The Scar

The Scar
China Mieville

The end of the year creeps inexorably toward us and time is running out for my 2013 Reading List. Fortunately, the last couple of months have seen a strong push to the finish line, with book after book falling to my indomitable will. The Scar is the latest of the insanely heavy tomes on the list to come under The Officially Licensed Two Dudes Magnifying Glass (yours for just three easy installments of $19.99), as today we take a pleasant autumn journey to Bas Lag.

And by “pleasant,” I mean “full of face sucking monsters and reality warping phenomena.” While The Scar is technically a stand alone, I would be surprised if more than a handful of people who pick it up haven’t already read Perdido Street Station. None of the main characters overlap and the setting within Bas Lag is different, but the second book positions itself as a story set in motion on the fringes of the action in the first. Perdido is not necessary to understand The Scar, but it does make things a bit more interesting.

Mieville is one of those giant reasons why I don’t try to write fiction. While I am struggling to cook up even the basics of a plot, he is off creating a floating pirate metropolis, an island where all the women are mosquito hybrids, sentient and mobile cacti, and one of the stranger and more disturbing romances I have ever seen. I can’t imagine what else is galloping through Mieville’s head or what horrifying dreams he might have at night. If there is another author out there with his combination of bizarre creatures, intricate plotting, and baroque command of language, I haven’t found him or her.

The plot this time is linear, but complicated. Everything flows logically from point A through point J or so, though few would predict the situation at J when looking ahead from A. Mieville’s story moves forward with a certain inexorable momentum, as though things are bigger than any individual; all the while, the characters’ agency and influence are clear. Mieville walks a fine line between historical inevitability and Great Men. I may just be a credulous reader, but I fell for all of the head fakes and misdirections. Mieville sends things in one direction, then another, then finally unveils the underlying drivers after leading everyone on a merry chase. In my defense, most of the characters were equally baffled.

Things that I liked about the book: Armada is one of the great fantasy cities. An ancient, floating contraption make of thousands of lashed together boats, Armada is a hive of varying governments, races, and classes that is endlessly fascinating. If nothing else of worth happens in The Scar, people should still read it for the chance to visit Armada. The library alone makes it for me, supplied by marauding book pirates that bring the world’s literature to their base. The city reminds me, physically at least, of the communities in Karl Schroeder’s Virga series, though little else in the books relates.

The characters are also memorable, if not likable. Top of the list is Uther Doul. He is a guardian of the city, an invincible warrior, and possesses a sword of great power. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. But Mieville turns this particular cliché inside out, to great effect. The erstwhile protagonist, Bellis Coldwine, is anything but typical. She is not as likable as Tanner Sack, with his surgically attached tentacles and predilection for salt water, or as memorable as The Lovers, with their hair-raising romance, but fills in nicely as the aloof, refugee librarian. The supporting cast collectively holds its own as well, varied appendages and quirks notwithstanding.

Finally, I enjoy the way Mieville writes simultaneously on multiple levels. He is an avowed and educated socialist, which colors his work distinctively. It is most noticeable in the guided tour of the many governments of Bas Lag. I realize that not everyone is as entertained by the minutia of economic policy as I am, but Armada is full of juicy goodness. There is also the questions of metaphor, as Mieville explores the meaning of scars (surprise!), freedom, loyalty, and other heavy bits. Of course, one could skip this entirely and just read the book for the rollicking adventure, which the author tastefully provides for those of us that want some fun with our Marxism. The book is whatever the reader makes of it.

Oh, and I also really like the floating oil rigs. Those are pretty cool.

There are a few things that may not be for everyone. Mieville holds back nothing when he writes and has no qualms about showing us the ugly side of his world as well as the good. His imagination is quite grotesque, as veterans of Perdido Street Station will know, in ways both compelling and sickening. If there is violence, we see it and all of its consequences. If there are tentacles, we know the pluses and minuses. (Not many of the latter, as far as tentacles are concerned.) If there are rich, successful, and beautiful people in the world, there are also poor, slovenly, and low; Bas Lag is not for the faint of heart, though the rewards are there for those who don’t mind occasional blood and squalor.

I feel like there is much more to engage with here, but it’s hard to compress the whole of a Mieville novel into a single, 1000 word review. I could say much more about the language, about the ins and outs of Armada, about the blood sucking mosquito women, or all of those scars on people. Um, maybe we’ll skip the last one, especially where The Lovers are concerned. I just ate. But all the other stuff is great! Mieville is one of those authors that will probably be talked about decades from now, so I feel fortunate to watch him in action. Maybe the next time around I will manage to dig in further.

Gateway Science Fiction

Gateway Science Fiction

Last week, The Little Red Reviewer posted her list of Top 10 Gateway SF titles. I wanted to respond, thought about what to say, thought some more about it, then finally gave up and started writing my own list. The final punishment of pedantry is an increased workload.

This is less an iron-clad list of stuff I would always recommend, and more of a list of books that I think might be accepted by a suspicious friend or relative. Of course, not everyone likes the same things, so I have tried to put some variety into the list, with the target demographic occasionally called out in my comments. It’s also possible that my idea of My First Sony Science Fiction strikes someone else as hopelessly incomprehensible. These are the bold risks we take here at Two Dudes. Finally, astute readers may notice that I am leaving off most of the classics from yesteryear. Dune, Foundation, Starship Troopers, etc. are fine books and may indeed be a good introduction, but I am assuming that people will feel more comfortable with contemporary voices and world views.

Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
Let’s just get this one out of the way now, shall we? I haven’t read it since junior high school, but people still say it’s good. It is also, shall we say, in the public consciousness at the moment.

Old Man’s War – John Scalzi
Scalzi is my go to author for Gateway SF. His books are easy to read, funny, well-written, and generally have enough meat on the bones to satisfy newbie and veteran alike. Bonus points for having some of the best non-fiction out as well, as he wages a campaign to rid fandom of its more pernicious elements.

The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
I’m pretty sure this won’t actually turn many people into SF fans, but it’s definitely a book everyone should read. If I could lay out an inevitable path from Arthur Dent to Greg Egan, my publishing fortune would be assured.

Neuromancer – William Gibson
I’m not sure this is a gateway book, but Gibson’s worlds are not far from our own. The Blue Ant books are actually the recent past now, and I imagine that Neuromancer packs a certain amount of Max Headroom-style 80s nostalgia. These might be enough to usher folks past the lobby. Oddly enough, this book in particular is one of the most important to come out in the last thirty or so years, in terms of genre impact.

Heir to the Empire – Timothy Zahn
I don’t normally recommend tie-ins, but this book starts a trilogy that is widely acknowledged to be the best addition to the Star Wars universe ever put to paper. Much of what later became Canon started from the series.

Hyperion – Dan Simmons
I recommend Hyperion to my more literate friends. Who can say no to The Canterbury Tales in space? And with each story attaching itself to a different subgenre? What about the Keats references? I wouldn’t give this to just anyone as an introduction, but there is definitely a type of reader that would warm to Simmons over most of the other authors on my list.

1632 – Eric Flint
Nor would I recommend this alternate history tale of a West Virginia coal mining town transported to the Hundred Years War to just anyone. Flint is the socialist outlier at reliably militaristic Baen Books and he has a distinctive writing style that probably isn’t for everyone. The rah-rah nature of the book might also put off a number of people, but the community that has grown up around the series is very serious about their extrapolation. With the right audience, this could light a spark.

Japan Sinks – Komatsu Sakyo
This is more for the Japan crowd, but it is available in English. (An English version of the movie also exists, though it was much bigger in Japan.) Not science fiction in the traditional sense, this tale of Japan sinking into the ocean as tectonic plate movements swallow it up is an accessible introduction to one of Japan’s grand masters.

Leviathan’s Wake – James S.A. Corey
I suggest this more out of curiosity than confidence. The book is fairly serious SF, but in the kind of universe easily recognized by those already exposed to Star Wars or Firefly. It also contains vomit zombies, sure to entertain.

There are several others that didn’t make the cut. Among them are series like David Brin’s Uplift and Lois Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, listed as much because I’m not sure where to recommend starting as for any other reason. Snowcrash might stand in for Neuromancer, but is longer. (Funnier, though.) Authors like Jack McDevitt, L.E. Modesitt, Jr., and possibly even Iain M. Banks might also qualify. Beyond this, there is a whole host of Military SF that I am ignorant of, but a lot of that seems to be written for a rather isolated community anyway.

Thoughts, anyone? I’ll probably keep turning this over my in head for some time.

The Reality Dysfunction

The Reality Dysfunction (Night’s Dawn #1)
Peter F. Hamilton

Peter Hamilton is the Tad Williams of science fiction. I could dig into a comparison of how their early, defining series set high standards for working strictly within the tradition, but I think I will stick with saying that both are graduates cum laud from the Victor Hugo School of Concise Writing. (Alas for Hamilton however, he gets no credit for the origins of the Furry movement. That honor is Williams’ alone.) I am about 15 years late on this, but I finally started into The Night’s Dawn Trilogy. After reading 1100 trade paperback pages and still just one third of the way in, I am prepared to say that this is long. At current pace, I will finish the next two volumes sometime in 2015.

There will be some mild spoilers below, but nothing too egregious. Still, anyone planning on reading this for the first time and hoping to avoid anything that might interfere with maximum surprise may want to stop here. It’s kind of hard to know where spoilers begin though, considering that “the plot” takes maybe 500 pages to kick in. I have read the first books in Hamilton’s Commonwealth universe (Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained), so I had an inkling of what was coming. Every story has a back story, and every character has a past that can be traced back over generations. Let no reader accuse Hamilton of not being thorough – I know more about some of these fictional people than I do friends and neighbors in real life. Whether or not this is a good thing remains an open question.

Long time readers will know my preference for concise, just-the-facts-ma’am prose, but will also know that I am wildly indulgent of authors like Iain Banks and Kim Stanley Robinson. I’m not sure why the minutia of 2312, for example, fascinates me, while I find myself tapping an impatient foot and urging Hamilton to get on with it, but that is what sometimes happens. I can’t complain too much though, since the world building is flawless and the back stories entertaining. On the other hand, it’s not something I see myself rereading, just because the time commitment is overwhelming. (I remember reading some reviews on Amazon where people talked about how they reacted to plot points the third or fourth time through. I was aghast. Who has time for multiple trips through 3500 pages?) Anyway, I’m not prepared to say that it’s a good or bad thing, but potential readers should probably be aware of the slog ahead.

In hindsight, the most amusing part of Night’s Dawn is the way Hamilton keeps things firmly in the pulp tradition. He has updated the specifics, with anti-matter replacing ray guns and biotech in place of cardboard spaceships hung from strings midst a bad starscape. The prose is also several notches above the average dime store serial, as one would expect from a production as serious as this. Thematically however, Huge Gernsback would feel right at home. In fact, I wish I could have seen Hamilton’s brainstorming sessions for this one. “Bad guys… hmm, alien bugs have been done to death, Von Neumann machines are passe, what should I do? I know! How about THE DEAD!!! And how do we get deceased souls out of Purgatory? Eureka! Satan worshipers! This is gonna be great.”

So, yes, these are both plot points at the core of the trilogy. It’s utterly goofy, but it works. (At least, it does so far. I could see this spinning wildly off the rails, but suspect that Hamilton holds things together.) In true pulp fashion though, we have brave and competent heroes, scantily clad maidens, mustachio-twirling villains, wide-scale pathos, doomed love, and plenty of tough people coming through in the cliff hanging clutch. We also have hundreds of pages about characters whose only reason for existing is to later suffer horrible fates, all of which would have been on the cutting room floor until Niven and Pournelle unleashed doorstop space opera on the unsuspecting world, back in the late 1970s.

I’m making it sound like Night’s Dawn is 3000 pages of Ming the Merciless, something that is not fair at all to the author. He’s working within the idiom, but going very much his own way and operating at a high level. Things are very complex – in Reality Dysfunction alone there are three bad guys (or sets of bad guys), one galactic confederation with numerous independent entities, an extinct race from the distant past, a confident riff on Bruce Sterling’s Mechanist-Shaper dichotomy, an array of planets and stations, each with its own tech level and politics, and the customary Cast of Thousands. I periodically wished Hamilton would stop rooting around in everyone’s past and just blow up a few spaceships, but once the action finally gets in gear, the book hurtles madly. If the next two books keep up the pace at the end of the first, I will be both impressed and exhausted.

So this is an incomplete view of things, covering as it does but one third of the proceedings. I’ve tried to give my perspective of the book in terms of its place in the science fiction meta-dialogue, since I don’t feel right marching into plot analysis and that sort of thing. Later posts will dig more deeply into these aspects of the story, but I have to finish them first. Readers can expect the next installment within the next two years. It might take me that long.

YGSF: The Planet Strappers

The Planet Strappers
Raymond Gallun

It’s been a little while since I last posted a book review here, so I rooted around the cellar for something properly off-kilter to get things going again. I can’t remember where I heard about The Planet Strappers, though it may have been mentioned on an SF Signal podcast. The reference I’m looking at now says that Gallun published this in 1961; the copyright has since lapsed and it is available on Project Gutenberg. This is pretty much the ultimate post in the Yo’ Grandpa’s Sci-Fi series, what with the obscurity and surprising thematic interest.

The person that recommended the book did so because of Gallun’s vision of the privatization of outer space, one that seems to mirror our current expectations. The book interests me partially because of that, but more for the contrast between wholesome, Golden Age goodness and the above mentioned near Earth colonization. Strappers is at once wholly archaic and wholly relevant, in subjects that would probably surprise the author. In a way, it is the opposite of Clarke’s 200: society has moved far past what he expected, while technology has lagged behind. (Not that the technology in Strappers is contemporary. We’ll have to swap in political economy instead.)

Things start in rural Minnesota, because in 1960, what is more American than high school boys surrounded by corn fields? These are good kids, who say things like “golly” and “shucks,” kids without a lot of money, but with big dreams. They can dream because they’re handy with tools, because summer jobs provide a little bit of cash, and because in this future, boys can buy space suit kits from the back pages of magazines and build them in a shed out behind the house. Even better, the government takes people who have built these suits and tosses them up and out of the gravity well, leaving them more or less alone to make a go of it Out There. I have to admire these people, because I certainly wouldn’t trust my own handiwork to withstand the vacuum.

I will give Gallun some credit, because not everyone is a white male. There are a few females, usually capable actors themselves, and there are some token minorities. For the most part though, we’re looking at the heartland. The usual American can-do attitude is on full display, the main characters are typical Competent Men, and space is for Strong Individuals. (Fortunately, some ideas of community are present. It’s not a complete libertarian fantasy.) There are other relics of the past as well, starting with the exceedingly mechanical technology. No computers, no nanotech, no mobile devices, etc. Strictly nuts, bolts, and radio. Further, nobody in the book is surprised at life on Mars, or that signs of intelligent life are peppered throughout the Moon, Mars, and the asteroids. None of our embittered cynicism about being the only life anywhere, ever. All in all, this is about what one would expect from a short novel published in 1961.

It’s the way humanity is taming outer space that surprises a bit. While Apollo was yet to land on the Moon in 1961, Gallun was about to enter the heyday of government sponsored space exploration. It would seem natural to assume that governments, specifically the US and USSR, would be building space stations and colonies, running their enclaves in the vacuum, and generally continuing familiar geopolitics. Strappers goes in completely the opposite direction. Once the US hurls its besuited countrymen into the void, they are on their own. A token security force exists, but rarely enters the frame. We are looking at a wild, ungoverned frontier. Even giant corporations are mostly absent, replaced by the equivalent of general stores and saloons.

Clearly, this is not exactly as we predict near Earth colonization now, but some aspects are shockingly close. As late as the 1980s, I think most of us assumed that any Moonbase would be an extension of the government, that the Space Shuttle (or its successor) would keep flying, and that private actors would have neither the capital nor the inclination to jump in. Multiple private companies making independent space flights and jockeying for asteroid mining position is a scene that would surprise many back then, though for us now, this seems a logical inevitability. The Planet Strappers is fascinating precisely because Gallun somehow saw past the age of governments in space, envisioning his Solar System full of wildcatters and outlaws. I don’t believe that the asteroids will be Dodge City transplanted into space, nor do I think that vacuum appropriate habitats will be constructed in backyards across America, but it is clear that actors called Space X and Planetary Resources will do more for space exploration than actors called NASA. (Whether Gallun honestly foresaw this, or was just cooking something up that fit his story is not a question I can answer. I’m all for giving the benefit of the doubt and going with “partial visionary.”)

What about the rest of the book? It’s not bad. Not exactly memorable or profound, but entertaining. There’s probably a reason why nobody is zealously defending the copyright and cranking out commemorative editions, but the book is noticeably better than some other crap from the era. I recommend it more for the meta textual questions it asks than the plot, but it’s still worth reading. Maybe not a high priority read, but definitely worth checking out to get a feel for how the genre has developed.

Ender Wiggen and the Adolescent Mormon Nerd

Ender Wiggen and the Adolescent Mormon Nerd

I had no special plans to see Ender’s Game, let alone write about it, but things have conspired otherwise. I still won’t watch the movie any time soon, for a number of reasons wholly unrelated to anything but my short attention span and family time commitments, but the inspiration to write appeared rather out of the blue.

Before continuing with this post, I highly recommend reading this article from Grantland. For those who don’t know, Grantland is an ESPN spinoff run by noted Boston homer, pro sports addict, and all around funny man Bill Simmons. It is primarily an outlet for long form sports journalism and advanced statistical analysis, but randomly tosses up pieces about pop culture and American society. In this case, the author is a Kansas-raised, Muslim immigrant writing about the lessons in hope and tolerance he learned from an adolescent reading of Ender’s Game. Some day I hope Two Dudes publishes a post this amazing.

Now, I’m not going to address this article directly, but it opens up a discussion that I can bring a very different view to, one that understands in a different way why Card seems unable to stop saying incendiary and intolerant things in public.

Both of the Two Dudes were raised in the Mormon church. My silent partner has since repudiated most of his upbringing, but I maintain a complicated and sometimes adversarial relationship with my religion. (Long time readers may have already known or surmised this, but for those who haven’t, there it is.) Of course, Orson Scott Card is famously Mormon. In fact, he is the only Mormon I know of to win the Hugo or Nebula, and until Brandon Sanderson appeared, the only prominent SFF writing Mormon of whom I was aware. Needless to say, this was a big deal to me twenty five years ago. The thought that another Mormon was out there, involved in SCA, writing space operas, and winning awards was quite intoxicating, especially compared to the people I saw each week at church. (We Mormons are a well meaning, hard working bunch, but awfully bland.)

Ender’s Game itself was also a big deal twenty five years ago, but my experience is so typical as to be almost not worth mentioning. Indeed, how many thousands of geeks found outlets for repressed wish fulfillment in the tale of a young outcast who becomes a military genius? I imagine that a huge proportion of fandom under the age of forty or so had their lives changed in adolescence by Ender’s Game. In my case, I haven’t read it since the early 90s, fearing that the Suck Fairy has visited and somehow robbed the book of its power. (It may hold up, along with Speaker for the Dead, but my anxiety is real.)

To be honest, I have only read one Card book since 1994: Capitol. I found the ideas intriguing, but something about the book seemed so very fervent, enough that I remain wary of picking up another. What I have read in recent years is a column that Card wrote (writes?) weekly for The Mormon Times. The Mormon Times is an insert that came tucked in with The Church News, part of a gift subscription from my mom. I dutifully scanned these as they arrived, including Card’s missives. I honestly don’t know where Card stands in the current pantheon of SF writers, but in the late 80s and early 90s, he was producing bold, challenging, and humanitarian work. In this venue, I expected that he would turn his considerable powers of both prose and characterization to chart out interesting new perspectives in contemporary Mormonism, or perhaps calling into question our unreflected biases and assumptions in the same way his books dug at thorny moral conundrums. No such luck. I was disappointed each week to read a by the numbers, toe the party line style explanation of one vanilla topic or another. Card was, in The Mormon Times, immovably Mormon.

And this, dear readers, is the crux of his problem. Nothing Card says, from the homophobia to the Obama hating, the rabid anti-Muslim writings to the dystopian conspiracy theories, is more than two or three steps off the Mormon mainline. The church hierarchy remains apolitical, but the rank and file, even here in the pinko commie Northwest, flirts with the worst of the Tea Party excesses. And while there have been some steps forward, Mormons are largely defined to the outside world by the bitter, bigoted Proposition 8 battle in California. (For those not from here, Prop 8 was a 2008 initiative banning gay marriage. The church spent heavily and mobilized as many sympathetic members as possible to pass this law, something that, five years on, still alienates the LGBT community and sparks internecine Mormon warfare.)

Readers look at books like Ender’s Game (and even moreso Speaker for the Dead) , with its message of tolerance and understanding, and are justifiably baffled by Card’s vitriol. I suspect that many of these people would look at the less publicized Mormon charity work, public service, and exhortations to love and respect each other (that are both sincerely given and followed) and be unable to reconcile these with stern leaders who stand in front of the whole of the church and basically say, “God hates gays.” On LGBT issues, Card merely follows lockstep with the leadership of the religion he remains devoted to. If the politics get a little crazy, well, nobody from on high has shut down any of the other crazy political garbage spewing out of the Mormon heartland either.

I’m sure there’s much more to it all, but maybe this is a start to unpacking all of the baggage that Ender’s Game has brought with it. It doesn’t simplify my feelings towards the book and its author any, but I have no way of untangling them from bigger issues in my life. Every Sunday that I spend in church makes Orson Scott Card a bit easier to understand.