Tag Archives: science fiction

The Black Corridor

The Black CorridorThe Black Corridor by Michael Moorcock

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The name Michael Moorcock has been on my list of authors to read for so long that I can’t remember why or when he ended up there. I also can’t quite figure out why he’s so well-known or what kind of writer he is, exactly, and reading several entries on him in various fantasy and science fictions encyclopedias hasn’t helped much. Suffice to say he’s British, he was influential in the New Wave, and his writings are extensive and pretty hard to pigeon-hole.

I grabbed The Black Corridor from the science fiction section of my local library, the last of my Christmas break reading that included Benford, Swanwick, and Reynolds. I can’t remember if there were other Moorcock books there and I grabbed this one because it was short and because the cover was obviously by the same artist who did the cover of my edition of Lafferty’s Nine Hundred Grandmothers or because it was the only one they had. Either way, the description intrigued me.

This was an easy read, but it felt dated. The story is about a single human aboard the first colonizing craft traveling to an Earth-like planet around a (relatively) nearby star. Part of it is a psychological exploration of the emptiness of space, of the long, lonely passage (the corridor of the title) to the first habitable worlds. The environment of the ship is sterile, empty technology, a backdrop upon which the single inhabitant is struggling against loneliness and a self-conscious slide into madness. His only defense is a retreat into routine and rationalism.

Yet this isolated existence, we learn through a long series of flashbacks, is only the culmination of a larger slide into madness. The single ship’s inhabitant is actually the only waking member of a crew (the rest are in hibernation) composed of his family and small group of friends who fled a disintegrating Earth. The end-of-times scenario outlined here is a fractious, nationalistic British apocalypse descending into chaos like in Children of Men. In the midst of this, the main character—who built his fortune as a toy manufacturer—sees himself as an isolated island of rationality against this moral and social decay. Together with his companions, they see stealing the only UN ship capable of interplanetary flight and setting off from Earth in the face of and in spite of a nationalistic, atomic holocaust their effort to save not only themselves but the best of humanity.

Two main trends take place over the course of the novel. The first is the narrator’s constant battle against paranoia and loneliness and his gradual descent into possible insanity. Has he woken the other crew members up? Is he having hallucinations because of his sensory isolation or because of the emotionally-stabilizing drugs he feels forced to take? The second is the gradual revelations of what he had to do to secure the crew’s escape from Earth, what he felt justified to do to get them off the planet. There are interesting developments throughout in what is largely a psychological thriller, but some of the most intriguing take place in the final few pages of the book, when we’re forced to ask the question of why he’s the only one awake on the ship in the first place.

In all, there are lots of subtle and troubling themes touched on here but not explored. Parts of the novel make it seem as though we’re dealing with themes of overpopulation or ecological disaster, but these are never front and center. Technology is not a major motivation here, just a sterile backdrop against which the events play out. Mainly The Black Corridor offers a surprisingly troubling treatment of the inevitably isolating results of a self-justifying rationalism.

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.

The Incal

The IncalThe Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was a good Christmas this year. Among other things, I found beneath the tree a book sometimes said to be the greatest comic ever written, The Incal. I don’t know about that, but it does seem a sort of Citizen Kane of science fiction graphic novels. It’s written by Jodorowsky with art by Moebius, both of whom are names that loom large in the background of lots of science fiction whether or not you’ve actually heard of them. The comic was originally published in the 1980s in French and is supposed to have been pivotal in defining the scope and possibility of the medium for doing epic, genre-bending science fiction. Jodorowsky was at one point working on an screen adaptation of Dune (late 1970s, prior to the David Lynch version) and though abandoned you can see the influences here. Moebius went on to do art and storyboards for things like Tron, Aliens, and The Fifth Element, which is why much of The Incal seems eerily familiar. It was a test bed for much of what defined scifi for the next decade.

As far as narrative goes though, the bones are bare. We’re abruptly dropped into the life and mishaps of John DiFool, a rumpled, selfish, slovenly private investigator, who stumbles upon a powerful conscious entity/artifact called the Incal and who quickly becomes the target of random groups and forces angling to get their hands on it. Characters are introduced just as abruptly as well, without any real backgrounding or development: evil swamp queen, superhuman bounty hunter, dog-headed marauder, and topless animistic love interest. Dialog is clunky, with characters frequently explaining themselves, their feelings, and their motivations. Like Citizen Kane, looking back on it now it seems pretty wooden.

But in the midst this Jodorowsky spins out a dizzying, fractal-like story that spans multiple galaxies and ranges from slum planets (with loads of social satire) to the gold-encrusted galactic capital to watery prison worlds and beyond. Even though the first half of the book is basically one long chase scene and the second a lot of random things happening in quick succession, each thing is brilliantly new, fusing fantasy, science fiction, and mysticism (the main characters are supposed to each embody characters or aspects from the Tarot), making it a worthy read.

It’s the art of Moebius though that marks this a classic. Jodorowsky’s writing is haphazard and exuberant, but he doesn’t provide any depth of character or real explanations of plot. The only revelations that come in the book are in the shattering, full-page vistas by Moebius. What could in prose be a run-of-the-mill deus ex machina, for instance, becomes in this medium a gorgeous and sublime epiphany.

Moebius’s art is multi-form and morphic. It’s gritty when necessary, cartoonish when appropriate, and epic, sweeping, or detailed as needed. Packed crowd scenes feel almost Where’s Waldo-esque, aspects of the Great Darkness foreshadow the segmented horrors of Aliens, and the detailed techno panels feel familiar from classic Star Wars story boards or concept sketches. Overlaid with this all, the colors are sharp and vivid, making the whole sweeping dream-like tableau electric and lively. It’s easy to see why this was groundbreaking at the time (and scandalous, considering some scenes made it originally censored in its first US release) .

The edition of the work I found under the Christmas tree is packaged in hardcover with high-quality printing that I can only imagine helps recapture what it must have originally felt like reading it. With that and the added touch of a ribbon bookmark, the outside of The Incal feels as weighty and significant and the interior is trippy and avante garde, like you’re holding a piece of visual and literary science fiction history (as you are).

The Rewind Files

The Rewind FilesThe Rewind Files by Claire Willett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I stay away from espionage. I also (at least in my own writing) tend to stay away from time-travel. Things get far too complicated too quickly, and it’s all I can do to try to wrap my mind around the paradoxes inherent in even a simple time loop. I also– to my shame– tend to avoid twentieth-century history in particular and American history in general in my own work, which revolves around astronomy in the 1800s. The Rewind Files, by Claire Willett, involves all of these.

On the other hand though, I do love a good scifi yarn.

In this instance, I was in no way disappointed.

Claire, who among other really cool things has written plays on the history of astronomy, has quite simply written a very smart, very compelling, very impressive 20th-century, time-travel, espionage adventure. It fits together beautifully, it has dizzying twists and turns, and it has sharp characters with crackling dialogue. It’s just really, really good.

But that’s not a very insightful review, so let me try to unpack that a bit.

First, let’s start with the nuts and bolts: the history and the time-travel. I’m embarrassed by how little I know about my own nation’s history and in particular the Watergate scandal, which forms the historical backdrop to this misadventure. But it’s clear Claire has done her research– and not simply as a dutiful student but as someone who is passionately interested in the characters and the narrative of these events. She doesn’t just make this history come alive: she plays with it, dances around it, and makes it give her a quick peck on the cheek. But it works because she knows what she’s talking about. And she loves what she’s talking about.

Now the time-travel: this is where she gives even classic popular time travel treatments like Back to the Future or pick your favorite Babylon 5 story-arch a run for its money. All the loops (and there are several of them) get tied up and make all of the questions from earlier make sense. All of the snakes bite their own tails quite nicely. And the complexity of the time-hops and transporting (superimposed on the additional complexity of a branch of the government dedicated to preserving the integrity of the timeline) is handled with the dexterity of someone fluent in technobabble: creating a system of constraints and then playing fairly within it but also surprising the reader. I might even use the term elegant.

But those are the nuts and bolts of a good episode of Dr. Who: what about the things important in a novel, characters and plot? Claire gets awards for writing plays, so you’re in good hands here as well. The plot is solid, and though I admit it was a bit slow to start, a) by the time the penny dropped about halfway through I was hooked and couldn’t put it down for the rest of the novel and b) my confusion in the first half from getting dropped right into things cleared up with the reveals in the second half. As soon as Gemstone hits, we don’t get another breath until the end of the book. The twists are satisfying because though nothing is out of left field (you have some inkling of some of the big reveals), they’re handled in an unexpected manner that makes them all the more effective.

And then there are the characters. I put the book down several times while I was reading and told my wife, “You have to meet Reggie.” Claire’s main character is nearly flawless (not as a person, but as a character). She’s snarky, self-deprecating, and competent. She loves her family, all of whom play a major role in the action. The cadre of time-bandits Claire builds up around Reggie are the most endearing part of the story, and more than anything else you get the sense that all the deftly-handled history and time-twists are more than anything to give these characters a fascinating canvas to run around on. You like Reggie, but more than anything else you believe in Reggie.

The Rewind Files being a time-travel odyssey of course could have a sequel tacked on, though it’s more structured to allow a prequel or even a concurrent novel following the exploits of Reggie’s famous father. I don’t know if I want this though. I want Reggie and her friends to have an enduring happy ending, one no longer threatened by major distortions in the timeline.

More than anything, I just want Claire to create some more characters and do this again– only completely different this time.

Transformers: More than Meets the Eye Volume 8

mtmte7Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye, Volume 8 by James Roberts
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

With great excellence comes great expectations. If you’ve followed my book reviews for long, you know that I’m a huge fan of the work of James Roberts and Alex Milne on the ongoing IDW Transformers: More than Meets the Eye series. The release of each trade paperback is a Pretty Big Deal in my world, a world that is usually more or less cut off from What’s Cool Right Now. (I still haven’t seen either Interstellar or The Martian, for example, and I have no idea how many superheroes are currently appearing on network television series.) I’ve had huge expectations for each of these installments, which have consistently been setting the bar higher and higher. Great art, fantastic story-telling, compelling science fiction, and giant transforming robots. What’s not to love?

I say all that to say that the expectations were ratcheted up (no pun intended regarding the cover) pretty high for Volume 8, and it was the first volume that disappointed. I usually read each volume twice before posting a review. With Roberts’ writing this is important, as the narrative flow can at times be very dense. This one though only merited a quick re-skim to see if my initial dissatisfaction was justified. I think it was.

So here’s my list of tongue-in-cheek suggestions as to why this volume for the very first time in the run of TF:MTMTE trades left a bad taste in my mouth. And I say tongue-in-cheek because I realize it’s easy to criticize. So while I stand by these complaints, I still say Roberts is doing great work and can keep doing whatever he wants. I’ll be reading Volume 9, no worries. These are also tongue-in-cheek because they’re also to some extent an acknowledgement of what Roberts is doing continually, which is turning some common expectations on their heads.

But anyway, here they are:

1. Don’t humanize the sociopaths. The Decepticon Justice Division since nearly the very beginning of the series have been the bogeymen, the horror, the real Bad Guys now that the Decepticons themselves are ambiguous. (I’m not sure who the Bad Guys are in the other IDW Transformer title.) They were the worst of the worst of what the Decepticon cause could become. So don’t humanize them now. Don’t pull their teeth. We’ve already had sociopaths getting humanized: Megatron. So please keep Tarn and company easy to hate. Don’t introduce us to the humor and social dynamics of their crew. Don’t confuse our loyalties. And please, please don’t give the DJD a Tailgate. We don’t need another cute sidekick to show us the softer side of our mechanical killing machines.

2. Don’t dial back the body count. This series immediately found its legs by introducing us to the second-stringers of the Transformers universe and not being afraid to kill them. We learned that the secondary characters were themselves heroes, and then we learned that heroes died. The early issues– especially those with Overlord– were gritty and felt real. Things have lightened up significantly in this volume, which is fine, but now we’ve got another wave of second-second-stringers to keep track of. We’ve got a second replacement medic. We’ve got a bunch of new faces. Fine, but remind us why this all matters. I’m with Rodimus on this one: please let Thunderclash die, for goodness’ sake. I guess I’m as twisted as the DJD: I want dead Autobots or the game just stops feeling real.

3. Don’t get sappy. I get it, and I appreciate it: we’re playing with romantic relationships among non-biologically gendered robots. That’s pretty cool, and it was pretty effective when it was Rewind and Chromedome. But I feel like this volume has a lot of drama, a lot of weird tensions, and a lot of goofy crushing. Please, please, please don’t give me an Autobot love triangle (unless Dominus Ambus turns about to be Tarn). And please don’t give me any more pictures of Rewind and Chromedome on a flowered backdrop with the words “my love” written anywhere, ever.

4. Don’t get cute. Besides the two-issue throwaway story arch about the charisma parasites (which I think was a low point for the series so far), this is my major complaint about this volume. It felt too cute. Ten is cute. He draws cute pictures and makes cute toys. Swerve is very meta and cute, creating an entire sitcom planet in which our heroes can cut cute figures and be cute and snarky. I’ve already complained about the DJD’s cute sidekick. Even Megatron’s cuteness in this volume, as he bickers with both Rodimus and Magnus, shows perhaps more than anything else his integration into the Lost Light crew. One or two issues of heavy cuteness I think I could have taken, but the whole volume was full of it. (A major theme of this volume was Autobot dance parties, for Cybertron’s sake.)

Again though, it’s quite likely that Roberts knows exactly what he’s doing. He probably has some of this series’ darkest developments up his sleeve, and he knows we need some time sit back and relax, project our holomatter avatars and just be silly for a while. Or perhaps he’ll explain away the whole thing in another few issues with a wonderfully detailed explanation involving metabombs, time loops, and quantum cuteness paradoxes. Maybe while all this was happening in our universe, another crew of the Lost Light completed their quest only to realize Cyberutopia was long ago consumed by the Chaos-Bringer, Overlord returned, and Pharma had an epic battle over a smelting pool with Ratchet (as opposed to our universe, where Ratchet gets a Drift action figure).

But to tell the truth (Primus help me), I would have rather read a comic about that universe.


NorstriliaNorstrilia by Cordwainer Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s something a bit strange about only children. Maybe it’s not polite to point it out, but not having siblings seems to leave one without context and make one a little bit more difficult to relate to. That’s what I felt with Norstrilia, the only completed novel of Paul Linebarger, a diplomat, foreign operative, and expert on psychological warfare who wrote and published science fiction under the moniker of Cordwainer Smith. Norstrilia is a strange only child.

Not only was it strange in content and tone, it was a bit awkward in form. The work was published originally as two separate pieces (serialized?) in magazines. It was only stitched together into a whole narrative later. And this particular work was compiled by a specialty press and included all the textual variations in an appendix at the end. Why do I get suspicious with textual variations? An author is never sure exactly what to say or how to say it, but usually they manage to hide this uncertainty. I suppose I don’t like the reminder of having it made manifest.

That all probably sounds like complaining, but I enjoyed reading Norstrilia quite a bit. I think I was prepared for it because even though it doesn’t have any siblings, it does have some cousins: those strange half-breeds and vagabonds that are the fiction of R. A. Lafferty. Norstrilia wasn’t a Lafferty, but it had several similar features: the strange, rollicking pace; the larger-than-life characters; the comfort with the bizarre; and the lack of emphasis on a tight, cogent plot.

So here’s what it’s about: in the far future there’s a planet called Norstrilia (a contraction of “North Australia”) that grows a viral serum that ensures long life for the rest of the galaxy and makes Norstrilia incredible rich by its export. (Think Arrakis with giant mutant sheep.) The planet is the epitome of the hardy, frontier lifestyle that Smith saw in his own time in Australia, and to preserve this way of life (as well as population control), Norstrilia has kept itself poor on purpose– even though most of its inhabitants are fabulously wealthy. One of the ways they do this is by making imports to the world incredibly expensive. The other is a test at the age of adulthood to determine whether the Norstrilian youth will receive full legal status or be killed (think the gom jabbar, also from Dune).

Against this weird background one Norstrilian grows up handicap, unable to telepathically spiek or hier like his peers. He uses a forbidden computer to play the markets and more or less by accident becomes the wealthiest man in the universe, and he buys the Earth. Traveling to Earth, he’s manipulated by various agencies– including Cordwainer’s famous Instrumentality of Man, the animal-engineered servants of humanity, and a mysterious agency living beneath the surface of the planet. Along the way a lot of things happen, with wild, lazy, larger-than-life brushstrokes that remind of Lafferty.

There’s a lot of bigness and beauty here, shot through with much weirdness. I don’t know if I would have appreciated it as much had I not already read things along these lines– again, had I not been inoculated, so to speak, by Lafferty. I don’t know if this means Lafferty is a gateway drug, but he certain helped. There are rambles here, large figments of imagination floating like icebergs in a froth of Silver Age science fiction, and meanderings enough to annoy someone used to the clipped, brisk pace of contemporary scifi.

But there is kindness as well. When a friend recommended this book, he said he thought kindness was a theme of Smith’s work. I see what he means, though the turn is abrupt and inexplicable halfway through the novel. The main character has a crisis of faith– mitigated by a psychological hall of horrors akin to the trial that started the narrative– from which he emerges with a sense of humility, gratitude, and benevolence. He is filled with pity for the erstwhile enemy that instigated his banishment from Norstrilia (though the denouement with this character is quite weak). From what I’ve read, Smith’s high church Anglicanism shaped his writing here in some respects.

In all, this was a book I enjoyed reading for its comfort with the bizarre and its quirks, but I’m not sure how strongly I’d recommend it to readers at large. I could see it being a bit impenetrable. But if you’ve cut your teeth on someone like Lafferty or even the meandering far futures of Gene Wolfe’s New Sun, you might give Smith a try.

The Martian

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book written by an engineer for engineers. I’m not an engineer. But I can’t lie and say I didn’t enjoy reading this one. I needed a beach book for my week in Michigan, and when this book appeared on the shelf (as books are wont to do on my wife’s side of the bookcase), I grabbed it. I had seen one of my honors students (an engineer) reading it and had read this fantastic quip on XKCD. And then I saw the movie trailer (which looks AWESOME), so that helped me finally jump on the bandwagon. (And I know this is a departure from my resolution to read fiction by minority authors, but– BEACH.)

Be advised, this is a book by an engineer written for engineers. Did I already say that? It is compelling. The idea is simple and devastating: in the near and pretty believable future, manned missions to Mars are a reality and as gritty and physical and dangerous as an actual mission to Mars would be. On one of these missions, an astronaut gets left behind, assumed dead. It turns out he’s not, and he has to figure out how to survive on Mars, NASA has to figure out what happened and what they can do to fix it, and the crew of his ship have to figure out whether they follow NASA’s lead or mutiny and risk their own lives to save him.

Most of the story was told in the form of journal entries made by the marooned astronaut, Mark Watney, during his time on the surface. Here’s where the whole thing at times felt like a long, science fiction McGyver episode. Mark explains in detail how he’ll provide water and oxygen for himself, how he’ll grow food, and how he’ll get around on the surface. These are gripping details for a few chapters, but they can’t keep a reader’s interest– even one who appreciates the thought and detail the author put into keeping this grounded in reality– forever. Mark himself is a sort of Everyman, competent, foul-mouthed, and with a dry sense of humor. His ordinariness at times though, in spite his incredible technical competence, seems hollow. Not once, for instance, do we find Mark describing the view of Mars out his hab suite windows or reflecting on the nature of his dilemma with anything other than a superficial “do or die” mentality. But then again, what are the chances NASA would be sending a philosopher into space?

Luckily, Weir– himself a software engineer– realizes that stories don’t work without people and that it’s going to be difficult to build suspense about whether Mark lives or dies with him reporting in at the end of each day. So the narrative switches up a few times and we get a glimpse into the lives of the people back on Earth working to send supplies to keep Mark alive and ultimately his shipmates as they learn his fate and decide what they need to do to save him (as well as occasionally some God’s-eye-view narrative of the lives of inanimate equipment parts and geological features about to fail, which oddly enough functions quite well to build suspense).

This is where the actual drama comes in, and for me the most exciting parts of the novel were where the crew of the Hermes had to wrestle with what it might cost them to return to Mars to save Mark. And this– the dynamics between crew members on a months-long voyage and the cost of rescue– is what I hope the upcoming movie plays up. This was the pivot-point of the novel, and it was enough pull to get me as a reader over the hump and into the second part of the book, which chronicles Mark again and all the technical challenges of piloting a rover across a good portion of Mars to arrive at the appropriate rondevouz point and make an orbital-return component capable to escape velocity.

Lots of science here. In fact, Mark’s not really the hero of the story so much as science is. Science, Weir is saying, can pretty much solve anything if we’re plucky enough to keep trying and make the sacrifices required. (He also says something about it being the nature of humans to want to help each other, which is quoted pretty much verbatim in the movie trailer.) Besides the scientific triumphalism (which SPOILER dictates how the book will end– there’s never any real question of Mark’s survival), he deftly sidesteps any deeper questions, such as whether there’s an appropriate cost for saving a single human life or whether humans belong on places like Mars at all. No sir, this is a book about engineering. But I have to admit a book that raises philosophical questions without addressing can be fine in its own right. Sometimes it’s okay to simply present the problem in a clear-eyed fashion and leave it to the reader to puzzle through like Mark had to puzzle through the reality of Mars.

It is a fun, compelling, riveting book, but it ultimately felt unfulfilling for me because the pieces that made it tick– the people, and particularly the crew of the Hermes— never got closure. That is, we learn Mark’s fate but we don’t any view of his reunions with the people who saved his life. That would all be a compelling follow-up novel: call it The Earthling. It could show Mark’s life returned as the most famous human on the planet and him interacting with the people who contributed to his rescue as well as his return voyage to Earth with his crew (as well as the implied hook-up with Mindy, the NASA worker who contributed to his recovery and about whom I can only assume there’s an in-joke here regarding “Mork and Mindy” with Weir’s proclivity for 70s television). But the book is still tight and cogent leaving all that up in the air, especially as messy inter-personal stuff like that would take the focus off the science.

Stations of the Tide

Stations of the TideStations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’ve read or are familiar with Saga, the gorgeous comic series that re-imagines the science fiction epic with a generous helping of fantasy, you won’t be completely at sea with Station of the Tide by Michael Swanwick. Swanwick had been on my to-read list for a while, mainly due to associations with other authors I enjoy, but I had embargoed his work due to my attempt to finish out this year only beginning works of fiction by minority writers. Not long into this commitment though, I found myself in Chicago with time on my hands, nothing to read, and a paperback edition staring up at me from a bookstore shelf with a price of only a few dollars.

I was weak.

It had been on my radar for a while as a fairly recent cult classic among science fiction enthusiasts. The Gene Wolfe list-serv I follow has buzzed about his work occasionally in the past, and I was reminded recently he was someone I needed to check out when one of his essays appeared in the recently-reviewed issue of Feast of Laughter.

I was not disappointed. Stations of the Tide is surreal, gorgeous, and stand-alone. It’s also dream-like, a bit chauvinistic, and at times opaque. Like Saga it’s a tale that artfully blends elements of fantasy with science on a large interplanetary backdrop. There are lots of science fiction elements dropped causally in the background as aspects and support of the plot, but you never get the feeling– as you sometimes do in hard scifi– that the plot is simply an excuse to highlight or features some new piece of speculative technology.

The story is set on Miranda, an alien world fully colonized by humans but upon which (a la Gene Wolfe’s Fifth Head of Cerberus) indigenous inhabitants are rumored to survive. Once every two centuries, the climate of the planet shifts and huge jubilee tides rise to cover the lowlands. The plot takes place primarily in these backwoods Tidewaters, as the protagonist– never named, always simply called the bureaucrat– hunts for a fugitive among towns being abandoned and evacuated in anticipation of the coming, cataclysmic floodwaters.

The power of the book is not in the characters. None of them seem real, except perhaps the bureaucrat’s local partner, Chu, and the story’s villain, Gregorian, a Mirandan accused of stealing forbidden technology but believed on the planet to be a powerful wizard. The rest are caricatures: the administrative superiors the bureaucrat is working for, the woman he falls in love with, and of course– as perhaps intentional and illustrated by his name– the bureaucrat himself. If he’s meant to be a faceless everyman the (presumably male) reader can put himself into the place of relatively easily, this succeeds.

No, the real strength of the novel is the setting and the story-telling itself, which consists of vignette-like chapters in which the bureaucrat moves through this surreal, dream-like (and yet vivid) setting in the wake of Gregorian. And here I think is where the novel illustrates something important about story-telling (important and encouraging to me at least): it’s a powerful example of how to provide a sense of wonder through the “show, don’t tell” maxim used effectively. More than that though, it illustrates an author absolutely comfortable in the world he creates. The history of Miranda is never completely spelled out. It’s simply the world we find ourselves in; it forms a background organically and naturally glimpsed (sometimes frustratingly incompletely) as the story progresses. Same with the technology: no one ever sits us down and tediously explains how surrogates work or the internal functioning of the bureaucrat’s suitcase. The snippets of explanation we do get, mainly between the bureaucrat and his local partner, seem natural because the control of off-planet technology is central to the story and the political tensions on the planet. This is also true of the flora and fauna of the planet itself. Again, these are details mentioned casually in the background: the orchid-crabs, the barnacle flies, the behemoths. Most of them are never actually described in detail, yet you’re given enough to build an image of this world. It’s a strange, alien bayou, with cities being abandoned before the rising waters with a carnival-like Mardi Gras feeling.

Television is an important thematic element throughout. There’s always a television on somewhere in the background, and throughout the novel we’re given glimpses of a serial playing out along the lines of the grotesque pirate adventure that is threaded through Watchmen. It also reminds again of Saga, the ever-present and shifting images on the screen-face of Prince Robot.

Something should also be said about the tantric sex scenes, though I’m not sure what. They’re there and pretty vivid, but what’s vaguely disturbing about their inclusion is that they seem to do little but play into stereotypes that science fiction– even good science fiction like this– is a playground for men and their fantasies, both sexual and technological. The character of Undine, the bureaucrat’s love interest, has the sole purpose of teaching the bureaucrat a couple neat sex tricks and providing an emotional motivation for what is otherwise a straightforward sense of duty (though ultimately these two motivations come to a play briefly in a scene of conflict that for a moment gives the bureaucrat pathos). Yet she doesn’t do this by being any sort of actual character besides a really, really good lover who just happens to take a fancy to the main character.

If Undine represents standard male science fiction sexual fantasies, the bureaucrat’s briefcase represents technological fantasy. The briefcase is a character itself, something like a smartphone might be in several hundred years. It can manufacture anything, integrate into any computer system, and get around on its own. And it’s the perfect servant, always obedient and quick to save the day. Indeed, it becomes one of the most endearing characters because of its faithfulness and resourcefulness. Which makes the final scene with it all the more poignant. I think Swanwick knew what he was doing here, and it’s an ironic commentary on man’s love affair with the technology he creates and controls.

If you’re willing to overlook the awkward deployment of eroticism, Stations tells a powerful, compelling, and enjoyable tale. The plot is meandering, and at times I had trouble figuring out why the characters were going to certain locations or keeping track of characters who disappeared and reappeared throughout the novel. Scenes come and go, only vaguely held together by the pursuit of Gregorian. Some of the reveals at the end seemed forced, and a few were unsurprising. We realize early in the novel that Gregorian is deceptive and the bureaucrat naive. We know to expect a few tricks. But the trick the bureaucrat himself pulls at the novel’s very end took me by surprise, and I’m eager to read it again to tie many pieces together but especially for clues to see if I should have caught the final twist coming.

That’s why it’s a great book. You can’t toss it aside and forget it. It’s going to sit on my shelf, and in another year or two I’ll read it again and figure out how many tangles I can unravel now that I know that whole story. Yet I didn’t leave the first reading disappointed or confused. It’s like a good puzzle. There’s some satisfaction, but I’ll return to it not because I feel l need to in order to fully “get it” but because it’s going to be even better exploring the second time. Maybe it’s less like a puzzle and more like a rambling house. That balance– satisfaction with a single read but awareness that there’s more to return to– is difficult to achieve and I think a mark of a new classic.