Visions of Paradise

Friday, August 31, 2007

The Engines of God

I have read a lot of Jack McDevitt novels recently, enjoying both his Alex Benedict series (A Talent For War, Polaris and Seeker) and his standalone Infinity Beach, all of which were based around solving historical mysteries. So I decided to read his Academy series of novels next, beginning with The Engines of God. Immediately one difference was obvious: instead of being purely based on history, the Academy series is based around far-future archaeology. I consider that a subtle difference, since archaeology is one of the gateways into history, also involving research but of a different type. Other than that difference, all these books use research to solve sfnal mysteries infused with exciting plots set in a wondrous universe. I’ve seen comments that McDevitt is the "natural heir to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke," but his plots are better developed than either of those two writers, so I think it is fair to throw in Poul Anderson for comparison as well.

A group of archaeologists are studying an alien world which they believe was the home for an extinct race known as the Monument-Makers. That was because they created giant structures on several worlds and moons which seemed to serve no purpose other than as giant nonfunctional monuments. In the first half of the novel, we learn a lot about the race’s history along with arcaheologists in a race against time. Since the world under study is the most Earthlike world ever discovered–except for one other world which is inhabited by an intelligent race already–and since Earth is creeping ever closer to destruction, permission has been given to another group to begin terraforming the world. The first step in that terraforming consists of melting the icecaps, causing vast tidal waves and raising of sea levels that would destroy all the remaining artifacts of the Monument-Makers.

The search for valuable information about the Monument-Makers, especially why their entire civilization vanished seemingly overnight, was fascinating, as was the search for a "Rosetta Stone." The political struggle with the corporation scheduled to begin the terraforming was well-done except for the fact that some of the employees were a bit too heartless to be totally realistic. The final scene on Quraqua was very exciting and, overall, logically done.

The second half of Engines moves into deep space where another set of monuments has been found, similar to those on Quraqua. At this point the novel develops its main focus when the archaeologists discover that three different worlds related to the Monument-Makers all experienced civilization-destroying cataclysms in a pattern of eight thousand year intervals. The main concern of the archaeologists now becomes the search to uncover the cause for those cataclysms. McDevitt punctuates this search with two exciting sequences. The first occurs when the scientists’ spacecraft literally stumbles upon a giant structure in space which resembles a wafer-thin football but seems to be some type of galactic telescope. Contact with the structure causes irreparable damage to the ship, threatening the lives of all the scientists aboard while they await rescue. The second adventure takes place on one of the worlds being searched when the scientists are totally unprepared for alien crabs which, while not intelligent, are still highly-organized and almost military-structured and attack the scientists in force. So the race against time in the novel’s first half gives way to a struggle to survive and a planetary adventure in the second half, all of which are adjuncts to the cosmic mystery which remains the novel’s paramount importance.

McDevitt’s imagination is certainly fertile, and he keeps conjuring archaeological wonders through The Engines of God, all of which come together as the scientists’ research steadily bears fruit throughout the novel. The novel’s ultimate wonder, giant Omega clouds moving steadily through the galaxy destroying all signs of highly-intelligent life in their path, leads to the novel’s climactic moment, but does leave openings for more novels to follow as The Engines of God concludes with the knowledge that those civilization-destroying clouds are heading directly for Earth.

In many ways Jack McDevitt is an old-fashioned writer whose stories combine the best of 1950ish pulp writing with sense of wonder, intriguing mysteries, and lots of future history. Because the literary aspects of his novels tend to be weak, nor is his fiction particularly groundbreaking, he will never be considered a "great" writer, but nobody writes more absorbing sf mysteries than he does. Even though I am a rabid New Waver, Jack McDevitt is still one of my favorite current writers.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Judgement of Caesar

I tend to shy away from genre mysteries because I rarely enjoy books whose entire raise d’etre is solving a puzzle about crime, usually murder. There are exceptions, such as my favorite mystery Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time, which was primarily historical fiction involving lots of historical research about the true nature notorious King Richard III.

Stephen Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series has gotten strong reviews where it is treated as much as historical fiction as genre mystery. The Judgment of Caesar is probably the most acclaimed book in the series, and since I have been reading a lot of Italian history recently, it seemed a logical place for me to dip my toes into the series.

The novel is the tale of Gordianus-the-Finder who has left Rome with his ailing wife Bethesda, his adopted son Rupa and two slave boys. Bethesda is a native Egyptian who is returning to swim in the Nile, while Rupa, another native, wants to scatter the ashes of his deceased sister in the waters. Gordianus travels in high circles though, so when he encounters the fleet of Pompey, fleeing from a defeat at the hands of Julius Caesar, Gordianus’ life is threatened since Pompey is his sworn enemy. After Pompey is killed by the Egyptians–in a fashion faithful to his actual historical death–Gordianus joins the retinue of teenaged king Ptolemy who is engaged in a civil war with his sister and wife Cleopatra for control of Egypt, countering the wishes of their dead father who wished them to serve as joint rulers.

Shortly afterwards Caesar’s fleet arrives, causing great consternation through Alexandria. Does he intend to conquer Egypt as he has done so many other countries? Or will he take the side of one of the warring siblings and raise that person to the title of ruler of Egypt and sworn friend of Rome at the expense of the other? Caesar is another old ally of Gordianus, although the Finder disapproves of his conquering ways and its inevitable slaughter. But what Gordianus resents the most is that his older adopted son Meto has become Caesar’s closest companion and a partner in his conquest.

The Judgment of Caesar is pure historical novel chronicling the events in Egypt following Caesar’s arrival. Saylor has the knack of immersing the reader in the country, making Alexandria breathe and its citizens live. Throughout the book I felt that his Egypt was real, as were Caesar and Cleopatra. Although Caesar was not the viewpoint character of the novel, he was surely the most important character. This was historical fiction at its best, telling a fascinating story around real history, which is much better than fiction based on fake history, which is generally overly-concerned with the story and uncaring whether the history is true or false. Several times I was curious enough to check the real history and I always came away convinced that Saylor always told the truth whenever real historical characters were involved in The Judgment of Caesar. The civil war between Ptolemy and Cleopatra was real, as was its outcome and all its major events, as well as Caesar’s involvement in the war.

Perhaps the thorniest issue in writing a novel about Caesar and Cleopatra is dealing with their relationship as honestly as possible without being overly-influenced by the many dramas and movies made about it. Saylor did a good job, wherever possible following Caesar’s own journal and histories written at that time. Their relationship certainly involved the infatuation of the 52-year old Caesar with the 21-year old queen who, in his own words, made him feel like a boy again. But they were both too much the quintessential politicians, and too pre-occupied with their own power and places in history, to let passion override their other concerns. Saylor realized this and his novel reflected that belief, which I feel was appropriate.

I actually enjoyed the mystery itself, which began 200+ pages into the novel but never distracted from the historical events surrounding it. Instead Saylor used the mystery as a way of deepening the relationships of the people involved in it, especially that of Gordianus and his estranged son Meto. The mystery’s denouement, revealed in a conversation between Gordianus and Caesar, fit the book’s accuracy so well I was more pleased with it than I expected to be. This, for me, is how a mystery should be.

I have every intention of reading more Saylor historical novels, probably starting with his recent Roma, which treats the entire history of Rome with no attempt at genre mystery. But I am also curious about reading more novels detailing the give-and-take relationship between Julius Caesar and Gordianus-the-Finder. This series might go a long way toward improving the image of genre mysteries in my mind.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


Eric Brown is one of several British sf writers who have not had much of an impact in America, but whose names I have seen in the pages of Interzone. Several of them appeared in the anthology The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, writers such as James Lovegrove, Eric Brown and Adam Roberts. Brown’s "The Farewell Party" was one of the highlights of the book, so when his novel Helix was published recently, containing one of the most wondrous sf big concepts since Robert Reed’s "great ship" or even Larry Niven’s "ringworld," how could I resist it?

The novel begins in a new-future dystopic Earth on the verge of total dissolution. A group of scientists in Switzerland are preparing a secret mission to send a colonizing ship to a distant star system. The mission almost fails before it even begins as a group of terrorists tries to destroy the starship. But they escape Earth successfully and travel to what they expect is a distant world but which turns out to be a helix containing thousands of individual barrel-shaped planets.
Most of the intended colonists are in suspended animation, so the point of view characters are five people who serve as the preliminary explorers for the colonists. They have considerable emotional issues, particularly Hendry who is mourning the death of his daughter who was one of the colonists whose pod malfunctioned before arrival at the helix; and Sissy who hates another member of their group Olembe who, in addition to being an arrogant bastard, raped her at a costume party when they were freshmen in college many years ago, but because of the costumes he has no idea she was his victim.

The first worlds they reach are ice worlds lying on the lower levels of the helix far from the sun. They encounter a civilization of small, lemur-like people which is rigidly-controlled by an autocratic religion who, because of the perpetual haze which totally shields their city from the sky, believe that theirs is the only world and they are the only intelligent people. Thus a crisis occurs when two religious skeptics leading a group of explorers in a dirigible encounter an alien visitor from an adjacent barrel world almost simultaneously as a group from the church captures the four explorers from Earth.

Although this world has enough potential for an entire novel, Brown realizes that the wondrousness of the helix demands his explorers escape the church’s grip and travel to other helix worlds. Which they do, discovering a variety of exotic worlds populated with wondrous alien beings and their fascinating societies. Brown could not resist a bit of thriller aspect though as minions of the repressive church use the alien’s spaceship to chase the four explorers to other worlds with the intention of killing them and any other evil beings they might encounter.

While this description seems over-the-top, Brown generally controls it well. Helix never descends into the helter-skelter illogic of a thriller, and the pursuing Church militia are dispatched fairly easily at the novel’s end. The book does have a few other flaws though. Brown’s anti-organized religion fervor is too black-and-white, making all true believes either fools or evil. And Brown’s attempts at characterization are a bit heavy-handed, especially in Hendry’s memories of his dead daughter and Sissy’s dealings with Olembe.

But these weaknesses are more than made up for by the book’s sense of wonder which compares favorably with Reed and Niven. While I was not totally convinced by the novel’s climactic meeting between the humans and the builders of the helix, overall the novel was fascinating and mostly believable. When I finished reading it, I was anxious to read more novels about the helix, which I guess is enough recommendation for any book. I also wanted to go back and read the latter Ringworld novels, which I have not done, as well as Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville novels, another big-concept world. Sometimes a big concept populated with exotic worlds and aliens is one of science fiction’s grandest moments.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Rosetta Codex

Sometimes a novel with a horrendous title can actually conceal a small gem inside. Richard Paul Russo’s The Rosetta Codex is obviously a title intended to remind people of The DaVinci Code, so I had visions of bogus scientists chasing some elusive nonsensical historical mystery. But the novel got very strong reviews when it was released, and some of them intrigued me about what was basically a far-future historical mystery.

Cole is a five-year old boy accompanying his father on a dangerous interstellar mission. When their ship is attacked in orbit around a planet, his father places Cole and his caretaker Sidonie onto a shuttle and sends them to the planet’s largest city Morningstar where Cole’s uncle lives. But the shuttle never reaches the city, instead crashing on the other side of the Divide. The Divide is an immense trench similar to the Grand Canyon which can only be crossed by two bridges. On one side lives the majority of the planet’s population; on the other side are criminals and political dissidents who were exiled there by the authorities. Exiles and their immediate first generation descendants are forbidden to recross the bridges. Anybody else may cross in either direction.

After the crash, Cole is found by a group of criminals who rape and kill Sidonie, then take Cole as a slave. Eventually Cole escapes, but he ends up in a community which treats him only slightly better: he is still a slave, but at least he is not beaten regularly. His only friend is a traveling trader named Blackburn who takes a liking to Cole, and each time he passes through he tries to convince Cole to accompany him. Having been burned nearly his entire life, Cole is naturally suspicious of any friendship and rejects the invitation.

Eventually Cole makes the mistake of falling in love with the daughter of one of the community leaders. He is beaten and exiled from the community. He spends the next few years traveling alone through the land of the exiles, finding some people who are considerably nicer than those with whom he lived. He finds an anchorite, a woman living a solitary religious life as a hermit; a community of Resurrectionists seeking an ancient race of aliens who supposedly lived on the planet millennia ago; and a strange pair of an elderly man and his simpleton brother who has visions of the future, one of which seemingly involves Cole.

Eventually Cole crosses the Divide and reaches Morningstar where he finds Sidonie who amazingly survived the crash and subsequent beatings, and has been seeking Cole ever since. He falls in with a group of Resurrectionists who believe that the aliens’ ancient city lies beneath the surface of Morningstar. And Sidonie tells Cole that his family was very powerful on their homeworld. Eventually they both leave the planet and return to claim his legacy.

The Rosetta Codex is a strong novel which combines Cole’s coming-of-age with the quest of the Resurrectionists. Cole stumbles onto the key to the aliens’ disappearance, which is the Rosetta Codex of the title, so he undertakes the quest himself. The latter half reads like an outtake from a Jack McDevitt novel as the quest heads through space, where Cole’s group is pursued by a group of human-cyborgs who seek the aliens for their own purposes. Eventually, the quest is successful, which pleased me since I have grown a bit tired of endless series of novels which seek lost aliens but never actually find them (such as Frederik Pohl’s Gateway series).

The weakest part of The Rosetta Codex is the codex itself whose very purpose is illogical. It was created by the aliens to enable humans to resuscitate the entire alien race. But the codex was hidden so that first humans had to find it, then decipher it, and finally follow its directions. I cannot imagine any less logical way for a superior race to resuscitate itself, nor why that was even necessary since the entire alien race seems to have died in an orderly fashion, with thousands of bodies placed in an endless series of coffins in a silo holding interstellar spaceships. Surely such an advanced race would have done something to save itself more logical, and less subject to the luck of whoever found their secret instructions? This whole portion of the novel was more of a construct for the reader’s sake than any logical development from what was otherwise a smart and sensible novel set in a well-developed universe.

About two-thirds the way through The Rosetta Codex, I thought it was going to be a great novel on the level of The Etched City or Perdito Street Station, two of my favorite novels of the past decade. But the codex ruined a bit of the novel for me, although that logical flaw is its only failing, and I still enjoyed reading it tremendously. I just cannot recommend it as unconditionally as I had anticipated doing.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Crystal Rain

This past winter I read several 1960s novels about the adventures of John Grimes, by A. Bertram Chandler. Although ostensibly space opera, they were actually planetary adventures set on exotic worlds whose civilizations were often based on Earth cultures but evolved through the settlers who brought their own culture with them and adapted it to their new world.

A lot of attention in recent years has been focused on "New Space Opera", which is supposedly a modernization of traditional space opera. However, much of it also consists of planetary adventures, and Tobias Buckell’s debut novel Crystal Rain reminded me in several ways of Chandler’s Grimes adventures. The world is a bit more exotic overall, and the lifeforms somewhat more varied, but the major difference is that while Grimes was a pessimistic cynic, he was still basically likeable and reliable. Four of the six focus characters in Crystal Rain have major skeletons in their background, while a fifth makes a major decision in the novel which would totally shock Grimes. But other than that, there is nothing in the novel that A. Bertram Chandler would disapprove of.

The world of Crystal Rain consists of two civilizations separated by huge mountains. Nanagada consists of emigrés from Earth trying to build a world as traditional immigrants generally do. Many of them are from the Caribbean, as is author Buckell, which adds a bit of color to the setting. The other civilization are the Azteca, based on the worst stereotypes of Aztec civilization, complete with human sacrifices and constant warfare. The Azteca have been trying to cross over the mountain for decades, urged on by their priests and their gods, the teotl, who are actually living beings, warlike aliens with incredible super-human powers.

The main plot of Crystal Rain is the story of how the Azteca complete a tunnel under the mountains and invade Nanagada. They are brutal, and immediately begin sacrificing prisoners to their voracious gods. The novel follows five viewpoint characters in the struggle against he Azteca:
  • John is an amnesiac father in the village of Brungston, trying to recall his past while protecting his family. What John does not realize is that he possesses a deep secret called Ma Wi Jung which could prove vital in the fight against the Azteca, so two other viewpoint characters are seeking him because of that secret: Pepper, who unbeknownst to John was his ally prior to his amnesia, and who is wants the secret to defeat the Azteca; and Oaxyctl, who is an Azteca spy who has been directly ordered by one of their gods to torture the secret from John. It is a bit of a cheat how many people know John’s past better than he does, but that’s a common tool used by thriller writers which, when done successfully as it is here, actually keeps the reader’s interest as he or she gradually learn along with John the truth about his past;
  • Haiden is the leader of a military force in Capitol City, called the Mongoose-Men, who are leading the fight against the Azteca; it is obvious that the Azteca are far superior militarily, so their defense consists primarily of trying to keep the invading horde away from the walls of Capitol City and, if they manage to reach it, prevent them from penetrating its walls;
  • Dihana is the prime minister of Capitol City, having recently inherited the position from her late father; her difficulties include the fact that she has not won the support yet of the Councilmen, who are "old fathers," original settlers from hundreds of years ago, or the loas, who are aliens who have been fighting against the teotl since before any of them settled this world. Her greatest strength is her relationship with Haiden who trusts her abilities as she trusts his honesty;
  • Jerome is John’s son who is separated from his family after the Azteca overrun Brungstun. His exploits are basically unimportant to the rest of the story, intended to deepen the characterization of both John and Jerome, but not really succeeding in that regard.

Part of the plot of Crystal Rain is a mystery–what secret does John possess? What is his connection to Pepper? What is the relationship between the loa and the teotl? The most interesting part of the novel is when Haiden orders the building of a ship which John captains to the frozen north to find the secret of Ma Wi Jung. The voyage itself is exciting, complete with Azteca spies on board and attack by Azteca ships. Pepper is somewhat too superhuman to be believable, and he serves almost as a deus ex machina whenever the author needs to overcome the Azteca somehow. Fortunately, he does not overuse Pepper, and actually keeps him somewhat in check by his relationship with John.

Buckell does make occasional attempts to flesh out his culture. There is mention of various religions in Nanagada, the most interesting being one revolving around the alien loa, although he does not spend much time delving into it. Capitol City has a Tolteca Town, a ghetto of Azteca who have fled their own harsh civilization. Naturally there are conflicts between the other residents of Capitol City who do not trust the tolteca, a situation which is exasperated after the invasion through the mountain, but Buckell hints at this more than investigates it. If this were a C.J. Cherryh novel, its entire emphasis would likely have been on the loa religion and Tolteca Town, but Buckell is primarily writing an adventure story, and taken on those terms it is a rather successful one. Its climax is mostly satisfying, if a bit easy once John and Pepper find Ma Wi Jung, but it does contain some thoughtfulness rather than a simple wrapping-up-and-wiping-of-the-hands ending.

Buckell’s next novel is entitled Ragamuffin, which is the name of Capitol City’s police force which had an uneasy relationship with the military Mongoose Men. Hopefully he will delve a bit further into Nanagada’s culture in that novel while continuing to tell a rousing adventure story.