I’ve been meaning to read Kay for quite a while now, probably since hearing the buzz around Ysabel a few years (?) back. The other month I picked up TI’ve been meaning to read Kay for quite a while now, probably since hearing the buzz around Ysabel a few years (?) back. The other month I picked up The Summer Tree at the library, and put it back down about a dozen pages later, on the run from clunky storytelling and stock characters.
But I actually sought this novel out, waiting my turn at the NY Public Library as its only copy made its way through about twenty other hands. I was eager to read it, first because my sense from reading other reviews of Kay on Goodreads was that there is a real difference in quality from his earlier work (of which The Summer Tree is one) and his more mature works. Second, Under Heaven is set in a time and place I’ve been very interested in these days: the Asian continent around the turn of the first millennium.
In the larger sense, Kay does credit to the field of epic fantasy in the way he breaths life into his world, which is based heavily on 8th century (CE) China. The traditions, mores, values and art of that society are rendered with a Merchant Ivory level of detail, as is the geography and environment, which evoke some nice poetic moments, like this one:
“The distant outer edges of the road had been planted with juniper and pagoda trees by the present emperor’s father, to hide the drainage ditches. There were beds of peonies—king of flowers—running between the lamplit guard stations, offering their scent to the night in springtime. There was beauty and a vast grandeur to the imperial way under the stars.”
Still, when you spend six hundred pages with an author (as with a roommate) you come to notice certain minor faults which, after a while, in the absence of truly awesome writing, can telescope into huge failings.
Among these are the passages following Shen Tai’s sister, Li-Mei, who was made a “false princess” and given to a barbarian leader as a peace offering from the emperor. En route she gets rescued by a Tarzan-of-the-steppe type character (complete with stock barbarian dialogue) and we are treated to a fairly lengthy and tedious description of her journeys with this man as Li-Mei descends further and further into a classic damsel in distress.
Also frustrating are the things that Kay leaves on the table: there are a number of interesting relationships and tensions left unexplored, paths that could have been taken that would have resulted in a more satisfying read. Instead, Kay seems to favor the more quotidian events (a lot of journeyings to and fro, conversations that do little to deepen characters and only just rehash exposition we’ve already read earlier) to these nascent tensions.
Among the things I thought could have been better fleshed out [***MINOR SPOILER ALERT***] was the relationship between Shen Tai and the rebellious general, Roshan. Their brief meeting in the early half of the novel shows us some unexpected depth to the military commander who, up until that point was depicted as a disgustingly fat strawman (Kay’s reliance on the fat = evil stereotype set him back a couple of points in my book, no matter that An Lushan, the historical figure on which he is based, was believed to be obese), and Shen Tai’s emergent sympathy with the man is a thread I was expecting to see develop later on, but instead the narrative just drops it, and Roshan returns to the beastly 2D caricature he was before.
Also, despite the large number of female characters, I’m fairly certain that Under Heaven fails the Bechdel Test.
All-in-all, though, I’m happy to have been given a glimpse into an imagined version of ancient China, which was my primary reason for picking up the book in the first place, but Kay’s reputation as a master of the epic story gave me higher expectations than were warranted....more
They Shall Have Stars is the first novel of the quartet that forms James Blish’s Cities in Flight series, also referred to as his “Okie” novels.
TSHSThey Shall Have Stars is the first novel of the quartet that forms James Blish’s Cities in Flight series, also referred to as his “Okie” novels.
TSHS definitely reads like a set-up for a larger work. The dual story lines—the discovery of an anti-ageing drug that will bring about pharmaceutical-induced immortality, and the construction of a massive bridge on Jupiter that leads to the discovery of anti-gravity, allowing cheap, easy space travel—serve to bring about the technological advances that will allow the space travel of the later novels to occur. In that way, it felt like a prelude to a larger work rather than part of a continuum, more The Hobbit than Shadow of the Torturer.
The political structure of Blish’s world (Jupiter and Earth—primarily Washington DC and New York—in 2018) is a very loosely veiled, barely extrapolated version of the Cold War 1950’s: J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthey combine in the figure of Francis Xavier MacHinery, the hereditary head of the FBI (yes, the position is now a hereditary one in this world), and Senator Bliss Wagoner, the self-sacrificing Jesus-like figure who single-handedly fends off MacHinery and the Jupiter program’s detractors long enough to allow the discovery of anti-gravity.
While it didn’t occur to me until I read Manny’s excellent review, it now seems abundantly clear that Blish has embedded into this otherwise parochial novel a perspective on religion that is, even today, fairly radical. As the society in TSHS moves closer and closer to conquering both death and the confines of gravity, largely against its will, Blish is showing us what the second coming of Christ will really look like in a technologically advanced future: immortality achieved through scientific breakthrough, and access to the heavens brought about through a massive, expensive public works project. ...more
I feel like reading Sterling's Mechanist/Shaper stories is like passing some sort of science fiction Rubicon: once you've read them you are officiallyI feel like reading Sterling's Mechanist/Shaper stories is like passing some sort of science fiction Rubicon: once you've read them you are officially a nerd, no backsies.
Crystal Express contains, among other short stories, all of Sterling's Mechanist/Shaper stories outside of the novel Schismatrix, and while some of the non-M/S pieces didn't quite do it for me, this collection gets five stars anyway--the quality of the far future M/S world is so vivid and compelling, the alien-ness so amazingly alien (as in Swarm, where two human Shapers live inside an asteroid among large hive-mind insects), that some of the minor faults (the sometimes incoherent off-scene politics, the occasional cypher character) are easily overlooked....more