Daily Reads: 16 December 2014

DR 16122014

It’s that time of year when people start posting their best-of lists, and I tend to start feeling guilty about all the books I never got around to reading. But it’s a good kind of guilt, if that makes sense, because it helps me prioritise my tbr pile, turns my attention to interesting new books I never took much notice of before, and generally just whips up fresh enthusiasm for new fiction. And since I’m looking forward to another kind of good guilt, the kind that comes with having enjoyed too much delicious food and wine, I decided to post some of the sff lists I’ve been looking at.

Tor.com posted Reviewer’s Choice: The Best Books of 2014. Some very exciting stuff here, especially since the reviewers have listed some lesser-known works. I’m so happy to see SA authors Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz there too.

SF Signal’s recent Mind Meld is about the best sff movies of 2014. I don’t feel guilty about not having watched most of these movies, simply because I can’t (there’s only one tiny cinema in Addis Ababa screening new international movies). Nevertheless, I love film and I’ll be moving back to SA soon, so I’m adding a couple of these to my must-watch list. Interstellar gets a few mentions, of course, but what I’d really like to watch is Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, featuring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as an old, pretentious vampire couple.

Chaos Horizon is a blog dedicated to predicting the Nebula and Hugo nominees based on statistical modelling. It’s a good place to keep track of buzz books and get a feel for these awards. The latest post is an update on the Nebula 2015 predictions. I feel rather chuffed for having actually read quite a few of these and owning a couple of others, although I’m annoyed that I passed up a chance at a review copy of The Goblin Emperor. Anyway, more items on the list of books to buy.

And finally, not a list, but some awesome news – Saga Press is publishing a Kameron Hurley space opera! It’s called The Stars Are Legion, and ok, it’s only coming out in 2016, but I’m already going all squee. Click through to read Aiden Moher’s interview with Hurley, and find out what kind of mind-blowing weirdness we can expect from the novel. You might always want to start following Saga Press, Simon & Schuster’s new sff imprint, launching in spring 2015. Upcoming titles include books by Ken Liu, Genevieve Valentine, and Kat Howard.

Daily Reads helps me organise my online reading and share my favourite posts with you. If you know of any good SF/F and other literary articles, link to it in the comments 🙂

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Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

Consider PhlebasTitle: Consider Phlebas
Author:
 
Iain M. Banks
Published:
 
1987
Publisher: 
my copy published by Orbit
Genre:
 
space opera
Source: 
own copy
Rating: 
6/10

The Culture and the Idirans have been at war for years. Billions have died and worlds have been destroyed. The Culture, a post-scarcity society of machines, humans and other races, is intrinsically opposed to warfare but has found itself with no choice but to engage. The Idirans on the other hand, are a race of huge three-legged warriors, who fight, colonise and enslave for religious reasons.

In the midst of the war, a Culture Mind – an incredibly intelligent and complex AI – escapes destruction and hides on Schar’s World, a Planet of the Dead. The Idirans – technologically inferior – want to claim the technology for themselves. The Culture wants to save the Mind and keep it out of Idiran hands. No one is allowed entry to a Planet of the Dead, but Bora Horza Gorbuchal, a Changer, used to live there with four other Changers who worked as stewards on the planet. Now, Horza is an Idiran agent, so they task him with going to Schar’s World and retrieving the Mind.

But it’s not that simple. Horza is left drifting in space following at attack on an Idiran ship, and is picked up by a band of mercenaries whose leader is searching for treasure. He needs to find a way to take over the ship and get to Schar’s World, but until then he has to stick with the mercs through their violent and dangerous campaigns. At the same time, two women from the Culture – a Special Circumstances agent and a brilliant problem-solver whose mind matches those of the machines – are trying to reclaim the Mind too.

 

Although I’ve loved Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels ever since I read The Player of Games in third year, it’s taken me a long time to read Consider Phlebas. I’ve had a copy on my shelf for years, but I could never never finish it. I tried 4 or 5 times, and never made it more than halfway before I lost interest or got tired. Only now, thanks to the stamina I developed from reading difficult review books, was I able to finish it. It was Banks’s first sci fi novel, and his second published novel after The Wasp Factory, and I think his relative inexperience shows. Consider Phlebas  is more dense and less elegant than the other books in the series. It suffers from very lengthy, often clunky infodumping, and neglects some of its best characters.

However, it does have a ton of dire action, violence, epic explosions, and more cool ideas than you can count. The plot is packed, and only about a third of it involves searching the Command Tunnels of Schar’s World for the Mind. The lecturer who introduced me to Banks said he had these really awesome ideas that most authors would write a whole book out of, but he’d just use them for a chapter or two and then move on. That seems especially true of Consider Phlebas. For example, I could imagine a novel based on the card game Damage, which is sort of like poker except that players can chemically alter the emotions of their opponents, and losing a hand means literally losing a life – one of two sacrificial volunteers or your own. Damage is ideally played in a location that’s about to be destroyed (which means staying in the game can be life-threatening as well) and the audience can also tap into the emotions of the players (and there are junkies addicted to this).

You could also write a novel based on Changers like Horza. They can’t transform instantly, but spend some time preparing the likeness of the person they want to imitate, including body language and voice. Changing back takes about a week too. They have incredible control over their own bodies (like the ability to cut off pain in an arm) as well as poisons under their nails and teeth for defensive purposes. Their ability to change brings up all sorts of identity issues that the novel mentions but doesn’t explore. Mind you, there’s so much going on I don’t think I could handle another major theme. Horza’s issues with the Culture already dominate the novel.

It’s unique in the series in that, not only does the protagonist come from outside the Culture, he hates it and fights against it. This means that the reader gets a very critical perspective of the Culture, although I’ve come across some of it in the other novels. The morality of Special Circumstances, for example, is an issue that’s come up often. Some of Horza’s other criticisms make sense, but most of them are deeply flawed simply because they come from deep-seated prejudice.

This makes him a mostly unlikeable but very interesting character. Horza doesn’t fight for the Idirans because he agrees with them, but because he hates the Culture. He actually recognises the barbarity of the Idirans. They’re a race of violent religious fanatics who go around the galaxy colonising other races or wiping them out.Horza himself doesn’t buy into this kind of religious belief or agree with the Idiran’s voracious colonisation, but he believes that they will eventually slow down and settle down, even if that only happens in hundreds or thousands of years (pity about the body count). He imagines that the Culture, on the other hand will just never stop expanding.

Which is a fair point. The Idirans would naturally be hated by the people they kill and colonise, but the Culture is just so nice. They could keep expanding partly because lots of races would want to join them, and they are so very hospitable. Extremely liberal, casually hedonistic, technologically advanced, with infinite resources. They don’t have money or a government because they don’t need either. Everyone is well-nourished and extensively educated. They make their own stunningly beautiful worlds for people to live on. No one needs to work because the machines take care of everything, so the inhabitants are “free to take care of the things that really mattered in life, such as sport, games, romance, studying dead languages, barbarian societies and impossible problems”. Honestly, if a drone appeared right now and offered me an immediate one-way ticket to the Culture, I would say yes. I want it like I wanted to walk through the back of my cupboard and go to Narnia.

Horza would scoff at this. He hates how impressed some people are by the Culture, but not only because he thinks it’ll eventually take over the universe. The other major reason he dislikes the Culture is their machines. The ships and habitats are run by unfathomably intelligent and powerful Minds, and intelligent drones also form a major part of the society. In the Culture, the AIs are considered people. Destroying one is considered murder. And they do have emotions and personalities. One of my favourite passages in the book describes a drone’s feelings about a woman it works with:

Jase, which deep down was a hopeless romantic, thought her laughter sounded like the tinkling of mountain streams, and always recorded her laughs for itself, even when they were snorts or guffaws, even when she was being rude and it was a dirty laugh. Jase knew a machine, even a sentient one, could not die of shame, but it also knew that it would do just that if Fal ever guessed any of this.

Horza, however, believes that the machines will eventually consider the humans in the Culture to be “wasteful and inefficient”. He is suspicious of their plans (which no one could fathom because they’re so intelligent). He does not consider machines to be people no matter how intelligent they are, believing they “ought to stay in their place”. `That quote really highlights Horza’s problem. He’s the kind of bigot who thinks society will crumble because slavery’s been abolished or women have been given the right to vote. And, as with any bigot, the faults in his reasoning are easy to see.

Throughout the novel, Horza encounters things that expose the absurdity of his beliefs about the Culture or his support of the Idirans. He meets religious fanatics who range from simply annoying to extremely cruel and dangerous. He meets an Idiran who loathes him along with all other humans and doesn’t buy the idea that he’s an Idiran ally. In the meantime, Horza has a relationship with a woman named Yalson, who looks human but has a light covering of fur over her dark skin. An interspecies relationship like this would be easily accepted in the Culture, but no doubt considered disgusting by the Idirans. He is often saved or assisted by Culture technology. He cannot help but admire the beauty, power and efficiency of things made by Culture. The entire plot is based on the Idirans’ attempt to retrieve a Culture Mind, the kind of technology they are nowhere near creating. Things get particularly interesting when Horza has both a Culture agent and an Idiran officer as his prisoners. Admittedly, Banks was being a bit heavy-handed here, but that’s in comparison to his later works. It’s still more sophisticated that other action-heavy novels.

So, overall, I liked Consider Phlebas for its amazing ideas and the fantastic characters that I know I can always find in a Banks novel. That said, it’s the only Culture novel that I’m not interested in re-reading. The worldbuilding information can be picked up from the other novels or you can go and read the many articles written about it. All the action didn’t make up for the fact that it’s overly long and dense. But I’m glad I finally read it.

I’ll try again later: Empty Space by M. John Harrison

Empty Space by M John HarrisonTitle: Empty Space
Series: The Kefahuchi Tract #3
Author: 
M. John Harrison
Published: 
First published 1 January 2012; my edition published 5 March 2013
Publisher:
 
First edition published by Gollancz. My edition published by Night Shade Books
Genre: 
science fiction, space opera, literary fiction
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

This isn’t so much a review as an admission of defeat and a comment on difficult books. After reading Empty Space, I don’t feel able to write any kind of useful review. I couldn’t even tell you if I liked it or not. The question is irrelevant, because I simply don’t get it, and I think I would have to do more reading before I can.

Before requesting a copy of Empty Space, I tweeted Night Shade Books to ask if it was necessary to read the first two books in the series – Light and Nova Swing. I’d read the former, but not the latter. They said this was fine. I respectfully disagree. Loudly and vehemently. From what I’ve read about them, it seems that Light and Nova Swing are fairly disparate. They’re set in the same universe, but tell two very different stories. Empty Space functions as a sequel to both, sharing characters and locations, and tying up loose ends. I re-read Light just before reading Empty Space, and found them to be closely linked. In comparison, I felt alienated from the aspects of the plot related to Nova Swing.

So to better understand this novel, I think I would have to read Nova Swing first. Then I’d have to re-read Empty Space. I had a similar experience with Light – it bewildered me the first time around; after the second reading I liked it more and felt like I’d understood it.

So what can I say about Empty Space in the meantime? Well, I can give you a bit of plot. Anna Kearney, Michael’s fragile ex-wife from Light, becomes a POV character in Empty Space. After Michael’s disappearance from a beach in America, Anna “fucked the first kind of person she found” who happened to be Tim Waterman (he made a brief appearance as her lover in Light). She married him after falling pregnant with their daughter Marnie. When we see Anna, it is almost 30 years after the events of book one and she is an old woman in her 60s or 70s, no longer suffering from anorexia but most definitely deranged, to Marnie’s great concern. She avoids visiting her therapist, takes long walks to snoop around other people’s homes, and does loopy things like swimming naked down a river in the middle of the night.

She also has experiences that sound completely crazy, but given the bizarre nature of the universe in this series, what she sees is most likely real (whatever that means). She keeps turning around to find that her summerhouse is on fire, except that the flames look fake, like something she saw on a tarot card, and after a while they disappear without having damaged anything. Her cat brings in glowing organ-shaped things from the garden. She has weird dreams that are no doubt more than just her subconscious at play. Notably, Anna is still carrying around an external hard drive that Michael gave to her before he disappeared. On it is the work he and Brian Tate were doing – the groundbreaking mathematics that enabled space travel and made the future storylines possible. Anna, however, has forgotten the significance of the hard drive.

Like Light, Empty Space has two narrative strands several centuries in the future. In one, the crew of the space freighter Nova Swing pick up a creepy, illegal alien artefact. In the third narrative, an unnamed policewoman known only as the assistant is investigating two decidedly weird murders. The victims’ bodies are found floating in midair, and as the novel progresses they rise higher while fading slowly into invisibility. The assistant used to work with a detective, but he’s dead now, existing only as a ghost hovering aimlessly in her office. The assistant is heavily gene-tailored and if she was once human she can’t even remember that time. With her heightened senses and abilities, she’s practically a weapon or a machine, and most people prefer to avoid her. Nevertheless, there’s one guy who keeps coming to see her, and somehow walks through walls to do so. His interest in her is based on the fact that someone – or something – keeps asking for her.

This person or thing is ‘Pearl’, an entity common to all three storylines. It is something between a bizarre phenomenon and an ancient, inexplicable artefact. When Pearl appears she/it says “My name is Pearlent and I come from the future”. She appears as a woman in grey, in a state of falling. Her existence remains incomprehensible to me, but as a character or plot device, she connects the storylines and brings a sense of closure to the series.

Empty Space shares many of the characteristics of Light – a tendency to connect characters, stories and timelines with little details; strange people who do strange things; incomprehensible alien technology; an abundance of violence and horror wrapped up in literary sf. There’s still a strong sense of the pain and terror involved in space travel and discovery, but with less optimism. Aliens exist, but you never see them. And of course there are cats, hundreds of cats. The future world feels more like the current one than it did in Light, perhaps because of the policewoman’s plot.

But I do not know what the fucking point is.

I usually knew what was happening in Empty Space but most of the time I didn’t know what to make of it. I could not have given you a reason why a particular scene was in the book or articulated the way in which it fit into the whole. Why does Anna’s cat bring her glowing neon organ-shaped things? Why do three characters dream of a vulva appearing in the wall? Why does the crew of the Nova Swing pick up a ‘mortsafe’ containing the fused, ghostly bodies of a child, his mother, and the nanny who started a weird sexual relationship with him?

I’m not writing a proper review because I can’t offer you any coherent understanding of the book beyond a prolonged plot summary. It might be brilliant. It might be a bunch of random crap cobbled together in a way that gives the illusion of brilliance. It could be anything in between. I can’t really say.

I am not despondent though. I felt the same way about Light when I first read it, but it was way better the second time. I also did myself a huge disservice by not reading Nova Swing. I could have skipped this blog post, but I felt like making a point about difficult books and re-reading. With a few exceptions, I try not to give up on books. Sometimes it’s obvious that a book is very bad or simply something that I won’t be interested in. Otherwise, I give it the benefit of the doubt, and assume I wasn’t ready to read it or that I was in the wrong mood for it. I choose to read books because I think they have something to offer me, and I’m willing to stick it out until the end to see if they deliver.

And in cases like this one, I feel that reading a book once just isn’t enough. That’s just the way some books are, and the fact that they’re difficult doesn’t mean they can’t be rewarding or entertaining. Some things simply take more time and effort than others. I’ll shelve Empty Space for now, and give it a second chance in the future.

Review of Light by M. John Harrison

Light by M John HarrisonTitle: Light
Series: The Kefahuchi Tract #1
Author: 
M. John Harrison
Published:
 
2002
Publisher:
 
First edition published by Gollancz. My edition published by Bantam Spectra
Genre: 
science fiction, space opera, literary fiction
Source: 
own copy

The cover of my edition of Light is covered with flattering quotes. More can be found on the inside pages. Many come from sources I admire – Iain M. Banks, Michael Marshall Smith, China Miéville, the Guardian. They praise Harrison’s skill and vision as a writer, the complex literary nature of Light, and it’s brutal, energetic brilliance as space opera. The novel won the James Tiptree Jr. Award, was nominated for the BSFA, and shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke. I was dazzled before I even started reading, and baffled afterwards. Elegant, violent and wildly imaginative, Light is literary genre fiction, bringing together quantum physics, a strange new world, bizarre characters, and all the complex relationships that exist between them. It is a particularly challenging read, and it’s only after my second attempt that I feel I have a decent understanding of the novel.

The story is divided into three strands, one set in 1999, and two set the post-Earth future of 2400. In 1999, Michael Kearney – a visionary physicist and a serial killer – has spent decades running from the Shrander, a mysterious entity with a horse’s skull for a head. Michael kills to keep the thing at bay, but because it’s his brilliant mind that attracted it in the first place, it will never leave him in peace. It seems like it’s been a while since he’s managed to do anything productive, although he and his partner Brian Tate are currently involved in a research project that has recently produced only enigmatic results. Tate can’t get Michael to hang around long enough to do any work – he keeps running from the Shrander, with his anorexic and psychologically frail ex-wife Anna trailing after him.

We know that Michael and Tate’s research will be groundbreaking though – in 2400, Tate-Kearney transformations are commonly used in space travel. In this future, humanity is scattered across planets surrounding the Kefahuchi Tract, a space-time anomaly, a “singularity without an event horizon”. For over 65 millennia, the K-tract has beguiled every race that came across it. One race even “steered whole solar systems into position” (7) just to have a closer look at the Tract. It’s a phenomenon that takes no heed of causality, and where explorers can find ancient artefacts that can’t be understood and alien tech that defies all known possibilities.

Seria Mau Genlicher zips around the Tract thanks to the alien tech of her K-ship, The White Cat – an absurdly powerful vessel bristling with weapons and capable of shooting into orbit at Mach 50. It’s run by sentient mathematics and algorithms with a life of their own. Seria Mau allowed her body to be mostly destroyed so she could be plugged into the ship, where she floats in a tank of nutrient-rich chemicals. She’s just acquired an inexplicable artefact that brings the authorities hurtling after her, but which promises opportunities humanity has been dreaming about.

Planet-side in the city of New Venusport is Ed Chianese, once a famous explorer, now a washed up ‘twink’. Like Seria Mau he spends all his time in a tank, except he’s addicted to playing out clichéd old-Earth scenarios in virtual reality. But Ed is in debt to some very bloodthirsty people and gets forced out into the real world when they come looking for him. He runs all the way into a strange new life as a visionary in a circus.

These plot strands seem disparate and in fact the three main characters will never speak to each other. It’s only at the end that you can fully understand how they’re connected. But one of the beautiful things about this book – assuming you’re like me and enjoy this sort of thing – is the way the stories are delicately connected by images and details. Some of are very fine, just a thread tacked across chapters. Ed runs from his pursuers into the confusing warrens where the alien “New Men” live; Anna’s apartment is described as a warren where you never know where you are, and Michael’s decidedly weird friend Valentine Sprake has the same pale skin and shock of ginger hair as the New Men. Anna and Michael walk past melting tarmac; in the next chapter, Seria Mau’s dreams and nightmares “leaked up inside her like warm tar” (65).

It’s much easier to notice the recurring images, details and phrases. I mentioned the Tate-Kearney transformations and the fact that both Seria Mau and Ed start out in tanks. Cats are everywhere. Seria Mau named her ship The White Cat after the white oriental cat Michael bought for the lab, and whose strange interest in their computer screens is the first sign that the two physicists have stumbled onto something otherworldly. Michael stole a strange pair of dice from the Shrander 20 years ago; in 2400 similar dice are used for a game. Michael uses the dice to plot journeys, seeing a connection between prophecy and mathematics (he is also obsessed with the Tarot. Odd, for a physicist, but that’s the kind of guy he is). In 2400, there is a brief mention of an admiral who “abandoned the Tate-Kearney transformations and simply threw dice to decide his moves”. This kind of thing can actually work because it seems that, out in space, physics doesn’t have laws so much as guidelines:

Space was big, and the boys from Earth were awed despite themselves by the things they found there: but worse, their science was in a mess. Every race they met on their way through the Core had a star drive based on a different theory. All those theories worked, even when they ruled out one another’s basic assumptions. You could travel between the stars, it began to seem, but assuming anything. (136)

Beaches frequently appear as metaphors for liminal states or places. It was staring at the pebbles on a beach that child-Michael first began to understand the world as he does. The “ragged margins of the Tract” (7) are known as The Beach, and one of the characters muses, “We’ve got to leave the beach some day. All of us. Grow up. Leave the Beach, dive into the sea” (139). By which I think he means that humanity needs to move on to the next stage of discovery.

The book links Michael and Tate’s discoveries with future ones, and these are typically represented by light, specifically a tangible, flowing light that appears as tears or foaming liquid. “Sparks in everything” – this phrase is thought or uttered multiple times. It’s beautiful, but discovery isn’t romanticised in this book – it’s terrifying, painful, and dangerous. Michael can’t handle it – his knowledge attracts the Shrander and is essentially a source of pure horror that his turned him into murderer and rendered him useless. Seria Mau underwent appalling physical adjustments and risked death – as a 13-year-old child – to become a K-ship captain. Ed is the only one who offers us the classic, thrilling image of the space explorer, but he’s currently planet-bound, sticking his head into a tank to tell the future.

But it isn’t all bad. Discovery is endless. In a universe where physics is so pliable, nothing can ever be fully understood and anything is possible. Another refrain is “there was always more; there was always more after that. Discovery and exploration often take on a notably sexual tone as well, or is somehow associated with sex and sexual relationships. The climax of the novel (excuse the pun) is described in overtly sexual terms. Seria Mau is introduced as “trolling for customers” (7), suggestive of a prostitute, although what she’s offering is horrific, high-tech death rather than pleasure. We later learn that she became a K-captain partly to escape her home, where her father wanted her to “become the mother” in the wake of her mother’s death.

Michael and Anna both seems to use sex as a means of temporarily escaping their personal problems, although Michael, for some reason, never wants to penetrate women – a symbol of his fear perhaps? Ed Chianese, the explorer however, has a string of unusual sexual relationships. The first is with a character in his virtual reality. The second is with an alien. The final one is with Annie Glyph, a rickshaw girl. Rickshaw girls are essentially human carthorses, genetically tailored to massive and powerfully muscled.

With all the weird sex in the novel, the issue of bodies comes up frequently. Seria Mau initially doesn’t want one, and when she uses an avatar for face-to-face meetings she goes as a white cat. She meets with a gene tailor named Uncle Zip, who surrounds himself with clones – versions of himself who are younger, thinner, and sometimes female. Anna, an anorexic and twice-failed suicide, looks just as fragile as her mental state. Annie Glyph comes across as her parallel and her opposite – a huge, powerful woman who dwarfs the man she sleeps with. Sex and gender finds all sorts of new permutations in this novel – I can see why it won the Tiptree award.

There’s quite a bit of science, reminding me that I really need to get better acquainted with quantum physics if I want to continue reading this sort of thing. I still don’t quite understand what a singularity is, nevermind a “singularity without an event horizon”. But although I feel like a full appreciation of the novel is out of my reach, the technical details aren’t alienating. Harrison turns the science into poetry and I learned to just enjoy the words without fussing over the physics.

The tech is pretty cool either way. K-ships are just spectacular, and The White Cat is the best of them. The shadow operators were one of my favourite things about the novel – living algorithms who usually appear as “women biting their knuckles in regret” (186) and fuss over humans with personalities to match. The White Cat’s shadow operators long to craft a pretty little body for Seria Mau and dress her up in white lace. Planet-side are all sorts of genetically tailored ‘cultivars’ – gun kiddies, over-muscled punks with tusks, rickshaw girls. There’s a cultivar called Mona (also written as ‘Moaner’) – an over-sexed female body that has become popular with women.

I could continue discussing the little details. Light is just that kind of book – short but incredibly complex. I find it to be a lot like the K-tract – beguiling even when I don’t understand it. I’m glad I re-read it, and I’d like to do so again one day, after I get a copy of Nova Swing so I can experience the trilogy as a whole (I just read book 3, Empty Space; more on that in my next review). It’s certainly not for everyone, and even now I don’t want to rate because I’m not sure what to make of it. But I’m happy to be inexplicably captivated.

Review of Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez

Title: Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain
Author: A. Lee Martinez
Published: 05 March 2012
Publisher: Orbit Books
Genre: science fiction, fantasy, comedy, space opera,
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

Emperor Mollusk – the genius octopus from Neptune, home of the smartest, squishiest beings in the galaxy – has done it all. He’s destroyed worlds and conquered others. He’s pushed the boundaries of science and invented bizarre and dangerous things. He’s defeated every one of his enemies, including himself (a rogue clone). He even conquered Earth – a planet that had always resisted alien invasion – using global mind-control. He settled down to become the Terra Sapiens’ benevolent dictator, ending all Earth’s wars, solving the energy crisis and repelling the invasion of the Saturnites. No big deal for someone as smart as Emperor Mollusk.

But now it seems there might be a brain even more brilliant than his. Someone is out to get him…. Well, actually beings from all over the galaxy are out to get him, but this seems to be the plot of an evil megalomaniac and Mollusk will have to come out of retirement to stop him. At his side is Zala, his unwanted Venusian bodyguard. The Venusians want Mollusk dead too, but they want to be the ones to bring him to justice, so for the moment they’re trying to keep him alive. Together Mollusk, Zala, and Mollusk’s invincible pet cyborg ultrapede thingy, Snarg, travel across Earth and around the solar system, following the clues that they hope will lead them to the Sinister Brain behind it all. On their adventure they encounter such things as mutant dinosaurs, a giant blob monster and an immortal mummy Queen.

Good words for describing this book include “whacky”, “zany” and “preposterous”. It’s a totally tongue-in-cheek sci-fi caper, composed of equal parts action, humour and ridiculousness. It’s full of kooky sci fi tropes like death rays, giant bugs, and evil geniuses. The characters have names like “Blug”, “Kreegah” and “Snarg”.

It’s also intentionally, amusingly narrow-minded. Pretty much all the aliens come from the moons or planets in our solar system, and can speak English. They might look outlandish, but they’re still mostly based on stuff you could find on Earth – Mollusk is an octopus, the Saturnites are some kind of rock-people, the Venusians are reptiles with feathers. As you can imagine, the book is full of wonderfully silly lines like this:

The south wall disintegrated and a squad of jetpack assassins flew into the room.

 

Mutant insects were eating Kansas. Again.

 

Relations between Terra and Luna had been strained since the Lunans had eaten Neil Armstrong in 1960.

In the middle of all this craziness, are some rather good characters who you can take seriously even though everything else is a joke. I really liked Mollusk, who is the nicest intergalactic villain you could ever hope to meet. He might have conquered Earth by brainwashing all the humans, but he also stopped all the wars and prevented environmental catastrophe. Despite the terrible things he’s done in the past, his many experiences have made him a much more considerate being. He’s even making a serious effort not to kill people just for annoying him. The thing with Mollusk is that he’s not exactly evil, but rather far too smart. He’s in constant need of something to keep his mind occupied, so he goes around conquering planets, inventing things and, inevitably, taking on all the enemies he makes along the way. The only enemy he can’t defeat is boredom itself.

I also came to appreciate Zala, the Venusian soldier whose job it is to protect Mollusk so that her own species can take revenge on him. In many ways Zala is trapped by her race’s codes of honour and obedience and she finds it difficult to break out of her fearless soldier mould. However, she has a talent for unnerving Mollusk with insights into his personality:

“It must be irritating,” she continued. “To have that great intellect at your disposal and yet you’re not sure what to do with it. I’d imagine it must be quite a burden finding challenges worthy of it.

 

It’s amazing that someone who claims to be as intelligent as you are has spent more time designing doomsday machines and time radios than contemplating his own motivations.

 

Although Mollusk and Zala become reluctant allies in this adventure, I like that they remain enemies who can’t quite trust each other. It adds a bit of fizz to their relationship. Mollusk in particular is always keeping important information from Zala, with amusing results. Their banter is fun, especially with Zala’s tendency to make snarky remarks. That said, one of the downsides to the novel is that it didn’t find it quite as funny as I’d hoped. It’s a source of constant amusement but few laugh-out-loud moments. But then again, humour is a very subjective thing and I think I’m a tougher audience than most. Either way, Emperor Mollusk is a wonderfully ludicrous sci fi adventure and I’d recommend it to genre fans looking for a light read and a bit of a laugh.

 

Buy a copy of Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain at The Book Depository

Review of Prador Moon by Neal Asher

Title: Prador Moon by Neal Asher
Author: Neal Asher
Series: Polity #1
Published: first published 26 May 2006 by Night Shade Books. My edition published 17 October 2008
Publisher: Tor, an imprint of Pan MacMillan
Genre:  space opera
Source: review copy from Pan MacMillan South Africa
My Rating: 6/10

Chronologically, Prador Moon is the first in Neal Asher’s collection of novels about a post-human space-faring society known as the Polity. It’s the 7th of a series of books set in this universe though, so it functions as a prequel. For me however, it served as an introduction to Asher’s work, so I basically read it as a stand-alone.

The Polity is mostly composed of humans but is ruled by AIs. Although it’s a space-faring society, they’ve only ever encountered two alien species. One is already extinct. The other, known as the Prador, is alive but evasive. The Polity has gathered a few scraps of info about the aliens, but no one has ever seen one of them. That’s about to change however, as the novel opens with the first meeting between the Polity and the Prador.

It does not go well. The Prador are revealed to be giant crabs, and their first and only words in this scene are, “I am Vortex, first-child of Captain Immanence. […] You humans will surrender this station to us” (7). Each of the Prador whips out as many guns as they can hold in their multiple claws, and so the war begins.

The crabs would like to enslave humanity to use them as part of an organic hardware system that controls their ships’ critical systems. Plus human flesh turns out to be pretty tasty, and the Polity has some rather nice habitats and technology too. The Prador are a naturally aggressive species with highly sophisticated weaponry, and since the Polity hasn’t had to deal with a conflict like this for a long time, humans and AIs scramble to switch to military mode. Epic bloodshed and destruction ensue, with loads of guns, bombs and spaceship battles.

Prador Moon is certainly the kind of novel that deserves to be called a “no holds barred action-packed thrill ride”, but – not surprsingly – it lacks depth. I mean, look at the aliens – a hoard of giant, cannibalistic, man-eating crabs who want to enslave humanity. They have a viciously hierarchical society where progression through the ranks is typically achieved by killing (and then probably eating) your superior. The most powerful crabs have hoardes of children who are hormonally bound to obey their fathers’ every word. Most of these children are kept in stasis until cannon fodder is needed. Human prisoners on the Prador battleship are recklessly used in experiments that inevitably lead to gruesome deaths. Seriously, everything about the Prador just screams EVIL. This absurdity is actually openly acknowledged in the book as “the kind of scenario that would have been laughed out of the door by a modern holofiction producer” (9), implying that the story has a kind of necessarily pulpy realism. Admittedly, I was happy to just go with that because I found the Prador pretty entertaining in a scandalous way.

The human and AI characters aren’t all that sophisticated either, but they’re less interesting. Jebel Krong (whose name always makes me think ‘jezebel’), is a super-soldier who quickly becomes famous for his skills in killing Prador. He would sacrifice himself to stop the Prador, partly because they’re evil, but mostly because they killed his woman (she was preparing a romantic dinner for two when the crabs attacked). It’s kind of funny. I actually like the few AI characters, but you don’t learn much about them.

What the novel lacks in depth it tries to make up for in technical complexity – how that machine works, what this AI’s capabilities are, and so on. Some of this is very cool. Humans can get cybernetic enhancements that give them a few AI-style abilities. The Prador have these awesome ships that absorb the energy of anything you fire at them and use it to for their own massively powerful weapons or to repair damages. It makes them fantastically hard to defeat. The only ship that can really take them on is an old but advanced AI ship called the Occam Razor whose mind is fused with a human captain.

Unfortunately, most of the tech stuff was boring and too confusing for me, and there’s quite a lot of it. One of the protagonists – Moria Salem – receives a particularly advanced enhancement that allows her to process extremely complex calculations. Thanks to this, she and super-soldier Jebel represent the Polity’s best hopes of defeating the Prador, but I for one did not know what the hell she was doing. Fans of hard sf would probably love it. I could not.

However, since the novel manages to be an entertaining read without a sophisticated plot or characters, I didn’t really need to understand the details of the tech in the same way that I don’t need to know how guns work to enjoy an action movie. I just got through it by translating long paragraphs of explanation to something suitably dumbed down like “Moria does something really complicated with the fancy technology”.

Unfortunately, this came back to bite me in the ass at the end, when I didn’t have a clue what the big plan for the final showdown was. I re-read the ending and got a vague impression of an epic strike outrageous enough to suit the rest of the book. On the whole though, I had fun with Prador Moon, even though it does take itself a little too seriously. I’ve also heard from one or two reviewers that it’s not the best of the Polity novels, and either way I wouldn’t mind reading a few more if they are in fact characterised by “over-the-top violence and explosive action” as the blurb of this book suggests. On my list of review copies is Gridlinked (2001), the first Polity novel to be published, as well as the first in the popular Agent Cormac series. We’ll see how that goes.

Embassytown by China Miéville

Title: Embassytown
Author: China Miéville
Published: 2011 by Pan Macmillan
Genre:  science fiction, space opera
Source: Copy received from publisher for review
My Rating: 9/10

China Miéville said that he wanted to write a book in every genre. Embassytown (2011) is his experiment in science fiction, and more specifically, in space opera. And oh, what a beautiful piece of science fiction it is – elegant, cerebral, audacious. Sf might be the genre of ideas, but many of those once outlandish things have become tropes of the genre, as common and clichéd as love triangles or dark and stormy nights. It’s wonderful then, to read a novel like Embassytown, proving that sf can still push the limits. Not that Miéville ever disappoints in that department.

His space opera is less about exploring the universe than about using the possibilities of an infinite universe to explore ideas about language and communication. In the novel, Embassytown is a relatively small, parochial town on the planet Arieka, at the very edge of the known universe. There’s only one Embassy in town, and its function is communication with the Ariekei, the large insectoid aliens of the planet. The Ariekei (also known as ‘Hosts’) speak Language – yes, that’s language with a capital ‘L’, because it’s unlike any other in the universe. The only humans capable of speaking with them are the Ambassadors, who are specially bred and trained from birth for this purpose.

But then an “impossible” new Ambassador arrives from off-world, and the Ariekei react to his speech as though it were a powerful drug. Addiction spreads through both the Ariekei population and their biotechnology (‘biorigging’), dismantling the entire social and political system. It threatens not only the existence of the Ariekei, but also the humans of Embassytown who depend on Ariekene biorigging to survive on the planet.

Recording this momentous time in Ariekei and Embassytown history is Avice Benner Cho. Possessing an innate talent for immersion (space navigation), Avice left the backwater that is Embassytown for more exciting prospects. She returned only at the request of her husband Scile, a scholar fascinated by Language. Avice’s off-world experience gives her some influence within the Embassy, but she’s also important to the Ariekei, because when she was a child they made her a part of Language.

Miéville’s world-building  in this novel is superb because he’s created something very alien. It’s hard to grasp at first, but that strangeness is part of what makes the novel so fascinating. You feel like you’re literally exploring the unknown:

Had I ship-hopped in other directions, I could have gone to regions of immer and everyday where Bremen was the fable. People get lost in the overlapping sets of knownspace. Those who serve on exot vessels, who learn to withstand the strange strains of their propulsion—of swallowdrives, overlight foldings, bansheetech—go even farther with less predictable trajectories, and become even more lost. It’s been this way for megahours, since women and men found the immer and we became Homo diaspora. (p.50)

‘Knownspace’, ‘exot’, ‘bansheetech’, ‘Homo diaspora’ – once again Miéville plays around with language, inventing and repurposing words for his world (he also has a tendency to use words described as ‘literary’ or ‘formal’ so keep a good dictionary handy). Some are easy to figure out; others escape understanding. I’m still not sure what the ‘immer’ is (hyperspace?) except as a vague idea that it’s some dimension of space and ships travel in it. But not being able to understand it is the point. According to Avice, only the few people capable of immersing know what the immer is. It’s impossible to describe:

The immer’s reaches don’t correspond at all to the dimensions of the manchmal, this space where we live. The best we can do is say that the immer underlies or overlies, infuses, is a foundation, is langue of which our actuality is a parole, and so on. (p.31)

It makes sense for this to be beyond understanding as well – having never travelled through space, encountered aliens, or lived on other planets, why should we be able to ease into this world with comfortable familiarity?

Not only is space conceived differently, but time, social structures and religion as well. Avice has the bad habit of giving her age in years, when she should be using subjective kilohours. But the years she uses aren’t Earth years anyway (at 11 she’s into her fourth marriage). Children are raised in communal nurseries by ‘shiftparents’. Avice has had two husbands and a wife, and her marriage to her fourth husband, Scile is registered as a “nonconnubial love-match” (p.40) because the couple soon found that they didn’t enjoy having sex with each other and would rather have it with other people. Christianity has survived in the worship of Christ Pharotekton.

Any one of these ideas could generate enough content for a whole novel, but Miéville uses them as the detailed backdrop for a more unusual story about language. Unlike every other known language, the Ariekei’s Language is not an arbitrary system of signs: in Language, “Words don’t signify: they are their referents” (p.80). I’ll explain – if I say or write the word ‘red’, it’s the sequence of sounds or letters that communicate the idea of the colour to you. But the sounds and letters have nothing to do with the colour itself. It’s only because we both use a traditional system of signs (English) that those sounds and letters are linked to the concept. The sounds and letters are interchangeable, as long as they’re part of a system, which is why we can have many different languages and alphabets.

In Language however, the word for red is synonymous with the colour itself. In Language, “each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for the word can be seen” (p.55).

These ideas about language are the basis of the linguistic theory I studied in literary theory classes at varsity. The novel certainly isn’t reserved for those who’ve studied linguistics, but going over the basics (I  re-read a few chapters of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics (1916)) really helped me appreciate these ideas more. The Hosts’ Language differs fundamentally from everything we understand about language, and Miéville explores the implications of that.

The Hosts can’t lie. Because their words are linked to reality, they can’t say anything that contradicts reality. Because they can’t lie, they can’t use metaphors, as metaphors are essentially lies, saying that one thing is another. They can use similes, but they have to ‘create’ them first. In order to say “We are like the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given her” they must first hurt a girl in the dark and give her something which she then eats. As a child Avice performed this particular simile for them and so become part of Language. The Hosts ‘speak’ her, and by becoming a simile she makes it possible for them to say and think things that were inaccessible to them before.

Clearly, Language both enables and impedes thought and communication. With no metaphors and only limited similes, the Hosts can’t think about things in non-literal ways. Because their words aren’t arbitrary, aren’t interchangeable, they cannot learn any other languages, cannot even imagine other languages. For them, thought is impossible without Language, and they can’t conceive of those who don’t speak it as being sentient. Another quirk is that they speak using two voices that utter different words simultaneously. To be able to speak Language, the Ambassadors, therefore, are pairs of clones (doppels) who have been trained from birth to speak as if they are one person. They have names like CalVin (ie. Cal and Vin), MaBel, MagDa. The novel twists grammar a little to accommodate them – CalVin is not a ‘he’ but a ‘they’.

Then EzRa comes – the “impossible” Ambassador (I won’t say why). Technically, EzRa should be unable to speak to the Ariekei, but somehow they can. This impossibility enthrals the Ariekei, and that’s why his speech is like a drug – the Ariekei’s minds and bodies are overcome by an experience that they should not be able to experience at all. EzRa becomes a “god-drug”, a literal opiate of the masses as the Ariekei seek out his voice in desperate droves, abandoning all other activities.

It’s a pretty damning concept of religion. There are lots of other religious ideas and references in the novel. Some humans see Language as a pure, prelapsarian language, because words and meanings are indivisible, and the Ariekei are unable to lie. A few do try to lie, with great difficulty, and some humans are appalled by this – they think that if the Ariekei actually learnt to lie, they would parallel the Fall of Man by introducing deception to their race.

One idea I really liked is how this god-figure is a manifestation of the impossible – is that perhaps why gods are so alluring, why people are always looking for one? At any rate, impossibility is certainly part of the allure of sci fi and Embassytown is full of impossibilities; it’s part of what makes it such an amazing novel. The Ariekei’s biorigging, the Ambassador EzRa, his ability to speak Language, even Language itself – all these things are described as impossible at some point, yet they defy such limitations by their very existence. Even the resolution of the novel’s greatest conflict depends on defying the limits of possibility. And this is what sci fi, as a genre, should ideally strive for – to push beyond what we think we know, what we think we can do. That’s when it’s most exciting.

Although Embassytown is mostly slow-moving, requires patience and attention, and feels fairly academic at times, it’s a fascinating and rewarding read. Avice is a strong character and a well-placed narrator who also reflects on the way in which she is telling the story. She eventually beings this mostly quiet, contemplative narrative to an epic climax that, to my surprise, actually had me on edge. What I got in Embassytown then, was almost everything I value in a novel – interesting ideas, a good story, riveting tension. Perhaps it’s only flaw is that the story isn’t quite as strong and impressive as some of Miéville’s earlier work, specifically Perdido Street Station (2000) and The Scar (2002). Not that that really matters – it’s still a top class novel that any fan of science fiction or literary fiction should pick up.

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