Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

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.

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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