Sunday, May 31, 2015

Silent Spring - Rachel Carson

Between my Dutch George R.R. Martin project and reading this book I haven't had time to read anything else this week. I've decided to do something unusual today and do a non-fiction review. Not sure how well it worked but you will have to but up with it such as it is. Will be back next week with something that is a bit more in line with the rest of the content of this blog.

I came across a reference to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) earlier this year in Liu Cixin's The Three-Body Problem. It reminded me of the fact that, despite studying environmental science for eight years, I haven't actually read this book. I've been aware of it of course. The book is inescapable if you want to understand the development of the environmental movement, but when I was in college the book had already reached the status of a work like Darwin's On The Origin of Species. Everybody knows it, many have an opinion on it, but very few people have actually read it. Time to change that, better late than never.

Carson's book is widely lauded as the book that launched the environmental movement (the cover of my edition boldly states so). That is probably too much credit. The environmental movement is very diverse and in areas like landscape protection and protection of species it goes back a lot further than the 1960s. What it does do is point out how little we actually know about the vast array of chemicals we are introducing into the environment. The book focuses on just a few, but even in doing that, it raises questions we still haven't answered satisfactory.

Copies of Silent Spring are, more than fifty years after it was first published, still widely available so I ordered the fifty year anniversary edition published by Mariner. It has an introduction by Linda Lear, who wrote an extensive biography of Carson, and has an afterword by the influential biologist Edward O. Wilson. There is something ironic about having Wilson write an afterword to a book that challenges the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Wilson, together with Robert H. MacArthur,  is, among other things, known for the theory of insular biogeography. The theory he had developed was tested by fumigating small islands in the Florida Keys with methylbromide (which besides being toxic, had the added, but at the time unknown, benefit of being ozone depleting) to see how quickly they were repopulated. Carson of course, would probably not have argued against this experiment. One of the many misunderstandings about this book is that she advocated bans on pesticides, in particular DDT. Nowhere in the book does Carson mention this. What she does mention is the need for a deeper understanding of ecology.

One of the many accusations leveled against the book is that it is alarmist. In the first brief chapter of the book Carson certainly feeds that suspicion. It is a very eloquent description of a future in which the spring is indeed silent and empty of life. She then quickly proceeds the core of the matter however, and takes aim at the reader with a barrage of examples of the disastrous effects the indiscriminate use of pesticides have had. In the 1950s and early 1960s the use of these chemicals was enormous so she had plenty of material to draw from. The list of studies Carson used is included in the back of the book and takes up over fifty pages. The real merit of Carson's work is not so much in adding to our knowledge rather than collecting it and keeping the overview. All these studies combined paint a picture that had Carson thinking along similar lines as Paul Shepard (he would go on to make a name for himself in the Deep Ecology movement) whom she quotes in the second chapter.
“Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?”

Paul Shepard as quoted by Rachel Carson in Chapter 2 The Obligation to Endure.
Who indeed? After posing this question, Carson goes into detail on how pesticides are ruining the environment, pointing out that many of them kill indiscriminately and that humanity is not excluded from the list of species these substances have an effect on. The book is full of references to things that would become very important in environmental research. Bioaccumulation, the toxicity of metabolites, effects on hormone levels and influences on fertility, issues of resistance in target populations and damage to species important to pollination all show up in the book. The book is full of examples where, even in the short term, the damage done by pesticides far outweigh the supposed benefits. Carson readily admits that knowledge to predict future damage is simply insufficient since companies producing these substances were only required to do relatively few standard toxicity tests.

None of these things are new to me so they didn't particularly shock me as I imagine people who read this book quickly after publication might have been. What I did find shocking was the easy acceptance of the (often massive) dosage the manufacturers claimed were safe and insistence on continuing with these practices in the face of massive die off in all manner of species after spraying. What is perhaps even more shocking is the complete disregard of human health displayed on some occasions. One scientist quoted in Silent Spring likened existing practices of pesticide use to 'walking in nature like an elephant in the china cabinet'  which strikes me as very apt.

In her book Carson mostly looks at two groups of pesticides. The organophosporus compounds (e.g. dichlorvos, malathion and parathion) and the organochorides (e.g. DDT, dieldrin, aldrin, heptachlor, clordane, 2, 4-D). Carson doesn't mention it in her book but when you think about it, she discusses a very limited group of chemicals. These are but a few of the chemical compounds humanity have been adding to the environment and while their effect may have been very eye-catching, there are countless more of which we have very little idea what their effect may be. What is worse, we're not trying very hard to find out either.

While Carson's arguments to be much more judicious in the uses of pesticides is clear, well reasoned, and frankly, inescapable, not all the science in the book holds up well. The chapter on genetics is, by today's standards, weak. It is clear that Carson only had a superficial knowledge of the mechanisms involved and our knowledge in this branch of biology has expanded exponentially since the 1960s. Another part I found problematic was the chapter on the link with cancer. Carson appears convinced of the carcinogenicity of many of these chemicals. It has proven difficult to find these links. DDT for instance, is listed as, depending on who you ask, a probable or possible carcinogen. Some claim it is not carcinogenic at all. Given de discussion about this chemical you can be sure there is a lot of research available on the subject, but apparently not enough to be conclusive. From Carson's chapter on the subject it is quite clear that science on the development of tumors has advanced a great deal too. I get the impression she is being a bit too quick to draw conclusions there.

One of the things Carson says over and over again in the book is that our reliance on chemicals is unnecessary and that with a more balanced and multipronged approach to containing pest species, the use of pesticides could be greatly reduced. Throughout the text she lists quite a few possibilities, many of which have been applied with varying degrees of success in the years since the publication of Silent Spring. Carson appears especially interested in biological pest control, which can yield great results but also carries risks. In some cases organisms imported to combat pests have become pests themselves. Carson may have underestimated this risk a bit.

Silent Spring is clearly written for a larger audience than just scientists. It contains a great deal of scientific detail but the material is dealt with in a way that doesn't require a great deal of prior knowledge on the subject. The text and chapters are clearly structured and Carson seems to be very fond of rhetorical questions. Carson's tone is nothing short of challenging in most chapters. She is clearly angry by the way in which both the authorities and the manufacturers have ignored the obvious problem and insisted on continuing programs that were wasting money and doing a great deal of damage. Carson expected a strong response and that is exactly what she got.

It is a great tragedy that she did not live to see the full impact the publication of Silent Spring had. By the time it was published, she was already seriously ill and undergoing radiation treatment for cancer. She died April 14th, 1964. Before that, she did manage a few public appearances, including a testimony before a Senate subcommittee. The impact of her book eventually lad to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and a number of restrictions on the use of a number of chemicals. It continues to influence a number of ecological schools of thought until this day.

What Carson did live to see, at least in part, is the mudslinging unleashed by the publication of her book. Carson and her publishers were threatened with legal action, she was portrayed as a hysterical woman and alarmist, and a poor scientist trying to drag humanity back to the stone age. Some even went so far as to call her a communist. Until this day, some groups are accusing her of having caused the death of millions by getting DDT banned for control of the malaria mosquito. This bit of misinformation is particularly hurtful. Carson never called for a ban on DDT, the ban that is usually being referred to is one on most agricultural uses in the US (not the nation most troubled by malaria when that bill was passed in the 1970s) and did include an exemption for health emergencies. It is a discussion that will probably keep going. At the centennial of her birth a bill to honour her was blocked in the US Senate because of the DDT controversy. The strategies employed against Carson reminded me a bit of what Paolo Bacigalupi describes in his novel The Doubt Factory.

After more than half a century it is always easy to poke holes into the scientific knowledge of the day. Not everything that Carson claims in her book is correct and not every solution she proposes works. That being said, the book put a subject on the agenda that very much needed to be discussed. After reading it, I feel the eternal link between DDT and Silent Spring is an oversimplification of what Carson tried to achieve. Her message was much more complex and subtle, not just raging against a particular chemical as some people want us to believe. The mere fact that this discussion is still ongoing, makes it clear that Silent Spring hasn't lost any of its relevance. Just think about the recent discussion on bee mortality and that of other pollinating insects. The knee jerk response to blame insecticides appears to be only part of the answer there. What Carson called for was an increase in knowledge, a deeper understanding of what happens when we introduce a chemical into the environment, so that we can weigh the pros and cons carefully before acting in what seems like the easiest and most immediately profitable way only to find out about the long term consequences when the damage is done. Silent Spring is a book everybody with an interest in environmental matters should read, and, after you are done, think about carefully instead of jumping on one of the bandwagons of people who use the fame of this work for their own purposes.

Book Details
Title: Silent Spring
Author: Rachel Carson
Publisher: Mariner Books
Pages: 378
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-618-24906-0
First published: 1962

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

New George R.R. Martin Related Project Over at Hebban

I've been thinking about doing this project on Random Comments but it seemed a bit daunting so I kept putting it of. So instead of running it over here, I decided to do it over at the Dutch language book site Hebban and try to keep this blog running at the same time. Makes perfect sense. Really it does. One of my better decisions. Now stop laughing!

Anyway, since I am sick and tired of hearing about A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones, I decided to review Martin's career spanning collection Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective. It contains bits of just about everything he has done besides A Song of Ice and Fire. Well, truth be told there a Hedge Knight story in it but that is all. The project has turned into a series of ten articles, the first of which went up yesterday. From now on Hebban will run an article every Tuesday (provided I can get the last three parts delivered in time).

You can find the first part over here. Don't forget your Dutch dictionary ;)

Monday, May 25, 2015

Slow Bullets - Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds has been producing novels at a steady pace now since the turn of the century. He's also written quite a few pieces of short fiction. Slow Bullets is a new novella, published by Tachyon in June. The publisher was kind enough to provide me with an advance copy. It looks like they decided to keep with the old cover style. His UK publisher Gollancz recently changed the cover style for his novels. They kept the font but the dark covers have been dropped. Slow Bullets is uncut space opera and doesn't appear to be related to any of his other works. I also found it to be light on physics that are included in many of Reynold's other works. It could be considered a good starting point for readers wanting to explore his works.

An interstellar war is coming to an end but the fighting is confused and not quite finished. Scur, a soldier recruited against her will, finds herself in the hands of the enemy. Word of a ceasefire has reached them but the enemy soldiers are not quite done settling scores. When Scur's side comes looking for her, they are forced to cut their fun with her short and leave her to die. When Scur wakes up, she is healed and on board a spaceship. When she gets out of her pod, it is clear things are not right. She spots a group of people in pursuit of one of the crew members and decides to act. A decision with far-reaching consequences.

Slow Bullets feels like a story that grew in the telling. Reynolds puts in enough material for a novel and at one point, quite abruptly cuts off a few storylines so he can focus on the one of the main character. Reynolds has his reasons to do this but when I had finished it, I was left with the feeling that I had read a condensed novel rather than a novella. As such, it is structurally not the prettiest novella you'll ever encounter. Reynolds himself did better with Troika for instance. Or Diamond Dogs for that matter. Some of the things Reynolds didn't pursue in the story make me wonder what a novel about the inhabitants of the ship would have looked like.

The stuff he does deal with is very recognizably Reynolds though. It's space opera on a large canvas. Interstellar war, advanced space ships, and aliens that are so far removed from human experience as to be incomprehensible. The only thing that is missing really is the exotic physics that show up in many of his works. Which might indeed have been a bit too much for such a short work. The descriptions of the aliens reminded me a bit of the unfolding proton Cixin Liu comes up with in his novel The Three-Body Problem.

The entire novella is told from the point of view of Scur, who is also the narrator of the story. What she is mostly concerned with, besides surviving, is passing on knowledge. The ship they are on is slowly losing memory. It contains a vast amount of knowledge. More than can possibly be stored by more old-fashioned means. How to survive is not the real dilemma she faces. They have more than enough resources for that. What to take with them is the real issue. These people are from a time when information is stored in huge quantities. All the soldiers on the ship carry a storage device in their body that registers their exploits. To be reduced to writing or rely on memory is to give up a large part of their past and identity. For Scur, who has accepted the fact that she will not return to her old home again, this is the ultimate sacrifice to be made for survival.

Reynolds raises an interesting point here. With our increasing reliance on digital data storage, several experts have been warning in recent years that we are facing a huge loss of data. How long before our CD-ROMs or DVDs no longer work? How long before the software to process them is no longer available for the newer machines? Digital storage has advantages, especially in terms of physical space required and the possibilities for quick data retrieval, but it is vulnerable in its own way. Then again, is it really so bad  if we lose all the nonsense people are putting on their Facebook pages or Twitter feeds? Or the bazillion hazy holiday pictures quickly snapped with a crappy digital camera? Does losing that profoundly affect your identity? There is data and data, as Scur soon realizes. What to save when storage capacity is limited is another question that bugs Scur. Especially because the inhabitants of the space ship are from different worlds, with different world views and religions. A choice that is bound to cause conflict.

Perhaps it is fitting that Scur falls back on the oldest form of storytelling for her tale. She appears to tell it from memory. It is rough in a way, lacks detains in some places, but does manage to convey Scur's thoughts and emotions very effectively. A sharp contrast with the accurate data storage and rational analytic tools the ships computer works with. Having Scur tell the story this way is in effect a very interesting twist on the unreliable narrator technique.

Slow Bullets is a very enjoyable novella. Reynolds makes some bold choices over the course of the story and not everybody will like those. In the end I think it turned out quite well. The novella does not quite have the beauty of some of Reynold's other novellas but in a way the rough structure fits the story. It is different enough from much of Reynolds' other works that it will be interesting reading for people who have read his novels, but also contains enough recurring elements that to make it a decent entry point for new readers. It might not be the very best Reynolds has produced but it is not that far off either. You could do worse than pick up this novella.

Book Details
Title: Slow Bullets
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Pages: 192
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-61696-194-7
First published: 2015

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Grace of Kings - Ken Liu

Ken Liu has produced an impressive number of high quality short stories in the past few years. His stories have won him several awards and gathered a whole bunch of nominations. His first collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, is expected later in the year and I am really looking forward to getting my hands on that. Given the name he's been making for himself lately, it is no wonder that many people have been eagerly awaiting his first novel. The Grace of Kingswas released in April and is the first book in The Dandelion Dynasty series. He sold a total of three of them to Saga Press, the new Simon & Schuster SFF imprint that launched this year. The Grace of Kings is a secondary world fantasy but, as you would expect from Liu, heavily influenced by Chinese culture and history.

The Dara archipelago once housed seven kingdoms. Then a man rising up from the lowliest of the seven, conquered them all and unified them into one empire. In his search for greatness and eternal life, he neglected the needs of his people and failed to provide a secure throne for his heir. The boy unfortunate enough to take the throne is kept ignorant of what goes on in  his kingdom. As rebellion brews, he is distracted with games. Soon rebellions spring up all over the empire. Two men in particular, the great warrior Mata Zyndhu and the clever rogue Kuni Garu will shape the future of Dara in their search for justice, revenge, power and prosperity.

The Grace of Kings is an epic fantasy containing all that you might expect in one of those. The main difference with a lot of epic fantasy that is being written today, is that where most would use medieval Europe as a model, Dara is clearly inspired by China. You have your blond, blue-eyed characters but the whole novel breathes China. The food, the writing system, the political structure, the scholarship, the buildings, the symbols, it is inescapable. To be more precise, Liu was inspired by the rise of the Han dynasty. It was preceded by the brief Qin dynasty, the first imperial dynasty in China's history. Liu follows history loosely. It is not so much a retelling as a novel that takes history as a starting point. Liu's influences from Chinese history are taken from other periods as well.

One of his most obvious influences is The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a fourteenth century historical novel attributed to Luo Guanzhong. It is widely considered to be one of the greatest works of Chinese literature and tells the history of the demise of the Han until the reunification under the Jin dynasty. It is part history, part legend and severely romanticized and Liu seems to have used many of the same storytelling techniques in his novel. I have been told The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is about twice the size of The Lord of the Rings and has more characters than The Wheel of Time. It sounds like a fascinating but challenging read. I'm not familiar with it, which makes me wonder what someone who is more familiar with this work would make of Liu's effort.

The thing that most readers will notice right away about this novel is the manner in which Liu tells his story. The story covers about two decades and involves a lot of military campaigning. Liu is not afraid to skip the boring bits. He imparts a lot of what happens in a few brief sentences without lingering on the details, and mixes in brief bits of dialogue to keep us connected to the main characters. He zooms in on them and then retreats to show us the big picture. It is a huge contrast to some of the more recent and wildly popular epic fantasy out there. They focus on character, making the reader feel an emotional bond with them.Guy Gavriel Kay's recent novels inspired by Chinese history, Under Heaven (2010) and River of Stars (2013) focus much more on the personal drama of the main characters.  Liu keeps more distance and counts on the reader's curiosity to find out what happens to Dara next to keep them hooked. The tragedy that unfolds in this novel is that of a whole nation rather than the troubles of an individual character. I guess that more than a few readers in our individualistic society will have a problem with that style of storytelling.

As a result of Liu's stylistic choices, The Grace of Kings is a pretty fast paced book. I had expected to need more time to read it but the story flows in such a way that it is an almost effortless read. In this single volume, Liu stuffs a conflict comparable to the war in the Seven Kingdoms that George R.R. Martin expects to need seven volumes to finish. The way he prevents the story from bogging down in detail is really quite refreshing.

What The Grace of Kings does have in common with a lot of popular epic fantasy is the cynical view on power, gaining it, using it and especially holding on to it. Both the main characters are basically decent people who find it necessary to do horrible things to achieve their goals. The two main characters are very different men, united by a common goal. Events soon drive them apart however. What they do have in common is the belief that the other will inevitable try to force them from power. When it comes to ruling, it is all or nothing, nobody in this novel ever sets for a part of the whole. Which makes me wonder if we will see another betrayal by one of the secondary characters in the next novel.

I've seen a number of comments on the fact that women play second fiddle in this book, which surprised me a bit since Liu is an author associated with the call for more diverse fantasy and science fiction. This criticism seems valid enough though. Most of the women in this book are subordinate to men, are cast in traditionally feminine roles and do not play a part in the actual fighting. There is one notable exception but she doesn't change the general picture much. Not yet anyway, there would appear to be some interesting possibilities for this character in the second novel. Hopefully Liu can do a bit better on that front in the second volume. It seems like a shame to write a trilogy that could change the way epic fantasy is told and yet remain stuck in traditional gender roles all the same.

All in all I thought The Grace of Kings was a marvelous read. It remains to be seen how the series will develop of course but it is definitely off to a good start. Liu managed to deliver a debut novel that lives up to the promise shown in his short fiction, and that is no mean feat. The year is not nearly done and there are a few more big fantasy titles expected still, but the Grace of Kings will probably turn out to be one of the big releases of 2015. His short fiction already made Liu a writer to keep an eye on, this novel makes it clear there is much to be expected from him in the long form as well. The Grace of Kings is definitely recommended reading.

Book Details
Title: The Grace of Kings
Author: Ken Liu
Publisher: Saga Press
Pages: 623
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-4814-2427-1
First published: 2015

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sailing to Sarantium - Guy Gavriel Kay

I spent a lot of time on the train in the last couple of weeks so I needed something to read to take with me. I'm currently reading The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu and Dreamsongs by George R.R. Martin, both of which are hefty tomes, so I fished an old paperback out of the book case to read on the train. I've read Sailing to Sarantium, the first part in Guy Gavriel Kay's Sarantine Mosaic duology for the first time in 2006. Back then I was a bit disappointed with it because I felt I had read half a story. I have read the sequel, Lord of Emperors, not long after finishing my first read of this book in fact, and so that flaw bothers me a bit less. Structurally I still don't think it works that well but Kay makes up for that on other ways.

The empire of Rhodias has fallen and the peninsula that was once its hart is no ruled by an invading tribe whose conversion to the sungod Jad is only skin deep. In the city of Varena, the master mosaicist Martinian receives a summons from Emperor Valerius II of Sarantium, the state in the east that sprung froth from the ancient Rhodian empire. Martinian is an old man however, and he decides the journey is too much for him. Instead he sends his companion Crispus to Sarantium. It will be a dangerous journey that will alter the course of his life forever.

The Sarantine Mosaic is another one of Kay's trademark historical novels that thinly veiled as fantasy. For this set he used the Byzantine Empire under Justinian the Great as an example. During his 38 year rule lasting from 527 till 565 the Byzantine empire reached its greatest expansion. His general Belisarius reconquered parts of the lost western half of the empire, including the city of Rome. His reign is something of a watershed in the history of the empire. It is believed that he was the last emperor to speak Latin as his first language. After his rule, the empire turned to Greek for most purposes and gave up all hope of expanding west. It entered a decline that would last for several centuries. Because of this, Justinian is often called the last Roman.

His accomplishments were not only military. He had a lot of influence on the course of the church. In effect, very little went on without his approval and he was very active in suppressing what he saw as heresy.  The Corpus Juris Civilis was complied during his reign. A work that would influence the development of legal systems in Europe for centuries to come. He is also the man that ordered the construction of the Hagia Sofia, on of the city's most famous landmarks. He was in other words, a man you did not want to cross. Nor, for that matter, was his wife Theodora (Alixana in the novel) who also plays an important role in the novel.

In the first part, the novel follows  history more or less like you can find it in the history books. In the prologue, attention is being paid to the Nika riots (532), an event early in the reign of Justinian that almost cost him his empire. The unstable situation in Italy after the death of Theodoric the Great is mentioned although the outcome is twisted a bit to suit the needs of the story. The Justinian plague also makes an appearance but is moved back in history a few years. Justinian's desire to reconquer Rome is also a driving force of the story. There are lot more bits of history worked into the text, the chariot races, several historical figures and references to the rise of Islam to name a few. One of the things that has always attracted me to Kay's writing is figuring out what is history, where he changes it and how much is simply made up.

Kay does not only get his inspiration from history however. The title of the novel is a direct reference to the poem Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats. The poem itself appear to have little to do with the story other than that Kay uses the phrase Sailing to Sarantium as an expression that signifies a defining moment in ones life. Leaving to never come back, a decision that can't be undone. I guess you could say the journey is a spiritual experience for Crispin too, although he didn't set out with that in mind, whereas Yeats is clearly looking for it.

As usual there is a bit of magic worked into the stories. In this duology, it is more than a bit in fact. It plays a crucial role in the story. Early on in the novel Crispin encounters a creature from pagan beliefs, leading him to accept there are more powers in the world than just that of Jad (who is based on the Christian god). It vexes me that I haven't been able to find the origin of this creature. I don't think Kay made it up entirely so if anyone knows the origin of this plot element please enlighten me.

As you will have guessed by now I like what Kay did with the historical background a lot but it does get him in trouble as well. Historical views on Justinian swings between the two extremes provided by the most important contemporary reports on him. Interestingly enough they were both written by the same historian, a man named Procopius of Caesarea. One is the official history in which Justinian is praised to high heaven. The other is a secret history in which he is vilified and he and Theodora are accused of all manner of crimes, sins and sexual perversions. It is tempting to works some of the juicy stuff into the story. Sex and violence sells after all. Some of it appears to have made it into the novel, especially where Theodora is concerned.

The women in this novel, not just Alixana, are a bit problematic in many respects. They all play their political games, (the plot is byzantine after all) they are all intelligent and beautiful, they all use sex as a weapon and they all try to seduce the main character Crispin in some way. It gets a bit tiresome and frankly quite unbelievable. Kay does a lot better in that respect in some of his other novels. Byzantine, when used in a review like this, is usually used to describe a plot full of complex, political machinations but, even for a novel set in a reimagined Byzantine empire, the author is pushing it.

As always with Kay, the writing itself is beautiful. He uses an omniscient narrator for the story and frequently moves back and forward in time, especially where story lines come together, to raise the tension. The prologue, especially if one is not familiar with the historical event, is perhaps a bit on the long side but after that Kay drags the reader into the story and makes you want to continue reading. The compelling storytelling becomes a bit of a problem at the end of the novel though. It is clear that the two novels were conceived as one work. The story in this first novel stops quite abruptly and that may be frustrating for readers who do not have the sequel on had. It would have been a big novel to be sure but I do think it might have worked better if it have been one work instead of a novel cut in half.

Sailing to Sarantium is not Kay's best novel. There are too many problems with the structure and the characterization to get anywhere close to Kay at his best. That being said, I do appreciate the handling of the history of the period in this novel, as well as the way Kay tells his story. The book really cannot be judged on its merits without reading the sequel as well but once you have finished this book, there is every reason to read on. Even when he is not at his best, Kay is well worth reading.

Book Details
Title: Sailing to Sarantium
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Publisher: Earthlight
Pages: 438
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-7434-5009-4
First published: 1998

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Hard To Be a God - Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

The Gollancz SF Masterworks list includes only a few translated titles and most of them have been written by the Strugatsky brothers. For some reason people like Jules Verne or Stanislav Lem haven't made the list so far. It is yet another sign of how few titles make it in English translation in the genre. To make matters worse, quite a few of the older translations are not very good. Hard To Be a God (1964) for instance, was until recently only available as a double translation. In this case an English translation of the German translation of the Russian original. The Strugatsky brothers were not especially happy with the English translations of their work. Arkady worked as a translator in English (and Japanese), the double translation must have been an irritation to say the least. It doesn't help that censorship in the USSR meant that quite a few translations were based on texts that were not the version the authors preferred.

I read one other book by the Strugatsky brothers, Roadside Picnic (1972), also part of the SF Masterworks series. That edition was based on a translation considered imperfect. In 2012 an new translation appeared by Olena Bormashenko, a few months before the death of Boris, the last surviving brother. I haven't read that translation but from what I hear, it is superior to the earlier one. Unlike Roadside Picnic, which was reissued before the 2012 translation was available, Gollancz used a new translation for this edition of Hard To Be a God. It is copyrighted in 2014 and again credited to Olena Bormashenko. All of this makes me wonder what the story behind the translation of Monday Begins on Saturday (1965), the third Strugatsky title of the SF Masterworks list, is. But enough on translations, let's look at the novel.

An undercover agent has been positioned on a planted where society has regressed to a feudal system. His job is to observe only but he finds it ever harder to keep from interfering in the face of the brutality he encounters. With his more advanced knowledge of history and society, the injustice he witnesses is almost too much to bear. Interfering is not only strictly forbidden, it is also highly dangerous. Those who give in to the temptation put themselves and others in grave danger. It is, in other words, hard to be a god.

The introduction to this edition is written by Scottish author Ken MacLeod and I very much recommend you read it. MacLeod is no stranger to leftist themes in his own work and he manages to put the novel in a political context that many readers would have missed. The idea behind this novel is that society inevitably moves toward a situation where class, money and even control by a state are things of the past. An utopian vision that is not unlike the one encountered in Star Trek. Unsurprisingly, it goes back to the works of Karl Marx. This inevitability comes back a lot in the doctrines of communist states and parties and most of them don't react too well when political theory doesn't quite hold up in reality. A mismatch between theory and reality is what occurs in this novel though, making it a potentially very explosive work in 1960s Soviet society. The brothers had to cover their critique with an exciting adventure but once you have been made aware of the idea that is the foundation of the story, it is impossible to miss.

The story itself takes place in the Noon universe, a loosely related set of novels named after Noon, 22nd Century (1961), the first in the sequence. The brothers didn't really intend to develop a fictional universe so the book can be read independently. On the surface it is an adventure, which according to the afterword by Boris Strugatsky is what the brothers set out to write. They had something along the lines of The Three Musketeers in mind but drifted a bit from the original idea in the writing. Consequently, it is quite fast paced, with developments moving faster than the characters have time to keep up with.

Where theory predicts that society would move into an era of accelerating scientific and economic development and greater personal freedom, the story is one the increasing influence of a cult that looks at knowledge, cultural refinement and even reading as highly suspicious. Knowledge is dangerous and must be suppressed. The level of fanaticism, brutality, rigidity and sheer ignorance reminds me a bit of some of the more extreme Islamist movements that have been making a name for themselves in recent years. The novel draws a direct parallel with Nazi Germany though, the events of  Night of the Long Knives in particular.

Our observer watches all this and tries to subtly influence events by helping notable scientists and intellectuals to flee the country. A task made ever more hazardous by the increasing influence of the cult. It is a very stark contrast to the life our observer has been positioned in. the nobles of the nation are mostly portrayed as corrupt and decadent. Apart from a few exceptions, they don't seem to see the disaster barreling down on them. There would seem to be a parallel between the story and the Stalinist purging of the 1930s. Then again, something that brazen might not have slipped past the censors. Read it a bit differently and it could also be the Russian revolution or the revolution of 1905. There is no shortage of revolutionary events and uprisings in Russian history.

The main character is essentially torn between his experience and knowledge as an observer and growing attachment to the object of his studies. He finds it hard to keep his personal ethics and integrity in line with the assignment he's been given and becomes increasingly desperate over the course of the novel. The increasing strain on the main characters is very well done. It's almost a prediction of what would happen to the USSR when it couldn't bridge the gap between political and economic theory and reality.

The writing style, especially the vocabulary the translator (or the authors?) employs, takes a bit of getting used to. Part of that seems to be conscious choice by the authors to make the nobles in the story sound pompous. The dialogues between them are almost comical to read. The style is probably not something that would get past an American editor though, so for some readers it will be a bit of a rocky ride especially early on. I've seen a lot of comments questioning the translator but one should keep in mind that this book was written by two men from a different literary tradition. Part of it at least, is clearly the authors intent.

The Strugatsky brothers approach science fiction in a very different way than western authors would and that alone makes it a shame that many of their books are out of print. They make a case for more attention to translations if my opinion. There are many more ways to look at science fiction that what the English-speaking world has to offer. Hard To Be a God is, a book that hides a lot under the fast paced surface of the story. Roadside Picnic remains their best known work but I don't think there is much between that book and Hard To Be a God to be honest. It is a work of science fiction that certainly deserves its place in the Masterworks list.

Book Details
Title: Hard To Be a God
Author: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 246
Year: 2015
Language: English
Translation: Olena Bormashenko
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-473-20829-2
First published: 1964