30 March, 2016

The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson

For Lu.

1. On page eighty-one, this book shifts from being pulp-adventure to a character study of Scott, the protagonist. It doesn’t lose the adventure of the novel past this point, by any stretch of the imagination. But at this point, it became clear to me that Wilson had moved past backstory necessary to setting up his characters, into character study levels of backstory. This shift surprised me and I told Lu where I was in the novel, and she agreed that the background starting at page eighty-one is a fantastic addition or shift to the novel. So, it’s not just me that recognized this. However, Wilson places these background-expositions between action scenes, effectively allowing him to jump from scene to scene within a chapter without confusion.

2. As a character study, the main themes of the book are really two-fold.
—First, Scott is a reluctant hero. Not in any anti-hero sense, and not in a cheap lip-service sense either; rather, Scott wants so badly to settle down to a wife and kids that his heroic actions are done almost in spite of his wishes. This drives home the importance of his failure as a husband and father, as laid out in the first eighty pages, and contextualizes them in a way that serves to explain Scott and everything that he does after. The situations fall into his lap because all of his other options have been exhausted. He’s torn between the quiet life and his curiosity about the Chronoliths. This is an unusually sedate character in a genre so rife with action. He’s not ironically a quiet person like Arthur Dent is, Scott genuinely desires peace, steady-employment, and to pursue his interest in these Chronoliths—to the point that years pass between events in the novel. I think the novel covers something like twenty years in Scott’s life, with an epilogue much later. This serious look at a personality type so familiar from daily life is refreshing in speculative fiction. He shows that given time and need, normal people can become heroic while remaining mostly normal.
—Second, Scott is attached to a messiah, so it’s a discussion of being a disciple, in a sense. Scott and Sue are, as a pair, familiar from my own college and work experiences, so I really understand their relationship through Wilson’s descriptions. The reluctant disciple who is using the professor as a sounding board and to gain access to—and an outlet for—their own interests, while the professor understands they are being used and uses the disciple in turn for their own sounding board and self-fulfillment. They become linked more and more through the novel and the discussion of discipleship never really falters. This is an unusual take on the disciple narrative—much different than Stranger in a Strange Land or Lord of Light. And outside of Scott, the discipleship of others to Kuin or workplace bosses, and the effect that has on surrounding characters like Ashlee, Kait, and Janice, supports this theme and creates an even-handed, holistic view of it.
—The character study is fascinating in its own right, but placed within the exciting context of the plot, it’s engrossing.

3. Wilson doesn’t run away with the pseudo-science-babble. He uses the layman’s terms to help explain and drive the plot, but it’s never the point—Kuin is never revealed, Sue never builds her own Chronolith, the science or politics never become concrete. The novel is firmly and irrevocably attached to its themes, and the science fictiony parts are contextual. They are important contextually—especially the idea of tau turbulence—but they serve the themes, rather than the other way around.

4. It’s written as Scott’s memoir, and this works well for the story. The novel is centered on the themes, with Scott acting as the focal point from which the lens never strays. Therefore, the structure is appropriate to the story. It reminds me quite a bit of Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in this way. But I think, in some way, this works a little better. Mannie is more pragmatic than Scott, so the ruminations Scott engages in tend to work in a more typical and engaging way for the memoir form.

5. Wilson builds Scott through telling interior monologue, then uses his actions to reinforce who Scott is through showing. These two tactics are balanced beautifully within the novel and the plot. There is a lot of opportunity for Wilson to make this plot and this novel just drip with excitement and action, but he holds himself back from over-running the novel with action in order to communicate his theme. However, he doesn’t forsake the action and keeps both in there—seemingly in equal parts.

6. I loved this book and anticipate reading more by Wilson. Sure, the word choices are a little bland and there’s quite a bit of violence, but he strikes an interesting and engaging balance between the action and the explanation that allows the unique themes and characters to shine. I’m quite impressed.

29 March, 2016

First 50 Novels

In sixty-three posts, I have posted notes on fifty novels here, ten of which I had read before. I want to use a brief post to place these forty new ones in categories for myself, and write what I most remember about them now:

Great Books by date published:
Ancillary Mercy, 2015: Leckie perfected her pacing, voice, characters, and plotting—while the addition of the Translator provided much-appreciated comedic breathing spaces.
The Goblin Emperor, 2014: If you need violence and sex for excitement in a novel, this isn't for you. If you appreciate deep, applicable character study, this is your book. Before this, it had been at least a decade since I read a book so strong that not only did I put the author's other works on my to-buy list, but also other important and influential works within the sub-genre.
Lord of Light, 1967: Poetry and plot melded perfectly together. I could read this prose for days and days. This is writing!
The Player of Games, 1988: The pacing and applicability of the plot are astounding in their perfection. It's exciting but also deeply meditative in a way that informs the reader about themselves.
The Stars My Destination, 1956: Retelling The Count of Monte Cristo allowed Bester to get experimental with his writing, and that resulted in my favorite Bester novel yet. He deserves all the accolades he gets for his ability to combine exciting adventure and important insights.

Close on their heals are Good Books by date published:
The Dark Forest, 2015: Guided by its engaging eponymous central theme, this is so much better than The Three-Body Problem it's not even close.
Ancillary Justice, 2013: What a debut novel! Solid world building, writing, and pacing. She melds the writing and plot and characters so that everything supports everything else.
The Name of the Wind/The Wise Man's Fear, 2007/2011: This is how you tell a story! I'm not even sure where the story is going, or whether Rothfuss knows, but I don't care because I am so into it when I'm reading it.
Inversions, 1998: Perfects the split-narrative that didn't quite work in Use of Weapons. Would be one category up if it had a more interesting or applicable theme.
Excession, 1996: Great space opera. It's fun to watch everything unravel like this. The plot reminds me of the Doomtree line, "Okay. Plan B: just panic."
Startide Rising/Uplift War, 1983/1987: Character development and strong plot pacing in spades.
The Lathe of Heaven, 1971: This is a great philosophical debate between two interesting characters.
The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969: That back and forth between Ai and Estraven is not quite friendly, not quite antagonistic, not quite anything but a fascinating study of the alien-ness of any other and ourselves. But it's the mix of mysticism, science, and adventure that drew me in. This is so close to being a Great Book.
2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968: As it's own book, 2001 is a great read. It also wholly replaced Childhood's End as the much better book covering almost all of the same ground.
Damnation Alley, 1967: Zelazny can write pulp fiction with some beautifully tight prose, evoking Raymond Chandler and Alfred Bester.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, 1966: Completely characteristic of Heinlein letting his characters run away with his novel.
The Day of the Triffids, 1951: That sardonic, conversational tone that Wyndham hits so well is such a joy to read.

Interesting Flawed Books, also known as Enjoyable Books, by date published:
Ancillary Sword, 2014: That slow start is brutal to get through, but the book shapes up wonderfully by the end.
A Song of Ice and Fire series, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2005, 2011: Fascinating structure and complexity, but to me it broke my suspension of disbelief by having too many resurrections and implied murders turn out to be not-murders. I keep thinking this series should be one category up because he does so much so well. The concluding two works could solidify the whole series here, or bump it up a tier permanently.
Use of Weapons, 1990: Interesting idea poorly executed because he held everything too close to his chest for too long.
Creatures of Light and Darkness, 1969: An interesting journey that I was bemused by at the end.
This Immortal (aka ...And Call Me Conrad), 1965: Somewhere between the confusing pace and shifting focus of Creatures and the straight adventure plot of Damnation Alley. It pulls off neither, but is an interesting first novel.
A Canticle for Leibowitz, 1960: Funny and fascinating, but ultimately too brutal to the pacing and the Catholic Monks to really be endearing.
Childhood's End, 1953: Interesting, but completely blown out of the water by 2001.
The Count of Monte Cristo, 1844, 1845: Fascinating and a wonderful plot. But overlong by far.
Northanger Abbey, 1817: A hilarious and wonderfully written satirical novel that fails because people don't understand what she's satirizing.

And Bad Books I wish I hadn't read, by date published, with quotes from my reviews:
The Three-Body Problem, 2014: "He starts with the beautiful telling-phrase, 'She spoke like a telegraph—'. This confirms what I already knew with a novel phrase—a great tactic. However, he goes on: 'and gave him the impression that she was always extremely cold.' Okay, now that's just redundant. But he doesn’t end there: he keeps hammering the point home through four more long sentences that feel like he’s belaboring the point unnecessarily because he doesn’t believe the reader understands yet. [...] I am still slightly bemused [about plot and pacing]. And I'm not sure it's in the good way."
Consider Phlebas, 1987: "The pacing in the story is inconsistent to me. There are portions that seem to drag, portions that seem to speed by, and a few portions that feel just right for the amount of action, ideas, and characterization involved. Specifically, he drew out the build-up to the ending too far. I understand drawing that buildup out somewhat helped him increase tension, but he drew it out too much: at the start, I was wondering where he was going because he started so far back; and by the end I grew a bit bored and had to reread a couple of paragraphs here and there because my mind started wandering."
Ubik, 1969: "I think at some level, these existential-questioning-of-reality novels are all interesting, but none really stand out too far from the rest for me. Some of Dostoevsky’s works are notable, for sure. [...] I think whichever of these novels a reader first reads that clicks with them will probably be their favorite."
The Caves of Steel, 1954: "Partly that failure is the fault of the implausibility of the investigation—basic police questions are ignored until the end, three days into the investigation. The detective does not even view the site of the crime until then. But mostly it is the main character not being well written or interesting. He comes off like a caricature of a detective, while continually assuring himself that his partner is the character, not him. He is a puppet and Asimov jerks the strings this way and that in a logical pattern, but not a human one—Elijah's never quite believable."
Foundation, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1951: "What a slow and uninteresting opening! This is exactly what I try to avoid in my writing—these couple of tedious chapters of pure world building. The intro info dump is awkward and slow and if I wasn't listening to it, I probably would've stopped reading it, I was that bored. The details of the world building are not even that different or interesting enough to allow this."
The Plague, 1947: "This is a failure. It failed to hold my attention, my interest, or my empathy. It is a convoluted mess, and it leaves me to think that Camus can't be bothered to tell a story, write a sentence, or communicate an idea. At the least he cannot here. His characters are flat and uninteresting and they all speak in the same voice - they are mostly indistinguishable throughout the novel. Even if the character similarities are intentional for some obscure point about "mankind", this is just bad writing. A lot of the pages seem like filler - like they do not illuminate characters, situations, the plot, or the underlying ideas. It also seems like a shallow description of a plague ravaged town that carries little weight or believability. Camus is forever telling his readers that he will explain something later, which I think is a bad writing tactic. But by the time I got to the end of the book, I wished he would've explained some of the book itself."
Brave New World, 1932: "The release of tension, John throwing soma out the window, is a bit of a letdown. I understand that some act is necessary to collide the controller and John, and that the controller would try and cut off any of this type of behavior before it got out of hand, but even with all the punching, it seems a little unlike John. I think he would understand the physical differences between classes and try and change some betas or Alpha minuses. His attempts to change some deltas seems stupid and hopeless. None of the rest of the novel communicated John as stupid to me."
Last and First Men, 1930: "This pacing struck me two ways: either Stapledon is not being as fair and evenhanded with his philosophical opponents in the second half as he was in the first, or he ran out of steam as a writer. Like when you try and fit a word onto a note card and you kinda run out of room so you mash all the letters together there at the edge and it's pretty obvious that you ran out of room. That's almost what this "acceleration of tempo" feels like. This disproportion between how much time is spent on the first men, and how much time is spent on the tenth through seventeenth men was a little frustrating as a reader. It felt like a little more planning or editing could have helped."

So you don't have to go through a process of elimination, I had already read:
Baudolino, 2000, 2002: Read at own risk, not for those who need a reliable narrator. Or author.
The Dune series, 1965, 1969, 1976, 1981, 1984, 1985: 1 & 4 were great, 3 & 5 were good, 2 & 6 were bad.
Starship Troopers, 1959: Every time I read it I'm sucked in again. But I never come out the other side liking it more or less. It's a neutral novel to my tastes.
Lord Jim, 1900: One of the best I've ever read.
The Time Machine, 1895: I re-read this every few years because I like it that much.

Now onto some more novels.

24 March, 2016

Inversions by Iain M Banks

1. Here Iain M Banks discusses a Special Circumstances (SC) operation from the point of view of the non-Culture planet where contact is taking place—an early Renaissance or late Medieval era, humanoid populated planet. But it’s no Gunboat Diplomacy: there’s no GCU floating over the castle exactly like bricks don’t. Rather, it’s two SC people attempting to subversively advance a culture that has just invented guns. They fundamentally disagree about the method most appropriate to the situation—
Was it better to leave them alone or was it better to try and make life better for them? Even if you decided it was the right thing to do to make life better for them, which way did you do this? Did you say, Come and join us and be like us? Did you say, Give up all your own ways of doing things, the gods that you worship, the beliefs you hold most dear, the traditions that make you who you are? Or do you say, We have decided you should stay roughly as you are and we will treat you like children and give you toys that might make your life better?
—so they work in two separate kingdoms, trying their two tactics and seeing which one works better, which I think here means more effective, efficient, and quickly. Their goal is not to increase the technological level from the outside, but work inside these societies to change the thinking of the people to be more agreeable to Culture norms. DeWar leaves them alone and acts solely as a bodyguard for one ruler, mostly quietly; while Vosill works as a doctor for a king in a nearby society, giving her opinions and ways of thinking almost too freely. This synopsis shows the bare bones of the undercurrents in the novel, while the novel itself is taken up by the stories of their time on this planet. Banks doesn’t explicitly state anything in this synopsis—the quote above is taken from a story DeWar tells his ruler’s son. This book is written like it’s medieval fiction. There are really only a couple of places where Banks lets glimpses of this undercurrent in: including a few jokes punning on the words Culture and Special Circumstances. This tactic works well to really show what contact is like from two different societies, two different ways of contact from the other side—a perspective the Culture novels haven’t explored yet. (I should note that there are also other theories that could fit: perhaps this is all a Cuture set-up and everybody except Vosill and DeWar have been mentally altered by the Culture to forget about the Culture in order to run this giant experiment. This would also fit the facts and mysteries given by Banks here.) So, in short, it’s a fantasy novel that’s actually a Culture novel, but being written as the memoir of Oelph, who knows nothing of the Culture, it’s medieval fiction.

2. The plot is split between the two main characters—they take turns at chapters, one about Vosill, then one about DeWar, then Vosill again, then DeWar again, et cetera. This tactic was used by Banks in Use of Weapons, but here I think it works much better. I can’t quite put my finger on why though. Let me try and nail that down. In Weapons, it seemed a little forced, a little heavy-handed—mostly in the way he hid things from the reader and spoke of characters in nicknames in order to not reveal the a-ha moment before its time; he held things close to his chest for a long time. Too long. Here, he just tells two stories and they are loosely related—they’re probably taking place simultaneously. He reveals almost everything: Vosill and DeWar aren’t obviously Culture at first, though it becomes apparent within the first third of the novel. I think it works better for me here because both stories could be read independently, and enjoyed, without the interesting difference in opinion between DeWar and Vosill. This allows that a-ha moment to be gravy, not a long-held-off reveal—like my complaint about Consider Phlebas being much too built for the resolution. Here, Banks increases the reader’s understanding throughout, instead of relying on the comic book-esque end-page reveal. I think this works better in general, at least it works better here than it did in Weapons.

3. The writing is mostly unobtrusive. It’s precise. But it also catches a cadence that works well for the fantasy setting. It’s mostly down to his sentence structures, which are complex, and his word choices, which are slightly archaic. Not as much as Katherine Addison, but more so than his earlier Culture novels. This cadence helps further disguise the science fiction undercurrent of this fantasy novel.

4. Outside of the Contact context, the theme here, the applicable one, is useful plebs interacting with rulers, or middle class people interacting with kings. Both Vosill and DeWar have skills their respective rulers find useful, but they are servants, not equals. And the way both of them interact with their ruler is to me the main theme here: Vosill is content being alone, but spends a lot of energy building an actual relationship; DeWar is intrusive, but because he is so nosy, he makes the ruler uncomfortable and isn’t able to form a relationship outside of worship. This theme is applicable to a boss-employee relationship—in other words, be prepared and exceed the boss’ expectations, rather than being pushy and over-eager. The same here is applied to interactions between cultures. It’s a bit weak, as an applicable theme, to me. But within the context of the Culture novels, it holds a lot of interest for a fan. It’s not quite fan-service, like Ill Met in Lankhmar is, but it’s going that direction.

5. The world-building is sparse because it’s just medieval fiction—not even fantasy, really, because there is no magic outside of Vosill’s Culture knife-missile, which is never understood by the narrator Oelph. So, by using the familiar he does not have to spend time or energy building out a unique world and can get right to the story. It’s similar to a lot of pulp fiction in that way—familiar already, but taking a closer look at the cultures involved.

6. The characters are well understood by the reader. Vosill, Oelph, DeWar, Perrund, Lattens, and the two rulers are all unique, well-built characters. Perrund is built through dialogue almost exclusively—what she says and what she explains about her backstory shows her character. DeWar and Oelph are built through a combination of actions, interior monologue, and dialogue. Since these two are the most apparent to the reader: they get told, shown, and explained. Vosill, Lattens, and the two rulers are explained through dialogue and actions. What I’m trying to say is that Banks uses multiple tactics to build the important characters that spend a lot of time on-scene, and builds the other characters with fewer tactics—just dialogue and/or actions. This tactic helps the reader prioritize characters: by getting more information about DeWar and Oelph, I understand them more and am more interested in them. It effectively names the main characters without needing to have them always on-scene.

7. This novel does a lot of things really well and I enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s an interesting thing, with the split narrative and the fantasy-science fiction mashup. But the theme, plot, and writing might not quite stand up to the interest of the structure and tone. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good book, but it’s not great. Because the Culture undercurrent is so sparse, somebody coming to this book as their first Culture novel could be very, very confused at the Special Circumstances, Culture, and Contact jokes and scenes: it would be strange how the knives were bent, how those three people died, and where Vosill and DeWar disappear to at the end. So, it doesn’t stand on its own, but it’s a great addition to the Culture series and, having read a bunch of others, I loved this book.

20 March, 2016

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette)

1. This book disappointed me only in that it ended. I wanted it to keep going and, though I understand the author has said there will be no sequel, I look forward to rereading this someday. This is one I want in hardback. So, I’m a fan. But let me step back and examine why I am a fan.

2. The writing allows engaging sentence structures to illuminate the entire text—less so in dialogue, but I think that makes sense due to the often direct nature of dialogue. Between the quotes, the sentence structure simplicity is tempered by the main character getting confused with words and forming more complex sentences with retractions, retractions of retractions, and awkward admissions of fault. So even the simplicity in dialogue gets more complex than standard sentence structure. Outside the quotes, the consistent variety of structures ensure that I do not bore. I only remember one sentence that didn’t make sense to me on first read, out of five hundred pages.

3. The word choices are a bit more strange. There are a few words I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard before, and I wonder if some of that is thesaurus driven. Also, all the thees and thous in dialogue are awkward at first—not overpowering, but noticeable. But I think that initial awkwardness, and the over-the-head word choices, are intentional to put the reader into the same mental state as the eponymous Maia: he is overwhelmed and confused and awkward. And the language becomes more natural as the novel progresses and he gets his feet under him, so to speak. It’s actually an effective tactic, but it could bounce readers off in the first hundred pages or so.

4. Maia’s transition is the theme to me: from friendless, even acquaintance-less, awkward eighteen year old rural boy suddenly in favor at court but completely out of any element or depth with which he has prior experience; to effective, intentional, hopeful nineteen year old man worthy of appreciation and the favor arbitrarily bestowed on him earlier. He doesn’t solve everything—this isn’t a perfect human like Mary Soon Lee’s king seemed to be. Maia is still flawed, still hated by some he would like to be friends with, and still out of his depth and scared—but less so at the end. And that process he goes through is the central thrust and plot of the novel. He slowly realizes who he can trust, how he can show his trust, who he respects but disagrees with, who he cannot trust and how far he cannot trust them, what his goals and job are, and what he can and cannot do. When it ends he still has some regrets, but there is also hope. This novel is not just the first hundred days of his reign, or whatever the time period involved is; it’s not just Maia’s job training; it’s Maia coming of age. But not through sex or drugs or violence, rather through being able to recognize relationships and realizing what he needs to continue living sanely. This is an always applicable theme, though the specifics of being emperor are not quite applicable: it’s about being in a new situation with new people and learning how to thrive.

5. The plot does not rely upon violence, sex, or conspiracy—though violence opens the novel and there is some within, I am happily surprised by how little violence actually exists in this novel. There are two conspiracies against Maia, but they are not the focus. The focus rests upon Maia and most of the novel is a day-to-day discussion of his activities and inactivities. It’s sort of just Maia existing and making decisions about situations and people that arise in his path. Yes, the plot begins with a murder, but the plot then drops violence entirely for a couple of hundred pages before two more violent actions occur on-screen. Then no violence through the end. I found this book’s plot wonderfully paced and refreshingly honest to life, which for me is generally non-violent, non-conspiratorial, and not overly sexed.

6. Maia is a wonderful character: well built and distinct without being overly reliant on tropes. I was afraid this was going to be a book all about race relations, but it doesn’t end up being that. It ends up being about Maia and, yes, race is a part of that discussion. But Maia isn’t only race. He’s an emperor: he demands certain things and there are certain demands upon him. This is all communicated through Maia’s thoughts, his wishes, his words, and his actions. But Addison has such a strong, consistent conception of him, that they all support each other. She doesn’t feel the need to beat the reader over the head with anything, just states it and moves on. Though some things repeat, it is because they are important, not because she mistrusts the reader’s intelligence. Maia is a Mary Wollstonecraft feminist—believing that mentally women are just as capable as men at intellectual pursuits and it’s a matter of training, not nature, that makes them inferior scholars, for example. Maia tries to build bridges and accommodate others’ wishes, rather than make enemies and dwell upon differences. Maia is conscious of his failings and attempts to fix them, rather than changing the situation to his benefit. He’s the kind of guy who believes he can do better and actively strives for it, would rather take fault upon himself than see innocents get blamed, and is aware that expertise doesn’t come in a minute or a day. Despite all this, he’s an emperor and he acts like one. He’s not some weird egalitarian, postmodern emperor: he’s an emperor with all that comes with being that, but not a tyrant.

7. And that’s really all there is to say here. It hits so many things so well that I’m always wishing speculative fiction would do better, without pandering to current philosophy or cultural criticism. It’s a story of one man in a hard place, trying to do good, and it’s universally applicable for that. He doesn’t always win and he isn’t perfect, but this journey of mental development that he takes is wonderfully engrossing. Even Addison’s misses—word choices and tone—can be viewed as building Maia’s character, and that’s brilliant. I’m a big fan of this novel. Based simply on this book and The Three-Body Problem, Addison got robbed for the Hugo in 2015 because this was much more applicable, interesting, and well-told—though some of that may be the difference between Western and Chinese narrative tradition, as noted in my notes on Cixin Liu’s novel. If you need violence and sex for excitement in a novel, this isn't for you. If you appreciate deep, applicable character study, this is your book.

11 March, 2016

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K Le Guin

For Lu.

1. The length of this constitutes a novella, to me. It’s about 175 pages long, my copy, so it might be a short novel. And as a novella, it covers a lot of ground. There is one jump to buy at the beginning—George Orr’s dreams change reality in the present, and retroactively. From there, all else follows. This is something Pixar does really well, except in Up. What makes their movies so good is also what makes this book good: one logic leap set forth at the beginning, and if you can buy that, the novella unfolds entirely from that leap. This is a pretty common speculative fiction tactic, but Le Guin perfectly accomplishes it here. Once that one disbelief is suspended, it all makes so much sense.

2. In terms of the world-building, there is an awful lot going on. Because each of George’s dreams change reality, the world is constantly being built and rebuilt. Usually this troubles me, as a reader, and is an excuse for a deus ex machina ending, but because of that first logical leap, that prime suspension of disbelief, this change is signposted well and is easy to handle.

3. But the plot is not the point—it's really just some excitement as window dressing to the theme. The point is this battle between the American dream, tied up with objectivism and ego, and the Taoist contentment, linked to balance and acceptance of reality. This theme carries the novel and allows Le Guin’s wonderful cultural criticism to take center stage. To give an example:
That Haber could have thus got out of communication with himself was rather hard for Orr to conceive; his own mind was so resistant to such divisions that he was slow to recognize them in others. But he had learned that they existed. He had grown up in a country run by politicians who sent the pilots to man the bombers to kill the babies to make the world safe for children to grow up in.
This is the sort of political, social, and cultural criticism the novel allows for. But it’s all rooted in the contrast and philosophical battle between the two main characters: Orr and Huber.

4. She builds Orr and Huber as characters so well. She builds them through George’s interior monologue and Huber’s exterior ones. She builds them through allowing other characters’ viewpoints to help explain aspects of the characters. She builds them through the way they both dream. She builds them through their actions, inactions, and dialogue as well. But the way she builds them distinctly influences the novel. I understand George as an introvert and huber as an extrovert, and everything they do confirms this. I understand George as balanced and Huber as a shell, and she tells me this as well as shows it. I understand George as content and Huber as ambitious, and every piece of the novel confirms this—even George’s action at the end, the one action of his life. It’s not that George is against confrontation, it’s that he only accepts it as necessary when he sees no other option, when all of his other options have been taken away from him. At the same time, he’s not perfect—his brain takes shortcuts. Each dream brings positives and negatives. And through these negatives Le Guin further examines what makes humans human.

5. The writing is deft and well done. Sure, there are some word choices I would change, but for the most part the writing is enjoyable. It gets out of the way most of the time, but comes to the fore in short, quotable sections that profoundly explain or define the concepts Le Guin sets against each other in this novella:
The end justifies the means. But what if there never is an end? All we have is means.
Sure, it could be viewed as trite, but I think this sense of the Tao that Le Guin advocates for here is an interesting and understandable one, and that’s important to me, as a reader.

6. In all, I loved this novella. I’ve now read two books by Le Guin and can’t wait to find more of her work to read and enjoy. I’m wondering if all of her stuff discusses such important things as this and The Left Hand of Darkness do. It does date itself a little by presuming an un-erupted Mt St Helens, but that's to be expected.

04 March, 2016

Excession by Iain M Banks

1. What’s interesting to me about Banks is how every Culture book sets me up for the next: after Use of Weapons, I was curious about AI cores in general, and this book’s major characters are mostly AI cores—ships. After Consider Phlebas, I was curious about Culture on a non-wartime footing, and The Player of Games certainly gave me that. After The Player of Games, I was interested in other contact methods besides game tournaments, and Use of Weapons certainly satisfied that curiosity. Now I’m curious about the Galactic Council, so I’ll have to see if the next book deals with that. This brief explanation shows how within the same series, Banks is exploring wide ranging parts of his built-world, which allows him to examine and deal with many different themes and topics consistently.

2. The themes here are central—more so than the overarching plot or sub-plots. The themes here are simply stated: love, death, and the fact that as far as we know, intelligence never changes. Here we have an excession—a contact or artifact from outside Culture that exceeds the technological limits of Culture. Culture is currently in the process of civilizing the Affront, but this Excession throws them into a panic and, well, they end up not being any more moral or advanced than the Affront are. Despite their lack of organic body, despite their hyper-intelligence, despite everything, the AI are just like us. They’re petty, they’re searching for meaning, they’re cliquish. In other words, Banks doesn’t believe post-singularity (here it’s post-sublimation, but essentially the same concept) humanity will suddenly be better moral agents, or hyperintelligent to the point of godhood. He thinks beings are like beings are like beings, and his plot lays this out brilliantly. And they’ll always face a singularity—death is the most discussed one here. Banks uses death to explore meaning and morality. I remember in college a professor once said that only works that deal with death and love are still existing in the cannon. This book would work for that definition: death is contemplated and experienced in detail here, while Dajeil and Genar’s extended discussion and memory of love is poignant and fascinating throughout. These themes simply take over the plot, take over the book, and drive it forward. They are central to the whole thing and satisfyingly discussed, observed, and faceted.

3. And that’s a negative for some people: the book isn’t terribly easy to follow or get a good grasp on, especially as a new Culture reader. I can imagine this could be very confusing because there is little plot to follow. The plot is important within the context of the Culture that Banks has set up over the rest of the novels, but I’m not sure this novel stands on its own perfectly. I loved it, but I think it might need the other novels to work here.

4. One other common criticism about this book says that the importance of the plot points exists solely within the context of the Culture novels and Banks’ made-up physics. But that criticism ignores three things to me: the plot is not the point, the discussion of themes is—not to say the novel is plotless, just that the point is the examination of death, morality, and love; it’s science fiction, and invented importance is the name of many plots, so I don’t see this criticism as necessarily a detriment. Some people dislike this novel for these reasons, but it probably comes down to a matter of taste.

5. The language is fascinating. Banks travels back and forth between colloquialisms and the more formal narrative voice in a super engaging way. He’s been doing this throughout the rest of the novels, most apparently in his ship names, but he really nails it here. I mean it: this novel is a pure pleasure to read because of the writing. It’s fascinating with the themes and sub-plots and character creation, but I would still recommend it to people solely for the utterly delightful voice that Banks has developed over the last three Culture novels, and perfects here. Here’s an example:
The Grey Area watched it all happen, carried in its cradle of fields by the three silent warships. Part of it wanted to whoop and cry hurrah, seeing this detonation of materiel, sufficient to smash a war machine ten times - a hundred times - the size of the approaching Affronter fleet; ah the things you could do if you had the time and patience and no treaties to adhere to or agreements to uphold!

Another part of it watched with horror as the Excession swelled, obliterating the view ahead, rampaging out like an explosion still greater than that of ships the Sleeper Service had just produced.
Here’s another example, showing how this switching embraces a wry wit:
As a thermonuclear fireball was to a log burning in a grate, so this ravening cloud of destruction was to a fusion explosion. What she was now witnessing was something even the GSV was undeniably impressed with, not to mention mortally threatened by. Ulver saw how to click out of the experience, and did so.

She'd been in for less than two seconds. In that time her heart had started racing, her breathing had become fast and laboured and a cold sweat had broken on her skin. Wow, she thought, some drug! Genar-Hofoen and Dajeil Gelian were staring at her. She suspected she hardly needed to say anything, but swallowed and said, 'I don't think it's kidding.'
One more example showing the contrast of the switch:
There was silence for a moment. Then Ulver collapsed back dramatically in her seat, arms dangling towards the floor, legs splayed out under the table, gaze directed upwards at the translucent dome. 'Fucking hell!' she shouted. She tried accessing the Jaundiced Outlook's senses, and eventually found a view of hyperspace ahead of the Sleeper Service. More or less back to normal, indeed. She shook her head. 'Fucking hell,' she muttered.
I never thought I’d be praising a Banks novel this much for the writing, but this is a wonderful voice. For such a long novel, this wry-wit is a great way to break it up and keep the reader interested. Through these extended discussions of death, these little lighter moments keep the reader from getting bogged down.

6. The character creation embraces variation within certain sets of characters: hardcore Culture members, outlier Culture members, and Culture outsiders. This could also be stated as humans, ships, and others. But these two categories mix and match in interesting ways: Genar is a human Culture outlier; the Excession is a Culture outsider that is an other; Sleeper Service is a hardcore Culture ship. This variation allows characters to fit into the plot and themes of this novel, but still retain uniqueness. There are a lot of characters—the Interesting Times Gang, the biologicals, the other ships, the others—and sometimes it is hard to keep track of them all. Banks attempts to make it easier on the reader by giving characters distinctive names—Shoot them Later, Genar, Ethics Gradient, Ulver, Risingmoon Parchseason IV, Honest Mistake. But though he names them distinctly, there are so many it’s still hard to keep them all straight at times. Again, he helps the readers by making much of the dialogue basically email based. And this really does solve the problem for the me. But still, the characters are mostly quite engaging. (See this wonderful Wikipedia page listing ship names in Banks' Culture series. The ships are themselves independent moral entities, characters, citizens, beings.)

7. Back to the writing for a brief couple of other notes. The writing here experiments with transmissions that mirror emails and include technical information. Some of the information given is uninteresting and uninformative—read it once and the rest can be skimmed. But the writing helps get the reader in the mindset of the style and type of communication involved. My second note here about the writing is that lengthy portion with the message to Ulver. Here, Banks attempts to write essentially a computer program the offers secure communications. It’s strange writing, but it works for the book because, again, it gets the reader in a mindset that reflects the workings of the communication involved. It’s effective despite working within a new logic for writing.

8. The structure is convoluted, like Use of Weapons was. Most of the novel is straight narrative, but Genar’s chapters often include flashbacks to his earlier relationship with Dajeil. The structure also jumps around between situations and doesn’t proceed at a consistent pace—some chapters are seconds later than the last, some are weeks. However, Banks is able to tie these disparate tactics together through keeping the plots where these tactics are used distinct in their own chapters, and only bleeding them together over the last portion of the novel. He also includes distinct, unimportant scenes—like the two bat-ball scenes—that excellently build characters, but do not bog the book down in plot-unimportant scenes like those in Consider Phlebas did, where most of the book lacked importance and if it was there to build characters, it took too long. The structure works well here and that conclusion is spectacular—everything came together all at once and I read quickly through the last third or so of the novel.

9. In all, this is a fantastic book, but you might have to have read other Culture books in order to fully understand the importance and interest this book can hold—it doesn’t necessarily stand on its own, but a better sequel is hard to think of off the top of my head. The characters and plot are interesting, but the themes and writing really take this book from good to great. It’s a great book, and well worth the read. Like The Player of Games, I want to read this one again. Sure, The Player of Games was more my book than this, because it stands on its own much better, but this is clearly my second favorite Culture novel that I’ve read.