Read: Convergence, by C.J. Cherryh

Eagerly anticipated Convergence is the 18th instalment in the Foreigner series, and while Cherryh has run out of -er words imagination has not.

Convergence is two parallel stories but bot starting with Bren, the dowager and Cajeiri as they return to the atevi earth after the kyo encounter. One story is Bren’s, the other Cajeiri’s, and Bren’s is, in some ways, rather in the background.

Circumstances has Bren and his aishid going to Mospheira, to present the human population and their representatives with both the kyo agreement and with Tabini’s demands on removal of the Reunion group from Alpha station. This story is not centre of interest for the book, though: that honour goes to Cajeiri and his solo trip to Tirnamardi – a gesture to show that the aiji still stands with the Atageini, despite a rather unfortunate turn of events in the search for a new Ajuri clan lord.

Convergence sees a upping of the tempo, but also a more concise prose. Some books back (Deceiver, Betrayer, and thereabouts) each of these two stories could well had taken up several books, and now they are both packed into this unusually short text.

This is not a bad thing, all in all. We get to see how the heir has grown up, despite his still young age, and how he comes to understand his role and responsibilities, and maybe, just maybe, a shift in focus from Bren, who is now a rather established personality whose journey is coming to an end, developmentally speaking, while Cajeiri is just taking off.

My only complaint is that the book is too short, not to mention the cliffhanger ending. As no. 18 it is the concluding book in the 6th 3-book Foreigner story arch but it leaves off at a place were you expect to turn the page and find out what’s next… and next up is another year in the future.

I think I need to pick up some other Foreigner book, in the interim, to ameliorate the abstinence.

Read: Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti is of a tribe and family that is protective of its own – their customs, their heritage, and their Otherness. She is also a prodigy at mathematics, with her future as her father’s successor in the family business already decided for. When she receives a stipend to attend the most prestigious university in the known galaxy she stealthily chooses to go against her whole family, none of which has ever travelled outside the planet and some not even outside the village, yet purporting to know everything about the world outside.

She doesn’t make a conflict about it – she just prepares without telling anyone and then slips away in the night to catch the shuttle to the space port, knowing that she by this will be rejected by her culture, never allowed to come back.

In many ways Binti – the novella, not the person – is an anthropological journey, echoing of Ursula K LeGuin and her work. I’m reminded of novellas such as the ones collected in Worlds of Exile and Illusion, but also LeGuin’s work as a whole – exploring and examining cultural and societal constructs, from the perspective  of the Other.

The person Binti – who is a Himba of the Namib, looked down on by the Khoush people that holds power over the economy and institutions on her Earth – is both perceived as Other and encounters the Other, both the known other, the other from allied but alien planets, and the Other with whom they are at war with.

The story is intriguing, and a fast read, but in the end I think it would had benefited from getting more meat on it’s bones. As now it felt much like a story outline, which was good up until the resolution. Until then the format worked well: the story is told in tight first person, in snippets but well crafted and holding together, a credible telling of a series of events. The resolution continued in that style but the ease with which a disoriented minority teen manages to resolve a long standing conflict simply by being able to talk to both parties stretches my belief a wee bit too far. A bit like those detective stories aimed at preteens were two smart kids who seemingly never goes to school and whose parents are conspicuously absent manages to outsmart both the villains and the professional police investigators.

I did like the tone and style in which Okorafor tells the story. Despite, or perhaps because of, the short length of the story she manages to instil empathy for a girl whose cultural veneer is very different from my own, conveying the idea that humaneness is intrinsic, and maybe not even exclusive to humankind. An idea examined by many authors before her but not less honourable an endeavour for that.

Despite the slightly disappointing ending I am going to seek out more of Nnedi Okorafor‘s works, and should you find Binti on a shelf close to you – don’t hesitate to read it. At 89 pages it will not take a lot of your time.

Read: The Casual Angel, by Hannu Rajaniemi

The Casual Thief has been lurking in my TBR-pile ever since I first pre-ordered and then fetched it from the SF Bookshop, two years ago. There are, of course, multiple reasons for this delay, but I really did want to understand what was going on in that faraway version of our future universe populated with the Sobornost, the zokus, Jean de Flambeur, and Mieli, in The Quantum Thief and The Fractal Prince books, so though late I did recently began to read it.

It was, from the start, as splintered – post-modern, if you so wish – as the previous installations. Rajaniemi has a brilliant imagination.  He has peppered his tale with references to contemporary pop culture and ancient mythologies galore, and armed with those images one can easily conjure explosive, florescent, fractal, visuals to go with a tale, and it is told in shards – sometimes having to wait for things to make sense. The Thief  – Jean – is on a quest that neither he nor the reader fully understand the ramifications of, to find the Kaminari jewel, but is he a tool, and for whom, or is he self-determined? Mieli, wandering the universe to find her lost lover. Is she a tool (too)? Is this a game? Do I care? Am I made to care?

Am I compelled to read beyond the first pages?

Yes.

As I once more dived into the fantastical imaginary world that he built, and as I kept adding his world-specific concepts and their labels to my mental dictionary, the pace slowly but surely picked up. And surely soon everything would come to a conclusion, surely soon everything would start to make sense? But as  I kept turning pages, searching for content and meaning, the more I felt left floundering in the void, hope for sense and conclusion diminishing as the number of pages left to convincingly pull the trick dwindled.

The visuals and imagination is both daring and stunning, as is the world-building. But beyond that at least I need something more than one more fantastical set of props and toys, more than what if fireworks. More than a creeping revelation that everything is a game, and relative.

I found it difficult to engage with the characters, to feel for them. At times it felt a bit like I was in the middle of a Skylanders challenge, or dropped on a Minecraft plain. Cunningly designed to keep your attention, but impersonal. It is possible to smile at the odd Harry Potter reference; at the gesture of showing how storytelling creeps into our reality. But still – impersonal.

There are other authors – like the late Iain M Banks, whose Culture universe is as post-human as this one – who manages to pull it off with more conviction, adding depth beyond wonder, despite veering off on personal rants against (or for) this or that.

I do think the trilogy would benefit from being read as one book, in one sequence, as I imagine that will make the experience an easier one. Maybe then one would be able to empathise with Jean, with Mieli. As it is I didn’t feel the experience worth the effort to start it all over again, just to test this hypothesis.

Kudos though  to Rajaniemi for the trilogy being well crafted, imaginative, and consistent; I imagine that a lot of people will enjoy reading it, as did I, as long as it lasted. Fireworks can be fun. Our stories do make us who we are. Just not a once more into the breach-experience for this one.

Considering: Some science fiction and fantasy books that made my brain

Two years ago I came across the request “Which Science fiction or Fantasy book will make anyone smarter“, and as I considered what people had added to the list so far I found myself nodding – and sometimes shaking my head in disbelief, but hey, we’re all different – starting to think how some of these books had affected me.

As the list went on I also started to mentally add to it. And as I am rather bad at censoring myself the few ideas soon became a list of its own, and that list then became the backbone of this post.

Then it went into hibernation, courtesy of fatal illness and more in my immediate family. Then today, as Bob Dylan was announced as recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2016, I again – and not for the first time – thought about important books and authors.

So, finally, here it is – my list of SF/F books that made me the person I am. It is impossible to grade them – some would probably not even make it to a “best books read”-list – so instead I chose “order in which I first read them” –

Lord of the Rings, J.R.R Tolkien
If memory serves me right my father started to read The Fellowship of the Ring aloud for me when I was eight years old. Getting to the end took a mighty long time but it all ended with me reading LoTR, again and again, until I was about eleven or twelve.
However, that was not the only book that I read. And as I raided the local library of anything remotely readable I soon ran out of options, remembering a box of books in the cellar. It turned out to be my dad’s 50’s imported pulp paperback SF, and I realised that I had to start to read in English.
So, at 13 I borrowed the library’s original language edition (I can still remember the librarian warning me off – she thought it would be too difficult for me), thinking that if I read a book that I knew intimately I could focus on language instead of on story: my personal learning strategy (I was quite bad at English in school).
Definitely a monumental decision, at that time, as I had probably not proceeded to read the rest of the books mentioned here if not for this.

Space Cadet, Robert Heinlein
I first met with Heinlein’s YA fiction with the help of the municipality’s head librarian. I remember being highly suspicious of the book but I was running out of options at the library, plus he was class mate’s dad, which was a bit intimidating, so when he suggested it to me I grudgingly brought it home rather than saying no. I was already a kind of space freak, I had loved watching Space 1999 when it aired on Swedish television, and spent a lot of time watching the moon and the winter skies through my dad’s binoculars. All the SF that I had read that far had adult protagonists so while the kids in this one were older than me suddenly space was within my reach. And so the story became more engaging, on a personal level.
I went on to read almost all of Heinlein’s books, some of which I will admit went straight over my head back then. And later on I realised I have many objections to his way of depicting society (and maybe more importantly – gender). But – Space Cadet made space achievable for me, even if in my head only.

Childhood’s End, Arthur C Clarke
Of all Clarke’s book this is the one that stands out. As a kid I loved the quirkiness of The Sands of Mars (which I found among my dad’s boxed up books), or the seriousness of Fountains of Paradise (hunted down by inter-library loan), or his short story collections, but Childhood’s End is, in my personal opinion, his masterpiece. At a time when most SF that I had encountered could be considered space opera and optimistic about the what lay ahead of humankind this novel challenged not only my preconceptions of the future but of the place of humanity in the universe as a whole. Mind-bending.
After having read Childhood’s End I found the Rama books… insipid. Even as a young’un.

The Earthsea Trilogy, Ursula K Le Guin
As I remember it I first encountered Sparrowhawk in an anthology used at school – I think I might have been 14 or so – and I immediately got hold of the whole trilogy at the library. What I love about the trilogy has changed with the years, however.
Originally it was the goat herd turned Archmage story that got to me, and then the idea that a way with words might make you powerful. But as I grew older still what stayed with me was the message that we can’t win by running from what we fear; the only way to conquer what hunts you is to turn around, to face it, or you’ll have to run, afraid, for the rest of our life.
As I struggled with the experienced mismatch between who I was and what society thought a girl or young woman should be or not be I found great strength in Ged’s story – to be brave and face the fear and to grow into myself.
Later yet I returned to the idea of words and language as a key to power. So – seemingly an innocuous story of youthful adventure but in reality a tale of great impact.

Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin
Used as I was to stories that challenged society as we know it I never caught on to how provocative the concept of gender Le Guin presented in this tightly written tale about friendship, alienation, and power. Only when I lent my copy to a co-worker, and he returned it, slightly disgusted (this was in the early 90’s, and a truly techie-engineering white-male environment), did I realise that the fluid gender identities depicted could be perceived as threatening. But, while this book didn’t have a big impact on my own analytical models or on my world-view it certainly reinforced my personal values and I still think it is one of the most important SF books written. Ever.
Also, she’s one if the most important authors, ever, if I get a word in. Starting with LHoD it is possible to read almost all her works, long or short (even though I personally recommend the three short story collections Worlds of Exile and Illusion, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, and The Birthday of the World).

Neuromancer, William Gibson
The moment I stumbled over Neuromancer, finding the cyberpunk movement, was defining. Here was someone who didn’t depict a swash-buckling future ensconced in present-time ideals or ideas but the believable real life apocalypse of the present system. It is hard to remember this, it was such a long time ago, but this book, and its sequels, added a new dimension to the way SF was told, challenging what the collective do with the power that we have. Or not.
For me personally it started a long run of leaving all the traditional SF that I had read behind, breaking roads into new ways to understand and interpret society and the humans (or not?) that it’s made of.

Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
At the eve of the internet revolution, of the modern networked world, Snow Crash entered my life. The virtual, the power of meme’s – no one had seen Facebook yet, far in the future, or the power of the ever-changing plethora of social media. This was the first book that I was able to discuss with co-workers – a sign perhaps of where the world was headed, even if we were all in the incipient IT/web-business, just ahead of the boom. Those discussions led the way to more books, mainly factual ones retelling the history of computing, of the internet, and of gaming.
It was truly educational as well as inspirational, and all of it because a book of fiction.
Oh behold the power of words!

Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson
It is possible to have many objections against Stephenson and his writing. Among other things he is in dire need of an editor. Another valid objection is against his apparent interest in ideas and likewise disinterest in individuals. Those two combined leads to several of his books to have badly conceived endings, and long-winded discourses on matters only tangential to the story. The latter I first encountered in this book, which was the first book in recorded history which I actually just skipped a (large) number of pages. I still enjoyed it, very much so – the way it weaved an intertwined story, mixing timelines, revealing interconnection at the end. The impact was not so much the book in itself, though, as the interest it sparked: first, some reading up on the science of cryptography and crypt-analysis, and then, after having gifted my dad with a copy and getting pointers from him on were Stephenson had actually used real life events in his story, reading up on WWII history, on Enigma, and more. Again, educational – and I live to learn :-)

Cyteen, C.J Cherryh
I have no real memory of which of C.J’s books that I read first but I do think that it might have been Cyteen – it was either this, or Foreigner books 1-8, and then I got onto Cyteen while waiting for more Foreigner books (as they are written in 3-book arcs I wanted to have #9 in paperback, just as the previous – from #10 and on they’re first edition hardbacks). Either way it is a grand epic in societal design bleeding into engineering human(oid)s, viewed from the perspective of the individual/s, all the while questioning ethics, loyalties, and responsibility, not to mention cause and effect. The book wasn’t just good in and of itself, though. It opened up to the rest of her Alliance-Union Universe, with all its insightful stories depicting the impact of big politics on us small humans and our behaviour and the conditions under which we are forced to live our lives, many of them very different from each other and each offering a different perspective, from a different viewpoint, sometimes on the same events, and thus questioning “truth” as a definite concept.
The book – or books, I got on to read rather the lot of them – also signifies my move into the realm of internet friendship, in some ways. It was, together with a lot of books that came after, and both books next on this list, suggested to me by friends that I had never met but with whom I forged a connection none-the-less. In a real life were many looked with disdain and a raised eyebrow on my choice in reading material, thinking it childish and anti-intellectual (oh! those are probably the ones falling over themselves in sudden praise of Svenska Akademin’s choice of Bob Dylan: behold the hypocrisy!) that was worth the world. Many thanks to the Green Dragon crowd on LibraryThing, and the Shejidani, of the Cherryh fan-site Shejidan for that.

The Lions of Al-Rassan, Guy G Kay
There aren’t many works in the fantasy genre on any list I’ll ever conceive but thanks to a Green Dragon group read many years ago Kay’s Al-Rassan epic story about power, belief, and humaneness will always be up there. Kay’s language is exact and his prose stylistically self-conscious, almost verging on being purple – it is his skill that makes any of his books fly. Or not. Because he is also father to several books that I find barely endurable (such as Last Light of the Sun). This specific story, though, set in a fictional twin to the Iberian peninsula during the end of Moorish power, managed to capture my interest, and then some.
Even before reading this tale I had an interest in the Moors, in the impact the Moors has had on the formation of modern Europe, and thus having visited many of the key sites in Al-Andalus/modern Andalucía. Reading Lions got me searching for even more, looking deeper into historical detail than in the sweeping picture, deepening my understanding of the long-term effects of the Reconquista, and making me think. Which is a good thing.

Use of Weapons, Ian M Banks
It is not the Culture book that I love the most – that badge goes to Surface Detail; nor it is the best – that honour goes to Player of Games. And many of his books are gorier than this one, or weirder. But Use of Weapons is an utterly disturbing tale that, in retrospect, has made me think and rethink on how I judge and perceive the good or the bad, and how the perceived bad can, or not, redeem themselves – in their own eyes and in the eyes of the beholder.
At the heart of many of Banks’ Culture novels (I have not read his crime stories) resides the eternal question of what is human, of what features define humanity and what defines in/un/non humanity. Can a machine be more human than a two-legged carbon-based civilization-building entity from Tellus? Or not? Why? Is it even important?
Given the present-day seemingly world-wide chasm between people who want to feel more worthy and valuable than the rest and to achieve that build constructs of identity and race the question has actuality still. And probably up until and beyond humankind manages to implode on itself. Or not.

Until then, tales and stories that challenges set concepts and views, that inspires the seeking of knowledge, that interprets the world, is worth pursuing.

In hope of many more such tales, and in knowledge that many worthy works could had been included in this list.

Read: Visitor, by C.J. Cherryh

Book no. 17 in the Foreigner series. You’d think it would slow down, or peter out, or, well, just plain diminish in quality. Thankfully for us who follow the adventures of Bren and his aishid the opposite is true: Visitor is not only a good addition to the series but a very good one.

The Visitor picks up the thread just as the kyo – mysterious and secretive space-faring, and, in general terms, neighbours; neighbours who are engaged in war with another neighbour, as yet unseen – are approaching Alpha station. Bren spends his time worrying over his ability to communicate with the kyo, much the same way we all every now and then worry ourselves senseless at living up to expectations, and suddenly the Other are over the doorstep, pursuing an agenda no one knows about and everyone suspects… I’ll not delve on specifics; the spoilers would be too great. Suffice to say that one of the “what if’s” that I have been entertaining actually came true, and the resulting drama is simultaneously forthright and subtle, if such a thing is possible. But I really want to save that particular surprise for anyone who have yet to read the book.

Instead I will talk about the general.

The Foreigner series balances between sitcom and drama, in written form. At times it touches on interpersonal relations, political intrigue, personal feelings and insecurities… all the ordinary stuff. But looking not at one part at a time but at the over-all story you can see broader themes, such as the interplay between language and culture, or the debilitating effects of fear of the foreign.

In many ways the series offers a looking glass through which we can observe ourselves through the Other, from the outside; a means of analysing the cultural constructs and societally predicated behavioural norms that in/forms our everyday interactions. That can be a very uncomfortable place to be but Cherryh manages to masquerade it behind a screen of ordinariness, making it look like suspense rather than societal critique (which I’m not even sure she’s consciously offering – it’s in the eye of the beholder).

To me both aspects are enjoyable but it also means that you the reader has to analyse and interpret on your own. There’s no large writings on the wall telling you how to think. The many layers lets you chose what layer of the story that captures your personal interest.

Not everyone is up for that.

I, however, can’t wait for the next instalment, or for, well, anything from Cherryh’s pen and imagination!

 

Read: The Peripheral, by William Gibson

In some ways The Peripheral is William Gibson in good old form. Imaginative, and written in a tight prose (unlike some of the unsuccessful, abandoned and un-reviewed reads that have littered my path recently /Victorian authors, however famous and successful, may you rest in forgotten peace…/).

The story run in two parallel and partly connected tracks. I say partly, because one of them is in the past of the other while at the same time running in tandem. As soon as the future starts messing with the past the connect disintegrates while – and here’s the paradox – both past and future continue to exist, but now independently of each other… while still being in contact… Confusing? The standard premise of the time travel story is to say that if you go back to the past and kill a grandparent your future self will too cease to exist. It teaches us not to look backwards but ahead. Not so in this one.

In this particular story the aimless son of a ruling clan, heir to a future with immense technological means but almost devoid of real people, entertains himself and his friend by meddling with the past, employing people who live on the edges of what might be described as a lawless mob economy to unknowingly run security for the rich. In the future. Making the people of the past believe they are doing test runs of a game of some kind.

By chance one of them witnesses a murder, and from there on the entanglement of the two realities only grow more complex. By the end the past is infused with future tech, a president whose murder preceded the catastrophe that wiped out most of the population is still alive, and I am left wondering what this all was about, really. Kind of like when you listen to a charismatic speaker, greatly enjoying the performance, but trying to tell someone afterwards what it was all about you find out that really it was just smoke and magic – nothing of consequence was ever said.

That said I did enjoy the read immensely and while I might not reread The Peripheral I would not hesitate to recommend it to someone in need of a passing diversion, of entertainment. And I will definitely buy and read his next book too, whatever it may be.

Read: Valerian – Volume 1, by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières

I first met Linda and Valentin, as they are named in Sweden, back in 1979. At the time I spent much of my time awake devouring anything that was vaguely readable, in any form, and I had already chewed through most of what the local library branch had to offer to a young teen. But the French spatio-temporal agents were a new kind of acquaintance. I was familiar with kids’ comics, of course, and with Tintin, DC Comics and the like. Linda and Valentin proved to be something altogether else. Idealistic, philosophical, visually stunning, both gritty/ugly and opulent, and break-neck daring. Of course I loved them!

It helped that Linda/Laureline every now and then had to bail Valentin out of his own messes – strong women was not par for the course back then, whatever history will have you believe.

Last year Scandinavian publishing house Cobolt issued the three first volumes of the collected works, and I held and thumbed volume 1, on several occasions, without opening up my wallet. Prime reason is that my personal collection already has about half of the albums previously published in Sweden.

Last Saturday I made things right, and let’s be clear – I am not sorry.

My 70’s and 80’s glue-backed soft-cover editions are brittle, pages threatening to fall out. Also, the original Swedish run was published out of order. These omnibuses sets thing right and I can finally enjoy the series in the order it was originally written.

This first volume starts with the very first story, previously unpublished in album form in Sweden. It’s a bit rough but clearly shows promise, and it tells how Linda and Valerian/Valentin became companions. The second story is The City of Shifting Waters, unabridged and with original cover from the Pilote magazine that featured it. That in itself is worth the money, in my opinion. Third and last is The Empire of a Thousand Planets. That story is, together with Birds of the Master and Ambassador of the Shadows, the one that I know the best, and I must admit that here the new translation chafes a bit, with new names or word constructs. But still thoroughly enjoyable.

It must be remembered, though, that these three stories were the start of something that would grow up to be great, but that at this point was trying out its costume, its format. Keeping that in mind I definitely enjoyed reading this volume. And if anything I’m looking at my purse, trying to justify purchases of volumes 2 to 4.