Abaddon’s Gate

Abaddon’s Gate
James S.A. Corey

Part of the fun of science fiction, or any large-scale, creative community, is watching the trends evolve over decades; the movements, counter-movements, neo-movements, parodies, ironic self-references, and earnest revivals. The Expanse, Corey’s ostensible trilogy that was recently expanded to six books, is an unabashed throwback to the door-stopping SF epics of the 1970s. It merrily follows in the footsteps of what were either bloated, mindless extravaganzas (if one is a grumpy New Waver or cyberpunk) or widescreen, visionary blockbusters (if one is a neo-Campbellite entertainer). Abaddon’s Gate is the third book in the series; I looked at Leviathan’s Wake here, then read but didn’t write about Caliban’s War. I will say at the start that I enjoyed Gate the most of the books I have read, mostly because the authors seem to have found their groove now after some experimentation, but admit that other reviewers have said exactly the opposite.

Some details first for those who haven’t read the book yet, with a lengthier discussion later. Gate more directly connects to Leviathan Wakes than Caliban’s War. The latter is necessary to understand Gate but takes the story in a different direction than the former, useful more as a broader look at the Solar System than a continuation of the protomolecule plot line. The protomolecule spends the entirety of the second book safely ensconced on Venus while the geopolitical difficulties between Earth, Mars and the Belt are fleshed out. This is fine for those interested in Corey’s world building (and it’s a fine story in its own right), but leaves all the vomit zombie fans in the lurch. Abaddon’s Gate is all about the protomolecule, which made me happy. I remain a sucker for Big Mysterious Objects.

As in the second book, James Holden & Co. are the only holdover characters. Mention is made of past favorites, but (with one strangely reanimated exception) they are only name checked. This time around, we have a crazy chick with temporary ninja powers, an aging security operative, and a female Russian pastor who happens to have a Ugandan wife and adopted child. Corey never fails to provide a salty bunch for us. I was lukewarm for the first third of the book, wishing that less attention be paid to the characters’ angst and general human crappiness, and more time spent on the protomolecule now hovering out in the far reaches of the Solar System. Things got more exciting for the second third, as Corey slowly unpacks some of the history and secrets of the protomolecule. In the end though, this is all about the regular folks, with attention returning to the foibles of the human condition for the finale. I didn’t mind by then, since everything was very slam-bang and exciting. Still, one can hope that the next book opens up the horizons a bit more.

Another bonus of this third installment is its willingness to dive into thorny topics. Anna is the simplest vector for this sort of thing, being a pastor and all, and provides a surprisingly even-handed look at how religion might function in our future. Much of science fiction betrays a clear rooting interest in the centuries long conflict between church and scientist; there is nothing like some sort of cult or intolerant religious offshoot for a go to bad guy. Real life does little to dissuade these tropes, but there are churchy types out there who don’t think Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs, so it’s nice to read a book that includes their viewpoints. Of course, I am favorably disposed towards Corey from the start, since his (their) background treatment of Mormons is both hilarious and (more or less) accurate. Nothing keeps me laughing like Angel Moroni paintings on the walls of a converted battleship. (The humor is probably lost on 99% of his (their) readership.)

Religion is also slips a foot in the door for pacifism, a surprising inclusion considering all of the Martian battlesuits, vomit zombies, and severed limbs in the series. Things drift inevitably back into violence at the end, but there are aspects of the resolution that leaven it all with peace and cooperation. I rather wish that the author(s) went all the way with this, rather than caving a bit to Hollywood convention, but even having Anna present, demanding that all these soldiers and privateers at least consider the non-violent option without her being denigrated as a spineless idealist, is a brave gesture. It is all too easy in these sorts of stories for the brave, muscular, fighting men to mumble, “That sort of thing is nice in your pretty dream world, missy, but this is a man’s story and we gotta do what men do,” before blowing a whole bunch of crap up. Anna is at least accorded respect and a voice in the conversation before crap blows up.

I don’t know if the team behind James S.A. Corey is consciously modeling themselves after another powerhouse duo in spectacle-driven SF, but The Expanse hits a lot of the same beats as the 1970s Niven – Pournelle collaborations. Gate reminded me particularly of The Mote in God’s Eye, probably for the addition of a religious angle and the unflinching look at societies. Also noticeable in the book is the Clarke-ian sense of humanity’s insignificance in a vast, cold universe and the on-again off-again fear of massively powerful aliens. The strongest influence I felt was from Pournelle’s CoDominion universe, with its run down, lived in atmosphere. There is high tech in Corey’s Solar System, but there is a whiff of Rust Belt in Space as well.

In the end though, what really locks in the nostalgia is the tech levels in the book. There is scant nanotech, no real AI or uploaded personalities, no quantum mechanics, and no Singularity. This is old-fashioned stuff, the physical side of science fiction that we don’t always see anymore. Nothing in the books would be out of place in a Golden Age novel, except maybe the multi-ethnic, lesbian preacher. I suspect that much of the series’ appeal is linked to the fun of reading the sort of story that many of us grew up on, with a future easier on our addled brains than, say, Hannu Rajaniemi or Greg Egan. It is certainly simpler to empathize with characters who aren’t all that different from us, in situations that are, if not similar to our own, at least easily imaginable.

Gate cleanly wraps up the first set of books, while leaving plenty for the next three to explore. I don’t doubt that people will snap up the next few volumes as well, so here’s hoping that the Corey team can keep it up. As I said in the beginning, I liked this book the most of the three; my expectations are high for the coming adventures. In fact, now that all the preliminaries are out of the way, I’m hoping the authors will really open it up and let Holden strike out for parts unknown. The Solar System is nice, but with superpowerful aliens and exploding suns in view, I’m ready for new scenery.

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Tea From an Empty Cup

Tea From an Empty Cup
Pat Cadigan

I lucked out with this book. Tea enables two of my current projects: the Cyberpunk Enrichment Program and my vague aim to read more SF written by women. As I have said elsewhere, my actual knowledge of the cyberpunk subgenre is all out of whack with my passionate feelings about it, thus the push to read the standards. It just so happens that Pat Cadigan is known as the queen of cyberpunk, though a queen I had not yet read. Thus even without the well-meaning (and condescending?) positivity surrounding my plan to read and review more women, Cadigan is an absolute necessity; the synergies inherent in the whole mess are making my hair stand on end.

So what have we here? This is definitely cyberpunk, updated a bit for the late 1990s. It’s all very noir, with a variation on the locked room mystery, and it mostly takes place in Artificial Reality (AR), which is kind of like a full-sensory version of Second Life, but seedier and more expensive. (Though to be honest, my only experience with Second Life ended when my friend and I wandered into a bad neighborhood, a virtual prostitute harangued me, her pimp dropped his pants in front of my friend, and when we both rejected them, he pulled out an automatic weapon and opened fire. My character jumped screaming out a window and I logged off. Haven’t been back since.) We don’t quite get the full cyberpunk experience, mainly because there are no glittering cities, dudes in mirror shades, or sinister corporations, but most of the usual plot beats are there: hard-boiled stuff, “cyberspace,” Japan, and a grim near future.

Our guides through Cadigan’s world are Yuki and Konstantin. The former is Japanese, even though Japan collapsed in natural disaster sometime in the past, and is looking for a guy that might eventually be a boyfriend. The latter is a police detective, called in to investigate when some random dude gets killed in AR and, simultaneously, real life. Both of their paths to resolution lead through AR, even though both of them are complete noobs and are basically just endangering themselves while they bleed expense accounts dry. I want to say that Yuki is in San Francisco, though I’m not sure if that is stated or if I just arbitrarily decided that everything felt like SF. Konstantine is from an anonymous bit of unremarkable America that felt heartland-y to me, but I can’t say that for certain. Maybe Kansas City. There is a running gag throughout the book about how “life is so cheap” in DC.

We see very little of the real world, instead following Yuki and Konstantin as they lurch through “Noo Yawk City,” the AR venue du jour. What we do see of the real world is typically grimy, but Noo Yawk City is a full on Escape From New York clone, but with violent furries. (What could be more fun?) There are repeated jokes about how much everything costs, since this appears to have been written before widespread broadband or subscription services. The need for bandwidth hasn’t changed though, with connection speed being the currency and class divide in AR. Those with the answers are those running in the highest resolution and with largest bandwidth.

Like good cyberpunk should be, Tea is dizzying and hallucinogenic. If someone asked me to neatly summarize the plot, I might fail. Yuki’s story in particular walks along a very narrow path, with madness and insensibility on either side; there is a follow up that may or may not shed light on what happened. I think I see echoes of Cadigan in Charlie Stross’ Halting State series, but Cadigan brings in more of the same sort of vertigo that early William Gibson has. The book was a quick, hypnotic read, though it lacked the weight of some others. The more I think about it, the more I think that I need to continue in the series, or at least continue with Cadigan in general, before I pass further judgment. I may only being seeing one side of the conversation right now.

This was definitely worth the read. In fact, I have no excuse whatsoever for not reading Cadigan until now. (I wasn’t avoiding her or anything, it just hadn’t happened yet.) I suppose that if I were the type who hated cyberpunk, which to me is sort of like hating peaches, I wouldn’t have much fun with Tea From an Empty Cup. I’m not though, and I did. More Cadigan for me please!

Read-Along News

Two quick announcements. First, I have now posted an index page for the entire 1Q84 Read-Along, including links to all posts here and on this is how she fight start. Plenty o’ spoilers in those, but we left warning appropriately. It’s not too late to chime in if anyone out there has opinions on the book. We’re done reading and (probably) writing about it, but conversation is certainly welcome.

Second, I am helping out with The Dragon’s Path Read-Along hosted by Stainless Steel Droppings. For the time being, Carl V. has elected to run this as a Goodreads group, with more organized posts and reviews to follow. The Goodreads page is here, for anyone wanting to jump in or just spectate. I have already finished the book, but won’t make a post until the read-along schedule is over. The discussion is entertaining though and features several members of the informal group I find myself a part of. Bonus points for anyone who figures out which one is actually me.

I don’t know of any upcoming plans, so maybe I can get caught up on my own reviews. Heaven knows I’m far enough behind as it is.

Excession

Excession
Iain M. Banks

Excession sits at the confluence of several streams. First, I called it out on my 2013 Reading List because I try to read at least one Banks book each year; Excession was next up chronologically. Second, within days of me finishing the book, Banks announced that he had cancer, throwing the SF community into a sad frenzy and, in my mind, forever tying this book to his illness. Third, because of other commitments both to the blog and to my real life, I’m not getting to this post until scant weeks after Banks’ tragic passing. This means that Excession is joining the list of Recently Deceased Authors posts here, but somehow I feel considerably less flippant this time around.

Actually reviewing the book here is a daunting process. While I am no Culture noob, the amount of material generated by his sizable and devoted fanbase is daunting. Further, Banks’ all-around celebrity means that voices far wiser than my own have already said their piece about it. I direct curious readers first to a brilliantly written review by the peerlessly intelligent and often grumpy Adam Roberts. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, but he sure says it well. If that isn’t enough, how about a post by Two Dudes favorite Alastair Reynolds? In it he reveals that Excession is the very book that convinced him to polish up Revelation Space and go full time into writing. If the book does nothing else, the SF world owes Banks a huge debt for kicking Reynolds in the tush and getting him to write.

There are times when I (foolishly?) believe that I too have something worthy to add to the conversation, and there are times when I would much rather shut up, make myself very small and unobtrusive, and let the adults speak. This is most definitely the latter. I don’t necessarily think that everything that can ever be said about The Culture has already been said, but I doubt mightily that I will be the one to provide a stunning new insight.

That said, I have to write something. Since I am an unapologetic Culture fan, I’ll just mention a few things that I enjoyed about the book and call it good. Most obvious are the ships. Everyone likes the Culture ships, with their funny names, witty and superior banter, and blatant manipulation of the Culture’s meatier members. Banks could probably publish a book of nothing but ships reciting naughty limericks and win a Locus Award. They take center stage in Excession (the ships, not naughty limericks) and are far more entertaining than the biologicals.

Next up for our amusement is The Affront, a barbaric civilization that aspires to be the Culture’s rival. Banks makes it clear from the beginning that they haven’t a prayer of getting that far, but the Culture is loath to spoil their dreams. As a firm believer in humanism, civil rights, pacifism, etc., I should be disgusted by the Affront, but something about them is so gloriously alive that I can’t help but smile as they torment their food, enslave their women, and revel in their crude cruelty. No wonder the book’s erstwhile protagonist wants to join them. This makes for an interesting contrast with Player of Games and its serious treatment of bad guys.

Another major point of interest for Culture fans is the history that starts to creep out in Excession. Banks is slowly beginning to reveal the inner workings of the Culture, offering a glimpse into the makeup, governance, and past of his creation. It’s not a lot, since the action always takes place on the margins, but it is far more than in previous books.

Finally there is the usual gonzo wackiness of a Banks creation. It’s not as florid as Consider Phlebas, nor as warped as Use of Weapons, but Excession has all the hallmarks of Culture book. It seems strange that Banks would be a sort of godfather to all these British authors writing darker stuff (Alastair Reynolds, Richard Morgan, etc.), but so it goes. Excession isn’t a comedy, but it is very funny. There is something about the light-hearted way he goes about things, even when the straits are dire and the situation deadly serious, that appeals to me. It stands out all the more, now that cancer has claimed the author.

So there we have it. I make no apologies for the lack of deep philosophy this time around. Maybe next time?

1Q84: Book Three

1Q84: Book Three
Murakami Haruki

At long last we are reaching the end of hefty tome. Real life has conspired to keep me away from the word processor for a bit, but even more than that, trying to comprehend the final third of 1Q84 has been most taxing. This is not the place to start this series of reviews, obviously, and while there will be no explicit spoilers, it’s probably better to have read the book before reading this post. Or, at the very least, I recommend reading all the other posts first, including kamo’s take on Book Three.

Much of the difficulty in parsing the last section is a result of a sudden and complete change in narrative. Book One sets the table with the usual assortment of Murakamian wackiness, while Book Two brings in a flambe that sets off multiple explosions. Book Three? Well, people sit in rooms and think. I suppose I could compare it to cigars and scotch in the drawing room, if I really want to stretch this already tenuous metaphor. Almost everything that’s going to happen happens in Book Two. Book Three is more like the extended coda of a Scooby-Do episode, explaining how those meddling kids figured it all out. In some ways, this was disappointing. Things were hurtling along in Book Two in an almost pure elixir of Murakami-ness that threatened at every turn to melt my brain. Then, suddenly, everything stopped. People sit around, looking at the moon and reading Proust. Tengo visits the cat town. Ushikawa reveals secrets in the most demeaning ways possible. The book ends.

Letting that sit for a moment, we will instead examine more prosaic matters. The biggest change in Book Three is Ushikawa’s voice. He is a bit part early on, one of those throw away messengers that occasionally pops up in Murakami’s worlds. In Book Three however, he assumes equal narrative importance with Tengo and Aomame. In some ways, Ushikawa is the reader, or a certain kind of reader. I have wondered about his existence, his ugliness, and his fate, and it occurs to me that Ushikawa may be Murakami’s warning to that type that looks for answers, for finality, for the underlying structure and logic of reality. (In other words, Hard SF readers. Doh.) These are the readers and critics who are probably hardest on Murakami, aside from maybe Japanese nationalists, and I wonder if he isn’t saying, “Hey, this dude spends his whole time poking around and figuring things out. He’s ugly, the truth he reveals is ugly, most of these things are better left unknown, and none of it is going to end well.” Almost without exception, the facts that Ushikawa uncovers are things I would have preferred not to know, as though Murakami wants us to appreciate that lingering mystery is often better than knowing. Keep Schrodinger’s Cat in his box, or we’ll all just end up disappointed.

And yet, the whole point of Book Three is to resolve questions. It ends as it must, not completely pat because this is Murakami, but without the usual partings and ambiguity that mark his other work. The resolution doesn’t confine itself to the last chapter, but runs in various ways throughout the book as bits and pieces of the story settle themselves and drift off-stage. As much as anything settles itself in a Murakami book at least. Again, I have no proof of this, but I visualize him wanting to leave things at the end of Book Two (which, apparently, he did in one early draft or another), but deciding that maybe this time he’ll toss a bone to his readers. Whether this was a challenge to himself to see what happens, a response to fans and critics, a perceived narrative necessity inherent in Tengo and Aomame’s story, or something completely different is beyond my comprehension, but I came away from 1Q84 with more answers than any other of his books.

This is not to say that questions don’t remain. I still can’t tell who is driving this train; there is no convincing proof (to my mind) that it isn’t all Tengo’s creation, while kamo speculates that Tamaru is actually the final voice of authority. My gut feeling is that the story is authentic, rather than Tengo’s wish fulfillment, but there are pervasive references to higher powers, shadowy control figures, and the like, to say nothing of Fuka-Eri, who is certainly a Vergence in the Force. (With prominent boobs. Top that, Lucas.) I’m getting myself all wound up again and full of questions. It probably goes without saying that the whole Little People thing remains very vague.

A particular point of interest is Sakigake. I’m surprised that it took this long for Aum Shinrikyo to finally rear its ugly head, but here it is. Granted, Sakigake is very different from the group that sarin gassed the Tokyo subways, but Murakami’s treatment of the fictional cult is heavily colored by his extensive writing on the real one. (As it should, considering the mountainous research he did before producing Underground.) What really interests me is the connection between Sakigake and the 1960s student protests, another of Murakami’s touchstones. The author has known sympathies with the protesters, though his disgust with their ideological intolerance is also on frequent display. This time, he draws a teleological line from the protests to a cult modeled loosely on an apocalyptic group from the 1990s. What does this mean? I have no idea. Just to muddy things further, the protests were in large part anti-American, or at least anti-security relationship with America, but the author himself professes to feeling more at home in the US than in Japan.

In the end, what do I make of it all? The book is sprawling and complicated, my relationship with it mirrors that fact. The last third dims my enthusiasm somewhat, and yet I read without any slackening of pace or urgency. Murakami’s treatment of women, especially the young ladies, is disturbing, but I cannot say whether he is manipulating and implicating the reader, or if he just sees himself as a guy who tells it like it is, admitting to things most people try to hide. Questions and loose threads abound, leaving him open to accusations of laziness and imprecision. On the other hand, Ushikawa and his secrets are a compelling defense of mystery. For 600 pages, this was my favorite Murakami book ever, but after 900 I find myself returning to past works. I am left with the lurking feeling that a reread would change my perspective completely.

I will give the book credit for two things, then wrap up. First, I have started listening to Janacek. I knew the name, but couldn’t hum anything he’s done. I can now. Second, this has really wound me up for a reread of Kafka on the Shore. That may happen sooner rather than later. For now though, 1Q84 continues to bubble away in my brain. Maybe more answers will float to the surface in coming weeks.