Daily Archives: September 27th, 2012

Caliban’s War: a review

This review will contain spoilers for Leviathan’s Wake, the first in this series.

Leviathan Wakes centred primarily around two characters: James Holden, somewhat reluctant captain of a fairly small spaceship who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and then things got worse; and a detective straight out of the pulps, whose obsession with finding a missing girl took him all sorts of interesting places and got him involved in some very, very messy stuff.

When Caliban’s War opens, Miller (the detective) is gone, and Holden is trying to figure out what to do with his now-smaller crew on his very shiny, somewhat illegal and quite fast Rocinante. But events begin with two completely new characters. In the Prologue, a young girl is taken from her creche and shown a man who is not a man; in chapter one, a Martian marine watches her platoon get slaughtered by something monstrous, which doesn’t react like it ought to. Both of these events indicate fairly obviously that the molecule that caused all the fuss in Leviathan, and which crashed on Venus at the end of that novel – but clearly didn’t get destroyed – is Up To Something. And we go from there.

Mars and Earth are on the verge of war, while a little girl is missing. The political position of the outer planets and asteroids is of serious concern, as is the relationship between two crew members. What I really liked about this novel is that it manages to focus on the big and the small at the same time, without trivialising and without making one look pointless in comparison. Prax’s world is (quite literally) falling apart and he can’t find his daughter and this is a real, vital, and urgent problem that has to be dealt with. Meanwhile, how to keep incompetent politicians from muddling into a war – or, worse, deliberately starting one – consumes Avasarala’s night and day, as the assistant to the undersecretary of executive administration of the UN – a title that sounds empty but that really makes her one of the most powerful wheelers and dealers on the planet. These two plots get about equal time, and equal sympathy, which is a marvellous achievement – especially since they’re not the only parts in the whole. There’s also Bobbie, the Martian marine, and how she copes with being a survivor, as well as being turned into a political pawn; and Holden sticking his nose in where he knows it doesn’t belong, meanwhile maybe messing things up with Naomi. Plus, all of this is tied into That Alien Molecule.

The storyline might sound like it gets a bit complicated, but Corey (actually Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) keeps it well under control by cycling through the different points of view in distinct chapters, each of which is named after their character. I get that sometimes authors want the reader to be in the dark about who is speaking, but sometimes that’s just a pain in the butt, so I applaud this measure. The collision of the different plots, which you just know is going to happen, happens in occasionally surprising but consistently pleasing ways – it never feels forced, and the plots entwine and carry on organically, with individual threads not getting subsumed by what might be considered (by some) as more important matters.

Characters are one of the strengths of this writing team. Holden is the main carryover character, but despite the reader already knowing him fairly well he still manages to occasionally surprise, as he develops in response to new stimuli such as his position with Rocinante and Naomi and oh, his experience with nasty mutant alien things. Much of that development is for the worse, at least at first, but it’s real and sympathetically described – not just put in for shock value. Of the others, probably my least favourite is Prax, a biologist, and the one whose daughter is missing; he’s the least interesting exactly because he is so single-minded in what he needs to achieve. His personal degradation matching Ganymede’s is cleverly written, but I don’t find monomania that intriguing. Meanwhile, Avasarala and Bobbie tie for my favourites. Avasarala balances foul-mouthed, cynical, driven and obsessive politician with loving grandmother is totally believable ways, and makes me despair for world politics. Bobbie’s development is probably the most nuanced of all: she deals with the aftermath of her platoon’s destruction, with the tension between Mars and Earth, with politics she knows little about and cares for less, all outside of the marine corps which is the only place she’s ever wanted to be. There are some novels with shifting points of view where as a reader, I am tempted to skip some chapters to get to the interesting bit. That’s not a problem I faced here.

Finally, a note on world building. The tensions between Mars and Earth, and the Outer Planet Alliance, can be read to some extent as an extension of terrestrial politics over the last couple of centuries; Mars and Earth are superpowers, while the OPA are colonies beginning to buck the reins of their colonial masters. It’s not a straight transposition, of course, but the idea that some – especially Earth-based – politicians would attempt to treat the solar system as an extension of their own world definitely makes a sad sort of sense. Zooming in somewhat, Corey’s development of the way asteroids and moons could be made not just habitable for humanity but vital to humanity’s livelihood in space is beautifully detailed without being overdone. As is the fragility of those systems. And their vision of Earth? Brilliant – and one of the interesting points of optimism for the system as a whole, which I won’t describe because it would just take too long.

Overall? I enjoyed Leviathan, but this is even better.

Battleship… the movie

Look, I know. I know, OK?

I knew before we rented it that this was going to be totally unmitigated crap. And it was, so there were no surprises. Right?

Actually, I was a bit surprised at just how absolutely atrociously awful it is. I can watch and enjoy the odd bit of unmitigated crap, as long as the explosions and chases are entertaining enough. But here… well. The characters are laughable, you could drive a semi-trailer sideways through the plot holes… the plot for Battleship almost makes Transformers 3 look like it HAS a plot (although I did not want to scrub my brain after watching this, which I did after watching Transformers 3. Maybe because I watched B in two sittings, and not in a theatre having paid quite a lot of money).  And the science… zomg the science. Or rather, lack thereof. Friends, this movie shows people trying to communicate with another planet by using a radio telescope to fire a coherent laser beam at it.

I just. I can’t. There are no words.

This review is, actually, superfluous. Everything you need to know about the movie can be found in this hilarious review. It contains multiple spoilers but, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, and at some stage you are forced to, use this as a drinking game: every time you get to one of the points mentioned, drink! That review does, however, miss THE most awesome bit of the whole film: using an anchor to make a battleship do a handbrake turn. Seriously.

The plot: aliens are coming in response to the message we sent and they want to TAKE OVER THE WORLD. Or something. Since there’s no actual communication, how do we know that? Oh yeh, because they’re ALIENS. Then plucky sailors fight them off. Where plucky sailors include Rhianna trying to look badass, some punk kid who turns out to be a genius, and a bunch of old dudes who just happen to be hanging around.

The characters: there are none. They’re all just cardboard cut-outs.

The one good thing this movie proves: Liam Neeson really, really doesn’t care what you think anymore.

The Shapes of their Hearts

Cyberpunk. I loves it. This is not one of the best, but it’s definitely an interesting idea: someone has a new revelation from God, and recruits followers; for various reasons they leave for a new world, but this is complicated by said revelation, so original dude has a scan done of his brain and this scan lives on as a computer programme to keep giving visions and explaining the revelation. Et viola: deus ex machina where you take an I-don’t-understand-Latin stance; a very literal ghost in the machine. Now add someone who wants a copy for themselves, but that would be illegal, and… here we are.

I do not understand the title.

The plot: is generally straightforward. The POV jumps around a bit, but not confusingly. There are a few twists in the tale, generally related to character revelations, and the conclusion was pleasingly both appropriate and not completely neat. It’s closer to a heist story than a quest, in the way the Object is sought after; the vaguely criminal, or at least not-completely-above-board, elements contribute to this feel. One of the problems for me is that there are some tantalising little side stories… but they’re only hinted at, never given conclusion or even fleshed out very much. And this was annoying mostly because some of them appear, at the start, as if they are going to become very important. But they don’t.

The characters: a good variety. (Hey, I think it passes the Bechdel Test! Woot!) There’s the kinda-cops on Eden, who each have troubled/secretive backgrounds but work well together (that makes it sound like a buddy-cop movie; it’s really not); a DaSilva (cloned bodyguard) and her employer; and an IT/weather tech on Eden who’s really not sure she wants to be there anymore. The POV switches between one of the cops and the IT woman, mostly, which works well. None of the characters are especially fleshed out – there’s some background here and there, but not a whole lot about motivation or interactions beyond the plot – and now that I think about it, I didn’t actually care much about any of the characters themselves.

All of this makes it sound like this is a novel not worth bothering with, but there are definitely some really great aspects – I did finish it, after all. If you’re not in to cyberpunk then it isn’t for you, but I really enjoyed the bits ‘online’, so to speak, with one of the characters stuck there and having to deal with their predicament – including hostile programmes and the possibility of being ripped out of the virtual world, with attendant physical ramifications. I also enjoyed much of the characters’ interactions, and the plot itself: it’s fast-paced, easy to read, and enjoyable. The world building isn’t wildly exciting or innovative, but some of the ideas that Scott brings out certainly are. There’s only a passing reference, but the issue of clones is fascinating, especially when they know what they are; she’s done interesting things imagining how the law might treat them. The question of FTL travel is barely touched on, but again is really interesting: Scott allows it, but with serious physical and mental consequences if you do it too many times. I would read a whole book that set out to explore that idea.

Long story short: I didn’t love it, but it doesn’t put me off other Scott novels (which is good, because I have at least one more already on the shelf…).

City of Illusions

Fulfilment of my desire to read all of Ursula le Guin’s work continues apace, but this did not actually move me towards my goal… since as soon as I opened it I realised that I had read it before (in a double with Rocannon’s World). However, my memory being what it is, I couldn’t remember details, so I just kept on reading.

City kinda fits into the Hainish cycle, but doesn’t really. It’s set on an Earth that has been a part of the League of All Worlds – the general background for the Hainish novels – but Something Has Happened, far back in the past, such that humanity now appears to exist solely in isolated enclaves that have little to do with each other, let alone to do with an interplanetary society. Some of the Hainish novels mention an Enemy approaching, and there is rumour of an enemy on Earth too, but their connection, if any – ?

The novels begins with a strange man wandering out of the Forest into the clearing of Zove’s House, which is something that just doesn’t happen. Additionally, he has weird eyes, as shown by the cover there – yes, like a cat. (Note: I think the blurb accompanying this edition is atrociously misleading.) He is taken in, and taught to live as a man, because despite being fully grown he has no language or any other capabilities beyond those of an infant. They give him a name: Falk, meaning yellow. Eventually Falk leaves, in the manner of young men who feel they have a quest to complete, and his travels take him to various parts of the world – meeting new people, most of whom are far less welcoming than his original sponsors, and eventually getting to the city of the Shing, who may or may not be enemies. And there he learns a secret….

I like this story a lot, for all it’s not my favourite. I always enjoy le Guin’s imagined future societies, and the things she sees continuing: here, for example, the Older Canon, Taoism, and the Younger Canon, which appears to be bits of the Bible; bits and pieces of technology; occasional random names (Kansas!). Her people are often sketches but for all that they generally feel real; Parth, Falk’s main teacher, is only in the story for the first 25 pages, but she is vital and vibrant and alive. The plot is also sparse; I have been known to describe le Guin’s work as exquisite pencil drawings, especially when compared to the lavish oil paintings of much modern fantasy. Anyway, the story certainly doesn’t fill in all of the details of Falk’s learning or his quest: after 11 pages, she skips five years – I can well imagine some authors taking the first book of a novel to fill in that time with everything he learnt! There are some clever twists along the way, but I don’t really think they’re the main point, somehow. The story is definitely important, but ultimately I think it is the vehicle for demonstrating Falk’s character, how he changes and develops and deals with situations.

An interesting part of the le Guin canon, for sure.