I seem to remember reading some or all of Stephen Baxter’s Manifold books when I was much younger. Those also involved a future sentience/intelligenceI seem to remember reading some or all of Stephen Baxter’s Manifold books when I was much younger. Those also involved a future sentience/intelligence at the end of the universe reaching back in the history of the universe to alter events through weird, inexplicable phenomena. So I guess this is a thing for him. Proxima starts its life as a straightforward tale of enforced penal colonization of another planet before gradually sprawling into a parallel tale of solar system politics before eventually becoming something about exploring weird phenomena. Basically, it’s typical Baxter. I would have loved this more when I was younger.
The story gets much better after all the potential settlers, save two, die at the settlement site of interest. The survivors are left with the knowledge that they are no longer trying to establish a self-sustaining colony but are basically just eking out an existence day to day for the rest of their lives. Baxter leaves us thinking that this is the most cockamamie planetary colonization scheme ever dreamed up, until the very end—although the UN is majorly saved by the discovery of The Hatch, because otherwise I still think their colonization plan was a terrible one.
Meanwhile, in the solar system, China has taken over Australia and Mars and the asteroids, but the UN-affiliated countries (read: America) have Mercury and its mysterious kernels that can power interplanetary/interstellar ships. Oh, and there are strong AIs hunkering in subterranean facilities, relics from the Heroic Generation when men were real men, women were real women, and strong AIs created from brain scans and deep learning networks were real strong AIs created from brain scans and deep learning networks. No one trusts these AIs, but hey, they make for great deus ex machinae, hmm?
Weird and wacky hijinks ensue, with babies and twins and sentient robots and exo-geological and exo-biological observations. In one of the more blatant set ups I’ve seen in a while, nothing gets resolved before the end of the book—either this book was originally twice as long and had to get split in two, or else this is a cynical attempt to make people buy Book 2, because literally there is no ending. It’s cliffhanger, epilogue, done. Who are those guys, the lost Ninth Legion? I don’t know. Buy the next book to find out!
I know my sarcasm above makes it sound like I hated this book, and that’s not the case at all. In fact, for the majority of Proxima, I was enamoured to the point of really wanting to keep reading. That’s probably some of the highest praise a book can receive, right? It is a fun story. It’s just that its substance is stretched so thinly across these 400-some pages.
By far the best thing about Proxima is the way Baxter describes life on Proxima c, or Per Ardua. This is a beautiful look at what it might be like to colonize an exoplanet—not just another planet in our solar system, like Mars, but a planet around an entirely different star, one with life like but unlike the life on Earth. Baxter covers the challenges—having to manufacture soil in which to grow crops, adjusting to the different day/year lengths and the increased radiation, the need to carefully select one’s settler groups to avoid what happens here. In his slightly more fanciful but no less impressive depiction of alien, possibly sentient life in the builders, Baxter reminds us how difficult it would be to communicate with a species not of our planet. Basically, Proxima is a potent reminder of the practical challenges awaiting us if we ever attempt to colonize an exoplanet.
For all of the above, however, there were paragraphs of expository description and dialogue. There were extraneous characters and paper-thin politics. And all the characters, major or minor or extraneous, fit into a small number of moulds, from the cartoonishly macho and aggressive people like Gustave Klein to the suave but untrustworthy Michael Kings and Earthshines of the world. There is neither depth nor breadth to these people.
I can’t help but keep comparing Proxima to Red Mars, the other colonization SF novel I recently read. They share many strengths and flaws. Both are very technical, almost pragmatic looks at the difficulties of settling other worlds. Both have somewhat pessimistic ideas about how much humanity can cooperate in these endeavours (but Baxter’s political scenes are a little harder to believe than Kim Stanley Robinson’s). Is it weird that I found Proxima more engaging, but Red Mars overall the better book? Perhaps that’s just my lingering, Singularity-related obsession with weird alien artifacts manipulating space and time.
I’m not going out of my way to recommend this book. If you like this sort of thing, you will probably like Proxima, and there are way worse books you could spend your time on. I can’t even say it’s more ho-hum, nothing-to-see-here, because it definitely has one of the best depictions of exoplanetary settlement we’ll get for a while. Baxter loves to do the research and show off everything he has learned about exoplanets; I can’t fault that love. I just wish it had led, overall, to a more involved story with more interesting people.
Can you imagine being in two places at once? It’s a common image to conjure, but actually imagine it. Weird, huh?
Now try imagining being two people inCan you imagine being in two places at once? It’s a common image to conjure, but actually imagine it. Weird, huh?
Now try imagining being two people in two places at once. Or two people, in the same place. That’s even harder, and even weirder. But it’s exactly what Ann Leckie asks of us in Ancillary Justice, a book about a person who was once and is still but isn’t any more a ship, Justice of Toren. Reduced, through grave misfortune, to a single ancillary—a no-longer-human body, one of thousands, used an avatar for the ship’s AI—it takes on the name of Breq and sets off on a quest for revenge. Its target: no other than the most powerful person in the entire Radch, an interstellar empire Justice of Toren was once sworn to protect and expand.
For the majority of the book, Leckie alternates between Breq’s present-day adventure and a re-telling of the events leading up to the Justice of Toren’s destruction. In the latter events, Leckie undertakes the task of presenting the multiple, simultaneous viewpoints available to Justice of Toren. She switches between these viewpoints without any overt markers to signal the changes. At first, this can be confusing, even overwhelming. But it’s about as close to simultaneity as one can get in a linear medium like a novel. Slowly, it becomes possible to form at least an inkling of what it must be like to have access to so many different perspectives of the same event, all at once.
Breq’s adventure is easier to follow, because on the surface it feels like a traditional narrative. Almost immediately, however, there are some unique qualities that make it more interesting. Breq uses the feminine third-person gender pronouns exclusively when referring to other people. Regardless of actual sex or gender, everyone is "her" and "she". This is an artifact of the Rad’chaai language that Breq speaks, for it has eliminated the idea of gendered pronouns, and Breq in fact has trouble telling the difference between sexes during her travels. Additionally, Leckie doesn’t often deign to describe her characters in a way that makes their sex or gender clear. So it’s interesting to see my underlying gender biases take over and try to fill in the gaps. It’s amazing how much we depend on simple pronouns to form a mental idea not only of how someone looks but how they move, speak, act.
Rather than physical description, Leckie relies a great deal on what people do and how they speak to portray their personalities. The Radch is an empire in the classical sense; its culture is stable enough to last thousands of years and still be vaguely recognizable to Seivarden, who has spent most of that time in suspension. People are very aware of their social standing, tied inextricably to their House, and things like fashion and the sociable nature of tea-drinking have become essential parts of the daily posturing for standing. As a result, one can tell a great deal from a person by their type of accent, how they dress, who they take tea with, and of course, the House they’re from.
This is all well and good, but I still feel like Leckie could have spent more time creating a more nuanced picture of Rad’chaai society. I would like to know how the majority of Rad’chaai civilians make a living. What is the economy like? What is their art and culture like, beyond the same soap operas on television that are apparently so recognizable they haven’t changed in millennia? I have a good idea of what the military side of the Radch is like, but I wish I could understand its people better. And I would like to better understand the ways in which Anaander Mianaii has managed to keep the Radch intact over millennia of rule. That seems like a dicey proposition.
If space was a concern, I could think of some passages that could have been removed. Did Breq really have to spend so much time at that cabin? Many of those scenes seemed like they only existed as a buffer from one of the scenes set in the past until the next. Although the plot itself is gripping, the pace at which it unfolds varies from glacial to merely temperate. It isn’t until we get to the climax of the novel, as we approach Breq’s inevitable confrontation with Anaander Mianaai, that events start moving smoothly and seamlessly.
Ancillary Justice satisfies, but it doesn’t leave me with linger impressions and thought-provoking questions. The unique nature of the protagonist is a draw, and Leckie occasionally seems to come close to exploring the interesting ramifications of Breq’s existence as the fractured remnant of a ship AI. But this book feels more like a rough cut than a polished gem. And I’ll take that any day over something that instead aims for the derivative, or the popular, or the safe. Not everything that Leckie tries here succeeds with me, but the fact that she has tried is itself quite impressive. Perhaps the best thing I can say is that it reminds me a lot of the science fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin, enough that I’ll keep my eye on Leckie and on the next book in this series.
I missed my Xbox while I was in England. I had access to one for the first half the year, during which time I managed to be completely disappointed byI missed my Xbox while I was in England. I had access to one for the first half the year, during which time I managed to be completely disappointed by Assassin’s Creed 3. Then I moved, and Xbox-playing became a faded memory for a while. So when I came back home for the summer, one of the first things I sat down to do was play Xbox—and specifically, to play Mass Effect through from the beginning. I love this game series beyond all reason. Getting to be Commander Shepard—and not just anyone’s Commander Shepard, my Commander Shepard—and making choices that span not one but three games’ worth of story is an amazing, immersive experience. It merges my love of storytelling with my love of shooting pixels by proxy, and it does so seamlessly.
I probably shouldn’t have read You while binging on Mass Effect, though, because the juxtaposition makes it abundantly clear that playing video games is infinitely preferable to reading about playing video games.
You is a Coupland-esque sojourn through the halcyon days of 1990s game development. Back in high school and college, Russell and his friends Don, Lisa, Simon, and Darren created a video game. The other four went off to form Black Arts and make more games while Russell said, “See ya later, nerds” and tried to become a lawyer. When that didn’t pan out, he came crawling back, and the book begins with an awkward job interview. A few days later, Russell is lead game designer for the next big Realms game, because that’s life in the tumultuous world of gaming companies!
Reading You is a bit like navigating a very confusing, poorly-laid out series of identical corridors in a video game. The graphics are stunning, mind you—3D so real you think it’s going to spit at you, super-realistic physics on the blood spatters, footsteps that sound appropriate to whatever material you’re walking over. But for all these improvements, the camera never quite seems to be where you need it to be, and it seems like every single time you try to swing Lara over to the next ledge, this causes her to miss and plummet to her death. Oops. Sorry, Lara.
Austin Grossman has a background in game development, so he should know how the development process works. I do not have a background in game development, so I’m not going to nitpick. Much. Most of what he spins here seems realistic enough from what I’ve read elsewhere. The pressure and deadlines from Black Arts’ new, disinterested corporate investors is believable, as is their dismal short-staffing. That being said, the idea that Russell is suddenly the lead game designer, despite having no experience in this field and barely being able to program his way out of a cardboard box, is laughably contrived at best.
I also raise a critical eyebrow at the contention that Simon’s WAFFLE game engine is so ineffably amazing that a) nobody knows how it works and b) no one has replaced it so far. I’m familiar with the fact that, once in a while, a genius programmer comes along and creates something so tightly constructed that it’s difficult for other programmers to wrap their heads around the design and how it functions. These programs then stick around across generations of employees, legacies that “just work” and should not be prodded with a stick for any reason. So I can believe that, until now, no one has really been motivated to disturb Simon’s engine. Barely. (I’m sceptical that the engine was so amazing and ahead of its time that it has remained competitive for so long.)
But when an intentional bug buried by Simon in WAFFLE happens more frequently prior to the launch of Realms VII, Russell and crew need to find out how to fix it … by playing all the previous Black Arts games. Because they can’t just go in and tweak the engine, oh no. They have to fix the problem in the game! This is just so monumentally stupid and the kind of thing that only happens in bad hacker movies. It’s the kind of self-indulgent nonsense that sounds much cooler than it really is.
As Russell delves further into the history of Black Arts (because, remember, despite knowing these people in high school and now being the lead game designer, he has no experience with any of their games after he drifted away from them), he discovers that the bug stems from Simon’s latent daddy issues, amplified by the break in Simon’s friendship with Darren. Simon was bitter and decided to cause Y2K, or something like that. Once again, the actual over-arching plot is flimsier than any excuses game designers give for boobplate armour. And I’m pretty sure Grossman knows this, mind you—he writes games; he knows how plots like this work.
And so You reveals itself as a combination of schlocky homage to paper-thin storytelling in the name of glamourous gameplay and a breathless exploration of the nineties gaming zeitgeist. Grossman deliberately goes over the top with aspects of the plot, aiming for melodrama where drama would have been sufficient, because that’s what games (and the atmosphere around games) were like in the nineties. In this respect, I’m not sure then if You is poorly written so much as written well, but in a way that does nothing for me.
Grossman does a better job at capturing the sentiments of ex–computer nerd Russell. I wasn’t old enough back then to be part of the gaming world and understand the ambivalence felt towards the companies, like Electronic Arts and Activision, that were simultaneously propelling game design to glorious new heights and stomping upon the hacker ethos that had spurred the field in the first place. A lot of what Russell experiences in this book feels like an accurate reflection of what many game designers and gamers who had been around in the 1980s probably felt in the 1990s as technology took off and game design started to “get away” from them. When Russell visits E3, he has an epiphany that the event is not about game design; it’s marketing towards retailers. Gaming went big in a big way while he was away from the keyboard, and he’s just now understanding how corporatized it has become.
To this end, You reflects a lot of the ambivalence (or outright bitterness) we gamers feel in the present day. Grossman capitalizes on some of the nostalgia for the “good old days” when gaming was a more underground experience: 5-inch floppy disks, printing out code and then entering it into another computer by hand, all the little tricks required to fool a player into thinking they are seeing something the computer can’t actually generate. And I can’t really pretend to understand or feel this bitterness myself, only a wistful yearning for such understanding—but I can recognize it and sympathize with it, thanks in part to things like this.
So Grossman has created a story that is not particularly well-structured or well-defined, and whether that is an intentional bit of satire or just poor writing, it doesn’t work for me. Yet he has, through intention or accident, stumbled upon a key requirement in fiction, which is that it doesn’t necessarily need to be factually true, but should be emotionally true. Here, he succeeds. You is confusing as hell at times, and I admit I skimmed through maybe the last twenty pages because they were rambling and pointless. (Seriously, just skip the Coda. There is no need for it.) But it tugs on some heartstrings on a single, visceral level, which raises it in my esteem just a little bit.
There are so many ways in which this novel could be better. I enjoyed but couldn’t quite extol Soon I Will Be Invincible, and I’m inclined to be less charitable here. Grossman’s handling of character has not improved—no one in You, Russell included, has much in the way of depth, and I didn’t care about them at all. Knowing now that he has these connections to game design makes his approach to storytelling in both novels make a little more sense, but I still can’t praise either work’s story.
In the end, I don’t think you’d miss much if you skip You. If you want a better book about life in software development, read Coupland’s Microserfs and jPod.
Dark Currents, the anticipated debut to Jacqueline Carey’s new urban fantasy series Agent of Hel, got my attention back when it first came out. I sawDark Currents, the anticipated debut to Jacqueline Carey’s new urban fantasy series Agent of Hel, got my attention back when it first came out. I saw it on io9, added it to my to-read list.
And promptly forgot about it.
Because that’s what happens when you have a list so long that even if you stop adding books to it today, it will take you about four years to get through it.
Fortunately, my library has my back. I ran across the paperback of Autumn Bones last week—yes, book 2 of the series, already in paperback. Clearly I’ve been remiss. So I did the usual dance of rushing over to the computer and checking if the library has book 1 and, better yet, if it’s available at that branch. The library does, and the book was, and that’s the story. Normally I don’t read new series back-to-back like this; I like to intersperse a few other books in between, just for breathing room. But I made an exception after finishing Dark Currents, because I really did like it, and I wanted to read more about Daisy Johanssen.
I’m going to be pretty positive about this book, because it was fun. It’s not dark, brooding urban fantasy, despite the title or the protagonist’s status as a hellspawn half-breed. Sure, Daisy could claim her birthright, become some kind of super-powered succubus demon, and break the Inviolate Wall and start Armageddon. But that would be a drag. Instead, she gets to play a kind of cross between supernatural diplomat and enforcer, and she even gets a sweet dagger while she’s doing it.
But I want to emphasize that even though I enjoyed the book, I don’t think it’s a great novel. Rather, it’s great at setting up a new series—and one of the reasons I wanted to read the second book so badly was to see if Carey could bottle that lightning again. (Spoiler: she does, and it’s even better the second time around.) Like many other series in this style, Dark Currents is better more for the promise of the future than the delivery of the present.
I mean, the mystery is third-rate at best. A kid from out of town drowns. It looks like an accident, but there was magic involved. All signs point to a ghoul who has since skipped town, but there might be some other players in the game. Daisy, whose role as Hel’s liaison has, until now, mostly consisted of busting fairies who are messing with tourists, suddenly finds herself with an immortal-killing dagger and a lot of pressure on her to solve this thing before the outside world decides to wipe Pemkowet’s eldritch community off the map.
Carey’s approach to how much regular humans know about the supernatural is an interesting middle point between the two extreme positions. In this world, people are aware that the supernatural—or eldritch, as Carey prefers to refer to it—exists. But for such beings to have a presence in the mortal world, they need a “functioning underworld”—literally a domain beneath the human community in question, presided over by a “deity of a non-apex faith”—i.e., a god or goddess relegated to myths and legends by the rampage of Abrahamic religion in the last millennium. As the title of the series implies, the Norse goddess Hel presides over Pemkowet’s eldritch community. Everyone within Pemkowet pretty much understands that supernatural beings, like vampires and werewolves, exist; they are cool with it to some degree or another, or else they wouldn’t be living there. Outside Pemkowet and other cities with functioning underworlds, it becomes more hearsay, kind of like how we hear about exotic animals co-existing with humans in far-away countries, but until we actually go there, we don’t grasp the reality for ourselves.
Daisy is somewhat unique. Her mother accidentally summoned a demon on a trip to Pemkowet, not knowing the summoning would work, and that the demon would be an incubus who impregnates her. Fast forward twenty years, and Daisy has grown up in Pemkowet, mostly as an ordinary kid only somewhat bullied and marked by her strange heritage. She is special not just because she is hellspawn but also because she is hellspawn with a mother who loved her. This seems to be an important fact, and the connections Daisy has to other people—mundane and eldritch—are strengths rather than weaknesses. She isn’t just the “feisty kickass woman protagonist” that threatens to be the staple stereotype of urban fantasy. She’s a little less experienced, a little less sure of herself, and she’s more interested in keeping the peace than kicking ass and taking names. Even after she gets her dagger, she is quite reluctant to wield it.
I like that Daisy forges a tenuous alliance with the New Ghoul in Town instead of just threatening him. I like that Carey teases out the sexual tension between Daisy and a couple of the other characters but does not turn it into a major romantic melodrama like some urban fantasy series do. I like that she has actual, complicated relationships with a best friend and her mother and a kind-of-guardian who happens to be a lamia. The supernatural elements of Dark Currents add flavour and suspense and conflict—but deep down, this is about being human. And you need that grounding if you want to tell a successful story.
This is a very different book, very different series, from the Kushiel books. Carey is clearly not a one-note author: she embraces the fast-paced, stream-of-consciousness narration so common to this genre. The stakes are much more personal, the intrigue less political. While Carey’s writing retains the sexual awareness that was so prominent in the Kushiel series, Daisy is not Phèdre.
I’m not really one either to condemn or promote urban fantasy as an entire genre. It has really become a very diverse market these days. I’m still interested in finding more urban fantasy that doesn’t follow the mystery/police/detective formula that seems to dominate right now. As far as that formula goes, however, Dark Currents represents a promising new angle from a writer who has already proved herself to me. This is normally the part where I would say I can’t wait to read the next book—but I finished it this morning over breakfast. So … yeah. I guess I need to go find book three?
My reviews of the Agent of Hel series: Autumn Bones → (Coming in 2 days!)
(P.S.: For the record, Google Books claims there are 17 occurrences of the word gah in this book. That’s one “gah” every 21 pages. I don’t find that excessive, personally, and it didn’t bother me when I was reading. Obviously your mileage may vary.)...more