Monthly Archives: January 2016

The Six Directions of Space

The Six Directions of SpaceThe Six Directions of Space by Alastair Reynolds

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Alastair Reynolds has been a contemporary science fiction author on my list of writers to check out for a while. It was near the end of Christmas break that I visited my local public library and grabbed a small pile of novels that included Swanwick, Moorcock, and Benford, and a very thin volume by Reynolds. The Six Directions of Space, like The Best of Michael Swanwick, was published by Subterranean Press (one of a signed run of 1000), but unlike the Swanwick, it was a disappointment. From everything I hear, Reynolds has done impressive contemporary science fiction, but The Six Directions of Space, though a quick and easy read (actually a novella in hardcover), is not among this.

I kept trying to figure out what was bothering me about the work as I was reading. It was a compelling idea: a reality in which the Mongols had conquered the known world, become a space-faring civilization, and then—after stumbling across alien technology—a galaxy-spanning one. An agent of the Khan is sent to the periphery of this empire to investigate rumors of phantom ships appearing in the sub-space corridors (the Infrastructure) that allow FTL travel. Doing so, the protagonist stumbles across evidence that these conduits linking space actually link together much more.

I don’t like writing bad reviews. But I do like analyzing stories to help improve my own. So I’m going to do that for this one, with the understanding that Reynolds is a very successful writer and that this particular review says nothing about his overall work, from which I just appear to have selected a poor sample.

Finishing this work though (within a day, as it is really quite short) I realized it was a good example of how great ideas can be executed in a way that leaves a story feeling limp and passive, which is how this one felt. I was motivated to keep turning pages to see when the twist was going to come, not because I was gripped or because I had fallen in love with the characters or because the vistas were sharp and compelling. I just read to keep reading. If it was a full-length novel I would have put it down after a couple chapters.

Why? I came up with three reasons, and each of them is something that I continually struggle with in my own writing. Each of them is something that I think often keeps Stephen Case-level writing from becoming, say, Michael Swanwick-level writing.

Here they are:

1. Narrative passivity: Yellow Dog, the main character, doesn’t really do anything in this story. She’s sent on a mission and takes some small initiative near the beginning to get some information, but she’s captured early on. From that point the plot is just stuff happening to her. She doesn’t seem an agent; she doesn’t have to make any hard decisions; she doesn’t develop as a character. She’s carried along by the stream of events, so it’s hard to care about her or what happens to her. Her horse dies. She meets a guy. She solves a puzzle. But none of this seems to matter to the ultimate outcome of the story.

2. Telling but not showing: From the beginning of the story I felt like I was reading not a story but a report. Yellow Dog was telling what happened, maybe typing it up to send to her superiors back on Earth. At first I thought this was narrative method, but even when it was clear this would never become a report it didn’t stop. And because of the tone, there was no tension. To take just one example, when their ship was caught in Infrastructure turbulence and the stabilizing whiskers were ripped off and we weren’t sure if our heroes were going to make it, we didn’t get a description. We didn’t get anything about what this looked like or sounded like or how it make the characters feel. We just got a report, like maybe we were interested in designing a ship with replacement stabilizing whiskers. The writing style made it feel like everything was already predetermined, and it was kept up throughout.

3. And finally, triteness, and here’s a *major spoiler*

*spoiler space*

It turns out that the Infrastructure is bleeding into other realities, and our heroes get lost among them. But the realities disappointingly turn out to be little more than caricatures: a Christian (or at least Western) civilization, a galactic Caliphate, one where monkeys evolved, and one with intelligent lizards. This might have worked in the 1960s, maybe, but now we need more subtly, more piercing realities than these, especially when the final take-away is that even people from such radically different backgrounds can learn to work together.

I have heard lots of good things about Reynolds, so please feel free to offer some alternative suggested reading in the comments, but if you’re looking to get into his work don’t start here.

The Best of Michael Swanwick

The Best of Michael SwanwickThe Best of Michael Swanwick by Michael Swanwick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Michael Swanwick is a hero. He’s apparently (unless this has changed very recently) the only living person to win five Hugo awards for his writing in six years. From what I can tell he doesn’t have an enormous output, and his works haven’t made him a household name among nerds like Gaiman or Le Guin, but he’s still a literary hero. His novel Stations of the Tide was critically acclaimed by people who like literary science fiction (and those are the kind of people I like). I knew he had written short stories, but most of them I had never read. So I was quite excited when I stumbled across Subterranean Press’s Best of Michael Swanwick anthology among the stacks at my local library.

Reviewing anthologies is difficult, especially when an anthology by a writer who can do as many different things as well as Swanwick can in his writing. Each story in this collection is a winner (literally, as all the Hugo winners are included). Each one cuts like a piece of glass in your mind’s eye, scintillating and lovely and dangerous. Each one puts you in your place and reminds you however much you like to think of yourself as a writer of science fiction and fantasy you should settle down and shut up because this is how it’s done. (Or at least, each one did for me.)

Anything you want is in here. Weird future versions of the United States in the vein of Gene Wolfe’s “Seven American Nights”? You get it from the start with “The Feast of St. Janis.” Science fiction that does new things with the idea of identity and technology applied to the human mind? You get that scattered throughout, starting with my favorite piece in the collection, “Ginungagap.”

In Swanwick’s science fiction, technology is not just FTL and spaceships. It’s at perhaps its most prescient with the idea of technology that is able, for better or worse, to re-map and re-wire the human mind. This becomes something of a theme in the anthology, treated at most length in “Wild Minds,” a subtle little piece that detonates like a mental hand-grenade.

Apart from questions of identity and mind, you also get science fiction pieces (and two of these won Hugos) that examine scenarios of encountering intelligent life— weirder and larger than the tropes you expect— within our own solar system: “The Very Pulse of the Machine” and “Slow Life.” Here Swanwick’s realism comes into play as he offers scientifically accurate vistas of worlds in our own solar system and thoughtful physical and philosophical treatments of what encountering life there might be like. Which is probably why they were so well received. They’re doing what science fiction is supposed to do: taking what we know about humans and what we know about our universe and putting them into possible and challenging juxtapositions to see what emerges.

Another theme I noticed in these stories in retrospect is an accident, an injury, or a death that plays a central role in transforming characters and their environment. It comes out in both of the first contact stories mentioned above, as well as “Trojan Horse,” “Griffin’s Egg,” “Radio Waves,” and “Mother Grasshopper.” The idea of knowledge through wounding or brokenness is sort of a tautology in literature in general, but science fiction often seems to feature (at least classically) the best and healthiest of humanity facing the worst the universe can offer. In Swanwick’s work, there’s something about being broken, wounded, less than whole that allows touching, interacting, and perceiving the universe in an important way. No one faces reality in these stories unbroken. (Does anyone really face reality another way?)

Swanwick also knows time-travel, and he knows what to do with it: either set up a perfect and heart-wrenching paradox (“Scherzo with Tyrannosaur”), use it to create an idyllic eternal (sort of) summer (“Triceratops Summer”), or go all mythic-poetical and throw out epic yarns that stretch time like taffy (“The Raggle Taggle Gypsy-O” and “Legions in Time”).

And then there are the tales that are most effective of all because they’re singularities. You can’t lump them into a group with anything. They’re alive and awful (as in both awe-filling and the other meaning but in a good way) and will stick with you long after you’ve closed the cover. I’m talking about “A Midwinter’s Tale,” which seems in my mind definitely a homage to Wolfe. It takes something of the strangeness of the alzabo from the New Sun and puts it in the atmospheric haze of Fifth Head of Cerberus or even Peace. “The Edge of the World” is a perfect story that is grimy and magic and reminiscent simultaneously of Bradbury, the Arabian Nights, and Stand By Me. “North of Diddy-Wah-Diddy” is a perfect story about hell and the train that goes there.

And then finally “The Dead” and “Radiant Doors” are horror stories that are horror not because of the creepy future-things in them (and there are creepy things and horrifying futures) but because the creepy things are mirrors. The creepy things are us, and they’re already here.

So this is a book to read (and preferably to own) if you want to surround yourself by living, breathing stories that can kick the crap out of you as a reader and hopefully let some of their technique rub off on you while they’re doing it. They’re aspirational stories in that sense. At least for me, as a writer, they made things start clicking and sparking in my brain (probably because they were kicking it so hard). Swanwick is a master, and this is a book of masterworks. If you love Gene Wolfe’s short stories, you should read this book.

But it’s not perfect, and the perfection of the stories within made a few glaring shortcomings of the book itself obvious. Firstly, there were typos. And not just little typos: huge, embarrassing typos that at times threatened to obscure the meaning of pivotal sentences. At one point, a character is making an important conclusion about understanding something that is “yours” when every other clue in the story and the context indicates he must have meant “ours”. If this was a carefully-edited volume I’d just assume there was a subtly in this exchange I must have missed (like in a Gene Wolfe story), but this is a volume that elsewhere put “arid” for “and” as well as a host of other mistakes. For the work of a wordcraft like Swanwick, that’s a crime. (Though either the editing got better as the volume went on or I stopped noticing it, because it didn’t seem as a bad in the second half— though misplaced, reversed, or dropped quotation marks continued to abound.)

Secondly, there was no listing at the beginning of where the stories first appeared. There was a copyright attribution that told when they were published, but not where. This is a shame, as one of my favorite things about anthologies is seeing where these stories first saw print. In my opinion at least, it’s kind of an essential historical record that goes along with story anthologies.

Editing faults aside though, the book is still worth its weight and shelf-space. It’s like a writer’s guide on how to be awesome. How to tell devastating stories with huge ideas.

But put it on a top shelf, out of reach of the kids, because another big theme in this work is sex. And not sex that’s just sort of a thing that happens to characters to keep things spicy but left sort of narratively vague. Nothing vague here. There’s pretty much a detailed climax scene in almost every story.

I don’t consider myself too much of a prude (I probably am) but to be honest after a while this was kind of off-putting. If there was a male protagonist, and a female character was introduced, you knew what was coming. To be fair, sometimes the details were essential to the plot or tone (as in the general dreadfulness of “The Dead” or the central paradox of “Scherzo with a Tyrannosaur”) but in most of the other cases it wasn’t. Yet that’s not to say it’s in there just for kicks. Michael Swanick obviously likes sex, his characters enjoy it, and he writes about it with the same vigor and description as he does the other aspects of his stories.

I’m not sure how I feel about this (besides prudishly embarrassed). It might be, I think, an illustration of what my colleague who teaches English and who wrote his dissertation on the work of the Catholic author Graham Greene has often said about Catholic literature. (And though Swanwick was raised Catholic I have no idea if he practices.) My friend says that a characteristic of Catholic authors (and perhaps a reason there are few real literary giants among evangelical Christians) is that for a Catholic writer nothing is off-limits. Everything in the created order belongs to God. It can therefore all be used in all its gritty and vivid reality. The camera never needs to pan away, as it were. All the physicality (sexual and otherwise) in all its brutality and beauty is okay to use to build story.

And Swanwick does.

Great Sky River

Great Sky River (Galactic Center, #3)Great Sky River by Gregory Benford

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Warfare between man and machine has become something of a trope in science fiction, from the future apocalypses of the original Terminator (which scared me to death as a kid) to the more recent, sexy and subtle conflicts of Ex Machina. Often these man-vs-machine dystopias play out against the ruins of our own civilization, with landmarks or blasted-yet-familiar vistas driving home the fact that our own creations have destroyed what we had previously built. Gregory Benford’s classic science fiction novel Great Sky River takes these tropes but adds a layer with an exotic locale and far-future setting that manages to be an even more effective backdrop to the conflict than the near-future alone.

On a world called Snowglade near the center of the galaxy, the remnants of a thriving human civilization eke out a desperate existence in the shadow of a mechanical civilization that has displaced and now disinterestedly hunts them. The machines are not, as in the Terminator and many other incarnations of this story, consciously seeking humans out for extermination. Rather, human cities have been destroyed as one would destroy the infestation of a pest, and the survivors are haphazardly hunted like you would a few remaining cockroaches. Over the course of the novel though something begins to change, and the remaining bands of humans realize a new mech is beginning to take a special interest, herding and harvesting the remaining human population. (You might get glimmers of The Matrix here, though you wouldn’t be quite right.)

What makes this work especially fascinating and haunting is that we learn the history of the human rise and fall on Snowglade along with the main character, Killeen, through memories and legends. The knowledge is as foreign to us as it is to him, who grew up when humans were confined to a few remaining Citadels and is now on the run after the last human strongholds have fallen. It means we start to see the wonder of this far-future, now-fallen civilization through his own eyes as he, for instance, gets his first glimpse of the now-abandoned orbital space stations humans occupied when they first came to the planet centuries ago. And the vistas glimpsed here are immense: humans voyaging across tens of thousands of light years to settle these new worlds near the galactic core, a legacy only now remembered in a few lingering cultural artifacts.

It’s atmospheric elements like this (apart from a gripping plot) that make this novel work. Another example is the lexicon Benford develops for his characters. It’s a language atrophied in some ways, and it fits with a band of desperate warriors who have been struggling to survive against a mech encroachment for generations. It also contrasts nicely with the voices in the main character’s head: digitalized Aspects of humans of past generations who live on in embedded electronics and serve as sources of information regarding Snowglade’s past.

Which brings me to the technology: Killeen and his band belong in a well-crafted first-person video game. They’re more or less cyborgs themselves, unthinkingly using exoskeletons, downloaded personas who ride in their minds, enhanced vision, and implanted radio transmissions. This is all blended seamlessly into the narration of Killeen’s experience, making it feel as natural to us as it does to him, a society that has lived with such modifications for centuries but is running out of the knowledge to keep it functioning. It feels like the gritty technology of weaponry and heads-up displays that would translate well into a first-person shooter or rather that the creators of games like Halo had Benford’s descriptions in mind.

Benford also brings his expertise as a professional astronomer to the fore in describing the celestial backdrop upon which this all plays out: a world orbiting a star that orbits the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s center. Like Snowglade’s history, this isn’t spelled out explicitly: it comes in pieces through Killeen’s observations of what for him is a standard sky by day and night. Benford uses this exotic stellar locale for a far-flung deus ex machine that I can only trust will be explained (and probably very scientifically and rigorously) in a later volume.

I was gripped from the first chapter. The gritty, desperate situation in which we find the characters, coupled with the unfamiliarity of a far-future dystopia simply worked. I was hooked the entire time and couldn’t stop reading. (He uses the tried-and-true method Cormac McCarthy uses in The Road, another gripping dystopia, of a man’s overriding concern for his son in this dark future.)

That said, I didn’t like the way Benford’s book ended. It wasn’t the parabolic ending that disappointed me. You could see it coming for quite some time, and it flung our heroes into even wider and broader vistas that Benford certainly explores with success in the later volumes.

No, what disappointed me and seemed to sap much of the urgency of the survivor’s plight was the ghost in the machine that was revealed as their ultimate antagonist. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say that after spending the first half of the book constructing a scenario in which the mech civilization was utterly non-human and obliviously hostile, it felt strange and somehow deflating (and also just sort of weird) in the way the primary antagonist was eventually revealed. Part of what made the book compelling was how un-anthropocentric it was: even though it followed the story of these humans, we were seeing them in a world that didn’t care at all about them and had almost unthinkingly wiped them out. But of course, it turns out that humans are actually quite special and central. (Who would have thought?)

In all, Benford is definitely worth keeping on my “to read” list, and I’m eager to dig into the rest of his novels set in this universe and answer the riddles of humanity’s fate at the center of the galaxy.