The Restoration Game, Ken MacLeod

Posted in books, sf on March 24, 2012 by Matt

Here’s a great newish book from Ken MacLeod, an sf spy thriller with a bit of whizzy deep speculation thrown in at the end. Lucy Stone, an American student in Edinburgh, spent her early years in Krassnia, a little known Soviet statelet wedged in between Georgia and its antagonistic neighbors. She was raised by her mother, who was there ostensibly as an anthropologist studying the region’s ancient legends, but really to meddle in local politics at the behest of some American three-letter agency. As it later transpires, so similarly were her earlier ancestors involved in Krassnian history. The mother first convinces Lucy to get the computer game company where she works to develop a game based on Krassnian legends, then later to return to Krassnia to investigate a mysterious mountaintop accessible only to the descendants of the local aristocratic class. Threaded through it all is a clever series of interconnections with Soviet history and a long but well-executed revelation of Lucy’s family history.

In some of his other books, MacLeod comes across as kind of an Anti-Heinlein, as preachy a socialist as Heinlein was a libertarian and as good a read. Here he uses a familiarity with Russian and Soviet history that one presumes developed at least in part from his politics, but he never bashes the reader over the head with his political beliefs. Lucy is a type of geek-girl who’s becoming very familiar in works by MacLeod and Charles Stross, and very similar to the male geek-heroes of Neal Stephenson and other authors; but maybe every generation (or every sf’nal movement) needs a heroic archetype, and Lucy serves well here.

Overall, an easy book to recommend.

Seetee Ship, Jack Williamson

Posted in sf with tags on December 31, 2010 by Matt

This 1949 novel is one of grandmaster Williamson’s best-known for good reasons.

The story starts with Rick Drake returning home to the asteroid belt after completing his college degree in “spatial engineering”. He hopes to work with his father to develop an antimatter (here called “contra-terrene”, “CT” or “seetee” matter) power source, to break the hold of atomic power monopolist Interplanet Corporation on the Solar System. However, he gets sidetracked, partly by the influence of a beautiful woman within Interplanet, to work for the corporation for a year or two. When he realizes his work is being used to develop weapons instead of energy production equipment, though, he refuses to renew his contract and heads out to work in the family business. From there, things get interesting, as a mysterious antimatter explosion out among the asteroids points to the possibility of new technology for controlling CT matter from a “terrene” world. Rick Drake then must fight the corporation’s suspicions that his father has developed CT technology illegally as all parties race to get the secret of controlling CT.

The book doesn’t miss many golden age tropes: The hero is a hypercompetent, square-jawed engineer. His love interest is a capable corporate executive and heiress. Men can call women “gorgeous” instead of using their names, without irony. All human space colonies are characterized by the stereotyped racial characteristics of the nations that founded them. Politics of the year 2190 reflect the obsessions of 1949. The one break is the character of Paul Anders, balanced between his loyalty to Interplanet and a strong independent morality.

Despite the many cliches, I enjoyed the book because of the engaging story and rapid plot advancement. Even after I spotted the gimmick coming halfway through the book I was able to keep turning the pages to find out how the remaining mysterious details would resolve.

Seetee Ship is a golden age classic, and a very fine story, but if you are easily offended by the prejudices of the past, you won’t find that it transcends its time.

The Atrocity Archives, Charles Stross

Posted in books, sf, Uncategorized with tags on September 25, 2010 by Matt

I’m not sure how to evaluate this book. As a novel, which is what Ken MacLeod’s introduction and Stross’s afterword say it is, it’s a little disappointing. The action  builds up as paranormal secret agent Bob Howard takes his first case on “active service”, making contact with a scientist at UC Santa Cruz, known only as “Mo”, who’d like to return to her native England, but isn’t allowed to by US authorities, or by mysterious kidnappers who attempt to use her as bait in a demon summoning; and it comes to a head back in London when yet more nefarious characters kidnap the beautiful Mo and take her to an airless alternate Earth formerly inhabited by baleful Nazi demonologists, and Bob must join up with a souped-up occult military unit to rescue her. With that accomplished, everyone gets a pat on the back and heads to the pub for the beer — story over. Except we’re only two-thirds through. In the final third of the book, Bob’s troublesome ex-girlfriend Mhari disappears without a trace, and he heads off on another adventure, this time to thwart an evil plot to turn all the surveillance cameras in Britain into deadly weapons.

So what this really felt like, was three novellas (novellettes? I can’t keep those straight) stitched together to make a salable volume. A few clues on the cover and title page that The Atrocity Archive, the first 2/3 of the book, were previously released as a self-contained novel in about 2001, and that the final 1/3 was a Hugo-winning short story from 2005, completely passed me by before I read the book. As two (or three) short pieces, the book would have worked well. There’s Stross’s characteristic humor, his harassed protagonists, a tidy wrap up to each story, and always room to expand the setting with more files from the “atrocity archive”. Its good reading, but the confusing marketing made me expect a single novel and gave me wrong expectations.

Desolation Road, Ian McDonald

Posted in books, sf with tags on August 3, 2010 by Matt

I was looking for McDonald’s more recent books at the used book store, when I found this. I wasn’t even sure this was the same Ian McDonald, given the book is more than 20 years old. But, it turns out Desolation Road was the much-acclaimed first novel of the same Ian McDonald who’s recently made waves with Brasyl and the story collection Cyberabad Days.

The book at hand is an episodic novel, told in a magical-realist style, about the development of a tiny outpost in the Martian desert into an industrial city where events change the world, and which is finally destroyed by threads woven into its fabric at its founding.

Wikepedia seems to think that any comparison to Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles is unrelated to style, but I don’t think a comparison can be avoided. The first half, at least, of Desolation Road, is episodic in structure, much like Bradbury’s book, which was a stitch-up of a series of short stories. Both bring a literary sensibility (Bradbury being maybe most heavily influenced by Ring Lardner,  McDonald by Gabriel Garcia Marquez) to a science fiction story. Most importantly, both present characters as people, with much the same motivations and flaws as people on Earth today, living in a science fiction setting — which in both cases happens to be Mars.

Of course, the comparison has to end somewhere. McDonald didn’t have the chance to rework material he’d been away from for a while, and a few unpolished edges show — spots where a roughly chosen word sticks out and breaks the flow of the story. These rough edges are not the same as the places where McDonald occasionally, deliberately and effectively, I think, uses a crude word or brutal event to make a jarring (or eye-opening) departure from the overall elegiac tone. Finally, after its episodic beginning, McDonald’s novel follows more direct plot threads than Bradbury’s, and eventually builds up to a climactic battle scene more in the mode of off-the-rack SF.

I haven’t read any of Garcia Marquez’s works, so I can’t say whether McDonald was influenced by the magical realist style leader, or simply reproduced his style wholesale. In any case, its said that true art is made by stealing from the best. With that in mind, the story might well be compared with Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, often described as a pastiche of John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy. However strong their influences, both novels bring fresh literary currents into the science fiction genre.

With only minor flaws, and with a lot of new ideas to ponder, Desolation Road is a fantastic story that deserves a place in the highest reaches of the SF firmament.

Merchanter’s Luck, C. J. Cherryh

Posted in books, sf with tags on July 11, 2010 by Matt

This is the second of Cherryh’s Company Wars novels by publication date (sez Wikipedia), and it worked out well as the second of Cherryh’s books I’ve read—as I mentioned in reviewing Downbelow Station, the sheer volume of her work had put me off reading her for a long time. This story is somewhat narrower in scope than the first one, focusing on just a couple of characters, though they do get involved in what could become a significant tide in their universe’s history.

Sandor Kraja is youngish, but has been operating his own merchant space vessel nearly solo for years. His merchant family were slaughtered by pirates when he was very young, and then the other two survivors, one being his older brother, died over the years in the accidents that ocurred due to running their ship so short-handed. He’s just scraping by, barely able to keep ahead of his creditors and various authorities, he and his ship going under assumed names, when he meets Allison Reilly, an up-and-coming crewwoman on an important, and wealthy, merchant ship.

Allison’s ship is about to get involved in re-opening trade ties between Alliance and Union space, and re-opening long-abandoned intermediary stations between Earth and Pell (Downbelow). Kraja foolhardily follows the Dublin Again across the lines to Pell, where he and Allison become minor figures in the developments taking shape.

Despite the larger forces pulling the characters along, the real plot is largely character-driven, with the main conflict set up by the main character’s mutual inability to trust each other, despite their mutually compatible goals. Sandor Kreja can’t break out of his habits of isolation and self-reliance, or reveal certain self-perceived weaknesses, while the Dublin characters can’t know whether he is the honest merchant he says he is, or if he’s a pirate himself, who may have even killed to obtain his vessel. Even compared to Downbelow Station, there’s little overt action in the book before the climax, but still there is plot movement throughout.

Compelling characters, dramatic conflicts, and a fast pace make this an excellent book.

Transition, Iain M. Banks

Posted in books, sf with tags on June 19, 2010 by Matt

This is the latest from Iain “[M]” Banks, but already a year old. It’s a relatively simple romp through a multiverse where every action creates a fork between universes, and only a few elite, controlled by a shadowy organization called The Concern, are able to move among them. I wasn’t bored by the whole thing like Adam Roberts at Strange Horizons. I don’t mind that the basic multiverse concept has already been explored by (many) other writers. Even if a setting is already well-known, there can still be room in it to tell a good story.

Continue reading

Crystal Rain, Tobias S. Buckell

Posted in books, sf with tags on June 8, 2010 by Matt

I was maybe expecting too much from this book, due to the name Tobias Buckell has developed for himself with his strong online presence, and numerous kudos and name drops given him by other authors in the blogosphere.

The premise of his first novel is that a small group of refugee humans have stranded themselves on an isolated world to avoid the attention of more powerful spacefaring species. Unfortunately, a few dozen of the antagonistic aliens managed to end up on the planet with them when the worm-holes that linked it to the rest of the galaxy were destroyed. Two different alien species each have more or less control over a different human community. The Teotl rule a nation called the Azteca with an iron fist, or rather with bloody talons. The Loa, on the other hand, have a much more complex relationship with the Caribbean-islander descended Nanagadans in their orbit.

The choice of non-European background for the human settler groups adds flavor to the story, but doesn’t really seem to do much to drive the plot. The main actors in the conflict are not Nanagadans, but outsiders, space men with mysterious pasts. The Nanagadan prime minister, Diana, is the most sympathetic character, and it might have strengthened the story for her to have gotten a stronger role in solving the crisis. The Nanagadan military commander, Haidan, and an Azteca spy, Oaxytl, are also intersesting characters, but again don’t really have enough influence on events to make the story their own.

On the other hand, the writing is solid, the characters are well-developed, and the story keeps moving at all times. Even with a few quibbles about how much of the story is given over to its Caribbean characters, the book is still a solid, enjoyable, and readable adventure novel with a novel cultural twist.