Sunday, February 28, 2016

Binti - Nnedi Okorafor

Last year, Tor.com took the plunge and moved into publishing novellas and short novels. Up to that point their original fiction had mostly been limited to short stories and novelettes and had been available in electronic format only. It seems like this new project is paying off. These works have gotten a lot of attention in the blogsphere and with Binti, one of the first novellas to be published in this new format, the first award nomination is in as well. Okorafor can add another Nebula nomination to her tally. Binti and two other Tor.com pieces make up half of the nominees in the novella category. I would be surprised if it was the last we'd hear from Tor.com this awards season.

Binti is a young girl of the Himba people with a gift for mathematics. Her scores are so outstanding that she is invited to study at the Oomza University, the most highly rated institution in the galaxy. It is a rare honour but in order to become the first Himba to attend, she will have to leave her family. The Himba do not leave their homeland. The very idea is so preposterous that nobody seriously believes she will go. Binti won't be held back by tradition though. She sets out on her own to her new life at university. Of course, getting there is harder than she imagined.

As far as I have been able to determine Binti is not related to any of Okorafor's other stories. It is set in a future where humanity has made contact with alien species and has left the planet. Other than that, the story doesn't offer much detail on the world. It is focussed on the main character. The Himba as portrayed in the novella are based on the Himba people of Namibia. I know very little about them, and there is a huge gap between the life as described in the novella and the reality of life in Namibia today. Okorafor has used some key components of their culture in her story though.

Okorafor shows a determined girl in the story, but also one who is very unsure of herself. She is the only Himba on this ship out, and even among the humans she stands out. That she is willing to leave the land of her ancestors doesn't mean she is ready to change who she is however. She meets attitudes ranging from curiosity to rudeness to outright hostility, but also plain indifference. Soon she makes friends however, who seem to accept her. The range of emotions she goes through, fear, determination, joy and excitement and how she uses her experiences in the later part of the story make Binti a very well rounded character. Although Okorafor delivers a complete story, she is the kind of protagonist you want to read more about.

The story has more to offer than a strong main character. Another layer of poor treatment of other cultures is added when Binti meets the Meduse. This strand of the story reminded me of the countless artefacts and body parts still in the collection of western musea, collected in colonial times from 'primitive' cultures all over the world. A symbol of the lack of respect for these cultures and a reminder of how these peoples were once considered inhuman. It's a legacy that really should be properly and respectfully dealt with.The Meduse, as it turns out,  have reasons for their actions and make their point very brutally. If Binti is to arrive at the university in one piece she will have to find a way to address their grievances.

I very much liked the emphasis on cultural differences in this story but the climax of the novella, does feel a bit convenient. In one rousing performance, Binti manages to make peace between two species long at war with each other. If it were quite that simple, the UN would have achieved world peace decades ago. I can still see why this novella attracted so many positive reviews though. Binti is a quick but intense read. Okorafor cleverly uses the parallel between Binti's situation and that of the Meduse to keep things moving along quickly. Personally I wouldn't have minded if this story had been fleshed out a bit further, perhaps with a bit more convincing solution to the problem Binti faces, but as it is, it's a very interesting novella.

Book Details
Title: Binti
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Publisher: Tor.com
Pages: 90
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-00-7653-8525-3
First published: 2015

Sunday, February 21, 2016

American Gods - Neil Gaiman

The first time someone told me I should really read American Gods was back in 2004. It had been out for a few years back then and made quite an impact. It won a whole shelf full of awards and was nominated for even more. The most recent person to tell me to read this was my girlfriend, who wrote a very positive review about it a few years back. I guess it was time to let them have their way. I've read it. I think it was a good thing I didn't read it back in 2004 though. I'm sure I got more out of it now than I would have back then. Gaiman has delivered a complex novel and a very clever one. It is also a novel that will leave a lot of readers with the feeling that it wasn't what they expected of it.

It is well known that people create gods and bring them with them when they migrate. America is a hard country for gods. Many of them end up abandoned and forgotten, when their people die out, move on or start worshipping other deities. Of late, new gods have shown up. Gods of consumerism, capitalism, highways, television, Internet and other aspects of modern life. They are on a collision course with the old gods. In the midst of this brewing conflict, the freshly released convict Shadow is approached by the mysterious Mr. Wednesday. He is a man with a stake in the battle ahead and he means to come out the winner. It draws Shadow into a world of belief, divine realities and extinct religions he never knew existed.

I called American Gods a clever novel in the introduction and it is on many levels. Gaiman sprinkles clues about the identity of the characters around. Mr. Wednesday is a fine example. Wednesday used to be Wodan's day, Wodan being another name for Odin, the Allfather. A title that in itself has a meaning to the narrative. There are plenty of examples of this. Gaiman draws from a wide variety of sources. Egyptian, Norse, Celtic, Hindu and Slavic mythological figures are used in the novel but also figures form West-African, Caribbean and Native American folklore and even the odd biblical figure. America itself is not entirely without old representatives either. American legend Jonny Appleseed makes an appearance. It takes a well read reader to spot them all in one reading although Gaiman gets a bit more generous with his hints towards the end of the book.

We see most of the story through the eyes of Shadow. He does his name justice in many ways in the novel. He has made some bad decisions in his life and ends up doing time for his crimes. When he is released he is drawn into the shadows in another way, when Wednesday introduces him to the world of fading gods. Many things about Shadow remain unknown. His appearance is only vaguely described, his past, except for the time spent in prison and a few brief references to his mother, remains undisclosed.He leaves his old life behind him, adopts new identities and travels the land anonymously, without really putting down roots. He in effect becomes the Shadow he is named after, before coming out the other end and gaining a new identity to replace the one he's shed.

Shadow is the central figure in the novel, the linchpin the story turns around, the one who embodies the biggest mystery the plot offers. Gaiman does much more with the book than just tell his story though. There are numerous sub-plots and here and there seemingly unrelated interludes on the activities of various mythological figures and how they are doing in their  unfriendly new land. Adaptations and survival strategies are many but most of them seem to be stuck in the parts of America passed by by progress. They hide out in declining rural areas, poverty stricken parts of towns and cities, running businesses that are doomed in the face of competition by multinationals and national franchises. And yet, each of them retains a spark of their former power. In the end, Gaiman brings most of these plotlines together. The way he handles that is another way in which this book is clever. Many of the subplots contain elements that turn out to be significant to Shadow in one way or another.

It's this meandering structure of the story that will be problematic for a lot of readers. Shadow, as main characters go, is not the most lively of protagonists. This is an intentional choice by Gaiman. He goes so far as to have one of the secondary characters tell Shadow he is not truly alive. Shadow's responses to the various crises he faces is muted and he lets himself be led by Wednesday a lot. Add to that Gaiman's tendency to digress from the main plot and the fact that the climax of the novel will most likely not be what readers are expecting at the beginning of the book, and you have a recipe for one star reviews. From what I can tell, American Gods has gathered a few of those.

When you get right down to it, I like American Gods as much because of what it isn't as I do because of what it is. It is a book about belief but not religion, a book about a road trip but no celebration of small town life in the American heartland, a book about mythology but no clash of awesome Olympic type gods. Gaiman tackles these themes in his own way. It can be quirky but also tragic, and poetic but also harsh. Many of the ideas in this novel have been used before, by others as well as Gaiman himself, but he manages to mix them in a unique way. American Gods is a remarkable novel whichever way you look at it. Certainly a work that will divide readers but in my opinion a work of twenty-first century literature that one ought to have read.

Book Details
Title: American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: William Morrow
Pages: 465
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-380-97365-1
First published: 2001

Sunday, February 14, 2016

2001: A Space Odyssey - Arthur C. Clarke

This novel is probably one of the best known and most read science fiction novels of all time. Its connection with the Stanley Kubrick movie of the same name helped lift it to a popularity that novel would not have reached otherwise. I'm not entirely sure the same is true for the movie  but it has to be said that they probably work better combined than each of them do individually. The novel and movie complement each other in a unique way. In part, this probably has to do with the way they were created simultaneously, with the movie eventually being released a few months before the novel. There is a fascinating contrast between Clarke's clear, direct prose and Kubrick's poetic and ultimately trippy cinematography. Personally I think it is virtually impossible to understand the movie without having read the novel.

The novel is written in six parts detailing the intervention of an alien species in the evolution of humanity. The story begins three million years ago, when a strange monolith is discovered by a group of starving early Homindae. Given the knowledge of human evolution at the time, Clarke probably had Homo Habilis in mind. The aliens set the human species on the path of developing tools, enabling them to hunt and add meat to their to that point meagre diet and defend themselves from predators. It sets the species on the path towards technology. The aliens do not stick around to see the result of their experiment. Instead, they set an alarm, one that humanity cannot fail to set off if they reach a sufficiently high level of technology. In the year 2001, it is discovered on the far side of the moon. We are no longer alone in the universe.

2001: A Space Odyssey was published in 1968 and like pretty much any science fiction novel of that decade, it is badly dated. This is most apparent in the Primeval Night section, set three million years ago. This part of the story borrows the concept from his short story Encounter in the Dawn which was published in 1953. Our knowledge of human evolution has increased tremendously in the last half century, creating a much more detailed picture of the human family tree, as well as their environment, diet and other aspects of their ecology. A modern anthropologist would shred the opening of the novel to pieces. The implication that cognition is so rare that Earth needed a nudge to develop it is interesting though. Makes you wonder where, in Clarke's story, we would have ended up without it.

Soon Clarke moves into more familiar territory: the future seen from 1968. Part of the story is inspired by another one of Clarke's short pieces, The Sentinel written in 1948. He misses his guess on a number of social and political developments in these sections too. Space travel is much more advanced in the novel and human visits to the gas giants are possible in this story. As always there is a meticulous eye for the details of space travel. The difference between weight and mass, the consequences of the absence of gravity, inertia and how all those things impact and complicate getting around in space. This is what Clarke is good at and it is on prominent display in 2001: A Space Odyssey. He even goes so far as to describe how using a toilet in space might be accomplished. It sounds like a bit of an overcomplicated solution to me.

The real star of the show is HAL9000 though, and Kubrick makes excellent use of that in the movie. In a way, Clarke reaches back here to Asimov's stories on artificial intelligence. In his Robot stories he describes several scenarios in which the programming instructions of the Robot appears to conflict and the sometimes unexpected results this can have. HAL9000 is presented a similar problem and he turns the trip into a nightmare for the crew. The movie does a better job of turning HAL into a creepy machine but the book is not far behind. The isolation of the crew and he fact that HAL is the essential in running many parts of the ship create an atmosphere of claustrophobia and paranoia in this part of the novel. It is Clarke, the eternal optimist when it comes to human ingenuity, warning against the use of technology we do not fully understand.

It's not the only thing Clarke is uncharacteristically pessimistic about. He gets the population of Earth about right but thought we would have trouble feeding that many. In essence, the final part of the story tells us that we once again could use alien intervention. That picture is buried in an almost surreal bit of writing however. Clarke's aliens are alien for sure. It has to be said that Clarke does a few things that are atypical in this book. Perhaps that is the influence Kubrick had on the novel. It does contain many of the flaws found in much of his work though. Characters are completely two-dimensional and there isn't a woman in sight. When the new wave was washing over science fiction, Clarke was for the most part still stuck in big idea stories. Something he would not be able to move beyond in the rest of his career either.

I very much doubt 2001: A Space Odyssey would have been the pinnacle of popularity in Clarke's career without the movie. It is probably telling that while the movie is considered one of the best science fiction movies ever - it even won an Oscar for the best visual effects -  the novel generally does not inspire such praise. It was largely ignored during awards season, a sharp contract to Rendezvous with Rama (1973) which would sweep the awards a few years later. It is an influential work for sure, but the shadow of the movie looms over it. Perhaps the two can't really be fully enjoyed separately. For me at least, the book and the movie work a lot better in tandem. 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of those science fiction novels you have to have read, but in all honesty, it is not the best Clarke has produced.

Book Details
Title: 2001: A Space Odyssey
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 266
Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-85723-664-4
First published: 1968

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Forest Mage - Robin Hobb

I'm running low on recent publications again so I reached for a backlist title from the huge stack of books I mean to review one day. Forest Mage (2006) is the second volume in Robin Hobb's Soldier Son trilogy. The series takes us away from Hobb's successful Realm of the Elderlings setting to a technologically more advanced society. These novels are not Hobb's most popular works and I can see why. Although I recognized the skillful writing, we see the story through a frustratingly static main character. That is not to say the books are not worth reading. I may not like Nevare much, but Hobb's worldbuilding is nothing short of exceptional.

Nevare is recovering from the Speck plague he himself has unleashed on the capital. He nearly died but with the help of his cousin Epiny, he manages to defeat the tree woman and become one of the few cadets to survive. The academy has changed forever. With the loss of so many cadets to the plague, there is no way the separation between old and new nobles can stay in place. There are just too few left. Nevare appears to recover well from the plague. He lost a lot of weight but puts it back on quickly. The doctor has his doubts about his fitness however. When Nevare leaves for home to attend his elder brother's wedding, he is still gaining weight and by the time he gets home, he is so large his father almost has an apoplexy. It is the beginning of a number of dramatic changes in Nevare's life.

Even more than Shaman's Crossing (2005), this novel is about discrimination. It shows up in many guises, and while Nevare doesn't always recognize it, it is painfully clear to the reader. In his final days at the academy we see the difficult transition from rigid separation between old and new nobles to more mixed companies. Soon Nevare has other worries though. He quickly realizes being big is more than enough reason for people to dislike you. He is a target of bullying by complete strangers but also by his fiancée, his father and his sister. Hobb describes the changes and Nevare's problems adapting to his new size in excruciating detail. Early on in the novel, he still has hope to work off the excess fat but no matter how much effort he puts into it, he can't seem to lose weight. It's pretty much the only area in which Nevare changes. He admits to himself his weight gain is not natural.

His ambitions in life have not changed however. When he receives medical discharge from the academy, loses his fiancĂ©e and is disowned by his father, he is still determined to fulfil the good god's plan for his life and become a soldier. If not as an officer, then as a ranker. Given what he has experienced up to that point in the story, it is an astounding bit of stupidity. Cut loose from every bit of security he has ever known in his  life, he clings to the last scraps of the Gernian social structure still within reach. He is, in other words, still unable to see the world beyond what he was told it should be like.

To realize his ambition to become a soldier he has to accept the lowliest post imaginable. He ends up at the end of the King's Road, where desperate attempts are made to push it through Speck territory. It is here, in a place of despair and failure, that the dark side of humanity is even more obviously exposed. The Specks are considered to be savages, an obstacle to be overcome by technological progress. If they should perish in the process, well, that is the price of progress. Nevare, who is much more aware of what would happen to the Specks if Gernia succeeds, seems to think this inevitable and at one point even patiently explains to one of them why this would be so. The best the Specks can expect from the Gernians is a mild regret that their culture will have to go.

The metaphoric felling of the Speck ancestor trees clearly shows us the future in store for the Specks. Their cultural roots cut away, they'll be cast adrift in a society not their own. It's a story you'll find over and over again in the history of the United States (and many other places in the world). Nevare's attitude in this respect is painful to read, exactly because he is so aware of what is going on. His attitudes frustrates the Specks too. I have to admit that Hobb portrays the cultural gap and the misunderstandings that arise very well. The tension between the two sides keeps rising until Nevare is forced to make a choice. It gives this second book in the trilogy a very clear climax. No middle books syndrome for Hobb.

There is another form of discrimination that runs through the whole trilogy, and that is sexism. Again, Nevare is not exactly innocent here. Gernian society is patriarchal and in the upper classes at least, gender roles are sharply defined. Nevare has been taught a kind of behaviour towards women that is rife with double standards. Women to him, are either delicate creatures to marry, protect and have children with or prostitutes. When he meets one that doesn't seem to fit in either category, and he does on several occasions in the novel, he gets terribly unsure of himself. Nevare's casual sexism shows up in a lot of places in the novel. Sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly obvious. It adds another aspect to Nevare's personality that makes him into a thoroughly unpleasant main character in my eyes.

Hobb's portrayal of Gernian society and it's many flaws is utterly believable, instantly recognizable and very detailed. By the end of the book, Nevare as been exposed to, or party in just about every one of them. The author is known to be very hard on her main characters but few sink to the level of Nevare in this novel. And yet he keeps trying. His father desperately tried to give the boy Nevare a spine and he has succeeded in ways he clearly didn't envision. I don't like him much, but in Nevare Hobb has created another main character with stubborn streak that rivals her most famous creation Fitz. I just wish he was a little less eager to accept Gernian moral standards and social mores as an absolute truth.

Book Details
Title: Forest Mage
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Eos
Pages: 718
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-06-075763-2
First published: 2006