Visions of Paradise

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Iron Council

China Miéville has made himself a very tough act to follow. Perdito Street Station might be the best f&sf novel of the new century so far, while The Scar was another worthy award nominee. Thus it is impossible to read Iron Council without having a considerably-high level of expectation. Alas, I think Miéville stubbed his toe slightly on this one.

The novel opens with a group of misfits fleeing a militia while seeking a man named Judah who himself is seeking the mysterious Iron Council. This long section contains as many unanswered questions as it does exposition: Why are they seeking him? How do they know him? Why is he fleeing? Who is the mysterious man who from a vast distance is able to whisper into the mind of Cutter–the protagonist?

After this section, the novel splits into two storylines. One storyline is contemporary to the opening sequence and is set in New Crobuzon, site of Perdito Street Station, where a man named Ori is seeking involvement in an underground movement against the city’s totalitarian government. This portion contains one outstanding scene showing Miéville at the top of his form, involving a theater scene commemorating a revolutionary martyr who was more likely a murderous thug.

The other storyline drifts back several decades to when Judah was involved in the creation of the Iron Council. This is the best portion of the novel, more colorful than the portions set in New Crobuzon, and also considerably more exciting. But it takes 150 pages of meandering to reach it, and it only covers 150 of the books 550 pages. What happens afterwards is much less interesting, and spends much of its time meandering in New Crobuzon before returning to the Iron Council again.

My major complaint with Iron Council is that it is not sufficiently engaging. Miéville does not get into the heads of any of the characters, so their motivation and personalities are virtually nonexistent the entire book. Their actions are rarely justified emotionally, so much of the book feels like Miéville is moving chess pieces across the page rather than writing a living, flowing story. For example, we know from Perdito Street Station that the government of New Crobuzon is evil, but that is not sufficient justification for why the members of the underground wish to overthrow it, or for Ori’s intended involvement in it either (my notes show that page 370 was the first time Ori showed a hint of emotional depth at all). Revolutionaries always have personal motives, whether born out of some innate philosophy, or from some interactions with members of the government, but as readers we need to know and understand what those motives are.

Even in the scenes of Judah and the creation of the Iron Council, while the events leading up to it reveal more of those people’s motives, we still never get into their heads, so that while we understand the incredible personal stakes they are facing, we do not experience the emotional reactions of any of the people involved.

On the positive side, Miéville still writes exceptionally well, so that every scene is filled with color and exotica. And since the plot is basically a thriller, the last two hundred pages do race towards two different-but-related climaxes, one in New Crobuzon itself, and one involving the Iron Council which is moving towards the city in an attempt to involve itself in the first climax. Readers who enjoy thrillers, which to me seem the prototype of chess games with minimally-developed characters anyway, might not find the lack of personal involvement in Iron Council a problem in the face of the exoticism and borderline-thriller plot. However, in both Perdito Street Station and The Scar, I empathized with the people in them, and their motivations made sense on individual bases. They were real people actually living the story rather than merely being part of the scenery, which is often the feeling I got from Iron Council. In both previous novels Miéville provided a full spectrum of reading experiences, exoticism with plot and real people, and I felt much of that was missing here. Were this his first novel that I read, I probably would have enjoyed its considerable strengths and interest more. But Iron Council is not comparable to his two immediately-prior novels, so its failings were more glaring in my opinion. Thus I recommend this novel with caution.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Perfect Circle

Sean Stewart’s novels tend to deal with ordinary people struggling to survive rather than dealing with the rich and powerful, but his latest novel Perfect Circle goes even one step further, being the biography of a total loser. Everything has gone wrong in the life of William “Dead” Kennedy, much of it due to his own inability to seize control of his life. Thirty-two years old, he has just been fired from his latest of low-level jobs, this time working as a clerk in Petco. He is divorced from his wife who lives with a former marine whose main difference from DK is that his life is firmly in control. DK has visitation rights with his twelve-year old daughter Megan every other Sunday, but it mostly consists of her counseling him, mainly with the advice, “Don’t screw up, Will.”

DK has one talent, which so far has been more of an emotional hindrance than a positive: he sees dead people. Yes, Perfect Circle is primarily a ghost story. He has seen them most of his life, and his entire largely-dysfunctional family is aware of it. Some people believe him, others think he has some loose screws upstairs–which he undoubtedly does, but not because he sees ghosts, but partly as a result of seeing the ghosts.

In an attempt to make ends meet, and at the advice of his closest friend, DK places an ad in the paper announcing he is some type of clairvoyant who will examine haunted houses to determine if they are indeed inhabited by ghosts. But his first assignment for a distant cousin turns out disastrous as DK ends up shot in the chest, and the house burns down, killing the cousin.

This is followed by a long scene in the hospital, which was gripping at first but went on so endlessly it became tedious after awhile. Once DK is released, his life takes a decided turn for the worst, involving the upcoming annual family-wide reunion, his relationship with his former wife, his daughter Megan and the ex-marine, as well as the vengeful ghost of his cousin seemingly bent on avenging itself on DK for his death in the fire. At times the novel verges on soap opera, but never passes over the line totally, and Stewart manages to hold it all together for a climax that totters quite precariously for awhile. Ultimately, DK grows emotionally and the storyline concludes satisfactorily as well, but Perfect Circle never rises to the level of his previous novels Mockingbird and Galveston. It is more of a small novel filling in the gaps between major works. I recommend it for Stewart fans, but if you have never read him before, you should try one of the other two novels first.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Grey Prince

In my basement I keep three large boxes of old prozines which were given to me by a science teacher who was cleaning out his own basement and decided to get rid of his late father's prozines. I only kept the ones which looked particularly interesting, consisting mostly of Analogs from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, a few dozen Ted-White edited Amazing and Fantastic, and several dozen Ziff-Davis reprint zines.

Perhaps the highlight of that entire mini-collection was the August and October 1974 Amazing which contained a Jack Vance novel called The Domains of Koryphon, which in book form was retitled The Grey Prince.

The Grey Prince is not one of Vance’s better-known books, but it is highly-underrated, containing better plotting than most Vance novels, yet is still set on a wondrous world populated with multiple alien races and various human groups. They include:

> aliens known as erjin, who were the original inhabitants of Koryphon before humans came and forced a treaty on them by which they stole most of the erjin’s land away.

> land barons who rule large portions of Koryphon; the novel’s main characters are members of this group

> redemptionists, a group of activists fighting to regain the rights of the erjin

> the “grey prince,” a former ward of land barons who has become a radical leader fighting to overthrow them

The novel features several alternating viewpoint characters, including:

> Shaine, the daughter of a land baron who has spent the previous five years offworld, and whose views on the political situation of Koryphon have consequently become more liberal than that of most barons

> Kelse, Shaine’s brother, who during her absence has grown to reflect his father’s traditional views and attitude nearly totally

> Elvo, a supporter of the Redemptionists

When Shaine is returning home, her father is murdered mysteriously while traveling to meet her and Kelse. The rest of the novel is primarily a mystery as Kelse, Shaine, Elvo and another land baron Gerd seek his murderer.

Much of this novel reminded me of “The Last Castle” since we can obviously see rebellion fomenting on Koryphon as many of the alien races who had been under the thumb of the land barons for so many centuries are either asserting themselves or outright rebelling. Thus Shaine’s group are endangered during their hunt for her father’s murderers, barely escaping with their lives several times.

The novel’s strengths include the world of Koryphon, the alien races themselves, and the relationships between the various human groups and with the alien groups. The murder mystery is eventually solved, as are the agitators behind the rebellion. But Vance does not stop there, as the entire political situation on Koryphon reaches a climax of sorts.

If your attitudes are similar to my own, you will likely reach the end of the novel with pre-conceived ideas as to the justness of the relationship between the land barons and the aliens, which was similar to how Europeans forced unfair treaties on the Chinese during the 18th and 19th centuries for their own advantage. But Vance surprises the reader at the end, raising issues that often go unconsidered by those with political agendas, and perhaps in some circumstances should be.

When I finished reading this serial, I did not return the two issues of Amazing to the basement, but put them on the shelf in my bedroom with all the other important magazines.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Forests of the Heart

I am a fan of Charles de Lint’s Newford stories, so I approached his novel Forests of the Heart with a bit of apprehension. After all, very few of the Newford stories were complete stories; many were fragments describing a form of magic inhabiting the city, or studying one of the continuing cast of characters. And truthfully the stories had a bit of sameness about them, a favorite sweater type of casualness which was warm and cozy but not necessarily sharp or wondrous.

Forests of the Heart featured several of the familiar Newford inhabitants, but several new ones as well. Some were familiar with the existence of magic but not with how to access it, while others were nonbelievers, and a few were actual practitioners. Typical Newford stuff, so far. The story followed a half-dozen of these people and their relationships with each other. It was a type of interweaving that would have been confusing had not de Lint approached the characters so slowly, giving the reader time to acclimate themselves to them. The main characters were Tommy, a Native American familiar with magic since his aunts were witch women, but had never practiced any of it himself; Bettina, a Mexican who learned magic from her grandmother but practiced only the slightest edges of it herself; Miki, an Irish immigrant familiar with fairy tales but skeptical about their validity; Hunter, who ran a music store and was as skeptical about magic as most real-world people; Ellie, a sculptor who did not believe in magic either, even though most people who did assured her she was a powerful carrier of magical powers.

These five people were the main focus of the story, each of their stories being told in alternating passages with considerable overlap since their activities had considerable overlap. Miki worked for Hunter; Ellie was close friends with Hunter; Ellie got a commission to sculpt a legendary mask at an artists’ colony in the heart of the city where Bettina resided as a nude model; Tommy rode an overnight van with Ellie bringing food and clothing to homeless people.

Their stories were interesting enough, but woven around it was a unifying thread about the gentry, landless Irish spirits hatching some type of unexplained but obviously devious scheme. Both Miki’s brother and Hunter were beaten up the gentry, while Ellie soon became very important to them because of the mask she was sculpting. And gradually we begin to realize that the gentries’ scheme involved the completion of that task.

However, when the scheme reaches fruition, quite differently than either the gentry or the reader expects, the storylines began to disintegrate. It seemed to me that de Lint was so caught up in having all five of the main characters involved in the defeat of the story’s major villain that he threw all logic to the wind. Powerful supernatural entities arose almost like wildflowers, and people with little or no magical ability suddenly became experts at dealing with supernatural entities. So while Tommy’s aunts and Bettina’s cadejos were the most powerful beings described in the story, the true heroes became Hunter who had neither power nor belief in magic yet who came up with the suggestion which saves the world, and Ellie who concocted what I consider a deus ex machina idea that for some unfathomable reason actually succeeds!

For lack of a better term, this is Star Trek-type plotting, where the characters come up with some scientific gobbledygook which miraculously heals the Enterprise and leads directly to the defeat of the Romulans. That’s almost exactly how de Lint’s five heroes defeated the villain, and to my mind it was a disappointing climax to what had been a strong and rewarding novel otherwise. In any case, I recommend this novel so long as you can handle its disappointing ending.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Fantasy: Best of 2004

When Karen Haber and Jonathan Strahan took over the Best of... series in 2003, there was only Science Fiction, no Fantasy, so I was pleased when this year saw the appearance of Fantasy: Best of 2004. However, a couple of thoughts occurred to me while reading the book:

• The average story quality in Fantasy is slightly higher than Science Fiction, but there are more high points overall in Science Fiction than in Fantasy. The former might possibly be due to SF containing several stories in sub-genres which I do not particularly enjoy (the high-tech stories I discussed) but not so in Fantasy (which contains no stories which are primarily sword and sorcery or imitation Tolkien fantasy, two of my blind spots in fantasy). However, I doubt there is any intrinsic reason for the latter, except coincidence in this year’s volumes.

• There is better writing overall in Fantasy too, and I wondered why that is. Many of the same writers flit back and forth between the two sibling genres. For example, Fantasy contains stories by Michael Swanwick, Gene Wolfe, Robert Silverberg and Jay Lake, all better known as sf writers. So that eliminates the possibility that fantasy tends to attract writers while sf attracts thinkers. However, it might partially be due to the nature of the two siblings, in that sf is primarily about ideas and concepts, while fantasy is about mood and emotions, which lends itself more to better writing.

In spite of all the name authors, the best story in the book was by a relatively new author. Jeffrey Ford’s “The Annals of the Eelin-Ok” is the story of a pixielike being called a twilmish whose existence only lasts during the brief interval that a sand castle on a beach survives between its building and its erosion due to tidal waves. The story is the journal of one such twilmish, and it succeeds in being warm and touching in spite of its outrageous premise. As I discovered with “The Empire of Ice Cream,” 2003’s best story overall, Ford is the finest short fiction writer working in the genre right now.

Two stories about unfortunate marriages to wizard husbands were very similar in concept but totally different in execution, and together were two of the best stories in the book.

Kelly Link’s “The Faery Handbag” was a strong story of a woman armed with simple witching spells trying to protect her daughter who falls hopelessly in love with a powerful wizard who, apparent only to the mother, is not as wonderful as her daughter and husband and seemingly everybody else who knows him believes.

Deborah Roggie’s “The Enchanted Trousseau” was a fairy tale about a poor girl who attracts a powerful wizard as a husband, although her mom has suspicions about the man’s suitability for her daughter. What follows is a mother-in-law versus bad husband domestic tale combined with a powerful wizard versus humble domestic witch confrontation. Very enjoyable.

Neil Gaiman’s “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves...” reads like typical Gaiman: a slick, well-plotted story written as an homage to one of his literary forebears, in this case gothic horror stories. Cute, but I find his stories on the slight side.

Four old veterans provided strong stories which, if not the finest they have ever done, were still ample evidence as to why they have achieved their lofty status in f&sf.

Robert Silverberg’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” displays the author’s ability to tell a strongly-plotted story based on human relationships. In it both the sorcerer and the apprentice are 30ish, but she is very successful at her career while he has failed at several before deciding to apprentice himself. He is also hopelessly in love with the sorcerer who wants nothing to do with him romantically, and lets him know so in no uncertain terms.

Peter Beagle’s “Quarry” begins right in the middle of a chase, as a man is fleeing two deadly pursuers, aided only by another fugitive who is fleeing a different and equally-deadly hunter. Both the adventure and the interrelationship of the two fugitives are successfully done.

Michael Swanwick’s “The Word That Sings the Scythe” is his latest attempt to make dragon stories less fantastic and more sfnal, and he succeeds in this quirky tale of a man who rescues a strange, ageless child who is more burden than delight.

Gene Wolfe’s “The Little Stranger” is the tale of a witch–although her true nature is not apparent until the very end of the story–protecting her house from a strange group of squatters, all told in the form of a series of letters.

Overall, this is a highly-recommended collection for all fantasy fans.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Science Fiction: Best of 2004

Science fiction is frequently called a “genre,” but that is not really a fitting designation for it. It might better be called an “umbrella” since it contains many diverse genres under its spokes, several of them differing in everything except their warping of reality as we know it.

Thus, whenever I read a best-of-the-year volume, whether science fiction or fantasy, I realize I will probably not like every story in the book. Certain stories will invariably fall into my personal “blind spot” that I do not particularly enjoy. Thus it was with Science Fiction: Best of 2004, the latest in the series edited by Karen Haber and Jonathan Strahan. I do not enjoy those hard science stories which are totally dependent on the wonders of scientific extrapolation and high-tech, especially when the storyline itself is little more than a framework for either examining those wonders or, as in the case of two stories in this book, primarily concerned with bombarding the reader with extrapolations.

A prime example of this is Charles Stross’ “Elector,” a stories from his Accelerando series. This series is primarily concerned with portraying life after a Vingean sequence, a topic which has always bored me. Stross’ prior stories in the series have been showing up in best-of-the-year volumes regularly, and I have been unable to finish reading a single one of them. “Elector” was no exception, and I stopped reading about halfway through. If you enjoy Stross’ fiction, or endless bombardments of technological wonders, my inability to finish this story should not be considered a criticism of it, merely a result of the story falling into my personal blind spot.

I do not like action thrillers, and the first scene of Paolo Bagiagalupi’s “The People of Sand and Slag” gave every indication of it being a mindless thriller. The only reason I read farther was recalling Bagiagalupi’s wonderful “The Fluted Girl”, perhaps the best story of 2003. I was pleased that I did read further though, because this story was neither thriller nor adventure, but a sensitive story reminding us that no matter how advanced our race might become technologically, the human element is still our most basic motivation. In this case, the cyborg-like post-human soldiers discover the last surviving dog in a war zone and, despite their instincts not to waste time nor money on it, they are inevitably attracted to the dog.

I hated the ending of the story considerably, even though I understand the author’s cynicism in writing it that way. It was almost like he decided at the last moment to discard all the hopefulness which he had portrayed in the rest of the story.

Easily the most frustrating story in the book was Christopher Rowe’s “The Voluntary State.” The first time I tried to read it, I abandoned it halfway. It seemed like all flash and color, similar to Stross’ “Elector”, a display of future change and technological wonders. I only returned to it because it was perhaps the most acclaimed story of 2004, making it onto virtually every recommended reading list, as well as being a Nebula nominee one full year sooner than most stories make that list. Surely it deserved a fuller try.

“The Voluntary State” sparkles with pizzazz and superb writing, as well as a brilliant concept of how inanimate objects in our world, such as cars, telephones, and virtually everything else, become a form of animal life in Rowe’s future vision.

But the story itself did not rise to the level of its writing and concept. It tells of a painter from Tennessee who is kidnapped by terrorists from Kentucky for some nefarious reason involving breaking into the capital of Tennessee...and it goes really nowhere important from there. So while I enjoyed reading the story, and the animal cars were delightful, ultimately it was shallow beneath the surface luster. I am not sure why it has won over so many critics as an instant masterpiece.

Gene Wolfe’s “The Lost Pilgrim” was a time-travel tale from The First Heroes, an anthology of original stories set during the Bronze Age. The story’s title character was sent awry on his trip through time, ending up onboard the Argo along with Jason and the Argonauts. It was an offbeat look at the time traveler’s striving to fit in with the sea culture of that era, serious yet entertaining, as Wolfe stories tend to be.

Stephen Baxter’s “Periandry’s Quest” is a Romeo and Juliet variation in a sfnal setting: a long-lived race of nobility are served by a short-lived race of servants. There are some interesting concepts in the story, particularly in the temporal differences between the two races, but ultimately the plot is a simplistic one as a long-lived youth becomes infatuated with a short-lived servant girl, only to learn the true relationship between them. Nothing particularly original here beyond the basic scientific concept, which is really not vital to the story’s conclusion. This could almost have been an Upstairs Downstairs episode.

The most readable story in the book was Walter Jon Williams’ closing novella “The Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid,” an entertaining combination of con game and murder mystery, involving an entertainment troupe–containing a water ballet team and a band of Mexican folksingers–on a cruise ship modeled after Tang Dynasty China. I enjoyed this story a lot more than either Rowe’s story or Stross’ story although, in some ways the stories had more similarities than differences.

1. All three stories had glib plots which were mostly excuses to hang the wonders on;

2. All three stories featured thin characterization, mostly intended to portray points of view rather than being developed as people

3. All three stories were well-written, so that the joys of the individual sentences were as important as the plots themselves

So why did I enjoy “Dynasty” while tolerating “State” and abandoning “Elector”? I guess it goes back to my personal blind spot again. I reject stories based primarily on technological wonders (Rowe and Stross) while I enjoy stories based on more non-scientific wonders (the cruise ship, the con which involved deep-sea diving). I enjoy stories whose foundation is not technological wonders but rather society-building (of the serious C.J. Cherryh or Ursula K Le Guin type or the lighter Jack Vance type) or future-history (Silverberg is probably the master of this type).

In any case, I think I have gone far off-track here. I do not read best-of-the-year volumes expecting them to actually be the “best” stories of the year, since each editor’s opinion of what is best differs from every reader’s opinion. I buy them expecting to read a good anthology, knowing some stories will fall into my acceptable zone (such as the Wolfe, Baxter and Williams stories), while others might not. But overall, I enjoyed reading this book and will definitely buy next year’s volume again.