Review: The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

So, at last – Bacigalupi‘s The Windup Girl. A near-future story set in a world where we have run out of oil all the while genetic science has its heyday being used by the corporate world as a way to more or less covertly own and commandeer all of the world and its peoples.

Welcome to Thailand. A nation set on isolationism as a way to avoid ceding its national sovereignty to corporate America. The greenhouse effect has brought a rise in the water table so half of Bangkok is now more or less sunken while the other half is kept dry by way of dikes and pumps. A fight is on with the isolationists on one side and the ones favouring trade with the world outside on the other; when we enter the story we don’t really know who to side with but it is clear that confrontation is impossible to avoid.

As if this wasn’t complex enough Bacigalupi adds a vat-grown human being, debating if this really is a human or not, and we follow her in her ongoing and daily humiliation. Because in isolationist Thailand anything not from within is impure. And anything genetically enhanced is a symbol for the devil enemy from abroad, something that deserves abuse. And abuse she takes, until one day she lashes back…

As the Chinese are said to curse – may you live in interesting times. The people in this book certainly do so.

The story is well written and well imagined but roaming a territory defined by William Gibson, Ian McDonald and, to me, containing much of Jon Courtenay Grimwood.  It very much feels like a first novel, trying to stake out a part of that land for his own. Yet, and perhaps because of his territorial neighbours, whom I love so much, I recommend this book highly.

Fast, fun, imaginative; not without originality; good penmanship, a fluid mind. And with one foot clearly set in the now. Because the world he describes is a result of how we presently treat our planet and our fellow humans. As extrapolations go, not very far-fetched. Which is scary.

Read it.

Review: Cyberabad Days, by Ian McDonald

Good science fiction is the domain of people who have something to say, some questions to pose, regarding what we humans and our societies and our cultures are. In that science fiction is a genre that can be urgent and immediate, facilitating discussion on topics on ethics and identity and cause and consequence on a level way beyond what is possible when you have to deal with the ordinary and everyday life in the here and now. Because to science fiction there is a possibility closed to others – the possibility to extrapolate future, to ask and explore the kind of “what if” that relates to society, politics and economics.

Ian McDonald is one of these great “what if”-people. In Cyberabad Days he explores the “what ifs” of artificial intelligence, man and machine and the self-interested middle class and its hunt for ever more personal glory against a background of  “what if” India got balkanized. The means is a series of short stories, some would call it a short story collection. But this is to belittle the book because each of the stories, together with River of Gods, build to something that is far more than a series of disconnected tales – it is a suite of different perspectives on the suicidal trip India’s upper middle classes enters upon as they try to outdo each other in wealth and glory; the stories showcases the effects on society as a whole, without never ever leaving the little person behind.

My favourite stories are The Dust Assassin, An Eligible Boy, The Little Goddess, and The Djinn’s Wife (which made me think of Iain M Banks‘ Culture books in general and Surface Detail in particular), but all are very good. And most of all – without the rest of them the last story, the one that actually relate to River of Gods in a more substantial way, would lose some of it’s impact.

Anyone who have read and enjoyed River of Gods should read Cyberabad Days. Anyone who have not read River of Gods yet should do so first to be able to wholly appreciate Cyberabad Days but it IS readble on it’s own, too.

And any which way Ian McDonald is one of the most important of our current authors, SF genre or not. Not only because he has something to say but because he says it well, respecting his readership and our brains, to think for ourselves.

Go support a living author. Go get one of his books. And start thinking.

Review: The Fallen Blade, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

What do you do when a favourite author suddenly challenges you by writing in the exact genre you detest? When I belatedly found out Jon Courtenay Grimwood had The Fallen Blade, an alternate history vampire story, out my choice was easy – to read first and judge later. My aversion to certain genres or sub-genres rests largely on empiric evidence, after all, and every thesis need to be challenged every now and then ;-)

First perhaps some words on why the “belatedly” in above paragraph. The book was published in January last year. Normally I am holding an eye to the “upcoming” list at my local dealer (SF Bokhandeln) but this list is partitioned into SF, Fantasy and Horror. Of these I only ever check the SF one on something approaching regular basis but by chance I glanced over the Fantasy list recently and found JCG was to publish a new novel in early 2012. I followed the link and realised the 2012 release was a “part 2 of 3”. I was aghast at having missed a release from a fave author and hurried to the physical bookshop the very next day, to get part 1, which is The Fallen Blade.

To me the book was a pleasant surprise. We follow the nameless boy who doesn’t really know who he is or where he’s from. His voyage takes him through Venice’s upper and lower levels – some of which is closer to each other than one would think…

While still relying on classic JCG archetypes – the outcast who doesn’t understand who or what he is, a real place but an alternate history, upper crust politicking, and a dedication to describing texture, look and smell that makes most scenes an inner eye visual explosion – the writing feels more mature, as he is in his natural element, for once. And then I’d never call his other books immature. It’s just that he seems to have, step by step, distanced himself from his cyberpunk and very Gibsonian background far enough to finally do something that is more wholly his own. And this despite this latest book being in a genre that I would not hesitate to call over-exploited and tired.

A definite recommendation for anyone who enjoys the voice of Jon Courtenay Grimwood. It would seem the trilogy format suits him so much better than the standalone novel. Definitely looking forward to the next instalment.

Review: Voyager in Night, by C.J. Cherryh

Though a slim volume – by modern standards – Cherryh‘s Voyager in Night took some time to get through. The reason is this is no light and easy read. Despite it’s outer trappings – a group of young people trying to establish themselves stumbles on a first contact situation with a very alien alien – and a truly cheesy cover this is a book about how we face the other and about individual identity and about what makes us Human.

Siblings Rafe and Jillan, with Jillan’s husband Paul, have invested all their savings (mainly Paul’s inheritance, as the Rafe and Jillan is more or less destitute) in a run-down insystemer ship. They’ve just started off their new lives, in a new part of space, when an alien megaship comes crashing in. Their small ship gets swept up by the alien, entangling them in an esoteric and strange struggle for power.

The multiple character story can be very confusing, as it’s hard to keep track of who’s who – normally I don’t have that kind of problem but in this case very little distinguishes the individuals, if indeed they are individuals. But if you persist in your reading you will, in the case of Voyager in Night, reap a considerable reward. So, despite the cons I’d definitely recommend this book. At least if you’re an SF reader.

Review: Natural History, by Justina Robson

Justina Robson‘s Natural History is a disturbing book.

But it didn’t start out that way.

No. It had resided on a shelf since 2003 when I bought it, read the two first chapters and then put it away. That was back in the days when good ideas and advice what to read was scarce – I had yet to find a place like Librarything – and I had found her Mappa Mundi good enough to have me get her next novel, in hardback. That I was disappointed is an understatement.

Then, recently, an online acquaintance started to hail not only Robson but this book as well. Often enough I find I’m in agreement with this person on books, so I thought I’d give Natural History another try. And trying it was. Had I not decided from the start that I’d finish it this time, whatever happened, I had never persisted beyond the first chapter and a half. Not because the story was disturbing. Because it wasn’t, at that point. No, it was more than that – it was utterly unintelligible. It would take another four or five chapters before the story started to take form and at no point, not even at the end, was it possible to identify with, or like or even dislike any of the characters – this was an ideas book, through and through.

Now, in the end I was glad I endured because as the threads started to come together so did the story, and the discussion on identity, on our values and value and on alienation is interesting, not least because of the ambiguity. And the disturbing part? How did we get to the future Robson paints. Even if I can’t identify with or even feel for any of the cast I can see that a certain mindset, present around us, could lead to a place in time such as she describes.

But I’m also reminded of the fact that there’s an ocean between Intelligent and Intellectual, and Natural History is a wee bit too much of the latter, without any mitigating parts such as an interesting secondary storyline. And that’s why I can only give it 4 stars out of 5.

Considering the struggle it took to get it going that’s a good rating.

Mostly human

When analysing why I favour certain fictional characters over others I have come to realise an important factor is their struggle with what in a sciencefictional framework could be dubbed species identity.

It didn’t take me long to realise, some fifteen plus years ago, that it was the driving factor behind my liking of the Data character, on Star Trek TNG. Granted, he is not human at all, technically speaking, but it wasn’t hard to identify with his ongoing struggle to understand what is human – growing up, being grown up, even, is an ongoing battle against the oddness of the self as related to the rest of the society in which it exists and we are endlessly defining an redefining our selves against the cultural context that surrounds us.

Ultimately Data can’t win his battle, because so can’t we. The only reasonable way is to surrender, to embrace that which makes the self different, to use that difference as a strength. Because if we don’t we become identical and as diversity is part of what drives evolution and development the lack of diversity would also be the end of humanity as we know it.

To be mostly human is the most human trait of all.

Review: Use of Weapons, by Iain M Banks

I have not read any of the other novels in the Culture suite and so initially knew less than nothing about the background. Starting my read it worried me, usually I begin with the first book in any series I’m attempting, but I was told this could stand on it’s own, and so it did.

Written to unfold layer by layer of the life of Special Circumstances agent Zakalwe while at the same time exposing the way the civilisation known as the Culture uses people and whole civilisations as part of their game of Rebuilding the Universe to Fit Our Standards it made me think of nations pursuing interventionist policies of different flavours, like the late USSR or the present-day US, but also of colonialist France, not to mention the British Empire.

The writing – or perhaps that should be the editing? – might work against this book, as it is told in two time frames, alternating with each chapter; one of them working backwards in time, one seemingly tracking the present. Also, in the middle of the “present” time line point of view suddenly changes, without any warning. Both of these can be perceived to be frustrating. But to me it was one of the things conspiring for this to be a pleasurable reading experience.

Shockingly revealing as (one of) the end(ings) was I personally feel that it is those greater questions asked that lingers with me, after I closed the book. Questions linked with the colonial/post colonial discussion (among others who has the right to intervene, and when) but also touching issues as ethics and morality.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoy thinking about such topics.