Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

June 14, 2009

Harry Harrison – The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 12:47 pm

I adore the Stainless Steel Rat books. I grew up with them – my father’s old Sphere paperbacks, and then 2000AD serialized The Stainless Steel Rat For President in 1984/5. (I was 8. I was in heaven.)

Slippery Jim DiGriz has always been the epitome of the fast-talking, high-living, straight-shooting trickster hero (and First Person Smartass), and what’s more he never kills people. He’s rather the Technical Pacifist, though, and it’s stated fairly unambiguously that this is down to his not wanting to kill people rather than, you know, not wanting them to die. And I don’t have a problem with that… it’s more honest than the A-Team version, where they very carefully show everyone escaping from the burning building or the car crash. And Jim rarely sheds a tear (except in a melodramatic smartass kind of way) for the mooks who do insist on dying. This happens a lot around his wife Angelina.

Speaking of Angelina, though… she’s a former psycho killer mastermind, who was born Extremely Ugly and had herself reshaped into ravishingness. She and Slippery Jim fell in love, and he had top Patrol doctors surgically implant a conscience in her. This is possibly a littlIe too close to Taming Wild Women for my taste, but, well, 1972 SF.

Speaking of 1972… well, 1975 really. This is one of that odd sub-genre of SF where the protagonist travels to the author’s time (or timeline) and generally place, and we’re supposed to derive some enjoyment from their attempts to understand our world or their gleeful rampage through it. And, of course, from recognizing things they don’t.

It seems to be closely related to that odd sub-genre of SF set in a fantastical world which halfway through turns out, with a nod and a wink, to be a postapocalyptic version of our own.

I suppose you could call them reverse portal-quest stories; there’s probably a case for understanding them as a kind of mooreeffoc story, with the same abrupt disruptive perceptual shift in the Way Things Are.

On the other hand, the past is a different country, and 1970s America even more so; I feel that that perceptual shift trivializes and distances the interestingness of it. Which is probably useful in context, since that lets us focus on the characters and the capers instead of the scenery.

June 12, 2009

Molly Gloss – The Dazzle of Day

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 10:11 pm

This is a beautiful, spare, wrenching story, about a generation ship populated by Quakers. They’re approaching their destination, and need to decide whether to leave the ship for the new world, and whether they can. It’s one of those stories that probably couldn’t be told without being SF.

Reading it is like eating good bread – warm, slightly sharp sourdough, good nourishing plain food well made – with the occasional piercingly strong black olive of a perfectly turned phrase.

The title is a quotation from a Walt Whitman poem. Surprisingly, the poem (Gloss uses excerpts from his poetry, up to half a dozen lines, for chapter headings) talks about turning away from the dazzle of day, and using the darkness of the night to see the stars. Quaker metaphors often use the term ‘light’ to describe, well, anything important, and often this is sunlight… but every star is a sun, no matter how far away, and the inside of the Dusty Miller is lit by xenon lights. The lights, like everything else in the artificial biosphere, are maintained with the same fierce, uncompromising dedication that the Friends in this book bring to maintaining their own interpersonal relationships.

It’s not a happy religious utopia; there are conflicts, struggles, unhappinesses, the occasional mean-spirited gossip about people perceived to behave wrongly. But people work with mindfulness, and we see that reflected in the things around them; a tool, a ceramic bowl, a crematorium furnace. A world. Two worlds.

When I was thirteen or so, I learnt a good word: apotropaic. Standing against the darkness. One of the questions this book leads into is about being strong enough to stand in the light.

June 6, 2009

Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu – Zahrah the Windseeker

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 4:59 pm

This is, almost entirely, a delightful book. It’s a little like Stardust, a little like The House of the Spirits, and a little like The Edge Chronicles, but mostly like itself.

It’s classic YA quest fantasy – an early-teenage girl comes to grips with her Special Nature, begins to explore the Forbidden Greeny Jungle (yes, that’s its real name) with her best friend, and then when he’s injured decides to go on a quest for the medicine that will save him.

She lives in a delightful world full of whimsically sketched and pleasantly inadequately explained biotech (genetotech? Techneculture? Clever plants, anyway) with light bulbs that grow in pots and can be transplanted into the walls of your house, CPU seeds that grow into PCs, and flowers as currency. Oddly, there are some others around (non-biological digi-book and compass, and a reference to cars being either hydrogen or flora powered) but no elaboration on them. It’s a very animistic world, too – Zahrah’s compass talks to her, there are Talking Animals both benign and predatory, and we’re left in no doubt that she considers the animals and even some plants around her as intelligent and sapient as she is.

The only problem I have with it is that it’s narrated in the first person by Zahrah herself, and she’s basically not that interesting a person to share headroom with. She isn’t all that curious about what’s going on around her, and rarely initiates anything that the plot doesn’t require her to, and whilst we’re told that she grows and changes it’s hard to see that for ourselves.

For that matter, the promise of the phrase “born dada”, and the name “Zahrah Tsami”, doesn’t seem to be fulfilled – whilst there’s a great deal of Odd Stuff going on, it all makes sense in context. It’s all explicable and can be related to the main plotline.

Juliet McKenna – Irons in the Fire

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 4:31 pm

Book 1 of the Lescari Revolution. This is very much series fantasy, but this first book does a very good job of setting things up and finding, if not a resolution, a good degree of achievement and interest by the end.

Lescar, amusingly, is structured perfectly for this sort of tale, though that happened right at the beginning of the Einarinn books. Six dukedoms, not at all alike in dignity, but set up almost ideally for the Sorting Algorithm of Evil. There’s no attempt to paint any of the dukes as less than greedy warmongering megalomaniacs, which at least is thoroughly consistent with all the past portrayals of the Lescari government. A few of the lesser nobles are shown a bit more sympathetically, and some even take part in the revolution, but they’re never shown even attempting to take it over or get away with their Superior Breeding. We see smart, educated tradesmen and guildsmen as well as peasants – in fact, we mostly see the former, partly because a lot of the action happens in the university town of Vanam. (The continent has two universities, Vanam and Col, and there’s a terrible rivalry between them. Sometimes you can tell McKenna went to Oxbridge.)

Sympathetic people do unpleasant things; unpleasant people do good things; there’s a lot of moral ambiguity and are-we-doing-the-right-thing questioning, and she doesn’t shy away from messy, nasty deaths.

The only criticism I’d make is that this book covers a great deal of ground, and sometimes stretches itself to do so. Unlike the earlier books, there are quite a few POV characters, and whilst she handles them well it does create rather a disjointed feeling when we skip to someone else and months of activity have gone past.

June 3, 2009

RIP David Eddings

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Sam @ 2:32 pm

Eddings-bashing might be fashionable – hell, I did it myself just recently – but he was a very good, very successful fantasy writer. His work may have been formulaic (though he did ring the changes on his tropes), but there’s a reason that a lot of it is a cliche. It’s because he made those ideas so popular, and without him Robert Jordan – to name only one – wouldn’t have had anything to subvert or comment on. He used to say he never read in the field, because it would ruin what he was working on himself, but the field damn well read him.

And furthermore, his work is always intensely readable. He wasn’t a great stylist, or even a particularly “good” writer, but his sense of character and pacing is good and his worlds are boldly sketched. And in particular – which I think is part of the secret of his success – he’s very, very good at writing fantasies of political agency and fantasies of home & family.

Edit: I’ve been reminded that I forgot Leigh, his wife and co-author. She contributed just as much to all of the books as he did, and it was a Good Day for fantasy when her name started appearing on the covers too. She died two years ago, sadly.

June 2, 2009

Acacia, pt III

Filed under: review — Tags: , , — Sam @ 10:07 am

Now I’ve finished it, I can give a proper verdict. It’s still worth reading, and I’ll want to read the next one – though I may go to the library for it, at least.

Unusually for series fantasy, we get a decent amount of plot closure – it’s very much “come back for another story” rather than “come back to see how it carries on”.

He’s got the bones of a very good story indeed there, and some really, really good imagery. If only we could crossbreed him with David Eddings…

Part 1 (start here)
Part 2

June 1, 2009

Acacia pt II

Filed under: review — Tags: , , — Sam @ 12:51 pm

OK, Durham’s got further to go than I thought before he’s a good writer. You can’t set up a tense political situation, where the only apparent options are failure and moral cowardice, and then find a third way to resolve it… in a catchup narrative.

And maybe one day he’ll stop writing royal Mary Sues, but I won’t hold my breath.

Part 1 (start here)
Part 3


Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 6:03 am

I’ve started reading David Anthony Durham’s Acacia Part 1: The War with the Mein. Will probably finish it today, but I wanted to post some preliminary thoughts first.

Let me get one thing out of the way first – it’s pretty good. I’d recommend it to all fans of secondary world fantasy series about kings and wars. Which sounds lukewarm, but then they’re generally not my cup of tea overall.

I probably wouldn’t have bothered reading this if it hadn’t been for the post-RaceFail emphasis on recommending BME SF & fantasy authors, but that would’ve been my loss, really. It’s good on the race issues, with actual diversity, sensibly placed skin colours, an explicit statement that they’re all the same people (none of this mucking around with pointy ears or green skin), and both some racial tensions and some resolutions to them. Of course, the cover’s still got a vaguely Celtic white chick in a red dress on it (along with a bunch of LARPers) but you can’t have everything.

It’s got a map in the front, which would be a strike against it if it didn’t already have a title including “Part 1″, the word “War”, and the name of a fantasy race, which renders the map somewhat redundant as a signifier. And yes, we will be visiting everything on it.

The character names are a bit odd in places – King Leodan Akaran, for instance. Which would be fine, if his Chancellor (“born within a few months, and from a family nearly as royal”) wasn’t named Thaddeus Clegg.

Right from the get-go, it’s like being beaten about the head with the infodump stick. We keep getting pages of stuff about history or character background, then someone notices they’ve drifted off into reverie. It’s like he’s heard of “show, don’t tell” and decided that meant “tell them then tell them it’s what a viewpoint character is thinking”. Omniscient narrator is pretending to be invisible.

The narration is – I won’t say dull and lifeless, because it’s not in the slightest, but it’s rather distant, as though he’s putting a glass pane between us and everything. That’s not helped by the way he keeps introducing us to interesting people, building them up for a large role, then zooming out and telling us how they died.

I suspect he’s still finding his pace as a writer, working out what to show us & how, but he’s got a lot of good stuff going for him – there are some unforgettable images in there, and he cares about material culture (what people wear, how they live, how they build) which is always a plus for me.

The plot follows the classic “does what it says on the back of the book, then some more stuff” arc – rebels attack Empire, Empire falls, heirs go into hiding, the counter-rebellion starts up. Nothing the slightest bit unexpected, but he carries it off.

Part 2
Part 3

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