This book is in three parts; the first, "The Robot's Twilight Companion" was previously published in a collection with that title. It is also the stro...moreThis book is in three parts; the first, "The Robot's Twilight Companion" was previously published in a collection with that title. It is also the strongest of the three sections in this volume. It relates the story of how Orf gained sentience through Orf's perspective. The chronology of how this happened wasn't entirely clear to me (again, it's told through Orf's perspective, and it is eminently reasonable that Orf's memories of its earliest consciousness would be muddled) but it involved a tech only partially turning off a decommissioned mining robot and a geology grad student imbuing a mining robot with what remained of the consciousness of his dead mentor, Victor Wu.
Orf is a wonderful viewpoint character, and unlike most of the other sentient A.I.s I've read. It has no knowledge of the outside world, no connection to any global databases to pull information from, and it wasn't intended to be an A.I. at all, so was given no algorithms to help it understand humanity. It knows rocks, and it reads books, and it observes everything it possibly can. Through Orf's eyes we get a little bit of a sense of coming apocalypse, but Orf itself can't understand what it is observing because it does not have the proper frame of reference. Orf's viewpoint is very much the viewpoint of a precocious child, and that lends a great deal of tension and tragedy to the events that unfold around it. "The Robot's Twilight Companion" firmly belongs in the tradition that flows from Mary Shelly's Frankentstein, and it is a worthy addition.
The second part, "Pennyroyal Tea," jumps ahead 200 years. The apocalypse has happened, and the viewpoint character is Jarrod, a member of the Rangers, U.S. Forest Service personnel that banded together to protect Olympia National Park from both loggers and environmental extremists immediately after the world fell apart. I read very little post-apocalyptic fiction, and this experience is not likely to change that. Jarrod is a likable viewpoint character (though not as likable as Orf); the quest structure works decently well; I enjoyed exploring the various cults Jarrod gets tangled with. However, it was a very dark future (to be expected from post-apocalyptic SF, but still) and the section with the Cougars was downright painful to read. The section then ended very abruptly with Jarrod meeting Orf and a second apocalypse that rendered Jarrod's quest futile.
The third part, "The New Exiles of California," makes the transition from "The Robot's Twilight Companion" to "Pennyroyal Tea" seem brilliantly smooth. While hints of the apocalypse to come are found throughout "The Robot's Twilight Companion," and we can see the eventual shape of the conflicts "Pennyroyal Tea" throughout, far too much happens off screen between "Pennyroyal Tea" and "The New Exiles of California." Time jumps 800 years further into the future, where contact has already been made with other intelligences and an entirely new science has arisen to do everything. (And I mean everything -- as far as I could tell, the technology of this future was at least as advanced as the technology in Star Trek, but it was based on aesthetics and the terranes -- no computers, no worry about power, nothing, really, that I could understand at all.)
The tone of this section was also just bizarre. The viewpoint character is Noah, a shaman, a symbologist, and a scholar, dealing with a worry about something called the Chunk, that everyone can tell is heading towards Earth at faster-than-light speeds and is messing with their trance states, which is how communication (with planets, stars, and who knows what other types of beings) is accomplished in this future. His worry, however, takes the form of musing on history (which serves to fill us in on a little of how this new world order came about) and rambles about aesthetics -- a field in which my only experience is reading short selections from Plato and Aristotle in college. The section is very short; he has an "Aha!" moment where he intuitively grasps the Chunk's purpose and then quickly puts everyone into action to attempt to save the planet. And there the story ends -- we are left to guess whether Noah succeeded, or even whether or not he was correct in his intuitive leap. Orf makes another cameo, this time as Noah's psychologist, but has no real impact on the story whatsoever.
Overall I have to say I did enjoy this book. Daniel's writing is strong, and I loved "The Robot's Twilight Companion" so much that I think I would have recommended this even if I had hated the second two parts. And I didn't hate either "Pennyroyal Tea" or "The New Exiles of California" -- they just weren't exactly up my alley. I do think Daniel could have accomplished the transitions a little more smoothly (maybe with a dip into Orf's perspective between each, to fill us in what's going on?) but other than that I don't have any real problems with the text from a technical standpoint. I will most likely be checking out more of Daniel's work (he has three novels: Warpath, and the duology Metaplanetary & Superluminal; looking at the descriptions it appears they all follow a more standard narrative structure) but I can't help wishing that "Pennyroyal Tea" and "The New Exiles of California" had been more like "The Robot's Twilight Companion."(less)
I think that to review this book I am going to have to use spoilers. There's no way to talk about it without spoiling something, and to tell you the t...moreI think that to review this book I am going to have to use spoilers. There's no way to talk about it without spoiling something, and to tell you the truth I wish someone had spoiled this stuff for me, because the jacket description, the artwork, even the title are a bit misleading. The book I read, which I think was actually pretty strong (if old-fashioned) big idea science fiction, is not at all the book I was expecting to read. The spoilers will be kept general, on the order of "spoiling" Romeo & Juliet by saying it's a tragedy where everyone dies by the end, so I'm not going to mark this review as containing spoilers, but I will put it all behind a little cut. Don't read further if you really like to go into books cold!
------------------CUT FOR SPOILERS-------------------
The apocalypse comes quickly, an asteroid that sneaks up in the Earth's blindspot, so only seven people manage to make it off the planet to Tycho Base. This isn't a problem, because they've been preparing for something like this to happen, so the base is manned by robots and run by a computer; there's cloning technology (which is apparently not prone to replication error) and they have frozen samples from plenty (a number is never given) of people and animal and plant species -- everything they need to one day terraform the Earth. What is a problem is that they weren't prepared yet, so the base isn't fully functional. The seven survivors do what they can to make records of their lost (entirely American) civilization, and then they die.
All of which happens before the start of the book. The computer watched the planet for who knows how long (eons) keeping itself and its robots running, until the planet cleansed itself after the meteor impact -- there's a mention of volcanic activity that subsided and an Ice Age that came and went, but magically the continents are still in exactly the same place. Then it began to run its program, which involved birthing the clones of five of the survivors who have the skills to reseed the planet with life like we had known it. They're raised by the robots and holograms of their progenitors which have personality and some sort of artificial intelligence (the holograms can respond to their children, and learn, and think, though there's never any talk about artificial intelligence) and when they reach adulthood they're sent down to the planet to survey and spread the building blocks of our sort of life.
This begins a cycle. Clone generation after clone generation is born and raised identically, hundreds or thousands or millions of years apart from previous generations; each generation tries to plant the seeds of life and steer it to provide a good place for humans to recolonize, building on records left by previous generations of clones. Because they do receive the same upbringing and are genetically identical, it's easier for the reader to think of the clones as all the same person -- every Dunk (the narrator) is the same, even though Williamson has them often say they are their own people. And every time they go down to the planet, some of them die, or they discover that life has taken a very unexpected (and dangerous) turn.
They actually do manage to start several small human civilizations, but they are wiped out in their turn, and the computer on the base has to resurrect yet another generation to start again.
There are alien encounters, though they aren't at all convincingly alien. And the whole thing ends up feeling like an exercise in futility. The poor clones, born to die, seem like science fiction versions of Sisyphus.
I think that all this was Williamson's goal, and if so then he did accomplish what he wanted with the book. I didn't particularly enjoy it, but I think it is what it was intended to be, so I have to say that it's well-done. What hurt it (beyond my dislike for exercizes in futility) was that it felt like a throwback, like Williamson (who was 93 when this was published, and first started writing in the late 20s) never got beyond the science fiction of the 1960s. As mentioned above, there's no evidence that Williamson understands plate tectonics -- by the end of the book we must be hundreds of millions of years in the future, but the clones still look down from the moon at "the Americas" or "Asia" or "Africa" or "the Mediterranean." The whole question of artificial intelligence is never raised, and it really needed to be for me to get any picture of how Tycho Base worked. His portrayal of relativistic space travel seemed. . . inaccurate, though I will admit I'm not a physicist. I should say it doesn't at all fit with what I know from modern science fiction novels written by physicists.
And even more than all that science that seemed lacking in what felt like a hard science fiction novel, the race and gender relations portrayed in the book are very much a product of a 50s/60s mentality. There are three women in the eight people cloned at one point or another: one is the keeper of the cultural artifacts, a virgin locked in her tower of the past; one is a biologist who "understands and enjoys" sex and shares with all of the men who are interested; the third is cloned only twice, the girlfriend of one of the men who, when she isn't cloned, becomes a sort of mythic ideal he spends his life pining for. The women never play any role in reseeding the planet; often they end up being held captive in Tycho Base by the paranoid alpha male.
Of the men, one is a Latino of some sort (it's never clear where his ancestors are from, but we meet him in New Mexico) and the pilot; in every incarnation he simply follows whoever leads. Another is "black as tar, though he had an Oriental poker face" and he is the one person who forced his way onto the shuttle leaving the dying earth. A night watchman at the facility, he kept the crowds back while the chosen few made it onboard with their supplies and then pulled a gun and insisted that they take him and his girlfriend (the soon-to-be mythic ideal) with them. He isn't resurrected at first, but when he is he immediately is set up, time after time, against the paranoid alpha male, and time after time he loses. In one iteration, the alpha male sets up a tyrannical government that runs on slave power, and all the slaves are clones of "El Chino," the former night-watchman.
So when I pretended to myself that it had been written in 1958, I could look past all those elements; when I reminded myself that it was published in 2001, I had to roll my eyes and wonder what the editors at Tor were thinking.
But still, if I ignore all those throwback elements, the book does accomplish what I think Williamson intended. It seems an awfully depressing future, full of futility and hubris, but I got it, and I think the book would work for people who like reading that sort of thing.(less)
For those readers who have never read McKinley before, who exist on a diet of paranormal romance or Laurell K. Hamilton or Anne Rice or Twilight, I sa...moreFor those readers who have never read McKinley before, who exist on a diet of paranormal romance or Laurell K. Hamilton or Anne Rice or Twilight, I say you must read Sunshine. The world McKinley creates in this novel goes well beyond the edges of the page, and it only gets richer on rereading. The characters have width and depth and color and not a single one is simple or easy to understand. The narrative voice is pitch-perfect, the themes of light and dark and blood and cleanliness always serving the story and adding depth. Best of all, it makes its vampires feel new, not least by avoiding making them sexy and glamorous but rather, well, undead.
For those who are avid readers of McKinley -- as I am -- Sunshine is on the surface a wild departure from her other works, but in its bones is the culmination of everything that came before. It has the requisite McKinley heroine: mistrusted and awkward, struggling to carve out an unconventional place only to have that place snatched away by events out of her control, but ultimately discovering herself and her past just in time to meet the darkness seeking her. It has the love of myth and fairy tale that led McKinley to retell the Robin Hood myth, retell the story of Sleeping Beauty, and retell Beauty and the Beast not once, but twice. It has the necessity of going on after the climactic battle, starting to put the pieces of a life back together when all has been torn apart multiple times, the sense of hope that it is possible warring with the sense that the person inside has changed too much to fit in any normal happy life from now on.
Most of all, it has many, many echoes of Deerskin, which I consider to be McKinley's greatest work, from the blood imagery to the rediscovering and reinventing oneself bit by bit to the doubt that ones resources won't be enough to overcome all the evil in the world. Especially affecting and evocative for me was the line "Sun-self, tree-self, deer-self. Don't they outweigh the dark self?" that Sunshine begins to repeat to herself like a mantra. Each time she says it it has a slightly different meaning.
There are some things McKinley does in this novel better than she has done in any other. The climactic battle scene is her most coherent and cohesive, even when I was tempted to speed through it because I so desperately wanted to reach the end. Sunshine's narrative voice, already mentioned, makes her a more approachable heroine than any of McKinley's other heroines, which makes her peril and her self-doubt all the realer (though that distancing McKinley mastered for Deerskin's third-person voice was probably necessary given how harrowing that novel is). It is jarring if you go in expecting McKinley's usual high fantasy narration, but it just gets better the deeper into the story you go. There is also more humor in Sunshine than I think there is in any other McKinley novel, and it is always found in the lightest doses when things get blackest.
All in all, the more times I read Sunshine the more I am convinced that it is a near-perfect book. None of McKinley's novels race along (well, until the climax) but I always find the slower parts necessary resting times, times to catch my breath and assimilate all that went on in the last battle (be it internal or external). It is undoubtedly an adult novel like none of McKinley's other novels are -- there is quite a bit of violence and one brief explicitly sexual scene. But it is a rich and worthwhile read that ages well, and I hope it continues to find a wide audience.(less)
It may be that Jacqueline Carey will never recapture the magic she created in Terre d'Ange, but for once I agree wholeheartedly with one of the quotes...moreIt may be that Jacqueline Carey will never recapture the magic she created in Terre d'Ange, but for once I agree wholeheartedly with one of the quotes on the book jacket. "At the novel's heart is the kind of grace Carey is known for: an illumination of the strength that lies hidden inside all of us." (Eric Van Lustbader) Loup is a fabulous character, and the way Carey keeps the perspective focused on her allows the reader to see the subtle changes her fearlessness creates in those around her despite Loup not understanding them herself.(less)
WARNING: No spoilers for Chill, but plenty of spoilers for Dust.
Chill picks up almost directly after Dust ended, when the ship is reeling from the nov...moreWARNING: No spoilers for Chill, but plenty of spoilers for Dust.
Chill picks up almost directly after Dust ended, when the ship is reeling from the nova blast and the crew is reeling from all of the deaths, particularly Rien's sacrifice to bring the new angel -- an A.I. integrating all of the splinter A.I.s that developed when the ship broke down centuries before -- into existence. Perceval is now captain, but she is barely functional as she deals with her grief, and there is an enormous power vacuum that the remaining Exalts of Rule and Engine -- both those for and against Perceval's captaincy -- are scrambling to fill. And while the A.I.s have all been integrated into the new angel, it is bothered by enormous black spaces in its awareness of the ship, due either to damage or enemy machinations.
And then a very dangerous prisoner escapes, so two teams -- one led by Tristen, the other by Benedick -- are sent in pursuit.
The plot is made up entirely by that pursuit, and I found that choice disappointing. The entire plot of Dust was Perceval and Rien fleeing through the fascinating landscape of the half-ruined ship; to have the entire plot of this one be another chase through a now-much-more-familiar landscape just seemed repetitive. There are a couple new and exciting set-pieces -- particularly a scene involving massive intelligent fungi doing something deliciously unexpected -- but ultimately I felt a bit let down by Bear's imagination. What stood out most about Dust for me was how gloriously imaginative the world-building was; with that thrill behind me this was just another SF action novel.
Or would have been, were it not for the characters.
If there was one flaw in Dust, it was that all of the characters were ciphers to me for 2/3 of the novel. Not so here. Dust and Chill ended up being mirror images of each other: the first all ideas and no character development; the second few (new) ideas but wonderful, complex characters with long histories and complicated relationships. The chase plot is really just window-dressing for internal, character-driven action, as the characters left standing after Dust figure out who they want to be in this new world.
Unfortunately, window-dressing or not the chase plot was still there, and it required a resolution, and that resolution was something of a deus-ex-machina. It also left a pretty significant plot thread dangling, as this is the middle book of a trilogy. But for these characters I would forgive a great deal more than that.(less)
Dust is a difficult book to review. It is a work of glorious genre- and gender-bending. It had moments of hilarity and moments of heartbreak, and way...moreDust is a difficult book to review. It is a work of glorious genre- and gender-bending. It had moments of hilarity and moments of heartbreak, and way more sensawonder than any book I've read this year (including Zelazny's Lord of Light and M. John Harrison's Light). But the characters were ciphers to me through the first two-thirds, and I'm positive that I didn't get any of the allusions fully. Still, I shall do my best, and talk about the elements that occur to me in order.
First, the science fiction. This is a broken-down generation ship novel, and the ship itself is a glorious bit of world-building. It is the world to its inhabitants, but they're under no pretenses that it is also a ship, and they curse accordingly -- Space! is the usual ejaculant, and the Enemy of vaccuum is present in several wonder-and-horror-tinged E.V.A.s. The ship is enormous, and much of it is dead, and what is left alive is incredibly strange, full of both nanotechnology and plain old terrestrial biology run amok. The people who set out in Jacob's Ladder (the ship's name) loved tinkering with genetics (for reasons explained about a third of the way in which I shan't spoil but which have bearing on the next section) so the humans now on board are split into the Exalt -- people whose blood literally runs blue due to their nanotech symbionts -- and the Mean, baseline humans who are forced to serve. The Exalt have clearly played with their genetics, many being winged, or furred, or otherwise altered, but even the Mean are not quite humans like us, as Bear makes it clear early on that there are at least three genders present -- men, women, and kant, the ungendered. (She invents new pronouns for the kant: "hir" and "sie" which function well enough but when first presented look unfortunately like typos.) And there are any number of artificial intelligences running around, greater and lesser ones, some diffuse throughout the ship, others contained in rather unlikely places (like a laser-torc that is also a basilisk, or a nuclear reactor leak).
And running through all this SF coolness are biblical and Arthurian and gothic allusions that make the novel look and feel quite a bit more like high fantasy. One of the two protagonists is called Sir Perceval, and she (I did mention the gender-bending, didn't I?) is also a celibate knight on a quest; the Exalt, as mentioned before, are literally blue-blooded and have split what remains of the ship into domaines which they rule through primogeniture; and the A.I.s are referred to as "angels" and all (except one) have taken (or were given? it's unclear) names straight out of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
But this is NOT fantasy dressed up as science fiction. It has all the trappings of a quest fantasy because it draws on those sources that quest fantasy evolved from, but these characters chose them consciously. The Exalt created their high-tech Medieval world, and their ancestors built the Biblical A.I.s, and the fact that there are two different sets of referents being used by two classes of individuals (the Exalt and the A.I.s) is totally consistent and meaningful. This is a consciously feudal future, one where terms like "Exalt" and "angel" are thrown around divorced from any sense of reverence or religious connotation (but again, not without a meaning that I don't want to spoil).
There are also all the social SF elements -- this is the future, and one of the understated ways Bear makes sure we don't forget that is the way their mores are not our mores. There are the three common genders, and there's a double-gendered individual (I couldn't tell for sure, but I don't *think* that was a common thing; there weren't special pronouns for the single double-gendered person so I'm assuming that that choice isn't common, though it didn't particularly surprise or apall the characters who met him/her/hir); there's sexuality of all stripes presented matter-of-factly, including incest (after all, if there's no worry about inbreeding leading to monsters. . .); there's also cannibalism as a matter of course, because an Exalt who consumes another Exalt gains access to their identity -- memories and personality included. And yet alongside that cannibalism everyone appears to be very casually vegetarian, because humans are wonderful at maintaining two mutually-exclusive world views, and I wouldn't expect that to be any different in the future.
Did you notice that this is only a 342-page novel? That's a lot to unpack, and that's one of the reasons I was engaged but not enthralled through the first 200 pages. Bear never hands the reader information -- all this world-building was accomplished without a single info-dump, and without any of the characters having those terribly awkward "As you know, Bob" conversations. But getting all that across and moving the quest along left less time than I would like to get to know the characters. Bear starts the novel at the last possible second (as you should, but as very few authors do, preferring to give their readers a few introductory chapters to make sure they're solidly grounded in the world and the people and the power structure) and that unfortunately means that I didn't have a clue why Rien and Perceval were acting the way they were at first. I had some guesses, and my guesses ended up being right, but it took 200 pages for me to be really comfortable in their skins, to feel like they were acting rather than reacting.
Once I was there I was with them body and soul, and the ending kind of floored me, but it took a while.(less)