Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Star Wars Holiday Special teaches us to hate Christmas, life

Christmas is nearly upon us, so I've decided to cross-post my traditional yearly post on The Star Wars Holiday Special from my other blog, Pointless Side Quest. Please to enjoy, for a certain value of "enjoy."

It's the Christmas season once again. To celebrate, this is the time of year when this blog make a foray beyond the world of video games into the larger world of holiday entertainment. Sadly, there is a dark side to Christmas. I'm not talking about the weather, or the parents rending each other apart like rabid beasts at Toys R Us, or the built-up resentment that can explode at family gatherings, or those horrific modernized versions of Christmas carols that every place of business in the state of Illinois is apparently required by law to defile my eardrums with for the entire month of December. No, I speak of something much worse...

The Star Wars Holiday Special has appeared on American television once, in 1978, and oozed into various foreign markets to make similarly brief appearances over the next few years. It has never been rebroadcast in the US and has never been released on home video in any format. George Lucas, who would probably release a boxed set of the prequel trilogy with an added bonus DVD containing 90 minutes of footage from the parking lot security cameras of Skywalker Ranch and call it the "Star Wars Ultimate Edition" if he thought anyone would buy it, disavows it and has refused to make it available.

Scorned by legitimate society, it exists only in the form of unauthorized copies made from VCR recordings of the original. Like so many other blasphemous tomes of daemonic horror bearing unspeakable eldritch knowledge never meant for the eyes of Man- Friedrich von Junzt's Unaussprechlichen Kulten, Abdul Alhazred's Necronomicon, Kevin J. Anderson's Jedi Academy Trilogy- it circulates covertly in the dark corners of the world (I think that's an entirely fair description of most file-sharing networks) where students of the grotesque and unnatural risk their very sanity to seek it out.

It was in 2006 that I acquired a copy of The Star Wars Holiday Special, complete with the original 1978 commercials. It should have been a fine year: Neal Asher, David Drake, and Stephen Baxter all had multiple new books rolling off the presses. Ace Combat Zero came out for the PlayStation 2, and the release of the PlayStation 3 paved the way for me to actually buy one three years later. Iron Maiden, Evergrey, In Flames, Norther, Strapping Young Lad,  Tool, Motorhead, Blind Guardian,  and Týr released new albums. Instead, there would be only the taste of ashes.

Now, one thing I share with several of my friends is the ability to enjoy crap. From 1950's skiffy schlock, to watching a near-comatose Richard Burton mumble his way through the uncut version of The Exorcist II, to Sylvester Stallone's arm wrestling epic Over the Top, to the climactic scene of The Satanic Rites of Dracula where Christopher Lee is killed by running into a small shrubbery, to Oscar-winning actor George Kennedy and a bunch of stupid teenagers trapped on a boat where they are picked off one by one by an evil hybrid cat/rat/godawful puppet in The Uninvited, to a seemingly endless horde of Godfrey Ho "ninja" "movies" created by buying the rights to various Asian films, redubbing them, splicing them together with new footage of white guys in brightly colored and sometimes rhinestone-studded pajamas running around and doing flips in what appears to a small municipal park, and feebly attempting to tie them together and pretend that the resulting Frankensteinian abomination was a coherent story, we've seen it all. We take that sort of thing in stride.

I want you to have that context in mind when I say that my first two attempts to watch this had to be aborted within the first half hour because the guys I was watching it with couldn't stand it any longer.

The plot, such as it is, is that Chewbacca is returning to his home and family on the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk to celebrate "Life Day," one of those vague holidays characters in kids' fantasy shows would celebrate when it was snowing and they wanted to do something festively nonsectarian. But the system is in the grip of an Imperial blockade fleet commanded by recycled movie footage of Darth Vader, and... Well, basically, there's a string of largely unrelated, godawful variety showesque events set in something that resembles the Star Wars universe featuring various C-list celebrities until things finally shudder to a halt what seems like several geological epochs later.

It's got all of the heroes from the movie making their return, plus James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader. The only major actors from Star Wars not present- unless one also counts David Prowse, who appears only in the form of reused movie footage, or Carrie Fisher, whose soul appears to have departed her body and wandered off for much of her screen time- are Alec Guinness as Ben Kenobi and Peter Cushing as Tarkin, whose characters were saved from appearances here by the sweet, merciful embrace of death.(Which makes it suddenly seem very suspicious that Kenobi and Tarkin both met their ends because they conspicuously chose not to protect themselves from imminent danger, and either possessed supernatural powers that included the ability to sense horrible, cataclysmic events or hung out with people who did.) What could possibly have gone wrong?

There are some things the human mind cannot explain, only try to describe. Some of the thrilling spectacles we're treated to include:

Over ten minutes of Chewbacca's family screaming at each in Wookie, sans subtiitles! This is what the show leads off with. Little-known fact: Lucas actually wanted the first 20 minutes of the original Star Wars to focus on R2-D2 making random beep-bloop noises while doing routine maintenance on the Tantive IV's cafeteria vending machines, but was forced to start the movie with an exciting space battle instead when the studio said that his original cut of the film was too long.

Chewbacca's elderly father Itchy groaning in ecstasy while watching virtual reality porn! You have no idea how badly I wish I was making that up. NO idea.
Ever wondered what an elderly Wookie having an orgasm looks like? Of course not, but now you know anyway.

Reused footage from the movie!

Reused footage from the movie tinted bright green, so that a shot of the Millennium Falcon approaching Yavin can double as a shot of a bright green Millennium Falcon approaching Kashyyyk! Alternately, if you're a die-hard Star Wars fan desperately trying to escape from the implications of this monstrosity actually being a canonical part of the Star Wars universe, it could be interpreted to mean that the entire special is actually taking  place inside the Matrix. In which case it's arguably a better Matrix film than Matrix Revolutions.

Several minutes of Chewbacca's repulsive son Lumpy watching miniature holographic acrobats! That's right, Chewbacca's immediate kin consists of two guys named "Itchy" and "Lumpy." Presumably, the name "Chewbacca" is a human-pronounceable approximation of the Wookie word for "Scabby" or "Oozing."
Lumpy! I've already mentioned his role in the Special's events, but the very existence of this... this thing appalls me so much that it warrants its own entry. With the possible exception of that loathsome, soulless homunculus wrought in obscene parody of a human child from Son of the Mask (the CGI baby, not Jamie Kennedy), nothing has ever filled with such instinctive horror.


Harvey Korman in a dress! And in two other separate parts, as an amorous Tatooine cantina patron and a cyborg instructional video announcer (a cyborg who announces in an instructional video, that is, not an announcer in an instructional video about cyborgs) who appears to be suffering from some sort of degenerative motor neuron disorder. Not since Peter Sellers in Dr. Stranglove has there been such a multi-role tour de force!

The musical stylings of Bea Arthur! This is actually the closest we get to a high point.

Harvey Korman trying to get into Bea Arthur's pants! Though anyone hoping for some actual on-screen Hedley-on-Maude action will be disappointed, sadly.

An animated segment featuring the  most repellently butt-ugly animation in human history! It does have the first-ever appearance of Boba Fett, which some people may be interested in. Frankly, I've always considered Fett one of the most overrated characters in fiction. It's a damning indictment of how low our society's standards of masculinity have fallen when possessing some basic tracking abilities, dressing like the Rocketeer, flying around in a big metal shoe, and being killed by a blind man is enough of a résumé to be declared Biggest Badass Ever.

One odd thing is that the cartoon, like a number of other segments, is actually introduced as something being watched by Lumpy. Which implies that this segment depicts events that are fictional not only to us but to the characters, and that the cartoon itself actually exists within the Star Wars universe.

Which, I just realized, means that Jefferson Starship does, too.

A brief appearance by an incredibly bored-looking Harrison Ford, who doesn't even try to conceal his utter contempt for the proceedings!

Mark Hamill wearing more makeup than Queen Amidala, Bozo the Clown, and Dick Clark combined!
Usually I'd be reluctant to say something nasty about this, since it's probably to conceal the injuries Hamill had suffered in a car crash the previous year, but The Star Wars Holiday Special exists on a plane where human concepts of morality and decency are not merely absent, but meaningless. If you gaze into the bellowing unsubtitled Wookie abyss, the bellowing unsubtitled Wookie abyss gazes also into you.

Carrie Fisher singing a festive Life Day carol set to the tune of the classic Star Wars theme while clearly stoned out of her mind! But you don't have to take my word for it:

She's no Bea Arthur, I'll tell you that much.

Eventually, Chewbacca makes it home for the holidays with his repellent family. To the best of my recollection, no one learns a valuable lesson about The True Meaning of Life Day, if in fact it has one.

I really can't do justice to how teeth-gratingly bad it is. I have no strong personal stake in Star Wars. I liked the original movies and a few of the tie-in books, but I've never had the strong emotional attachment to Star Wars that some people do. I didn't like the prequel trilogy but never had the sort of "I have sworn a Sicilian blood oath of vengeance upon George Lucas' and his entire family line because he murdered my family, burned down my village, and deflowered my house pets" response that is often seen on the Internet. The idea of crap with the name Star Wars on it is not some sort of personal affront to me. Given that sitting through this made me want to gouge out my own eyes and just run through the streets of Chicago gibbering like a lunatic until my heart and/or lungs burst, I can only imagine how devoted Star Wars fans feel about it.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Other stuff I'm up to

In addition to this blog, I'm also a regular contributor at several other sites, mostly video game-related. If that's also a topic you're interested in, or if for some reason you just want more of my unwieldy-mountain-of-clauses approach to writing, check out:

My other blog. Dedicated to the lowest form of geek humor: Jokes about video games. I do occasionally lower myself to attempting actual insight, though that seldom ends well. Plus, my seasonally festive review of The Star Wars Holiday Special!

Gaming site where I'm on the staff.   More constrained than the above in many ways, since I'm mostly expected to offer actual legitimate commentary or information, but I make do. Past articles include:

Why I (sort of) care about the absurdity of Homefront- Perhaps of the most relevance to the science fiction and fantasy field, on the nature of suspension of disbelief.

Moral choices in Infamous: The good, the bad, and the downright nonsensical- About what makes choices in games interesting. Or fail to be, in some cases.

Where's Your God Now, Mario?: Religious Censorship in Games- A look back at the strict yet bizarrely inconsistent golden age of Nintendo of America's Standards and Practices, when naming a spell “Holy” or showing a cross on a coffin was forbidden due to fears that any religious imagery or references could cause offense or controversy, and yet a Gameboy game that climaxes in deicide was approved for release.

Recently launched gaming/humor site I'm a writer for. More overtly ridiculous than Pointless Side Quest tends to be.

So, have a look if anything like that interests you. I strongly endorse Robot Geek and Kuribo's Shoes in general; they're both great sites. More stuff actually written for this blog coming soon.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book Review: Out of the Waters by David Drake

Out of the Waters is the second novel in David Drake's “Books of the Elements” fantasy series, following The Legions of Fire. I recommend reading the first book before this one, though Out of the Waters is a self-contained story and stands up well on its own.

Like its predecessor, Out of the Waters centers on the city of Carce, the capital of a sprawling empire. Gaius Alphenus Saxa, a wealthy aristocrat, has been newly appointed as the governor of Lusitania, one of the provinces of Carce's vast empire, and is financing a lavish public spectacle to celebrate. The performance is going as planned when a shocking sight appears in the theater- images of a great city defended by strange flying ships, being attacked by a monstrous many-limbed creature from the sea that grows larger and larger as it advances on the city.

As the rest of the crowd continues to watch, enraptured, Saxa's son Varus has a prophetic vision. He realizes that they are witnessing a scene from the distant past, the destruction of ancient Atlantis by the mythical beast known as the Typhon- a vast, monstrous being that will soon return to lay waste to the entire world. His stepmother Hedia, a woman who fears almost nothing, is transfixed with terror at the sight of strange men made out of glass walking the battlements of the siege city- the same creatures she has seen in a series of recent nightmares. And his younger sister Alphena, watching the cataclysmic scene of destruction, doesn't see the monstrous Typhon at all- she sees a man.

Saxa and the crowd are delighted, thinking it must be some amazing feat of stagecraft, but Varus, Alphena, Hedia, and Varus' friend Corylus - have already witnessed too much to confuse the vision with some sort of stage trickery. Together, the five have already saved Carce from a doom foreseen in one of Varus' visions, and now they must find a way to do so again. There are many dangers in their path and many mysteries to unravel- the reason for Atlantis' terrible fate, the origins and nature of the Typhon itself, and how they can possibly stop something that crushed a civilization even more advanced than Carce, and said in myth to be so terrible that only Zeus himself was able to stop it.

I really liked Out of the Waters. The book follows a similar structure as The Legions of Fire, splitting up the heroes early on and sending them on separate journeys that eventually converge again, and like its predecessor this format works quite well. The plot is exciting and interesting, especially as the true nature and origins of the Typhon are revealed, and Drake does a really good job of actually making a grotesque, world-destroying monstrosity the heart of a very emotionally engaging story.

The different strands of the plot are written such that each of the four main viewpoint characters has a very distinctive voice, and Drake is very effective in using this to bring them to life. Varus' sister Alphena gets to take a more active role in the story this time, and it was interesting to see her grow as a person compared to who she was at the start of the first book.

The setting is unusual for this sort of fantasy in that Carce, its empire, and its culture are quite explicitly Rome in all but name- aside from “Carce,” even names are kept the same. In addition to making Carce feel very different from a more typical fantasy setting, Drake's attention to historical detail frequently makes Carce seem much more foreign to a modern reader than many imaginary worlds, even during mundane events. There are aspects of it that you'll get more out of if you already have some knowledge of the period, but the book explains things well enough that its not a requirement to understand what's going on. The Typhon is inspired by an interesting mixture of Classical and American Indian (Cherokee, more specifically) mythology, and Drake's combination and interpretation of them result in something that is both horrifying and poignant.

Many aspects of the book- lost Atlantis, the Typhon, some of the places the characters journey to- put me in mind of early American fantasy and “weird fiction” authors like Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, or (to some extent) H.P. Lovecraft, not so much in their specifics but in the way they evoke the the sense of the cosmos as something frighteningly vast, in both space and time. This contributes to the overall tone of the book, which (like most of Drake's fantasy, now that I think about it) is probably best described as a high fantasy story set in a sword-and-sorcery universe. The world is indifferent to humanity and its fate, magic and the supernatural tend to be frightening, disturbing things, human life is frequently very cheap, and there's no sign of any sort of higher power watching over mankind, but the protagonists are nevertheless heroic figures who will undergo whatever it takes to protect the world.

I highly recommend Out of the Waters for fans of fantasy, and especially for fans of Drake's previous work.

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Friday, October 7, 2011

Reading books for the first time

SF Signal had a Mind Meld feature a little while back that asked participants what science fiction or fantasy book they would like to experience reading for the first time again. I don't really have an answer to that. I often get a lot of my enjoyment from a book when I'm not actually reading it- when events or characters or ideas from it are just rolling around in after my head I've finished it, or while its still in progress but not actually in my hands; the experience of actually reading the book, while still very important, is often less central to me than it is to many people. Don't ask me why.

It did, however, get me thinking about which books made the biggest impression on me upon reading them for the first time, which is something I'm better equipped to answer.

The Night Face by Poul Anderson

This is part of Anderson' vast Technic Civilization future history- which I knew nothing of at the time, but it stood fine on its own. Human interstellar civilization is starting to dig itself out of the ashes after a long period of chaos and barbarism, and several human worlds that have made it back to the stars mount a joint expedition to another human world that has been completely isolated for thousands of years.

This wasn't quite the first Poul Anderson book I read, but it was close, and it was the first one to really show me some of the qualities that would make Poul Anderson my favorite science fiction author. Much of Anderson's work is pervaded by a sense of melancholy and an ultimately tragic view of life that exists alongside an energetic sense of discovery, adventure, and heroism, and The Night Face has both.

The part I always remember most is at the very, very end. One sentence, three words, and rereading it still rips my heart out just like the first time.

Side note: The book was originally published under the name Let the Spacemen Beware!, presumably because the publisher thought that the book's dangerously high levels of awesomeness needed to be counterbalanced by giving it the most generic name for a science fiction story ever conceived by man.

The Golden Age by John C. Wright

Science fiction based in post-singularity or "post-scarcity" sorts of settings generally don't do much for me unless it's unusually well-done, but despite this Wright's Golden Age trilogy -The Golden Age, The Phoenix Exultant, and The Golden Transcendence- are among my favorite books.

The first book in the series quickly demonstrates much of the reason for that. From the very beginning the the sheer density of ideas and imagination was stunning, with ideas that could provide the basis for a complete story or even a novel by themselves sometimes appearing on literally every page. And yet I never felt overloaded, overwhelmed, or confused- Wright does a masterful job of it immediately throwing the reader into a radically changed world and making it comprehensible.

Rolling Hot by David Drake

One of Drake's Hammer's slammers military science fiction stories, first published on its own in 1989 and now included in the collection The Tank Lords. This is the big one for me.

I picked up an old copy of Rolling Hot in a used bookstore in my late teens. I knew of Drake, slightly, but I hadn't read any of his work. I was interested in military science fiction and had heard good things about him, so I picked this book put more or less at random. Like Drake's other Hammer stories, it's about a group of mercenaries in the future, heavily influenced by Drake's own military experience. The characters are members of an armored cavalry unit hired to fight on one side of a planet's civil war, plus a a young war correspondent who finds himself dragooned into accompanying them; To the best of my recollection, the cause of the war and the nature and motivations of the two sides fighting it are never mentioned.

It was probably the most emotionally grueling experience I've ever had with a book, or with a work of fiction in any medium. I read it quickly, entranced. I can't really describe what finishing that book was like; it was psychologically numbing and overwhelming at the same time. I felt like someone had driven hooks into my gut and torn my insides out, while part of me felt it happen and part of me just impartially watched it through a window.

The book has some heartbreakingly sad moments, but it wasn't just that. Ironically, much of Rolling Hot's tremendous emotional effect on me was for much the same reason some people have accused Drake of glorifying violence or writing military "porn": The book is written with the understanding that people trapped in awful situations frequently don't have the luxury of consciously feeling the emotions that might be appropriate to the situation if they want to remain at least somewhat functional, and the way it is written thrusts the reader inside that mindset.

If someone doesn't understand what the conspicuously flat affect with which Drake often describes violence and death actually signifies (and/or has some sort of preexisting antipathy towards soldiers or warfare as subject matter or military science fiction as a genre), I suppose it can seem like callousness or indifference. But when I first heard that some people interpreted him that way I was utterly baffled by how anyone could think that, when the sense of pain and horror that suffuses much of Drake's work seemed so immediately palpable and obvious.

I've had other books affect me emotionally, but Rolling Hot was a book that had a more directly personal emotional relevance. Despite being based on a situation far removed from my own life- armored warfare being fairly uncommon in late 20th-century Illinois- Rolling Hot spoke to me in a way that nothing else I had encountered did, though I didn't really understand why at the time. I quickly began buying all the David Drake books I could find, and he's among my all-time favorites today.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Book Review: The Moon Maze Game by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

The Moon Maze Game is the most recent collaboration by authors Larry Niven and Steven Barnes. It is the fourth book in their Dream Park series (preceded by Dream Park, The Barsoom Project, and The California Voodoo Game) and part of the same future history as some of their other collaborative works, but it's a self-contained story and stands fine on its own whether you've read the previous books or not.

In the year 2085, humanity has spread into the solar system and now has a thriving permanent settlement on the moon. After losing his job as the bodyguard to a wealthy Belgian heiress, security professional Scotty Griffin receives a new job offer from an unexpected source: the King of the Republic of Kikaya, an African nation born from the ashes of the former Democratic Republic of Zimbabwe. The King wants to hire a bodyguard for his son and heir, Ali, for a trip to the moon.

Griffin is a former Lunar resident himself, but a near-fatal accident on the Lunar surface that left him near death and pinned down with his face towards the sky while he waited hours for rescue caused him to develop a crippling fear of the open starry sky. It left him unable to do his job and eventually drove him back to earth entirely, breaking up his marriage. He isn't keen to go back, even if the new job doesn't require him to leave the safety of the colony's domes, but he needs work and he hates the thought of letting his fears rule him forever.

Ali's destination is the first virtual-reality live-action role-playing event ever held on the moon, which he plans to participate in. Overseeing the event is Kendra Griffin, Scotty's estranged wife and one of the leaders of the colony's emerging society. Live-action role-playing utilizing a combination of holography and real physical items and sets is a popular form of entertainment on earth, attracting thousands of players in the games themselves and millions of viewers watching the most exciting games from home. A full-scale state-of-the-art gaming event requires considerable infrastructure, and so this historic event- which will be broadcast to hundreds of millions of viewers on Earth- represents a potential milestone in the development of the lunar colonies, showcasing their development before the entire world's eyes, spurring greater economic development, and bringing the day when the moon treats with the independent nations of earth as an equal closer. If it goes well.

The game is itself set on a fantasy version of the moon, populated with creatures inspired by the stories of H.G. Wells and brought to life by a labyrinthine, multi-story dome built for the occasion. But Ali's presence draws the moon into terrestrial politics when two lunar residents with a family connection to Kikaya and ties to opponents of the existing monarchy hire a gang of professional kidnappers and smuggle them onto the moon, hoping to abduct Ali and use him as a political bargaining chip.. The game has barely begun when they seize control of the game dome and take  Griffin, Ali, and the rest of the players as hostages. The prisoners begin a desperate escape attempt, but even if they escape, the players are still trapped with a group of ruthless professional criminals in a sealed dome until rescuers can arrive and figure out how to force their way in without blowing the dome open to the void of space in the process.

There is something working in their favor, however: The dome's numerous holographic and mechanical effects still work, and the dome's computers are still running the game. Griffin is the only prisoner accustomed to real fights, but the gamers know far more about how to deal with and take advantage of the dome's capabilities than their captors do, and the gamers have no shortage of ingenuity...

I quite enjoyed The Moon Maze Game. The plot is interesting, very well-paced, and keeps things exciting without seeming rushed or overstuffed. The lunar colony setting is not particularly new or noteworthy in itself, but it's used very well, with things like the dangers of the airless environment, the challenges of carrying out a covert criminal operation in a cramped, crowded, airtight population center, and the effects of low gravity all used to good effect. It's primarily an action-adventure story rather than a speculative one (though the two mesh interestingly, as discussed below) but it's still very much a science fiction story- the lunar environment is so integral to events throughout that the book could not transplanted to a more mundane terrestrial setting and continue to make sense

The action in the book is very well-done, and the authors make extensive use of the possibilities of lunar gravity. Barnes' background in the martial arts brings a lot to the story, especially when working in combination with the lunar setting. Low gravity doesn't just mean you can jump high- a fight becomes a radically different proposition when trying to shift your stance the way you would on Earth can throw you off your feet, or when your weight isn't rooting you to the ground firmly enough for you to turn your body in place to throw a proper punch, or when it's possible to turn somersaults with a grown man clinging to your back. It was rather cool to read a book where many of the science fictional aspects were not about futuristic technology (much as I love that sort of thing), but rather about the natural human body in motion in an alien environment.

I like the characters quite a bit. The various gamers who find them selves trapped in the dome with Ali and Scotty Griffin are likable people, and the authors do a good job of making them important participants in events through their courage and ingenuity without ignoring the fact that, unlike Griffin,  they don't have training or experience preparing them for a real-world life-or-death struggle and would have no chance in a straightforward confrontation with professional killers.

I also enjoyed the portrayal of Xavier, the renowned Game Master chosen to create and oversee the adventure to be featured for the moon's historic first game. Xavier is an unlikable jerk- he's smug, arrogant, spiteful, overly self-involved, and was planning to covertly abuse his position as Game Master to harass and embarrass two participants in the game he has a decades-long grudge against until the arrival of the kidnappers interrupts him, at which point he is initially more angered by the interruption of his work than the threat to human lives. But he's not a caricature of an unlikable jerk- using all of his ingenuity and what limited access he still has to the systems inside the gaming dome, he does everything in his power to help the gamers survive and escape, his own hated enemies included. He's a prick, not a monster, and his role in the story benefits from that.

Probably most of all, I liked the portrayal of the relationship between Scotty and Kendra Griffin, which spurns the common "angry, bickering estranged couple forced by circumstances to work together" cliches. Instead, both Griffins come across as deeply hurt but reasonable people who understand that the breakdown of their marriage was the result of an unfortunate set of circumstances- a woman who had dedicated her life to the moon and would never be happy living anywhere else and a man suddenly rendered unable to continue living there at all- and have the maturity to accept that instead of taking their pain out on each other. That was refreshing.

I recommend The Moon Maze Game for science fiction fans. It's not the sort of mind-blowing speculative work most commonly associated with Larry Niven, but it's a very solid action-adventure story and well worth reading.

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Friday, August 26, 2011

Interesting new project from Angry Robot Books

This intrigues me: Angry Robot Books is starting a new project called "Worldbuilder" that actively encourages fans to create their own derivative works based on the universe of one of their upcoming books, Empire State by Adam Christopher. Once it's up and running, fans of the book will be able to upload their own creations to the official Worldbuilder website under a Creative Commons license. There are also plans for published anthologies based on this material.

The most similar project I can think of is the community of fans that has arisen around Eric Flint's 1632 and its sequels, which emerged out of fan discussions on the Baen Books message boards and has subsequently given rise to a regularly published online collection of new fan-contributed stories from Baen, the Grantville Gazette, as well as several paperback compilations. The Gazettes are overseen by Flint himself and are, if I'm not mistaken, actually considered a canonical part of the 1632 universe. The Worldbuilder project looks like it's going to be somewhat looser- anyone can contribute their fan works to the site, whereas fan-written 1632 stories have to go through a review and approval process and get Flint's imprimatur before appearing in the Gazette-  but it would be interesting to see if some of the Worldbuilder material becomes "official."

I would definitely like to see something like this take off. I've seen some very cool examples of storytelling and worldbuilding created through group efforts at somewhat in this vein,* so it's good to see another publisher and published author trying to tap into it. *(E.g.the SCP Foundation or Project LONG STAIR. Or the Cthulhu Mythos, for that matter.)

The book being used, Empire State, seems like a good choice for this sort of thing, since it's apparently a sort of noir superhero story set in a fantasy version of 1920s New York. Established superhero-based settings like the Marvel Universe are comprised of characters and locations created by a number of different authors, and I think the nature of superheroes as characters makes it easier to have multiple characters written by multiple authors, each possessing abilities and having experiences that wouldn't be possible in our world and have possible implications about how the fictional world works, without stepping on each other's toes too much. So Angry Robot is kicking off this project with something especially well-suited to it, which is good.

I'm very much looking forward to seeing how this goes.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Book Review: Gateways, edited by Elizabeth Anne Hull

Gateways is a collection of stories by a number of different authors, published in honor of Frederik Pohl's seventy-year career as a science fiction author and editor.

Pohl is a special author to me. One of the science fiction novels that really made an impression on me as a kid was Pohl's The World at the End of Time, published in 1990. I was exposed to it by sheer chance- my father would often pick up a few books for me when he was out of town on business, he knew I liked science fiction, and on one of his trips it was the most science fictiony-looking book at the airport kiosk on the day he was flying home.

I was blown away by it. It had interstellar space colonization, several human civilizations separated by thousands of years of history, godlike plasma-based beings living in stars that waged war with each other on an unimaginable scale, entire solar systems accelerated to relativistic speeds, trillions of years of the universe's evolution... startling stuff when you're in elementary school and just starting to delve into science fiction. A few years later, I discovered Pohl's classic Gateway, which became one of my favorite books. So I owe Frederik Pohl quite a bit.

Gateways collects over a dozen stories by various science fiction authors, including three novellas  by David Brin, Frank M. Robinson, and Cory Doctorow. There are some reprints, but most of the stories are original to this anthology. Each contributor also provides a short remembrance of Pohl after their story, and several other authors who don't have story here, such as Robert Sawyer and Robert Silverberg, share their memories as well. It also contains forward by Elizabeth Anne Hull, the book's editor and Frederik Pohl's wife of nearly three decades.

Stories of note for me included:

Von Neumann's Bug by Phyllis and Alex Eisenstein- Story about a suburban man on present-day Earth who starts experiencing strange events after a tiny, unmanned interstellar explorer crash-lands on present-day earth and takes up residence in his garage while it repairs itself. Very fun and good-natured, and one of my favorites here.

Sleeping Dogs by Joe Haldeman- A former soldier returns to a planet where he fought decades ago in a war he has no memory of, thanks to the memory alteration procedure done to the troops after the campaign was over. with what little he now knows about the planet and the war. Equipped with a drug that can help restore his lost memories if he can expose himself to enough stimuli associated with his forgotten past, he tries to retrace his steps to find out who he was and what he did almost 30 years ago. Very effective and chilling, and Haldeman also does a great job of evoking the setting of the story in a short space.

Gates (Variations) by Larry Niven- The shortest story in the collection, but it still captures the combination of scientifically grounded SF and off-kilter weirdness that I like so much about Niven.

Tales from the Spaceship Geoffrey by James Gunn- Part of an upcoming novel Transcendental. A diverse group of aliens on a journey through space together pass the time by relating their pasts.  Gives us an interesting look at several different alien species through the stories included here, and definitely piqued my interest in the novel. I was particularly liked the section narrated by a member of an alien race called the Dorians, which takes the common science fiction trope of a violent, militaristic, ruthlessly aggressive and predatory alien species (think Larry Niven's Kzinti for one of the archetypal examples) and puts an even more disturbing spin on it that grew more chilling the more I thought about it- what if they aren't naturally like that at all?

Virtually, A Cat by Jodie Lynn Nye- Fun, cute story about a man driven to despair while stuck on a two-year interstellar journey without his beloved cats, and the solution one of his crewmates devises to help him. I liked this one a lot; it probably helps that I'm a cat lover, but you don't need to be to enjoy this one.

A Preliminary Assessment of the Drake Equation, Being an Excerpt from the Memories of Star Captain Y.T. Lee By Vernor Vinge- Story about the exploration of the newly discovered planet, in a universe where humanity has developed faster-than-light-travel and found many earthlike worlds across the galaxy but has yet to find evidence of any extraterrestrial life more complex than bacteria. Very nicely combines a cheerful, light-hearted exploration story with some weightier concepts.

Shoresteading by David Brin- Near-future story set on the receding shores of China, after a rise in the sea level caused by global warming has left much of what used to be coastal China underwater. Starts off a bit weak, but it picks up and is dealing with some fairly interesting ideas by the end.

Contributions by authors such as Harry Harrison, Neil Gaiman, Greg Bear, Gene Wolfe, Gregory Benford, and Mike Resnick are also included.

The collection has its hits and misses, but the only story I actively disliked was “The First-Born” by Brian W. Aldiss. It's a dull, unpleasant, pointless journey to nowhere with a repulsively trivializing (seemingly bordering on outright apologism for the perpetrator) portrayal of childhood sexual abuse thrown in for good measure. There's the germ of several potentially interesting subjects for stories here- the possible effects of an alien environment on developing fetuses during an attempt to colonize Mars, a poorly funded and poorly planned colony's struggle to maintain itself, the psychological strains experienced by the colonists in such an environment- but nothing interesting happens with them here. Ugh.

All in all, though, I found Gateways quite enjoyable and would happily recommend it to fans of Frederik Pohl. More generally, I'd also recommend it to other science fiction fans interested in new short fiction, especially if you'd like to read some stories on that are mostly on the more  upbeat side of the spectrum.

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Characterization in science fiction

Ryan Britt has a very good post at entitled “Genre in the Mainstream: Does SFF Marginalize Characters?” It's well worth your time.

Britt hits on a good point when he remarks that a typical science fiction book simply has more things competing with the characters for attention than a more conventional story- a character who might seem perfectly acceptable in isolation may seem lackluster when placed alongside ideas that are much more interesting than he is. In a somewhat similar vein I would add another factor, the inescapable scarcity of resources that go into a book's creation.

Time is finite, energy is finite, and the number of words in a book is finite. Provided with equal amounts of these resources, “serious” fiction can put more into its characters because it generally does not place a significant focus on subject matter other than the characters; the plot and setting are mostly or entirely there to further characterization or theme, rather than as things meant to be interesting in themselves. Character-focused fiction is usually also free from the need to explain the nature of its setting or the laws that govern it.

Often, science fiction simply does not have the resources to spare. Take a book I reviewed here a while ago, Incandescence by Greg Egan. Not a character piece, to put it mildly. Its length is modest, 256 pages in the Night Shade Books copy that I own. Now, there are probably ways it could be tweaked to make the characterization somewhat better while staying at that length and without any damage to the book's specifically science fictiony virtues. But probably not by much, because our hypothetical Incandescence 2.0 also still needs to cover, with same amount of detail and clarity of explanation:

A galaxy-wide multi-species civilization. Ways in which uploaded personalities originating from biological species with radically different physiologies, psychologies, sensory organs, etc. interact comfortably in shared virtual environments. A mysterious, isolationist second civilization in the galactic core. The workings of a galaxy-wide communications network that is limited to light-speed transmissions and carries not only messages but entire machine intelligences. Panspermia. The physics of space close to black holes. The physics of space close to black holes. The biology and society of an alien species. The invention of the scientific method by a member of that species, and the gradual process of discovery through experimentation. The consequences of living in an environment where the effects of relativity are significant enough to be noticeable in day-to-day life.

And so on. And then there's the actual plot that still needs to fit, too.

Some writers are better than others at creating strong characters while still giving attention to plot, setting, and ideas. But there are still trade-offs to be made and different authors will tend to be more effective at some ratios of these elements than others.

Obviously, better characterization is better than worse, all else being equal. Some of my favorite science fiction stories are strongly character-based.   But- as Britt alludes to- much of the criticism leveled at science fiction on this matter is built on the assumption, often the explicit assumption, that the emotions and personalities of the characters is what fiction is really about, or at least what it ought to be about. It's not surprising that this would be so; in people, being strongly socially and emotionally attuned is a much higher-status trait than the sort of attributes that often draw people to science fiction, and it makes sense that the status of science fiction would correspond to that of the sort of personality it brings to mind.

Which is why, ultimately, my answer to the question “Does SFF Marginalize Characters?” is, “Frequently, yes. So what?” One of the things I love most about science fiction is precisely that it treats things like science, technology, and carefully thinking about how systems work and how they might be affected by change as actually interesting, instead of being bound by the sort of assumptions that privilege one facet of the human mind above all others as the one stories should be about.

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Monday, July 4, 2011

Book Review: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

The Quantum Thief is the debut novel of science fiction author Hannu Rajaniemi. You can visit his website here.

The central character of the story is Jean le Flambeur, a legendary thief with a career that spanned centuries of time and the breadth of the solar system. Now, however, he is only another inmate in the Dilemma Prison, a virtual jail in the outer solar system where the uploaded personalities of criminals are kept for “rehabiliation” by the Sobornost, the posthuman collective of uploaded minds that is the greatest power in the solar system. His imprisonment comes to an unexpected end when he is rescued by a woman named Mieli. Mieli is no altruist, however- she and her masters have a job that requires the solar system's greatest thief. Le Flambeur agrees, feeling he owes her a debt of honor for his rescue. More importantly, the physical body he now inhabits after his release from the Dilemma Prison back into the world of flesh and blood is subject to Mieli's direct control.

But it's not just an object that Mieli needs le Flambeur to find. Much of le Flambeur's own centuries-long memory is missing. Le Flambeur's past self apparently had secrets so important that even his own memory was not secure enough, and so he hid them away in external storage external storage or locked up somewhere beyond awareness in his own mind and released only in response to particular stimuli to give his future self clues about where to find the rest of himself.

The trail left by his fragmentary memories  takes them to the Oubliette, a city of (comparatively) baseline humans perpetually crawling across the surface of Mars to keep ahead of the swarms of hostile, replicating, ever-evolving machines descended from malfunctioning terraforming machinery that now dominates much of the planet. The Oubliette is a place where privacy is almost absolute, and through the electronic network that links everyone in the city each citizen can control how much other people are able to see, hear, or even remember them. Le Flambeur remembers that he once lived here, and that the place is important to him- and if there were a place where he'd secretly hide memories away, this is it.

Meanwhile, a young detective in the Oubliette named Isidore Beautrelet is helping to investigate recent murders and acts of “gogol piracy”- forcible uploading of minds. He works in cooperation with a person known only as the Gentleman, one of the tzaddikim- mysterious vigilantes who have sworn to protect the city from outside threats. His successes bringing to the attention of wealthy Oubliette citizen Christian Unruh, who has a seemingly inexplicable mystery he wants solved. This mystery will bring Isidore and le Flambeur into collision with each other, and with the truth about le Flambeur.

The Quantum Thief is an excellent book that simultaneously works very well as a character-based story, an adventure, and a novel of ideas. The central plot is interesting throughout, especially as it builds up steam approaching the climax.

Jean le Flambeur is very enjoyable as the main viewpoint character. Much of the story is told by him in the first person, and fortunately he's a fun character to  follow around. The other major character's were also engaging; I was particularly fond of the Gentleman, Isidore's mysterious masked partner and mentor. (Especially once I decided that, in my head, the Gentleman would be played by The Question.) Rajaniemi does a very good job of creating characters that are clearly recognizable “types”- the roguish gentleman-thief, the mysterious woman with a painful secret, the earnest young detective and his older, more hard-nosed partner- but remain interesting, emotionally engaging individuals instead of being stock cliches.

The Oubliette is a fascinating setting with some intriguing elements. Each person is mentally linked to a citywide network that lets them exchange information and memories, while shrouded in protective encryption called gevulot that allows them to control what information about them can be accessed by others. Since everyone's mind is linked directly to the network, even the extent to which other people can see or hear you in real time, or- if a person consents through a “gevulot contract,” transmitted from mind to mind- remember you after the fact can be filtered this way. In addition to its importance to the main mystery plot, it creates an interesting situation in which people's basic psychology remains unchanged from our own but technology has radically changed fundamental aspects of social life. The hints given about the rest of the solar system are interesting as well, though are they fairly vague for the most part.

The book is very idea-heavy and set in a future where technology and society have changed radically. The technology to upload, download, or edit human minds is ubiquitous,  nanotechnology and other advanced technologies have risen to almost magical levels, advanced post-humans have risen to godlike heights of power and intellect, and even the comparatively unchanged humans in places like the Oubliette, who retain a fundamentally human psychology and lives that are at least somewhat recognizable,  are profoundly different from 21st-century humanity in all sorts of ways. Within this world, Rajaniemi quickly throws the reader in the deep end and mostly expects him to swim on his own. New concepts and terms come  quickly and aren't always explained right away, or in depth, though as things progress it gets easier to keep up and infer things from context.

I like this sort of approach when it's done well (as it is here),  since it makes it possible to put a lot of speculative technologies, setting information, and the like into the story, and can create a sort of puzzle for the reader to solve as he starts to gain enough context to understand things that were previously confusing or obscure. But it's not for everyone, and in comments I've seen from people who didn't like the book this is almost always the reason. If you do enjoy that sort of approach, though, The Quantum Thief does it very well.

I would definitely recommend The Quantum Thief for science fiction fans, especially those interested in  very idea-focused SF and subjects like transhumanism. It's a somewhat iffier proposition if you're not a fan of the sort of dense take-no-prisoners worldbuilding I described above, but if that's not an absolute deal-breaker for you the story and characters are strong enough that I think the book is still worth a try. It's definitely a strong debut, and I look forward to seeing what Hannu Rajaniemi does next.

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Monday, May 23, 2011

Book Review: Orbus by Neal Asher

Orbus by Neal Asher is the follow-up to Asher's The Skinner and The Voyage of the Sable Keech, and part of his larger Polity future history (Gridlinked and the subsequent Ian Cormac books, The Technician, Hilldiggers, etc.) It continues where The Voyage of the Sable Keech left off and has a number of recurring characters, but while it's not strictly necessary to have read them to follow what's going on here I'd recommend reading them in order.

Spatterjay is a marginally habitable planet that lies just outside the territory of the the AI-ruled interstellar society known as the Polity, best-known for the virus that pervades its bizarre ecology. Transmitted by the bite of a leech-like creature native to the planet and able to infect almost anything, it gradually transforms its carriers, making them stronger, tougher, and virtually immortal- and, in the case of non-native life like humans, transforming them into monstrous, mutated creatures if they don't get sufficient nutrients from their species' native environment to maintain enough of their natural biological processes enough to prevent the virus's genetic material from supplanting them entirely.

Both the planet's name and its human population, commonly called “Hoopers,” are a legacy of the devastating war between the Polity and the alien Prador, when the infamous war criminal and collaborator “Spatter” Jay Hoop aided the Prador by helping round up millions of human prisoners into concentration camps on Spatterjay. Beyond Spatterjay lays the Graveyard, a vast and mostly uninhabited expanse filled with the burnt-out ruins of worlds ravaged during the war. It is now neutral territory providing a buffer zone between the Polity and the Prador Third Kingdom, inhabited only by a few isolated settlements eking out a living in the ruins and by criminal elements using it as a refuge where the warships of both great powers are forbidden to go.

Jericho Orbus is one of the oldest Hoopers of all- one of the original humans imprisoned by Jay Hoop, and one of the very, very few to actually survive. His sanity shredded by the horror of what he saw and suffered, and of what he had to do to survive, Orbus became brutal even by the standards of Spatterjay's frequently violent culture. He spent centuries sailing the  fearsomely dangerous seas of Spatterjay, eventually becoming  the captain of a crew of other shattered men and women who served as outlets for his all-consuming rage- as masochistic as he was sadistic, and able to survive the punishment he dished out thanks to the superhuman resilience granted by the virus.

This might have gone on indefinitely, were it not for a near encounter with death during the events of The Voyage of the Sable Keech that nearly led to a total takeover of his body by the virus. The psychological and physiological shock of having almost his entire body irrevocably altered by the virus and then returned to something at least resembling human jarred something awake in him, the parts of himself he had to bury to do what he had to do to survive the unimaginable horror of his past- his humanity.

Sniper, an artificially intelligent polity war drone built during the Prador War and since gone freelance, has decided to make himself scarce after receiving a summons from the ruling AIs of the polity, who have some questions for him about his role in recent events on Spatterjay. Lying low, he and his companion Thirteen, a fellow free drone, stow themselves away in the cargo hold of a small freighter, the Gurnard- a freighter captained by none other than Orbus, who has found a new life for himself as he tries to overcome the brutal centuries-long nightmare of Spatterjay. They are caught by the Gurnard's AI- which allows them to remain as passengers and seems oddly sanguine about the discovery of a fugitive war machine hiding in its cargo holds.

Meanwhile Vrell, a rogue Prador infected with the Spatterjay virus and transformed into something even more fearsome than the rest of his kind, has seized control of a Prador dreadnought and is headed to the Graveyard to lie low. The King of the Prador Third Kingdom has taken an interest in a relic of the Prador's past that now resides there, a powerful, monstrous entity that is thought to be mythical by most of his species- and will be at the heart of events driven by something older and more horrifying still. And when Orbus finds himself and his ship recruited for a covert Polity intelligence operation in the region, it becomes apparent to sniper that the sequence of events that led to a superhumanly dangerous man with a burning hatred for the Prador and a rogue war drone with centuries of experience that was literally born to fight them finding themselves together on a freighter bound for the graveyard was not a coincidence

Orbus is an excellent space opera and a great addition to Asher's future history. As usual, Asher's action sequences are top-notch here, and the events of the story provide plenty of scope for them. The central story is interesting, with lots of action and some well-paced and well-executed revelations about the Prador, the Spatterjay virus, and the nature of Orbus' mission into the Graveyard.

It was nice to see more about the Prador, a race of crab-like aliens that have been enormously important to the history of the Polity but have usually been peripheral figures, at most, in the events of most of the books. Orbus helps drive home just how disturbingly alien they are. Prador society is staggeringly oppressive, exploitative, and cruel by any sane human's standard. This is not out of malice, but because Prador are highly competitive organisms whose biology- specifically their high fecundity combined with the ability of adult Prador to control their children through pheromones- makes it possible for groups of Prador to work together as a cohesive unit without the sorts of instincts, behaviors, and emotions that human social bonds depend on. There was no selective pressure favoring the evolution of the capacity to feel sympathy or pity or loyalty, so Prador don't feel them. It's nothing personal.

Orbus was a side character in The Voyage of the Sable Keech, and a rather disturbing one, so it's interesting to see him given a larger role as he retries to regain his humanity. He doesn't stand out as much as some of the other characters, but in this case it works. Rather like Asher's portrayal of an autistic boy in The Shadow of the Scorpion, some of the criticisms of Orbus' characterization that I've seen elsewhere were directed at the very aspects of the character that I liked and thought made the character ring true. Orbus is generally fairly subdued, quiet, has a somewhat flat affect, and doesn't stand out as much as those around him-  in other words, he acts the way people trying to put themselves back together in the aftermath of devastating psychological trauma very often act, and that made him quite compelling to me.

I definitely recommend Orbus to fans of Neal Asher's Polity universe, and Asher's work as a whole to any fan of space opera. Frustratingly if you're an American reader, most of his books have seemingly been released in every industrialized country on Earth except the United States, but they're well-worth seeking out. (I strongly recommend The Book Depository if you're an American looking for something from the United Kingdom; they ship free worldwide and I've had nothing but positive experiences dealing with them. Third-party sellers at can also be helpful.) Neal Asher continues to impress.

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Saturday, May 7, 2011

Book Review: Stonewielder by Ian C. Esslemont

Stonewielder is Ian Cameron Esslemont's third book in the Malazan epic fantasy setting that he created together with Malazan Book of the Fallen series author Steven Erikson. Like Esslemont's previous Return of the Crimson Guard, it's events are contemporaneous with those of Erikson's books but focused on other parts of their shared universe. Chronologically, it is set after Esslemont's Return of the Crimson Guard and seems to take place around the same time as Erikson's Reaper's Gale or Toll the Hounds.

The Korelri subcontinent  and it's numerous nearby islands are home to several nations, with a largely sea-based economy and culture. Stretching along its northern shore is the Stormwall, a vast fortification that holds back the yearly assaults of the Stormriders, a mysterious seaborne race wielding powerful magics who have assailed the wall for hundreds of years for reasons unknown. It is defended by the Stormguard, a military force assembled from professional soldiers, press-ganged conscripts, and religious warriors dedicated to the patron deity of the wall and of Korel, a goddess known only as the Lady whose worship is Korel's principle religion. Years ago, the Malazan empire's attempted conquest of the region ended ignominiously when their invasion force mutinied and its leaders set themselves up as the new rulers of the Korelri territory they had conquered, forming an uneasy peace with the other political powers of the region and the native Korelri now under their rule.
Greymane is a former officer of the Empire's army who left to fight for the Crimson Guard, a mercenary army dedicated to the Empire's overthrow, and is now trying to settle into a peaceful civilian life as a swordsmanship instructor. The Malazan Empire and its new Emperor have decided to send a new expedition to Korel to bring its traitorous former generals to heel- and for reasons unknown, he wants the wanted traitor Greymane to lead it.
Meanwhile, the Stormguard is struggling to continue fulfilling its ancient task, with its ranks growing thinner each year. The Stormwall itself is faltering, with the accumulated damage to the  Wall from the Stormriders' renewed assault each year accumulating faster than it can be repaired and threatening the ancient structure with collapse. No one knows who the Stormriders are or what they want, but if the Stormwall falls they have the power to lay all of Korel to waste. Like the rest of Korel, the leaders of the Stormguard place their faith in the Lady and Her protection... but what does She actually want?

Stonewielder is a fine addition to the Malazan universe and Esslemont's best book to date. The book is well-paced, and  Esslemont successfully juggles a large number of characters and plot threads and is able to keep things well-paced. The central plot is interesting and build to an excellent climax. As a Malazan fan, it was nice to get a closer look at locations that are only alluded to in Erikson's books, and Esslemont creates an interesting setting with Korel.

The action scenes are exciting and evocative, and there are some truly impressive sequences here. The battles tend to feel more “military” than those in Erikson's books, probably due to the comparatively lower level of power possessed by most of the characters here compared to some of the prominent figures in Erikson's books. The character's are a bit more life-sized, and there's less emphasis on the sort of awe-inspiring acts of individual skill and heroism common in Erikson's books and more on the clash of armies made of brave but relatively average men and women, standing side by side with their comrades. I like the sort of stuff Erikson does with the vast power of someone like Quick Ben or the larger-than-life prowess of characters like Kalam and Karsa Oorlong, but the contrast Esslemont provides is also quite interesting and effective.

Esslemont's abilities as a writer have developed noticeably. His writing style in Stonewielder
has grown smoother, and lacks the occasional awkwardness or clunkiness of description or dialogue seen in Night of Knives and Return of the Crimson Guard. Stonewielder seems, for lack of a better word, more confident than Esslemont's previous work. I enjoyed those books overall, but in them Esslemont's writing sometimes sometimes had an  awkward, stumbling, nervously restrained quality, like an intelligent but shy person giving a public speech. The awkwardness is gone, and Stonewielder feels much stronger as a result. 
Stylistically, Esslemont's writing is more straightforward and less given to digression and introspection than Erikson's. Which is preferable is subjective, but both writers do well with their respective styles and both have created a good fit between style and subject matter, with Esslemont's more austere writing working well for the more down-to-earth story he's telling.  (Down to earth by Malazan standards, I hasten to add, which is sort of like saying someone is “short compared to most other giants.”)
Stonewielder is a fine book and a worthy addition to the Malazan series. It's not something I'd recommend for people new to the series, who are likely to be quite lost without the context provided by earlier books, but it is very strongly recommended for anyone familiar with the previous Malazan books. (If you're not familiar with it, I strongly recommend the whole thing for fans of dark epic fantasy in the vein of things like Glen Cook''s Black Company series. Start with Erikson's Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates.) If you're a Steven Erikson fan who didn't care for Esslemont's previous work, I'd still recommend giving Stonewielder a shot. Esslemont is really coming into his own here, and I'm eager to see what he'll do next.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Book Review: Crossover by Joel Shepherd

Crossover is the debut novel of Joel Shepherd and the first book in the Cassandra Kresnov trilogy.

Cassandra Kresnov is a GI, an artificial person created by the advanced science of the League, one of the two great powers of human space, and used as a soldier in the League's long struggle with its rival the Federation. Like her fellows, Kresnov was built to be far stronger, tougher, and faster than any human being. But Kresnov is an experiment who was also given something else- the creativity , initiative, and intelligence of a human being. It made her one of the League's most effective soldiers, but in time it  also lead her to begin questioning her masters and her purpose until she fled the military and the League.

She flees to the Federation under an assumed name and human identity, hoping to go unnoticed and live a normal life. Taking up residence on Callay, a prosperous Federation world far from the League, she seems to be achieving her goal when she is abducted and brutally dissected by agents of the Federation Intelligence Agency operating covertly on Calais. She is rescued and reassembled by Callay's internal security force, the CSA, but her secret has been exposed in a society where the idea of artificial life is abhorred and her legal status as a person is unclear.

Held prisoner by the Callayan government while her future is argued over, her fate seems to be completely out of her hands- until she finds herself caught in the midst of a plot against Callay by a strange alliance of covert league operatives, including a force of GIs, and the Federation's own intelligence service, each acting for reasons of their own. Desperate, Callay's unprepared government turns to Kresnov for her combat skills and knowledge of the League and GIs. Kresnov, wanting to protect the closest thing to a home she's ever had, agrees.

I really enjoyed Crossover. The plot kept my interest throughout, and both Kresnov's personal conflicts and the larger story of political intrigue they are a part of were consistently engaging and worked together well. The action sequences are tense and effective, and do a nice job of demonstrating just how terrifyingly deadly Kresnov can be without making her seem omnipotent.

Kresnov is a likable and interesting protagonist, and I enjoyed the fact that Shepherd made her introspective about her own nature and condition without resorting to cliché “I wish I was a real human” angst. The characterizations of the CSA agents are also well-done, and are quite effective in portraying people who are brave, competent, and professional but have suddenly found themselves in over their heads.

Callay and its principal city, Tanusha, is a well-realized setting, and Sheppard makes it an attractive and appealing society without making it feel outright utopian or unbelievable. I like his handling of it as the crisis in the book escalates and the Callayans desperately respond, conveying the Callayans' shock and panic as they suddenly find the peace and security they have long taken for granted threatened without portraying them as utterly helpless or ineffectual. The larger universe beyond is described in less detail, but the conflict between the Federation and the League and the inner workings of the Federation among its own members is interesting.

The League was especially interesting as one of the antagonists, since its ideology and behavior- forward-thinking, scientific, devoted to progress, rationalist, unrestrained by the dead hand of the past- are in many respects a non-idealized form of the sort of thing frequently associated with the good guys in science fiction stories. (E.g. Asimov's Foundation, Wells' The Shape of Things to Come, etc.). This was an enjoyable change from the more typical sorts of human antagonists commonly found in the genre.

I would definitely recommended Crossover for science fiction fans, especially fans of far-future SF/space opera with a focus on action. I look forward to catching up with the rest of the trilogy.

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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Memories of Borders

Fair warning: This post involves me getting maudlin and sentimental about the fate of a multibillion-dollar retail chain.

I only make the occasional trip to my nearby Borders now, and it's been along time since I did a significant amount of my book shopping there, but I was still saddened to hear that the company had filed for bankruptcy and was closing many of its locations. 

When I was a little kid, I had three main sources of books. One was my grandfather, who had a large collection of history, science, and geography books. This is probably what set me down the path to becoming a science fiction reader, since the astronomy books were usually my favorites.

The second was the local library, which was an invaluable resource for me as a kid first delving into science fiction, but had a rather limited selection of the genre- especially if I wanted to read something that had actually been published that decade or find lots of books by a particular author who had captured my attention, two concerns that loomed larger as I became a bigger fan of the genre. My library options were further constrained by the fact that the books aimed at my age group mostly filled little or no interest for me, and because- in an excellent demonstration of the fact that being able to read at college level in elementary school is entirely compatible with being a complete idiot- I assumed that "Young Adult" at my library meant young adult, as in people in their 20. Obviously. Why else would they call it that?

Consequently, I avoided that section on the assumption that I wouldn't be allowed to get books from it. Even at the time this seemed odd to me, since I couldn't figure out what was in those books that was so bad that people under 18 could not be trusted with them, but I was much too shy to ask the librarian about it. That wasn't too big a deal, though- there were plenty of books with no age-specific labels on them that seemed more interesting anyway. The science fiction books were right next to the technothrillers, which I also investigated from time to time, so I ended up knowing more about busty KGB spies seducing men to steal NATO military secrets than a 4th grader probably ought to, but all in all it was for the best- there are probably few things that would have squelched my desire to read more effectively than excessive exposure to what adults typically thought someone my age should read.

The third source was a B Dalton I occasionally visited at the mall in the next town over. It was better than nothing, certainly, and it gave me a better chance of finding recently published books by an author I'd discovered than the library. But it was very small, the shelf space containing subjects I had any interest in was still smaller, and the science fiction section was roughly the size of my couch.

Between them, these sources provided me with quite a bit of reading material. More importantly than any particular book or books, they showed me that reading was fun and interesting.
I'm sure my teachers at school weren't trying to make me believe that reading was a dull, inane  ordeal to be tolerated only to the minimum extent necessary to make them leave me alone... but if they had been they wouldn't have needed to do things any differently, so I was very lucky to have countervailing influences. Still, these resources were limited, and I began to feel their limitations more keenly when I was interested in reading books about a particular subject or by a specific author instead of just rummaging through shelves until I stumbled on something that caught my eye.

My first visit to a Borders was on a trip to downtown Chicago when I was probably 10 or 11 years old- time to kill before an appointment. I had never seen, or even imagined, anything like it before. Row after row of bookshelves, each seeming to stretch out forever. The science fiction section alone was nearly bigger than the entire B Dalton at the mall. The atmosphere was calm, peaceful, and unthreatening, the sort of place I always wished I could be in. I still remember the first book I got there, too- the paperback of Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire.

For several years, my access to Borders was limited to those occasional trips into the city with a parent, squeezed in if there was spare time before our primary business. When I was in high school, however, another Borders location opened much closer to my house, which meant that going there became something that it was possible to do any time I had a spare hour and a ride. It was an opportunity I took advantage of frequently.

The popular claim that mega-chain stores like Borders or Barnes and Noble are bad because they hurt independents drives me up the wall, and this is a big part of the reason why. I know there are many fine independent bookstores out there, and I'm happy for the people with the good fortune to have easy access to such places- but I have very, very little patience with those who lament the existence of stores that made it possible for millions of people who didn't enjoy that same privilege to have greater access to the wider array of books that the anti-chain partisans themselves already enjoyed and took for granted.

I do most of my book shopping online now. The Borders near my home is still there, and I still go from time to time. I don't know about the one I visited downtown, since I don't know its address, but in light of the large number of store closings announced for Chicago there's a good chance it's one of the casualties.

Whatever happens to the chain next- and the answer seems to be "nothing good"- Borders will always be special to me. I can't describe the feeling of my first visit to one adequately, and if I could it would probably sound utterly ridiculous- an elementary-schooler in rapturous awe at the sight of a chain store's lobby. But I was.  I loved books- for what they were, and for what they helped my imagination create a refuge from- and here there were more than I had ever imagined possible in single place. Encountering something like Borders for the first time made the world seem like a much richer, and perhaps less malevolent, place than I had imagined before.


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