Thursday, January 24, 2008

JD's Take: Recursion (Tony Ballantyne)

Recursion is, like so many books, told from several points of view. The first of them is Herb, your average spoiled rich kid from the future, who thinks he's clever enough to slip by the Environmental Authority (the nanny-state AI overseer of humanity) and use Von Neumann Machines to terraform his very own planet (he screws up and his machines eat the whole plante 2 pages in). The second is Constantine. His story takes place 91 years before Herb's. He is a corporate "Ghost", a kind of blank spot in the grid. His job is to Make Shit Happen without being noticed by humanity as a whole or the burgeoning AI Overseer. Finally, we have Eva. He story takes place a wee bit before Constantine's, and she just wants to commit suicide. Unfortunately, her government (not AI controlled) won't let her.

How do these disparate stories fit together? For the most part, they don't. At all. They could have been told sequentially without any real difference in the storytelling. Information was not revealed in storyline A that influenced the reader's understanding of storyline B at any point. That was annoying. On the other hand, each of the stories, taken on it's own, would be a reasonably entertaining short story. These short stories would be of the "character light, science heavy" variety, but they'd be OK. They even share a world and thematic tone, so I could understand publishing them in a single collection, but I'm not entirely sure why he thought they needed to be shuffled into a novel. It detracted from all of them.

The stories themselves are, as I said, interesting at least. They are each an exploration of likely future technology, focusing on VNMs (self replicating robots) Digital Consciousness (of the "I stick my brain in a 'puter" variety), and Artificial Intelligence. These explanations are all tinged with an anti-trans-humanism vibe. Or possibly a pro trans-humanism vibe that's so optimistic that it's creepy. Like a Stepford Transhumanist. I'm going to go with Anti. That theme reads as very paranoid, even alarmist, which hurts his scientific cred in my opinion.

Once you move past the science, however, the story part starts to break down. Some of the story threads intentionally do not resolve, which is fine. Some of them don't resolve, and it's absurd. It's like he ran out of pages in which to tell us what happens next in one of the story lines. In one glaring instance, a character says something along the lines of "I'm never gonna give up" and then disappears from the pages of the book forever. If I try really really hard I can work her into later stories, but only by saying things like "well she *could* have started X or been doing Y", but that's bullshit.

So. Viewed as a collection of hard Sci Fi short stories, it's alright. Viewed as a coherent novel, or from a character or story-driven point of view, it falls short of what I'd call "reasonable expectations". It's an OK read at best, unless you happen to be very into VNMs and their impact on society, or you like a good paranoia laced romp into the future.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Lisa's Take - Wicked (Gregory Maguire)

I'm just really not sure what to write for my review of Wicked. There are a couple of complications surrounding the book: first of all, I love the musical and it severely colors my perception of the book's events, and second of all Wicked is the first non-fantasy that I've read since 100 Years of Solitude, which I still have an outstanding review for because I'm having a hard time finishing it. I believe what the latter problem boils down to is this: I don't read enough literature to consider myself a qualified reviewer of it. Fantasy? I read nothing but, so I could wax poetic on it all day - go on and on about these approaches and those nuances and the other settings. Literature, less so.

So: forgive me if this review is littered with more ineptitude than I usually show.

Right, let's get this rolling the standard way. The full title of the book I'm reviewing does much to sum up the plot – Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. The story starts a little before Elfaba’s birth (Elfaba being the witch’s given name) and follows a number of points of view through the book. All in all, we get about a 40-year picture of the political turmoil in Oz.

At it’s heart, Wicked is a book about the study of Evil, or at least that’s what Maguire claims in his introduction, citing many long conversations with friends to let ideas mull. With that in mind, it’s no wonder that the book is pretty awful, depressing, and upsetting. Especially near the beginning, it’s like Maguire is trying to be as vile as possible in explaining the circumstances surrounding Elfie’s birth. I can see why he did it – the later juxtaposition of “a someone who comes from a rotten past, who everyone assumes is rotten at heart” with “a someone who’s really good at heart, in spite of herself and her upbringing,” is fairly poignant.

It seems like as the book goes on, Maguire gets more caught up in the story and feels less of a need to be repugnant; still, the rest of the story is by no means pretty, and is rife with injustice. Unfortunately, none of the characters had been developed in such a way that the injustices really twinged my heart-strings. You know how it is when you’re reading a book and your chest is tight and your teeth are clenched and you just wish you could yell at the character what they need to do to fix everything? Wicked never inspired that in me, and it should have. If something had been done right, it would have. I’m not sure what that something is… but, the book wanted for it.

Now, as I mentioned before, the book is so very far divergent from the musical – I don’t even know where to begin. The ties between the two only exist as the barest possible grains… names of characters, but not looks or personality or role, for instance. Some barest hints of themes, but without the same implications. Bits of plot misplaced in time and content. And of course the niggling detail that the musical is, at heart, a happy-ending story, while the book is meant to be as depressing and awful as you can conceive. When it comes down to it, I far prefer the musical, but honestly I’d rather just keep the two as separate, non-overlapping, unrelated stories in my head. They’re just too different to merit being called even siblings or cousins, much less the same story.

One last thing – I will say that reading Wicked has made me want to go back and read all of the original Oz books. I’d like to know how many ideas and back-stories Maguire pilfered from L. Frank Baum, and how he changed and morphed interpretations. I have a feeling that some of the conclusions and implications he created were absolutely masterful in their brilliance… but it’s hard to say without reading the original work.

The bottom line here? Again, I profess my suck-i-tude when it comes to reviewing Fine Literature, especially when it comes with so many related works and caveats. Part of me wants to say “if you like the musical, don’t read the book. You’ll hate it.” But part of me also wants to say “you might only appreciate this book if you’ve seen the musical.” In the end, I don’t think I can make a call. The book has merits, it’s well written and engaging – I certainly never got bored – but it’s some pretty rough subject matter. And I’m spent.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Lisa's Take - The Privilege of the Sword (Ellen Kushner)

I’ll just come out and say this one up front: The Privilege of the Sword was decent, but really not as good as I’d been lead to believe. It won a number of awards, and I had several people squee at me about it; perhaps my hopes had just been brought too high. Certainly it was enjoyable, and I tore through it pretty quickly, but I never really got much in the way of emotional attachment to any of the characters, nor did it particularly surprise me.

Hmm. Let me stop and re-think that. I’m a big liar – I should rephrase. I never really got much in the way of emotional attachment to any of the main characters. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let me take a step back and give a plot overview.

Katherine is 15 and her family has lived their whole lives in the shadow of a debt imposed by her crazy uncle, who also happens to be a duke. For Reasons That Become Clear Throughout The Novel, the Mad Duke is miffed with his sister (Katherine’s mother) and does his best to make her married life miserable. Then one day Katherine’s family receives a letter saying that if they would be obliged to send Katherine to the city for 6 months of isolation with her uncle, he would forgive the debt. Sinister overtones set aside, Katherine’s family agrees and ships her off. Turns out the Mad Duke wants to teach Katherine to be a sword fighter, among other things. The novel follows Katherine’s life under the Mad Duke’s tutelage.

Like I said, I never really formulated much attachment with Katherine, though I was fairly impressed by how she was developed throughout the course of the book. I think that if I were a little younger she might have struck more of an emotional chord with me - though I don’t believe young teenagers are really the intended audience for the book, given the rampant sexual situations. But then I was a pretty na├»ve teenager, so I could be wrong.

While I didn’t ever find myself particularly attached to Katherine, I did get fairly emotionally involved in a couple of the sub-plots. Katherine spends some time studying in a secluded country location with a mysterious teacher – looking back on the book, that certainly was my favorite arc. The tones and feelings of the environment were incredibly well developed and quite poignant, and Mysterious Teacher was one of the best written characters. I found out later the reason he was written so well was likely that he has appeared in another one of her books, but that hardly detracted from my enjoyment.

I think one of the most interesting things about the book was the authors approach to sex. Very, very many fantasy authors tend to “pan to the ceiling” during sex scenes, or omit them completely, or romanticize and flower-ize them. Kushner did none of that – sexuality was just out there in a very natural way. There were girls who liked girls and boys who liked boys, and every combination thereof, and none of it seemed either contrived or abashed. I approve.

Another interesting aspect of The Privilege of the Sword was the way in which the story used a book that Katherine had read – weaving bits and pieces of it in and out of the plotline, revealing different tidbits as they became poignant to the primary tale. I remember very clearly being Katherine’s age and being just as caught up in the books I was reading then, so the approach really resonated with me.

My, that turned out to be quite a lot more text than I was expecting. Having re-visited many of the things about the book that I liked, I feel compelled to revise my evaluation from “decent” to “very good.” It still didn’t quite live up to the expectations that had been set for it, but it was a very enjoyable read. Amusingly, after I finished this book I realized I tried to read another of Kushner’s books a couple of years ago, but put it down after the obligatory 100 pages because it wasn’t holding my attention. Having enjoyed The Privilege of the Sword as much as I did, however, I feel like I might have to go back and give it another try.

Lisa's Take - Temeraire Book 3: Black Powder War (Naomi Novik)

Ok, so it took me a little more than a week to finish the 3rd Temeraire book - I blame the holidays. I fear this review is going to be a little light (in addition to being a little late) as any sort of plot review for a 3rd book is edging into spoiler territory. Also, I'm afraid I've committed one of the smaller sins of book-reading... gluttony. I enjoyed this series so much that I tore through it without leaving enough time for the bits to digest, meaning that plot points and pacing are all mooshed up in my head. It doesn't help that this particular "trilogy," while having fairly distinct endings to each of the books as well as a decent amount of closure, tends to pick of really fast where the previous book left off, making them harder to distinguish when I didn't leave any breather room between them.

Without further ado, the major points I wanted to hit on.

Point 1: Temeraire is not nearly as much as a character in this book. He's there, and he has some ideas, and while he's less whiny in this book than he was in the last one, he's... well, just sort of there, as I said when I started this sentence. I felt like he just wasn't as interesting, didn't have as many entertaining aspects, maybe didn't grow as much as in previous books. Who knows. I just didn't quite get the same connection.

Point 2: The rest of the existing characters aren't nearly as much of a character in this book. Grammatically incorrect, but I was going for resonance with the opening of the previous point. Everyone pretty much behaved the same as before, no surprises, few changes. I just wasn't that upset when characters died or were lost or moved on.

Point 3: This is the first book that seemed rather contrived. I called pretty much all the major plot points hundreds of pages before they happened, which is always a bit of a disappointment. At least this book wasn't just another boat ride.

Now, all those points sound pretty harsh, but let me be clear that this book was still delicious and wonderful and entertaining. The new characters that were introduced were quite good and a nice breath of fresh air to keep things moving along. I profess that I waited a little too long to finish this review, so my brain is starting to lose the details - but the book is definitely worth reading, and I'll be turning to the 4th book in the series to break up some of my harder fantasy very soon.