Tuesday, February 23, 2016

2011: LEVIATHAN WAKES by James S. A. Corey

The Locus SF  award in 2014 decided to torment me and give best novel to the third book of a series - Abaddon's Gate of The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey (a pen name of writing team Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). So, I have to go back and read books one and two - luckily I had already read the first book, Leviathan Wakes.

The Corey duo are closely associated with George R. R. Martin (Franck is his assistant), and part of the point of The Expanse seems to be to take the formula that made Song of Ice and Fire so huge and apply it to hard sf. The result is a sprawling story that blends politics and traditional genre tropes with chapters that give 3rd person-limited points-of-view on a discreet set of characters. Though, when I say "genre tropes," I should add that there's plenty of noir detective and horror to go with the hard sf setting. And unlike Martin's dense and ambitious work, Leviathan Wakes is heavy on action and light on theme or even world-building.

The two main characters are Jim Holden, the captain of a freighter working beyond the asteroid belt, and Detective Miller, a cop on the asteroid colony of Ceres. The latter gets the aforementioned noir bits, while Holden gets to run around through some action scenes. It turns out that both of them are tangled up in the same case, which involves extra-terrestial life (which leads to the horror elements) and an inter-planetary conspiracy to start a war across the solar system.

If it sounds incredibly pulpy, it is. But, the authors do manage to put some thought into the colonies and conspiracies and even the characters. It's not high-art, but it's not trash either; instead it threads the needle like an unusually smart summer blockbuster. It's a very entertaining read that zips by, even at nearly 600 pages.

I haven't seen the SyFy series yet, but I am intrigued.

Grade: B+

Saturday, February 13, 2016

2012 Nebula Winner: 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Alright, I want to try to catch up a little bit this year, including posting my review of this book that I read...um....two years ago. Don't expect regular posts or anything, but I do want to keep my streaks in the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus SF novel awards going.

So, 2312 is pretty typical work from Kim Stanley Robinson, who is a favorite of mine. There's very strong world-building, as we once again get the Accelerando and its colonized solar system with lots of inventive terraforming (see Galileo's Dream and Blue Mars for other examples). There are some interesting ideas about social and political developments, clearly based on Robinson's clear understanding of history and social science. And your mileage with plot and character and prose may vary.

I found this novel especially uneven on the latter three counts. Robinson is a hard sf writer who really seems to put some energy into his style, and here he tries a little experimentation. It's appreciated but not entirely successful, and it stands out awkwardly next to some rather lengthy passages of technical writing focusing on the aforementioned world-building. Similarly, the characters can feel a little flat. Robinson's usual trick is to give his characters universal traits like love and ambition while also placing them in very specific historical and cultural contexts, and I think he's generally better at the latter than most of his peers. Here, the characters have immense longevity and the ability to change aspects of their appearance and identity fairly freely. At times, this is all realized wonderfully, and the best portion of the novel involves a gender fluid romantic arc with the main character Swan. Often, however, the characters just feel distant and cold - there's a lot of telling but not much showing, for instance, about how much Swan was inspired by a deceased character named Alex, whose death drives much of the plot.

Speaking of the plot, this is where the novel fails to realize its potential. It's basically a mystery, as Swan wanders the solar system investigating a series of dramatic terrorist attacks, but the investigations mostly feel engineered to show off the various exotic settlements, including a massive train city that circles Mercury between its light and dark sides - a device Robinson has used before, but he really goes into depth here. The setting is driving the story, not the characters.

2312 was more ambitious and literary than most of its competitors in 2012 (what I would have called a very off year, looking at the nominees), and I liked it quite a bit, but its flaws are evident enough that I'm not particularly bothered that it got beat by the fairly silly Redshirts for the Hugo and Locus.

Grade: B+