Wednesday, February 12, 2014

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Hugo; Locus, 1999)

By Connie Willis

Early edition cover art: unknown

SF Hardness Rating: 10

Themes: Temporal Puzzles, Complications of Causality, War and preservation of the past 

What can I say about this novel by the Queen of Time Travel, Connie Willis? It is nothing more and nothing less than a page-turning book of pure delight. Those familiar with the mystery genre will recognize the novel's structure immediately. In effect, this novel is a kind of science-fiction who-done-it with the complication of time travel that keeps you guessing until the end - no easy feat for a novelist. While the story is a bit light on deeper meaning, aside from an exploration of chaos, the puzzle contained within is so expertly crafted, so carefully revealed and the characters so appealing that I feel it has earned its fourth star*. It truly is an archetype for this sub-genre. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Rise of Endymion (Locus, 1998)

Foreword: Now here is an interesting situation. The best novels have a habit of continuing to grow in one's estimation the more time passes after the reading. Much like with the recent "Forever Peace," "The Rise of Endymion" is one that has not stood up as well to the intervening time. Now, don't misunderstand - this is still a fabulous novel and perhaps one of the best love/adventure stories that I have read. And yet, where I had thought in the aftermath that this was a superior novel to "Hyperion," now that first novel sticks out much more in my mind. It's an interesting effect and I've decided that for this title, I will not edit the review I wrote immediately afterwards, just over a year ago. Please contrast this review with the one on "Forever Peace."

By Dan Simmons

Early edition cover art: (unknown)

SF Hardness Rating: 8

Themes: Time, Space and the fundamental meaning of all things, interconnectedness, life after death, redemption, interstellar/pan-galactic conflict, love

Science Fiction is not always considered to be high art in the same way that standard literary novels are. The genre itself is best known for it's future-looking perspective and the creative baubles of the possible viewed through that lens. 
But the appeal of Science Fiction isn't just cerebral. By being able to strip away pieces of our own world and to invent worlds yet to come, the science fiction author is given additional degrees of freedom with which to experiment and in which to build soaring plot-lines and characters which cannot easily exist within the narrow confines of our present reality. In short, there is the opportunity to create great works of the heart as well as of the head.

What really gives Science Fiction its impact is that it remains much more of our world than if the slate were entirely swept clean, as in pure Fantasy. The best of the genre is relatable to us in our own terms. More so, it builds upon that relatability by providing us with something we all crave: a story of what may yet come to pass, and in that, assurance that we can, as a people, become more than what we are. Thus, it satisfies our internal desires for immortality and of growth. It is for these reasons that I feel that Science Fiction, more than any other genre, has the potential to give us truly transcendent stories that help us to understand better ourselves and our relationship to the larger universe.

I tell you all this, here at the start, because in finishing Dan Simmons' "The Rise of Endymion" this morning, I have completed the epic Hyperion Quartet (or "Cantos" to those familiar with the novels). More than any others, these four novels exemplify the true potential of Science Fiction and are, collectively and in my humble opinion, very simply one of the finest works of literature I have ever read.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Forever Peace (Hugo; Nebula, 1998)

By Joe Haldeman

Early edition cover art: Bruce Jensen

SF Hardness Rating: 10

Themes: Motivations for Aggression, Future Technology, Unintended Consequences

You would be forgiven for thinking that Joe Haldeman's 1997 novel "Forever Peace" is a follow-up to his iconic 1975 story "Forever War.*" The two do share some DNA in terms of the ultimate pacifistic conclusions of their main characters and both deal with the unintended consequences of conflict. However, it is there that the resemblance ends. Where "Forever War" describes an interstellar conflict waged across both time and space, "Forever Peace" describes a much nearer future in which heading off to combat for a soldier means plugging himself or herself into an immersive environment in a lab. From this virtual perch he or she controls a mechanical fighter called a SoldierBoy which kills from afar. Think of it as the remote version of the fighting suits from "Starship Troopers."

Again, the crux of the story is the psychological aspect and how the soldiers are changed by their experience in unexpected ways. Much more than with the Forever War, this ripples out to change the world utterly, ending the possibility of war forever. Whether this change is a perfect solution is subject to debate and it is these shades of grey that keep this novel from quite living up to the shadow of its predecessor. That said, it is still an excellent read and if you are a fan of the robotic sub-genre of science fiction (particularly popular in Japanese Science Fiction) you will find a lot to like in this novel.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Moon and the Sun (Nebula, 1997)

By Vonda McIntyre

Early edition cover art: Unknown

Rating: ½
SF Hardness Rating: 8

Themes: Alternate history, Treatment of alien Species/Races

The last time we ran into Vonda McIntyre she described to us a post-apocalyptic world of nuclear dangers and bio-engineered medicine. Well, The Moon and the Sun is about as far from Dreamsnake as you can get while still remaining within the realm of Science Fiction. In this novel, we go inside the 17th century palace of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France. In his court, the new science and technology of the Renaissance co-exist with long-held traditions. As the story opens, one of the most trusted of the king's retinue returns from a long ocean-going voyage. His prize? A living mermaid - a sea monster which McIntyre presents as a sentient and intelligent other, heretofore hidden from human eyes. 

The mermaid takes up residence in one of the king's fountains and the sister of its captor, a woman named Marie-Josephe, is assigned as its keeper. As the king debates what to do with his latest acquisition, this talented and headstrong young woman finds a way to communicate with the creature. In the course of their interactions, Marie-Joseph comes to see that as a learned person who is ahead of her time, she is just as alien a creature in Louis the XIV's court as is the sea monster. The two of them must work together (with the aid of some sympathetic outsiders) in order to save both their lives.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Ender's Game: The Movie (2013)

By Gavin Hood

Poster cover art: Summit Entertainment & Friends

Rating: ½
SF Hardness Rating: 9

Interstellar War, Propaganda and Deception, Coming of Age

There's a pivotal scene in the Orson Scott Card novel "Ender's Game" that occurs near the end of the book. Ender is climbing through a castle built by his now-defeated enemy and as he does so, he encounters places and objects drawn from his own mind. But none of these objects are authentic. Like a movie set, they are two dimensional, skin deep representations worth more for the memories evoked than the pleasure of encountering them in the flesh. It is somewhat surprising to me that there is, in the novel itself, such an apt metaphor for my own reaction to this movie for which I have waited with bated breath for almost 16 years.

Even though it is ultimately unsatisfying, it's not because the movie is not true to its own source material. On the contrary, never have I seen a film that hews so closely to the novel from which it has been adapted. But in the process of strict adherence to the plotting, it feels like the soul of the work has been drained out. The drama of the battle-room was never the heart of the novel for me, simply the background against which Ender's internal struggle played out. Deprived of that internal monologue, this version feels much less personal.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Blue Mars (Hugo, Locus; 1997)

By Kim Stanley Robinson

Early edition cover art: Don Dixon

Rating: ½
SF Hardness Rating: 8

Themes: Future colonization, human potential, terraforming highs and lows, interplanetaru political intrigue, advancement of science

Kim Stanley Robinson's "Mars" trilogy is brought to a close with "Blue Mars." I think it is a fine novel, though I have had many conversations with others who felt differently. The refrain that comes up again and again is that Blue Mars just doesn't measure up to Red and Green. I suppose there is some truth to that. Certainly, the tone of Blue Mars is very different from the other two. But a large part of that is the legacy of how "Green Mars" ends. At the end of that novel  an independent self-determining Mars is right on the cusp of achievability. Even the former waring factions of the underground spanning the ideologies of Reds through Greens and stranger things look like they may be able to put their differences behind them.

That leaves little room for a traditional trilogy grand-finale ending. And Robinson does not contrive artificial roadblocks to ensure that summation waits for the end of Blue Mars. Instead he gives us something different, yet no less worthy. Once the hanging threads left over from Green are dealt with, his story becomes free of the necessity of feeding the plot. What happens is that we are treated to a series of vignettes, spread over long stretches of time, each of which is meant to evoke some interesting aspect of the Martian future. Despite these occurring in a temporally linear sequence and with interactions between characters we have come to know and love, the format more resembles an anthology. In that sense Blue Mars is perhaps closer in tone to Robinson's companion collection of short stories "The Martians."

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Slow River (Nebula, 1996)

By Nicola Griffith

Early edition cover art: (unknown)

SF Hardness Rating: 9

Themes: Light and Dark Sides of Biotechnology

Much like the previous novel, The Diamond Age, and the classic Neuromancer before it, "Slow River" presents us with the gritty underbelly of a futuristic city in which advances in technology have failed to end suffering. Instead, such tools just provide more terrible weapons to both sides of the equation. In this case, however, those tools and the society in which they are used feel much more (if you'll excuse the pun) organic. Perhaps this is partly a matter of personal comfort. Being a northerner, I can bring to mind the look and feel of the tableau of steel greys to be found in damp cold river city during the short days of winter. By contrast, Diamond Age's (and Neuromancer's) fetid tropical setting is more difficult and less visceral an experience for me.

But beyond the subject matter and setting, I also found the narrative style effective. When we first meet Lore, she is litterally naked and bleeding on the dock of the unnamed city, having emerged from the water reborn, in a way, from the life she led before. Over the next few years, as she tries to sort out how she came to this, the reader is brought along on her journey of self discovery in three parallel story lines.