Archive for August, 2009

Bellwether, Connie Willis

Posted in books, sf with tags on August 30, 2009 by Matt

Although Wikipedia claims that Willis is planning a new two-volume novel to be released net year, the bulk of her novel output so far came in the ’90’s. This 1996 novel fits right in with Willis’ others from that time. Like Doomsday Book (1992) and To Say Nothing of the Dog (1998), Bellwether revolves around a scientist who must deal with the people around her making ludicrous and irrelevant demands to solve a scientific puzzle, and eventually find romance with a similarly harried scientist of the opposite sex.

Unlike the other two novels I mentioned, there’s no time travel involved in Bellwether; in fact the science in this story is practically mundane. Dr. Sandra Foster studies the social development of fads, and Bennett O’Reilly studies monkey behavior using chaos theory. Willis misses a beat by not noticing that chaos theory itself had all the signs of being a fad in the scientific world. She also missed out on another major rising trend of the time in sf’s awareness of the scientific world by not connecting fads with memes (it looks like she was familiar with and writing about the memetics idea, but she never uses the word meme).

There’s no really wrong steps here, but even though this story follows a lot of the same themes, the gray realism of the science in this story takes away some of the snap of the time travel stories. For readers who know Willis and like her work, or enjoy realistic stories about the scientific process, this is well worth reading. For readers who are new to Willis, Doomsday Book would be a better starting place.

Halting State, Charles Stross

Posted in books, sf on August 25, 2009 by Matt

This is Stross’ 2007 SF mystery novel set in near-future Edinburgh. The opening crime is a bank heist in a swords & sorcery virtual reality game, with potential major repercussions in the real world. Soon those repercussions ripple outward and missing persons, murders, and international espionage get pulled into the story.

The most obvious stylistic gimmick to the book is that it’s written in the second person. You do this. You said that. Mostly, the “you’s” faded into the background, and I was able to sink into the story without thinking about them. But occasionally I found them jarring and annoying. It doesn’t feel like the second person narrative added anything to the story that wouldn’t have been there if it was written in the more usual first or third person, so overall I’d call the style choice an interesting but unsuccessful experiment from Stross.

For Stross, this story is set in the very near future. People go around wearing virtual reality headgear, but otherwise we’re basically looking at today’s technological landscape. The initial VR bank robbery setup is probably not so far away in the real world, something I’d expect to see within 2 or 3 years, really. The more unlikely technology, I’d think, is the possibility of interconnecting online game worlds. In the story, players regularly transfer their online personae, complete with loot and magic plot coupons (vorpal swords, rings of invisibility, … whatever) between online games. I’d expect this to break down as soon as one game company built at “Monty Hall” game where characters (for a fee paid in real money) could load up on power items, and then take them back to their other games to whoop ass on the competition.

Aside fr0m the practically contemporary setting, the story is very much on Stross’ home ground. There’s major story events in virtual reality, quick action, nonstop plot developments. The p.o.v. characters are all interesting and believable. Unlike other authors in Stross’s thematic and stylistic neighborhood (Neal Stephenson, I’m looking at you), Stross hasn’t succumbed to the temptation to bulk up each successive novel until they become unreadably long. Keeping the page count reasonable makes it much easier for me to pick up a book, knowing I’m going to be able to finish it in good time and move on to the next thing on my reading list.

In case these couple of quibbles make you think I didn’t like the book, you shouldn’t. Stross delivers a really entertaining novel, as I ‘ve come to expect from him. This was an enjoyable and quick read is just the kind of thing that keeps Stross at the top of my list of “read on sight” authors.

The Long Day Wanes, Anthony Burgess

Posted in books on August 19, 2009 by Matt

I picked this up because Burgess is on my list of well-respected “literary” SF writers who I haven’t read. Of course, Burgess didn’t even write much SF, and this certainly isn’t. The Long Day Wanes is an omnibus of Burgess’ “Malayan trilogy”, Time for a Tiger, The Enemy in the Blanket, and Beds in the East. The trilogy follows Victor Crabbe, an expatriate educator in the late days of British rule in what was then Malaya (now Malaysia). Crabbe initially is seen suffering from guilt at the death of his first wife, and unable to maintain a relationship with his second wife. He deals with the beaurocracy of colonial government and with the incipient ethnic conflict of a soon-to-be-independent multi-ethnic country.

While Wikipedia compares Burgess to Kipling and Orwell, I found a better comparison might be Evelyn Waugh. Like Waugh, Burgess writes with a good chunk of satirical humor at the expense of various typical characters, and both authors wrote on the theme of the declining importance of Britain (and the British) on the world stage. Like Waugh in, for example, A Handful of Dust, Burgess ends with a surprising and pathetic twist to the story.

The Long Day Wanes was not just a collection of three novels, but also holds together well as a whole. The character sketches are the highlight, but its also interesting as a historical portrait of the end of pre-independence Malaya, and of British colonial society.

The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Ursula K. LeGuin

Posted in books, sf, short story collections with tags on August 2, 2009 by Matt

The Wind’s Twelve Quarters collects 17 of Le Guin‘s stories originally published in the ’60’s and early ’70’s. In a foreward, Le Guin describes the book as a “retrospective” collection. Even though we now know she had more than 30 years of writing still ahead of her, the description is apt as the stories show significant developments in her style between the earlier and later ones.

Le Guin’s first sale, “April in Paris”, is here, for example. It’s a somewhat run-of-the-mill time travel story that will certainly be remembered as a competent first sale, and not as a display of all of Le Guin’s eventual talents . Other early stories such as “Darkness box” and “The word of unbinding” are written in a stilted, archaic voice that detracts from the stories themselves. In “Semley’s necklace”, apparently one of the earliest Ekumen stories, the stilted language is distracting, but does have its use in distinguishing the local culture of a somewhat backward planet from that of the galaxy at large.

In later stories, though, the stilted language is somewhat smoothed out, and the themes become more abstract, leading to stories with nearly poetical qualities. “The stars below” and “The ones who walk away from Omelas” are probably the best examples of this development.

Overall its an enjoyable collection, showing the early stories in Le Guin’s two main sequences (Ekumen and Earthsea) as well as the development of Le Guin’s style in her first decade of publishing.