Monday, April 24, 2017

New York 2140 - Kim Stanley Robinson

In his previous novel Aurora (2015) Robinson tackled a well known science fiction trope, that of a sub-lightspeed generational space ship, designed to hold enough people and supplies to survive a voyage of centuries and establish a colony on a new planet. His conclusion is sobering. Taking a human out of the environment they evolved in, Robinson claims, will almost certainly lead to extinction. Our bodies are so attuned to our environment and the organisms we share it with that survival, even elsewhere in the solar system, will be an almost insurmountable challenge. His message to humanity is clear. There is no Earth 2, try not to break the one we do have. Given this message, it is not surprising Robinson returns to Earth for his next novel. New York 2140 is set, as the title suggests, in the Big Apple a dozen decades from now. In that time a lot has changed, but in some respects, the city remains much the same.

In two separate cataclysmic events the sea level rose fifty feet. Coastlines around the world were flooded and many people have been displaced. New York is partially under water but this is not enough for people to abandon the city. The city has adapted to life in a partially submerged city. Many of the skyscrapers are still inhabited and innovative ways to connect them have been developed. One such building with its feet in the water is the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower. Once the tallest building in the city, it is now into its third century and run as a cooperation of the inhabitants. The disappearance of two men living in the building is the first of a series of events that will challenge the inhabitants of the building and the city greatly.

It is clear from the start the same ingenuity and imagination that brought the red planet to life in stunning detail in the Mars trilogy is at work here. Robinson has done his homework on the city and it shows in many details. From the geography of the region to the layout of the city, all of it is worked into this semi-submerged future New York. Quite a bit of attention went into what the new conditions would do to infrastructure as well. The tidal zone in particular is hard on steel and concrete. Robinson's research into the city didn't stop there. He pays attention to the legal status of the coastline as well, which has very interesting implications for the story, and he takes an interest in the history of the city. Many obscure, sometimes funny, little details about the city precede each shift in point of view. I'm not sure what a native would make of it, but for an outsider the setting works very well.

Given the description on the inside flat and the striking cover, you would be forgiven for thinking this book is about climate change. You would also be wrong. Climate change is a given in the novel. The city has for the most part adapted. The mechanism Robinson uses to explain this rapid sea level rise is considered not terribly likely, but it does fit the requirements for the story. What he really wants to discuss in this novel is global finance. New York is the self-proclaimed capital of capital, and even fifty feet of water is not enough to wash that away. The characters are very much aware of it and discuss the state of global finance, neoliberal economic theory and the economy of the US in detail. Robinson has never shied away from using the social sciences in his books, but to my knowledge this is the first time he goes into economics this extensively.

The way he goes about it is very interesting. While the characters debate the economy as a whole, how global finance works and how wealth is distributed, the story itself focusses of the effects on a much smaller scale. Capital has fled the city when it flooded. Much of the real estate was wrecked and deemed a total loss. Years of human ingenuity and advances in material science has shown investors how there might still be money to be made. Soon, the cooperation finds itself under pressure to sell to an unknown bidder. When money is not enough, other means are employed. Through the characters we get the rationale of why capital behaves this way, while showing us the effect in intimate detail.

Robinson uses quite a large cast to tell his story, no fewer than eight different points of view. One of them is simply named 'a citizen'. Robinson uses this citizen to speak to the reader directly. His writing is often criticised for containing large sections of scientific theory, usually related as an interior monologue (or as some would have it, a plain infodump). In this novel he concentrates that for a large part in the citizen point of view. The citizen is an observer, as far as we can tell he or she does not play a role in the story. You might even go so far as to say Robinson inserted himself in the novel. The citizen informs us about the state of the city, the economy, the geology and natural history of the region and of course the mechanisms of sea level rise. Saves the characters quite a bit of thinking. I very much doubt it is going to convince the people who don't like Robinson's style, but it is certainly an interesting experiment.

The question of how we should shape our world and society often comes up in Robinson's work. It goes all the way back to the Orange County triptych. In these novels there is almost always a sense of optimism. There are ideas to make the world better, technology is there or can be developed, there are people willing to throw themselves into it, and there is enough common sense not to turn away from a problem. If, for instance, climate change cannot be prevented, we can at least mitigate it and adapt to the new circumstances. In this novel, the sense that humanity is willingly doing something dreadfully stupid prevails. There is a sense of disbelief and irritation at the continuous cycle of bubbles and busts that does so much damage to society.

Over the course of the book the citizen gets angrier and angrier. His main argument is that the global economic system heavily favours those possessing extreme wealth while making life unnecessarily  hard on everybody else. The book illustrates this by a look into the world of finance. He details how capital tends to accumulate with those that already have a lot and how, at some point, money is not invested back into the real economy but rather funnelled into what its detractors call the casino economy. Speculating on indexes, derivatives and the like. In this way, capital becomes detached from the physical reality of the world, yet the bubbles it creates (and busts) still have a significant impact on society. The citizen can't help but wonder why the vast majority of people put up with this blatant bit of tyranny. With another bubble popped, even for the people in the capital of capital, enough is enough. The minute chance of becoming filthy rich is not worth the misery it imposes on others. Revolution is brewing.

What is most striking about the economics in the novel, is the way one of the characters thinks about investment and how it is a sin to sink money into a specific project rather than 'keeping it liquid' and moving it around to where the most profit is to be made. As many other reviewers point out there is a parallel between the way water behaves in the novel and how capital flows. Throughout the novel various economists appear to be looking over the shoulder of the characters. Not surprisingly, Keynes is the most prominent among them. The novel frequently refers back to the great depression. Robinson criticises Ben Bernanke, and implicitly the European Central Bank for the quantitative easing and bailing out of banks going down in a self-inflicted bust. The capital pumped into the system does not trickle down, so he argues, but only serves to fuel the next bubble. It is, he feels, not worth the austerity policies necessary to service the public debt. To break the cycle of bubble and bust, one of the characters suggest Piketty-ing the tax system, a form of progressive tax making it virtually impossible to live on capital gains alone. Given the way global politics are developing, it may well be another century before that happens.

Robinson may have shifted his attention a bit compared to other books, New York 2140 is nevertheless a fine example of his writing. Socially engaged, well researched and infused with a great sense of location. Whatever you may think of his view on the world, he manages to get it across in a fascinating way. It is another way of looking at a set of challenges humanity faces. Although he revisits themes he has covered before, you can't say Robinson is repeating himself. It is always building on what has gone before, adding a new angle or refinement to his world view. I greatly enjoyed reading it. In a way it is as controversial as Aurora, knocking around the idea of the American Dream a bit. As such, it will divide readers. When reading Kim Stanley Robinson, this is as it should be.

Book Details
Title: New York 2140
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 613
Year: 2017
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-356-50875-7
First published: 2017

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Some Strange Desire - Ian McDonald

There are a couple of pretty big novels on my to read list and at the moment I can't seem to manage to read them in a week. To fill the gap I sampled another story from The Best of Ian McDonald, a collection published by PS Publishing last year. Originally published in an Ellen Datlow anthology in 1993, it is a story from fairly early in McDonald's career, and definitely one that attracted attention. McDonald was nominated for the Tiptree and World Fantasy Award for this story. It is a very dark fantasy. Back in the day, this would probably have been marketed as horror. It is definitely disturbing at some level.

The story centres around a group of beings that appear human but are not. They can change their gender at will and, given the right condition, they can live for centuries but to do so, they need human DNA. To acquire  it they enter into a kind of mutually beneficial relationship with human customers. Sexual satisfaction for DNA. It has worked well for centuries. The immune system of this almost human species is nearly indestructible but one disease can kill them. When it strikes, it takes a lot more than a DNA sample to cure the patient.

McDonald walks a fine line in this story. He presents his main character as almost human. Love, anger, fear and other very human emotions play a prominent part in the story and make the reader identify with the main character to an extent. The author suggests in the story that, genetically, the difference between the two species is minimal. The big difference is in their view on human sexuality. For them, it is a means of survival, rather than pleasure. They take a bit of distance from humanity in that respect. Their fluid gender and willingness to go a long with almost any kink, make them popular prostitutes among a certain group of humans. While reading this story I wondered how much it distorted their view on humanity as a whole.

When push comes to shove though, the main character is very aware he (McDonald consistently uses that personal pronoun in the story) is not human. A fact he uses to justify a horrible crime. When the reader reaches that part of the story, the contrast between the loving partner and ruthless predator becomes clear. Survival pushes out all thoughts on how alike they really are. It is our differences that divide us rather than our commonalities that unite us I guess. The balance between companionship and the predator-prey dynamic in the story is very well done. If you like a good horror (or dark fantasy) story you could do worse than Some Strange Desire.

Story Details
Title: Some Strange Desire
Author: Ian McDonald
Language: English
Originally published: Omni SF 3, 1993, edited by Ellen Datlow
Read in: The Best of Ian McDonald, 2016
Story length: Novelette, approximately 8,500 words
Awards: WFA and Tiptree nominated
Available online: Infinity Plus

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Wall of Storms - Ken Liu

The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu is the second volume his Dandileon Dynasty series. It weighs in at nearly 860 pages in hardcover, driving home once again how insanely productive Ken Liu is. This book appeared a year and a half after the first volume. In that space of time Liu also produced a number of translations and short stories. Besides his family and day job of course. I wonder if the man ever sleeps. What Liu seems to have been aiming at in this novel is bigger, better, faster, more, and in many ways that is exactly what it is. If you liked The Grace of Kings, this book will not disappoint.

It has been several years since Kuni Garu betrayed his friend Mata Zyndhu and claimed the throne. His reign is now established, but whether he will be remembered as the founder of a dynasty remains to be seen. The emperor struggles with the conflicting interests of various groups in his empire. Tradition, prejudice and competing interests of various factions in his vast empire keep the emperor from pushing though the reforms he desires. Slowly but surely he tries to create an empire that moves away from the traditional order of things towards a meritocracy. His choice of successor is to be the final move in this development. His plans are soon derailed by internal strife and an invasion from overseas. Beset by enemies o all sides, the continuation of the young dynasty hangs in the balance.

One of the criticisms levelled at the first volume in the series was that the female characters played very modest roles in the novel. Liu changes that around in The Wall of Storms and puts them in the spotlight. Five women from different walks of life pretty much drive the story. Empress Jia is the oldest of them. She is a ruthless politician, the power behind the throne. She also proves herself to be an absolutely horrible human being. Her ambition and sense of duty make her sacrifice everything. One of the interesting aspects of this is the way she accepts that many people would think her inhuman and is willing to let history be her judge. Accepting the consequences of her actions is small comfort to those who lose their lives in her political machinations.

One of those victims is Marshal of the Empire Gin. She is a much better soldier than politician and steps right into the trap Jia sets her. She is too useful to discard however, the empress hasn't foreseen an invasion, and so she lives to fight another war. There is something bitter about Gin. She is uncomfortable in her new role and increasingly suspicious of the imperial court. She needs a cause to fight for and it takes most of the novel before she finds one.

The three other women are of a younger generation and have different outlooks on the  world. Fisherman's daughter and scholar Zomi is one of the few who manages to seize the opportunities the reign of the new emperor offers. Her superior intellect takes her far. There is more than a bit of irony in the fact that her desire to make the lives of ordinary people better makes her end up developing new weapons of war. It also introduces her to Théra, daughter of the emperor. Her life is a struggle against the sexism ingrained in society. She wants to be more than an imperial bargaining chip. The emperor recognizes his daughter's drive and talent but has to move carefully so as not to endanger her. Théra does not share her father's appreciation for the long game however, and soon takes matters in her own hand.

The fifth woman shaping the story is one of the invaders. She grew up among a people shaped by the harsh environment of their homeland. Driven by the need to find a more fertile land, they invade Dara. Her father is the ruler of the invaders and operates by the maxim might makes right. It has shaped her view of the world and forms a stark contrast with the Dara characters, all of whom are exposed to the teachings of the many Daran philosophers. It is a directness that some of the characters who meet her find hard to resist.

Besides these five, there is a large cast of other characters. As with the previous novel, Liu follows events in different locations. I did feel he managed to stay a bit closer to his characters in this novel. The Grace of Kings gave us a great view of what was going on but at times it leaned towards a history more than a novel. In that area, Liu certainly improved. Another thing I liked about the book was the non-linear nature of the narrative. We jump around the timeline of Dara quite a lot to fill in the backstory of some of the characters. It is a very cleverly plotted novel, showing us exactly what we need to know, when we need to know it.

Although the story is partially inspired by one of China's oldest dynasties, Liu introduces a lot of fairly modern science. Characters tinker with electricity, primitive batteries, airships, submersibles and modern biology. Although the gods play their part, for the characters it is technology and strategy that shape the course of the war. I felt that at times Liu did a bit too much explaining of how things worked, slowing down the story perhaps a tad. That being said, the way this war spurs invention and establishes a framework for a modern research institute was fascinating to read.  Whether or not Théra and Zomi succeed in their other exploits, this might well be their legacy.

The Wall of Storms is an epic tale of war, political intrigue and scientific exploration. Betrayal, triumph and the (sometimes not very subtle) intervention of the gods make it a novel that will do well with fans of epic fantasy. It is a story that keeps you reading. Although it is a formidable tome, it reads fairly quickly. The novel is a step up from the first volume, especially in terms of characterization. I enjoyed it more than the first volume in the series. Like The Grace of Kings, this book is recommended reading.

Book Details
Title: The Wall of Storms
Author: Ken Liu
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Pages: 860
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Saga Press
ISBN: 978-1-7849-7325-4
First published: 2016