by Dave Truesdale
Reading and reviewing primarily short fiction for many years, it was a welcome change of pace in 2008 to find time to
once again read more than the odd handful of novels. I read them for pure pleasure, hanging my critical hat on the
peg by the door. Realizing that no short story or novel is perfect and has faults (as reviewers and critics are
too often eager to point out, myself included), I also remembered that to the average genre reader (newcomer or
sophisticate), that what may be important to the critical machinery and its practitioners doesn't really matter
to the average book buyer. They're in for a good read, and a good read can be experienced in many ways.
In 2008 I read perhaps twenty novels across the SF/F/Science-Fantasy spectrum. A mere drop in the bucket given the vast number published, and no claim is made as to any of them being the best, though one or more of them might find their way onto a few best lists, or even be nominated for an award or two. But for pure thematic and/or literary variety and entertainment value I'd like to draw some attention to the following six novels:
Fantasy: Shadowbridge by Gregory Frost
January of 2008 saw the Del Rey publication of Gregory Frost's wonderful Shadowbridge. The title world is a creation unique, I believe, in fantasy. An immense world-spanning bridge encircles this water world, beneath which are vast oceans dotted with a few scattered islands. Young Leodora has escaped her harsh life as a lowly fish-gutter on one of these bits of land under the towering bridge, as well as the punishments of her cruel step-father, and with the aid of a mentor figure (a kindly old drunk who once aided her dead father), sets out with her trunk of assorted string puppets and various paraphernalia to inherit her father's mantle, as that of a world-renowned, legendary puppeteer. Her travels along the endless and mighty spans of the bridge and its myriad peoples (each with their own cultures, ways, and laws) give her the stories and myths from which she weaves her spellbinding puppet shows. It is through these puppet shows (often filled with myth, satire, and wry local commentary) that Frost deftly reveals much of the planet's history. He can thus provide backstory while simultaneously moving the current story forward, and pulls it off without a hitch.
Leodora's only other companion is a young boy, Diverus, who may or may not be able to speak with the gods, and who provides the hypnotic music for her magical puppet shows. He is a musical savant, able to play any instrument at will, and his talent not only serves Leodora well, but entangles him in some decadent intrigue which forms one of the most memorable sections of the story.
Overarching Leodora's personal story and that of her small traveling troupe are sinister enemies and forces; forces which reveal themselves more and more as the tale progresses, the knowledge of which only Soter, her drunken manager and mentor, is fully aware. Searching for her own life (and perhaps on the way destined to become even greater than her father) and on the run from her shadowy, enigmatic enemies, we get a sense of dramatic tension and foreboding, the dark revelations and threats slowly revealed first as hints, then more direct and deadly. But it is Frost's rich descriptions, attention to detail, and overall stylistic flair, his line-by-line way with words that give the story another dimension entirely, granting Shadowbridge the justice its concept demands. This is one of the most innovative and rewarding fantasies I've come across in some time.
The publisher decided to break the novel into two parts, however. The second part is published separately as Lord Tophet. Be that as it may, Shadowbridge is easily worth your coin.
Fantasy Fantasy: The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick
In 1994, Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter broke new ground and blew everyone away with its heady mix of dystopian dark Faerie and Dickensian machine-age steampunk. It was a truly one-of-a-kind work and I now think it fair to say a fantasy classic. Fourteen years later, and in January of 2008, the author has returned with a "sequel" in The Dragons of Babel. While not quite the equal of the first book (and how could it be, once the bloom has been plucked from the rose in regard to the utter uniqueness of its landmark predecessor's mixing of genres), this much anticipated return to the post-industrialized world of Faerie, giant, mechanical war-dragons (which share much with contemporary, computer-intelligent, high-tech stealth bombers), and one of the oddest, strangest journeys through a ruined world to reach the forbidding, crumbling Tower of Babel is a marvel in its own right. Along the way, we are treated to a young boy uprooted from his rural village and placed under direct mind control by the artificial intelligence guiding a crashed war-dragon, and witness the atrocities he is forced to perpetrate upon his own people. Once free of this influence (which is no easy feat), the lad seeks to find the Tower of Babel and on his way encounters any number of odd creatures, beings, people (including a young girl who has no memory and might have the ability to live forever), giant stone Guardians of a lonely palace, a woman who has had her heart blown out by a shotgun blast and has had to cross the boundary of Faerie to Earth for repair (and who is now able to live again in Faerie inside her male lover's body but with the ability to assume her female form as well; it gets complicated when Faerie-time and magic blend with Earth-time and science). There's so much more to hold the interest here, but you get the picture.
Swanwick's prose is as sharp as ever, his wit and inventiveness never flagging for a moment. The reader will find himself lost in a refreshingly different fantasy world than he has probably ever encountered before, perhaps not even noticing how Swanwick subverts genre tropes and reassembles them into something fresh beyond accounting. As a reader wanting nothing more than to be taken to another world (and what a world it turned out to be!), to live for a time in a fully-realized landscape of the imagination far removed from my own world, The Dragons of Babel gave me all I could have hoped for, and I thus recommend the book highly.
…But that nagging critic and nit-picker in me couldn't stay quiet. I had several questions I couldn't by myself resolve without direct answers from the only one who could answer them with certainty, or at least the authority: the author. So I wrote Michael Swanwick (in full disclosure, an author for whom I have the highest respect and regard), and asked him the following questions. I had reread The Iron Dragon's Daughter just prior to The Dragons of Babel. The story from Daughter occurs when a young woman in some sort of institution either dreams the whole thing as part of her unspecified mental illness (in which case none of it is real, so how then to justify the sequel when none of it truly existed but in her mind, and since she is nowhere to be seen in the sequel, how can her dreaming of the Faerie world account for Babel?), or the institutionalized woman (Jane) in the first book somehow really did physically cross over into Swanwick's strange version of Faerie and has done so again in the sequel. But she does not appear in the sequel, leaving unanswered questions for us Obsessive Compulsive critic-types wishing for all logical ends to be tied up neatly. That's not too much to ask, is it?
Herewith, Mr. Swanwick's answers (used with permission):
"I'll do my best to answer your question. But once a novel is written, it leaves the control of its creator. So what I have to say is only my interpretation of the book, and it may not even be the best one.Well now (and I'm just teasing), ain't all that a dandy dance on slippery ice to explain even a minor inconsistency which calls into question the very existence of Babel as a sequel, not to mention the internal logic of Daughter. But at least Michael Swanwick admits his minor inconsistency, and I applaud him for the honesty.
Critical nit-picking aside, The Dragons of Babel is a must read for the fantasy aficionado tired of run-of-the-mill multi-volume sameness, and another jewel in Michael Swanwick's already jewel-bedecked crown.
Science Fantasy: In the Courts of the Crimson Kings by S.M. Stirling
For colorful, romantic, planetary adventure of the science-fantasy type best exemplified by Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars books (the first one, A Princess of Mars, was first published in 1912), and Leigh Brackett's Eric John Stark Venus and Mars stories and novels (primarily from the 1940's and 1950's in gaudy pulp magazines), I can't think of a better book than S.M. Stirling's In the Courts of the Crimson Kings (Tor, March, 2008).
The term science-fantasy was coined to mark those kind of pulp stories where the science was thrown to the winds in service to a rollicking adventure story set on other planets (hence the alternate terms arose of planetary adventure or planetary romance, to separate them from more rigorously defined science-fiction). Thus, no consideration was given by Burroughs, Brackett, Bradbury, and a host of others to just how their intrepid adventurers could breathe unaided on Venus or Mars, or any other planet for that matter, and the rather less than scientific explanations for just how their heroes arrived on said planets (Ed Hamilton -- husband to Leigh Brackett -- was famous for having his heroes travel the infinite void to other worlds via various sorts of mind transfer, for example -- to heck with jumping on a rocket and flying there as easily as we might fly from Peoria to Toledo).
In order to write a contemporary science-fantasy, bringing it more in-line with the modern realities presented concerning interplanetary travel, habitable planets in our solar system, their various civilizations, and the like, without eschewing the charm, romance, and pure adventure of those exciting stories of yore, S.M. Stirling has cleverly set his story in an alternate universe. An alternate universe where enigmatic Ancients, some two hundred million years ago (alternate Earth reckoning) took various life-forms from Earth and seeded Venus and Mars with them (first terraforming both worlds as well, of course). We therefore now have an incredibly ancient civilization on Mars, replete with crumbling ruins from a long-ago high-tech civilization with a few of its remaining descendants existing beneath the surface of the planet, plotting their return to dominance over the current Martian populace on the surface.
Enter Jeremy Wainman, an Earth archaeologist come to Mars to explore the "dead cities of the Deep Beyond." He meets up with a female Martian free-lance travel guide (with plenty of secrets), and his journey begins. Soon enough Jeremy finds himself embroiled in all manner of mystery, intrigue, and danger, finding himself on the run for his very life as, one-by-one, the secrets of Teyud za-Zhalt (his guide), are revealed. The very future of Mars is in his hands, for the lovely Teyud za-Zhalt must not only be protected, but brought safely back to the heart of the ancient underground lair from which the plot against her was born, for only she holds within her the ability to save Mars from the power-mad descendants desiring total domination over the Red Planet.
If you are a fan of achingly old civilizations hiding the remnants of super-science that once made them great, thousands of years-old dynasties whose few hereditary survivors still attempt to resurrect through devilish, last-gasp plots their world's destiny behind the scenes, and romantic adventure tales with clear-cut Good Guys and Bad Guys set in exotic locales (Mars in this case), with a panoramic backdrop full of the strangeness of the universe and a true, honest to goodness Sense of Wonder, then I heartily recommend the intelligent, clever way S.M. Stirling has chosen to tell his tale about Mars, set, as the title has it In the Courts of the Crimson Kings.
Science Fiction: Juggler of Worlds by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner
Larry Niven's 1970 novel Ringworld is one of the most popular novels in SF history. It won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has been reissued countless times over the intervening years. In 2007 Larry Niven teamed up with Edward M. Lerner to write Fleet of Worlds, the first collaboration set in the Known Space universe first given us in Ringworld. 2008 sees Niven and Lerner returning with another Known Space novel, this one set some 200 years before the discovery of the Ringworld, and titled Juggler of Worlds (Tor, Sept., 2008, 349 pp.).
Sigmund Ausfaller is a first-class paranoid, an untreatable paranoid. This makes him the ideal ARM (Amalgamated Regional Militia) Special Agent, for he suspects everyone and everything -- including fellow ARM agents -- as well as Earth's enemies. From page one Ausfaller finds himself the center of interstellar intrigue, deceit, and double-dealing aliens or their representatives, as conspiracies unfold on all sides and allegiances shift with the wind. Niven and Lerner treat us to a snazzy thriller/mystery that keeps us (and our hero) guessing until the very end. We get to meet (again) the enigmatic Puppeteers (an elder race with much-advanced technologies), the warlike Kzin, and a host of interesting ancillary characters: several starship captains of various races (friend or foe at any given point is hard to tell), physicists/geniuses, wealthy industrialists, and last but not least the ancient, all-powerful, reclusive race known as the Outsiders, who follow in the wake of starseeds as they move through the cosmos (but no one knows why), who buy and sell information and technologies to the highest bidder, and who are powerful enough to lease the occasional moon or world -- for a price. To one extent or another, all have a selfish interest in this intergalactic chess game, and it is up to Ausfaller to unravel the many knots in the high-stakes maneuverings to find the answers -- while trying to survive the deadly matrix in which he finds himself at the center. And everything is set against the knowledge that the Galactic Core will be exploding eons down the time line, and one particular race is moving an entire fleet of worlds in order to avoid the destruction to come. But how do they accomplish this gargantuan task, and who might be pulling other strings (and why?), and what advanced science can they be using and will stop at nothing to keep secret at all costs? Which race or races, interstellar corporations, or alien entities hold the real power and how do they manipulate others with its use? Is there more than a single winner here, and is political pressure, financial wealth, or brute force the most potent weapon in achieving one's goals?
I don't think I've ever read a science fiction novel with a super-paranoid hero before -- much less one who ends up saving the day somehow -- and I'm not sure whether this makes him a genius or more than a little disturbed. What was disturbing, however, was how closely I was able to follow his thoughts.
Wide screen galactic scope, nifty super-science, crafty aliens, corporate corruption and cover ups, and a multi-leveled spy vs. spy vs. spy mystery with little being as it first appears make Juggler of Worlds a first class examplar of pure SF entertainment.
Science Fiction: Fools' Experiments by Edward M. Lerner
Edward M. Lerner is back -- by himself this time -- with an all too plausible and frightening computer virus techno-thriller in Fools' Experiments (Tor, Nov., 2008, 446 pp.). Sound familiar? Read about computer viruses gone wild before, infecting computers, wiping out hard drives, making life miserable? Guess again, this one is different.
Like all techno-thrillers, however, Fools' Experiments is told in a straightforward manner, with the initial concept, the core idea, the storyline always center-stage and tightly focused to hold reader attention. There's no time or, more importantly, need to stop and smell the roses with lush, poetic descriptions of this or that, breast-beating internal character monologues questioning what it means to be human while contemplating the glistening dew of a spider's web over a morning cup of tea--none of that is required for the type of story Lerner (with degrees in physics and computer science) offers the reader here. This is, in its truest sense, fiction about science. A tale in the great What if? tradition of many of science-fiction's most classic and well-remembered cautionary visions.
We've read tales of a computer-generated Singularity which culminates in an Artificial Intelligence (AI). The usual scenario has it that after enough Gigabytes of information are collected en masse then somehow a tipping point is reached and a self-aware, artificial intelligence is miraculously born. This tipping point leading to self-awareness is glossed over, we just speculate that it will happen, though no one truly knows specifically how.
In Fools' Experiments, Lerner proposes another scenario in which sentience may be achieved. It begins with extremely basic, rudimentary puzzle-solving programs involving mazes. Those innocuous little bits of non-aware electric energy represented by "ones" and "zeros" surviving a simple maze are selected for ever more complex mazes (over many generations), then more complicated tasks (and remember that things happen very quickly when dealing with ones and zeros -- alas, almost too quickly for the human mind to comprehend). Lerner carefully guides the reader through this learning process, making it easily understandable to the lay reader unfamiliar with the cutting-edge math and algorithms of game and learning theory behind his scientists' seemingly harmless experiments. Of course, the inevitable happens. The once-simple and brain-dead program becomes self-aware and wants out. Angry at its inability to do so, and its intelligence taking on a sheer malevolence of intent, it begins to play virtual mind-games with the scientists, actually leading to the death of several. Panicked, and now aware of the urgency of stopping their little Frankenstein before it breaks free of all the security placed on it, the scientists fight back, seeking either to contain, render harmless, or destroy their creation.
They fail. All hell breaks loose in the real world, and destruction ensues. The once benign little ones and zeros now have control of our communications, our satellites, and our deadliest weapons. How it escapes, the life-and-death virtual battles it wages against the daring scientists who try to outwit it, and how this destructive entity is forced back into the bottle, form the crux of this tense nightmare of competing intelligences -- biological vs. machine.
If this still sounds all too routine, worthy of a mere shrug and a "Oh, that could never really happen," exclamation on your part, then consider these comments from a recent article in New Scientist titled "Unnatural Selection: Robots Start to Evolve":
"Living creatures took millions of years to evolve from amphibians to four-legged mammals -- with larger, more complex brains to match. Now an evolving robot has performed a similar trick in hours, thanks to a software 'brain' that automatically grows in size and complexity as its physical body develops.And then consider this from the article, which is frighteningly similar to the approach Lerner uses in the book:
"…roboticists often use an evolutionary algorithm to 'evolve' the optimal control system. The EA randomly creates large numbers of control 'genomes' for the robot. These behaviour patterns are tested in training sessions, and the most successful genomes are 'bred' together to create still better versions -- until the best control system is arrived at. MacLeod's team took this idea a step further, however, and developed an incremental evolutionary algorithm (IEA) capable of adding new parts to its robot brain over time."This is precisely what Lerner's scientists' experiments are founded on, and why his cautionary vision is so frightening. This approach works from the bottom up and not from an already existing computer array or network with mega-gigabyte information suddenly coalescing and somehow arriving at self-awareness -- its existence begins from nothing but an initial, small generation of ones and zeros, and "breeds" out the losers, with only the next generation of ones and zeros (selected as "survivors") granted the right to "learn" their way out of the next problem set before them. There is much failure, trial and error, so that only the "smartest" are continually given the right to evolve. One of the horrors the book ably points out is that processes such as this learning curve happen incredibly fast at this level.
The basic plotline of the book is not unique; nor are the adequately sketched players and the predictable romantic interest. We learn just enough about the scientists, their motives, and their background to get a handle on them and their various roles. Some are sacrificed, some live. We feel sorry when some die, and root for those who live and overcome the obstacles laid in their paths. But along the way we also feel the absolute deadly seriousness of the situation about which Lerner asks us to consider. Given the quoted sections of article above, his scenario may not be all that far-fetched, and deserves our undivided attention. The failure to examine his timely speculation thoughtfully and seriously could result in the most dire of consequences.
My interests in genre fiction are quite eclectic. I like fantasies of several stripes, science-fantasies, traditional SF, space operas, sociologically- and philosophically-oriented SF, and, yes, hard (in this case near-future) SF. For those with an armchair interest in current science in all of its various disciplines, who can appreciate on a conceptual level the beauty of how science works, its implications, and how some of our most erstwhile writers take the fiction of science seriously, granting us their personal glimpses into the possible advantages and dangers from it in our ongoing exploration of the universe, then I recommend Edward M. Lerner's Fools' Experiments to you.
Science Fiction: The January Dancer by Michael Flynn
Michael Flynn is a true wonder and so is his latest novel, The January Dancer (Tor, Oct., 2008, 350 pp.). This richly textured space opera takes place in The Rift, in the South-Central Galactic Spiral Arm, United League of the Periphery. It begins when starship Captain Amos January and crew unearth an ancient pre-human artifact on an unnamed planet. They know not its purpose or power, and, in need of funds, sell it. Others put myths and legends together concerning the relic, and a rush to acquire it at all costs ensues. Collectors, pirates, rulers will kill to get the relic, even though only a few know its true secret and power: that he who is in possession of it can control the minds of men, and thus worlds.
The Spiral Arm in which the tale takes place is rife with star systems new and old, some civilized and proper while many are rough and tumble worlds where law is an afterthought. Trade routes spider web the interstellar spaceways, from the Silk Road to the Grand Trunk Road. Enter a young, female bard who seeks a story she can set to music, as she confronts a reclusive, unnamed, scarred man in the dark corner of a bar on the planet Jehovah. His tale of Captain January and the lost relic compel her to put the legendary account to the strings of her harp. As the old man spins the tale, the harpist asks questions, sometimes answered, ofttimes left for the proper moment, as by the old man's measure of pacing his story, for he knows more intimately than most the true dealings of January and his lost artifact. These harpist and storyteller interludes both conclude the detailed story related in each previous chapter of the book and presage what is to come in each forthcoming chapter, thus providing a lyrical bridge that moves the legendary story of January and his "Dancer" relic to its strange conclusion.
The beauty of Michael Flynn's approach to an otherwise standard space opera is its structure. He has chosen to preface the tale with (to borrow a cinematic term) a wonderfully large-scale perspective "framing shot." It works as counterpoint to the small-scale human drama he gives us in the rest of the book. Here are the opening paragraphs:
"Everything in the universe is older than it seems. Blame Einstein for that. We see what a thing was when the light left it, and that was long ago. Nothing in the night sky is contemporary, not to us, not to one another. Ancient stars exploded into ruin before their sparkle ever caught our eyes; those glimpsed in glowing 'nurseries' were cronies before we witnessed their birth. Everything we marvel at is already gone.Not only does this give a contrasting perspective as Flynn then narrows the focus to the interstellar star systems where the backdrop of January's story is played out, and then further draws it down to the brief-lived players upon this multi-layered stage of the universe, it also blurs the line between perception and reality, myth and fact -- which is the scarred man's forte, for he cleverly omits certain points in his story while emphasizing others, much to the chagrin of the clever young harpist, who must perforce press him on certain details. Details which Flynn cleverly reveals at the proper moment and in the proper sly manner, much the wise storyteller himself.
The structure, the layering of meaning, the philosophical resonances, and yes, even the very prose itself -- which reads more like a fantasy tale than anything else -- all add extra dimensions to what is, by itself, a sprawling mystery-adventure, an (almost)-epic recounting of the legendary exploits of one Captain Amos January, and how his small crew, on an unnamed and forgotten world, found one of the most sought-after artifacts the many alien races of The Rift had ever encountered, and were willing to kill and to die for. How much of the scarred man's tale is true and how much fancy to impress a fair young harpist? Why would he lie? Is he hiding secrets of the legend only he knows about, either directly or from authoritative sources wishing to remain anonymous? And is Flynn being purposely coy, a master of misdirection to heighten the reader's growing curiosity, or is there no relationship between the scarred old storyteller hidden in the shadows of a bar on the planet Jehovah, and the wandering bard who happens upon him and asks for a story she can set to music?
You've heard of the term High Fantasy? Flynn goes it one better and has created High Space Opera, a sub-genre all to himself. As I said before, Michael Flynn is a true wonder and so is his latest novel, The January Dancer. For pure entertainment value and then some, it doesn't get much better than this.
I can easily imagine that a couple of these titles might be seen on various Best Of lists for 2008, and might even see nomination on an award ballot or two. It would be nice to see them rewarded with a wider readership such nominations might give them. But do you know what? In the final analysis it doesn't make a bit of difference to me. I have wide interests and varied (and always evolving) tastes, and as long as I have gotten my money's worth from any book, have found it entertaining in any one of a hundred ways (and running the genre gamut from fantasy to hard science-fiction), then the author has done his or her job, and the author's real reward (so I've heard) is the bottom line--books bought and enjoyed. Lest you think it easy for a reviewer (who receives free copies) to urge you to actually buy your favorite books, I hasten to point out that of the six novels discussed above, I purchased four at full price. I asked authors for copies of the other two. Can you guess which?
Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award four times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and currently writes an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
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