Tron: Legacy

Tron: Legacy

We don’t do a lot of film commentary here at Two Dudes, due partially to the dearth of decent SFF movies, but also because writing about film is an entirely different animal than dealing with books. Still, after finally watching Tron: Legacy a couple of nights ago, I couldn’t contain myself. I’m not much of a film critic, so I’ll leave the finer points to Roger Ebert, but I am uniquely qualified to add my two cents. Why? Because who else out there can simultaneously rant about the Tron canon, electronic music, and Zen Buddhism? (Don’t answer that, because I really don’t want to hear that hundreds of people not named Pep are better than I am at all of it.)

Full disclosure time. I am exactly the limited, but vocal, demographic that Tron: Legacy targets: geeky fans of the original who happen to like Daft Punk and think that Jeff Bridges’ best work ever was in The Big Lebowski. (I wonder what a young Bridges would say if we told him that one day, when he was a respected winner of multiple awards and a grizzled veteran of countless influential movies, his legacy would be largely defined by The Dude.) As such, I will openly confess to digging the movie from start to finish, occasionally uttering a Keanu Reeves-style “Woah,” and silently whooping and high-fiving myself. (The kids were asleep, so Mrs. Pep would have been angry with any vocal enthusiasm.) I have decided not to think too hard about the plot, which is incomprehensible, the hero, who is a dork ala Shia Labeouf, or the logical repercussions of an army of anthropomorphic computer programs invading a hastily Photoshopped Vancouver. These have all been addressed by numerous respectable film critics, I have other fish to fry.

So yes, I am one of those obnoxious people who suddenly crawled out of the woodwork a few years ago, going on interminably about how amazing and underrated Tron was. Perhaps not interminably, in my case, but I am willing to defend the groundbreaking FX, the cyberspace before there was cyberspace, the wild aesthetic that transferred so well to my four color computer monitor (cyan and magenta, baby!), and the off-kilter religious underpinnings. It wasn’t Star Wars, but I think it’s right up there with Flight of the Navigator or The Last Starfighter on a list of dorky 1980s science fiction. (“What do we do now?” * glass eyepiece closes * “We die.”) Was Tron an epochal event, a watershed moment in science fiction film that demands a retelling? No. Is it a potentially interesting world that would be well served by modern film making technology? I think so. Tron: Legacy squanders a bit of the storytelling potential, but maximizes the aesthetics, which is what most of us remember about the original anyway.

Tron: Legacy is especially gratifying to nerds of a certain age, for whom the progression from the original wire-frame animation and blocky light cycle trails to fluid, stunning CG is reminiscent of the awe we feel watching Skyrim after cutting our teeth on Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale. There aren’t very many movies I will watch just for the effects, but this is one of them. I hope there is an extended cut out there somewhere, with twenty more minutes of light cycles and disc battles. I loved the use of light and water, the shattered liquid glass when a program derezzes, and the Blade Runner meets The Apple Store ambience. Something else I appreciated, but haven’t seen mentioned in other reviews, was the 80s aesthetic that infuses The Grid. This makes sense both as an homage to the original, but also in the story, as Flynn was trapped there in 1987. This 80s feeling is at its strongest in Zuse, who channels New Wave rock, that crazy Dune movie, and who knows what else in a classic club scene. Again, I suspect that one has to be over 30 or so to enjoy (or notice) this, but it’s one more point in the style department.

This is a natural time for a segue into the music. Daft Punk are a perfect choice for the task, because they are masters of applying a futuristic sheen to vintage disco and electro sensibilities. Listening to the soundtrack by itself, I was struck by the absence of melodic or harmonic innovation relative to the praise it receives. The music isn’t revolutionary in this way, nor is it the most fascinating listening in isolation. (Most soundtracks aren’t.) Daft Punk’s genius instead lies in the seamless transitions between traditional orchestral scoring and the electronica they are better known for. It is the first movie I have seen where the soundtrack maintains thematic and atmospheric unity despite frequent changes between live, acoustic instrumentation and sequenced electronics. Of course this approach isn’t appropriate for every movie, or even every sci-fi action movie, but it could still point the way forward.

But what really grabbed me, and I am now open to charges of being a broken record, is the screenplay’s casual takedown of Zen Buddhism. When the hero finally meets Jeff Bridges, they have a brief argument over whether to “Be cool, man” or “Just do it.” Bridges is, of course, the meditating, zen-like aphorism speaking hippie, while the hero is the typical proactive white male. Despite just arriving in The Grid, escaping the games by the slimmest of margins, and having absolutely no idea what is going on or what to do about it, the hero is ready to charge back out and fight. Bridges, who is assumed to know far more about everything, counsels patience and caution while saying things like “remove myself from the game,” is completely ignored. The hero suffers a few setbacks for obvious reasons, but it is abundantly clear that ACTION is the answer. This is a minor theme and probably unrecognizable to many, but I was surprised at the casual dismissal of the Buddhist way of looking at things. Even the Zen meditation is more of a gag than a viable path to self-discipline. I probably would have been less conscious of this had I not just read and reviewed 10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights, but it is yet another chapter in a long running conversation I am involved in concerning Western tropes and their intellectual hegemony in science fiction.

In the end, we are left with a visually and aurally stylish production, a fairly incomprehensible script, and a fabulous hodgepodge of homage, reference, and imitation. In addition to the requisite Tron cues, alert viewers will catch nods to kung-fu cinema, the obligatory slow-motion Matrix shot, anything ever made about gladiators, and a lot of Star Wars. The turret bit at the end is the closest match to Luke and Han, but a lot of the movie felt like an extended riff on Luke and Obi-Wan in the Death Star, if Obi-Wan were replaced by a glowing version of The Dude. All in all, it is 126 minutes of sci-fi easter eggs for the exceedingly nerdy. Because of what I am, I forgive Tron: Legacy its many flaws and will no doubt watch it again. I hope that the rumored sequel surpasses both its predecessors, but will make do for now with what I have.

Rating: Manchester City, 2011-2012. A huge budget, undeniable artistry, unexplainable lunacy, and enough fatal flaws to keep them from the summit.

10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights

10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights
Mitsuse Ryu

Just for fun, I went to the SF community on Mixi (Japan’s largest social network) and asked, “Is this book really the greatest Japanese SF novel ever? Because the publisher here says it is.” I failed to kick up a hornet’s nest, but did get a general admission that, “Greatest” or not, it’s certainly one of the most revered and influential SF books to come out of the country. (The ensuing discussion also inexplicably prompted someone to call me, roughly, an “ill-mannered poser.”) In that sense, 10 Billion Days is rather like Japan’s Dune or Foundation, which makes reviewing it slightly intimidating. It also means that, as a self appointed ambassador of Japanese fiction, I’m under that much more pressure to deliver a profound and life-altering review.

The basis of any claim that 10 Billion Days is the greatest anything is this poll from 2006, where the readers of SF Magazine (a Japanese publication) voted on the best stuff. My Japanese sources countered with the 1998 poll, which swapped numbers one and two. This is an annual poll, but our assumption is that 10 Billion Days is going to feature in the top five or so every year, much the way there is a general consensus here on the “best” five or ten SFF novels. It’s also one of only a few in the top twenty that have been translated into English, other high ranking books including Japan Sinks and Yukikaze.

10 Billion Days defies easy description. It begins with the emergence of life on Earth and sprints in 250 pages to the end of the universe, with a cast consisting almost entirely of prophets and deities. Plato and Pilate are the main exceptions here, but mostly we’re dealing with Jesus, Siddhartha, Maitreya, and Asura. (The latter two are Buddhist and Hindu divinities, respectively.) One should not expect a strict historical reconstruction of any of these, nor any sort of reverence toward the religions they are associated with. I can’t say anything about Hindus or Buddhists, but I’m pretty sure a large number of Christians would be angry about Mitsuse’s Jesus. This is not to accuse Mitsuse of writing an atheist hatchet piece, because I don’t think that’s his purpose. His story requires giants striding across the landscape, so these are the characters he chooses. That they are also cyborgs is entirely beside the point.

To summarize the plot would basically spoil the book. Suffice it to say that it involves the above mentioned characters, something called The Planetary Development Committee, Atlantis, Andromeda and the Milky Way crashing into each other, extinct civilizations, warring Hindu gods, Jesus as a killer cyborg, and the end of the universe. After finishing the book, I had to just sit there for awhile, trying to make sense of it all. 10 Billion Days demands reflection and leisurely consumption, rather than frantic page turning. It reminds me somewhat of reading the Old Testament, with its cold and distant narrative voice, the sudden and jarring leaps through time and space, and the patchy sense of history and myth. Likewise it is dense prose, with each sentence crafted for maximum economy and impact, and multiple meanings packed into each phrase. I’m going to have to read this again someday, because I am certain that I missed plenty the first time through.

Reading early on, I thought that 10 Billion Days didn’t feel much like a Japanese book, or at least not compared to a lot of the contemporary stuff that Haikasoru publishes. It lacks the distinct character interaction that immediately identifies Japanese human relations and gives no nod to anime culture. (To be fair, there wasn’t anime culture as we know it when this was originally published.) By the end though, it was very clear that this is not a book that could have been written in the West. Without rampant spoilage (I hope), I want to point out the differences. I periodically refer here to the David Brin theory of SF and Fantasy, which is that they are basically extensions of the Enlightenment and the Romantic Movement, respectively. The first looks to a brighter future, brought about through Science, while the second looks toward an idealized past, which we must return to for redemption. (That’s a bit oversimplified.) The key to both of these is our effort, which brings about one or another form of salvation.

What we don’t see here in the West is a third way of looking at things, an idea that comes from, among others, Buddhism and the Yoga Sutra. These philosophies stress the lack of action, of finding peace through acceptance of things as they are. “Desire is the root of unhappiness” is the most often seen aphorism in these Eastern traditions, so the focus is not on improving things through one’s own efforts, but on sidestepping unhappiness through the elimination of the appetites that bring dissatisfaction. Max Weber’s striving Protestants would find this incomprehensible. 10 Billion Days is suffused with this ethic, especially as the book ends. [Some spoilers to follow, in as vague a way as I can.]

I don’t think that a Western author, especially an American, could write the end of 10 Billion Days. An American would most likely set up one side as Evil, or at least as a clear antagonist, and provide the viewpoint character some way to overcome that Evil. There would be a resolution, there would be an improvement of the character’s situation, and there would be effort expended in some way for people to help themselves. Mitsuse thinks not. There is a Japanese term, shikata ga nai, that poorly translates to “it can’t be helped.” We don’t have good words for it in English, because it is a mindset with which we are unfamiliar. To say shikata ga nai means to accept that something can’t be changed and to move forward by mutual agreement, with the understanding that whatever unchanging thing it is will be accepted as a given. This is not just things like gravity, or the Earth’s rotation, or other such inevitability, but it extends to places that we Americans might say, “Wait, let’s not accept that, let’s improve it!” The end of 10 Billion Days is an end-of-the-universe-sized shikata ga nai. It is the ultimate expression of acceptance and resignation, of denying desire in an attempt to find peace. I suspect that it would be wildly unsatisfying for a reader who can’t wrap his head around this way of seeing the world.

What about those of us who are somewhat accustomed to this worldview? I almost feel like I won’t be qualified to pass judgment on this one until I’ve read it a couple more times, pondered deeply its truths, and emerged a much older, wiser man. Still, there are a few things I can say. The book’s narrative tone is somewhat standoffish, as though Mitsuse is keeping us at bay while he recites his tale. He gives us hints of the characters and their worlds, occasional flashes of intense action or vivid description, and stretches of frigid mystery. The outlines are sharp, but scarce, leaving fleeting impressions of forces and personalities beyond our comprehension. Even the viewpoint characters are finally unknowable, to say nothing of grander forces manipulating them. With some authors, this would be a flaw, a mark of poorly thought out or executed writing, but with Mitsuse, this seems to be exactly what he intended. We are left at the end with a sense of mystery and wonder intact, knowing that something amazing is happening, but not grasping it completely.

This may be because Mitsuse understands that the payoff in these things rarely matches our expectations. This is a wise dodge, but the overall effect leaves 10 Billion Days similar to The Book of Judges, or perhaps 1st Samuel. For a final, pithy summation of the book, I’m torn between the mystery and philosophy on one hand, and the lack of engagement on the other. It was a haunting read, one that will no doubt hover in the darker corners of my mind, but it wasn’t very much fun while I read it. One can’t go wrong though, with a book that contains the line, “Siddhartha was acutely aware that as long as Jesus of Nazareth was alive, this could be a trap.”

Rating: This is a massive reach, but perhaps Leeds United? The universe ends in 10 Billion Days, Leeds taking their top ranked form and nosediving into League One was pretty much like the end of the universe for them. Not that 10 Billion Days has anything in common with a despicable club like Leeds.

Mining the Oort

Mining the Oort
Frederick Pohl

I had a sudden craving for a Fred Pohl story recently. I’m not sure what triggered it, but these things happen once in awhile and I’m not one to turn down such urgings. So off to the library I went and grabbed something that sounded like utterly obscure Hard SF. When the title of a novel can be mistaken for a NASA policy paper, I know I’m on the right track.

Mining the Oort is true throwback SF, nothing neo- or -eqsue about it. It was published in the early 1990s, but I was certain it was twenty years older before checking. In fact, the only part of the book that betrays it as post 1969 is the prominence of the Japanese. (Nobody really noticed the Japanese until the late 1970s. Oddly enough, this went to press in 1992, just after Japan’s Bubble burst, but before anyone noticed them spiraling into an economic morass.) The book is short, the characterization light, the plot somewhat of an afterthought, and the world and science behind it thoroughly constructed. I’m having trouble right now remembering the main character’s name, but could explain in detail how and why the Oort comets are winging their way into the book’s Solar System. A certain type of reader will hate this sort of thing.

Pohl is his usual cheery self throughout. His books generally demonstrate a low opinion of humanity, little hope for anything better than a muddled future, and a society teetering on the edge of collapse. Oort isn’t as satirical as Space Merchants, neither is it as grim as A Plague of Pythons, but this is no rosy future. The typical critiques of Anglo-American capitalism, corporatism, and our inability to get along with each other are all present. On the other hand, he also sends his main character through Martian education, with its bizarre Docility Training. This is like Japanese communitarian education on steroids, but the main character laps it up. Of course it’s easier to train docile Martians, because the harsh environment demands cooperation. Earthlings, on the other hand, basically have Angry Hour every day, where they get to call each other terrible names, wrestle out their aggression, and agree to leave all the hate in the Angry Classroom so they don’t kill each other during the rest of the day. Pohl is not subtle with his opinions.

While the plot takes a back seat to Science, the author at least has the decency to avoid tacking it on randomly at the end. While nothing actually happens until the last 30 pages or so, there is sufficient foreshadowing throughout that the reader is well aware that Something Is Happening. When things finally get underway, nobody is surprised except our erstwhile hero. I still haven’t decided how Pohl feels about him. The protagonist is technically right, and even gets to utter some oddly hopeful words at the last, but one gets the feeling that he is a naïve bumpkin, and that Pohl is fully aware of it. Still, he is sympathetic and I cheered for him, even as I wished he’d grow up a bit.

Finally, Mars fulfills its usual role, often shared with the Moon or the Asteroid Belt, as the oppressed and restive colony. I suppose there is little reason to expect anything different, but I wonder if we will find a new way of relating to the frontier by the time Earthlings finally make it off our rock. Anyone who reads science fiction knows that colonialism will only breed inter-system war; from there it is a short slide to lobbing rocks down gravity wells. Will we learn in time?

Mining the Oort is a perfectly acceptable diversion. It will never be mistaken for an immortal work, though it’s a good way to pass a few hours. It doesn’t belong on a list with Pohl’s essential books, but there’s no reason not to check it out when delving into his more obscure catalog.

Rating: Wolverhampton. A middle of the road, unremarkable team in one of the world’s great leagues.

Short Story Straight Dope – April 2012

Short Story Straight Dope – April 2012

The Internet has done wonderful things for consumers of SF short stories. We don’t know how well this works for publishers and authors, but there is a wealth of free fiction going up all the time and we’re not going to turn that sort of bonanza down. When the mood strikes, we will round up some of the best stuff we’ve read, provide links, and say a word or two about the choices.

Shipbirth – Aliette de Bodard
Shipbirth is not your father’s science fiction. As a Nebula nominee, it’s been getting a little more press lately; not all of the reviews are glowing. I won’t name any names, but some critics are utterly baffled by this one. Considering that the story involves Aztecs in space ( AZZZZTECS IN SPAAAAAAACE!) while someone is literally giving birth to a giant brain that will control an FTL spaceship, a little confusion is understandable. I liked it, but I’m already a fan of the author, who never hesitates to publish something completely off the beaten path. Everyone should read this, and do so with an open mind, but I don’t think anyone’s feelings will be hurt by yet another, “I just don’t get it.”

The Shadow War of The Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue – John Scalzi
While we’re on an awards kick, how about this Hugo nominee? Scalzi himself sums it up better than I ever could here. Yes, it’s Scalzi, and I’m sure plenty of people out there don’t like him because he’s ubiquitous, but this is just brilliant. It’s everything that irritates me about fantasy in a single page, it’s an April Fool’s gag, and now it’s on the Hugo ballot. I really hope it wins and The Establishment poops itself. Nothing but good fun all around. Any readers out there having a bummer of a day, read this. It will help. I suspect that, like funk, it also has the power to remove, if you know what I mean.

The Sigma Structure Symphony – Greg Benford
This is also at Tor.com, which, despite being a fearsome monolith, manages to provide some pretty great stuff. This story is part of the Palencar Project, a series of stories written to fit a painting by John Palencar. (Hit the link for a longer description and other stories.) Benford’s story was a nice corrective to some recent stuff I’ve read, because I’ve had a hard time nailing down quality Hard SF. For whatever reason, a lot of the stuff I’ve found online has been either depressing, elegiac melancholy, a penetrating look at the human condition that just happens to have SF trappings, or a depressing, elegiac, penetrating look at the human condition of melancholy that just happens to have SF trappings. Fortunately, Benford provides the equivalent of a juicy science fiction steak here: aliens, math, scientists, The Future, and Bach. Couldn’t be better.

Nomad – Karin Lowachee
This story went up a couple of days ago at Lightspeed, which I should subscribe to but don’t. It’s from a collection that just came out called Armored, all stories about battle armor, power armor, fighting suits, and whatnot. Lowachee takes a different approach and tells the story from the point of view of the armor itself. Fortunately, the armor is just as sentient as the wearer in this case, so it’s not some dumb, contrived attempt to humanize an inanimate object. The story is a fairly straight-ahead motorcycle gang revenge tale, in a vaguely post-holocaust setting where the motorcycles have been replaced by AI-powered battle armor. And yes, I say that with a complete lack of sarcasm.

The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees – E. Lily Yu
More award nominees, this time for both a Hugo and a Nebula. Yu’s story is available from Clarkesworld and is every bit as awesome as the title implies. I guess one would have to classify this as fantasy, since the animals talk and it doesn’t really seem to be in the future. It also takes place in China, which is more interesting than Dayton, OH, but I say that as a white guy who isn’t remotely interested in the state of Ohio. Also, the country of origin really doesn’t matter in a story about map-making insects with imperialist designs. It’s kind of a universal, transcendent theme.

Permanence

Permanence
Karl Schroeder

Karl Schroeder is another author of which I’ve read one major series, Virga in this case, but am ignorant of any other work. Permanence is his second novel and, if lacking some of the deft touch of the Virga books, is overflowing with the kind of mad inventiveness that characterizes that series. Schroeder uses one of my favorite tropes, the Big Mysterious Object, as the foundation for the plot, but the book is really about one of his pet topics, brown dwarf civilizations. Then, just because he can, Schroeder creates a new religion, tosses in some interstellar geopolitics, and ruminates on various first contact possibilities. He is nothing if not fearless.

Schroeder starts with the recent scientific theory that the universe is rich with free range brown dwarf stars, many capable of supporting colonies that fill the spaces between the bright stars we are more familiar with. In Permanence, these colonies are The Cycler Compact, brown dwarf worlds held together by sub-light ships that follow circular trade routes through the stars. Then Schroeder adds the Lit Worlds, with their FTL capabilities and ability to hop from bright star to bright star, bypassing the Compact. This has predictably dire economic consequences for the brown dwarf worlds, similar to the way people are choosing Tampa and San Diego over Cleveland and Detroit. The Cycle Compact was one of my favorite parts of the book, because there is a dearth of sub-light, interstellar universes out there.

The aforementioned BMO kicks off the plot, but Schroeder handles things a bit differently. If we’re going to pick nits, it’s more of the Space Hulk sub-trope at work here, though not of the “Face hugging aliens terrorizing everyone” variety. The origin, nature, and purpose of the BMO is pretty clear by the second quarter of the book; what occupies everyone is figuring out what that means politically and socially in the already unstable Compact – Lit World relationship. The BMO presents a clear challenge to the prevailing political economic theory in the Lit Worlds and offers hope to the Compact economically, but also has deeper ramifications for the way humanity interacts with the universe. This is also where Schroeder slides in NeoShinto, a religion he has pieced together that has its own mostly benign agenda.

NeoShinto, while not utterly crucial, is something that kept me engaged with the book. I suppose this is inevitable, because while NeoShinto has nothing to do with Japan, it is built on two major Japanese belief systems. It is not a religion in the Western sense, with churches, afterlives, commandments, rituals, and hierarchy. Instead, it is a vehicle for enlightenment and inner peace through meditation and an attempt to stabilize the reeling Compact. This is facilitated by kami, the Japanese word for gods, that are captured as a digitized essence. While Shinto kami reside in rivers, trees, rocks, and whatnot, NeoShinto takes theirs from the feelings generated by places. The more remote and exotic the location, the more power the kami allegedly has. Japanese Shinto is traditional animism; the gods are known to bestow favor in response to human pleas, but are not themselves the subject of meditation, nor is enlightenment a Shinto concept. Indeed, the peace through meditation part of NeoShinto comes from the Zen Buddhist tradition, which is wholly separate from Shinto, though they coexist without any contention in contemporary Japan. NeoShinto is never a main player in Permanence, but one of its kami gatherers is a viewpoint character and his beliefs flow subtly through the narrative. I have no illusions as to why I spent so much time thinking about this aspect of the book, but make no excuses for thinking that it added a deeper dimension to the story.

At something close to 400 pages, Permanence is crowded with these ideas. In addition to the above topics, he also spends some time addressing the Fermi Paradox and potential issues of alien contact. Unlike some optimistic books, the characters in Permanence are more or less resigned to the idea that the aliens in the universe are so completely alien that communication is well-nigh impossible. The groups Schroeder introduces are plenty fascinating on their own, but contact with them is necessarily infrequent. (For example, one race is photosynthetic and finds carnivorous humanity so barbarous as to be unworthy of conversation.) The hard part of having so many fascinating things to say is finding out how to say them in a concise, coherent manner.

This is, I suppose, where Permanence falls apart a little. The plot happens in the first and last 50 pages or so, with everything in between acting more as a travelogue. In fact, the switch from reader exploration to climactic action is abrupt enough that I didn’t catch up for several pages. A lot of time is spent with Michael, the NeoShinto kami gatherer. He is interesting and sympathetic, but also slow moving and somewhat tangential to the plot. (That’s not entirely fair. He is central to the plot, but he didn’t need to be. Things would have happened with or without him.) There’s so much happening and so many ideas to process that each of them feel somewhat shortchanged. This is a book that could easily have been expanded, or at the very least followed up on. For the time being, Permanence appears to be standalone, which seems like a lot of world building for not much story.

I feel like this is a quibble though. Schroeder is wildly ambitious, something I generally accord the benefit of the doubt. I would much rather read a book that swings grandly for the fences and misses here and there, than a book that is safe and predictable. The Cycler Compact is a refreshing change from the Solar System Only or FTL Ahoy dichotomy inherent in SF, the conflict between the Lit Worlds and the Compact is a logical and inevitable political development. No maniacal bad guys with death rays here. And this doesn’t even get into the different political systems involved, history of Elder Races, characters with tormented souls, etc. Permanence is Big Idea SF in concentrate. Virga demonstrates a much tighter, action-oriented writing style and tames Schroeder’s tendency to intellectually explode on paper, but Permanence is a heady hint of what he is capable of.

Rating: A defense-splitting, audacious pass met with a bicycle kick that sends the ball caroming off the post. Another couple of inches and it’s a goal of the year; as it stands, a highlight to be shown for its sheer exuberance and daring.

The Engines of God

The Engines of God
Jack McDevitt

Jack McDevitt has published eighteen or so novels, but until last week, I had only read the Alex Benedict ones. To branch out, I jumped into his other major series, the Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins books, which got underway with 1994’s The Engines of God. McDevitt mixes and matches several SF tropes in this one, tosses in his usual mix of history, ethics, and action, and seems to have created a durable universe. Engines combines the Big Mysterious Object, or in this case, several Mysterious Objects of Varying Size, the Fermi Paradox, Elder Galactic Races, and a dash of environmental warning. (The Fermi Paradox, for those not compulsively up to date on their SF terminology, is the question of why, if there is life out there, we haven’t seen any sign of it yet.)

The book is episodic, as the mystery unfolds in three or four vaguely connected parts. McDevitt’s structure is both a strength and weakness of the book. By spreading things out in the story, he makes it closer to real life. Not many of us have the luxury of pursuing something single-mindedly until it reaches a satisfying conclusion; there are soccer games and piano lessons, phone calls to relatives, emergencies at work, colds and sniffles, and whatever thousand other things suck away time during the day. Any book that allows the protagonist to bulldoze through the narrative with nary a delay is clearly unrealistic, so taking Hutch on a roundabout course over several months is much closer to how one of us would solve a similar mystery. It also gives the reader a tour of Hutch’s universe and lets us see places that may or may not be directly related to the mystery at hand.

On the other hand, there are reasons why most books keep a more direct, condensed line of narration. Long time readers will know that my tastes tend towards a certain economy of prose and storytelling. I am not generally a fan of florid writing or in-depth, multi-volume world building (except for those times when I am). Engines is a pretty diffuse book. Bits and pieces of the bigger story are spread around several planets, each of which has its own side story. The mystery is always present, but not always the main event. Things finally center in on the MOVS (Mysterious Objects of Varying Size) for the last part of the book, with a corresponding jump in excitement and interest. In some ways this reminds me of a less stylized Revelation Space, another book that dabbles in almost identical themes at a similarly slow pace.

McDevitt’s commitment to realism via context is a hallmark of his novels. While the mystery always drives the plot, the characters are constantly aware of a recent political scandal, the rising price of bread, or the results of last night’s playoff match. Further, there are rarely any Bad Guys in his novels. There are antagonists, to be sure, misguided or dishonest people, or just people with a different agenda from the point of view character. The events in Engines play themselves out against a backdrop of other concerns, as everyone staggers blindly toward whatever resolution is to be found. From reading interviews and essays, I gather that this is a conscious choice McDevitt makes, both for artistic reasons and because he wants his characters to be recognizable to the hoi polloi.

This is admirable, though it sometimes comes at the expense of momentum. The book is not short on action or suspense, but it is generally incidental to the main story. Excitement and answers finally converge at the end, though the answers are only partial and leave much room for future exploration. The answer is satisfactory, as these sorts of things go, but I will have to keep reading the series to find out what McDevitt chooses to do with it. (I suppose this was also a conscious decision.) I cited Revelation Space earlier for similarities in execution; Engines also has a hint of Greg Benford’s Galactic Center sequence. I like the first Hutch book more than the first Galactic book by a comfortable margin, though it echoes Benford’s use of two full novels to introduce the arc he hangs the remaining books on.

So in the end, I was left with an appetizer. Engines is a good book, but it’s not McDevitt’s best. I’m assuming based on word of mouth that the series picks up steam. I plan on reading the next couple to find out and will report accordingly; this alone rates it higher than several other first volumes I’ve read. Taken by itself, I was left wanting more, in context it may yet prove to be brilliant. Stay tuned.

Rating: Some pre-season Cup tournament. Just enough to whet the appetite, but not yet going full bore to victory.

Science Fiction Authors of Wrath

Science Fiction Authors of Wrath

We here at Two Dudes don’t consider ourselves a big part of SFF fandom. We don’t go to conventions, vote for Hugos, or take an active part in the blogosphere. Neither of us has the bandwidth to keep up with this sort of thing, or the spare money/time to read all the newest books and join the hottest discussions. With the recent Christopher Priest vs. The Clarke Award blowup, our initial inclination was to laugh, then go back to writing snarky posts about whatever currently intrigues us. Jose checked out a few of the articles, snorted with wry amusement, and returned to the book mines where he diligently labors. Pep liked the Internet Puppy meme so much that he caved in and decided to share some morsels of opinion.

*****

I wrote this the first time with a school marmish tone about not saying anything at all if one can’t say something nice, punctuated with a touching episode from my youth. Then I realized that, a) nobody cares, and b) if I’m going to suplex books for overwrought prose, I’d better not write any of my own. Article overhaul ensued. For now, a brief summary of the mayhem is best found here. Established and successful author Christopher Priest is not happy with the Clarke Award shortlist and, for whatever reason, decides to tell the world exactly how he feels. Bagging on award selections is a favorite pastime no matter what the prize, but few do so with such literate, scathing personal attacks on the recipients. Fewer still resort to angry accusations of incompetence on the part of the jury. Rigged? Sure. Conspiracy? Of course. Blindly following the herd? All the time. Self-serving? Without question. Incompetent and deserving of ignominious dismissal? Um, maybe you’ve had enough to drink there, old timer. Let’s get you home.

Because he can, John Scalzi writes a reasonable, calm response (complete with intelligent conversation in the comments!) that manages to make everyone look good and still be funny. I don’t know how he manages to be so beatific all the time. Then there is this post, oddly vulnerable and poetic, by Cathernne Valente. It is full of beautiful passages, especially the description of the Clarke Award as “for the type of person who goes on the Internet to weep about the death of hard science fiction,” but sometimes reads like the pleas of an abuse victim huddled in a corner while Mr. Priest rages about young punks with their low hanging pants and backwards ball caps.

I haven’t read much more than this, but have been amazed at the firestorm Priest kicked up. We should all be thankful, I think, because there is no such thing as bad publicity and boy are people talking about science fiction now. The Clarke Award owes him a nice fruit basket. My own response was triggered by Valente, who suggests in her post that possible reactions to Priest’s rant are “curling up in the fetal position and being depressed for weeks” and “getting motivated by anger and making the next book so amazing that it will impress the grumpy old dude.” I have this completely opposite vision of Greg Bear grunting in non-committal fashion at the screen, then turning over to watch the Mariners lose again, perhaps complaining later to his wife about all the rain.

At any rate, in honor of all the crap flying around science fiction-dom right now, let’s take a quick look at the short-listed books that so enraged Herr Priest and his replacements for them. I’m obviously not qualified to say anything about the ones I haven’t read, but there are four authors that I can address.

1. Hull Zero Three (Greg Bear) – Bear has been around enough and won enough acclaim that I would be surprised if he noticed or cared about this poop storm. Of course, if he’s still in Seattle, nothing would surprise me. The man could be sitting in a dark room, listening to Pearl Jam and sadly watching old Sonics highlights; he could be in a geodesic dome halfway up Mt. Ranier eating nothing but smoked salmon and Pirate’s Booty. As for the book, I am a bit surprised to see it on the list. I liked it well enough, but to me it felt like something he tossed off to pass the time between bigger projects.

2. Embassytown (China Mieville) – I think the consensus is that Priest’s attack on Mieville was the most surprising. Does Mieville deserve a fourth Clarke Award? I don’t know. Was anything better written in 2011? Quite possibly not. To call this book lazy strikes me as a massive misunderstanding of what an accomplishment Embassytown is, even moreso when Priest is decrying the current batch of SF for failing to rise above hard SF cliché and best-seller list porridge. Embassytown is a rare book that deserves, and has received, the attention of stuffy lit types for its examination of language, depiction of societal collapse and transformation, and uncanny ability to push far into contemporary literature’s territory without compromising its science fiction foundation. If this were Mieville’s first nomination, I suspect Priest would have had nothing bad to say about it. I admit to not reading enough of last year’s publications, but if I were to pick one book from 2011 to represent SF to the rest of the world, it would probably be Embassytown.

3. Rule 34 (Charles Stross) – I haven’t read this one, but since Priest’s attack is entirely personal (and hilarious), it seems appropriate to respond in a personal way. I’ve read three Stross books: Glasshouse, Halting State, and Singularity Sky, so I feel qualified to make this judgment. Stross is, I think, exactly the kind of author that the old guard will love to hate, much like William Gibson and his cyberpunky ilk pissed off the establishment back in the 1980s. He is part of the new cultural background of science fiction, long since expanded beyond physics and astronomy. Cyberspace, nanotech, the environment, gamer and otaku culture, globalization, and mobile devices are the new language of SF; style has been usurped by LOLcats and smart aleck bloggers. Priest obviously doesn’t like Stross, but I suspect that the latter is merely a proxy for the former’s disgust with contemporary SF. Oddly enough, Stross and his carpet peeing Internet puppy are the big winners of this craziness.

4. Osama (Lavie Tidhar) – This is one of Priest’s recommendations for a replacement on the shortlist. I haven’t read Osama, but I enjoyed The Bookman and think that anyone who writes something called Jesus and the Eight-fold Path deserves broader recognition. He also does great work on the WorldSF blog.

And there we have it. Things are calmer at the time of this publication, because this is the Internet and nobody has an attention span longer than 36 hours. (72 if breasts are involved.) Fortunately, the Hugo shortlist will be announced soon and we can all enjoy the subsequent paroxysm of disgust.