Book Review: 2312 By Kim Stanley Robinson

Any avid reader knows that good books come in many forms.  Some are fast, accessible, satisfying stories that demand little from the reader yet present exciting adventures and creative new ideas.  Many SF writers are masters of this form, including (but not at all limited to) Spider Robinson, Richard Morgan and hundreds of others.  I love reading their books when riding the bus, flying or otherwise wanting an excellent novel that doesn’t make me work too hard.  Other writers are masters of the sprawling story full of overlapping complex ideas that demand the reader slow down, pay close attention and absorb every detail.  I am convinced Kim Stanley Robinson fits well within the latter category, and when I undertake to read one of his books I know that my work is cut out for me – and that my work will be paid off beautifully.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson is a brilliant, thought-provoking novel of humanity’s near future.  His commitment to plausibility and realism combine with a thorough consideration of the dramatic changes that our species is creating combines with some very likely problems we will face because of, and with, our growing technological prowess.  At the same time Robinson manages to create very real characters with whom it is easy to empathize and even worry about.  Swan er Hong’s rebelliousness and Wahram’s dogged stolidity are wholly realized and enjoyable to observe as they navigate the challenges of their era.

The novel’s main weakness is in its slow pacing, which I suspect was a deliberate choice by the author.  It stands to reason that a story told through the perspectives of people well into their second centuries is not going to have a sense of frantic urgency.  Even when they respond to genuine emergencies, it is with a pragmatism that would only grow with experience and age.  Robinson has done a masterful job of presenting believable characters who have lived a lot, yet are not remotely feeling or approaching ‘old’.  Nowhere is this more clear than in the gradual evolution of a very believable love interest between two of the characters, over the course of many years.

2312 is a well worth the read.  It is definitely what I call a bedside table book, meant to be enjoyed slowly, over many readings.  When I pick up a Kim Stanley Robinson novel I know that I am starting a large project, but that I will like the result.  I highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys serious science fiction.

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Book Review: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Robopocalypse is a near future apocalyptic story written in the form of transcripts and summaries of a variety of key events in a “War with the Robots”.  The concept of an advanced AI choosing to rebel and turning our machines against us is not new (see The Terminator), but the story was exciting and enjoyable to read.

There are a great many similarities in structure and execution to another bestselling apocalyptic SF novel, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which I reviewed here.  Both novels take the form of after-the-fact descriptions of events as related (mostly) by survivors.  Both follow a similar story arc, taking us through the initial chaos and panic through the humans regrouping, finding ways to survive, and ultimately triumphing over their adversaries.

Robopocalypse is a darkly depressing novel, portraying our current technological trend toward wholly integrated computing and ubiquitous technology as a massive risk.  Genuinely sentient AI seems possible (if unlikely)even now, and like any sentient being it would be almost impossible to completely predict its actions and choices.

The main character and primary narrator of the book, a Sgt. Cormac Macarthy, relates his own experiences as well as those of a few key other individuals.  His insights into events outside his own experiences are provided by a robot record of the war, which the AI had made a point of preserving.  Most of the stories are compelling, though the story does stretch credibility in some events, as might be expected in an apocalyptic SF novel.

Robopocalypse is currently a strong seller, which is not surprising given the current trend towards apocalypse in fiction and the public zeitgeist.  This book is definitely worth a read, and I encourage anyone with an interest in current SF to try it out.  That said, the novel does not break any new ground, and does not explore new ideas in the manner of the SF greats.

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Locus Award SF Novel Winners

The Locus Awards were announced last week.  I have been looking forward to reading Rule 34 and Embassytown for awhile now, and I am going to make a point of reading the rest.  In the Science Fiction novel category the winners were as follows:

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The rest of the Locus Award winners can be found at Locus Online.

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Classic Science Fiction: The Gripping Hand

In my continuing expedition through the great SF novels of the last 100 years, I recently read The Gripping Hand by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, a sequel to The Mote in God’s Eye. The authors waited 17 years between publishing the two novels (both of which were excellent for very specific reasons.  I reviewed the first novel in a previous post.

The Gripping Hand was an excellent novel for its vivid portrayal of the friction between two very different species, the Empire of Man and the Civilization of the Mote (‘Moties’).  The novel picks up 25 years after the events of the first book, in which the Empire opts to blockade the Moties into their own system rather than risk being overrun.  Events conspire to make a blockade impossible, and the Moties and Humans must come to terms in some way.  The evolution of this relationship, and the conflict within the Motie civilization and with the humans form the core of the novel.

In my review of the first novel I qualified my enthusiasm by noting the anachronistic social mores and gender relationships of the 35th century human culture.  The Moties were a brilliant exploration of what a truly alien species might be like.  However, at a glance, the Navy appeared grounded somewhere in the mid 18th century, a milieu in which Aubrey and Maturin would have felt completely at home. The gender relationships and ideas were pure idealized 1950s American. It was hard to get past the absurd social interactions between the human men and the single woman in the novel, with everyone getting embarrassed at the slightest hint of impropriety.  The cultural stereotypes were powerfully rooted in the mid-20th century as well (a loyal Irish Marine Sergeant with a knack for brewing whiskey, the Scottish Naval Engineer with the impenetrable brogue, the treacherous Levantine trader).

I was pleasantly surprised to note that the authors had been paying attention to social events in North America.  The Navy of the Empire now had female officers, the young women were prone to making their own decisions without it being ‘shocking’, and the culture had evolved significantly to allow for these developments (much like our own in the intervening years).  Even the treacherous Levantine appeared in a much more sympathetic light, and he was one of the main heroes of the novel.

In all, The Gripping Hand was an excellent classic of Science Fiction, and any true fan of the genre should make a point of the reading both novels.

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Classics of Science Fiction: The Mote In God’s Eye

I just finished reading one of the all-time science fiction classic novels. The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle is an imaginative leap into the far, space operatic future where humans have their first encounters with another sentient species.  The humans are members of an anachronistic Imperial Navy, sent to make contact with the new species and assess if they are a threat.  The aliens (“Moties”) are an intelligent, highly technological species that has many problems of their own.  Each side has large and potentially dangerous misconceptions about the other, and the central plot of the book focuses on the secrets and problems that arise.

Chris Doll’s “MacArthur” scratchbuilt model

The book primarily follows the human characters, with a focus on Captain Rod Blaine, an aristocrat who is in command of the primary contact ship (The `MacArthur`).  Many of the secondary characters matter, but Blaine is the prime decision maker both on the ship and later in a more elevated role.

The motivations of the Moties are the prime Macguffin of the story.  Are they truly benign and friendly?  Do they merely wish to escape their system and open trading routes, or do they have more dangerous intentions? The authors’ conception of the Moties actually held up more with time than his portrayal of the human characters.

Like all science fiction, most of the events reflect ideas and conceptions at the date of publication more than anything in the future.  Published in the early 1970s, the characters reflect many assumptions of the time.  As a prime example, consider that there were no women on the warships with the exception of one perky young aristocrat who sought to ‘make her own way’ before finding a man.

Sexual mores were firmly grounded in early 1950s America, and class relationships grounded somewhere in Napoleonic Europe.  There was only one non-European character of note, and he was a sneaky businessman and a traitor to the Empire.  Everyone was deeply religious, and the perspective of the Church (quasi-Catholic) was important and of significant concern, more so that it is even now.

Such characterizations even now seem quaint, though the authors did insert some future-historical justification for such anachronistic social structures.  It is hard now, in our accelerating-change-as-norm existence to imagine any such throwback ideas gaining traction in the distant future.

On the other hand, the Moties were a fascinating exploration of what a wholly different alien species might be like, how they might think and act.  Their society was deep in an eons old cycle of civilization alternating with chaos and barbarism, driven largely by population pressures far beyond those experienced by humans.  Every aspect of their interactions with each other and with the humans was informed by the knowledge of an impending cyclical collapse.  Their whole cultural groupthink made the assumption that anyone who made serious efforts to prevent the cycle was ‘Crazy Eddie’ and therefore insane.

It took me awhile to get past the mid-20th century American cultural assumptions that dominated the entire novel, but at its root The Mote in God’s Eye is a brilliant, creative novel about the moral quandaries that would face anyone who meets a new group of sentient creatures.  We humans have not historically been very good at meeting new human cultures, and while I hope for the best, I suspect we will do worse with aliens.

I strongly recommend any Science Fiction fan read this book, as one of the must-read classics of the 20th century.

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Art Book: Manchu Starship(s)

MANCHU STARSHIPS: I recently bought this book for a friend, and now I am a little jealous and want one of my own.  Manchu’s art has a creative, adventurous feel to it that draws you into the imagery and has you wondering about the story behind the image.  The art has a definite space opera style to it, and is well worth a good look.

I came across some of his work over at We Waste Time.

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Book Review: World War Z

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks, might be seen as one of the next logical steps in the current boom of fiction and film about zombies.  The book is written as a series of interviews with survivors of a global zombie apocalypse , taking us from the initial outbreak through the ‘Great Panic’ and ultimately through the gradual retaking of the world by the living.  The narrator’s voice is minimal, and the book reads as a series of oral histories.

Image from Aevin on flickr, CC licensed.

None of the characters have a major role in the story, and while a few appear repeatedly, many only have a single story to tell.  The author does a masterful job of weaving together all the individual stories into an overarching tale of apocalypse that is both gripping, exciting and utterly horrifying.  There are no Hollywood archetypal zombie killers, but rather a collection of very believable individuals trying to stay alive in the face of horror.

I enjoyed the book immensely, despite my growing weariness with the current zombie madness.  The bleakness of a zombie apocalypse story seems to have strong mass appeal in the current zeitgeist, as many of our closely held assumptions of security and comfort are crumbling.

The best of the book was the gripping, terrifying retelling of individual survival in the Great Panic.  The author did an excellent job of portraying the moments when each person realized the extent of what was happening, and the sheer chaos and horror around them.  He also did an excellent job of actually coming up with a way that people and states might survive such an apocalypse.

The book did have a few characters that were a distorted reflection of contemporary political leaders and celebrities, a touch that was sometimes gratifying and often a little annoying.  One of my least favourite parts included the collapse of a celebrity fortress, a bit that seemed somehow petty and beside the point of the story.  Your mileage may vary of course, as I tend to find anything that involves pointless celebrities annoying.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good, scary thought experiment.  What would you do in the face of a true apocalyptic disaster?  I suspect I would be one of the first to be eaten, but perhaps I would rise to the occasion in the same way as many of the characters in World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.  If you like a good zombie story, and you have not yet succumbed to zombie exhaustion, then this might be the best book you will find for the purpose.

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SF Trilogy Roundup: China Miéville’s Bas-Lag Trilogy

One of the joys of being a reader is discovering authors or books that have been around awhile yet are new to you. When this happens it is like discovering a whole new shelf of books that you want to read, without having to wait for the author to produce something new. We at Rocket Pajamas are, in point of fact, small-time and not on the lists of any publishers for advance reviews of new books. And so, here begins our first of many book reviews of long-completed novels and other works. With luck, you will discover new authors and books. At the least, you will be able to revisit some cherished reads.

Science Fiction and Fantasy produce quite a few trilogies, a happy fact that allows stories and worlds to achieve a depth and richness that is much more difficult in a stand alone novel.  Some trilogies follow a linear path, merely telling a very long story divided into three discrete books, while others present widely disparate stories that connect to a central theme or realized world.

Of course there exist SF series that extend far beyond a mere trilogy, but in my opinion the books tend to become formulaic and repetitive.  Few ideas are so fantastic or exciting as to stay fresh through five or ten full-length novels.  The classic example of this problem is found in the seemingly endless Dune novels.  While I have certainly worked my way through the occasional extended series, I am usually losing interest long before the end.

In this first installment of what will be a series of discussions of SF trilogies, I will talk about China Miéville’s brutal, breathtaking and dark Bas-Lag Series.  This is one of those speculative fiction works that straddles the indefinable line between science fiction and fantasy, presenting a Victorian-era industrialized world in which magic is a science in itself.  Given that much of our current technology would be seen as pure magic by a 19th century scientist, one is left wondering how much of the magic in the novels is in fact technology warped to fit the culture and norms of the society of Bas-Lag.

Perdido Street Station is the first novel, which introduces us to Bas-Lag and it’s grimy, dark and turbulent city of New Crobuzon.  This is a brilliant novel that hits you like a kick in the teeth, full of class conflict, urban tension, twisted science and alchemical intrigue.  It is impossible to get the city out of your head once you have read it.

The class tension and paranoia is palpable in every page of the novel.  The streets are seedy, dangerous, diverse and rife with tension.  The main characters find themselves hunted by the secret police while themselves trying to destroy a monstrous group of moths that feed on the dreams of sentients.

The novel asks far more questions than it answers and serves as an intoxicating introduction to the world of Bas-Lag.  It is hard not to appreciate the mind that presents us the horrors of the ReMade, people who have been mutilated into steampunk cyborgs as punishment for crimes minor and major.  It is also easy to see New Crobuzon as a distorted reflection of our own world’s class and racial tensions.  Truly a brilliant novel.

The Scar

The Scar was my first Miéville novel, and I had no idea what I was in for when I began.  Any avid reader can appreciate the happy feeling when you read a book that you really enjoy, then discover that the writer has a decent back catalogue for you to explore while you wait for a new novel.  This was my experience with The Scar.  The protagonist is only incidentally related to the characters in Perdido Street Station, but such is the repression in the aftermath of the first novel that she must flee the city and ends up captured by a floating pirate city. Brilliant, thrilling and full of wholly unexpected twists in the story.

Iron Council is a dark and angry class battle with parallel stories between a near mythical rebel train construction gang whose uprising inspires class tensions in New Crobuzon, and an open class war in the city. The steampunkish theme gives the conflict and tension a gritty, urgent feel where one can’t help but root for the rebels.

China Miéville has written a number of other excellent books, notably The City & The City, but the Bas Lag trilogy was my introduction and I recommend it highly to anyone who has never had the pleasure of his writing.

 

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