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Currently Reading: The Undivided by Jennifer Fallon

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

NaNoWriMo Update

In spite of the fact that I only started the blog a month or so ago I have been taking a break from it to help my NaNoWriMo progress. Not that there has been much of that. Most of my time has been devoted to planning and plotting. I think that's my method. I haven't written much that would appear on a page in a book, and that's disappointing (but it's been that way all year, not just in November). It's hard even yo disclose a word count when I've done so many little things all over the place. Suffice it to say, I won't have 50,000 words come November 30.

I'm behind the times in posting about this, but it turns out that several professional writers aren't big fans of NaNoWriMo. I completely understand the agents and editors that read through unending piles of slush in December not being enthused by it, but I agree with the comments of Mary Robinette Kowal and John Scalzi, who leapt to the defence of National Novel Writing Month (International if, like me, you're Australian).

Essentially, NaNoWriMo is terrific if it encourages expressions of creativity and gives would be writers the extra bit of motivation they need to cross the line from thinking about writing to doing it. Would I let someone else read a story I churned out in a month? Now way. But I would edit and build on what I produced in that time frame, and use it to propel me forward. Mary Robinette Kowal in particular revealed that her debut novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, started in this way.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Review: Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Old Man’s War – John Scalzi (Published 2005)
Genre: Science Fiction
Sub-genre: Military
Completed: September 11 2010

Of all the novels I have read this year, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is the book that most reminded me of a movie. The story itself is cinematic in terms of scope and the images the author conjures, but it was the effortless nature of reading it that most recalled the movie-going experience. It is a fairly short novel, but it was definitely my fastest read this year.

I think I am fortunate in that I can review the book purely on its own merits. I can’t comment on its place in the tradition of Heinlein having never read Starship Troopers (or any Heinlein at all, to my shame). My reading of science fiction in general has been quite limited, so Scalzi’s ideas are mostly new to me and more intriguing for it. For example, the development of the skip drive, for faster than light travel (of a sort), was pretty mind bending.

Of course the central premise of Old Man’s War is equally thought-provoking. In Scalzi’s setting, humankind has begun to colonise outside our own galaxy and unsurprisingly met the resistance of other sentient species with varying levels of technology. The soldiers who are fighting to protect human expansion are men and women who join the military at age 75, the theory being that their life experience makes them superior soldiers. Through the eyes of central character John Perry we see the inevitable process of regeneration and training, before the old folks head into battle.

At first Scalzi seems utterly neutral when it comes to the cloning and regeneration of the aging soldiers. As the story progresses however he begins to raise questions of identity and self with regard to this area of science, concluding that people are much more than their DNA. Memory is particularly significant for Scalzi’s characters, most of whom have lengthy life experience. However, these issues aren’t strictly couched in moral terms. Indeed the character who has the most cause to be angered by these processes seems quite ambivalent towards them.

Moral ambiguity is practically a theme of the story, in terms of both the science discussed above and when Scalzi looks at the expansion of human civilization in a way that is necessarily at the expense of other species. Technological development and pure survival seem to be the guiding principles for the humans in Old Man’s War, and the author quite deliberately avoids judging the actions of his characters, from sexual promiscuity to killing.

Old Man’s War gets 4 stars. It isn’t literary genius, it’s very commercial, but it is a very engaging and entertaining read. For fans of epic fantasy like myself it may feel lightweight (at barely over 300 pages), but this is not at all to the detriment of the story. The best compliment I can give to the book is that although I’m not a massive fan of science fiction I will definitely be reading more Scalzi in the future.

Read it – to enjoy a fast-paced story of space exploration and the future of humanity, even if you don’t normally like sci-fi
Don’t read it – if you just refuse to read sci-fi, otherwise there’s no reason not to

Review: Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

Consider Phlebas – Iain M. Banks (Published 1987)
Genre: Science Fiction
Sub-genre: Space Opera
Completed: May 16 2010

Consider Phlebas has been my most disjointed reading experience for some time. It took me over a month to finish it when I had been averaging close enough to a novel per week. The issue was not necessarily with the book - I have been extremely busy at work. Ultimately the experience lacked continuity for me.

Some blame must go to the book - the list of places where I fell asleep while reading this book is quite long. The strange thing is, I don’t recall being bored by the story at any time. I just struggled to read it. The similar experience that I had with Neuromancer suggests that Science-Fiction may not be my thing – but I’m too intrigued by it to give up.

Consider Phlebas is the first of Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. These books are linked through their setting, rather than story. I, however, am something of a completionist. I had heard that Consider Phlebas is not the best novel in Banks’ universe but it is the establishing shot. I felt that reading Consider Phlebas would earn me a better experience when I get to the later novels. Time will hopefully prove me wise.

I knew that I was in for a novel likely to be heavy on set-up. There is plenty of techno-jargon that I’m sure went over my head, though there was usually enough for my mind to picture what was going on. The descriptions of the world and its incredible Science-Fiction creations were vivid and exciting for the most part, but occasionally felt intrusive and excessive. In some cases, for all of the imagination at work, certain characters and events felt out of place in the world, as if they were designed primarily as allegorical comments then somewhat artificially inserted.

Perhaps the biggest issue with the world-building is that Banks often has to pull back from the characters in order to establish elements of the setting and to explain the part their actions play in a broader conflict. Yet it was of course the characters that I was interested in... even if I didn’t really like any of them. I found them somewhat unsympathetic - I didn’t really agree with any of the perspectives that Banks created through Horza, Baveda and Xoxarle - but the contrasting philosophies and motivations were the most intriguing part of the story. Essentially, if Consider Phlebas is viewed as a fable designed to validate the existence and beliefs of the galaxy spanning Culture it is very effective.

What was lacking was any clear understanding of the importance of the characters in the broader conflict. The resolution of Consider Phlebas is anticlimactic at best. If you proceed to read the (brief) appendices it becomes even more tragically apparent that the efforts of the characters were irrelevant in the context of galactic conflict. I was left with a fairly strong feeling of ‘so what?’ which was particularly disappointing given that the execution of the conclusion was much more fast-paced, engaging and exciting than the preceding chapters. Banks utilized unconventional and rapid viewpoint switches to ratchet up the tension while still disguising from the reader exactly what was about to transpire.

Consider Phlebas gets 3.5 stars, with some degree of benefit of the doubt. When I was able to give the book the chance to impress me, it did. I certainly churned through the last quarter, and I can’t wait to get to some of the later books in the Culture series. For all of the issues I have pointed out with the structure and broad thematic picture I can’t help but feel that Banks is a seriously good writer.

Read it – if you intend to read further in the Culture series, or if you have read other Culture novels and are keen to see where it all began.
Don’t read it – if you hate books that seem designed to explore and establish their setting as much as tell you a story.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Review: Neuromancer by William Gibson

Note: I originally read this book earlier in the year (see the date completed) but have chosen to share this review as part of my focus on Science Fiction this week.

Neuromancer – William Gibson (Published 1984)
Genre: Science Fiction
Sub-genre: Cyberpunk
Completed: March 24 2010

I chose to read Neuromancer because it’s a recognized classic of the Speculative genre, having won the rare Hugo/Nebula Award double. It had also been identified as one of those books with tremendous opening lines: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." I certainly read on.

This is the first pure Science Fiction novel that I have read and reviewed this year… and sadly I didn’t enjoy it, no matter how much I wanted to. I had been racing along with my reading, averaging at least one novel per week. Neuromancer, by far the shortest book I have read this year, took me over three weeks to get through. I wasn’t motivated to keep picking it up.

My theory is that I don’t like Cyberpunk. The major elements of this novel that I struggled with or just plain didn’t like are all established Cyberpunk conventions. Grim anti-heroes from the fringe (or gutter) of a near-future dystopian society - it's seriously bleak. Neuromancer was the sub-genre defining novel, so I can recognize the value of Gibson’s contribution. Unfortunately the sheer amount of imitating media that I have been exposed to makes this original and provocative story feel clichéd and uninspiring to my mind.

Nearly thirty years from the writing of the book a lot of the technologies described, particularly ‘cyberspace’ and artificial intelligence, feel more familiar than Gibson would have intended. Nonetheless the way Gibson glibly describes most elements of his settings forces you to engage your imagination to fill in his deliberate blanks. It was particularly fun to read the setting of Chiba (the book’s most developed locale) onto places in Japan which I recently visited. I would describe the setting as under-developed (but I typically read Epic Fantasy which I'm sure feels painfully over-wrought to a sci-fi reader). It seems like the whole idea is to exclude the reader in a sense – it isn’t your world, and Gibson doesn’t want you to be comfortable in it.

You won’t feel comfortable with the characters either, especially the protagonist Case. He begins the novel with his hacking abilities crippled by a former employer (who he ripped off), marking time as a small-time crook until he can kill himself with enough drugs. He is more or less forced to accept the lifeline offered by a mysterious figure named Armitage, which of course kick-starts the plot. Case is the sole viewpoint character, and while the supporting cast is colourful and often engaging they didn’t impact me anywhere near as strongly as Case. And what I got from Case was unadulterated nihilism. So much so that I found it utterly artificial that the love interest Molly would be attracted to him. He really has nothing to offer.

I pitied Case, but I never cared for his success or failure. It will always be difficult to engage the reader with distinctly amoral characters, and I never felt that Gibson made Case interesting enough for me to at least be intrigued by what happens to him. I assume that Gibson sought to avoid the didactic moralizing of earlier Science Fiction, but it made the story feel empty for me.           

I don’t want to spoil any more, because with a setting and a protagonist that would feel clichéd to most of us the plot still packs some punch. It does contain hacking and interaction with A.I., but it's Cyberpunk and you knew that already. Neuromancer gets 2.5 stars from me, but I’m glad I read it. I can only imagine that reading it in 1984 would have been quite a different (and better) experience, but I was only two years old.

Read it – if you thought the first hour of The Matrix was more exciting than the second.
Don’t read it – if you enjoy likeable characters and happy endings.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Review: Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Towers of Midnight – Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (Published 2010)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: As Epic as it gets
Completed: November 3 2010

I am a devoted, long time reader of The Wheel of Time. I imagine so is anyone contemplating reading the book or bothering to read this review, so the disclaimer may be redundant. Nonetheless, the hardcover versions of all thirteen novels in the series to date have pride of place on my book shelf and I’ve been reading the series since early High School. I desperately wanted to enjoy this book.

For those who are unfamiliar with the series, attempting to summarise what has come before and therefore how this story fits into the bigger picture is virtually impossible. Fortunately, you have probably read the series so I can skip that nicety. After the focused nature of The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight was always intended to fill out the story. The name of the game is progression. The plot tears along fuelled by long awaited revelations and resolutions, though the speed with which I read the book may have been equally attributable to my investment in finding out what happens to these characters. The hard work of getting the reader to know and love the characters was done long ago by Robert Jordan. Towers of Midnight is about taking big steps toward the ultimate (and long awaited) pay off.

This is not to say that there aren’t tremendous character developments alongside the forward momentum of the plot. There were multiple moments that gave me chills, and one which brought me as close to tears as I have ever been while reading a book in a relatively public place. Robert Jordan’s skill in growing a character’s strength to see it become their weakness will always leave me delightfully frustrated. Some highlights for me included Perrin finally coming to understand himself and Mat turning the tables on enemies that have stalked and taunted him. The Last Battle has begun but the light manages to hold firm. I also loved Rand’s transformation. Chapter 1, Apples First, had me literally quivering in anticipation for where the character was headed.

I have always admired Robert Jordan’s strength in foreshadowing key events way back in The Eye of the World. One of the problems for someone who has enjoyed the books enough to discuss them ad nauseum is that the impact of some scenes was diminished because they played out more or less as anticipated. It didn’t help that some of these scenes also felt somewhat abrupt, almost as if the plot resolution box was being ticked. Towers of Midnight covers an incredible amount of ground, yet still seems to leave a lot for A Memory of Light to bring to a conclusion. The reality is of course that the magnitude of the task of wrapping up the myriad plot threads doesn’t leave space for lengthy resolutions. Having said that, my opinion of the book might have benefited from a touch less Perrin and a bit more Mat. How could it deliver on 15 years of waiting (20 for some people)

I don’t want to comment on the writing style, Sanderson vs Jordan. I’m just happy that Sanderson stepped up to finish the story. I have nothing but respect for the commitment and guts that has required.

I rate Towers of Midnight 4 stars but I do so as a long-time fan (as in 15 years) who has waited for many of the moments and resolutions contained in this book and willing to forgive weaknesses more than any ‘objective’ reviewer. Although I believe I can look critically at stories I have enjoyed, there’s no way that I can avoid bias with The Wheel of Time.

Read it – if you are a long-time reader of the series, and have enjoyed all of the preceding volumes
Don’t read it – if you haven’t read the twelve previous books (yes, 12). There is just no way that you can dive in at this point.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Epic Fantasy... my favourite genre?

There is no doubt that my favourite books fall into the genre of Epic Fantasy. However, I’m not certain that Epic Fantasy is my favourite genre. I grew up with The Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien), moved onto Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (Tad Williams) before flirting with The Riftwar Saga (Raymond E. Feist) and finding my ultimate favourites. So what are my top picks – if I’m choosing with my heart it’s The Wheel of Time (Robert Jordan), if with my head it’s A Song of Ice and Fire (George R. R. Martin).

The current leader in the
Epic Fantasy genre?

Although I can’t begin to imagine composing a multi-book epic, the majority of my writing will probably be in this genre of Fantasy. Yet, I remain unsure that this is my favourite genre, primarily because I’m not especially enthused to launch into another series. They’re just so damn long.

I have the first books of The Malazan Book of the Fallen (Steven Erikson) on my bookshelf waiting for me, but frankly I find the idea of committing to such a series intimidating. Giving one author so much reading time, when there is so much to read, feels impossible. Frankly, even knowing how much I love it, if I was confronted with 14 books of The Wheel of Time I probably wouldn’t start reading it. I feel like a trilogy is about as much as I am willing to give my time to, so Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law Trilogy is an example of an ideal recent read.

You can kind of see
why my wife doesn't want
our shelves dominated by
books that look like this...
Ironically, I recognise that one of the reasons why I love The Wheel of Time so much has been the anticipation between books. I know there will be a let-down when the books are over, even if A Memory of Light is the greatest Fantasy book of all time. I’ll be glad to have A Song of Ice and Fire to turn to, and I am currently trying to dump myself in the middle of a bunch of other series so that there will virtually always be a book for me to be anticipating.

I’m hoping Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive will be a worthy replacement for The Wheel of Time. I haven’t finished reading The Way of Kings yet so I can’t say much more at this stage. The good thing about Sanderson’s work is that I’m getting in at the ground floor, as was more or less the case with Jordan and Martin. In an ideal world I would tear through The Malazan Book of The Fallen in time for The Crippled God, but I can’t see that happening.

I’ve just finished devouring Towers of Midnight, and intend to move on to The Way of Kings and The Black Prism (Brent Weeks). Firstly, I’ll be finishing up Shadow’s Son (Jon Sprunk) which snuck to the top of my ‘to read’ list by virtue of its brief length.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The City and The City (by China Miéville) wins the World Fantasy Award

One of the great disappointments of my trip to Aussiecon 4 (Worldcon) in September was the fact that I had to leave before the Hugo Awards Ceremony. I find awards pretty exciting, especially when I am invested in some way in the candidates, so I was eager to find out who would win the 2010 World Fantasy Award at the recent World Fantasy Convention. China Miéville continued on his winning way with The City and The City (full review) taking out Best Novel.

For those unfamiliar with the major awards in the speculative fiction field, here is a brief explanation of the biggest ones:

The Hugo Awards (which cover many more categories than simply Best Novel) are nominated and voted by for fans who are attending or supporting members of Worldcon. The breadth of voters means that the Hugo favours ‘popular’ works, though that doesn’t prevent the Hugos from claiming to be the most prestigious awards in the field.

The Nebula Awards are considered professional awards as they are determined by the members of the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America). In spite of the name, membership, voting and eligibility to win are not restricted to Americans.

The World Fantasy Awards are given for fewer categories than the Hugo especially, and are decided by a panel of judges (notable professionals in the field). For this reason the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, somewhat like the Nebula, will often be awarded to books that are critically acclaimed but not necessarily widely read or known.

Interestingly, both the Hugo and Nebula Awards can be presented to Science Fiction or Fantasy stories. As the name implies, the World Fantasy Award is restricted to Fantasy. There is some controversy about this fact in fan circles, since the fandom of Science Fiction and Fantasy tend to intersect.

It stands to reason that the two best (at least most awarded) Speculative Fiction releases of the past year are Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (Nebula Winner - which is still on my ‘to read’ list) and China Miéville’s The City and The City), which most fans seem to agree deserved to share the Hugo Award for Best Novel.

Review: The City and The City by China Miéville

The City and The City – China Miéville (Published 2009)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Urban with a strong dose of Hardboiled
Completed: October 25 2010

I will often read a book and admire the author’s specific skill with language, or their ability to evoke and develop character, or perhaps their focused and enthralling plotting. Occasionally I will read a book and be so disappointed that I feel like I could write a better story. After reading The City and The City I simply felt like China Miéville is much more intelligent than I am.

The City and The City defies genre classification. It has won numerous speculative fiction awards (including the Hugo Award for Best Novel), prompting purists to argue that it doesn’t actually contain any speculative elements. In my opinion, Miéville’s story requires more than enough suspension of disbelief to classify as Fantasy, though to describe the fantastic elements would spoil the story (I really regret reading reviews that explained too much).

Inspector Borlú of the Beszel Extreme Crimes Squad is tasked with investigating the death of a young woman, found dumped in a typically dark and neglected Besz alley. Borlú determines that the victim was from the more advanced city of Ul Qoma, in spite of the fact that passage between the cities is heavily restricted. He goes through the motions of investigating, anticipating turning the case over to Breach, the mysterious group who punish those who breach the boundary between the cities. Of course, the case proves to be much more complicated than Borlú expected.

The City and The City draws in all of the tropes of hardboiled detective fiction and uses them masterfully to explore the themes of cultural identity, xenophobia and fear of unrestrained authority in a mind-bending and entertaining fashion. The first person structure of hardboiled fiction is used perfectly to allow Miéville to slowly unveil the mystery of his cities. Borlú, the protagonist and narrator, naturally provides the reader with detail only as it becomes relevant to his investigation. There are no patronising information dumps or simple explanations of the nature of the relationship between the cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma.

It could be argued that the characters, like the incredibly focused Borlú, are somewhat flat and the dialogue little more than functional at times, but these weaknesses are overshadowed. Miéville’s genius is revealed in his setting. The cities are almost characters with their own peculiarities, with details like names and language used so effectively to define and differentiate them. Yet it is what the cities have in common that provides the core of The City and The City. In exploring their common ground, Miéville effortlessly maintains his grip on a complex idea that is inextricably linked with his incredible conclusion.

In spite of the flaws that would have held back a lesser work, The City and The City is a monumental work of fiction unlike any I have read before. I give it 4.5 stars and am sorely tempted to go for 5.

Read it – if you are willing to work to enjoy your fiction. You’ll feel more intelligent for having read this book.
Don't read it - if you are looking for a mainstream read that won't tax you.