Wednesday, 7 August 2013

A Run of Mediocre British Sci-fi?

Did I hit a somewhat unlucky run of reading or am I just bored of sci-fi?? To get these out the way, and out of mind ASAP, I'm going to try and round all 3 up together here.

I became page-jammed, with the top two books (as pictured) over a year ago, stuck mid chapter, a few dozen pages into each. With blog posts having dried up about the same time, that may have been down to a dip in cognitive function with most remaining resources sunk into co-leading an alliance to a #2 crown on World 75 of Lord of Ultima). But with miraculously improved health (more on that later), dust was blown off and determined reading resumed... and then continued on through another novel that had been entirely self-locked for years. Since I finisihed Reynolds just this morning, I'll start with him.

House of Suns (Alastair Reynolds):

By the numbers, hard sci-fi, space-opera, second star to the right and straight on until morning. That is to say, it certainly wasn't unpleasant (in the way that Divergence had me staring at the page in aggrieved disbelief, sometimes), but there was little omph. No real surprises...
[But still, spoilers after the page-break are greyed out (please highligh to read easily).]

I don't know if the ongoing romantic connection between the two main characters was supposed to be risqué, given they were clones of the same person (albeit much diverged), but I found their affections a tedious excuse to fill a few more lines.

The plot was linear, with a formulaic structure, peaking in action 1/3 the way through with a long build to a gentle end-gasm, which was predictable in shying away from any major revelations.

The flashback chapter, one at the start of each of the 8 sections, does help flesh out this somewhat uninspiring universe, but doesn't tie in with the main time frame quite as intricately as I could have hoped. I'm left wondering whether I missed some subtle, brilliant, tie-in between the narratives?

Reynolds ultimately only hints that the little boy, with whom she plays at the beginning, is in fact the legendary Valmick bloke (who became an interstellar sized cloud of superhuman consciousness, later shrunk down to become the enigmatic 'spirit of the air', before combining with their broken robot pal, and ultimately sacrificing himself to preserve our leading lady {for some reason, I didn't really feel their friendship bond either}). If the events in 'Palatial' were meant as an analogy for the main story, or held some cleverer significance, I failed to detect it.

I was never sure if Hesperus (presumably named from Greek legend, for a son of a god and a mortal, and brother of Lucifer) was supposed to be actually reliable or not. There were a number of times where my suspension of disbelief faltered, leaving me unsure if the character was lying, or if Reynolds had glossed over events a little lazily. For example, when he was supposedly right on death's door, with Cadence and Cascade first deep in him, trying their utmost to finish the job, but apparently they fail. Then after he is repaired (predictably, despite vanishingly small odds...) coming back like a modestly powered up read-up batman/Optimus Prime, he conveniently needs to play dead (for no given reason) until he and Purslane are taken captive on her own ship by the two robots of calamitous intent... Seems more likely to me that this had to be an intentional play. So, was the whole plot orchestrated by Hersperus/Valmick? In line with what Wikipedia says of the famous conflation between him and his (evil) brother.

Picking technical holes, I totally fail to see how a series of rings (i.e. ringworlds) were supposed to be plausibly able to form a perfectly sealed sphere? Is that even geometrically possible? Certainly in practical implementation I can't see how such a configuration could have contained, for eons, the unspeakably cunning 1st machines, hell bent on cleansing all human life.

On the surface, the theme explores the question of whether man and conscious machines can co-exist, as so often is the case, inexplicably freezing humans at current day norms, with true AI being magically difficult and rare to create, then also inexplicably stunted in the field of notable self improvement. Yawn. But in practice, the book is mostly a treatise on the different tactics AI-free humanity might adapt to cope with the inhuman scale of a galaxy while stuck with the known laws of physics:

1) Bloom empires, blow away, rinse and repeat (i.e. no solution at all).

2) The approach employed by the protagonists, and their Lines - continual travel and trade, using time dilation to burrow 'through the pages of history like book worms' (a good quote, paraphrased).

In 'A Deepness in the Sky' Vinge explores #1 in more detail, and how #2 might be deployed to help stabilise #1. However, this was in the context of a galaxy where advancement to AI and beyond was explicitly forbidden (by magical extra pseudo-physics az an axiom).

3) Grow your body and brain bigger, and bigger, as you age in real time, with one's metabolism and brain slowing down massively, to allow time for synchronized biological thought impulses. Kind of a cool thought experiment.

It illustrates how starkly dull and pointless existence would be, in this impossibly conservative paradigm.

The Apocylpse Codex (Charles Stross):

Again, to be fair, this was a perfectly readable fiction, that certainly kept me sufficiently engaged to finish it (once back in the saddle), so perhaps a lack of enjoyment is largely on my part.

However, what it felt like was a bridging book, as much as a novel in it's own right. It seems to be a conduit to transition our plucky underdog protagonist up to the big league and the real world-ending threats that have been looming.

The plot seems a little too linear, too on pat, and too easy, really. Perhaps it sits with the style of Peter O'Donnell, who Stross was apparently aping for this piece, I don't know, I've not read or heard of him. Stross is to be applauded for stylistic experimentation, but the cost is it makes for some hit and miss results. Stross does admit "...the writing was hard ..." and "Pushing out a fourth [Laundry novel] in 2010-12 felt almost premature", in his blog post explaining the context and crib notes for the book. Also that the following, and final, (three) books in the series will drop the literary 'pastiche' (homages), in favour of their own tone.

I didn't really understand Bob's need to have his (rather conveniently specialised) civilian friend (who only just introduced at the beginning of this story) provide a philosophical critique on a stolen cult bible. It never seemed like the analysis really changed the course he was stuck on. Maybe I failed to grasp the intricacies.

Perhaps having a sane, Christian academic character sound warning bells about the insanity of the cult, in part helps to distance the work from spewing (fictional) aspersions (and insults) over the real world beliefs of potential readers. Charlie is certainly an ardent atheist, after all, and the story does seem to bash Christianity about a little too much already. The religion verses atheism (Reddit style) 'debate' is dull, passe and uninformative, in my opinion.

Arriving in the parallel universe, at the temple on the plain, seemed all too convenient and not at all scary (despite it being the stuff of nightmares for a number of previous books). I was also disappointed that their the two portals between worlds didn't have correspondingly fixed physical positions, between dimensions: a several mile car drive apart in our world, but a helpfully short walk on the other side. If the relative positioning is arbitrary, was there really any need for the cult to base operations in Denver, on the Colorado plateau, mirroring the otherworldly location?

Still, better than your average fiction, with some interestingly subtle reflections of real life.

Divergence (Tony Ballantyne):

OK, so I'm not entirely sure why I read this, other than it was the final part of the trilogy, so continuance took me on from 'Capacity', despite not really liking it. Also, I read the second despite not being enamoured with the crayons-on-plain paper writing style, of Ballantyne's 'Recursion' (reviewed), when hung against the flowing masterpieces like the late, great Iain M Banks. I do wonder where on 'the scale' Tony sits, given the simplistic, somewhat arbitrary characterisation, dialogue and philosophy. (Although I'm not saying I could do better!) Fiction for autistic nerds, by autistic nerds...

The chapters of the previous two novels jumped back and forth in time, this one stays straight and true, with only occasional flashbacks. Another linear story 'arc', with even the protagonists aware of the trudging certainty of their journey and destination. There's a coming together of the components they assemble along the way, but it feels heavy handed and in some parts fumblingly arbitrary.

In this trillogy, Tony seems to pull an inversion on Bank's Culture universe, where "SC" here is merely "Social Care" (as opposed to the super-eliete, shadowy, infinitely resourceful, intergalactic,  interventionist espionage agency). There are some endearing similarities, in that SC members are  relatively elite operatives, with their powers of super-emapthy and ability to hypnotise the bland sheepple of his general population (hypnotise to death, if necessary). They're a kind of keep-calm-and-carry-on, home guard-meets-social-worker, variation, with a contrastingly conservative agenda.

Also, the conclusion sees an initiation of a new order that is a hopelessly quaint mimic of the Culture's predominantly spaceship faring civilisation. Except here it is a cartoon perfect, homogeneous monoculture that's spontaneously imposed on the entire human race, just...because.

Arbitrary much? I mean, didn't hate the book, or the ending, nearly as much as 'Calculating God', but there was a similar religious bent towards the philosophy of the conclusion: the human race is freed from the smothering attentions of "The Watcher", who turns out to be merely an accidental perversion of the arbitrary, inescapable space magic that permeates the fabric of the universe, enforcing absolute fairness in all events!! OMG!WTF?Gunnathrowup...

 "...Now the singularity has taken place, it is time for us to reach for the next stage of development.' "

Exposition that would make a stilted period drama blush! But, I suppose, that it at least it means that all the odd ruminations, centred around the unmitigated plight of (conventionally) handicapped kids, wasn't the serious soul searching: the moratorium on medical, or other, progress was merely wrong.

A major flaw, amongst many, was the earth not being instantly covered in a deadly swarm of "BVBs" (black velvet bands) when the Watcher is made to go bye-bye. Hours earlier, when he is forced to turn off one or two of his Bigger Brother style observational towers, the ramshackle protagonists narrowly escape the resulting extinguishment of hundreds of (eerily calm) souls (drugged up for compliance). But that was just to illustrate how far the tyrannical Watcher was prepared to go, in sacrificing the lives of the few, to preserve the existing order of the rest... and now things are different... because... well... magic, or something! Anyway, end of the book, time to sleep!

At least the story did wrap up definitely and it didn't take too long to read, since the writing was big and the pages small...

Where from here, for this humble critic?:

Should I take a break from sci-fi, going beyond attempts to diversify the authors I read? I was thinking of digesting all of the Ian Bank's books, savouring his final Culture novel "The Hydrogen Sonata" until last... But maybe I should just get it read, morn it's finality and move on. Hopefully I'll have much else to do anyway...

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