Friday, February 12, 2010

Recent Reading Roundup 24

I've been posting these less often because most of my reading has either been for reviews or has ended up in longer posts, but I've finally worked up enough of a backlog to make up a post.
  1. Scar Night by Alan Campbell - the first in the Deepgate Codex trilogy (followed by Iron Angel and God of Clocks), Scar Night is busy, complicated, and unrelenting.  This is quite a bit of fun for a couple hundred pages, as Campbell doles out more and more bits of information about his fantasy city and fantastically complicated premise.  A crumbling empire, Deepgate hangs by ancient, allegedly indestructible chains above a chasm that allegedly contains hell itself, and is ruled by an ancient religious order dedicated to providing the dead, whose bodies are tossed into the chasm, a way of navigating to salvation, in pursuit of which goal it rules the city with an iron fist.  There's a lot of blood, gore and destruction involved--in the wars between Deepgate's rulers and the rebellious colonized tribes that pay it tribute, in the pursuit of a serial killer (a fallen, or rather risen, angel), and in several quests for vengeance that give the novel its (rather floppy) shape.  Campbell does a good line in all of these, and if nothing else Scar Night is enjoyably and unapologetically over the top, but the sturm und drang start to become a bit wearying well before the novel's 550 pages are up, and other than them there's not much here to hold onto.

    Scar Night suffers from a very bad case of main characters I couldn't care less about, minor characters I really enjoyed but who either got very little screen time or were killed off unceremoniously.  The two leads are Dill, the last scion of a line of angels who are at the center of the Deepgate church's religious ritual, and Rachel, his bodyguard.  Dill starts out as the hapless, wimpy heir to a warrior throne, a familiar fantasy trope, and it's to Campbell's credit that he doesn't go down the obvious route and end the novel with him as a hero, but neither does he do much else with him--Dill's purpose seems mainly to be an easily-threatened plot token whom Rachel can obsess about protecting, which begs the question why Rachel, who is criminally underexplored, wasn't made the novel's main character to begin with.  Some of the villains--mainly Carnival, the fallen angel-slash-serial killer--are fun, though perhaps a bit more fun than they ought to be, but others--mainly Mr. Nettle, a bruiser looking for vengeance for the death of his daughter--feel a bit more like plot devices than characters.  The one character I really liked was the church official Fogwill, who alone among the cast seemed to be planning ahead, thinking around corners, and trying to understand the events slowly bringing Deepgate closer to destruction, so naturally he's killed off-page 2/3 of the way into the book, leaving us with either villains or completely reactive characters to root for.  Despite its imaginative setting and the near-gothic grandeur of its set pieces, this absence of interesting characters flattened Scar Night for me, and I doubt I'll be looking into its sequels. 

  2. Shelter by Susan Palwick - Palwick's novel starts off slow and then picks up, ending up a twisted and satisfying family saga in a fully-realized future world that put me very much in mind of David Marusek's Counting Heads.  Like Marusek's novel, the pleasure of Shelter is in the way it describes a livable future--wonderful in some ways, appalling in others, but still a world in which people can live, recognizable but altered both by new uses of technology and, which seems far more important to Palwick, by new assumptions about morality, civility, and the difference between right and wrong.  Unfortunately, my experience of reading Shelter was very nearly scuttled by a fundamental mismatch between the assumptions Palwick wanted me to accept about her world and my take on it.  The novel centers around two women, Meredith and Roberta, who cross paths when they're both quarantined while sick with a super-flu (which claims the lives of Roberta's parents and Meredith's father) and whose lives continue to shadow one another's until they collide when Roberta becomes the teacher, alongside an AI named Fred, at an experimental nursery school designed by Meredith's husband and attended by her son Nicholas.  Together, Roberta and Fred figure out what Meredith already knows, that Nicholas is demonstrating nascent psychopathic tendencies, and that if the authorities catch wind of this he'll be mind-wiped.

    Leaving aside the question of whether I believe in an otherwise functional and allegedly free society that would perform such a procedure on a child against the wishes of its parents (and which apparently imposes the same punishment on people diagnosed with 'excessive altruism') the simple fact remains that the bulk of Shelter seems to operate under the assumption that I will sympathize with Roberta, Meredith, and Fred's efforts protect Nicholas--who is described as incurably damaged, piteously terrified of his own dark urges, and already quite dangerous--from the only treatment that might give him a chance at a normal life, despite the fact that the novel itself ultimately concludes that mind-wiping was the best thing for him.  Even worse than that is the way the novel seems to revolve around Meredith--whose selfish and unthinking determination to hold on to Nicholas ends up costing Roberta and Fred years of their lives and even leads indirectly to a man's death--and concludes with a touching scene in which all the other characters urge her to forgive herself.  As I said, Shelter works because it is a twisted family saga, and the characters' dysfunction and unlikability is at least partially excusable on those grounds--certainly by the end of the novel I found myself caught up in their soapy shenanigans--but I can't help but feel that Palwick expects me to root for the wrong people and the wrong conclusions.  I didn't want Meredith to forgive herself (or rather I did, but only because her shame spirals inevitably hurt other, blameless people much more than they hurt herself) and I wanted better for Roberta than to be caught up in Meredith's family drama.  The ultimate mismatch between myself and Palwick was that she ended the novel on both of these notes, and seemed to think that she'd delivered a happy ending.

  3. The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan - Morgan shot very near the top of my list of genre authors to watch with the Clarke-winning Black Man, and then decided to take a much-publicized left-turn into fantasy with this novel, about which two things were widely known for quite some time before it was even published--that the protagonist is gay, and that Morgan intended to blow the lid off the epic fantasy genre.  As far as delivering on those promises, The Steel Remains scores, respectively, a hit and a miss.  The protagonist (actually, the most dominant of three), Ringil, is indeed gay (though I have to say I'm surprised by the complaints that gay sex is so prominent in the novel, as there is actually a lot less gay sex in The Steel Remains than there was straight sex in Black Man or indeed Altered Carbon, whose middle segment is essentially one long sex scene punctuated by some dialogue and a few scenery changes), and what worked best for me about The Steel Remains was the way Morgan envisioned a fantasy setting in which, refreshingly, everyone is not totally cool with homosexuality, and Ringil has to develop multiple coping strategies to reactions to his sexuality that range from polite disdain to inquisition-style persecution by religious authorities, strategies that sometimes involve threatening to chop someone's head off with his huge sword (yes, really) and sometimes just chopping that head off without bothering to threaten.  It's not terribly subtle, and as Adam Roberts notes there's something terribly 80s about both the way that Morgan fashions Ringil's out-and-proud gayness and the way he builds the world around Ringil in general (which may account for some of my disconnect from the novel, as between age and geography I experienced the 80s Roberts describes only through works of fiction), but as usual one can't help but admire Morgan's audacity.

    Less successful is The Steel Remains's send-up of epic fantasy conventions, and when I say less successful what I mean is that I'm not even entirely certain what Morgan was trying to do.  The Tolkienian analogues in Morgan's fantasy world (which turns out to be an SFnal world seen through uncomprehending eyes--both the elf and dwarf analogues in the novel are aliens, and their magic is misunderstood technology) are unmissable, and at times it seems that Morgan is going for a straight-up reversal of Tolkien's moral universe--the villains of The Steel Remains are the elf-analogues.  At other times he seems simply to be sending Tolkien up--after all, a half-human, half-dwarf woman who has been left behind in the human world by her people as they returned to their ancestral home, and whose name is Archeth Indamananinarmal, can't be anything but a gag, right?  The problem is that both of these elements have been done so many times, and done better (most notably by the last fantasy writer to deliberately and volubly take a public stand against Tolkien, China Miéville), and that the epic fantasy field itself has so clearly moved on from all the elements that Morgan is either subverting or parodying, that both the subversion and the parody come to seem like very weak sauce.  The Steel Remains is, in the best Morgan tradition, an enjoyable, high-octane adventure, but it's hard not to feel that it would have been a stronger and more interesting novel had Morgan been less determined to slaughter cows which very few people still consider to be holy.

  4. Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett - As I've mentioned on more than one occasion, I continue to read Pratchett mainly out of nostalgia and fondness.  His later Discworld novels have a sort of sameness about them that at some point, I suspect, will render the actual act of reading them redundant.  Unseen Academicals had two additional strikes against it for being not only an X Comes to Ankh-Morpork novel (the X in this case being football as a professional sport)--a format which has informed most of the later Discworld novels--but an Unseen University novel, which generally number among the series's less successful outings.  Though it's not quite possible for me to say that Unseen Academicals subverted these low expectations--the plot was indeed predictable, the wizards of Unseen University still trapped in their Oxbridge-parody roles (though I was pleasantly surprised by the novel's treatment of Ponder Stibbons, who finally gets to graduate from callow junior staff member to a harassed, but surprisingly on the ball, middle aged middle manager)--but there are some interesting elements in it, and a sharpness I haven't seen in a Discworld novel in quite some time.

    Unseen Academicals plays more directly with questions of class than most recent Discworld novels, particularly through a new character, Glenda, who spends the novel realizing, on the one hand, how much of her lower class upbringing was designed to keep her in her place and to shut down any attempt to get out of her old neighborhood, and on the other hand resenting attempts by the city's rulers to take that neighborhood's customs and traditions and 'improve' them by, for example, turning football from a violent, tribal street sport into something codified.  To be fair, Pratchett stacks the deck quite heavily in favor of upward mobility, and somewhat scuttles the more nuanced questions of class that underlie his premise, but it's still a more ambiguous statement on the subject than I'm used to seeing from a Discworld novel.  Even more exciting is the fact that, for what is probably the first time in years, Pratchett takes Tolkien on, this time by wrestling with one of the most troubling aspects of The Lord of the Rings, the fundamental evilness of Orcs.  Especially in light of the many authors (including Richard Morgan above) whose response to The Orc Problem is to try to darken and grim Tolkien up, Pratchett's approach--to port the Tolkienian Orc into Discworld and, without getting rid of Tolkien's starting assumptions, infuse it with the same humanistic ethos that informs the entire series--is both refreshing and thought-provoking.  Neither of these elements are quite enough to elevate Unseen Academicals above the predictable, later Discworld novel that it is, but they demonstrate that Pratchett is still thinking about his imaginary world, his genre, and the real world, and finding new ways to engage with all of them, which is something to be celebrated.

  5. Flood by Stephen Baxter - Though I've liked some of Baxter's short fiction, this is the first of his novels I've read (actually, the second following the Clarke-nominated YA novel The H-Bomb Girl, but I'm willing to ignore that abysmal effort as being hugely unrepresentative), and it cements my impression of him as being that cliché of a science fiction writer--great with ideas, lousy with characters.  For the most part, this is not actually a problem for Flood, which as its title suggests is a climate change novel (though not exactly a global warming novel) in which sea levels rise dramatically and then continue rising, driving humanity towards higher and higher ground.  Following a cast of some dozen characters--four former hostages of a Spanish terrorist group, their friends and families--over the span of several decades, Flood charts the end of the world, the slow and halting realization of this fact by governments, corporations, and individuals, the largely ineffective methods of curtailing or surviving the Earth's transformation they come up with, and the global conflicts that emerge as high ground becomes the planet's most precious commodity.  Flood works best when it simply stands back and describes events.  It's a mechanical novel, in the sense that what interests it is the process of the Earth's undoing, and it would not be entirely uncharitable to describe it as a series of infodumps strung together by character scenes and As You Know, Bob conversations.  The pace of the novel is swift enough, and the events it describes are scary enough, however, that Baxter pretty much gets away with this tack, and in fact I find myself wishing that he'd committed to it completely and done away with his characters and their family dramas, because it's these that most undermine the novel.

    Flood is essentially a hyper-SFnal version of disaster stories like 2012, and Baxter quite deliberately, and refreshingly, avoids the driving convention of stories like this, that the purpose of the disaster is to bring lovers together/heal a broken family/give the main character the chance to be a hero.  This is a story told by humans, but it isn't about them, which is fine except that at some point Baxter's choice to avoid almost to point of pathology any acknowledgment of the scale of death that occurs in the novel--for example in a scene that describes the final destruction of Manhattan, and lingers in almost pornographic detail on the destruction of buildings while hardly mentioning the people in them--becomes creepy, and then untenable.  I found myself comparing Flood to World War Z, which made the point that people are the window onto the event that is the novel's focus, not the focus itself, by not having any characters, merely a rotating cast of interviewees.  Baxter, by choosing a more conventional model for his novel but still using his characters as windows, inevitably calls our attention to the fact that these characters are unbelievably, inhumanly OK with the amount of death and destruction they've witnessed, and with the fact that they've spent the last few decades of their lives figuratively (and at one point literally) rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  Flood is a compulsive, scary novel (though, because of its avoidance of death and its emphasis on the mechanics rather than the humanity of the destruction it describes, not a horrifying one), but it's hobbled by Baxter's choice to stick to the form of a conventional novel.  Given all the special pleading that tries to tell us that good science fiction doesn't need well-drawn, well-rounded characters--special pleading which Flood, to a certain extent, justifies--it's a shame that Baxter didn't go whole-hog and jettison character entirely.

  6. Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3 by Annie Proulx - Proulx's third Wyoming Stories collection worked far better for me than her second, Bad Dirt, in part because I've finally learned to accept that she will never write another story as good as "Brokeback Mountain" (and that in fact, a single "Brokeback Mountain" is more than most writers can hope for in their careers), but also because of its focus, on the hardship of Wyoming living both in the homesteading era and in the present day.  There are some brutal stories here, from "Them Old Cowboy Songs," in which an unprepared teenage couple buy a plot of land and are ruthlessly defeated by an unforgiving, isolating landscape, to "The Great Divide," in which a couple somehow manage to keep just ahead of good fortune, buying up farming land just as the rich years of WWI give way to the buildup to the Depression, then going into mining just ahead of strip-mining technology, to "Testimony of the Donkey," in which a lone hiker is injured and stranded on a deserted path, and finally the harrowing "Tits-Up in a Ditch," in which lingering misogyny keeps thwarting a young woman's attempts to get away from her rural upbringing.  Throughout all, Proulx's greatest strength as a writer continues unabated--her unmistakable, yarn-spinning voice, which makes of even the most plain-spoken recitation of facts something both musical and irresistible.  If there isn't a story here to rival "Brokeback Mountain"'s simplicity and directed force (though both "Them Old Cowboy Songs" and "Tits-Up in a Ditch" try) there is certainly still much to read for.

7 comments:

Alexander said...

Interesting. I didn't like Unseen Academicals nearly as much as you did, but was much more found of Making Money. Could be in part attributable to being a much more recent reader for the Discworld, a lot of the things you seem to find stock and predictable I still view as relatively fresh.

I'd say I'm in general agreement with your views on both Steel Remains and Flood. I was particularly disappointed with the Morgan, since his central conceit is very interesting, and he's succeeded in this type of thing in the past. The result was awkward though, decent characters and a good setting but a story that felt too much like an attempt to deconstruct without (ala Mieville) building a more engaging alternative. On a more prosaic level, this book felt a lot like the middle volume of a trilogy rather than the beginning of one with all the backstory and past events, making for an oddly jarring tone throughout.

You're right on Baxter as well. I'd say his most effective work is precisely the format that allows him to ditch character almost completely--like his collection of short stories Vacuum Diagrams--where he just explores the ideas and the setting, allowing himself an immensity of scale Olaf Stapledon style. The further we get from the role of characters in the story, the less of a problem it becomes that they're inhumanly detached, analytical and tend to all think in the same manner.

Niall said...

I wouldn't want to read too much critique of Tolkien into The Steel Remains -- to the extent that it's there (and there is an extent to which it's there), I'd say the reason it's there is because it was also there in the authors Morgan is consciously (pace his acknowledgements) evoking -- Moorcock, Anderson, Wagner. See, for example, Moorcock saying that Anderson knocks Tolkien into a cocked hat in the Guardian. (I'd include a link, but this comment box doesn't seem to want to let me. You can google it from those keywords, though.)

Baxter can do character on occasion. I still think Voyage is a solid character study, and I have a soft spot for most of his first-person-Wellsian-Brit stories, like Coalescent. But you're certainly right that one of his very best books is the one that junks character almost entirely -- Evolution.

Alexander said...

Niall: I'll conceed Coalescent, and to an extent Transcendent as decently engaging with the lives of the main characters, and making for a surprisingly well rounded main character. I guess Anti-Ice as well. With Voyage, I found that element problematic--it seemed like an overly narrow, cynical stance on viewing its human characters, like he was aiming to show how interplanetary level scale was bogged down with icky human pettiness and jealous rivalries. Which is fine in theory, but as expressed in the book it sets up an overly broad dichotamy between human failure through psychology and human excellence through cold detachment. I'm aware there's elements in this that don't fit with this reading, and possibly it wasn't even Baxter's intent, but I never found the character pathos well rounded enough to be engaging; that and the scale of the narrative being rather small for Baxter left me rather disapointed with Voyage.

Good point on the contrast with Evolution though--while I do feel that undermined itself a lot in the end, much of the book are still pretty great, and that's so precisely because it treats the viewpoint entities as means rather than the end. Chronologically the structure fits the whole idea of linked short stories that jump across wide expanses of both Vacuum Diagrams and Resplendent.

Niall said...

re: Voyage: I have to say I literally don't recognise the book you're describing, to the point where I'm wondering if you're talking about Titan rather than Voyage? I don't recall anything in Voyage that would support the idea of "human excellence through cold detachment"; Natalie York is a rather *less* detached protagonist than is usual for Baxter, I'd say. And if you think the view of NASA's politics and culture is overly cynical, don't read The Right Stuff...!

Alexander said...

Niall: It's been awhile since I read Voyage and it's certainly possible that elements from Titan, or even the somewhat similar and more recent Ark, are blurring with it. However, I'd still define Baxter's focus on detachment through the whole layout of Voyage--the contrast between the loving attention given to the description of space ships concepts and the depiction of people as, by and large, petty, small-visioned apes that manage to screw up most plans that come to them. There are elements of personal accomplishment in York's personal arc, but I suppose that I personally found them a lot more trite and less overall effective in giving any human immediacy to the account. While there was character stuff there, it rarely rose beyond the generic for me. For tone, I found the whole thing an once of served optimism in a gallon of pessimism. Of course there's a measure in which that's justified in dealing with NASA, but since I found the characerization cold and unconvincing, I think the focus on a smaller scale than Baxter's norm and preoccupation with bureaucracy to make this one of his weaker books. Certainly by the end I didn't have much sense of caring about York's life or relative accomplishment, even to the extent I was invested in the fate of Flood's Lily Brooke.

Niall said...

Huh, fair enough. I re-read Voyage at the end of last year, you see, and was surprised how character-focused it was; there's really not that much loving description of space ships. That's not to say the characterisation is brilliant, but it still strikes me as one of his better efforts. As for optimism versus pessimism ... it depends what you think the good outcome is, I guess. :-)

lensaddiction said...

Just stumbled across your blog, and was interested in your review of Shelter. I found it an interesting story, but was totally unable to relate to the mother protecting the horror of a son (not being the maternal type).

What I really enjoyed was the story of the house that she wrapped around the main story, and the careful unfolding of the backstory within the ongoing one, I thought that was very cleverly written and the main thing that led me to finish the book.

I also got totally bored with Scar Night and gave up 50 pages in :)

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