Saturday 18 January 2020

Three Recent SF Novels

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

This novel won the 2019 Nebula Award for Best Novel, the 2019 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel, and was nominated for the 2019 Sidewise Award for Alternate History. That's a somewhat intimidating list of endorsements to face a reviewer!

The story begins in a different 1952, in which the east cost of the USA is devastated by a giant meteorite strike. The first-person narrator is Elma York, a young pilot and brilliant mathematician who works as a "computer". She realises that the long-term impact of the strike will be runaway global warming, culminating in the Earth becoming uninhabitable. The only solution is to start colonies off Earth, starting with the Moon and going on to Mars, and nations combine in a maximum effort to achieve this.

The main plot driver is Elma's determination to become an astronaut, to achieve which she battles constantly with a misogynistic and obstructive bureaucracy. A secondary theme is the endemic racism of the time. The writing is very good, the characterisation oustanding for an SF novel (at a cost – see below), the details of the mission control centre and its operations highly convincing. I read the first 200 pages of this 500-page story in one sitting.

However, after putting it down, I found myself slightly reluctant to pick it up again, for reasons which took me a while to sort out. It is a rather old-fashioned story, reminding me in its style of nuclear-war novels I read in my youth, but that is not the main problem. One issue I had is that it is too detailed, in particular it dwells far too often on Elma's struggles and her problems with anxiety; I found myself becoming increasingly impatient with the focus on minutiae and the resulting slow pace of events.

Perhaps the main problem (which probably sounds rather odd, given the basic plot) is that it isn't particularly science-fictional. Once the meteorite impact and its consequences have been described (and then somewhat neglected thereafter), the rest of the book could almost be a mainstream novel mostly concerned with arguing how much better things could have been if women had been treated equally. I have no argument with that thesis, but it is hammered home relentlessly to the detriment of the balance of the story.

What I have always liked most about SF is the way it stretches my imagination, and this just didn't happen with this book. At any rate, my attention gradually slipped away and at page 400 I found myself asking the deadly question: do I want to finish it, or would I prefer to read something else? So I stopped. I can, however, fully understand why this book gained those awards: it's just not for me.


Dogs of War, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I acquired this one following enthusiastic endorsements from other readers, but I regret to say that the story failed to engage me. Alternate chapters are told from the viewpoint of a very-much-modified giant dog designed as a formidable war-fighting machine, but the animal's mental abilities and linguistic skills are those of a rather dim child. After five chapters I decided that I had read as much of such writing as I could take, so I stopped. Again, not for me.


The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton

This is a story with a rather strange beginning which becomes even stranger as it progresses. The story is unlike anything else I've read, and it is difficult to say much about it without spoilers. On the face of it, it appears to be a historical country house murder mystery (the author was a childhood fan of Agatha Christie) but has a couple of major twists which push it into SFF territory. The plot is fiendishly complex and if you are the kind of reader who has to have a clear understanding of exactly how the mechanics of the story are working out, you will need a large sheet of paper on which to record what each member of the fairly large cast is doing to whom; exactly when, and why. Furthermore, you'll need to read it at least twice to get a grip of events (after one reading, I haven't been able to answer all of my remaining questions). Fortunately, as well as a map of the scene (not particularly important) there is also a list of the main characters at the start (absolutely essential – I constantly referred to it).

I'll quote the back cover blurb on the grounds that the spoilers it contains are official!

At a party thrown by her parents, Evelyn Hardcastle will be killed – again. She's been murdered hundreds of time, and each day, Aiden Bishop is too late to save her. The only way to break this cycle is to identify Evelyn's killer. But every time the day begins again, Aiden wakes in the body of a different guest. And someone is desperate to stop him ever escaping Blackheath.

The book (a first novel) has collected many rave reviews as well as winning a Costa book award. Interestingly, these are all from mainstream reviewers, not the SFF crowd. Does it deserve such praise? Yes, it does, but it's not a quick and easy read; be prepared to settle down to some intensive study!