Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Review: The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod
Published : Orbit, 2008
Awards Won : British Science Fiction Association Award

The Book :

“After the devastation of the Faith Wars (or Oil Wars, as they are also called), the world went through what is known as the Great Rejection.  Now, religious faith is swept under the rug, and all officials are required to feign non-cognizance of any religious affiliation in the citizens they serve.  When a man dies in a bombing in Edinburgh, Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson suspects that the cause might be related to something he officially doesn’t know—the murdered man was a parish priest.

Ferguson pursues the case with his robotic partner, another legacy of the Faith Wars.  When the robotic war machine partners of human soldiers gained sentience, people suddenly saw them as highly dangerous.  Many of the self-aware robots, such as Ferguson’s partner, Skulk, were downloaded into the less threatening bodies of mini-War-of-the-Worlds tripod helper robots.  Others maintained their human form, and simply removed themselves from society.  Many moved up the space elevators into orbit, but hundreds continue to live in seclusion at a New Zealand creationist park, under the care of a robotics engineer and fundamentalist Christian, John Richard Campbell.  As robotic intelligence, faith, and violent crime collide, Ferguson searches for truth in a case that continues to grow ever more strange.” ~Allie

The Night Sessions was the novel I chose as a prize from WWEnd’s Grand Master Reading Challenge, which has been a lot of fun so far this year!  I’d never read any Ken MacLeod before, but I was intrigued by the premise—terrorism in a future with self-aware robots, and with religion almost completely removed from the public sphere.

My Thoughts :

The Night Sessions was a fairly quick read, and I wished that it could have been longer.  With its relatively short length, The Night Sessions tended to focus more on plot than on characterization or the details of the world building. There’s much to enjoy in MacLeod’s future world, but I felt as though I only got to see the parts that were absolutely necessary for the main plot.  For instance, the idea of sentient robots is obviously not a new one, but I enjoyed seeing how they were (or were not) integrated into society. Robots are very common in the world of The Night Sessions, but they were mostly only shown in their professional capacities.  For instance, Ferguon’s partner Skulk, was the most developed robotic character, but even he was rarely shown outside of the context of working on their case.  There’s not very much speculation on robotic psychology, or on how they might view their human creators, who only accept them if they are inferior and subservient.  There is an obvious parallel that could be drawn with Christianity here, but the novel doesn’t seem to travel far down that road.   

The basic plot is a detective story, but (thankfully) Ferguson is not the hotshot, failure, or alcoholic that I’m becoming used to seeing in these kinds of stories.  Instead, he’s just a pretty decent detective. He drinks moderately, is happily married, and sees his job as a job, not a validation of himself as a person.  However, he does have something of a dark past that is occasionally mentioned.  Apparently, in the past, the police actively persecuted churches and religious people. Ferguson regrets the brutality he took part in during those years, but the details of his past are left a little vague. Since I don’t know what acts he is guilty of having committed, it’s hard to judge whether he’s a decent cop who’s done a few bad things or a brutal cop who feels mildly ashamed of his worst excesses.  As a result, I was left with the impression that I did not understand the character of Ferguson very deeply.

Like Ferguson, most of the other characters were also lightly characterized.  Though they were developed only as far as was necessary for the plot, I still appreciated the different mindsets each character portrayed.  Religion (mostly Christianity) is a major factor in the story, and I liked that MacLeod showed some of the diversity of people of faith.  For instance, John Campbell is an extreme fundamentalist.  However, while he is occasionally infuriating, he’s not shown as a bad person. Another Christian character, Grace Mazvabo, was a fairly intelligent, religious professor. Of course, there are also strongly negative portrayals of religious faith, mostly of people who turn to violence on the basis of their beliefs.  An interesting added twist was the idea of robots finding religion, though I wish the mindset of religious robots could have been more thoroughly explored.   Altogether, there was quite a lot that I enjoyed about The Night Sessions, but I felt that a lot of interesting implications in the setting and characters were left unexplored.

My Rating : 3.5/5

I enjoyed reading The Night Sessions, but I was left wanting more.  I wanted to know more about the world MacLeod had begun to reveal and about the characters that I felt I only barely knew.  I liked how MacLeod showed the many different kinds of people—and robots!—who are drawn to religious faith, but I wish there could have been more of an exploration of what ideas lead robots or people toward faith in the first place.  The central mystery was interesting enough, but I would have loved to see more attention devoted to the many intriguing ideas that were barely referred to throughout the story. The world, its technology, and its issues were all very interesting, but I felt like the book was too short to explore any specific idea in great detail.   

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Review: Man Plus by Frederik Pohl

Man Plus by Frederik Pohl
Published : Random House, 1976
Awards Won : Nebula Award
Awards Nominated: Hugo, John W. Campbell, and Locus SF Awards

The Book:

In the not-too-distant future, a desperate war for natural resources threatens to bring civilization to a crashing halt. Nuclear warships from around the globe begin positioning themselves as the American government works feverishly to complete a massive project to colonize Mars.

Former astronaut Roger Torraway has agreed to be transformed by the latest advances in biological and cybernetic science into something new, a being that can survive the rigors of Mars before it is terraformed. Becoming Man Plus will allow him to be the linchpin in opening the new Martian frontier…but not without challenging his humanity as no man has ever been challenged before.” ~barnesandnoble.com

Man Plus  is my July book for WWend’s Grand MasterReading Challenge.  Frederik Pohl is not a completely new author to me, as I have read and loved his novel Gateway. Man Plus has some interesting ideas, but it did not replace Gateway as my favorite Pohl novel to date.

My Thoughts:

On starting Man Plus, one of my first reflections was that the writing style seemed like a cross between a novel and an observational journal.  It seemed as though the story was being told by group of detached overseers, who were describing the progress of the ‘Man Plus’ project. This impression is deliberate, though the reason for it is not addressed until near the end.  However, the style—which tended towards blunt, choppy sentences—sometimes made the story feel very dry.  There was also a tendency to introduce each secondary character with a brief description of their physical appearance, skills, and main personality traits, and then not to develop them much further throughout the novel.  As an example of this technique, and of the writing style in general, here is the introduction of Roger Torroway’s wife, Dorrie:

Torraway… married a green-eyed, black-haired teacher of ceramic sculpture. Dorrie on Earth was what made him yearn, and Rog in orbit was what made Dorrie a celebrity herself, which she loved.

It took something special to make an astronaut’s wife newsworthy. There were so many of them. They looked so much alike. The newspersons used to think that NASA picked the astronauts’ wives out of the entries in Miss Georgia contests. They all had that look, as though as soon as they changed out of their bathing suits they would show you some baton-twirling or would recite “The Female of the Species.” Dorrie Torraway was a little too intelligent-looking for that, although she was also definitely pretty enough for that. She was the only one of the astronaut wives to get major space in both Ladies’ Home Journal (“Twelve Christmas Gifts You Can Bake in Your Kiln”) and Ms.(“Children Would Spoil My Marriage”).” 

By far, the main focus of the book was the change and development endured by the main character, Roger Torroway. Throughout Roger’s painful transformation into a ‘Martian’, I enjoyed watching the slow shift in the way he perceived himself and others. I also found it interesting to see how others’ perception of him changed, as he became less and less physically human.  However, aside from my interest in seeing their reactions to the changes in Roger Torroway, I didn’t find the other characters of the novel to be particularly engaging. The main drama subplot, which I found somewhat tedious, involved Roger being jealous that his wife was sleeping with someone else.  Compared with how interesting I found the transformation of Roger and its psychological effects, the infidelity-related-angst subplot just seemed kind of prosaic.

For me, the physical transformation of Roger was even more interesting than his psychological transformation. There were extensive descriptions of the procedures that were used to turn him into a creature that could live unaided on Mars.  While they were usually a bit dry, these descriptions were actually one of my favorite parts of the book.  For instance, there was a fairly long section about filtering visual input, and how giving Roger the physical ability to take in more information would be dangerous if the data were not mediated before reaching his human brain.  The novel also did not gloss over the difficulty of Roger learning to operate his new body, which I thought was an interesting touch.  While the details of the project were very entertaining, the intended human goal of this project was more than a little hazy.  Roger could not reproduce others like himself, so he could not found a colony of  ‘Men Plus’ on Mars. 

The political reasoning behind the project involved the most dated aspect of the novel—the social and political climate. The world seemed to be caught in the grip of a increasingly violent continuation of the Cold War, in which the last bastions of the ‘Free World’ were on the verge of being wiped out, and the threat of nuclear war hung over all.  I’m guessing that extrapolation seemed a lot more likely in the mid-1970s than it does now, though the energy crisis he describes might still happen in our future.  Socially, the odd mixture of sexism and socially acceptable promiscuity seemed like something that might have been imagined from the vantage point of the 1970s.  The dated feeling of the global society made kind of a strange contrast with the inclusion of advanced technology that is still nowhere near becoming a reality today. In short, this novel definitely doesn’t knock Gateway down as my favorite Frederik Pohl novel, but there’s still enough of interest for it to be worth a read.

My Rating: 3/5

Man Plus has a number of interesting ideas, but I didn’t feel like it was entirely satisfying as a novel.  The writing is bland and short, a lot of the politics and social attitudes seemed very dated, and most of the characters failed to make much of a significant impression.  While the soap-opera drama of Roger Torroway’s troubled marriage was not very engaging, his transformation into a being that could live on Mars did capture my imagination (though the reasoning behind the program didn’t make all that much sense).  I think the novel was strongest when it was detailing the many alterations that would be made to Roger’s body, and when it was addressing the psychological changes that such a severe physical alteration would cause.  I don’t think this is Pohl’s strongest novel, but I think that it is still worth reading for those interested in his work.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Among Others by Jo Walton
Published : Tor, 2011
Awards Won : Nebula Award, Hugo Award, British Fantasy Society Award (Holdstock Award as of this year)
Awards Nominated : Locus Fantasy Award

The Book:

As a child growing up in Wales, Morwenna played among the spirits who made their homes in industrial ruins. But her mind found freedom in the science fiction novels that were her closest companions. When her half-mad mother tried to bend the spirits to dark ends, Mori was forced to confront her in a magical battle that left her crippled--and her twin sister dead.

Fleeing to a father whom she barely knew, Mori was sent to boarding school in England-a place all but devoid of true magic. There, she tempted fate by doing magic herself, in an attempt to find a circle of like-minded friends. But her magic also drew the attention of her mother, bringing about a reckoning that could no longer be put off….” ~WWend.com

I’m getting the feeling my blog is going to fill up with a lot of Jo Walton titles in the coming years!  She’s a very talented writer, and I love how each of her novels feels so different from the ones before.  Among Others seems like a book that was written with a specific audience in mind. As someone who falls (at least partially) into that audience, I found a lot to love in Among Others.   

My Thoughts:

The story of Among Others is told through Morwenna’s journal. The novel was convincing as the journal of a teenage girl, but it was also satisfying as a work of fiction.  I think this is a very difficult balance to achieve.  It was well written, but it felt like the voice of a teenager. There was a certain necessary detachment from the events of the story, but it was compensated by the closeness to the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings.  Telling the story through Mori’s journal also resulted in a slow, meandering plot that was more like a ‘slice-of-life’ story than a traditional narrative structure. 

Mori’s journal felt at times like a teenager’s SF review blog, a mild teen drama, or a fantasy story.  I think it is the first of these points that is the most polarizing.  Mori spends most of her time reading, so she comments constantly on the science fiction novels she consumes.  Later in the story, she even recounts discussions about various authors or works that took place in the book club she joins.  For readers who aren’t well-read in 1960s/1970s science fiction, I can see how this might really bog down the story.   I’ve read a fair amount of the works Mori mentioned,  so I think that I fit into the target audience for these portions of the book.   However, even I have to admit that Mori’s comments about the works were often not particularly important for the story.  Her love for the novels—and her ability to connect with others through that love—was central, but the specific name-dropping seemed mostly present to invoke nostalgia in the reader. 

In addition to her love of science fiction, Mori’s belief in magic shapes her world.  I thought Walton’s treatment of the fantasy elements in Among Others was especially interesting and poetic.  There are no fireballs, magic wands, and magical-lightning-filled showdowns.  Walton’s magic is, as Mori would say, “always deniable.”  Even if a spell appears to have worked, it would do so through ordinary means, leaving always the possibility that the success was merely a coincidence.  Mori sees and talks with fairies, but they can only be seen if one already believes in them.  This mundane treatment of magic makes it possible to see the story either as fantastical, or as the tale of a highly imaginative girl.  I liked how skillfully the story walked between the two interpretations, so that it is never completely clear whether magic really does exist or whether Mori just uses her belief in it to give a meaningful shape to the events of her life.

In addition to the science fiction discussions and quiet fantasy elements, the character of Morwenna is another determining factor for the audience of the novel.  Since this is a story of her daily life, told through her journal, the entire story revolves around her thoughts, her opinions, and her experiences.  I think that it might be difficult to become invested in the story if one did not feel any kind of kinship towards Mori.  I doubt that many people can relate to her specific situation—being crippled in the event that killed your twin sister and then being shipped off to an English boarding school.  However, I think a lot of science fiction fans could probably identify with her struggle to find a group of people who shared her interests.  I particularly connected with Mori’s social problems at her new boarding school.  I know what it feels like to move into a closed system of friendships, and find that no one is particularly interested in involving the “weird new girl”.  Despite Mori’s problems, her narrative remained refreshingly low in self-pity, and I enjoyed getting to know her over the 200-odd pages of Among Others.

My Rating: 4.5/5

Among Others is an unusual book targeted towards a specific audience. The story, told through Morwenna’s journal, is a kind of slice-of-life fantasy story about a teenage science fiction fan searching for a community in which she feels she belongs.  Along the way, Mori constantly discusses the many science fiction novels she’s read (mostly 1960s/1970s SF), in a way that will likely be charming to some readers and off-putting to others.  The magic in the story is “always deniable”, where successful spells can easily be explained away by coincidence.  I loved how this created an ambiguity about whether the magic was real, or it was just the frame Mori used to make sense of her life.  Despite differences in the specific circumstances, this story resonated well with me, and I think it will also resonate with many other fans of science fiction.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Review: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
Published : Doubleday, 1968
Awards Won : British Science Fiction Association and Hugo Awards
Award Nominated : Nebula Award

The Book :

Norman Niblock House is a rising executive at General Technics, one of a few all-powerful corporations. His work is leading General Technics to the forefront of global domination, both in the marketplace and politically—-it's about to take over a country in Africa.  Donald Hogan is his roommate, a seemingly sheepish bookworm. But Hogan is a spy, and he's about to discover a breakthrough in genetic engineering that will change the world...and kill him.  

Stand on Zanzibar is a cross-section of a world overpopulated by the billions.  Where society is squeezed into hive-living madness by god-like mega computers, mass-marketed psychedelic drugs, and mundane uses of genetic engineering.” ~BarnesandNoble.com

This is the first novel I’ve ever read by John Brunner, and I hear some people consider it his masterpiece.  Sounds like a good place to start, right?   I actually bought this one on a whim, because it was the only English-language ‘SF Masterworks’ novel stocked at my local bookstore that I hadn’t read.  While it was difficult to get into at first, I ended up happy that I’d grabbed this one, even at Swiss prices!

My Thoughts :

At the end of Stand on Zanzibar, Brunner describes it as a ‘non –novel’, and I can definitely see why.  The story is broken up into four different kinds of chapters.  ‘Continuity’ chapters contained what I eventually recognized as the main plotlines of the novel, featuring Donald and Norman.  ‘Tracking Through Close-Ups’ were typically short accounts of events in different people’s lives, told with an eye towards showing some element of Brunner’s future society.  ‘Context’ chapters usually featured some kind of fictional media, such as an essay by the sociologist Chad Mulligan.  ‘The Happening World’ was usually random snippets of information or news about the lives or societies of people that were mentioned at one time or another.  These chapters often reminded me of a Twitter or Facebook newsfeed.  I think this worked well to eventually give a feeling of immersion in Brunner’s imagined future world, but it made it difficult to initially get into the novel. It took me a while to really get a sense of what the main plots of this non-novel were going to be about.

In addition to the format, Brunner’s world also featured a large amount of future slang whose meanings were sometimes, but not always, obvious.  For instance, it took me a while to realize that poppa-momma and anti-matter were slang for p.m. and a.m.  Others, like “Ellay” for L.A.,  ‘prodgies’ for children, or ‘codder/shiggy’ for man/woman, were easier to understand for me. It took some time to get used to how Brunner's characters spoke, but I liked that he went so far as to create new conversational language and pop culture for his world.   After all, I would have expected the English language to have changed and developed in a story set so far in the author’s future.

Speaking of the future, Stand on Zanzibar takes place in 2010. It’s not exactly the future anymore, is it? I think that science fiction novels tend to be judged by their degree of accuracy in predicting the future, especially once that future has become the past.  However, Brunner’s world-building was so thorough and interesting that it was easy to appreciate as a fictional society, even if it didn’t get all that much right about today’s world.  That's not to say that he didn’t get some predictions correct.  His SCANALYZER program seemed similar to the news aggregate sites that many people read. Also, some of the overcrowding issues seem fairly relevant to major European cities, like Paris.  Altogether, though, I think Stand on Zanzibar speaks more to what people in the 1960s might have feared the future would be like. 

While the world was really engrossing, the main characters were less so.  I wasn’t really any more interested in the ‘Continuity’ characters (Donald and Norman) than I was to any of the minor ‘Tracking With Closeups’ characters.  Their stories--- a corporate takeover of an African country and a spy infiltration of an Asian country— were fun to read, but seemed relatively standard and straightforward.  I got the feeling that Norman, Donald, and all the others existed to showcase the world that Brunner had imagined, instead of the other way around.  If that was the goal, then I think Stand on Zanzibar was a success!     

My Rating : 4/5

Stand on Zanzibar gives an immersive look into a fictional future (2010) society as imagined by an author in the 1960s.  It’s not terribly accurate, but it’s full of tons of interesting ideas and details.  It took a while for me to really get into the swing of this non-novel, but I think it was worth the effort.  From the neat future slang to the vignettes highlighting various aspects of Brunner’s future society, I was completely hooked.  I didn’t feel like the characters or plot really lived up to the world-building, however, and I found myself caring more about the view into the society that the characters provided than their own success or failure.  I’m glad I read this one before Brunner’s future slid too far into the past!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Review: Blue Magic by A.M. Dellamonica

Blue Magic by A.M. Dellamonica
Published: Doherty, Tom Associates, LLC, 2012
Series: Blue Magic Series, Book 2 (Sequel to Indigo Springs)

This is the second book in a series, and therefore this review will contain spoilers of the first book, Indigo Springs.

The Book :
“In Indigo Springs, Astrid Lethewood and her friends discovered a well of vitagua—liquid magic—that changed them all forever.  Vitagua, which has been cursed and sealed away in the ‘unreal’ by Fyremen, has the potential for incredible power and equally incredible destruction.  Now Astrid is the world’s only ‘chanter’, the only person who can control the vitagua and enchant magical objects for use by others.  She has decided that her role will be to usher magic back into the world, and to do the least harm to the least number in the process.

Many others don’t share Astrid’s vision of the future. Beings who were trapped in the unreal are eager to make their way back into the world as quickly as possible, regardless of the cost in human life. Astrid’s former friend Sahara has gone insane from vitagua contamination and has created a destructive cult.  The ancient magical cult of Fyremen is determined to burn all magic.  Furthermore, the world’s governments see magical contamination as terrorism, and they intend to stop both Sahara’s cult and Astrid’s magical well.  Can Astrid help the world reach the ‘happy after’, or is her optimism just a dream?” ~Allie

 I loved the world and magic of Dellamonica’s debut novel, Indigo Springs, so I was happy to see that she was continuing the story in this sequel, Blue Magic. I’m not sure if there will be more novels in the future of this urban fantasy world, but I think the setting still has a lot of potential for interesting tales.

My Thoughts :

Blue Magic builds on the story and characters of Indigo Springs, so it’s a good idea to have read the first novel recently when you get started on this one.  There are some reminders of who’s who, what has happened so far, and the rules of vitagua, but I think it would have helped if I’d had all of that fresh in my mind. Blue Magic is much more action-oriented than Indigo Springs, and I felt that it relied on the reader already having an emotional investment in the main characters.  Indigo Springs took place in a small town, and it put a lot of focus on the development of a few main characters and their relationships with one another. By necessity, Blue Magic is a much larger story, with many more characters and locations.  This seemed to affect the depth with which each place and character could be explored.

Unlike Indigo Springs, Blue Magic’s story was told chronologically, through four viewpoint characters.  Both Astrid Lethewood, the well witch, and Will Forest, the criminal negotiator, were carried over from Indigo Springs.  Astrid’s parent, Ev Lethewood, gave the reader eyes into the ‘unreal’, where contaminated people waited impatiently to be freed.  Another interesting addition to the story was Juanita Corazon, who provides a perspective on the trial of cult-leader Sahara Knax and the government response to vitagua contamination.  

I most enjoyed Juanita and Ev’s viewpoints, but for different reasons.  Ev’s story was interesting to me because it showed a relatively elderly character still exploring his own identity.  I thought it was especially interesting to see a character deal with an apparent conflict between his past behavior and current self-knowledge.  Juanita, on the other hand, I found interesting due to her proximity to almost every powerful group in the story.  She was everyone’s favorite pawn, so she had the opportunity to see a bit of the workings of each group.  I was interested in learning more about the Fyremen through Juanita, but the organization seemed to be frustratingly one-dimensional. The other two characters were slightly less engaging to me. I loved Astrid as the heroine of Indigo Springs, and I still love her personality.  However, the increasing power of magic and prophecy put me off of their interactions a little.

I think that vitagua magic in Indigo Springs was close to the edge of being too powerful, and it may have crossed the line in Blue Magic.  I liked the idea that objects had inherent magical tendencies, and you could only enchant an object to do a particular thing.  However, as Astrid grew more powerful, she became able to enchant any object to do essentially anything.  In Indigo Springs, magical power was still limited by the need for energy to produce magical results.  This requirement was loosened early in Blue Magic, when Astrid’s team developed a technique to wind energy into magical batteries.  When you add in Astrid’s determination to remove the ‘taint’ from magic, it seemed like those with the ability to use vitagua were basically becoming omnipotent.  In that same vein, Astrid’s knowledge of the future was becoming more powerful and reliable as well.   In a sense, Astrid “spoiled” several plot points of her own story by talking about the future.  However, Astrid did not know everything, and there were several major surprises, good and bad, both for both her and the reader!

My Rating : 3.5/5

Blue Magic was an exciting, magical story.  I think it would be best read shortly after Indigo Springs, in order to have the rules of the world and the major characters still close in mind.   It was a much larger story than Indigo Springs, with many characters and locations, and lots of wide-scale action.  The story was told through four point of view characters, each with a unique position or perspective. Though I still enjoyed the idea of the magic system, I’m not sure if I liked how close to all-powerful vitagua magic was starting to become. Also, I was not really fond of the role Astrid’s knowledge of the future played in the story this time around.  While I might not have liked it quite as much as Indigo Springs, I am eager to see what Dellamonica will write next.