Famous Towers in SF

Famous Towers of Science Fiction

I periodically draw inspiration from The Fantasy Review Barn, especially when Nathan posts his weekly Tours through Fantasy Land. The most recent post, about towers, piqued my interest. Towers are ubiquitous throughout fantasy; it seemed like there should be a few in SF as well. I’m probably forgetting many hugely obvious examples, since the finer details of most books have long since faded from memory, but here’s a small assortment. Maybe someone else will add to the list in a post of their own.

Blade RunnerThe Tyrell Corporation Tower. Looming above the Osaka-inspired cityscape is the double pyramid of the replicant creators, Tyrell Corp. This is fairly typical of SF towers: parts of vast cities rather than wizard’s towers alone in the forest. I probably don’t need to say anything else about Blade Runner, its urban aesthetic, or the effects it has had on subsequent SF.

Diamond Dogs (Alastair Reynolds) – The Blood Spire. Reynolds borrows from Algis Budrys’ classic Rogue Moon, and 95% of the D&D plots out there, as a party of characters, who may or may not have met in a tavern somewhere, try to solve the puzzles in a mysterious tower of unknown origin. Reynolds lets his trademark macabre imagination go wild as the puzzles and people twist themselves into creepier and more bizarre situations.

1633 (Eric Flint and David Weber) – The Tower of London. I suppose this may be cheating, since it’s the Tower of London and all, but Flint’s 1632 should count as SF. Alt history is SF, right? Even if Oliver Cromwell is involved?

California Voodoo Game (Larry Niven and Steven Barnes) – A defunct arcology. A reasonable SF analog to towers might be arcologies. In some ways, these can act as a future substitute for castles, though only as population centers. Niven has played with arcologies in a few different books, as have others, but this Dream Park novel is one of the few where the building itself is as important as many of the characters.

Terminal World (Alastair Reynolds) – Spearpoint. Reynolds again, with another diabolical tower. Spearpoint is tall enough that I can’t remember how tall it is, with multiple levels of habitation. Each level has its own technology level, strictly enforced through a mysterious mechanism, which takes the story through high tech SF, steampunk, horses, and a bathhouse owning gangster hooked up to a calliope.

Fountains of Paradise (Arthur C. Clarke) – The space elevator. We’re creeping further and further away from actual towers, but surely a space elevator counts. After all, it’s very tall, and has, er, elevators. Multiple prizes for this book, though the story itself is pretty low on plot and high on white men building large things.

What have I forgotten?

2014 Hugo Awards

2014 Hugo Awards

I don’t always pay much attention to the Hugos. In fact, 2013 was the first time that I actively followed the entire process, in part because of my growing involvement with this blog. More importantly at the time, 2012 was the first year in a very long time, or possibly ever, that I kept up with the major new releases, read most of them, and had very strong opinions about many of them. I am on record saying that 2012 was one of the most exciting ever for science fiction. Then, the Hugos came, Redshirts beat out 2312 for Best Novel, and I was crushed. Not that there is anything wrong with Redshirts; it is a fun book that speaks to the soul of the genre community and Scalzi is the face that SF presents to the world. (A very worthy face, I might add. I am thrilled that he is our de facto spokesman.) 2312, however, is the epitome of what science fiction is to me. I think it will go down as a classic, studied decades from now by people serious about the genre. It is on my very short list of the best SF books ever. That Hugo voters didn’t agree with me singed my soul.

Then the 2014 awards season came around. I was less involved in 2013 new releases and saw little that matched the grandeur of 2012’s slate. I read a few things, liked a couple a great deal, but wasn’t terribly dialed in for whatever reason. I didn’t feel worthy to turn in a nomination, since I read so little of the novels and basically none of the non-novel offerings. Once the official nominations were released, I assumed the worst. The Wheel of Time in its entirety? Good heavens. If Redshirts can knock off Kim Stanley Robinson’s very best, what hope does anyone hold against the Robert Jordan juggernaut?

All of this was before a bit of the culture wars raging in the US jumped the firebreak and invaded the community via the spastic thrashings of a shrinking demographic. I was never worried that Vox Day & Co. would actually win a Hugo, but that didn’t make things any more pleasant. While I realize that greater geekdom is a festering cesspit of the debased and mouth-breathing, the core science fiction community always seemed to be a more refined place. Yes, there are jerks and yes, bad things happen, but for the most unrelenting misogyny and racism, one needs to hit the gamer and otaku communities. We book types are, I thought, much more civilized; fearing otherwise was more than I wanted to process. All together, the situation was dire enough that I beat a hasty retreat for the sanctuary of the Nebula Awards.

Now I am looking at the lists of award winners and feeling more excited about the state of science fiction than I have in quite some time. First, and perhaps least important, the right book won. Ancillary Justice isn’t perfect, but it breaks new ground and pushes the genre forward. It addresses issues like gender equality, colonialization, and defining identities during periods of wrenching change, all hot button topics in the world at large. I suppose it’s fine that the gender stuff Leckie plays with gets most of the attention, even if it makes me want to yell, “HELLO PEOPLE! THE MAIN CHARACTER USED TO BE AN INTERSTELLAR WARSHIP OVERMIND! THIS IS NEW AND EXCITING!” There’s crazy stuff going on in Ancillary Justice and nothing else touches it for cutting edge innovation. (Especially not a hoary fantasy epic that’s been dragging on since I was in junior high school.)

Bigger than this is the message that the Hugo voters sent about the state of the community. The ballot has already been hailed as one of the most balanced and inclusive ever by any metric; the winners are shaking the foundations of the patriarchy. Women followed their dramatic Nebula sweep with a strong showing at the Hugos. John Chu talked about his victory in terms of racism and homophobia. Kameron Hurley won two Hugos. Let’s say that again – we live in a world where incendiary bomb-lobber Kameron Hurley can win two Hugos. This is amazing. SF is dragging itself, kicking and screaming, into the future, and I am happy to be a part of it.

The only downer of the evening? The Coode Street Podcast once again came up short. It is my favorite by a long margin, but, as with so many other things, I appear to be an elitist minority.

Coode Street aside, thank you Hugo Voters for restoring my faith in our genre. I promise to never doubt you, at least not until you once again vote down my favorite book.

The Thousand Names

The Thousand Names
Django Wexler

I’m always happy to read a book by a fellow denizen of the Northwest. Not that I base my reading choices on geography, but when I find out that someone is from around here, it’s a pleasant bonus. That is incidental to everything that follows, but seemed as good a place as any to start. The Thousand Names has been making its way ‘round the interwebs lately, with multiple friends reviewing it in the last month or so. Their comments were enough to get Names onto the TBR pile, but it was sheer chance that I saw it at the library right when I hit a break between books. This could only mean one thing: the Three Nephites had left a copy just for me, and it was their Will that I pick it up next. Who am I to argue with the Three Nephites? (Mormon humor here. Some small portion of the readership is probably laughing now.)

For those not up on all the current lingo, Names is what young people nowadays call “flintlock fantasy.” This subgenre is the usual secondary-world fantasy, but with muskets and cannons instead of gallant knights in plate mail. The Age of Empires atmosphere is relatively under exploited in fantasy right now, though I wonder if that might be because the historical Age of Empires is kind of glossed over in our educational and cultural presentations of history, in comparison to King Arthur, the High Middle Ages, bits of the Renaissance, etc. Anyway, Wexler is writing about an Imperial Army out on the frontier, when soldiers carried muskets and bayonets instead of swords, cavalry still mattered, and people hadn’t moved past that bizarre stage when standing in straight lines and taking turns shooting at each other was considered the proper way to fight battles. There is also magic, because this is fantasy, but it is understated.

The first half of the book is a military campaign, seen from the alternating viewpoints of an officer and sergeant. Wexler appears to be a tabletop wargaming enthusiast and the battles show the tactical knowledge of a student of ye olde art of war. They did to me at least, and I wouldn’t know any better, but I’m still pretty sure it’s all real. I don’t know the details of musket and bayonet formations, but Wexler flashes a more than casual understanding of everything. This part of the book was the most entertaining, partially because of the military novelty and partially because the characters are interesting and relatable.

The second half of the book tends more towards questing, though there are still battles and armies. This is also where magic comes into play, rather than just rebels and imperials hacking at each other. I think it bogged down a little bit, and could probably do without a subplot or two, but the ending was well worth the wait. I suppose this is de rigueur for the first volume of a series, but the transition from a stand alone story arc into a longer series was seamless. In fact, things felt almost science fictional in the way that later revelations forced a re-evaluation of how the world works. It wasn’t merely, “Here’s the artifact and woah! Wild times a’coming for everyone due to somewhat related hijinks elsewhere!” There is a bit of that, but the way certain quest-related issues play out opens things up in the same way that scientific discovery often changes the game in SF. This is one of the things that most impressed me about Names.

Finally, I am interested in the direction things are heading. Early word on the sequel is that it leaves the military behind in favor of political maneuvering; this could be a very good thing. I enjoyed the world building that I saw, though Wexler kept it to a reasonable minimum. There are obvious similarities to European attempts to pacify the Muslim kingdoms in the Middle East and N. Africa, as the white imperialists and their vaguely Christianity-esque religion duke it out with enrobed, darker skinned desert dwellers. It’s not a blatant ripoff of any particular historical event though, and certain tropes of the colonizer-indigenous relationship are inevitable regardless of other racial or religious identities. Wexler’s portrayal of rebellion on a backwater frontier and the imperial response to it felt spot on to me. If he handles events in the core as well as he does the periphery, there could be excitement on the way.

To sum up: The Thousand Names is unconventional fantasy featuring a plethora of muskets, a well drawn conflict with engaging protagonists, a progressive gender attitude that I probably should have written about but didn’t, and a solid political and historical foundation to build the rest of the series on. It’s also a product of the damp Northwest, which makes me irrationally happy. Things may not be perfect, but I’m signing up for the long haul with this one.

Most Read Authors

Most Read Authors

Excellent blogger and FOTD (Friend of Two Dudes) Lynn recently posted a list of of the top ten authors by book count in her personal library. I wanted to do the same, but realized that my library is a collection of randomly purchased used books (often by the pound), grad school textbooks, and the occasional ARC. As such, it is an abysmal reflection of what I am actually reading and instead merely an indication of what one might find at local thrift stores. My list has to be a little bit different. I decided to parse my database of finished books from the last eight or nine years (has it been that long???) and write down the authors I’ve read the most of.

The usual caveat applies here: this only counts the books I have read since restarting my personal SFF craze, not everything I read as a dewy-eyed youth. That list would include a lot of Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, David Eddings, and (gasp) the Dragonlance crew. I kept no records then, so I will just disqualify it all and hope that I one day reread the best of it.

7-10 Books Read
Poul Anderson
Iain M. Banks
David Brin
CJ Cherryh
Glen Cook
Jack McDevitt
Jerry Pournelle
Alastair Reynolds
David Weber
Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman

10-15 Books Read
David Drake

15+ Books Read
Eric Flint
Larry Niven

I’m not sure what the above says about me, other than I am an unapologetic Larry Niven fan, have read far too many entries in Flint’s 1632 shared universe, and relied heavily for several years in Japan on the Baen Free Library. Plenty of big names not on the list now that will be within a few months (Karl Schroeder, Neal Stephenson, Charlie Stross, Greg Benford, many others), plenty of deserving names that I am excluding because I read everything they wrote back in 90s. (William Gibson is the biggest omission.) Otherwise, this is a pretty accurate reflection of what I like.

Cibola Burn

Cibola Burn
James S.A. Corey

There is a Mexican standoff scene in the movie version of Miami Vice. All the characters do what we expect them to, dialogue slides into a familiar pattern, then BANG! Violence erupts a few beats ahead of schedule and people are dead. It’s a shocking moment, and probably the most memorable part of the movie; I kept thinking back to it as I read Cibola Burn, the newest Expanse novel from James S.A. Corey. The plot repeatedly threatens to run down conventional rails, but every time the reader starts to get comfortable, Corey sets off a virtual taser. I was never able to settle in and predict everything that would happen, because, somehow, the escalations always hit sooner than anticipated. Like the standoff in Miami Vice, actions and outcomes are standard, but the timing keeps a constant hum of electricity in the air.

The Expanse is one of the few ongoing series I keep up with. The first book, Leviathan Wakes, was a fun mix of 1970s inflected SF and contemporary Hollywood, but I have been impressed with the way that the authors have managed to add thematic depth in later volumes while maintaining the original vibe. I have been even more impressed as they expand a dingy, lived in Solar System that feels like Jerry Pournelle circa 1975 outward through a series of inexplicable alien artifacts and into the galaxy. Cibola is the first book to take place in a different system, and the first to really dig into the larger questions spawned by the protomolecule. We’ll look into these in greater detail, but I should give the obligatory full disclosure bit that this sort of thing is is the science fiction equivalent of injecting chocolate directly into my veins. Near-Earth stuff is nice, but distant planets, galactic mysteries, vanished elder races, and what not are where I get my buzz.

I don’t know what the authors originally had in mind for this, back in the days before Orbit expanded their contract to six, then nine books. (Stuff must be selling well. Good on them.) I wonder if they intended to take things further from the Sun than the asteroids, or planned on moving away from the throwback fun. There was a bit of deeper stuff in Leviathan Wakes, but mostly it was Solar System noir and vomit zombies. By Book Four, we’ve looked at religion, the place of violence in human society, Self vs. Other, serious considerations of how we might colonize the Solar System, and all sorts of heavy stuff. There are still explosions and butt kicking, but it’s more cerebral butt kicking. The evolution of the protomolecule is a good reference point for charting the path these books have taken. Fair warning that, while I will remain intentionally vague on some points, this will probably constitute mild spoilers for earlier in the series.

In the first book, the protomolecule is, if not evil, at least very threatening. At worst, it feels a bit like the precursor to an alien invasion, at best the sort of coldly superior intelligence that treats humanity like an ant colony. In book two, the protomolecule is mostly on the sidelines, as people once again try to exterminate themselves. (Corey ranks up with David Brin’s Existence in faintly hopeful pessimism here. And me. Honestly, if we as a race survive the next hundred years, I will be pleasantly surprised. But I digress.) In book three, the protomolecule has half-devoured Venus and created some giant BMO (Big Mysterious Object) out past Neptune, while Miller, half of the crime-solving team of Leviathan Wakes, has sort of come back from the dead to haunt the remaining half, James Holden. By the end of things in book three, we learn that the protomolecule is just a tool, its creators wielded awesome power, and now they’re all extinct at the hand of something even scarier. Nobody is going to purposefully smash humanity, though people do a pretty good job of enabling death-by-protomolecule with or without actual alien malice. Finally, the protomolecule has opened a gate to the stars, so colonists can rush madly out, at the risk of incurring the wrath of whatever offed the protomolecule builders. Follow this? We’ve come a long way.

Cibola Burn leaves behind (mostly) the political issues that underpin the first books and instead digs further into the questions posed by the gate. Corey again keeps things on a personal scale for now, tracking the travails of the first colonizers. This is nice, with good characters and story arcs, but what really gets me are the questions lurking just below the surface. No matter how intense the conflict gets, or how focused the characters are on the issues at hand, the bigger picture is always visible. Scientists on the new planet drop repeated hints early on that this world is not normal. Its actual purpose (very mundane) is revealed later in the book, but the key take home point here is that whoever built it has enough power to casually shape entire planets the way we might assemble a backyard shed. And in spite of that, they were completely wiped out by something even bigger. Those characters still in thrall to their lizard brains manage to ignore the background, but the more self aware are constantly faced with fearsome reality that whatever that thing is, it’s still out there. So, massive engineering projects? Check. Implacable galactic menace? Check. Humans scampering about ruins like unsupervised children? Check. Is anyone out there not having fun? Because if you’re not, this may be the wrong genre for you.

One other theme that I enjoyed is Corey’s treatment of violence, both as a narrative device and a social issue. This idea pops up in all of the books (and likely in the rest of the Abraham/Franck repertoire), but those that espouse violence as the first solution are inevitably in the wrong. The books don’t skirt the reality (or even necessity?) of violence, but it is rarely the correct answer. This seems odd on the surface, what with all the action, military involvement, constant threat of war, etc., but the quiet insistence that thinking and talking will do more than shooting is a welcome message. I admit that this is at the core of the Hard SF ethos – engineers and nerds as heroes and all that – rather than some original brainstorm, but pacifism is buried under a tidal wave of pop culture anymore in the hyper-violent US.

So 1000 words later, it is very possible that I have thought too deeply about Cibola Burn. I can only hope the authors approve, since I’d much rather write about that than give a bland plot summary. These are fun, popcorn type books for those that just want a slam bang adventure, but there’s plenty more enjoyment to be had if a reader wants to dig in. Now I just have another 12 months to wait for the next volume.