Jack McDevitt

Alex Benedict, who was probably never intended to be McDevitt’s galactic Sherlock Holmes, has come in a torrent these last few years. (According to this interview, a franchise was never in the plans.) After a fifteen year break between novels one and two, McDevitt has cranked out five new stories since 2004. The fourth of these, and fifth overall, recently made its way into paperback, and from there to the library’s Monthly Recommended section, where I found it waiting for me the same way others find dogs at the animal shelter. (Yes, while other more sensitive types have their hearts stolen by corgis in cages, I hear the seductive call of books on shelves. “Check us out!” they say, “It doesn’t matter that you have seven other books waiting on your desk!”) And so even though I just finished Alex Benedict Part Four and reviewed it here, Echo proved to be too much for my meager defenses.

Echo follows the now standard ABP (Alex Benedict Procedure). Alex gets a lead on some strange artifact, he quickly finds out that there’s more to the story, someone tries to threaten him off the case, Chase Kolpath flies them out to some crazy place, they’re almost killed, the mystery opens up into something much bigger than anyone thought possible, Important Questions are asked, and Alex somehow saves everyone. Despite knowing how the action is going to unfold, I still find myself waiting with baited breath for the whats and whys of the story. McDevitt has a big universe to work with and plenty of opportunity for mystery.

In many ways, though, the details of the mystery are only hooks upon which McDevitt hangs the bigger questions he likes to investigate. In this way, while the books are written in chronological order, they zig and zag thematically. Echo engages more in some of the questions posed in Seeker, specifically the validity of Benedict’s profession. While The Devil’s Eye was concerned primarily with The Mutes, that arc seems to have resolved itself for now, leaving the characters freedom to roam in other directions. Again like Seeker, Echo lets the plot to more heavy lifting than the philosophy, as compared to the rest of the series. Ethics flit in and out of the picture, but in the end, the action is the focus, as is the question of just how many aliens are actually out there.

At this point, I should probably confess that I am more ambivalent about this book than I have been the previous four. Straight up, I feel that it’s the weakest of the five, for a couple of reasons. First, and this is pure speculation and armchair psychology on my part, it reads a little like McDevitt is getting tired of the series. (This jars with the increasing publishing schedule; contract obligations perhaps?) Early in the book, I read a passage and thought, “That’s it. He’s setting up Benedict to end here.” The questions from Seeker get louder, people in the story forget that Alex is single-handedly responsible for new stardrive tech, saving a planet, and bringing peace to The Mutes and humanity, and start whining about how he’s a mercenary grave robber. Alex and Chase lose heart in the pursuit, and (SPOILER ALERT) Chase even resigns for awhile. (Spoilers off.) The recent publication of the sixth book in the series proves that Alex does not throw in the towel at the end of the book, but the whole story is suffused with weariness. Melancholy stories are fine, I’m not complaining about that. But when it feels like the author is tired of it all? Even the assassination attempts fail to get much of a rise out of the pair, so they just plod on with plain indifference.

Second, and this is where I really suspect contractual obligations come into play, the story just isn’t as tightly assembled as others. Coincidences and luck begin to pile up by the end, the connections between certain events and characters seem a bit frayed, and the why of the mystery is less satisfying. There are a lot of moving parts connecting the stone tablets Chase finds at the beginning to the shocking reveal Alex uncovers at the end, and not all of those parts are well-oiled. The what of the mystery is big and exciting, enough so to offset the other shortcomings, but Echo just isn’t up to the high standards set by the other books. I am curious if this is my own opinion, or if others feel the same. An initial survey of reviews suggests that I am in the minority here, but I suppose time will tell.

Looking at the broader picture, Echo may just be suffering by its placement in the series. The end of the book suggests that Alex and Chase could be moving in an exciting new direction, as McDevitt opens up his universe to new possibilities. But Echo acts primarily as a launching pad for the future trajectory rather than a satisfying episode. The previous installment was the culmination of a slow burning but intense story arc that saw a planet escape certain extinction at the same time humanity’s soul found tentative salvation. It’s a bit hard to top this, which is part of the reason that Polaris, coming as it does after the all-consuming resolution of A Talent For War, feels a bit small-time as well. That said, the story seemed dogged by author and character disillusion, as well as some plot sloppiness.

So do I recommend it? Yes, if for no other reason than the series as a whole gets high marks and one book has to be the weakest. I will reserve full judgment until after I read the newest volume, but for now, I am assuming that it will all be worth it in the end. Also, the suggestion that both characters might find a romantic partner that is not the other is worth most of the other silliness.

Rating: Brazil in an off year. Still better than most of the competition, but just lacking some sparkle and verve.

The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories

The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories
Ed. John Apostolou and Martin Greenberg

I probably should have started with this anthology. Anyone taking a methodical approach to foreign writing is well served by digging into broad overviews like the one Apostolu has put together, but my course has been anything but methodical. I am finally getting this Japan thing in gear though; hopefully it leads to more coherent and informative reviews. But enough about me, let’s talk about Japanese SF short stories. This post will be more descriptive than analytical, which is something I normally shy away from. In this case however, explaining a bit about what the stories are and who wrote them will lay the foundation for some later writing that digs more deeply.

First, the basics. The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories, hereafter TBJSFS, is thirteen stories written by ten different authors that were originally published in between 1963 and 1989. (Six from the 1980s, five from the 1970s, one from the 1960s, and one unlisted.) The so-called Big Three of Japanese SF, Hanmura Ryo, Hoshi Shinichi, and Komatsu Sakyo, each get two stories. The godfather of Japanese SF, Yano Tetsuya, contributes the last story. Abe Kobo, an author perhaps familiar to some for books like Woman in the Dunes, presents the first story. Another major author, Tsutsui Yasutaka is also present, but there are several names I am surprised not to see, among them Mitsuse Ryu. (Mitsuse is the author of Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights, which has been called the best Japanese SF novel ever. I will post a review here as soon as I can get my hands on the brand new English translation.) I was familiar with Abe’s literary output from university days, while reviews of Komatsu and Tsutsui are here and here, respectively. These are the first stories I’ve read by the other seven, even though I recognized several names. There is also a short reading list of Japanese SF included at the end. Unfortunately, most of the English titles available were published in Japan for English students and are hard to come by here.

Some things that aren’t included: No pulps, no Golden Age-style SF, and no otaku culture. Most of the staples of classic Western SF – square jawed heroes vanquishing dastardly aliens with laser beams, scientists and engineers logically solving problems through the scientific method, space wars – are completely absent from TBJSFS. Likewise, many of the characteristics of the Haikasoru releases are also missing. No gamer or anime aesthetic, nothing that relates to Japanese geek culture as it has developed in the last couple of decades. Instead, most of the stories are perhaps better described as fantastic literature. Only a couple are full-on science fiction, a couple more are science fiction trying to be contemporary literature. The rest have elements of SF or of the fantastic, but are firmly in the same literary space as, for example, Murakami Haruki. This is not said with disdain or irritation, but the reader should be forewarned not to expect epic space battles or cutting edge physics. The reader probably shouldn’t expect happy endings either. The tone of the collection ranges from darkly ironic to melancholy, then further into vague menace and warning. The stories aren’t really bleak or nihilistic, but there aren’t any heroes riding off into the sunset either.

Questions of why will come in later posts, so for now I want to introduce a few highlights. Abe Kobo starts out the collection with a tale of the ultimate in class warfare. I suppose the reader’s reaction will depend on his place in the tax bracket, but the story sets the tone for the rest of the book: bizarre, mildly horrifying, and darkly humorous with a touch of forewarning. Hanmura Ryo follows with a look at the life of a cardboard box and a horror-lite story about furniture. Former English teachers will be surprised to discover that Hoshi’s “He-y, Come On O-ut!” is a different translation of “The Hole,” a story that graces every 8th grade New Horizons textbook. (The English textbooks in Japan seem to feel that, in addition to teaching language skills, they have to depress their students.) Who knew that an SF grandmaster (or perhaps I should say an SF Black Belt?) would be fodder for JHS English courses. Komatsu follows later in the book with a full-on tale of someone who combines eating and burning societal hatred in inventive ways. “The Savage Mouth” is not easy reading.

The last stories are finally more recognizable as science fiction. Kono Tensei’s Triceratops starts out comparatively light-hearted, as dad and son see a dinosaur on their way home. It soon follows the the way of the other stories however, taking on a darker tone. (No, the dinosaur doesn’t eat or stomp on any of the characters.) “Fnifmum.” by Mayumura Taku is the most obvious SF and the only appearance made by aliens and spaceships. It is also my favorite story of the batch and most heartwarming. Well, as heartwarming as giant aliens and galactic fugitives can be. Tsutsuis “Standing Woman” is firmly in his idiom: off the wall near future speculation paired with a dim view of human nature in general and government in particular. This one is much more ominous that some of his other madcap writing however. Finally, Yano’s “The Legend of the Paper Spaceship” could be a real life recollection of a place he once visited, or a melancholy tale of a really weird Japanese village, or something about stranded aliens. He never really says, but it is a haunting tale just the same.

To repeat the first paragraph, this is just a look at the What of TBJSFS, saving the Why for later. As for recommendations, there isn’t any way to not approve of this book. Regardless of the quality or style of stories, this is the place to start for anyone who wants to know about Japanese SF. SF Anime is everywhere and the newest generation of Japanese writers is seeing some exposure in the West, but for the original, pioneering stuff, TBJSFS is the only place to start. While I would have enjoyed reading stories in a more conventional style, I am happy to have finally read authors like Hanmura and Hoshi. (Or realize that I was reading Hoshi, since New Horizons never tipped me off.)

Rating: The Guardian’s annual EPL preview. Necessarily light on analysis or in-depth reporting, it’s an essential overview to get the season started.


Anne McCaffrey

This is my second post in the morbid series “This Person Just Died So I’d Better Read Something of His/Hers and Write About It.” (The first was Komatsu Sakyo’s unforgettable Espy.) It also fits neatly into Moldy Fantasy, but I don’t want to overburden myself with titles. For now we’ll stick with the Recently Deceased Author tag, but quietly subtitle this Moldy Fantasy Part 2. It may be the inaugural post in a third series, but more on that later. And so without any further explanatory ado, Two Dudes delves into the worlds of Anne McCaffrey.

I’m not totally certain what to expect from the Pern series. I read the first six books (Dragonriders of and The Harper Hall of Pern) long, long ago, and remember liking them, even if they didn’t make as big an impression on me as some of my (unfortunate?) early favorites. (*cough* Dragonlance *cough*) I never got around to anything else until a few years ago, when I picked up The Rowan completely at random. I put it down very quickly, but I’m not sure if that is a reflection of the writing quality, or just the fact that I should never have chosen a book for and about telepathic teenage girls. Teen Witch in space anyone? Regardless, with Ms. McCaffrey’s recent passing, it seemed appropriate to give one of her classics another spin.

Any sort of plot summary is no doubt utterly superfluous, but just in case, here we go. The Pern books are an ancient and perhaps pioneering example of science fantasy. People on Pern were once colonists from Earth, but have been beaten back into feudal tech levels through the depredations of a rogue planet that careens through the solar system every two hundred years or so. When it passes close to Pern, the so-called Red Star flings out Thread, a non-sentient but implacably hostile life form that devours all biological mass it encounters. The Pernese combat this with dragons, bio-engineered to fly, breathe fire, and psychically bond with their riders. These riders form a privileged warrior class charged with protecting the planet. This is technically fantasy, because there are swords, suits of armor, nubile damsels, brave warriors, and of course dragons, but it is science fiction because there is a reason and an explanation for all of it. A delicate walk on the tightrope indeed. The story follows Lessa, our plucky but delicate heroine, and F’lar, the stern but just dragon rider, as they save everyone and spite their antagonists.

A few initial positive thoughts to begin with. McCaffrey manages to combine, in one novel of just a couple hundred pages, pretty much everything I dislike in SFF. Dragons and their riders have telepathic powers, time travel becomes a factor later in the story, and romance is comparatively prominent. This is a true recipe for disaster, and yet it worked. I finished the book and had fun doing it, which means that all three of these irritants were just barely subordinate enough to the cool stuff (dragons flying around burning stuff). There was never really any question that (SPOILER ALERT!) Lessa and F’lar would triumph and find true love along the way, but that’s not really why anyone reads this sort of thing. So points here for fun and for keeping potential absurdities under control.

Frequent readers who don’t enjoy my penchant for wandering off on political and economic tangents may want to skip the next paragraphs. Several questions bubbled up when reading Dragonflight. I realize that some of these are no doubt endemic to fantasy, but since I don’t read a lot of fantasy I will ask them here. Pern’s feudal structure was rather surprising. Because the dragons have to be raised in the mountains, the dragon riders are forced to depend on the castles and towns for their sustenance. This is fine when the Thread are falling and the dragons are necessary, but the Red Star only rolls into town every two hundred years or so. Orbital irregularities mean that in the story, it has been roughly four hundred years since the dragons were last useful. This means that for four hundred years, the dragon riders have been a useless top of the food chain. Four hundred years! We are supposed to hate the unwashed masses for rebelling against the taxes, but that’s an awful long time for people to expect subservience. Apparently nobody ever thought of taking up farming during the multi-generation interludes, but instead just wondered why resentment festered on every side. Lessa often complains in the book about people being too hidebound and narrow minded, not realizing what a bizarre economic rut her society is stuck in. Surely creatures that fly, can travel instantaneously between two points, and breathe fire have some other economic use. If nothing else, think what UPS could do with this sort of thing, beyond flaming duels with FedEx carriers. (“UPS: We get it there faster, and set the competition on fire. Literally.”)

This odd stasis goes for technology as well. Characters spend a lot of time bemoaning lost technologies and long extinct techniques, everything from Thread fighting devices to proper storage of written materials. I understand the initial tech loss, when the colony faced extinction, and I understand one or another Thread countermeasure disappearing over the generations, but what have these people done for the last four hundred years? Is the whole planet full of uncreative and boring people? I’m not sure how other fantasy worlds justify static tech levels, except by claiming that magic somehow nullifies the desire to research, but it baffled me that everything just stayed the same for so long. I suppose there is some historical precedent in Chinese civilization, but the whole setup from the economy on struck me as odd. Perhaps I am thinking too much? Though according to the almighty Wikipedia, later Pern books take the technological concern into account somewhat.

Finally, the rest of the Pern books may start a new list: Books the Internet Ruined for Me. I started poking around some commentary the other night, purely at random, and it may have scared me off the rest. As I have written before, I’m not particularly sensitive to feminist concerns, portrayal of women, etc., but a couple of articles really crystallized uneasy feelings that kept lurking in the background when I read Dragonflight. Maybe because the books are written by a woman, I assumed there would be less creepy patriarchy. Instead there are female characters who are strong until some defined point when they get all quivery and need a strong Man to set things right. These women are also in weird semi-abusive, vaguely rape-y relationships with guys that are otherwise heroic. Any time our nominal Good Guy is musing in a mildly regretful way that sexytimes with his partner are awfully close to rape, and the female author seems totally alright with this, my alarm bells start to tinkle a bit. There is also the matter of all desirable women being childlike, innocent waifs, but living in Japan has desensitized me more to pederasty than the author’s apparent desire to be dominated roughly by stern, muscular men. And Dragonflight doesn’t even get into psychic gay trysts between riders whose dragons are in heat, which is apparently dealt with at length in later books. Young adult fiction indeed.

So my critical reappraisal of Pern settles on: good fun until I started thinking about it too much. Dragonflight was a fast, entertaining read, the Pern setup is intriguing and well thought out, and while there may not be many surprises, it was a happy triumph for our heroes. Unfortunately, I’m less eager to keep reading for what I hope are obvious reasons. Perhaps a later book in the series, or another of McCaffrey’s works (but not The Rowan!) would suit my fancy more. Stay tuned.

Rating: Socrates. Not the Greek, of course, but the iconic, bearded Brazilian who helped bring his team back to prominence in the early 80s. Like McCaffrey, he recently left behind numerous fans when he went to The Great World Cup in the Sky.

The Algebraist

The Algebraist
Iain M. Banks

The M in Iain M. Banks is very important. Without it, he is a successful and critically lauded author of contemporary literature. With the M however, he is instantly disreputable, a writer of not only science fiction, but of the dreaded Space Opera (threatening brass chords here). He is also one of the early leaders of the British SF Invasion, which is every bit as pervasive and influential as a couple of other British Invasions, but involves neither red coats nor screaming teen girls. The Algebraist is the fifth Banks book I have read, all by Iain M., but it is the first to grace the hallowed Attic walls.

While I won’t go so far as to call Banks “polarizing,” I suspect that his writing is something one either likes or dislikes heartily. Love and hate are probably too strong, but there seems to be a decent-sized gap between those that dig his stuff and those that shake their heads, wondering why they just can’t get into it. The Algebraist is not part of The Culture, Banks’ usual stomping grounds, but is unmistakably his work. Nominally Space Opera in the sense that it involves galaxy-spanning adventures and space ships blowing up, the book is marinated heavily in his usual mix of zaniness, political commentary, and left field, odd angled quirks. Like most, but not all, Banks tales, it is also sprawling and barely contained, with ideas whizzing off left and right, often never to return. More than the weirdness or politics, it is the latter that seems to cause the most trouble for SF readers.

The book is split roughly into three parts. In the extended introduction, Banks lays down the overlapping and sometimes unrelated plot lines: Seer Fassin Taak (our august hero) is sent on a quest for a priceless object that will save the day, the comically evil Luserferous sets off to conquer Taak’s home system, and a young Taak and his friends have a misadventure that ends tragically, sending repercussions throughout the rest of the story as his friends come to terms with it. The last is only vaguely related to the first two, the second is more or less responsible for the first, but ends up being rather tangential, and the first, while superficially run of the mill, ends up in a psychological space that Umberto Eco would fervently endorse. (This is difficult to explain without rampant spoilers to multiple novels, but let us just say that people who grumble about the end of The Algebraist probably don’t like The Name of the Rose or Foucault’s Pendulum either. There is a resigned cynicism in books like this that will not resonate with everyone.) The introduction also jumps back and forth in time, laying out in broad strokes many thousands of years of galactic history. Banks has obviously put the time into creating a massive world, even if this story only occupies a small part.

In the second part, the plot begins to resolve many of the early questions. Taak moves deeper into his quest and the invasion plays itself out. Just when it appears that things will proceed more or less smoothly to the endgame, Banks starts tossing out twists and reveals. Here it may be a dark secret from a character’s past, there a bit about aliens. Someone will say something to turn the reader’s view of an organization inside out, only to follow it up with a comment that tips an opposing group over sideways. It’s almost enough to get whiplash from all of the “Wait, what?” moments. Finally, once most of the major plot points are out of the way, the story winds itself down and starts to close out all of the remaining questions. Like many of his books, things get mired down a bit towards the end, as the narrative momentum plateaus. I’m not sure why this happens as often as it does, but there’s almost always a lull in the last quarter of a Banks book.

The best part of The Algebraist is unquestionably the Dwellers, a species that lives in the gas giants of most of the known universe and has a lifespan of millions of years. They have been around since near the beginning of time and maintain a complex, impenetrable society that Seer Taak is studying. The Dweller’s long perspective of history keeps them aloof from the frenetic doings of short-lived races like humanity. This all sounds very serious and pompous, but two Dwellers in conversation is a bit like John Cleese and Graham Chapman pretending to be foppish British Lords, if the Monty Python crew was capable of periodically whipping out incomprehensibly advanced technology. While Taak is frantically trying to save his planet from a hostile space fleet helmed by a diabolical man with diamond teeth, the Dwellers are gearing up for a Formal War (much more absurd than it sounds) and gambling on yacht races across storms akin to Jupiter’s Giant Red Spot. If this book were nothing but Dweller conversations and exasperated humans, it would still have been nominated for a Hugo.

On the more troublesome side is Banks’ editing and economy of prose, or rather the lack thereof. Banks is capable of writing tightly executed books (Player of Games, Use of Weapons), but this is not one of them. Frequent readers of Two Dudes will naturally assume that someone who routinely sings praises of spare, efficient writing would be offended by the word explosion that is The Algebraist. Indeed, most reviews I have seen fall somewhere between irritation and wrath that the tone of the book is rather like listening to my young children talk: “and then, and then, and then” piling up on each other in breathless excitement. To my surprise, however, it bothers me less than most. I would probably enjoy the book more if the pacing was better controlled, especially in the end game. However, I’m less offended by the uncontained storytelling than I anticipated.

To make a music comparison, there are those who feel that a live performance should be as close to perfect as possible, and that the best way to ensure this is for the musicians to remain within themselves at all times. There is another faction, especially in jazz, that considers a safe performance to be stale and detached. They would argue that the true excitement in music comes from the risk, that pushing everything to the very edge, no matter the audience, is the only way that music can be truly alive. Anyone who has seen me play, or even just seen my CD collection, knows which group I belong to; this is probably why I feel affinity for Banks, even as his books careen joyfully out of control. The sense of dangerous fun inherent in his writing compensates for the organizational failings of the book.

Rating: Arsenal of the early 2000’s. A team built on intellect and elegance in a league full of speed and power, Arsenal could be alternately sublime and entirely too clever for its own good. Never, however, dull.

This Alien Shore

This Alien Shore
C.S. Friedman

I’ve done it again! Yet another set of consecutive books covers the same theme. These always sneak up on me, either through carelessness, publisher deception, or blind luck. I had seen Friedman’s name bandied about and figured I should read something of hers, despite occasionally conflating her with C.S. Forrester in my addled brain. I was under the impression that she wrote mostly fantasy, so I picked up This Alien Shore expecting some similarity to The January Dancer or some other space opera written by a fantasy specialist. Instead, and to my great surprise, Shore asks the same sort of questions as the last book I read. I’ll leave this suspense unresolved for just a sentence longer to say that nobody is more surprised than I that Friedman’s book so neatly dovetails with none other than When Gravity Fails.

One might easily scoff. After all, Gravity is a cyberpunk classic with no apparent relation to a novel of the far future with some ambitions of Sharing a Message. But, just as Effinger challenged cyberpunk assumptions and pushed the boundaries of the genre, Friedman is taking cyberpunk as far from the slate gray skies of Chiba City as she can. More on the Message Sharing later. To review, and this is the last time I will mention Gravity, Effinger’s experiment was to remove much of what we assume is standard in cyberpunk, ie shiny computers, glittering neon cities, and disreputable hackers, and replace it with a North African slum. Relying on the noir underpinnings of cyberpunk, he daringly combined Raymond Chandler, Islam, neural implants, and a lot of drugs to create a book that is wholly unconventional, but an undisputed cyberpunk classic. Friedman? Something, as they say, completely different.

Shore makes no claim to being cyberpunk. Further, I doubt Friedman had any intention of writing cyberpunk, but I can’t look at it as anything but. Consider: The book is actually two concurrent stories that meet towards the end of the book, but are not required by any part of the plot to actually come together. Unlike numerous books where there is actually some hidden and shocking connection, or, say, The Club Dumas, where the lack of a connection is key to the entire story, Shore could actually be two separate books. The fact that Story #1 and Story #2 don’t actually need to intersect, and indeed don’t even influence each other, is not commented on. Setting aside story #1, the one described on the dust jacket, Story #2 is where my left field claim is made, because Story #2 is all about cyberspace.

It’s not called cyberspace, of course, because this is the far future. It is, however, all about a virus, a security expert and coder extraordinaire who tracks the virus, a hacker who chases down information from his own shadowy angle, and all sorts of cyberspace shenanigans that result from the grand pursuit. Despite the publisher implications of a rather different story, most of the book is spent looking at code, talking about code, writing code, or having an occasional High Noon Internet showdown. And yet a brief perusal of reviews (not scientific or comprehensive by any definition) turned up very little engagement with this part of the story. I suppose there are two reasons for this. First is the deep world building going on in conjunction with Story #1. Second, and more relevant for me, is that Friedman has gone in the opposite direction of Effinger. She has pulled the noir foundation and left the technology, rather like the magician who proclaims, “The hand is faster than the eye!” as he whips the tablecloth out from under the crystal dining set. Shore is almost unrecognizable as cyberpunk because those things we don’t realize are so important, the hard boiled seediness of it all, are missing. This begs the question of what it is that really defines the genre, if Effinger’s book is and Friedman’s isn’t.

But setting aside genre ruminations, Story #1 begs for attention. This is where most of the back story comes into play. Long ago, humanity sent out their first wave of galactic colonists, not realizing that the FTL of the time inflicted horrible genetic mutations on all involved. When Earth saw that its colonies were full of freakish mutants, they cut off all contact, withdrew to the Solar System, and left the colonies to rot. Much later on the planet Guera, where each mutation was accepted, categorized, and dealt with, a new FTL system was discovered. The only problem? Only one particular mutation could take ships through the wormhole-like objects safely, avoiding the soul-sucking creatures found inside. Warhammer 40,000 fans will feel right at home with the idea of insane pilots guiding their ships through a warp full of slavering monsters. The Guerans reopened the stars, though they maintain tight control over the means of transportation. They eventually made their way to Earth and allowed their ancestors back into the system, though much antagonism remains on both sides.

Into this world comes Jamisia Shido, who is schizophrenic and hunted because she may contain some mad secret within her multiple personalities. Jamisia is ostensibly the main character and the focal point of the story, even as much of the action centers around the completely unrelated virus storyline. Jamisia, however, allows the story to see more of Friedman’s world and permits The Message to rear its ugly head. Fortunately, and just as I was getting a sinking feeling in my gut, Friedman decided that while tolerance and whatnot are great, they don’t really need to be smashed repeatedly into the reader’s skull. I was much relieved when the author took a step back from the soapbox, even if I agree that we really should just be friends, even if that guy next to me has two heads and scales.

It doesn’t appear that Friedman has spent any more time in this universe, which is somewhat surprising. It seems ripe for exploitation, but perhaps the right idea has yet to present itself. I will read a follow-up if it ever appears, since this is a world I would enjoy spending more time in. This Alien Shore was plenty rewarding and interesting enough to keep me thinking, even if I wasn’t thinking about the same topic the author was.

Rating: FIFA’s admirable, but probably ineffective, campaign to rid football of racism. Good luck with that, FIFA.

Moldy Fantasy

Empire of the East
The Complete Book of Swords
Fred Saberhagen
The Book of the Wars
Mark Geston
Tales of the Dying Earth
Jack Vance

In a past post about the infamous NPR Top 100 SFF list, I noted that, if the list is to be trusted, most of the best science fiction was written before 1980, while most of the best fantasy was published in the last fifteen years or so. This is obviously not the case, but begs the question of why fantasy readers seem ignorant of, or indifferent to, the tradition. Well, here at Two Dudes, we pride ourselves on taking stands against ignorance! Today’s article is a survey of old, moldy stuff that was written before one of the Two Dudes was born. (The older Dude predates the most recent additions by just a few years.) More importantly, these books were written before the epic fantasy boom and are a look back at a different way of writing, before Dragonlance, Shannara, and Robert Jordan scrambled everything.

Length is the obvious difference between yesteryear and the new century. Most of today’s fantasy can’t seem to say anything in under 600 pages, and that’s just for one book in a (long) series. Without criticizing authors who love to write lots of words, I will merely point out that each of the four listed above is a complete trilogy within the page count of a contemporary introductory volume. The other major difference is thematic: each takes place in a fantasy version of the post-apocalypse sub-genre and is, while perhaps not free of Tolkein’s influence, not beholden to the archetypal fantasy land of merry elves, gruff dwarves, and fat halflings. These stories are also shot through with ambiguity and ambivalence; the line between good and evil is faintly drawn, if at all. This is not to claim that today’s fantasy is different, except that anyone praising one or another high profile series for being gritty and/or dark and implying that it is somehow groundbreaking is obviously out of touch with the classics.

Saberhagen’s might be my favorite of the books under the microscope today. The Empire and Swords books all take place in the same world, but thousands of years apart. Both are, on the surface, fairly typical fantasy storytelling. In Empire of the East, brave but oppressed peoples rise up in revolt against their evil tyrants. In The Complete Book of Swords (which includes the main Swords trilogy but none of the supplemental novels), the gods toy with humanity and distribute magical swords for their own amusement. The humans, of course, use the swords for mayhem and goodness, and try to thwart the gods. So far, so standard, but there is magic in the telling. In particular, the world building stands out, especially considering the amount of space available, as do some of the characters. Many of the men and women are somewhat stock, but the gods and other entities are all kinds of fun to read about. By combining nuclear holocaust with fantasy, we get bizarre combinations of Cold War technology, magic, bioengineering, and divinity.

Geston mines similar territory in The Book of the Wars. I found out about this series from a David Drake interview, wherein he credited Geston’s books from helping Drake stay sane in Vietnam. I had never heard Geston’s name before, but a David Drake endorsement is enough for me. I was at the library the next day picking this up. All three books in the trilogy are operatic tragedies, filled with an over the top pathos that could only come from the mind of a young man who is obsessed with the fall of civilization and is spending his college days at an isolated, exclusive, all-male institution. This is not the quiet, poetic mourning of a single broken heart, but rather the deaths of doomed millions, the end of planets, and worlds with no hope. If it seems a bit heavy and overwrought, Geston makes up for it by coming at these stories from an off-kilter angle. His settings, story lines, and characters are all his own; things may be bleak in the stories, but they are definitely not derivative. The first two stories are vaguely connected and talk about a post-holocaust world that is trying to finish itself off. The third tells of a war between science and magic. It’s hard to say who the good guys are, since the magic half is power-crazed, self-absorbed, and probably tyrannical, but the science end is cynical, dry, and emotionless.

Tales of the Dying Earth is perhaps the oddest of the bunch, though it may have had the greatest genre impact of the three. Vance’s world may or may not have enjoyed a nuclear exchange, but the sun, or the Earth, or both, are in their final days. Technology has gone and magic haunts the land, as things sputter down towards the end of the world. The books take a bit of getting used to. Everyone speaks in a stilted, formal style and uses a lot of big words. Once I decided that Vance wanted the people in his world to speak this way and wasn’t just being pompous, I started to enjoy it. Another required adjustment is the complete lack of ethics in the Dying Earth. Apparently altruism burned out with the sun, because not a single character in the stories spares a thought for surrounding people. Again, at first I was taken aback by this. Then I figured out that since everybody in the story is a jerk, nobody expects kindness in any situation. Once this made sense, things became funny, rather than appalling. In a way, the “hero” of two books even learns an Important Life Lesson. He fails, hilariously at times, until he finally starts to – gasp – work with someone. Kids! Cooperation works!

Oddly enough, however, Vance’s greatest legacy is not his worlds, his words, or his characters. It is instead his magic system that has bedeviled D&D players for decades. Yes, the system of spell memorization that is such a bane to gamers comes from the Dying Earth. In the books, it makes sense. Why exactly Gary Gygax thought it would be a fun addition to a game is beyond me however, as D&D magic has always been a dumpster fire.

So to sum up without making any deep, literary conclusions, each of these is worthy of a look. Empire of the East is probably my favorite, but any of them offer a window into pre-TSR / Robert Jordan fantasy. I can only imagine what the NPR Top 100 would look like if more fantasy fans dug into the archives before disgorging their opinions.

Rating: Brazilians from the 1970s, doing crazy soccer things that wow fans today.

When Gravity Fails

When Gravity Fails
George Alec Effinger

Despite my deep and abiding love for cyberpunk, I am shockingly ill-versed in its canon. Aside from William Gibson, my knowledge of actual, classic cyberpunk is spotty at best. I am familiar with its tropes because cyberpunk is largely synonymous with the era I grew up in; anyone who started using computers with DOS 4, logged on to a local BBS, thought Prodigy was sinister, and once used Telnet on a daily basis does not need critics to explain what all those crazy people were doing when they jacked in. So it is that my cultural knowledge and overall geekiness has obscured my inexcusable literary ignorance. It is time to remedy this one step at a time.

Effinger decides to answer the question: What happens to cyberpunk when you take out the computers and hackers, pull the story out of Asia or Silicon Valley, and replace everything with disreputable Muslim ghettos?  The answer appears to be: the Budayeen and Marid Audran. The latter is an unremarkable man for hire who lives in the former, the grittiest red light district in an unidentified North African city. (Effinger never names it, but I guess it would have to be Tripoli, if it is anywhere that currently exists.) The author here is counting on the fact that cyberpunk is basically detective noir with technology; the key is in certain aspects of the characters and settings, not the hacking. This is definitely a risk. To many, cyberpunk means glittering cities, often in Japan, people dressed in black clothes and mirrored sunglasses, and computerized hijinks on some advanced form of the Internet.

Gravity provides some tech, but relies instead on familiar noir archetypes: the shabby but honorable detective, prostitutes with hearts of varying degrees of gold, mobsters, corrupt cops, and the like. One set does not preclude the other, of course, but Effinger is gambling that undercutting the reader’s genre expectations will not damage the story. Take out the neural plug-ins, wild surgical techniques and designer drugs, replace Ramadan with the 4th of July, and we have a story that could be a new Raymond Chandler novel. (Of course, one could say the same of other cyberpunk, after stripping out computers, AI, and neon.) Even more impressive, this was published in 1988, pushing the boundaries early on in ways that haven’t been equaled. Does it work?

Anyone who knows their SF history might remember that Gravity was a Hugo nominee in 1988, a particularly strong year for the award. That implies that it worked back in the day, but near-future writing often ages badly. Effinger, though, should be proud to know that Gravity was good then, and is good now. Part of this is luck: he has not overestimated the rate of technological change, and even gets a couple of things right, like cell phones. A major part of this is by design, however. His story and setting require little high tech; this is a slum, after all. The mystery is based on standard mystery motifs of power and politics, both are independent of time and location. Even culturally, things don’t feel too far off, a rarity for Cold War era near-futures. There are references to a collapsed Soviet Empire, but nothing obtrusive. In some ways, the Budayeen feels even more real now, as the Arab world takes center stage in American foreign policy.

Effinger moves slowly into the story. Things start with a bang, then immediately pull back. The murders continue at a steady pace, but Marid isn’t really on the case until halfway through the book. Instead, we watch things develop the way a Budayeen denizen would. Bad things happen, unrelated bad things happen, good things happen, holidays come, and life follows a normal rhythm. Only as the tension ratchets up for the characters does the mystery get fully underway; by this point the reader has become a part of the Budayeen. It’s probably just as well that the atmosphere is so compelling. Much like some Chandler novels, the actual mystery is subject to some holes, bits of convenience, and unexplained miscellanea, but it serves its purpose. It is only fair to say that while I will remember the city and the characters, details of the plot will probably fade from recollection.

I have only one lingering fear from reading Gravity. Because I’m pretty much ignorant of Arab culture, everything in the book seemed authentic and exotic. I wonder how much of that is superficial and if it would all be greeted by exasperation by a real live Arab. Some SF circles are starting to talk more about cultural presentation, who should be allowed to write about what culture, what we owe to minorities, etc., so this was in the back of my mind as I read the novel. Still, if nothing else, the book is a bold attempt at pushing the boundaries of cyberpunk. Whatever its faults, it has my respect for steaming full speed ahead to uncharted waters. Gravity is a must read for the cyberpunk connoisseur.

Rating: Egypt-Algeria matches. For whatever reason, the two teams hate each other. When they meet with something on the line, hide the women and children.