Falkenberg’s Legion

Falkenberg’s Legion (The Prince)
Jerry Pournelle and S.M. Stirling

My introduction to Jerry Pournelle came through his frequent collaborations with Larry Niven. (Niven, of course, was my Hard SF gateway drug.) The public library had only the Janissaries books, so I missed out on John Falkenberg in my impressionable youth. Many years later, that name came up frequently in discussions of essential military SF, so I set out to read about him. This is somewhat easier said than done, since the Falkenberg books have been published as short stories, short novels, longer novels, compilations, and compilations of compilations. Baen Books has combined everything into The Prince, which is probably the best way to go about things, but I read the books as four novels. Pournelle alone wrote the older stuff, S.M. Stirling joined him for the two Sparta novels later on.

The Falkenberg stories are Mil SF in the style of David Drake or Gordon Dickson, but form a bridge to the more politically incendiary books by Heinlein and the Baen Books crowd. Like Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers, Pournelle is sympathetic to the grunt’s cause and the realities of being a pawn when diplomacy is carried on by other means. His soldiers are much less concerned with Honor and Valour, and more worried about not being killed in gruesome fashion. But while Drake and Dickson tend to leave things with the soldiers, Pournelle addresses bigger political questions as well. While he is more subtle than, say, David Weber or John Ringo, some of his philosophy is every bit as disturbing as Starship Troopers at its loopiest. Indeed, I have seen him inaccurately called “fascist” and “Right-wing” in various forums. First off, who hasn’t been called fascist recently? Second, he is not Right-wing in the contemporary sense. (Aggressive, Libertarian Christianity.)  Instead, Pournelle is a throwback to the less well known H. Beam Piper; readers of Space Viking will recognize many of the same ideas about government and democracy.

As a pacifist and progressive liberal, I find that Pournelle’s politics aren’t always palatable, nor his solutions to problems the solutions that I would pursue. He takes a pretty dim view of democracy, which I am sympathetic to for wholly different reasons, and an overly optimistic view of monarchy. The recurring theme in the series is democracy being compromised by selfish or evil men, then unable to save itself because of the inherent weakness of democratic institutions. Again, this is a reasonable fear, but Pournelle is quick to dispatch the enemies of freedom in paroxysms of violence. Falkenberg is his avenging angel of freedom initially, and the torch is passed to Prince Lysander in the Sparta books. In all cases, the good guys win when someone finally realizes that sometimes we must unshackle ourselves from the demands of democracy and open up a proverbial can on the bad guys.

Herein lie the differences with both the current crop of angry Mil SF and with my worldview. A typical politician for John Ringo (in what little I have read) is venal, self-serving, and blind to reality. Dadgum pansy gubmint commies get in the way, regulate everything, and (in SF at least) get us all killed by aliens. (Come to think of it, a hilarious Tea Party sign would be something like “Big Govt. allows the Posleen to eat children.”) Pournelle’s politicians, on the other hand, are generally committed to protecting democracy and the people, but are so hamstrung by their dedication to justice, peace, or some other ideal that the bad guys slice and dice freely. Pournelle (and Piper, and Heinlein) disturbs me because, like his politicians, I am none too eager to toss our scruples in the bin and lower ourselves to the bad guy’s level. If we fight brutality with brutality and injustice with injustice, we are no better than the enemies we face. And that is where we all just agree to disagree, and also why I don’t read much John Ringo.

Now for some fun. The Co-Dominium is one of my favorite future histories. It’s nowhere I want to live, but world is carefully reasoned and very compelling. Readers born in the 1990s will probably be nothing but baffled with all the Cold War imagery, but those of us old enough to remember will find it chilling. The atmosphere of corruption and degeneration oozes off the pages. The idea of the US and USSR gradually becoming each other is not unique to Falkenberg, but I can easily imagine an early 1970s Pournelle looking at the Soviets on one side, and Nixon and Kissinger on the other, and being thoroughly gloomy. As the action moves into the second half and a new set of characters takes over on a new world, I found myself a little less interested. I’m uncertain how much of my dissatisfaction is a general reflection of the second half, or if I’m just clinging adolescently to heroes from the first stories. I will confess to enjoying the Falkenberg parts of the book more than the battle for Sparta, but I’m not entirely sure why.

I have a lot of books on the burner right now, leaving me jumping from series to series, trying to sample as much as possible and coming back later to pick up the sequels to the books I liked the most. Once I started Falkenberg, though, I read it straight through. Rarely do I stick with one series, or even one author, for four books in a row. Of course, anyone reading The Prince will just barrel through, so maybe my experience is less than indicative. Still, they are good books. Pournelle is under appreciated outside of the Mil SF crowd and should be read more widely. Inside the Mil SF world, John Falkenberg is up there with Alois Hammer, the Dorsai crowd, and all the faceless Starship Troopers that Heinlein feeds to bugs in The Pantheon of Influential Old Stuff.

Rating: The Magnificent Magyars. A Cold War relic, Hungary’s early 1950’s football team was the best in the world. Look it up.

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Halting State

Halting State
Charles Stross

This one had me by the second sentence of the dust jacket. The book opens when Scottish police are summoned to a bank robbery. The baffled cops are completely unable to understand what the victims are saying until a video replay starts. In it, a troop of orcs and their dragon fire support walk into a bank, subdue the employees, and make off with a fortune in magical blades, armor and trinkets. The bank robbery took place in Avalon Four, a popular MMORG, and the company responsible for the virtual economy wants its treasure back. The cops have only one response: call in the nerd reinforcements.

A moment of subgenre nitpicking, which I promise is relevant, before moving on. Halting State is set in the near future, involves hacking and hackers, and features plenty of cyberspace capers, yet I refuse to call it cyberpunk. Why not? After all, what else could it be? Well, the obvious answers are thematic. Halting State takes place primarily in Edinburgh, which is better known for bad food, kilts, and claymores than for hard-edged techno-noir. There is also the jaunty nature of the story, which gets more serious than pixelated mischief, but stays just one step away from silly. The bad guys are also far from typical, but I can’t really talk about that without spoiling everything, so the discriminating reader will have to take my word for it. By themselves, these reasons aren’t necessarily sufficient; Snowcrash is a seminal cyberpunk work, but is loopy and hilarious. There is more to this, though a further detour is necessary to make my point.

It occurred to me early on in the book that I was reading a companion piece to the recent The Moon Maze Game. Both are mysteries with embedded games. Both have heroes that are gamers of one sort or another. Neither are cyberpunk, despite the trappings listed above. Despite these similarities, there is no mistaking one for the other; they couldn’t even take place in the same universe. The games, of course, are different. The Dream Park series is built on a logical extrapolation of LARP-ing and the SCA. (People running around with padded swords bashing on each other, with or without a plot.) The technology that Niven and Barnes cook up enables the games to continue in the Live Action realm, with all that entails. Stross, on the other hand, takes World of Warcraft and builds out a bigger and more impressive system of MMORPGs. The effects on the respective plots are clear, but I am more interested in the cause of the divergence, as it demonstrates a clear evolution of the science fiction landscape.

Western science fiction has long been intertwined with the twin touchstones of science and fandom. Larry Niven is, if not Golden Age, at least very old, predating New Wave, cyberpunk, the Space Opera Renaissance, and whatever else has happened in the last three decades. Science in Niven’s heyday meant physics and astronomy, and fans were, well, fans. Fast forward to the new century and the scene is different. SF is still tied to science and fans, but computer science joins the traditional disciplines and fans are now likely to be gamers as well. Why is this relevant to Halting State? Considering the author and audience, I think the book is best described as Hard SF. Niven and Barnes wrote their book following the old rules of Hard SF, but with the new generation of programmers, network admins, and security wonks, I think that Hard SF is changing before our eyes. Stross points the way here, with a cyberpunk-free book full of hackers, nerds, griefers, and virtual bankers. He explains virtual economies with the same care once given to FTL drives and neutron stars.

The rest of the book is hard to talk about without wandering far into spoiler territory. I may have to say that I love the identity and motivations of the “bad guys,” but leave it at that. There is one aspect of the book that demands attention. For whatever reason, Stross elected to have three viewpoint characters, but tell the story entirely in second person. I’m not sure why this is – I suspect that he made the call because it gives the book more of a game-like feel, with the reader as player. It may also just be his desire to do something unconventional. I know we all like unconventional stuff, but sometimes the conventions are there because they work. Not writing in second person definitely falls into that category. I confess to having an irrational hatred of second person, to having threatened my former students with fire and brimstone if they slipped even the smallest “you” into their research papers, and admit that it all may be clouding my judgment, but I really wish Stross had written this in an approved narrative voice. I had to actively ignore it and subdue my irritation until the story got exciting enough to override my revulsion.

Over-reliance on the word “you” aside, Halting State has much to recommend it. Like the Dream Park books discussed earlier, readers with strong feelings for and experience with computer games will probably enjoy the read more than others, but seeking out Charles Stross seems like a self-selecting process anyway. Enjoy the ride.

Rating: Oil sheiks taking over European clubs and changing the face of football.

The Alex Benedict Mysteries

A Talent for War
Polaris
Seeker
The Devil’s Eye
Jack McDevitt

I have been selling Jack McDevitt short. Each time I read an Alex Benedict novel, I think to myself, “That was really good. Much more to these books than just another mystery. I need to get some more of McDevitt’s stuff.” But then later on, when I’m looking at my reading pile and choosing my next book, I say something like, “Oh, Alex Benedict. That will be a quick, fun read. Nothing too deep or challenging there.” I’m not sure why I can’t keep things straight in my addled brain, but I think I owe the author a small apology. Hopefully now that I’ve read the fourth book in the series and am putting fingers to keys, I will remember the more accurate assessment when I get my hands on book number five.

All of the Benedict stories are mysteries, but not in the crime sleuth, Col. Mustard in the conservatory with the lead pipe, mold. Mr. Benedict is a purveyor of fine antiquities and the mysteries he solves are generally related to one or another of the artifacts that make it into his collection. The stories are somewhat similar to the literary thrillers that boomed briefly when Dan Brown ripped off Holy Blood, Holy Grail, but bear the closest resemblance to books like The Club Dumas, by Arturo Perez-Riverte. This is science fiction, though, so while Perez-Riverte sends his characters after art, manuscripts, pirate’s treasure and what not, Alex Benedict is dealing with spaceships, aliens, supernovae and lost planets.

Because he is not a cop or a PI, the “mystery” is usually less of a corpse in a locked room and more of a historical puzzle. Benedict gets his hands on a mysterious object of some sort, digs into the story behind it, and uncovers a disappearance, a conspiracy, or a conundrum. Sometimes there are bad guys, sometimes there are victims, and sometimes there is just an artifact and its history. Within these stories though, McDevitt creates space for his characters to explore larger questions than merely, “What is this thing, how did it get here, and what is it worth?” Intertwined with the artifacts are grand, ethical questions ranging from war, prejudice, and responsibilities as leaders or scientists, to our debt to the past. Somewhere within each mystery is a deeper question that the characters must wrestle with, rarely with easy answers.

I read the books in a slightly skeewampus order, starting with Polaris before reading A Talent for War. This is not as disorienting as it might seem, because McDevitt didn’t really settle on a template for his stories until the second book. The first is quite different for a number of reasons, even if the themes (both on and beneath the surface) are the same. Most obvious is the change of narrator. While all of the books are told in first person, Alex himself narrates only Talent. His assistant, Chase Kolpath, joins him partway through the first book and takes over narration duties from Polaris onward. This is probably a good call. Chase is a more natural voice for these stories, though I can’t quite put my finger on why. I suppose it is for the same reasons that Watson, not Holmes, tells the story.

But Talent feels a bit different from the rest of the series for other reasons as well. First off, I suspect that it was meant to be a standalone novel; only later did somebody realize that this would be a lucrative franchise. Because of this, McDevitt crams a lot into one book: a new universe and future history, a mystery, a bigger question about humanity and war, new scientific discoveries, and some things that are probably left out of later canon. In some ways, this one remains my favorite, just for the ambition. I am also a sucker for stories that force the reader to examine questions of Just War and pacifism, as Talent does in its exploration of a reluctant war hero. By telling such a big story, it makes life difficult for the follow-up novel. Once the giant mystery has been solved, how to top it?

So it is that Polaris might be the weakest of the bunch. The narrator changes to Chase, a good call as noted earlier, and the book sets out what will become a familiar pattern. Alex is now a minor celebrity, he and Chase stumble across some loot that points to a bigger question, they start digging around, some peril rears its head, the answer to the bigger question leads to an even bigger and more existential question, and things get solved in a more or less satisfactory way. The mystery in Polaris is more tightly constructed, but the ethical question pales a bit in comparison to the first book. Technically, I think Polaris is a superior work, but it’s missing a bit of the exuberance of the first book.

Seeker takes the template and improves on it in almost every way. The same pattern applies, but everything has been dialed up a notch. As Alex’s fame increases, the stakes rise accordingly and Seeker gives the biggest payoff so far. It also lets Chase get out more, unshackling her from the position of pilot and assistant to make her more of an equal to Alex. He remains the boss, to be sure, and the main brain behind the operation, but Chase gets more opportunity to use her own talents. She also grows into her role as narrator, letting more of her personality into the story, adding commentary and asides that humanize the characters. (I suppose we could say that McDevitt grows more comfortable speaking as Chase, but the books feel like it’s her own voice coming out as she gets used to telling these stories.) My only real complaint with Seeker is that, after three books of perilous encounters and break-ins, you’d think these two would upgrade their security systems a bit.

By the time The Devil’s Eye rolls around, McDevitt is flexing his storytelling muscles. He deviates a bit from the usual pattern, this time sending a troubled character to enlist aid from the famous Alex Benedict. There are fewer artifacts or history this time around, and more mystery and conspiracy. The book takes a turn for the dramatic towards the end, abandoning the traditional mystery for full on science fiction. Unfortunately, to say very much would ruin the whole thing, so I have to keep this very vague. After Seeker, I thought it would be difficult to top the ending, but this one is even bigger. McDevitt surprises me every time by finding a new way to raise the stakes on his characters. I would say that nothing could top the end of Eye, but I’ve been saying that for four books now.

Perhaps the most rewarding part of the fourth book is finally seeing an overarching theme that the author is working on. I don’t know if he has slowly built this up throughout, or saw the opportunity in Eye to tie several threads together, but it was very exciting to see things take shape. Alex and the rest of humanity share the galaxy with just one other intelligent species, who they call the Mutes. The Mutes converse telepathically, and so don’t speak naturally. Because they look like large, threatening insectiles with teeth, and because they can read minds, humans hate being around them. (The feeling is, of course, mutual.) One character describes spending time with the Mutes as “like petting spiders.” The two species have had one major war and, while officially at peace, skirmish on and off. Alex and Chase have a hostile run in with them in the first book, speak briefly in the second, and have much more extensive contact in the third and fourth.

Midway through Eye, this grand theme begins to take on importance. McDevitt is slowly, almost independently of plot, exploring how two groups afflicted with mutual dislike can overcome hostile instinct and work together. This is relevant both on the off chance that we someday have our own first contact, since nothing guarantees that we’ll meet Ewoks, but also in the context of a politically divided and charged America. Both species are faced with situations where a failure to cooperate damages both sides, but widespread prejudice and base political calculations prevent any sort of rapprochement. Not unlike the current mess, where a refusal to work together is routinely pushing the country to the brink of economic cataclysm, humans and Mutes must find some way to ignore mutual repulsion and take steps towards a necessary cooperation. (The Liberal Institutionalist in me is quivering with joy.)

Hopefully I have banished the remnants of my “Alex Benedict is airy fun” misconception. These are serious books that ask serious questions, wrapped in a delicious candy shell of sci-fi historical mystery, rather like biting into an M&M to find a Belgian chocolate truffle.

Rating: Chelsea. Every year I think, “Chelsea is old, predictable, and finally going to fall out of Champion’s League contention,” and every year Chelsea challenges for a title right up until the end. (Alex Benedict is not, however, owned by a Russian billionaire with shady business contacts and a suspicious history.)

Mardock Scramble

Mardock Scramble
Ubukata To

Why do Japan and cyberpunk go together like chocolate and peanut butter? It wasn’t random chance that the sky the color of a television tuned to a dead channel was first seen from a Tokyo suburb, though the magic of Neuromancer long obscured from me the fact that Chiba is basically Tokyo’s Connecticut. In spite of this natural affinity, Japan’ major contributions to the cyberpunk movement have primarily been visual. If anyone is writing novels in the subgenre, they aren’t being translated; this is why Mardock Scramble so groundbreaking. I’m sure that Ubukata isn’t the first to write cyberpunk in Japan, but if he gets even half of the recognition he deserves, 2011 will be a watershed.

If Bruce Sterling decided he needed to be even more outrageously grotesque and gave Iain Banks a call, who then recommended grabbing Neal Stephenson and his gratuitous infodumps, then the three of them decided to create a coming of age revenge anime, Mardock Scramble is what might result. This is not to imply that it is derivative, because nothing could be further from the truth, but one has to start somewhere in making sense of it all. Ubukata writes with remarkable confidence and self-assurance, enough that it is almost his undoing in Mardock. Still, he pulls it off. The premise of the story is simple enough: a young prostitute is almost killed by an unsavory character. She is rescued by two PI’s, who team up with her to track down and convict her would be killer. Along the way she grows up and learns Important Life Lessons. No surprises here.

Of course things are never this simple. The great thing about cyberpunk is that the author can pretty much take today, turn a dial labeled “Technology” up a couple notches, then turn a knob labeled “Weirdness” up several notches, and a setting magically appears. Mardock City is instantly recognizable as an archetypal future-noir metropolis, though Ubukata makes it his own. The characters too are staples of the noir/cyberpunk canon, but tweaked and refracted at all sorts of odd angles. Rune-Balot is a prostitute with an unenviable past but an incandescent future, who can sense electromagnetic currents. Her PI rescuers include a mad scientist with tie-dyed hair (Dr. Easter) and a small, cybernetic, shape-shifting golden mouse (Oeufcoque). The title of the book is taken from a law called “Scramble 09,” which empowers people like The Doctor and Oeufcoque to prove their usefulness to society by helping unfortunates like Rune-Balot. Balot’s killer is named Shell. He employs Oeufcoque’s former partner, Boiled, as a bodyguard and hitman. Yes, the egg analogy runs throughout the book, but I am far too impatient to sit down and analyze the whole thing.

Ubukata sets up the whole thing with great elan. He puts the plot in motion and practically dares the reader not to come along. Don’t like lengthy discussions of ethics? Too bad. Not interested in the intricacies of roulette? Tough. Prefer to avoid hard-boiled and grotesque characters? Wrong genre. He comes very close to losing his audience with a 300 page deconstruction and shakedown of a casino that I still can’t believe made it through editing. I will give the man credit: I kept reading, and it kept being interesting, but spending one third of the book on successive games of poker, roulette, and (mostly) blackjack is a quick way to reduce a book from “seminal” to “self-indulgent.” And yet, in spite of everything that should have derailed the story, Mardock hurtles ahead at unsafe speeds.

Changing course a bit, it is worth taking some time to compare Mardock with Western cyberpunk. The setting and plot are more or less standard for the genre. Mardock City is not readily identifiable as Earth, there is no indication that humanity has reached the stars or spread to other worlds. It is basically what one would expect from a cyberpunk city is almost every way – glossy, high tech cityscapes, desperate slums, political and corporate corruption, organized crime, glittering neon, wild future technology, and some really messed up people. Likewise, the plot is basically a hard boiled mystery and revenge tale, paired with strange cybertech and a young girl coming of age. Regular stuff, until Japan starts creeping in.

First off, things are infused with a pervasive anime vibe, offset with a delicate overlay of Goth-Loli aesthetic. (If the gentle reader is not acquainted with Goth-Loli, imagine a combination of pale faces, dark makeup, French maid costumes, brooding gloominess, and that wonderful Japanese Hello Kitty cuteness. Alternately, just stop while you’re ahead and don’t think about it at all, preventing a desire to scratch out eyes.) I’m having a hard time coming up with a good explanation of what exactly this vibe entails, but like pornography and a certain Supreme Court judge, I know it when I see it. The characters don’t have wild, blue hair, oversized eyes, or a habit of opening their mouths really wide when they talk, but something in the way Ubukata paints the scenes, moves the action, and conducts his dialogue suggests that everything should be animated. (And, of course, it is. A movie trailer for part one is here.) The author has been involved in a few anime series, so this comes as no surprise. Indeed, much like Western SFF is often tied into either gaming and fandom, or NASA, JPL & Co., Japanese SFF is deeply intertwined with the manga and anime industry.

The second aspect of Japanese influence is in the treatment of women. As a card carrying dude, the portrayal of women in SFF and other feminist topics are not things I’m normally comfortable talking about. Rather like the place of blacks in society, it’s just not something I have experienced first hand, so I don’t feel qualified to address it. That said, the women in Mardock are something that even usually oblivious me figured out. To be clear, Ubukata is not consciously misogynistic. Rune-Balot is a strong, competent, even heroic character. (Or at least she becomes so.) Men are overwhelmingly portrayed as barbarous, animalistic, and simplistic. Ubukata is very clear on how much, and in what ways, men hold women down. This is all to his credit, coming from a society as patriarchal and rigid as Japan is. But reading the book, I was reminded yet again of something. Women are degraded in one fashion or another in all societies, but Japan takes a special relish in all the myriad ways this occurs. We see Mardock City through eyes that condemn misogyny and brutality, but keep saying, “Wow! Look at all the terrible things that can happen to women! It’s awful, but wow!” I’m not necessarily criticizing the author for this, but I see a reflection of the culture that also produces the adult video series “Tremendous Incontinence.” (This actually exists. I haven’t seen it though and refuse to post links.)

Finally, and this is something I keep coming back to in my Japanese reviews, that strain of Japanese humanism pops up yet again. I will illustrate with a vague, and mostly spoiler-free, description of a pivotal scene. While reading this part, I was reminded of one of the most iconic set pieces in The Matrix (which no doubt influenced Mardock, but was itself influenced by Ghost in the Shell). When Neo and Trinity rescue Morpheus, they blow their way through a faceless horde of guards in spectacular, and oft-emulated, fashion. The guards and cops aren’t necessarily bad people, just doing their jobs, but they are mowed down quite mercilessly. Earlier in the movie, Morpheus explains things away in vague fashion, saying that it’s unavoidable to kill humans that are unknowingly helping the enemy. This was always troubling to me, when I wasn’t wrapped up in the special effects and awesomeness, as we would see this from the other side as a terrible calamity, complete with widows, fatherless children, caskets draped with flags, etc.

In Mardock, Rune-Balot is pursued by people who aren’t just unsavory or misguided, they are truly repulsive individuals. Even pacifist me would look on their deaths with a certain fondness. At one point, as some of them are hunting down our protagonist, she opens up a proverbial can. Rune-Balot is a child prostitute, she’s been blown up by a mobster, used in awful ways by countless men, raped on a number of occasions, is now hunted by disgusting people, and now is finally in a position of power. Her cybernetic skin lets her sense and control electromagnetic fields, enabling insane feats of self-defense. I don’t think anyone begrudges her a chance to vent her anger on people that plan to do some pretty unspeakable things; most readers are probably cheering as the bad guys get picked off in creative and hilarious fashion. However! Her partners take exception to the brutality and Rune-Balot learns an important lesson in not sinking to her enemy’s level. In fact, she ends up hurting people close to her when she lets fear and anger take control. This lesson is repeated throughout the book, rather like how Luke learns not to give in to his hate, thus preventing the completion of his journey to the Dark Side.

As the last comment implies, this sort of resistance to violence is not exclusive to Japan. I don’t claim that it is, nor do I claim that all Japanese books invoke it. On the other hand, most that I have read seem to resonate with the commitment to pacifism that one finds in nearly all aspects of contemporary Japan. This is a country where “Morals” is still a core class taught at school, where almost every teacher is on the left of the dove-hawk political spectrum, and the army isn’t called “The Army.” (It is “The Self Defense Force.”) Ubukata brilliantly, and perhaps unintentionally, highlights the contradictions in Japan between people’s natural tendency to, and enjoyment of violence, and the restraint and discipline required by a moral code that attempts to enable peace. Mardock is plenty violent, but there is an ambivalent tone toward the violence throughout, as though the characters are asking the reader if there isn’t a better way to handle the situation. Again, this sort of thing is not unheard of in Western SFF (think Terminator 2), but on the whole, we are pretty eager to blow away the bad guy.

Returning to the more review-oriented part of the review, I am tasked with summing up and passing judgment on Mardock Scramble. Yes, it slows down in the middle when Ubukata inexplicably takes the party on an all-night casino binge, there’s an awful lot of talking and pontificating for this sort of thing, and the characters spend more time in a courtroom than they, or the readers, might enjoy. But when the characters cut loose, Mardock delivers the goods. In particular, the first 250 pages or so are some of the best and most insane cyberpunk out there. Whatever its flaws, Mardock is a massive, important work. The images and characters are vivid, crazed, and impossible to evict once they have taken up residence in the mind. This is a must read for cyberpunk fans, anime junkies who want something heftier, and anyone who wants to see the state of the art in Japan.

Rating: Ono Shinji. One of the most sublime, joyful members of Japan’s Golden Generation, Ono could have been Japan’s Xavi. He was cut down from behind, however, during a meaningless qualifier in the Philippines and was never the same. Despite losing some of his transcendent brilliance to injury, he still had a Hall of Fame career.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

[Ed. note: While there are a couple of big articles in the hopper, nothing was ready for today’s publishing deadline. Fortunately, the soon-to-be-promoted Brad was waiting in the wings, ready to step up at a moment’s notice. Another big thanks to Brad, who will soon be getting his own photo and byline.]

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Susanna Clarke

Let me be frank:  I loved this novel.  I mean, I really loved it.  I know a lot of folks say they loved Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but for me my love of this book goes to an altogether higher level of affection and respect than may be typical for the hackneyed expression, “I loved it.”  Sort of like, Susanna Clarke would be my #2 choice[1] for telling me stories late at night on a chilly evening, in front of a blazing fire, with hot chocolate, roasted marshmallows, and snuggling.  Or like, the amazing feeling when you find Mr. or Ms. Right and discover this person feels the same way about you.  Or in guy terms, your favorite football team crushes its most hated rival in the Super Bowl, and your favorite band pulls of a dynamite halftime show with no bad notes and all the songs you loved as a kid, and Beyonce has a major wardrobe malfunction lasting more than 1 second.  Yeah, the novel is that wonderful!

Not only is it a great novel of magic and fantasy, set in an alternative England of the early 19th century, it is a superb work of literature that also just happens to be a great novel of magic and fantasy, set in an alternative England of the early 19th century.  And it has an oddly compelling love story as well.  Even grumpy old guys like me can have our hearts softened once in a great while, and the winsome Ms. Clarke does that quite well; the reader ends up caring very much about Jonathan and Arabella, the fictional lovers.  Summary:  There’s nothing in Jonathan Strange that I didn’t find absolutely wonderful, with one major exception.  The book checks in at a hefty 782 pages, causing me to offer up this one complaint:  It’s far too short!  And it cries out for a sequel.  No, for sequellae.

Those who haven’t read it may ask, “What’s so cool about this book?”  Imagine Harry Potter meeting up with Charles Dickens; the two of them then amble down the road to the home of the redoubtable Jane Austen, there concocting amongst themselves an epic tale of history, chivalry, valor, love and betrayal, all with a magical overlay.  Toss this tale into a witchery cauldron of your choice, throw in a dash of Oscar Wilde, a pinch of 21st century postmodern skepticism, and bring a very competent author—prepared to invest about 10 years in a labor of love—who pours in a thorough knowledge of English history from the late 18th and early 19th centuries (the kind you’d only get in an English public school).  Then skew your plot just enough so it’s charmingly cockeyed in places.  Bring this concoction to a slow boil, stirring constantly for about ten years; violá!–you have the finest work of alternative history it’s ever been my privilege to read.  There’s real history mixed in:  For example, the mad King George gets his moment in the limelight; and the English war to stop Napoleon Bonaparte form much of the novel’s sub-text.  In the richness of its world, Jonathan Strange is on a par with Lord of the Rings; better, deeper, more compelling than the aforesaid Harry Potter series.  In fact, Jonathan Strange very much resembles Charles Dickens’ finest work in this regard—those who have read any Dickens will find themselves in familiar literary territory.  The only modern historical novels I’ve read recently to which I can compare it in terms of depth and intricacy are Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost, and Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx.[2]

But like LOTR and the later Harry Potter novels, Jonathan Strange—though it deals with rare magic, cunning fairy princes, inaccessible castles, and damsels in distress—is no kid’s book.[3]  In creating its own world, a world that hangs together throughout, it’s equal to LOTR and to the Dune mythos as well, as well as more outre works of science fiction or fantasy like Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy[4] or Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (works which remind me of each other—but that’s a subject for another—as yet unwritten—review).

This glorious novel is set in an England where magic exists but has gone dormant.  In a wonderful scene, conjuring up something oh-so-typically-English, the book opens with a meeting of the City of York Society of Magicians.  But the Society’s members don’t actually do magic.  In proper English fashion, they present to each other lengthy scholarly disquisitions about magic as it once existed, complete with footnotes, arcane quotes from foreign languages and obscure reference works (all of which Ms. Clarke duly cites in footnotes of her own, set out in proper scholarly fashion), and good old 18th century English stuffiness.  What could be more blue-blooded?

It takes Mr. Norrell (we never learn his first name) to show the York Magicians what real magic is.  And he creates a sensation.  Riding on the crest of his fame, he moves to London, where he becomes the toast of the town.  Reluctantly, he takes Jonathan Strange as a pupil, a pupil who will finally become the master (and where have we found that plot device before?).  Norrell and Strange complement each other, but also become rivals, because each has a different magical ethos.  That difference forms the heart and soul of this riveting book.  I won’t give away more than that—no spoilers here!  If you haven’t yet read the book, go for it.  (As a bookseller, I have it on good authority that new or like new copies of the hardbound edition can be found in many remainder bins or on-line at reduced prices.  You really have no excuse not to read this wonderful book!)

From now on, when we talk about the fictional worlds that mean something to us, that shape our personal identities, that resonate with our “real world,” we must add to Middle Earth, Dune, Hogwart’s, “a galaxy far, far away,” and 221B Baker Street, that achingly beautiful England chockablock full of strange magic, inhabited by Messrs. Strange and Norrell.  We must hope that Jonathan can dispel the Darkness and return to his beloved Arabella.  We must hope the good Ms. Clarke comes up with a true sequel to Jonathan Strange, one that has a happy ending.  Finally, we must believe (as all good children know in their heart of hearts) that magic is real, and can heal us like, well, like . . . magic.

Rating:  The World Cup finals!  I cannot recommend this magical book highly enough.  Buy it, read it, read it to your older kids, re-read it, immerse yourself in Susanna Clarke’s wonderful world of magic, and regret that our oh-so-skeptical age has marginalized magic—the magic that exists in each person.  Invite Messrs. Strange and Norrell into your home; they will be very good, polite, English guests, and you will enjoy their odd company immensely.

Musical inspiration:  No metal here, death or otherwise.  I wrote the first draft this review listening to Pat Metheny’s The Way Up; and did the re-write listening to Metheny’s magical and heartbreakingly beautiful song “Más Allá” (“Beyond”), from an earlier album, The First Circle.  I especially recommend the version with Argentinian vocalist/bassist Pedro Aznar performing with the Aca Seca Trio, found on You Tube at this URL:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWKPK-mZZWE&feature=share.  Aznar was Metheny’s vocalist for a time, and wrote the Spanish lyrics for this haunting tune.


[1]The #1 choice for this difficult duty is Brad’s significant other, since even grumpy footie coaches need lovin’.

[2]The Quincunx and An Instance of the Fingerpost are not a fantasy or sci-fi novels; they’re historical fiction.  Moreover, they are very good historical fiction.  When you, gentle reader, tire of either sci-fi or fantasy (assuming something so horrible could ever occur!), I highly recommend either book (or both) as worthy of your consideration.  (NB:  The OED defines “quincunx” as “an arrangement of five objects in a square or rectangle in which four occupy the corners and one the center.”  Such a pattern is the key to understanding Palliser’s multi-leveled novel, as well as a worthy metaphor for the novel itself.)  Much as I’d like to do so, I won’t ask Pep for leave to review either fine work in this esteemed blog, having exhausted my visitor’s privileges on non-fantasy/sci-fi by reviewing The Club Dumas a few weeks ago.  And I won’t even bother to ask José; he would simply utter an unintelligible growl, or try to poke my eyes out.  (Second NB:  If you find well-done historical fiction enjoyable, I understand Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall is also worth the time and effort.  I have the book, but have not yet had time to read it—too many cheesy vampire novels, too little time!)

[3]Thankfully, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a great children’s book!  Read a chapter a night to your kids.  All of you will be glad you did.  They’ll find LOTR on their own when they’re ready for it.

[4]Which Pep swears he will someday review on this esteemed blog—if he doesn’t, I’ll either do it myself or send José and his “magic fingers” after Pep.

The January Dancer

The January Dancer
Michael Flynn

The Monthly Picks section of the local library never fails to have something intriguing. I’m not sure who chooses the books, I guess it’s just an assortment of whatever new paperbacks have come in. I’ve grabbed several things at random however, when I recognize a name. These tend to be sudden additions to the reading list and are hit or miss. In this case, it was a promising book cover involving spaceships and a name I hadn’t read since he co-wrote Falling Angels with Niven and Pournelle lo these many years ago. Flynn also won a Seiun Award this year, so I figured there must be something worthwhile in the book and took The January Dancer home with me. I must also confess that the blurb on the back sucked me in. It’s natural for books to have little happy reviews from peer authors or well-known critics, but this one skipped that and went straight to brazen self-promotion. January is “as thrilling a yarn as any ever in the history of SF,” according to itself. Who could say no? I’ve read quite a bit of SF in my day; I’d better not miss any yarn that is historically thrilling.

First of all, I must confess utter ignorance of Michael Flynn. Because I have read only this solo effort, I can’t place it in any sort of context or comment on the evolution of his style. All the observations to follow may be painfully obvious to longtime Flynn fans, but it’s all undiscovered country for me. To start with, Dancer is a bit of a genre mashup. It starts in a tavern, in a questionable part of a port town. A wandering minstrel walks in, plays some tunes, then starts talking to a mysterious scarred stranger about some wild story. There’s a lot of bombastic fantasy prose and pretty much everything one would expect in the sort of tavern that starts off an epic tale. It switches gears, though, as soon as the scarred stranger begins to talk, turning into much more straightforward SF prose. (Still a bit purple, but nothing like the intro.) The book keeps the story within a story structure right up to the end, with the main tale being SF and the minstrel’s end staying epic fantasy-esque. Does this work? I suppose that’s up to the reader. I prefer the main plot to the encapsulating plot, both in terms of story and prose, but some may feel differently. Oddly enough, the trope mixing reminded me most of Resnick’s Santiago, though that is a Western in space and Dancer is heroic fantasy. There are echoes of something else in the book, but I just haven’t been able to put my finger on what they are.

The story itself is a MacGuffin Hunt. One Captain January finds a mysterious relic, later named as The Dancer, and mayhem ensues. People chase after it, pirates invade planets, fleets attack each other, rival empires start grinding the gears of war, and of course various individuals find adventure, romance, danger and tragedy. To his credit, Flynn makes The Dancer slightly more engaging than a briefcase that is never opened. It felt a bit like an interstellar riff on the One True Ring, but not excessively so. Mostly though, the MacGuffin provides an excuse for Flynn to take us on a tour of the universe he has created. To his credit, it is a universe worth exploring and deserves the spotlight he shines on it. I don’t have any factual basis for this speculation, but the universe feels modeled on Europe in the Age of Empires. The major planets are generally ports on one or another of the superluminal superhighways, realities of time and distance preclude any sort of unified government, pirates infest the galactic backwater, and of course there are the aforementioned wandering minstrels. It’s a nice place to visit for those who like their Italian city-states mixed with starships. The book suggests that there are other tales to be told, which I would be happy to read.

There is one downside to the book. The enthusiastic book cover that claims, “It ends, as all great stories do, with shock and a beginning.” Flynn winds up the tension, hints at dire happenings, has his characters track down The Dancer across the galaxy, lets them double and triple cross each other, and then … it fizzles. Things quietly tidy themselves up, the stranger and the minstrel have one last flowery exchange, and the book ends. This wasn’t a toss-the-book-in-rage kind of ending, more of, “Oh, ok. Well, uh, what’s next?” I guess there was a little bit of shock – shock that things ended without a bang. It’s not a fatal quirk, but it was unexpected considering the high flying adventure that preceded it.

So, a final verdict. I’m not sure this is as thrilling a yarn as ever. I’m not ready to bump Dune, Hyperion, or The Book of the New Sun off a pedestal just yet, but I enjoyed The January Dancer.

Rating: Arsenal. Flowing, stylish football that makes everyone believe they’re mounting a serious title challenge, before flaming out in the end and backing into the Champion’s League.

The Moon Maze Game

The Moon Maze Game
Larry Niven & Stephen Barnes

At long last, the fourth installment of the Dream Park series emerges from the fevered recesses of Larry Niven’s brain. When the first came out, back in the Dark Ages before everyone knew what a 12-sided die is and doorstop fantasy series were as scarce as hen’s teeth, I doubt he and co-author Stephen Barnes had any idea they’d be cranking out sequels. Thirty years later, that’s exactly what happened. The book triggers two big questions. First, Niven’s track record in the last decade or so has been, to put it kindly, mixed. Does this book measure up to past glories? Second, what has changed in the Dream Park world in the nineteen years since we last dropped in?

Let’s look at the second question first. Niven and Barnes have let their world age along with us. Some of the characters from the previous three novels make cameos or have their names dropped, but Moon Maze brings an all new cast. There is still a Griffin at the center of things, but this time it is Scotty, Alex and Millie’s son. (Newsflash: apparently Millie is black. I totally missed that memo, unless Niven and Barnes are changing the past to suit present plot needs. Wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened.) The other gamers are by necessity new, since any past favorites would now be in their 60s and 70s. There may be geriatric games at Dream Park, but not the cutting edge stuff that the novels usually focus on.

The world and technology have moved on as well. As the title might lead one to assume, this takes place on the Moon. Astute readers will remember that nothing was happening on the Moon in the original books, though things were starting to happen in Earth orbit. Dream Park itself gets more and more insane as well, though many of the updates are clever ways for the authors to rearrange their near-future tech. Cell phones are present now, for example, and there are no dot matrix printers spitting out accordion paper. Everything has evolved naturally though, so the Dream Park world is still easily recognizable as such.

The book itself has evolved also. The first three Dream Park novels followed the same pattern: a game wrapped in a real world mystery. Something was going on that was tied to the game, but not a part of it, and the Dream Park security staff, headed by Alex Griffin, solved the problem. Of course, for various reasons, THE GAME MUST GO ON, so the reader gets to watch the mystery unravel while also following the progress of the gamers in whatever crazy world the Game Masters (and authors) have cooked up. Moon Maze tries a different track, leaving the mystery behind for a more conventional thriller. Of course THE GAME MUST GO ON, but this time it’s not a way to make money or flush out the perpetrator. This time, terrorists have overrun the game and the gamers can’t escape. (Note: this is not a spoiler. The dust jacket reveals everything up to this point.) All of this is taking place on the Moon, so it’s not like our friends the gamers can just sneak out a side door. Instead, they must use their ingenuity and the crazy props lying around to outwit the terrorists, or at least avoid unfortunate endings and/or the vacuum of space.

This last change represents the logical extension of everything that has gone before. At its heart, the Dream Park world is all about wish fulfillment. Maybe not for Niven and Barnes, but obviously for their characters and, I think, SF fandom in general. Niven has a long, friendly relationship with fans. Many fans have found their way into his stories, Fallen Angels was basically an ode to fandom, and his recent books with Edward Lerner are the culmination of one fan slowly working his way from admirer to coauthor. Dream Park lets all of the gamers in fandom (I suspect this is a huge percentage) pretend that they too can put away the 12-sided dice and sourcebooks, get dressed up, and go beat the daylights out of virtual monsters. I understand this – I would probably be at Dream Park myself, given the opportunity. But Moon Maze takes it one step further. Not only are the gamers playing these amazing games (and becoming rich celebrities while they do), now they are real life heroes, using their innate gaming skills to save real lives and thwart real bad guys. What could be better for the pimply guy down the hall who knows more about hit points and skill trees than the workings of his shower? This is not entirely fair – a great many nerds and gamers shower regularly.

It’s time to venture back to the first question. As I have written elsewhere, Niven takes a lot of heat in the critical community. He comes from an older style of Hard SF, back when men were men, characters were vague, and big ideas were more interesting than profound themes. I understand both the critiques and the expectations of an older generation, raised as I was on a combination of Hard SF and high school English assignments. The characters in Moon Maze are not completely faceless, the authors make attempts to humanize them. I’m not sure that there is Character Development going on, but we at least get some semblance of moral complexity with some of the bad guys. I suppose there’s a touch of misogyny present, though the female characters are all capable and ready to dish out butt-kickings. (I’m not really sensitive to this sort of thing, but now that I think about it, most of the women needed a good, strong man in their lives.) I probably didn’t learn much about the human condition.

What I did read, however, was a fast-paced, fun story. Niven and Barnes keep things very cinematic: events move quickly, the action is paced well with just enough breaks to let everyone catch their breath. Viewpoints jump smoothly, ensuring that the reader sees all the important interactions and no filler. Necessary tropes get checked off, one by one. [Some very minor spoilage] Appropriate bad guy back story including hard childhood and/or oppressive society? Check. Hero with a tragic weakness to be overcome? Right here. Noble sacrifice of someone who was basically marked for death from his/her introduction? Aisle Three please. Divorced couple who really just needed life-threatening stress to realize that they should be together after all? Sale on those today, sir. Crazy Moon caterpillars involved in interplanetary warfare with mechanized Martians? Er, we’ll get to that later.

I’m mocking things a bit, but to the authors’ credit, even the clichés are addressed in a logical, orderly fashion. Everything that goes down happens for a good reason, even if it is a bit predictable. This may be more of a condemnation of Hollywood than praise for Niven and Barnes, but it’s refreshing to read a blockbuster-esque novel without gaping plot holes, inconsistencies, forehead slappers, or just plain factual nonsense. (I’m looking at you, but not you exclusively, Dan Brown.) This is actually giving Moon Maze far less credit than it deserves. I will say it again: Larry Niven has my number. I read this over two days, but would have finished in one had silly things like my kids and sleep not interrupted. Whatever faults his other recent books have, and they are apparently many, Moon Maze is non-stop entertainment. It may even be the best of the series.

Before signing off, I should explain that caterpillar thing. The gameworld here is probably my favorite of the four. Its basic premise is that the H.G. Wells canon is real, which means we have doughty 19th Century British types, crazy bug-like things on the Moon, insidious Martian invaders from War of the Worlds, and a lot of stiff upper lips. I am not a Wells expert, nor do the gamers get as much time to explore as they (or we) might like, but the Moon that the gamers visit is a setting I would love to spend more time in.

A couple of last notes: I have no idea if this is a sly reference to famous Moon books of the past, but Lunar independence raises its non-sequitur head. Is there a Moon book out there where people don’t rebel? Finally, previous Dream Park reviews are here and here.

Rating: FIFA 2012. Those of us who can’t be Messi in real life can at least play him in a video game.