Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

June 29, 2009

Narrative gifts

Filed under: sf — Tags: , — Sam @ 10:19 pm

My beloved surprised me earlier this evening with a nice rant of a short-short story as a present.

She’s right, of course; SF conventions on planetary occupancy are generally Extremely Silly. Not always Planet of Hats-level silliness, but not far from it. A planet may look tiny and precious while you’re out in space, but once you get close enough to interact meaningfully with it it’s immense, and complex, and full of billions upon billions of incredible details, most of which could change your life if you let them.

Oddly enough, most SF writers have historically been interested only in the details with rayguns, or big pointy teef like dis, or which could provide new and interesting solutions to contrived engineering problems. This seems to be changing, but there’s still plenty out there to snark at.

SF, of course, is a fundamentally imperialist activity. In the Western-derived US space opera tradition, it’s all about the inevitable triumph of People Like Us (Campbell, passim) and then the reaction against that (eg. Longyear’s Enemy Mine) and the reaction against that reaction (the whole tiresome milwank crowd) and so on and on and on. In the more British scientific-romance tradition, it’s more about the hegemony of perspective, whether unexamined or forcefully advocated (Brin, passim). And the reaction against that, of course, whether by presenting obviously flawed and failsome perspectives or by forcefully advocating other ones alongside it.

And that inevitably means less interest in the true nature and character of the Other. SF purports to examine the Unknowable Other, but that’s complete bollocks; it’s all done with mirrors.

June 27, 2009

Connie Willis – To Say Nothing of the Dog

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 11:30 pm

If the proposition had been put to me, prior to reading this novel, that it was even remotely possible for a text to be at one and the same time a time travel caper, a 1930s detective story, a deconstruction of the Country House Novel, and an extended meditation on modelling chaotic systems and the cosmological significance of jumble sales, I would (I freely admit) have been dubious.

There are so very many things I would like to say about this book, but it will take another half-dozen readings at least for me to understand it properly. That is, however, a chore I will undertake with equanimity.

Normally, I would encourage all of you to read this book immediately; however, that would be wrong of me. You must, if you have not already, read Three Men in a Boat (though The Wind in the Willows will do at a pinch), The Complete Jeeves and Wooster, By His Bootstraps, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, William the Conqueror, and at the very least The Nine Tailors and Gaudy Night. Then you must read this book.

I was a little disappointed when I worked out one of the central mysteries long before the protagonists did; but then again, it was (in retrospect) inevitable, and I suspect Willis would have been disappointed if a genre-aware reader hadn’t been expecting that.

The book is gentle, witty, poignant, and more than occasionally side-splittingly hilarious. It runs on cheerfully, like the ever-flowing stream which forms such an eminently Victorian metaphor for time, but – like the stream – there are all sorts of interesting eddies and crosslinks inside the flow. Nothing is insignificant, the story tells us. Nothing gets ignored or passed over; not bulldogs, Oxford Dons, kittens, spinster ladies, or the most egregiously hideous Victorian decorative ware. All Nature is but Art.

June 25, 2009

Mike Scott Rohan – Run for the Stars

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 1:48 pm

This is his first book, and completely unlike the others – interestingly, it’s the only one where he published as Mike rather than Michael. It’s fairly standard early 1980s if-this-goes-on SF – the Cold War became hot, the Earth is run by a hereditary bureaucracy, and the Big Bad polity is “the African junta”. Pleasantly, though, the only dark-skinned characters we see are good guys.

What it most reminded me of, from the blurb, is McCaffrey’s Decision at Doona – brave throwbacks escape a crowded, repressed, enervated Earth for the stars. It’s not a fair comparison, though, and not only because it’s very much a 1980s vision of the future rather than a 1960s one – the focus of Run for the Stars is almost entirely on the preparations to leave, and on opposing the evil bureaucracy who don’t understand the Importance Of Space, and they don’t even get to the colony planet before the end of the book.

It’s also a first contact novel of sorts, though the only contact they have is a short exchange of maser-radio messages and a couple of missiles. It’s a downbeat sort of book, given that the take-home message seems to be that civilizations decay and change, and that alien governments can be paranoid and evil too. Pleasantly, though, we have sympathetically drawn pacifist characters (religious pacifist, at that) and the one space battle is to preserve rather than to destroy.

Overall verdict: slight, but interesting enough.

June 24, 2009

Magic washing powder – Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 12:16 pm

This book is available online under a Creative Commons license – ie. free to read and redistribute unchanged. You can download it here.

Like everything else Sanderson has written, it’s a how-does-this-universe-work mystery novel. It’s even got a technical appendix. I’ve never been quite sure about the point of these things – after getting to the end of the story, who wants to read the technical specifications of the magic? I suppose the same people who read the ordnance specs in a David Weber book. On the other hand, definitely and categorically not the same people who always read the historical and linguistic appendices in The Lord of the Rings. Nope. Completely different kind of geek.

So, to criticise Sanderson on his own ground – the magical system is quite interesting, very basic but well thought out. It all works by washing powder – well, if you will call it “BioChroma” then it can’t really be anything else. Everyone has a certain amount of washing powder, and can give it to other people. If you have enough, you can invest it in objects or use it to reanimate the dead, and sometimes people come back from the dead with a lot and get worshipped as gods.

When you use washing powder for magical effects, it washes the colour out of something nearby – the more magic, the more washing powder, the more colour gets lost. Given that good dyestuffs are not only expensive but labour-intensive as well, it’s an interesting idea, and points up the whole capitalist theme yet again. Oddly, though, this particular city-state has the advantage of a particular flower which gives all sorts of brightly coloured and apparently lightfast dyes. (This is of course complete scientific, botanical, and technical bollocks, but if I can let that pass anyone can.)

One interesting thing I had to check – on p.60 T’Telir is described as the only city advanced enough to have restaurants. That immediately looked very odd to me, but Sanderson’s right from a strict point of view – restaurants per se, with a choice of dishes, only turned up in eighteenth-century Paris. To the best of our knowledge, at any rate – I’d be delighted to hear of non-European examples before that.

Some other thoroughly characteristic Big Fantasy features – bloody kings, and a talking sword. One called “Nightblood” at that. I suppose we were lucky it wasn’t “NightBlood”. And magic princesses. No, seriously. All the potential heirs of this kingdom are born with magic hair. They can change its colour, or even make it grow. If they’re enjoying themselves, the Royal Locks (sic) turn blonde. Red for embarrassment, white for fear, dark for control, and blonde for unguarded fun or enjoyment…

The characterization is pretty good for Big Fantasy, though not deep. It doesn’t help that most of what we get told about people is unsubtle and fairly crashingly obvious – less so than with Acacia, at least, but still Sanderson seems to feel that we need things pointing out to us.

“They laughed. He wasn’t sure whether to be amused or insulted that they so often confused his jokes for serious statements and the other way around.”

It’s basically a good book, and very readable. The big question it asks is about who can be trusted with what, and what justifies what, but he doesn’t preach at us about it.

June 22, 2009

Lucy Bond – Red Tape and Cold Iron

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 11:16 pm

Red Tape and Cold Iron, or A Proposal for the Re-Introduction of the Faery Folk To the United Kingdom (Jim Baen’s Universe, 2, 6)

This is a nicely polished little semi-precious stone of a short story, elaborating around a whimsical conceit. Someone wants fairies back in Britain, because they’ve been reading too many of the wrong kinds of books; someone else has a rather better idea of what fairies are like, but wants them back there anyway. Civil servants, I have observed, can be really quite nasty pragmatic at times…

Interestingly, Bond has chosen to narrate everything rather than present the action; it’s quite a traditional fairy-tale stylistic technique, but normally we’d hear some dialogue too, especially since so much of this story does consist of discussions and negotiations. The other oddness about her choice is the lack of any framing story – we do have to wonder who the narrator is, and why they’re telling us all this.

The writing could have done with a bit more editor’s pencil, but it’s still delightful – very arch, mannered and precise, with tongue very firmly in cheek. I want to quote huge swathes of it, but this one will have to do.

[S]he was, none-the-less, a Folklorist, and it is very hard not to be a lover of real ale if one is a lover of olde Englande.

And casting spells with horse-brasses, no less… that’s Olde Englande for you. Full of bloody fairies.

Dragonsbane

Filed under: meta,Uncategorized — Tags: — Sam @ 9:23 pm

I decided against continuing with the series; it’s frankly just too depressing right now, and the themes of possession and mental health are really not ones I want to read about for some time yet.

Alan Garner – The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

They soon left the village behind and were riding down a tree-bordered lane between fields. They talked of this and that, and the children were gradually accepted by Scamp, who came and thrust his head onto the seat between Susan and Gowther. Then, ‘What on earth is that?’ said Colin.

They had just rounded a corner: before them, rising abruptly out of the fields a mile away, was a long-backed hill. It was high, and sombre, and black. On the extreme right-hand flank, outlined against the sky, were the towers and spires of big houses showing above the trees, which covered much of the hill like a blanket.

A Puffin book, edited by Kaye Webb, with a cover illustration by George W. Adamson and a map by Charles Green, this copy makes a delightful physical object as well as a wonderful read. It’s Garner’s first novel, published in 1960, and grows like a short, sturdy tree from the Cheshire earth of his home.

I hadn’t read this for ten years or so, but everything came back quickly: Cadellin the wizard (I read this early enough that I can’t bring myself to use the Welsh pronunciation); Fenodyree, who’s always been one of the reasons I far prefer dwarves to elves; Durathror the elf-friend; the Lady Angharad, who lives on one of the Two Floating Islands of Logris; and Gaberlunzie the wanderer, who wears a broad-brimmed hat and rides an unusually fast and strong horse. The text, of course, doesn’t tell us who he is, but we can make a guess, and it isn’t King James V. (‘Gaberlunzie’ is a Scots word for a licensed beggar, probably from the gaberlaine coat they wore; the story is that James V disguised himself thus to walk amongst his subjects, just like Certain Other People did.)

It does show a distinct anti-industrialist bias, but that only places it more firmly in the mainstream of British fantasy of the era – the classic example is that the lios-alfar of Weirdstone did a Dymchurch Flit some centuries ago, into the highlands of “Prydein” (Scotland, rather than Britain, here) and Sinadon (Castell Caer Lleion near Conwy, not to be confused with Caerleon-on-Usk of Arthurian legend) and across the Westwater into the Isle of Iwerdon (Ywerddon is the Welsh for ‘Ireland’) because the noise and pollution were just getting Far Too Much for them.

The mythology and the place-names are a bit mix-and-match, but that’s part of its charm – Welsh wizards and Norse dwarves battle creatures from Norse and Irish mythology, showing us a well-worn layered history to the land. Almost none of the names are used much like their mythological antecedents, but I can’t bring myself to care. Speaking of names, of course, this novel does have one of the absolutely characteristic markers of early 20th Century British children’s literature – a Susan.

Unusually for portal-quest fantasy, the map in the front is very constrained in space – it covers an afternoon’s hike, mostly over gentle ground, rather than the leagues, weeks, months, kingdoms of most of these books. Gowther knows every inch of it, and we can tell the author does too, but he bears his earmarkings lightly and they never wear.

June 21, 2009

Dragons from stars in an empty sky – Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 9:45 pm

This is a poetic, deeply affecting book – the story of what it means to kill a dragon, and what it means to be a dragon.

John Aversin killed the Golden Dragon of Wyr to protect his people. He’s a crafty, laughing man, a scholar and an engineer with a magpie mind endlessly fascinated by all the scraps of learning he can glean from the decaying, disregarded books of his far northern province. (And one of the little details that first made me love this book, when I was young? The heroes wear glasses.) The dragon, on the other hand, was just a dragon. It’s when we meet the next one that we begin to understand…

To be a mage, you must be a mage. The power, the control, the understanding that magic stands for is an incredible temptation – either devote yourself to magic and nothing else, or be a failure and live in the messy, confusing, distracting world. Mages – and this is a recurring theme in a lot of Hambly’s work – are outside the law, dead to society, not held by the bonds of human fellowship.

Interestingly, though, Hambly shows us this temptation quite the other way around. Jenny Waynest, our viewpoint character, is forever reproaching herself, and trying not to resent her family, for all the wasted time, all the petty distractions of the world, everything that takes her away from scholarship and power.

That’s power, of course, as an end in itself – the diamond-bright glittering wonderfulness of competence and skill. It’s only the antagonist whom we see wielding power for her own ends, rather than to protect someone else or – the truest measure of magic – because there’s simply no way not to.

Gareth, our third protagonist, is also a scholar – an expert in one very narrow field – but the way he grows through the story is to learn to prize real life, real people, over the heroes of songs. Magic, fantasy, and dragons are all amazing things, but they are perilous as well.

This book is an interesting restatement of one of Nietzsche’s meatier soundbites – when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back into you. Look into the Perilous Realm, and leave some part of yourself behind. What effect does that fragment of soul have?

June 18, 2009

Philip Palmer – Debatable Space

This is a peculiar book. It’s got a really stunning idea at its heart, which is a corollary of quantum entanglement communications: the idea that, denied anything but perfect virtual telepresence on an alien world, humans could well turn into despotic psychopaths, lording it over their own colonial subjects.

However, for reasons best known to himself, Palmer has chosen to cloak it in the trappings of a comic space opera – the kind of story usually described as a Zany Caper and lovingly wrapped in a cover by Josh Kirby (mayherestinpeace). The story opens with a ragtag bunch of misfits pursuing a career in piracy and kidnapping – IN SPACE! Complete with a kidnapping victim who isn’t what we think… but then that was the pirates’ plan all along, and it turns out they’re not just pirates but revolutionaries, and the story unfolds from there.

The end product reads as though Terry Pratchett, at the point when he first sat down to write The Dark Side of the Sun, had instead been hit by a stray particle of inspiration intended originally for the creative imagination of Alastair Reynolds. The first comparison I thought of was Rob Grant; or taken a little further, darker, more intense, it might have been Deathstalker. It’s almost certainly significant that all these examples are very British writers.

Palmer’s very good at pacing his revelations out, and we get a good idea of the backstory through the self-absorbed maunderings of Lena, the kidnapping victim, who is less an unreliable narrator than a flagrantly incompetent liar with intermittent flashes of self-awareness.

On the other hand, it’s hard to care. The characters aren’t exactly two-dimensional, but I’m up to page 346 (I write these reviews as I go along) and the only one I couldn’t summarize in a twitter-length is Lena. This is quite likely deliberate, of course – it’s absolutely standard for the comic-space-opera form that the characters don’t matter any more than the set, and what’s important is the mad hijinks and narrow scrapes.

The science is mostly based around string theory, though “rubber band theory” would probably be a more accurate name. This isn’t a criticism; I appreciate a good line in technobabble, so long as nobody cares if I skim-read it and get back to the interesting bits. The military strategy, on the other hand, is devastatingly incompetent. Sacrificing millions of soldiers to win a battle, without any narrative explanation of why a sneakier tactic wouldn’t work? That’s one thing. Doing so when you’ve already established that your civilization has more than enough skills and resources to build throwaway robots by the million? Oh, dear.

What we never see, throughout the whole book, is any of the Enemy. The Cheo (and yes, that is derived from “CEO”) we see at a distance in Lena’s diary-excerpt flashbacks, but only her descriptions – nobody else so much as gets a line or a name. Having finished it now, I get the impression Palmer was aiming to do a character-focused piece all about Lena, but didn’t know how to write anything SFnal except Red Dwarf episodes. That’s an unfair and sweeping generalization, I freely admit, but it’s abundantly clear from the tenor of his writing, and especially from his afterword, that he’s new-come to SF writing. I’m not sure how far his reading stretches; he namechecks Verne, Asimov, Orwell, Heinlein, Bradbury, Sturgeon, and “a host of others for creating the genre that is now the playground for a whole new generation of writers”, and more interestingly he names a couple of planets after Pohl and Kornbluth.

“It is a novel full of exaggeration and hyperbole. Spaceships travel amazingly fast, antimatter missiles are thrown like water bombs, some humans are genetically modified to swim like dolphins or run like panthers, the battles are astonishingly vast in scale, and anyone who doesn’t die horribly in combat can live for centuries in a state of perfect health and simmering libido.”

See, that’s someone who’s just discovered SF imagery and really wants to share it with everyone, but doesn’t realize that there are thousands of people in his own country alone who read hundreds of SF books a year and might well read nothing else. It’s so sweet!

June 16, 2009

In the pile – fear & hesitation

Filed under: rereading — Tags: , — Sam @ 12:17 am

One of the next books in the to-re-read pile is Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane, which I recall being a truly wonderful book.

On the other hand, if I re-read that then I will almost certainly need to proceed to Dragonshadow, which is extremely different in tone and has some disturbing aspects. It’s also very good, but I remember it being very much not what I’d expected.

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