Shipstar

Shipstar
Greg Benford and Larry Niven

Shipstar’s predecessor, Bowl of Heaven, made a big splash upon its release. The thought of an All-Star collaboration between two of Hard SF’s biggest names, and their stated intention to update the venerable Big Mysterious Object trope had certain demographics salivating. BMO’s are admittedly hoary, but they go with Hard SF like sushi and wasabi-infused soy sauce. Now, with the author who really put BMO’s on the map with Ringworld and a highly respected, multi-award winning writer working together on a Big Smart Object, what could possibly go wrong?

Unfortunately, enthusiasm has cooled a bit after the first book. Like a reunion album from some famous 1970s band, many people checked it out, decided that things felt too dated, got nostalgic for the originals, and set Bowl aside. I’m sure there are plenty of readers out there who loved it, but most of the people I talked to were lukewarm. Indeed, the review here was far more positive than most I read. I will be the first to admit Bowl’s flaws, problems that plague most Hard SF no matter the era. The characters were rather flat and the plot was decent, with both relying heavily on the Bowl to carry things off into the sunset. The authors are clearly from another time, lacking the cutting edge verve makes certain recent books so fascinating. Niven in particular has been accused of coasting on past glories, charges that Bowl did little to discourage.

Now, with expectations dampened and people buzzing more about other 2014 releases, Shipstar sails into port. All I can say to those who vowed not to go on is: forget your promises and get this book. Bowl could be a bit of a stage-setting slog, with the trapped humans to explain, the Bowl to introduce, the Folk to show, the conflicts to set up, the information to dump, etc. etc. etc. With Shipstar, the table is set and all that is left to do is bring out the roast beast, light the dessert on fire, and pull the tablecloth out from under the crystal at the end. (This is actually a fairly accurate description of what happens. Trust me.) We still get a few inexplicable moments of leaders musing on leadership and awkward human interactions, but they are overshadowed by the rest. (Greg, what happened? You used to HATE middle management types, now you’re writing effective motivational techniques into your fiction.)

This is still archetypal Hard SF. The humans are moderately engaging, but they mostly serve as an excuse for Science and Aliens. And what aliens they are! One would expect this from Niven, but non-humans steal the show. The Folk are fascinating, and have a pretty mind-boggling history that would be a total spoiler to reveal, so I won’t say anything. The Sil are doughty, the Finger Snakes are hilarious, and the authors pull a few more tricks out that will floor a certain type of reader. They’ve really dug deep into exobiology for this one, with stuff that will surprise even the most grizzled SF veterans. In contrast, Bowl focuses mainly on the Folk, with only hints of what is to come.

The Science bit keeps pace. We all know that the meat of the series will cover the Bowl, its functional basics, its destination and history, and probably a twist or two that will pull the rug out. This it does, in ways I can’t go into here. The Bowl is mind-blowing, but we all knew that before. It has to be, or nobody would write these books. The challenge is to blow minds in original and unexpected ways, and the authors pull this off with aplomb. Again, this is to be expected. Niven knows he has to outdo the Ringworld here, so he goes all in. Benford isn’t about to go down in history as a guy who can’t deliver the science fictional equivalent of meat and potatoes, so he is at his peak. Together, they check all the boxes for BMO’s, but never predictably or conventionally.

Finally, I should say a word or two about Ye Olde Sense of Wonder. The authors know what is required of this sort of book. They know we’re here to be wowed, and they come through. Not just with the Bowl though, they pull that trick we see in all the best SF, one that defines SF as a genre apart from other fiction. Benford and Niven wrote a book that keeps unfolding new secrets that continually expand the horizons of the story and its universe. This is something I see more in SF than anywhere else, the way that one revelation doesn’t just propel the plot, but opens new existential and physical possibilities. A fact is unveiled that changes not just our perception of a character or situation, but the way the universe is put together. Shipstar has these moments every 50 pages or so. New information comes to light, and suddenly everything means something different. It is 400 pages of, “Wow, that thing there is really cool. Wait, if A does this, that means that B is possible, which in turn makes C suddenly important, and hang on, what do you mean there are dinosaurs?”

If it’s not clear yet, I will summarize in fewer words. Everything in this book except the humans gets wilder and crazier on a straight line projection; I enjoyed every minute. Yes, it’s a throwback. With the exception of a nod here and there to climate change and environmentalism, this is 1970s, Big Idea science fiction, where massive engineering works cruise the galaxy and plucky humans figure things out. It is the epitome of meat and potatoes SF, but made with grass fed, gourmet meat and locally grown, organic Yukon gold spuds. It may not redefine the genre, but it is probably the peak of a particular, fundamental subsection of SF. Recommended for everyone that likes gargantuan, mysterious artifacts. (Yes, even for those who didn’t like Bowl of Heaven.)

The Pilgrims

The Pilgrims
Will Elliot

I should confess that, while I’m not much of an art person, the cover for The Pilgrims totally sold me on the book. When Tor sent an email offering review copies of a few books, I was skeptical of picking up another fantasy. (I’m trying to keep a more manageable TBR pile for the F end of SFF.) Then I saw the cover, with a stunning white castle towering over the landscape, and knew I’d have to read this one just to see if the book lived up to the artwork.

To be honest, I normally wouldn’t write a post about The Pilgrims until I was further into the series. By itself, the book doesn’t lend itself to any sort of assessment. The first book in a new series usually concerns itself mainly with world building and character introduction, but authors generally try to create and wrap up some sort of narrative arc, even if the point of the initial story is to lead into the bigger, series-spanning plot. The Pilgrims doesn’t act like the first book of a series, more like the first part of the first book of a series. It ends without any resolution whatsoever. I can’t even call it a cliffhanger, more of just an abrupt stop. Needless to say, this is not conducive to pithy and incisive commentary. I did, however, request this review copy with a promise to write about it, so write I will! (Great sighs of relief echo throughout Tor headquarters at this announcement.)

Let’s start with things I enjoyed about the book. Elliot’s world building starts off conventional, but rapidly goes in unexpected directions. Yes, there are the usual evil wizards to slay, naughty emperors, lithe maidens with bows, and mercenaries with tormented pasts, but they are operating in a world that hints of greater depth. The secret history with dragons is neat if not wholly original, the political relationships between various cities show promise, and certain stranger aspects of the world may blossom into something truly unique in later volumes. I have high hopes. I am also intrigued by Elliot’s magic system. No more flowing, white beards and pointy hats, these mages have curly horns and chew on dirt and shrubs to reduce the heat buildup caused by excessive magic use. (I guess they haven’t learned about heat sinks or fins to increase radiating surface area.) Fun stuff. Nothing like a shaggy, ram-headed beast trailing smoke as he flies across the sky.

For things I’m less crazy about, the bit about people from our world dropping into fantasy land tops the list. That’s not a plot device I get excited about anymore, since it was beaten to death back in the 80s. The characters, to their credit, are self-aware enough to see what’s going on; one is convinced he’s going to save the day, even though absolutely nothing about him makes me think that he can. I would like to see an author drop people from our world into a kingdom in crisis, then have them fail, or just be irrelevant. Much more entertaining than the usual. Elliot is just vague enough about things to keep me guessing though, so there is hope for an amusing twist later in the series.

Beyond that, the only serious knock on the book is the way it finishes. The plot arcs in one direction for most of the book, then lurches suddenly in a new one about 40 pages from the end, then everything just sort of stops. I am baffled what might happen next. This is nothing that ruins the book for me, but I might caution people to hold off reading until the second volume is out. I expect that it will make more sense then, but would have preferred a smoother transition.

In spite of our boring heroes and the confusing final act, I will be reading the next book as soon as it is available. It’s possible that things could backslide into mediocrity, but I think Elliot is going to come through with exciting stuff. He’d better, since he has this brilliant cover image to live up to.

Toshokan Senso (Library Wars)

Toshokan Senso (Library Wars)
Arikawa Hiro

Before all else, I should note that this is a DNF for me. (Did Not Finish) My wife, on the other hand, not only finished, but promptly put the sequel on hold at the library. For some, this is probably all you need to know. For the rest, I will explain. I will refrain from going into too much detail for two reasons. First, this is exactly the sort of book that Haikasoru would translate and publish, since it would no doubt subsidize a couple of more obscure productions. Second, I imagine that certain spin-offs are out in the wild with, at the very least, fan subs available. There may be commercial translations as well; I haven’t looked. Regardless, for those who are interested, I’m pretty sure there’s some English out there.

Some background: Arikawa Hiro is a primarily a writer of mysteries, light romance, and other books allegedly aimed for the female market, or so says the Japanese Wikipedia. As far as I can tell, Toshokan Senso is her first foray into science fiction, though it appears to have comprised a great deal of her recent output. The first volume of Toshokan Senso was published in early 2006; by 2008, the four-volume series won itself a Seiun Award. Manga adaptations followed, then an anime series and live action movie. For whatever reason, Arikawa managed to create a major franchise that attracts both SF types and the shojo manga demographic. (Shojo manga are the romance comics aimed at adolescent girls.) Whatever else I thought about the book, I have to give Japan credit for not pigeonholing its genre authors.

In Arikawa’s Japan, conservative government types have promulgated the Media Improvement Laws, granting broad and arbitrary censorship powers to the Media Improvement Committee. These laws passed with a minimum of public fuss, both because they were cloaked in the usual “protect the childrens” rhetoric and because the Japanese public rarely makes a fuss about anything. Sharp-eyed activists saw the way the wind was blowing and responded with a series of measures granting the library system extraordinary responsibilities to protect free speech. Within a few years, conflict between the two got out of hand and both sides militarized. The heroes of the series are members of library special forces teams, equally adept at blowing crap up and using the Dewey Decimal System.

This is more strangely plausible than one might think. In fact, Japan-based readers probably have little trouble imaging something this bizarre going down with the current Prime Minister running the show. (In fact, we should probably just silence the author now, before the ruling party gets any more good ideas.) Weird as it may seem, the plot setup had nothing to do with me putting the book down. To be honest, I am sorely tempted to put the anime on in the background, just to see what Arikawa does with it all.

So why did I stop? Three reasons. First, and smallest, is the writing quality. My Japanese isn’t good enough to notice the subtleties, but I can tell some differences in prose. Toshokan Senso was a weird mash up of high school girl and legalese, neither of which felt natural to me. (My wife had similar complaints.) I have little patience for teen speak in English, and even less in Japanese. Second, and considerably bigger, is the lengthy training sequence that starts the book. I don’t know how this happened, but kids going to school has quietly moved into #3 on my list of hated tropes. (Long time readers will know that time travel and psionics occupy the top spots.) For whatever reason, possibly related to grad school burnout, I really don’t want to read about adolescents going to school. This is rather irrational and eliminates various popular novels, but I make no apologies. 100 pages of education is about 80 too many.

Third, largest, and perhaps least forgivable in this enlightened age, Toshokan Senso failed to hold my interest because it is a romance. Rather than science fiction with romantic trappings, it’s an unabashed shojo manga that just happens to be vaguely science fictional. This is why my wife ate it up, despite some obvious flaws, and my interest died like a fly ball on the warning track of literature. She has little use for SF, and I couldn’t care less about love. Certain of my friends are fans of both and will probably love the series, but I just couldn’t hack it.

To be totally fair to the book, I probably would have finished it in English. I’m curious enough about big titles in Japan, and intrigued enough by the library army that part of me wants to power through the annoyances and finish the book. In Japanese though, it’s just a bit too much. My reading time has been cut in half since winter and I don’t have time for books that are merely intriguing, all the more so when they take three times as long as English novels. Still, I wanted to highlight this, both because of Arikawa’s popularity and because it’s something non-Japanese speakers can probably dabble in.

Inversions Part Two

Inversions Part Two

Iain M. Banks

Well, I was going to switch gears from Part One and write a conventional review of this particular Culture episode, but then Kamo went hog wild in this insightful post. Now I feel peer pressure to respond. Those jumping into the conversation here would enjoy things more if they, at the very least, read Kamo’s musings. My comments will be both a reaction to them and a continuation of my previous writing. (Spoilers galore though, so maybe best to skip this if one hasn’t read Inversions and plans to soon.)

Of greatest interest to me are the pairs of parallel stories. One set comprises DeWar and Vosill as they attempt to nudge their respective host societies toward The Future. (Or not, in some cases.) The other set traces a pair of Culture denizens as they argue over ethics, then looks at what sort of agents they become for the Culture. (To clarify, I also think that DeWar has gone rogue, but I’m pretty sure he was SC at some point. It’s an open question if he followed Vosill here on his own or they were assigned together. I don’t have a feeling either way and am curious what others think.) I suppose it goes without saying that there are various “inversions” as we muddle along.

In his storytelling, DeWar never says which of the younger pair favors the more cynical, aggressive world view, but I think most would agree that it is DeWar himself. This means that Vosill is the idealist, the one who wants to avoid doing harm for any reason at all, and who carries the banner for naïve hope. Odd then, that many years on, DeWar sits primarily in paralyzed inaction while Vosill carries out a one-woman crusade against cruelty, inequality, and feudalism by, among other things, lying, cheating, and assassinating. It sounds as though DeWar has left a pile of corpses in his wake, but in the text at least, Vosill is by far the more deadly.

She is also far more active, directly challenging the hidebound, lobbying blatantly for progressive causes, and removing the obstacles to a better world by force when necessary. DeWar on the other hand, our erstwhile “gotta break a few eggs” type, seems content to moon about, valiantly protecting a dictator who grows less and less likeable, and pining for a concubine. One could be charitable and suggest that DeWar has hooked his horse to the wrong chariot and is doing what he can by influencing the young prince, but I think that gives him too much credit. From the looks of things, there are plenty of other monarchs out there that need guarding, and plenty of young princes to tell parables to. His inaction is puzzling, especially as I don’t see his relationship with Perrund (the aforementioned concubine) as being fervent enough to keep him around. (At least, not at the beginning of things.)

What messages are we to take from all of this? Is it kosher to wax an occasional noble, if he is sufficiently icky? Is there honor in Duty, no matter the wider context? Should we draw the line before or after raining fire from the skies on backwards societies? I have no idea how to answer these. Banks makes some uncomfortable suggestions in Inversions, indeed any of his books, that force an engaged reader to confront difficult questions.

These are my reactions for now. It’s possible that I will read other posts and be inspired to write more, but for now I may have interrogated things enough. What I really need is another soccer metaphor, but all I can think of right now is coaches from more developed soccer traditions parachuting in to help lesser nations achieve World Cup dreams. If it were Coach Vosill, I wonder if there would be a mysterious trail of dead football officials and aging players in her wake.

Inversions Part One

Inversions Part 2

Iain M. Banks

The subtitle of my slightly late post should probably be, “Dorks Wax Eloquent About Political Science.” If this sounds too pompous/nerdy, it’s probably best to bail out now and come back for Part Two. Alternately, visit the Read Along Compendium that Kamo is hosting to find other views of the story. Everything I’ve read so far has been spot on with analysis and packed with intelligent things that hadn’t occurred to me.

Flattery dispensed with, it is time to look at the first half of the book. Or, to be more accurate, it’s time to wander off on a couple of tangents, while saving the book itself for Part Two. It’s kind of hard to resist the tangents, because Banks packs so much into the Culture books. One can read this at the superficial level and appreciate his wit and narrative pace, but there is plenty of other juicy goodness below the surface for those who want to look for it. Not everyone will want to, I suppose, since Banks is from Scotland, a country that gravely worries this American columnist. I don’t think there’s much of controversy in Inversions though, just questions that none of us have good answers to. (Alright, I admit it. I just wanted to get everyone reading that article because it makes me laugh so hard. I’m glad Scot patriot and SF luminary Charlie Stross tweetered it.) I am digressing before my planned digression even gets off the ground.

During early discussion of Inversions, I pointed out that it reminds me the most of Player of Games. Answering why requires going back to something else I read about The Culture: that the books nominally stand alone, but can frequently be sorted by pairs that are in thematic dialogue with each other. Certain themes run throughout the series, but I found Inversions and Player of Games to have the greatest focus on certain questions of any of the books I have read thus far. The central issue underlying both is the best way to deal with a state or civilization less advanced, and whether or not it is even right to meddle in the first place.

This question is hardly unique to Banks. In its most famous guise, The Prime Directive is mainly honored in the breach, though Star Trek would be pretty boring if, every time The Enterprise stumbles on a new planet, Kirk says, “Well, the ol’ Directive says to leave these savages alone too, so let’s go somewhere else.” The exact opposite approach is the basis of David Brin’s popular Uplift series. Not only are they meddling with the natives there, but it’s considered best practice to give whole species sentience, then guide them along until everyone agrees that the new kids are grown up enough to join the country club. I’m sure we can all think of many examples that fall somewhere between the two. We humans even make some appearances in the role of Noble Savage, with the most graceful treatment perhaps being Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

It should be pretty clear from this brief survey that we haven’t yet arrived at a consensus for how to deal with alien races further back in the sprint to Utopia. Banks spends many of the Culture books looking at ways that the Culture, the only game in town worth playing, handles its lesser neighbors. The Culture waffles from book to book on how best to “help” those around them, though Player of Games makes the strongest case for intervention. Here, an entire civilization is (SPOILER ALERT) ingeniously undermined through the national pastime, as we are gradually shown why a superficially stable and decent society is in fact degraded and abusive enough to warrant a change. (SPOILERS OFF) It is one of my very favorite SF books, if only for the brilliant way that Banks weaves game theory and the Liberal paradigm of international relations into the plot.

Now, a few books further on, both the author and the Culture are questioning the very basis of that sort of intervention. The two main characters, who are pretty obviously Special Circumstances agents, find themselves on the opposite ends of intervention practices, though at least they seem to agree that it’s worth it to prevent Game of Thrones from happening. (Thanks to Tor.com‘s for that angle.) They argue on and off throughout the book on the best ways to intervene, without either really gaining the upper hand. The story is non-committal about it all, eventually settling on a cautious endorsement of meddling (I think), but, like the Culture itself, fully aware that even the most careful intervention carried out with the best of intentions spawns a whole boatload of unintended consequences.

Banks is hardly writing in a vacuum. We aren’t even close to settling these questions here on Earth, let alone in Outer Space. Western powers are criticized for not giving enough aid to poorer nations, or for giving too much when they should be doing something better with the money. Religious groups try to help, but come under fire for spending more time giving Bibles than food. China doesn’t take human rights into sufficient account when showering favors, the US worries about human rights too much when people are starving. Japan earns frowning disapproval from “The Washington Consensus” because their patterns of aid invite government intervention in ways not sufficiently capitalist. I think most of us agree that getting rid of things like slavery and dysentery is a positive step, but nobody seems to know how best to go about it. We won’t even start into America’s recent nation building excursions.

Does Banks have the answers in Inversions? No, but he doesn’t shy from asking the questions. The Culture is, for all practical purposes, all powerful and the best place ever to live. There isn’t any debate anywhere that they’re doing things right. And yet, even then, nobody seems to have solutions to the slow burning problems of cultural development. They are at least self-aware enough to realize this, unlike real world types who barge in with their iron clad solutions and end up dropping giant bales of food on hapless civilians or something. “Here, catch this half ton brick of tinned ham! Have some democracy while you’re at it!”

This sounds a bit cynical, which is not, I think, what Banks has in mind. Not all of the Special Circumstances agents leave things in a better state when they leave, but the pair in Inversions seems to make a real difference. Banks poses difficult challenges, but always returns to the basic, science fictional optimism in progress that is a hallmark of the Culture books. We may not know how to get there, but for Banks the future is always brighter.

Tune in next time when we put the poly sci texts down and actually talk about the book!

Mason Johnson Guest Post

When A Review Says Your Devoid Of Charm, It’s Probably Right…

[Ed. Note: Today we are excited to present a guest post from author Mason Johnson. He has recently released Sad Robot Stories and is touring the internet with it. I am especially glad that he has chosen to write about the relationship between authors and reviewers, something that seems increasingly relevant to what we do. I hope everyone enjoys this. Thank you Mason!]

“Summary: It is Pixar’s ‘Wall.E’ without focus and devoid of charm.”

That’s the first sentence to the only bad review (that I know of) for my book, Sad Robot Stories.

After reading that line, my first response was to laugh. After that, I thought, “No focus? Devoid of charm? Is she talking about the book or the author?”

I laughed again, because, like all terrible human beings, I laugh at my own bad jokes.

For a blog like Two Dudes in an Attic, books are examined, praised and criticized regularly. It seems fitting that I explore the relationship a reviewer has to the reviewed on a site that’s firmly on one side of the proverbial line in the sand. With the Internet connecting people like they’ve never been connected before, it’s easier than ever for authors and reviewers to tussle.

It is a truly beautiful world we live in.

Acutely aware of this potentially caustic dynamic the Internet fosters, Goodreads shows authors a warning before allowing them to comment on negative reviews for their work.

It’s pretty funny.

“Ok, you got a bad review. Deep breath. It happens to every author eventually. Keep in mind that one negative review will not impact your book’s sales. In fact, studies have shown that negative reviews can actually help book sales, as they legitimize the positive reviews on your book’s page.

“We really, really (really!) don’t think you should comment on this review…”

It makes sense that Goodreads would interfere in the squabbling that might occur on their website. The site is meant to turn the solitary acts of writing and reading into a more social endeavor — ideally for the better. I’d argue that they have a responsibility to keep things fun.

But! Goodreads wasn’t able stop my mother from being angry that a friend of mine gave my book a measly three stars.

Three STARS!

Three stars actually seemed decent. I mean it. As someone who barely graduated high school, I have no qualms settling for 60%.

Word that my mother was not pleased with the rating got around, and eventually the person who gave me the three stars heard about it and, afraid of mom’s wrath (I assume), knocked that up to four stars.

Sorry, Lizzie.

Coming back to the woman who downright didn’t like the book, she’s lucky I banned my mother from commenting about Sad Robot Stories on the Internet. I’d thought briefly about comically reviewing this woman’s review as a blog post, but that seemed like it could potentially come off as petty and even combative, so I decided not to. I also decided not to link her review here (you could easily find it if you wanted to), because that, too, could seem combative, as if I’m trying to lead a call to arms against her (that’d be really fuckin’ lame).

The thing is, her review ain’t bad. Who knows, maybe her review is right. My book has no focus and is devoid of charm? How is that opinion any more right or wrong than the compliments others have given my book? If she wants to call the voice of the book inconsistent, then she should be able to.

Hell, maybe the voice is inconsistent.

She may only be posting the review on Goodreads, but she’s also a computer scientist who teaches robotics (or so she says), so she at least has one avenue of credibility when she says, “I just did not care about any of the human characters and I certainly could not relate to the robots as described here.” (lol)

And even if she didn’t, again what would make her opinion any worse than mine or yours?

As the author, I don’t feel like I have the authority to disagree. I’m done writing the book. It’s off in the world. My opinions at this point might as well be as valid as the readers, especially considering the fact that my feelings about the book will never be the same as they were as I wrote the damn thing — I’ll never be able to recreate that.

Interestingly, a stranger commented on her review in defense of my book. He likes the book and ended his response to her with, “… while this writer is no Picasso, especially as far as not being a pioneer, he is obviously a master of his profession…”

And, similar to my response to the negative comments, this comment didn’t move me. I appreciate that this person has taken their time to say something nice about my work, and that’s a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling, but in regards to the book itself, I have no idea whether the writing in it proves I’m a master of anything. Maybe, maybe not. Who knows?

Mostly, I appreciate the woman who left me a bad review. Like the guy who had nice things to say, she spent her personal time to read my book. That’s amazing! The idea that anyone would spend time reading something I wrote, let alone spend time writing a review for it!

I don’t care what she said, I appreciate the time she devoted to saying it.

I’d tell her that, but Goodreads is warning me not to.

Inversions Read-along

While there is a certain overlap in readership and most people out there already know about this, it’s best to cover all bases. Soooo….. I am emerging from Spring Hibernation to announce another read-along project! Just in time for the Summer Solstice! We’re going to dance ’round the maypole and read Iain M. Banks together. First, announcements on instigator/partner blogs for the sake of completeness:

This is How She Fight Start

Little Red Reviewer

I’m very excited about this because 1) Banks is amazing and reading him with friends only makes it better, 2) this will hopefully get the blog back on track after the end of a school year once again sucked away all free time, and 3) I may get to wander off on a convoluted, international politics-related tangent. Seriously, what could be better than that?

So if anyone else out there is feeling a Banksy itch, grab a copy of Inversions and hop on the train! Initial posts should be going up around the 25ish, with some follow up and discussion a week later.

(Also, I promise to have new articles up very, very soon. Please forgive the neglect.)