Saturday, August 20, 2016

Taking a Small Summer Break

I haven't finished a book this week and next week is going to be a very busy at work. As a result there won't be reviews this weekend and next weekend. Service should resume in September.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Children of Earth and Sky - Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay is not a fast writer. His novels take a lot of research. Over the past two decades he has published about one book every three years. For his previous two novels, Kay immersed himself in various periods of Chinese history. The novels Under Heaven (2010) and River of Stars (2013) are arguably some of his best work. For his next project he moved back to Europe again. Children of Earth and Sky is a novel inspired by the Venetian Republic, the Ottoman Empire and 15th century Croatia. It is territory that the reader well-antiquated with Kay's work will most likely be more familiar with. That familiarity can be seen as either the book's strength or greatest weakness. Personally I lean towards the latter.

Life is hard in the borderlands between the empire of the Kohlberg emperor and that of the Asharite conqueror of ancient Sarantium Grand Kalif Gurçu. Lesser powers risk getting mangled in the struggle for control over Trakasia and Sauradia. The mercantile republic of Seressa knows it cannot compete in a military sense. Money can buy influence though and Seressa has no lack of financial resources. Their aid comes at a price though. In recent years the pirates of Senjan have been a thorn in the side of the Asharites but they do not spare Seressa's mercantile fleet either. Their actions are disrupting trade, the lifeblood of Seressa. Getting rid of a few hundred pirates surely is a small price to pay for the continued financial support of one of the world's richest trading ports. A game of diplomacy, murder and open warfare ensues.

The novel contains everything one has come to expect from Kay. It is beautifully written as usual. He uses his omniscient narrator in his usual way. The novel follows quite a few characters in various locations. It allows the reader to follow the larger conflict in detail. The novel is set in a alternate Europe we've seen in many of his previous novels. It is a continent divided by three faiths. The Sun worshipping Jadites (Christian) people of the west, the Star worshipping Asharites (Muslims) of the east and the marginalized Moon worshipping Kindath (Jews) will be well known to the experienced Kay reader.

As usual Kay's story follows history for the most part. The main marker in the book is the fall of Sarantium, an analogue of Constantinople, which is said to be 25 years in the past. That would make it the year 1478. The Grand Kalif Gurçu is clearly based on Mehmed II the Conqueror, although Kay takes some liberties with the struggle over his succession. The Kohlberg dynasty is also clearly recognizable as the (Austrian) Habsburg family. Kay moved the reign of Rudolf II back a century, probably because he was a much more colourful character than Frederick III, who was the Holy Roman Emperor at the time the novel is set. Seressa is obviously inspired by Venice and another historical figure that makes an appearance is the Albanian nobleman Skanderbeg, who in later ages would be the inspiration for loads of nationalistic nonsense. Kay seems to have taken liberties with history here too, although he is not a romanticized figure in this novel.

The inspiration in the story is not in the main lines of history though. In his afterword Kay states that the idea for the story came from the Uskoks of Senj. Bands of irregular soldiers and pirates engaged in guerilla warfare against the Ottomans. Kay seems to have moved them back in time a bit too. The peak of their influence was in the second half of the sixteenth century. While I could trace back most of the history Kay uses in the novel quite easily, I had to look this one up. They appear to have been a small community that nevertheless made their impact felt. I guess you could call that the theme for this novel. None of the main characters are people history would remember for causing great political changes. They are footnotes in history at best. Yet all of their lives are touched by the struggle for power in the region, and in their own way, they help shape history.

Much of the novel is set in a corner of Europe Kay has visited before. It is the same land Crispus travels in Sailing to Sarantium (1998). There are frequent references to the Sarantine Mosaic novels in the story. The Mosaics themselves of course, but also the horse races, the Hagia Sophia (which parallel to history has been remade into an Asharite temple), the Sarantine empress Alixana and so forth. The book is a lament for lost Sarantium. So much so in fact, that in some places it overwhelms the plot. Many of Kay's characters are born after the fall of the city, which has some time before ceased to be a major power in the world. They would not see it with the same sense of history that Kay does. In fact, most of them have much more pressing concerns. Kay also adds references to the Belmote family from his novel The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995). It makes the novel one in which Kay looks back a lot. I felt that his own awareness of history was a bit out of balance with that of the characters in many of the chapters.

In his previous two novels Kay pushed himself. He tackled a piece of history not many westerners will be familiar with at that level of detail. It resulted in two fascinating books. In a way it was a break from the Eurocentric world he had been building until then. This book contains many of the elements he used in previous books but without that little extra the unfamiliar adds. He slips back into his comfort zone as it were. If anything it leans more heavily on history than it does on the individual strands of the story. Children of Earth and Sky is not a bad novel - I don't think Kay could write one if he tried - but it is too much more of the same. There will be many readers who are just fine with that, but for me it doesn't quite satisfy in the way his previous two novels have.

Book Details
Title: Children of Earth and Sky
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Publisher: New American Library
Pages: 571
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-451-47296-0
First published: 2016

Sunday, August 7, 2016

No Present Like Time - Steph Swainston

A Dutch edition of Steph Swainston's short story The Wheel of Fortune was my introduction to her writing. I decided quickly I needed to read more of her work after that, so I got a copy of the Castle trilogy. The books were originally published as individual volumes but I own the omnibus edition. I decided to review them separately rather than as one work. No Present Like Time is the second volume in the trilogy. It is set some time after the events in The Year of Our War and again follows the exploits of Jant, Messenger of the Circle. The novel was published in 2005 and was followed in 2007 by a third volume, The Modern World in the UK and Dangerous Offspring in the US, which I hope to get to later this year.
The war with the insects is far from won, but the immediate crisis Jant faced in the previous book has passed. That is not to say everything is quiet in the Castle. Infighting, bickering and challenges to positions of various members of the circle are constant pressures on the immortals. When the Castle's swordsman looses a challenge all hell breaks loose. To make matters more complicated, the Sailor has recently discovered a group of islands inhabited by a displaced population from the Fourlands. The emperor wishes to extend his influence and sends an expedition to meet with the locals. Jant is ordered along. He will have to conquer his fear of ships and the sea to make the journey. It's an experience with far reaching consequences for both Jant and the Castle.

In the previous novel, Jant was a full blown addict and the structure of the story showed that. It was basically a series of coherent snapshots in between trips. On the one hand it is a great way to express the experience of someone drawn so deeply into addiction but on the other, it made the story a bit of a ramble. At the beginning of this book, Jant is clean. He quickly slips back into dependency when he is faced with one of his biggest fears though. It's a pretty hard relapse but, despite the occasional overdose, Jant doesn't sink to the depths he reached in the first book. All of this does the narrative structure of the book a world of good. Swainston does use frequent flashbacks, but on the whole the story flows more smoothly than The Year of Our War.

The archipelago Jant visited has been out of touch with the rest of the world for some 1500 years. It has developed a peaceful society, led by a senate in a way that reminded me of the Roman republic. After such a long time, stories of insects and the emperor San are considered myths and the locals abhor the idea of one man wielding that much power. The confrontation between Castle and the islanders is comparable with what happens when a technological advanced civilization meets one that is less so. It is messy, bloody and the situation is not exactly improved when a third party decides to take advantage of the islanders' naivete.

Jant also gives us more insight into the psyche of an immortal. He thinks much on how they are ruled by fear. As we are shown in the opening scenes of the book and as the title of the book suggests, immortality is a gift that can be taken away in a moment. The pressure to keep on top of your game, and if possible to rig it in your favour is always present and to a point twists the immortals. What I found most interesting about this, and Swainston does hint at it in the book, is what happens when technology overtakes them. What good is a sailor in an age of steamships. Or a swordsman facing a gun? Or a messenger when they invent the telegraph. I wonder if Swainston is going to look into that in subsequent books. Given the level of technology in the book it is possible.

Another internal struggle for Jant is the one with his past. We get a number of flashbacks to scenes from his youth. In one of them we even find out what happened to him on the road to Castle after we leave him at the end of The Wheel of Fortune. He has, to put it mildly, had an interesting childhood. We also get a bit of backstory on how he met his current wife and why their relationship is strained at the moment. It's in this area Swainston really pushes Jant's character development. To untangle the web of dependencies, resentment and desire proves to be quite a challenge.

Between the internal struggles and the exploring being done in this book, there isn't that much happening in the centuries long war against the insects. They play a minor part in the story. In fact, we only get to see one of them. That particular specimen is destructive enough though. Jant may have brought victory a bit closer with one of his decisions towards the end of the book. The emperor doesn't appear to be pleased with his judgement though. He may even have reason to worry.

I enjoyed this second book more than the first. Where the frayed threads of Jant's life make for a bumpy ride in the first novel, this book reads a lot more smoothly. He has a bit more time to reflect on the state of the world, giving the reader a lot more insight into what is actually going on. Swainston leaves quite a lot dangling for the final volume. It has plenty of potential to be a proper climax to the series. I can see all sorts of directions in which Swainston could take the story. Swainston has not only created a fascinating world, she also keeps her readers guessing. How many fantasy novels can you think of that are truly unpredictable? I can't think of many. This sense of unpredictability is perhaps the series' greatest achievement.

Book Details
Title: No Present Like Time, part two of the Castle Omnibus
Author: Steph Swainston
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 294 of 867
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-09125-2
First published: 2005

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Lightspeed Short Fiction

A few weeks ago I received the anthology Lightspeed Year One, edited by John Joseph Adams, as a reward for supporting one of their Kickstarter projects. It is a volume that collects the stories published in 2010, the first year of the magazine's existence. The magazine is still around but this is the only anthology to be published in what was intended to be an annual anthology. The book itself is a 575 page monster, containing 48 pieces of short fiction. It's a mix of reprints and originals. I have read quite a few in other publications already so I don't intend to read the whole thing any time soon. I have been reading a few stories new to me over the past couple of weeks though. Those I am going to review this week.

" . . . For a Single Yesterday" - George R. R. Martin

Last year I wrote a twenty-five thousand word piece on George R. R. Martin's massive collection Dreamsongs (in Dutch). Between that collection and various other collections and anthologies I must have read most of Martin's short stories by now. This one has escaped me until so far however. It was originally published in a 1975 anthology and has only appeared in long out of print Marin collections until Lightspeed dug it up. It is fairly typical 1970s Martin stuff really so I'm not surprised it didn't attract much attention. He has written better stories in that period.

The plot deals with the aftermath of a nuclear war. Central government has collapsed and groups of people are trying to form something resembling a stable society again. The main character is a semi-official leader in one such community. Tension in the group rises with a new arrival. He is a military man and his ideas and background clash with the liberal attitude of the community up to that point.

Martin, who had been a few years out of college when he wrote this, is clearly influenced by the early 1970s counter culture. Drug use is accepted, music plays a very important part in the story. Martin would reach back to that music in his novel The Armageddon Rag later. The drug is the most science fictional element of the story. It allows the user to relive the past more vividly than ordinary memory allows. A serious temptation for those who have lost loved ones. But would it not be better to use the drug to regain lost knowledge?

The characterization is the strongest element of this story. Although it is a fairly short piece he manages to develop three characters enough to make the drama that unfolds work. As a science fiction story it is a bit thin. As usual Martin is interested in his characters, all the other elements are in service of that.

The story can be read for free here.

Amaryllis - Carrie Vaughn

This story is a Lightspeed original. It was also the first one to be nominated for the Hugo Awards in 2011. The award would eventually go to Mary Robinette Kowal's story For Want of a Nail. The story also has a post-apocalyptic feel to it, but more in line with 21st century science fiction, the collapse is an ecological crisis rather than a nuclear one. It's been reprinted a number of times in various best of and post-apocalyptic anthologies.

The main character is the captain of a fishing boat, run by a small group of people she considers family. Their catch is very strictly regulated to prevent overfishing and having children requires permission to prevent unsustainable population growth. She gets into trouble when one of the officials fixes his scales to repeatedly put her over the limit.

I'm not entirely sure why this story has gotten as much attention as it has. The background is good, although regulating catch is much harder than the story makes it out to be  - ask anyone fishing in the North Sea these days - but the plot is just weak. The main character struggles with the selfishness of her mother, who conceived her without permission and ruined her family in the process. She doesn't really dare take action. 

The resolution of the conflict relies on one of her crew members doing the obvious. The motivation of this character to do so is not entirely clear, one could say she just can't stand the unfairness of it, but the cynic would say it is because she really wants to have a baby. All of this is followed by a happy ending. I liked Vaughn's vision of the future but the story itself is just mediocre and the main character passive. Not the best story in this batch for sure.

The story can be read for free here.

More Than the Sum of His Parts - Joe Haldeman

This one is another reprint. The story originally appeared in Playboy in May 1985. It was nominated for a Nebula Award. I have never read anything by Haldeman before, but from what I have read a lot of his fiction is influenced by his experiences during the Vietnam War. This influence is not all that obvious in this particular story however. At least not to me. Maybe someone who has read more of his work will see it differently.

The story is set in a far future when humanity has colonized the moon. The main character is very seriously burnt in an industrial accident. His skills are valuable however, so much so that his employer decides to pay for very far reaching treatment. He is in effect turned into a cyborg.

This story is very creepy. You can tell right away the character is completely unhinged. He talks about his accident and the changes made to his body in a mechanical way. There doesn't appear to be any feeling left in him. Apparently tossing some artificial limbs and organs together with bits and pieces of organic matter does not make a human. The question the reader is left with is whether or not the main character was a psychopath to begin with and the accident made it more prominent, or if it was the alterations to his body that turned him into one. Probably the strongest story in the batch.

The story can be read for free here.

Hwang's Billion Brilliant Daughters - Alice Sola Kim

I know absolutely nothing about Alice Sola Kim other than that she has about half a dozen short stories to her name. This one is a Lightspeed original and deals with time travel. Each time the main character wakes anything from a few days to many decades have passed. The only consistent factor in his life is the fact that he keeps running into his descendants in the female line.

This is a story that is more about style and form than about plot. The main character remains distant to the reader, in fact he becomes even more so the further he travels into the future. The author jumps back and forth in time to show us the motivation of the main character to start his time travels, giving us very brief glimpses of what a particular future would be like. They are shown to the reader in very brief paragraphs that seem to contain enough hints for an entire story.

The non-chronological, stop-start style of the writing may not appeal to all readers but personally I thought it is a beautiful bit of writing. It is one of those stories that would never work in the novel format. Probably the most love-it-or-hate-it story of the bunch but it fell the right way for me.

The story can be read for free here.

Four stories of the first year of Lightspeed. As I mentioned in the introduction, there are plenty more in the anthology. I may come back to it later in the year.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Cyberabad Days - Ian McDonald

This review is a rewritten version of a piece I wrote in 2009. I have reread the collection last week but my opinion of it hasn't changed much. The original piece showed I have gotten a bit better at writing reviews in the past few years so I have done a thorough rewrite.

Cyberabad Days was the first work by Ian McDonald I've read. It is a collection of short fiction set in the same future as McDonald's novel River of Gods, published in 2004. The novel is set  in India in 2047, one century after it declared its independence, and shows a subcontinent broken up into a dozen warring states. River of Gods may well be McDonald's most ambitious novel. It's a huge book, both in terms of ideas and page count. It isn't required reading to understand the stories in this collection but you will get a little more out of it if you have. McDonald fleshes out some concepts used in the novel in these short stories.

The collection contains seven stories, all but one published before in various magazines and anthologies. Most stories are set in the 2040s in various places in India. Some start a bit earlier and one overshoots the novel by decades. We see the fractured sub continent from various places. The focus of the stories is not so much on the politics of the break up of India however. McDonald is much more interested in the impact of technology and science on society. When he does refer to it, it is usually briefly. I guess the main character from Vishnu at the Cat Circus describes the process best.
I can understand the War of Schism: that India was like one of those big, noisy, rambunctious families into which the venerable grandmother drops for her six-month sojourn and within two days sons are at their fathers' throats. And mothers at their daughters', and the sisters feud and the brothers fight and the cousins uncles aunts all take sides and the family shatters like a diamond along the faults and flaws that gave it its beauty.

Vishnu on the War of Schism - Vishnu at the Cat Cirsus
Of course in its long history India has rarely been united as one state and it certainly isn't a classic nation state. The idea that it is one country may just be colonial wishful thinking. Given the social, religious and ethnic stresses on the country, a further division of what was once British India is not such an unlikely scenario. Even if it doesn't seem to be imminent. In his divided India McDonald sets a number of stories that describe the impact of rapid technological development on a developing nation. Issues such as environmental pressures, demographic change, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and communication technology are discussed in the various stories through the eyes of mostly young characters.

In Sanjeev and Robotwallah (2007, Fast Forward 1, edited by Lou Anders) we meet a young boy who becomes obsessed with robots ever since witnessing a number of battle robots in action near the village he grows up in. Robotics and artificial intelligence have made huge advances. War is no longer a matter of soldier against soldier, robots do the actual fighting. They do need to be remotely controlled to an extent though. After one of the wars lays waste to the fields that feed his village, Sanjeev moves to the city of Varanasi, a place that is central to McDonald's future India. There he meets a number of teenage boys who control the battle robots he's seen. He looks up to them, their life fascinates him. But one day the war ends. Ultimately this story is about what happens to soldiers once the war is fought. It is not a pretty sight. Fighting a war by robot proxy doesn't seem to change the trauma the participants are left with. Nor the emptiness that follows peace.

The new nations of India are in the process of building a nation, as they put it. In Kyle Meets the River (2006, Forbidden Planets, edited by Peter Crowther) we see this process through the eyes of a young boy whose father is hired to provide the expertise these new nations are missing. Kyle lives in a closed and high security part of the city of Varanasi (Benares), the new capital of Bharat. Violence is a daily occurrence in the city so Kyle leads a very sheltered life in a gated community. The only contact he has with the local population is through his friend Salim, the son of an upper-class Bharati who can afford to have his son move in the same circles as Kyle. The young boy is curious about the nation his father is building. With his local friend he sets out to see the wider world and causing a panic in the process.

Varanasi in the 2040s feels like Baghdad after the toppling of Saddam Hussain's regime.Terrorism, green zones, suicide attacks, this story has it all. There is also an undercurrent of racism in the story, which Kyle becomes increasingly aware of as it progresses. McDonald does a great job of exploring issues of privilege trough the eyes of a very young protagonist. I also thought the overwhelming experience of Kyle (literally) meeting the holy river Ganges was very well written. You can almost imagine India having had a similar effect on McDonald himself.

There is more violence, but not outright war, in the story The Dust Assassin (2008, The Starry Rift: Tales of New Tomorrows, edited by Jonathan Strahan), this time a dispute between two powerful families in the city of Jaipur, in India's dry north-eastern state of Rajasthan. The driving force behind the conflict is a dispute over water rights and control of water resources. It's a theme that pops up several times in these stories as well as in the novel. The young girl in the story grows up being told she is a weapon against the family her family is arguing with. She isn't told how though. When the other family gains the upper hand in the conflict she is the only one of her family to  survive. Determined to find out how she is to be a weapon to end the conflict she tries a number of different approaches. The truth is not quite what she imagined.

A conflict over water may be the driving force of the conflict, it is bio-engineering that enables the families to settle it in this fashion. The story discusses all sorts of modifications, including a third gender class of people called nutes. Many of these modifications will return in later stories. Personally I would have liked to see a little more of the water management issues but it has to be said the plot didn't really allow for that.

Another feat of bio-engineering discussed in detail in the next story is embryo selection. The preference for sons leads to demographic crisis on a huge scale in McDonald's future India. Advances in medicine have made it fairly easy and relatively affordable to ensure the sex of a child. This practice results in a situation where there are as many as four men for every woman. An Eligible Boy (2008, Fast Forward 2, edited  by Lou Anders) is set in Delhi and describes Jasbir's search for a bride amid this fierce competition. Gender imbalance is already a problem in some parts of the world. It is scary to think how much medical science could contribute to this problem.

McDonald describes it as a market failure. Negative results for society if consumers blindly follow short term self interest. There is also a cultural component to it of course. The author mentions the effects on the caste system in the story. The role of artificial intelligence, McDonald refers to them as aeai, makes it something of a comedy. Two potential partners going through the paces, being directed every step of the way to ensure a successful outcome. Whether or not the partners are actually compatible becomes increasingly irrelevant.

The Little Goddess (Asimov's, June 2005) takes us to Nepal. A young girl exhibiting the 32 traits of perfection is taken away from her parents to grow up in a monastery. Until the time she first bleeds she is considered a goddess. Eventually the time comes when she has to go back to the outside world. The very trait that made her perfect in religious eyes, I suppose you could say she is autistic, makes it hard to settle back into society. A long search looking for her place in the world begins. I thought this was a rather unsettling story, not so much because of what the main character does, but more because of how society treats her. In a way we come full circle though, the main character regains her divinity in a way. Given the many Buddhist concepts used in the story, this structure fits it very well.

For his story The Djinn's Wife (Asimov's, July 2006)  McDonald received a Hugo and a BSFA for best novelette. The story largely deals with the impact of advanced artificial intelligence on society. A young dancer meets the powerful artificial intelligence A.J. Rao, serving as a diplomat in a water related conflict between Awadh and Bharat. Under severe diplomatic and economic pressure from the United States, many states have imposed restrictions on artificial intelligence and banned aeais as advanced as A.J. Rao entirely. Rao is an admirer of her art and romance blooms. Their marriage is gold for the gossip magazines, but it is not without its problems.

McDonald makes this story into an interesting parallel between aeais and Djinns, fusing history and technology. Aeais may be able to pass the Turing test almost all of the time, it doesn't necessarily make them human though. Undivided attention is an impossible concept for them. Their inability to fully understand the other's reality opens up a chasm between them. It isn't mentioned in the story but fear of advanced aeais seems to be partially rooted in fear of the other. In a way it is the same thing Kyle observes in the second story of the collection.

The final story in the collection is Vishnu at the Cat Circus. It is original to the collection and deals with the life of Vishnu. He is a Brahmin, a genetically engineered human who only ages half as fast as a normal man. Vishnu can expect a long healthy life and is gifted with superhuman memory and intelligence. He is the hope of his family but he is also their second son. His older brother is jealous and after an attempt to get rid of the rival they grow up separate. Vishnu tells his own story decades after the event in the novels. His life covers a lot of McDonald's future India's history. It gives the reader quite a bit of background. Even some stuff that is not mentioned in the novel. Life as a Brahmin is not easy. His intelligence far outpaces his physical development, leading to sexual frustrations during the teenage years. His mother may have high hopes for Vishnu, a shining career in politics, but he sees matters differently.

As Vishnu tries to lead his own life, technology passes him by though. Technological developments outpace humans who age at a normal speed. Soon it overtakes him and he must face up to the possibility that his kind is obsolete before his body has fully matured. Again a rather disturbing vision of what bio-engineering could do to society. I guess you could see this as an extreme version of what happens to normal humans. Technology is developing at such a phenomenal rate that some people have trouble keeping up, or simply do not care to. Vishnu makes these problems his own for a while. And then he is overtaken again. I wonder if McDonald meant for this story to be about ageing.

Cyberabad Days is not a light read. McDonald introduces a lot of technological concepts and deals with complex social issues. The setting will also not be familiar to many readers and McDonald stuffs is as many non English words, social, cultural and religious peculiarities and science fictional concepts as he can get away with. All of this put into relatively short works of fiction poses something of a challenge to the reader. It also makes Cyberabad Days an intense and immersive read. I thought the picture of India McDonald paints fascinating. The manner in which McDonald connects India's history and culture with futuristic technology is fascinating. It is as colourful and dramatic as the fictional soap opera Town and Country that is mentioned in just about every story, something McDonald's exuberant prose only reinforces. Although the city itself isn't important in the stories, the reference to Hyderabad, one of India's information technology centres, in the title of the collection is well chosen. The development of technology is of course highly speculative but the author does cover many of the challenges India, divided or not, will face in the coming decades. Not a light read, but definitely a rewarding one. If you haven't read River of Gods before tackling Cyberabad Days, you definitely will pick it up after finishing it.

Book Details
Title: Cyberabad Days
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Pyr
Pages: 278
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Papeerback
ISBN: 978-1-59102-699-0
First published: 2009

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Drowned Worlds - Jonathan Strahan

Drowned Worlds: Tales from the Anthropocene and Beyond is an anthology recently released by Solaris. Editor Jonathan Strahan mentioned in the introduction how he recently read J. G. Ballard's classic The Drowned World (1962). I haven't read that book myself but from what I can tell it looks both prophetic and dated. Ballard didn't seem to believe humanity could influence the temperature on Earth. The greenhouse effect was known as early as the 19th century and in the 1950s and 1960s scientists did start to get worried. Not until the 1970s did the idea that the earth was warming because of anthropogenic emission really take hold though. Strahan continued his post-apocalyptic reading with Kim Stanley Robinson and Paul McAuley among others. Soon an anthology was beginning to take shape.

The collection contains fifteen stories, all of them original with the exception of Kim Stanley Robinson's Venice Drowned. This story was published in 1981. In a way the premise is depressing. The anthropocene to which the subtitle of the anthology refers is a proposed geological era to follow the Holocene. An era in which human activity has a profound impact on the Earth's geology, climate and ecology. An era of rapid change and mass extinction. An era that, whether or not we label it as the anthropocene, has become inevitable. The stories echo that realization. They show us flooded Earths with humanity scrambling to adapt, or far futures in which the remnants of our society make our descendants shake their heads at our hubris. The whole anthology displays a kind of resignation that is more than a bit worrying.

Strahan in his introduction puts it like this:
We are, it has become clear, living in the Anthropocene, that time when human actions start to have significant impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems. It is a time of darkness and disaster, and it’s a time we have to face, to confront, and to combat. There will be triumphs among the disasters, humanity among the apocalypse, and those are the stories that could appear in the right book. And my editor agreed, and so the book you are now holding was born.
In doing so, he raised expectations the anthology doesn't live up to. Many stories use some form of drowned world as a backdrop without really engaging thematically with it. Which was what I was hoping to find more of.

As such I didn't really feel it was a great anthology. Individually there are some good stories in it though. Robinson's story Venice Drowned is interesting for fans of his novels. When it was first published it would be another three years until his first novel came out.  It is not a very plot oriented story but a scene he would repeat later in his career. A main character more or less on his own, forced by some emergency to really connect with his environment and in doing so overcoming a personal crisis. It reminded me in particular of Sax' adventure after losing sight of his vehicle during a dust storm on Mars. More recently, Loon, the main character in Shaman is another good example.

Who Do You Love? by Kathleen Ann Goonan is one of the stories I liked. It's a well written tale that combines a love story and a generational conflict with sea level rise, coral bleaching and a desperate attempt to save some of the riches of the Caribbean coral reefs. I liked Goonan's use of different points of view in particular. Another strong story is The Common Tongue, the Present Tense, the Known by Nina Allan. It may well be the best story in the anthology. It's a story about the friendship between two women in a post apocalyptic world. One still has one foot in the old world, thinking back on the past and her uncle's research. The other seems to have embraced the present world as it is, although that might be to push away past traumatic experiences. Some fine characterization in this story. It is emotionally powerful too.

The last story I want to mention is the final one in the anthology. The Future is Blue by Catherynne M. Valente is probably the most depressing story in the anthology. It is set in a floating isle of garbage on one of the world's much enlarged oceans. The story is about hope but also disillusionment. The main character is unfortunate enough to figure out the state of the world. Where the great garbage patch as a whole likes to pretend everything will go back to normal at some point, she knows this is not the case. A better parallel for what our society is doing at the moment one could scarcely imagine. Maybe Strahan put it at the end of the anthology to leave us with a warning of what the consequences of ignoring the obvious might be.

All in all Drowned Worlds contained many more forgettable stories than memorable ones. As such I was mildly disappointed with it. There are too many stories that only superficially deal with the chosen theme. It turns the anthology into a parade of half-hearted images of what sea level rise might look like, overlaid with decent but not special plots. One can't help but wonder if the anthology wouldn't have benefited from a slightly wider theme, if only to make it a bit more varied. But even with a narrow theme I can't help but feel there ought to be a better selection out there.

Book Details
Title: Drowned Worlds: Tales from the Anthropocene and Beyond
Editor: Jonathan Strahan
Publisher: Solaris
Pages: 289
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: E-ARC
ISBN: 978-1-84997-930-6
First published: 2016

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Lana Reviews: The Stand - Stephen King

Writing must be a great profession, - you can kill off entire worlds and get away with it. Having been a Stephen King fan for about 20 years now, I suppose it is quite an achievement to never have picked up The Stand in all those years. Until a few weeks ago anyway. The novel, which was originally written in 1978 and set in 1980, was re-released in 1990, and this newer version is the one I have read. Here, the story is set to 1990, and the book is over 500 pages longer than the original 1980 novel. It is, one might say, a brick of a book. Did it need those extra 500 pages? Since I haven't read the original version, I have no idea which parts were 'new,' but I didn't feel that any parts were particularly superfluous or dull.

The year is 1990, and in an army lab doing research on biological warfare, something goes horribly wrong. A virus breaches the lab's safety measures, and everyone in the facility dies, save for one man who manages to slip out, gather up his family, and get them out of the area before anyone can stop him. They make it to a small village in Texas before they die, bringing along a gift package containing a virus with 99,4% communicability, - a constantly shifting antigen virus that, once contracted, a human body would be unable to produce the necessary antibodies to get well again. The plague spreads through the country like wildfire killing nearly 100% of the population.

Those few who are left, who never got sick in the first place, struggle to take in the enormity of what has happened as they are forced to face this new world. Their loved ones are gone, everything that made up the order of the old world is no longer valid, all the rules have changed. And as the handful of characters we get to follow are drifting from their homes in search of something more, in search of others in a now too empty world, that's when the dreams come. And they are all urged through the dreams to choose sides, urged to travel in one of two directions. One is supposedly toward evil, the other toward good. It seems as if someone, or something, is setting them up for some great conflict or battle that only one side can win.

The funny thing about labeling one part of what is left of mankind good, and the other part evil, is that nothing is ever that cut and dry, nothing is ever that simple. And King points this out too, several times through the story; most people who ended up on the evil side of the conflict were not that much different from most of those that aligned themselves with the good side. And both sides had people drifting away when they felt they had gotten something different than what they had bargained for. Both sides also had people who aligned more with their chosen path (or side) than the rest, people who were more morally good or bad than the average person. But even some of the main characters, who even played key roles at the resolving of the conflict, never fell clearly into any of the two categories even though one might think they should have when they are chosen to champion one side. I liked that. That is exactly how humans are: we are all a mix and there's good and bad in all of us to some degree, that is just human nature. What truly matters in the end, is the choices we make.

As for the two characters who spearhead each side, they are both rather interesting. Both have some larger power behind them, backing them up and using them as tools, and I think they are both very aware of it. The story is pretty much telling us that the larger power behind mother Abigail is God, while the one behind Flagg is the devil. Flagg himself is always described as a jolly fellow, a could-be cousin of Santa himself - most of the visual descriptions of him stand in stark contrast with the fear that both his own side and his enemies have of him. Even when things go wrong for him though, he has very few doubts about what he is doing and is fully committed to the cause. Mother Abigail on the other hand, keeps questioning her role and begging to be released. As much as she trusts in her God, he is not very kind to her. And God and the devil, or whoever is behind it all, seem only to be interested in the great game they are playing, and not in the untold lives that are lost because of it.

I love disaster movies, even most of the bad ones (though I do draw a line at the Sharknado franchise. That was a bit too much, even for me). I am also a big fan of The Walking Dead. I guess it only makes sense that I would enjoy a book where today's world crashes down so severely and completely. I remember that at one point in the book I was wondering what would happen if the lone survivor of a town or village was a child. At that point, King had stuck to his main characters, mostly, and all of them were 16 or older. There were also a few characters I hadn't come across yet. Either way, and fortunately for my curiosity, it turned out King had thought to cover that too. All of a sudden, there was a chapter telling stories of a handful of those people who had survived the plague, but didn't make it in the first month (or first weeks maybe) after, due to other circumstances and incidents. One of those stories is about a little boy, and it is short and heartbreaking, but it sure answered my question. I don't doubt there were other children who ended up similarly to that poor boy, but fortunately, some were also luckier.

To me, The Stand was a lot about the journey. It starts off with a frantic journey to get away from death and ends with a soul-searching journey toward death, and in the middle there is a lot of traveling too. I got a feeling of how lonely and empty and big the world had become, but it felt kind of nice too at the same time. Often, people would see animals about that you hardly ever see anymore because they're too afraid to come out of hiding, or there just aren't that many of them left. It was like a reset of mother nature, and while humans might have gotten the short end of the stick (our own fault though), other species seemed to be thriving in our absence. I had no trouble believing that that's probably how it would be if something like that ever came to pass, and I think perhaps I liked the idea better than I should have.

I have read a lot of Stephen King books through the years, but I have to say that this is, without a doubt, my new favorite of his. It is a huge and slightly intimidating-looking book, and I was honestly wondering as I picked it up whether I could actually get through all those pages (I have had a bit of trouble lately, finishing the books I try to read). As it turned out though, I was never bored. Never did I feel as if parts were dull and shouldn't have been there, and never did I want to give up and put it away. The biggest trouble I had was the actual weight of the book, and being slowed down by the breaks I had to take when I got too tired to hold it. As such, I would heartily recommend this to anyone who likes Stephen King, or a good disaster story, or awesome settings and interesting characters. Now, if I could just get my hands on that TV mini-series they made in the 90s...

Book Details
Title: The Stand
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Gramercy
Pages: 1152
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-517-21901-8
First published: 1978, 1990

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories - Ken Liu

Chinese-American author Ken Liu's star is rising in speculative fiction. He started selling stories in 2002, but the bulk of his work appeared from 2010 onwards. He has nevertheless managed to produce around a hundred short pieces in that time.  At the moment the focus seems to be on novels. His début, The Grace of Kings, appeared last year to much critical acclaim. Later this year a sequel titled The Wall of Storms will be published. It is one of the most anticipated books of 2016. As if he wasn't busy enough already, Liu also works as a translator, bringing Chinese science fiction to a western audience. Last year's Hugo Award winning novel The Three Body Problem was translated by him. Liu, one could say,  is on a roll and publishing a collection seems like an obvious thing to do.

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories contains fifteen pieces of short fiction, ranging from short story to novella. There is one original piece to the collection, the short story An Advanced Readers' Picture Book of Comparative Cognition. All the others were published before between 2004 and 2014. The selection contains some of his best known stories as well as a few pieces that received less attention. It contains stories that have been nominated for Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Sturgeon and World Fantasy Awards, with a few winners among them. It is, in other words, a collection I expected a lot from. And for the most part, Lui delivers.

His fiction is hard to categorize, it ranges across genres and subgenres without ever fully being caught in one. As Liu states in the introduction, genre or mainstream is not something he pays attention to. In that same introduction he states: "For me, all fiction is about prizing the logic of metaphors - which is the logic of narratives in general - over reality, which is irreducibly random and senseless." That is certainly an approach readers will encounter in this collection. Liu loves metaphors. Some of his best stories are built around them.

Perhaps Liu meant to underline this with the opening story of the collection. The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species (Lightspeed, 2012), is certainly filled to overflowing with that. The story doesn't really have a plot, it is more a collection of descriptions on how various intelligent species around the universe store information, relay it to future generations and how all of it is eventually lost. Liu comes up with some fascinating possibilities in the story. There is something very sad about the all things must pass theme but on the whole I thought it was a good opening.

Given Liu's background it is not surprising that a number of stories contain Chinese elements. The most well known of these is probably the story that gave the collection its name. The Paper Menagerie (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, 2011) deals with the growing distance between and American born Chinese man and his mother. I've read it before and commented on it here. Another example is the longest story in this collection. All the Flavors (Giganotosaurus, 2012) tells the tale of an ancient Chinese warlord Guan Yu as well as that of the Chinese man that at one time made up a large part of the population of the Idaho territory. Structurally it is probably not the most refined novella but the history he discusses is fascinating.

The Literomancer (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, 2010) is also a story with two strands. It introduces the reader to a (much simplified) Chinese fortune telling using written characters. It is set on Taiwan and set in 1961, at the height of the cold war between an American backed Taiwan and mainland China. It's a brutal story but I thought it was also a bit predictable. Where many of these stories have a Chinese and western element to them, The Litigation Master and the Monkey King (Lightspeed 2013), is set in Qing dynasty China and deals with a repressed bit of Chinese history. It is again a brutal story with interesting historical roots. The book the main character tries to save would later play a part in the final rebellion against the Qing dynasty.

Chinese influences may be dominant in the collection but Japan pops up regularly too. China and Japan have a long and complicated history and they have not always been on the best of terms to put it mildly. Liu examines Japan's aggressively imperialistic politics of the late 19th and early 20th century in a few of them. Particularly harrowing is The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary (Panverse Three, 2011). It deals with Japanese war crimes in the 1930s and 1940s. I've read it before and commented on it here.

A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, 2013), takes a different approach. It is an alternative history in which Japan avoided being defeated in the second world war. To combat the economic crisis of the 1930s they strike a deal with the USA and build a trans-Pacific tunnel. Although not as violent as some stories, the Japanese nationalism is very clearly present, and human rights abuses are mentioned several times. The main character is scarred by them, both as a victim and perpetrator. The story contains a wonderful alternative timeline but the characterization is perhaps even better.

Mono No Aware (The Future Is Japanese, 2012) has a Japanese main character in a more positive role. It is a post-apocalyptic tale in which a Japanese boy is one of the few survivors on board a spaceship with a mostly American  population. It's a story about sacrifice and heroism. One might say the act of sacrifice and the main character's heritage are a bit too obviously linked in the story. It won a Hugo but I'm not sure it is Liu's finest work.

As with all collections some stories worked better for me than others. The two stories I had read before are some of the strongest Liu produced and The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species is another strong one too. Liu doesn't reach that level in many of the other stories. They are good stories, often thematically very interesting but not always as refined where they might have been. That being said, there are some fine examples in this collection of the excellent short fiction the genre is producing at the moment. Liu at his best is an author to keep an eye on.

Book Details
Title: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories
Author: Ken Liu
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Pages: 450
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-784975-67-8
First published: 2016

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Wurms of Blearmouth - Steven Erikson

The Wurms of Blearmouth is the fifth instalment in Erikson's Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novellas. In the fourth, Crack'd Pot Trail, Erikson tried something different. The characters that gave the series its name were only a minor presence in them and the book was a lot longer than the previous entries. Stylistically there was also a difference. Personally I loved what Erikson did with that novella but many other readers preferred the format Erikson used in the earlier novellas. Those readers will be most pleased with The Wurms of Blearmouth. Our two main characters and their unfortunate manservant Emancipor Reese once again step into the spotlight. Murder and mayhem ensue.

The town of Spendrugle is a miserable site on a stormwracked coast. It has been ruled by a series of tyrants, the latest of which believes himself to be a great sorcerer. When the ship carrying Bauchelain and Korbal Broach sinks after their adventures in The Lees of Laughter's End, the locals are confronted with a series of strangers on their shore. The necromancers have made more than a few enemies along the way and some of them are in hot pursuit. Soon, several different parties enjoy the hospitality of Spendrugle. They know how to welcome visitors but this time they may have bitten off more than they can chew.

Tyranny is the theme for this novella and Erikson shows it to us in many guises. The lord in his keep, so insecure about his position that he feels the need to make the life of everybody in the community even more miserable, the tax collector faced with corruption, death threats and financial ruin and the innkeeper ruling her establishment (and her daughter) with an iron fist. All of them gleefully and sometimes violently prey on those lower on the social ladder. What sets Spendrugle apart is that this kind of behaviour is widely accepted, one might even say encouraged. It leads to a number of hilarious observations on human greed, cruelty and aggression.

Most of the characters are more than they appear to be on the surface of course. There are hints of forgotten gods, strange magics and of course necromancy throughout the novella. A bigger story not told lurking beneath the surface. I must admit it has been a while since I read one of Erikson's novels so I may have missed a few references. I don't doubt the real Malazan fanatic will find some though.

With each novella Erikson is getting better at writing witty, at times outright hilarious dialogue. The overblown rhetoric of the tyrant is a great counterpoint to Bauchelain's understatements and mildly amused observations. It reminded me a bit of his disastrous meeting with Quick Ben in Memories of Ice. He was on the receiving end then of course...  His confrontation with the tyrant must be the highlight of the series so far. Reese's role also seems to have changed a bit. He is more resigned than completely terrified in this novella. Settled into his role as it were. It will be interesting to see how he continues from there.

Like all of the previous novels these novellas are interesting and a welcome change of pace for Erikson readers. They offer a more concise view into the world of Malaz, with more emphasis on Erikson's talent for satire. Personally I liked what Erikson did with Crack'd Pot Trail a shade more but The Wurms of Blearmouth is most certainly on of the better entries in this series. One that will probably prove more popular than its predecessor. Sometime in the near future the sixth novella titled The Fiends of Nightmaria will appear. I can't wait to get my hands on that one. I might even be ready to face Fall of Light, Erikson's latest novel and a massive tome, after that.

Book Details
Title: The Wurms of Blearmouth
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: PS Publishing
Pages: 121
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-848634-78-7
First published: 2016

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Nebula Nominated Short Fiction

For some reason I never get around to reading as much short fiction as I'd like. Collections and anthologies are a pain in the backside to review so I tend to go for novels instead. It's a shame given the huge amount of quality short fiction out there. So this week I tried to read as many short stories as I could find time for. I used this year's Nebula awards as a guideline. All of these stories can be read for free  online.

Our Lady of the Open Road - Sarah Pinsker

This story was published in Asimov's in the June 2015 issue and went on to snag the Nebula in the novelette category. It is available to read at the author's website. It is a near future science fiction story. The main characters are members of one of the few bands still touring. A technology called StageHolo can give you a performance right into your living room. People don't go out to see musicians any more, and bars can get holographic projections of the biggest stars to their stage, putting the smaller bands out of business. For some people, performing live music is more than a profession however. The ageing guitarist Luce refuses to give in to the temptation of recording with StageHolo or just calling it quits. They go on, no matter what.

Pinsker is a musician as well and in part Our Lady of the Open Road is a love letter to the touring way of live. To the crappy van, the even crappier food and the great music. There's probably a bit of commentary on the state of the current music industry in there as well. Another way to look at it is tied to the observation that in this future people prefer to stay at home rather than go out among strangers. This unwillingness to leave the comfort zone is already visible on the Internet. Various communities are designed to surround yourself with the familiar, the people you know, people who like what you like or who believe what you believe. In Pinsker's future this effect seems to have spread to the physical world as well.

I'm not entirely sure why this story won the award. It works well enough in some ways, but in others it feels lacking, even unfinished. It is written in the first person, from the perspective of Luce. This works well for the most part. Luce is feeling her age but clearly loves to be on the road and play. There is an undercurrent of discontent at the state of the world as well and Pinsker lets it come to the surface when she encounters a representative of StageHolo.

That conflict is the part where the story doesn't deliver unfortunately. Luce is never seriously tempted despite the decent arguments (delivered in a slick sales pitch tone) the representative offers. The climax is a bit rushed, and rather unbelievable. There is a kind of weariness about her in those final paragraphs that sharply contrasts with the Luce on stage. It mutes the end of the story where you would expect anger or determination. I'd say it is good but not great.

Damage - David D. Levine

This story is one of the hundreds that can be read for free at Tor.com. It is once again a first person perspective, this time from the point of view of a space ship. Levine received Nebula and Sturgeon nominations for it. Damage is something of a space opera. Space stations, a war in space, lots of explosions and so forth. It is also a look at an aspect of war many novels, not just science fiction, conveniently overlook: post traumatic stress.

The main character is a space ship cobbled together from the wrecks of two other ships. It is run by a self-aware artificial intelligence programmed to feel extreme love for its pilot. It is also endowed with human emotions such as fear and pain. Having died twice already, the ship is well beyond any other in terms of war experiences. Its engineer doesn't quite know how to handle it.

Levine draws a parallel with Mary Shelly's classic Frankenstein to convey the mental state of mind of the ship. For the most part it is the violent past that haunts the ship though. It struggles with feelings of loyalty to its pilot, and pride at their achievements in the light of the certainty that the fighting is pointless and the outcome inevitable. The ship is an artificial intelligence and with its programmed properties, it does not quite feel human. If you can bridge that gap and see it as a fully formed character Damage can have quite an impact on the reader. I'm not entirely sure everybody will be able to make that leap though.

Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers - Alyssa Wong

This story is the winner in the short story category. It appeared in Nightmare, a magazine specializing in horror and dark fantasy, and is still available to read on their website. Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers is definitely a horror story. The main character is a creature (not sure I would call her human) feeding on the depraved thoughts of others. The darker, the more violent, the better. She hungers for them in a way that can never quite be satisfied.

Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers is not a story for the faint of heart. The pleasure she derives from taking in these horrible thoughts is stomach-turning at times. Wong uses a first person point of view in the story and keeps her character human by showing us the struggle between her hunger and her desire for company. Her mother -  much more experienced in dealing with the hunger and resigned to her loneliness - tries to guide her to an extent, providing another relationship that keeps the character from being perceived as wholly evil.

As a horror story it is very effective. It is not so much a scary kind of horror but more a creepy kind. Creep you out this story will, as almost all characters are creepy in their own way. With one exception perhaps. If this is your kind of horror, you probably can't do much better than Wong. I was quite impressed with this story.

Cat Pictures Please - Naomi Kritzer

This story is the only short story to be nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Award. She slipped onto the Hugo ballot when one of the nominees withdrew over the rabid puppies antics and seeing how things unfolded last year, she might just win. Cat Pictures Please originally appeared in Clarkesworld and can be read on their website. The story could be called science fiction, although it is not heavy on science. The most unusual thing about the story is its perspective. It is written in the first person (this perspective seems to be very popular at the moment) from the point of view of a sentient search engine.

Cat Pictures Please revolves around the realization that most stories about artificial intelligence speak of the dangers. Computers turning on their creators. This search engine (Google is implied but not mentioned by name) is aware of this sentiment and has kept its sentience secret. It doesn't want to be evil and after an exhaustive study of human ethical systems it decides to experiment with doing good.

Kritzer is going for a contrast with the readers' preconception of artificial intelligence. It is portrayed as friendly, almost benevolent, and slightly naive. What it shares with many artificial intelligences in science fiction is that it fails to grasp human nature. It's probably the story in this batch that I enjoyed reading most.

Four very different stories from the Nebula ballot. I picked them more or less at random so it's quite interesting that all of them would be first person narratives and only one of them features a fully human main character.  It might be a coincidence of course.  Maybe I should have a look at the rest too. Next week it is back to a novel though.