Carve the Sky

Carve the Sky
Alexander Jablokov

Today’s post, the last of my 2013 SF Experience efforts, is a bit of a hidden gem. I first read Jablokov several years ago when I came across a random short story about romance among extreme body builders, the title of which I have since forgotten. However, the combination of near future snark, crazy ideas I would never think of (biceps sculpted like mountain ranges?), and underlying humanity stayed with me enough that when I saw his debut novel at a book sale recently, I snapped it up. Carve the Sky was published in 1991, unbeknownst to me despite being in the heat of my initial SF reading phase. It was followed by a couple of other novels, and then by a long break. Perusing the interwebs for info on the man, I see that he has recently published another novel, the first, he says, in about ten years.

I came into this without any expectations; naturally I was completely surprised. The book is an art thriller. It is another Solar System tale. Concerned as it is with a mystery surrounding a work of art, with artists in general, and to a lesser extent with religion, the easy comparison is with Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict novels, but with 26% more swashbuckling. More than those however, Carve the Sky feels a bit like a space-based Arturo Perez-Riverte novel. There is another, wilder, relationship I will draw later in the review, but for now we will stick to the basics. In short, there is a mysterious sculpture, multiple factions chasing after it, and a shocking answer behind all the questions.

Since I wasn’t paying total attention going into this book, it took me a few pages to catch on to the setting. Taking stock of my recent reading tallies up five books from 2012 that are Solar System exclusive (2312, Existence, Blue Remembered Earth, Caliban’s War, The Fractal Prince), plus another series from the mid 2000s (Metaplanetary). Comparing these to Carve the Sky yielded the surprising observation that, despite being over twenty years old, Jablokov’s book didn’t feel any older than the rest. Through a variety of artifices, he managed to dodge obsolescence almost completely. Considering that in 1991, Communism was still winding down, Terminator 2 was the gold standard for special effects, and Civilization was a new release, I would say that Carve the Sky has held up remarkably well.

Thinking about it later though, one thing did surprise me: the complete lack of cyberpunk. There is no internet, no hacking, no Singularity, or any of the technology that we take for granted now. On the lone occasion that characters need to stay in touch over long distances, they use the equivalent of phone booths. Still, the story is constructed in such a way that this isn’t very noticeable. Also missing is the vaguely anti-big corporation feel that cyberpunk codified into much of SF. There is, on the other hand, an echo of the Mechanist-Shaper schism that drives the de rigueur conflict between the inner and outer system. There is also an Earth recovering from decades (centuries?) of war and neglect, anarchic freeports in the asteroids, inscrutable religions, and crazy artists. The details differ somewhat from SF published Right Now, but many of the concepts are similar. I am uncertain if Jablokov was intentionally rejecting cyberpunk when he wrote Carve the Sky, or if it was still too early for cyberpunk tropes to have fully colonized mainstream SF. (I suspect the latter, for no good reason except that it doesn’t seem important. It’s just something that occurred to me later, probably in the context of a completely unrelated conversation.)

For me, the characters are what really shines in this book. Our erstwhile hero is both a discerning art curator and a special agent. He has a past, not troubled exactly, but eventful. The people in his orbit are a complicated bunch, all tied up hopelessly in a system-wide political near-crisis. The sculptors are suitably neurotic, the aristocrats properly feudal, and the church people ascetic and mystical. Oddly enough, the story taken as a whole reminded me of nothing so much as a Hannu Rajaniemi novel. The differences between the two are obvious, but something about Jablokov’s daring stylistic writing and the way he cloaks the familiar geography in a wholly alien, but completely human society makes Carving the Sky feel like an ancestor to The Quantum Thief. I could be totally in left field here, but I call them as I see them.

I wonder if Jablokov would have benefited, as Rajaniemi has, from having an internet fandom. This feels like the kind of book that would have generated frantic buzz among the community, had the community not been limited to snail mail and annual conventions. Instead, it remains under the radar and under appreciated. Or if it is appreciated, I haven’t heard about it, which may amount to the same thing. Carve the Sky is a surprising and engaging read. Jablokov deserves a place closer to the center of SF discourse; I wonder if his newer books will gain that place for him.

Rating: I’m wracking my brain for a suitable underrated footballer, preferably from Eastern Europe. I will gladly accept nominations in the comments.
Edit: Bulgaria ’94 has been suggested. I like the idea, but hope Jablokov’s new books fare better than Bulgaria did against Italy and Sweden.

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Blue Remembered Earth

Blue Remembered Earth
Alastair Reynolds

There is a track on Kenny Garrett’s 2002 release Happy People that is a mix of three placid Asian folk songs. For almost seven minutes, Garrett plays with an uncharacteristic calm, before finally letting loose a sudden blast of harmonically adventurous butt kicking. “That right there,” said a friend and band mate, “was when he just couldn’t restrain himself any more.” I thought of that about halfway through Blue Remembered Earth. Considering the gothic insanity of the Inhibitor books or the steampunk noir of Terminal World, Blue Remembered Earth is strikingly normal. The characters are regular people, any post-human modifications are understated, nobody is hooked up to a calliope/life support system, no pigs have been uplifted. I was not disappointed by any means, but I was definitely taken aback by the recognizable near future, accustomed as I am to Ultras or Chasm City denizens. Then, suddenly, some of the characters find themselves in an anarchic Martian arena, where machines are set loose in a hyper-Darwinian struggle in hopes that some sort of useful technology will evolve itself midst the mechanized terror. “This is more like it,” thought I, but there is much to cover both before and after this flash of Reynoldsian horror.

I’m diving into this book both with an eye on wrapping up my Books of 2012 list and as a part of the 2013 Science Fiction Experience. Being very serious about my own pomposity, I want to look at Reynolds’ book in terms of what it says about the SF Experience right now; in particular how it fits into some noticeable Hard SF trends and how it answers some recent laments of SF losing its way, becoming irrelevant and/or boring, and failing in its alleged duty to address modern day problems and inspire answers to them. In terms of an actual “book review,” it should come as no surprise to frequent readers that I’m a big fan of Blue Remembered Earth; nobody will be more shocked than I if I ever give Alastair Reynolds a negative review. (Not just because he once retweeted a post, then answered my question of which Steely Dan album he wants to be. There are literary reasons as well.) (And for the record, it was Royal Scam.)

Blue centers itself on the Akinya family, an Africa-based business empire. Grandmother Eunice, whose intrepid genius built said empire, has just died. At the funeral that opens the book, control of the family passes to Hector and Lucas. “The cousins” enlist the introverted elephant researcher Geoffrey to clear up some lingering questions on the Moon. He in turn pulls his bohemian sister Sunday in, after these small questions open up into much larger issues. The balance of the story follows the two as they unravel a mystery left behind by Eunice, while also tracing the family relationships inside the complicated Akinya clan. Along the way, Reynolds takes us on a tour of the Solar System, all while poking around questions of law and surveillance, AI, the environment, how we might spread out away from Earth, and proper uses of machines and biology.

I think it is no coincidence that three of the highest profile Hard SF books of 2012 (this, Existence, and 2312) all confront the same questions of how we will survive the coming years of (inevitable?) turmoil and spread into the Solar System. Each takes different paths to different answers, but all seem to be direct responses to recent conversation inside the field. Between the Mundane SF movement, Neal Stephenson’s call for more optimistic, proactive SF, Paul Kincaid’s lament on SF exhaustion, and other smaller scale conversations, The People seem to want books that pull back from Galactic War and address our fears right now, but not in a gloomy, dystopian way.

Reynolds starts with the now common proposition that our generation will fail completely to address climate change, basing his Earth on the possible consequences. Much like Kim Stanley Robinson, he posits massive change and upheaval, tempered with scientific ingenuity and our inate abilities to make do. We have made our way into space, as far as the Moon and Mars. The Earth has settled into a kind of omnipresent world government that uses constant surveillance to prevent crime and violence. Parts of the Moon and Mars, by contrast, remain free of prying eyes, letting Reynolds create his first dichotomy. Another is provided by the Panspermian movement, which advocates humanity’s duty to spread biological life throughout the universe; they are in ideological conflict with the establish government policies that favor a more mechanized, uploaded approach. Here too Reynolds toys with burning questions in contemporary SF. From the fundamentals of the world building through the details of characterization and plot, Reynolds confidently engages with critiques and issues in the genre.

I’ve taken a general survey of reactions to Blue, most of which can be immediately categorized into those familiar with Reynolds and those giving him a first try. Those of us that have read through most of his novels know that we’re in for a dense, idea-rich book that moves at a stately pace. Readers coming in from lighter stuff may well bounce off of it all. Blue is certainly a challenging book, one that demands thought and patience from the reader. All the more so as Reynolds brings up plenty of questions, but doesn’t necessarily propose answers. Do we think that the benevolent, but somewhat stagnant, Surveilled World is better than a more dangerous alternative? Should we be looking to send our meaty selves to the Oort cloud, or uploaded personalities? What are our duties to ourselves and our families? The plot requires no answers, so we are allowed to decide for ourselves.

By now it is probably clear that I think Blue Remembered Earth is one of the vital books from 2012. It gives as good a summary of SF today as anything I’ve read. Not an easy read, but well worth the effort.

Rating: The author may not like this, but I have to compare him to the German National Team. Methodical, precise, and relentless, somehow these books always end up winners.

Imperial Navy: Stronghold Armada

Imperial Navy: Stronghold Armada 1
(帝国海軍:要塞艦隊1)
Hayashi Jyouji

Today’s post promises to be a one of a kind contribution to the 2013 Science Fiction Experience. The book in question was a revelation for me, something wholly unknown despite my extensive Japan pretensions. Consequently, while I have written about a wide variety of Japanese speculative fiction, this breaks new ground. First, the back story. When a US-based Japanese friend made a holiday trip to see his family, I asked him to pick up a couple of books for me. I didn’t have any specific requests, just the names of some authors I would like to read. One name was Hayashi Jyouji, who has a book or two in English available from Haikasoru. His name pops up as a prominent and prize-winning Japanese Hard SF writer, so I was eager to dig into something beyond the meager English offerings. Little did I know what awaited.

My friend brought me a book by the same Hayashi, but the cover had a picture of a Mitsubishi Zero flying away from an exploding US battleship. “This looks nothing like Hard SF,” I thought. Later research unearthed a particular strain of Japanese alternate history that I had no idea even existed, let alone that it is being written by a Seiun Prize winning author. It turns out that the “Joy Novels Simulation” imprint churns out a bevy of alt history titles wherein Japan wins World War II. One would assume this to be the preserve of the Japanese ultra-nationalist movement, along the lines of those disgusting Kobayashi Motofumi manga that whitewash history and enrage other Asians. In Hayashi’s case however, it seems to be the work of a naval history buff toying with ideas and making a quick buck. Regardless, I had to check this out.

Unlike past reviews, I will neither translate any of this, nor will I give a detailed summary. I assume that nobody else is going to read it, so I will let the spoilers fly, but the bulk of my post will be my reactions to the book instead of a blow by blow account. In part this is because the Japanese was exceedingly difficult. I never really learned how to say, “Inform the Admiral that our 9 inch guns sank the enemy’s heavy cruiser under the capable direction of Gunnery Chief Suzuki.” This stuff isn’t in the text books. Because I am lazy, I didn’t look up many unknown words, instead piecing together what I could from context and bravely powering on. There was probably a lot that I missed, but I just didn’t care enough to figure out every word. It doesn’t help that Hayashi’s writing is as dry as toast and full of random infodumps.

The book is episodic anyway, lending itself to quick summary. There is a brief prologue wherein American airplanes are chewed up in an attack against the dug in Japanese. It is very exciting. Leaping back in time after that, we meet one Niiyama, who is herding Japanese civilians to safety amidst a Chinese counterattack. His quick thinking and heroics save most of the civilians, but at the cost of his own life. This is also a particularly dramatic and visceral bit. We then head back to Japan, where Niiyama’s brother is tasked with improving various processes and technologies within the Japanese Navy, in response to his brother’s death and in preparation for the imminent war with the US. The story follows this Niiyama through the rest of the book, with brief interludes to check in on his American counterpart, Woodlark. There is another piece in China, where something similar happens to the surviving Niiyama, but he leads the men out of the worst. Then a jaunt to the Malay peninsula where bases are under construction, before a look at the naval engagement there that saw the British ships Repulse and Prince of Wales sunk. Finally, Niiyama is off to Papua New Guinea and the Battle of the Coral Sea. The book ends at the close of this battle, with three more volumes to follow.

Up until the last chapter, things more or less follow history. I have no idea if the China parts have any basis in fact, but it would not surprise me if they did. The two British ships were indeed sunk off the Malay coast by the very ships that Niiyama is involved with. It isn’t until the Coral Sea, in the final chapter, that we find the counter-factual pivot upon which the alternate history is built. In reality, the Japanese lost the light carrier Shoho, while the carrier Shokaku was heavily damaged. The US lost the carrier Lexington and some smaller ships. In the book however, the Shoho takes dramatic but ultimately superficial damage, with an explosion failing to ignite the fuel supply. The rest plays out historically, with the US fleet withdrawing after heavy losses. It appears that in later books, the continued existence of the Shoho allows the Japanese to complete “Project MO,” the invasion of Port Moresby that would have given them a Guinean base on Australia’s door step. Presumably this enables the Japanese to both invade Australia and beat the US off in the critical battle at Midway. From there, I guess Japan somehow wins the war. I’m curious, but probably not curious enough to brave the rest of the series.

Assessing Stronghold Armada proved difficult. I must admit that, while I know a great deal about the politico-economic roots of the conflict, and have read extensively about the atomic bomb, none of my studies gave more than a cursory look at the actual Pacific War. I was forced to conduct exhaustive research to prepare for this post, which consisted of reading one book and watching an old documentary series on Netflix. Without this, I would never have spotted the truth and fiction in the narrative. I remain skeptical, however, about the plausibility of Hayashi’s vision. As an amusing exercise, it works quite well; but the realities underpinning the war loom too large for a single carrier to have much of an effect.

It is true that many of the key battles in the Pacific were won by the side that made fewer mistakes (especially Leyte), or were decided almost purely by luck. Even so, simply winning more engagements would only have prolonged the inevitable for Japan, a feeling shared by prominent Japanese planners long before the Pearl Harbor decision was made. Most rational observers agree that it was quite foolhardy for Japan to pick a fight with a country that not only had an industrial and population base orders of magnitude larger than its own, but also supplied a majority of the most critical resources for war. The outcome of the war was effectively decided in the late 1930s, when the US cut off exports of oil and iron to the Japanese. Once the US was fully engaged, none of the Axis powers could resist the pure industrial might.

Japan’s only hope, well recognized by its military, was to grind up as many American men as possible in delaying actions, hoping that the supposed moral weakness of the decadent West would cave to Japan’s glorious fighting spirit. Sadly for Japan, the Pearl Harbor treachery, treatment of POWs, and general fanatical conduct on the battlefield undercut any chance they may have had, instead galvanizing the US to fiery effort. Add to this some tactical errors and a code system thoroughly broken by the Americans, and the final result was never truly in doubt. This is a lot of momentum for Hayashi to overcome.

This sort of historical inevitability never stopped the Civil War reimaginers though, so I cannot fault Hayashi’s intellectual exercise. I am sorely tempted to keep reading, but I will have to wait until my Japanese reading speed picks up. The book was interesting, especially the ways Hayashi glides over Japan’s uglier conduct in favor of a blander focus on military honor. In some ways, I am more interested in his readership than the books themselves, but that will have to be a research project for another day. For now, we’ll file this under “Stuff I Never Expected to Read” and get back to exploding spaceships.

The Call of Cthulhu (film)

The Call of Cthulhu (film)

Today’s post is a little out of the ordinary, but very much within our purview. When I took an emergency trip to the library last weekend, needing something for my research and more Cam Jansen mysteries for the kids, I came across a DVD on the racks that grabbed my attention. “The Call of Cthulhu is a movie?” I thought. Then I looked closer and found that it was produced by The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society in the style of a 1920s silent movie, complete with a be-tentacled, stop-motion Cthulhu. Clearly this was not to be missed.

I have to admit that not only am I an uneducated film watcher, but I am surprisingly ignorant of Cthulhu. It’s part of the nerd background noise, so I know it like I know Star Trek or The Forgotten Realms, but I haven’t actually read Lovecraft since early high school. In fact, I suspect that I never actually read this particular story, just some follow ups. Still, I know who The Old Ones are, I know who lies sleeping in his sunken city, and I’m familiar with the misty New England horrors. I also know that some debate rages around Lovecraft to this day, both over the lasting quality of his writing and his rather deplorable social attitudes. I’m not really qualified to go into all of this though, so rather than offer deep analysis, I will keep this review to a more advisory role.

The movie is an undemanding 47 minutes, a length that is both perfect for someone with my attention span and sufficient to tell the story. It also leaves plenty of time to watch the must see Making Of special feature, which is a gold mine of valuable information for discount film makers. Most interesting is how they combined older film techniques with green screen and digital effects, things that go completely unnoticed when watching all the Lovecraftian hijinks. Particular shout outs go to the swamp scenes (and the enthusiastic cultists), the period details, and the otherworldly city, as each in its way evokes the best parts of the the Cthulhu mood. Some parts are understandably cheesy, but I don’t think it detracts from the overall effect. Cthulhu is somewhat florid and overwrought anyway, so nothing in the movie is out of place.

Cthulhu is readily available on Netflix and other streaming options. It has a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, though I suspect that anyone who seeks it out and takes the time to write a review is probably going to be a huge fan anyway. I found the film to be a good introduction to the Cthulhu mythos and a fun diversion for the well-versed veteran. Clearly a labor of love, it is definitely worth checking out.

The Dragonbone Chair

The Dragonbone Chair
Tad Williams

I have been in a bit of an epic fantasy mood since a recent Lord of the Rings viewing, a mood not entirely sated by Red Moon and Black Mountain. I confirmed with my blog partner Jose that Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is Tad Williams’ best work (“by a wide margin”), then picked up a copy of the first volume at Goodwill. I remember starting this series back when Williams first published the books, finishing two books before I ran out of fantasy steam. By the time the third volume was published, I had burned out on the genre and switched full time to science fiction. In the ensuing years I forgot almost everything about the unfinished trilogy; I might as well be reading them for the first time.

Things are probably best kicked off with a transcript of a chat I recently had with Jose:
Me: I’ve been reading Tad Williams. He likes to take his time.
Jose: Memory Sorrow and Thorn? Or Otherworld?
Me: The first.
Jose: Where are you?
Me: 1st book, almost half way, though everything I’ve read of his takes a couple hundred to get going.
Jose: The first book is reaaaallly slow.
Me: It’s good, and has moments of cant-put-it-down-ness, but the world building and character intros take forever.
Jose: Okay, 2nd and 3rd books basically are awesome and don’t stop the awesome until the end. 1st book is a slog until Seoman stops being so.. whiny. The book gets a ton better.
Me: He’s a pantywaist.
Jose: He turns into a fairly good main character.
Me: He’s like 14, so I understand and he has ADHD.
Jose: Also he kills a dragon.
Me: Cool.

That basically sums up how I felt about the beginning. Williams has never met a piece of exposition that he didn’t like, but it is at least quality exposition. There is a certain slow inexorability about the books; after a couple of fits and starts, the momentum picks up. The last quarter of the book is a headlong rush and a worthy pay off. Likewise, the main character, Simon, takes awhile to get his crap together. To be fair, you know who else was a pantywaist? Luke Skywalker. I have to cut the protagonists some slack when we’re deep into any sort of coming of age tale. (Why is it that all these stories have to be both coming of age and child of destiny stories? Why can’t it be an old dude of destiny? Or someone growing up who isn’t anything special?) Anyway, Tad Williams and his inertia will be no surprise to jaded readers.

This being fantasy from the 1980s, the Cthulu-esque Tolkien monster has his wriggling tentacles all over the book. It’s not as blatant as some, and Williams elaborates greatly on the basic themes, but the themes are there. Of course, some of these archetypes and plot points long predate Tolkien, but his interpretations have an undue influence that Williams cannot entirely escape. To his credit however, parts of traditional fantasy that don’t always get sufficient explanation are granted time on stage here. The ultimate evil has a reason for being evil, rather than just some random evil wizard. The kingdoms and alliances are logical, as is, to a point, the politics and economy underpinning them. The characters are rich and detailed. Astute readers will still be able to name check tropes and cliches though.

I will withhold further judgment for now, considering that two thirds of the story arc lies yet undiscovered. What magic lurks in the 1400 or so pages before me? Can Simon make the same transformation from tool to butt kicker that Luke does? Will the Olde World and its Magick continue to pass away in the face of Men and their technology? Will the treacherous bad guys die in suitably horrible ways? What about Love? I can guess the answer to these and other questions, but am excited to read about them anyway.

Rating: The first half of the first leg of a crucial Champions League match. Things are just getting started.