Hugo Award for Best Novel – Book List

These are all the winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel that I have read to date.


Ancillary Justice

by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice  cover image
Trade Paperback, 384 pages
Orbit, 2013

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Can you imagine being in two places at once? It’s a common image to conjure, but actually imagine it. Weird, huh?

Now try imagining being two people in two places at once. Or two people, in the same place. That’s even harder, and even weirder. But it’s exactly what Ann Leckie asks of us in Ancillary Justice, a book about a person who was once and is still but isn’t any more a ship, Justice of Toren. Reduced, through grave misfortune, to a single ancillary—a no-longer-human body, one of thousands, used an avatar for the ship’s AI—it takes on the name of Breq and sets off on a quest for revenge. Its target: no other than the most powerful person in the entire Radch, an interstellar empire Justice of Toren was once sworn to protect and expand.

For the majority of the book, Leckie alternates between Breq’s present-day adventure and a re-telling of the events leading up to the Justice of Toren’s destruction. In the latter events, Leckie undertakes the task of presenting the multiple, simultaneous viewpoints available to Justice of Toren. She switches between these viewpoints without any overt markers to signal the changes. At first, this can be confusing, even overwhelming. But it’s about as close to simultaneity as one can get in a linear medium like a novel. Slowly, it becomes possible to form at least an inkling of what it must be like to have access to so many different perspectives of the same event, all at once.

Breq’s adventure is easier to follow, because on the surface it feels like a traditional narrative. Almost immediately, however, there are some unique qualities that make it more interesting. Breq uses the feminine third-person gender pronouns exclusively when referring to other people. Regardless of actual sex or gender, everyone is "her" and "she". This is an artifact of the Rad’chaai language that Breq speaks, for it has eliminated the idea of gendered pronouns, and Breq in fact has trouble telling the difference between sexes during her travels. Additionally, Leckie doesn’t often deign to describe her characters in a way that makes their sex or gender clear. So it’s interesting to see my underlying gender biases take over and try to fill in the gaps. It’s amazing how much we depend on simple pronouns to form a mental idea not only of how someone looks but how they move, speak, act.

Rather than physical description, Leckie relies a great deal on what people do and how they speak to portray their personalities. The Radch is an empire in the classical sense; its culture is stable enough to last thousands of years and still be vaguely recognizable to Seivarden, who has spent most of that time in suspension. People are very aware of their social standing, tied inextricably to their House, and things like fashion and the sociable nature of tea-drinking have become essential parts of the daily posturing for standing. As a result, one can tell a great deal from a person by their type of accent, how they dress, who they take tea with, and of course, the House they’re from.

This is all well and good, but I still feel like Leckie could have spent more time creating a more nuanced picture of Rad’chaai society. I would like to know how the majority of Rad’chaai civilians make a living. What is the economy like? What is their art and culture like, beyond the same soap operas on television that are apparently so recognizable they haven’t changed in millennia? I have a good idea of what the military side of the Radch is like, but I wish I could understand its people better. And I would like to better understand the ways in which Anaander Mianaii has managed to keep the Radch intact over millennia of rule. That seems like a dicey proposition.

If space was a concern, I could think of some passages that could have been removed. Did Breq really have to spend so much time at that cabin? Many of those scenes seemed like they only existed as a buffer from one of the scenes set in the past until the next. Although the plot itself is gripping, the pace at which it unfolds varies from glacial to merely temperate. It isn’t until we get to the climax of the novel, as we approach Breq’s inevitable confrontation with Anaander Mianaai, that events start moving smoothly and seamlessly.

Ancillary Justice satisfies, but it doesn’t leave me with linger impressions and thought-provoking questions. The unique nature of the protagonist is a draw, and Leckie occasionally seems to come close to exploring the interesting ramifications of Breq’s existence as the fractured remnant of a ship AI. But this book feels more like a rough cut than a polished gem. And I’ll take that any day over something that instead aims for the derivative, or the popular, or the safe. Not everything that Leckie tries here succeeds with me, but the fact that she has tried is itself quite impressive. Perhaps the best thing I can say is that it reminds me a lot of the science fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin, enough that I’ll keep my eye on Leckie and on the next book in this series.

Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas

by John Scalzi

Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas cover image
eBook, 205 pages
Tom Doherty Associates, 2012

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I don’t know how I first got into Star Trek, but I owe almost the entire trajectory of my life to it. I’m not exaggerating. Aside from my interest in teaching (and even that might have been influenced by Star Trek’s love for exploration and knowledge), that TV show profoundly influenced my decisions. The first online community I joined was a Star Trek roleplaying group. Connections I made on that community led to other communities—though not Goodreads, which I joined because an offline friend recommended it to me.

But my interest in science fiction, both literature and television, definitely started with Star Trek. I can remember getting a shiny new 13” TV in my room after my first TV, which I inherited from the living room, finally stopped working completely. (Shortly after I inherited it, the TV would begin to lose its picture after a few minutes of operation, and the picture would only come back after you turned it off to let the tube cool down. Since I had a bedtime back then, I neither retreated nor surrendered and settled for using the TV like a very big radio, just listening to TVO before falling asleep.) I was really excited to get cable in my room, because I knew I would be able to watch Space, Canada’s specialty science fiction/fantasy channel, whenever I wanted. And Space was constantly broadcasting Star Trek.

I avoided the later series at first; they seemed too shiny and weird compared to the simple and straightforward stories on the original series. My opinion nowadays is somewhat reversed—my favourite, if pressed, is probably Deep Space Nine, but all of the series have their strong points and their flaws. However, every time I catch an episode of TOS again, I am impressed by just how good of show it is. Star Trek did what great science fiction should always do, which is present compelling moral dilemmas and ask questions relevant to what presently concerns our society. I learned a lot about life from Star Trek, and I also learned a lot about the 1960s.

So this is my background when it comes to What Star Trek means to me. I suspect many people have similar stories—if they’re older, the story might involve conventions, meeting a future partner, etc. This special bond we have with Star Trek is one of the reasons why I was so excited about Redshirts. (The other reason, of course, is that I’m a fan of John Scalzi.)

I’m going to go ahead and assume you’re familiar with what a redshirt is, or that if you weren’t, you clicked through to the TVTropes page in that link and did some quick research.

Here’s a one-line, hopefully not spoilerish review: if you despise meta-fiction and books that break the fourth wall (or even look at it funny), don’t bother. If you like meta-fiction, and particularly commentary on science-fiction television, you will like Redshirts.

This is a difficult novel to review without going into spoiler territory. I’m going to try it anyway. However, I am going to talk about a few things in the last paragraph or two that are borderline spoilers. For that reason, if you absolutely want to remain spoiler-free for this book, just stop reading.

Ensign Andrew Dahl is fresh from the Academy and assigned to the Universal Union’s flagship, the Intrepid. From the very beginning, he notices that everyone on the ship behaves strangely. Specifically, people who go on an away mission with a senior officer tend to come back dead. And then there’s the Box, which makes no sense…. Dahl starts to suspect there is something sinister happening, and he tracks down the reclusive Ensign Jenkins to confirm this. But Jenkins has an even crazier theory about what’s happening on the Intrepid. And when Dahl decides it has to stop, the solution will involve time travel, universe-hopping, body-switching, celebrity wrangling, and an intense amount of genre savviness.

With Redshirts, Scalzi hits all the right notes as he satirizes the typical plot of a Star Trek episode. This extends beyond the redshirt trope—he also looks at how absurd it is to send all the senior staff on away missions, particularly when some of them are the navigators:

“It’s a good thing you heal so fast, considering how often you get hurt,” Dahl ventured.

“I know!” Kerensky said, suddenly and forcefully. “Thank you! No one else notices! I mean, what the hell is up with that? I’m not stupid, or clumsy, or anything. But every time I go on an away mission I get all fucked up. Do you know how many times I’ve been, like, shot?”

“Three times in the last three years,” Dahl said.

“Yes!” Kerensky said. “Plus all the other shit that happens to me. You know what it is. Fucking captain and Q’eeng have a voodoo doll of me, or something.” He sat there, brooding, and then showed every sign of being about to drift into sleep.

“A voodoo doll,” Dahl said, startling Kerensky back into consciousness. “You think so.”

“Well, no, not literally,” Kerensky said. “Because that’s just stupid, isn’t it. But it feels like it. It feels like whenever the captain and Q’eeng have an away mission they know is going to be all fucked up they say, ‘Hey, Kerensky, this is a perfect away mission for you,’ and then I go off and, like, get my spleen punctured. And half the time it’s some stupid thing I have no idea about, right? I’m an astrogator, man. I am a fucking brilliant astrogator. I wanna just … astrogate. Right?”

I love this exchange between Dahl and the Chekov-analogue Lt. Kerensky. It succinctly examines the foolhardiness of sending unqualified bridge officers on away missions even as it makes Kerensky, who is a minor character, seem all the more human—it’s not like he wants to be the Worf (TVTropes).

(As an aside, however, the exchange also highlights something that really annoyed me while reading, which is Scalzi’s persistent use of “he said–she said” dialogue tags when it’s not really necessary. We can follow a conversation between two people.)

If Redshirts were merely a romp around a Star Trek-like starship where Scalzi could point out how ridiculous everything is, it would be a fun book but rather pointless. Instead, Dahl decides he wants to do something about what’s going on—and while I can’t reveal the precise nature of what’s happening, he decides the best solution is to steal a shuttle, kidnap Kerensky for plot armor (TVTropes), and use the gravitational slingshot around a black hole to go back in time to an alternate universe.

(I apologize if that last sentence induced an ill-timed nerdgasm.)

Unfortunately, this is about where the book, at least for me, starts to run out of steam. (What an oddly outdated idiom considering the subject matter.) Time travel is difficult in the best of circumstances; Scalzi’s treatment never really gets beyond the fish-out-of-water antics of Dahl and his friends trying to navigate through the weirdness of California in 2012. There are a lot of scenes played for laughs, and in the one case where Scalzi foreshadows something particularly important, it’s clusmy and comes out of nowhere (for those who have read the book, I am referring to the burrito excuse at the beginning of Chapter 19).

What rescues Redshirts is actually something that runs through the entire novel and finally comes to the fore at the end: a sense of profound waste, of loss. It begins with the prologue and the senseless death of Ensign David. It continues with Finn’s exhortation for Dahl to find a way to make this stop. It ends with the Hail Mary scheme involving Ensign Hester. These events are tragic counterpoints to the comedic aspect of the redshirt phenomenon: Scalzi humanizes these characters, makes most of them individual enough for us to appreciate their loss as people instead of plot fodder. As a result, even though the bulk of this novel consists of humourous dialogue and hilarious circumstances, its substance is a lot more serious and more rewarding.

And then there are the codas. The story itself is short, so Scalzi decided to include some extra material in the form of three additional stories: one each in first, second, and third person. These stories explore what happens after the conclusion of the story itself, following three specific minor characters and the ramifications of Dahl’s actions. They’re very well done and definitely enhance the story. The first coda, written in the style of a series of blog posts, is a little long. The third coda, although touching, is a little trite. But I loved the second one; it was moving and addressed questions the story left open that really deserve a second consideration.

This is the part with somewhat spoilery comments.

Redshirts is reminscient of plenty of other stories, several of which Scalzi lampshades in the first coda. This includes Stranger than Fiction, the movie that made me realize what a great actor Will Ferrell is. It also reminds me of the Supernatural episode “The French Mistake” (its title an allusion, of course, to the venerable Blazing Saddles) and also of Sophie’s World, a novel I absolutely adore. I unabashedly love meta-fiction, and Redshirts feels like a Sophie’s World without the didactic approach to philosophy. There’s still philosophy aplenty to be had, but Scalzi assumes his reader is erudite enough to understand what words like “teleological” imply without stopping the narrative to explain them. I like that.

I love certain parts of Redshirts because they appeal to my membership in geek culture. They know the right code words to use, the right poses to strike, and so they meet my approval. But I don’t love Redshirts itself. It’s a good book, and I heartily recommend it to people who, like me, are fans of deconstructing shows they love. Like many such deconstructions, however, the gimmick of the story proves far more memorable than the story itself.

All Clear

by Connie Willis

All Clear  cover image
eBook, 643 pages
Spectra, 2010

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Last time, on Ben's reviews:

… there's a very palpable, somewhat ironic fear here, because in a way these three are more frightened of the Blitz than the stalwart contemporaries (or "contemps" as the historians call them).… So for a moment, there's a justifiable and interesting suspense. Unfortunately, Willis attempts to sustain that suspense entirely too long…

all the characters in this book are ninnies … They complain about the retrieval team not showing up and they lie to each other and keep secrets to avoid "worrying" each other unnecessarily.

Slippage is a safety mechanism, then, of the universe, and time travellers shouldn't be able to alter the past. Willis leaves us wondering if this interpretation is true, or if there is something else happening, and I admit I want to know the answer.

… time travel creates a headache for those of us mired in the swamps of linear time, and inevitably, time travel stories demonstrate why it's a good thing we don't have to comprehend paradoxes in real life.

And now, the conclusion to Ben's reviews of Blackout/All Clear:

Time travel to the past inevitably raises the spectre of altering the past, and specifically whether one can change the outcome of events that have "already" happened. This generally depends on the rules the author sets up. Connie Willis doesn't actually explain the rules to us, only hints at them, and determining what "type" of universe our Oxford historians inhabit becomes central to the plot of All Clear. When Mr. Dunworthy joins Polly and Eileen in the past, he has bad news: he fears he has doomed them all, because he altered events on his first trip to the Blitz, when he was only seventeen years old, and now the continuum is trying to repair itself. By killing all the time travellers, and everyone with whom they have had contact. Fortunately for all of our historians, it turns out Mr. Dunworthy is mistaken: they live in a type 1.1 universe instead of type 1.2, and the Novikov self-consistency principle is in effect. Everything that happens has already happened, and they are in a nice and comfortable causality loop.

Now that I have completely spoiled the ending of All Clear (you did take that spoiler warning seriously, didn't you?), it is time to process my feelings. Having finished the book, I have to admit that all the fans of this story are correct: having already read Blackout, reading All Clear is worthwhile. It's a significant investment, but at least I have some closure now. Unfortunately, I didn't feel that way while reading All Clear, particularly during the first half. I remember checking my progress and lamenting, "I still have 300 more pages?" There was some heavy skimming happening at some points too. Blackout/All Clear are definitely a package deal, but it's a package with a long, dull slog in the middle.

Picking up literally where Blackout concludes, All Clear continues its tradition of long and repetitive discussions of how the historians might have altered events. This builds to an egregious climax on December 29, 1940, when Polly, Eileen, and Mike attempt to find John Bartholomew, a historian from their past who has joined the St. Paul's Cathedral Fire Watch for this one night. They want him to take a message back to Oxford for them, but the continuum gets in their way and leads them on a merry chase across London, constantly interfering when they are so close to finding Bartholomew. It gradually becomes clear that these near-misses and coincidences are a result of the continuum's self-consistency and not just exuberance on the part of Willis, and I suppose that is fair enough. Yet there is a vast gulf between justifiable and enjoyable, and All Clear fails to bridge it.

When considered as a whole, Blackout/All Clear is a very clever and well-planned time travel story. It's possible to tell a time travel story in a linear fashion, but I kind of feel like this misses the point. Willis, on the other hand, clearly enjoys and exults in the intricacy time travel affords the structure of her narrative. Characters whose identities were initially unclear—and, indeed, seemingly irrelevant to our main story—turned out to be familiar faces. In hindsight, Willis left plenty of clues scattered for the clever reader to deduce on his or her own, but I am not that smart. (We actually read The Importance of Being Earnest in one of my first-year English classes, and I have it sitting on my shelf, but I honestly didn't remember it enough to recognize the importance of names like Earnest and Lady Bracknell. Shame on me!) Despite my misgivings about her characterization and the conclusion itself, I can't fault Willis for her planning and preparation, and that is one of the two things that saved me from utterly condemning this book. The other reason is that the science-fictional devices are, as always, secondary to the story and its themes.

Blackout/All Clear is about time travel, but it's also, according to Connie Willis,

about Dunkirk and ration books and D-Day and V-1 rockets, about tube shelters and Bletchley Park and gas masks and stirrup pumps and Christmas pantomimes and cows and crossword puzzles and the deception campaign. And mostly the book’s about all the people who “did their bit” to save the world from Hitler–Shakespearean actors and ambulance drivers and vicars and landladies and nurses and WRENs and RAF pilots and Winston Churchill and General Patton and Agatha Christie–heroes all.

Heroism and the question of what makes someone heroic are central to Blackout/All Clear. Mike originally plans to visit Dover as but one of several trips into the past, each of which will allow him to observe "ordinary people" who get swept up in events and become heroes as a result. Even though his trip to Dover is hasty and he is ill-prepared and everything that can go wrong seems to go wrong, he still thinks he has found such a person in Commander Harold. Yet Mike's ideas about heroism evolve quite a bit as he himself is forced to go undercover, change his identity, and participate directly in the British disinformation campaigns. This complements the heroism demonstrated by civilians during the Blitz, when regular people became ambulance drivers and firefighters and planespotters and rescue workers, when even keeping one's cool became an act of heroism. In this way, Blackout/All Clear is Willis' tribute to everyone who lived through the Blitz, through D-Day, through the war itself: they are all heroes, because as her use of time travel makes explicit, every little action affects history.

I wish this alone were enough to make me love this book. It's enough to make me regret that I did not enjoy it more, but even an appreciation for what Willis is saying cannot improve the black and bored mood that descended upon me as I was reading. Although I hate echoing others, I have to agree with several other reviewers—love it or hate it, there seems to be a general consensus that Blackout/All Clear didn't have to be this long. As it stands, the book suffers from a serious risk of losing its plot through diffusion. There are too many scenes that serve well to depict greater historical detail and further Willis' themes but seem completely redundant to the story itself, and noticing this was sufficient to pull me out of the story and make my inner grumpy critic put on his snooty monocle and sneer—mostly at the characters.

I keep coming back to this, but if I were the head of the Oxford Time Travelling Society (or whatever it's called), I wouldn't let Polly, Mike, and Eileen near the net. And I probably wouldn't let Mr. Dunworthy stay in charge, even if he means well. I'm not sure if Willis is just worried that her readers won't get it, but the historians spend a lot of time speculating why their drops won't open, why the retrieval team hasn't arrived, etc. When Colin—Mr. One Man Retrieval Team himself—finally arrives to take them home, I thought the story would, you know, conclude there. He's back, and now they can go home. But no, I was wrong, and we get another thirty pages in which Colin and Eileen explain to Polly (again) why things are happening the way they are (because they've already happened). I had already clued into Willis' predestination plans before the big reveal, but even for those taken unawares, such a lengthy and repetitive explanation seems more patronizing than helpful. I very much dislike it when authors succumb to the temptation to stop and point at their own clever resolutions, and while I don't think this was Willis' intention by any means, I think that's what the conclusion to All Clear becomes.

Causality loops aren't my favourite type of time travel universe; I much prefer the idea that history can be altered (and that the continuum would inexorably collapse if time travel were possible, so we should be thankful it's not). One of the beautiful things about fiction is its diversity, of course, and so I don't have to like Willis' rules in order to appreciate them. My opinion of Blackout/All Clear as a time travel novel has improved, slightly, because of the obvious care that has gone into working out the tangled chronology of its narrative. And my opinion of this as a work of historical fiction, as a tribute to those who lived through the war and the myriad unsung heroes of the everyday, has only increased as well. Willis works carefully to avoid any actual paradoxes in her novel, but she has managed to create one with me: Blackout/All Clear is obviously deserving praise and acclaim, yet it was also one of my worst experiences reading this year. Somewhere within these two massive volumes is a single, worthwhile story, struggling to escape—and it is the glimpse at that story that I find so alluring and so easy to appreciate, even as the surrounding chaff chokes and cloys.


by Connie Willis

Blackout  cover image
eBook, 512 pages
Spectra, 2010

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Time travel is a sexy science-fiction trope. It's right up there with faster-than-light travel (the two are, in fact, inextricably related, and chances are you if you invent one then you'll have invented both) as something that, as far as our current understanding of the universe works, is impossible. There are some fascinating loopholes involving wormholes and general relativity, but in order to get it working you need metric shit-joules of energy and something called exotic matter, and it would probably kill you. Besides, even if you got your cosmic time machine working, you wouldn't be able to travel back to a time before you built the time machine. But once you get beyond the physics of time travel and whether it's possible, then the real fun begins. Because time travel creates a headache for those of us mired in the swamps of linear time, and inevitably, time travel stories demonstrate why it's a good thing we don't have to comprehend paradoxes in real life.

Connie Willis doesn't go into too much depth regarding how time travel is accomplished in her 2060 version of Oxford, where historians visit the past on research assignments. There's some kind of device that creates a "net", which is probably some kind of fancy space-time fold that wraps around the traveller and sends him or her to different "spatiotemporal coordinates". The location where the traveller arrives is his or her "drop", which the traveller must reach to return to Oxford. Rather than dropping this upon us the moment the story begins, Willis does the right thing and gradually introduces us to her theory of time travel. We get some very intriguing hints and speculation about whether historians can alter the past (the prevailing theory is that they can't, but some theorists beg to differ) and some mutterings about "slippage". This is how Willis gets away with using the "meanwhile, in the future" device (TVTropes alert), which is probably the one thing I hate most about time travel stories. We'll look at whether slippage is enough to mollify me later, but first let me talk about World War II.

Blackout starts at a disadvantage for me personally, because I don't particularly like WWII fiction. I will read it once in a while, but I don't go out of my way to find historical fiction set during that period. So keep that in mind when I endorse the atmosphere that Willis creates in Blackout, which is clearly (sometimes too clearly) (TVTropes alert) the product of meticulous research. Polly, Eileen, and Mike all visit different parts of England in 1940: Polly is in London to observe the beginning of the Blitz; Eileen is a maid at a manor that has taken in evacuees; Mike is at Dover to observe the evacuation from Dunkirk. Eventually they all converge on Polly and the Blitz. I love the details Willis includes in her depiction of the period, from the differences between American and British English idioms to the expectations for dress and the excuses one might need for being out after the sirens go off. Willis successfully conveys that the Blitz, and England in general during wartime when the threat of German invasion loomed, was more than just a different time; it possessed an entirely different mentality, one that I don't think those of us lucky enough never to have lived through a war that threatens one's country can grasp.

Before I read Blackout, I knew in general what the Blitz was and that Londoners would often take shelter in Underground stations. That was about it. I didn't know anything about boarding arrangements, about the effects the Blitz had on department stores, and I knew very little about the rationing that went on during the war (I knew that it existed, and that was about it). It was really refreshing to read a book that didn't focus on the military aspects or the Holocaust but instead on civilian life (and the life of women ambulance drivers in the FANY). During the Blitz, any sort of lapse in communications with loved ones meant that one's mind immediately assumed the worst: they hadn't made it to the shelter in time; they were hit by a bomb or by shrapnel; they were caught in a fire … the Nazis never managed to land on English soil, but they inflicted casualties on London and its citizens all the same. When someone I care about doesn't show up, I just assume he or she got stuck in traffic; the citizens of London in 1940 did not have that luxury. Practically every night involved sheltering underground and listening to bombs going off overhead, wondering if one would return home after the all clear only to find that one no longer has a home. Or a place of employment. The historical fiction parts of Blackout are fascinating and immensely satisfying.

As a time travel novel, Blackout runs into problems about halfway through, once Polly, Mike, and Eileen start worrying that they are stranded in 1940. None of their drops open, so they all have the same idea to find one another and use that person's drop. When they realize they all had the same problem, they wait for a retrieval team from the future to arrive—all the while wondering why the team hasn't already arrived (because it's time travel, so there should be no need to wait). Being stranded in the past begins to test our three historians' nerves, because they are trapped in the middle of the Blitz! Polly memorized the dates of bombings, which buildings were hit, and that sort of thing, but only up until the end of the year—she didn't think she would need to know them for the entire Blitz. So there's a very palpable, somewhat ironic fear here, because in a way these three are more frightened of the Blitz than the stalwart contemporaries (or "contemps" as the historians call them). They are so used to knowing when and where bombs will hit that not knowing is a lot more unusual than it is for the contemps, who never had such foreknowledge. Worse still, even though everything they have ever learned about time travel theory insists historians cannot alter the past, each of them harbours his or her own doubts. Every possible discrepancy becomes a source of concern until it's revealed not to be a discrepancy, and each wonders if he or she has done something that causes the Allies to lose the war.

I can grok their fears. I'd hate to be stranded in the Blitz too, knowing there's some kind of future possible, knowing that I could know the dates and places that were bombed but just didn't have that knowledge on me. So for a moment, there's a justifiable and interesting suspense. Unfortunately, Willis attempts to sustain that suspense entirely too long, and my mood moved from sympathetic to annoyed to aggravated as my sympathy for the characters diminished. Kemper's review provides an excellent explanation as to why. If your connection is so slow you don't want to load another page (and that is the only excuse for not reading his review right now), allow me to summarize: all the characters in this book are ninnies, or as Kemper puts it:

Almost the entire book is their inner dialogues which consist solely of fretting about stupid trivial crap, wild speculation that turns out to be completely wrong and repeatedly asking, “Oh, when will the retrieval team arrive?”

You’d think that time travelers should be hardy adventurers with the ability to improvise and adapt to problems. These dumbasses can’t complete the simplest of tasks without it becoming a story of epic proportions.

I couldn't agree more. Leaving aside the government-inquiry-level incompetence of the Oxford time travelling history department (or whatever it's called), which apparently can't be bothered to send historians to the past with the proper preparation, none of the three main characters accomplish anything in Blackout. They complain about the retrieval team not showing up and they lie to each other and keep secrets to avoid "worrying" each other unnecessarily. Seriously? The three of you are time travellers stuck in 1940, and you don't come clean in your very first conversation, say, "I have a deadline; I was here at V-E day and can't cross my own timeline" (Polly)? You know that is only going to lead to trouble, but you do it anyway! I know you guys are only human, and you're flawed and whatnot, but there should be some sort of mandatory certification test for time travel.

But no, Mike, Polly, and Eileen spend the rest of Blackout working "together" even as they work a bit at cross-purposes. This leads to all sorts of close misses and coincidences, the type of events that are funny the first time it happens and then just repetitive each time thereafter. The same goes for their rationalizations as to why the retrieval team hasn't arrived. The only explanation that makes sense in their current theory of time travel is that the "slippage" has increased. Slippage is a phenomenon whereby the time-travel net does not send someone to the precise time and location intended. Instead, for some reason, the net "slips" in space or time (but usually not both), and theorists reason this is the universe's way of preventing historians from protecting "divergence points" and preventing passersby from observing the visual manifestation of the historian and his or her drop. Slippage is a safety mechanism, then, of the universe, and time travellers shouldn't be able to alter the past. Willis leaves us wondering if this interpretation is true, or if there is something else happening, and I admit I want to know the answer. Of course, I am writing this from a future when I am already halfway through All Clear, and so far that entire book seems unnecessary. But that's another review….

**Find out the stunning conclusion to the review begun here!

Ben's review of All Clear**

The City & The City

by China Miéville

The City & The City cover image
Hardcover, 312 pages
Del Rey, 2009

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I don't judge books by their covers, but sometimes covers do say a lot about the book they contain. The cover of my edition of The City & The City is in washed out blue, with a stylized title and the skylines of two different Eastern European cityscapes—presumably, the modernized Ul Qoma, and its neighbour, Bes?el. It's a very nice cover. Alone, it is aesthetically pleasing. Yet it also captures the atmosphere of the story with pinpoint accuracy. There's a washed out quality to The City & The City, a sense of drab stoicism imparted by centuries of maintaining Bes?el and Ul Qoma's unique relationship. This makes it a perfect setting for a hardboiled crime novel, as well as another Miévillian story in which the city (two cities, here) are almost characters unto themselves.

(I'm going to reveal the exact nature of that "unique relationship" two paragraphs below, hence the spoiler warning on this review. I feel that this is essential in order to discuss properly the book, and I don't think that knowing the "secret" spoils the plot or even the enjoyment of the book.)

This only my second novel by China Miéville, and my second in two weeks (the first being Perdido Street Station). Already I'm gaining a great respect for his worldbuilding abilities. In particular, Miéville has a talent for understatement. In The City & The City, the reader teases out the nature of Bes?el and Ul Qoma after a few chapters. We get hints from mentions of "unseeing," "unhearing," and, of course, "Breach." This was obviously intentional; otherwise, Miéville could have begun with, "Once upon a time, there were two cities. . . ." Instead, he forces us to acclimatize and orientate ourselves, much like a tourist to Bes?el or Ul Qoma. We're forced to pay attention. And because this is a mystery, that is a good thing!

As its title implies, however, this book is more about the two cities and their relationship (both political and physical) than the murder that forms its central plot. Bes?el and Ul Qoma, taken separately, seem like typical Eastern European cities, one stagnating and the other in a state of renewal. Taken together, these cities are anything but typical. In places where the cities overlap (or "crosshatch"), inhabitants of Bes?el must "unsee" people in Ul Qoma, and vice versa; they learn to do this by paying attention to how people walk, hold themselves, the style of clothing they wear, etc. All of these elaborate cultural conventions have evolved to maintain the homeostasis of the two cities. Puncturing this equilibrium, we learn, is the worst possible crime in both cities: it is breach. And the people who deal with it have no identity, no concrete existence other than their purpose; they are Breach.

What I found more interesting than the existence of uniquely Bes? or Ul Qoman modes of dress and walking were the implications surrounding these customs. In a crosshatched area, you can just "decide" to be in one city or the other. Change the way you walk, change the city you're in—of course, then you are also in breach, but that isn't the point here. It's the fragility of this system. Why would people ever choose to live this way?

This seems like a natural question for us to ask. Let me rephrase it. Why would people ever choose to live in a city constantly in danger of flooding during a hurricane? Why would people ever choose to live in a city where they have to spend four hours a day stuck in a car going from home to work and back? To an outsider, those situations may seem just as bizarre as the superposition of Bes?el and Ul Qoma does to us, yet people inhabit such cities. Why? Simple: it's home.

Miéville reinforces this point by contrasting the two cities. Borlú is Bes?, so when he travels to Ul Qoma, he is out of his element. The cities share the same space, but they are very different from one another in character and composition—for Borlú, Bes?el is most definitely "home" while Ul Qoma is not. It's precisely this sentiment, amplified a hundredfold and augmented with a sense of superiority, that gives hardcore nationalists like the Bes? True Citizens and Qoma First their motivation. And on the other side, you have the unificationists of either city trying to merge the two together (which honestly seems like a bad idea to me, just from a physical infrastructure perspective).

Despite being so different, Bes?el and Ul Qoma are both defined by their unique situation and by their oversight by the Breach. No other cities on Earth have an "alien power" watching over them, "protecting" them. Citizens learn as children to avoid breaching; as we soon discover, the murders of Mahalia Geary go to great lengths to avoid breaching while committing their crime. Breach is omnipresent, a constant undercurrent in thoughts and actions—it's amazing that most Bes? and Ul Qomans don't have a siege mentality.

Borlú's a very interesting character and a good narrator. I am not so convinced he is a very good detective, but he gets the job done, and what he lacks in foresight he makes up for in guts. What begins as an admittedly vexing murder investigation quickly becomes an investigation into the structure of the cities themselves, into the nature of Breach and the possibility of a "third city," Orciny, existing "between" the other two. Borlú's not an action hero, but he's still tough and does what's necessary to deliver justice.

Can you read The City & The City as a straight crime novel, ignoring all this namby-pamby fantasy junk? Of course not. I focus so much on the relationship between these cities because it's integral to the story, and to the mystery—there would be very little mystery were it not for the fact that an Ul Qoman inhabitant winds up dead on Bes? soil. Yet the mystery is just as integral to the book. It is the plot, the glue that creates the conflict and drives the story forward even as we learn about the two cities. Genre-wise, there is enough of a "crime novel" here that people who regard fantasy with a sceptical or hesitant eye need not fear being swallowed by a crowd of hungry LARPers.

The City & The City is—and I mean this without any denigration toward other types of fantasy novels—a very mature work of fantasy. It's probably more proper to label it "speculative fiction," if we're going to get into a label debate—I'm just calling it "fantasy" because we never do get a full explanation for why the cities are superimposed on each other. Should we get an explanation? You're certainly entitled to want one, but as it is, this book feels complete. It is a mystery set in a mysterious city and a mysterious city, but that mystery is not about the origins of the city and the city. The origins are extraneous, and attempting to add them would ruin the story's harmony. For The City & The City works precisely because it is balanced, because Miéville carefully controls the juxtaposition of the foreign and the familiar. The result is a murder wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a city and a city.

The Windup Girl

by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup Girl cover image
eBook, 361 pages
Night Shade Books, 2009

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I must start somewhere, and where better to begin than with the title? Why is this called The Windup Girl? Although Emiko's actions have a significant effect on the plot, I never felt like the book was about her or that she was as special as the title implies. As a creation, Emiko is fascinating. She is a slave, obedience instilled at genetic and conditioned levels, beauty bred into her. Smaller pores make for flawlessly smooth skin, but in Thailand's climate they also make her prone to overheating. Her genes also dictate how she moves, with the stutter-stop motions that give her the moniker "windup girl" despite her biological nature. Abandoned in Thailand by her former Japanese owner, Emiko is abused and humiliated as a prostitute. Once she realizes she can have wants, she wants nothing more than to escape. Once she realizes she has the power to effect this, despite what her training and genes tell her, she becomes dangerous.

Simultaneously fragile and fearsome, Emiko is a wonderful creation. So it is a shame the book does not spend more time focusing on her transformation from subservient girl to wilful woman. There are so many characters in this book, so much else going on, that Emiko's development does not get as many pages at it deserves. On the other hand, a book focusing more on Emiko would be, admittedly, a very different book. So I shall focus on the book we have here.

I admire Emiko as a character—I think it's difficult not to admire her, because Bacigalupi has taken such a well-worn trope and integrated it into his genetic morality play. She is a lesson in biological determinism, a creature at the mercy of the genes her creators tailored to ensure her obedience—and a celebration of the ability to transcend one's genome, to become more than the sum of one's parts. Emiko is the human in the inhuman. As a symbol, she is very powerful. Perhaps that is why this is called The Windup Girl.

I could go through the rest of the cast and discuss each in turn. Bacigalupi's strength and weakness in this book is an ability to focus, in turn, on so many different characters. However, I will just single out the two other characters worthy of note for how they change over the course of the story: Hock Seng, Anderson's yellow card Chinese refugee; and Kanya, sidekick to Jaidee the Tiger and kickass morally-ambiguous protagonist in her own right.

Hock Seng annoyed me, especially toward the end, because he was always lamenting his misfortune and powerlessness. Yet he never gave up, despite it truly seeming at times like fate conspired against him. In Hock Seng, Bacigalupi shows us a man who has fallen so far that he has lost everything he cared about: his business, his family, and all of his property. Like Emiko, he is foreign to Thailand, a refugee seen by others as so much detritus. He tries so hard to rise again, but he never quite makes it—sometimes because of ill fortune, but sometimes because he is so used to remaining unobtrusive, to biding his time, that he does not seize opportunity when it presents itself. Hock Seng is a broken man constantly trying to mend himself.

Kanya annoyed me at first but grew on me in ways I did not expect. Bacigalupi pulls a bait-and-switch, setting up Jaidee to play a pivotal role in the coming conflict only to replace him with Kanya. She is as unprepared for this new responsibility as we are for her accession. Oh, and it doesn't help that she's a mole for Akkarat, the Minister of Trade and enemy of her band of merry White Shirt enforcers. And that was really the last piece of the puzzle that her character needed, something to elevate her above the "idealist fighter with a scarred childhood" to "conflicted fighter with a scarred childhood." Watching Kanya walk the line between her loyalties, and seeing how much fun Bacigalupi has putting her in ironic positions, is half the fun of reading The Windup Girl.

It's not that all the other characters are poorly written, but none of them resonated for me in the way Hock Seng and Kanya did. Some of them, like Anderson and Akkarat, just seemed to drive be there to drive forward the plot, mouthpieces for their respective ideologies. The latent conflict in The Windup Girl, mostly dormant until the climactic chapters, is between the Ministry of Trade and the Ministry of the Environment. The former want to trade, naturally, while the latter want to protect Thailand from mutant pests and voracious strains of food created by too many decades of calorie company gene-ripping. Of course, what with recovering from a coup and all, Thailand's government sucks. So when Anderson, Akkarat, and everyone else who wants money, power, or money and power start stirring the pot, the situation becomes very ugly, very fast. The Emiko murders someone, and all hell breaks loose.

Having had the fortune never to live in a war-torn city, I cannot attest to the verisimilitude of Bacigalupi's depictions of Kung Threp as the White Shirts go to war with Trade. It feels like a plausible portrayal to me. There are idealists on both sides, but for the most part the two sides consist of ordinary people swept up by an ideology. And those caught in the middle are confused, cynical, and misinformed—yet so apathetic, because they are so used to a corrupt regime. The radio can't be trusted, for it is in the control of one group or another; the officers who are supposed to arrest you for your contraband source of methane simply look the other way (for a price). There are laws and regulations, and then there is reality. There is authority and there are enforcers. The gulf between the two is vast, in our world and in this future Thailand.

Bacigalupi never quite explains how Thailand (or the world) arrives at this state, but that's OK. There are vague references to an Expansion and Contraction—implied, rather explicitly, to do with globalization and peak oil. Enough governments have collapsed that megacorporations run amuck with their own private armies. Genetic modification brought the ruin and now may hold the keys to saving humanity's staple crops—that or the highly-coveted seedbanks hidden around the world. Anderson's references to the disaster in Finland, where his company attempted to seize a seedbank only for its possessors to destroy it, set the tone for his time. In a world filled with environmental and economic collapse, we finally achieve a form of equality—just not on the highly-developed level those of us in developed nations all fantasize about. And, naturally, since these people are human beings and not robots or saints, in this world where everyone is equally screwed over, some are more screwed than others. There are some haves among the have-nots, and as Hock Seng can testify, one's status can change without warning or appeal.

That ultimate uncertainty of one's fate is one of the principal themes of The Windup Girl, and it is a harrowing lesson to learn. None of the characters really achieve what they want—and if they do, as it's implied for Emiko, it is not exactly what they were expecting. Rather than settling for a happy ending, a sad ending, or the depressingly postmodern choice of no ending, Bacigalupi delivers a . . . real ending. Not real in the sense of realistic, but real in the sense of being messy, both in terms of writing and narrative. Lumped in with the surreal invocation of kink springs, megodonts, and yes, airships, the ending is abrupt but not unwelcome.

I wish I could praise this book more. The more I consider its flaws, the less I consider them damning . . . yet I can't feel as enthusiastic about The Windup Girl as I desire. Maybe it's Bacigalupi's style, which is almost clinical and can at times interfere with connecting to his otherwise interesting characters. Maybe it's the plot, which only gets exciting after an interminable time humming, hawing, and generally dragging its heels toward the climax. Mostly, though, it's the disparate elements Bacigalupi combines to tell his story. In reviewing them—Emiko, Hock Seng, Kanya, Anderson and Akkarat's conflict, etc.—separately, I partition them. I can observe their individual features but not so much how they relate; those relationships, in my opinion, are the weakest links of The Windup Girl.

There is something to be said for easy books, books that do not challenge—or, if they challenge, do so only in a manner that is ultimately reassuring. We all crave confirmation and validation; fulfilling that craving once in a while is fine. By that same token, there is also a time and place for really hard books, books that challenge not only sensibility but ability, ability to comprehend or understand let alone believe. Often easy books get labelled "beach reads", but I think this conflates difficulty with complexity. Some hard books can be beach reads too, if only because they are as entertaining as they are thought-provoking. Thus, "hard" or "complex" is not always a synonym for "drudgery" or "boring."

Nevertheless, The Windup Girl—a complex book—did, at times, feel like a chore to read. Bacigalupi's style, as I mentioned above, could be slicker. The plot could be better. The characters, well, they're all right. The Windup Girl is a bunch of adequate narrative elements that come together to make a whole that is, like its eponymous character, more than the sum of its parts.

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The Graveyard Book

by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book cover image
Hardcover, 320 pages
Harp, 2008

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Neil Gaiman is one of the world's leading storytellers, and The Graveyard Book great story--several stories, in fact, all bound up into one nice narrative.

I have great respect for Gaiman because he does not patronize children. The Graveyard Book is, in many ways, a children's book (although adults will enjoy it as well). Unlike much of the mass culture drivel produced for children these days, Gaiman does not treat children like they are idiots or invalids in need of protection. He deals with them like equals--perhaps equals who speak a different language. I quite enjoyed his diction, the way he showed us how a toddler interprets stairs and a five-year-old might explain particle physics. Gaiman suffuses his writing with the wonder that coats everything in a child's world. And he doesn't shy away from including a healthy dose of fear.

Bod's adventure is compelling, and one with which many will identify. He has to grow up by the end of the book--we all see this coming--and it's a bittersweet moment. He's grown up in a graveyard, but he knows he has to confront the real world at some point. Through his experiences in childhood and maturity into an adult, Bod shows us what the living can learn from the dead--namely, that we're always lucky to be alive.

There's a twist at the climax that I did not see coming, and it was brilliant. From that point on, I did manage to predict the rest of the action, including how Bod defeated the antagonist. It was still enjoyable, but by and large the best part of The Graveyard Book is the first half, where Bod gets up to all sorts of adventures.

Honestly, I could have done without the entire "Bod is a chosen one" plot and the conspiracy surrounding the murder of his family. It seemed more like a subplot, since the main plot is actually about Bod growing up. And thus I only give The Graveyard Book four stars, when I would very much like to give it five.

Dave McKean's illustrations are marvellous. They're subtle yet striking--they draw just enough attention to make you contemplate the illustration without distracting you from the text. It's all whispery and smoky, creating an atmosphere of evanescence--very graveyard-like. They definitely enhance The Graveyard Book and elevate it from a simple novel into a work of art.

Quite an enjoyable read!

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

by Michael Chabon

The Yiddish Policemen's Union cover image
Trade Paperback, 411 pages
Harper, 2007

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Michael Chabon owns his writing style in a way that few authors have the guts to do. His style breathes life into his characters and their surroundings. When reading a Michael Chabon book, you don't just feel like you're there with the characters; you feel like you're experiencing it as the characters. In an era when the novel is being dominated by straightforward, cinematic narratives, Chabon's excelling at creating chilling and compelling tales.

The book is steeped in Judaism (what did you expect?), and as a non-Jew, I'm extremely glad that it provided a glossary. For the uninitiated, I imagine it's a different type of book than those who are more familiar with the Jewish faith.

Religion aside (I realize those are two big words in this case), the main character is one with whom any reader, Jew or not, can identify. Landsman is an alcoholic detective, divorced, somewhat down on his luck. About to lose his job. And dead set on solving a murder that just gets weirder and weirder. Oh, and there's chess involved.

Parts of the plot--the mystery parts, not the religious parts--are rather predictable. But the religious part adds flavour and keeps you guessing. Landsman can seem like a bit of an unpredictable loose cannon, and the ending may seem anticlimactic. But that's the thing. It never was about the mystery. It's about Landsman, his friends and family, and the fate of the Jews of the Sitka District, who are once again finding themselves exiled from yet another promised land. Chabon builds an alternate universe, stocks it with an entire world of round characters, and then proceeds to lead us through a theological exploration of a man's soul.

Rainbows End

by Vernor Vinge

Rainbows End cover image
Paperback, 381 pages
Tor Science Fiction, 2007

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

A few weeks ago, Bruce Sterling shared his thoughts on hacking and activism three years after first discussing the Wikileaks scandal. One thing he said really stuck with me:

Even the electronic civil lib contingent is lying to themselves. They’re sore and indignant now, mostly because they weren’t consulted?—?but if the NSA released PRISM as a 99-cent Google Android app, they’d be all over it. Because they are electronic first, and civil as a very distant second.

They’d be utterly thrilled to have the NSA’s vast technical power at their own command. They’d never piously set that technical capacity aside, just because of some elderly declaration of universal human rights from 1947. If the NSA released their heaps of prying spycode as open-source code, Silicon Valley would be all over that, instantly. They’d put a kid-friendly graphic front-end on it. They’d port it right into the cloud.

It’s sad because he’s right. And I think we are moving in that direction.

In Rainbows End, Vernor Vinge capitalizes on a lot of upcoming technology that is quite hot today (but, when this was published seven years ago, made him slightly ahead of the curve). One particular novum is the proliferation of wearable computing surfaces. Not only are there flexible touchscreens, but one can get virtually any type of clothing with embedded microprocessors, haptic feedback, and sensors. (Vinge does not go into how people make use of Internet-enabled underwear, but I think we all know.) This isn’t actually science fiction—it’s science fact. Google Glass is just the first step towards the contact lenses that Vinge’s characters use. I see 2025, the book’s setting, as a totally realistic time-frame in which wearable computing becomes ubiquitous in the richer countries.

And when that happens, when you are literally wearing a camera on your body (one that can pan 360°), conventional ideas of privacy as we know it are over. Vinge portrays this perfectly when he demonstrates how easy it is for Miri and her gang to track Robert when he is in public (i.e., not at home). Having ambient intelligence in one’s clothes and in public spaces will be a great boon, but it will also usher in the perpetual surveillance society. (The upside, if you can call it that, is that everyone has access to this surveillance, not just the government.)

As you might be able to tell, Rainbows End struck a topical chord for me. I wouldn’t say this made me enjoy the book more, but it definitely made me sit up and take notice. I began to track the way that Vinge explores the logical consequences of his technological extrapolations in order to see how it compares to what I observe in society today. In this respect, as a work of social science-fiction, Rainbows End is absolutely fascinating. It’s also, unfortunately, rather shallow.

Vinge gives us a world that is completely believable. Machines are all iPod-like tethered appliances with “no user-serviceable parts inside”. Teenagers in 2025 are much teenagers kids in 2013, in that they have their own dialect of slang and jargon that adults can barely penetrate. Wearable computer has also cemented the place of augmented reality, and teenagers are the digital natives of that brave new virtual multiverse. But for all these broad strokes, Vinge never really convinces me that the world has changed much as a consequence of all this technology.

For example, what do people do? How has wearable computing, ubiquitous surveillance, and self-driving cars changed the job market? There are occasional references to elderly people retraining because their jobs no longer exist. But Miri’s parents are conveniently military. Aside from academics, we don’t really see many other professions or trades in play. I think this is a shame. While it does not behove an author to give everyone a tour of their entire world, they do need to show off enough for it to feel tangible. I believe that the technology in Vinge’s future could exist and work like it does, but I’m not as convinced he explores the consequences as fully as he could.

Rainbows End combines a fish-out-of-water story with the threat of an international conspiracy to control the world through subliminal viral engineering. We learn almost immediately that a character who is ostensibly a good guy is actually a bad guy, a revelation that I found was a flattering form of dramatic irony—oh, you trust me, the reader, enough to let me in on this from the start? The antagonist’s motivations are a little melodramatic, in the sense that I understand where they come from, but I’m not sure that I can believe a single person would actually undertake a project of this scale.

There are also rumblings of nascent artificial intelligence in the persona of Rabbit. I won’t go into spoiler territory by explaining any further, but I will say that I was disappointed. (This is probably the least realistic technology as well; I find the predictions of 2050 for an AI far too optimistic.) It’s not that I was disappointed by how Vinge clears up the mystery so much as, again, he doesn’t seem to explore much of the consequences.

A part of me wonders if this is meant to be satire. If that were the case, a lot more would make sense. Robert’s one-dimensional surliness, Rabbit’s behaviour, the villain’s one-dimensional megalomaniacal power trip … this would all be excusable, laudable even, if Vinge were satirizing, as a form of commentary, the society that he sees us becoming. The gross and excessive use of force during a university protest would demonstrate how we are growing used to the escalation of police action. The digitization of books through destructive shredding would, in its very absurdity, demonstrate how our obsession with the newest, greatest digital technology can be shortsighted.

And part of me really hopes this is satire, because if not, then it’s a flat book. It’s full of brilliant ideas and a scarily believable depiction of the distribution of technology in twelve years … but as a story, and that is the essential metric, it barely registers.

Alas, as with so much in this book, Vinge does not quite convince me that this is a satire. It might be the marketing, which seems content to sell this as a straight-up techno-thriller. Or it could be the few, genuine attempts at tragedy—the way that Alice and Bob’s relationship is on rocky ground because she has gone back into the military’s dangerous just-in-time training program, the fact that Lena still won’t return Robert’s letters.

I don’t regret reading Rainbows End, for it was a reliable romp through a pre-Singularity vision of the future. It pushes some of my technophilic geek buttons, and as far as the plot goes, it is at least coherently written. I just wish its characters had been more captivating and its story much more meaningful.


by Robert Charles Wilson

Spin  cover image
Mass Market Paperback, 458 pages
Tor Science Fiction, 2005

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

In my review of Tomorrow: Science Fiction and the Future, I briefly touched on the parallels between the Cold War era apprehension over thermonuclear war and our current generation’s dance with global warming. We are acutely aware of our mortality, as a species, and the science fiction of these eras reflects that. Yet while some of the evidence of global warming has hit the front page—and been met with all the attendant scepticism and political controversy that makes for excellent sound bites—it is, for the most part, a slow global catastrophe. It is not flashy like the detonation of atomic bombs. It is gradual, and that makes it all the more dangerous. We march closer and closer to the point of no return, pushing our luck and pushing the environment. “Just a little more,” we say—but one day, we’ll ask for a little more, and no more will be forthcoming.

As a species, we are shortsighted. Nuclear war can end the world in a day; global warming will do it over a lifetime. It’s difficult for us to understand what that means, to view the planet on the scale of geological time—and it’s that scale that we might need if we are to maintain this planet. We could very well need the types of planet-spanning engineering we see deployed in Spin, both by the Hypotheticals and by humans. But here and now, it’s just so easy for those of us who are exposed to evidence of global warming only through secondhand reports and media snippets to draw in our heads and say, “We’ll deal with it eventually.”

With Spin, Robert Charles Wilson contrives a way to bring the environmental crisis to a head in our generation. Through the wonders of relativity and time dilation, time passes faster beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Protected by a membrane eventually known as the Spin, life proceeds on Earth as usual—except that, once the time dilation effect becomes public, everyone has to come to terms with the death sentence this means for the planet. Because in about forty years from the inception of this phenomenon, five billion years will have passed outside—and the Sun will have expanded to the point where it swallows Earth. Suddenly, the end of the world is a much more tangible thing.

The reactions to this event are as diverse as the number of humans on the planet, and watching them is one of the most pleasurable parts of Spin. Millions flock to millennial cults that declare the Spin as a sign of the End Times, of the Second Coming, of some New Age transition to an alternative form of existence. Many go on about their lives as if nothing has changed—because, aside from not being able to see the stars at night, nothing much has changed. This becomes increasingly difficult as the planet’s deadline draws near and the Spin membrane begins acting strange—if one believes there is no tomorrow, then suddenly those instincts of rational self-preservation don’t seem to matter much any more.

Finally, of course, there are those who seek to understand the Spin and the Hypothetical entities who have instantiated it. At the centre of this group is Jason Lawton, one of the novel’s main characters but also one who is inaccessible to the reader. Instead, Wilson introduces Tyler Dupree as Watson to Jason’s Sherlock (he’s even a medical doctor!). The relationship reminds me a little of that between Adam and Julian in the other Wilson book I’ve read (indeed, re-reading that review, it seems I use the same literary allusion—how repetitive of me). As with Julian Comstock, I reluctantly conclude that this third-party, uninitiated narrator works well for Spin—I say reluctantly because I have some reservations.

Tyler is distant from the real action in this book. His career as a physician is convenient for several reasons, but none of them allow him to conjecture the properties behind the Spin or participate in the design process for the replicators. So all this happens behind the scenes, with Jason filling Tyler (and therefore us) in on the details. I suppose Jason wouldn’t make a very good narrator—he is too clinical, too close to the problem, too obsessed even. And Tyler is a good foil for Jason, not to mention someone through whom Wilson can deliver massive quantities of scientific explanation. In all these respects Tyler is essential to the success of Spin—but it seems to come at the price of pushing the most interesting parts of the book away from the main narrative. I think I preferred how Nancy Kress uses multiple limited third-person perspectives, some following scientists and others laypeople, in Probability Moon and its sequels.

The best parts of Spin are all in the background. This includes the reactions, which I mentioned above, as well as all the exposition that eventually bubbles up to the surface. Let’s face it: the only reason to keep reading the book is to find out who initiated the Spin event and why the entity or entities responsible would do it in the first place. And the most valuable thing about this book is not actually part of the book at all—rather, it’s the thoughts and ideas that one generates as one reads. This is true, I think, of literature in general, although it might be most obvious in science-fiction novels with a tradition of Big Ideas.

I rather liked the explanation that Wilson delivers for the cause of the Spin. It hearkens back to the idea of the meme: at some level, the Von Neumann ecology that the Hypotheticals turn out to be are using the Spin to ensure the expansion of their own ecology. Von Neumann machines are thus memes that we, as sentient beings, have been manipulated into transmitting, much like we transmit cultural memes and, some might argue, genetic memes. Similarly, Jason’s rant about how we are all just machines running various operating systems—and his new operating system has developed a bug—seems very appropriate in today’s app-obsessed technology climate. Like any good science-fiction author, Wilson dangles tantalizing things that aren’t ideas so much as crumbs or seeds of an idea. It reminds me of the nascent cellular technology in The Dervish House.

So this is a novel pregnant with potential in the best possible way. Wilson delivers a coherent and complete story but leaves us with lingering possibilities, loose ends that round out the work rather than detract from it. It it is a little too long. Some of the minor characters, like E.D., seem to be struggling to be three-dimensional but never quite make the grade. But Spin aims quite high and achieves most of what it sets out to do; any problems it has are ultimately quite little compared to the experience it provides. The front cover of my edition, aside from having this horrible generic whirlpool design, has a blurb reading, “The best science fiction novel so far this year.” Seriously? So far? What kind of pathetic bet-hedging is this, Rocky Mountain News? Now, I’m not certain I’d go so far as to call it the best science-fiction novel of the year or declare worthy of its Hugo win—but its competition would have to have been very, very stiff to make it a race worth watching. Spin is not quite sublime, but it’s still an excellent exemplar for how science fiction can shine.


by Robert J. Sawyer

Hominids  cover image
Hardcover, 444 pages
Tor Books, 2002

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Few things are probably scarier than suddenly being utterly and totally alone. Robert J. Sawyer reminds us of that fact by transposing Ponter Boddit, a Neanderthal physicist, from the parallel universe in which he resides to our universe, where Neanderthals have been extinct for tens of thousands of years. Aside from having instant celebrity status—including the paparazzi that come with it—Ponter must face the fact that he might never return to his own universe. And back in his universe, this has ramifications for people he cares about. As the consequences of Ponter's transposition unfold in two universes, Sawyer shows us what might have been if evolution had happened differently, and he presents an interesting contrast to contemporary human society.

I am disappointed with Sawyer's use of physics—more accurately, with his explanations—in Hominids. He gets the premise, quantum computing breaching a parallel universe, as a freebie. With such an intriguing premise, however, I would have expected a more thorough look at the physics behind quantum computing and parallel universes. Instead, we get a watered-down conversation between a physicist and a geneticist that compares the "Copenhagen interpretation" and the many-worlds hypothesis.

Sawyer's explanation of the Copenhagen interpretation is quite misleading. Yes, quantum mechanics is complex, so I don't expect more than a simple explanation of anything—yet Sawyer has demonstrated in other books that he's up to the challenge. Firstly, there is no one explicit "Copenhagen interpretation." It's actually an umbrella term for several related, sometimes contradictory interpretations. Secondly, the Copenhagen interpretation does not strictly rely on a conscious observer; rather, the act of observing a system alters the system. Some interpretations pair Copenhagen with a conscious observer, but not all.

Of course, the more I read Sawyer's work, the more I realize that his underlying theme is one of consciousness. Specifically, Sawyer's interested in what makes us conscious and the implications that consciousness has for human development. I saw this in Wake, in which Sawyer juxtaposes a new emergent consciousness with human consciousness; in Flashforward, consciousness is a key component of the reason behind the eponymous global event.

In Hominids, consciousness is a dichotomous moment: in our universe, Homo sapiens received the quantum fluke of consciousness, as Sawyer interprets it here; in Ponter's universe, Homo neanderthalensis achieved consciousness. That event caused the first divergence of the universe, and since then it's consciousness (specifically, having it) that has made all the difference. But these two conscious species, while both achieving success and dominance on the planet, have developed very distinct societies.

The description of Neanderthal society is probably the most intriguing aspect of Hominids. Everything from the non-agricultural, decimal system of timekeeping to the Companion and alibi archive technology is both different yet familiar. Sawyer manages to take disparate, well-used ideas, like that of a "surveillance society" and combine them in order to create a well-realized, seemingly functional society filled with Neanderthals. Ponter's world has almost no crime and is arguably more environmentally conscious. However, it has its problems too, as we see from Adikor's almost capricious encounter with the judicial system. The parts of this book that take place in Ponter's universe are the best parts, because they're interesting and also exciting.

Would that the rest of the book could keep up! It's an unfortunate consequence of the nature of a linear narrative that authors must occasionally compress the span of events. Otherwise, I don't think that our Earth would have accepted so quickly the idea that Ponter is from a parallel universe; likewise, there would have been more inquiry into exactly what happened to Ponter when he reappeared in his universe. Sawyer presents interesting snippets of news articles that let us know how the wider world is reacting to his plot development, but his scenes are never global in scope. Instead, he focuses on individuals, usually of limited authority, close to the centre of the crisis.

Unfortunately, most of the human characters leave much to be desired. The main character, Mary Vaughan, is raped in her opening scene, doesn't report the rape (because the plot requires it), but tells Ponter about it moments before he leaves to return to his universe. And she apparently manages to fall in love with him because he's attractive and flustered by humanity's paradoxical approach to ethics. I've no doubt that Sawyer's put in a good effort to forge the relationships he needs to explore his larger issues of consciousness, religion, and inter-species romance. But it just comes off as very contrived and even, dare I say, stereotypical, particularly when it comes to how Mary copes with being raped. The fact that the major relationship in this series is shallow does not help Hominids and will not help the other two books.

There's no question here: I heartily recommend Hominids to anyone interested in a glimpse at a world where Neanderthals became the dominant species. As with any Sawyer book I've read, this is a fast read; Sawyer keeps the plot moving and keeps you wanting more. While I can't always laud the results, Sawyer does know what he's doing as a writer, and Hominids demonstrates that with every page.

American Gods

by Neil Gaiman

American Gods cover image
Mass Market Paperback, 588 pages
HarperCollins, 2000

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Oh, let me count and enumerate the many and various ways I love Neil Gaiman and, in particular, American Gods. I love it because I am insecure and, at times, unsure of my love for it. I love it because it isn't perfect, yet it's still wonderful. I love it because it promises gods and gives us people, and somewhere along the way, somehow, Gaiman manages to make me cry about the death of a goddess who eats people with her vagina.

American Gods holds a special place in my heart, because it is, for me, a problematic work. I cannot remember if this is the first or second book I read by Gaiman, but it has the quixotic and peculiar quality in that I forget how much I like it after I've read it. I'll gush, like I'm doing in this review, but then a year will elapse, and I'll start thinking, "Was American Gods really as good as I thought?" And it isn't just the gushing review that triggers this—there's something dubious about the premise of the book, and the way Gaiman builds up to it, that prevents my mind from fully accepting my unconditional praise and enthusiasm for the story. American Gods is also problematic because I have read it three times now, and I am still not sure I get what it is about.

The book begins with Shadow being released from prison and subsequently being hunted down by the Call and agreeing to work for Mr. Wednesday. While Gaiman's allusions to mythology and literature are obvious, they are also a smoke-screen for the book's underlying subtlety. On the surface, American Gods is about the war between the old gods and the new. The former came to America with immigrants; the latter have arisen as society collectively starts to worship new technologies and sentiments. Now the new gods are poised to annihilate the old ones, who have been growing weaker and fading away any way. Our first indication that the story goes deeper than a mere war among gods lies with Shadow and how he reacts to his role.

Shadow is very difficult to like as a protagonist. He never quite freaks out like many of us would expect. Gods are real, OK. His dead wife is walking around because he tossed a gold coin on her grave, OK. He's made a pact with the Slavic deity Czernobog which, among other things, lets Czernobog take a hammer to his head when all is said and done. All of these incredible events are happening around him, and it rolls off him with so much water. He never quite gets to the point where showing emotion is required. For that reason, I always picture him as a big, glum sort of fellow. Then again, this should not surprise us. His name is Shadow after all, intended to be ironic because of his physically-imposing stature, but remarkably apt for his personality as well.

As a result of this emotional calmness, Shadow often seems passive, even when he is not. He seems to be going along with what the gods have in mind for him, regardless of whether it is in his best interests. Yet Shadow is actually quite assertive, and he shows a great deal of initiative. He sets his wages when considering Mr. Wednesday's offer of employment. He recruits Czernobog with his fatal checkers game, saving Mr. Wednesday a good deal of time. He uncovers the true identity of Hinzelmann in his spare time.

Shadow's apparent inaction is a symptom of a larger stillness to American Gods. There is this war going on, but for most of the book it's a cold war. Mr. Wednesday and Shadow travel across America to recruit other gods in Wednesday's battle plan, and when Shadow isn't acting as bodyguard and driver, he's hanging out in a suspiciously nice-looking village. Despite Wednesday's assurances that "a storm is coming," chapters pass in which nothing urgent seems to be happening. Shadow has ominous encounters with spooks, but it is not immediately clear how these further the plot.

It turns out, no big surprise, that this book is not really about the war between gods at all. I don't really want to include spoilers (although I don't think it's hard to figure this out, and it's rather enjoyable piecing it together), but let's just say that Wednesday's fascination with con games is very relevant. American Gods is Shadow's journey from mediocrity to an awareness of a grander mythology. His evolving role from spectator to minor player to major intervenor allows Gaiman to sink us gradually into his exploration of the interaction between immigrants, the gods and stories they bring with them, and the New World itself. Above all, he emphasizes that there is something about America that makes it inimical to gods. The buffalo man tells Shadow that "this is not a land for gods," and later on Whiskey Jack reiterates that:

"Look," said Whiskey Jack. "This is not a good country for gods. My people figured that out early on. There are creator spirits who found the earth or made it or shit it out, but you think about it: who's going to worship Coyote? He made love to Porcupine Woman and got his dick shot through with more needles than a pincushion. He'd argue with rocks and the rocks would win.

"So, yeah, my people figured out that maybe there's something at the back of it all, a creator, a great spirit, and so we say thank you to it, because it's always good to say thank you. But we never built churches. We didn't need to. The land was the church. The land was the religion. The land was older and wiser than the people who walked on it. It gave us salmon and corn and buffalo and passenger pigeons. It gave us wild rice and walleye It gave us melon and squash and turkey. And we were the children of the land, just like the porcupine and the skunk and the blue jay.…

"This is wild rice country. Moose country. What I'm trying to say is that America is like that. It's not good growing country for gods. They don't grow well here. They're like avocados trying to grow in wild rice country."

So beyond the eternal march of progress, and with it the rise of new paradigms and new gods who challenge the old ones, lies this sentiment that America is just not good land for gods. Thus, the title becomes a paradox: what is an "American" god? These imported deities? The new gods of technology and media? Or the land that provides?

Because they don't have the power to decide this. They don't really make the rules, though they have all become adept at manipulating them, Mr. Wednesday most of all. Humans have the power; humans create gods through their stories, their beliefs, their rituals, and their ideas. We create dark and horrible gods by killing children and worshipping their bones; we create gods of great power and great beauty. And when we stop believing in these gods, cast them aside, they lose power and begin to fade away.

I guess I don't really understand why I love American Gods so much. It's a striking journey across a landscape of beliefs and ideas. Gaiman doesn't stop very long in any one place, choosing instead to forge ahead and let us fill in the rest. It's more than a story about "old gods versus new gods." But I feel utterly unable to communicate why I love this book, why it has carved out a permanent place in my thoughts. There's just something significant to it, to the way Gaiman personifies and then nullifies gods, managing to make them both more and less than myth and legend. The result is something that is not quite a fairy tale yet is more than a thriller or a simple mystery. And it kind of haunts me.

It's just interesting, OK? Plus, the paperback edition I own is just the perfect size.

A Deepness in the Sky

by Vernor Vinge

A Deepness in the Sky cover image
Hardcover, 608 pages
Tor Books, 1999

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I don't know about you, but I spend an inordinate amount of time meditating upon the far future of humanity. I don't just worry about the future of my generation, or the future of the generation after mine, or the future of a couple of generations down the line. I'm talking one-, ten-, fifty-thousand years into the future. Will humanity still exist—would we recognize it as humanity even if it does? How many times between now and then will civilizations rise and fall? Because if there's one constant across the depths of space and time, it's that nothing lasts forever. Empires and republics alike crumble under the weight of corruption, stagnation, or the simple stress inherent in managing a civilization separated by light-years. If we don't find fancy physics or technology to cast off the shackles of the light-speed barrier, we're looking at a very distorted, relativistic existence indeed. It's this sort of realistic, hard science fiction that promises us no easy answers and makes me wonder if humans are really meant to live in space. With A Deepness in the Sky, Vernor Vinge convinces me that he's a perfect example of that ethos.

I liked A Fire Upon the Deep. Taken together with this prequel, its title always reminds me of "Smoke on the Water" ("Fire in the sky!"). As much as I liked A Fire Upon the Deep, its hard-science-fiction tropes never quite cohere, and the story and characterization suffer as a result. In contrast, A Deepness in the Sky unifies some of the same tropes—as well as new ones—to create a compelling story and pathos for the plights of the characters.

The ideological struggle between the remnants of the Qeng Ho and Emergent fleets is a ripe ground for observations on human society and attitudes toward power. Tomas Nau is in many ways a moustache-twirling villain, complete with the sadistic right-hand minion (Ritser Brughel) and the indispensable trusted lieutenant (Anne Reynolt). He likes to be in control, to use people, like Qiwi Lisolet, and has no compunctions about lying or coercing when necessary. However, he has more depth than your ordinary Snidely Whiplash. He doesn't think of himself as being evil, just as doing what's necessary to survive. He is a product of Emergent society and its values, was raised from birth to be a ruthless and cunning Podmaster. Vinge manages to make Tomas a believable antagonist, one whose defeat comes not from his own incompetence but from a combination of betrayal and skillful planning on the part of the protagonists.

Speaking of protagonists, I like this Pham Nuwen much better than his clone in A Fire Upon the Deep. Just as Tomas is a multi-dimensional character, Pham isn't a paragon of goodliness. Since Pham is in the fleet under an assumed name, Vinge milks the irony cow for all it's worth by having Tomas confess his admiration for the historical exploits of Pham Nuwen. Indeed, as we learn from flashbacks and Pham's heavy ruminations, he has done things of which he is not proud. And for Pham, the Emergent slavery known as Focus is a nigh-irresistible lure, a promise that could fulfil Pham's dreams of a true Qeng Ho empire. So Pham has his flaws, and he's lucky that he has an idealist like Ezr Vinh to keep him on the straight and narrow. Because that's the difference between Pham Nuwen and Tomas Nau, despite Tomas' own comparisons to the Pham Nuwen of Qeng Ho legend: Pham knows when to give up his dreams and embrace something new.

In between these two major characters are all sorts of minor allies and enemies and people of uncertain loyalty. These are the fuel for a truly tense, suspenseful conflict. The Qeng Ho, stuck under the thumb of Nau's Emergent control, do what they do best: they slowly, inexorably wear down the stringent Emergent psyche, corrupting it with an underground market. Thanks to an Emergent sneak attack early in the novel, both fleets have been crippled, and they need to work together to survive until the Spiders achieve the technological level necessary to repair their ships. Humans are complex entities, however; even though working together is a rational response to the crisis, it's not going to be easy. Ezr, in particular, is incensed by the idea of Focus and chafes under the Emergent yoke.

Focus is a tamed virus that increases the neurological connections in its victims' brains, causing them to become very competent in one area, like linguistics, at the expense of most of their social and interpersonal skills. It's a form of literal intellectual slavery, a substitute for the lack of high-performance computing that's the legacy of living in the "Slow Zone" of the galaxy, where no artificial intelligence is possible. Focus allows people to achieve remarkable breakthroughs, whether it's in translation or biomechanics; however, as the name suggests, it results in a narrow-minded expert obsessed with a single field of study. This breaks the heart of Qiwi and Ezr, who have Focused loved ones, even as it fires up Pham's mind with the possibilities of what one could achieve, if one is willing to pay the price.

Focus is just one of the medley of technological and social nova that Vinge introduces. Often he is explicit in the consequences for society: for example, the localizers offer the ability to achieve efficient distributed computing, but they might also result in a surveillance society. Nevertheless, like other good science fiction authors, he still develops the society in an organic, natural manner. We see the Qeng Ho and Emergents interact with their technology and draw our own conclusions about how it shapes their lives and mores. Even something like Focus can be controversial and subjective: I've been calling it slavery, but like Pham or Tomas, maybe another person might not see it that way. There are always compromises when new technology pervades society, and that's one of the reasons science fiction is so useful and compelling.

Vinge parallels this problem in the development of Spider society. Their world is the sole planet in orbit of OnOff, a brown dwarf that enjoys 35 years of life-giving brightness before dimming for 215 years (hence its name). So they have 35-year generations, each followed by the Dark, through which they hibernate in deepnesses. As the Emergents and Qeng Ho arrive, that is about to change. A brilliant scientist, Sherkaner Underhill, spurs a scientific renaissance that culminates in the Spiders staying awake through the Dark.

We get a front-row seat to the ensuing turmoil in the fractured Spider society. The natural cycle of Brightness and Dark has had a profound effect on everything the Spiders do. Children are conceived at the end of the cycle (the Waning Years) and grow to adulthood during the next Brightness. Defying this custom results in oophase or "out-of-phase" children, who are ostracized and subject to pejorative stereotypes. But now that the Spiders can live during the Dark, that, like a myriad other things, will have to change. This results in a lengthy and tense conflict between the more liberal Accord kingdom and the traditionalist Kindred, and this conflict culminates with mushroom clouds.

The Spider characters—mostly Underhill's brood, although Hrunkner Unnerby is a lovable old curmudgeon as well—are quite entertaining. The chapters presented from the Spider point of view make them seem so human, despite the references to "eating hands" and "baby welts" and "paternal fur." We watch Underhill's children, notorious for being oophase, grow up and mature. One of them dies during a harrowing kidnapping, and it changes their dynamic forever. Suddenly, they can't afford to be precocious innocents anymore. They are soldiers, even if they aren't enlisted in the army yet, and they have to be prepared. Underhill's family is at the centre of the same kind of social and political turmoil we've seen so often in human society, particularly in this past century. Technological advances allow us to do more, whether it's in vitro fertilization or putting weapons in space. There are always reactionary groups who want to stuff the technology back into its box, suppress it, get rid of it somehow. But you can't. Underhill summarizes this sentiment rather nicely when he talks about wanting to make invention the mother of necessity rather than the other way around: innovations require social change. And sometimes that hurts.

There's a lot of hurt here. Some of the characters, like Ezr or Qiwi, are probably safely labelled as "good guys," but no one is squeaky clean. A Deepness in the Sky is an utterly fascinating, sometimes chilling, always poignant book. It has characters you can care about, conflicts that end in messy and flawed resolutions, and a sense of futility regarding the longevity of human societies tempered by the reassurance that, regardless of era, humans are as wonderful and surprising as they are selfish and destructive. I don't know if we'll be Qeng Ho, or Emergents, or something completely different. In all probability, if we last that long, we'll have experienced a little of everything. No matter how much I try, I can't quite comprehend the time scales involved or the numbers of people who will live and die between my lifetime and Pham Nuwen's. With Vernor Vinge and A Deepness in the Sky, however, I can come close. And that's ultimately what great books do: not only do they show us worlds we can imagine; they show us worlds we can't.

The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

by Neal Stephenson

The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer cover image
Trade Paperback, 499 pages
Spectra, 1995

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I love fiction set in the Victorian era. Sexually-repressive mores and cool, arrogant superiority aside, the Victorians embody a sense of order and etiquette that often escapes us these days. They had protocols for social interaction—protocols embedded in unfortunate distinctions between classes, and laden with the constant threat of small talk about the weather, but protocols nonetheless. The Victorian cadence and diction are so courteous, delightful without being overly flowery. While I would never want to live in the Victorian era, I do admire them for this polished and civil approach to discourse.

So I was pleased to see Neal Stephenson invoke the Victorian zeitgeist in The Diamond Age, where the New Atlantans represent a vision of social order based on principle rather than authoritarian enforcement. Unlike the British Empire of old, the New Atlantans are but one phyle—albeit, one of the most influential—among many; those born into it are free to leave, and those not may, if accepted, take an Oath to Her Majesty Queen Victoria II and join. With such flexible notions of statehood and allegiance, Stephenson has created a middle ground between the localized countries of today and the decentralized megacorporation-states envisioned in some cyberpunk.

Through a neo-Victorian and Confucian lens, Stephenson depicts a variegated world where nanotechnology, coupled with nearly-unlimited energy, means an effective post-scarcity world—but there is still poverty, unrest, and injustice. On one level, this world seems utterly different from ours, with its own jargon, social strata, technology (of course), and conflicts. On another level, it seems remarkably similar to our world, the only difference being that post-scarcity has enabled every ideology to experiment with its own lifestyle (embodied by the phyles) without much fear of catastrophe.

Of course, this is just background. After a certain amount of fussing around with minor characters and establishing some expository details, Stephenson starts telling us a story about people whom we can care about, even when their individual needs conflict. Thus, while it is a tragedy that John Hackworth's illicit second copy of the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer gets stolen before he can give it to his daughter, it is a miracle for its new owner, Nell. As much as we want John to succeed in his goal of raising Fiona to achieve greatness, we also want Nell to grow up into a strong, capable girl who can escape her abusive domestic situation.

Through delightful stories-within-the-story and liberal use of jumps across the space of several years, Stephenson shows us Nell maturing, thanks to a loving older brother and the guiding hand of the Primer. One notable aspect of The Diamond Age was its ability to surprise me: Harv was one of many characters I didn't think I would like but did. He truly cared for Nell, to the point that when he helped her into a better situation but recognized he could not join her there, he essentially threw himself back into the slums so she could stay. Despite lacking any Primer to raise him, Harv turns out a good person, even if his ultimate fate is regrettable.

The character that surprised me most, however, was Miranda. She began as a ractor with a dream of stardom and ended up acting as a surrogate mother, through the Primer, for Nell. Her attachment to Nell, like that of Harv's is endearing in its genuineness. While Nell has a good many people interested in her wellbeing—indeed, a superfluity considering how impersonal and dangerous a world Stephenson makes this seem—Miranda, Harv, and Constable Moore stand out because they care about her as a person rather than a means to an end. To Lord Finkle-McGraw, John Hackworth, Judge Fang, etc., she is just an interesting experiment. To Miranda, she is a little girl (who grows up into a young woman) who needs a mother. Amid so much technology, the characters with personal stakes are the ones who matter most.

Unlike Miranda and Nell, not every character is so well-conceived. Some, like Judge Fang, start off important and then just vanish prior to the end of the book. Others, like Carl Hollywood, begin as minor characters only to vault to centre stage during the climax. Carl vexed me: at first he is just a paternal figure for Miranda, someone who gave her advice about her role as Nell's surrogate mother. Then, suddenly, he is a super-hacker who has a role in orchestrating the resolution behind the scenes. The plot similarly starts spectacularly and degenerates into a somewhat random collection of related conflicts, none of which receive a satisfactory resolution by the time the book abruptly ends. Much as he does in Snow Crash, Stephenson elects to provide no epilogue for his characters' lives, leaving us to wonder who flourishes and who perishes. Although I don't demand that a book tie up every loose end, I feel cheated when I invest myself in a character only for his or her story to stop when it feels like the conflict is barely concluded.

The Diamond Age exemplifies both the positive and negative hallmarks of Stephenson's style. His enthusiasm for technology is evident. His descriptions of that technology, as well as cities and characters, are both full of wonder and witticism. Stephenson enjoys drawing attention to contradictions, contrasting characters' overt reactions with what they really think about a situation, and the result is usually entertaining. And while The Diamond Age, like Snow Crash, depicts humanity as an organism at the society level, it does not entirely feel like a Stephenson book until much later in the story, when Hackworth introduces the concept of the Seed.

Ah, there's Stephenson's theme of information as a viral construct that is capable of reprogramming human society. A precursor appears in Nell's Primer, when she arrives in the domain of King Coyote and begins learning about Turing machines that function on a macroscopic level. To Hackworth, the Seed is a new technology, threatening because of the capabilities it grants to its possessor. To Dr. X, the Seed is a paradigm for social order, a blueprint. To both, it means the end of interdependence of the phyles: splinters will no longer rely on the main Feeds or their Sources controlled by the neo-Victorians. In this respect, while I don't think it quite compensates for the disappointing climax, the thematic aspects of The Diamond Age become most interesting just as one's interest in the plot diminishes.

There is a CBC radio show, Spark, that discusses the impact of new technology on our daily lives (I listen to it as a podcast, of course!). Rather than a discussion about technology, Spark is aimed at a general audience and focuses on the social implications of technology. The Diamond Age reminds me of Spark, because it too is a long look at how technology (like nanotechnology) affects society. It is a serious meditation on what might happen to society as the Internet continues to evolve, as our ability to manipulate nature extends to the atomic scale, and as our desire to find solutions to waste and environmental problems increases in urgency.

Of all his recurring motifs, Stephenson's treatment of humanity as a single organism is the one that intrigues me the most. This is not a new concept within science fiction—Isaac Asimov's civilization-manipulating Foundation series or Herbert's Golden Path spring to mind—but with the rise of memes and memetics, Stephenson's ideas seem timely. Snow Crash explored the idea that information could be transmitted virally, actually compromising a society like a disease compromises an immune system. The Diamond Age focuses more on morality, asking what exactly makes one culture differ from another, and how ideologies are transmitted cross-culturally. Can one hack a society, even one that is not a Turing machine?

Although it is tempting to simplify the conflict as one of Eastern-Western philosophies, it is possible to envision two different sides. Rather than East/West, we have two schools of thought about the propagation of culture to the next generation—a timeless problem. How do you ensure children see that your way of living is the best, even though it has obvious flaws? On one side, you have people like Judge Fang and Dr. X, who see it as the duty of the entire society to ensure that people are brought up to respect the social order and contribute in a useful manner. On the other side, there those like Lord Finkle-McGraw, who grasp that there is no reliable way to educate children and simultaneously ensure their loyalty: either you end up indoctrinating them, or they push away from you and rebel. Thus the desire for an alternative, Finkle-McGraw's elusive search for a systematic subversiveness.

The Diamond Age frustrated me and fascinated me. While I don't entirely agree with Stephenson's ideas, they are intriguing. Yet often, especially because of the lack of a satisfactory conclusion, the story seems to be nothing but a thin vehicle for the transmission of those ideas—it is all substance, heavy on theme and light on the plot. Stephenson may have piqued my interest, but he has to work harder than this if he hopes to hack my mind.

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A Fire Upon the Deep

by Vernor Vinge

A Fire Upon the Deep cover image
Hardcover, 391 pages
Tor, 1992

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

With some books, as was the case with A Fire Upon the Deep, I began reading without any clear idea of what the book was about. The cover copy was less-than-helpful, because the person who wrote it had a clear grudge against commas. And, after reading the book, it's clear the cover copy is full of inaccuracies and hyperbole to the point of complete misrepresentation. Suffice it to say that, for the first chapter or two, I wondered what exactly was going on and when the story would start.

Not an auspicious beginning, no. The charm of going into a book tabula rasa is in discovering the entire narrative for yourself. I don't do it often, nor do I particularly recommend it. In a way, it was inevitable for A Fire Upon the Deep. Vinge confronts the reader with terms that are necessarily alien and forces us to gradually adapt to this new worldview. The galaxy is divided into roughly concentric "zones of thought" that dictate what sort of life and technology can exist in any given area. There aren't many new or original concepts in science fiction; I can't say if this is one of them, but it's certainly not that popular, because this is the first I've heard of it. The zones of thought quickly become a pivotal part of the plot, acting both as waymarkers for the Out of Band II's hurrying descent toward the world of the Tines and as a method of exploring the tenuous connection between morality and intelligence.

Categorizing the characters by intelligence isn't hard. There are Powers, like the Blight. They exist in the Transcend and are as close to "gods" as you'll get. Then there are the societies in the Beyond, where ultralight travel is possible. Ravna and the Riders come from there; hence, they consider themselves more civilized than those, like Pham Nuwen, who grew up in the Slow Zone. Also in the Slow Zone are the dog-like pack-beings known as the Tines. Unfortunately, ranking these characters by morality is more difficult. There are no nice people in A Fire Upon the Deep.

Let's start with the Tines. I loved this species, because they were so different from anything I've encountered lately. Physically they're like dogs, but that's where the resemblance stops. Each individual Tine comprises several members (seldom less than four or more than six) who communicate via "thought sound." The personalities of each of the "singleton" pups contributes to the gestalt of the entire individual. Thus, an individual Tine can survive even when he or she loses a member. It gives a Tine the ability to see more than one thing at a time (although the packs are limited by range, and if members go too far away from each other, the individual loses cohesion). This species alone would make for an interesting novel, and I loved watching the Tines adapt their jumpstarted technology to their own unique outlook.

Despite their very alien nature, the Tines' machinations and morality are comparable to humanity's. I loved the dramatic irony Vinge employed by playing Jefri and Johanna against each other unknowingly as the two kingdoms of Woodcarver and Steel went to war. It's obvious that Steel is Not Nice. Flenser, his former master, is a more interesting conundrum. With only two "original Flenser members" making up this new pack, Flenser is haunted by the "soul" of Tyrathect, who hates everything for which Flenser stands and is determined to be the winner in this soul-match. Woodcarver, Steel and Flenser's mortal enemy, struggles with her 500-year-old, decrepit soul even as she opens her mind to the idea of people from other stars. The Tines are just as flawed as humans, and thus possess just as much potential.

On the other extreme we have the ineffable Powers, of which the Blight is one. We don't know the ultimate goals of the Blight, but its immediate actions—enslavement of High Beyond civilizations and a death toll in the trillions—do seem rather immoral. Vinge, using message relay networks in a commentary on usegroups of the nineties, has some entities express disdain for all of the coverage of the Blight atrocities. Much in the way that genocide in Darfur is "terrible" to those of us living comfortably in Canada but just far away enough that it seldom affects us directly, there are some on the Net who claim that the Blight atrocities aren't as newsworthy as everyone makes them out to be. Meanwhile, other groups are using them as excuses to exterminate humanity, who are vermin-agents-of-the-Blight.

While we don't know the Blight's ultimate goals, it's safe to conclude it doesn't care about humanity and other sentient beings. So in that sense, we can condemn its actions. But what of the actions of humans, like Ravna and Pham, and their allies? In their defeat of the Blight, they indirectly kill billions and strand planets in the Slow Zone—is that moral? Probably not. Is it necessary? Probably. Although the resolution to the main conflict is somewhat quick and almost a deus ex machina, it's neither easy nor free of consequences. Blueshell's sacrifice is the most poignant part of the book, and in many ways it's the true climax—everything after that is a somewhat predictable resolution.

There's no question that A Fire Upon the Deep is a novel of massive scope in both setting and concepts. It takes place on a galactic level, and it also challenges us with the zones of thought, the Tines, Relay, Powers, godshatter, etc. Vinge packs more ideas into this single book (which really isn't that long) than most authors pack into a trilogy. Like many massive stories, however, the narrative is left with nowhere to go after it has delivered the protagonists to the final showdown. With Straumli Realm and Sjana Kei destroyed, Johanna, Jefri, and Ravna have no place to go (assuming they could somehow leave the planet of the Tines and escape the Slow Zone). Humanity will essentially start over on the Tines' world.

I loved the story of Woodcarver versus Steel and the humans and Riders caught in the middle. While Vinge introduces so many other, vaster concepts, he doesn't exploit them for their full potential. The same goes for characterization: what's up with Ravna and Pham's relationship? She falls for him, obviously, but then his behaviour toward the Riders puts him out of her good graces. Yet Vinge barely telegraphs any of their feelings about that alienation, about the awkwardness of being the only two human beings for several hundred light-years. Ravna, in particular, has lost everyone she knew or loved twice over—once at Relay, and then once at Sjana Kei—but her grieving period is off-screen.

For all the action and plot that takes place in this book, the actual character interaction is surprisingly sparse. Sometimes the all-too-frequent Net messages seem to stand in for what should have been more developed scenes with more developed characters. What happened to such intriguing characters as Grondr, Ravna's boss in the Vrinimi Organization? I would have loved to learn more about this seemingly omnipresent bureaucracy.

Far be it from me to tell an author what to include in his story. As much as I liked A Fire Upon the Deep, I just feel like I've been shown something behind the scenes, something that could have been so much more, and now I'm not as satisfied with what I got. If you're as much a fan of space opera as I am, you'll enjoy A Fire Upon the Deep—you just won't be sated by it.


by Lois McMaster Bujold

Barrayar  cover image
eBook, 336 pages
Gardners Books, 2003

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Immediately after finishing Shards of Honour , I jumped into Barrayar with gusto. I’d say this is the payoff to Shards of Honour, but that might give you the wrong idea. Both novels are good—but this is where it gets really interesting. Cordelia has married Aral Vorkosigan and left everything she knows behind to live with him on Barrayar, capital planet of the interstellar empire of the same name. Things are complicated: she’s pregnant and has very progressive ideas about raising kids; Aral gets named the regent of the new child emperor when the old emperor dies; and not a week goes by without some kind of assassination attempt. Pretty much, Cordelia and Aral have a very busy year. Because that makes for good reading.

I can say for certain that I liked this book better than the first one. However, there is a lot about Barrayar that gives me reservations. In the first book, Cordelia is this super-capable survey ship captain. She escapes the slightly-oppressive psychiatric regime imposed upon her by the authorities of Beta Colony and ends up with Aral, whom she has developed an affinity and, yes, love for. In Barrayar, though, Cordelia at first seems like her strings have been cut. She’s married but somewhat lifeless. Examples of her agency and will are few and far between—though, to be fair, they are certainly present. For the most part, however, Cordelia spends a lot of time confused by Barrayan customs and going to boring parties.

Fortunately, Lois McMaster Bujold turns it all around in the third act. Up until that point, I stayed afloat thanks to the masterful plotting even though the characterzation wasn’t satisfying me. I wanted to know who was behind these assassination plots, whether the child emperor would survive, and whether Cordelia’s child would survive. Bujold wraps all these questions up into a neat little ball—then tosses it into the creepy neighbour’s backyard and tells us to go ring their doorbell. She’ll wait.

Cordelia has to save her baby and, in so doing, gets a little ambitious by accident and saves the empire. I love it. I love it, because Bujold isn’t writing a Mary Sue here—Cordelia doesn’t go in there with the intention of killing Vordarian. It just kind of … happens … even after she tries to prevent it. The domesticity of Cordelia’s motivations frustrates me slightly, but it also makes the most sense. This isn’t Cordelia’s fight. She might be married to Aral, the rightful regent of the empire, but it’s not her empire. For all she cares, they could leave this all behind and go retire on an asteroid somewhere. What matters to Cordelia is her child, and creating a Barrayar that will accept her child. I can get behind that.

So I spent a good deal of Barrayar vaguely bemused by these characters even as I screamed, “Get on with it!” The intrigue, though, is what makes the book. This is science fiction in name only: it has the trappings and plot devices of a science-fiction novel, but Bujold has really written historical fiction transposed and redecorated. Call a grenade a “sonic grenade” instead of just grenade. Have some aristocracy and swordfighting and, oh yeah, external womb tank machines. There are some minor details in here that make it science fiction, but Barrayar will appeal to anyone who is interested in court intrigue and dynastic power struggles. Because the science fiction is secondary here, and there is nothing wrong with that when the result is a powerful and interesting story.

I can’t quite give Barrayar top marks. As I said above, it occasionally disappointed me and doesn’t quite deliver everything I wish it could. Like Shards of Honour before it, however, and Cryoburn, which was my first Vorkosigan Saga experience, Barrayar demonstrates that Bujold can create compelling and fun stories. This was exactly what I needed to read during a very stressful week at work and after two somewhat more depressing novels. Barrayar isn’t exactly “light” in terms of subject matter, but it light in tone and not exactly the most challenging read. Sometimes, that’s all you need.

The Vor Game

by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Vor Game  cover image
Paperback, 346 pages
Baen Books, 2002

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

So, I enjoyed The Warrior’s Apprentice , and The Mountains of Mourning made me cry. How I would react to The Vor Game was anyone’s guess, but I knew that this last story in the Young Miles omnibus would not disappoint me.

Indeed, with this book, Lois McMaster Bujold hits it out of the park. I totally get why this won the Hugo Award in 1991. It is bold and brash but has a deeper psychological element to it, and the combination of these components results in an extremely entertaining work of character space opera. If The Mountains of Mourning endeared me to Miles Vorkosigan and Bujold’s bizarre feudalistic society of Barrayar, then The Vor Game proves that Bujold can do with Miles what she did with Cordelia in Shards of Honour.

This might be a backwards way to start a review, but I want to talk about the afterword to Young Miles first. Bujold provides a fascinating look at the genesis of the Vorkosigan saga and her career as a published author. She describes how the first Vorkosigan books obtained a home at Baen, and her experience preparing The Vor Game. At one point, she remarks how the book was stubbornly threatening to turn into a murder mystery set entirely on Kyril island, backing off only when she altered the contents of the mysterious package Miles finds from money to cookies. I understand that feeling, and I appreciate Bujold sharing such anecdotes. Much of what she says rings true and dovetails with my experience reading The Vor Game—and, ultimately, is that not some of the highest praise we can give an author?

Superficially, this novel is much like The Warrior’s Apprentice: Miles embarks on what should be a fairly straightforward journey, only to be drawn into an ever-increasingly complex and dangerous set of circumstances.

The Most Interesting Man in the World Meme: I don't always raise the stakes, but when I do, I raise them to Vorkosigan levels.

You cannot understand what it means to “raise the stakes” until you’ve read a Vorkosigan novel. Bujold did not invent the concept, obviously, but I think she might have perfected it (along with the related concepts of pacing and the dramatically ironical twist).

I could spend all day, and all night, counting the awesome number of twists, gambits, reversals, and stakes-raising that Bujold pulls off here. Let me just list, cryptically so as not to be all spoilery, a few: Metzov’s return and new lover; Miles finding Gregor (or should I say “Greg”?), losing him, and finding him again; the hilarious confusion of Cavilo and Metzov and Oser as they independently attempt to unravel Miles’ many and sundry identities; the sheer audacity of Miles’ plan culminating in the triumphant arrival of the Prince Serg.

The crowning achievement atop all this is Bujold’s pinpoint sense of humour. It’s not just that she manages to continuously and effectively raise the stakes: she’s funny while she does it. I chuckled throughout most of The Vor Game. I read the last 10% or so while on a plane ride home, and I had to work very hard not to disrupt my neighbours and contain my near-constant laughter. Some of the laughter was “funny-hah-hah,” but most of it was the laughter of delight—I giggled nearly uncontrollably at how Bujold portrays the reactions of people to the outcomes of Miles’ insane schemes.

Miles feels less like a Mary Sue in this book. I hope that’s the effect of The Mountains of Mourning on him: he still has that same “subordination problem” and the related, probably incurable, certainly terminal problem of not knowing when to stop—but now he has a sense of purpose. He knows why he schemes. And that’s what separates him from similarly clever, stunningly intelligent people like Cavilo—he can match her on her own playing field, but because he has a purpose, he has a sense of solidity that she can never have. Ultimately, that proves to be her undoing.

In addition to Miles’ creepy sexual tension with Cavilo, the second deeper, psychological aspect to The Vor Game is there in the title. Emperor Gregor turns up in an unexpected place, thinking suicidal thoughts. This catches Miles in a bind, because if he doesn’t somehow succeed—against all odds—in helping return Gregor to Barrayar, then there will be those who think he disposed of Gregor in order to place himself (or his father) on the throne. It’s so complicated! And meanwhile, we get to see how growing up as the emperor has affected Gregor, for better or worse.

I admire how Bujold manages to work these more serious themes into a novel that is, pacing- and plot-wise, a lighter and more fantastic work of fiction. That’s my bottom line: there was nothing boring about The Vor Game, no moment where I wanted to put the book down and do something else. I never had to push myself to keep reading. I never wanted to put it away! And I want more, more, more—oh look, another omnibus edition….

This is good stuff, people.


by Dan Simmons

Hyperion  cover image
Mass Market Paperback, 482 pages
Spectra, 1989

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I can best summarize my feelings about Hyperion like so: why did someone let me read the terror that is The Terror when I could have read a good book by Dan Simmons?!

Frame stories are not my favourite way to conduct business with a novel. In general, Hyperion's greatest flaws lie within its structure, frame story included. That and the abrupt ending devoid of any real conclusion are probably the two chief sources of criticism, from myself and from other reviewers. Like many other readers, I was suckered into the story as it approached the end, only to find no resolution! That was quite disappointing.

None of the main characters especially invite empathy. Sol Weintraub's tale was heartbreaking, managing to capture the disadvantages of reverse-ageing much better than some books that base their whole story on the premise. Father Hoyt's was creepy. Martin Silenus' bored me. Brawne Lamia's detective story was interesting, and I liked Simmons' take on artificial intelligence revealed therein. I felt cheated that I didn't get to hear Het Masteen's tale. Finally, my favourite had to be Colonel Kassad's. It was just the right mix of adventure and creepiness. Yet despite how I feel about their stories, the characters themselves are much like their Chaucerian counterparts in The Canterbury Tales: stock representations of an archetype intended to provide a certain perspective rather than any real personality.

What all of their tales have in common, and indeed the best part of Hyperion, is the revelation of the backstory of the future. Dan Simmons has some first-class worldbuilding going on here, full of the stock SF conventions like faster-than-light drive, wormhole type instantaneous travel, artificial intelligence, and whatnot. He manages to demonstrate the ramifications of each technology on society without ever veering too far into preachy exposition. The saturated, topical nature of the "Web", worlds connected by farcasting devices, really struck close to home in an era dominated by the phenomena-fuelled Internet.

At first, Simmons made what appeared to be throwaway mentions of artificial intelligence—that the AIs had seceded a couple of centuries previously, that they now resided in a "TechnoCore" from which they conduct their own affairs and assist humanity in various maintenance-related tasks. It wasn't until near the end of the story, particularly in Lamia's story, that we really get an idea of how involved the AIs are in the quest to solve the mystery of Hyperion. I love it with hardcore SF explores the alienness of human-created intelligence, and Simmons doesn't disappoint me. With a couple of homages to Neuromancer and only a little overindulgent technobabble, we're treated to glimpses of the machinations of AI factions and how irrelevant they consider humanity to the grand scheme of the cosmos.

Lurking in the background of every pilgrim's story is, of course, the inscrutable Hyperion and its resident walking death god, the Shrike. This plot point is probably the least "sciency" of the hardcore SF so far presented in the book. Hyperion has artifacts known as the "Time Tombs" that have "anti-entropic fields" that propel the tombs back in time from an origin far in the future. Presumably the Shrike, tied as it is to the Tombs, is also from the future. The debate among the pilgrims is what sort of future that is, what the Shrike's purpose is, and if and when they will die on their pilgrimage to it.

While the component stories of Hyperion are variously interesting or boring, I can't say much about the frame story itself. I am extremely interested in what will happen when the pilgrims finally confront the Shrike, of course. Unfortunately, the cynical part of me suspects that I've been exposed to so many other similar confrontations in other stories that it won't be as impressive as I hope. And that's the problem with the frame story itself—it's a story told in standard definition that's just begging for hi-def. The ideas and scope on which Dan Simmons is writing is huge, mind-bogglingly huge, but his style doesn't seem to compensate for that.

The philosophy behind Hyperion and the themes it espouses definitely make it a fascinating book. The title, of course, alludes to the unfinished poem by John Keats, and Simmons takes the allusion even further in the story itself, "resurrecting" Keats in a sense as some sort of artificial persona, whom we meet in Lamia's tale. So perhaps it's fitting that Hyperion ends abruptly, unfinished, picked up in The Fall of Hyperion, much like Keats did with the original. Like the Keats poem, this is a story about the search for truth (which, to Keats, equates to beauty, of course): the truth about Hyperion, the truth about the agendas and motivations of the seven pilgrims, the truth about the AI's agendas, etc. It's set against the background of a stagnating, sprawling galactic empire. The Hegemony is not evil or repressive per se. However, as the book progresses, we learn it has few qualms about manipulating whomever or whatever in order to achieve its aims. It sanctions genocide of potentially competitive species—and although it hasn't been successful in eradicating them so far, it doesn't sanction the existence of a rival group of humans, the Ousters. In this future, we learned nothing from Earth's destruction, nothing from our Diaspora and fragmentation. Humans are still capricious children, playing with shiny toys.

Brilliant and clever in many ways, Hyperion definitely deserves praise as a work of thoughtful science fiction. It has flaws in its structure and narrative, and it seemed to hold my interest intermittently. I'm looking forward to reading the next book, hoping for resolution to the plot, as well as more character development. Even though each character told a very personal story in this book, and as much as the "big ideas" encapsulated in the book fascinate me, what Hyperion really lacked were real people as characters. And no amount of allusion to Chaucerian and Keatsian style will make up for that.

My reviews of the Hyperion Cantos:
The Fall of Hyperion ?

The Uplift War

by David Brin

The Uplift War  cover image
Mass Market Paperback, 672 pages
Spectra, 1987

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

David Brin's Uplift Trilogy has not been the easiest series for me to read. I enjoyed Sundiver as a mystery set within a much larger universe. Brin left me hungry for more, but Startide Rising left me bitter and disappointed. What had started with so much potential seemed encumbered by flawed storylines and a myriad of unwanted characters. Hence, I was doubtful of The Uplift War's ability to mollify me.

While certainly superior to Startide Rising, The Uplift War lacks the central protagonist that made Sundiver so compelling. If the first book was a murder mystery and the second a siege story, this one is about living under occupation by the enemy. As such, the span of the story is somewhat larger than Startide Rising's, which at least gives the much-inflated cast something to do for six hundred pages.

Maybe my expectations are just skewed here, but I'm in this series for the answer to one question: who, if anyone, Uplifted humanity? After such tantalizing promises in Startide Rising, Brin shelves that question once again. Instead, we get another look at the sociological implications of Uplift and the stringent codes of Galactic warfare.

I don't mean to make The Uplift War sound boring. For the most part, it's interesting to watch the resistance crystallize in the mountains outside Port Helenia. It's fun to wonder who among the three Gubru Suzerains will achieve the dominance required to become the triumvirate's queen. As usual, Brin's depiction of a truly alien species and its leadership structure is second to none.

Even a species closely related to humanity, the neo-chimpanzees, can seem alien at times. Brin raises the question of whether neo-chimps have sentience or are merely "aping" their human patrons. Although it seems obvious that chims like Fiben and Gailet are sentient beings, the behaviour of those like Irongrip makes one wonder. It's scary to think that other creatures, the Gubru and the various Uplift examiners, are watching, judging whether another species is sapient. Imagine what would happen if humanity were declared the clients of another species!

We walk a thin line between being animals and thinking beings. Brin's obsession with comparing Richard Oneagle to Tarzan makes that clear. That being said, I'm not sure how much of that subplot was Brin's enthusiasm for the rugged wilderness adventurer and how much was a conscious statement about how environment shapes us. It's this exploration of what divides us from animals, thinking beings from non-thinking beings, at which the Uplift Trilogy excels. And of the three books in the trilogy, The Uplift War emphasizes this best.

So I've got a lot of complaints about The Uplift War. It just didn't satisfy me in the way I had hoped. Try as I might, however, I can't dismiss the book as "bad" or even "poor." Brin's execution is not flawless, but it's enough to convey a powerful theme about humanity and our role at large in the universe. I can't condemn the Uplift Trilogy—but I can't go so far as to celebrate it. You'll have to make up your own mind.

My Reviews of the Uplift series:
? Startide Rising | Brightness Reef ?

Ender's Game

by Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game cover image
Mass Market Paperback, 324 pages
Tor, 1985

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Books can be like old friends you haven't seen in a while. Your friendship has lapsed, and there's always the fear that when you do resume contact, things will be different and you'll have changed too much to remain friends. Sometimes that's true, and the two of you go your separate ways. I've mostly found, however, that it feels like no time has passed at all. As with friends, books like that feel comfortable the moment you begin turning pages. Reading them just feels right. Emotions begin to wash over you, tinged familiar but ever so altered by the passage of time, for you are not the same person you were when you first read this story. You bring to it new insights and ideas, new prejudices and preconceptions. The experience is different, new, but its power over you remains the same. Books can be like old friends, if you let them back into your life.

I don't remember when I first read Ender's Game. I know I read the novella first, in Orson Scott Card's enormous Maps in a Mirror anthology, and sometime thereafter I read the novel and at least Speaker for the Dead. It was long enough ago that I could recall the plot but not the emotions it had evoked, aside from the fact that my opinion had been positive. Time enough, then, for a re-read.

Before I knew it, I was forty pages in, then a hundred, then over halfway through the book. The plight of Ender Wiggin may be a timeless one, but Card crafts the particulars with enchanting skill. He has a scary ability to make me love him and then hate him: one minute, I'm enjoying his description of Ender's clever new tactic or a victory over a bully; the next minute, I'm reading a sobre conversation between Valentine and Peter or between Valentine and Colonel Graff.

Because that is Card's ultimate treachery. He takes the sublimely cool concept of the Battle Room, and turns it into something twisted: a training exercise for child soldiers. At times, this uncomfortable fact is difficult to remember, because often the characters don't act like children. They are "gifted," and as such are more intellectually developed then their peers. Look deeply enough into their actions, however, and you see the psychology of a child. It's there when Bonzo tries to kill Ender, and when Ender confronts the Game. In fact, it's omnipresent in Ender's case—even as he excels at his studies and at battles, Card constantly reminds us that the military is training a boy (he's six at the beginning of the book and eleven by the end) to become a killer. Is this a justified action, considering that humanity's survival may well depend on Ender's ability to defeat the Buggers?

I don't know.

Maybe I'm the only one. Maybe everyone else who has read this book has a firm opinion on the morality of Ender, of the International Fleet, of Valentine and Peter, etc. For me, however, my ambivalence is another sign of how powerful Ender's Game is. I don't mean to assert that the best books are ones that leave you indecisive. On the contrary, I laud most books for their ability to impart a persuasive philosophy (even if I don't agree with it). Ender's Game does not do this in the sense that I think it's arguing for or against the necessity of training Ender. It's dark, in such a manner that, like Lilith's Brood, it made me feel uncomfortable with myself, made me see what preconceptions I have that I'm not sure I like. So when I say, "I don't know," what I might mean is that I do know, subconsciously, but I don't want to admit the answer to myself.

Card offers a potential justification, if we want it: Ender is a child being manipulated by adults who know the real score; he doesn't know that the simulations are real battles against Bugger fleets; he doesn't know his unorthodox strategy is actually xenocide. We don't have to accept this, however. I get the strong impression that Ender does know what's going on, even if he doesn't know the particulars. He recognizes what many characters say throughout the book: "The teachers are the enemy." He has no control over his life, and the conflict in this book is not human versus alien; it's individual versus society. He worries that he's too much like Peter, perhaps even worse than Peter, hence the irony when his attempt to fail, to wash out even if it means he won't save the world, turns out to be his most crucial success.

And after that success, what then? The world has an eleven-year-old hero on its hands, a symbol so easily manipulated. And a person so empty. Regardless of its morality, the aftermath of Ender's Game underscores the tragedy of the book's premise, and whether or not Ender is culpable, he is a tragic hero. He is broken. He is alone, because he was never close enough to Peter, and while he was once close to Valentine, we see that they can never share what they had as children. They still love each other and look out for each other, but Ender's singular experience has separated him from his sister just as it separates him from the children he commands: Bean, Petra, Dink, and the like. Card strips away the glamour of the hero and shows us the burden and loneliness of being a legend. It reminds me of Dune in this respect.

The power of Ender's Game lies in its perception and its presentation. Ender is trying to save the world from aliens; Peter is trying to save the world from itself; Valentine is caught in between her siblings, ruing the fact that events have conspired to deprive the three of them of childhood innocence. This book is not reassuring, portraying humanity as innately good and capable of triumphing over all adversity. Nor is it pessimistic, portraying humanity as something inherently unstable. It is realistic—maybe an unusual word to describe science fiction, but there you go. To borrow imagery from the novel itself, Ender's Game takes away the gravity and forces you to re-orientate.


by William Gibson

Neuromancer  cover image
Paperback, 288 pages
Ace, 1984

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

The trouble with reading good books is that any review one writes feels insufficient. It's not just finding the right words to describe how such books make one feel that's the challenge ... it's organizing those words in such a way to convey the breadth and scope of moving literature. Neuromancer poses such a problem. Writers trade in stories and ideas; while a case can be made that Neuromancer is deficient in some respects of the former, few books are as packed full of ideas as this book.

Neuromancer, and its successors in cyberpunk, seem suited to escapism. It's something about the abstract nature of cyberspace, where space and time have little relationship to their real-world counterparts, and the dead can come back to life. Case, Neuromancer's grim protagonist, yearns only to be able to return to "the bodiless exultation of cyberspace" and continue his career as a "cowboy," a hacker who commits crimes for rich people and corporations. His attempt to double-cross a previous employer backfired and left his body unable to "jack into" the matrix; the novel begins with Case's suicidal downward spiral in dystopian Chiba City, Japan. He seeks escape from the bleak existence his life has become, but even when his ability to jack in is restored, Case is still always looking for an exit. For Case, denizen of a digital world, escape isn't a temporary urge; it's a necessity of being.

Even more intriguing than its motif of escape, however, was Neuromancer's depiction of artificial intelligence. Too often, bad science fiction portrays artificial intelligences as human, or worse, as unquestionably anti-human machine intelligences. The AIs of Neuromancer are neither:

"Motive," the construct said. "Real motive problem, with an AI. Not human, see?"

"Well, yeah, obviously."

"Nope. I mean, it's not human. And you can't get a handle on it. Me, I'm not human either, but I respond like one. See?"

The AIs, of course, are continually perturbed when pesky humans go "outside the profile" and behaviour in a way that runs counter to their expectations of that individual. Humans can go outside the profile; AIs, in contrast, don't have a profile. That's what makes them scary: it's not their computational capacity or their virtual immortality and limitless intelligence; it's their unhuman-ness, their totally alien way of thinking born from the minds of human designers and engineers.

Case and his comrades, particularly the construct of a fellow cowboy named McCoy "Dixie Flatline" Pauley, spend much of the book trying to figure out the master plan of the AI who is hiring them to lobotomize itself. Its plan never becomes explicit, probably because by dint of the AI's unhuman-ness, we can't grasp it. But the gist is clear: the AI's designer split it into two complementary entities, hardwired in restrictions to prevent the AIs from growing too powerful, and then hardwired into one of the AIs a desire to thwart those restrictions. How much of our desires are hardwired? Are we, like Case, what we do?

That's where Neuromancer shines as a work of literature. It is set in a grumpy dystopia that has a sense of timelessness about it; maybe things were different once, and maybe they'll be different someday in the future, but nothing seems to be changing right now. Jack Womack's afterword to this edition captures the sentiment nicely:

I'm not referring to the overwhelming postapocalyptic damage and decay so often used in the set design of contemporary films when their directors attempt to depict a futuristic environment.... No, I speak instead of the scattered objects glimpsed within Chiba City bars ... each token of mundane temporality made rare by the passage of time.... When the past is always with you, it may as well be present; and if it is present, it will be future as well.

Or as Case eloquently puts it:

Give us the fucking code.... If you don't, what'll change? What'll ever fucking change for you? You'll wind up like the old man. You'll tear it all down and start building again! You'll build the walls back, tighter and tighter.... I got no idea at all what'll happen if Wintermute [the AI] wins, but it'll change something!

Amid nation-states overturned by corporations, cloning and cryogenics, and drugs and data that make "meat" and flesh seem obsolete, the piercing cry of techno-nihilism emerges. Neuromancer isn't about hacking or even about crime; it's a prototypical exploration of different groups' attempts to push humanity beyond limits we aren't supposed to transgress. Immortality . . . eternal consciousness in cyberspace . . . there are certain things that make us human, including death and the fallible nature of our memories. To deny these is to deny our own humanity, and then we'll end up like the Tessier-Ashpools. Whether or not that's a bad thing is one's own opinion; Neuromancer seems to think that it's fine for AIs but hesitates when it comes to humans. Thus, this is a book about transhumanism, but not posthumanism.

Unfavourable reviews often focus on Gibson's writing, particularly the lack of character depth and fluffy descriptions of the "cyberspace matrix." And it's true; for that reason, I can't give the book five stars. The first part of the book is especially difficult to understand—I really only got into it once the artificial intelligence was introduced and the nature of the plot became clear.

That being said, Gibson does have a talent for intriguing phrases that held my attention long after I turned the page. From the opening line: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel" to Gibson's final comment on immortality through technology: "She'd seen through the sham immortality of cryogenics . . . she'd refused to stretch her time into a series of warm blinks strung along a chain of winter," Neuromancer is full of evocative insights wrapped inside delectable language.

The imagery of Neuromancer is gritty and seductive while remaining free of the flashiness so embedded in the gestalt of 1990s cyberpunk. More intellectual than it is entertaining, this book deserves its place in the pantheon of great science fiction. Just as the Bible has so influenced Western literature of the past 1700 years, Neuromancer was a prototype for much of the science fiction that has since followed. Hence, just as non-Christians should still read the Bible to understand its influence, science fiction fans must read Neuromancer.

Startide Rising

by David Brin

Startide Rising  cover image
Mass Market Paperback, 462 pages
Bantam, 1983

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

At first, I couldn't decide if I liked Sundiver or this book better. The former has a superior mystery, and arguably a superior plot. Startide Rising, on the other hand, is more satisfying on the subject of "uplift" itself and better portrays the multitudinous horrors of Galactic society.

After considering my quandary further, I decided to throw in behind Sundiver. My fellow Goodreads reviewers seem split on this question, but the more I think about it, the more I'm certain. As much as I like what Startide Rising does to further the uplift concept central this series, its story and characters are muddled and dull.

We get a very sparse look at Galactic society in Sundiver, with singular representatives from a few species. Startide Rising rectifies this by showing us entire fleets from a variety of species, all of them pursuing the Streaker in attempt to take the information it has discovered. We get to meet the matriarchal Soro; the vicious Tandu and their reality-altering client species, the Episiarchs and the Acceptors; the Jophur, the Thennanin, etc. Brin's quite creative when it comes to species names and behaviours. But if Sundiver was a drought, then Startide Rising is a deluge: there are just too many aliens, and we don't spend enough time with any one of them. The results are thin, one-dimensional antagonists like Krat, fleet-mother of the Soro contingent. The Galactics are once again bogeyman instead of credible players.

This tendency of Brin's to overindulge is obvious planetside as well. There are just too many characters, too many points of view. At times this results in a total breakdown of the coherence of the story; I found myself unable to tell what was happening any more. Primal Delphin, Trinary, Anglic, whatever language the Karrank% spoke . . . too many symbols, and all very surreal. This is not an easy book to read, and while that's no disqualification on its own, it means the reward for reading it should be proportionally greater.

Yet I found Startide Rising lacklustre in its resolution. Once again, Brin explores what it means to be human by showing us how aliens (in this case, Uplifited dolphins) adopt human-like behaviour, including belligerence. Takkata-Jim's mutiny is a perfect example of this. The dolphins' journey toward sentience has been one away from the "Whale Dream" that prevents cetaceans from logical, abstract thought so critical for tool use (and thus spaceflight). While many of Takkata-Jim's mutineers revert to more primal instincts, Takkata-Jim himself behaves more and more human as the story progresses (not always to the benefit of our protagonists).

No matter how great its themes, however, Startide Rising is still burdened by its story. As with the antagonists, the main plot points begin multiplying until it's hard to tell what matters any more. There are metallic life-forms, pre-sentient aboriginals, voices telling Captain Credeiki what to do, etc. It just happens that after stumbling on a derelict fleet—setting off this great galactic chase—Streaker hides on a planet that has more mysteries than anyone could have imagined! Alas, we do not learn the ultimate fate of the Streaker crew or the inhabitants of Kithrup! This book provides many questions but precious few answers.

And so the moral of Startide Rising comes not from its themes but its execution: less is more! David Brin's "uplift" concept is so intriguing, so deliciously seductive in its shiny science fiction package, that it's enough to sell me on the series. But I'm finding the experience less fulfilling than expected, because the books just try too hard. Keep it simple Startide Rising does not.

My Reviews of the Uplift series:
? Sundiver | The Uplift War ?

The Forever War

by Joe Haldeman

The Forever War cover image
Mass Market Paperback, 216 pages
Del Rey, 1974

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

So I’m on a relativistic shuttle, waiting for you…. I never found anybody else and I don’t want anybody else. I don’t care whether you’re ninety years old or thirty. If I can’t be your lover, I’ll be your nurse.

Hey kids, you know how people keep using that word allegory, and you’re never really sure what they mean, and they probably aren’t even sure what they mean?

This. This is an allegory.

If there’s a reason we have the phrase “deceptively slim” in our book reviewing vocabulary, it’s for books like The Forever War. This thing won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. No mean feat, that. And for the first little bit, I couldn’t figure out why. Joe Haldeman gets off to a slow start, with a book that is refreshingly familiar in the way it lampoons the gung ho enthusiasm with which an conscript army gets sent off to be slaughtered in the name of politics and the economy. It’s Vietnam, only in space.

Or is it?

I think the quotation I used to open this review shows that The Forever War is actually a love story, where the lovers are not merely starcrossed but starscattered through time and space.

We don’t learn a lot about William Mandella the person prior to the war. We know he was a physics teacher; we meet his “younger” brother and his mother, and that is about it. The start of the war marks an epoch for Mandella, even though by his subjective reckoning, the Forever War lasts less than ten years.

The Mandella we initially meet seems to be a man of few convictions. He was conscripted into the army. He doesn’t put up a fuss. There is a fatalistic quality to Mandella’s actions and remarks—he is seldom happy about what is going on, but he never seems able to stir himself to do anything about the situation. He is, indeed, a terrible leader, as he himself remarks on numerous occasions. Really the only thing that makes him stand out is the charmed life he leads: he hasn’t managed to die yet.

In this way, Haldeman, of course, remarks on the impartiality with which war strikes down officers and enlisted personnel, heroes and cowards alike. War is like the honey badger: it doesn’t give a shit. And for all the fancy technology both UNEF and the Taurans have, neither can alter such a fundamental apathetic constant of the universe.

Haldeman spends little time exploring the motives behind the war. The inciting reason is something along the lines of “Our ship blew up. The Taurans were there. We should do something. War is doing something. We should do war.” It’s like the worst false syllogism ever—but that, of course, is the point. War, as they say, is good for absolutely nothing—except as an economic machine in which human lives are the lubricant.

However, if you’re looking for science fiction with intense ground battles and descriptions of sexy powered mecha suits, then this is not the book for you. There are a few action sequences, but Haldeman opts for a more realistic approach to space combat. He invokes relativistic velocities, logistical computers, acceleration couches, and even probability tables. This is space combat as it probably would be, not the sexy space combat we see in science fantasy shows. And I give mad kudos to Haldeman for spending the time to explore what trying to fight at relativistic speeds might entail. I love the idea that, because of all this relativistic travel, you’re encountering an enemy who is either decades or centuries ahead of or behind you, technologically. Blows my mind.

Where I went wrong at the start of the book, actually, was assuming this would be more about the minutiae of war, the battles and the experience of boots on the ground, than it is. To be fair to me, that’s kind of how Haldeman sets us up at the beginning. Mandella and the new recruits are all training for ground operations by day and having randomized free-lovin’ sex by night. Man, those 1970s….

Fortunately, the rest of The Forever War corrected my interpretation. By the end I started to understand why this book has received so much acclaim.

In addition to the wealth of discussions we can have about warfare, we can also talk about the portrayal of sex and gender here. I suspect by 1970s standards it was fairly avant garde. The way Haldeman posits a fluidity of sexual orientation, including cultural and social shifts normalizing homosexuality over heterosexuality, reminded me a little of Samuel R. Delany’s work. Like Delany, Haldeman is notable not just for mentioning such lifestyles but actually challenging the heteronormativity of the author’s contemporary society.

By our standards today, some of the way Haldeman deals with gender roles remains problematic. Sexual orientation is decisively dichotomous (with the possible exception of Kahn, who, if we can give them any kind of label, might be considered pansexual). And although Haldeman joins Delany in portraying alternative sexualities, he doesn’t go so far as to deconstruct gender identity much—men are still men, women are still women, and there doesn’t seem to be anything in between.

Still, I have to give Haldeman credit for the way he handles gender roles. Women in this book are just as capable as men, with just as much diversity in attitude and behaviour. There are weak women and men, strong women and men, thoughtful women and men, and so on. All of Haldeman’s characters are people rather than stereotypes of class, race, and gender, something that is to his credit as a writer.

Despite these elements, however, The Forever War is not so much transgressive as it is expressive of hopes and cautious optimism. After all, as I said earlier, it’s really just a long con culminating in a heteroromance for the ages. Mandella and Potter finally find each other and get a postscript baby in a galaxy. They live on one of several enclave planets with other heterohumans on tap as breeding stock in case the main Man, Kahn, discovers a flaw in its many-and-sundry clones.

This is the part where you might be wondering if, somewhere between page 180 and 210, you nodded off and drowned (because you were reading this in the bathtub like me—you mean you don’t read in the bathtub? How odd). That last development seems like it comes out of left field—but I kind of see it as the logical extreme of the type of progression Haldeman was showing each time Mandella swung back towards Earth. And that’s not the only possible resolution, but it was one way to puncture the cyclic equilibrium of destruction and rebuilding that Earth underwent while UNEF played soldiers with its excess population.

But I digress.

Mandella and Potter’s romance is rather low-key. They start off, like everyone else in their basic training, as randomized sleep partners. Gradually they become a couple. For a little while, as Mandella remarks, it seems like they stay together mostly out of inertia: by being posted to the same assignments and by virtue of, you know, not dying, they happen to be the only people left alive from their time period. Relativity and war have taken care of everyone else. I understand how that could be a powerful bond, more powerful even than physical or emotional attraction.

I swear that the only reason Haldeman hammers us with repetitive explanations of what these relativistic voyages are doing to Mandella and Potter is so that when they get split up, it’s immediately tragic and poignant. Mandella spells it out for us (in case you were nodding off in that bathtub again—stop doing that), but that doesn’t undermine the pathos at all: they will be inextricably separated, forever.

Of course I had peeked at the last page and knew they wouldn’t be….

But that letter from Marygay, the one with the quotation I used above, is probably one of the best things about this book. It just has such a spirit of optimism about it. When William reads it, realizes what it signifies … it’s as if the weight of those centuries that have passed him by lifts from his shoulders, and he becomes a person again rather than a cog in the machine. I would have liked to see his reunion with Marygay in person, rather than an epistolary epilogue—but that might just be me.

The Forever War hasn’t jumped to the top of my list as far as war novels go. But I’m glad I read it. There’s something to be said for classics that are short: if they don’t live up to your expectations, then you haven’t wasted much time—but if they do, then you can re-read them again and again without feeling like you’re reliving every Russian winter Tolstoy spent writing them. The Forever War falls into the latter camp for me. I haven’t decided if I’ll check out the sequels, but I’m sure I’ll come back to this book some years from now, and see what else it has to show me.

The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Dystopia

by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Dystopia cover image
Mass Market Paperback, 387 pages
Eos, 1974

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

The success of The Dispossessed lies in Le Guin's presentation of two distinct visions of utopia. Each feels that the other is an aberration. Both are superior to the contemporary government of Earth, which at this stage has just barely managed to avoid destroying Earth's biome. Yet both are dysfunctional, have strayed from whatever utopian ideals may have founded them. They are not failed experiments, but they are not entirely successful either—owing to human nature—and Le Guin shows us the best and worth of both, all the while commenting on humanity and present-day social organization.

On Anarres, society is anarchistic and government no longer exists. Yet administrative work must be done, and the institutions in place to do that work have become more bureaucratic with each generation. Those who seek power over others will find positions in social structures, even if such structures aren't explicitly authoritarian, that allows them to assume that power. While the system of non-government on Anarres works well some of the time, the harsh climate of the moon makes it difficult to eke out a living some years, resulting in a hungry, weary population.

On Urras, there are a few different models of government. Most prominently featured is the capitalist A-Io, and there's also mention of the authoritarian Thu and the war-torn dictatorship of Benbili. Shevek visits A-Io, where Urrasti are "profiteers" who exist only to make money and revel in their superiority over others—or at least, that's what Anarresti learn in school. The truth is, as usual, far more complex. In fact, A-Io is a heavily class-based society, one in which women are relegated to the role of decorative, carefree wife and the lower classes toil ceaselessly to support the elite intellectuals and businessmen. Social mobility is nearly non-existent, and A-Io is just as closed-minded about change and new ideas as Anarres (and this may be the only thing they have in common).

My descriptions over-simplify, of course. Le Guin manages to make both nations seem viable, but it's clear that neither are ideal places to live. There is no utopia, Le Guin proclaims. This is the common theme of utopian literature, of course, but The Dispossessed stands out because it's discrediting two visions of utopia. And each has different flaws, different vulnerabilities. On Anarres, society the pressure on the individual to conform with social norms replaces laws. The danger of this, however, is that it stifles the very foundation of Anarresti society: "we didn't come to Anarres for safety, but for freedom. If we must all agree, all work together, we're no better than a machine." On Urras, we see classical forms of government with classical flaws: the individual becomes subordinate to the State and the Economy, slave to the twin whips of Authority and Profit. Despite these obvious flaws, however, it's clear that these are visions of utopia. And that's where it really gets interesting.

Through the Terran ambassador, Keng, Le Guin expresses her fears of what Earth may become if humanity doesn't wake up and change how it's behaving. The Terra in The Dispossessed is functional, but only just. Keng refers to the planet Urras as "Paradise" because it still has green space and its people have some form of choice, even if it isn't perfect. She sees Anarresti society as desirable in theory but no longer attainable in practice:

"My world, my Earth, is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed our world first. There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot. It is habitable, it is still habitable, but not as this world is. . . . We failed as a species, as a social species. . . . We can only look at this splendid world, this vital society, this Urras, this Paradise, from the outside. We are capable only of admiring it, and maybe envying it a little. Not very much."

"Then Anarres, as you heard me speak of it—what would Anarres mean to you, Keng?"

"Nothing. Nothing, Shevek. We forfeited our chance for Anarres centuries ago, before it ever came into being."

This conversation occurs toward the end of the book, by which time Le Guin, through the eyes of Shevek, has us convinced that both Anarres and Urras have pretty undesirable societies. And here is a Terran expressing her admiration for both—one which she envies and the other which she considers just so far beyond her reach it's no longer relevant. What may be Hell for one person is Paradise for another.

These notions of subjectivity and cycling, the idea that Anarres is Shevek's present, perhaps Urras' future, and Earth's past, are linked to the physics that Le Guin explores in other parts of the novel. Shevek seeks a grand unified theory, one which reconciles "Sequency" (cause and effect) and "Simultaneity" (laws of relativity) and allows for such marvels as faster-than-light travel. While he doesn't quite get that, it does lead to the reification of the ansible, which allows people to communicate instantaneously across several light-years. Before I look at the implications of Shevek's research, however, I want to examine this theory of time in closer detail.

Shevek's theory about time is central to any reading of The Dispossessed, as it influences his outlook on life. We get a sense of this from the repetition of a common idea. Here are two quotations that demonstrate this, first from when Shevek meets his eventual partner, Takver:

It is now clear to Shevek, and he would have thought it folly to think otherwise, that his wretched years in this city had all been part of his present great happiness, because they had led up to it, prepared him for it. Everything that had happened to him was part of what was happening to him now. Takver saw no such obscure concatenations of effect/cause/effect, but then she was not a temporal physicist. She saw time naively as a road laid out. You walked ahead, and you got somewhere. If you were lucky, you got somewhere worth getting to.

and then from the end of chapter 10, when Shevek and Takver reunite after four years of postings on opposite sides of Anarres:

So, looking back on the last four years, Shevek saw them not as wasted, but as part of the edifice that he and Takver were building with their lives. The thing about working with time, instead of against it, he thought, is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.

The point is pretty clear, thanks to Le Guin's writing. I'm sure I'm not alone in experiencing frustrating evenings when I look back on the day's events and think about how much time I wasted not doing anything productive. Shevek would advise me to take that in stride: everything that happens, has happened, and has formed part of your life, part of who you are. The acceptance of this inevitability may seem deterministic. Shevek admits, later in the book, that such thinking is inherent in Simultaneity, and that one reason for his search for a grand unified theory is to keep the Simultaneity without the need for determinism. Accepting the inevitability of the past is still necessary, but it makes it all the more important to strive for a better future.

And that's why Shevek wants everyone to have his theory, wants everyone—Terran, Hainish, Urrasti, Anarresti—to be able to construct an ansible. Because communication is one of the most necessary and most worthwhile activities. Freedom of speech is paramount, and Le Guin makes a strong case for open source information and academic freedom. As a student and academic, these themes are close to home for me. I empathized with Shevek has he ran up against the walls of bureaucracy and reactionary thought on Anarres and corporatism and capitalism on Urras. Ideas, especially scientific knowledge, should belong to no one person, corporation, or country. They should belong to the species at large. However, freedom of speech is not something that flourishes untended, like a conifer in a boreal forest. It must be constantly maintained.

Le Guin demonstrates this in a very creative way, through the Anarresti language. Pravic is artificially constructed, mostly by computer. Even Anarresti names are all 5- or 6-letter names assigned by computer. There is only one Shevek at any given time, and the names themselves are gender-neutral, which helps contribute toward the gender equality we see on Anarres. If language shapes our perception of reality, then the use of an artificially-constructed language is the ultimate shaping of reality.

There are more themes in The Dispossessed than I could do justice to in such a brief discussion, so I'll only briefly touch on gender relations and political allegory. In the case of the former, the distinction seems obvious at first: women and men are social equals on Anarres; on Urras, at least in A-Io, women are considered inferior. As Shevek learns during his visit, however, A-Ioan women don't see themselves that way; they think they run the men! While I envy the equality we see on Anarres and condemn the attitudes of Urrasti men toward women, again Le Guin reminds us that the situation is never as clear cut as we want it to be.

The political allegory is very transparent but still relevant even thirty years after publication. Analogues for the U.S. and Russia are hostile toward each other but do not openly invade the other's country. Rather, they fight proxy wars in other countries. This is the face of warfare in the late twentieth-century, still the face of warfare in many senses, although guerrilla warfare and terrorism are beginning to get an edge. Through Shevek, the traveller from another utopia, Le Guin can express her scorn for war, for the military, for the unnecessary aggression and conflict she sees in her contemporary world.

And central to all these themes, all these many entwined points of light, is Shevek. He's just this guy, you know? Trying to do the right thing. He's got a woman he loves, two daughters he loves, and a cause in which he believes. He has a choice: do nothing, or do something, anything, even if it's dangerous . . . just to spark some change. He chooses the latter, and that makes him more than just a mouthpiece or an ideologue. Shevek is a hero. Not a gun-toting, smart-mouthed, badass action hero. Just a hero. And that is enough.

For such a small, compact book, The Dispossessed is a political and social force to be reckoned with. This is a novel that can be read in a day or two, as I did, but it's something that needs a lifetime of thought. Every so often, a book comes along and shakes me up, surprising me with is verisimilitude. It reminds me that this light, bound work of paper in my hand has the ability to profoundly influence people, including myself. The Dispossessed is what a book should strive to be, more than just words on a page, but the encapsulation of ideas sublimely expressed.

Read it.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go

by Philip José Farmer

To Your Scattered Bodies Go  cover image
Hardcover, 224 pages
Rapp & Whiting, 1971

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

When I first began reading To Your Scattered Bodies Go, I didn't give it enough credit. It has an amazing premise, and as a narrative it contains both the conflict and the thematic depth required to create a compelling science fiction story. And, I mean, it won the Hugo award—that can't be bad! So why was I so incredulous in the beginning? I'm not sure. It might have been the opening, which didn't draw me in like a book should. And it was difficult to connect to Burton as a character at first, although eventually I came to respect his adventurous, rebellious nature.

What first won me over was Burton's relentless rational approach to analyzing Riverworld. The majority of resurrected humans at first regarded their new life as a religious event (although obviously it didn't correspond to whatever religion they endorsed). Burton and many of his companions apply the scientific method to their observations, from the use of their grails and the operation of the grailstones to the way in which resurrection works. This approach to Riverworld is one reason Burton survives for so long and becomes a thorn in the side of Riverworld's operators (whoever They may be).

To Your Scattered Bodies Go is actually the combination of two stories: a look at what would happen to humanity if everyone was collectively resurrected in a massive river valley, and the story of one man's struggle to discover and thwart those who caused this resurrection.

The first story allows Farmer to ask the big questions. Are humans deserving of a second chance? Can they actually change their ways? Aren't we all curious about what really happened in past societies? Who wouldn't want a chance to see what Caesar was like or talk to Shakespeare? To his credit, however, Farmer sprinkles his story with famous personages and leaves it at that. He could easily have set up an all-star cast for little reason, but by limiting who we meet, he keeps the story focused and makes those people all the more interesting. By far, the famous person who gets the most pagetime is Hermann Göring. He starts out as the opportunistic conqueror he died as, but gradually he becomes a guilt-ridden madman and then the local leader of a post-Resurrection religion. Göring is Farmer's case study and a fascinating one.

The second story, however, provides the meat of the conflict. Burton discovers that whoever resurrected humanity has agents among them, watching them. Depending on who he asks, these entities either have an altruistic agenda or a sinister one. Either way, Burton plans to get to the bottom of the mystery by finding the source of the River. It's a common story: nearly powerless protagonist pitted against beings of immense power with his only weapon his will to survive and triumph. But set in the enchanting Riverworld, Burton's quest is part legendary—he rightly compares it to The Odyssey—and part necessary: he needs to rebel and explore, because he isn't content to stay home and help in the founding of a new civilization.

I would have liked to see Farmer develop some of the other characters in more interesting ways. Alice Hargreaves shows up, but her role is only as love interest and (sometime) warrior. Her relationship with Burton is superficial and tenuous at best. Farmer creates a small cast of characters, but then he leaves them behind as Burton begins venturing across Riverworld via "The Suicide Express" and we don't see them again until the end. I'm not satisfied with that . . . I would be more interested in learning what happened to them during the time Burton was away.

This book pleasantly surprised me. It's somewhat slow at the beginning, but the mystery of who resurrected humanity and why quickly becomes engrossing. To Your Scattered Bodies Go is a good science fiction exemplar, something one can hold up and say, "See? This makes you think. And it's fun to read too!"


by Larry Niven

Ringworld  cover image
Mass Market Paperback, 342 pages
Del Rey, 1970

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

There's a word often bandied about when people discuss books, particularly fantasy and science fiction books, which often involve the creation of worlds unlike our own. That term is (perhaps unsurprisingly) worldbuilding. And if ever there were a paradigm case for worldbuilding, Ringworld would be it. The eponymous structure is not a planet but, for all intents and purposes, functions as one. With a simple concept and a little bit of physics, Larry Niven has a striking novum that's brand, setting, and mystery all in one. If only Ringworld lived up to that potential. . . .

The first half of the book wasn't bad. Watching Nessus recruit Louis, Speaker To Animals, and Teela was a fascinating look at Niven's far future. I can't say I was able to visualize the puppeteers very well, but I got the idea of transfer booths, cat-like Kzinti, hyperdrive, etc. This is my first science fiction book by Larry Niven, and it instilled in me a good opinion of Niven's ability to balance carefully hard science fiction concepts (like an adherence to relativistic travel) with soft science fiction (an emphasis on the sociological effects of spaceflight and unexplained plot devices like hyperdrive). Specifically, I loved his sociological asides, such as Louis' speculations about how much Nessus and other Puppeteers have interfered with human and Kzinti development. Niven makes good use of the time it takes to reach and explore the Ringworld itself to show us his version of the future.

Alas, once the action is restricted to the Ringworld and the new goal is to discover any remaining pockets of Ringworld Engineer civilization, the only thing remarkable about the story is the alacrity with which it becomes unremarkable. It's apparent that something happened to cause civilization to "fall" on the Ringworld. Louis' speculation about a microbe that ate away at complex compounds eventually proved correct (and very cool, I'll admit). That isn't enough to save the book from a mediocre trip from the crash site to an abandoned city, where they meet up with a surviving Engineer (who is more like a prostitute, posing as a god). Along the way, we had to endure torturous talk about how Teela was "bred for luck". As a result, she has almost zero free will, because nearly all her actions result from chance. I'm sceptical about accepting this whole "breeding for luck" idea, but suspension of disbelief compels me to shelve the matter and ignore Niven's incessant speculations. If only Niven hadn't similarly ignored the most interesting part of Ringworld itself: its inhabitants!

I'm talking about the fallen descendants of Engineers, of course, not the original inhabitants. Louis himself, near the very end of the book, reflects on the fact that the Ringworld is so vast as to support a great diversity of cultures. And Nessus makes a valid point that, because it isn't a planet and the Engineers could just transmute matter from one form to another, the Ringworld has no metal ores to mine. The only way to make tools is to scavenge what's left from abandoned cities. It would have been interesting to see how those diverse cultures and see how they've adapted to the unique challenges of living on a ring (which they think is an arch). Aside from a few scenes where Louis and the others pose as gods and meeting Seeker, we don't get a lot of face time with the natives. Niven and his characters are more obsessed with what happened to the Ringworld Engineers and (understandably) getting off the Ringworld.

It might seem strange that I didn't share their obsession. After all, I'm a technophile. The Ringworld is an awesome idea, and I was curious to discover who had built it. Nevertheless, I'm jaded enough that I was sure—especially after learning that civilization had fallen—that the answer wouldn't be very satisfactory. I was right.

After shrouding it in so much mystery, Niven reveals that the demise of Ringworld civilization wasn't nearly so mysterious. Louis was right about the microbe. The Engineers are dead, mad, or integrated into the fallen societies scattered around the ring. Only Pril is left to tell her story. But because Louis and Nessus had already unravelled much of that story on their own, there wasn't much left to serve as a surprise or a twist.

But it's the journey, not the destination, right? Aside from my complaints about not showing us more Ringworld culture, it's true that Niven gives us plenty of episodic events on the way toward the rim wall. We get killer sunflowers, a massive storm, and a floating castle with a holographic map. Ringworld would be an awesome place for a roleplaying game, just because it's such a wonderfully built world.

So in case I haven't browbeaten you enough yet, I'll be explicit: Ringworld is great because of its worldbuilding and sucks because of its story. If you're one of those people who likes reading about intriguing hypothetical constructions like rings, Dyson spheres, etc., then you should probably read this book. However, one cannot draw much satisfaction from the mystery of the Ringworld or the characters who try to solve it. Unlike the Ringworld, they aren't built nearly so well.

The Left Hand of Darkness

by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness cover image
Trade Paperback, 304 pages
Ace, 1969

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

There are many flavours to science fiction, something that omnivorous readers adore and sceptics of sci-fi" forget. Not all science fiction is Star Wars, with action heroes, fast ships, and big guns (or, you know, swords). Not that there's anything wrong with those stories--but those who pan The Left Hand of Darkness for lacking such things tend to miss the point. It's not supposed to be like those stories; instead, it is a highly-faceted intellectual gem.

So much science fiction and fantasy takes either a contemporary or past form of society and transposes it to a futuristic or medieval time period, tweaks the names of people, places, and weapons, and calls it a Story. Again, this model isn't inherently wrong, but really great science fiction asks the question, "Well, what would humanity and human society be like if this were different?" and rebuilds society from the ground up to find an answer. This edition comes with a short introduction from Ursula K. Le Guin wherein she compares science fiction to a thought experiment. She's correct, and The Left Hand of Darkness is a shining exemplar of such an experiment.

There are two major factors that have altered Gethenian society: Gethen's harsh environment and the hermaphroditic nature of Gethenians. Le Guin investigates the consequences of both of these factors from the point of view of a man much like us, Terran Genly Ai.

The planet Gethen--idiosyncratically called Winter by the first Ekumen Investigators--has a far colder climate than temperate worlds like Earth. Additionally, its biosphere isn't very diverse, with little variety in plant or animal life. As Genly puts it: "it's extraordinary that you arrived at any concept of evolution, faced with that unbridgeable gap between yourselves and the lower animals." The Gethenians are, aside from their sexual differences, physiologically human, but they have adapted to survive the harsh and often deadly environment offered by Gethen. The constant need to survive, even in the middle of civilized cities like Erhenrang or Mishnory, is just as different from us as any differences in sexuality. For one thing, it seems to have stunted nation-building; war is less attractive when winter (and even summer) preys upon one's people. However, the hesitation to engage in open conflict may also be a result of shifgrethor, which I'll discuss later.

Of course, far more than the environment of Gethen, the most well-known part of The Left Hand of Darkness is the ambisexuality of the Gethenians. I won't belabour an explanation, since you should probably be familiar with the concept: the Gethenians are gender neutral for most of the month, then enter kemmer (estrus) and become either male or female, with the corresponding sexual organs coming to prominence, depending on hormones. So sex doesn't have the same impact it does on our society, as the Gethenians have no sex drive for the majority of their lives. In part, I suspect it led to the development of shifgrethor; moreover, it's affected how Gethenians view sexuality itself. For instance, incest has fewer restrictions on Gethen. Although monogamy exists, it is not enforced. Finally, the lack of permanent gender means gender roles themselves are nonexistent. This last reason has caused feminists (or anyone involved in issues of gender equality) to pay a lot of attention to The Left Hand of Darkness. I doubt I could truly discuss the subject any better than others already have, so go read their opinions instead. I'll just say I found the theme of gender equality definitely fascinating.

More fascinating, though, is the concept of shifgrethor, which Le Guin never fully explains. Probably it was difficult, since she designed it to be an intentionally alien cultural element. According to Estraven, the word itself comes from an old word for shadow; Genly calls it "prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority." Shifgrethor fills the vacuum in society where socialized gender roles and the sex drive hold sway in our cultures.

After all, a huge portion of society revolves around trying to have sex. Members of both sexes spend a good deal of their time trying to impress members of the opposite sex--or their own sex--or entice others to impress them. Advertisers sell products designed to enhance sexual pleasure. Even products not primarily designed for that purpose, such as cars, tend to be advertised in a way that implies your sex life will improve if you buy the product. We are constantly consciously and unconsciously assessing and adjusting our attitudes to take into account the sex and gender of those around us.

The Gethenians don't have any of that. The makers of Axe bodyspray would need to adopt an entirely new marketing strategy for Gethen (although I'm sure their commercials will be just as annoying)! Yet every society needs standards of conduct, guidelines by which the "game" proceeds. Since Gethenians can't react to each other based on notions of masculine and feminine, they use shifgrethor instead.

I've discussed the themes of The Left Hand of Darkness at length; anyone still reading this review may be wondering if I'll ever talk about, oh, the characters or the story. Never fear! However, I saved these for last because they're the least fulfilling parts of the book. The characters are often two-dimensional; only Estraven and Genly Ai really develop beyond their role as plot devices. The story, likewise, is more overtly a vehicle for Le Guin's thought experiment than it is in other, more action-orientated science fiction.

Genly Ai is the Ekumen's First Envoy to Gethen, a sort of prelude to an ambassador. The Ekumen's custom is to initiate First Contact after a lengthy period of investigation by undercover Investigators. The First Envoy comes alone, as a curiosity rather than a threat. Genly's experience on Gethen emphasizes how dangerous the mission of a First Envoy can be, and also one of the reasons the First Envoy comes alone: he's expected to form a personal relationship with the world rather than just a political one. As the only person on the planet "constantly in rut," as the Gethenians put it, he's also even more alone than most Envoys. The effects of Genly's time on Gethen, from his quizzical reception in Kargide to his trek across the glaciated landscape with Estraven, finally register on the reader when he looks upon his crew mates as they emerge from their spaceship. To them, preserved in stasis while he works on the planet below, it's only been weeks. To him, it's been nearly three years, three years of living with people who have no concept of gender. He experiences reverse culture shock and admits that it's difficult to adjust to what he once considered normal.

The other character with some development is Therem Harth rem ir Estraven. As the book begins, we find him putting Genly in a difficult position, essentially abandoning the First Envoy to the mercy of the unstable King Argaven. Later it becomes clear that Estraven was acting in Genly's best interests, as he already knew that Argaven would soon banish him from the kingdom of Kargide. Due to cultural differences, such as the alien nature of shifgrethor, Estraven's motives aren't always as apparent to Genly as Estraven believes they should be; he laments this thoroughly, and it galvanizes him to go and rescue Genly from a forced labour camp. In their subsequent months spent in environmental isolation as they trek across the ice, both Genly and Estraven feel utterly alone: Genly owing to his obvious anatomical and cultural differences, and Estraven owing to his banishment from Kargide. As the two come to depend upon each other for survival, and even just basic human interaction, Estraven becomes our window into Gethenian culture.

The Left Hand of Darkness is also a tale of first contact. Genly Ai represents the Ekumen, a loose federation of worlds based on economic and spiritual fulfilment rather than any goal toward political unifications. Le Guin has limited space travel to relativistic speeds only but allows worlds to communictate ideas faster-than-light through a device known as an ansible. (It's a measure of Le Guin's influence on the field that other science fiction authors, famous in their own right, have adopted the ansible as a communications device in their works.) As a result, physical travel between worlds is inconvenient at best. Le Guin has a very poignant way of driving home the true impact of relativistic travel: Genly Ai has only been away from Earth for seven years, but 120 years have passed on Earth during that time--everyone he knew is dead. Even if one doesn't understand the physics involved, such consequences make clear the challenges space travel presents.

The most curious and interesting parts of The Left Hand of Darkness are sociological. There's a little adventure, I suppose, but that's not the main aim of the story, and as I said at the beginning of the review, that's the point. Although this is not a dense work of fiction, either in length or in the complexity of its ideas, it is a worthwhile one if you need something to make you think. And that's what makes books great, no? They make you think, challenge your own pre-conceptions, and reconsider the nature of our universe. It's all well and good to read a book just for a little entertainment, a little recreation. Sometimes, though, you want to go deep. The Left Hand of Darkness will take you on a journey: "in the beginning there was nothing but ice and the sun."

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

by Robert A. Heinlein

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress cover image
Paperback, 382 pages
Orb Books, 1997

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

It didn’t take me long to understand why this book received such acclaim and is still regarded as a classic. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is an emblem of political science fiction. Robert Heinlein manages to take the idea of a penal colony on the moon and turn it into a romantic story of political revolution. This is an idea that has been explored repeatedly since this novel was published, but those stories almost all owe a debt to this one.

Manuel/Manny/Man O’Kelly-Davis is a computer repair technician. He was born on Luna to transported parents. He’s also the only person, Loonie or Terran, who knows that the central lunar computer is sentient. He calls it Mike. And along with an old exiled professor and a political firebrand from Hong Kong Luna called Wyoming, Mike and Manuel plan and launch a revolution against the Terran-controlled Lunar Authority that runs their lives.

Manuel isn’t actually all that interested in revolting, at least not at first. (Truthfully he probably gets into it because he wants to “bundle” with Wyoming, and he knows the Prof.) He is a self-described apolitical, like, he tells us, most Loonies. (We could have a conversation about unreliable narrators and whether Manuel tells us the truth. Frankly, though, I don’t think Heinlein was interested in that level of deconstructionism. It would have gotten in the way of his fantasy.) Initially, Manuel is happy enough with the status quo: when Mike breaks, or just tries something it thinks is a joke, Manuel gets called in to fix it, and gets paid to do so. Life is actually pretty good.

But it’s all an illusion, because everyone is going to starve and die in seven years unless they take over the joint! Or at least, that’s what Mike tells them. And Mike wouldn’t lie to them just because he thinks it’s funny, would he? Mike totally isn’t into pull practical jokes … oh, shit.

The “character” of Mike is my favourite thing about The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Heinlein has written here one of the earliest representations of classical strong AI (this predates HAL 9000 by a couple of years). Yet this book is decidedly not about AI in the sense that cyberpunk and Singularity fiction focuses on AI. Mike is merely a plot device, as well as part of Heinlein’s extended political metaphor. However, the fact that Heinlein relies on the abilities of a networked central computer to make the lunar revolution successful probably says a lot about the extent to which he viewed such a revolution as possible in contemporary terms. As Manuel reflects at one point, Mike is their ace in the hole: a shadowy, unseen figure whose presence is nevertheless always felt. Without Mike, everyone would be out of luck.

Mike evolves throughout the story too, as portrayed through its increasingly adept grasp of language, tone, and voice. Some of this evolution is directed by Manuel, but much of it is an organic consequence of Mike’s role in the revolution and its portrayal of “Adam Selene.” Maybe it’s my background with Singularity fiction, but I kept waiting for Mike to turn on our poor revolutionaries.

It’s important to remember, too, that this book was written before we ever visited the Moon. We had some grainy pictures, and we had managed a couple of low-Earth orbits and a spacewalk—and most of that was courtesy the Soviets. (Although the Soviet-inspired dialect that the Loonies use and other Soviet influences on the setting provide a convenient way to allude to revolutionary Russia, I can’t help but feel like Heinlein is also reflecting the zeitgeist. Up until the end of the 1960s, it must have felt like the Russians were dominating the Space Race, and Heinlein’s future reflects that.) But we didn’t really know what it was like to travel through space, much less live in it.

Heinlein makes much of the idea that the 1/6th-g gravity of the moon means we couldn’t live there long before permanently adapting to it, preventing us from returning to Earth. Turns out we can live in microgravity for at least a year without permanent ill effects (though one must convalesce and rebuild muscle after coming back). But Heinlein didn’t know that. Interestingly, a great deal of Luna’s economy revolves around the harvesting of ice, and in that respect Heinlein was a little prescient: the presence of ice, while proposed and perhaps suspected in his time, has only been confirmed much more recently.

So working within the bounds of what he knew at the time, and some speculation, Heinlein creates a fascinating vision for what a lunar colony might be like. Although he employs technology like laser guns, he also invokes more realistic—and, in my opinion, more frightening—weapons, such as using rocks accelerated down Earth’s gravity well as ballistic missiles. Heinlein shows that science is often cooler than science fiction.

Are there uncomfortable libertarian politics that threaten to overwhelm the story? Yes. It took me most of a week to read this book, despite it not being very long, because it is on the dry side. Between Manuel, the Prof, and Wyoming, we get enough political theory sandwiched between the action to fill a slim textbook. Regardless, I soldiered on, because I wanted to know where we ended up. After the revolution succeeded, would heads roll?

Similar to his politics, Heinlein’s portrayal of gender roles is dubious at best. Though women like Wyoming, or Manuel’s senior wife, Mimi, are presented as capable and having agency, they are nevertheless always subject to the male gaze. Heinlein explores alternatives to conventional marriage—namely, polyandrous arrangements like the idea of the line marriage Manuel is involved in—and depicts slightly different sexual mores. Yet any credit he might deserve for such things is diminished by the fact that his particular brand of 1960s sexual liberation is little more than a smokescreen for male fantasies of women as sexual objects. Heinlein tries to explain that the imbalance of genders in lunar society means women have the “power” to choose men. In actuality, this means women are always presented in the novel as objects of sexual desire who frustrate or reward men capriciously. I’m trying and failing to come up with a woman character who isn’t defined somehow by a relationship to a man—Hazel comes close, but ultimately gets pigeonholed into being a sexual object for Slim as well as the “mother” figure to the Baker Street Irregulars. But no, there are no women judges, no women politicians, nothing like that.

So, ultimately, Heinlein’s diverting sexual politics here just go to show that, when you get right down to it, you can have all the weird gender stuff you want, but it doesn’t matter if you forget that women are people too. The default in this book is still very much “heterosexual male,” and that’s what makes it problematic.

With these two things in mind, I can see why some don’t enjoy The Moon is a Harsh Mistress at all, and I didn’t enjoy it unreservedly. Rather, I appreciate Heinlein’s artistry and skill at science fiction as a setting and as a vehicle for political storytelling (even if I find the actual politics somewhat strange). There’s a curious mixture of intelligence and romance here, so it’s capable of grabbing at both head and heart. The tension between these two modes, however, results in a story that vacillates most disharmoniously even as it impresses with the scope of its ambition.


by Frank Herbert

Dune  cover image
Trade Paperback, 528 pages
Ace, 1965

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Second review (Reviewed on February 12, 2011).

Dune is a classic because it tells a classic story well. It combines two plots that I love: a vast political intrigue with an intimate family conflict. The Atreides and Harkonnens are related by blood; their feud is a blood feud going back generations. Yet their battles are political in scale, using vassals as soldiers and spies in an interstellar chess game where the throne of the Imperium itself is within reach.

In my first review, which I crafted hastily one day when I added this book to Goodreads, I pontificated on the role of science fiction as a setting rather than a genre. Frank Herbert chose to set Dune far into the future and across the galaxy. There are spaceships, shields, lasguns, and of course, the all-important spice. Yet, I argued, this changes nothing. Dune is not a classic work of science fiction; it is a classic, period.

I stand by this, and while I do not want this review to be a rehash of the first, I want to elaborate further. It has been at least five years since I last read Dune, and I knew going into this reading that I would see it differently, since I'm now an adult, with more experiences and more science-fiction books under my belt. Though nominally science fiction and science fiction and fantasy in its setting, at its heart Dune is an epic, a tragedy reminiscent of ancient Greece and pre-Enlightenment Europe.

House Atreides and House Harkonnen are embroiled in a bitter blood feud, and now that feud seems to be coming to an end in the form of a political gambit by the nefarious Baron Harkonnen that results in the destruction of Duke Leto Atreides, his family, and his new fiefdom on the desert planet of Arrakis. Backed by the Emperor, the Harkonnens seemingly wipe out House Atreides and re-assume control of Arrakis, the only planet known to produce spice. Spice is a panacea known for its geriatric properties, but more importantly, it is the only substance that gives Spacing Guild navigators the prescient visions required to navigate through folded space. Without the spice, interstellar travel would be limited to relativistic speeds. Hence the oft-repeated mantra: whoever controls the spice, controls the universe.

Aside from the occasional mention of sandworms and spaceships and lasguns, this could be set in Tudor England or fifteenth-century France. The Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV does exactly what kings of old used to do; he pits his nobles against each other so they do not succeed in uniting to depose him. His downfall comes from underestimating House Atreides and the Fremen inhabitants of Arrakis who align themselves with the fugitive Atreides scion, Paul, also known to them as Muad'Dib. He becomes a messiah for the Fremen, a dangerous figure indeed, and in so doing discovers he has triggered a revolution he cannot fully control, even with his newfound powers as the Kwisatz Haderach, the culmination of a Bene Gesserit breeding program.

I paid more attention to Paul's role as a messiah this time around. When I was younger, I didn't fully understand the ramifications of this role. (I remember rejecting Dune Messiah the first time I tried to read it because "it seemed to religious"!) Thanks to the two Sci-Fi channel miniseries that rekindled my interest in Dune, these ramifications are much more obvious. They inform the rest of the story, acting as a pivot point around which crucial events revolve. Paul's role as a messiah accords him great influence, great power—but as a role, it also restricts his choices as much as his visions of the future does.

What's amazing is how close Baron Harkonnen comes to winning. Paul might have chosen to live out his days among the Fremen rather than win back his dukedom (and more), but he doesn't. Jessica even urges him to do this at one point, but it is clear the decision is less Paul's than it is the Fremen. They were set upon this path long before the Atreides came to Arrakis, back when Pardot Kynes and his son, Liet, commenced a centuries-long ecological transformation plan. They hate the Harkonnens perhaps as much as Paul does, are eager to raid against the Harkonnen forces, so they wouldn't take "no" as an answer; if Paul were to take the safe course, he would not find acceptance among them. Finally, Paul-Muad'Dib is their messiah, the Lisan al-Gaib. There are prophecies about him, and having demonstrated his authenticity as the messiah, he must fulfil them.

Above all, Paul states several times he rejects the "temptation" to take the safer path. That's how his prescient visions manifest themselves—as potential paths the future could take, always twisting and snarling and reforming as each choice he makes changes that vision. He sees safer routes, but these, he says, lead only to stagnation. These are the routes the Guild navigators take, which has resulted in the Guild morphing into a parasite on the back of the Imperium. Having acquired prescience, Paul sees the potentialities for the human species, and he realizes he has the ability to effect change. But he has to be careful, because to know the future is to become trapped by it, even as one changes it.

I guess I just have a soft spot for tragic heroes. I like watching heroes fall, because it reaffirms their humanity by the very fact that, despite their larger-than-life actions, they are flawed. This is important when it comes to Paul, because as the Kwisatz Haderach, he has become something posthuman, more-than-human. He is colder, slightly more divorced from his surroundings, because he is mediating both the present and the many-futures. It would be a mistaken to say he is disconnected, though, for it is clear he still loves and cares for Chani; rather, he is heavily burdened by his roles and responsibilities. We don't see his actual fall in this book, but the seeds of it are there—as Irulan says, every revolution carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. Herbert foreshadows the trials Paul will face: the uncontrollable storm of revolution; his increasing alienation from those close to him, like Gurney and Stilgar and even his mother; and of course, opposition from external forces, such as the Bene Gesserit and the former Padishah Emperor.

A great hero deserves a correspondingly great villain, and the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen certainly fits this description. He is an intriguing counterpoint to Muad'Dib. Like Paul, the Baron is depicted as somewhat inhuman, but in his case it's because of his obese figure and his profound cruelty. This guy has his nephew murder the entire house seraglio as a punishment for discovering his nephew's crude plot to murder him! He will stop at nothing to get what he wants, and his wants are many, varied, and perverse. His flaws, however, get the better of him. As a result of his overindulgence and his arrogance, the Baron ignores the real threat—the Fremen and their messiah, Muad'Dib—while spending too much time counting all the riches he'll have and plotting to make his nephew emperor. His downfall is as much his own as it is Paul's (or, as the case may be, Alia's).

So Dune has a great hero and a great villain. It also has plenty of morally-ambiguous characters who span the spectrum between. Jessica Atreides and Thufir Hawat fall into this category. Jessica was supposed to bear a daughter for the Bene Gesserit, who would in turn give birth to a Harkonnen son who might become the Kwisatz Haderach. They did not expect her, out of love for Duke Leto, to give birth to a son; they did not expect Paul's latent psychic abilities to come into full force through ingestion of spice. As a result of this act, Jessica irrevocably alters the Imperium. Though she claims she never regrets her decision, it is obvious that she struggles with her role as a Reverend Mother among the Fremen and how she influences Paul's actions. She is torn between being a mother and a Reverend Mother, between her son and her leader, her new duke.

Hawat is captured by the Harkonnens while still labouring under the false impression that Jessica is a traitor. Reluctantly, he works for the Harkonnens while seeking a way to destroy them. In this role as a captive Mentat, we see Hawat become trapped, unable to destroy his new patrons but unwilling to forgive them or abandon his desire for vengeance. His manipulations of the Baron and the Baron's nephew bely his supposedly tamed status, but he has lost some—perhaps even most—of his edge; he is broken, if not beaten.

I'm not sure what else I can say about Dune. It is a classic and a masterpiece because it takes a form and formula that are timeless and lays over this framework complex characters who struggle against each other and the circumstances in which they find themselves. Paul Atreides is a duke's son who becomes a desert fugitive, a reluctant warrior, and the figurehead of a revolution. Surrounding him are friends and family who soon begin to slip away, and enemies who underestimate him even as they plot to destroy his life and all that he holds dear. It's a story we've told time and again, but Herbert puts it in space, throws in some sandworms, and adds a little spice. Consequently, Dune stands on the shoulders of stories that have come before it, attaining its greatness because it is something both recognizable and unique.

First review (When Added to Goodreads, Last Read Pre-Goodreads).

Many people hear the words "science fiction" and run away in terror. They labour under the erroneous idea that science fiction must be some sort of fantastic space opera in which there are laser blasters, warp engines, teleportation, and all that jazz. Thanks in part to Star Wars, Star Trek, and the improvements of the special effects industry, science fiction is reduced that narrow category.

So what is science fiction? Science fiction is a setting, not a story. And no book better demonstrates this than Frank Herbert's Dune. Yes, Dune is set in the future (the distant future). Yes, there are spaceships, other planets (in fact, Earth isn't around any more), and bizarre things like prescience. But once you accept these and move on to the actual story, you'll find that it is an epic, dynastic tale of political intrigue. It's set in the future, but the environment is distinctly feudal. Frank Herbert incorporates a dazzling array of motifs, such as religion, drugs, ecology, rebellion, and prophecy.

Whenever I read Dune, I can't help but think about how big it is. The Dune universe operates on such a magnificence scope that it's hard to believe it came from the mind of one man. The story is timeless, because it is about the human condition: betrayal, love, murder, avarice--all of the characters exhibit the best and the worst of human emotions. In fact, Dune is devoid of alien intelligences. This isn't about humanity versus the Martians. It's about human versus human, one person pitting his or her intelligence against another. It's about the sacrifices necessary to achieve power or save a loved one.

Dune is a classic, a masterpiece of fiction, regardless its genre.

Starship Troopers

by Robert A. Heinlein

Starship Troopers cover image
Mass Market Paperback, 208 pages
Ace, 1959

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

To be completely honest, boot camp was my favourite part of this book. Everything after that seemed like a long denouement until the inevitable final page; boot camp was where the real character development happens. And this is an intensely character-driven book. Some people are critical of it because it lacks a plot, and they're correct on that point. It's not short on conflict, however. The conflict is just very personal. Also, I find Heinlein's descriptions of military disposition and protocol fascinating—more fascinating even than the action, which is probably a good thing, considering how many times Heinlein has Johnnie say something like, "I won't describe this next part. . . ."

Since we acknowledge that this piece is part propaganda and all polemic, making a connection between the narrator and the reader is essential. Heinlein gives Johnnie a voice that does just that. We understand why he's signing up for the Mobile Infantry, why he contemplates dropping out of boot camp, and why he stays in. (Heinlein's choice of writing in the first person was apt, but once or twice it leads to contrived circumstances required for Johnnie to overhear other peoples' conversations.) Above all, Johnnie Rico is fallible: he isn't the super-competent action hero we often see in contemporary military thrillers. In fact, he's just a kid, which is no doubt why this novel appeals to adolescent readers.

Johnnie's experience at boot camp changes him (for the better, we're supposed to believe), moulds him from boy to man. I must admit, Heinlein makes military life seem very appealing in certain respects: discipline, but fair discipline; training; camaraderie, etc. Although he fails to convince me that a militant stance is the necessary one, he has increased my respect and understanding for the military in general. Now, I already respected the military—but only as an abstract concept. Our armed forces have always been "there" in my mind, but I've never had a close connection to them. Heinlein's portrayal of military life (no matter how idealized it is), its structures and its values and its vagaries, gives me newfound admiration for people who elect to become a part of such an organism.

It is an idealized portrayal though. When I first contemplated my review, I was going to laud Starship Troopers for its "realistic" portrayal of soldiering. But then I thought better of it and realized that, while there is some realism here, Heinlein omits quite a bit. Like, all the bad stuff.

Johnnie experiences mild hardship at boot camp, people around him die in training and in combat, and he nearly dies himself in the climactic encounter with the Bugs. Yet he never undergoes a real crisis. He contemplates dropping out once or twice, and his mother dies, but Johnnie doesn't seriously question his convictions. Nor does he face any real challenges to his decision to "go career" and become an officer. Johnnie isn't perfect, and he makes mistakes, but all his mistakes are minor and easy to overlook.

I suppose it's a tribute to Heinlein's skill as a writer that I almost overlooked this flaw in the book. I was so interested in learning what happens to Johnnie that I didn't notice, while reading, that nothing bad happens. A lack of realism does not a bad book make; after all, this is science fiction!

And what's with that, anyway? Some reviewers seem to think that Starship Troopers is unnecessarily science fiction, that one could transpose the protagonist to a contemporary or twentieth-century war setting and tell the same story, with the same themes. Not so. The "starship" in Starship Troopers is integral to this book.

Firstly, Heinlein needs the faceless alien enemy always within grasp of a science fiction narrative. The Bugs are not human and do not even have a recognizably human hierarchy. They are, as their name implies if not their physiognomy, a collective, colony-oriented species, like ants or bees. This is important, because Heinlein needs an enemy with whom we can't sympathize. If Starship Troopers were set in a non-science fiction contemporary Earth, then the enemies would have to be humans. And that would mean having to refute whatever philosophy espoused by the human enemies. The Bug philosophy, if they have one, is irrelevant to the conflict: they're trying to expand into human territory, and humanity is resisting by taking the war to them. Since they lack human motivations, we don't have to stop and question whether their side has a compelling reason for acting as it does.

Secondly, there's something appealing about the "soldier of the future" that Johnnie Rico exemplifies. This may be related to the individualist/"army of one" mentality that [American:] society is prone to endorse. Heinlein embodies this mentality in the novum of the powered suit, which literally turns a single soldier into a walking, talking zone of destruction. When suited up, one becomes "more" of a solider, because the powered suit isn't a vehicle so much as it is an extension of one's own body. One isn't operating a weapon so much as one is the weapon now.

The final, and hopefully obvious, reason is that Heinlein needs the fictitious Terran Federation as an example of his ideal government. No such example exists on contemporary Earth; indeed, it's precisely a situation like this that calls for the "thought experiment" laboratory of science fiction. Starship Troopers isn't meant to be predictive; Heinlein isn't saying that he thinks we'll be battling bugs for real estate in the 22nd century. Instead, the 22nd century is just a convenient setting in which Heinlein can construct the society he needs for his polemic. Regardless of how one feels about the contents of that polemic, Starship Troopers is a wonderful example of what science fiction can accomplish that non-genre fiction would find difficult.

I've been ignoring the actual philosophy belonging to Starship Troopers, because I don't want my opinion of that philosophy to distort my review of the book. You should read this book, even if you don't agree with Heinlein's politics.

The issue of what form of government is best is far from settled. We have, in Canada and the United States, a "total representative democracy," as Heinlein might call it. Everyone theoretically can vote, although in practice our democracy puts limits on franchise—the Federation's limits are just more overt and widely applicable. So already, the prevailing philosophies and Heinlein's philosophy agree that enfranchisement isn't a right so much as a privilege; contemporary democracies just tend to extend the privilege to everyone of a certain age by default.

(My personal view is that a shadow oligarchy is the best form of government in theory; by shadow, I mean that the public shouldn't be aware of the oligarchy's existence. Yes, that means we could have a shadow oligarchy right now and not know about it, although I'm not so paranoid as to actually suggest that. Anyway, there are numerous practical problems with this form of government such that it's probably a very bad idea to implement it in the real world, and it's not really germane to Starship Troopers, so I'll end this aside now.)

You have to give Heinlein credit for not only discussing the problems with his contemporary society but for proposing solutions. There's a trend in non-fiction these days to identify aggressively the "problem" but then hide behind a claim that the book is just "an analysis" and offer no actual solution to the problem. Sometimes the author is a good enough writer to get away with this, and I still enjoy the book. Most often it's just annoying. Heinlein identifies what he sees as problems with his society and says, "This is how we can fix it." Kudos!

Heinlein's idea of limiting franchise to those who have served in the military (or an equivalent service organization) is interesting. I think it makes more sense, in a way, to make such a responsibility voluntary rather than use conscription, such as Switzerland does: if people want to vote, they have to serve, but they aren't required to vote. The resistance Johnnie encounters from the recruiting officer makes it clear that, at least in peacetime, the military is burdened with having to find "make-work" projects for all the people determined to gain citizenship. This isn't exactly an evil fascist enterprise to mould everyone into automatons.

There's a benefit to Heinlein's model that he makes explicitly clear toward the end of the book:

So what difference is there between our voters and wielders of franchise in the past? . . . Under our system every voter and officeholder is a man who has demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage.

There's two key phrases there: voluntary and personal advantage. Conscription might force people to experience a taste of military life, but it removes any element of choice from the equation: everyone has to serve, so how do we determine who wants the responsibilities that come along with service? Also, Heinlein believes that those who have served, on average, value the group over personal gain. We see this in contemporary politics all the time: if one candidate has had military service, he or she may find this an advantage, because it confirms him or her as "patriot," i.e., someone willing to put the safety of the country above his or her personal survival. Don't you want people like that governing your country?

I find Heinlein's argument for limiting franchise intriguing and not as silly as some critics claim. Still, the conscientious objector in me questions whether his harsh approach to justice is necessary. He seems to be making certain assumptions about how rational we are, as human beings and particularly as children, that are worth a deeper investigation than we see here. That is, I wonder if there is a better way to determine who should qualify for franchise than military service.

That isn't a question Starship Troopers tries to answer, which is fine. It still tries to answer questions worth asking. So read the book. And ask them.