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.


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.


[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.

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: ) 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.


Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit, 2013) 386 pages (other stuff plumps this out to 409 pages)

AJ Leckie

You know, I was all set to do a post on Baxter’s Proxima, but then I read this book and someone asked me to pass it along, so I’ll write this up now. (I have the paperback, but how do you pass on an ebook? A lot of them are still in the “cloud” somewhere. What have you really bought beside the right to access some squiggles and bits from a reader somewhere? We’ll talk about that when I get to Doctorow’s Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free. For now, just wonder how your collection of “rare” first-edition ebooks gets bequeathed to anyone.)

I read Anicillary Justice because the blurb I saw (who knows where? Or when?) played up the AI aspects of the story. That alone sold me, because I don’t usually like the way that AI is presented in modern fiction. A lot of them, like Douglas Preston’s The Kraken Project (and I read all of Preston and Child’s books), just posit that the computer is thinking and acting and behaving just like a human, and that’s that. I give Leckie a lot of credit for actually working on the AI implications. I don’t want to sound like a crank: I’ve done doctoral work on AI, although I’ve struggled to keep up with the latest trends…more on those books later.

I realized recently that I enjoy a lot of science fiction written by women. I have no idea what that means, or might mean. But I’m not sure it has to mean anything more than a lot of books I like are written by females. And that is that.

So is there anything here about the actual book we’re talking about? Yeah, here goes: you want a whole universe to get lost in, you got one.  As Peter Mendelsund points out in What We See When We Read (my first post), we all start a book as dislocated and somewhat lost explorers, and science fiction and fantasy books emphasize this. Some books let you feel at home early and some books later, and Leckie’s book was definitely a slow build for me.

One reason it took so long, I think, is that there are interlocking and alternating narratives in the odd and even chapters, although eventually they merge. One strand is in the here-and-now of book-time and follows the narrator’s adventures on an ice world and a rescue and nicely done chase scene, ending with a shootout. It’s a nice action start and continues in the odd chapters. The other strand, some 20 years before, begins the story of how the narrator got to be on the ice world in the first place. These even chapters are filled with empire-related politics and the diplomatic consequences of “annexation” (which sounds better than “subjugation” I guess).

Once the stands merge, they propel the reader to a very suspenseful conclusion. This is a story where you see terms you do not know constantly and trust that you’ll pick them up as you go. For example, the absolutely essential concept of the book’s gods, temples, offerings, “omens,” and so on are first outlined on page 33, where the four “emanations” from good old Amaat are enumerated. The essential history and connections of the other characters are not announced, but slipped in here and there, and one big issue (how the heck is the narrator so rich?) is not answered until page 374.

The narrator, posing as a human named Breq, is really the consciousness of a vast space battleship named Justice of Toren. She is the last “ancillary,” which is a human form vacated to make room for the shared group consciousness running the ship – officers in the book actually go “Ship, do X” when they want something to happen  – left over when the Justice is destroyed by the evil emperor. One reviewer called this a “space opera” and there is a constant lure to see the empire of the Radch (which in my head sounds like “Radish”) through the lenses of Star Wars. If so, fight that force (sorry). This story deserves to stand on its own.

Leckie does a really good job of narrating the experience of being a multiple person who can be here and there at the same time, reporting what’s happening on the street as other AIs are on guard duty or carrying on a conversation. It sounds wild, but it works.

I was pleasantly surprised to find myself so engaged in this tale. I have a stack of books abandoned before the ending – which I like to think is because I am such a picky reader, but maybe it’s just laziness. I was also happy to see that such a stately, Asimov-ian (two people talking) narrative could not only be popular, but win major prizes in this day and age (and in first person, and in simple past tense). No vaporized bad guys, no flowing space battles for a change! Instead, we have lots of tea drinking, something I can appreciate more than barroom brawls (which happen, like other forms of mayhem in the story, off-camera).

Once I had penetrated the mysteries of the text (everybody is “she”? That’s cool. The humans are people or AIs? OK…), I realized that the story was a fairly straightforward alternating of chapters between the narrative present, as I said, involving the saving of a drug-addled former officer, and events twenty years before. These events all culminate in a satisfying climax that closes one door and opens another: this is, after all, a trilogy.

Overall, the book is much like a roller coaster ride. There is a slow build to an initial peak, then some up and down hills before the finish. I have to admit there were places in the mid-200s where I resorted to reading the dialog and scanning the descriptions, which are good but seemed to bog down the story for me in places. That was where I sort of gave up puzzling out all the nuances of the world. There are humans (the ancillaries apparently count as human bodies, but with fake minds) and aliens (some weird Presger beings play a large role, and the Rrrrrr (really) are mentioned, but there is not a lot of description to go on as far as their appearance. Details are lavished mainly on internal mind states, which is fine because that’s what counts in the end.

I have to say, I’d hate to have to narrate the audio book version of this book. I don’t know how the names translate to spoken English. Even the “Radchaai” gave me a hard time. Is it “rad-chi-ah-aye”? Or “rad-cha-ay”? And what about Seivarden? Skaaiat? Anaander Mianaai? See what I meaain?

I liked the ending, but one thing bothered me. Breq is portrayed as “not really human” and occasionally is dismissive of her own being as “not worth saving” or some such. Now, perhaps as an AI, you can just load them up again: but this is not true of Breq, the story says. She’s the last survivor of the group-consciousness – 20 of them – of the destroyed Justice of Toren. Yet in spite of this, Breq is human enough not only to carry the story, but appear to be the most humane of the humans, especially when it comes to the rescued drugged-out former officer. How did the AI that is Breq come so far? If the answer is in there, I missed it.