Tag Archives: 2010s

PROVENANCE – Ann Leckie (2017)

provenance-20I enjoyed reading Provenance, but after I put it down the question whether this really was a good book quickly took my enjoyment hostage. As entertainment it works just fine: others have called it a comedy of manners, and Leckie has a distinctive, somewhat detached style which helps her create awkward social atmospheres seemingly effortlessly. The pacing is okay, the prose too, and enough stuff happens to keep the reader’s interest fresh. It needs repeating: all that is no mean feat, and Provenance is definitely not a bad book.

A small part of the novel’s charm deals with the strangeness of aliens – but ultimately it’s just the same old trick as in Frank Herbert’s Whipping Star: having aliens speak garbled English. I wrote ‘small’ part, because I wanted more. Provenance is set in the same universe as Leckie’s famous debut trilogy, but those of you craving more of the Rrrrrr or something like that hilarious & menacing Presger translator will be disappointed. In fact, the character of the Geck ambassador more or less repeats Leckie’s trick from Ancillary Mercy – yet without anything coming close to the genius of the fish sauce.

Provenance is the Imperial Radch trilogy light. Those books are about characters and pack quite some emotions – although it might not show at first, and Leckie takes her time to develop, all the way up to book 3. This is a standalone story of 438 pages, and the main character simply isn’t as interesting, her adventures not as compelling. In fact, the ending is so, so predictable I wonder if it’s a joke on Leckie’s part. Joke or not, it doesn’t make for literature that sticks, as the narrative arc ends with a fizzle, and the same goes for whatever emotional build up there might have been. Continue reading

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GYPSY – Plus… – Carter Scholz (2015)

GypsyKim Stanley Robinson fans beware: Carter Scholz is a buddy of his, they go hiking in the Sierras together. It shows, both on the cover of this little gem, and in the content itself.

Gypsy Plus… is a 146 page booklet in the PM Press Outspoken Authors series. Its main attraction is the novella Gypsy (97 pages), plus 2 shorter stories (The Nine Billion Names Of God, 10 pages, from 1984 – not the same as the Clarke title by the way, and Bad Pennies, 8 pp., 2009), a political essay on contemporary US politics (The United States Of Impunity, 14 pp.) and a 12-page interview with the author.

Gypsy is hard SF about a team of 21st century scientists who crowd-source a secret starship and abandon a doomed Earth for the Alpha Centauri system. Scholz says an interesting thing in the interview:

I’ve never seen an SF story take full stock on how hard, maybe impossible interstellar travel is going to be. Gypsy is my attempt to do it “with the net up” as the “hard SF” writers say. Even in the most rigorous hard SF, you always reach the hand-wave moment where the net drops to permit some bit of story development. I wanted to play it straight and let the story come out of the constraints of the physics. Continue reading

LUNA: WOLF MOON – Ian McDonald (2017)

Luna Wolf MoonLuna: New Moon was one of my best reads of 2015 – a Shakespearian feud set on a near future moon that felt both fresh & glossy, and harsh & sprawling. If you haven’t read it, go check it out.

At the time we were led to believe it to be the first of a duology, but it turns out McDonald decided to write a trilogy after all.

I’m not sure that decision paid off. It’ll probably pay off in terms of total copies sold, but artistically, Luna: Wolf Moon has some problems. Not that you shouldn’t read it. If you liked New Moon, you’ll enjoy Wolf Moon too. But while overall solid & fun, it simply isn’t an as good a book. Not even close.

Writing trilogies is tricky, especially if they are one story, multiple volumes. I feel, ideally, every volume should have its own voice, or, at least, should bring something new to the table. Otherwise, the decision to go for multiple volumes published some months or years apart is only motivated by practicalities and commercial interests, not by artistic considerations.

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THE RISE AND FALL OF D.O.D.O. – Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland (2017)

The Rise And Fall Of D.O.D.O.Neal Stephenson wrote one of my favorite books: Anathem. His last book, Seveneves, was one of my favorite reads of 2015. So I looked forward to this new tome – 752 pages – especially since the blurb seemed to promise good old-fashioned fun.

Yes indeed, fun! Anathem & Seveneves are dense, serious books, but The Rise And Fall Of D.O.D.O. has the aura of a Dan Brown book: the discovery of old documents, secret government agencies, the past that turns out to be different from the official narrative, betrayal, mystery, magic.

Could it be that Stephenson again tapped into that youthful enthusiasm that characterized his brilliant sophomore effort Snow Crash and the outrageously bonkers The Diamond Age – a book that’s probably a bit too self-aware for its own good.

And what to think of the addition of Nicole Galland – with whom Stephenson (and a bunch of others) co-wrote The Mongoliad trilogy, and who primarily writes historical fiction? The dust jacket has this on their labor division:

Written with the genius, complexity, and innovation that characterize all of Neal Stephenson’s work and steeped with the down-to-earth warmth and humor of Nicole Galland’s storytelling style, this exciting and vividly realized work of science fiction will make you believe in the impossible, and take you to places—and times—beyond imagining.

Yet the colophon places the copyright solely with Neal Stephenson, who “asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work”.

I’m guessing the main idea came from Stephenson, and he wrote the bulk of the book, with Galland acting as editor / beta-reader deluxe to keep things “warm” and the sentences light. Why? To make sure Stephenson’s latter-day heavy-handedness doesn’t get in the way of revenue. This is clearly a commercial release, aimed at a big audience. Both covers show this: the secret file, the comical dodo, the military stamp lettering, the cheesy slogan – “Think you know how the world works? Think again.”

That’s not necessarily a negative. Summer’s here, and to start the season I was up for escapist beach reading: a few thrills, a bit of alternate history, some cool technology and lots of adventure.

Did I get that?

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UPROOTED – Naomi Novik (2015)

Uprooted 2Uprooted caused quite a stir when it was published: it was nominated for 6 awards, and it won 4. I’m aware that awards have less and less to do with artistic quality and more and more with the industry of publishing, but still, I was intrigued, especially after I realized fairytales still have lots of potential: C.S.E. Cooney’s powerful short story collection was one of my best reads last year.

Novik apparently was inspired by Polish fairytales – her mother is Polish, her father Lithuanian – but I’m not sure to what extent. Fairytales are fairly universal – there were versions of Sleeping Beauty in ancient China too. The Wikipedia entry on Uprooted seems knowledgeable, and if it’s more or less complete, it seems the Slavic influence is surface level only: names and the sounds of names. That seems enough for a crowd that craves authenticity and deep roots.

Anyhow, Polish or not, the subject matter is straightforward and recognizable: nondescript village girl turns out to be hero extraordinary with the help of an elder mentor. The apprentice quickly outclasses the teacher, and together they take on the evil forces – an evil forest. Continue reading

BRING UP THE BODIES – Hilary Mantel (2012)

Bring Up The BodiesReviewing a sequel is a bit harder: you can’t spoil too much for readers that haven’t read the previous book, and there’s the danger of just repeating oneself if the books are similar.

None of that in this take on Bring Up The Bodies – the much-lauded sequel to the equally lauded Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s historical novel about the rise of Thomas Cromwell, the troubles surrounding Henry VIII & Anne Boleyn, and the downfall of Thomas More.

Spoiling stuff is not a problem, as most people are familiar with the most famous Tudor story. Book 1 ended with the execution of Thomas More, and this book will end with the execution of Anne Boleyn: it’s out in the open on the back cover too.

And I won’t be repeating myself when I discuss the core ideas of this book, as it’s way different in scope and focus.

But before that, let’s just get all this out of the way: Bring Out The Bodies was a thoroughly enjoyable read; it’s a stylistic triumph again; again top-notch pacing; the story is stranger than fiction, even more so in this book; and again, this is better than palace fantasy. And yes, also for this sequel Mantel had to make choices: historians will keep on debating about Cromwell’s role, so she does not pretend to write a biography, but historical fiction indeed.  Continue reading

NEW YORK 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson (2017)

New York 2140It’s no denying I’m a KSR fanboy. It’s also no denying I avidly share the same concerns as so many: climate change, rising inequality, the grip of finance on global politics. So I really wanted to like this book. And I did – up unto the first 250 pages. The remaining 363, not so much.

As the cover and the title make clear, New York 2140 follows firmly in the line of Kim Stanley Robinson’s near future novels: there was Washington & climate change in the Science of the Capital trilogy, refurbished in 2015 as the mammoth Green Earth, and California & three different scenarios in his early series The Wild Shore (1984), The Gold Coast (1988) and Pacific Edge (1990).

This time the sea level has risen spectacularly and New York has turned into a New Venice. The book follows nine characters that all live in the same building: a market trader, a police inspector, an environmental activist/nude model internet star, the building’s manager, two orphan boys straight from Huckleberry Finn, a lawyer and two coders trying to rig the Wall Street system.

At first the book is simply great. Robinson uses a mature, daring voice. It is his most ironic mode yet, his most openly self-aware book. He even addresses the reader straight on about his tendency to infodump. In between chapters there’s snippets of quotes from various sources about New York and its history, often funny. They work wonderfully well in tandem with the main text. New York 2140‘s subject is quite heavy, but the writing often manages to be light and breezy. I laughed out loud several times. KSR uses language creatively, with stuff like “thinking they are great gestalters” or “I pikettied the U.S. tax code” and a newly coined adverb like “realworldistically” – all examples of a playful intellectualism. A joy to read.

The story starts with a disappearance that has the smell of a high tech heist movie. There’s also an old school treasure hunt going on, and there’s the general vibe of 22nd century New York with all kinds of new technology dealing with the new water level. It all contributes to a Big Sense of Anticipation, especially since the story has 613 pages, and I know what KSR is capable of: I was set for a long, boisterous feast. (More on the cake later.)

But after a while I slowly started to notice some problems, and those problems only got worse. After I read the book, I started reading some interviews (collected on the excellent, extensive fan site kimstanleyrobinson.info), and those interviews confirmed and explained my suspicions of what went wrong.

In the remaining part of this review, I’ll quote a few parts from various interviews, and use those to explain why this will be the first KSR book I’ll probably sell at the local second hand shop. But – and this needs the extra stress – that does not mean New York 2140 will be a bad read for you, dear reader: that also hinges for a big part upon what news and non-fiction you have consumed the last couple of years, as I’ll explain in my next paragraph.

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