Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Black Easter/The Day After Judgment

James Blish
Completed 3/10/2014, Reviewed 3/24/2014
4 stars

Once again I am writing one review for two different books.  I picked up “Black Easter” because I like genre fiction that deals in some way with religion.  It’s a very short book, and it was actually my first read after my Hugo challenge.  When I finished the mere 165 page book, I got angry!  I couldn’t believe it was done.  I couldn’t believe this was a novel.  It was more like an overlong short story, low on plot, high on mood and description.  I felt like Blish just barely qualified for the novel category, which means a story of 40,000 words or more, by writing 40,001!  So I busied myself with a little research and found there was a sequel, “The Day After Judgement”.  Meh!  I thought I’d better wait and get the sequel before writing a review.  And I’m here to tell you, it was worth it.  Instead of an unsatisfying read, the combination of the two books turned into one awesome experience.

Please be aware that to review both books, I basically give away the ending of the first, although I won’t be too specific.

In “Black Easter”, the time is the cold war, and magic is viewed, studied, and practiced as a science.  Black magic is available to the general public by black magicians for a high price.  White magic is practiced by an order of priests and these days, it is mostly used for finding treasure. Baines, a powerful arms manufacturing mogul and scientist, seeks out black magician Theron Ware for an infernal task.  He wants Ware to unleash all the demons of Hell on the world for one day to see what would happen.  But before paying the magician, Baines asks him to do two smaller tasks: cause the deaths of a politician and a rival scientist.  Easily succeeding, Ware begins prepping for the great conjuring.

Because of a strange covenant, Father Domenico, a white magician priest who has forseen an impending catastrophe, is allowed to witness though not interfere with the Ware’s ritual.  Together with Bain’s assistant Jack Ginsberg, and another scientist from Baine’s company, they conjure the demons, and, well, all Hell breaks loose. 

“The Day After Judgement” follows the men after the chaos of the ritual.  We also get to see the perspective of the US military trying to make sense of the supernatural events.  A strange city has appeared in the middle of Death Valley, and its inhabitants are surprisingly demonic.  Our main characters make the trek through the “valley of the shadow of death” to try to figure out what to do next.

Taken as a whole, I loved these books.  It’s the type of early apocalyptic and religious-themed SF literature I enjoy and got a taste of with Blish’s Hugo winning “A Case of Conscience”. In fact, the story in these two books, with “Case” and another story, “Dr. Mirabilis”, make up a thematic trilogy Blish called “After Such Knowledge”.    So of course, now, I have to get the third.

I really like Blish’s prose.  As I said in the beginning, the first book is low on plot, high on mood and description.  From the opening pages, the evil looms.  The story has a very pragmatic tone, which acts as a counterpoint to the fact that we’re talking about magic in the modern age.  Nothing frilly, nothing woo-woo, just serious dark foreboding.  

As is common with earlier SF, there is the typical problem of almost no women in the story.  Here, the only woman appears to be a succubus.  It was probably even more noticeable than usual, because I had read “Ancillary Justice”, where all the references to people are female nouns and pronouns, between the two volumes.  Even though I really enjoy older, classic SF, I always forget that books like these are often devoid of substantial female characters and have to remind myself that they were written in a very different time.    

Aside from my angry surprise at the end of the first book, I thought these books were great.  This is the type of four star classic SF that I love discovering in the stacks of worn paperbacks in libraries and used bookstores.  

Monday, March 17, 2014

2014 Hugo Winner: Ancillary Justice

Ann Leckie
Completed 3/6/2014, Reviewed 3/6/2014
2 stars

“Ancillary Justice” is a complex novel.  There are a lot of good ideas and fun plots strewn around it.  There’s the twist to the AI computer has a nervous breakdown plot, there’s the evil empire, there’s the noir-ish assassin, there are the subjugated people assimilated into the AI’s human network, and finally there’s the part that everyone’s already reviewed the heck out of:  the language without gender.  It has all the makings of a terrific novel, but to me, it just fell flat.

There is so much to this novel that it’s hard to give a synopsis.  I’ve already listed most of the plot lines, but I’ll try to wrap it together in a few sentences.  Breq is an AI, inhabiting a single body.  She used to be a ship with hundreds of human bodies acting as tentacles, or ancillaries, all part of her collective (yes, a little like the Borg from STNG).  She is on a mission to assassinate the Lord of the Radche.  The Lord of the Radche has ancillaries too, but some have been infiltrated by an alien race.  On her way, she encounters and helps a former captain who has OD’ed on a frozen planet.  Together, they try to find the LOTR (heh) and destroy her before she destroys the empire. 

The biggest problem I found with the book is that the timelines jump all over the place.  I’m not just referring to the simple device of chapters alternating between past and present.  It’s the constant use of backstory and exposition.  It made the reading cumbersome.  There were also numerous long expositions to trudge through.  I think the issue was really that this book is the first of an intended trilogy.  Rather than load up on moving the plots, the author was trying to fill out her universe.   

The whole gender-bending aspect of Breq’s language is great.  There is no differentiation of gender with words, so everyone is referred to with female nouns and pronouns: she, niece, mother, daughter, sister.  At first it’s difficult to wrap your head around.  But I eventually found it fairly easy.  I didn’t find myself struggling over my preconceptions that a crying person is weak and is therefore female, while a brutish person is stoic and therefore male.  They all just blended together in an amorphous androgynous mix.  Maybe I had been warmed up to the idea by reading Ursula LeGuin’s LeftHand of Darkness several times.  Or maybe I think about gender more fluidly than most, although when I did have to picture the characters in my head as I was reading, I did picture them looking like Zsa Zsa Gabor in “Queen of Outer Space”. (Okay, so I’m not that well-adjusted!)   But even this took a back seat to the boredom created by the tedious storytelling.

I was confused by the whole ancillary concept.  My understanding is that ancillaries are “corpse soldiers”, humans whose personalities and memories have been effectively wiped out and are under the control of an AI.  This technology allows the AIs to have eyes, ears, and control all over a ship, station, or planet.  The LOTR also has ancillaries, but we find out that an alien race has infiltrated some of the LOTR’s ancillaries.  So the Lord must keep some of her activities from herself so that the bad ancillaries don’t know what the good ancillaries are doing.  But this invalidates the idea that the central brain has complete control over the ancillaries and that some are thinking for themselves, which is a contradiction.  Is this a plot hole, or intentionally designed to be revealed in a later volume?  I found the lack of an answer to be frustrating.

On a similar note, the LOTR’s name is Mianaai.  I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a play on “me and I”.  Is this implying that the Breq is the same entity as the LOTR?  Is it an allusion to the many ancillaries of the LOTR?  Perhaps it is a play on “me, an AI”, implying that the LOTR is herself an AI, rather than a human.  Again, it seems to be something planted to get to read the rest of the trilogy. 

Finally, after reflecting on all the plots and devices, I eventually found myself wondering if there was really anything new here.  The main plots can easily be described as a mash up of the Borg, HAL 9000, the Star Wars empire, and the frozen world and androgyny of Left Hand of Darkness.   Of course there are a lot mash-ups out there.  It isn’t often that someone breaks new ground in SF/F anymore.  Yet in the hands of a good writer, a trite mash-up could be an incredibly interesting and exciting story.  Instead, Leckie simply left me cold.  I give this book two stars, basically, an E for effort.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


John Gardner
Completed 3/8/2014, Reviewed 3/12/2014
5 stars

“Grendel” is a retelling Beowulf myth from the point of view of the monster from the epic poem.  Not simply a dark fantasy, it is a character study of a monster, an existential exploration of the meaning of life for an evil being.  Sometimes tragic, sometimes hysterical, sometimes over-the-top philosophical, it is a wonderful read that takes you into the soul of a monster.  And here’s a bonus:  you don’t have to read Beowulf first to understand get.  A word of caution, however, as there is a spoiler in my review.  I discuss the ending, but I’m going to assume that reader knows something about the story and already knows, or at least, can guess the ending.

Grendel tells his story in the first person.  You get to see the world through his eyes.  First you experience his relationship with his mother.  She’s also a monster, perhaps with some human in her, but so old she can barely communicate.  He often has to lift her to move her around.  Her attachment to him is powerful.  She cries and moans, and expresses her fear for Grendel’s well-being with arm-waving and grunting.  When he is distraught, she nearly suffocates him when she pulls him to her breast, trying to comfort him as if still trying to nurse him. 

You also experience Grendel through his relationship with nature: his futile attempts to scare away goats, the repetitive onslaught of a bull attacking Grendel while he is stuck between two trees.  These seem to help Grendel understand the futility of life and how over and over again, life will pummel you unless you can figure out how to avoid the onslaught and just let the horns graze you.  Eventually, you will be saved, but even an overprotective monster mother will not always be around to help you out of life’s scrapes.

Lastly, there’s Grendel’s relationship with humans.  At first it’s not a hostile relationship.  Grendel often hides near the meadhall, listening to the harpist play and sing ballads.  It mesmerizes Grendel.  He longs for the companionship of others and the enchantment that music puts over the harsh reality of life.  With music, everything seems better.  Through music, you can believe anything.  Eventually, of course, Grendel is misconstrued as a killer, making his relationship with humans adversarial.

Another encounter that should be mentioned is with the dragon.  The dragon is not just another monster.  The dragon is a mentor, if a cynical one, expounding on his philosophy of life and the nature of monsters.  In the most comical scene in the book, Grendel, like the reader, is utterly confounded by the dragon’s ranting.  What he takes with him is that evil gives meaning to goodness.  Without the monsters, there would be no heros.  So Grendel has a purpose in life, to be the monster he was born to be.

All the prose that gets you through Grendel’s exploration of himself, his nature, and the world is simply beautiful.  The book is short and it is told from only one perspective, Grendel’s.  And with a literary novel, that’s a great thing, because it makes the reading of the prose so easy, and it gives you the time to really focus on Gardner’s elegant choice of words. 

I only had one problem with the book, the end.  It seems like Gardner had to find a way to make the story end the way it’s supposed to.  And that’s fine, but it happened quickly, almost clumsily, like it was written when Gardner was in a different state of mind and was just trying to finish the book.  But even as I reflect on this, I have this itch that tells me I’m wrong.  Maybe the point of the end is to signify how abrupt and shockingly reality can destroy our life-lie, the belief system we create to give meaning to our lives, the thing that makes us feel invincible.  One minute, we revel in the illusion of invulnerability which has gotten us this far in life.  Then  reality finds our one weakness and brings us to our knees in an unbelieving stupor.  Wow, I think I just had an epiphany.

This book is an incredible read.  It’s a gorgeously written, extremely intimate piece of literature.  It’s a little like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  But instead of pitying Grendel, you come to identify with him and his angst, and your heart breaks in the end.  Five stars.

Monday, March 10, 2014


Connie Willis
Completed 2/28/2014, Reviewed 3/7/2014
4 stars

“Passage” is novel about researchers studying the phenomenon of NDEs, or, near-death experiences.  It is told in the same vein as Willis’ Oxford time travel series, and has all the same adventure, excitement, and urgency.  I have this mental block with books that are over 400 pages long, dreading the length, wondering how long will it take me to get into the plot and the characters.  A few pages into this 600 page tome was all it took to pull me in.  Willis simply has a knack for strapping you into a roller coaster and not letting you off until the ride comes to a complete stop.

The main character Joanna Lander is a researcher at a Denver hospital, trying to collect objective data on NDEs from people who have just experienced them.  Unfortunately, her data is often polluted by her unintentional associate and nemesis, Mr. Mandrake, another researcher who always seems to get to the patients before her.  By asking the patients leading questions, Mandrake ruins the objectivity of the information Joanna needs for her own research.  And there’s no way of blocking Mandrake because he’s a famous author of life-after-death books and the darling of the hospital’s most generous and oldest benefactor. 

Soon, another researcher comes on the scene.  Richard Wright is researching the brain while under the influence of a certain drug which seems to imitate the NDE.  Joanna joins forces with Richard, while trying to avoid the prying, pushy, and self-absorbed Mandrake.  Because of a small pool of slowly dissipating test subjects, Joanna offers to be a test subject for Richard.  Who better than someone who already knows the questions to ask.  And then the book gets really exciting.

Besides Willis’ fast-paced story telling style, she excels at creating amazingly vivid and profound supporting characters.  Because of the nature of the story, many of these are people who you don’t expect to be living by the end of the book.  It adds a depth to and sympathy for these characters.  My favorite was Maisie, the annoying kid with a terrible heart condition who becomes a major player in the race to figure out the riddle of NDEs.  To Willis’ credit, she moves Maisie beyond the hackneyed disaster-porn child character, keeping her from being too annoying, making her an active and realistic part of the excitement.

Ultimately, one of the things I like most about the book was that it was about something that could be really emotionally manipulative, but wasn’t.  This is about death research--yes, there are several deaths in the book--and I really liked how it was handled by the characters.  It’s gut-wrenching without being maudlin.  I give this book 4 stars.