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A Few Thoughts about Words

... preferably in books

April 27th, 2003

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days by Alastair Reynolds @ 10:48 pm

Gollancz, 2003, 0-575-08526-0

Alastair Reynolds is an astrophysicist for the European Space Agency. He understands space. He is predominantly known for his three novels Revelation Space, Chasm City, and Redemption Ark. Although I liked the first two, the last one is not only unreadable, being too long by half, but worse than that, has the climax of the book happen offscreen. It made me wonder why I bothered to read it at all. Oh, friends loved it--was that the reason?

This book is composed of two novellas that are sharp, alien, and and memorable. I am particularly fond of the first story, "Diamond Dogs". It concerns Richard Swift, philosopher of alien intelligences. He is approached by Roland Childe to join in an exploration of an alien structure that Roland calls the Blood Spire. Despite his initial reluctance, Richard cannot resist the challenge of a dangerous alien object that conceals a possible incalculable treasure. Five adventurers attempt the maze like building. All are changed by their obsessions.

The second story takes place on Turquoise, an impoverished ocean covered planet. Naqi is a scientist who studies the ocean biocommunities called the Pattern Jugglers. They seem to store information and memories from people who Swim with them. Her sister, Mina, swims with them and dies the night the glow of a slower than light fusion drive appears in the skies above. Naqi takes her place in an experiment to isolate a single Juggler in a huge concrete dam. Two years later the dam is almost complete and the fusion ship arrives at Turquoise. Rather than scientist or traders the fusion ship brings religious fanatics hoping to be imprinted with the mind of their messiah who died and was imprinted in the Pattern Jugglers memory. This is a story of loss and sacrifice, of longing and fear, hope and redemption.

Both of these stories take place in the universe that Reynolds has constructed of future humans, abandoned alien structures, and high technology. But however advanced the gadgets, the human stories are still vital and moving.

April 26th, 2003

Conquistador by S. M. Stirling @ 04:42 pm

ROC, 2003, 0-451-45908-3

Fans of alternate history remember S. M. Stirling's Nantucket Trilogy; Island in the Sea of Time, Against the Tide of Years, and On the Oceans of Eternity. The series started out strongly with the premise that the island of Nantucket and nearby boats, were transported back in time hundreds of years. There is the usual discourse of setting up an advanced civilization in a primitive environment that is particularly well handled and nuanced. But by the third volume it had degenerated into a series of seemingly endless battles between factions (one decidedly evil) of the time travelers.

His book The Peshawar Lancers was far superior. It is the swashbuckling tale of English colonists in India generations after the destruction of most of the northern hemisphere by meteors in the reign of Queen Victoria. A charming blend of of modern Victorianism, adapted Indian culture, and plenty of derring-do, I even nominated it for a Hugo award along with Eve Ackerman, who reminded me that it was eligible.

Stirling's latest novel is less whimsical and more contemporary. The story starts with the discovery of endangered species pelts and a live condor by Tom Christiansen, Fish and Game warden, in the slums of Los Angeles in 2009. The near future is noisy, polluted, and crowded, especially so to a man who loves the wilderness. The warehouse in destroyed by fire before anything but the condor and a picture of an Aztec sacrifice can be saved. But the condor is not related to any of the carefully DNA'd condors still alive.

The condor has actually been smuggled to our time from an alternate universe where Alexander the Great did not die, but lived an additional 27 years and consolidated his empire. Rome never became an empire. Christianity and Islam did not evolve. Even the Chinese and Mongols were overrun by Greco-Iranians rather than Mongols and Tartars overcoming Europe.

The Gate to this timeline was discovered in 1946 by Captain John Rolfe, who created a doorway into the northern Californian equivalent of Berkeley without European settlers via a shortwave radio. Having just survived World War II, John gathers most of his army unit and carves this virgin territory into domains collectively called New Virginia. By 2009 the population is 150,000 through a combination of a high birthrate and selective one-way immigration, especially people who are about to be forcibly removed from their ancestral homes; Germans after WWII, Dutch from Indonesia, French and British from North Africa and Kenya, Boers from Rhodesia and South Africa, and Russians from a collapsing Soviet Union. It sounds like a paradise; modern technology, a clean ecology, and a low population, but it is built on the decidedly non-democratic rule of the Thirty Families.

As Tom tries to investigate the source of the condor, he meets and falls in love with Adrienne Rolfe, who he thinks is the daughter of a wealthy family and investigator for Pacific Open Landscapes League. Tom and his partner, Roy Tully, find a disk of impossible videos -- a pristine San Francisco Bay with no bridges and acres of huge bison being hunted by Indians on horses shot from the air. Tom and Tully are convinced that the smugglers come from another timeline, but know that they will not be believed without more proof. In trying to get that proof they are captured. Adrienne, the granddaughter of John Rolfe and a Gate Security Force officer rescues them, but is also forced to kidnap them to New Virginia. Tom is incredibly resentful of his Involuntary Immigrant status and vows to return. But first Adrienne has to investigate and foil the immediate goal of the smugglers, the capture of the Gate and the overthrow of the current Thirty Families.

Since this is Stirling, there are a number of stirring battles, both primitive and modern, and much discussion of weapons, physical combat, and battle strategies. However much of the real discussion in the novel revolves around possible forms of governance given a discovery of a virgin timeline. The conflicts between antagonists are based in differences in philosophy and culture rather than one group being inherently evil. Although the pace of the novel is deliberate, there should be enough action to satisfy the David Drake and Jerry Pournelle fans and enough speculation for science fiction fans who like to ponder social "what if" scenarios.

April 25th, 2003

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson @ 06:16 pm

G. P. Putnam, 2003, 0-399-14986-4

William Gibson burst on the science fiction field with the novel, Neuromancer in 1984, practically inventing the genre of cyberpunk. He had published several other short stories starting in 1981, "Johnny Mnemonic" and "Burning Chrome" being the most memorable, but the novel both sold well and won a Hugo in 1985 against such formidable writers as Heinlein, Niven, and Vinge. He continued to write novels sporadically. Many were nominated, but none were as well written -- until his latest, Pattern Recognition.

There is nothing overtly science fictional about this novel -- no rockets or ray guns, but the tone is relentlessly future oriented both in its social arrangements and technology. Cayce Pollard, is a design consultant, equally adept in evaluating a corporate logo or a fashion trend. She is involved with an internet community that is obsessed with fragments of a film that are hidden in odd places on the net. Each small snippet of motion is enigmatic and compelling. There is endless net discussion about their source and meaning.

Cayce is staying the London apartment of Damien, a music video and commercial director currently shooting an odd documentary in Russia. She has been hired by Blue Ant, a global PR agency founded by the mysterious Hubertus Bigend to evaluate a new corporate logo generated by a German firm, presented by Dorotea Benedetti. She rejects it. Now her life becomes very strange. Someone breaks into Damien's apartment and uses her notebook computer. Hubert asks her to seriously track down the producer of the odd video found on the net and provides almost infinite monetary and personal support services. This leads to adventures in Tokyo, London, and finally Russia. But what is Cayce chasing? A meme? A PR campaign? Or something even more odd? Along the way Cayce meets plenty of people both trustworthy and devious. This story is a mystery, but is also is a mirror held to our current world; how the net is forming communities of like minded people above nationalities and borders, how multinational corporations are subtly influencing our thoughts, and how people can persevere through incredible difficulties. Though it all the language is almost poetry. It is a transient world, but very appealing.

Read this book, but be prepared to lose sleep as you stay awake just one more minute to find out what happens next.

April 24th, 2003

Misspent Youth by Peter F. Hamilton @ 06:27 pm

Macmillan, 2002, 0-333-90070-7

I have been a Peter Hamilton fan ever since I read the first chapter of _The Reality Dysfunction_, the first book of The Night's Dawn Trilogy, a sprawling science fiction epic longer than most fantasies. The number of characters, worlds, plots, and subplots was dizzying and delightful. I loved the characters, the detours, and the landscapes. I was very sorry to see it end. I immediately grabbed all of his other books; three novels about Greg Mandel, telepathic freelance operative; _Fallen Dragon_; and his collection of short fiction, _A Second Chance at Eden_. The Greg Mandel series is sturdy, but limited in scope. _Fallen Dragon_, about corporate pirates hunting down exotic technology on a seemingly bucolic planet, is quite fine. But none of them live up to the tapestry and grandeur of The Night's Dawn Trilogy. And neither does _Misspent Youth_.

The tale starts off as the story of a privileged youth, Timothy Baker, in a future, somewhat impoverished, England. He is in his last week of school before going on to university and is looking forward to an endless summer of parties and outings with his school friends. The story then moves to his somewhat famous father who invented, and gave away, the crystal memory devices that now keep the world turning. The elderly Jeff Baker is given the European Union's first rejuvenation treatment. It works brilliantly. Jeff is returned to the apparent age of 20. His current wife, Susan, leaves him, he abandons his elderly friends, sleeps with many available women, and even seduces his son's long sought after and adored girlfriend, Annabelle. He has been rejuvenated ostensibly to work on an EU superconductor project, but his knowledge of contemporary physics is weak and his hormones constantly rage.

Meanwhile his son is devastated at the loss of Annabelle. Although she claims that it would have happened eventually, Tim still feels betrayed by his father and goes to live with his aunt. As the summer winds down there is a call for a massive march, Million Citizen Voices, on the European government in London. Their focus is the Euro Socio-Industrial summit, where Jeff Baker is a main speaker. The marches turn violent, but Tim and his friends are somewhere in the middle of the chaos and Jeff leaves the safety of his conference center hotel to find them, thereby becoming a media hero for walking out on the forces of the reigning government.

Tim goes to Oxford and finds a new girlfriend. Jeff and Annabelle go to Grenada to gen-engineer a baby, just as Jeff and Susan had Tim genetically improved, though Tim does not know this. The end comes when Jeff's rejuvenation fails dramatically. He even chooses to die online, denouncing the government as he does.

It is rare that you will find so many self-centered and basically unlikeable people in one book. The focus on rejuvenated sex and the overthrow of a pan-European government are unstable themes. Although much of the science is plausible, hardly any of the human emotions are. I'm sure that I will purchase the next Peter Hamilton book, but he should stick to action-packed science fiction and leave the near future history extrapolations to those who have a better grasp of politics and humanity.

April 23rd, 2003

Strange But Not A Stranger by James Patrick Kelly @ 01:39 pm

Golden Gryphon Press, 2002, 1-930846-12-6

Sometimes all a story needs is a few thousand words and not a few dozen volumes. James Patrick Kelly is one of best short fiction writers today. My high opinion of his genius is not singular. He has won several Hugo awards and has been nominated for many more. This book is his most recent collection of short fiction including his latest Hugo winner, 10^16 to 1. The most amazing thing about his work is his incredible variety. He can write a story like "Candy Art" that is in the tradition of the madcap romances of Connie Willis or a grim, cyberpunk tale like "The Prisoner of Chillon" or an alien point of view story like "Lovestory".

I particularly like stories like "Fruitcake Theory" that seems to be a straight forward tale of alien first contact negotiations and ends up telling about a unique method of communication and being a trenchant comment on human society. "The Pyramid of Amirah" is also deceptively simple. A new human religion has sprung up that worships people entombed in situ under an immense pyramid. The point of view is a teenager so honored and the ending is brilliant, in all senses of the word.

In my opinion, the weakest story in the collection is the Hugo winner, "10^16" to 1. Possibly I don't like the idea that an entire life is fated to an anguished ending. Or perhaps I don't like the implicit guilt implied by inaction, when too often it is action that causes disasters.

Overall, I would have to say that my favorite story is "Glass Cloud", which he later expanded into a novel, _Look Into the Sun_. This is the story of the architect Phillip Wing, who wins an award to build an impossible building only to be courted by aliens to build an even more fantastic structure. The pressures and realities of building, and compromising, are well told, as is the gradual disintegration of his marriage. Phillip is a difficult character and it is even more to Kelly's credit that you can empathize with him and even admire him.

This is an excellent book to sample the writings of James Patrick Kelly. If you like these stories you will also like his collection, _Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories_, and his novels, _Wildlife_ and _Look Into the Sun_.

A Few Thoughts about Words

... preferably in books