Friday 30 January 2009

The Mountains of Mourning and Cetaganda, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Two more in the Miles Vorkosigan saga, which I am gradually working my way through.

Cetaganda follows on from The Vor Game in Miles' personal timeline. This time he is sent to the former enemy planet of Cetaganda to represent Barrayar at the funeral of a member of the ruling dynasty. Being Miles, he is immediately involved in a complex plot concerning a struggle for supremacy within Cetaganda's ruling clique, focused on their programme of selective breeding for the elite. Also being Miles, he resolves it all at the end.

The author's writing style, which I have praised before, is such that her books are very difficult to put down: I read Cetaganda in two sittings. I am now trying to analyse her technique to understand how she does it, in the hope that I might learn something which would benefit my own scratchings. I liked the fact that Cetaganda has rather more science-fictional ideas in it than the earlier ones I've reviewed, although I was slightly dissatisfied with the ending; it was just too pat, with Miles dominating the situation. It may seem silly to ask for more realism in a space opera which is by definition completely unrealistic, but I would have preferred it had he not had matters entirely his own way.

I was a bit annoyed about the other story. I was misled into buying a book called Young Miles, which turned out to consist of three separate stories. Two of them are The Warrior's Apprentice and The Vor Game, which I already have (I reviewed them previously on this blog – see the review list on the left). This left the novella The Mountings of Mourning as the only new material. Having said that, it's a good story concerning Miles' attempt to put a stop to the habit in back-country Barrayar of killing any new-born child which is not physically perfect (an issue of decidedly personal interest to him, given his disabilities).

Bujold's work seems particularly prone to being repackaged and sold under different titles, so beware. There are at least two other titles which contain existing books: Miles, Mystery and Mayhem consists of Cetaganda, Ethan of Athos and a short story, Labyrinth. Miles Errant consists of Borders of Infinity, Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance, while Miles in Love includes Komarr, A Civil Campaign and the short story Winterfair Gifts. In between the last two compilations (in terms of Miles' chronology) comes Memory, which appears to be only available as a stand-alone novel, and at the end comes Diplomatic Immunity. At least, that's how I understand it! The compilations are good value in that they cost less than buying the books individually and you often get an extra novella or short story thrown in, but you do need to be wary of what you're buying.

Another writer to suffer from this problem is the excellent James H Schmitz, most famous for The Witches of Karres but who wrote lots of short stories (and even his full-length novels are short by modern standards). Many of his stories have been wrapped up in various anthologies in all manner of different combinations, so great care is called for when buying. I almost placed an order for a recently published stand-alone novel of his until I realised that I already had it in an anthology. Fortunately, some kind person has put together a comprehensive list of his published books together with the stories included in them; you can find it on Wikipedia under the author's name.
I was a tad rude about Demons last week, so in all fairness I should say that Episode 4, in which Mina's vampiric past comes back to haunt her, was a great improvement. Actually enjoyable for the right reasons…but possibly I was only impressed because my expectations were so low!

Saturday 24 January 2009

Interzone 220 and Demons

The interview in the latest issue of Interzone is with Jeffrey Ford, author of the Well-Built City trilogy (The Physiognomy, Memoranda, and The Beyond). I've not heard of him or his books before, but they sound very unusual (the books, that is) and worth a look. There's also an interesting article analysing the work of Christopher Priest, whose intriguing alternative World War 2 novel The Separation was reviewed on this blog a while back. And of course the usual news, chat, and book and screen reviews, plus a cover illustration by Adam Tredowski. Now to the six stories:

Monetized by Jason Stoddard (illustrated by Paul Drummond): a future in which everyone is constantly bombarded by exhortations to feature and promote particular products or services, thereby earning money. And the higher their Attention Index (= celebrity), the more money they can earn. A son rebels against the wealthy mother who thought up the whole idea.

Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast by Eugie Foster (illustrated by Geoffrey Grisso): a fantasy in which everyone wears a mask in public – a mask which determines their personalities and the events they are involved in. It is illegal to be seen in public without one, so every morning people have to choose which identity to adopt from their varied collections of masks. But there are some who reject the idea and try to develop their own independent personalities.

After Everything Woke Up by Rudy Rucker (illustrated by himself): in this world, everything has a personality and can be communicated with: each tree, stone, stretch of stream. This is an extract from a forthcoming novel, Hylozoic. Amusing enough in a short story, but I hope there's more to the novel than that.

Spy vs Spy by Neil Williamson: a future in which extreme paranoia is encouraged by companies selling security devices and worse…

Miles to Isengard by Leah Bobet (illustrated by Warwick Fraser-Coombe): a small group hijack the last bomb and drive it to a volcanic crater for disposal, in this LOTR-inspired tale; lots of atmosphere, not much explanation.

Memory Dust by Gareth L Powell (illustrated by Daniel Bristow-Bailey): a strange alien, the last survivor of its race, and a planet which is covered with a black dust with bizarre properties.

A very varied bunch in content and style, but I wouldn't say that I had a particular favourite this time.
I've been watching the ITV series Demons. Not my usual fare, but I was drawn to it because it features Philip Glenister, the star of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. I'm still watching it for reasons which I can't quite understand, but probably because it's so bad that it's become perversely irresistible. For those of you fortunate enough to have avoided the snare, it concerns a team of heroes in present-day London who spend their time hunting a varied collection of nasty supernatural beings. They are led by Glenister (with a dodgy American accent), and include a lad who is the last surviving member of the Van Helsing family, his would-be girlfriend, and a blind female seer.

In the last episode, the latest big bad demon managed to get into the team's hideout and set a time bomb next to the seer, who had been knocked unconscious. First "huh?" moment: he set the timer for a full 45 minutes, thereby helpfully setting up a long-drawn-out drama as the girlfriend arrives and wonders what to do. Does she carry the bomb away so it explodes somewhere harmless? Nope. Does she drag the seer out of harms's way and let the bomb destroy the hideout? Nope. Does she say "sod it" and get the hell out of there? Nope. She spends nearly all the time researching explosives in the library, then finally gives up and goes to sit by the bomb before, in the very last second, cutting through a wire at random and thereby stopping the clock. I was rather sorry that it didn't explode. Meanwhile, Glenister and the Van Helsing have been decoyed away in search of the demon, and find themselves trapped in a room in the sewers which has a sturdy grille in the ceiling with a trapdoor in it. Now these two heroes invariably carry a range of hardware including some fancy guns for disposing of demons. So when the demon duly appears above them, do they spring into action and start shooting? Nope. Not even when the demon helpfully opens the trapdoor to give them a clear shot plus a means of escape? Nope. They just stand there and trade insults, until the demon tires of the game and bolts down the trapdoor. Sadly, the girlfriend and the seer arrive in time to save them as the room floods, with only a fraction of a second to spare.

The next episode's on tonight. I can hardly wait…

Friday 16 January 2009

Temeraire by Naomi Novik

An alternative Napoleonic War – with dragons! This is the premise of the author's first novel, published in 2006, which has since been followed by four sequels.

In almost all respects her world closely matches the historical one, with Napoleon threatening invasion and Nelson leading the British fleet. The author has clearly done some research into both the technicalities of sailing warfare and the stiflingly rigid nature of contemporary British society. The one difference is the existence of dragons occurring naturally around the world, albeit in small numbers and rarely seen. They are intelligent and have long been tamed, forming life-long bonds with particular humans as soon as they are out of their eggs. If this sounds familiar, it is; this particular concept is swiped wholesale from Anne McCaffrey's 1968 novel Dragonflight, one of my favourite SFF stories. Other similarities are that the dragons come in various breeds of different sizes and characteristics, but all of them are big enough to carry their riders on their backs. They can also communicate with humans, although in Temeraire they speak rather than using telepathy. Other differences are that Novik's dragons do not teleport, and the largest of them carry not only their handler but a whole crew of people including rifle squads for aerial combat: for the dragons are a vital weapon to both sides in the war.

The story's hero is Will Lawrence, a successful British frigate captain of aristocratic birth but no fortune, being a third son. He hopes to make his career in the Navy, but his plans are interrupted when he captures a French ship carrying a rare and precious cargo: a dragon's egg. This hatches before the ship can reach land and the male dragon attaches itself to Lawrence, to his great consternation as dragon handlers live apart from society with their dragons and are considered to be of low status. The rest of the story is primarily concerned with Lawrence's developing relationship with his dragon, called Temeraire, as they train to join the aerial forces defending Britain.

While the individual elements of the tale are hardly original, they haven't been put together in quite this way before and the result is a refreshing and entertaining read. It is written as an exciting and fairly light adventure story and is entirely suitable for younger readers as well as engaging enough to keep adults amused. The only aspect which jarred with me was the rather cloying sentimentality of the relationship which develops between Lawrence and Temeraire, which led me to keep thinking of the dragon as female. Still well worth the read, but I'm in no great hurry to get the next one.

Friday 9 January 2009

A catch-up on films and TV

If I have achieved limited success in keeping up with the latest books, I am even worse at watching films. So while I'm not too far behind the curve in seeing Wall-E recently, I also viewed for the first time X-Men (the first one) and (wait for it) ET!

Wall-E is an animated movie which has two stories running in parallel. One is the tale of a lonely rubbish-disposing robot, left behind on Earth to clear up the mess created by humanity, and his romance with a sleek robot from a visiting spaceship. The other is a biting satire on the Western – and especially American – way of life, which surprised me given that this is a Disney film aimed at children. The satire begins with humanity's profligacy in covering the Earth with rubbish and so poisoning the environment that nothing could live there. The people all departed to live in luxurious spaceships in which they spend all day on trivial virtual activities, consuming vast quantities of junk food, instantly obeying the all-pervasive advertising about when and what to eat, drink and do, and travelling everywhere in mobile armchairs so that they became too fat and weak even to stand up without assistance. I wonder how many of the target audience, cooing over the cute robots, picked up the film's subversive message?

X-Men surprised me. I had expected an undemanding comic-strip action hero blockbuster (and all the expected elements are certainly there) but the plot is rather more serious and thoughtful than that, starting with a grim scene in a World War 2 concentration camp. The presence of some heavyweight actors – Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan – reinforces the point. The idea of people developing mutant powers is nothing new, of course, but the themes of how the public would regard such mutants, and how the mutants themselves might become divided over their response to the public's hostility, form the main thrust of this movie. In parallel with this is the struggle of one of the mutants (played by Hugh Jackman) to understand what had been done to him – a story line which was left dangling in obvious preparation for the sequel. Clearly a cut above the average superhero film; and, if nothing else, male viewers can enjoy watching Famke Janssen, a disconcertingly blonde Halle Berry, and a disturbingly sexy mutant called Mystique (played by Rebecca Romijn).

I braced myself before watching ET, afraid that it would turn out to be a pile of schmaltz. Well, it was to some extent, but it was better than I had expected and quite amusing. Worth watching – once.

Finally, neither big-screen movies nor even fiction (in the usual sense): a couple of UK TV programmes.

Life After People, shown on C4 a few months ago (I've just got around to watching the tape!) concerning what might happen if humanity vanished overnight. An interesting analysis of the effect on human pets (cats are fine, dogs vary with breed), wildlife (pigeons do well, so does everything in the sea), plants (take over everything on land) and buildings (after a few centuries, only massive old stone buildings will still be here, with the pyramids lasting longest of all). There was some haunting real-life film of a town near Chernobyl, completely abandoned for twenty years – the extent of the decay was remarkable – together with lots of CGI of iconic bridges and buildings collapsing. Interesting if somewhat depressing, but dragged out too long with too many repetitions of dramatic collapses.

Ghosts of Glastonbury was another C4 programme featuring Tony Robinson (of Blackadder and Time Team fame) investigating a claim by an early 20th-century archaeologist that the remarkable success of his excavations of Glastonbury Abbey was due to advice from the spirit world achieved through automatic writing. While the claims made by the archaeologist were all pretty well disproved, Robinson got very excited by his own attempt (helped by a spiritualist) at automatic writing, in which he interpreted a squiggle as being a man's name (with a fair amount of imagination), and it turned out that a monk of that name had been associated at some time with Glastonbury Abbey. That reasoning had so many holes in it that I felt very disappointed - I expected better of Robinson after his comprehensive demolition of the "facts" in The Da Vinci Code. The programme would have left many viewers thinking that there could be something in this automatic writing after all.

Friday 2 January 2009

Foreigner by C J Cherryh

A lost colony ship, a desperate landfall on an unknown planet, and an intelligent native humanoid race with very different mental processes. These are the key elements of Cherryh's 1994 novel, the start of a series running to nine volumes so far (with more to come). I read a lot of Cherryh's books in the 1970s and liked them enough to keep them to re-read sometime, but I have neglected her work since then so I turned to Foreigner with interest.

The scene is set in couple of introductory chapters centuries apart; the initial catastrophic journey which caused the starship to become lost, and the first contact after planetfall between the human settlers and the natives (the atevi). The rest of the story is set six generations later, after a human-atevi war which had led to an accommodation being reached; the humans were allowed sole occupancy of a large island in return for gradually introducing their advanced technology to the atevi. Only one human was allowed off the island, the paidhi, who lived with the atevi in order to monitor and understand them while relaying technical knowledge as they were ready for it. The story focuses on one paidhi, Bren Cameron, at a time of crisis between the races.

The atevi are bigger, stronger and faster than humans, and had already reached the steam age at the time of the landing. Now they have aircraft and computer networks. Their similarity to humans had led to dangerous misunderstandings in the past, because their thought processes are decidedly different. They have no concept of friendship; they are bound to leaders or associations by a loyalty code which determines their actions. They have no word for trust, but fourteen for betrayal, and their standard way of resolving disputes is by an officially-sanctioned assassination system. It is a minefield for a human to work in, and the paidhi has to be very good to succeed.

Bren Cameron thought he had established a good relationship with the atevi leader but finds himself apparently betrayed, the target of rival associations who are opposed to the human presence. He needs all of his diplomatic abilities to survive as the situation rapidly slides out of control.

Cherryh is good at portraying the alienness of other races. The atevi are more than funny-looking humans, although perhaps not a lot more different from ourselves than were, say, medieval Japanese. As a result, Bren Cameron struggles to understand the nature of the relationship he has with the two atevi bodyguards on whom he has to rely. The author's story-telling skills drew me in and held my attention throughout. She is rather indulgent in allowing her hero long periods of introspection, with pages at a time filled with nothing but his thoughts, but despite this I found Foreigner absorbing and was sorry when it finished – a rare feeling for me these days. Whether I want to invest the time to plough through another eight volumes (and counting) I'm not so sure, but I might well try the next one and see how it goes.
I notice that a couple more reviews of my alternate World War 2 novel The Foresight War have appeared on Amazon: one each on the UK and USA sites. I was wryly amused to see that one reviewer awarded it 1/5 and the other 5/5. Some contrasting excerpts:

"Good idea, but characters are one dimensional, too much detail on weapons sizes/capability etc. not enough tension created."

"What I liked about this was it didn't get too focused on personalities, love interests, or that sort of thing. Also, it was almost non-stop action. If you like Tom Clancy's novels - the ones where the Russians invade the West, for example - you'd love this. It's really 'techy'."

Which just demonstrates, yet again, that book reviews are decidedly personal, and can say as much about the reviewer as they do about the story.

I have rewritten my introduction to the book as well as updating the list of reviews (good and bad) HERE, where you can also read the first two chapters on-line.