Monthly Archives: January, 2011

Dust, by Elizabeth Bear

I read this book as the January book for the 2011 Women in SF Book Club, being organised by TJ at Dreams and Speculation. I’d not read any novels by Elizabeth Bear before, although I’ve enjoyed a number of her short stories and she’s also one of the contributors to Shadow Unit, which I adore. I didn’t know what to expect from this story, but it wasn’t what I got.

In short: I really enjoyed it, and am totally cut that it’s the first of a trilogy! (I thought I was doing so well with avoiding those.) I enjoyed the characters, and I thought it was a really interesting take on a not-original (which doesn’t mean it’s not interesting) SF trope.

At length, with spoilers:

I didn’t read the blurb before reading the book. The cover gives some indication of angelic types mixed in with technology, which I thought was a fascinating idea, and then the angel comes in right at the start – sans wings. Perceval, the angel and a woman despite the name, is a really fascinating character. She’s conflicted, she’s loyal, she never gives up despite an enormous amount of wearing down and opposition.

There are numerous other characters, but most of them are really only bit parts with one, maaaybe two exceptions: definitely Rien, maybe Jacob Dust. It’s Rien’s point of view that we get most often; starting as a lowly servant, discovering that she’s Perceval’s half-sister and actually of some consequence, and going and having some adventures – she is, I think, more approachable as a character than Perceval, who despite having some flaws and being somewhat tormented is more symbolic, more… a talisman. Rien is earthier, more grounded, and I think more approachable. Dust, on the other hand, is not very likeable or approachable at all; he’s quite a quirky take on the slightly crazed AI which I really enjoyed (I enjoyed the whole idea behind and consequences of the fractured AI, actually).

It took me a while to realise that the setting was a generation ship; right at the start I wasn’t even sure it was set in space, and I was wondering whether this was going to be some planet where the people had reverted to a faux-medieval existence with just a few people still taking advantage of old tech. Which is kinda true, but everyone is aware of the fact that they live on a spaceship, even if they don’t necessarily do anything directed connected with that reality at the moment. It’s a really clever setting: being on such an enormous ship means there’s not the claustrophobia of space travel in a tin can, and there are more options for moving around – and for having two antagonistic parties at each others’ throats but far enough apart that they have to actually work at reaching other. But it also means that vacuum is a genuine threat, which is a problem you never get dirtside… and it means you have the option of moving the whole damn ship, too (hence the trilogy).

I still haven’t quite figured out whether there were more Arthurian links than just Perceval’s name (and she does talk about being a knight errant… oh and there’s also a Tristen), and I somehow missed them. The third book is apparently going to be called Grail, so maybe there are – or maybe they will be more developed over the next two books.

Finally, let me say that I really didn’t expect the conclusion, which is a pretty awesome outcome when I read a book.

All of this has happened before, #2

We went back to the survivors of the Cylon attack just as the Chief and friends are getting into Ragnar Anchorage, to get the stored munitions… and they find someone there ahead of them. Surprise!

Spoilers

Again, this second half of the mini series reinforced the emotional power and extreme detail that I’d been reminded of in the first half. Roslyn impressed me this time around more than I remember from the first time; she is so self-contained – in public at least – and already we see the cost that she personally pays for making the hard decisions: leave thousands to certain death to ensure that some of them survive. Who would ever want to be responsible for that? But she takes it in her stride and just does it. And her encounter with Commander Adama is wonderful too. That she asks straight out whether he plans on a military coup, and then he seems to ignore her but only a few minutes later is repeating her words and realises she’s right… it really does set their relationship up for the rest of the series.

A couple of other things that struck me in this half: first, the aesthetic. Having recently been made aware of corridors in sf movies/tv, I was hyper aware of them here. Some are claustrophobic, some are large and airy, but on the Galactica at least they’re all – at this stage – very samey. This makes sense, of course, but it contributes to the feeling of being in a maze and being lost – much like the situation they find themselves in. The other thing is that in the beginning, everything was so controlled: it’s organised, and neat, and orderly, and everyone basically knows where they should be and what they’re doing. Over the mini series, things slowly get more chaotic and untidy, and from memory this is something that continues inexorably. It’s a really nice aspect and is indicative of the care given to details in the whole show.

What else? Starbuck being Starbuck – that awesome move to save Apollo really sets the tone for her character, even more than her biff with Tigh (do we ever learn his call sign? I don’t think we do). Baltar began to grate on me already in this section, the self-serving, arrogant, little twit, but I enjoyed Six more than last time: I think Helfer is actually a really good actress, and I’m looking forward to seeing her in her other roles – although that will also be painful. And Adama lying about Earth?? Outrageous, and yet… so noble, in an odd sort of way. The revelation of Earth as the thirteenth colony obviously didn’t do anything for me this time, but last time – what a clever, clever idea.

And there are the cylons. I love, love love the final scene, and the revelation that Boomer is a cylon. I don’t remember how I reacted when I first saw it, but what a gut-tearing discovery. There’s been so much effort to build Boomer up as a character: having to abandon Helo on Caprica, her illicit love affair with Chief, being nice to that annoying kid… and then BAM. Ow my heart. Damn you Larsen et al.

Unstoppable

Unstoppable is close to being the perfect action flick, even though it doesn’t have Bruce Willis in it.

  • It’s “inspired” by true events, which gives it a slightly more gripping and horrifying feel than your generic action-adventure.
  • There are trains going to high speed.
  • There are helicopters getting close to trains going at high speed.
  • There’s a little bit of family drama: just enough to give the viewer an investment in the main characters, not enough that I started to fall asleep and/or expected Elijah Wood to turn up.
  • It has Denzel Washington to make up for the lack of Bruce Willis.
  • There are trains going at high speed.
  • There’s a mad dude with a pony tail who drives a red pick-up really, really fast.
  • There’s conflict between a (black, female) subordinate and a (fat, white, male) superior.
  • It’s a rooky/retiree buddy flick, but the conflict between them is neither overplayed to tragic Greek proportions nor downplayed to non-existence.
  • It’s less than 100 minutes in duration.
  • It knows when to end.

Seriously, I loved this film. It has highs, it has lows, it has comedic and blood-draining-from-the-face moments. Chris Pine is quite good, and Washington is… Washington. I could watch that man even if he was acting as a football coach. (Oh wait, I have. Numerous times.) It’s no Oscar contender, but for excitement and entertainment it’s a winner.

All of this has happened before

Spoilers

J has been at me for a good 18 months to do a Battlestar Galactica rewatch. I’ve been putting it off because… well… it just HURT the first time around. A lot. But he has proposed that we watch the entire thing over the whole year – so rather than watching a disk a night, which we may have been known to do (erm… a lot…), we’re going to treat it more like actual TV. Spread the load around. Rip the bandaid off slowly, you might say.

Anyway, we started by watching half of the mini series tonight, and the first thing that struck me was how young they all looked. The Chief was positively sveldt! Starbuck was mischievous and young! Above all, Adama and Roslin without four years of command? Not children by any means, but not haggard either.

The second thing that struck me was the familiarity of all those faces. Gaita! Tigh! Helo! Dee! Billy (whom I’d totally forgotten)!… and Baltar, Boomer, Apollo, Six, and *sigh* Starbuck. It felt just a little bit like a reunion. So silly, but true.

I’d forgotten a fair bit of the detail of what happens in the mini series. The actual start, with Six sauntering in and distracting the Colonial officer while he’s being blown up; Roslin being told about her cancer; the tension between Commander and Captain Adama. I had forgotten that ‘Head Six’ appears to Baltar almost immediately (in that dress), and the tension between civil and military rule already appearing – and Apollo siding with Roslin. I’m not sure I ever noticed before that spooling up the FTL was a dangerous move, and that Chief nearly KOs the XO because of the people who die in the decompression.

There is so much going on. So much that we decided to break the mini series when the Galactic arrives at Ragnok because we needed the breathing space. But, for all that I had visions of the deaths of most of these characters from later in the series, I’m glad we’re watching it again. I look forward to catching the hints I missed the first time, and focussing on detail because I won’t have to focus quite so much on plot.

I also enjoyed yelping “CYLON!” when I saw that nasty little PR type. Boo hiss.

Starting the Book Club: Tiptree

Over at Dreams and Speculations, the first of the year’s book club discussions is up and running. TJ has done a very clever thing by having not only one novel a month, but introducing a mid-month discussion on a couple of James Tiptree’s short stories from Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. This month, it’s “The Last Flight of Dr Ain” and “The Screwfly Solution.” I managed to be the second commenter, hurrah! … because she’s in America and has, I presume, automated the initial post to go up at midnight. Which means I’ll be waaaay behind on the conversation, but at least I got to say something early on  😀 . Essentially, while I liked “Ain” and it was certainly an interesting story for 1969, “Screwfly” was brilliant with all sorts of crunchy things to say about gender relations and sexuality and religious fanaticism.

The post is chock-full of spoilers, of course, but if you’ve read them or are interested in Tiptree’s work, it would be worth reading it and the comments.

Smellink verra nize indeed

Hoo boy. I have been looking forward to this ever since I got to interview the Foglios for Galactic Suburbia way back at Aussiecon4, when they announced they’d been given a deal with Night Shade Books for the novels.

Actually, in some ways I have been looking forward to this for even longer: I first read about Agatha Clay in Girl Genius vol 9, the Hugo-nominated (and winning!) graphic novel. I had never heard of it before I got it in the Hugo packet, and… well… it was love. Pure, sweet, love. I read the entirety of vol 9; bought the ebook of vol 1; then discovered that you could just read the whole lot online, one page at a time. So I did that. One volume is one year’s worth of comics, and pages come out regular as clockwork every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, so… yeh. You figure out how much reading that was.

Yes, I know. I lot. But I love it. It’s got Romance! Adventure! Mad Science!! And this is the sans-illustration novelisation of, I think, the first three volumes of the graphic version. So yes yes, I’ve read the story before. But this is a different version. It’s like… the novelisation of a movie. Only better.

Officially, the Foglios – wife&husband team Kaja and Phil – call this ‘Gaslamp Fantasy’. Which is different from steampunk, and I can sort of see how but I can’t always explain. I think, basically, that with steampunk things are meant to make sense, in the same way that good SF makes sense in a scientific way (sorta). Fantasy, though – fantasy gets to cheat outrageously, when it wants to, by wiggling its fingers and saying ta-DA! And as long as it does it in an entertaining enough way, it’s fine. I know, I know – I’m exaggerating ridiculously here, and the genre purists will pull me up for it. Whatever. This is gaslamp fantasy because it’s kinda the European nineteenth century, but at the same time it’s really not, and there are serious mad scientists running around, mostly with The Spark. A Spark is like someone with The Knack: whatever they want to make, whatever they fix, it Just. Works. Although most Sparks end up going nuts or being crushed by their creations.

There are numerous things I love about this series. Firstly, the characters. The main character is Agatha: a sometimes-bumbling, sometimes-competent wannabe mechanic. In the graphic novel, especially, she’s wonderful because she’s this voluptuous woman unaware of her own looks and perfectly capable of looking after herself, thanks very much. The rest of the cast, as appearing in the novel, are also great: both men and women, good and bad and somewhere in between, and – something that only occurred to me in reading it rather than looking at the pictures, which is a bit crazy – a wide ethnic mix, too. Black people, Jewish people, white people, Chinese people, the marvellous Bangladesh DuPree… not to mention all the slightly non-human types, too. And a talking cat. We love talking cats. Most of all, we love the Jagerkin. The Jagerkin inspired my title, because that’s how they talk: with the most outrageous faux-German accents you could possibly imagine (having heard Phil do his impersonation, I understand the inspiration now). They are crazy, they are mischievous, they love their hats, and they sometimes  look like this:

They also have a propensity for lusting after entirely inappropriate women.

I love the plot, too. Sure you could roll your eyes at yet another story about a poor orphan girl who discovers something amazing about herself, but you know what? Who cares! It’s fun! Agatha makes it worthwhile! There’s a reason those stories get written so often. And here, along with the self-discovery stuff, there’s some serious mad science, a one-km-long dirigible, lots of explosions, and a touch of romance.

I bought the hardcover version, because the trade paperback isn’t out until August and that’s waaaay too long to wait (and it’s not very expensive anyway). It’s a lovely little production, with nice paper and cool cover art. My one gripe, and I’m a bit sad about it, is that there are some editing issues. There are a few spelling mistakes (‘access’ for ‘assess’), and someone really doesn’t like semi-colons – which would be fine if they used periods in their place, but mostly they used commas, and that just really, really, grated.

Is it original? Not if you’ve read the comic, no. I have no idea what it would be like to read this cold; I imagine there are some bits that might be a little confusing, but I can’t be sure. But did I enjoy it? Hell yes. And I will certainly be buying the second one (Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess) and third (title still TBA), because I am that much of a fangirl. Wheee!

The Outsiders

I’ve heard about this book for half my life, I guess, but I never got around to reading it because it just didn’t sound like my sort of book. Actually, I think for most of that time I was confusing it with another – possibly also by Hinton? – because I thought it was about cowboys….

Anyway, I finally read it. In an afternoon. The impetus is that I have to teach it this year and I’m glad that I read it well ahead of time, because I’m not ashamed to say that there were tears when I got to the end. Tears of sadness and tears of appreciation at the beauty of the story.

What can I say about it? I love Ponyboy, I think he’s awesome and I’ve probably taught kids like him; tough background but doing his best. I know I went to school with kids like him… and a lot of them didn’t get themselves out of the hole, sadly. His relationship with his brothers is fascinating – I read a review somewhere that was highly critical of some of the language used, questioning whether a 20-something boy would call his kid brother ‘honey’, but I’m not going to assume that I know how slang worked 40 years ago so I’m going to let that slide. I think what I appreciated most was Pony’s growing awareness of what his brothers were like as people, and how that affects their relationships; I presume that’s one of the things the curriculum wants students to consider for themselves and their own families. And the fact that there is a range of families portrayed, and that the group of boys effectively act as a family for one another, is intriguing and should also get students thinking, I guess.

Clearly one of the big messages the school will want students to consider is risk-taking behaviour and its consequences. And that’s fair enough, and I have no doubt that we will have discussions about whether Pony ought to have turned up for the big rumble, whether that was peer pressure, etc. But I hope we also have discussions about the class structure of Socs vs Greasers and how that might be reflected in our school, or not, and whether Socs really did have a tough life as well. Because those are some awfully important things to consider.

I was stunned when I realised that this was written by a seventeen-year-old. For me, it doesn’t have the feel of a debut novel, and it really doesn’t have the feel of teenage writing. Quite astonishing.

My sister describes the film as “a whole bag of sexy,” and looking at the cast I can see why: Estevez, Cruise, Swaze, Macchio, Lowe… but I still don’t think I’ll watch it. I don’t think I could stand it.

Surface Detail

I got Surface Detail from my brother for Christmas; that is, I bought it, and he gets less $$ than he was going to for his Christmas/birthday present (it’s a long story). I wrapped it up and wrote the nicest note from him to me and everything, which apparently was a bit weird, according to the rest of the family (he wasn’t there)….

Anyway, I was very excited to finally have it in my hands. A new Culture novel! The world should rejoice! And this is one of the biggest ones yet, I think, at 627 pages. I’m way too much of a fangirl to give this a particularly critical review, but…

I have a really bad memory but I think this is one of the bigger casts that Banks has followed in detail, which contributes to its size. There are certainly some privileged characters, but most of those introduced do get some detail and resolution. They’re a good mix, too; mostly pan-human, but a few not, and to my utter delight a seriously warped AI whose avatar goes by name of Demeisen and whose attitude towards war, while reprehensible, was one of such unfeigned delight that I couldn’t help but adore him. In a reproving manner of course. I think the AIs, and the ships they’re encased in, are by and large my favourite part of any Culture novel. Not that Banks appears to feel any restrictions with his human characters, but with the AIs there are really no limits to the craziness he can put out there, and does. I think my other favourite character is the one who, if any deserve the name, is the main protagonist: Lededje Y’breq. She dies in the first chapter. Then, of course, she comes back.

Dying is, in fact, the focus of this entire book. I think someone who later becomes a main character is dead or dying in each of the first four chapters, and it kinda keeps happening. That’s because Banks decided to address one of the oldest issues in this book: whether there is a heaven or a hell. And the answer is, definitively, Yes There Is: because we made them. As virtual environments. Now the question becomes, should there be hells (heavens seem to be fine)? When it’s people just like us making them and deciding you go there? … which, in a place like the galaxy Banks gives us, naturally leads to war. That’s right people, war is hell and hell means war. Or something.

It is, of course, an awesome book. The scale is enormous; there have been a few Culture novels mostly restricted to one planet, but this is not one of them – it zooms all over the galaxy, faster than the speed of light. The plot, as mentioned, follows several different people or groups, some of whom end up tangling together and some of whom stay separate; the plot has an appropriate number of twists and surprises that I really didn’t see coming, such that I stayed utterly glued to the page the whole way through. And the language – well, it’s just swoon-worthy in parts. The speech from that dreadful avatar about why it likes war? Majestic. The descriptions of places? Concise yet evocative; I almost couldn’t read the descriptions of Hell.

Read it! You know you want to!

Fireship/Mother and Child

I love the idea of the novella double. Twelfth Planet Press is doing ones in the style of the old Ace doubles – different authors, back to back and upside down – and I really enjoyed the Tiptree/Russ double I read a few months ago. This one is different because it has two novellas by the same author, both of which had previously appeared in different venues. And the two stories are really quite different.

“Fireship” has the feel of a proto-cyberpunk story, to me, in that its emphasis is on a man/machine meld, and the action revolves around hacking a computer. The secondary characters are, sadly, largely two-dimensional and boring; they are there for plot resolution and really that’s it. The main character though… he is fascinating. MILD SPOILER! Ethan Ring is a gestalt: his personality is only created when a very ordinary man jacks into a superlogical supercomputer. Vinge posits the result as being entirely human in reactions and emotions, but lifted up by the computer’s abilities. Perhaps the most interesting dialogue is the internal, when human/machine/gestalt very occasionally interact. This is a really interesting take on the cyborg, and one that I’m not sure has been explored as much as it could be (if I’m wrong, tell me in the comments!). The other wonderful aspect of the story is the setting, Mars. We get intriguing glimpses of what it’s like to be on the colonised world – and it’s definitely got the feel of a colony – and some touching moments, like when the rains come and people rejoice. Additionally, there are some hints of some really interesting politics. Written in the late 1970s, it imagines politics basically being split between the US and “the Arabic states,” with Russia and China largely out of the picture.

Overall, “Fireship” is a quick read, with a fairly basic plot and ordinary characters. It’s worth reading to think about Ethan and what Vinge is saying about cyborg possibilities.

“Mother and Child” is an entirely different proposition. In three stages, the story is gradually told of a world struck by a terrible plague and suffering the consequences. The point of view gradually gets broader: at first, we see from a village smith’s perspective; then from a king’s; then, eventually – SPOILER! – from the point of view of an alien, tasked with dealing with the world and its inhabitants (reminiscent of le Guin’s Hainish cycle and Iain M Banks’ Culture, to an extent).

I’m somewhat conflicted about how it represents the main female character. On the one hand, the narrative is never from her point of view: it’s from that of her husband and then two abductors. On the other hand, she is entirely central – as the title points out – and is certainly shown as having agency: she picks her husband, and she actively decides on the fate of her child, and ultimately the fate of her world.

One of the most fascinating things about the story is its emphasis on the body. The plague has changed people, and it took me a while to realise just how much; revealing it would be too much of a spoiler, so I’ll just say that when they talk about having second sight, it’s not what you immediately think – and probably not what you thought just then, either.

I think “Mother and Child” is better written than “Fireship” and stays interesting more consistently. It certainly has better pace, perhaps because the three sections were really quite different from one another. I think I will read more Vinge, although I don’t think I will be racing out to get my hands on all her stuff.

The Killing Thing

I went looking for The Clewiston Test at my local secondhand shop, but the only Kate Wilhelm I found was this one. It was short, and inexpensive, so I decided to give it a go.

On the face of it, this is a story about a man and a robot, the latter trying to kill the former, on a desert planet. At the start I thought it was going to be one of those novels that would have worked better as a short story – even at only 142 pages, I wasn’t sure the whole being-chased thing was going to have legs (ha, ha). That was before the man, Trace, started having flashbacks… and everything changed. The flashbacks filled in his own back story and that of the robot, giving a much larger context than I had anticipated. Interestingly, Wilhelm also gives the robot its own flashbacks, which disrupts the readers’ instinct to identify solely with the human protagonist. This is a brilliantly written piece : sparse details, appropriate to the subject matter, with Wilhelm deftly conveying the increasingly feverish experiences of Trace frighteningly well. She also does a fascinating thing in creating layers throughout the book: Trace revisits several key moments several times, and each time some new nuance is revealed to the reader, eventually building up to a full understanding of just what is going on.

The emphasis throughout the book is on the robot as a ‘logic box’ – its portrayal throughout is quite a different one from those found more recently, I think. The narrative only skirts around the issue of whether the robot is sentient, and what might be done if it is. Rather than dealing with this — and this is a slight SPOILER — Wilhelm is more interested in slowly, subtly, and cunningly making the reader aware of the fact that, being the well-trained soldier that he is, Trace himself can more than adequately be described as nothing more than a logic box. When I finally realised what Wilhelm was doing there, I both couldn’t believe I hadn’t picked up on it sooner and was terribly impressed with how skilfully she’d pulled it together.

The other really fascinating thing going on in this novel is its discussion of colonisation and the attitudes that colonisers bring to new places. In this case, it’s on a galactic scale, but the attitudes and issues and words and problems are all completely identifiable from the last century or two right here – and I do mean here, in Australia, as well as in the wider world. Some of the words she puts into the colonised’s mouths are uncomfortably familiar, which I’m sure is the point, and impressed me given the time at which it was written; I hadn’t thought those sorts of things were being articulated in the 1960s.

I had initially worried that the book would glorify war and the military, and it seems to indicate such a stance in the first few pages. However, by the end the book it’s clear that Wilhelm is indicting both war and the apparatus that supports militaristic attitudes, and when I realised that it was written in 1967 – well, it seems clear to me that this is an anti-war, anti-Vietnam piece. Perhaps that accounts for its lack of awards; I find it hard to believe it didn’t get any. This is a really, really, really good book.