Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

May 29, 2010

Marc Stiegler – Earthweb

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 1:30 pm

Another very characteristic offering from the Baen Free Library. Actually, I’m giving an unfair picture of the Library with these posts—there are some extremely good books in there, and I should post with some positive recommendations soon.

This one, on the other hand, will not be one of them. It reads as though Stiegler had found a comprehensive list of things to avoid doing if you don’t want to give offense, and then treated it as a how-to manual.

The main plot involves a series of huge death-dealing spaceships full of killer robots, which are called (without any explanation whatsoever) Shiva I to VI. Now, it might be possible to argue that this is a reference to Jewish mourning practice, but given the literary antecedents of huge unmanned spaceships on periodic courses through the solar system, it doesn’t wash.

Teams of dedicated and highly trained people, referred to as Angels, are sent up to perform suicide commando raids on the huge killer spaceships named after a Hindu god. Can we say “problematic”, boys and girls? I thought we could!

It’s not as though that’s the only offensive aspect, either. The national stereotypes are thick on the ground, from the flighty spendthrift South American woman (Hispanic, not indigenous, of course) to the upper-class British journalist whose foppish manner conceals a razor-sharp mind. Admittedly, the Chinese scam artist shows no discernable Chinese characteristics; he’s just a generic American like the entire rest of the book.

There’s an autistic child who’s treated only as a plot coupon (they use the phrase “idiot savant” in earnest), and all his implausibly miraculous accomplishments are laid at his mother’s door instead. And, of course, the reason she’s doing it is to earn enough money to find a cure for his autism.

In related disability news, though, there’s a prominent example of wheelchair non-fail—a character who’s lost both legs is treated entirely normally, and not made an object of pity. Of course, his Manic Pixie Dream Girl (who’s also a lethal killing machine, of course—you didn’t think this kind of book would let a heroine get away without that?) doesn’t hesitate to commandeer the controls when she wants to take him on a date.

All in all, this is really rather a special book, and only worth reading for curiosity value. Once I’d finished it, I ended up going straight to the bookshelf for Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark, for a thoughtful, sensible, nuanced treatment of autistic people instead, and I recommend you do the same.

May 25, 2010

Mark Charan Newton – City of Ruin

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 11:31 am

This is the direct sequel to his earlier Nights of Villjamur, and it’s even better. He still has the same taste for overexplanation, and there are a few instances of characters telling each other things they already know, but this one is definitely a complete story within the larger plot arc, and it’s not necessary to read the first before this.

The world is clearly the deep future of our own, enough millennia into the future that the sun has cooled and dimmed to red, in the tradition of Vance’s Dying Earth or Farmer’s Dark is the Sun. Oddly, the connection doesn’t annoy me nearly as much as it usually does in fantasy. I think that’s partly because it is deep time rather than post-apocalyptic, and doesn’t have any of the “clever” little references that set my teeth on edge.

“Ah, yes, you were admiring my antique soup jug, I think?” The slender man’s eyes darkened with pleasure as he traced a finger along its curving flank, following the strange words somehow inked into the ivory-yellow surface: “Russell Hobbs”.

He doesn’t hesitate to kill characters off, in grotesque and meaningless ways, and generally at a viewpoint distance. On the other hand, he also doesn’t hesitate to show complex, interesting plans (for, eg., killing characters off) crashing and burning abruptly. There’s a very strong arbitrary-and-meaningless vibe going on throughout, which might make this sound somewhat Moorcockian (and the sheer prevalence of fantastic and in fact downright bloody weird imagery—I particularly liked the flying monkeys—could reinforce this impression) but he does manage to pull off the feat of having an albino protagonist who is nothing whatsoever like Elric.

One very good thing this book features is a competent, sensible, interesting older woman. You’d think there was some Fantasy Bylaw against those, most of the time… and, speaking of Fantasy Bylaws, this one does indeed have a map in the front. I suspect that after Nights of Villjamur came out, the Fantasy Establishment went around to the offices of Tor UK and started making comments about what a nice place they had here. Not sure what the point is, but if it keeps the traditionalists happy, there’s no harm in it.

May 23, 2010

Michael Z Stephenson – Freehold

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , — Sam @ 5:56 pm

You know the kind of book where you have to keep reading just to find out how bad it can get, and then when you’re done with it you have to take a long shower? This is one of those.

It’s a preachy lolbertarian wish-fulfillment cacotopia, explicitly pro-torture, pro-terrorism, and pro-war-crimes. It’s also a prime example of the fine art of making your imagined future society look good by erecting strawman dystopias as a comparison—for example, one of the proud boasts the Freehold of Grainne make is a 96% adult literacy rate, much better than Earth under the UN. (That’s right, the UN has somehow morphed into One World Government.)

It has cleared up one minor mystery, though. I’d always vaguely wondered what perfect lolbertarian societies had instead of taxes; it turns out that it’s insurance for everything under the sun.

This is a Baen Free Library book, available to download or read online for free, but I strongly suggest not doing so.

May 22, 2010

China Miéville – The City and the City

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , — Sam @ 11:02 am

This is an utterly classic crime novel (of the grim, realist kind—low crime?) in its structure, but unmistakably science fiction in its methodology. The kicker is that the science involved is poli-sci and sociology.

Besźel and Ul Qoma would each individually be a typical Ruritania[1], but it’s the interaction between them that produces the novum here. Instead of facing each other across a defined border, as other doubled cities do, they interpenetrate—share physical topology, while the psychogeographical landscape is entirely different in each.

The setting could only have been Eastern Europe, and not just for Balkanesque reasons; this sort of calm acceptance of surreal sociopolitical realities, and the concomitant black humour, is utterly characteristic of the literature of the region.

It’s hard to classify by type[2], but then that’s the best kind of novel to think about in that way. The approach it takes to the inherent strangeness of the city and the city (a linguistic construction used in Besźel and Ul Qoma themselves—saying “the twin cities” or “the split cities” would be an extremely politicised speech act, because it would be an attempt to define the relationship between them) is thoroughly immersive, presented as it is by a first-person narrator who does not explain strangenesses to us.

Structurally, though, it’s a liminal fantasy in that it approaches and then (denies? subverts? co-opts?) the possibility of further strangeness hidden within the already bloody weird structure of Besźel and Ul Qoma.

That kind of liminality, an insistence on ambiguously negotiated boundaries, is mirrored in all the narrator’s relationships—unspoken agreements, unoffical arrangements, “they don’t know but they wouldn’t mind”. That’s how they do things in the city and the city, it seems…

[1] “Besźel” is probably taken from the Hungarian beszél, “to speak”. My Arabic-fu is rather more dodgy, but “Ul Qoma” could well be “The Summit”. Most of the initial establishment of place is done through language—the police slang mectec, or a trilingual pun in the name of a drug. The second book, set in Ul Qoma, makes much of the sheer size of the more economically advanced city’s building boom.

[2] The terms “immersive” and “liminal” come from Rhetorics of Fantasy (Mendlesohn – review here). And yes, I’m aware of the peculiarities of using a fantasy-specific theoretical schema on Debatable SF, but you use the tools that fit your hand…

May 21, 2010

Paradigmatic Fantasy

Filed under: meta — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 12:32 am

In the pub earlier, we were discussing Classic Fantasy: or, if we gave you £50 to spend on “the best” fantasy, what would you get?

I’m steadfastly against the notion of a canon, or at least of one core canon. Everyone brings different things to the genre, and everyone takes different things from it. So what I’m doing here is making a list of books that exemplify what I think fantasy is about. It will, of course, be a partial and a biased list, and I want to see other peoples’. I’ll do a parallel list for SF (qua SF) soon, too.

Lord of the Rings

This one’s an unquestioned pick for me. I’m not too fond of the hierarchies, the questionable racial stuff, and the inbuilt sexism, but the themes resonate far too strongly with me not to include.


Again, no possibility I could leave this off the list. It’s about identity, and place, and love, and pain, and the struggle to find yourself when the world denies you. (I did a set of re-read posts a while ago.)

The Curse of Chalion

Lois McMaster Bujold’s story of a curse, a series of betrayals, fidelity beyond death or all reason (the death is the easy part…), self-realization, the struggle to trust in the gods, and the reward of a home unlooked-for.

Tam Lin

Pamela Dean’s retelling of the Child Ballad, set in an American university in the 1970s. Scholarship, feminism, love, and friendship, in a novel which loves literature.

Bridge of Birds

Barry Hughart’s classic fantasy of a Middle Kingdom that never was. It’s quixotic, joyful, and life-affirming, with thrills, spills, and adventure galore.

I can think of a half-dozen others that might deserve a slot, and often for very good reasons—but I think those come more under personal touchstones, the books that shaped my perceptions of the genre, than classics.

May 18, 2010

David Friedman – Harald

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 7:36 am

Micro-review: Fun bit of mil-fluff; strategy & logistics for gamers. Harald himself is basically Mary Sue Stark. (Er, that’s as in Ned Stark, not Tony Stark. Just to clear things up.) One thing that annoys me, though, is the prevalent voice. Talk like this, all the time. Everyone. Like they hate talking. Hard to follow. And then the narrative voice starts doing it too for some of the action scenes…

This is a Baen Free Library book, which means you can buy, download, or read it online for free here.

May 3, 2010

Adam Roberts – On

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 12:11 pm

I liked this, but with reservations. It’s a worldbuilding-mystery novel, with the Big Looming Mystery being the big looming worldwall on which everyone lives, and I’m usually keen on those if done right.

This one basically is, but the explanation of the Mystery comes from a pop-up character (even referred to in the text as a Wizard) who performs that particular kind of infodump where the reader understands it completely but the character to whom it’s addressed doesn’t. Obviously, it’s a perfectly valid authorial decision, and it underlines the themes of precariousness and insignificance that run through the entire book (Tighe, the viewpoint character, has his life turned casually upside down several times over), but it grates on my reading protocol. I have a feeling that that’s because it’s unambiguous—once you get given an explanation like that, the Wizard Has Spoken, and the intriguing mystery gets collapsed into something definite enough to have come from a RPG sourcebook, without the inherent crevices and ambiguities of real historical explanations.

This is one of the same reasons I don’t get on with far-postapocalyptic or magical-future fiction, viz. Robert Jordan’s occasional hints of our own history. I would bring in the Shannara books here too, but it’s been fifteen years since I read any of them, I think, and I don’t miss them.

May 1, 2010

Holiday reading

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 3:18 pm

I’ve just come back from two weeks in the Scottish Highlands, so here’s a brief roundup of what I was reading while I was there. (Some of it, anyway—the ones that interested me enough to post about.)

Fire in the Mist, by Holly Lisle

Not bad at all. Notable for the use of conflicting histories, and that not all friendly cute things are Nice. It uses the bog-standard male-female dichotomy (want to split a society into two competing groups? Make one exclusively male or male-dominated, and one female) but that’s a matter of taste as much as anything. Most SF readers are quite a lot more strongly gendered than I am. One solecism leapt out at me, though. Finding a cute dialect/fantasy name for everyday things is all very well, but meals? “Nonce” is obviously based on “nones”, but has a completely different time-based meaning. On the other hand, calling the midday meal “midden” is… rather inappropriate.

War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

This is a wonderful book. It’s a pseudo-history, it’s full of footnotes, and my copy has a really, really beautiful cover, with a painting by Paul Klee. The footnotes are full of newspaper clippings in more than one language (with a detailed history of the collection and explanations of why it’s incomplete), reports of scientific conferences, and extracts from memoirs. Overall, it gives a wonderful picture of a drastically changing world, and of the humanity who ruined it for themselves.

The Dramaturges of Yan, by John Brunner

This is quite a silly book. Nevertheless, it’s great fun.

City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer

There is very little I can sensibly say about this book, not because it is not a book about which sensible things can be said (they can, in profusion) but because the ideas, the eidolons, contained within its pages wreak their effect insensibly, with bare reference to the reader’s normal notions of narrative and literary propriety. It spatters the mind like raindrops, here and there in no apparent order, but nevertheless everywhere.

Ten Little Wizards, by Michael Kurland

A successor novel to Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy books. Not bad at all.

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