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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

The Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss, DAW, 2011, $29.95.

The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi, Tor, 2011, $24.99.

The Postmortal, by Drew Magary, Penguin US, 2011, $15.

 
PATRICK Rothfuss's first novel, The Name of the Wind, was possibly my favorite novel of the last decade. It brought me back to a time when books were the best way to travel to distant places. It burned away the ennui that had troubled my reading for longer than I care to remember. The Wise Man's Fear is the sequel, the second book in the Kingkiller Chronicles. It is not short. It is a worthy follow-up?

Yes. Very much yes.

But if I'm being honest, that was never a concern.

Books are a little like people to me. There are some that impress me with the clean, clear edges of their thought; there are some that I find both fascinating and repelling; there are some that I grow to love over the passage of pages; there are some that try too hard to impress. I name no names here because books are also personal, and my categorizations will not map onto anyone else's with any degree of accuracy.

There are some books that I'm drawn to instantly; there is something about them that feels real, true, and compelling for reasons that are not immediately clear to me. Often those reasons take form and shape only after I close the covers and sort out thoughts. I don't doubt these books when I pick them up; I don't doubt them when I open them. I don't second-guess them; I'm willing—even grateful—to take what's offered, suspending judgment but offering wonder, awe, outrage, and respect in turn.

Rothfuss writes such books. Wise Man's Fear is the longest book I'll read this year, and I didn't want to leave it. If Neal Stephenson wrote fantasy, the resulting books would have some of this texture and weight.

Picking up the threads of Kvothe's story from The Name of the Wind, Rothfuss returns to the Inn, the Chronicler, and Kvothe himself as Kvothe embarks on the second day of his telling. He returns us to the end of the story, whose path we can't yet follow from its beginning, before he once again gives Kvothe full voice. The village in which the Inn resides is holding a funeral; the villagers, burdened by army levies and extra taxes, stop by the Inn to ask that the Chronicler write Wills, and the Innkeeper make food. Bast, Kvothe's fae apprentice, is witness to the one and dubious aid to the other.

Kvothe then picks up the threads of his story at the University which looms so large in his life. His continual lack of funding—with no patron, no family—is a serious burden, one he can't or won't share with the friends who have no such difficulties. Lack of money has driven many people to foolish extremes; Kvothe is not an exception. His lack of money leads him across the river, where he once again borrows money from Devi, a former student of the University; it leads him to the taverns in which he plays. His ongoing, ugly rivalry with the well-moneyed and politically powerful Ambrose deepens as both Kvothe and Ambrose grow in knowledge and resultant power, and his continual yearning for Denna weaves its way through the whole.

Kvothe is blindingly talented. He suffers no false modesty in his telling. But he is also wryly aware of how naive he was in the University years; how earnest and how often blind. There are entire sections where the clear difference between intellect and wisdom are laid out, time and again; there are places in which his justifiable suspicion fails to point him at the correct target, much to his regret. He is ferociously proud in his own way, and the pride cuts him off from the people around him.

But he is also offering the truth of this tale from the vantage of years and experience, commenting in retrospect on both his follies and his strengths as he struggles to master the only art he truly desires to learn: the naming of things. To this end, he enrolls in what is possibly the best-named university course ever, with the mercurial and unpredictable Master Elodin.

There's more, of course; there's always more.

Kvothe's travels take him to courts that are slightly stranger than the courts he remembers in his youth with the Edema Ruh; they take him through unfamiliar stories across worlds, and into an entirely unfamiliar human culture, which is one of the most interesting cultures I've seen in fantasy. Rothfuss takes his time to build the almost alien interactions, until at some point, they feel familiar, learned. There's much that's clever in the structural conceit here, and Rothfuss's use of language never falters, but having said that, all of these things melt into a seamless whole.

Kvothe's story, in many ways, is like the art of the naming that eludes him for so long. It's not possible to know the thing and the whole of the thing in one easy page; there's no instruction manual. It's not possible to understand him from the gloss and the drama of legend, although the legends themselves are evocative; knowledge accretes, page by page, the thin archetype of a man taking form, flesh, breath.

I want the rest of the story. I want Kvothe to sit across from me at my table, while Bast watches. I don't yet want what Bast wants, but I can now see that I might: the broken, world-weary innkeeper is not the Kvothe of his recounting, not even by the end of the second day.

These are desert-island books for me. Rothfuss is a desert-island author.

 

I admit that my first experience with Hannu Rajaniemi is The Quantum Thief. He has written prior short stories, which were well received, but I picked this book up on the basis of Charles Stross's almost fanatically glowing recommendations (both on the internet and on the book itself).

The first warning: this book has the textual density of a short story. It's not long, but it's not hugely forgiving if you don't read for detail; skimming this book is hazardous for your comprehension. If you do read a lot of short sf, this won't be a problem. There's not a lot of pause for breath here, not a lot of quiet space in which to sit and think.

Jean le Flambeur is a thief playing endless iterations of a game in the virtual reality of the Dilemma Prison (yes, it's a clever name; it's a clever conceit). Prison is a state of mind, and the game? It's game theory. If prisoners play for long enough, there's the faint hope they'll learn to cooperate, like good citizens. Jean is not perhaps the ideal good citizen; if he were, he'd hardly be in this situation. But just as this particular game has taken a turn for the "oh crap," a new prisoner, Miele, breaks them both out of the Prison's architecture. He finds himself on her sentient ship, absent most of his memories—he doesn't, for instance, have any idea at all what crime brought him to the Prison.

Miele's patron/sponsor/backer wants Jean to reconstruct the memories he's misplaced, and the first hint of their existence comes to him over a glass of wine; he has a fractured image of a woman, seen through a glass, and he knows where he has to go if he wants knowledge of the rest of his past. However, before he has that glass of wine, the Prison makes clear that escape should never be an option; it is, for Jean, because Jean understands how to pull a con on a very grand scale.

How grand has yet to be determined.

Rajaniemi then leaves his clever beginning and leaps ahead of Jean to Mars, and more importantly, to Isidore, a man who has an affinity for the gathering of facts in a very old-fashioned way. He is an amateur detective in a world where detectives are a rarity because information exists in the exomemory of a person or place. Access to that information, however, is still decided by the individual. They can be extremely open, or so shut off they can't clearly be seen by people in the same room. It's an extension of existing concepts, but as a cultural paradigm, I think it's unique.

He is examining the scene of a murder.

Murder is not terribly common, but not terribly uncommon; what's difficult in this case is the theft that preceded that death. Pirates on Mars don't steal goods; they steal whole personalities and send them offworld. Absent that personality, the dead man can't be properly revived. To make matters worse, his exomemory is virally scrambled. They cannot question the man's memories; they need to find them first. Isidore is left to do it the old-fashioned way.

Old-fashioned, in this case, just means footwork, because Isidore's Mars is distinctly post-mortal, and humanity on Isidore's Mars reflects that. People—Isidore included—live on time (borrowed time). The young have time, and they spend it; it's the local currency. When time runs out, they die, and their personalities are transferred to the Oubliette, where they are saved, stored, and then downloaded into the physical forms of the Quiet—the servants who keep the city safe from the external detritus of an ancient war. They do their public service, and they're returned to life again, to repeat this cycle. This naturally has some effect on the culture of Mars and on the attitudes of some of its inhabitants, and it doesn't scratch the surface of the strangeness of this book.

Rajaniemi's novel never stands still for a second. He throws Jean into the mix, and while Isidore is investigating external mysteries, Jean is attempting to unravel internal ones: who was he, why was he here, and why the hell did he go through so much trouble to hide himself from himself? Of course he voices those thoughts with a great deal more panache than I just did, and his method of hiding from himself of necessity demands an enormous amount of clever.

The two stories, Isidore's and Jean's, crisscross and finally form a solid braid—one that pulls in Jean's past, Isidore's past, Mars and its complicated history—and the history of the system outside of Mars, where the Oubliette and the exomemory doesn't exist in the same way, where people who were once human in the way we now use the term have become a vast host composed of multiples of themselves, with all knowledge gleaned theirs at a thought.

People are excited about The Quantum Thief because it's sparkly. It glitters with clever and new. It moves like Zelazny on speed—and if I had to pick the progenitor for this book, I'd say Zelazny's Lord of Light is its literary grandfather. The small details of the plot that seem almost littered about are picked up and twined into place by the end. These are all good things. But if something is moving fast and spinning in place, it's still all tedium by the book's end. This is not a tedious book.

I liked Jean. I liked the hints of a past that existed before the one he's actively searching for; I liked the mystery and its unraveling; I liked Isidore, his gamer girlfriend, his mentor. I was surprised when the reasons for Jean's self-shut-down finally came to light because it was remarkably human.

And that's why Quantum Thief works for me. Postmortal unrecognizable universes, cities, and worlds are well and good—but they need some essential emotional core at their centers. Rajaiemi has that. Maybe, at some point, the world will be so large, our ability to instantly understand context and thought so easy, we'll outgrow things like greed, love, and hate. But we're not there yet, and neither is The Quantum Thief.

 

Drew Magary's The Postmortal is a near-future sf novel which the title describes rather perfectly: in the near future, the cure for mortality is discovered. It's called, oddly enough, "the cure." John Farrell received the cure and no longer has to worry about something as petty as aging. He does, on the other hand, have to worry about less petty things: injury, disease, cancer. He has to worry about the growing rage and resentment of people who philosophically disagree with immortality, often also people who can't afford to buy it.

He's not the only one, of course; immortals of all stripes have to worry about it. They have to worry about the damage sunbathing caused, because sun-damage remains in skin that's now supposed to last centuries. He doesn't have to worry about something as trivial as retirement, because frankly, there's not a lot of need for it.

In theory.

In practice? There aren't suddenly a huge swelter of new jobs, and the people who have the good ones are now no longer planning on going anywhere. In fact, a large percentage of the population isn't going anywhere, but social mores and goals haven't really changed all that much in the decades since the cure—except marriage; that one's now tied to cycles and not death-do-us-part. New wife, new husband, and possibly new kids and pets to go with them.

Sound fun?

Immortality has figured in a number of sf novels prior to this one, but never, to my experience, in this way. It's been furtive and secret, or it's been universal and accepted—but getting from here to there has been glossed over because it's not relevant to the stories the authors wanted to tell.

Magary's novel is looking at us from here—at the dawn of the immortal age—to there. It jumps from day to day and year to year, intersplicing Farrell's narratives with blogs and news clips, starting in our very North American post-millennial society. There's not a lot of social engineering going on, because social engineering in practice takes time and it's always haphazard. In our consumer culture, we consume—but we also die. Except when we don't. There are no brakes—besides money—put on that consumption, and since there are no brakes put on growth by lack-of-death... well, you can imagine.

Magary certainly does.

One of the jobs that is created in this new economy is that of the ES (End Service) specialist: people who are authorized to put an end to immortals who are already tired of eternity. John Farrell becomes an ES specialist as the world continues its polarized slide; the man who wanted forever is now facing people who don't want it. Or, because of the aforementioned diseases, can no longer keep it.

This book is sold as a black, black satire. It is that. But it's a lot more funny to describe it than to read it. John Farrell doesn't really have that much of a sense of humor, and as life progresses, he doesn't have a lot to laugh about. It's a very clear-eyed picture, one I don't think has been drawn before. (I would quibble with some of his choices, because I doubt government would be so stupid that they wouldn't tie forced sterility to the cure, but I'm willing to admit I've been surprised in the past. If that's the type of thing that will drive you up a wall, this might not be your book.)

The strength of the book, for me, isn't just in its extrapolations, though; it's in the discussions between John and his father, in the scenes in which the cured repent of a forever they didn't consider carefully and don't actually want anymore. It surprised me in a good way.

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