Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book Review: The Dragon Never Sleeps by Glen Cook

dragonneversleepsThough he is much better known for writing fantasy, Glen Cook has also written several science fiction books in the course of his career.  The Dragon Never Sleeps is a dark space opera originally published in 1988, and recently made available again in a new edition from Night Shade Books.

Far, far into the future, humans are the slowly declining but still unquestioned masters of Canon Space, a sprawling interstellar empire ruling over many species and linked together by a mysterious network of faster-than-light travel routes called the Web.  At its apex are the guardships, colossal war machines that are  milennia old and have crews that are equally ancient. Hostile forces from beyond Canon Space, challenges to human hegemony by Canon Space's many nonhuman subject species, or bids for power by the huge human merchant houses at the apex of civilian society are mercilessly put down by the guardships, huge, ancient war machines with unmatched destructive power and crews that are equally ancient.

Simon Tregesser, ruler of one of the great merchant houses, plots to overthrow the rule of the guardships.  After millennia of their unquestioned dominance such a thing seems impossible, but Tregesser has an advantage that those who tried to defy guardships before do not: He has successfully formed an alliance with a mysterious force from beyond Canon Space one that possesses great military might and insights into the Web that even humanity has not achieved.

The situation is made more precarious by the reappearance of the long-vanished Kez Maefele- once one of the greatest leaders of a now-conquered alien race called the Ku, now one of its last survivors, and the warrior who came closer to actually stopping the seemingly omnipotent guardships than any other being in their long history. He has long since given up his futile struggle against the rule of Canon Space and seems content to live in peace and obscurity, but the existence of a force strong enough to overcome the guardships might be able to convince him to take up his old cause again.

The reign of the guardships is despotic and pitiless, but there is no promise that Tregesser's mysterious allies will be any different, and a conflict large enough to overthrow Canon's rule will entail death and destruction on a colossal scale. As Tregesser sets his plan into motion, the guardships will find themselves fighting their first serious threat in centuries. Mysterious beings with some sort of connection to the Web have appeared in Canon Space, their nature and goals unknown. And meanwhile, both House Tregesser and the guardships search for the enigmatic Kez Maefele, whose loyalties may determine the outcome of the war and the future of humanity and every other species in Canon Space.

I liked The Dragon Never Sleeps a lot, both on its own individual merits and as an opportunity to see Glen Cook working outside the genre of his better-known books like the military fantasy series The Black Company. The plot is interesting, complex, and unpredictable, and Cook does a good job of keeping a story with a large number of separate plot threads moving along. The battle scenes are great, both for their excitement and for the way they evoke the awe-inspiring scale of their combatants.

My favorite aspect of The Dragon Never Sleeps is the setting and atmosphere. This is displayed most strongly in the guardships themselves. Despite being built and crewed solely by humans, the guardships frequently seem like the most alien things in the books. The huge crews of each ship are thousands of years old, their personalities and memories uploaded into new incarnations made from their DNA again and again over the centuries. Whole armies are kept in cryogenic hibernation and awakened when needed, and they too are reborn over and over. The ships themselves enjoy the same immortality, recreated complete with their uploaded databases and resurrected crews in the (almost unheard-of) event they are lost in battle.  The most-well regarded members of the crew join the ranks of the Deified, uploaded human intelligences that are part of the ship itself, upon their physical deaths. The central core of each ship is a nascent intelligence in its own right, often dangerously close to developing a consciousness and will of its own, and some ships have awakened to sentience and subsumed their crews entirely.

Each guardship is effectively a complete and usually isolated community unto itself, and despite remaining united in purpose the culture of each has evolved in ways that can make them alien even to each other.  The homes and families that the guardships' crews left behind have been gone for thousands of years. Despite having ready access to the faster-than-light travel of the Web that unites Canon Space, the guardships and their crews seem profoundly alone.

The rest of the setting adds to this tone. As the book begins, Canon Space has long been technologically, scientifically, and socially stagnant.  Humanity and Canon civilization as a whole are utterly dependent on a phenomenon, the Web, that they are able to use but have no real understanding of. The human race is in decline- though it's power remains unmatched and its control absolute, the human population of Canon Space is slowly dwindling. Aside from the guardships, among the most frequently seen areas of Canon Space are the DownTown's- the desperate underclass areas of Canon worlds, populated by desperate humans, aliens, and cast-off creatures called artifacts, living beings manufactured for the use of the elite and frequently left to fend for themselves when no longer desired or useful.

Much of the story has an almost palpable feeling of isolation and loneliness. Everyone seems cut off and isolated- Canon Space from the unknowns beyond its borders, DownTown from the higher echelons of society, artifacts from their uncaring creators, Kez Maefele from his now-decimated species and his abandoned hopes, humanity from the species it rules, guardships and their crews from nearly everyone. This combines with the decaying, uncanny atmosphere of Canon Space to create a powerful sense of eeriness and foreboding that adds tremendously to the book. Readers who enjoy the atmosphere of stories like Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series or Sean Williams' Astropolis series should find a lot to like here.

At the same time, the characters prevent the book from being overwhelmed by gloom. Many of them are fairly lightly sketched in, but Cook has a talent for creating characters that feel relatable and down-to-Earth while still fitting into a story where they are surrounded by remarkable, alien settings and events, and remain sympathetic in the midst of a morally murky struggle.  This complements the setting very well, making it feel like a more human place, and the emotional effects of both the setting and characters were strengthened as each cast the other into starker relief.

I greatly enjoyed The Dragon Never Sleeps and would recommend it for any fan of Glen Cook or far-future space opera.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

James P. Hogan, R.I.P.

I was saddened to learn that science fiction author James P. Hogan passed away on July 12th, at the age of 69.  Hogan was the author of numerous books, of which I own a great many, including Voyage From Yesteryear, Inherit the Stars, Code of the Lifemaker, and Multiplex Man.  Rest in peace.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Book Review: The Legions of Fire by David Drake

519-SB4sV4LDavid Drake is among my favorite authors, so I was quite excited when this book arrived.  The Legions of Fire is the first entry in Drake's planned four-book fantasy series, The Books of the Elements.

The story begins in Carce, capitol city of an empire that dominates the known world.  Corylus, a soldier's son with a scholarly bent who grew up on the empire's frontiers, attends a public recital given by his friend Varus, a young aristocrat and scholar with aspirations of being a poet.  Varus is reading his poem when he, Corylus, and Varus' sister Alphena are seized by bizarre visions, and Varus shocks the crowd- and himself- when he stops reading his poem, tears the manuscript apart, and begins making apocalyptic pronouncements warning of the imminent destruction of the world by fire.  Pandareus, Varus and Corylus’ rhetoric instructor, takes the two young friends to meet his friend Priscus, one of the commissioners of the Sybilline Books- ancient prophecies that only a few men have ever seen, kept under strict guard and opened only by order of the Senate of Carce.  During the meeting, Varus falls into another trance, and a startled Priscus reveals that Varus’ rants are in fact quotes from the Books.

Terrible supernatural forces are gathering around Varus'  family and friends.  Varus'  father Saxa has been spending most of his time with a strange man named Nemastes, who claims to be a sorcerer from Hyperborea.  Alphena, visiting the temple of Tellus with her and Varus' stepmother Hedia (who is not much older than they are) to pray for a suitable husband, is terrorized when the statue of the goddess moves and speaks in a man's voice, proclaiming that she will marry Spurius Cassius- a famous citizen of Carce put to death by the Senate centuries ago.  Corylus finds himself repeatedly slipping over the boundary into some other world, where strange beings urge him to kill his friend Varus before it's too late.   The cataclysm spoken of in the Sybilline Books that Varus has unwillingly prophesied is real, and its architects intend to use Varus as their instrument to bring it about.  The barriers between worlds are weakening, and Varus, Corylus, Alphena, and Hedia all find themselves drawn into strange realms nothing like the world they know, where they must struggle to survive and find out how they can stop what is coming.  If they fail, the entire world will burn.

I greatly enjoyed this book.  Drake once again demonstrates his talent for intense action and complex plotting, juggling four major plot threads and viewpoint characters as their stories separate and then intersect again.  Drake's use of historical and mythological inspirations is very effective, and he creates a world that feels very concrete and real and yet profoundly strange at the same time.

I liked the characters- the hedonistic yet grim-minded and duty-bound Hedia, earnest and straightforward Corylus, intellectual yet sentimental Varus, and fearful but determined Alphena.  With Alphena and Varus, Drake also does a nice job of portraying courage and determination shown by people who are in completely over their heads, each in their own way, and know it but still press on.  Drake has a knack for infusing the mindset of his viewpoint characters into the way each section is written without hitting the reader over the head with it, and makes each plot thread feel like its main character.

The setting is a little unusual.  The Legions of Fire is not historical fantasy, but the story is set, sort of, in the early Roman Principate during the reign of Emperor Tiberius; for most practical purposes, Carce is Rome.  Aside from Carce itself, even the names are kept the same: there are references to the Gauls and Carthaginians, real historical (to the characters as well as the reader) figures like Julius Caesar and Spurius Cassius, the Rhine and Danube rivers, and so on.  I found this a bit jarring at first, but quickly came to like it.  It allows Drake- who was a classics major in college and has frequently used his extensive knowledge of Latin literature and Classical history as inspirations- to set his story in a world that feels very solid and defined without the need for large digressions providing background information, and ancient Rome offers a setting that feels as alien as any fantasy culture.  In my case, it helped that Classical antiquity is a longstanding interest of mine, but I think the setting will be enjoyable even for people who don't have that background.

The fantasy elements, too, are in large part grounded in real Roman (and Norse) beliefs, such as the prophetic Sibyline Books that are consulted by the Senate in times of crisis.  Magic in Carce is likewise based on old Roman beliefs: It is secretive, feared, widely disapproved of both legally and socially and yet widely sought, and people who claim to wield it are more likely to be charlatans and con men than authentic magicians.  Genuine magic in Carce's world is rare, sinister, and frequently unsavory and disturbing.  Other aspects of the story draw on Norse myths.  Again, you'll get more out of this aspect if you know something about the source material, but even without that background  knowledge it's quite evocative and effective on its own.

I'd recommend The Legions of Fire for anyone who enjoys David Drake's work, fans of heroic fantasy, and readers of historically-based stories who are interested in something different from normal historical fiction.  It's a fine start to the Books of the Elements series and I look forward to whatever is next.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Monday, May 3, 2010

Book Review: Bitter Angels by C.L. Anderson

bitterangelsBitter Angels is the winner of the 2009 Philip K. Dick Award for distinguished science fiction.  It's a space opera/espionage story by Sarah Zettel , published under the pseudonym C.L. Anderson.

Terese Drajeske is a former operative of the Guardians, the organization tasked by the United Earth Government with countering threats to the peace between earth and her many colonies.  She is jolted out of the more peaceful life she has built for herself  by the news that Bianca Fayette, her longtime friend and mentor, has been mysteriously killed while conducting an investigation.  Despite having once sworn that she would never return to the Guardians, Terese agrees to come out of retirement, despite the pleas of her family and the risk that she will destroy the peace and happiness she has found since the devastating events that drove her out of the Guardians the first time.

Terese travels to the Erasmus system, where Bianca died.  Once a prosperous group of settlements, Erasmus suffered an economic collapse after advances in faster-than-light travel made its formerly lucrative position as a shipping hub obsolete.  It's hereditary rulers maintain their grip on power through a massive system of surveillance and secret police and a crushing system of debt bondage that keeps the bulk of the population in a state of permanent indentured servitude to their rulers.   Though seemingly too impoverished and busy struggling for survival to present a serious threat to outsiders, the Guardians believe that Erasmus is a source of instability and a potentially serious threat to the peace of interstellar civilization.   Terese will have to delve deep into this oppressive, decaying society  to discover just what happened to Bianca, and find out what she had discovered that was worth killing over.

Bitter Angels is a good book, but a somewhat frustrating one.  The book has a strong start, a strong conclusion, and lots of good elements that sometimes felt like less than the sum of its parts due to pacing problems.  After a very effective setup, the story started to drag, spending a lot of time seeming like things were about to get more interesting without doing so.  I liked the premise and the setting enough to keep going, and was ultimately glad I did, but too much of  the time I spent reading felt like something I had to trudge through to get to the payoff.

The book does have considerable strengths.  Erasmus is a very well-done setting, and Anderson does a great job bringing it to life.  There's an intense sense of decay, fear, and desperation as we see as we see the people of Erasmus struggling to escape their crushing debts to their rulers, while draconian laws, ubiquitous government surveillance, and the power of the secret police to create a nearly Stalinist level of paranoia.

I thought Therese's emotional struggle as she is torn between loyalty to her dead friend and her promise to her family that she would never go back to the Guardians was very well-done.  Therese's relationship with her husband is a particularly strong element here, as Therese faces the possible dissolution of her life's great source of stability.  Despite his relatively modest time on stage, her husband is a well-drawn, sympathetic character; his importance to Therese, and hers to him, comes through strongly, and his pain and fear at the thought of his wife returning to a career that nearly killed her and left her psychologically shattered is palpable.  Similarly, the portrayal of the sacrifices made by characters from Erasmus as they struggle through their lives in a dehumanizing, spirit-crushing society was very effective and added a lot.

Overall, I would recommend Bitter Angels for fans of science fiction, provided you're willing to be patient with some parts that drag in the middle.  The setting and premise work well, the characters are very effectively done, and the conclusion has an emotional charge that ultimately makes it worthwhile.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Book Review: Incandescence by Greg Egan

eganincandescenceOne of the things I love about science fiction, and especially hard science fiction, is that it rejects conventional presumptions about what it's proper for fiction to be about and treats things like science, logical and creative extrapolation, system-building, and- more generally- reason as worthwhile subject matter in their own right.  Greg Egan (Diaspora, Permutation City, etc.) is an unabashed practitioner of science fiction in that vein, so I was quite pleased when his new novel Incandescence arrived.

The story follows two characters in the far, far future.  Rakesh is a citizen of the Amalgam, a galaxy-spanning civilization home to an immeasurable host of organic beings, artificial intelligences, and uploaded personalities.  An adventurous man (or male-identifying uploaded intelligence), he has grown restless living in a society that tamed the galaxy and seemingly discovered everything that can be discovered eons before he was born.

The story begins when he is approached by a stranger named Lahl, who tells him that she has evidence of a species unknown to the Amalgam, deep in the galactic core.  The core is the domain of the Aloof, an enigmatic civilization that has spurned the Amalgam's attempts to communicate for millions of years.  Despite this, they broke their silence long enough to show Lahl- who was taking a shortcut through Aloof space to cut a few thousand years off her travel time- a meteor containing fossilized DNA-based cells that belong to no known known species, and that must have originated in the core itself.

For their own incomprehensible reasons, the Aloof have charged  Lahl with the task of finding a "child of DNA," a member of a species born from the smae panspermia that gave rise to the sample and to many of the species of the Amalgam, willing to help seek out the DNA's source.  As a human, Rakesh fits the bill.  Presented with this opportunity, Rakesh agrees to enter the domain of the Aloof in search of the discovery he thought he'd never have a chance to make.

Roi is an alien living in a strange world of tunnels called the Splinter, where the strength and direction of of gravity depends on your location and everything is brilliantly lit by the all-pervading light they call the Incandescence.  She lives a normal life, tending crops nourished by the light and heat of the Incandescence with the rest of her work team, until the day she meets Zak in the weightless heart of the splinter, the Null Line.  Too old, eccentric, and unhealthy to be targeted for recruitment by a work team, he spends his time trying to understand the nature of their home, seeking lost records and studying the shifting patterns of weight around the Splinter.  Like everyone she knows, the question of why their world is as it is is something she had never taken an interest in before, but her encounter with Zak awakens, for the first time in her life, to understand.  So overwhelming is her curiosity that it overpowers her natural biochemical bonds joining her to her work team,  and she begins returning to the null line to learn more from Zak.  Together, starting with simple experiments about motion in the weightless environment of the null line, they begin probing into the nature of their strange home.  As time passes, their discoveries lead to an ominous conclusion- the Incandescence is not the safe, eternally static place they had thought, and their growing understanding may be the only way to preserve the Splinter from catastrophe.

I really enjoyed Incandescence, but I have to be a bit cautious in recommending it.  If you like hard science fiction that really delves into the science, I recommend it strongly.  If you don't, you're likely to find it rather dry.

For those who do like especially science-heavy hard science fiction, this book has much to recommend it.  Egan creates two radically different but fascinating environments in the Amalgam and the Splinter.  I liked the way the Amalgam is introduced- it initially seems like a strange but somewhat recognizable future, but it quickly becomes apparent just how alien it really is.  Despite that, it didn't have the chilly, eerie feeling that I often associate with settings involving the extremely distant future, posthumanity, and/or large-scale interstellar civilizations without faster-than-light travel.  I enjoy that feeling, generally speaking, but Incandescence's Amalgam was a pleasant change of pace.  The Amalgam characters were generally not delved into deeply, and their psychology and mode of existence was quite alien in some ways, but to me their personalities and interactions had a sense of good-natured warmth to them that I don't often see, and I quite enjoyed that.

The Splinter is a fascinating creation that should intrigue people who like science fiction about life in environments radically different from our own in the vein of Hal Clement, Robert Forward, or Stephen Baxter.  There have been many books about bizarre environments, but incandescent is the first SF novel I'm aware of to use a location- an object closely orbiting a black hole- where the effects of relativity can be readily seen in day-to-day life.

One of the things I enjoyed was that the book is about science not just as an existing body of knowledge, but as a process of learning and discovery.  Again, this is not the sort of thing that can be recommended for people of every taste, but I found it very satisfying to follow Roi as she  learned the underlying laws behind her world, gradually seeing things that seemed meaningless, baffling, or arbitrary come together into a coherent, comprehensible whole.  Egan is also quite ingenious in showing ways that intelligent beings might be able to gain a sophisticated understanding of physics in an environment where the science that drove so much of it's advancement on Earth, astronomy, is impossible.

Greg Egan's Incandescence is a fine book for devotees of hard science fiction.  It's definitely not suited to everyone, but if you enjoy far-future SF that takes science seriously and want a story that conveys the excitement of discovery in an unusual way, Incandescence is well worth your time.  For some neat background materials, check out the Incandescence section at Greg Egan's homepage.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Monday, January 25, 2010

Book Review: Balefires by David Drake

1597800716.01.LZZZZZZZDavid Drake is known first and foremost for his importance to the field of military science fiction, and many of his recent books have been space opera or heroic fantasy.  However, many of Drake's early publications were in the horror genre, often influenced by the classic pulp fantasy, horror, and "weird fiction" of writers like H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and Manly Wade Wellman.

Balefires: Tales of The Weird and Fantastic contains 24 of Drake's fantasy and horror stories.  The emphasis is on Drake's early work from the 1960s and '70s, but the stories included span almost three decades.  A few have previously appeared in the David Drake collections released by Baen Books, but many have been largely unavailable since the 1960s or 1970s.

The settings are quite diverse.  Several of the stories, drawing on Drake's own experiences, involve American troops in the Vietnam War.  Drake's interest in history also frequently comes to the fore, with a number of stories stories set in Viking Age Scandinavia, the Roman Empire, or other eras.  There are also a number of stories set in contemporary America (including one about 30 miles from my home, which I got a kick out of.)  Some of the stories are clearly influenced by cosmic horror in the vein of Lovecraft or Howard.  Others portray evils on a more human scale, and a few stories are more in the mode of heroic fantasy, albeit of a very dark sort.  The one anomaly is "A Land of Romance," a fun, light-hearted story written in tribute to influential SF writer L. Sprague de Camp.

Drake's talent for depicting intense, furious action manifests itself a number of times, but the dominant mood of many of the stories is not visceral terror but a relentless feeling of cold.   Horror that draws its atmosphere from the idea of a pitiless, uncaring universe beyond human comprehension is quite common thanks to the popularity and influence of H.P. Lovecraft, but Drake does it better than most, and the effect is quite chilling.  (Among other things, I think Drake's relatively austere writing style, which is highly evocative while remaining very straightforward, is generally better-suited to this sort of bleak tone than the more ornate style often associated with Lovecraftian horror.)

Despite the cosmic horror aspects, however, much of what is horrifying in the stories is more personal in nature.  As is the case of in much of Drake other work (most notably his military SF),  the most terrifying things arise from human psychology- the psychological devastation left by trauma and violence, what suffering and brutality can twist people into, the dulling of emotion and conscience, and the things that  human beings will do, condone,  or become.

In addition, each story has a short preface written by Drake about how the story came about and the idea behind it.  These provide some very interesting information about various stages in Drake's career, as well as some of the influences that have shaped his work- growing up in Iowa, classic science fiction and fantasy, his military service in Vietnam, and his love of Classical history and literature.  It's quite interesting for the insights it gives on Drake's work, as well as his thoughts on horror fiction more generally and his first-hand accounts of what the field was like in the 1960's and 70's.

All in all, Balefires is a great collection of stories and an intriguing look at David Drake's roots.  I would enthusiastically recommend it for anyone who is a fan of Drake's work, and for anyone who enjoys horror and dark fantasy.

Stories collected in Balefires:

The Red Leer
A Land of Romance
Smokie Joe
The False Prophet
Black Iron
The Shortest Way
Lord of the Depths
Children of the Forest
The Barrow Troll
Than Curse the Darkness
The Song of the Bone
The Master of Demons
The Dancer in the Flames
Best of Luck
Something Had to be Done
The Elf House
The Hunting Ground
The Automatic Rifleman
Blood Debt
Men Like Us

Stumble Upon Toolbar