Recent Reading April To May

I’m not sure what I want from science fiction anymore. I have outgrown the desire for grand conflict, although, as some of the reviews in this post will show, I can still be seduced by it, if it seems to point to something more meaningful than mere adventure. The books I’ve read since my last reading post are almost an object lesson in what I have deprived myself of over the years through my addiction to laser beams and space battles, as well as a couple of reminders of how, when it is done with real writerly craft, space opera can still have a certain intelligent beauty.

All cover images link to the Kobo page for that book. I will include the links in the review titles, where they are available.

Creation Machine, by Andrew Bannister

I read Creation Machine as an ebook after we had returned from our holiday in Norwich, having looked through a copy in Waterstones. Sorry, Waterstones, but I did buy Cold Welcome on the same visit, so I wasn’t completely parasiting on your hospitality. One of the reviews called Andrew Bannister a worthy successor to Iain M. Banks, and I think there is something to that: Bannister writes with an attentive detail that focuses upon wonderful settings and societies whose values almost-but-not-quite echo real historical eras. He has the gift Banks had of creating the shimmer and weight of the worlds in which his characters scheme and grapple, and he is a competent master of plotting: the book unfolds on several timetracks and it is not clear until the end which will be the base setting for the trilogy. I was surprised and somewhat grieved by his choice of which lead character died in the climax; which thread came to a close. It was an absorbing, atmospheric read.

The background of the novel is a galaxy that is the manufactured product of a vast, dead civilization, now divided into zones of influence that are fluid and in tension. A coup within the largest, led by the hero’s evil industrialist father, has crushed the rebellion of which she was a part and he is now leading an expansive war of aggression against its unsavoury neighbours. Fleare, the hero, is enhanced, and her sidekick-cum-spirit guide is a dead former comrade and lover who has been revived as semi-material computer code. They gather various other allies on a quest to discover an artefact of the makers; the species who created the galaxy. That artefact is sentient, and becomes a deus ex machina in the book’s climax.

As the story progresses, Fleare is forced to interact with an agent within a multi-layered virtual universe, in which I thought I detected references to the real Earth, though I may have misread that. I felt that the cyber elements of the plot dragged a bit, and was worried, for a while, that the author had lost his way, although he brought it back to a successful and emotionally coherent conclusion with great control.

Bannister’s love of SF is evident in his writing. In summary, the book sounds like a collection of cliches, but it is not actually so. As I read it, I was happily absorbed, and had that satisfying sense of not wanting it to end that really well-envisioned novels build. It is, I think, a success.

Strangely, though, less than a month on from finishing it, I could hardly remember it, and had to reopen it on my Tolino to remind myself of its plot and structure. Like a few of Banks’ Culture novels, it is an experience without an aftertaste, hinting at great depth and moment, but failing to entirely find its own pulse or purpose. The second book, Iron Gods, like Banks’ Culture series, is set in the same universe as the first, but in a different era, with, I assume, a different cast. That may not be a bad thing: Banks managed to create something vast and beautiful from such an approach, and the links of familiarity often gave me shocks of excitement, as in the dawning realization of Vosill’s true identity in Inversions. Since this is a first novel, I hope that, as Banks did, Bannister will find his focus. I will be reading the next installment, but I am not in such a rush that I will buy it before it drops a bit in price.

The Three-Body Problem Trilogy, by Cixin Liu

The majority of the other SF I have read since my last post have a common theme: the acceptance of otherness. The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End, by Cixin Liu, are much more than a single theme, but, at their heart, they explore the idea that the universe, if intelligent life is common within it, might be characterised by a nihilistic Darwinian savagery, in which species seek to eradicate any other worlds which promise to rise to a level of technology which might challenge theirs. On Earth, a division between idealists and hard-nosed Machiavellians leads to a disastrous transmission of our existence to the hostile galaxy, and the planet becomes a target for a malevolent and desperate alien invasion force.

This is hard SF, in the sense that it tries to create an entirely plausible scientific framework for its extrapolations about the future. Intelligence, even down to the level of an ant tracing out the carving in a headstone, is treated as a set of theories, rooted in mathematical and physical laws. Some of its conclusions, as they crop up through the vast plot, are stunning, and I don’t want to spoil the enjoyment of discovery for readers who have not yet read them, but they are not what most moved me about, at least, the first two novels of the trilogy.

Rather, this series begins in, and seems to expand upon, recent Chinese history, finding in the brutal, perverted logic of the Cultural Revolution a pattern of human behaviour that undermines the hope that humanity might ever advance its condition through the application of science and logic. Neither does it seem to offer a solution: idealism, love, asceticism and devotion to duty all serve within its epic progress to cause further destruction; greater confusion. The result of all this savagery is an unravelling, not merely of the world, but of the universe. Despite the beauty of Ken Liu’s translated prose, this is a profoundly pessimistic series of books.

The lasting impression I took from them was of a wild, overgrown, ravaged city; life rampant and uncaring, and the whole of human invention and creativity just a miniscule rash hidden within one of its minor folds. They are beautiful, they are immense, and they are terribly, terribly cold.

The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet and A Closed And Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers

Of everything I’ve read since my last reading post, these two books are my favourites. That is not simply because they are rooted, not in conflict, but in fellowship, or that they are the only two books whose characters felt like my friends by the time I had finished them, although they are. It is rather that they are complete within themselves, both as individual books and as a pair, and they are not like anything I have read before.

That is not to say that they are some sort of exotic SF that has somehow found a way to reinvent the entire genre. No major element within the tapestry of which they are made is entirely original to anyone who has read, watched or played science-fiction themed art over the last two decades. There are spaceships, a war or two, oppressive social conditions and alien species: lots of alien species.

However, these are determinedly civilian stories. They focus upon how people make sense of their lives, their friendships and their identities, rather than upon how they assert themselves through power or quest or battle. In fact, the only war action in either book is observed from the point of view of civilian contractors and only as they flee from the barbarity. The characters are victims and bystanders, without responsibility or agency, and the war is an interruption to what matters to them: how to live and be true to yourself while respecting and valuing the differences between yourself and others.

The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet is set aboard an engineering ship, Wayfarer, captained by a human, Ashby, who, besides his pacifism, is the closest character to a classic SF hero in either of the books. The lead character, Rosemary, is fleeing something, and in any of a hundred books I have read, it would have been lost love or a terrible mistake, but in this one, it is a more compelling detail, which I can’t reveal without spoiling the plot.  Largely, the story is about Rosemary’s process of winning the acceptance and love of her shipmates, but that makes it sound trite. What elevates Rosemary’s adventure is the mirror provided by the different species who make up the crew.

Chief among them is Sissix, an Aandrisk. Aandrisks are a reptilian species whose family relations are based upon adoption and preference. Because they are an egg-bearing species, they have no natural affinity for their biological parents and their loyalties are, therefore, dictated by choice. Their social glue is sex, which is handled in the book with a poetry and joy that rises above what any male author would have made of it. Besides Sissix, we meet half a dozen other species of ‘sentient’, until human characters become what they are in the politics of the book’s ‘Galactic Commons’ universe: a minority group who are tolerated as just one exasperating element within a wondrous, metropolitan universe.

Successful alien characters are not rare in science fiction, but I think I have seldom read a book in which the interactions between so many species are handled with such panache or such convincing enjoyment. The book gave me the feeling I had when I first began attending gigs and festivals; of a world that is brighter than the one I inhabit, with more interesting people, who seem to be okay with having me around. Becky Chambers has managed to create a universe epitomising that rarest of literary phenomena: convincing optimistic science fiction. And then, as you finish the first book, full of love for the new universe you have encountered, and rush enthusiastically into the second one, she goes dark, and it gets even better.

I am prepared to call A Closed And Common Orbit a masterpiece without blushing. I think it is, quite simply, beautiful.

It is not, strictly speaking, a sequel. Instead, it is like a spin-off which, for the first couple of chapters, left me feeling disappointed, as I grieved for the fellowship, good-will and sexiness of the Wayfarer crew. Avoiding plot spoilers for the first book is difficult here, but suffice to say that one character is uprooted from the crew in the care of a minor character from The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, and has to adjust to living a very different existence. In flashback, the character who mentors her is revealed to have suffered a terrible childhood. This upbringing has left an emotional debt that has yet to be paid.

I can’t be much more specific without spoiling your enjoyment, and I really, really wouldn’t want to do that. I cried at the end of this book, and while I am not the world’s most macho man, it is a long time since writing has made me do that. A female hero who is driven by childhood terror has become a ghastly sexist trope in anime, game design and bad male SF (particularly of the ‘kick-ass babe’ variety), but this book is completely removed from those awful exploitations. Becky Chambers writes about pain because that is a part of the human (‘sentient’) experience, but she manages never to lose sight of the redemptive power of love, however deep she goes into the horror of being unloved. There is nothing trite or contrived-feeling about her stories, but neither are they overworked. She writes with a sure touch, using detail only to advance her stories or to enrich her characters and settings, but never getting bogged down in self-indulgence. She is a writer you can trust, and her greatest theme is friendship. I want to be her friend.

If you haven’t read them, read these books now. Particularly, make sure you set aside a free weekend to read A Closed And Common Orbit. It is a triumph.

All The Birds In The Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

When I have had a really overwhelming book experience, I am often lost to reading for a week or two, unable to recapture the feeling inspired by the book I have just finished. Thanks to Kobo’s ‘recommended books’ feature, that difficulty is somewhat mitigated, although, for the first half of All The Birds In The Sky, I did feel a little disengaged.

To an extent, that may have been simply that this book suffered by comparison. It is a clever and beautiful premise, that moves steadily and gracefully from American high-school realism into a fantasy/SF mix that charts the collapse of the world into ecological and economic disaster. At first, it felt a little pedestrian after Becky Chambers’ beautiful companionship , despite its early magical elements which lay the groundwork for what is to come. A part of my discomfort, however, was with Anders’ tone: she writes with a sort of glib, coffeeshop blogger’s self-assurance that it took me a while to come to terms with.

However, her characters and, particularly her settings, which get more other-worldly as she moves away from the familiar now, grow to suit her cosmopolitan, Californian writer voice. This is a world of bloggers, web-comic artists, start-up sharks, musicians, magicians and inventors. The two protagonists, Patricia and Laurence, each start out as outcasts and grow to be extraordinary: she, as a witch who is discovered, educated and manipulated by the magical underworld, and he as an engineer who is taken under the wing of a technological visionary who has made it his business to save the human race from its own folly.

The greatness into which this book develops is the balance between two outlooks, the technocratic and the mystical, which, while it produces a really powerful fantasy, at least in its second half, achieves a balance between the two. In other words, the artistic product becomes representative of its own plot theme. Last Saturday, despite having had a long, tiring day, I stayed awake after we’d gone to bed, reading for two hours until I’d finished the book. By the end, I was entirely seduced.

She skirted some considerable risks in the writing of this book. It cannot be easy to do a ‘realist’ SF book in which there is a school for witches. Somehow, she managed to avoid the Hogwarts comparisons, and produce an experience of magical polity that is true to its own vision without being parody. In the same way, her fictional tech is brilliantly persuasive. I felt as though I had seen a caddy and really needed to get one.

The resolution of the plot is a surprise. It is preceded by utter devastation and apparently irremediable defeat. I felt real grief during the descriptions of the catastrophes that begin the collapse of civilization, as global warming begins to bite into American civilization. It was, I realized, something that SF should do all the time, but seldom achieves: to visualize what the currents of contemporary experience predict, and to make them seem as though they are already happening. This novel is a magnificent achievement, and I will look out for her next with eagerness.

Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

This is a complete change of pace. I don’t think any great realizations lie within, but that is not to say that it is an entirely empty experience. What this novel is, I am not completely sure. I only finished it last night, and I dithered between thinking I had wasted a few days’ reading time and wanting it to continue. However, I am willing to be corrected. I might have missed something in all the noise.

Ninefox Gambit is a classical space opera, written with the imagination of a fetishist. Everything about it is alien, and I do not know to what extent that is because the writer uses Chinese taxonomy and is parodying it, and how much of it is simply bonkers.

The human universe in the book is ruled by the hexarchate, divided between casts that specialize in plotting, persuasion, assassination, soldiering, weapons engineering and a couple of others I couldn’t exactly ascertain. The hero, Cheris, is a Kel; a member of the group-indoctrinated soldier class. Within the hexarchate, ideology is rooted in calendrical orthodoxy, and to adopt a different calendar, wherever you are in the galaxy, is heresy. The calendar is maintained around a system of festivals, in which doctrine is celebrated by ritual torture, and the technology employed by the various castes in their wars is powered by calendrical orthodoxy.

The Fortress of the Scattered Needles, a space station in an outlying region, succumbs to calendrical rot and Cheris is ordered to become the host for a dead outcast general name Jedoa, partly because she has the mathematical abilities he lacked. He inhabits her as a sort of shadow with whom she alone can communicate. They lay siege to the Fortress, and all hell breaks loose. Cue a couple of hundred pages of tightly plotted, relentless war.

It is bloody, complex and perfectly judged. No character dies without being made human by little personality sketches. Yoon excels at quickly and sparingly creating bit part characters to throw into the hell of his weird invented weaponry. Strangely, his main characters seem always slightly distant, but convincingly so, as if the rigid formality of their culture has created a race of people who feel, but don’t always know that they feel. Cheris and Jedao are, I would guess, a homage to the relationship between Hannibal and Cherise in Silence of the Lambs. He is both monster and father-figure: the hated evil by whom she is gradually seduced, but that is not to say that this is any way a derivative work. It is more like an archetype; a deranged, perfect, internally logical fantasy of innocence overwhelmed by hatred, and fighting because that is what serves the story.

When I have cleansed my palate, I will read the follow-up. This is an ongoing series, so there is plenty of madness still to come.

Cold Welcome, by Elizabeth Moon

Having said in my last reading post that I missed Elizabeth Moon, I found out that she had just released a new science fiction book, beginning a new series, Vatta’s Peace, which follows on from her previous SF series, Vatta’s War. This is the only one of the books reviewed here that I bought in physical form, and it is the least interesting of all of them.
Vatta’s War told the story of Ky Vatta, heiress and freighter captain, who single-handedly saved the universe when her family came under attack from a political faction in five overlong books that didn’t quite match the vigour and brio of Moon’s original SF series, The Serrano Legacy. In this new series, the war is over and Ky is an Admiral, young but unassailable, grappling with the demons she carries from her war, in which she discovered that she enjoyed killing. She is supported by her ex-lover, who owns a planet, and her aunt, who is president of her home planet.

On a state visit to the afore-mentioned home planet, her shuttle is shot down by miscreants who are part of a hitherto unsuspected military underground that holds a barren continent in isolation for experimental military purposes. With a band of survivors that she melds together into an effective military unit through her exemplary leadership skills, she survives a long period adrift in life rafts before coming aground on the mysterious continent. There, they discover the secret base maintained by the miscreants, abandoned for the winter, and prepare to fight off the return of the baddies.

The base is an ancient artifact of a long-forgotten alien race and provides the wherewithal to allow our hero to flee and then confront the miscreant’s mercenary force. I would tell you more, but I can’t be bothered. It is horribly predictable and overwhelmingly dull. I will probably read the subsequent volumes, simply for completeness. I was a fan once, but either I have grown up, or the world has moved on. As is obvious above, there is a wealth of imaginative, exciting, challenging science fiction available these days, and this feels like a return to a darker, duller, more conformist time, when a female hero was enough to make a science fiction novel feel innovative. That time has passed.

Giordano Bruno Thriller Series 1-3 and Treachery, by S. J. Parris

So much for the science fiction. Pay attention now, because this may get complicated.

I bought the collected anthology of the first three Giordano Bruno thrillers, but I have included the covers of the constituent novels because, frankly, they’re pretty.

Anyway, they are much as I expected them to be. S. J. Parris is the pen name of a journalist, Stephanie Merritt. She has crafted a convincing series of ponderous but still okay novels in the style of C.J. Samson, and she clearly has the historical knowledge and passion for the period to be able to maintain a meaningful progress through a series that could rival Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, but is not up to the standard of Sansom’s sparse but vivid output.

Giordarno Bruno is a former Dominican monk who falls foul of the inquisition as a result of his love of learning and his humanist, materialist studies. After a frankly workaday prologue describing his escape from his monastery, the story begins on the road to Oxford from London, as Bruno seeks to establish a life for himself in the more tolerant environment of reformation England. He has found a place in the French embassy and is sent on a courtesy visit to the university, where catholic hold-outs and protestant bigots eye one another effetely among the privileged sanctuaries of Elizabethan academia.

Nothing is missing from these novels except that they are rushed. Bruno is a collection of humane, everyman generalizations, irresistible to a certain type of oppressed but worldly-at-heart woman, yet devoted to his books. After four books, he has failed to come alive for me. Where Samson’s Shardlake is a character shaped by humiliation and compromise, Bruno is a bit of an empty know-it-all: a good twenty-first century humanist transposed into a well-imagined Elizabethan set. In the first novel, the murders are well-thought out and imaginative, but they suffer by comparison with the murders in Revelation, in which Shardlake chases a lunatic who is fulfilling the prophecies of the book of Revelation through set-piece atroctities. In Herecy, the murders are linked to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and the thmatic nature of the murders is a red herring to draw suspicion away from the catholic conspirators.

I ploughed through, and began to enjoy them. I read the first two in Norwich, where enough of the ancient city is in evidence, amid modern concrete and glass atrocities, to complement books set in the sixteenth century. Annoyingly, the second title, Prophecy, is written in the present tense, as, it turned out, is the fourth, Treachery. I do not like that, particularly in first person narrative. I think it is a nod to Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, which I intend to read, but haven’t got around to. However, they have enough scholarship behind them, and enough interesting secondary and tertiary characters, well drawn and fondly described, to make them not entirely tedious. Philip Sydney is an enduring pleasure: an aristocratic oaf who is a loyal friend and patron to our hero, he bumbles through the books as a Hastings to Bruno’s Poirot, both stupid and insightful, and endearingly devoted.

Flashes of illumination lift the series. The small town conspiracy necessary to maintain a high class brothel in sixteenth century Plymouth is cleverly drawn and illuminating and Parris does not spare us the horror suffered by the inmates. Historical figures come to life: Sir Frances Walsingham and Sir Frances Drake are both given real character and made, if not likeable (Walsingham was an unconscionable bastard and Drake was an ambitious war-monger) understandable. Parris is sparing with her key historical figure: Elizabeth steps from the shadows only in one book, of the four I’ve read so far, and her character remains opaque, described more by her effect than by her involvement.

They are product, but product created by a scholar who loves her topic. I recommend them, but sparingly.

That’s it for now. I’m dithering about what to read next. I bought a book on the militarization of American politics recently, and, thanks to the current election campaign, I feel optimistic enough to dive into that, so that may do me. I also want to dive back into the science fiction masterworks series: both Blood Music by Greg Bear and Mockingbird by Walter Tevis caught my eye when I was scrolling through the series recently. If you have any suggestions, please leave a comment below.