Hal Clement

Noise is the best example I have yet found of the evolution of science fiction. Clement is best known for Mission of Gravity and is justifiably famous for his world building. “World building” in this case is not the namby-pamby soft science, let’s explain the culture and society of neat people variety that one sees in epic fantasy. No, Clement literally builds worlds, starting with stars, orbital mechanics, physics and geology, before moving on to exotic aliens and societies that form on whatever bizarre setting he has concocted. He is at his best when cooking up extreme environments and seeing what happens to the characters he drops there. This is Hard SF at its hardest.

Noise is more of what Clement enjoys the most, though this time there are no aliens, only Polynesians. Everything takes place on Kainui, and all-water world where seafaring types have somewhat inexplicably settled. What makes someone emigrate to a planet with no land, a poisonous atmosphere, and constant storms and tsunami? I have no idea, but these people seem to like it. (The title refers to the constant natural volume of the weather and ocean.) We follow Mike Hoani, an anthropologist and linguist who visits for research purposes and gets more than he bargains for. He accompanies a ship that sets out from the main Kainui city, they see the world, discover some crazy mysteries, face peril, and give Clement a chance to show off his creation.

If this were The Golden Age, Clement’s efforts would suffice. The story isn’t packed with gripping action, but it has a rigorously shaped world and some engineering challenges; this seems to have been enough for readers of the time. We tend to be a bit more demanding now however, expecting such luxuries as character development and compelling plot arcs. In this sense, Clement proves to be product of his time. Kainui is a fun backdrop and I am impressed with its construction. On the other hand, I remember almost nothing of the characters or what happens to them, despite finishing this book only recently. There is nothing wrong with the book, in the sense of comically bad writing, plot holes, or the like, but neither is there any magic or sparkle to it, nothing that reaches out and grabs me, forcing me to take notice.

In this sense, Noise works best for me as a milepost showing how much SF has changed over the last fifty odd years. I can’t really give it a strong recommendation, except to readers who want their Hard SF uncut. There is no commentary on the human condition, no exploration of philosophy or ethics, and no pushing of any boundaries. It is a solid, competent work, but will disappoint those looking for more.

Rating: Werder Bremen. A comparatively well known team in a comparatively prominent league, but not one of the elite.

The Guin Saga: The Leopard Mask

The Guin Saga: The Leopard Mask
Kurimoto Kaoru

While looking for something else entirely, I came across a link for Vertical Press, purveyor of Japanese books and manga. I hadn’t heard of them before, generally relying on Haikasoru for my Japanese translations, but was happy to see that Vertical also offers a smattering of fantasy. Not just any fantasy it appears, but no less than The Lord of the Rings of Japan. I was mildly shocked that I, Japanophile and SFF dork, was completely unaware of such a work, but these things happen. I went straight to the library and reserved myself a copy of the first volume of The Guin Saga, knowing that I could remain ignorant no longer and am honor bound to spread the word to all Two Dudes readers.

A wee bit of background searching turns up scant detail, mostly coming from manga message boards, but it is clear that said saga was intended from the start to run 100 volumes and ended up somewhere around 130. Each appears to be insanely popular, or at least popular enough to justify continuing publication, though the author passed away in 2009. I can only hope that she finished what she started. If not, the vengeful ghost of Robert Jordan will no doubt torment her until a suitable replacement author is found. As I have read not even 1/100th of the series, I can’t pass final judgment, but I will certainly sink my teeth into Volume 1.

The Guin Saga evades my initial attempts at analysis because the “Japanese LOTR” comparison is a complete non-starter. There is little of Japan evident in the first volume and the story bears no resemblance to Tolkien, instead owing its soul to pulps and low fantasy. I say that Japan is little evident for two reasons. First, because the world is more clearly built on stock Western fantasy settings than medieval Japan. Second, because the character interactions seem to lack the natural hierarchy and group consciousness of Japanese society. It is entirely possible that later volumes are more obviously Asian, especially because there is a lot less talking and a lot more doing in The Leopard Mask. Further, my ignorance of Japanese fairy tales could be masking a connection that is painfully obvious to other readers, while remaining invisible to me. Even if this is so, the book felt like it would be right at home next to Burroughs, de Camp, or Howard, more so than Miyazaki, Shiro, or the Haiksasoru crew. (Compare to the Nagatama series or Studio Ghibli productions.)

The story itself moves quickly and is soon completed. (This was probably a wise move by Kurimoto; it’s much easier to write a hundred 200 page novels than a hundred Wheel of Time or Malazan volumes.) We join the action already in progress, as two lovely and precious twins are repeatedly saved from awful fates by a warrior, Guin, who has a leopard mask surgically or magically attached to his face. Basically the three are thrust from rapidly peril to peril, with occasional nods to back story and context. I hesitate to call it “epic fantasy” because, at this point, the action is constrained to a few people and a small piece of real estate. Everything is competently done, with suitable moustachio twirling by the bad guys, amazing feats of derring-do by Guin, and hints of a glorious future for the twins.

The first five volumes of The Guin Saga comprise a single story arc, meaning that The Leopard Mask has marginal resolution at the end and is difficult to assess on its own. I am hesitant to pass judgment without reading further, but there are a few talking points remaining. The action is brisk and entertaining, with Guin dispatching his foes and generally being heroic. One hopes that Kurimoto reveals a bit more about why he has a leopard head within the next few volumes. The twins are a bit annoying, but I would hardly expect stoicism from most young adolescents who have watched their home kingdom razed, everyone they know killed, and death (or worse) being held at bay only through the efforts of a random guy with a leopard head. Sympathy aside though, I look forward to the day that the two fulfill whatever destiny awaits them and stop whining. Finally, I’m not wordsmith enough to explain this well, but there is an acceptable way to say that a warrior is a well-muscled, fine specimen and the young adults are attractive in a way that will someday blossom into stunning beauty, and there is a creepy way to say it. Kurimoto (and the translation) are firmly in the creepy camp. That, at least, is in keeping with certain predilections common in Kurimoto’s homeland.

And now, a verdict. I am curious, so I will continue through the first story arc or until I get bored. Volume 1 didn’t wow me, but neither did it disgust. If nothing else, I feel like I ought to report on this or risk turning in my Japan Nerd card. Later volumes apparently transform themselves into gay fanfic, but I wasn’t really planning on reading into the 90s anyway, so no loss. (Nothing against gay lit, just not my bag.) Interested readers can expect a report on Vols. 2-5 sometime in the future, but it is somewhat lower priority than other things in my life. Said readers are advised to not hold their collective breath.

Rating: The early rounds of the Emperor’s Cup. This is the time with all the small squads in Japanese football – the college teams, company teams, and regional division members – play each other as a prelude to the higher stakes late rounds. This rating may be subject to change.

The Peace War

The Peace War
Vernor Vinge

The Peace War is next up in my ongoing quest to read The Complete Vernor Vinge in Random Order. In this case, I saw the book at the library and figured that to be as good a reason as any to pick it up. I was a bit surprised however, discovering this book to be more or less absent his two favorite playgrounds: The Zones of Thought universe and The Singularity (capitalized because to Vinge it is a specific thing, not just any singularity). Instead, the novel is a fairly straightforward Overthrow the Evil Government tale. And that, I promise, is the last unnecessary capitalization I will use in this post.

The basis of the story is an invention called the bobble, which covers an area in some sort of impenetrable field. The exact nature of the bobbles is slowly revealed as the story progresses, but the effects are obvious from the start: hostile targets instantaneously enveloped by a perfectly reflective bubble. Vinge follows the discovery of bobbles, the pencil pushers who take over the world with them, and the rogue scientists and engineers that fight against the bobbling world government. There is also frequent use of the best word ever to come from SF: “embobbled.”

The world is interesting, a slightly skewed take on both post-apocalyptic tropes and anti-science regimes. The bobbles are initially deployed in the name of peace, removing anything hostile or belligerent. As is inevitable though, power soon abandons its idealism and shifts its focus to maintaining itself. The world is superficially idyllic, what with the lack of armies, bombs, terrorists, and whatnot, but the anti-science bent of the rulers means that humanity has regressed to confused, low technological base. Some engineering is allowed, but nothing that might result in threatening; bio-tech is anathema. Plagues periodically sweep through population centers and things like tuberculosis are once again deadly terrors.

Indeed, the world building is probably the best part of the book. The plot is fairly predictable (SPOILER  ALERT: The good guys wiin!), though the hows and whats are creative even as the whys follow a standard path to resolution. The characters won’t be winning any prizes, but they do the trick. As might be expected of this sort of Hard SF, scientists and engineers are on a pedestal despite sinister developments at the beginning. That said, it wasn’t really the scientists that performed acts of villainy so much as the middle managers. Fair enough – in these post-Cold War, ethnically sensitive times, the one villain I’m sure we can all agree on is middle management.

The Peace War is not the most essential Vinge. He didn’t phone it in by any measure, but it lacks a bit of the sparkle that one sees in A Fire Upon the Deep or Rainbows End. Still, it’s entertaining and worth the relatively short time it takes to read. Recommended for completists, but newcomers should start with one of his more important novels.

Rating: Thierry Henry playing in MLS. One should never turn down a chance to see a master at work, but this is not his most memorable work.