This novel (and the books that followed) were an important influence on my middle-school self! Besides being wildly entertaining romps, they helped meThis novel (and the books that followed) were an important influence on my middle-school self! Besides being wildly entertaining romps, they helped me understand that sometimes people operating outside the system's laws are the ones who are in the right - and the Stainless Steel Rat was far more interesting and relevant than Robin Hood!...more
I love Gratton's United States of Asgard books. Because I have to read so much for the Campbell Memorial Award and student writing, her US of A booksI love Gratton's United States of Asgard books. Because I have to read so much for the Campbell Memorial Award and student writing, her US of A books (THE LOST SUN and book 2, THE STRANGE MAID) are the first novels I've read for fun in months. And what a perfect pleasure these are!
I could hardly put down THE LOST SUN - the first time that happened for a few months! It's a love-story road-trip through a fantastic alternate USA where the Norse gods actually live and interact with us, from the point of view of a troubled young berserker. No easy solutions here, and it'll keep you up late reading how things work out for our protagonists, too.
If you like alternate history, Norse mythology and gods, romance, YA fantasy, and the triumph of the human spirit, you'll love this book. Be sure to also read book 2, THE STRANGE MAID, which gets even more wonderful!
I'm really looking forward to Gratton's next work....more
I love Gratton's United States of Asgard books. Because I have to read so much for the Campbell Memorial Award and student writing, her US of A booksI love Gratton's United States of Asgard books. Because I have to read so much for the Campbell Memorial Award and student writing, her US of A books (THE STRANGE MAID and book 1, THE LOST SUN) are the first novels I've read for fun in months. And what a perfect pleasure these are!
THE STRANGE MAID kept me up until 3am - I had to finish it! It's exciting, beautifully written, wonderfully structured, and a real pleasure to read in all the ways both readers and writers enjoy books. It demonstrates how professional confidence, in-depth research, and deep understanding of a fictional world are everything in writing great spec-fic. Bravo!
This volume works just fine as a stand-alone; you don't have to read the first book to love the second. In fact, only one character (besides the gods) appears here from the first volume (and only as a secondary character), though I would recommend reading THE LOST SUN, too, to fully immerse in this fantastic world - and because I loved it, as well.
If you like alternate history, Norse mythology and gods, trolls, Valkyries, YA fantasy, and the triumph of the human spirit, you'll love this book.
I'm really looking forward to Gratton's next work!...more
I love this collection of Weird Old West stories! It contains a full diversity of spec-fic forms and attitudes toward the genre. (I also have a storyI love this collection of Weird Old West stories! It contains a full diversity of spec-fic forms and attitudes toward the genre. (I also have a story in this one, about a land surveyor - who is also a reluctant gunfighter - working on Mars who gets drawn into larger and less-pleasant events that will shape the future of the pioneer world. It's set in about 1900 on Percival Lowell's Mars after H.G. Wells' Martian invasion of England.) If you like the Old West, alternate history, and the supernatural, you should LOVE this book - and, I hope, my story, too!...more
Science Fiction Grand Master James Gunn's newest novel is also one of his most interesting. Really enjoyable, gripping, and "human" story about a bandScience Fiction Grand Master James Gunn's newest novel is also one of his most interesting. Really enjoyable, gripping, and "human" story about a band of truly unique and alien aliens. Think of Transcendental as a sort of Canterbury Tales / Origin of Species / New Space Opera mashup, full of ideas and wonder. If that sounds intriguing to you, you'll love it....more
Speculative fiction has been undergoing significant changes lately, as significant and revolutionary in the genre as the New Wave or Cyberpunk. The geSpeculative fiction has been undergoing significant changes lately, as significant and revolutionary in the genre as the New Wave or Cyberpunk. The genre has not remained stagnant since the 80s, but has matured and grown in subtle ways that have been difficult to track as they took place.
I refer to those two movements in SF because ALIF THE UNSEEN is very much a combination of them both.
Like the New Wave authors, Wilson's writing demonstrates a mastery of and love for language, human character, and other formerly "literary-only" concerns. Like Cyberpunk, ALIF is about the changes wrought by technology and how the little people can use it more successfully against the establishment than huge monoliths, because it's so difficult to overcome the massive inertia of a large organization like a corporation, religion, or government. The people in the story are the "unseen" as much as are the jinn and other unseen beings, as is their habitat, their activities, and so forth. The people in Alif's world are as unseen and insignificant to the establishments around him as are the jinn... but when a police state or other authoritarian force reaches for total control and mistreats the unseen, the unseen can now fight back in non-violent ways using the digital infrastructure that now links our world. The book is multi-layered, which in meta-literary and metaphorical senses is brilliant in both concept (paralleling the book with the _Alf Layla_, _Koran_, and computer coding) and execution. I can see why it was marketed toward the literary crowd.
Like the Cyberpunks, Wilson sympathizes with underdogs and outcasts, criminals and others operating outside the law. The protagonist is a programmer and website host for dissidents no matter what they espouse. Wilson's world is gritty, real, and thoroughly modern - despite being set in a poor, Middle-Eastern city. Alif's greatest ally is someone referred to as "Vikram the Vampire," an underworld character who has proven to be violent. When we soon learn he's a jinn, an ancient species documented in the Koran, the alien-ness in the book really takes off. There's even a moment when we witness the birth of an AI, though it doesn't survive long. If Cyberpunk is indeed "high tech and low life" as many describe it, combining science and technology with rebellion against the system, ALIF very much fits into the genre while serving to point the direction for where it might go next. Like the Cyberpunk authors, Wilson paints a world in shades of gray rather than black-and-white, blurs the border between natural and unseen forces of old as well as the cybernetic powers of today, between the organic and machine, the real and virtual or dreamlike or otherwise unseen. Even if she didn't set out to write a post-Cyberpunk cyberpunk novel, that's exactly what she did… and I suspect this was her goal, as the marketing material cites Stephenson.
Finally, this novel demonstrates what we've been seeing more of over the last several years: Mainstream authors working with SFnal themes and modalities, or SF authors like Doctorow working in the here-and-now-plus-a-day. Works like this (I especially point to Mieville and Chabon) are growing the new movement in SF, helping mature the genre in a way that neither rejects its forebears nor the mainstream. SF has simply become the relevant literature of our time. Not just "the only realistic literature" per Clarke, but now the only relevant literature for people living in an ever-changing world. Most any story set in today or tomorrow that does not take into account the massive and ever-increasing rate of change in our daily lives feels instantly dated, like historic fiction. Sure, much SF that's set far into the future or on other worlds still feels like our familiar SF, and I hope we never lose that core of the genre. However, the literature that affects a wider diversity of people, more deeply, is that to which we can most closely relate, and that's more difficult the farther in time or space or alien-ness we venture.
ALIF THE UNSEEN is a work set in our world (though far from Western society, daily news images have made that part of the world familiar), in our time, among people who are far less alien to us than they were before the internet. Without the protagonist's programming and Web skills, the story would fall. I feel all this places it firmly in the SF camp. Most important, perhaps, is that this is as relevant a story for our changing times as we'll encounter: Based on publication date, Wilson must have been writing this in her Cairo home during the Arab Spring, the most-significant change to sweep across that part of the world since the Crusades and ensuing colonialism. Hackers, the internet, and individuals using the Web to share information, achieve freedom, and bring down the corrupt establishment have changed everything, and with the Arab Spring we're seeing Cyberpunk realized.
Now a few words about cultural appropriation, as I'm sure some people will be concerned in regards to this work.
G. Willow Wilson is American-born, writing about Middle Eastern and Islamic topics. ALIF is a book that provides the deepest insights into those cultures that I've read to date, and I think I understand why: It all comes down to fear of the Other. All animals have this fear, humans particularly - and it's particularly egregious in sentient beings, especially those who read purportedly enlightened work like SF. Even so, for a long time, female SF authors had to write under pseudonyms to be taken seriously, and even female protagonists were a hard sell. Same for black, gay, and non-Western-culture authors and characters: Mainstream audiences have always been a little leery of the Other, uncertain, unable to connect to their stories. This is why various minorities or people not from the dominant culture are so under-represented. We usually only hear their ideas, but substantially different ideas without a narrative are difficult to understand or accept.
When Western (or non-black, or non-female, or non-whatever) authors write stories set in the culture of the Other, they usually get it wrong. They "Orientalize" or otherwise imbue the work with wonder and strangeness... because it's all about entering the culture from outside. Interesting, but not representing the culture or characters where the work is set. However, every once in a while, someone who started off in our culture (whatever that may be for the POV of the audience) immerses him- or herself sufficiently into the Other culture to be able to serve as a bridge between the two.
This is what Wilson did: Though she grew up in the US, she converted to Islam in college and moved to Egypt. She doesn't get it wrong, because she works hard to understand the culture she writes about, with occasional nods to acknowledge her ultimate Otherness to those cultures. However, her stories tell the tales that are important to Middle-Easterners, especially Egyptians, not just what an outsider would find interesting or exotic.
All through ALIF we see these stories, and through this book I've gotten a handle on those cultures, and why our two cultures face such challenges in trying to understand one another. Wilson serves as our bridge, opening our Western minds to this particular Other, which hopefully opens the path to more indigenous authors writing on these topics in their own ways. But at least now Western editors might start considering such works, because the audience will start considering them, because here we have a novel written from the Other POV but using sensibilities we can grasp.
Every single paragraph in this novel contains some note of brilliance. The story parallels the insights we see, as the main character grows in understanding as well - even the writing itself blossoming as the story progresses, so the entire work is not just what it appears to be but a metaphor as well, and sometimes several layers deep. In many ways it _is_ the magical book it describes, and it displays masterful writing not just line-by-line but in scene construction and overall story and imagery and character development and setting and intellectual stimulation and so forth.
If you love reading, you'll love this book....more
I have heard the argument that this book feels like Doctorow and Stross competing to see who's cleverer, but in fact that works in the book's favor. TI have heard the argument that this book feels like Doctorow and Stross competing to see who's cleverer, but in fact that works in the book's favor. They both do their best to write the cleverest, most thoroughly imagined trans-/post-human work I've read to date, and for that it's worth the occasional eye-rolling while reading. Huw's (the main character) single-minded drive to live simply and to a certain aesthetic clashes with everyone else's plots and schemes, leading Huw deeper and deeper into the post-Singularity Solar System. Because Huw is a technophobic misanthrope, we as readers get to experience this truly alien land- and mind-scape as Huw does. So even though it's dizzying at times, it's also accessible to our un-evolved, baseline-human minds.
The last sections, which greatly expand the scope and stakes, really satisfy. I'll likely end up using this to represent post-Singularity fiction in my SF Novels or Science, Technology, & Society courses. If the Singularity is your thing, you'll love this book. Even if it's not a topic that interests you, it's still something we need to prepare for, and what better preps the human mind for inevitable change than SF? (Don't know about the Technological Singularity? See Vernor Vinge's essay where he first defines it: "What is the Singularity?") Recommended....more
Just finished this big book a day or two ago, and my reaction is positive. For a long time, I kept going because of the engaging characters and becausJust finished this big book a day or two ago, and my reaction is positive. For a long time, I kept going because of the engaging characters and because of the usual Culture-novel stuff like watching how a post-singularity true-anarchic utopia might operate, especially the AI citizens (Minds). Often funny, frequently beautiful, and always immersive. And of course it's full of the megascale nano-engineered objects SF readers always love.
But the ending is what makes the book for me: Here Banks uses lovely imagery to tie together the various and sundry stories, characters, and other elements strewn throughout the novel into a unified whole - brilliant! This is a novel about how ridiculous and harmful social, political, and religious structures often are to the civilizations and people who form them, and every single element of the book reinforces this theme. Even the Culture characters - mostly Minds - whom Banks clearly admires are mostly weighted with sociopolitical baggage.
It's only the exceptional individuals for whom honor and duty and a notion of doing what's right combined with powerful sense of individuality who stand apart and keep civilizations functional. These exceptional characters abhor violence, yet often ultimately must resort to it when faced with horribly collateral levels of violence on the part of adversaries of the peace. One of the moments of brilliance appears when a Culture vessel named "Mistake Not..." faces a point where it might be forced to destroy a flagship vessel of an alien civilization - and possible damage or destruction on its own part - and it reveals its full name, which signifies a lot about how the Culture thinks and what makes it such an admirable alternative social structure. Similarly, the story of the "Beats Working" is tragic and exemplary.
Loved it. It works whether or not you've read other Culture novels (though better, of course, if you have). I understand how this sort of post-singularity novel isn't everyone's cup of tea, and it's a seriously long brick of a thing, but it's definitely worth a read....more