Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Review: Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
Published : 1993, HarperCollinsUK/Bantam Spectra
Series : Book 2 of the Mars Trilogy
Awards  Won : Hugo Award, Locus Science Fiction Award
Awards Nominated : Nebula and British Science Fiction Association Awards

Spoiler Warning:  This review contains some details of the plot of the first novel of the trilogy, Red Mars

The Book :

“Mars: the Green Planet. Man's dream of a new world is underway but corrupted. Red Mars is gone, ripped apart by the violent and failed revolution of 2061. The First Hundred have scattered or died, and for the moment their dreams with them. The rebels are underground, dreaming of their utopia. The transnational corporations have a dream, too. Mars can be plundered -- for the benefit of a ravaged Earth. It can be terraformed to suit Man's need -- frozen lakes form, lichen grows, the atmosphere slowly becomes breathable.

But most importantly, Mars can be owned. On Earth, countries are bought and sold by the transnationals. Why not Mars too? Man's dream is underway, but so is his greatest test. The survivors of the First Hundred -- Hiroko, Nadia, Maya and Simon among them -- know that technology alone is not enough. Trust and co-operation are need to create a new world -- but these qualities are as thin on the ground as the air they breathe.”

At long last, I’ve read the second novel of the Mars Trilogy! I’ve always intended to finish KSR’s story of Martian colonization, and I’m looking forward to reading the concluding novel, Blue Mars  (though with my current rate, I’m guessing I will read it in early 2013).

My Thoughts:

Green Mars involves some dramatic events, but it is a very, very slow-paced novel.  It is a continuation of the story that began in Red Mars, so I would definitely recommend reading that novel first.  The First Hundred are still around, thanks to their anti-aging treatment, and they face many of the same problems.  They still need to find a way to establish a non-dependant and non-submissive relationship with the troubled Earth, which is increasingly controlled by powerful corporations.  The debates about terraforming—to what extent and by what means it should be done—still rage.  However, no matter what decisions are made, Mars is slowly and inevitably changing.  The physical environment is being permanently altered, and new generations of Martian-born people are coming of age, people who know Mars as their only home.

Much of Green Mars is dedicated to explorations of the landscape, and to debate about the major political, sociological, economic, and environmental problems that face those who want to form an independent Martian society.  Some very interesting segments featured scientific or political conferences.  I enjoyed how relatively fairly Robsinson portrayed many different points of view.  The issue wasn’t for the ‘right’ people to be triumphant, but for many groups of people with varying cultural backgrounds and beliefs to find a way to work together.  I think the conferences themselves were very realistically portrayed, as was the difficulty in coming to any kind of consensus.

Like Red Mars, Green Mars is separated into long sections, told from the third-person point of view of various characters.  Given the high amount of dry ideological debate and geographical detail in the novel, feeling a connection with the characters was absolutely essential for me to feel engaged by the story.  There were some parts, more notably early in the novel, where the point-of-view was not as strong as I would have liked, leaving me feeling a little detached from events.  As the book progressed, though, I felt more involved, particularly as it built up to the final, breathtaking conclusion.

A few new characters were added to the cast for Green Mars: the young Martian Nirgal, and the Earthman Art Randolph.  I can see how these characters were useful additions as viewpoint characters.  Nirgal provided insight into the state of mind of the new generation of Martians.  I didn’t strongly dislike Nirgal’s personality, but I felt that he was portrayed as a little too perfect and special, especially initially.  He’s wise, charismatic, attractive, and has strange powers of metabolic control.  His metabolic powers are never really explained, and I felt like the novel could really have done without them.  Art Randolph provides an interesting look into the state of the deteriorating Earth, and his sense of wonder for Mars is a pleasant addition.  Overall, I felt that these were valuable viewpoints to add to the story, though Art, in particular, seemed little underutilized.

Of course, many of the characters from Red Mars also made another appearance as viewpoint characters.  The First Hundred, now down to less than half their number, still wielded considerable influence. I really enjoyed Nadia’s segments, but I think that Sax and Maya were the most notably developed throughout the story of Green Mars. Sax, who was mostly a lab worker in Red Mars, began to take a much more active role in the problems that faced Mars.  I was not much of a fan of Maya in Red Mars, but she became much more aware of her own weaknesses and mental issues.  Maya’s sections most clearly showed the psychological toll that the longevity treatment was taking on the First Hundred. Overall, this is a cast of characters that I will gladly follow into Blue Mars. 

My Rating: 4/5

Green Mars is an incredibly dense, thorough, and slow-paced continuation from the Mars colonization story that began in Red Mars.  Green Mars features the development of a Martian ecology and society, and it is filled with many debates between disparate groups about how each of these things should develop.  Many familiar faces show up as viewpoint characters, such as Nadia, Maya, and Sax, as well as a few new characters, such as the Martian Nirgal and the Earthman Art.  For me, the story picked up interest significantly in the second half of the novel, and it came together in the end to a very satisfying conclusion.  I don’t think I enjoyed this quite as much as Red Mars, but I still think it was an impressive work of science fiction.  

Friday, February 24, 2012

Review: The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
Published: Ace Books, 1983, Chatto & Windus, 1983
Awards Won: Philip K. Dick Award
Awards Nominated: British Science Fiction Association Award, Locus Fantasy Award

The Book: 

“One day, twentieth-century English professor Brendan Doyle, on the basis of his status as a fairly mediocre expert on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, receives an unbelievable job offer from a rich old eccentric.  He is asked to escort a group of equivalently wealthy travelers on a field trip to 1810 London, where they will attend an evening lecture by the great poet.  To Doyle’s surprise, it appears the old man is not a crackpot—Doyle is actually transported back in time.

The evening seems to be going well, until a gypsy kidnapping causes Doyle to miss his ride home.  Doyle now finds that being a student of history may not help him survive the real thing, especially when there appears to be so much that was unrecorded.  Doyle must find some way to navigate his new life’s landscape of horrific beggar clans, gypsy sorcerers, period poets, and the body-snatching murderer known as ‘Dog-Face Joe’.  As he does so, he finds himself drawn unwillingly into the adventure of a lifetime—one that may well claim his, in the end.” ~Allie

After I read Powers excellent dark fantasy spy novel, Declare, I was determined to read more of his work. The Anubis Gates definitely lives up to my expectations.  I’d also like to note that I think this work has aged very well. When I read it, I just assumed it was a relatively recent work, and I was shocked when I saw that the novel was older than I am.  Part of that is surely due to the story mostly taking place in the early 1800s, but I also think this kind of adventure story is the sort that will always have an audience.

My Thoughts:

I was a little surprised to see that both science fiction and fantasy awards recognized The Anubis Gates, since I would personally classify it as firmly fantasy. The story does feature time travel, but the time travel is basically powered by magic, not science.  I don’t mean that to sound like a criticism, though, as The Anubis Gates is a very enjoyable fantasy adventure.  Like Declare, the magic system of The Anubis Gates is very tangible and dangerous, and the story has some of the same dark, violent atmosphere.  However, despite this sinister edge, The Anubis Gates somehow also manages to be a rather playful and enthusiastic story.  The constant threats of torture, disfigurement, or death are balanced out by humor, action, and the protagonist’s unstoppable optimism.

The protagonist, Brendan Doyle, is the typical ordinary guy who gets reluctantly swept up in an adventure.  Though Doyle’s a pretty common character type, I still found his personality to be very engaging. He certainly makes plenty of mistakes, but I was impressed with his resilience and adaptability in dreadful circumstances.  Also, his slightly detached, optimistic view of the situation did a lot towards shifting the tone of the story away from horror and towards adventure.  

Aside from Doyle, the story was full of memorable and vivid characters. The fast-paced, plot-driven nature of the story didn’t lend itself to particularly deep character development, but there was just enough background on each character to pique the reader’s interest. One of my favorite minor characters was a young woman who was masquerading as a boy to get revenge for her murdered fiancĂ©.  There were also plenty of characters that were fun to hate, such as the elusive murderer, Dog-Face Joe, or the sadistic Horrabin, a beggar king who covered up his disfigurement by dressing as a clown. Even the most minor of characters seemed to have their own agenda, and Doyle couldn't seem to help but get tangled up with all of them.   

While there is a lot of creativity in The Anubis Gates, it also has many similarities to other fantasy and action-adventure stories.  As a result, some of the major plot twists tended to be a little predictable.  For instance, Brendan Doyle’s transition from ordinary academic to reluctant hero is pretty standard for this kind of story. I also felt that the motivations and actions of the ‘main’ group of antagonists were a little too simple and familiar, in an action-movie kind of way.  However, there were so many different characters, all with their own goals, that I didn’t mind the simple villains all that much.  While some specific twists and elements may seem very familiar, I thought that there were still plenty of pleasant surprises to enjoy along the way.

My Rating: 4/5

The Anubis Gates is a fast-paced, imaginative, adventure story, featuring a middling academic, Brendan Doyle, who’s stuck in a supernatural take on early 1800s England.  Doyle has a much rougher time than he initially expects, but his resilience, resourcefulness, and general pro-active attitude all make him a very entertaining protagonist.  Powers’ fictional 1800s are filled with all sorts of interesting characters: sorcerers, beggars, gypsies, poets, murderers, time travelers, cross-dressers and more.  The Anubis Gates is a highly entertaining novel, though its use of several common adventure plot-elements does render a few of its twists predictable.  Altogether, it is a timeless kind of story that I imagine will continue to be enjoyed by people for many more years to come. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Review: The Stochastic Man by Robert Silverberg

The Stochastic Man by Robert Silverberg
Published: Harper & Row, 1975
Awards Nominated: Nebula, Campbell, Locus SF, Hugo

The Book:

Lew Nichols is in the business of stochastic prediction. A mixture of sophisticated analysis and inspired guesswork, it is the nearest man can get to predicting the future. And Nichols is very good at it. So good that he is soon indispensable to Paul Quinn, the ambitious and charismatic mayor of New York whose sights are firmly set on the presidency.

There is nothing paranormal about stochastic prediction: Nichols can't actually see the future. However, Martin Carvajal apparently can, and he offers to help Nichols do so, too. It's an offer Nichols can't resist, even though he can clearly see the devastating impact that knowing in advance every act of his life has on Carvajal. For Carvajal has even seen his own death.”

At long last, here’s my first review for WWEnd’s GrandMaster Reading Challenge, a challenge to read a novel by twelve different Grand Master authors during 2012.   I picked up The Stochastic Man at a library discard sale, back when I was around ten years old.  For some reason, 10-year-old me had a hard time getting into all the political and statistical talk, and it languished on my bookshelf unread for about two decades.   This seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally get around to reading it.

My Thoughts:

In the beginning, The Stochastic Man was mostly about politics, and the use of predictive powers—either using stochastic methods or clairvoyance—to succeed in politics.  As a result, there was a lot of discussion of campaigning tactics, often involving local New York City politics.  I’m not a native New Yorker, so most of the references to major political figures in NYC’s history were little more than vaguely familiar names to me. Aside from the political discussions, the actual environment of NYC felt very lightly sketched, which made me feel even more distanced from the story.  In broad terms, Silverberg’s ‘future’ NYC—which is set in the period of 1997-2000—was a dangerous place populated primarily by the sexually permissive, ‘bone smoking’ ultra-rich and violent, gang-dominated poor communities.  I don’t think it was a particularly accurate vision of turn-of-the-century NYC, but I admit that I have only a tourist’s view of the city.  

The Stochastic Man is not a particularly character-driven novel, and there is very little focus on characterization outside of the major charactrs, Lew Nichols and Martin Carvajal. I appreciated the ethnic diversity of the secondary characters, but, in the absence of significant characterization, they tended to be defined almost exclusively by their ethnicity and associated stereotypes. For instance, Lew’s wife Sundara, who grew up in California, was of Indian descent.  The fact that she is Indian is explicitly referenced with respect to just about every character trait the reader is given for her—her beauty, her high libido, her mastery of the Kama Sutra, and even her supposed ‘natural affinity’ for religion, which led her to join a cult.  The same goes for the Jewish financier Lombroso, whose elegant office contains a large display of historical Jewish artifacts.  I’m not sure to what degree this kind of characterization might be annoying to other readers, but for me it was more of a minor irritation.  

For me, the strongest part of The Stochastic Man, was its exploration of ideas relating to free will and determinism.  The characters, world-building, and plot all seem to be essentially a structure within which to examine these central ideas.  This theme becomes more prominent in later parts of the book, as Lew learns more about Carvajal’s clairvoyance and Sundara becomes involved with a cult known as Transit.  His obsession with Carvajal’s supernatural certainty begins to take precedence over both his career as an expert at stochastic prediction and Paul Quinn’s developing presidential campaign.  I liked how Silverberg used Transit and Carvajal’s clairvoyance to show two extreme views of the world, which are ultimately very similar.   

One the one hand, Carvajal represents absolute certainty, but that same certainty removes his own ability to control his life.  He knows exactly how his life will play out, and he is powerless to change even the smallest aspect of it. As a result, he moves through his life like a puppet, slowly approaching his inevitable death.  The Transit cult, on the other hand, glorifies randomness and uncertainty.  Its followers attempt to set their ‘selves’ at a remove from the world, and let their lives become a series of causeless actions.  Their future cannot be set in stone, because it has no pattern and no human intent.  Though these two views are completely at odds, they both seem to feature the destruction of the decision-making self.  Carvajal is living with a script from which he can never deviate, and the Transit followers discard their own agency in order to live without any kind of script.  Therefore, neither side truly has free will—Carvajal lacks freedom, and Transit lacks will. Lew is attracted by Carvajal’s certainty, but he also wants to shape the future with his own hands.  I think the story of Lew’s struggle to understand his own desires in relation to Carvajal’s power was ultimately more important, and more compelling, than the story of Paul Quinn’s political career.   

My Rating: 3/5

The Stochastic Man was a story about a particular man’s political campaign, but I think its main intent was to address interesting ideas of concerning free will and determinism.  I found the story to be much more interesting as it moved away from the day-to-day details of Paul Quinn’s political career and began to discuss the implications of the Transit belief system and Carvajal’s devastating supernatural clairvoyance.  Aside from Lew and Carvajal, the characters weren’t particularly deeply developed, and most minor characters were primarily characterized by their ethnicity.  Silverberg’s ‘future’ NYC may have little in common with actual turn-of-the-century NYC, but the location never felt much more than sketched out.  I’m glad to have read The Stochastic Man, in the end, but I have a suspicion that this is not the best of Silverberg’s novels.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Review: Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
Published: Tor, 2005
Series: Book 1 of the Spin Sequence
Awards Won: Hugo Award
Awards Nominated: John W. Campbell  Memorial Award, Locus SF Award

The Book:

“One night, three young friends—Diane and Jason Lawton, and their housekeeper’s son, Tyler Dupree—witnessed an event that would shape the future of humanity.  With no warning, the stars blinked out of the sky.

Before long, there was at least a minimal explanation of what had happened.  The stars were still there, but a mysterious shield was blocking the Earth’s view of them.  Outside of this shield, the universe was aging rapidly, at a rate of around 100 million years to each year on Earth.  Humanity only continued to exist by the grace of whatever created this shield, and there was no telling when that period of grace might be over.

Despite this world-changing event, society continued to plod on as usual.  As they grew up, Jason, Diane, and Tyler found different ways to cope with this incomprehensible event.  Jason, a brilliant young man who was being groomed for success by his wealthy father, threw himself into science.  He was determined to find the truth behind the shield before the end times.  His sister Diane, who had always been an extra child, threw herself into religion.  She hoped to find some meaning for her life through the religious sects that had sprung up in response to the slow-motion apocalypse.       

Tyler wandered through his life filled with a kind of numbness.  He tried to keep up with both Lawtons, through conversations with Diane and a career at Jason’s side.  Jason was coming ever closer to the answers he sought, through technology that would not be usable on a human time scale without the effects of the shield.  But would these answers bring hope, or only more despair?” ~Allie

This is the first novel I’ve read by Robert Charles Wilson, and it came highly recommended by various book blogs.  While it is the first novel of a series, it is definitely a complete story on its own.  In fact, I believe the second novel, Axis, does not feature the same set of characters, but is rather another story set at a later time in the same universe. 

My Thoughts:

In some ways, Spin reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.  In both stories, something is being done to the Earth, with no real explanation, by powers outside of humanity’s control. Both novels also seem to be a sort of strangely passive coming-of-age story for the human race, though this maturation occurs through different means and reaches very different ends. Another major difference between the two novels is that Clarke focused on the many rippling changes in humanity and human society as a result of the external meddling, while Wilson focuses mostly on the personal lives of his three main characters.  While there is some scientific and societal speculation in Spin, it always takes place in the context of the private lives of Tyler, Jason, and Diane.

The story is framed by a future arc, which is an account of Tyler undergoing a harrowing transformative procedure. In this framing arc, Tyler is frantically attempting to get his life story recorded, since he fears that the procedure may damage his memory. The main bulk of the novel is made up of Tyler’s chronological description of his life, starting from his childhood with Jason and Diane.  For me, the future arc seemed much more compelling than Tyler’s life story.  While most of Tyler’s life seemed to exist in a tense holding pattern, the future arc seems as though it is moving rapidly forward into an enticingly uncertain future.

For the most part, I thought that Tyler seemed like a passive observer. Most of his narration consisted of reporting on the lives of his two closest friends. His character is mostly understood through his relationship to Diane, for whom he carried a life-long crush, and Jason, who he essentially hero-worshipped.  Jason and Diane were kind of examples of two extremes people might drift towards in the face of an incomprehensible apocalypse.  Diane made religious faith the single most important thing in her life, and Jason chose science to fill that role for him.  Neither of them had much of a life outside of their respective obsessions.  I was more interested in Jason, mostly because he is the conduit through which the reader learns about the ‘Spin’ barrier and the creative ways humanity exploits the time differential to do things that would be impossible in today’s world.   

The characters were pretty well developed, but I didn’t personally find them very compelling.   As a result, I became much more interested towards the end of the novel, when more information about the ‘Spin’ barrier and the fate of humanity began to appear.  I wasn’t completely satisfied with the ultimate explanation for the barrier, but there are still two novels left in the trilogy to further develop the motivation behind it.  I think the end of the novel sets up a really intriguing situation, and I am very curious to see how Wilson will use the universe he’s created in the rest of the trilogy. 

My Rating: 3.5/5

Spin is a story of how people cope with the sudden appearance of a mysterious barrier around the Earth, a barrier that may doom the entire human species.  Most of the novel focused on the lives and relationships of Tyler Dupree, his eternal crush Diane Lawton, and her genius brother Jason Lawton.  The characters were pretty well developed, but I just wasn’t very drawn in by them.  Tyler, the narrator, was essentially an observer, and he was defined by his relationships with Jason and Diane.  Jason and Diane were defined by their respective obsessions, science and religion.  I became more interested later in the book, when the science-fictional explanations began to appear.  I think Wilson has created an interesting universe in Spin, and I’m looking forward to see what further stories he has to tell within it!  

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Review: Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton
Published: Tor, 2003
Awards Won: World Fantasy Award

The Book:

Here is a tale of a family dealing with the death of their father, a son who goes to court for his inheritance, a son who agonizes over his father’s deathbed confession, a daughter who falls in love, a daughter who becomes involved in the abolition movement, and a daughter sacrificing herself for her husband.

Here is what sounds for all the world like an enjoyable Victorian novel, perhaps by Anthony Trollope…except that everyone in the story is a dragon, red in tooth and claw.

Here are politics and train stations, churchmen and family retainers, courtship, and country houses…in which, on the death of an elder, family members gather to eat the body of the deceased. In which society’s high and mighty members avail themselves of the privilege of killing and eating the weaker children, which they do with ceremony and relish, growing stronger thereby.”

This is the second novel of Walton’s that I’ve read, the first being her entertaining alternate history/murder mystery novel Farthing.  Tooth and Claw is written in a very different style than Farthing, but it is an equally smooth and entertaining read.  Tooth and Claw was the November selection for last year’s Women in Fantasy Book Club, and with this review, I’ve completed the year of novels!

My Thoughts:

Tooth and Claw has been described as being similar to Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage.  I’m not really a Victorian romance aficionado, so I have no experience with Trollope’s work.  However, I’ve also heard the novel referred to as “Pride and Prejudice and Dragons”.  I’ve read Pride and Prejudice, and I can say that it did feel similar in style to Jane Austen.  Though Tooth and Claw follows the conventions of 19th century romance novels, it is not a retelling of any particular story. This is not merely a gimmicky dragon-insertion into a Victorian novel, but rather a well-constructed tale with inherent absurd humor that adds rather than subtracts from the story.

Referring to Trollope’s novels, Walton states in a foreword, "People aren't like that. Women, especially, aren't like that. This novel is the result of wondering what a world would be like if they were, if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology." For instance, maiden dragons’ lovely golden scales blush irreversibly pink when they are sexually awakened by close proximity to a male dragon.  Thus the ‘corruption’ of a young lady’s innocence actually has public, physical meaning.  

All in all, I was highly impressed by how well Walton’s idea of dragon physiology fit with 19th century society, all while somehow maintaining the fundamental qualities of dragon nature.   High society has kind of a veneer of civility over an undercurrent of ambition, and I think the use of dragons as characters highlights these thinly masked predatorial tendencies. In this society, for example, dragons gain rank and respect through growing physically larger, which only happens if they consume weaker dragons. This essential violence is neatly wrapped up in civilized rules that govern who is to be eaten and who is allowed to do the eating.  I would never have imagined that dragon nature could mesh so naturally with Victorian society.

Tooth and Claw features a large cast, and the characters are basically the types you might see in a 19th century romance. There were pious and impious parsons, low-dowry ladies searching desperately for husbands, an up-and-coming young man out to avenge the wrongs committed against his family, a wayward, good-natured, young nobleman, a ‘ruined’ woman with a mysterious past, and more.  The characters change very little, and that in predictable ways, but that doesn’t stop them from being absolutely charming.  I was surprised by how easy it was to get caught up in each of their hopes and fears, and how quickly I found myself rooting for or against various dragons.  Walton took characters that could have been boring clichĂ©s, and made them interesting and endearing.

While this kind of story is usually ultimately predictable, there were pleasant surprises along the way.  The novel mostly followed the stories of Selendra and Haner (the two lady dragons with a dowry problems) and their brother Avan (who takes a powerful nobleman to court over his inheritance).  These three stories eventually came together delightfully well, fitting together like puzzle pieces.  This is the kind of novel where, even if you can see the resolution coming a mile away, the journey is still a pleasure.  

My Rating: 4/5

Tooth and Claw is a charming, funny, and all-around pleasant story.  In style and content, it definitely follows in the footsteps of 19th century novels.  Tooth and Claw works within the conventions of Victorian fiction to tell a well-constructed, social story of a high society peopled by dragons.  The large cast was full of engaging characters that were easy to either love or hate. I think this is a story that could have come over feeling very gimmicky and forced, but I was impressed by how the dragon society seem to naturally fit both dragon nature and the conventions of Victorian fiction.  I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and I look forward to reading much more of Walton’s work in the future!