Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

November 8, 2012

The Hidden Assumptions of Robert A. Heinlein

Filed under: sf — Tags: — Sam @ 8:15 pm

I am reliably assured that this post is not a parody. However, it wasn’t the text I wanted to comment on, but the Heinlein quotation in the top right-hand corner, presumably chosen as some sort of philosophical statement to live by.

Let us leave aside the wisdom of choosing an SF writer’s words as philosophy, and move on to the quotation itself.

Certainly the game is rigged. Don’t let that stop you; if you don’t bet you can’t win.

Nice, ain’t it? Just the right blend of encouragement and cynicism, letting the adopter feel proud of their own savvy & daring, while looking down on those who don’t have the bravery or vision to realise how the world works and put up with it.

Let’s take a closer look.

Certainly – it’s important, when writing Didactic Aphorisms, to position yourself as an authority. And amongst people who respect certainty, filler words like this lend much more authority to whatever follows them.

the game – heaven forbid we be seen to treat things as important. If we do that, we lose our perspective. It’s just a game. Or, looked at another way: games are just as important as anything else is, because in the final analysis it’s all much the same.

is rigged – nice use of the passive voice there. Nobody owns the rigged-ness; it just happens. It’s just the way things are. Identifying particular people, or classes of people, as deliberate bad actors just isn’t done. For one thing, that implies that it isn’t universal, and that everyone wouldn’t do it if they owned the game – that perhaps someone might blame that person for rigging it. That there might be some overarching concept of fairness. In addition, this unsupported assertion allows the speaker to feel smugly cynical, always a very popular pose amongst adolescents desperate to avoid being seen as naïve.

Don’t let that stop you – implying that you were going to do it, you wanted to do it, but your decision might save for this advice have been influenced by small considerations like the situation being rigged against you. This isn’t anything near a million miles from a condescendingly emotive taunt like “Don’t be a coward”, and it’s not-so-subtly positioning the speaker as someone much older, wiser, and more daring than you.

; – notice the intimidating semicolon. Everyone knows that sentences with semicolons in them are much more learned and authoritative than those with dashes or ballistic commas.

if you don’t bet you can’t – phrasing this in the negative (rather than “if you bet, you could”) acts as a challenge. For the kind of people motivated by challenges, by the perceived need to prove themselves to a challenger, it’s more encouraging than actual encouragement or the provision of options. Also, notice that the focus is on the act of betting itself, rather than on the decision of whether to bet on a particular issue, or what to bet. Courage, rather than consideration of the situation, is important, it seems.

win – because you winning is all that matters.

April 13, 2011

David Anthony Durham – The Other Lands

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 5:40 pm

This is book 2 of his Acacia trilogy—you can read my review of the first book here. It has several good points, so I’ll save those for last.

What I didn’t like—at all—is Durham’s writing style. It reads as though he’s attempting some nihilist theory of anti-narrative, deliberately flattening the emotional peaks and lending spurious bathos to the troughs. He consistently has his characters reveal important, plot-wrecking events in the past tense (“Last week I carried out my master plan, and now you’re not in the plotline you thought you were”) and doesn’t let us feel main characters’ reactions, instead telling us about their facial expressions.

His word choice is odd enough (there is no real reason to use the word “protuberance” unless you’re writing comedy pornography) but he seems to feel an over-eager need to tell us everything.

She made each assignment sound both simple and laced with threat. She was good at that. He would have to keep his wits about him, make journal notes regularly, and find a way to quell the nausea that roiled in him each time he thought of those ocean waves.

The end result somehow manages to be simultaneously lumpy and soggy, like a feather quilt caught in a thunderstorm.

I did say that it had good points, and they’re very good. As in the first book, there’s plenty of racial and cultural diversity, and (as far as I can tell) basically no white people. Given the wholesale erasure and exoticization of nonwhite people in nearly all fantasy, that’s a really good thing. There are women in positions of power, and he’s rowing back on the royal Mary Sue factor that the first book suffered from—one is clearly suffering the corruption of power, and another demonstrating that she’s a warrior not a general. All of the character-development arcs here are extremely dark and nihilistic; the only way to avoid corruption and loss of idealism, it seems, is to die young.

Another good point is that Durham understands and uses rural ecological economics—

Gone were the tiny kive fish, such an important source of protein fried or dried or ground into paste. Gone were the waterfowl that hunted them. Fading was the Halaly vigour—which had been so based on their reliable food sources—and dwindling were the tribute and trade that had made them the beating heart of the continent. If all that wasn’t bad enough, the air swarmed with the mosquitos and biting flies that now gestated in the lake untroubled by the kive fish that had once thrived on their eggs;one of these spread disease, while the other left welts on the skin that easily grew infected.

Strange and offputting were the backwards High Fantasy sentences, however. Needed was a better editor, and no less so for a particularly comedic homonym: when talking about royalty, “secession” really doesn’t mean the same thing as “succession”.

To be fair, Durham does well with descriptive passages where he isn’t required to choose a focus or write dialogue;the landscape porn in the first book was quite spectacular, and there are some passages here—including a literally epic sea crossing—that match it nicely.

Overall, I’d recommend it only to serious series-fantasy fans, and then only if you read & enjoyed Book 1, and only if you have a high tolerance for bad writing.

February 14, 2011

DNF fantasies

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 2:53 pm

I’ve a couple of books here I couldn’t get through, so consider this a review of about the first third or half of each. I may go back to either or both, but right now I have better things to read.

The Adamantine Palace, by Stephen Deas: This one reads like a cross between Pern and A Song of Ice and Fire, and neither dragons nor royal politics hold a great deal of interest for me these days. It’s not badly written; it’s just not for me.

Blood of Elves, by Andrzej Sapkowski (trans. Danusia Stock): I picked this up because I hadn’t read anything so thoroughly Trad Fantasy in a long time, and because translated fiction (especially Eastern European, for some reason) always appeals to me a little more. The basic premise of it was fine if formulaic (orphaned royal heir adopted and trained by mystic warrior society, some sort of Prophecy going on in the background) but I got bogged down somewhere around the extended training montage and travelling scenes.

I’m also quite likely not to finish The Edge of the World, by Kevin J Anderson: I wouldn’t have got beyond the first few pages if it hadn’t been the only book I had with me on a long tube journey. The worldbuilding-mystery is interesting, but since this is apparently Book 1 of N, I’m not likely to get much payoff from it, and the writing style is very generalized, disengaged, and notional—very much tell rather than show.

November 13, 2010

Gwyneth Lewis – The Meat Tree

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Sam @ 4:44 pm

Seren Books, 2010—part of the “New Stories from the Mabinogion” series. Paperback, 256 pp., £7.99.

The Mabinogion is the mediaeval Welsh myth cycle; it comprises the Four Branches themselves; the four native tales; and three romances. There are several English translations available online, linked from the Wikipedia page above, and they’re well worth reading. You don’t need any familiarity with the original to read this, and I’d be really interested in hearing from someone who came to the story fresh with this version. For me, it’s in my blood & bone; I read it in English and in Welsh before I was fifteen, living in the same green valleys where it’s set, so when I was reading this I had the ghosts of a half-dozen different versions reading over my shoulder.

The Meat Tree is a version of the Fourth Branch, called in most translations “Math son of Mathonwy”; here it’s “Blodeuwedd” after the woman made from flowers to be Lleu’s bride, and Lewis’s narrative moves away from the traditional masculine-centred tale of magic and war towards a story centred on relationships—sexual & familial, through love, hatred, resentment, and obligation—and on what it means to be a flower and what it means to be meat. Gwydion and Gilfaethwy’s journey to Annwn, and the War of the Pigs, is passed over in a paragraph, but we hear a lot from Blodeuwedd herself and from Aranrhod. None of the women are given much page time in the original, and are mostly positioned as villains, victims, or (usually) both, so this is a good change.

Trigger warning: the myth deals with rape and incest, and this version doesn’t sugar-coat it.

The framing story is explicitly science-fictional, with two people going to board an unknown derelict near Mars. Campion is an Inspector of Wrecks, a fussy old man nearing retirement who sublimates himself in his work; Nona is an up-and-coming young student, sent out for some practical experience. The wreck looks like an old-time Earth ship, but it’s come from entirely the wrong direction; that’s the first mystery we see, and the story keeps circling back to it.

Inside, there are no bodies, and nothing in the logs to indicate what happened. There’s a clunky old VR immersion unit, though, and our protagonists decide to experience it in order to reconstruct what was important, what the crew valued, what might have happened.

The whole book is told through the crew logs; we open with the Inspector of Wrecks, in his distinctive (and very Welsh) narrative voice.

Is that working now, I wonder? I hate these thought recorders. They’re good in very confined spaces, where you don’t want to overhear the idiotic things your colleagues say to their families back on Mars, but I think they’re overrated. But, there we are, I’m Old School. The trick is to keep the unconscious out of it as much as possible and pretend that you’re talking to yourself.

We alternate between his narrative, Nona’s, and the shared channel they use when exploring the wreck and in the VR environment. The VR sessions themselves are done at a remove, because all we have is the log, with the two of them discussing what’s happening and trying to analyse both the story and the game system—the story behind the story.

Lewis is an extremely accomplished poet (Torchwood viewers will know her work through the inscription on the Wales Millennium Centre, Creu Gwir Fel Gwydr O Ffwrnais Awen) and she uses the myth to examine ideas about storytelling, imagination, and the writer’s process. More than that, though, the story is about itself, about this Welsh national myth, with its tricks and transformations and the struggle to claim independent selfhood. It has a great deal more in it, but in the end, it’s mythlore; it has a whole peoples’ world in it, and there are a great many perspectives on it.

Science-fictionally, it works well; the framing plot is an interesting twist on the old “something comes from outer space, and it’s not what it seems” plot so popular in Golden Age SF, and both the story-within-a-story and the game-that’s-more-than-a-game have been used to good effect recently as well. (I’m thinking of The Habitation of the Blessed, and Stross’s Halting State, respectively—though that’s the only similarity with the latter.)

The only issue I have with Lewis’s SF writing is that her explanations of her future technology are occasionally a little clunky.

Inspector of Wrecks: No, it can’t be. I’ve heard old-timers talking about something like this, but I’ve never seen one. I think it’s something called an audio-cassette player. There’s even a tape in it. Early personal entertainment system.
Apprentice: You’re kidding, when technology was still outside the body? That’s hilarious.
Inspector of Wrecks: See those couches? I bet they’re old VR systems.
Apprentice: VR?
Inspector of Wrecks: Virtual Reality. Before you swallowed the nano-synaptic dream tablets for training and recreation.

The formatting is from the book there, incidentally—the whole thing is written in the style of a play script, and I’d love to hear a radio play á la Under Milk Wood. Her characterization is amazingly expressive; the Inspector of Wrecks came fully formed from his first words. Nona was less real for me, but I think that’s at least as much because I have more trouble empathizing with her.

Overall, I recommend this highly; it’s very accessible poetic criticism, it’s a new (and woman-centred) take on the mediaeval myth, and it’s good SF.

November 8, 2010

Jasper Fforde – Shades of Grey

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , — Sam @ 6:42 pm

Fforde is one of the most quintessentially English novelists writing today. His humour is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, without gag lines or signposted comedy moments, but it has a delightful quality of extended surreality, and utterly absurd passages that nevertheless make complete logical sense in context.

The premise of Shades of Grey is completely science-fictional, and follows a rather English tradition of dictatorship novels, more or less started by 1984. Fairly far (probably, anyway) into the future, society is seemingly happy but regimented and controlled by the sinisterly manipulative Government. Much of history has been suppressed, and nobody knows what’s really going on, but if our hero and his antisocially rebellious (but nevertheless extremely attractive) girlfriend can avoid being sent to the Mysterious Government Facility for reeducation, they may get to the bottom of things.

Fforde’s take on the System, here, is unusual and very English—it’s run not by a legion of faceless oppressors, but by The Rules, which are followed because they’re The Rules, and because they’re obviously right. (Well, except perhaps for the one about the spoons.) Of course, the Rules are labyrinthine and complex, and there are a great many loopholes and inconsistencies. For instance, even persons engaged in heavy manual work must wear a collar and tie, but shirts are optional. Libraries have been denuded of most of their books in successive Great Leaps Backward, but staffing levels are required to be maintained. Despite the mass simplification of the world, new cultural tropes grow up, and the human tendency to name & categorize is in full force—as ably demonstrated by Caravaggio’s Frowny Girl Removing Beardy’s Head, and the Museum of the Something That Happened.

Society is organised chromatically, from Grey through Red to Purple, but it’s not a strict hierarchical ladder—the classifications are awarded by the amount of colour perception one has, and unexpected genetics can change a family’s status quite quickly. Since the society depends on all the colours, Red-perceptors have as vital a function as Yellows or Blues, despite a formally lower status, so there’s some interesting social crosslinking going on.

The way the colour technology & the influence of colour on society is introduced is entirely immersive, since the whole book is narrated by a smart but rather gormless teenager who already knows all of this and assumes we do too. As I’m rather a fan of this particular kind of worldbuilding, it worked well for me, and having a clueless protagonist is a very good way to introduce the truth about the world (well, something a bit closer to the truth, anyway) to both of us at the same time.

If you’re already a Fforde fan, you’ll almost certainly enjoy this, though it has far fewer pop-cultural allusions and a strongly SFnal ancestry. If you haven’t read Fforde, and this is the kind of SF you like (mindbending rather than -blowing, and rather funny) then you’ll probably enjoy this. If you don’t enjoy this, there may well be something Not Entirely Right about you.

George RR Martin & Lisa Tuttle – Windhaven

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , — Sam @ 5:50 pm

This is a paste-up job—three linked novellas, revised & continued from an original story in Analog of May 1975, The Storms of Windhaven. The first, which is essentially the original novella, is your basic story of a girl longing to join the elite hereditary caste of flyers properly. Their wings, made from the solar sails of the crashed starship which brought all their ancestors to Windhaven, are getting rarer every year as flyers are lost at sea, and Maris—the adopted daughter of a flyer, but forced to hand over his wings to his genetic heir—is determined to bring in new blood so that anyone can challenge a flyer for their wings.

She succeeds, of course, and keeps hers after all, while her stepbrother gets the musical career he wanted all along. So far, so Pern without the dragons.

The second novella, however, shows us some of the societal consequences of this massive change. The new academy, named Woodwings after a popular cautionary tale, isn’t thriving too well; it’s been seven years and not produced any flyers yet. Maris has returned to teach, but there’s a controversial new pupil, determined to win wings and become one of the flyers he hates, rejecting all their traditions. We get to see a lot of social ruptures on a very personal scale, and some vicious political infighting. Again, it ends on a happy, successful note, but it’s very clear that there are a lot of societal changes yet to come.

The third follows Maris still, to the island of Thayos, where she gets caught up in politics between the flyers and the land-born ruler. The text brings in the classic 1970s SF motif of the songs that change everything, and the power of musicians, but it’s also thoroughly problematized—it’s made clear throughout the three novellas that songs sung of heros may not show what happened, but it doesn’t stop them being true.

November 1, 2010

Lois McMaster Bujold – Cryoburn

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 1:16 am

This is a new Miles Vorkosigan book, and it’s a big departure from the previous ones—unsurprisingly so, given the trajectory of the series so far. I don’t think I can review it without spoilers for the first half of the book, so let me say now that it’s good but takes work to read.

It’s set seven years after Diplomatic Immunity, and opens in media very much res, with Miles stumbling barefoot and hallucinating through a vast underground catacomb of cryogenic notquitecorpses. We learn quite soon that he’s on a mission to investigate a potentially dodgy commercial transaction, and that brings up a lot of thinly disguised metaphors. Kibou-daini is a world where nobody is willing to die; they expect to go into cryogenic storage instead, and await a cure for whatever ails them. Since they are not dead, they can still vote; the cryogenics corporations hold their proxy votes, leveraging them into huge amounts of political power. (There’s a reason so much of the architecture of Kibou-daini is Egyptianate…)

Economics comes in too, and there’s a lot of financial trading between companies. The frozen citizens, in fact, have become commoditized much like mortgages. It’s revealed, halfway through, that many of the people in cryogenic storage will not be revivable; much like the subprime bubble, what was thought to be a fungible commodity—and thus a good one on which to base financial trading—becomes abruptly non-fungible. I’d have liked to have seen a more detailed look at how this abrupt shift affected the world, though.

The other thing I’d have liked to see more of (well, any of) is the Vorkosigan home life. We hear second-hand from Armsman Roic about how Miles and Ekaterin, and their four-by-now children, are adjusting, but his recollections have the affectionately-stereotyped quality of a family reminiscence, and it doesn’t give either her or the children screen time. And I would have loved to see what Aral is like with his grandchildren, but instead we have another book of Miles regretting being away from his home & family.

What we do get is a pre-teen zoologist Urchin, his little sister, and their cryogenically sequestered mother. Which is as much as to say, a woman in a refrigerator. Whom Miles rescues. Well, she’s a woman; of course he has to rescue her. It’s what he does. It would have been very good to read some narrative from her, but instead we get some Miles, some of Jin (the aforementioned zoological urchin), and some Roic. It feels rather as though Bujold’s setting Roic up to be Miles’s Sergeant Lewis, and to get his own series now Miles has ascended to nigh-unchallengeable levels. None of the antagonists in this book seems to be in Miles’s weight class, which is sad; he’s always done by far his best work against the odds. As a result, he’s quite a bit less, er, engaged with the mission environment than in previous books.

Overall: recommended, but don’t expect the same as before.

October 11, 2010


Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 9:17 pm

Because I need to close some tabs, here’s a set of miscellaneous SF-related links for you.

September 8, 2010

Akačehennyi on a Diet of Dreams

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 12:36 pm

By Kayleigh Ayn Bohémier. This is a blog novel, available here under a Creative Commons license.

It’s a dense, flavoursome book, making use of the blog medium—it’s basically in the form of a journal, with text formatting (including blacked-out text and nonlinear idea-clouds) and occasional embedded audio files without transcripts. I suspect it would make a screen-reader go screwy from time to time, but then a lot of SF does that in any case, with the density of odd words & names.

There are quite a lot of those here, since it’s thoroughly immersive, and the worldbuilding is decidedly non-Western. The viewpoint character, Salus Kobsarka-Nitannyi Niksubvya is a dark-skinned lesbian minority-immigrant, just beginning work with one of her political heroes.

You must forgive me when I make embellishments because I do not really remember the cirrus clouds in the sky or my thoughts as I dressed this morning, only the blue sky and the sun-shaped links I clasped around my dreadlocks. When I pose in front of the mirror every morning, I pull the transparent gyena up over my hair. To me, the gyena always suggests more … tantalizing … like the opening of a seductive dance in a film. A confession? While Kelis and I were engaged, I often lamented that she would stop wearing it after the wedding. I think that the bronze hair ornaments look beautiful beneath it no matter what any hotàkhi Shiji woman says.

It’s about a world shaped by colonization, oppression, and the struggle against them, but it isn’t about the oppressors at all; the plot circles around some of the consequences of this, the inevitable factionalism and complexity that you always get with real people and real situations. Mostly, however, it’s about relationships—romantic, sexual, professional, family, friendship—and the tensions between those and with principles or ambition. Between felt affinities and known affinities, perhaps; the truths of the heart and the truths of the mind, which can only be reconciled when one achieves akačehennyi.

There’s a glossary at the back of the book (well, insofar as blog novels have a back) which explains all the unusual words; if you’re the sort of person who likes those, it’s comprehensive and useful. Personally, I prefer to avoid them until afterwards, and enjoy figuring the words out from context. Nitannyi is a semi-stranger in the culture of the novel (a half-blood immigrant, brought up in the canyon dark) and I find the mixture of things she explains to us and things that are normal to her extremely good mind exercise. She’s also keeping this journal partly to improve her Tveshi, and Bohémier evokes that sense wonderfully in the language.

This book reminds me of Le Guin’s Hainish novels, but it’s very much a story told from the inside rather than from the outside. Definitely recommended, and to reiterate: it’s free online, so you have no reason not to give it a try.

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.

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