Wednesday, March 15, 2017

James S.A. Corey's NEMESIS GAMES

While the planetary adventure on Ilus kept Cibola Burn interesting and lively and was a logical expansion (heh) of the overall storyline of James S.A. Corey's series, it also all but fridged Naomi and, to a lesser degree, Alex, while Amos was mostly relegated to being Holden's smarter-than-he-looks-but-still-basically-a-thug thug, and so left this reader a teeny bit dissatisfied when the dust had settled.

And while the return to the confines of our own solar system might make Nemesis Games seem like it's backing off from the bigness of the Expanse's story, it also brought a welcome focus back to the characters we've traveled through four novels with: the crew of the Rocinante, Avasarala and Fred Johnson. But really, it's the Rocinante Four who shine here. And it's about damned time.

Having barely made it back to Tycho to get their beloved gunship repaired, the crew now look to be stuck for a while; it's going to be a good six months before the Rocinante flies again. A nice and well-deserved rest is great and all, but it doesn't make for much of a story -- or a life for people who are used to being on the move and at the center of system-spanning events. Which is to say that they get bored with hanging around the space station and so...

They split up.

Ordinarily, this would annoy me, because generally when the crew has broken up it's become the Holden show with the rest of the crew just sort of appearing here and there as supporting characters. But not this time; this time all four crew members get to be the central figure in their own stories, all of which are exciting, challenging and at times heartbreaking. We see their resourcefulness, learn more about their backgrounds, and while each of them quickly comes to regret their decisions to leave Tycho for a spell, we, the readers, most certainly do not.

The novel still manages to explore the consequences of what has gone on before -- the opening up of the rest of the galaxy or universe to human exploration and colonization via the protomolecular Gate -- as the "land rush" commences. Mars threatens to become a ghost planet. Earth might have to struggle with being the seat of an ever-larger empire (or give up on hegemony). And as for the Belters, well, who's going to need them? There are thousands of habitable exoplanets within reach now, with all the resources humanity could want for centuries to come. Who needs a bunch of malcontents, barely adapted to life in space (just enough to make life down a gravity well pretty much impossible for them), who only know how to live in tin cans, mine asteroids, keep junky spaceships flying, and carefully husband resources that are no longer scarce?

What population like that has ever gone down without a fight, though? Look at our current political situation in the U.S. (and, increasingly, elsewhere): superfluous labor, unwilling to be sidelined and forgotten, has lashed out and is (yes, along with misguided Christian fundamentalists and short-sighted plutocrats) largely responsible for putting a terrifyingly incompetent narcissist in control of the nuclear football.

So, too, the Expanse. The Belters aren't going to take things lying down, and they have a handsome, charismatic, possibly Alexander-caliber leader in (eyeroll) Naomi's ex-lover Marco, who unleashes about ten different kinds of hell and devastation on the Inner Planets (Earth & Mars) and on the legacy power center of the Outer Planets Alliance (Fred Johnson and Tycho -- and the Nauvoo Behemoth Medina Station. Except... He's really kind of a self-appointed leader. Those in his personal orbit of course follow him gladly because hello, but the rest of the Belt? Was everybody down for the kind of massive attack he and his coterie unleash here? It's a question not really addressed in this book, which is concerned chiefly with the buildup to this attack and the experiences of the Rocinantes in trying to reunite, but I'm really hoping this doesn't get dropped the way the "Mormons are going to be pissed" got dropped when their generation ship was appropriated to try and redirect Eros way back when, IYKWIM.

But anyway, our heroes once again manage to find themselves at the centers of all of these plots in some fashion, though some more than others. Amos just gets an escape plot but Naomi and Alex both wind up playing crucial roles in the unfolding disasters and humanity's response to them, and well, of course Holden and Fred and Avarasala do. I'm done fussing over the unlikelihood of this same small group of people always winding up with the fate of human space in their hands, though. I just give up. It shouldn't be allowed to spoil my enjoyment of these very enjoyable books. And stuff.

I might pause for a while before picking up the current last novel in the series, Babylon's Ashes, though. I'm not ready for the experience of having to wait for more. This way I can pretend I'm somewhat in control, you know?

Monday, February 27, 2017

Henry James' THE PRINCESS CASAMASSIMA

It's been a while since I spent some time with good old Henry James, America's greatest social novelist.* And it's only because I stumbled across a nifty-looking biography of the man when Open Road Media had a 24-hour free-for-all on Amazon that I realized I hadn't read any James since Portrait of a Lady. But which to read, which to read?

Then I encountered, somewhere I don't remember, an observation that Princess Casamassima was likely an inspiration for Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, probably my favorite Conrad after Nostromo, and so there I went.

But so anyway, stop me if you've heard this one: Boy meets Princess. Boy falls head over heels for Princess.  Princess loves communists. Boy pretends to be communist to get closer. Princess sees through him but figures she can get him to bring her some real communists. Boy complies and brings her tiny half-French bastard bookbinder. Princess will love bookbinder and pet bookbinder and hold bookbinder and squeeze bookbinder and she will call bookbinder George. Exeunt Boy, with blue balls. Exeunt bookbinder, by his own hand. As such.

Which is to say that neither the Princess Cassamassima, nor the bookbinder, Hyacinth Robinson, is the driver of this plot, even though the book is named for the former and the latter is the point of view character. Hyacinth is so passive that even his choice of profession only comes about via the vigorous exertions of others; the Princess is equally passive, at least until someone finally brings her what she wants and she must work a bit to keep it. 

Doing all the actual work of the novel is a character who hardly appears in it, at least at front and center: the gentlemanly, the cosmopolitan, the conventional Captain Sholto (the Boy), who manipulates everything behind the scenes: he's even partly responsible for the radicalisation of Hyacinth, who might have stayed a drinking dilletante himself had he not been presented with Sholto's annoying example of same. 

And the romance- and- radicalization plot isn't even the only thing. James has at least as much fun with two other stories, both of which would be right at home in a modern high school dramedy: The competition between Hyacinth and Sholto over who a picturesquely poor family " belongs" to (settled, inconclusively but forever, when the Princess sails in and takes it over. They're hers.  They were always hers. You boys were just keeping the sofa warm for her), and the even more brittle-ly funny one between the Princess and one Lady Aurora, better born than the Princess but a middle aged spinster, whose lifetime of actively visiting and nursing and spending her meager allowance on the genuinely poor is somehow made to look amateurish and gauche when the Princess announces that actually, she owns nothing  ( probably because her estranged husband took it all away?) and "when thousands... haven't bread to put in their mouths, I can dispense with tapestry and old china." 

Straight out of, say, Clueless, or maybe Mean Girls, am I right?

What this all amounts to seems to be James' version of social satire,  a take on the class war that doesn't take it very seriously. James' socialists don't really seem to understand socialism, and spend most of the novel trying to hide this from one another while also trying to simultaneously impress each other with how aware and committed they are, and to discreetly pump each other for information as to what they should be doing to further their cause. Thus there are moments of actual humor, genuine laugh-out-loud moments, that I did not expect from James.

Does that mean a re-assessment is in order? It may. But I've got a lot of other stuff going on, so don't hold your breath for one, K?

*Indeed, the last time I took him up, I was just beginning to have joint problems and thought recording audioboo blog posts was a temporary solution until they got better, ha ha ha ha ha ha sob...

Jack Vance's EMPHYRIO

Despite its originally having been penned in 1969, it's really hard not to see Emphyrio as a sort of allegory of our current predicament, you guys, so I'm not even going to try. Hey, it's not like this is the first time. Remember how I read Philip K. Dick's The Penultimate Truth in terms of the 1% versus the 99%? Yeah, like that.

Only more so.

Emphyrio is a coming of age story set in a world not very much like our own except in all of the ways that it is, or could be. A world in which a populace of extremely skilled and worthy artisans are required to craft only one-of-a-kind originals and sell them via their guilds for a pittance, which is pitched to them in the language of a Welfare State but is really just starvation wages the artisans are indoctrinated to believe could become, if managed correctly, Financial Independence, but let's be honest, are just enough to keep them slavishly creating astonishing works of art that middlemen can get rich on. A world in which a really, really silly religion (as in prayers are performed as intricate, acrobatic dance routines that no one ever really masters but everyone feels more or less obligated to keep trying to learn) combined with a Welfare administration that is slavishly following regulations laid down by a government that no longer exists (and thus can never be amended or updated, no matter what changes in the rest of the universe) and ruled over by a parasitic elite that is still profiting from "investments" made centuries ago, investments in basic infrastructure that was destroyed by war and mismanagement on the part of the government that no longer exists and... See where I'm going.

Enter Ghyl, son of an especially talented artisan who is also a bit of a sneaky non-conformist, who enjoys a rare free-range childhood before settling into the family craft, who is raised on legends of an ancient non-conformist named Emphyrio who once exposed lies, spoke truth to power, saw the universe, and then... Well, that part of daddy's ancient manuscripts didn't survive the centuries so, really, who knows how that story ended?

Ghyl's story, then, is mostly a gentle coming-of-age, but also the story of how a myth can become a self-fulfilling prophecy that can repeat in ways no one imagined. Ghyl follows in Emphyrio's footsteps as he strives to learn how Emphyrio's story ends and to find out if Emphyrio ever really existed, and winds up changing everything, just like Emphyrio maybe did.

That's all great right there, but this is also Jack Vance, whose Dying Earth novellas are not only gorgeous prose masterpieces in their own right but are also major inspirations for an obsession of mine, yep, Gene Wolfe's Solar Cycle, which means tons of heady ideas, extravagantly beautiful prose, wry and satirical observation, and sensual details of color and aroma and tactile sensation and longing and all of the good stuff that one reads quality escapist literature for.

And it's a book that is (barely) older than I am. Yet it still resonates perfectly. Truly, it is an SF Masterwork, and one I'm kicking myself for only reading now (and that only because my good pal Jonathan Green asked me recently if I've read much Vance and I realized that it's been a LONG time since I read those Dying Earth novellas but I'd bought tons of Vance on the strength of those, only to have them just languishing on my e-readers unread).

Near damned perfection.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

James S.A. Corey's CIBOLA BURN

"Apocalyptic explosions, dead reactors, terrorists, mass murder, death slugs, and now a blindness plague. This is a terrible planet." -- James Holden
After three novels taking place inside asteroids and moons and space stations and vast bizarre alien artifacts, and aboard spaceships plying the void between all of these things, at last we come to the surface of what most people would think of as a planet. There's breathable atmosphere, sort-of-normal gravity, a close-to-normal day/night cycle, something like plants and animals, and even buildings and food.

Only it's not Earth. Or Mars. Or something settled via a generation ship like the Mormons were building in the first Expanse novel. Oh, no.

It's in another star system altogether. Only we don't really know how far away it is. Or how the technology that gets us there works.

So now we're sort of in Frederick "Heechee" Pohl territory as events unfold in Cibola Burn, the fourth Expanse novel by the two-headed alien we call James S.A. Corey. And we have the protomolecule that has wreaked havoc in three prior novels back in our good old Sol system to thank for it, but that's all we know; we done passed through the gate that was built for us, but when we got to where it led us, there was nobody home. Ruins that might be described as Lovecraftian if not Cyclopean, yes. Aliens (except for the flora-and-fauna analogs found on the first planet we settle), no.

It's refreshing, this being on a planet business. But lest we think this is just going to be a novel of exploration and discovery... Have you read the other books in this series? Or at least the epigram above? Yeah...

So this planet, called New Terra by the Earth-based corporation that claims to own it but Ilus (as in an early name for the city of Troy) by the people who first settled it* is quite a place, but not a great one for human habitation for all its abundant clean, breathable air and fresh liquid water. The local life forms' biology is incompatible with ours, for a start (much is made early on of bugs that persist in biting people, only to drop dead minutes after feasting on human blood). Crops have to be grown in soil imported from our system, etc. All in all, seems like more trouble than its worth, except for two things: scientific curiosity and mineral wealth in the form of vast and easily mined deposits of lithium (the stuff that makes the batteries in most of our consumer electronics work).

Before you can say "space opera", Ilus is at the center of a major conflict, as the colonists try by various and violent means to fend off the corporate/scientific mission that is just landing there as the novel opens. The colonists don't want to lose their colony; the scientists don't want to lose the opportunity to study a fresh and uncontaminated new ecology (oops); the corporation wants to assert ownership and control.

Ut oh.

Enter the crew of the Rocinante, whom our old friends, UN muckty-muck Crisjen Avasarala and Outer Planets Alliance honcho Fred Johnson, have dispatched to mediate between these parties because Holden is the only moral high-horse riding uncompromising asshat for the job, they both agree. Holden is not thrilled with this, but the protomolecular ghost of [REDACTED] wants him to go, too, and is capable of haunting even Holden's dreams, so yeah, off they go.

All this alone would make for a pretty interesting story, especially with its two new viewpoint characters, colonist-turned-reluctant-terrorist Basia, corporate security dick and former partner of [REDACTED] Havelock, and brilliant biologist Elvi** keeping things interesting, but this is an Expanse novel, so it's never just going to be about human politics. The protomolecule is still very much a thing, and the long-vanished aliens who made the protomolecule also made the gate through which everyone gets to Ilus -- and left a lot of ruins on the planet.

And a lot of stuff inside it as well. Stuff that is triggered by the arrival of Holden and protomolecular puppet [REDACTED].

Cue epic shitstorm eloquently described by Holden above. It's a terrible planet, you guys.

I'll confess to having occasionally been annoyed at some aspects of Cibola Burn, most notably how the vast world of the Expanse still seems to contain a paucity of characters. Did [REDACTED]'s old partner really have to be the guy on the corporate spaceship? Wouldn't it be more probable that an entirely new guy held that role, since there are billions and billions of humans out there now? Of course, by that same argument, mightn't that vast human Expanse also contain someone more qualified and capable than Holden, Amos, Naomi and Alex to handle the powder keg of politics on Ilus? Not that I don't love these guys. It's just getting increasingly less probable that these same four people are at the center of every major develop in human history, over and over again. But I accept that this is a probably a bow to the necessities of series writing; few readers, I expect, would want to read a series that realistically kept throwing new figures into the forefront with every plot development. We read sequels for the characters, most of us, way more than for the world-building. What happens to so-and-so next is more important to us than what happens to all of humanity next. We're just wired that way. Dickens knew this without having been told by science. So do we.

Now the Rocinante and the rest of humanity is poised for yet even more difficulty and adventure. That gateway didn't just offer up Ilus to us, but thousands of other planets. All of which, as Avasarala points out, don't need to be terraformed to be habitable, like poor old Mars. Who's going to want to stay there now that it's so easy to go somewhere with free air and water and shelter from radiation? But then, what happens to Mars' formidable arsenal of heavily armed spaceships and missiles and nukes when there's just a skeleton crew left behind on Mars to govern them and their use? Collapse of the USSR anyone (insert your favorite Red Planet joke here)?

So yes, onward to Nemesis Games very, very soon.

*Who are themselves refugees from the disaster on Ganymede that was the centerpiece of the second Expanse novel, Caliban's War, refugees who were turned away from every human population center they tried to stop and and so finally just sailed on through the gateway and started their own illicit colony on this new planet.

**Which, I've run into a lot of reviews online in which people complain very loudly about Elvi, because she is portrayed as falling hard for Holden and letting it cloud her judgment to a dangerous degree. They don't like that she has this weakness and regard it as regressive and anti-feminist that so much of her story seems to revolve around this. And I can see their point, as I rolled my eyes a bit at her, too (even though she fully recognizes her feelings as dangerously distracting and unprofessional). But I say this rounds her out nicely. AND I'll point out that, as a friend of hers correctly diagnoses, what is really going on isn't that she's fallen in love with Holden, but that she's spent two years on a spaceship without receiving any physical affection (by her choice; she's declined to participate in the partner swapping and teepee creeping behavior of her fellow scientists) before crash-landing on an alien planet just in time for ALL THE CRISES TO HAPPEN and, being a mammal still, what she really needs is some intimate human contact. Which her friend is happy to provide. Which clears her head just in time for her to do the important work, have the important breakthroughs, that basically save the day. In conclusion, I'd like the point out that this is pretty much exactly the same situation Randy Waterhouse finds himself in, in Cryptonomicon, and nobody complained about sexism or stereotypes or regressive gender attitudes in that book.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Alastair Reynolds' REVENGER

I had a few false starts with Revenger, I won't lie. I think it was mostly because my brain insisted on trying to turn it into a Revelation Space book, even though it patently is not. There were just enough similarities between the superficial character traits Reynolds gave to his red shirts and those of characters from his earlier books to make that a temptation, though. Any of the crew of Monetta's Mourn could fit right in on board the Nostalgia for Infinity, is what I'm saying.

But there are no Ultranauts in this universe; the setting is very much our own solar system (I think), although it is changed beyond recognition by thousands (millions?) of years of natural processes, alien invasion and re-engineering, decay and resettlement. Humanity lives on a system-sized version of the Glitter Band/Rust Belt; lots of space stations and somewhat terraformed asteroids and planetoids -- but, apparently, no planets like you and I know them. There have been at least 13 "occupations" and all of them were long ago. Valuable and bizarre and bizarrely useful relics of all of those occupations can be found inside chunks of rock surrounded by force fields that open up an somewhat predictable intervals. Some people make a living exploring these "baubles" and selling off what they find.

Among the weird Roadside Picnic-esque treasures to be found are alien bones and skulls, which, studded with implants, can be "read" by young people with certain neurological traits and used as a kind of system-wide radio communications system.

Enter our protagonist, Fura, a young woman who, along with her slightly older sister, is found to have the talent for reading these bones and thus has a chance to escape her privileged but kind of creepy life on one of those barely terraformed rocks by signing on to read the bones for a crew of bauble miners.

So, I mean, of course she does.

And then terrible things happen. Terrible, violent, pirate-y things. Some people aren't into doing all the work to get loot to sell; some would rather lie in wait for other people to do the work and then rob them. And some like to get all Reaver-y about it.

The rest is the story charts Fura's journey from helpless fugitive to cold-blooded embodiment of revenge. We get to explore a little more of the world she ran away from and see more of the creeps who wanted to keep her there, spend some time on a brand new but less ambitious ship that she and a fellow survivor decide is their best vehicle for vengeance, and see Fura's plan unfold. It's all by turns creepy, exciting, violent and might remind you more than a little bit of a Jack Womack novel. Don't want to cross this young lady, no, no.

So this is an Alastair Reynolds who is exploring something new. Absent his galaxy-spanning atmospherics, the story is very tightly character driven, with mixed results. We get to know Fura very well, but no one except her friend Prozor gets terribly well-developed -- but I, at least, didn't mind this a bit. The tight focus on Fura's teenaged single-mindedness felt like the right way to go. No distractions, no stupid romance plot, just Find My Sister and Make Those Bastards Pay.

Hey, the Count of Monte Cristo didn't develop a lot of characters beyond Dantes, did it?