Scott Adams is an interesting figure. I'm an unabashed Dilbert fan; I have the massive, slipcase-clad twentieth anniversary book, and I particularly lScott Adams is an interesting figure. I'm an unabashed Dilbert fan; I have the massive, slipcase-clad twentieth anniversary book, and I particularly love the short-lived TV series. I don't regularly read the comic anymore, because I feel like it's a little stale these days. Likewise, I used to read Adams’ blog, until I got tired of his persistent troll-baiting (not to mention his other antics). But I put God’s Debris on my to-read list four years ago, and now I'm finally getting around to reading it. The setting, content, and style are almost as far from Dilbert as it's possible to get—though, interestingly enough, many of the themes and philosophical questions have appeared in the comics over the years.
Whether you like God’s Debris probably depends on the amount of patience you have for long-winded hypotheticals. As Adams warns in the preface, you need a sense of humour. He also mentions the difficulty the book poses when it comes to classifying it as fiction or non-fiction. This is essentially a Socratic dialogue for the twenty-first century. It’s fiction, in that the two characters are fictional, as is the situation he uses to frame the discussion. At its heart, however, God’s Debris is a philosophical dialogue, with Avatar posing questions and delivering short lessons that help the delivery man up toward a higher state of being.
Each chapter moves smoothly and naturally into the next, the conversation focusing mostly on the nature of the universe, the purpose of life, and humanity’s own role in all of this. As the title suggests, the existence and characteristics of God is central the discussion. I won’t spoil the full thesis, but Avatar essentially points out that the anthropomorphic nature of the Biblical God is why we run into snags like the Problem of Evil or the Omnipotence Paradox. It’s a mistake to assume God has motives and desires that we can comprehend in human terms. And so, if one starts from the premise that God is omnipotent and knows everything exist its own future, Avatar posits a chain of events that explains why the universe exists and what humanity’s role is in that existence.
Socratic dialogues have fallen somewhat out of favour in this millennium. Actual novels, with the philosophy left in the subtext, tend to work better. Even Sophie’s World, which itself is a dialogue that educates the reader about the major phases of Western philosophy, had a captivating plot. God’s Debris lacks this; the characters literally exist only as mouthpieces for Adams’ philosophical ruminations. It’s not nearly as satisfying as a full novel would be. And the reason for that all comes down to layers.
If a novel (or any fictional form) is well-written, then I can still be entertained even if the philosophy goes over my head (or, as in the case of certain Sword of Truth novels, the philosophy is contrary to my own personal leanings). Furthermore, the narrative offers its own ways to access and metabolize the philosophy—for example, the characters must confront moral dilemmas, and by experiencing those dilemmas through them, we wrestle with philosophical questions ourselves. By unearthing the philosophy and putting it front and centre, God’s Debris robs the reader of the chance to tease that philosophy out of a fictional situation. Finally, having a plot to fall back on means that if I don’t find the philosophy appealing or challenging enough, then I can still manage to enjoy the book.
The nature of God and the universe is pretty heavy stuff, but nothing in God’s Debris strikes me as particularly new or thought-provoking. Maybe it’s just because I read too much science fiction, so a lot of Avatar’s musings feel old hat rather than revelatory. Whatever the reason, each chapter flowed over me like so much water: there are plenty of interesting bits in the book, but there isn’t much that I would consider remarkable or worth remembering.
Books create whole other worlds, and nowhere is this phenomenon more explicit than in fantasy and science fiction. More than just telling a story, greBooks create whole other worlds, and nowhere is this phenomenon more explicit than in fantasy and science fiction. More than just telling a story, great books transport the reader to a new setting, one where the rules might be different. It takes impossibilities and makes them possible. The author, then, is more than a storyteller—he or she is an architect, a craftsman executing a careful and intricate design. This is what we often mean when we speak of worldbuilding.
Depending upon how the term is used, worldbuilding can entail praise of an author's mastery of the art, or it can be a consolation prize for a perceived lack of plot. Indeed, many of the reviews I've been reading of Palimpsest use the term, or its equivalents, in the latter way. The city of Palimpsest is a beautiful setting—and character—but the book has a thin plot, thin characters. There is too much prose, too little substance.
It is true that Palimpsest is a very unique and bizarre creation. Catherynne M. Valente's writing is laced with appositive subtleties and allusive similes. As a result, the book itself is of an artistic and literary flavour that favours imagery and metaphor over the straightforward pace of narrative. I found Palimpsest difficult to embrace at first because of this atmosphere. It was too dream-like—too much like an actual visit to Palimpsest, minus the sex gateway—to catch hold of my imagination. Lacking an anchor, I floated aimlessly through the first part of the book, unable to connect with the characters or even understand their plights.
Valente's sexually-transmitted city is a masterful work of fantasy but not something I would consider true worldbuilding. Rather, Palimpsest is like a myth, or perhaps even an entire mythology unto itself. It has an origin myth. It has rituals regarding how to travel to the city, how to recruit new immigrants. There are myths pertaining to permanent residency in Palimpsest, complete with the tragic sense of loss possible when one comes so close to achieving this only to find the gates barred. Palimpsest itself is not much of a world, for we only get glimpses of its structure and society. As an idea, however, Palimpsest is fascinating. Valente hints at the beginning of the book how different Palimpsest is from our own world—clockwork vermin, for instance—but the true scope of the difference only becomes apparent by the very end.
Palimpsest is like that as a whole. It starts off strongly, stumbles, only to recover near the end and improve a great deal. Valente adheres rigidly to a four-chapter, four-intermission structure for each part of the novel. Each chapter/intermission pair focuses on one of the four protagonists and their visit to Palimpsest. After such a strong beginning, the story foundered because the protagonists were not sufficiently connected, and I was not much interested in their isolated, pathetic attempts to return to Palimpsest. The book improves noticeably once November and Ludovico discover the method for emigrating to Palimpsest, find each other, and try to find Oleg and Sei. Suddenly there is a purpose to all this purposeless sex; suddenly, there is plot.
There is so much sex in Palimpsest. It has a functional purpose, and Valente makes it clear that, for most immigrants, this is a matter of need. They need to return to Palimpsest; indeed, those who reject the city find it necessary to self-medicate in order to keep from dreaming about it. Palimpsest is somewhat like a drug, but it is even more generally an obsession. Oleg becomes obsessed with finding the simulacrum of his sister, who died before he was born; Ludovico becomes obsessed with finding his wife, who left him for another woman; Sei becomes obsessed with staying on board a train in Palimpsest that seems determined to adopt her; and November finds a mentor in the mysterious, dangerous Casimira. Their obsession overrides their need for comfort in the real world, hollows them out, makes them shells of their former selves. Oleg loses his appetite, becomes skeletal and even more withdrawn than he was before. Sei's need to have sex with the right people to stay on the train route makes her feel degraded. November sacrifices fingers and her face in order to achieve some form of power, while Ludovico sacrifices his tongue to secure them chance—the merest permission to attempt—to emigrate.
For all of the empty sex and mentions of how New York City is an ersatz vision of itself, Palimpsest seems to lack many real relationships. Lucia leaves Ludovico after nine years; the other three protagonists are recluses to one degree or another. Oleg and Ludovico both accept simulated people as replacements for those they have lost. November and Sei focus their affection on non-human objects, bees and a train, respectively.
In this respect, Palimpsest belies the biggest myth of all, that of normality. There is nothing normal happening in this book, and that is for the best. From its story to its characters to its style, Palimpsest is a bizarre, mythical creation. It pays a price for this artistry, of course; many who are more comfortable with the conventional narrative of a novel will not appreciate this book's unconventionality. It needs someone stronger than me to appreciate it on those terms. For my part, Palimpsest is interesting in execution and effort, but such a very empty experience.
I love Regency and Victorian fiction. In those halcyon days of a declining empire, men and women of rank fused scientific exploration with military daI love Regency and Victorian fiction. In those halcyon days of a declining empire, men and women of rank fused scientific exploration with military daring. The blank spaces on the map were shrinking every day, and as such, this age of exploration and adventure was also an age of introspection. Strict notions of propriety and visible class barriers contributed to meditations on what makes one human, on the roles of birth and upbringing in the development of a person, and the roles of gender and sex. Some of the best literature of the English language came from the 19th century.
So I love when contemporary authors set books in 19th-century England and then imitate the prose style of the period. The Women of Nell Gwynne's is a great example of such a book, thanks to Kage Baker's captivating style. But why should you take my word for it? Here's an example:
A lengthy and painful discussion followed. It lasted through tea and dinner. It was revealed to Lady Beatrice that, though she had been sincerely mourned when Mamma had been under the impression she was dead, her unexpected return to life was something more than inconvenient. Had she never considered the disgrace she would inflict upon her family by returning, after all that had happened to her? What were all Aunt Harriet's neighbors to think?
Baker takes the propriety so valuable to Victorians to an absurd length—although, at the same time, observes that this situation is not too far from realistic. Having returned from the dead, so to speak, but much tarnished in body and spirit, Lady Beatrice has two prospects. She could enter a convent:
Whereupon Uncle Frederick, his face black with rage, rose from the table (the servants were in the act of serving the fish course) and told Lady Beatrice that she would be permitted to spend the night under his roof, for her Mamma’s sake, but in the morning he was personally taking her to the nearest convent.
At this point Aunt Harriet pointed out that the nearest convent was in France, and he would be obliged to drive all day and hire passage on a boat, which hardly seemed respectable. Uncle Frederick shouted that he didn’t give a damn. Mamma fainted once more.
Beatrice chooses to prostitute herself instead; she becomes, to use the vernacular, a "fallen woman." Baker manages to establish Beatrice as a very broken yet strong woman with all the deftness such issues require while simultaneously keeping the atmosphere of the story light, drôle. As Beatrice remarks to a gentleman who recognizes her as her father's daughter, no one deserves ill or good fortune—in other words, sometimes bad things happen to good people, and society isn't always equipped to deal with it. Beatrice can hide, retreat, or she can steel herself to the task of living, however difficult it may be.
Fortunately, Beatrice's unique experiences make her perfect for a job at Nell Gwynne's, a brothel run by the ostensibly blind Mrs. Corvey. Nell Gwynne's is the ultimate set piece in Baker's reversal of our Victorian expectations. Although a genuine house of ill repute, Nell Gwynne's is exclusive, invitation-only, and services only high-ranking officials and statesmen. It is actually a front for a secret society of innovators, who often find they need information from or leverage over certain men. Beatrice and her colleagues are more than whores, then, they are spies. And for Beatrice's inaugural mission, she and three other prostitute-spies attend a private function of Lord Basmond's in order to discover the nature of a device he's auctioning to the highest bidder.
The plot of The Women of Nell Gwynne's is actually very thin, and at times it stretches beyond its capacity. There are a few loose ends never satisfactorily explained. Firstly, who was Hindley? It seems obvious that he is the illegitimate child, who ostensibly died, of Lord Basmond. Even so, that does not explain Hindley's genius. Secondly, the murder of Lord Basmond and its resolution were not very impressive. I do not think that was Baker's intention, because she never gives us time to get acquainted with the potential suspects.
And the mysteries we do get, namely Basmond's miraculous anti-gravity device, are never very suspenseful. When are our protagonists ever in danger? Mrs. Corvey goes wandering into the villain's secret lair, even rescues a protégé, all without so much as an alarm sounded or a guard alerted—surely Basmond could hire some expendable minions. Baker handily foreshadows Mrs. Corvey's use of her brass oculars, and draws attention to the irony that all of the antagonists assume she's blind when, in fact, she can see better than they. But it's clunky, which surprises me, because the rest of the writing is so good.
So good, in fact, that I didn't notice all of these plot holes at first. I was too busy enjoying the ride. Hence Baker's captivating style. And a book that is enjoyable to read, even when its plot isn't very good, deserves some praise. Yet that does not solve the book's problem: it lacks a climax. The absence of danger to our protagonists coincides with the absence of any dramatic tension around the mystery or any tension at all, in fact, regarding the resolution of the plot. I'm disappointed, because The Women of Nell Gwynne's starts off so strong. I was giddy with elation while reading the opening chapters. To Baker's credit, she managed to sustain that giddiness for most of the book—but once the story concluded and I sat down to think about it, I realized I'd been had.
I couldn’t remember why I had added Something Missing to my to-read list, so I was somewhat sceptical going into it. Matthew Dicks’ writing style didnI couldn’t remember why I had added Something Missing to my to-read list, so I was somewhat sceptical going into it. Matthew Dicks’ writing style didn’t improve my opinion at first. Something about Marin, a burglar who only robs select “clients” and only takes items that won’t be missed, changed my mind. Somewhere along the way, Dicks made me care, not just about Martin but about the proposition that he could help the people he is otherwise stealing from.
I can even point to when my opinion began to shift. Dicks telegraphs the change at the beginning of Chapter 3: “Some people can point to a specific day in their lives when everything changed. For Martin, that day was a Wednesday in October.” Yeah, not exactly subtle or inspirational. Dicks’ writing is flat, unassuming, with all the painstaking attention to describing details one might expect of a schoolchild who has received more than one gentle rebuke from a teacher on a scene assignment. The lack of dialogue, at least for the first part of the novel, compounds this issue: we spend most of our time inhabiting Martin’s head, from a third-person perspective. So while Martin’s almost obsessive-compulsive attention to detail, the reason why he is so successful at burgling houses unnoticed, justifies Dicks’ style, it doesn’t make the style any easier to read. And I admit that well into the book, even after I had begun to heartily enjoy it, I still struggled to derive a lot of pleasure from the writing itself.
So Something Missing is not a modern love letter to the English language and modern prose. But it is a quirky story about a sympathetic burglar. I love stories that take advantage of the moral ambiguity of the sympathetic criminal, and this book succeeded for me where The Hitman Diairies did not. Now, Martin is quite different from the main character of that book: he is about as sympathetic as one can make a career thief. He abhors violence. He goes to painstaking lengths to ensure that he only takes that which his clients won’t miss, whether it’s a roll of toilet paper or a diamond earring. Martin is about as close to an “honest criminal” as one can get, and it’s exactly by riding this paradox that Dicks succeeds in creating a boring character captivating enough to carry a novel on his shoulders.
See, the entire setup of Martin robbing select couples, whom he calls his clients rather affectionately, is hilarious and ripe for situation comedy. Indeed, it seems like that’s the direction in which Dicks is set to go in that fateful third chapter, when he finally stops introducing Martin’s career and relates an incident in which Martin is trapped in a client’s house when they come home. Oh no, Martin has to hide behind a sofa until he can escape undetected! But the husband is watching TV instead of taking a shower like his wife nagged him to! (Canned laughter here.) But Dicks understands that such a setup is limited to only a few good jokes before it become stale. He isn’t afraid to have Martin change and grow as the story progresses, something essential for any novel.
Martin begins Something Missing as someone who, well, is missing a lot in terms of personality. He has even less of a social life than I do. He hasn’t talked to his father in years. His career and fencing the proceeds of his career takes up most of his time. But he comes across as somewhat empty. So it’s nice to see that Martin cares enough about other people to take a risk to help the Claytons—and then to take an even bigger risk, a few chapters later, to help the Ashleys. He doesn’t have to do either of these things; he risks discovery by anonymously encouraging Alan Clayton to be a little more romantic or alerting Justine Ashley that her friend Laura has almost ruined her husband’s surprise birthday party. And when this has more profound consequences for him on a personal level, I kept worrying he would screw things up.
Then for the last act, Dicks raises the stakes again. Martin has the opportunity to jump from guardian angel to straight-up guardian when he discovers that one of his clients is in danger of being attacked and raped in her own home. He is faced with the dilemma of how to avert this without revealing his own illegal activities, either to her or to the police. Once again we’re confronting with the human contradiction: that which is legal is not necessarily that which is right. Martin is indubitably a criminal in the eyes of the law, yet does he really harm these couples by taking things they don’t notice are missing? And if he had never taken on this client, he would never have discovered the impending attack and been able to do something about it.
I admire the way that Dicks continually raises the stakes and the risks he takes in mixing such serious elements into what is otherwise a comedic novel. Something Missing does not stand out as a brilliant work of art. Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining character sketch that avoids a lot of mistakes and pitfalls so easy for novels of its kind to fall into. I was getting good thrill out of this, and in the last few chapters where Martin truly has to step up, it became almost a thriller instead of an easy comedic read.
The Vorkosigan Saga is one of those series I’ve been meaning to read for a while. And, in fact, I read Cryoburn last year for the Hugo Awards votingThe Vorkosigan Saga is one of those series I’ve been meaning to read for a while. And, in fact, I read Cryoburn last year for the Hugo Awards voting. Going back to the beginning and reading the series in order has been a task long overdue, so let’s get this party started.
I love space opera. Technically speaking, Shards of Honour and its sequel, Barrayar, which I read in omnibus form, is probably more planetary romance. It is the first of a two part story of Cordelia Naismith falling in love not only with Aral Vorkosigan but with the planet of his birth, Barrayar. Cordelia leaves everything she knows behind to be with Aral—not that the alternatives are much better, thanks to her celebrity but suspect status after her participation in the defence of Escobar.
So, since I love space opera, Lois McMaster Bujold had a home-field advantage here. I love the intrigue that goes along with this type of science fiction. Because, let’s face it: if humanity does spread out among the stars one day, this is what we’ll be like. We’ll be divided and insular, petty and always bickering. Empires are difficult—as Barrayar demonstrates—and politics and diplomacy in the vacuum of space are always swift and unforgiving. The reactionary culture of Barrayar and the progressivist nature of Beta Colony both seem like possibilities for space colonies in the far future. Bujold also deals with the question of why Barayar doesn’t just go settle an uninhabited world ripe for the picking: the network of wormholes connecting all these worlds is what makes them valuable.
Shards of Honour doesn’t really deal with the Barrayar–Beta politics, however, except through the interactions of their embodiments in Aral and Cordelia. Ever since their first meeting on the surface of that survey world, two things are obvious: firstly, they are meant to be together; secondly, they will forever be the symbols of their upbringings—so I’ll leave you to guess what their union means for Barrayar.
Which brings me (finally) to my opinion of—and problem with—Shards of Honour. Cordelia and Aral are forced together by circumstance … and then he proposes marriage. Like you do. It is the ultimate contrived setup; Cordelia doesn’t fall in love with Aral so much as end up thrown together with him enough times to decide she might as well marry him. Everything about this story is so driven and obviously constructed towards getting Cordelia to Barrayar and married to Aral Vorkosigan, and it really frustrates me. I’d like to just embrace this book and love it unconditionally, because I love the characters … but I can’t ignore what is, if not lazy, extremely indulgent plotting.
Cordelia is an awesome main character. She’s smart and determined. She knows what she wants and will stick to her guns until she gets her way. In many ways, Cordelia is the perfect interface between Beta Colony and Barrayar. While she represents the non-warrior, curious nature of the Betan culture, she is actually far more of a warrior than most other Betans we see in this book. She might not always carry a gun and salute, but Cordelia is a tactician. She can scheme, and she can act and react with the best of them. It gets her out of trouble (and, yeah, into trouble) numerous times.
As much as the setup between Cordelia and Aral frustrates me, I like Aral too. Bujold does a good job making him a complex person. The Betans call him the Butcher of Komarr. He is the ultimate scapegoat and monster—until Cordelia meets him and discovers that, while he is Barrayan, he is a reasonably nice guy. For Aral, it’s all about doing what is honourable—but unlike some of his comrades, who allow the excesses of their aristocratic upbringing to corrupt them, Aral is all about his duty to the empire.
In many ways, it’s that conflict between personal gratification and service to one’s government/nation that underlies all of Shards of Honour. Cordelia essentially betrays Beta Colony to be with Aral (though she might not see it that way). Aral has to make some tough decisions about his personal loyalty in order to do what he thinks is right for the empire. And the biggest question, the conflict that this book ultimately resolves, is whether Aral and Cordelia can be together and be loyal to their own personal ideals as well as Barrayar. Beta Colony and Barrayar end their war before Cordelia marries Aral—I wonder what will happen next time war starts up?
Shards of Honour is a good novel on its own, but it is one that begs for more. I’m happy I read this as part of the omnibus. The transition into Barrayar is seamless. This really feels like the prologue to the latter book, which is where Bujold gets down and tackles the really interesting ramifications of Aral and Cordelia’s interstellar romance.
Intrigue and romance, war and murder and the conflict between honour and personal desire … Shards of Honour hits all the right notes for an interesting story. Oh, and there are spaceships and wormholes and nerve disruptors as well! Science fiction in name and set dressing, this is really just an action-adventure novel and a romance story wrapped up into one. It’s well worth reading—but don’t stop here.
Immediately after finishing Shards of Honour, I jumped into Barrayar with gusto. I’d say this is the payoff to Shards of Honour, but that might giveImmediately after finishing Shards of Honour, I jumped into Barrayar with gusto. I’d say this is the payoff to Shards of Honour, but that might give you the wrong idea. Both novels are good—but this is where it gets really interesting. Cordelia has married Aral Vorkosigan and left everything she knows behind to live with him on Barrayar, capital planet of the interstellar empire of the same name. Things are complicated: she’s pregnant and has very progressive ideas about raising kids; Aral gets named the regent of the new child emperor when the old emperor dies; and not a week goes by without some kind of assassination attempt. Pretty much, Cordelia and Aral have a very busy year. Because that makes for good reading.
I can say for certain that I liked this book better than the first one. However, there is a lot about Barrayar that gives me reservations. In the first book, Cordelia is this super-capable survey ship captain. She escapes the slightly-oppressive psychiatric regime imposed upon her by the authorities of Beta Colony and ends up with Aral, whom she has developed an affinity and, yes, love for. In Barrayar, though, Cordelia at first seems like her strings have been cut. She’s married but somewhat lifeless. Examples of her agency and will are few and far between—though, to be fair, they are certainly present. For the most part, however, Cordelia spends a lot of time confused by Barrayan customs and going to boring parties.
Fortunately, Lois McMaster Bujold turns it all around in the third act. Up until that point, I stayed afloat thanks to the masterful plotting even though the characterzation wasn’t satisfying me. I wanted to know who was behind these assassination plots, whether the child emperor would survive, and whether Cordelia’s child would survive. Bujold wraps all these questions up into a neat little ball—then tosses it into the creepy neighbour’s backyard and tells us to go ring their doorbell. She’ll wait.
Cordelia has to save her baby and, in so doing, gets a little ambitious by accident and saves the empire. I love it. I love it, because Bujold isn’t writing a Mary Sue here—Cordelia doesn’t go in there with the intention of killing Vordarian. It just kind of … happens … even after she tries to prevent it. The domesticity of Cordelia’s motivations frustrates me slightly, but it also makes the most sense. This isn’t Cordelia’s fight. She might be married to Aral, the rightful regent of the empire, but it’s not her empire. For all she cares, they could leave this all behind and go retire on an asteroid somewhere. What matters to Cordelia is her child, and creating a Barrayar that will accept her child. I can get behind that.
So I spent a good deal of Barrayar vaguely bemused by these characters even as I screamed, “Get on with it!” The intrigue, though, is what makes the book. This is science fiction in name only: it has the trappings and plot devices of a science-fiction novel, but Bujold has really written historical fiction transposed and redecorated. Call a grenade a “sonic grenade” instead of just grenade. Have some aristocracy and swordfighting and, oh yeah, external womb tank machines. There are some minor details in here that make it science fiction, but Barrayar will appeal to anyone who is interested in court intrigue and dynastic power struggles. Because the science fiction is secondary here, and there is nothing wrong with that when the result is a powerful and interesting story.
I can’t quite give Barrayar top marks. As I said above, it occasionally disappointed me and doesn’t quite deliver everything I wish it could. Like Shards of Honour before it, however, and Cryoburn, which was my first Vorkosigan Saga experience, Barrayar demonstrates that Bujold can create compelling and fun stories. This was exactly what I needed to read during a very stressful week at work and after two somewhat more depressing novels. Barrayar isn’t exactly “light” in terms of subject matter, but it light in tone and not exactly the most challenging read. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
**spoiler alert** Too often a good fantasy book with a solid story suffers because its author is too busy showing off the awesome world in which the s**spoiler alert** Too often a good fantasy book with a solid story suffers because its author is too busy showing off the awesome world in which the story takes place. Not so for The Briar King! No, instead of bad worldbuilding ruining good writing, Keyes' writing ruins his superb worldbuilding.
The Briar King starts with a prelude 2000 years in the past, when humanity unites to overthrow its Skasloi slave masters. In the present, humanity has now divided into the bickering nations across Everon. As political matters point to war, the eponymous god-like Briar King appears to be awakening after millennia of slumber, and no one is quite sure what this means for humanity—except that it can't be good. Caught between the hammer of war and anvil of nature, our protagonists find themselves with few friends and even fewer options.
I loved the world of Everon itself. Greg Keyes does a wonderful job at establishing the relationship among various nations without resorting to too much exposition. We get a sense of the deep enmity between the Skernish and Hansa and of the amity between Liery and Crotheny. Overarching it all is the Church, predicated on the veneration of saints and their sedoi, places of power where saints rested or parts of them have been buried. Finally, we get glimpses of the history of Everon between the overthrow of the Skasloi two thousand years ago and the present day—mention of some sort of continent-wide empire known as the Hegemony, a tyrannical ruler known as the Black Jester, and related conflicts called "the Warlock Wars." All of this Keyes weaves together into a tight historical background for the present-day drama. And that's why it's so disappointing that the actual conflict in the book is so underwhelming.
The principal fault lies in the characters, who are, for the most part, stock. Anne Dare is the rebellious princess who must grow up and fulfil her destiny; Austra is the trusted and devoted maidservant; Neil is the knight in shining armour, immune to temptation and incorruptible; Aspar is the grumpy old man; William is the good-natured king who never suspects betrayal; and Robert is the deceitful brother who kills his sister out of jealousy and arranges his brother's death to start a war. Not only do these characters act like their tropes, but their dialogue is similarly uninspired to the point of corniness:
A touch of anger at last entered Robert’s voice. "But you'd already decided that, hadn't you, Wilm? If you thought me a brother, you would never have betrothed Lesbeth without asking me. I could never forgive you that."
There were moments when optimism got the better of me and it looked like the book might improve, like the characters might actually break out of their moulds and do something new. For instance, take when Neil and Fastia have a few too many and come close to sleeping together, despite the fact that the former bodyguard to the latter's mother—the queen. I thought they might actually do it and then regret it later. But no, Neil is too pure for that, and so they just have to deal with unrequited love for the next several chapters until Fastia dies at the hands of the Plot. Whenever one of the protagonists gets in a tight enough spot that they might not make it, something inexplicable happens to save them: Anne makes a knight go blind, Neil goes into a berserker rage, etc. None of the conflicts faced by the main characters feel compelling because none feel dangerous. The only mistake the protagonists make is not being genre savvy.
The story itself suffers from first-book-itis, essentially functioning to set up the rest of the tetralogy. It introduces us to the main characters and manoeuvres them into place for the conflicts of the next three books. As much as Keyes tries to create an interesting story, the stock characters and standard fantasy tropes left me unimpressed and unamused. I never felt surprised, or even outraged. Mostly I was passive, maybe even a little bored, as page after page of predictable plot passed me by.
Now, any genre has its established tropes, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. The Briar King, however, takes that to a whole new level. There's very little that's original about its characters or its plot; just a few names have been changed to protect the exploited. This is formulaic fantasy at its most derivative....more
**spoiler alert** Perdido Street Station is a supersaturated story. The city of New Crobuzon teems with life as weird as China Miéville can imagine it**spoiler alert** Perdido Street Station is a supersaturated story. The city of New Crobuzon teems with life as weird as China Miéville can imagine it—and he has a very flexible imagination. This is one of those touched cities so often the focus of a fantasy or science fiction novel: the city where anything can—and does—happen, sometimes with shocking regularity. In New Crobuzon, there's the law enforced by the militia, and then there's the law observed by everyone who isn't important enough for the militia to bother. There are probably more exceptions than rules.
We figure out those rules, and exceptions, as the story progresses. Many reviewers pan the complexity of Peridido Street Station, accusing Miéville of creating something so dense and haphazardly interconnected as to appear frustratingly random. It's an understandable charge. However, that alone is not a sufficient strike against the book. And I think it's a mistake to attempt to absorb everything that happens in a single reading—this a book that withstands multiple readings precisely because there is so much to it.
Of course, before one even considers re-reading a book, one must read it once. So any book so complex as to invite multiple readings should be comprehensible in the first reading, right? Again, I think it's a bad idea to go into Perdido Street Station with the expectation of comprehending every part of the plot and how it all fits together. Nevertheless, you can comprehend enough of the plots and their connections to enjoy a full story. It helps if you look at the novel from a particular perspective, which is what I'll do for the rest of this review.
At the risk of sounding reductionist, I'll look at how alliances relate the various plots of Perdido Street Station. This is an apt choice, because one of the book's themes is about the somewhat unfortunate necessity of betrayal. Our protagonists are not the most savoury of moral characters; Isaac regularly deals with criminals and engages in petty thievery. By watching the shifting alliances among the characters of the book, we get a sense of their morality, their goals, and how they affect the overall plot. Trace the flow of power, and you'll see how that power affects the story.
Isaac makes and breaks several alliances in the book, most notably with Yagharek, Lemuel Pigeon, the Weaver, and the Construct Council. His alliance with Yagharek drags the exiled garuda into the main adventure and also provides the impetus Isaac needs to invent his crisis engine. Lemuel Pigeon is Isaac's link to the underworld of New Crobuzon; it's his involvement that results in Isaac raising the slake-moth that frees its fellows and begins a reign of terror over the city. The Weaver is an ineffable entity that can literally alter reality to suit its perception of the "worldweb" of patterns. Both Isaac and Mayor Rudgutter seek the help of the Weaver, but Isaac is more successful in forging a lasting alliance, and the Weaver's participation at the climax is crucial to Isaac's plan to destroy the slake-moths. Finally, Isaac's alliance with the Construct Council is one of the most interesting alliances in the book. At first it seems like a miracle: a nascent artificial intelligence, immune to the slake-moths' hypnosis, willing to help because it wants to preserve the city as a fount of information. Yet Isaac perceives a hunger in the Construct Council that is unbridled by morality or empathy, and so he has to use the Council and cast it aside at the last moment.
Isaac's betrayal of the Construct Council is but one of many betrayals of the alliances he makes. We're conditioned to see betrayal as something vile, but often Isaac's betrayals take the form of what he sees as necessary moral decisions. The Construct Council is one such betrayal, but it's even more explicit in how Isaac breaks his contract with Yagharek. After learning about Yagharek's crime, we see Isaac try to rationalize continuing to help Yagharek. He's caught between betraying a comrade who helped save the city and save his lover or sanctioning what, in Isaac's mind, he can only call rape. This may seem like an easy decision in the abstract, but Isaac's hesitation reveals the depth of his character, for he is human—and thus fallible.
This makes Isaac a strong protagonist, especially considering all that Miéville inflicts upon him, especially considering that he gets no happy ending. It's the harshness of the ending that causes Perdido Street Station to crystallize into a single, coherent entity. After finishing the book, I couldn't see it with a happy ending. I wish Lin had survived; I wish there was a happy-ever-after, with Isaac making lots of money and somehow enjoying his life again. But it couldn't happen. Isaac can't be the Hero of New Crobuzon, because he's not a hero. He never will be; he's too flawed. Moreover, there are no heroes in New Crobuzon. Isaac lost everything in his battle to save his city, including the life he could lead in that city, and the woman he loved.
I do regret what happens to Lin. She begins as a powerful character, just as important and as interesting as Isaac. After Mr. Motley captures her, however, her role is reduced to next to nothing. Again, in terms of alliances, Isaac and Lin's is important. They establish each other as meaningful, thoughtful characters who can see past their own species when it comes to love. They contrast each other in terms of science and art, obsession and passion, etc. Isaac would be a much weaker character without Lin, and the story itself is weaker for her absence for much of it.
On the other side of the power divide, we have the city of New Crobuzon, its government personified by Mayor Rudgutter and Secretary Stem-Fulcher. They make a shady alliance with crime lord Mr. Motley, resulting in the sale to Motley of the slake-moths—they are as much responsible for the subsequent tragedy as Isaac is. They also try to stop the slake-moths, albeit without any success. We're not supposed to like Rudgutter, of course, but we can admire him as a character, as a depiction of a corrupt city bureaucrat. We don't get a full exploration of Rudgutter's machinations, unfortunately. We do learn that New Crobuzon has an embassy of Hell, and Rudgutter seeks demonic aid in destroying the slake-moths. This part seemed more extraneous than anything else, as the ambassador from Hell neither deigns to help Rudgutter nor has any other effect on the plot. With Hell struck off the list, Rudgutter turns to other potential allies, some even less savoury.
There's almost as many creatures and species in New Crobuzon as there are streets, and it seems that the less conventional they are, the more we see them. Take, for example, the Cactacae. Living cacti? Weird! And wonderful! Much like the plot structure, it can be hard to follow the plethora of physical permutations Miéville explores in Perdido Street Station, but it's rewarding. One advantage of Miéville's voluminous verbosity is that he always chooses the most interesting words to describe physical appearance. Perdido Street Station is a delectable book in terms of diction and vocabulary.
Whether you condemn or celebrate Miéville's worldbuilding, it's clear that the city of New Crobuzon is not your typical science fiction or fantasy setting (even if it does have zeppelins from another world). It's the details that matter, and not just the amount of detail. I focused on only a sliver of the thoughts and emotions Perdido Street Station evokes for me. There's so much to consider, when it comes to the motivations of the characters and the consequences of their actions, that Miéville deserves credit for his storytelling as much as for his worldbuilding, if not more....more
I didn't want to give this book five stars, but Ian McDonald hacked my brain. I had heard enough about The Dervish House—my first novel by McDonald, iI didn't want to give this book five stars, but Ian McDonald hacked my brain. I had heard enough about The Dervish House—my first novel by McDonald, incidentally—to be fairly confident I would like it. Yet it is not the sort of novel that inspires love at first sight; rather, it tantalizes, flirts, and seduces its way into your heart. It accomplishes this through McDonald's style, the way he describes the city of Instanbul, invites us into its streets and its politics and the eponymous apartments shared by the main characters, and oh-so-casually exposes those characters' hearts, hopes, and dreams. And as a science-fiction novel, The Dervish House is simultaneously subtle and ostentatious. The trappings that make it science fiction are all laid bare and obvious for the reader to see, but just as essential are McDonald's invocations of Istanbul's rich and diverse history, religion, and politics.
It's true that novels with multiple, convergent storylines sometimes have to work harder to earn my love. Yet I'm a little puzzled by the way others have interpreted McDonald's use of this device: one person remarked that "it may occasionally feel as if you’re reading six novellas that just happen to be set in the same city" while a far more critical reviewer says: "The different characters' path only crossed at the very end in a unconvincingly co-incidental way." (He also disparages how the technology depicted in the novel is "only a few years away", which makes perfect sense for a novel set in 2027—only 16 years from now.) This was not my experience at all; on the contrary, I felt like the various storylines interacted and influenced each other to an admirable degree. I loved seeing Ayşe's friend Selma Özgün reappear as a member of the think tank to which Georgios is invited. I loved that Can's investigation of the tram suicide bomber, along with Necdet's subsequent behaviour, helped Georgios formulate what he saw as the most likely security threat, far-fetched though it may sound. I loved that Leyla, Aso, and Yeşar were hunting for half of a miniature Koran throughout Istanbul even as we, the readers, knew it was lying in Ayşe's antiques shop. I didn't love all of the characters equally—in particular, I found it very difficult to sympathize with Necdet after finding out why he had to come to Istanbul and live with his brother. Yet I couldn't imagine any other way of telling this story.
McDonald uses each character to explore a facet of Istanbul and what makes it such a unique place. Georgios provides a political and historical context, and as an old Greek man who has borne his share of discrimination by the authorities, he represents Istanbul's conflicted relationship with the diverse group of people who call it home. Necdet is McDonald's window into Istanbul's complicated relationship with Islam and the modern-day attempts to administer community-based justice. Adnan and his wife, Ayşe (who I'll confess was probably my favourite) are both dreamers and dealers, and they represent the modern merchants of Turkey: Adnan is the man with the connections, the power broker who buys and sells from both the East and the West, even as he plots to make it big; Ayşe, on the other hand, has her eyes turned towards the past, and she has her own big score to pursue. They are the most class-conscious inhabitants of the dervish house, for Adnan is aware that Ayşe "married down" to be with him, and part of his drive to succeed comes from a determination to achieve upward mobility through profit if not pedigree. Finally, Leyla and Aso give us a glimpse into Instanbul's role in the micro- and nano-revolutions. I'm not so sure how Can fits in, except that his role as the intrepid "Boy Detective" is essential to resolving Necdet's story and tying together the terrorists with Georgios' involvement in the security think tank.
So there you have it. If McDonald had tried to let one character or even a small ensemble cast carry the entire burden of Istanbul, then The Dervish House would have been a much poorer novel indeed. It's the multiplicity of voices, not to mention their variety, that makes this story a convincing microcosm of the city, lending credence to the idea that Istanbul itself is a microcosm of the world at large. Istanbul is synonymous with the idea of a crossroads city, but instead of merely telling us this, McDonald shows us in a first-class way, distilling the city and its history into a fascinating story. This is why Ayşe became my favourite character, for I was particularly intrigued by her search for a Mellified Man. Along the way, we're exposed not so much to a history of Istanbul as we are to an oral mythology surrounding the Mellified Man and certain tarikats of Islam. The question is never whether Ayşe will succeed in her search but what significance the search has on her own, personal understanding of Istanbul. She begins as the outsider, the sceptic who initially refuses to buy into the hunt for a legendary artifact—inevitably though, she dips her toes in the pond and the legend of the Mellified Man ensares her just as it has so many poor souls. I suppose I empathized with her, because this is much the same process I experienced while reading The Dervish House. It's an enchanting, entrancing novel, and I didn't enjoy it; I helped it take me hostage and use me as a bargaining chip. I went full Stockholm and held a gun to my own head while Ian McDonald negotiated with my parents for a ransom.
Fortunately, Ayşe's obsession proves, like mine, to be temporary but profound. It ends badly for her, at least at first, but her experience changes the way she thinks about antiques and about Istanbul. At first, Ayşe clearly loves the antiques she sells, but we get the sense that she is not truly as connected to them as she thinks. She used to be merely a dealer in antiques; she acquired items through her contacts and from other merchants, but the search for the Mellified Man is different. It is intense, and for some of her sources even personal. So Ayşe emerges with a better understanding of what the antiques she sells mean to some people; she adds to her aesthetic appreciation an appreciation of their emotional value.
The Dervish House is a very romantic novel, really, by which I mean Romantic. Just consider Georgios and his chance to see once again a lover from his youth, Ariana, who inspired him to become politically active—a path that would eventually saddle him with the guilt of betrayal and cause him to lose his tenure as an economics professor. While Georgios is debating whether to contact Ariana during her time in Istanbul, he is also participating in a security-oriented think tank led by his archnemesis. Georgios, an old man, is suddenly finding himself in a confrontation with the most volatile elements of his past. Or consider Adnan and his three friends. Together they are the "Ultralords" of the four classical elements, and they will pull off a scheme that will make them rich. Adnan might be a trader in stocks and commodities, but he is definitely a romantic: he views money and its exchange as a living, breathing organism, and he attributes his own success to the fact that the money "loves" him.
Moreover, McDonald has managed to unify technology (which we tend to associate with science, and thus rationalism) and romanticism here. Take Can's BitBots, a swarm of tiny robots that can assemble themselves into coherent shapes (Monkey, Bird, Rat, Snake) that Can can control remotely: Can wields his BitBots with all the impulsiveness, curiosity, and courage one would expect of a nine-year-old boy. Similarly, the nanotechnology that pervades McDonald's vision of 2027 is the ultimate technology of the romantic, for it allows unprecedented abilities: the enhancement of memory, of the senses, of the ability to experience and feel. And as McDonald demonstrates through Necdet, nanotechnology can even threaten what we believe, what we think, and who we are. This sinister theme lurks beneath the surface of the story.
Nanotechnology is the most obvious science-fiction device that McDonald uses in The Dervish House. He presents it without any fanfare; by 2027 it is just another part of life in Istanbul. Everyone has ceptep phones capable of displaying information directly on the retina, and it is common to sniff vials of nanomachines to enhance temporarily one's memory or concentration. McDonald alludes to the hypothetical apocalyptic endgame of nanotechnology, the so-called "grey goo" through out uncontrollable self-replication. But this is a novel about identity and personal experience, and so McDonald focuses on how nanotechnology affects individuals. With Leyla, Aso, and Yeşar, we see that the ability to store information within the body's cells would be potentially revolutionary: as Leyla puts it in her pitch, we could have perfect recall of what we see, of conversations we have, of every moment of our lives. Yet McDonald juxtaposes this against a terrorist group's attempts to use nanotechnology as a vehicle for ideological coercion. He taps into a very fundamental question: if who we are is partly a product of our experiences, and if we gain the ability to control or alter our memories of those experiences, what becomes of the person we think of as "us"? Whether it's grey goo or a much more subtle effect, nanotechnology has the potential to end humanity as we know it:
What we are engaged in is a massive, unregulated and improvised experiment in reprogramming ourselves. The true end of nanotech is not the transformation of the world, it's the transformation of humanity. We can redefine what it means to be human.
Of course, we have been redefining what it means to be human for as long as we have called ourselves human. However, up until now, most of those redefinitions have been social, ethical, legal. We have reprogrammed humanity through social engineering. Yet just as our increasing familiarity with our genome and genetics opens the door to eugenics, viable nanotechnology would offer a new form of re-engineering, one that is technological and therefore much easier to direct and exploit. A lot of posthuman science fiction uses nanotechnology as a method for humans to transcend the limitations of their present form; in many ways, The Dervish House shows the beginning of our long road toward that posthuman vision of the future.
Although this is what I am taking away from The Dervish House, I don't want to create the impression that McDonald beats us over the head with Big Ideas on nanotechnology. McDonald wields science fiction in the best possible way, as a setting. Nanotechnology just happens to be a part of his Istanbul of 2027 (a part he chose to put there, because that's the "fiction" part of science fiction). It's the entirety of this futuristic Istanbul, and all the characters it enables McDonald to create, that brings The Dervish House to life. Unlike Troika, where there was a discrete moment when I realized I loved it, The Dervish House is more elusive. This is a book whose complexity blooms slowly, perhaps even shyly. It's something that one discovers. I didn't want to give this book five stars; I thought four would suffice. Yet four days after finishing the book, I'm still thinking about it, still turning it over in my head, and with each revolution I feel more confident that this is one of the best books I have read all year.
I read this book on a plane over the Atlantic as I travelled to England for job interviews. It even tickled me to see the place where I would be stayiI read this book on a plane over the Atlantic as I travelled to England for job interviews. It even tickled me to see the place where I would be staying (Bury St Edmunds) mentioned in passing. Jo Walton’s familiarity with England, Wales, and presumably girls’ boarding schools all comes through clearly in these diary pages. As Morwenna unspools the story of her recovery after the accident that claimed her twin sister’s life, we learn about her and her struggle to reconcile the real and the fantastic. Among Others is a diary of loss, gain, and self-exploration—that is, pretty much what all teenagers go through, albeit usually without fairies.
The defining moment of the book actually takes place before the story begins. Morwenna and her sister, Morganna, are involved in a magical ritual gone wrong, and Morwenna survives while her sister does not. According to Morwenna (or Mori, as she calls herself), the fairies were trying to help them stop her mother from committing some unspeakably evil act. Mori has now escaped her mother’s clutches, at least temporarily, and been remanded to the custody of her estranged father, whose sisters promptly pack her off to a boarding school.
We know Morwenna only through her diary, meeting her first as she goes off to boarding school and getting to know her as she adjusts to this new life. The term unreliable narrator is apt here: there is no reason that anything Mori provides us is accurate or true. Indeed, there is plenty of room for interpreting her discussions of magic and fairies as post-traumatic delusions. In this world, magic is so subtle that it is almost impossible to know if one is actually succeeding in using it. This might seem convenient, but it provides the source for real ethical quandaries as Mori experiments with using magic for her own ends.
We learn almost immediately that Mori is a bibliophile of the first order. Not only does she love books; she devours them with a speed approaching the supernatural. Though she reads widely, she has a fixation with science fiction and fantasy as only a teenager can have: that wide-eyed fascination with the idea that there are so many possibilities and conceptions of the future and the past. One of the most appealing things about Among Others to me, and I imagine to many other readers, is the extent to which we can identify with Mori the SF reader. We see in her our own introverted tendencies as teenagers. I had friends as a teenager, but I spent most of my time with books, building up relationships with authors through their works. I still do.
The name-dropping of SF and fantasy authors turns Among Others into a feast of intertextuality. These authors and their works form a kind of background for the rest of the story. I’m sure that Walton was very deliberate in choosing whom she mentioned and where she mentioned them, so people familiar with these authors might recognize resonances in this book. As it is, I particularly enjoyed Mori’s references to Le Guin (whom I adore) and Delany (whose Triton I read relatively recently). I love her reflections on these works and how they prompted her to ask questions of her own views on things like gender and sexuality:
But on the other hand, I do have sexual feelings. And Triton, and Heinlein, and The Charioteer have made me think that actually sex itself is neutral, and it’s society demonizing it that makes it icky. And the whole sex-change thing in Triton, there must be a sort of spectrum of sexuality, with most people somewhere in the middle, drawn to men and women, and some off on the ends—me at one end and Ralph and Laurie at the other. One of the things I’ve always liked about science fiction is the way it makes you think about things, and look at things from angles you’d never have thought about before.
From now on, I’m going to be positive about sex.
Can you imagine generations of girls and boys growing up and tackling the thorny issues like sex and gender with the help of thought-provoking SF instead of magazine ads and TV commercials telling them they don’t look good enough? What a world that would be.
Mori’s move to a boarding school is something in the way of a fresh start, a clean break with aspects of her past life. Having been “rescued” from her mother and briefly reunited with her father, she enjoys a period of somewhat unsupervised independence. Owing to her academic prowess and self-sufficient nature, she goes off on her own to explore. She finds a library: that eternal refuge and endless resource, a sanctuary where you’re not only allowed but encouraged to walk away with books for free! She joins a book club for science fiction and fantasy, makes friends, even finds a boyfriend. Gradually, she begins to recover from the events in the past that broke open her body and mind.
As all this happens, however, there are the more subtle, perhaps magical events moving in parallel. Mori receives letters from her mother, including photographs with Mori burnt away. She wonders if her aunts are also witches, if they are trying to control her and restrain her budding power. She does a spell looking for companionship, then has to live with the fear that whatever she did made the book club happen, that these people’s lives and memories were different before she interfered. And every time Mori returns home, she gets a feeling that her sister is still there, lurking between life and death, waiting for some kind of resolution.
I loved the writing in Among Others. I liked getting to know Mori; Walton gives her a great voice, showing her stumble and critique herself and then try to change and become better. I wish I could love the ending just as much, but as far as the story goes, Among Others is somewhat lacking. In retrospect, that last visit to the Valleys clearly sets us up for the climax and Mori’s final confrontation with her departed sister. But when I was first reading, I remember turning the last page only to find myself confronted with a “books by the author” page. (I was reading this on my tablet, so I didn’t really have a sense of how close I was to the end.) That’s it? No closure, no wrap-up afterwards? What did it all mean?
I suppose that Walton considers us mature enough to draw our own conclusions and pad out the post-story as we see fit. But I’m still left wanting more, wanting more specifics that the subtlety of magic use in this book doesn’t seem to provide. The close relationship between Mori and her sister underpins much of the book, but what exactly happened between them? What was her mother really up to?
There are plenty of things that make Among Others a good book, not of the least of which are the main character and how many SF fans will find themselves identifying with her. Still, I’m not sure I would call it a complete book, because it leaves me wanting. In the end I find myself conflicted: I loved the character but was never really captivated by her story.
I must start somewhere, and where better to begin than with the title? Why is this called The Windup Girl? Although Emiko's actions have a significantI must start somewhere, and where better to begin than with the title? Why is this called The Windup Girl? Although Emiko's actions have a significant effect on the plot, I never felt like the book was about her or that she was as special as the title implies. As a creation, Emiko is fascinating. She is a slave, obedience instilled at genetic and conditioned levels, beauty bred into her. Smaller pores make for flawlessly smooth skin, but in Thailand's climate they also make her prone to overheating. Her genes also dictate how she moves, with the stutter-stop motions that give her the moniker "windup girl" despite her biological nature. Abandoned in Thailand by her former Japanese owner, Emiko is abused and humiliated as a prostitute. Once she realizes she can have wants, she wants nothing more than to escape. Once she realizes she has the power to effect this, despite what her training and genes tell her, she becomes dangerous.
Simultaneously fragile and fearsome, Emiko is a wonderful creation. So it is a shame the book does not spend more time focusing on her transformation from subservient girl to wilful woman. There are so many characters in this book, so much else going on, that Emiko's development does not get as many pages at it deserves. On the other hand, a book focusing more on Emiko would be, admittedly, a very different book. So I shall focus on the book we have here.
I admire Emiko as a character—I think it's difficult not to admire her, because Bacigalupi has taken such a well-worn trope and integrated it into his genetic morality play. She is a lesson in biological determinism, a creature at the mercy of the genes her creators tailored to ensure her obedience—and a celebration of the ability to transcend one's genome, to become more than the sum of one's parts. Emiko is the human in the inhuman. As a symbol, she is very powerful. Perhaps that is why this is called The Windup Girl.
I could go through the rest of the cast and discuss each in turn. Bacigalupi's strength and weakness in this book is an ability to focus, in turn, on so many different characters. However, I will just single out the two other characters worthy of note for how they change over the course of the story: Hock Seng, Anderson's yellow card Chinese refugee; and Kanya, sidekick to Jaidee the Tiger and kickass morally-ambiguous protagonist in her own right.
Hock Seng annoyed me, especially toward the end, because he was always lamenting his misfortune and powerlessness. Yet he never gave up, despite it truly seeming at times like fate conspired against him. In Hock Seng, Bacigalupi shows us a man who has fallen so far that he has lost everything he cared about: his business, his family, and all of his property. Like Emiko, he is foreign to Thailand, a refugee seen by others as so much detritus. He tries so hard to rise again, but he never quite makes it—sometimes because of ill fortune, but sometimes because he is so used to remaining unobtrusive, to biding his time, that he does not seize opportunity when it presents itself. Hock Seng is a broken man constantly trying to mend himself.
Kanya annoyed me at first but grew on me in ways I did not expect. Bacigalupi pulls a bait-and-switch, setting up Jaidee to play a pivotal role in the coming conflict only to replace him with Kanya. She is as unprepared for this new responsibility as we are for her accession. Oh, and it doesn't help that she's a mole for Akkarat, the Minister of Trade and enemy of her band of merry White Shirt enforcers. And that was really the last piece of the puzzle that her character needed, something to elevate her above the "idealist fighter with a scarred childhood" to "conflicted fighter with a scarred childhood." Watching Kanya walk the line between her loyalties, and seeing how much fun Bacigalupi has putting her in ironic positions, is half the fun of reading The Windup Girl.
It's not that all the other characters are poorly written, but none of them resonated for me in the way Hock Seng and Kanya did. Some of them, like Anderson and Akkarat, just seemed to drive be there to drive forward the plot, mouthpieces for their respective ideologies. The latent conflict in The Windup Girl, mostly dormant until the climactic chapters, is between the Ministry of Trade and the Ministry of the Environment. The former want to trade, naturally, while the latter want to protect Thailand from mutant pests and voracious strains of food created by too many decades of calorie company gene-ripping. Of course, what with recovering from a coup and all, Thailand's government sucks. So when Anderson, Akkarat, and everyone else who wants money, power, or money and power start stirring the pot, the situation becomes very ugly, very fast. The Emiko murders someone, and all hell breaks loose.
Having had the fortune never to live in a war-torn city, I cannot attest to the verisimilitude of Bacigalupi's depictions of Kung Threp as the White Shirts go to war with Trade. It feels like a plausible portrayal to me. There are idealists on both sides, but for the most part the two sides consist of ordinary people swept up by an ideology. And those caught in the middle are confused, cynical, and misinformed—yet so apathetic, because they are so used to a corrupt regime. The radio can't be trusted, for it is in the control of one group or another; the officers who are supposed to arrest you for your contraband source of methane simply look the other way (for a price). There are laws and regulations, and then there is reality. There is authority and there are enforcers. The gulf between the two is vast, in our world and in this future Thailand.
Bacigalupi never quite explains how Thailand (or the world) arrives at this state, but that's OK. There are vague references to an Expansion and Contraction—implied, rather explicitly, to do with globalization and peak oil. Enough governments have collapsed that megacorporations run amuck with their own private armies. Genetic modification brought the ruin and now may hold the keys to saving humanity's staple crops—that or the highly-coveted seedbanks hidden around the world. Anderson's references to the disaster in Finland, where his company attempted to seize a seedbank only for its possessors to destroy it, set the tone for his time. In a world filled with environmental and economic collapse, we finally achieve a form of equality—just not on the highly-developed level those of us in developed nations all fantasize about. And, naturally, since these people are human beings and not robots or saints, in this world where everyone is equally screwed over, some are more screwed than others. There are some haves among the have-nots, and as Hock Seng can testify, one's status can change without warning or appeal.
That ultimate uncertainty of one's fate is one of the principal themes of The Windup Girl, and it is a harrowing lesson to learn. None of the characters really achieve what they want—and if they do, as it's implied for Emiko, it is not exactly what they were expecting. Rather than settling for a happy ending, a sad ending, or the depressingly postmodern choice of no ending, Bacigalupi delivers a . . . real ending. Not real in the sense of realistic, but real in the sense of being messy, both in terms of writing and narrative. Lumped in with the surreal invocation of kink springs, megodonts, and yes, airships, the ending is abrupt but not unwelcome.
I wish I could praise this book more. The more I consider its flaws, the less I consider them damning . . . yet I can't feel as enthusiastic about The Windup Girl as I desire. Maybe it's Bacigalupi's style, which is almost clinical and can at times interfere with connecting to his otherwise interesting characters. Maybe it's the plot, which only gets exciting after an interminable time humming, hawing, and generally dragging its heels toward the climax. Mostly, though, it's the disparate elements Bacigalupi combines to tell his story. In reviewing them—Emiko, Hock Seng, Kanya, Anderson and Akkarat's conflict, etc.—separately, I partition them. I can observe their individual features but not so much how they relate; those relationships, in my opinion, are the weakest links of The Windup Girl.
There is something to be said for easy books, books that do not challenge—or, if they challenge, do so only in a manner that is ultimately reassuring. We all crave confirmation and validation; fulfilling that craving once in a while is fine. By that same token, there is also a time and place for really hard books, books that challenge not only sensibility but ability, ability to comprehend or understand let alone believe. Often easy books get labelled "beach reads", but I think this conflates difficulty with complexity. Some hard books can be beach reads too, if only because they are as entertaining as they are thought-provoking. Thus, "hard" or "complex" is not always a synonym for "drudgery" or "boring."
Nevertheless, The Windup Girl—a complex book—did, at times, feel like a chore to read. Bacigalupi's style, as I mentioned above, could be slicker. The plot could be better. The characters, well, they're all right. The Windup Girl is a bunch of adequate narrative elements that come together to make a whole that is, like its eponymous character, more than the sum of its parts.
I am more and more impressed with H.G. Wells. This is the third book of his I've read, and it's by far the best. The first two were The War of the WoI am more and more impressed with H.G. Wells. This is the third book of his I've read, and it's by far the best. The first two were The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, arguably better known than The Island of Dr. Moreau but not, in my opinion, better works of fiction.
As with those other two books, The Island of Dr. Moreau features a first-person erudite British male narrator. Much like the narrator of The War of the Worlds, Edward Prendick finds himself in the middle of an untenable situation not of his own making. However, he more resembles t he protagonist of The Time Machine, who is an adventurer and a man of action. This latter point is important: Edward Prendick does things in this book. He isn't just a passive observer of a Martian invasion or an intervener in events that haven't yet happened. Having stumbled upon a radically different society, Prendick recognizes that he needs to act in order to survive.
Most of the action is weighted toward the end of the book. Ordinarily this is a problem, but Wells did a fine job of maintaining my interest during the build-up to the catastrophe that forces Prendick into action. First there's the shipwreck that results in Prendick ending up on Moreau's island, and then we get to meet the infamous Moreau himself. Although by our standards Wells' science is laughably implausible, it does the job of advancing the story and advancing legitimate themes. Prendick's struggle over how to view the Beast Men—are they animals? Human? Some abomination in between?—felt genuine. And it was an internal conflict inexorably tied to an external one, for it would govern how he decides to deal with the Beast Men once he is the last "human" left alive on the island.
That he survives, in the end, is not in question. The introduction provided by the protagonist's nephew reveals that Prendick would return to England after being rescued. At first I wondered why Wells would destroy a potential source of suspense, but then I realized it wasn't a source of suspense, because Prendick's survival is necessary. The final chapter of the book demonstrates why:
My trouble took the strangest form. I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another Beast People, animals half wrought into the outward image of human souls, and that they would presently begin to revert,—to show first this bestial mark and then that. . . . I know this is an illusion; that these seeming men and women about me are indeed men and women,—men and women for ever, perfectly reasonable creatures, full of human desires and tender solicitude, emancipated from instinct and the slaves of no fantastic Law,—beings altogether different from the Beast Folk. Yet I shrink from them, from their curious glances, their inquiries and assistance, and long to be away from them and alone.
Wells accomplishes two things with this paragraph. Firstly, he captures somewhat the feelings of the shipwrecked survivor: someone who has been so long deprived of society and food and shelter that he or she, while no mad, must forever look at society in a different light. Secondly, he speaks to a latent fear of some of the implications of then-new Darwinism. This idea that humans came from animals, are inextricably animal by nature, is scary, especially to people who consider themselves among the most civilized society on Earth.
One aspect of the plot I wish Wells had explored more is the ethical ramifications of Moreau's experiments. Obviously they're implicit in the situation, since Moreau has fled to the Pacific to do his experiments without worry of interference or ridicule by the general public. While Prendick condemns Moreau's experiments, it seems to be more out of a visceral disgust for the procedure than a philosophical objection to the idea of "raising up" "lower" animals. Wells spends so much time building up to the discovery of Moreau's experiments only then to jump immediately into the catastrophe and Prendick's subsequent survival.
The Island of Dr. Moreau has also increased my appreciation for the psychological side of Wells' science fiction. I've always been aware of its existence, but I don't think I gave it enough credit before. Wells manages to portray the collective feeling of hopelessness engendered by Martian invasion, the sense of outrage against the injustice perpetrated on the Eloi, the fear of loosing any rigid line that separates Human from Beast . . . there's more going on here than I originally credited, and I'm starting to see now why Wells is so revered, both for his contributions to the nascent genre of science fiction and to the field of literature in general. There's relevance here, and consummate skill, so while it's good to be sceptical of "the classics" like I try to be, it's also important to keep an open mind. Just not a vivisected one....more
Time travel is a sexy science-fiction trope. It's right up there with faster-than-light travel (the two are, in fact, inextricably related, and chanceTime travel is a sexy science-fiction trope. It's right up there with faster-than-light travel (the two are, in fact, inextricably related, and chances are you if you invent one then you'll have invented both) as something that, as far as our current understanding of the universe works, is impossible. There are some fascinating loopholes involving wormholes and general relativity, but in order to get it working you need metric shit-joules of energy and something called exotic matter, and it would probably kill you. Besides, even if you got your cosmic time machine working, you wouldn't be able to travel back to a time before you built the time machine. But once you get beyond the physics of time travel and whether it's possible, then the real fun begins. Because time travel creates a headache for those of us mired in the swamps of linear time, and inevitably, time travel stories demonstrate why it's a good thing we don't have to comprehend paradoxes in real life.
Connie Willis doesn't go into too much depth regarding how time travel is accomplished in her 2060 version of Oxford, where historians visit the past on research assignments. There's some kind of device that creates a "net", which is probably some kind of fancy space-time fold that wraps around the traveller and sends him or her to different "spatiotemporal coordinates". The location where the traveller arrives is his or her "drop", which the traveller must reach to return to Oxford. Rather than dropping this upon us the moment the story begins, Willis does the right thing and gradually introduces us to her theory of time travel. We get some very intriguing hints and speculation about whether historians can alter the past (the prevailing theory is that they can't, but some theorists beg to differ) and some mutterings about "slippage". This is how Willis gets away with using the "meanwhile, in the future" device (TVTropes alert), which is probably the one thing I hate most about time travel stories. We'll look at whether slippage is enough to mollify me later, but first let me talk about World War II.
Blackout starts at a disadvantage for me personally, because I don't particularly like WWII fiction. I will read it once in a while, but I don't go out of my way to find historical fiction set during that period. So keep that in mind when I endorse the atmosphere that Willis creates in Blackout, which is clearly (sometimes too clearly) (TVTropes alert) the product of meticulous research. Polly, Eileen, and Mike all visit different parts of England in 1940: Polly is in London to observe the beginning of the Blitz; Eileen is a maid at a manor that has taken in evacuees; Mike is at Dover to observe the evacuation from Dunkirk. Eventually they all converge on Polly and the Blitz. I love the details Willis includes in her depiction of the period, from the differences between American and British English idioms to the expectations for dress and the excuses one might need for being out after the sirens go off. Willis successfully conveys that the Blitz, and England in general during wartime when the threat of German invasion loomed, was more than just a different time; it possessed an entirely different mentality, one that I don't think those of us lucky enough never to have lived through a war that threatens one's country can grasp.
Before I read Blackout, I knew in general what the Blitz was and that Londoners would often take shelter in Underground stations. That was about it. I didn't know anything about boarding arrangements, about the effects the Blitz had on department stores, and I knew very little about the rationing that went on during the war (I knew that it existed, and that was about it). It was really refreshing to read a book that didn't focus on the military aspects or the Holocaust but instead on civilian life (and the life of women ambulance drivers in the FANY). During the Blitz, any sort of lapse in communications with loved ones meant that one's mind immediately assumed the worst: they hadn't made it to the shelter in time; they were hit by a bomb or by shrapnel; they were caught in a fire … the Nazis never managed to land on English soil, but they inflicted casualties on London and its citizens all the same. When someone I care about doesn't show up, I just assume he or she got stuck in traffic; the citizens of London in 1940 did not have that luxury. Practically every night involved sheltering underground and listening to bombs going off overhead, wondering if one would return home after the all clear only to find that one no longer has a home. Or a place of employment. The historical fiction parts of Blackout are fascinating and immensely satisfying.
As a time travel novel, Blackout runs into problems about halfway through, once Polly, Mike, and Eileen start worrying that they are stranded in 1940. None of their drops open, so they all have the same idea to find one another and use that person's drop. When they realize they all had the same problem, they wait for a retrieval team from the future to arrive—all the while wondering why the team hasn't already arrived (because it's time travel, so there should be no need to wait). Being stranded in the past begins to test our three historians' nerves, because they are trapped in the middle of the Blitz! Polly memorized the dates of bombings, which buildings were hit, and that sort of thing, but only up until the end of the year—she didn't think she would need to know them for the entire Blitz. So there's a very palpable, somewhat ironic fear here, because in a way these three are more frightened of the Blitz than the stalwart contemporaries (or "contemps" as the historians call them). They are so used to knowing when and where bombs will hit that not knowing is a lot more unusual than it is for the contemps, who never had such foreknowledge. Worse still, even though everything they have ever learned about time travel theory insists historians cannot alter the past, each of them harbours his or her own doubts. Every possible discrepancy becomes a source of concern until it's revealed not to be a discrepancy, and each wonders if he or she has done something that causes the Allies to lose the war.
I can grok their fears. I'd hate to be stranded in the Blitz too, knowing there's some kind of future possible, knowing that I could know the dates and places that were bombed but just didn't have that knowledge on me. So for a moment, there's a justifiable and interesting suspense. Unfortunately, Willis attempts to sustain that suspense entirely too long, and my mood moved from sympathetic to annoyed to aggravated as my sympathy for the characters diminished. Kemper's review provides an excellent explanation as to why. If your connection is so slow you don't want to load another page (and that is the only excuse for not reading his review right now), allow me to summarize: all the characters in this book are ninnies, or as Kemper puts it:
Almost the entire book is their inner dialogues which consist solely of fretting about stupid trivial crap, wild speculation that turns out to be completely wrong and repeatedly asking, “Oh, when will the retrieval team arrive?”
You’d think that time travelers should be hardy adventurers with the ability to improvise and adapt to problems. These dumbasses can’t complete the simplest of tasks without it becoming a story of epic proportions.
I couldn't agree more. Leaving aside the government-inquiry-level incompetence of the Oxford time travelling history department (or whatever it's called), which apparently can't be bothered to send historians to the past with the proper preparation, none of the three main characters accomplish anything in Blackout. They complain about the retrieval team not showing up and they lie to each other and keep secrets to avoid "worrying" each other unnecessarily. Seriously? The three of you are time travellers stuck in 1940, and you don't come clean in your very first conversation, say, "I have a deadline; I was here at V-E day and can't cross my own timeline" (Polly)? You know that is only going to lead to trouble, but you do it anyway! I know you guys are only human, and you're flawed and whatnot, but there should be some sort of mandatory certification test for time travel.
But no, Mike, Polly, and Eileen spend the rest of Blackout working "together" even as they work a bit at cross-purposes. This leads to all sorts of close misses and coincidences, the type of events that are funny the first time it happens and then just repetitive each time thereafter. The same goes for their rationalizations as to why the retrieval team hasn't arrived. The only explanation that makes sense in their current theory of time travel is that the "slippage" has increased. Slippage is a phenomenon whereby the time-travel net does not send someone to the precise time and location intended. Instead, for some reason, the net "slips" in space or time (but usually not both), and theorists reason this is the universe's way of preventing historians from protecting "divergence points" and preventing passersby from observing the visual manifestation of the historian and his or her drop. Slippage is a safety mechanism, then, of the universe, and time travellers shouldn't be able to alter the past. Willis leaves us wondering if this interpretation is true, or if there is something else happening, and I admit I want to know the answer. Of course, I am writing this from a future when I am already halfway through All Clear, and so far that entire book seems unnecessary. But that's another review….
Find out the stunning conclusion to the review begun here!
I really like the feed icon. It's simple, clean, and easy to recognize. I love it so much that when Mozilla decided to remove it from the location barI really like the feed icon. It's simple, clean, and easy to recognize. I love it so much that when Mozilla decided to remove it from the location bar in Firefox 4, I installed an extension just to get it back. It's awesome, and what it represents is awesome. The idea that anyone with an Internet connection (which is not as many people as we're wont to think) can report on the news is definitely a paradigm shift in how we disseminate information. Just as I'm sceptical that ebooks are going to somehow "kill" the printed book, I'm not joining those who predict blogging will result in journalists and newspapers and "traditional media" going extinct. However, it's also shortsighted to think that nothing is going to change, that blogging and bloggers are just a fad.
In Feed, it's the 2040 American Presidental Election, and Georgia and Shaun Mason are sibling bloggers. Together with their techie, Buffy, they are selected to follow Senator Paul Ryman on the campaign trail. Except that someone keeps trying to kill them. Oh, and there are zombies.
Zombie stories, especially zombie movies, start at something of a disadvantage, I feel. So many of them are essentially the same: take a small group of people, drop them into an urban situation with a horde of walking dead, and watch them fight the zombies and each other as they struggle to survive and deal with the moral implications of shooting those who get bitten. Zombies aren't like spaceships: most stories that feature spaceships don't spend a lot of time remarking that there are spaceships; the spaceships are just there. Since when did that happen with a zombie story? It occasionally happens in urban fantasy series when zombies are part of a larger taxonomy of mythological creatures, but otherwise a "zombie story" is almost always about zombies and about survival. So to succeed, one needs that dose of originality: the zombies have to be different (TVTropes alert), or the plot can't be just about staying alive.
Mira Grant tries to do both here, and she succeeds marvellously at the former but not so much at the latter. I love Grant's zombies, and the reason behind the zombie apocalypse. In a spin on the "you get bitten, you become a zombie" story, Grant adds another stake: everyone is infected with a dormant form of the virus that causes reanimation. So any death results in a fresh zombie, while being bitten activates the virus even if one doesn't die from the wound. Since the transformation isn't instantaneous, either, one might go into "amplification" and become a zombie before other people realize it. As a result, characters in the novel are constantly testing themselves and each other for infection. Society has become paranoid and obsessed with security, both security from zombie attacks and security from those who might be infected and not even know it. Oh, and the virus? Mutated strain of two viruses designed to cure cancer and the common cold, respectively. Yeah.
Feed is, despite what some might claim, still about zombies. Nevertheless, Grant manages to tear herself away from the "OMG zombies, run like hell" plot and attempt to bake an entire political thriller, complete with a conspiracy, hired snipers, and tragedy for our protagonists. Zombies play a major role in the story, from the constant paranoia that one might be in amplification to the precautions one must take every night before going to bed, and they form the backdrop for the political atmosphere in the United States of 2040. And Grant credits the zombie Rising as the primary reason bloggers are now the pre-eminent source of news, with "traditional media" taking a distant second: apparently, bloggers were the first to take reports of zombie attacks seriously and start disseminating the scarily-accurate information provided by classic Romero films. (Finally, a zombie story where people have seen zombie movies!) (TVTropes alert) Georgia, Shaun, and Buffy each belong to a different caste of blogger: Georgia is a Newsie, so she reports the facts with as little editorializing as possible; Shaun is an Irwin, so he pokes zombies with a stick for the thrills and danger of it all; Buffy is a Fictional, so she writes stories and poems and whatnot inspired by the news. Grant has certainly imagined an interesting direction for the blogger–journalism détente to take, assuming the zombies Rise on schedule.
As much as I enjoy Grant's imagining of a blogger-dominated future, I can't help but question the accuracy of her divergence from the present. Sure, bloggers haven't quite trounced "traditional media". But they are not as ignored as Grant seems to be asserting. I'm not sure if any of the presidential candidates took bloggers along with them on the trail in 2008, but I think that's beside the point. The whole point of blogging is that it's decentralized and, very often, unauthorized. I don't begrudge Grant's idea of bloggers following a candidate at his or her behest, but it certainly doesn't seem as revolutionary as she tries to portray it.
Georgia and Shaun are knowledgeable about zombies, but their political credentials seem spotty at best. Georgia is an advocate for Mason's Law, which essentially bans having animals as housepets if they are over 40 pounds in weight (as this is how massive an animal needs to be to turn into a zombie). Aside from that and a few other zombie-related matters of policy, Grant glosses over the political parts of the politics. Instead we hear a lot about how Senator Ryman seems like a nice, honest man, while his two major opponents in the Republican primary are a militant right-wing crazy and a would-be porn star, respectively. In fact, aside from Georgia and Shaun (and maybe Buffy and Emily Ryman), the characterization in Feed is bizarre. Governor Tate feels like a caricature. And why make the only female candidate mentioned into a woman who uses her plastic-surgery-enhanced body to solicit votes by wearing revealing clothing? (And why call her, of all things, Wagman?) If only Grant had as much time on the research and the depth of her politics and political candidates as she did on her virology and zombie lore, then I could call Feed something more than a zombie novel.
(NB: Speaking of research, I feel obligated to point out a factual error that I, being the credulous person that I am, took at face value. At one point Georgia claims that Ireland doesn't have (and has never had) an extradition treaty with the United States. This is not the case. Kudos to Oliver and his review for alerting me to this.)
Too much of Feed consists of exposition or repetitive scenes that are supposed to emphasize how much society has changed. I'm willing to give the exposition a more generous pass than I might do for another book; I realize that, as bloggers, Georgia and Shaun are expected to be somewhat more verbose than one's average narrator. Also, the exposition is heavy but still good, and like I mentioned before, Grant's zombie world really is interesting. I just wish it didn't get so repetitive: Georgia spends too many scenes analyzing the structural security of each building she visits. And the blood tests—oh, the blood tests. They have to test themselves almost every single time they open a door, and every time a military representative gets involved, suddenly it's a big deal that Georgia wears sunglasses and has an "active form" of the zombie virus in her eyes. I love the veracity that Grant adds to the story by describing the various testing procedures necessary in the post-Rising world. Yet the frequency of those descriptions robs Feed of some of the fire and urgency it acquires from Grant's fluid writing and Georgia's excellent voice.
Feed starts slow for me—after a nice action sequence as an opening, we get stranded in suburbia for several chapters, meet the parents, learn more about Georgia and Shaun, etc. I enjoyed the experience, but for the longest time I didn't feel that the story was going anywhere, not even after Georgia and Shaun started following Ryman's campaign. Feed only really kicks into high gear in the last act, when Georgia and Shaun become direct targets of the antagonists, whose identities are still unknown at that time. Suddenly, what was a mystery becomes a thriller and a race against time, and Grant starts killing off some important characters and threatening to kill still more. And although I'd quibble about the resolution itself, the emotional significance of the ending is unquestionable and masterful.
I kind of feel like Feed got bitten by a zombie book and has become a reanimated corpse of itself. This is, alas, one of those cases where the book undermines its own good qualities. There's plenty to enjoy about this book: Georgia and Shaun are fun characters, and as one might expect from fun, zombie-killing characters, there's lots of great dialogue married to tense moments of action—and decision. Yet getting to those moments often feels like a lot of work, and not the fun "this book is making me think about issues" type of work. Feed is worth reading if only for where it finally takes us with its ending—at least, I liked the ending enough that I'm most likely going to read the sequel—but it hasn't really changed my stance on zombies, bloggers, or zombie bloggers.
My Reviews of the Newsflesh series: Deadline → (forthcoming)
Living in space is hard. Like, really hard. Like, super almost-impossibly-crazy-stupid hard. Leviathan Wakes has some great moments that illustrate thLiving in space is hard. Like, really hard. Like, super almost-impossibly-crazy-stupid hard. Leviathan Wakes has some great moments that illustrate the various hazards of living in space, and it underscores the importance of Earth’s continued existence to the otherwise estranged colonies and stations. Yet even it has a fairly optimistic outlook on our ability to harness the solar system for our needs. Containment, on the other hand, makes even starting up a colony on Venus an issue. Christian Cantrell goes for brutal realism when it comes to some of the challenges facing the Venusian colonists, even if he is somewhat less realistic in the technology and plot of this story.
I found the technology in Containment somewhat paradoxical. They have quantum computers and nuclear fusion, but they still can’t communicate reliably with Earth? (There are other reasons for this, of course, but I won’t get into that.) And why does it take until someone like Arik comes along to develop artificial photosynthesis by using evolutionary algorithms? We already do that in robotics; why wouldn’t someone think to do that in biology?
I can set those nits aside, though. It’s clear Cantrell has done the research regarding trying to survive in an environment like that present on the surface of Venus. He has plenty of cool science-fictional ideas, ranging from genetic engineering to robotics and cybernetics. In many respects, Gen V reminds me of the Supers from Nancy Kress’ Beggars and Choosers—so advanced they leave their progenitors in the dust. But Containment isn’t a book about the complications surrounding genetic engineering, or even a book about the challenges facing our society in the future. The society of Earth in Containment is practically non-existent. As Arik works on solving the mystery he discovers after recovering from a near-fatal accident, he stumbles across a secret bigger than he would ever have imagined. Cantrell pulls an M. Night Shyamalan (literally) and turns our frame of reference on its head.
This twist should have been just another OMG moment in an already compelling story—except it wasn’t. As much as Containment is a clever vision that mixes environmental catastrophes with solar system colonization, Cantrell’s writing drags the story back down into mediocrity. His offense is one of the most mundane: telling rather than showing. In between chapters set in the present and flashbacks to the past, there are chapters consisting solely of infodumps about the colony and its history. Infodumps have their place in any story, and especially in science fiction, but there are classy infodumps with their own rooms and curtains that cover the window, and then there are the cheap, trashy infodumps that proposition you on a street corner while you drive by. Containment’s infodumps are, sadly, of the latter variety: very plain, by the book, and with all-too-little sex appeal. They read like something straight out of the backgrounder wiki or bible that writers often prepare for themselves prior to writing a story. Thus, while the infodumps unquestionably contain cool ideas and tantalizing visions of the future, they quench any momentum the story has developed and bring the plot to a grinding halt.
Showing cedes the floor to telling elsewhere in the book too. Rather than demonstrate Arik’s feelings towards others, the narrator often resorts to explaining, in detail, Arik’s thought process. As with exposition, a little of this is fine and probably even necessary. However, Containment spends more time in Arik’s head or in the exposi-space in between than it does in action sequences or intense exchanges of dialogue. The conflict between characters here is watered-down and B-movie in its delivery: the minor characters like Cadie and Cam are either wooden or one-note in their stock reactions to everything.
I loved the twist around which Containment pivots, and the mystery leading up to the reveal. It’s dramatic and believable, changing the direction of Cantrell’s plot and themes entirely will preserving a great deal of ground he has already laid. Arik’s solution is innovative and exciting, so there’s little reason for this book to be unsatisfying—except, alas, the writing. I just had a hard time enjoying the book, enjoying reading it. The ideas here are assembled nicely, but the work as a whole lacks the polish to make it truly shine. Containment is science fiction where that fusion between science and fiction hasn’t quite taken hold—plenty of both, but not quite in the right proportions.
Few authors have won my heart as quickly as Nancy Kress. Two years ago, I had never heard of her. Suddenly I have seven of her books on my shelf, onlyFew authors have won my heart as quickly as Nancy Kress. Two years ago, I had never heard of her. Suddenly I have seven of her books on my shelf, only one of which I've read. Like Octavia E. Butler does in Lilith's Brood, Nancy Kress uses genetic engineering to comment on what we consider human. With Nothing Human, Kress looks at humanity through posthuman eyes, asking where we draw the line between human and inhuman—when we can cut down the chromosomal level, what criteria are we using to decide what is human and what isn't?
"Act One" is set even closer to the present day. An actor is preparing for her role in a movie about "Arlen's children," girls who have been genetically engineered at birth to be more empathic. The novella opens with the actor and her achondroplastic manager (our narrator) meeting with representatives of the Group, a radical organization that advocates genetic engineering by any and all means. Jane Snow just wants to be prepared for her role, but she finds herself an unwitting participant in an act of bioterrorism.
Engineering children to be more empathic seems innocuous, right? Or, as Jane's manager, Barry, puts it: "Prospective clients loved the promise of kids who actually understood how parents felt." As creepy children Bridget and Belinda Barrington demonstrate, however, super-empathy is not all it's cracked up to be. Nurture is as important as nature, and from Belinda's sociopathic behaviour it's clear that her super-empathy does not mitigate her spoilt, emotionally-distant relationship with her mother.
The Arlen's Syndrome children plot, while central to the story, did not affect me as much as Barry's relationship with Jane and his relationship with his ex-wife, Leila, and his son, Ethan. As a dwarf, Barry knows his share of genetic woes. He is the product of a genetic disorder, a mutation that, while not a disease, carries its share of disadvantages and drawbacks, both physiological and social. When genetic screening indicates his unborn son will not be a dwarf, Barry decides to use genetic engineering to change this. But
something went wrong. The retrovirus that was the delivery vector mutated, or the splicing caused other genes to jump (they will do that, or maybe God just wanted an evil joke that day. The soma-gene correction spawned side effects, with one gene turning on another that in turn affected another, a cascade of creation run amok. And we got Ethan.
Barry and Leila fall out, and Barry meets Ethan for the first time when he is forced to flee with Jane and the Barringtons to his mountain-side cabin. Ethan's reaction is . . . less than warm, at first. But soon we see there is a glimmer of hope.
Children . . . such enigmas, such complicated bundles of information. Intrinsically innocent, yet blatant reminders of past mistakes or triumphs. And that is the point: when we dabble in our genes, we dabble in the future of our species. We are changing our children, arguably our most precious assets. It behoves us to think long and hard about any such changes before we make them.
Barry is also hopelessly in love with Jane. Jane knows this, but it's an unbroached topic between them—at least, until Belinda broaches it:
Something unnamed could, just barely, be ignored. Could be kept out of daily interaction, could almost be pretended away. What had been "given words" could not.
Jane's serial marriages to very attractive men combined with Barry's dwarfism, not to mention their professional relationship, seems to make anything more than friendship impossible. It's more than that, of course. As Belinda points out, Jane recoils from Barry's accidental touch:
It wasn’t the words Belinda had said. Yes, I loved Jane and yes, that love was hopeless. I already knew that and so must Jane. How could she not? I was with her nearly every day; she was a woman sensitive to nuance. I knew she hated my accidental touch, and hated herself for that, and could help none of it.
On a visceral level Jane's body rebels and displays a bigotry that disgusts her. As enlightened as we like to think we are, sometimes our involuntary reactions bely that and surprise us. I'll admit to having such reactions before.
And so Kress explores not only the consequences of genetic engineering but the motives as well. She goes deeper than the stock reasons of eliminating disease or, for those of a sinister bent, breeding a master race. To some extent, those visceral reactions we find so shameful make us human, and they contribute to our desire to give our children better futures.
Although genetic engineering is in its infancy (no pun intended), it is real. We have sequenced the human genome, and we can screen for genetic disorders. Gene therapy is a reality. It is only a matter of time before we are able to choose the sex of our children, and from there, even more complex traits. With the shadow of World War II looming over the last century, and the spectre of biological determinism always waiting in the wings, there is no area of science for which the phrase "playing God" is more apt. Our ability to alter individuals and our species at the most fundamental level raises hard questions for which there are no easy answers. Kress and other authors like her are using science fiction to show us thought experiments, potentialities inherent in our future capabilities. "Act One" is a powerful reminder that advancements in science and technology bring with them challenges to morality and ethics that must not be ignored. This is, as the title of Kress' novella says, only the beginning of the show.
I have a confession (my reviews often start with confessions because reviews are as much about the reviewer as they are about the book): I don't muchI have a confession (my reviews often start with confessions because reviews are as much about the reviewer as they are about the book): I don't much like monster movies. Unlike many film buffs, I do not revel in the campiness of 1940s and 1950s costuming; I do not drool over stop-motion animation or long for the good-old days when the monster was some guy in a suit, not a tennis ball married to a motion-capture unit. Boris Karloff film festivals hold no magic for me. Whether it's Frankenstein's monster or Dracula, this area of speculative fiction has never gripped me as much as, say, space opera.
So I approached Shambling Towards Hiroshima with some scepticism. Could a story so steeped in this subculture hold my interest? The narrator, Syms J. Thorley, is a has-been monster movie actor recounting his involvement in the New Amsterdam Project, also known as the Knickerbocker Project. As an alternative to the Manhattan Project, the Navy and a biologist bred giant fire-breathing lizards that could be towed to the shore of Japan by submarine and unleashed to wreak devastation on the island nation. But they needed a scale-model monster to destroy their scale-model of Japan in front of representatives of the Japanese government. Enter Thorley, professional monster man.
The only real science fiction in this book is its premise. While essential to the plot, it never steals the stage from Thorley's voice as a harried old man or his story about balancing his movie obligations with his duty to his country. At first, the idea that the Navy might be breeding Godzilla-like monsters to defeat Japan may sound outrageous to a reader—it did to me! Then I stopped and considered what the public must have thought in the aftermath of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "Atom bomb" sounds like something out of science fiction—indeed, until the Manhattan Project reified it, it was something out of science fiction. Yet nuclear weapons, while not commonplace (thankfully) like toasters or computers are a matter of common parlance, part of our technological canon, if you will. If we can harness the power of nuclear fission for destructive purposes, surely breeding fire-breathing lizards is not that crazy.
And what about duping the Japanese with a guy in a suit? Well, that is just one of the many levels of satire in which James Morrow engages. In a commentary on both the United States military and the Hollywood film industry, Morrow looks at the relationship film has with deception. The government is no stranger to deception as a negotiating tactic. When they need to deceive the Japanese delegation about the veracity of their scaled-down monster, it makes perfect sense to turn to a professional industry practised in such deception. With the proper costuming, lighting, and acting, anything is possible in the movie industry.
Shambling Towards Hiroshima is rife with satire of the movie industry; much of it, owing to my unfamiliarity with 1940s American cinema, went over my head. I knew enough to gather that James Whale and Willis O'Brien, hired to direct Thorley's performance and manage special effects, respectively, were real people in the movie industry. Morrow gives Thorley an over-the-top rival, who also plays a somewhat antagonistic role in both Thorley's life and the plot. Siegfried Dagover is enjoyable because he is a caricature of the jealous actor rather than despite this fact. Similarly, the rough characters of Thorley's director and producer on his movie project hearken back to the coarser era of American cinema. By no means do I subscribe to a view that American cinema was ever "innocent", but this was an era where radio was still the dominant communications medium. The cult of celebrity around movie actors, especially those who specialized in the monster movie industry, manifested differently than it does today. Morrow displays the differences, both celebrates them and mocks them, as is evident from Thorley and Darlene's interrupted adventures on Santa Monica beach with Thorley's monster costume. . . .
Moving further into meta-fictional territory, Morrow comments on the monster movie form itself. He (ironically, I think) has Thorley insist that, "the writers repeatedly employed a conceit that, in retrospect, seems to strike a blow for feminism." The necessity for a romantic interest for the male protagonist would often lead to his association with a lonely female scientist. Lo and behold, the biologists working on the Knickerbocker Project are Dr. Ivan Groelish and his daughter, Joy. Joy's relationship with Thorley is more short-lived and platonic than it is romantic, but it's clear Morrow is not aiming for a one-to-one correspondence. In fact, the biologists play a surprisingly small role considering the monstrous premise—again, because this is a story about Thorley and his role in a deception that failed to end a war, not a story about monsters invading Japan.
Any satire spared the monster movie industry Morrow saves for the United States military. Admirals Yordan and Strickland, like Dagover, are caricatures of stereotypes. And because everything about Shambling Towards Hiroshima is a caricature of a stereotype, that works. Yordan acts like an atheist attached to a religious event, forced to oversee a project he doesn't understand implemented by people who, not being military personnel, he does not trust. Of course, the situation is not helped by Thorley's irreverent attitude.
Like all satire, however, Shambling Toward Hiroshima has a serious point, embodied by the frame story. Thorley has eleventh hour encounters with a sympathetic hooker, a friendly hotel steward, and a fan stuck in a costume model after Thorley's famous monster. These characters serve as windows into the mind of the older, more experienced Syms Thorley, one haunted by his role in the war. More than just a failure to end the war, Thorley's mere involvement in the war has rendered the rest of his life in a darker shade of grey. He's continued to shuffle as a mummy, to howl as a werewolf . . . but that profession that he loved so much has been tainted for him. And all the awards and accolades that he has accumulated, the money and the cult recognition, if not fame, is a hollow victory compared to what could have been.
War is hell. This a theme oft-repeated, and to do something truly innovative with it is a formidable challenge for a writer. Simlarly, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are some of the most controversial events of the twentieth century, events that marked the beginning of the "Atomic Age" of humanity, and all the good and ill it would bring. I suppose it is possible to interpret this book as a pro-bomb statement. Simply read, this is a story of the military trying to persuade Japan to surrender through a mock demonstration of a superweapon. If that were the case, however, why not write about a mock demonstration of the atomic bomb? Instead Morrow chose to portray a fictitious alternative to the Manhattan Project. In doing so, he decouples the nearly indelible link between the mechanics of the atomic superweapon and the morality.
More than just a story about dropping the bomb, Shambling Towards Hiroshima is a story about the mindset of those working so hard to end the war. It's all there in the title, which is so perfect. "Shambling" is reminiscent of zombies—but, more topically, it refers to all the various monsters of the 1940s cinema. It also conjures the image of an inexorable but by no means smooth path toward the dropping of the atomic bomb, a weighty spectre of fate. Morrow gave me, someone who has no context for Hiroshima, an idea of the zeitgeist of 1940s America. As the war in the Pacific drew ever on, the prospect of ending it with one fell swoop grew ever more appealing. Each successive event compounded on the last, making the deployment of the bomb more likely. And so the world lurched and shambled, one step at a time, toward the beginning of the Atomic Age.
Corporations are legally people—how long before they become nation-states? Some of them own islands, or indeed, virtually entire countries. I’m not asCorporations are legally people—how long before they become nation-states? Some of them own islands, or indeed, virtually entire countries. I’m not as pessimistic as some about our short-term survival odds in the coming century. Sure, we have problems, but we’ll muddle through—somehow. Yet if I had to pick which chilling dystopian vision of the future I feel is most likely, the corporations-own-us-all future is the one I’d choose. It’s feudalism all over again, baby—party like it’s 1214. Corporations wield increasing influence over our democratic processes. Governments, either through fear of losing big donors come election time or simple greed and corruption, are increasingly unwilling to stand up to behaviours and business practices that are counterproductive and dangerous in the long run. And so it goes.
This train of thought has become more prominent of late thanks to protests like the Occupy Wall Street movement. And I’m glad for it, because there’s a sense of complacency in some developed countries. We evangelize democracy in Africa, the Middle East, and southeast Asia … but when it comes to our own internal affairs, we turn a blind eye to the abuses of power politicians and corporations commit. We are unwilling to admit that ours is a hollow democracy, a frayed and decaying process. We have freedoms—but for how long?
One striking feature of Moxyland is that, while it picks up the corporate dystopian visions of its cyberpunk predecessors, it does so not in Canada, or the United States, or the UK, or even Japan. No, it’s set in South Africa. Its characters are artists and criminals, freelance bloggers and refugees, corporate citizens and self-proclaimed freedom fighters. The people in this book aren’t politicians, CEOs, or even protestors in the usual sense. And this isn’t about Wall Street, the 2008 meltdown, corporate lobbies on Capitol Hill, or News of the World. Lauren Beukes challenges us to look up from our Westernized tunnel vision of the world’s problems and consider that other countries are struggling with the same issues.
It’s notable that the only manifestation of governance we see in Moxyland is the police service. (And it isn’t clear whether they are publicly-run or outsourced to a corporate outfit.) The corporations are, if not in principle, then in practice the law. One of my favourite parts of the book happens early on, when Lerato is detained going through customs because someone reported her suspicious cough. She waves her shiny corporate ID and receives obsequious apologies, and as she walks away, she mutters that corporations should just go ahead and issue passports, make it official. After all, Lerato’s employer already assigns her roommate and pre-approves her dating pool. Why not go ahead and become a full citizen of the corporation?
Instead of the big picture, bird’s eye view of the world, Beukes takes onto the streets. We see everything from the level of the pawns of this game. Toby is the observer, somewhat above everything—but also inextricably involved, much to his dismay. Tendeka is the hot-headed idealist whose partner tries, very hard, to provide the balanced opinions he needs. Kendra is the artist in love with her anachronisms, using them to take refuge from a nihilistic worldview that threatens to swallow her up. And Lerato is the antihero, the corporate sympathizer—at least she admits she’s biased—who nevertheless has the kind of console cowboy flair that makes her an attractive character.
Truth be told, there is little to like about any of these characters. I can sympathize with their problems but not with their attitudes. Some of them, like Toby and, to some extent, Lerato, are fatalistic in their approach to the world: life sucks, corporations rule, deal with it. They do what they can to get their thrills. Kendra, on the other hand, is spinning her wheels. She’s trapped in a dead-end relationship and allows herself to get talked into a sponsorship deal she never really wanted. Her story, in my opinion, is the most tragic of all, and if any of the characters were my favourite, it would be her.
Its characters might not be likable, but they are diverse and richly portrayed. Like her world, Beukes spends considerable effort developing perspectives to deliver her story. Unfortunately, Moxyland falters in its execution of plot. It demonstrates that plot is more than a sequence of events; in this book, one thing happens after another, but there’s a distinct lack of any sense of causality. These characters seem to go stumbling around from one problem to the next with little motivation—they react, rather than act. The grand conspiracy at the end, while clever, is somewhat trite and not all that satisfying.
Moxyland is pregnant with possibility, but it never quite manages to realize much. I like its depiction of the corporate dystopia. Beukes’ extrapolation of current technologies—and how we use them—is modest in a very effective way. But a setting can only take a story so far, and Moxyland is adrift without a plot. Good books can be entertaining or thought-provoking—great books have to be both.
Identity is a very fragile and ephemeral concept, and the philosophy surrounding identity fascinates me. If, in the immortal words of Ke$ha, “we R whoIdentity is a very fragile and ephemeral concept, and the philosophy surrounding identity fascinates me. If, in the immortal words of Ke$ha, “we R who we R”, then who we are differs depending upon whether we are alone or with people, with friends or with enemies (or, if you are Ke$ha, with frenemies). We perform identity, wearing it like a costume. But it’s not something we entirely control. Identity is not so much a costume as it is a negotation between two entities, for part of my identity is not just what I seem to be but how others see me and interact with me.
Now imagine that with a sloth clinging to your back as an external manifestation of your complicity in someone’s death, and you have Zoo City.
Lauren Beukes returns to Johannesburg, South Africa in her second novel, but it’s not the same city. Instead of a tour of a corporate-dominated near future, Beukes spins a bit of alternate history our way. Magic is real, albeit not as potent as some people might like, and it’s never more obvious but with the zoos, animalled, or—if you are feeling polite and politically correct, the aposymbiotic. People who are guilty of another person’s death—i.e., murderers—become spiritually attached to an animal. They can’t stray too far from the animal without suffering great pain. And if the animal dies, they are consumed by a cloud known as the Undertow. The animalled, or apos, are thus identified as murderers beyond the shadow of any doubt, and are treated like outcasts.
Zinzi, our intrepid narrator, has a Sloth. It could be worse—at least she doesn’t have a carnivore, which I think would be more of a burden—but a Sloth is kind of a handful to carry around at times. Beukes implies that Zinzi’s complicity is not entirely with malice, thus establishing our otherwise downtrodden and morally ambiguous protagonist as someone who is, if not righteous, capable and worthy of redemption. Zinzi struggles to earn a living using her shavi—if you get an animal, you also get a minor superpower to go with it. Zinzi can find lost things, so that’s how she makes most of her money. In her downtime, she reluctantly composes new email scams for a company to whom she owes quite a bit of money. She gets involved with some even more unsavoury characters, like you tend to do, and that’s where the story becomes interesting.
From thereon out, Zoo City becomes a spiralling descent into the dank madness of a divided city. Beukes’ economy of exposition and keen ear for dialogue and characterization are an asset here. I found this Johannesburg and this cast far more bearable and likable than Moxyland’s. I could sympathize with Zinzi’s plight and genuinely wanted her to succeed, cheering for her resourceful resilience and sighing whenever she suffered a setback. The plot is of the type that doubles back and folds up on itself several times over, which is not to say that it is too complex, but Beukes has skillfully tangled the various threads.
On the one hand, this is a missing person mystery, with Zinzi in the role of lead private investigator. It has all the hallmark archetypes prowling its pages: the shadowy kingpin who both hires Zinzi and poses her a threat; his nefarious henchmen who are Zinzi’s untrustworthy allies; the love interest, whose relationship with Zinzi is far from one-dimensional; and so on. On the other hand, Beukes explores some of the ramifications of her magic and what it means to have an animal. In particular, the book takes a very sharp turn towards the end, after the mystery part is largely resolved, and Zinzi finds herself on the run for a crime she hasn’t committed.
The twin motifs of guilt and innocence are huge here in Zoo City, for they compound that problem of identity that Zinzi and every other person with an animal feels. Nowhere does Beukes so clearly portray this as with Zinzi’s sometime-boyfriend Benoit. He has a Mongoose, and eventually we learn how he got it—the action of a terrified nineteen-year-old in genocidal Rwanda. Like Zinzi, he bears an external marker of his guilt—but does that make him a bad person? Benoit discovers his wife and children might still be alive in a refugee camp outside of South Africa, so he resolves to leave Zinzi and find them. Not only does this alter their relationship irrevoccably, it sets up an ending that is both poignant and nearly perfect.
As I mentioned earlier, Zoo City takes a sharp turn two thirds through. Just as it seems that the plot is winding down, Zinzi stumbles on to a larger game as people try to get rid of their animals (without dying themselves) in a particularly gruesome and costly manner. I’m not a fan of this transition, because it felt jarring. Beukes puts enough foreshadowing earlier in the book that this additional story element doesn’t seem entirely out of place. But I wish it had been developed more gradually instead of suddenly exploding into the foreground in the last part of the book.
Nevertheless, Beukes make up for it in the ending. I love the ending. It’s quite possibly the only way Beukes could have ended the book in a manner that is happy yet costly for Zinzi, which is exactly the balance she needed to strike. For Zinzi to escape these events completely unscathed would have been unrealistic and thematically unsatisfactory: after all, Zinzi still has to redeem herself for her actions as a scammer. Yet she is, I remain convinced, a good person who deserves that chance—and a chance is exactly what Beukes gives her. At great personal cost and with no promise of success, Zinzi sets out to fill in for someone else, just as that person made a regular habit of filling in for another.
Because it all comes back to identity. We aren’t who we think we are; we are our actions. This is the truth Beukes exposes through Zinzi’s voice and decisions. Despite all the prejudice and hardship Zinzi endures as an impoverished, animalled Black person in South Africa, she realizes that there is one thing no one else can determine about her life: what she does. Other people might judge her and construct their own versions of an identity for her, but that can never rob her of her ability to act on her own beliefs and convictions. In Zoo City, Beukes hands us a protagonist with blood on her hands and a Sloth on her back, and in so doing she tells a story about a woman who reclaims her freedom to be who she wants, not who others expect her to be.
Whole brain emulation and mind uploading are science-fiction concepts that I love, because they raise really complicated questions related to philosopWhole brain emulation and mind uploading are science-fiction concepts that I love, because they raise really complicated questions related to philosophy of mind, a particular field in philosophy that I find very fascinating. Moreover, it’s scary how close we might be to achieving these in real life. Some critics have made very compelling cases for why this isn’t possible—but no one has been able to prove it, one way or another. Where scientists cannot yet go, science-fiction authors can speculate and explore the ramifications of this type of technology. Richard K. Morgan uses it to good effect in Altered Carbon. Joss Whedon did it really well in the tragically short-lived Dollhouse series. In the sixth episode, “Man on the Street”, short interview-style clips of people commenting on the dollhouse-as-urban-legend are interspersed throughout the main story. The very last interviewee says:
If that technology exists—it’ll be used. It’ll be abused. It’ll be global. And we will be over. As a species. We will cease to matter. I don’t know, maybe we should.
Chills run down my spine whenever I recall this quotation. It emphasizes the Pandora’s Box that our technological advances continue to be. The atomic bomb was perhaps the first such advance, and it won’t be the last. If we develop the ability to alter our memories and identities in such a fundamental way, and someone decides that it will be profitable to do it to people against their will, then we are done.
Sadly, both Whedon and Matt Forbeck paint a realistic picture of how this might happen. Whereas Whedon is more concerned with exploring several questions related to identity, autonomy, and self-determination, Forbeck focuses on just one: what happens when mind-uploading, combined with cloning, allows for immortality? His answer is a United States ruled by an oligarchy of amortals, the richest of the rich who can afford the exorbitant price to have their minds backed up and loaded into a clone whenever their current body dies. The protagonist of Amortals, Ronan Dooley, is an everyman who finds himself an amortal because he was the first, the prototype, a Secret Service agent saved from the bullet he took for the President thanks to the Amortals Project.
In this near-future America, there are groups and movements who do not think the amortals are people. Rather, they are copies of people. Is this Ronan really the same as the original Ronan, or is it just a copy of his mind? If I upload my brain to a computer and run it on the computer, are there two of me? Which one is more “real”? This is a question philosophers of mind like Daniel Dennett have considered for a while now, and it’s definitely something that will come to a crisis if mind uploading ever becomes a reality. For what it’s worth, I’m not sure where I stand on the matter.
On one hand, I do not believe in any kind of immortal soul or Cartesian duality: to me, the brain and the mind are a single thing. So it’s true that a copy of my brain is going to be a copy, but if it’s a perfect copy, then it’s still me. If there is no difference, no way to distinguish between the two (except that one of them might be in a box instead of a body), then how can I say one is more “me” than the other?
On the other hand, I read some articles by N. Katherine Hayles when taking Philosophy of the Internet course last year, and she has some very convincing arguments in favour of an embodied perspective—that consciousness as a phenomenon is heavily linked to being embodied. And even if I am correct and there is no such thing as an immortal soul, I still feel like there is still an issue of continuity. If I’m Ben I and I meet an untimely end in an unlikely accident involving reading and a particle accelerator, and Ben II gets activated from a backup I made the week before … Ben II is me, because he has my memories, but the particular instance of me who was Ben I is gone forever. Ben I won’t know or care about this, because he will be dead and in my scenario there is no life after death—and Ben II won’t care, because as far as he sees it, he’s just like Ben I. So it creeps me and reassures me at the exact same time, if that makes any kind of sense. And if it doesn’t, then I suppose this demonstrates just how confusing this whole matter can be!
Forbeck doesn’t quite go into the matter of identities to the extent I, as a philosophy geek, might have loved. But I’m not going to fault him for that. Instead, he chooses to focus on the social and political consequences of this ammortality and the existence of the amortal class. Ronan Dooley is amortal, but it’s as a result of his continued membership in the Secret Service. He isn’t rich enough to afford ammortality himself (this becomes a plot point at least twice), so he is an outsider. Not only are we supposed to identify with him, but he becomes a credible lens through which we can critique the institution of amortality.
Though Forbeck discusses in his afterword how the idea for Amortals goes back to the nineties, this book has an extremely current feel to it. In particular, a lot of the critique that Forbeck levels at the United States government and at amortals sounds like the discontent that has found a voice in the Occupy Wall Street movement. There is a perception, which I happen to share, that the much-vaunted democracy of the United States (and to a lesser extent, similar nations like Canada and those in the EU), has become a plutocracy, with power concentrated in the hands of the super-rich and corporations (who are, in many ways, interconnected and almost indistinguishable). Whether this perception is accurate is debatable, but Forbeck indulges in a cynical what if? game to show us what the United States could become.
After all, once the rich have the ability to live forever by cloning new bodies and downloading all their memories, why bother curing diseases like AIDS or malaria? These tend to affect the poor, huddled masses. Why bother providing health care at all? So Forbeck’s vision of Washington, D.C. is a city that has slowly begun to collapse under the weight of an under-maintained infrastructure and a neglected population. We’re given to understand that this is true for the United States in general. One quibble I have with Forbeck is the implication that amortality has slowed the pace of technological innovation as a whole. Unless he’s implying that this is a deliberate conspiracy to prevent innovations that could grant the masses more freedom (an implication that I don’t see), then I don’t see how this follows.
Plus, there’s the fact that being the only amortal in a family just sucks. Ronan is turning 200 as the book begins (the White House throws him a birthday celebration the same night as he was downloaded into his latest body). He’s survived his wife and five generations of descendants. Ronan Dooley V and his son, Ronan Dooley VI (whom we call Five and Six for short), are still alive, but for the first part of the book they remain estranged from our Ronan, who has let ties lapse. Being amortal among people who cannot afford amortality is much like being an immortal among mortals: doomed to watch those you care about grow old and die, even as those who replace them come to see you either as a legend or a relic—or both. Ronan is lonely in so many ways. He’s isolated. And he’s armed. So he’s not just dangerous—he’s dangerous with a helping of basket case waiting in the wings.
I suppose I should eventually review the story instead of rambling on about how fascinating mind uploading is. This time Ronan wakes up to find out that he didn’t die saving the President from an assassin—someone murdered him and posted the video online. So he has to solve his own murder, because it’s bad publicity, but as a result of his laxity with making backups, he has lost the last six months of his memories. This hinders the investigation. You know what else hinders the investigation? People trying to kill him again. Or his partner.
As a thriller, Amortals is unquestionably well-paced and exciting. Forbeck knows how to keep the reader engaged. The key is not to avoid dull moments, because lulls provide the reader (not to mention the protagonist!) a chance to pause and process the action scenes. But they need to be carefully planned and constructed for maximum effect—something that Forbeck does well. There were numerous moments when the chapter ended on a kind of cliffhanger, one that I hadn’t really seen coming and even evoked a sense of genuine peril and vulnerability. This is difficult to do, even in a book where people can come back from the dead, because we generally don’t expect the protagonist to die unless it’s at the end.
As a mystery, Amortals is unremarkable and bland. I figured out the identity of Ronan’s killer before the end of the first chapter. Unlike my dad—my first question when I see him reading a new mystery is always, “Did you figure out who did it yet?”—I don’t usually do that. It’s supposed to be a twist, I suppose, but it’s predictable if one is familiar with these types of science-fiction stories. And I kind of feel like the murder mystery becomes sublimated to the eventual plot concerning political machinations and conspiracy theories. That being said, Forbeck makes it worth our while, pulling out a few more twists that I didn’t see coming and finishing with an ending that is almost more open-ended than I can bear.
Owing to its unimpressive mystery, I was going to give Amortals two stars. Ronan is a solid protagonist, but I didn’t much care for his voice. The other characters are somewhat two-dimensional, particularly the antagonists. Yet as I write this review, it becomes apparent that Forbeck still managed to strike a nerve with me. Maybe it’s a particularly sensitive nerve, and people who aren’t as interested in these concepts will not find the book as enjoyable. But it’s enough to prompt me to reevaluate my rating. Amortals, while far from being amazing or even very remarkable on its own, is enjoyable and, in some ways, quite thought-provoking. It’s definitely deeper and more nuanced than the type of thriller I tend to condemn in my reviews, and hence Matt Forbeck demonstrates the power of well-conceived science-fiction as a setting and as a plot device: it provides a framework that makes for a better, more substantial story. Ultimately, that’s what I’m after.