Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Dies The Fire

S.M. Stirling
Completed 8/18/2015, Reviewed 8/18/2015
3 stars

The geek shall inherit the earth.  According to the author, SCA, Tolkien, and Renaissance Festival aficionados, as well as Wiccans, stand the best chance.  So will a few farmers, survivalists, motorcycle gang members, and history and engineering professors when all technology is wiped out in a bizarre cataclysmic event.  Those who don’t perish quickly from lack of food and water and exposure to the elements return to a Middle Ages existence, coming together in small groups, or attempting to create maniacal oppressive kingdoms.  Stirling creates a very realistic post-apocalyptic scenario with great detail.  For me, the detail derailed my interest in the story, keeping me from developing a strong relationship with the plight of the main characters. 

Don’t get me wrong, I think the detail adds an authenticity to the premise of the book.  The main characters who come together at the beginning of the catastrophe all bring different talents to the pool.  Because there are so many SCA and renfest folks, there are a lot of good horse riders, archers, and swordfolk.  Not only is electrical technology kaput, but even gunpowder doesn’t burn explosively anymore.  So these Middle Ages weapon wielders teach the others in their new clans how to build these weapons and use them to hunt and defend themselves.  They plant and harvest food, hunt game, and build new homes away from the cities.  All this activity convinces you that people could survive this kind of catastrophe. 

But for me, it took too much away from the more exciting parts of the plot, attacks by bears, psychos, cannibals, motorcycle gangs, and the “Protector”.  It also watered down the character development.  I found myself wandering during these geeky parts and losing track of the plot, and particularly, new people.  And as this book is about survivors coming together and across one another, there are a lot of minor characters.  At one point about halfway through the book, I realized I had forgotten who several of the characters were, just having to rely on knowing that they are with the “good guys”.  By the end, I felt pretty bored and was skipping pages, just trying to finish.  

On the other hand, I have to say that the main characters are very interesting.  The leader of one group, the Mackenzies, is Juniper, a Wiccan singer-songwriter.   She is completely likeable, strong, and intelligent.  It is very refreshing to have such a non-traditional character making a positive impact in the story.  Mike, the leader of the Bearkillers is male, but he has the Tolkien fan in his group.  She’s a teenager who would rather be an elf, and she teaches the members of this clan how to use a bow and arrow.  But it’s Juniper and Mike’s journeys that drive the story.  I liked them, I just thought I would have liked them more if the book kept me more engaged.

One thing that I really liked about the book’s concept was that this global catastrophe takes place in 1998 even though the book was published in 2004.  I believe it’s because the source of the event takes place in 1998 when the first book of Stirling’s Nantucket series was published.  So the events take place “now”, sort of.  So it’s not like “2001: A Space Odyssey”, which made me despair a little when the year came and went with no alien contact.   But with “Dies the Fire”, I don’t secretly get my hopes up that this will happen in say 2020 and I finally get to use my Boy Scout archery skills.  I don’t know if that makes sense, but I thought the time scheme just seemed creative and novel, a little like alternative history.

I think a lot of people will like this book better than I did, especially my Renfest and cosplay friends and relatives.  I give the book three out of five stars, but I completely understand people who would rate the book higher, and encourage my Renfest friends to read this book.  I actually toyed with giving it two stars, but gave it the benefit of the doubt because of its high geek potential.  I probably won’t read the eleven sequels or the origin “Nantucket” series, but I’d be glad to hear recaps from folks who do read them.  

Thursday, August 20, 2015

1993 Hugo Winner: The Doomsday Book

Connie Willis
Completed 5/17/2013, reviewed 5/18/2013
5 stars

The first Connie Willis book I read was “To Say Nothing Of The Dog.”  I found it boring.  Knowing that I had two more Willis books to read filled me with dread.  Reluctantly, I finally got this book from the library.  I tried to psych myself up for it.  I had just completed “Neuromancer” and didn’t like it.  Any book after this would be better.  And “Doomsday” was about time travel to the middle ages.

It wasn’t just a step up; it was fantastic.  I read this novel voraciously.  It was the first novel I’ve read while commuting on a bus or light rail, 7-10 pages per ride, where I didn’t feel like I lost the momentum of the story.  I read it every chance I got.  It was that good.  This novel made me fall in love with Connie Willis’ writing.

The basic story of travelling to the 14th century tugged at my fascination of that period.  About 20 years ago, I listened to Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror.” Although I wasn’t as good a reader of non-fiction at that time, I mostly enjoyed it.  I love watching Science Channel documentaries about the middle ages.  The gift of Connie Willis is that she made me care for people of the 1300s more than any non-fiction work I’ve come across. 

Like “Dog,” “Doomsday” bounces back and forth between the past and the present.  The great thing about this book is that the two times parallel each other.  She makes you an intimate part of the action of both times.  And she creates vivid characters in each as well. 

There were times when I thought she could have moved that action a little more quickly.  But she creates many supporting characters who are just as equally well-developed.  Their characters take time to unfold, but they become intricately involved in the movement of the story. 

And I cared so much for so many of the characters, Kirvin, Agnes, Dunworthy, Dr Mary Ahern, even the annoying Mrs Gaddins and Lady Imyene.  And what’s a story that takes place in England without annoying English stereotypes.  At times, their actions are absurd, funny, and frustrating, as in a Monty Python sketch.  But they are more than comic relief, they create interpersonal conflict and make the story that much more exciting and readable.

Kirvin is a brilliant character.  Her relationship with the “contemps” of the 1300s is wonderful, joyful, and heartbreaking.  I was nearly moved to tears towards the end of the book by her love for these people.  It wasn’t saccharine; it was mature drama.  Her evolution from outsider to angel is completely gripping. 

I have to sing the praises of this book.  I think I’m going to give this book 5 stars because of how much it moved me.  The ending is gut-wrenching and breath-taking.  I would consider this book a modern masterpiece of science fiction.  It is the perfect example of the evolution of soft SF.  It’s a well crafted story that keeps you riveted to the end, with amazing characters with whom you develop your own deep, personal relationship.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

1985 Hugo Winner: Neuromancer

William Gibson
Completed 5/10/2013, Reviewed 5/18/2013
2 stars

So this book created a whole new genre of SF: cyberpunk.  Gibson invented many words and concepts that are now part of common internet lingo.  This is a groundbreaking piece of fiction.

So what!  I was bored by it.  Now that I have read several noir Hugo winners, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t really like it.  At least I don’t like what I’ve read in this challenge.  I guess I like to watch SF noir more than read it.  I like to watch dark, dingy noir.  I don’t like it described to me.  And I hate having to learn a whole argot for the novel.  At first, it’s challenging, but it becomes tiring. 

This book had many moments which made me perk up and become more involved with the plot and the characters.  Then it would lose me.  I too often got lost in the multiple layers of reality and virtual reality. 

The characters were well defined, but I just didn’t care about them.  It’s often interesting to watch self-destructive people on film.  They’re just not interesting enough to read about. 

Okay, so I hated this book.  I tried so hard to like it.  I tried so hard to keep track of the lingo.  I tried so hard to understand the plot, subplots, and schemes.  But in the end, I was just tired.

I gave the book 2 stars just because so much effort went into creating a culture without precedent, and because it did spawn a new genre of SF.  But that’s it.  I even dreaded writing this review.  

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Book of Lost Tales Part II

JRR Tolkien, edited and commentary by Christopher Tolkien
Completed 8/10/2015, Reviewed 8/10/2015
3 stars

Part II is a continuation of the texts Tolkien included in his Lost Tales writings from the 1910s.  The division between the two parts is a publishing choice.  However, it is conveniently divided between what could be called genesis stories, those which focus more on creation and the gods, and later stories, those that deal with elves, humans, and the other beings.  Most of the stories here we’ve already encountered once or twice before.  But in all cases, they are the earliest documentation of these stories.  While they are the banner stories of Tolkien’s First Age imaginarium, reading them again but this time in archaic style makes for a tough go.  And to give them a fair shake, you really need to forget most of what you remember from The Silmarillion and The Unfinished Tales, something I was not completely able to do.

The first story is the tale of Beren and Luthien.  However, here, Luthien is named Tinuviel and Beren is an elf, not a man.  Even though Beren is from a different branch of the elves, one not on good terms with Tinuviel’s family, it doesn’t carry the same weight as if he were a man in love with an elf.  Tinuviel comes across as very young and naïve.  She doesn’t have the same maturity I got from the later piece.  So the story seems less tragic, though tragedy abounds. 

Turin Turambar also has a less tragic feel, despite this being the most tragic of all of Tolkien’s stories.  With murder, suicide, and incest, you would think it wouldn’t be able to escape bringing you down.   Here though, I think the problem is the writing style.  I never felt like I really got to know Turin because the reading is so difficult. 

The Fall of Gondolin, another tragic tale, had a little more going for it.  It had epic battle scenes that were really well drawn and paced.  It had orcs, balrogs, and mechanical dragons swarming on the last holdout of elves free of the domination of the evil god Melko.  For some reason, this was easier to follow despite the language.

The best of the stories was the Nauglafring, or the Necklace of the Dwarves.  I think this was due to it being the first story where dwarves are major characters.  Also, it is the story that is most different from its counterpart in the Silmarillion.  An elf king has a huge cursed treasure dumped on him.  A dwarf in the court convinces him to not throw away the treasure, but to let his kith and kin fashion it into beautiful things.  Deals are made, then broken, and everyone gets angry.  And a necklace holding one of the Silmarils is the most cursed and fought over of all.  This being an early story, both the elves and the dwarves don’t behave like those you’ve come to know in LOTR.  However, their pettiness and ensuing tragic results make for a pretty gripping story.

At the end of the book are two chapters that are composed solely of fragments and commentary.  The most intriguing is the story of Ëarendil, the greatest mariner.  This half-human half-elf was referenced in LOTR, The Silmarillion, and throughout the Lost Tales.  He was prophesized as being some kind of great savior, but nowhere in his notes did Tolkien ever explain this concept.  There are several outlines that describe his travels, but the whole savior theme is never clarified.  This is perhaps the easiest commentary to read because the original text is just fragments, and I enjoyed Christopher Tolkien’s analysis and speculation.

The final tale is the wrap-around tale of the human who hears all these stories, transcribes them, and acts as the link between the ancient world of the lost tales and historical England.  Once again, Tolkien left mostly fragments, and there are several different manuscripts with major differences, one of which shows his movement away from this being a mythology of England to a much less restrictive mythology in general. 

Once again, I have to give acknowledgement to Mythgard Academy and the Tolkien Professor Corey Olsen.  Without his webinars, I wouldn’t have absorbed half of what I did.  Still, I’m going to be a curmudgeon and give this book only three stars out of five.  Except for Ëarendil, I never felt intrigued by any of the characters.  I believe a big problem is that I’m reading these books more or less one after the other, rather than a year apart as they were published, and the different retellings of the stories are becoming mush in my head.  I’m pretty convinced I’ll hold off as long as I can on reading the next book, which again tells of Beren and Luthien and Turin Turambar, but this time in alliterative verse.  That’s going to be quite a project.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Book of Lost Tales Part I

JRR Tolkien, edited and commentary by Christopher Tolkien
Completed 7/25/2015, Reviewed 7/27/2015
4 stars

This was the title given by JRR Tolkien for a collection of stories he wrote in the latter half of the 1910s.  His original idea was to create a mythology for England.  It included elves which he sometimes called faeries and gnomes, humans, gods, and other assorted beings.  He framed it in a larger story of the first human coming to Tol Eressea which is inhabited by elves.  Previously, only children came in their dreams.  They tell him their history and he is overcome with wanting to be an elf himself.  He stays on Tol Eressea and it eventually becomes England.  Tolkien abandoned the project several years later, but it was not wasted.  The stories evolved into what was eventually published in “The Silmarillion”.  This book is a must for hard-core Tolkien fans, but it makes reading “The Silmarillion” seem like a cakewalk. 

I had a lot of difficulty with this book.  The hardest part is the language.  Tolkien writes in an archaic fashion.  There are many words out of middle and old English.  For example, he uses “an” as the article it is now, and also uses it with its old usage, meaning “if”.  Instead of “diminish”, he uses “minish”.  This gets quite confusing.  Fortunately, Christopher recognized this and included a short dictionary to translate these words.  Between these words and the “Lo’s”, “thee’s”, and reverse order sentences, you feel like you picked up a book written somewhere between the Canterbury Tales and the King James Bible.  On the positive side, I felt a sense of mystery and wonder while reading it, but my train of thought often was derailed by confounding sentences.

Another issue I had was that I still have “The Silmarillion” familiarly fresh in my head.  Since it evolved from the stories in “Lost Tales”, I felt like I was reading an alternative history of someplace I’m not from.  Sometimes the stories are roughly the same, sometimes not even close.  The biggest difference is that here, the gods have much more personality and interaction with the elves than in “Silmarillion”.  So one has to remember, the Manwë here is not the same Manwë we’ve already met.  And the action and motives aren’t the same between the two books either.  There are some things that didn’t make it into the later mythology like the introduction of Time, or how there came to be a man in the moon.  But it’s all close enough that it can become very confusing, assuming the archaic words and style didn’t already lose you.

The commentary for this book is quite extensive.  Christopher Tolkien spends a lot of his time explaining the differences between these stories and what became “The Silmarillion”.  In fact, one of the reasons for presenting “Lost Tales” was a response to the critics that “The Silmarillion” was more Christopher’s work than JRR’s.  So when reading the commentary, he spends a lot of time on the differences between the books, as well as inconsistencies within.  It must be remembered that “Lost Tales” was eventually abandoned by JRR.  Knowing the kind of perfectionist he was, one can’t help but think that he rolls over in his grave whenever someone cracks open this book. 

Once again, I am grateful to The Tolkien Professor at Mythgard Academy for the online seminars.  Following along in his lectures helps makes sense of the jumbles in my head.  I give this book an academic four stars out of five.  I highly recommend it for the obsessed, or for those who want a challenging read, but if you’re just looking for another Tolkien story, stick with “Tales from the Perilous Realm” or “The Tolkien Reader”.  

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Halting State

Charles Stross
Completed 7/13/2015, Reviewed 7/15/2015
2 stars

Steve (You think you’re being so smart)

The first thing that hits you about “Halting State” is that it is writing in second person present.  This means that you are the character.  And just like this review, you’re the narrator.  You think this might be fun, a form you’ve never experienced before, except in math problems where you have two apples and someone gives you two more…  But your interest in the form fades as you discover that the narration alternates between three character and what passes as prose leaves you confused and angry through most of the book.

Your gist of the plot is that it reminds you of standard non-genre best seller intrigue.  In the near future, a virtual robbery takes place in a game owned and operated by Hayek Associates.  They call the cops.  Officer Sue is the first to arrive, trying to wrap her head around the need for local police involvement in a virtual crime.  Hayek’s insurance company sends Elaine, an auditor/game player and Jack, a power game developer/player to determine if there is fraud to avoid paying the insurance money.  During these three characters’ investigations, they expose an international plot linked to espionage and terrorism.  You guess what makes this book genre is that it takes place in the near future where there are video cameras everywhere, cars and taxis are driverless, and google vision is ubiquitous. 

Your problems begin in the first chapter.  Officer Sue is the narrator.  She thinks in future cop jargon.  And she thinks a lot.  What passes for prose in this book is that the narrator begins speaking, pauses for a paragraph of jargon thought, then finishes speaking.  This makes most of the text feel like an aside.  It’s supposed to help carry the mystery of who’s behind the bank robbery and what the real implications are.  Instead, it makes every paragraph heavy and complicated. 

In the second chapter, Elaine the auditor is the narrator.  Now you have to switch perspective, trying to separate your experience as Elaine from Sue.  She comes with a new set of jargon and thought processes.  Finally, Jack the developer is the narrator.  He thinks in game and programming jargon.  Juggling these three points of view is exhausting.  Despite the chapter headings indicating who you are, it takes you a few pages to completely switch your perspective, making you reread sections multiple times to make sure you correctly understand who you are and what you just read. 

About halfway through the book, you’re over it.  You force yourself to get to the big reveal.  The complexities of the plot and are lost on you because of the form.  It reminds you of Chabon’s “Yiddish Policeman’s Union”, where the prose was distracting rather than helpful in the world and character building.  You also believe that not being a gamer is a big hindrance in your understanding of what’s going on a lot of the time.  In contrast, you love Cline’s “Ready Player One”, which was about arcade games from the ‘80s, where your gaming experience began and ended. 

You really wanted to give this book one star out of five, because your experience with it was so terrible.  You think you’ll never read anything in second person present again.  But you give it two, because you appreciate the author’s ability to carry the plot through three very different perspectives, even though it was lost on you.