The Memory Of Whiteness: A Scientific Romance, is Kim Stanley Robinson’s third book, and from what I can gather his most philosophical. In it, he tries to tie a few threads of thought together: how determinism ties in with quantum physics and free will; art as representation of reality; how human thinking corresponds with reality & direct and indirect kinds of knowledge. The device KSR uses to connect all this is music.
The Memory Of Whiteness is philosophical musings first, and story second. I don’t think it has aged particularly well, and I don’t think it has a lot to offer to people that are already familiar with the topics I listed above – and I don’t mean as familiar like a CERN scientist, but familiar in a Quantum Physics For Dummies kinda way. I’m not sure how well known the general outlines of quantum physics were back in the 1980ies, but today those outlines are pretty much common knowledge to people with a healthy interest in their reality and a library card.
The notion of indeterminacy on a subatomic level has been a veritable feast for some philosophers of the postmodern ilk: an electron’s speed can’t be measured at the same time as its spin! Nothing is certain!! What we feel has been proven by hard science!!! Praise Heisenberg!!!! It went so far that people thinking philosophically about truth and representation – and that means nearly everybody writing theory about the arts, as most (if of not all) art is grounded in representation, as also non-representative art stems from representative predecessors – needed to become familiar with the Quantum. Of course, all this was quite overblown. It’s not because some subatomic processes are strange and weird that our Newtonian world – still the only world we live in – all of a sudden becomes unknowable and undetermined. Still, serious writers and serious philosophers needed to opine about Schrödinger’s cat and the possible existence of the Higgs boson, and Einstein’s dictum that ‘God doesn’t play dice’ was made fun of, even in works of popular culture that needed a claim on depth.
Kim Stanley Robinson clearly wasn’t a fool, not even back in those days. He saw through this mirage of uncertainty, and envisioned a world that was beyond these debates.
Newtonian physics is deterministic. It is true that it fits into the larger framework of the probabilistic system of quantum mechanics. But quantum mechanics fits into the larger framework of Holywelkin physics; and Holywelkin physics is again deterministic.
Holywelkin is a fictional scientist, and The Memory Of Whiteness is set in 3229 AD – it chronicles a tour of humanity’s most important musician/composer throughout the solar system. Continue reading
I fear that Alastair Reynolds might be one of those in the long, long line of artists who best formulated what they had to communicate when they made their debut… Ripe with the urgency of the unacknowledged artist – who doesn’t write or paint or play music because it his or her profession, but because it is a passion, something pursued after hours, a labor of love, a vision that needs expression. For those with enough talent, that results in a fresh, interesting newness – a birth cry for attention in this or that artistic field. Possibly a sophomore effort follows, maybe even more refined, because of a more confident artistic voice. More often than not, afterwards complacency sets in. Creators run out of steam. Struggle with the need to better their first few outings. Start to repeat themselves. Don’t have anything meaningful left to add to the conversation. That is no shame: who is able to be the life of the party from the very beginning to the very end, without resulting to drunken dance moves near closing time? Only very few artists are able to strike a balance between personal growth and the commercial pressure that comes with growing fame. Writing a good book is no mean feat – we tend to forget that. Writing four or five good, distinctive books in a row is exceptional.
Alastair Reynolds wrote an exceptional debut series: Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap are thrilling hard space opera, full of big ideas and exciting fun. The trilogy is not flawless, but is among the better I’ve encountered in the genre. At the time, I thought I’d found one of my favorite authors – in retrospect, I’ve only found a favorite series. Nearly everything else I’ve read by Reynolds since – Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days, Century Rain, Pushing Ice, Terminal World, last year’s Slow Bullets – is all subpar product. 2008’s House Of Suns was a temporary return to form.
Enter 2016. Enter Stephen Baxter – an author I haven’t read before, but doesn’t give off the most sophisticated, original vibe if I read up on his books online. Enter a concept designed to sell: team up to write a sequel to Arthur C. Clarke’s A Meeting With Medusa – “perhaps Clarke’s last significant work of short fiction”, as the authors formulate it in the afterword. Team up to enjoy the benefits of the other’s credit. Team up to cash in!
I’m not sure who is responsible for the bulk of this mess, but a mess it is. Slow, cardboard, repetitive, generic.
The Book Of Phoenix is a kind of prequel to Who Fears Death – a post-apocalyptic science fantasy book I haven’t read. It is my first exposure to Nnedi Okorafor’s writing, and a book that left me frustrated and unsatisfied – yet humbled and uncertain too. I think Okorafor has cleverly hidden her true intentions with this book, and that makes it both an artistic success and an artistic failure – depending on one’s perspective. Let me first write about what Okorafor didn’t manage to do.
While the first fourth of the book was gripping, the plot quickly lost all tension. The Book Of Phoenix is for the most part set in the 29th century and is – roughly – about a child born as an experiment in genetic engineering, done by a shady Big Evil cooperation. That cooperation, LifeGen, has several “towers” spread across the USA where it conducts experiments of all sorts, mainly on Africans that seem to have been enhanced X-Men style – presumably by some alien artifact. The experiments are generally unethical. Continue reading
It’s hardly surprising Netflix has announced a 10-episode series based on this book. If done right, this “pure high-octane science fiction” mixed “with the classic noir private-eye tale” will lend itself pretty well to the 21st century TV audience.
Altered Carbon is Richard K. Morgan’s debut, and instantly got acclaim. It won the 2003 PKD award, and comparisons to Blade Runner and Neuromancer are found in reviews all over the net. More on that later.
It’s an entertaining read, and fairly easy at that. Don’t believe reviewers who speak of a complex plot: one has to pay attention, yes, but the story simply goes from point A to B: easily recognizable events take the protagonist by the hand throughout the murky world to the inevitable conclusion, and new clues pop up at regular intervals. Events as: being ambushed, being shoved into a limousine to see some mighty powerbroker, being confronted by a female cop followed by kissing, being tailed, being seduced by the wife of your client, being put into a fighting pit (bare knuckles to the death!), going to an arms dealer to get new toys, etc., etc. All in all, pretty pulpy stuff.
That’s not to say the novel doesn’t have merit:
A few months ago I wrote a couple of paragraphs on the splendidly fresh The Bone Swans Of Amandale, a 28.000 word novella by C.S.E. Cooney. I ended that review with the promise to pick up the entire collection, and I’ve done just that.
Bone Swans features 5 stories – most about 40 pages. All of the stories can by read for free online (check the links below), but I think it merits a physical purchase, very much so. Unique, bold authors as Claire Cooney need all the support they can get. It will also be a great collection to read to your 12 year old kids – and bedtime reading from a tablet simply doesn’t have the same charm. Not to mention screen light being bad for your loved ones’ sleep cycles.
Everything I wrote about The Bone Swans of Amandale is true for the other 4 stories: “poetic, humorous, original, daring, gruesome, outrageous, unsettling and even amoral.” Maybe that last adjective doesn’t go for every tale, but still: that’s quite a row of lauding words. I cannot praise the collection enough. I’m fairly sure it will end up in my favorite ten reads this year…
Below a few notes on each story. Whatever you do after the jump, please, do read those four, short quotes. Continue reading
Posted in Reviews
Tagged 2010s, Bone Swans, C.S.E. Cooney, Fantasy, How The Milkmaid Struck A Bargain With The Crooked One, Life On The Sun, Martyr's Gem, Review, short fiction, The Big Bah-Ha, The Bone Swans Of Amandale
Colonial studies have been part of the curriculum for over two decades at literature faculties on universities across the globe. I wonder how many professors and scholars realize lots of science fiction can also be considered as literature that deals with colonialism. There’s the obvious Prime Directive in mainstream culture’s Star Trek. There’s a variant of that in Banks’ Culture novels: how and when to intervene in other – technologically less developed – cultures? There’s Ursula Le Guin. China Miéville explored the theme a bit in Embassytown. And so forth… The fact that lots of SF deals with encountering and engaging with other, alien cultures makes it a perfect genre to explore real world colonial issues.
The End Of Eternity fits into this way of looking at SF as well. It is one of Asimov’s stand-alone novels, and is considered among his best by many. The protagonist is Andrew Harland, one of the few who live in Eternity, a location outside place and time, where “Eternals” enact “Reality Changes”, small, calculated shifts in the course of history made for the benefit of humankind. Though each Change is made for the greater good, there are also always costs.
For those who have read it, 1971’s The Lathe Of Heaven of Le Guin instantly springs to mind. I have written extensively about my view on utilitarianism – an important theme in both books – in Lathe‘s review, so I will not repeat those here. Le Guin is more overtly critical on the matter than Asimov, who doesn’t necessarily fault utilitarianism, but instead faults placid, safe, stale thinking, and pleads for ambition, difference, diversity and risk.
“Whom do you mean by ‘we’? Man would not be a world, but a million worlds, a billion worlds. We would have the infinite in our grasp. Each would have its own stretch of the Centuries, each its own values, a chance to seek happiness after ways of its own in an environment of its own. there are many happinesses, many goods, infinite variety… That is the Basic State of mankind.”
The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy declines in quality throughout. It’s not a big decline, but a decline it is. The Summer Tree is spectacular. The Wandering Fire is still top-notch, yet the first book remains the better. The Darkest Road however doesn’t merit 5 out of 5 stars anymore: let’s say a solid 3.5 instead.
Using a word like “decline” in the first paragraph doesn’t do these books justice, so let me be loud & clear: taken as a whole, The Fionavar Tapestry is highly recommended, and one of the classic series of the genre.
I’ll briefly formulate a few reasons that made reading the third book the lesser experience: there’s a structural issue, a prose problem, and one plot weakness. I’ll conclude with writing a bit about the main theme and Kay’s metaphysics.
Most of what I wrote in the reviews of the first and second book remains true. The Darkest Road doesn’t change style or substance. Since I loved what Kay wrote in the first two books, that’s mainly a strength, but maybe it’s a weakness too, as book three is more of the same. It doesn’t add a lot to the previous two books. While The Wandering Fire deepened the world and the characters, The Darkest Road simply follows the story to its expected conclusion: a big battle. Not that that battle plays out fully as expected, but still, The Darkest Road is very much a concluding volume, neatly tying every narrative thread.