite remaining unnamed.

It's short and fast-paced, and I actually thought the length perfect. For a book that is abstract in many ways and doesn't seem interested in explaining many of its mysteries, spending any longer in this world might have gotten a little tiring. But, it ends on a very strong note. However, this is the first volume in The Southern Reach trilogy (all published in 2014 in an interesting strategy), so I guess there is more to be said about Area X and the efforts to explore it. I'm reluctant to dive into the other books not despite my enjoyment of this one but because that enjoyment was so predicated on its length and mystery. If anyone out there is reading and wants to recommend books two and three, I'd love to hear from them though.

Grade: A-

Thursday, July 7, 2016

2014 Hugo and Clarke, 2013 Nebula and BSFA Winner: ANCILLARY JUSTICE by Ann Leckie

A side benefit of my extended hiatus is that I've managed to mostly avoid the Hugos' "sad puppy" stupidity, in which a group of Hugo voters stuffed the nomination ballot boxes with a slate of books that were supposed to celebrate sci-fi adventure over politically-correct messaging.  Look, if you have to game the voting process to get your nominees through, you're an undemocratic movement. Also, bigotry doesn't really make for good democracy either, and the idea that this was a move to eschew contemporary politics is either ignorant or dishonest (as, obviously, an anti-"message" movement sends its own kind of message). If I'd actually had time to read all the nominees, I would have quit doing so when these guys steamrolled through their slate. So, I guess I'm lucky I didn't have time.

One of the ironies of the movement that I think is worth mentioning is that the last couple of years have been exceptionally good for books that resemble an older style of Hugo winner. As I mentioned in my round up of the '00s, traditional forms of science fiction, like space opera, have been in a very rough spot since around the turn of the century, leading to many unconventional Hugo winners, including several fantasy books. If you squint hard and ignore 90% of what people in the movement say (and 100% for the rabid ones), you can almost see a half-decent point that the vast majority of the books from the previous few years didn't fit traditional definitions of mainstream science fiction (hell, I sort of obliquely complained about this is my only posts of 2014).

The problem is, here we have a winner that is absolutely what the Hugos have been missing for the previous decade or so. Ancillary Justice would be right at home in the 1980s, and it draws heavily upon the types of sf (like the works of Ursula K. LeGuin) that did well in 60s and 70s. The fact that a book that represents the best of classic sf won in 2014 really demonstrates the hollowness and sexism of the whole sad puppy "we just miss classic sf" movement.

Breq is an ancillary - a human body that is controlled by the AI of a massive starship of the Radch Empire. Most ships have many ancillaries, which are used as enforcers of colonial rule as the Radchai take over new planets, and these ancillaries share the consciousness of the ship AI. But Breq has lost her ship - she is a lone sliver of that AI consciousness now trapped in human form. She's also on a quest, the nature of which is unveiled over the course of the novel. It has brought her to an icy planet, where she meets one of her former captains, now strung out on drugs, named Seivarden. Much of the novel follows her attempts to fulfill her goals while dealing with her washed-up former commander. Meanwhile, alternating chapters flashback to the Radch conquest of a planet called Shis'urna and reveal Breq's backstory.

It's fairly straightforward, accessible space opera, recalling in world and tone Iain Banks' Culture series and the aforementioned LeGuin's Ekumen books. It doesn't necessarily equal the best works of either of those series, but it's a first novel, and a strong one. And, as a fan of space opera as the quintessential SF sub-genre, I'm happy to see this book gets lots of attention.

It's not perfect. There are plenty of ideas floating around, and not all of them get proper development and attention. The one that seems to interest people the most is the fact that the Radch don't distinguish by gender, meaning that you don't actually know the gender of most of the book's characters (everyone is referred to as a "she"). This is a fun little wrinkle to the world, and Leckie doesn't belabor the point. I think this is mostly for the best, but I did expect a bit more from it. Leckie is more interested in the theme of identity, and what it means to have these distributed consciousnesses. This makes for some crucial plot points, but you rarely get a sense of Breq's personal struggles with identity. Which leads me to my biggest problem with the novel: the prose. Ancillary Justice is written with first person narration, and it is very dry. This does make a certain amount of sense, as the the narrator is an AI fragment, but I think there could have been a more clever and poetic way of conveying this, and I suspect it is as much the result of this being a first novel as it is intentional. I don't want to suggest the prose is bad; it's probably above average for its genre, and it's certainly readable, but I hope for a bit more from Hugo winners (and have gotten it more recently with the likes of Walton and Chabon).

Overall, it's a nice return for space opera to the Hugo novel winners, and I look forward to reading Ancillary Sword (on my to read list thanks to the Locus voters).

Grade: B+

Sunday, June 26, 2016

2014 Locus SF: ABADDON'S GATE by James S. A. Corey

The third novel of what was originally supposed to be The Expanse Trilogy (at least, that's how I understand it) didn't do as much to advance the story as much as I had hoped. This entry was the first (and last, so far) novel in the series to win a major award, and I get the sense that it is beloved by Expanse fans, but I wasn't too fond of it, and I struggled somewhat to get through it because it feels a bit like it's spinning its wheels, but also because of one character that I found particularly annoying.

The extraterrestrial encounters of the first two books have escalated to create a mysterious object in the outer solar system. The crew of the Rocinante, a ship that was central to the first two books, find themselves drawn towards this mystery alongside the competing powers of the solar system (the Earth, Mars, and Outer colonies)  and competition between these powers again leads to conflict. Meanwhile, we get some new POV characters for the Game of Thrones-style 3rd-person limited narration: a gruff officer from the outer colonies put in an awkward position by his Earthly birth named Bull, a lesbian Christian missionary named Anna, and Melba...ugh, Melba.

This series has always been pretty pulpy, and that continues here. The pulp elements help make all of the books fun, propulsive reads. But, Melba takes the pulp to a whole other level, one that carried past suspension of disbelief for me. She's a vicious augmented fighter motivated by a psychopathic need for revenge who develops an intricate plot to destroy the man she blames for the destruction of her wealthy family. In other words, she's completely over-the-top, and both her actions and the success she achieves in her aims are pretty ridiculous. To make this all the more frustrating, her crazy arc drives and dominates this book that is ostensibly about humanity's contact with the remnants of an intergalactic empire. That last bit is the story I want to read, especially with these fun characters and Corey's fast-paced style and storytelling that are both accessible and imaginative. But, most of the book involves humans fighting each other while being manipulated by this master-plotter vengeance heiress.

This is it for me and the Expanse for now, that I won't rule out picking up another entry down the line some time. It's a series that I'm obviously ambivalent about: its biggest virtue - pulpy, exciting plotting, is also often its biggest downfall.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

2012: CALIBAN'S WAR by James S. A. Corey

The second book in the Expanse series has much in common with the first. For one, it carries on many of the best qualities of Leviathan Wakes - it is an exceptionally fast-paced page-turner with some compelling characters and ideas. It is also, at times, perhaps a little too much like that book in plot and themes.

I don't want to get too deep into the plot because my general spoiler-avoidance policy applies to the series as well as this book. Basically, there are tense relations between Earth and Mars that come to a head with an attack on Ganymede - an attack that is also connected to some of the evil corporate hijinks from the previous novel. The attack involves a power-suited Martian space marine named Bobbie Draper (is this a Mad Men reference?). In the midst of the attack, a botanist named Praxidlike Meng discovers that his young daughter has been kidnapped by evil scientists. And there's an Earth diplomat named Avasarala who is beginning to realize that there are some nefarious goings-on within the UN government. Eventually, all of these characters will come together with the surviving heroes of the first book to investigate the attack and the kidnapping, and to get involved in some naval-style space warfare.

So, yes, exciting and fast-paced. But, it is also a bit of a replay of the first novel. A character is obsessively looking for a missing girl. An evil corporation is experimenting with alien life. All of the characters will come together for a couple of action set-pieces. And Something Big will happen at the end that Changes Everything. The biggest problem with the replay here is that it means putting off dealing with the previous book's Something Big for basically this entire novel. I was really looking forward to dealing with that here.

The new characters add some diversity (in race and gender, but also in their more general point of view), but they do bring up one other complaint: everyone in these books is hyper-competent. This is a standard problem with thrillers and genre fiction, but Avasarala makes it especially clear here. We're constantly told that her political skills let her read incredibly subtle clues and game out scenarios dozens of moves ahead. As someone who pays attention to politics, I would not say incredible empathy and foresight are skills that many politicians possess to some preternatural degree. Then again, at no point do this books really make a claim of gritty realism, so maybe I shouldn't pick at that particular nit.

Despite some negatives, the Expanse remains a very enjoyable series, and, as easy reads, these books are ideal for my return to novel reading after my fairly long break.

Grade: B