The Windup Girl

May 3rd, 2011

After a decade of writing acclaimed short fiction, Paolo Bacigalupi’s first attempt at a long-form work is an exploration of a world that is a sort of anti-singularity. Where singularity fiction explores post-scarcity, in Bacigalupi’s world scarcity is the most salient and relevant feature of the time. Biotechnology harnessed and exploited by mega-corporations have eliminated all of the world’s unmodified food crops and the collapse of the world’s fossil fuel supplies have led to a society where human and animal power are some of the only forces left to propel industry (or people, for that matter). Religious fundamentalism, political radicalization, and the ravages of global climate change have resulted in a world where the only places those aforementioned mega-corporations are not the ultimate power in the land are ruled absolutely by Taliban-esque political juntas. But we don’t see much of that directly, instead we have a story set in Thailand, one of the few parts of the world that has maintained a precious level of independence and some remnants of the technology of the previous generations, balanced precariously on the edge of the collapse that has enveloped the rest of the world.

Bacigalupi walks a delicate balance between detailed and moving character studies and his deep and intricate worldbuilding. There’s a plot, here, but it’s certainly not as important to the novel (IMO) as the aforementioned elements, so they are where this book succeeds and fails. It succeeds gloriously on the worldbuilding, I think; I was fascinated by the many varied ways the people of his world replaced the cheap energy that we have all come to take so very for granted. The character development was also really well done, with each character behaving consistently and believably given the world they are left to deal with. In truth, it is that fidelity and consistency that made this book so very difficult to read, because it’s a horrible world, and these are not nice people to read about. They do what they must to take care of themselves (and very occasionally the ones they love) in that world, and as you might expect, that means they do some pretty horrible things.

So, if you can make it through the dark and often bleak world that Bacigalupi has created, this book will reward you with its depth and detail. It’s not something I can recommend to the general reader, but it was my pick for the 2010 Hugo, and I’m glad that it won.

The Wise Man’s Fear

March 16th, 2011

There are two kinds of books that tend to clog up my reviewing process, here. There’s the books that I didn’t really enjoy reading and won’t really enjoy reviewing, and then there’s the amazing books that I loved reading and feel like I can’t begin to do justice to in a review. Happily, The Wise Man’s Fear falls into the latter category.

When I went to Montréal for the 2009 Worldcon, I took my camera, a silver suit and the debut novel that everyone had been talking about for a while: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. So, there I am, with a room in the “party hotel,” surrounded by some of the most fascinating people around, right? But I spent at least as much time in my room with that book as I did at the parties, because it’s just that good. Rothfuss tells us a story of a man telling his story (which not infrequently includes stories of other men telling stories), and yet the story manages remarkable heights of tension despite being a recollection. This is in part due to the fact that the framing story itself has a feeling of tension to it; a feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop and the mystery to be unraveled either just in time or even not quite in time for the story to reach its completion.  Read the rest of this entry »

Julian Comstock

December 19th, 2010

I expect much from Robert Charles Wilson. I was deeply impressed by Spin, which is easily one of the best books I’ve read in the past decade, or ever; and although Axis disappointed somewhat, I thought the idea behind Julian Comstock was an exciting and interesting one. Unfortunately, I didn’t anticipate how much of a downer it would be.

He returned to the formula of Spin, somewhat, where we read the account of the man at the side of a truly great man, which is something he knows how to do well. This story’s setting, however, is the true main character of the book. It is the 22nd century, and sometime in our own century, we run out of oil at the same time that climate change is having really colossally noticeable effect, and our civilization is unable to keep up with the rapid changes and a collapse (called “The False Tribulation”) occurs. Conjoined with a conservative religious movement gaining primacy, we are reverted to an America that holds the 19th century to be its ideal. Victorian cultural elements are resurrected as being right and proper, Christianity is embedded deeply in the functioning of the State, and a strict class system (and hereditary “Presidency”) rules the day.

This is a neat idea, probably even a Big Idea, but it doesn’t work terribly well (at least, not for me) in the larger picture. Even if one grants that all the elements for Wilson’s proposed decline are in place in our society today and could see such a thing coming to pass…that says nothing about the rest of the world. And neither does Wilson, really. Oh, America is at war with “The Dutch,” and the Chinese are mentioned as suppliers of arms…but why would all these powers seem to be reduced to roughly similar levels of ignorance and technological backwardness, all simultaneously? It just doesn’t track well. There’s too much information out there for *everybody* to lose the key bits that seem to have been lost.

So as a warning of where our society’s current flaws could someday take us, it does pretty well. As an exercise in worldbuilding, it was too farcical to buy. The characters were likable, though, and the unreliability of the narrator was done well and playfully enough that interpreting what the truth behind his hints and misdirections might be was often amusing. It was still a picture of a world in decline, though, which I can only enjoy for so long, and this book was a bit longer than that.

Boneshaker

December 16th, 2010

Cherie Priest put out the Hugo-nominated Boneshaker not long after the Steampunk sub-genre really exploded in a fascinating intermingling of the (deeply interconnected) SF and Goth scenes. This book had an uphill climb making itself appealing to me. I mean, yeah, I like Steampunk, but I’m more a fan of the Girl Genius, pretty-flash-whiz-bang stuff. This is grim and gritty and maybe a bit Old West (which is not a positive to my tastes). It’s also a Zombie book, and I mostly don’t like Zombie stuff. They’re almost as boring as vampires.

That said, I thought Boneshaker was a pretty good book. It’s got a very strong female lead in it (and passes the Bechdel test) who will stop at nothing to rescue her naive teenage son and learns a lot about herself and her family in ways that cause her to grow noticeably and positively. It’s got a vivid (if ugly) setting that feels thoroughly believable for all of its fantasy, and it’s got well written action that never gets so frantic that it loses the reader.

But pretty good isn’t great. As I mentioned, this is an ugly world, full of a lot of mostly unpleasant people, and I don’t really want to go back there. Also, a fun story with some character development doesn’t really push new ground in the way that I want a Hugo-winner to do. Is it the pinnacle of Steampunk fiction to date? Maybe.

Palimpsest

December 16th, 2010

So Palimpsest…um, it’s weird. It might also be brilliant, but it’s definitely weird.

So there’s this magical, fairy-tale city somewhere in a universe parallel to our own. Almost anyone can get there in their dreams, if they’re willing to pay the price to get there, and it is apparently beautiful and compelling and all of those things you’d expect from a magical fairy-tale city, right? The price to get there, though, is a sexually transmitted disease.

No, really. You have sex with somebody else who has access to the city (which is named Palimpsest because, one assumes, Catherynne M. Valente didn’t check first to see how many books and stories already had that name. Seriously, there’s some short fiction with the same name also in the contention for the same year’s batch of Hugos that this was nominated for) in order to get access to the city yourself, and the more people you have sex with who have the disease the more of the city you get to see.

As erotica, it’s definitely some of the finest crafted fiction I’ve ever seen. As played out as it might be, there are nearly as many layers to the story as the title might suggest, and multiple possible simultaneous interpretations are entirely feasible if one were interested enough to attempt thorough deconstruction. As general speculative fiction, however, I’m not sure how well it fares. The characters are mostly unpleasant people, and the only really interesting thing about most of them is the access to Palimpsest and the obsessive sexual behavior it encourages. In some ways, it’s a gimmick novel, and while the gimmick is certainly interesting, it relies upon the craft of the author to make the object of the characters’ obsession, the city of Palimpsest, to be so appealing that the reader can identify with the characters and their drive to journey there, and for me Valente just didn’t have the chops. Palimpsest is interesting, but what she describes couldn’t possibly motivate me to the “one more hit” behavior of her addicted characters. It was a disconnect striking enough to make me wonder if that paradigm of addiction and the effects of drug use in transforming the banal to the sublime was an additional layer to the commentary of the book, but I eventually decided it probably wasn’t. I think Valente is entirely sincere in her intimate love letter to her dream world, and that I am just not an obsessive enough personality to find it as appealing as she might have intended.

So I think it might be brilliant. But maybe not for me. But if it might work for you, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as generally well done…for what it is.

WWW:Wake

December 15th, 2010

No, that’s not some strange web error. That’s the title of Robert Sawyer’s Hugo-nominated novel about a young girl who, in an accidental side-effect of a surgery intended to restore her sight, gains the ability to see the Internet…and the Internet looks back.

It was…OK, I guess?

I enjoyed it, and will probably pick up the sequels, even. But I was somewhat dismayed to see this on the Hugo ballot. Large chunks read like Sawyer is winking at his audience, making sure to call out all the little references that will just make them feel sooo “with it” as both science fiction readers and web aficionados. It probably doesn’t help that everything I know about neuroscience and cognitive theory (which is more than the average bear) says that many of his central premises are really, really ridiculous. Not to mention the absurd idea that Toronto’s humidity would be noticeable to someone from Austin.

I am also starting to develop an allergy towards authors who set multiple unrelated books in their hometown. Branch out, people.

Anyway, being the first book of a trilogy is a point against the book, and it would have had to have been mind-blowingly amazing and feel complete in itself (see: Spin) to overcome that and get my vote for the Hugo, and this just didn’t measure up.

Terminator: Salvation

May 19th, 2009

In 1984, James Cameron made a time-travel movie, with a scary killer robot with an Austrian accent who had come back from the future to kill a drop-out waitress not for anything she had done, but for what she would do. Its groundbreaking special effects and twisty story blew people’s minds a little and (along with Conan) helped establish the career of one of our times biggest action heroes and most surprising political figures, Arnold Schwarzenegger.  In 1991, he revisited that story and those characters in one of the best sci-fi/action films ever made, establishing the character of John Connor, concieved in the first film and destined to be the heroic leader of humanity’s Resistance against the onslaught of the machines. Then in 2003, Cameron pissed all over that previous movie with a lame-duck half-assed story where the raison d’etre appeared to be having a hot “female” Terminatrix. Yeah. Read the rest of this entry »

Rollback

June 30th, 2008

Sawyer is another one of those authors who’s been around for quite a while, winning the Nebula and the Hugo and the Campbell award, and yet somehow I’ve never read one of his books.  But Rollback is nominated for a Hugo, and thus I have read it, and am pleased to have done so.  It tells the story of Don and Sarah Halifax, one of those rare couples that manages to stay together into their eighties, but have lived lives that were largely unexceptional in other regards.  On their 60th Wedding Anniversary, in the year 2048, the one truly exceptional thing from their life came back to throw them into turmoil. Sarah, it turns out, is a famed SETI astronomer, a title she earns in the early part of the 21st century when she discovers the key to translating the first (and, thus far, only) alien message SETI had received.  The alien message was clear in its request for a response, but because of the signal’s origin many light years away it would take decades for any dialogue to make the round trip.  Those decades have passed, and on the Halifax’s anniversary, the second message was detected.  Unlike the first, though, it wasn’t just transmitted…this time it was encrypted in a code, a code that one eccentric, mega-rich SETI enthusiast believes can only be decoded by Sarah Halifax. But even in the mid 21st century, eighty is old, and Sarah surely can’t have much time left.  For the mega-rich, however, there’s a new option: The Rollback procedure.  Through surgeries, cloned organ replacement, and genetic therapy, the aging process can be reversed, and the human clock reset to the mid-twenties.  Sarah agrees to the procedure, but only if her husband, Don, gets one also.  Now, to this point in my review you might have guessed that Sarah was the focus of this book, but it’s really Don’s story, as the Rollback fails…not for Don, but for Sarah.  Don finds himself transformed into a hale young man, married to a very old lady.  What does a retired film and audio editor do with a new youthful life…with his time…with his libido?  And will Sarah have the time and energy to decode the alien message before her health finally fails? Sawyer does a very good job of addressing these questions, spinning a character drama of the level that is more often seen from mainstream fiction, using a device that only the genre could provide.  The question I kept asking myself, though, was “doesn’t this seem awfully familiar?”  There’s been a lot of excellent fiction addressing age reversal, lately, including last year’s Hugo Winner, Rainbows End, and (of course) Scalzi’s Old Man’s War novels, yet another response to the “graying” of our society (and, perhaps especially, of SF fandom?  It’s on my mind, certainly).  It’s clearly possible to do something special and original with material others have already addressed, but I’m not sure Sawyer managed to do so, here; to the point where I would say this book’s chief weakness is in its predictability.  The prose is compelling, gripping even, which is remarkable in a talky, contemplative book that lacks action sequences of any sort, but certain romanticized elements were underanalyzed, and I felt the light and hopeful ending was a poor match to the gravitas of the story overall.  This is a good book, and I will be looking to add more Sawyer to my shelves on its merits, but it will not be getting my vote for the Hugo this year.

The Last Colony

June 1st, 2008

After an aborted hope to go last year, I will be attending Worldcon this year for the first time, and as a member of the convention will be voting on who receives this year’s Hugo Awards, something I consider an honor and a privilege.  The Last Colony is the first of the nominated novels that I read, and I will endeavor to keep reviewing them as I read them. You may remember I was very impressed with Scalzi’s first major book on the scene, Old Man’s War. I never managed to dig its sequel, The Ghost Brigades, out of my booklog backlog for a proper review, but it was a worthy successor, and I’d be hard pressed to point a finger at which of them I enjoyed more.  The events of The Last Colony pick up a few years down the road from The Ghost Brigades, finding our heroes Perry and Sagan (and their adopted daughter) happily settled into a mostly quiet life as minor officials in a small agrarian colonial community.  Suddenly they receive a visit from the Colonial Union military that they had thought they were done with, but they weren’t looking for more military service from the two former soldiers, they were looking for them to be the leaders of a new world. Read the rest of this entry »

Little Brother

May 11th, 2008

In several of the corners of the internet I habituate, this book is lighting things up right now, and it’s sort of obvious why.  Here we have a book that is technically science fiction, but set close enough to present day that it’s difficult to tell (much the same as Pattern Recognition was) and leveraging that immediacy of setting to maximal effect by having the political climate and conflicts that are of urgent importance right now still relevant to its characters’ viewpoints.  It’s a book that is deeply political, and a book that embraces somewhat complicated ideas about math and computers as necessary elements of its setting and plot, but one that is written to be accessible enough to be shelved with Young Adult fiction (which is where you’ll find it if you want to acquire a copy for purchase).  It’s a book that is very clearly anti-establishment, but it’s also very directly a book about being a patriot; and how combining those two things are not only disturbingly easy right now, but that the former may be a precondition for the latter.  I think it’s safe to say that it would be getting plenty of coverage on Boing Boing even if it wasn’t written by one of that site’s contributors.  It’s targeted directly at the interests of Slashdot readers, and the political leanings of sites like the Nielsen Hayden’s Making Light even if Patrick weren’t the editor.  More importantly, though, I just finished a reread of Cryptonomicon, and this seemed like the perfect chaser to that book’s heady nerd-porn-i-ness.  Very minor spoilers follow below the cut: Read the rest of this entry »