19 April, 2016

Downbelow Station by CJ Cherryh

1. Cherryh’s dialogue uses three distinct voices consistently throughout this novel.
—One voice is the Downers, or hisa, natives from the planet called Downbelow by those on space station Pell. They speak in a lilting, sing-songy voice that often skips “to be” verbs. For example:
You safe. Make you names: call you He-come-again; call you She-hold-out-hands. You spirit good. You safe here. Love you. Bennett-man, he teach we dream human dreams; now you come we teach you dream hisa dreams.
This speech pattern helps show the hisa thought processes and priorities. They imply the “to be” verb, like English implies “that”: sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s assumed. In this way, it shows that the hisa do not yet have a philosophical question concerning being—an important difference between themselves and humans.
—Another voice is that of the stationers, the residents of Pell Station. Out of all the voices, the stationers are the closest to how we speak English today. Here is some of the dialogue:
Tom, if you get a gut feeling that something’s wrong in any of these cases, appeal it back to me regardless of procedures. We’re putting through too many condemnations too fast; mistakes are possible. I don’t want to find out after processing starts.
This speech pattern reinforces that the reader is supposed to identify with the stationers. It provides a common ground between reader and characters that allows familiarity and reflects the familiarity the stationers have with their life on the station. They are pleased and satisfied with their stationary lives, so they talk normally.
—The last voice is that of the Mazianni, the originally Earth-based war fleet that constitutes the military forces of the Company in space. They speak in a clipped, military way that values efficiency and clear, dense communication over full sentences:
They ran us off the docks. Everyone’s aboard. Crew, troops, everyone’s aboard. Mainday to stations, alterday to backup. Flash battle stations. I’m pulling us out of here.
As this quote shows, the Mazianni are efficient, quick, and precise—as befits the speed of space battles they’re often involved in.This shows their mental state—always ready and every little detail important.
—These three separate speech patterns help explain these three different cultures involved. Even the two other cultures in the book speak slightly differently, but mostly through word choices: the merchanters speak a lot like stationers do, while the Union forces speak a lot like the Mazianni, but word choices allow each to have distinct voices. This tactic of Cherryh’s brilliantly illuminates the cultures involved through showing rather than telling—and reinforces what telling is there. These significant differences also provide variety to the book, each portion’s dialogue reads differently and helps provide distinction between the different cultures. Cherryh does a great job with charactered voices. To reinforce these notes about her voicing: I simply opened the book to random places in order to get the above quotes—one really can open it up anywhere, read a bit of dialogue, and know what culture is being focused on in the chapter opened to.

2. My second note about her writing is Cherryh’s own voice—that of the omniscient narrator. The narrative voice uses a good mix of complex and simple sentences, mated to a fine mix of word choices. It’s engaging and unusual.
Russell’s had met disaster, and Mariner. Rumor ran through the station corridors, aboil with the confusion and anger of residents and companies that had been turned out with all their property. Volunteers and native workers aided evacuation; dock crews used the loading machinery to move personal belongings out of the area selected for quarantine, tagging items and trying not to confuse them or allow pilferage. Com echoed with announcements.
Most authors I’ve read would not write their sentences this way. This almost stop-and-start pacing is actually quite interesting to me and excites me about Cherryh as a writer. She doesn’t try to make her prose flow too smoothly, but it also doesn’t come off like a rough draft. An analogy that explains this is music: after multiple listens, the slick, overproduced pop tune ends up being less interesting than a rougher, more inconsistent track that has some emotion to it. Yet Cherryh isn’t writing a rough, one-take, half-drunk, live punk song either. It’s tight writing, but there are still enough edges left in to make it amazing. It ain’t auto-tuned, nor is it live, it’s at a sweet spot in the middle. I can’t wait to read more of her writing!

3. Structurally, the story is told typically: chapters and portions alternating focus between areas where things are happening, between characters, but progressing the plot linearly. This isn’t a negative statement. There is so much going on in here that keeping everything straight must have been difficult for the author: Downbelow Station and the hisa place, the carrier Norway, the Union places which are all sort of the same Union place, the Finity’s End, the Hammer, a couple of places in space, Pell central, Pell Q, Pell Downers territory, and the other places on Pell Station. There are a lot of places involved here. She uses interstitial titles that name the place and date and time to keep everything straight in the reader’s mind, and they’re unobtrusive enough that they work well without distracting.

4. I appreciate that Cherryh doesn’t overburden the book with descriptions. She could—there are a lot of places in here where she could have spent pages describing things. Rather, she mentions a couple of details and moves on to the effect the places have on the characters or actions. For instance, when Satin first sees the sun, it’s in a spot on Pell that is described as nothing more than a large, darkened space with windows to the stars. The description is enough to outline the space, but she trusts the reader to fill in the blanks with their own imagination. And this works wonderfully. There are air-supported domes, but my conception of them is my conception of them, not a result of endless details or descriptors. She describes effectively and succinctly, just enough detail to get my mind running, but not too many descriptors to bog the story down.

5. This lack of description indicates that she focuses on characters and actions, not her set of science fiction ideas about faster than light travel, or war technology in space, or terraforming an inhabited planet, etc. In general, what seems to sell in science fiction is a well-told story with at least one interesting character surrounded by ruminations on future technology. That rumination often bores me, like when Isaac Asimov goes off about his robots in story after story, or Cixin Liu describes the physics problem his book is named after about eighteen times in the book. These ideas are somewhat interesting to me, but not as much as authors often seem to think they should be. Here Cherryh focuses on telling a story about many interesting characters, rather than about space travel, or the economy of Pell Station, etc. Through doing this, she actually delves into the psychology of the cultures involved, and ends up discussing the effects of interesting ideas about the future on humans more so than the ideas themselves. I love this psychological focus of hers.

6. The characters are engaging: Elene, Damon, Josh, Jon and his subordinates, Emilio, Miliko, Jessad, Kressich and his minions, Coledy, Ayres, Jacoby, Azov, Mallory, Mazian, Satin, Bluetooth, Bounder, Lily, the Old One, and the Dreamer all play major parts in the story. As I said above, she focuses on characters, and there are quite a few of them. She does a good job keeping characters distinct: each is unique in their desires, most are unique in their actions, and the voices spoken of above also help to keep each distinct. As a backup, she often names them, just to ensure legibility—there are enough things going on so quickly throughout the book that naming the characters often is a help to the reader. But the characters are not separate—like me, these characters exist in the world, surrounded by other people. This close affiliation really helps drive the novel’s theme and focus home.

7. The theme here is kindness. The central relationships in the novels—Josh and Damon and Elene, Emilio and the Downers, Kressich and Coledy, Mazian and Mallory, Azov and Ayres and Jacoby, Jon and his minions—are all based around kindness or a lack thereof. The relationships that are kind, like Josh and Damon and Elene, are largely successful in achieving their goals through kindness paying unexpected dividends down the line. Those unkind relationships, like Mazian and Mallory, end up breaking down disastrously. In this way, Cherryh admonishes her readers to be kind, even when it appears no benefit could occur, because benefit will always come from kindness, and selfishness will always bring ruin. In a story where so much action occurs, this is about as deep as she gets into her applicable theme, but it’s not the only theme: she’s also talking about human psychology during and right after space expansion. This is less applicable than the kindness theme, because space expansion hasn’t yet occurred, but it’s interesting and in depth to a satisfying degree. She examines this theme primarily through her voice and her characters. It’s an interesting metaphor for trying to understand what the Westward expansion must have been like in America—or, perhaps more appropriately due to the Union and Alliance, the American and Australian expansions from Britain. Through reading this book, I do feel like I understand that period of history better.

8. Cherryh does something here that I consistently rag on: the intro-info-dump. But, unlike Asimov’s when-will-it-end example in Foundation, this one isn’t painful. It may be appropriate because there is so much action in the novel, that to stop long enough to backfill details about the world could have easily felt awkward. But during the intro-info-dump, I wasn’t as annoyed as I typically am. How did she do it well?
—She doesn’t ramble or burden the reader with details. This is concise, need-to-know stuff. I get the feeling like she has pared this down again and again until it’s a tight, quick, efficient nine pages. She doesn’t lose interesting details, but doesn’t keep too many details in there. Like the balance her writing strikes between slick over-production and early-draft edges, this intro-info-dump manages to give me just enough details to get my mind racing, and not enough to make it difficult to follow or remember. This is how you intro-info-dump: write a wikipedia style and length article for your intro, then make it sound awesome and cut half the stuff out, that half that nobody cares about.
—Also, many authors will use the intro-info dump to trot out hints of stories or characters that never come up again. Cherryh, by sticking to details and only those that will influence the coming novel, avoids this pitfall. I think the problem with this pitfall is that it divides the reader’s attention, sending it towards something that is not the novel.
—That said, I still wish there wasn’t an intro-info-dump here. The Dreamer, if given more screen-time, could’ve easily and naturally backfilled details to Satin or Lily or some other Downer. And that could have gotten her on-scene more, helping to make the Downers’ actions around her more important when they occur. So yes, she intro-info-dumps, and even though she does it well, I still think a different strategy would’ve served the story better. One day I’ll find that perfect intro-info-dump. This one was good, but not yet there.

9. I enjoy this novel immensely. Though it’s a little short on depth of the applicable theme, it is not pulp fiction because the science fiction theme of expansion is deeply explored and interesting. The whole thing is told so well that I have a hard time stopping—many nights reading too late with this one. She is both a fantastic storyteller and a wonderful writer. I was very impressed with the writing and characterizations—which all become one sort of thing here. In short, I have already started another of her novels, that’s how good this one was.

14 April, 2016

Look to Windward by Iain M Banks

1. Whoa. This is a meditation on some heavy matters. The theme here is simply put: death and the afterlife. Death takes center stage and runs away with the play, so to speak. But not in a bad way. Every major character ruminates on or experiences death: suicidal tendencies, haunting experiences with the deaths of others, casual deadly sports, and war. The plethora of death and deaths provides a wide angle view on the subject in the Culture universe, allowing Banks to delve deeply into the topic. He comes to no real conclusions though: rather showing positives and negatives to all the experiences involved. Suicide, for example, is the last wish of a soldier whose spouse tragically died and he cannot move past it at all. He is jealous of her death, so he seeks his own through many philosophical ruminations. On the other side of things, two people who enjoy lava rafting accidentally capsize their canoe. Both die, but one has backed up their mind-state, essentially their soul, and is reborn. The other has not, choosing instead to live life once, believing that the experiences will be more poignant for it. These two examples show two extremes of the spectrum contained within, and the book delves into other examples: the horrors of mass-death in war, the horrors of single death in war, the deaths of AIs, et cetera. And this is really a theme, in the sense that he’s exploring death, not really making an argument with it or coming to a conclusion.
'I'm sorry, Custodian. You must get bored hearing me say the same things, day after day.'

'You never say quite the same thing, Tibilo.' The old monk gave a small smile. 'Because there is change.'

Quilan smiled too, though more as a polite response. 'What does not change, Custodian, is that the only thing I really wish for with any sincerity or passion now is death.'

'It is hard to believe, feeling as you do at the moment, that there will come a time when life seems good and worthwhile, but it will come.'

'No, Custodian. I don't think it will. Because I wouldn't want to be the person who had felt as I do now and then walked - or drifted - away from that feeling until things felt better. That is precisely my problem. I prefer the idea of death to what I feel just now, but I would prefer to feel the way I do now for ever than to feel better, because feeling better would mean that I am not the one who loved her any more, and I could not bear that.' He looked at the old monk with tears in his eyes.

2. The writing is as good as Banks has achieved. He’s still using that wonderful formal-colloquialism—the close use of formal sentences and word choices with colloquial ones, having few half-measures in between. It’s such an engaging, interesting voice, and it really helps the reader enjoy the whole novel. Throughout, his voice and sentence structures really shine.

3. The plot here proceeds linearly for most of the novel, but there are a couple of places where it steps out: the researcher, the e-dust assassin, and the backstories of Major Quilan and Masaq’ Hub. The thing that is strange about what Banks does here is that he jumps both forwards and backwards, rather than just having backstory. For instance, some of the story involving the researcher occurs much, much farther in the future than the scene that comes right after it in the novel. Also, the E-Dust Assassin shows up much earlier in the novel than when it enacts its assassinations. At the same time, Hub and Quilan’s frequent backflashes push the narrative backwards in time. So the plot jumps both forwards and backwards, which is kind of unique, I think. And it works for him. He leaves enough details out that the assassin isn’t disorienting, just puzzling and interesting. Though one does have to trust Banks to resolve it, and he does.

4. Denying detail initially is a tactic that Banks often adopts, which I am into because it works and it’s a massive middle finger to the intro-info-dump that I hate. Banks will start a chapter, not giving any names, but it’s typically only a few lines before the reader recognizes who and what is going on through descriptions or dialogue, then a few paragraphs before Banks reveals for sure who and what is going on. This tactic is a sort of puzzle for the reader at the start of new chapters or sections—a little mystery to figure out while the plot and book are moving. He doesn’t do this at the start of the first chapter—he reveals names and places initially, in order to place the reader. But he still denies the horrendous intro-info-dump.

5. One thing Banks is really getting better at here is characters. The characters are all distinct and engaging—despite being plays on tropes: the gentle giant, the curious simian, the celebrity dog, the benevolent leader who is benevolent because of shame for past deeds, the flighty girl, the gullible old man (drone) addicted to propriety, the almost-nihilistic philosopher who can’t let go of a past relationship cum tragedy, and the military leader bent on revenge. These eight are the main characters. To explain one example, the flighty girl is not flighty in the sense the phrase implies: rather, she is into flying with a set of artificial wings—gliding more than flying—or a hot air balloon; this shows how he plays up these tropes, which is engaging and funny in a way the novel needs to offset the potentially depressing theme. However, these characters are actually engaging for themselves: the gentle giant is gentle, sure, and a lot of his actions are, but he’s also a journalist attempting to understand people and their experiences. He goes lava rafting as a sort of social experiment and in an attempt to understand the allure of it—that’s interesting and unusual. So he uses the tropes in inventive ways, but also goes beyond them to contemplate and show extensions of the tropes. Essentially questioning what that trope of person really would be like. In other words, if stereotypes are loosely based in reality, he is getting towards the reality of these tropes.

6. I don’t buy the criticism that the Hub’s actions at the end are a deus ex machina. I think the Hub noticing the displaced objects makes sense in the context—his job is to see everything on the orbital and in the hub and avoid disasters, so of course he notices what is displaced there. But I also am not wholly satisfied with the ending. It does a fantastic job of closing the plot because Banks strikes a balance between what is implied by the story and what I want by the end. I am rooting for Quilan to go on living and find his release, for avoidance of the potential mass murder, for Hub forgiving itself, and for the researcher saving the day. The story implies mass murder and stark despair. It’s a wonderful, brilliant balance Banks strikes in the mass murder being averted, while two characters die. But Banks never resolves the theme. If the resolve is simply that death is natural and inevitable and good in its way, that hasn't been terribly insightful since Solomon. Perhaps by having the plethora of death in the novel he denies himself being able to say one conclusion because he says so many conclusions. And that’s what didn’t satisfy me about the ending: the theme wasn't resolved. Though perhaps the amount of story after the two characters die is a bit long, it simply ties up other loose ends.

7. In all, it’s a good novel. I enjoyed Look to Windward. It’s written really well and the storytelling is good. But the unresolved theme certainly niggles at the end. His characters are so strong, but it’s not the best Culture novel I’ve read. Nor is it the worst. The quality between the first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, and this one staggers me. He has consistently improved and gotten better as a writer and storyteller. I’m looking forward to the next one.

06 April, 2016

A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg

1. Another pseudo-memoir in the science fiction field. I think science fiction authors like the pseudo-memoir because they can say things and discuss things with plausible deniability: it’s only the characters that are discussing these out there ideas, not the author, don’t be mad at the author. [4/14/16: But speculative fiction as a genre accomplishes this remove already, so it's not quite necessary for just this remove.] It also allows them a path to follow and fits a linear narrative form: The Chronoliths and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, to name two others here on this blog. Though some attempt a non-linear narrative: Starship Troopers is one of the more famous examples. The memoir tactic involves the narrator breaking the fourth wall and setting down their memories of what happened for posterity—in speculative fiction, usually a fictional posterity. For instance, Mannie tells the true story of the moon rebellion, its war for independence. Scott tells the story of The Chronoliths in an attempt to explain the final Wyoming chronolith, but explains portions through interludes of backstory. Both Mannie and Scott talk to the reader consistently and explain themselves in order to force some nebulous fictional reader to understand their actions and points of view; and Kinnall Darival does the same here. Kinnall’s story involves subverting the basic tenants of the society that he is a part of, so he continually seeks to explain his actions to other members of the society, his hoped for readers. This takes place in a linear fashion with only three or four parts told from the “now” perspective of Kinnall exiled in the desert, alone and hunted while feverishly writing his memoir. So he doesn’t add anything to the tactic, but that’s fine because he pulls off the tactic well—not spectacularly, but not poorly.

2. The theme here is interesting, and well wrinkled by Silverberg. Silverberg’s ultimate point seems to be that only in understanding others can we understand ourselves. But he shows an even-handed amount of negative and positive effects of baring one’s soul to others: Kinnall is hunted and exiled for it, he loses his faith and closest friends, but he also gains a perspective that he values in feeling kinship with all humanity and wishing that they were less unnecessarily self-repressed. The society is one of self-separation—talking frankly is discouraged and obscene—but Kinnall discovers that the repression of self in this way is not placing self on a pedestal, rather subsuming it beneath the society. Instead, he proselytizes a bonding of people with others in order to truly understand self and the relationship it has with the surrounding society. He does this through a magic drug, but I think it’s an interesting discussion none the less. His musings on sociability and friendliness are fascinating and applicable.

3. The writing is not something spectacular or groundbreaking, but it doesn’t induce cringing too often. His sentence structures are not as varied as I prefer, but it’s also not so simplistic that it’s annoying. His word choices are sometimes awkward, but not too often. It’s fine writing.

4. There is a lot of sex, but I think it’s less sensationalism and more a desire to compare and contrast sex with the self-baring that Kinnall engages in. Even sex can be a thing one does mentally alone, despite the presence of a partner. And though both share in the experience, one or both can be objectified and not understood. The connection may not be a serious one and hence, Kinnall’s self-baring is more effective. This keeps the sex from being a sensational inclusion into the novel.

5. The characters are well-developed. Halum is innocent to a fault. Noim is suspicious to a fault. Kinnall, despite the punny name, is neither, but he has his own faults. He’s a well-developed character who, having found a true release, can’t help but share it with others. In this way he’s a convert to a new religion, away from the one of his youth, and wracked by existential guilt and self-questioning to try and come to terms with his new state of being. But he's also that over-enthusiastic new-convert who wont shut up about it. He’s understandable and engaging as a character, and I think that’s a strength of Silverberg’s writing.

6. One thing Silverberg did really well is skip unimportant portions. There is a section of the book where the short chapters grow even shorter—a single paragraph long each—to catalogue the various converts Kinnall initiates into his drug-cult. Rather than dwelling on each and creating a story for each, Silverberg shows hints of the others and gives the reader a sense of the spreading influence of Kinnall’s spirituality. This is about the only experimental writing in here, but it works well to keep the story moving and not bog it down in descriptions of similar situations occurring over and over again.

7. In all, I am not too impressed with this book. It is an enjoyable read and it engages applicable, interesting ideas in a good way. Kinnall is well rounded. But I’m not terribly enthused about the writing or the structure.