Rarely do I ever enjoy short stories. This proved no different.
The writing wasn't good enough to makeIt's a collection of short stories and novellas.
Rarely do I ever enjoy short stories. This proved no different.
The writing wasn't good enough to make me want to seek out the other four volumes. At times I got the impression though that the reason everything seemed so trite was that all this was so original and influential when it first came out that everything since had copied from it....more
Stross’s laundry files series has been heading off the rails for a while now, staying upright only out of aWell this has been a complete train wreck.
Stross’s laundry files series has been heading off the rails for a while now, staying upright only out of a combination of gyroscopic forces imparted by the earlier works and the magic of the source material Stross is riffing on. But it’s been clear for a while now that Stross has no clear idea where to take the story and that his basic inclinations tend to be at odds with where the story needs to go if it is going to keep any resemblance to what made the original so compelling. In part it must be said that it was Bob himself holding the story up, since if you stayed with it this long it was mostly to find out what happened to Bob – the long suffering civil servant IT nerd turned demon slaying field agent. But, by this point there was no obvious reason that Bob’s romantic counterpart, Mo’ couldn’t carry a whole novel on her own.
But there is very specific reason that she can’t – this novel sucks and would have been terrible regardless of who the narrator was. I can’t begin to count how many of the rules of writing Stross manages to break.
Probably the biggest one is that the actions undertaken by the protagonist should matter to the outcome. But Mo’ never really does anything that actually matters. She doesn’t gain any real agency until the story has about 10 pages left, and even then... well, more on that later. Everything leading up to the finale is meaningless, and indeed she knows it to be meaningless because her job is simply to create meaningless theater until the real threat reveals itself. So the reader is lead through about 300 pages of pointless meetings, bureaucratic decisions, memo writing, power point presentations, endless rounds of self-doubt and self-analysis and self-pity sessions none of which ultimately end up contributing to the plot or advancing the story. Tasked with creating meaningless theater, it is ultimately revealed just how meaningless it all was, which raises the question: “Why was I forced to read about it?” An author should strive to tell only the most interesting parts of the story, leaving out anything extraneous and unnecessary to the resolution. About 250 pages of this work could have been cut out and made a tighter story. Chekov’s gun is repeatedly violated. Pages and pages are spent on things that end up not mattering to the story in the slightest. If I tried to list the things that were introduced that never have any relevancy to the story at all, it would be longer than this review and possibly longer than the actual meat of this novel.
What makes this even worse is from time to time Bob floats on stage and gives some hints about exciting Indiana Jones type delves in to true Lovecraftian abandoned temples and lost cities which makes us wonder why we aren’t actually away reading about that sort of stuff rather than attending Mo’s business meetings.
Another big problem is that the structure of the story is a mystery novel, with Mo in the role of detective. But despite pondering the clues given her, Mo ultimately never puts any of the clues together. She isn’t even the one who solves the mystery, such as it is. We are left to have a minor character inform Mo he’s already figured out the solution to the mystery, shortly before she’s caught completely by unawares by the mechanizations of the antagonist. In order to have a sympathetic detective protagonist, the audience needs to have some indication that the detective is actually smarter than they are and has, despite the appearances, actually deduced the facts of the case long ago. We don’t get any of that here.
Likewise, the basic commitment of a horror story is to frighten and disturb its readers. But Stross despite keeping many of the trappings of a horror story seems to have long ago relinquished any such commitment in favor of creating a world which is I think rather less disturbing to him than this real world actually is. Stross has been getting less frightening and more campy with each novel. I’m not sure how much further things can go in that direction. The Lovecraftian source material is legitimately creepy, with science as the enemy of man, unremitting doom inexorably advancing on humanity, and reality being in truth so bug-shit screwed up that merely glimpsing it doomed a pathetic human to gibbering senseless insanity. In the Lovecraft universe, you might forestall immediate doom, but generally only at the cost of your health, sanity, and happiness. In the Laundry universe, humanity not only isn’t rendered impotent and senseless in the face of reality, it turns into veritable demigods with cool superpowers whose only problem is maybe attracting cosmic parasites which fortunately they also know how to use magic to ward away. Horrific things happen, but mostly to ‘the muggles’ and other people Stross doesn’t particularly like. This is horror as fantasy escapism. This is sanitized Lovecraft. Lovecraft is scary because he was a creepy nervous guy channeling all his myriad phobias and anxieties on the page as he saw his carefully constructed Anglophile 18th century Enlightenment worldview fall apart.
I’m not sure what motivates these current stories, but it doesn’t seem to be an undercurrent of fear and anxiety. It’s more an undercurrent of nerd fanboy that reminds me of those nerds in ‘Galaxy Quest’ that were so excited when it all turned out to be real. The only thing left of the story that is remotely scary is the author is imagining the modern world as Lovecraftian universe and seems to think that would be totally awesome.
For a moment there I thought Bob was going to start exploring Bob as an unreliable narrator, and perhaps give us a glimpse that Bob isn’t nearly as sane or trustworthy as he reports himself to be. But nothing really came of it, which could be probably the entirety of this review. Whatever it is in the story, nothing really came of it. None of the relationships between the characters are ever really explored, nor are any of the conflicts created or hinted at resolved. The whole story is empty filler both taken on its own and in the context of the larger Laundry/CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN story arc.
Stross seems to have gone out of his way to create an explicitly feminist story. It’s like the whole story was an exercise in writing a book that passed the Bectel Test, but forgot to actually have a plot. Worse, if the book is to be judged by how well it succeeded in that, having practically every female character with a speaking line be one of Bob’s prior romantic interests made the whole thing feel more like a harem style anime than a female empowering exercise, especially given how useless Mo’ comes off in the story. And letting Mo’ get it on with a hot love interest fails to balance with Bob doing the same thing, because Bob at least if we are to believe the prior stories was never a willing participant in any of the times he was kissed. Mo’s dalliance with Jim was both willing and of greater intimacy than Bob’s indiscretions, but Mo’ doesn’t even classify them as a “personal betrayal” (I guess because she stopped herself from going all the way). And let's not forget that Mo's one real act with a meaningful consequence, is to ask a man to help her because she's incapable of helping herself. Mo’ has often come off as Bob’s better half hitherto. This ‘feminist’ story relegates her to neither as competent nor as likeable as Bob.
And though it is a minor point, the whole idea that each book is actually the transcript of a classified case file is working less and less well. The idea that this book would be used as debriefing material by a competent functional intelligence agency is just laughable, and the more laughable because of all of Mo’ irrelevant personal disclosures that had no real bearing on the case. If this is an actual case file, it ought to read like something a military officer would actually create. The military doesn’t waste time with this crap and sticks to clear and relevant facts, which is why when it comes to hiring Project Managers or Business Analysts, I’m always looking for the resumes with past military experience. ...more
I've been trying to branch out in my reading lately, and every time I do, I get reminded why I don't.
The reason I like science fiction and fantasy isI've been trying to branch out in my reading lately, and every time I do, I get reminded why I don't.
The reason I like science fiction and fantasy is that it tends to obey Eleanor Roosevelt's dictum - "Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people." - and chooses to discuss ideas above all else. 'War of the Rats' ought to at least succeed at the level of discussing an important event and fascinating people, but it doesn't even manage to do that well.
Indeed 'War of the Rats' was surprisingly bad at pretty much every level. As military fiction, I learned nothing about the character or nature of war. None of the things that this novel is praised for felt in evidence anywhere in the text. As historical fiction, I didn't come away feeling like I had some understanding of the Siege of Stalingrad or gained any insight into the real figures that fought there. As fiction, the characters felt flat, almost stereotypes, suitable for a comic book perhaps but nothing else. The female characters were unsurprisingly the worst, and Tania's depiction was annoying at best and misogynist at worst (and I say that as a staunch anti-feminist). As a thriller, the drama never felt intense or exciting, and the finale was an anti-climatic affair which failed to stand up to even its internal logic. The 'villain' character went full Cobra Commander in the end, doing stupid things that made no sense at all even from the character's own reasoning as presented to the reader and which were completely at odds with the superhuman Über sniper presented earlier in the text or even with the character's own description of his plan of action. For example, if Thorvald knew that Zaitsev was accurate to 450 yards, and he was he bragged accurate out to 1000 yards, why did he choose to engage Zaitsev from a static position at a distance of just 250 yards which he scorned as amateur earlier in the book and at which he also knew he'd have no advantage over his enemy? Why did he choose to shoot the fake position first, when he'd already determined where Zaitsev really was? Shouldn't you shoot the real position first, then shoot the fake second to be sure rather than the other way around? Why, having realized he'd been given away, did he not simply duck down and retreat to a better position - preferably one 1km back as he'd set out to do in the first place?
The whole thing was just a mess that felt a waste of my time. Maybe it wouldn't have been so bad, but between Japanese Destroyer Captain, Victory into Defeat, The Goblin Emperor, and A Face Like Glass I'd been on a real roll lately and this just felt wholly unworthy. I keep trying to branch out from what I know, but every time I do I just feel burned. Either the writer can't write. Or the writer can't tell a story. Or the writer simply has nothing interesting to say. If at least two of the three were true, I still might still be able to recommend the work, but in this case I can only say that Robbins offers up a readable work that fails for me to be even good potato chip fiction....more
These days, it's almost impossible to find a speculative fiction author whose formative years weren't spent playing RPGs. The sort of RPGs that they pThese days, it's almost impossible to find a speculative fiction author whose formative years weren't spent playing RPGs. The sort of RPGs that they played or prefer or which influenced them, tend to come out in the fiction that they write. We no longer have a situation where the pulp fiction spawns RPGs; now the RPGs spawn adventure fiction. In some cases, like Raymond Feist, the influences are obvious and direct, and in the case of Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman they are literally telling the story of a campaign or the campaign of a story. But even Brandon Sanderson and Jim Butcher who have their own settings read like they played a good deal of D&D back in the day. James S.A. Corey "Expanse" reads like it was originally written in GURPS, and there was a pile of Transhuman Space supplements involved at some point. Stephen Meyer's 'Twilight' series just screams Vampire: The Masquerade fanfic. Charles Stross started out in D&D, and clearly branched off into classic Call of Cthulhu and read a bunch of Delta Green supplements.
This book was originally heading for a 2 star review. Chris Wooding writes fiction that looks like it was originally created by something like FATE, or some similar Indy inspired pretentious exercise in GMing as process oriented storytelling. It's huge on telling instead of showing, on putting big neon signs around saying what each scene is supposed to accomplish in terms of character development, and on plotting out fortune in the beginning stuff where you brainstorm what's supposed to happen and then play it out. It reads like it was written by a committee of script-writers who'd worked their way step by step through some GM's section on how to write and plot a story, checking off each point as they went. There is nothing natural about the flow. The audience never learns anything, and is never surprised by anything. It's like he reads the back of the PC's index card to us that tells us what their story arc is going to be. And then does it again. And again. And again, hitting each and every bang in the most literal and obvious possible manner.
And yet, for all that, it still works pretty well. Sure, he needs to relax. He needs more subtlety. He needs to trust his audience a bit and show a little more and tell a little less. But there are quite a few better writers out there that could do more with what he's doing because their stories are often disappointing crap, spoiled by their poor understanding of how to construct a story. Wooding may be a bit too obvious and a bit too tidy, but at least he hits all the notes in the write place. He might not have developed the real skill of a Jazz virtuoso yet, but at least he can play his instrument - which is more than a lot of more acclaimed writers can do.
So I'm giving this a 3 1/2 stars. The writing skill is there. The story telling skill is above average. The ending is sweet despite it all, and gosh darn, despite knowing what he's doing the whole time is some pretty straight forward reader manipulation, I still like it and I want to read the next book.
The pretentious forward was the opening number in a scattergun approach to the topic that just felt so shallow compared to discussions you might hearThe pretentious forward was the opening number in a scattergun approach to the topic that just felt so shallow compared to discussions you might hear on The Forge or Extra Credits or EnWorld or really anywhere that gaming fanatics gather to discuss theory. A dreary dull text that will be of no interest to anyone that would be interested in reading it, written by dreary dull academics that haven't a clue really what they are talking about and know less about game design than the average experienced GM....more
I just don't much like the books she is in. Too many reasons to list. I'm still reading because I'm hoping that I'll enjoy a book thatI adore Flavia.
I just don't much like the books she is in. Too many reasons to list. I'm still reading because I'm hoping that I'll enjoy a book that has Flavia in it, but I'm not sure that the author is quite up to the task of creating a book worthy of the character he's created.
This problem last observed reading Laurie R. King....more
I wanted to like this. It wasn't taking much of a risk. It's just 120 pages and it feels even shorter. It's like one of those meals that finishes tooI wanted to like this. It wasn't taking much of a risk. It's just 120 pages and it feels even shorter. It's like one of those meals that finishes too soon and you start looking around hopefully for something to actually eat.
Horror I guess is not my thing, but this wasn't scary and it really felt like the author was going out of her way to make sure it wasn't scary. The set up of it being a 'found documentary' presented before each chapter gave the whole story a feeling of watching a horror movie with some obnoxious guy eating popcorn and whispering in your ear, "This part is great. The guy thinks the monster is behind the door, but it's actually going to jump at him through the window." And in the middle of the horrific denouement, she not only decides to play the death of one of the sympathetic character's for laughs, but beclowns her monsters doing it.
I kept waiting for the horror to start, and when I finally got to where I thought the horror would start, the story just ended.
HP Lovecraft is safe. The Deep Ones these are not. They aren't even Jaws.
And the science is just miserably bad and filled with all sorts of fridge logic moments. She would have been better of not trying to pretend there was some sort of science here. Everything about the claim 'Mertesian Mimicry' is wrong, including the ludicrously short amount of time that the species would have to evolve to adopt such mimicry given the short span of time man has been ocean going and the fact that Mertesian Mimicry is defensive not aggressive. Also, consider just how specialized they'd have to be as predators before that was a successful strategy, along with the absolute impossibility that such a specialized predator would still be unknown to science since we'd be there main food source throughout most of human history. What is naturally regulating a super-predator's population such that they aren't everywhere? Arrghhhh... just not worth wasting more neurons on.
When I think about novellas filled with ideas like 'Nightwings' and 'The Emperor's Soul' and how much more meat they had to chew on, I think... why am I stuck on these food metaphors. Point is, if you are going to meme and name drop a bunch of nerd stuff into your novel, at least make the novel good and nerdy. It's not enough to mention gaming conventions or cosplay. You actually have to have well done ideas.