The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (Villard, 1996) 408 pages

TS Russell

This is another book I heard about through that Great Courses course about the history of science fiction called “How Great Science Fiction Works” taught by Prof. Gary Wolfe. This book came out of the class on how religions are portrayed in science fiction. However, a lot of it has more to do with alien “first contact” and the events that follow, although there’s plenty exploring the relationship of God to man (and alien) to satisfy a church deacon.

Wolfe sort of warns you about the odd aspects of this book, both as science fiction and as literature, meaning that it’s not a particularly easy read. But, as Wolfe promised, the payoff is substantial if a bit tame in comparison to what goes on across the planet we live on—aliens aren’t torturing women in Africa or the Middle East in the name of religion. We are. And we are all humans.

Anyway, this book takes place along two timelines: the first contact event in 2019 (almost 35 years in the future when the book was written) and a kind of religious trial when the sole survivor of the initial expedition, Jesuit priest Father Emilio Sandoz is fetched back to earth in 2059. Due to the relativistic effects of star travel, Sandoz is much “younger” than his colleagues who have spent the entire time of his trip on earth and aged at the ordinary rate.

Not that it much matters. When the second expedition from earth reaches the planet of Rakhat and the two odd races of creatures that dwell there, they find Father Sandoz with his hands horribly mutilated and working in a brothel as a prostitute. Moreover, the crazy priest kills the one being on the planet that actually cares about him: a young child in no way involved in the priest’s condition.

So Sandoz is taken back to earth to face charges about his circumstance when found, as well as questions about exactly what happened to the other seven people who left earth with him. These good people, all chosen by the church, half of them Jesuits, ride an asteroid to incredible speeds (the details of this asteroid mass-burning for speed are not presented) to reach the stars. We know there are intelligent beings on a planet out there because a radio telescope has received charming music of classical quality coming from one of the three suns of Alpha Centauri.

Before going on, let me just say that there are no real spoilers to risk in revealing the plot; no cliffhangers to be uncovered; no plot twists to expose; no doubt as to Sandoz’s guilt or innocence. It’s all there on the book flap, and the real tension is in his former friends grappling with what transformed Sandoz from a gentle priest helping poor children in Puerto Rico into a homicidal maniac. Whatever it was, due to Sandoz’s role in society, there is not convenient villain to blame, like violent video games or our current understanding that many priests are capable of evil deeds because they are all human beings, and human beings are capable of all manner of evil deeds. This book was written before the recent church scandals that have swept away the naïve picture of the always innocent, and in some ways childish, individuals who are drawn to the priesthood.

The first question a reader might ask is this: What the heck is a Jesuit priest doing on an expedition to encounter the first aliens detected by humanity? (And these aliens are tantalizingly close: literally right next door on Alpha Centauri.) Well, in this future, based on trends of the late 80s and early 90s, only Japan has enough money to accomplish great things. In fact, they run Arecibo, the big radio telescope that receives radio broadcasts of truly wonderful music that entices humanity to get to know the obviously sensitive beings that created such marvelous tunes. (This future 2019, imagined in the early 1990s, has no Facebook, no social media, no slavish following of reality show stars, smartphone isolation, or…Hey! Can we go back?…I’m not serious: see Walter’s First Law of Reality: When Things Change, They Don’t Change Back.)

Outside of the rich Japanese, only the Holy Mother Church, not yet unburdened of years of bingo earnings by victims of abuse, has the wherewithal to mount an expedition to the aliens before the world’s governments can scrape together some cash to do the same. In the spirit of exploration, humans just jump right in instead of thinking to send a query to these other beings asking if their arrival would be a welcome one.

The priest’s presence has a lot to do with the author’s background. Russell is a cultural anthropologist, and her specialty is paleoanthropology,the study of how ancient societies lived in prehistoric times. Her studies and experiences inform the text, and make for a different kind of science fiction experience.

Readers can be forgiven if they see Sandoz and company’s encounter with the aliens as a thinly veiled retelling of what happened when the first Jesuits encountered the bloody altars on top of the pyramids of the Aztecs. The moral outrage at all this ripping of beating hearts out of the chests of sacrificial victims must have been absolutely justified to the priests who had conveniently forgotten how their minions made the streets of the Holy Land run with blood during the Crusades. But, obviously, those guys over there are savages, and we aren’t.

(As a footnote, I am not one of those people who tend to think that the Jesuits invented the Aztecs’ brutality in order to justify their own inhuman treatment of the natives after the conquest—which recent DNA studies have shown to be even worse than researchers had imagined. Aztec DNA is immediately polluted with the imported European kind, which probably had the benefit of allowing many of them to survive European diseases. But it seems that a whole generation of women in the cities interbred with no one but the conquerors. More to my point, a recent construction project in Mexico City unearthed an enormous wall consisting of layers of human skulls mud-bricked into a hundred-foot-long rampart, right at the foot of the main pyramid in the center of town. So yeah, those Aztec rulers were some evil folks. Although they say that those invited to for a brief visit to the altar on top of the pyramid were happy to be picked to keep the sun shining, and they had some really good drugs…and never ignore the effects of peer pressure, whether civilian or religious. Those who tremble before Jesus will happily skewer you outside the abortion clinic.)

The question asked about the Aztecs is the same as that asked in this book: could the same God that nurtures us good people also rule over these unrefined heathens? How can a just God, supposed ruler of the universe, allow such inequity to continue?

It’s a fair question. Unfortunately, in this book as in real life, there aren’t any easy answers. The main offense the visitors from earth commit is to treat the downtrodden peasants of Rakhat with as much dignity as their overlords. This offense cannot be forgiven, especially because being invited to dine with the overlords is an experience as fraught as being invited to enjoy the view from the top of the Aztec’s big pyramid. You don’t mess with other people’s food supply.

I will reveal why the book is called The Sparrow: it’s on page 401, almost at the very end of the book. “Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine,” his judges cite: Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.

This book is an interesting peek into the mind of priest who can no longer believe in a just God. If you don’t expect more than that, you won’t be disappointed.

 

Light by M. John Harrison

Light by M. John Harrison (Bantam, 2004) 310 pages

L Harrison

It’s been a while since I’ve done a science fiction book, huh? Let’s fix that right now…

So I bought this course from a company called The Great Courses about the history of science fiction called “How Great Science Fiction Works” taught by Prof. Gary Wolfe. I found it pretty fascinating, especially when we got past the 1980s and into the “rise of the new space opera” and stuff like that. After a time when science fiction focused on the nuances of characters or drilled into the minds of people involved in dystopian worlds or deep government plots (the whole “cyberpunk” movement) , the 1990s saw a revival of stories where the whole universe was the canvas. This harkened back to the old space opera stories of the 1930s.

The new space opera authors were not afraid to send characters to weird worlds, or have them encounter strange aliens (humanoid or not), or find hints of civilizations, dead or alive, doing things that humans could barely comprehend. One of the writers that Wolfe spoke about in the course is British author M. John Harrison, a name I had not come across before. Harrison wrote many books, but this quote got me interested in the book I am writing about this week. Here’s what Wolfe says about Harrison and Light:

“[Harrison writes books] all featuring morally ambiguous characters and all connected to a mysterious region of space where reality is so distorted that it has baffled and even damaged many civilizations over the millennia. [The book] Light, in particular, is a superb example of the sort of literary complexity that can be packed into a space opera template.”

Naturally, after that build-up, I had to get my hands on the book and read it.

It was not an easy read. Not only are the characters ambiguous and mysterious, but so is the narrative. Apparently the idea of a linear or sequential narrative is one of those things that people in the deep future can do without. But if you’re willing to jump around a bit in time and space, you’ll find a heckuva story in here, but told in three interlocking sets of episodes.

Michael Kearney is the person we meet first, a Londoner in fear of the Millennium (it’s 1999). He’s doing research into quantum computing and manipulation of quantum effects with a partner, but mainly it’s the partner who does the research while Kearney mainly goofs off and tries to talk his ex-wife into having sex with him (she does not need much convincing). Kearney is also a very casual serial killer, a fact introduces so casually that you wonder if it’s one of those space-time distortions. But apparently not, and it seems the only reason that Kearney does not murder his ex-wife is because she wouldn’t mind dying at all.

If this isn’t quirky enough, we next meet a woman in the far future named Seria Mau Genlicher, someone who now lives as a mass in a tank of liquid and has been merged into a starship/warship called the White Cat (Kearney’s research involves a black cat and a white cat). These “K-ships” are all that remain of an ancient civilization that has tried to penetrate the boundaries of a region of the galaxy where massive black holes of something even stranger has muddied reality into odd areas of overlapping quantum effects. This is the Kefahuchi Tract, where alien civilizations have entered but form which nothing has ever returned. Seria has taken her K-ship rogue, and is not above taking on passengers she kills in order to examine their cargo, even as the authorities hunt for her and try to destroy her.

Last but not least we have Ed Chianese (“Chinese Ed”) who would rather spend his days as a “twink” on New Venusport near the Kefahuchi Tract than anything else. Twinks live in a virtual reality world while immersed in a vat of psychedelic nutrients, and Ed spins a marvelous fantasy as a hard-boiled detective in Chicago until he can’t pay the rent and is dumped out onto the floor of the tank farm. Ed has experience on “dynaflow ships” and has “gone deep” into stellar envelopes and made his way through old alien mazes where many have been lost. He owes a lot of people, and they’re out to collect…

(Have you figured out this book is not your usual trip to Mars yet? And why would an author try to make faster-than-light travel, or strangely connected places in space and time understandable, or weird god-like beings in some way logical? This is the quantum world, baby, where nothing makes much sense. So just go along for the ride. )

Chinese Ed and Michael Kearney and Seria Mau Genlicher are all tied up in ways that slowly reveal themselves as the book plays out. Kearney and his partner’s actions must determine the future where the other two play, and their work is so important that there are dioramas in place in the far future to commemorate key moments in their lives and work. Ed and Seria have a past that is shared in a way that you slowly figure out as the book goes on. (It’s easy to hide these little snippets in plain sight because there is so much happening in each scene.)

Lurking everywhere in the background is this thing called the Shrander, a being that shows up in different forms under different names (Sandra Shen, for one) at different times all over the book. Kearney has stolen a set of weird dice form this Shrander – they are shown on the cover of the paperback – and is fond of tossing them at odd times. He has given names to different results, names that also exist in the far future in the other parts of the book. But it’s unclear what effect if any this tossing is having on Kearney’s life or anything else.

Perhaps Kearney’s throws in the present are having an effect on the characters in the far future? Lots of things in this book happen on multiple levels, including the narrative. Sort of like real life.

Before I read this book, I would never had thought it possible to sell a narrative so disconnected, or ideas introduced with so little context or explanation (like “K-tech), or characters so clearly lost and adrift in life and the plot. But now I see that you can, or at least a writer could in the early 2000s. There are two more books in this loose “series” about our very odd future (Nova Swing and Empty Space). But I’m not sure I’m ready to read those yet. I hope I will be.

 

Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein

Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein (Putnam, 2015) 486 pages

SR Sanford and Ctein

http://www.amazon.com/Saturn-Run-John-Sandford/dp/0399176950

Okay, John Sandford is a name I recognize, but I had never come across Ctein before. And is it pronounced “Stein,” but spelled with a Cyrillic “s”? I think so, but my brain keeps seeing it as “K-tine,” which I’m sure is not correct. In any case, they did a good job of hiding the “co-author” seams of this project, and I know that’s not easy.

I also realized that I haven’t done many science fiction books lately. I seem to have had a long run of fascinating AI and modern biology books lately. But I just finished this one and I’m reading another (and what a book that is: but you’ll have to wait a bit), so we’ll address the overall imbalance a bit.

There is a spectrum of science fiction stories that runs from soft sci-fi to hard. In soft science fiction, Harry gets in his rocket and takes off for Saturn and it just gets there because, you know, the whole point is not the hardware, but what happens between Sally and the alien she told Harry meant nothing to her. In hard science fiction, Harry spends 200 pages telling you how the Saturn rocket was designed, built, and functions because, you know, the whole point is not the Harry-Sally-alien three-way, but the hardware.

On this line from hard to soft, Saturn Run is so hard that it could have been carved out of a diamond by an industrial laser (which actually happens to create a vinyl record needle in the book). There is even a ten-page “authors’ note” starting on page 477 that not only gives readers the science behind the spaceship in the book, the USSS Nixon, but tells how computer simulations were used to make the trajectories and timelines for voyages from earth to Saturn realistic and correct. We have come a long way from simple Hohmann transfer orbits that we calculated with slide rules(!) at NYU back during the lunar program.

We know that getting there is half the fun, and in this case two third of the book involves getting to Saturn. This is where (in 2066) a surfer/slacker/war-hero-post-traumatic-stress/rich guy (page 19) has accidentally discovered an alien space outpost among the rings. The Chinese find out and re-purpose an expedition to Mars to get there first, but the Americans invent a new rocket system called VASIMR (explained on page 172 and again on page 481) and strap it to a modified space station to beat the Chinese to Saturn. Now, there seems to be no other reason for the president of the USA (a Hispanic woman in 2066) to try and beat the Chinese to any possible goodies other than “those guys didn’t invite us along.”

Almost every problem the crew faces along the way is the same as any isolated community in the Arctic or out-of-the-way place faces. So we have issues with testing explosions (page 129), sex problems (pages 150, 207, and 219), and possible sabotage (page 189). (As a computer and network guy, I have to tell you that there is a simple solution to the computer issues mentioned on page 190.)

The earth people are a diverse group, but not really deep. Isolation is always an issue, and I liked the diversity of the crew. They are handled as deftly as the crew in the classic Forbidden Planet movie.

So I liked the book a lot, but it did weasel quite a bit on the one thing that anyone who reads about alien first contact cares about: the aliens. There are none! And of course the artificially intelligent machine that greets the visitors speaks better English than the characters do. The machine is conveniently programmed to reveal nothing at all about alien species, which turn out to be quite numerous in this section of the galaxy. (This knowledge, which should be met with stunning amazement, is shrugged off in favor of a “what neat stuff can you give us?” approach to interstellar relations.)

Instead of real aliens, all the travelers encounter is a kind of alien vending machine or arcade game that grants points for Earth trinkets like old music (Motorhead and Bach are apparently favorites in this arm of the galaxy (page 332)). You trade the points for other stuff (will Lemmy get a cut?), but we never see any alien-wares because the Chinese manage to blow up a piece of the vending machine while trying to get it to go “tilt” or whatever and get Earth banned from interstellar trade for 144 years (I am not making this up: its’ on page 368). But it was an interesting approach to the issues.

I was a bit distressed about one aspect of the book, however. And I don’t feel bad about telling you about this aspect of the book, because it’s out there in reviews already and the end is still a surprise, even if you know this. The whole Chinese-American competition reminded me of the old days after WW II when the USA used to go to international trade talks and say “all we want is a fair advantage” over other countries. After all, the USA won World War II and every other industrial country in the world had to rebuild by buying American, so what was the use of complaining? This strategy kept Americans busy and employed in manufacturing for more than twenty years, but no one explained to the USA trade negotiators that the words “fair” and “advantage” meant very different things and did not belong together in the same phrase, like the oxymorons “working vacation” or “jumbo shrimp.” Other countries wasted no time pointing this out.

In this book, however, the irony of the “we come in peace for all mankind” USSS Nixon crew espousing a blatantly jingoistic attitude is lost on the characters.

The problem is this: the Americans have essentially found eight quarters in the coin return slot of the alien vending machine (yes, I know many machines today do not have coin return slots, but look it up). The Americans split in a hurry before the Chinese find out that the Americans have all the quarters.

I’m not too sure why the Americans of 2066 are so unwilling to share with the Chinese. It may be because of Korea and Vietnam, but we always tell countries that we want to forgive and forget and not to hold grudges. I’m also not sure why the Russians and south Asian Indians seem to have vanished as powers by 2066, which is only 50 years in the future.

In any case, the Chinese solution about the eight quarters, once they find out (“The loose change?” says the vending machine. “The Americans said they’d take care of that…”) is rejected. The Chinese plan is to split the two bucks four ways: two quarters for the USA, two for China, and the other four to be parceled out to other countries. For some reason, the characters all scoff at this crazy Chinese sharing thing, and readers, I take it, are expected to smile and go along with this (I assume there are no plans for a Chinese edition).

Much is made about the presence of a covert Chinese political officer on board, although most of the complaining is done by the American NSA/CIA agent aboard the American ship! The Chinese operative is a bloodthirsty and soulless monster, but I suspect readers are expected to cheer when the spy on the Nixon feeding information to the Chinese is killed in an “accident” (wink, wink) by the American “political officer” at the end of the book.

I think this aspect of the book would not bother me as much if there were some concrete reason for not wanting any quarters to end up in Chinese hands. But the only reason seems to be “well, we’re Americans and we want a fair advantage…” And that did not work well for me.

The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just City by Jo Walton (TOR, 2015), 368 pages.

TJC Walton

I bought this book shortly after it came out because I knew Jo Walton as an award-winning author (the book Among Others) and I have always enjoyed novels based on ancient Greece and Rome (like those of Mary Renault or Steven Saylor). This came billed on the cover as “a novel of ideas” which intrigued me because I had no clue what to expect in a novel of ideas as opposed to a novel of anything else.

The premise here is that the great Olympian gods like Apollo or Athena (a firmly Athenian Pallas Athene here) are super-beings capable of great feats of consciousness transfer and time travel. After an argument over the rape of Daphne, a well-known Greek myth, Athena challenges Apollo to live through a life-cycle as a mere mortal named Pytheas in order to appreciate how human women might take offense to a more powerful male coming up and going “I want you” and assaulting her with overpowering strength. (As pointed out in the essay on last week’s book, Women After All, it’s not uncommon for males to assault other males in the same way.)

Apollo accepts the challenge and drinks from the river of forgetfulness and becomes the mortal Pytheas. This is such a common epithet for Apollo (at Delphi they worshipped Pythean Apollo) I doubt anyone would be fooled for long, but the citizens of the Just City seem completely bamboozled by this god walking among them. Athene is there to keep an eye on things, as the instructor Septimia, and it’s not surprising that her low profile makes it easy for her to observe what is happening in her city.

In fairness, the children who inhabit the city initially have much more pressing concerns than wondering if the gods are around. For Athene has populated her city at the beginning of time with more than ten-thousand ten-year-olds, gathered from all periods of civilization. These children, some liberated slaves, others just downtrodden, are transported to the island of Santorini so that they become citizens of a place set up to be the embodiment of the perfect city created by Plato, the Greek philosopher and student of Socrates. Plato wrote a dialog called The Republic where his teacher Socrates supposedly outlines the perfect city, the just city, and that is what the book is all about. (In ancient times, The Republic was known as On Justice, which explains Walton’s title and the connection.)

The children and teachers are all given new Greek names, which can be confusing at first when you try to map them in your head. But it’s not too bad. Walton uses some correct but uncommon spellings as well. Sokrates is not too bad, but everyone wears a kiton, which you can find on Google under chiton. There is more Greek stuff going on here than at a joint fraternity/sorority party.

Most of the narrative is driven by Apollo as Pytheas and two others: a student and a teacher. The student is Simmea, an Egyptian sold into slavery, sexual abused as a ten-year-old, and finally taken to the Just City (where, it turns out, rape is still a problem). The teacher is Maia, a young Victorian formerly named Ethel, who prays to be freed of her restrictive life in Rome and finds her prayer answered by Athene (yeah, the Romans didn’t care if it was Minerva or whoever).

Socrates arrives on page 96, but not revealed for who he is until page 99. But then, the “students” are 15, and ready for indoctrination into the system of the perfectly just city, either as a “gold” or “silver” or “bronze or “iron,” based on the teachers’ assessments of the mix of “metals” in their souls. There is a hierarchy, of course, to determine who gets to lay around and think all day and who gets to tend the fields or mind the flocks (reading Plato, I could never figure out why these activities were exclusive: I do my best thinking while working). This system yields exactly 252 Golds and 1,120 Silvers and 3,240 Bronzes, leaving the rest of the population, the 6,508 Irons (page 152) to do the menial work. This is the “noble lie” that drives the system on: that people are somehow so fundamentally different that once you are branded a Gold, you’re set for life.

Not that life, even as a lowly Iron, is really stressful. The truly back-breaking work like construction is handled by a cadre of robots. These are mute, mechanical workers who charge themselves when their batteries run low and can be programming with chips to do what is needed, whether it is cleaning the gutters or planting flowers in the spring. Sokrates, being Sokrates, naturally begins to question the “downtrodden” workers about how they like their work, whether they are happy, and so on. Natually, if the workers are intelligent enough to be conscious, the leaders must decide if their treatment is just or not. In other words, Sokrates is throwing a monkey wrench into the inner workings of the city, exactly as he did in ancient Athens. This activity got him condemned to drink hemlock, but here in the Just City, Sokrates picks right up where he left off.

By now, it should be clear that this Just City is a totalitarian place where individual desires bend to “the common good.” This is especially clear when it comes to sexual assignations designed to sustain and increase the population (don’t worry: they are all over eighteen when the time comes!). There is a quarterly festival where each boy or girl is assigned to one of the opposite sex. They are expected to party and sleep together, whether they like it or not, and a lot of them don’t. If they don’t become pregnant, the girls go back into the hopper and draw another partner for the next go-round. The best you can do, apparently, is hope for a pairing with someone you like…but don’t count or that. The city doesn’t really care, since all children are raised in common anyway.

A lot of the book’s tension comes from these sexual activities: remember, good-looking mortal Apollo/Pytheas is always lurking around to swoop in and the girls sigh. More tension comes from Sokrates investigations into the humanity of the worker robots, a concern that might be more relevant to modern life sooner rather than later. Although the robots cannot speak, they have more subtle ways of communicating with the overseers of the Just City.

One intriguing take on the ancient concern with “justice” or a just life or a just city is to translate this into the modern concept of coolness. So Sokrates’ questions about whether some act is just or not becomes a question in modern times whether someone’s action is cool or not. I actually read a book about that, but I can’t find it right now and do not recall the name. I’ll get back to you on that…

The end of the book comes rather abruptly. I won’t reveal more than to say that (apparently) if anyone can show Athene/Septimia that her city, founded on Plato’s principles of firm justice, is really unjust, the game is up.

All in all, let me just say that it might be while before I attempt another novels of ideas.

 

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit Books, 2015), 466 pages.

A Robinson

So last October I went to hear Kim Stanley Robinson speak at Changing Hands bookstore in downtown Phoenix, which I have to say in my favorite bookstore in the area. Everyone who can make the trip should go there, especially for the First Draft Book Bar, where I can be found, usually at lunchtime every other Friday, at the right-hand corner, sipping a vanilla coffee.

That night, Kim Stanley Robinson spoke on behalf of the environmental center (or something) at ASU about his book Shaman, which I have to admit is the first of his books that I didn’t find relatively dry and slow-paced. In fact, I found Shaman fascinating, and Robinson spoke about the experience of being part of a human tribe around 20,000 BC or so. He mentioned cave art, cultural and family ties, and the survival techniques needed in such trying surroundings.

Anyway, someone asked a question about the current fad “Paleolithic diets” and so on (I’ve seen tips on “Paleolithic management styles” on the Internet). Robinson gave a long answer along the lines of “you want Paleo, live outside when you aren’t asleep for all the winter months and tell me how you like it.” Then he mentioned nutrition and how human beings are more bacteria than their own cells.

And then he delivered the line that I’ve been waiting for this book to explore further: he basically said “all these books and movies about traveling to the stars…well, once you move out of earth’s environment, your bacteria start suffering, as I show in the book that’s coming out next year.”

So this is the next year, and this is the book. A book about an interstellar generation starship approaching Tau Ceti (even at a substantial fraction of light speed, it takes 170 years to get there) and the trials and tribulations the crew must endure to spread humanity among the stars—maybe.

Book reviewers have pointed out that it’s hard to talk meaningfully about this book without give one or more major plot points away. So if you don’t want to know more than I’ve told you, skip to the last paragraph now.

The main characters are Devi, starship engineer, her husband Badim, and their daughter Freya. Devi dies shortly before they can land on one of Tau Ceti’s planets (well, satellites), which is a watery world with plants and high winds and odd sunlight, but otherwise promising. Devi is apparently a genius, and frets privately to Badim that no one will be able to replace her, least of all her ditzy daughter Freya, who has no head for math and lacks the flashes of insight that an ace troubleshooter needs. Throughout the book, Badim, a steadying influence on everyone, is—well, a steadying influence.

I had no issues with the problems that the crew deals with on their journey. The ship barely makes it to Tau Ceti (page 93 says they are low on phosphorus) and they have accumulated too much salt. All seems well until someone gets some kind of slimy mud in a cut, and in a few days, the landing party is all dead, save one. This “disease” is left un-investigated, at various times called a “fast prion,” and then just “the alien” (page 203). On page 277, it might be a “small tardigrade” and on page 329 it is a “pseudo-life-form.” It was frustrating for me that the only real speculative science fiction element in the book was treated so cavalierly.

The terrified starship crew votes (after a mini-civil-war) to split up and some go to try and terraform a sterile, lifeless world (no worries about infections there!). The rest try to return to earth, pushing the starship to the limit as bacteria makes the whole starship “sick” and relying on the people of earth to build an enormous laser to slow them down. Naturally, the people back on earth are not happy that these pioneers “gave up” and a lot of people want them “shot down” before they can infect the home world.

Large swathes of the book are made up of detailed descriptions of how bacteria infects even metal fittings, how to slow a runaway starship by swinging it around the sun, Jupiter, and other planets, and so on. I’m talking about pages and pages, not just a series of paragraphs. I’m talking the actually angles of swinging (like 114 degrees, no more, no less). I have to admit, my eyes tended to glaze over when plowing through these sections. But I am absolutely sure these sections are 100% accurate.

To me, this book would have been just as fascinating as nonfiction, exploring the “island effects,” genetic regression to the mean, the wear-and-tear on machines running for 200 years, and the promised effects of bacteria and other “microbes” on people and parts. In fact, large portions of the book are little more than thin narratives about one or more aspects of travel to the stars. People who are 14 go on a kind of “walkabout” through all of the huge ship’s biomes, which gives them a reason to detail the structure and function of the ship.

Except for sections at the start and finish, which are narrated by Freya, the rest of the book is narrated by the AI entity that runs the ship. This entity becomes conscious sometime after a serious rebellion in year 67, one that threatens the whole mission, through the efforts of uber-engineer, troubleshooter and coder Devi, Freya’s mother. Devi calls this entity “ship” and it is apparently the ship that writes the awkward episodes about the ship’s issues as it arrives at the Tau Ceti system.

It turns out that the ship becoming conscious is a good thing. When factions among the “returners” threaten the integrity of the ship, the ship just takes over and becomes a benevolent dictator. This is even easier when word comes from earth of a new technology that allows the crew to hibernate during the 100+ year return trip. It also solves the problem of narrative unity: Freya, now age 80 or so, can narrate the end of the book.

The book ends on a pessimistic note. Many starships have been sent out, but none that arrive are ever heard from again. The moral seems to be that there’s no place like home, although this is framed as a benefit: the book ends with a celebration of the natural wonders of earth and, believe it or not, surfing. The surfing episode forms a bookend to the sailing ship episode on a tiny starship “sea” that opens the book. So it seems that the reason that superior aliens haven’t discovered and colonized earth is that the truly intelligent beings know enough to stay home. (Whatever species is running this planet a couple of billion years from now, when the sun is about to go red giant on them, might feel differently—maybe by then, we can move the whole planet.)

Book reviewers have also pointed out that there isn’t much character development (they remain pretty static for the length of the book) or plot surprises (large numbers of people in a restricted space have disagreements—often violent ones). Then again, readers of hard science fiction like this, and this SF is about as hard as it gets without needing footnotes to reference scientific papers, are usually more interested in the nature of human experience than the experience of human nature.

 

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi (Knopf, 2015), 371 pages.

TWK Bacigalupi

The most profound form of knowledge is self-knowledge. A lot of times, this can’t be taught, and is quite elusive, especially if the realization is immediately followed by an urge to suppress an uncomfortable truth (“I really, really, like meth better than sex.”). So you sort of have to stumble over a revelation about yourself, because a lot of these are things that other people can’t tell you…they can tell you something you don’t know, like that you have smelly feet—if they’re not your friends, they only tell other people—but there are things about your internal workings that no one else knows and even you don’t know until it bubbles up to the surface from the Unknown, often by accident. (Some people might be going “He’s talking about the Johari Window,” and in fact, he is.)

So what is this fantastic insight? I’ll get to that. First, let’s talk about the book that Hugo and Nebula Award winning science fiction author Paolo Bacigalupi has written: The Water Knife.

A water knife, in the book, is a person who enforces, mainly by assassination and quasi-military operations, the will of the woman who controls the water rights of the Colorado River. She is from Las Vegas, and in this future vision of unrelenting drought, her main opponents are from southern California and, to a lesser extent, the “Zoners” from Phoenix (the rest of the state seems to have disappeared). State militias and National Guard units have closed the borders, and the federal government, presumably bankrupt from endless wars or crippling social programs (take your pick), lets these states more or less do as they please.

Rich people have retreated to high-rise and all-but-sealed “arcologies” (MS Word wants me to spell it “archology”) with names like Cypress I, where they live in splendid isolation with recycled water while all the “regular people” try to drink dirt. Actually, the Chinese and Red Cross have installed metered watering places for the locals, but it’s very expensive. As a writer, I understand the need to describe an arcology with the word “arcology,” but after 50 pages of repeating the term, I longed for a neologism for the portmanteau (that is, a new word for a mash-up of “architecture” and “ecology”).

The book follows three people as they wander around this thirsty world: the water knife Angel as he tries to find out if someone in Phoenix has uncovered senior water rights to threaten the claims of the Las Vegas arcologies, investigative journalist Lucy as she wades through endless corpses from the rough water wars that envelop everyone outside the downtown Phoenix arcologies, and downtrodden teen Maria as she and her buddy Sarah try to avoid paying gangs for protection and hook up with some rich guy in an arcology. The story follows them as they come together and uncover a piece of paper than can change the arcology world.

What else can I say? The guy wins lots of awards and is ten times the writer that I’ll ever be. But some things did bother me about the book. Anyone who has ever flown back from San Jose to Phoenix Friday afternoon knows that the entire legal staff of Intel and many other Silicon Valley companies seems to live in Scottsdale. And it’s no secret that Nevada has been trying to weasel more water from Hoover Dam, but those Zoner lawyers are more than their match.

As a recent magazine article reminded me, the first law of hydrology is not “water flows downhill” but “water flows toward money.”

Yet the Scottsdale (and ASU) money has disappeared in this book and, overall, the whole metro area appears to be in the hands of marauding Mexicans. Also, Flagstaff, with Snow Bowl and blinding snowstorms during long winters, apparently has vanished. Why don’t people just take their big honkin’ pickups two hours north and load up with frozen water from public lands? How far in the future is this book set?

The other bothersome thing was this: for the sake of the plot, it is first necessary to have Angel quickly fall madly in love with one of the women and then, also for the plot, it is necessary for him to fall out of love even faster. I blame an editor for this.

Okay, now to the big revelation. I have often wondered why I devour every word of some fiction authors like Preston and Child and Clive Barker and struggle to get into others. With some, if I can just get into the story, all is well. But a few, even if I know they are good for me, I simply cannot plow through. Why?

I used to pick up a novel and flip to a random page. If all seemed well, I bought the book. Then I wondered why I bogged down by page three. But now I think I have it figured out!

The very first post I wrote, on What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund, noted how important the start was:

“All books open in doubt and dislocation” (page 60). You have to orient the reader immediately.

and

[W]e can be submerged (at least in good books) so deeply in the text that we are unable to “bring our analytical minds to bear upon the experience.” [page 9]

Here’s the payoff (drum roll, please): I want the story to start immediately so that my “analytical mind” is not engaged and scattered all over. If the tale is couched in pretty writing, I struggle to get past the beginning and into the story proper. Here’s an example taken from the last two books I’ve written about.

(By the way, I also wrote in that initial essay that I wanted to “connect the books I read, whether fiction or nonfiction, with other books.” Now I’m actually doing it.)

Here are the first 108 words of The Water Thief:

There were stories in sweat.

The sweat of a woman bent double in an onion field, working fourteen hours under the hot sun, was different from the sweat of a man as he approached a checkpoint in Mexico, praying to La Santa Muerte that the federales weren’t on the payroll of the enemies he was fleeing. The sweat of a ten-year-old boy staring into the barrel of a SIG Sauer was different from the sweat of a woman struggling across the desert and praying to the Virgin that a water cache was going to turn out to be exactly where her coyote’s map told her it would be.

As I read this, I went “Sweat? He starts off talking about sweat?” Then my mind reeled from thoughts about onions (I got sick eating caramelized onions once) to Mexican checkpoints (I remember that checkpoint down by Sierra Vista near Tombstone) to SIG Sauers (Tony Walker liked SIG Sauers) to coyotes (I found a coyote dead in the desert once).

I can’t help it: that’s how my nerd-mind works. So much for losing my “analytical mind” in the story.

Now, here’s the first 141 words of The Forgotten Room:

It was perhaps the most unusual sight ever beheld on the august and stately grounds of the Glasgow Institute of Science, founded in 1761 by grant of charter from George III. A large podium, studded with microphones, had been erected on the Great Lawn, directly in front of the administration building. Before it had been set some three dozen folding chairs, on which sat reporters from local newspapers, the Times of London, Nature, Oceanography, Time magazine, and a host of others. To the right of the podium were two television cameras, one from the BBC and the other from CNN. To the podium’s left was a large wooden scaffold, upon which sat a large, strange-looking machine of dark metal: a cross between a cigar tube and a pincushion, about thirty feet long, with a bulky attachment protruding from its upper edge.

I’m not sure why my mind does not wander off to George III (why would it?) or the print media or TV stations (too common?). Or cigar tubes and pincushions for that matter. But for whatever reason, this to me is one unified scene, where the other is not. I’m locked into this story—right here, right now—and I want to go on.

As I wrote last week:

I find rich prose and allusions in the narrative slow me down (I can give examples when I write up Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife) as my mind follows each link to consider their implications.

Just tell me the story!

(As a final aside, I grew up in Elmsford, NY with a family known as the Batchie family. When my mother got angry with one of them—and she spent much of her time being angry at almost everyone in town at one point or another—she would fume about how they had changed their name from Bacciagalupe, the same as the landlord on the Abbott and Costello TV show (pronounced “Boch-a-ga-loop” on the show). When you’re a Galasso, as she was, renaming options are more limited: Gal-ass? Glass? Also, her name meant “chicken farmer,” which is not as mysterious or threatening as the “kiss of the wolf” Bacciagalupe meaning.)

The Forgotten Room by Lincoln Child

The Forgotten Room: A Novel by Lincoln Child (Doubleday, 2015), 290 pages.

TFR Child

I am a great believer in coincidence, or, as Kelly Bundy used to say on Married With Children, co-inky-dink. So when I finally read this book (I read all books by Preston and Child, or Preston, or Child) between our return from Europe and our trip to Newport, Rhode Island and the east coast, I was pleased to see this book was set in Newport. I had bought the book when it came out in early May, dragged it through three countries in Europe in June, and read not a word until we were ready to leave for our trip east.

What could be better? A book set in Newport as you are planning a day touring the “cottages” of the obscenely wealthy like the Vanderbilt’s ostentatious Breakers and the Wetmore’s more modest 57-room Chateau-sur-Mer.

However, the Newport in the pages of Child’s book was very different from the touristy 4th of July weekend  crowds in Newport.  True, it is early autumn in the book (p. 8), but I can’t believe that the visitors all evaporate after Labor Day. We arrived on the same bridges as the protagonist, the “enigmalogist” professor Jeremy Logan, and took the same turns to reach Bellevue, the main street of mansion-land. But every inch of the way we battled family SUVs loaded with beachgoers, pokey oglers in pricey cars (perhaps yearning for the pre-income-tax days of yore that made much of the opulence possible), and exasperated locals stuck among the sluggish flow.

One last comment on Newport: after you’ve been to Windsor Castle and the Louvre and the Vatican, you can see the faux-royalty effects that the rich of America were striving for. But in my eyes, they are clearly derivative and poor imitations. The closest I came to feeling anything authentic was in the wood-carved rooms of Chateau-sur-Mer, done by the Italian Fellini. (Sometimes I feel I am betraying my peasant roots just by knowing this junk…unless you believe that crazy story about the Goralskis and the Romanovs and why my father’s side of the family is sprinkled with names like Anastasia and Nicolas… then again, I named my son Alexander…)

Anyway, the wise Professor Logan is summoned to a think tank called Lux, housed in a gigantic old mansion with east and west wings located (in the book) somewhere around the beaches on the southern fringe of Newport. Logan used to work there, until asked to leave, and there are still people around who are no happy he’s been invited back to solve a mystery. Exactly who is openly or covertly against him is a large part of the tension in the novel.

What mystery has Logan been summoned to solve? One of the senior computer science researchers has committed suicide in a very gruesome way, after babbling about hearing voices telling him to do things. After some sleuthing, it turns out that the old man was being eased out in favor of his young assistant and assigned to the renovation of one of the wings. Right before his death, the dead man had uncovered the forgotten room of the title, undisturbed since the 1930s, full of odd scientific equipment from the period of unknown purpose.

And so the enigmalogist has a real enigma on his hands. It’s not even clear how the sealed room was entered or who worked there, and it takes some more detecting to uncover the original blueprints, now in the hands of the beautiful and sexy (of course) woman who has inherited the firm.

I told you I have read all of Preston and Child’s works. I have to say, unfortunately, that this novel is really not up to the level I’ve come to expect from them individually and especially as a team. The main character is okay, but the situations are predictable and the payoff somewhat of a let-down after the terrific buildup. All of the thriller tropes are present: the strangers out to kill Logan and make it look like an accident, the strange old man who holds the key to the mystery, the femme fatale who turns up dead at exactly the wrong time, and the use of the machine in the forgotten room, which, when revealed, made me go “Oh. That’s it?” I think I expected more.

So this book is definitely worth reading. But I wouldn’t recommend it to people who are just getting into the novels of Preston and Child. It’s an okay read, but not up to the best work of either of them. Go back to Relic or, better yet, Still Life with Crows, which might be the best novel they’ve done individually or as cowriters.

This book should be characterized as science fiction (the focus of the fictional treatment revolves around of some aspect of a scientific field of inquiry). But it has many elements of a murder mystery whodunit and half-a-dozen “evil government” thrillers.

One other thought before I leave you. As I record my thoughts on the books I read this years, especially the novels, I am starting to realize a lot of things about my preferences that I “semi-knew,” but never examined in any detail before. I would rather have a book that starts with a slow build than one that – bang! – jumps out to an action start and then sags as the true story begins. I prefer linear, un-adorned prose rather than flowery, metaphor laden “pretty writing.” No deep literary fiction pour moi, please.

I do not have a metaphorical bone in my body, literally. (This seems like a statement that Ludwig Wittgenstein might be proud of: exactly what does it mean?)

I find rich prose and allusions in the narrative slow me down (I can give examples when I write up Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife) as my mind follows each link to consider their implications.

Just tell me the story!

I also find that I like being back into a routine. Between May 31, when we flew to London, and July 6, when we got back from New York, a total of 37 nights, I slept in my own bed 9 nights. My wife, who took professional development courses, was home only 5 nights. I look forward to a renewed cycle of read/think/write, which is sort of my own version of eat/pray/love. I’m lucky that my job requires me to do those same things, but on the topic of computers and computer networks.

Ultima by Stephen Baxter

Ultima by Stephen Baxter (Orion House/Gollancz Books, 2014), 549 pages.

U Baxter

I realized last week that I had violated my usual 3-nonfiction-then-1-science-fiction book pattern. But here is the book that should have been next off the walter.book.stack. It’s Ultima, the sequel to Baxter’s Proxima book I wrote about previously. I’ll get back to the rhythm, I promise.

I’m not even sure I’m supposed to have bought this book, which I ordered on Amazon (I try to buy as many books as I can in book stores, but often I have to turn to Amazon…I buy enough books to make everyone happy, I think). Anyway, I’m not even sure who actually published this book. It’s a UK book, published by www.orionbooks.co.uk and www.gollancz.co.uk, as the bar code puts it on the back. If that’s not confusing enough, the inside mentions that it’s a product of Orion House (“An Hachette UK Company”), that it was typeset at The Spartan Press Ltd. (Lymington, Hants), and that it was printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd. (Croyden, CR0 4YY). The price only given in pounds (16.99, which seemed a little steep for a paperback) and “in UK only.”

Why should this matter? Anyone who has tried to buy a book published in Canada and not in the US quickly finds that things are not simple in the book industry. Publishers are often national in scope, and not international, and “foreign rights” have value to publisher and authors. But I purchased this book right off the US Amazon web site, and they shipped it right out, so I hope that I am not in violation of some strict regulation enforced by the book police.

For those who think I am never going to talk about the book: I’m done. Almost. This is the UK edition, as I said, but contains only a few turns of phrase I was not familiar with as a life-long American (not like, say, Harry Potter texts, which can be very different). There’s the single quoted dialog instead of double quotes thing (the UK singles always struck me as more rational and cleaner), but that’s really all I noticed.

I did like the author notice at the front, though: “The right of Stephen Baxter to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act of 1988.” Now, that’s a copyright notice! And the copyright holder is Baxter, not the publisher, as with most of my books.

Anyway, Ultima picks up where Proxima leaves off. Proxima ended when a group of travelers journey through a mysterious Hatch (Baxter’s term) and reach not only a far-away star like Proxima Centauri, closest star to our sun, but an alternate universe where human history has taken a different path. I think this book ends the duology, although the story can go on if Baxter wants to extend it. But the “proxima” title (nearest) is balanced so neatly by the “ultima” title (farthest) that a pair of “bookends” are probably then best outcome for these stories.

It’s one thing to write a book where a group of characters have to save the world. But Baxter not only tackles the chore of saving the whole universe, but the whole multiverse as well. The multiverse, for those who stick to one-world books, is the collection of different universes that makes up reality. Naturally, there is plenty during the trip for fans of the alternate history type of science fiction story. Without giving too much away, Baxter enjoys describing a world run by a Romanized Britain whose empire never fell to the barbarian hordes (although a recognizable version of Christianity runs through this world). He lovingly lingers over each aspect of this universe (which has starships but no computers, for example) until I had to rush through the descriptions of the harbors just to get on with the story.  The more you know about Roman Britain (I suspect UK readers might be fascinated by this topic), the better you will like the first “what if” half of this story.

But I think my impatience had a lot to do with my familiarity with Roman history and not with any shortcoming of Baxter’s writing. In fact, I know it was all me, because I found the second part of the story, set in a universe where the South American Incas rule the stars, endlessly fascinating. Baxter does a good job of integrating his research with modernized Incan cultural practices such as primitive forest tribes, ornate costumes, human sacrifice, and so on. As odd as the characters are, they are all recognizably human and just as likely to hinder as to help along the main point of the plot.

Without giving the whole plot away, let me just say that this main plot, alluded to in Proxima and brought to fruition in Ultima, concerns an artificial intelligence (AI) entity named Earthshine communicating with really slow-thinking but sentient bacteria in the ground to save the universe of the story from being demolished during a collision with the boundary of another universe of the multiverse. When Baxter, goes big, he goes BIG, I have to say.

The biggest issue I had with this “biggest theme of all” approach, however (and I generally like Baxter’s writing, as I’ve said), is that the characters tend to shrink as the canvas they are drawn on expands.  For example, the first part of Proxima is propelled, and excellently, I thought, by a quirky, roughed-and-tumbled character named Yuri Eden. But by the start of Ultima, poor Yuri is all but consumed by the wear and tear of surviving on hostile worlds populated with hostile characters compounded by the aging required by scaling a story up to interstellar distances, even with the magical hatches as shortcuts (of course, if you don’t take the Hatch route, traveling four light years takes at least four years of your life).

Yuri is sick, Yuri is old, and then Yuri dies. But we can’t think about poor old beloved Yuri for long, because we must be off to save the multiverse.  Along the way, the emotionally hot humans age out or die off and the cool and calculating AI entities (there are two: Earthshine and ColU) take over the narrative, which then in the end tends to become as cool and calculating as the robots. There is a long scene with Earthshine’s virtual reality (don’t get me started on VR!) self and the humans sitting around a campfire (really) while Earthshine tells them the long tale of their universe (panspermia plays a large role).

(Wait! Did he just call the AI entities “robots”? Yeah, I did. Someday, I will do a whole write-up on AI stuff, but for now just note that I don’t particularly like the term “artificial intelligence” at all. I prefer “simulated intelligence,” which is what it really is. And this whole modern idea of uploading Uncle Harry into a computer is nonsense; a fantasy of immortality given a computer science basis no more real than ectoplasm. Moreover, there are hints that intelligence appears to be as much of an illusion as consciousness.)

I have one more Baxter book on the input queue: Stone Spring.  I’ll give you a break before that one.

Proxima by Stephen Baxter

Proxima by Stephen Baxter (ROC Books, 2013) 468 pages

Proxima by Stephen Baxter

Well, this one comes with sort of heavy heart. I promised last week (on March 8) that I would do Stephen Baxter’s Proxima “soon.” But I never dreamed that the same week would see the passing of Terry Pratchett (on March 12). I know Terry Pratchett not only through the Discworld series but as the co-author with Baxter of the Long Earth series of science fiction books (Pratchett might point out that it’s really all fantasy).

Let me deal with Terry Pratchett’s passing right here up front, and then we’ll talk about Baxter’s Proxima. I have to admit I’ve read more Baxter than Pratchett, and I think together they made a better “author” in some senses than they did apart. I started reading Baxter with the Manifold series of alternate time/space realities and the exploration of vast spaces. Baxter is what I would call a “hard science” science fiction guy, and of course a lot of reviews follow the Daily Telegraph and call Baxter the “new Arthur C. Clarke.” But hard science can be, for me, well, hard, so I like the scientific detail balanced out with healthy dose of sprightly writing and humor and a certain amount of “wait until I tell you what happened then…” energy. Not that Baxter lacks this, but I think he did it much better in the Long Earth books with Pratchett involved—no matter what the level of involvement was.

I am of course aware of Pratchett’s struggles with early onset Alzheimer’s disease over the past ten years. Here’s another very weird thing: only this week did I finally see Still Alice, the movie where Julianne Moore plays a Columbia University professor with early onset Alzheimer’s and won the Academy Award for it. (Want more weirdness? My mother died a year ago from Alzheimer-like symptoms: she actually had an undiagnosed vitamin B deficiency that could be arrested and not reversed.) But, as my father told me right before he died (cancer), “You gotta die of something.”

So I am sad to see Terry Pratchett go. There’s another reason too. He and I were close enough in age that anything that happened to him makes me feel uncomfortable. But as I told my wife when we left the Still Alice movie: “At my age, I am blessedly free of the threat of early onset anything.” This remark is not in any way meant to diminish the struggles and suffering of Terry Pratchett and his family. He will be missed.

Anyway, there’s a book to speak of in here as well. I bought Proxima right after Thanksgiving in my local B&N (don’t be put off by my linking to Amazon with these books covers). Even before I read it, I noticed that the afterword is dated December 2012, the text is copyrighted 2013, and the “First Roc Hardcover Printing” is dated November 2014. So right away I wondered what this text had been doing for two years until trees were felled to print it out. It turns out (maybe lean in a little closer here) that these books are published in Great Britain first and only later on in the USA. So I immediately ordered up a copy of Baxter’s second Proxima book, Ultima, because I didn’t want to wait for the US edition. If I am violating some kind of international law by doing so, I’m sorry. At least I didn’t get the message like I do when I try to order books from Canada for my friend: This book cannot be shipped to the United States. I presume that the globalization of the book trade has only begun.

(You know, I said these essays were not meant to be book reviews, but I bet you didn’t think we’d be more than halfway through and there’s not a word about the contents of the book at all, did you?)

So here’s what the book is about, without harmful spoilers. In 2166, a guy named Yuri Eden who has been in suspended animation for 100 years is awakened and sent on a relativistic starship to Proxima Centauri, where a habitable planet has been detected in close orbit around the flare star. The groups of colonists (it’s sort of a prison colony) are sprinkled around the planet and left to fend for themselves, at least as far as they know. Some of the groups do their best to destroy each other, and even the tribes who cooperate tend to bash each other’s brains out when they blunder into each other out on the savannah. In short, life in the future is pretty much like life right now and life back then.

I was impressed by Baxter’s deft handling of all the scientific issues. I didn’t think he would address the flaring issue (which can fry you pretty badly if you’re out in the open), but he did. In fact, he came up with a really nice way of letting the native species survive them. I didn’t think he would address the “time lag” issue with the people left back on earth, but he did. Even when (mini-spoiler?) the earthlings and colonists discover “hatches” that allow instantaneous transfer of people between places light-years away, it still takes 4+ years to let the folks back at home know via radio that you’ve arrived safely. Well, can’t you just run back through the hatch and deliver the safe arrival message yourself? Sure you can, but then on your third passage, your buddies would still not be 100% sure you actually made it.

In spite of this, I wasn’t quite carried away by Baxter’s narrative. Yes, I turned pages and went from one chapter to another, but I was always conscious of turning pages and transitioning from chapter to chapter. I wanted to be swept away by this book, and I just wasn’t. But that’s okay. It was still a satisfying read, if not one that I carried around and went “listen to this!” as I annoyed all my friends.

The book is divided into seven major sections and 90 chapters (about 5 pages per chapter) which keep things moving along at a good clip. I was even able to find a typo, which always makes me proud. On page 350, after a political situation, the text reads “Then ringers started to be pointed….” This should be “fingers” and not ringers.

I liked how Baxter handles the AI issues. On earth, there are these magnificent AI entities who nearly destroyed a Cold-War-tense earth and so now their activities are strictly circumscribed, which doesn’t stop one called Earthshine form plotting all he likes. It also doesn’t stop the colonizers from sending some rover-like AI units along to help the colonists out. The Earthshine AI is based on a human personality (guess who?) but has been heavily modified along the way. These AIs all seem to be as conscious as “real people,” and when one of the other rovers is “lobotomized” by a rogue tribe, you fell like one of the characters has died.

The book does pose some interesting questions about life, what it means to be human (if not civilized) and the importance of family. The story is not-quite-self-contained, but at least is not just a big build-up to get you to buy the next two-three-four books in the series. But I can tell you that there’s one heckuva big bang at the end that changes pretty much everything in the good old solar system.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Red Rising by Pierce Brown (Del Rey, 2014) 400 pages

RR Brown

It’s hard for me to tell you how good I think this book is. I mean, I understand that I can really like Ann Leckie’s trilogy start Ancillary Justice (I wrote about that book last month: http://www.whatswalterreading.com/2015/01/ancillary-justice-by-ann-leckie/ ) and you might be left cold by the premise and the execution of the world. The science fiction/fantasy genre mansion has many rooms and many corners within those rooms. But when you are not just enjoying, but swept away by a story, all you can do is let it sweep you away and tell as many people as you can about the experience.

I was literally taking the book around with me and saying “listen to this” as I read one passage or another to them. I don’t usually quote stuff from the books in these things. But watch this. This is as they hang the narrator Darrow’s father for, of all things, forbidden singing and dancing in the deep mines of Mars:

“My brother Kieran was supposed to be the stoic one. He was the elder, I the younger. I was supposed to cry. Instead, Kieran bawled like a girl when Little Eo tucked a haemanthus into Father’s left workboot and ran back to her own father’s side. My sister Leanna murmured a lament beside me. I just watched and thought it a shame that he died dancing but without his dancing shoes. On Mars there is not much gravity. So you have to pull the feet to break the neck. They let the loved ones do it.” (This is on page 3.)

This is the story (no spoilers, I promise) of a downtrodden miner on Mars named Darrow who is hung but revived to be “carved” into a Gold, the leading plutocrats of the solar system. He cheats his way through school and exams (bravo!) and is plunked down in a great valley to compete with the privileged offspring of the other Golds to become Primus of the group (named after Olympic gods) and get a good job after this post-grad experience ends. So it’s sort of like real life, except they’d find him out in five minutes today and send him back to the riff-raff in the trailer park.

I found this book different than my usual read. It’s one of those books I could “live in,” which I realize makes little sense to most people and I should explain more. For now, all you need to know is that it means I don’t want the book to end, even though I know it must. The first blurb you see at Amazon is a quote from Scott Sigler: “Ender, Katniss, and now Darrow.” But I tell you honestly, this undervalues Pierce Brown. Nothing against Orson Scott Card and Suzanne Collins (both of whom will likely be unhappy with my remark, and everyone should go right ahead and read their books too) , but I got sucked into Brown’s book and couldn’t pull myself out.

Who is this guy? Pierce Brown has the standard bio blurb in the back and apparently graduated college in 2010, kicked around at some interesting jobs, and then produced  a debut novel Red Rising as the first book of a trilogy (I am halfway through the second book). What I really want to know is how the heck he can write like this in fifteen minutes when most of us can’t write like this in fifteen years.

I am almost done with this program at Arizona State University (ASU) called Your Novel Year (YNY), and we had to read all these classics of science fiction, from Frankenstein to Heinlein and Asimov. Many of them I had read, but many I had not, or had not stuck with long enough to get into (action starts seem to have emerged sometime in the mid-1980s…I guess we can blame MTV for that). I found two of them not just good or great, but “transcendent,” which to me means that these are somehow more than just a series of words put to paper: The Stars My Destination by Alfie Bester and A Canticle of Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

Why do I say that? Well, in The Stars My Destination, for example, the hero is trapped in a small room the size of a locker drifting in the asteroid belt among the wreckage of a destroyed spaceship. To survive, he must periodically leave to scavenge more oxygen bottles while hoping someone finds him. But when a passing spaceship nearly kills him, he gets so pissed off that he reads the ship’s repair manual and fixes the engines enough to make it to a nearby asteroid. There, he is set upon by a tattooed sect of salvage folk who marries him off to the ugliest woman among them, after tattooing his face to match the rest of the tribe. Locked in a space yacht to celebrate their wedding night, he attacks his wife and kicks her outside while he blasts off for earth. And all this happens in the first 30 pages.

At this point in the book, you should fasten your seatbelts and get ready for the wild ride. This guy will do anything to survive, and make your dull life seem boring in the process. That’s how Red Rising was for me.

I’m not claiming that Red Rising is a perfect book, or that everyone will like it as much as I did. Of course it’s not perfect. It took me a while to get used to Brown’s rhythms and present tense frenzy, but it fits the desperate mood of the story.  There are characters that are mentioned doing earth-shaking things (like Lilanth) but they never have role in the narrative proper. One can only hope that Lilanth has a bigger part in the next two books besides eye-gouging. And I never really sorted out the whole cast of thousands, although there are enough memory-joggers to say “oh, yeah, that’s the girl from when they first arrived…” There’s a map at the start, but it confused me more than enlightened me as the book went on.

Brown uses a lot of neologisms, but he’s 700 years or so in the future. They never seem contrived or forced and there is enough context (well, but the second or third occurrence) to quickly puzzle out the meaning. Just keep going.

Another potential drawback is that the hero Darrow is a step or three ahead of everyone else and always has a plan. That’s okay, but with few exceptions, everyone who Darrow depends on acting a certain way to fall into his brilliant traps acts precisely that way and Darrow triumphs. But it never goes so far that the book fails. And Darrow gets slapped down by the proctors enough to give him challenges every stage along the way.

There’s enough blood to satisfy the most manic video game player. But competitions with high stakes, financial or otherwise, are often vicious, even when everyone is in all senses a winner to begin with. I can’t resist noting that Henry Kissinger said that academic arguments among professors are so vicious because the stakes are so low. In that world, the size of the name on the office door can mean everything.

Also, I give Brown really high marks for gender equality. The females in this book are as blood-thirsty, devious, and powerful as the males. And everyone who postpones their quest for a round of sex comes to a bad end. How’s that for a cautionary tale?

I’m not saying the Pierce Brown is my new favorite author – yet. But he’s right up there. The bio says that he’s “available for select readings and lectures” but I wonder about that. Does that mean he’ll read to the Golds but not the Reds? Does it mean that he gets paid a lot to lecture on social justice? Probably the publisher added that part.

So it’s not that I want to follow him around like a Grateful Dead groupie.  I just want to know his secret.

🙂