30 May, 2016

The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut's Windlass by Jim Butcher

0. Well, as of 26 April 2016, the nominees have been announced for the 2016 Hugo Awards. Five novels were nominated. I am reading through them all so that when I vote, I’m sure of why I think that one is better than the others. I understand the inherent ridiculousness of this—it is simply a popularity contest, after all. But I find it fun to explore new-to-me novels and writers, and learn from their works. The nominees are: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy, NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, Jim Butcher’s The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass, and Uprooted by Naomi Novak. Next up, The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut's Windlass has problems, but it's pretty good pulp fiction. I certainly enjoyed it more than one or two books nominated for the Hugo this year. Though I am now 100% certain that I'll vote for Ann Leckie this year, I did enjoy my first Jim Butcher novel.

1. I often say that I love pulp fiction. It’s nice to read something quickly for entertainment. This novel is pulp fiction, and I liked it. The novel consists of steampunk airships powered by crystals firing broadsides and diving in and out of the mist of this fantastical world. The characters are humans, cats, and some sort of inbetween warriorborn that look human but are part animal and never fully explained—though I understand this is a part of a series and therefore some things are left for explanation in future novels. The people all live in gigantic skyscrapers called spires and worry an awful lot about rust. Like most pulp fiction, a couple of concise truisms attempt to find some meaning within the novel, but it’s about telling a story well, not communicating a deeper truth. And I can definitely appreciate that. How wonderful that writing is robust or diverse enough to be read for so many different purposes. This would be good young adult fiction, though there is a portion discussing a song about a farmer’s cucumber that eventually falls into a mud hole that strains itself to barely keep away from stating what it’s actually talking about.

2. If there is a theme here, it’s a sort of coming of age in battle combination. The main characters are generally coming of age—Gwen, Bridget, Folly, and Benedict. But there are a couple of characters who are already there: Addison, Grimm, Cavendish, and Rowl. However, the coming of age of the younger characters is mixed up with the violence they are mixed up in. Therefore the theme is about people coming to grips with war and with themselves and with themselves in war. It’s an interesting topic that many, many authors have tackled. Butcher, writing pulp fiction, doesn’t get much deeper than introducing the topic. But rather than simply introduce the topic, he also shows it playing out: it’s a novel where people and action are the main focus, and that’s more engaging than one where technology and action take the fore.

3. The pacing of the story has a few problems, but only a few. Generally the novel clips along at a fantastic rate, going from character to character and crisis to crisis. But at least one point was entirely unresolved: after spending a couple chapters building tension up to a duel between Bridget and another house’s heir, the duel never comes off, instead being supplanted by an air raid siren and attack on the spire. This was frustrating. After convincing me to care about the duel, after successfully building that tension, it’s suddenly called off. The tension I felt didn’t transfer to the new situation because we never see Bridget’s interlocutor again. So this felt like a couple of wasted chapters that only served to build a small part of the world and, because the duel never came off, leaves me mildly unsatisfied. But outside of this, the pacing is fantastic. Not all go-go-go because there are moments of repose—whether forced by imprisonment or a period of waiting—that are spaced well throughout the novel so the reader never gets bored or exhausted.

4. But the worldbuilding is enjoyable. In a large part, the worldbuilding is typical pulp: hints are all we’re going to get about ninety percent of the details of the world. The world is still quite mysterious at the end of the novel, but I’m engaged as it goes along. Butcher basically says “this object is important to this character,” but doesn't tell the reader why in order to have more mystery in there. So, he builds the world through bringing out aspects of it when they apply, rather than foreshadowing, and that’s a pulp tactic through and through.

5. The characters are mostly interesting, though Grimm is a little flat as the all too perfect captain of a ship—not to mention the grim-Grimm pun that is played all too often within the book. A little more depth to him would have been nice, but Gwen, at least, is very well developed and interesting. She’s pushy and self-absorbed, but that covers a core of loneliness and expecting the best from herself. She can be arrogant, but is often quite understanding. She doesn’t let others see her real self because she doesn’t see the point to doing so. She is told, shown, and takes up a lot of space in the novel—which is probably appropriate to make the most conflicted, interesting character the largest part of the novel. Further, each of the chapters switches focus between the characters so that we get a taste each of the characters, and that helps the whole novel feel more varied than if it just followed one character and displayed mostly that character’s traits.

6. There were a few moments where I felt like Butcher needs a better editor. Two points stood out the most, though they were not the only points. One, when the landing is being destroyed, Butcher mixes up the names of secondary characters Kettle and Journeyman. This is unfortunate as it’s a mistake that shows a lack of care put into the novel, but it’s pulp fiction, so what can you really expect? The second example is a quote:
His softness was a favorite blanket, and his purr was as familiar as one of her mother’s barely remembered lullabies.
His noise was as familiar as something Bridget could barely remember. That doesn’t make sense at all with the way Butcher is trying to use it. But at some point, it’s pulp fiction and what can you expect?

7. Things always work out, and rarely do they not work out perfectly. This could be done better. At the end, when Cavendish rewrites the book, it’s a good example of things working out—Grimm got the book from her—but also not working perfectly—Cavendish had memorized it and still got what she wanted. These types of situations are great at setting up later story points, but they happen too rarely. More often than not, situations are resolved with too few negatives. For instance, the duel that I’ve already mentioned: Butcher builds it up to be an impossible situation to resolve, and then doesn’t. I am very curious how he could find that balance needed between Bridget winning and her interlocutor winning. But he doesn’t, he just forgets about it and has another enemy's attack go off and we never see Bridget's interlocutor again. There is no negative seen in the novel for the duel ending this way. It’s more like Butcher decides, “Nevermind.” It's like he too can't think of a way to write himself out of that corner and ends up bringing in the deus ex machina of ships attacking. My question would be, why not just take those two chapters out?

8. In all, I enjoyed this novel for entertainment, but I didn’t learn anything from it that I haven’t already. It’s a fine novel, but it’s not great by any stretch of the imagination. It’s good pulp fiction and it doesn’t try to be anything else—some pulp is overly preachy, but thankfully this isn't. The writing wasn’t something to praise—it was awkward at times and less awkward at others—but that's not why one reads pulp. I disagree with the critique from tor.com: their reviewer was rubbed the wrong way by all the characters being white, except for the cats: but since so many of these people spend so many generations inside their houses, which are inside the spires, which are inside huge banks of fog, never really seeing the sun, it makes sense to me that they’d be pale. In all, I enjoyed the novel, it was fine, but I’m not itching to read any other Butcher novels right now.

25 May, 2016

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

For Connor.

0. Well, as of 26 April 2016, the nominees have been announced for the 2016 Hugo Awards. Five novels were nominated. I am reading through them all so that when I vote, I’m sure of why I think that one is better than the others. I understand the inherent ridiculousness of this—it is simply a popularity contest, after all. But I find it fun to explore new-to-me novels and writers, and learn from their works. The nominees are: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy, NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, Jim Butcher’s The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass, and Uprooted by Naomi Novak. Next up, Seveneves is a mess. Through all of 2015, I believed that this novel would win the Hugo in 2016. I saw the most people reading it and heard the most discussion about it. It also seemed to have the most pull outside of the typical speculative fiction reader base—Seattle Times, New York Times, the internet in general, all seem to love this book. This book seems a smash hit. Connor convinced me to read it, so I did. All 900 pages of it. Now that I’ve read ⅘ of the nominees for this year, I still think this book will win, but I could see The Fifth Season pulling a win as it has really gained in popularity over time. I am 80% sure I’ll be voting for Ann Leckie’s novel though.

1. First things first: after six hundred pages this book begins its last chapter with the phrase “5000 years later”, and that last chapter is three hundred pages long. Is it the world’s longest epilogue, or are the prior six hundred pages the preface to end all prefaces? Every character is now dead, even the earth and our solar system are changed beyond recognition. This works out exactly as well as you think. If I hadn’t been reading this book for a friend, I would’ve quit. After finishing the book, I’m sad I didn’t quit—it wasn't worth it to continue. Those last three hundred were more of the same.
—Why do this? Why make a reader read those prior six hundred pages then pull all the meaning out of them so suddenly? Why make one read those six hundred pages if the three hundred are all that mattered? Or why include the three hundred pages with new characters, a new world, new technology, etc? Everybody I tell about this tactic busts out laughing immediately.
—But what was he trying to do here? Why take this ridiculous step? Being optimistic, it could be said that he wanted to tell the end of the story. The first five years really didn’t resolve until 5000 years later. But that seems a stretch when so much of the text in those last three hundred pages is made up of descriptions of technology that are theories today, or imaginations—there's not enough story for me to be this optimistic. I’m not certain that this tactic inherently doesn’t work, but I am certain it didn’t work here. I almost want to admire him for trying, but it really didn’t work.

2. The last three hundred pages codifies a tactic Stephenson uses throughout that makes this book difficult to read. For every page of story—with characters and actions and dialogue—there are two pages of wikipedia-esque explanatory prose about the technologies and physics that drive the story. Some of this is quite interesting, but there is so much of it that reading this book becomes boring. Arthur Clarke finds that line between too much information boring the reader, and just enough information told in an interesting way to make learning enjoyable. Here Stephenson just loves writing about imaginary technology and scientific theories.

3. And that’s my second major problem with this novel: these technologies and theories drive the plot of the book, rather than characters being in the driver's seat. The story itself is sparse: moon explodes, humanity realizes they have two years to live, they set up a space base, they move said base to the remaining moon-core, then 5000 years later they discover two different groups of humans who survived the moon-chunk apocalypse on the earth. In each of these parts, the technologies and scientific theories take up the most room in the book and drive the plot forward. The characters are almost afterthoughts and there’s only a couple of emotional moments in the book—way too few for nine hundred pages. Most potentially emotional moments are stripped of any effectiveness the same way they're stripped of any specifics. For instance, from part one:
Two days later a Scout simply disappeared without explanation, possibly the victim of a micrometeoroid, or even of suicide.

So, of the first crew of six Scouts, two were dead on arrival and one was killed in the Luk failure the next day. Of the second crew, one was dead on arrival. All six of the third crew made it to Izzy alive. Of the fourteen total survivors, four died from Zavod failures, one disappeared, and one was forced to “retire” from being a Scout and confine his activities to Izzy because of equipment failure.

Ivy, being at the top of the org chart, was responsible for all strange and extraordinary decisions: the problems that no one else knew how, or was willing, to handle. It became her problem to decide what they were going to do with dead people.

Oh, there was a procedure. NASA had a procedure for everything.
Death itself lacks all meaning, merely requiring a bit of administrative creativity from the leader. This fear of emotions cripples any interest I wanted to have in this book. Even the whole character of Cyc embodies this perfectly: she is simply a human encyclopedia—hence her name. This is dry: even after a couple of pages discussing some tangential technology, sometimes employing bullet points, Stephenson will admit that it doesn’t matter to the story or the culture or the characters. Admitting this doesn’t help me be more interested in these all to often digressions, even when they're interesting.

4. Hard science fiction doesn’t necessitate excluding characters or human emotions—Arthur Clarke tends to have many. But here there are only five characters that make sense and hold any interest for me: Dinah, Doc, Julia, Markus, and a kid named Einstein. The rest are obvious caricatures. They’re emotionally flat—in Tekla’s case that is the point. But Ivy coming off flat is just poor writing. Stephenson attempts to fill her out as a character, and he tries really hard, but I don’t think it works because she has too little on-screen time. The flat characters are typically flat because Stephenson tells too much and doesn’t show enough. He says Ivy cries, but we see her cry maybe once? And even that situation is just sort of glossed over in favor of getting back to some kind of wikipedia-esque technological explanation. Her tears are wasted because we aren't allowed to understand them. So instead of showing the characters through actions, dialogue, and internal monologue, he tells them through narrative and then doesn’t reinforce this telling with enough showing to make these characters stick.

5. The theme here only reveals itself in the third part and it’s not very well explored: humans are not blank slates. Most of the third portion deals with the way each of the seven eves left their marks inherent in their descendants. Though the descendants are, well, 5000 years later, they’re still adhering to types and characteristics that they can’t escape, despite the time that has passed and their own experiences. This is a fascinating topic that isn’t often taken up in speculative fiction. Typically, characters are left to their own devices and they overcome their backgrounds to become heroes. Here, though they may undergo rags to riches transformations of place, they’re still who they are as characters, and that’s couched in the extensive discussions of their genetic history.

6. Another bit of the storytelling that I don’t enjoy is the awkward shift from Kath Two’s point of view to Ty’s, and then back. It confuses me at first and I don’t understand. Then I do and it makes some sense, especially after Kath’s transition to Kathree. But initially this is offputting and distracting. Like the 5000 years later bit, by the time it makes sense a hundred pages later, I am already pretty convinced it is awkward, and even the explanations don’t justify the awkwardness of the transition.

7. In all, this book is not enjoyable to me. There are some interesting moments, but I believe this storyline should be told in less than nine hundred pages, a lot less. I mean, cut out 90% of the technological explanations and this book could be four hundred pages or so and stick to the story and characters more. But even then the characters aren’t strong enough to carry the plot along. I will not even get into the word choices—which are complex but only because of the scientific terminology and made up technobabble—because the book was boring and I still think it will win the Hugo this year. Despite the bullet points it uses in place of writing. This is what people like right now, and that’s fine. Like what you read and read what you like, but this book clearly isn’t for me.

15 May, 2016

Uprooted by Naomi Novak

0. Well, as of 26 April 2016, the nominees have been announced for the 2016 Hugo Awards. Five novels were nominated. I am reading through them all so that when I vote, I’m sure of why I think that one is better than the others. I understand the inherent ridiculousness of this—it is simply a popularity contest, after all. But I find it fun to explore new-to-me novels and writers, and learn from their works. The nominees are: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy, NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, Jim Butcher’s The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass, and Uprooted by Naomi Novak. Next up, Uprooted is a well told story, but I'm struggling to understand whether it's trying to say anything, and if so, what.

1. This seems like nothing more than pulp fiction. That’s not a condemnation: I enjoy pulp fiction and this certainly fits the bill—I enjoy reading this novel while actually reading it. But when not reading it, I am slightly bemused. The plot is simple: there is an evil Wood with sentient malice, a powerful wizard who has lost touch with his humanity while living in a tower, a young woman who doesn’t yet realize her own power as a witch, some political court drama, and a messianic tale of her understanding leading to the resolution of an old conflict. You already know how this ends. Structurally, this book captures the cliff-hanger chapter endings that help make pulp fiction engrossing to read, the constant action that leaves the reader feeling breathless, and the heroism that befits a fairy tale. Novak weaves in Polish myths because she is Polish-American, but change a few names and you have any fairy tale. The book moves from scene to scene, chapter to chapter, with the reader knowing as little as the main character about what’s coming next, outside of the predictability of the tropes.

2. And that’s where I need to start about my problems with this novel. First, because the reader has such little to go on in terms of foreshadowing, it relies upon deus ex machina moments to get to the end. Starting with the first chapter, these sudden moments of shift are passed off as the main character’s intuition and revelatory accidents. It’s something she can’t understand, so the author doesn’t either. It comes off as a bit of a disappointment to me when the river helps guide them to the sacred grove, for instance. Or that Kasia is suddenly invulnerable. Or that all the tests show the Queen is free from the Wood’s corruption before it’s suddenly obvious she is still enslaved. Later it seems to begin to contradict itself when a priest can't detect corruption, but the bishop can? Or maybe the bishop's wizard can? These moments are right in line with pulp fiction tropes, like the rest of the plot and structure.

3. As far as what themes this novel, I couldn’t say for certain. I guess it’s a general call to be nicer and understand people more, but honestly the plot gets in the way of any theme Novak put in here. If she was trying to say something, to claim some theme driving the book, it didn’t work because there is so much action distracting from it, and the plot points tend to imply different themes. For instance, Agnieszka is downright nasty to the wizard in the tower, yet she ends up gaining enough power from him to stop the Wood invading at one point. Later, her kindness and friendship to Kasia allow her to do something that hasn’t been done in fifty years. So is Novak advocating kindness or nastiness? It’s muddled. So I think we have to look to the end, to where the characters finish at, and they end up relying upon each other, trying to understand and live with the enemy, then working with the enemy to fix the underlying problem and forgive. That’s probably the theme. I think.

4. The main character, despite always shouting at the people around her, is fairly engaging. She’s iconoclastic and memorable, but not exactly understandable or interesting. Novak builds her like most pulp characters: showing Agnieszka’s reactions to dangerous situation after dangerous situation. She’s loyal but realizes she’s probably growing out of that loyalty. She strikes a good balance between shown and told—she’s a bit of a puzzle, but since she’s still trying to figure herself out, this sort of works.

5. The writing is good. There was a nice mix of sentence structures and word choices. I came across a couple of phrases that really sang, and a rare few awkward sentences. But in all, it didn’t annoy me in the least.

6. I do really like how Novak builds this world by assuming our myths are real, yet still building a mythical world off of that. It’s the myths that come after the myths. I enjoy when an author uses real-world touchstones to anchor the reader’s understanding—fruits and cows and plants that are familiar and help this world feel real rather than using made-up words as analogies to these familiar things. Typically it helps an author drive their point home without distracting the reader by making them memorize what word analogizes to horse, or hamburger, or sun. Here though, with such a muddled point, it is just good writing. And using this tactic to actually build the whole world is inspired.

7. For all that the novel tries to delve into actually probable causes for fairy tale myths, it certainly comes off as simply a wish fulfillment novel. This is the book for you if you ever wanted to be a witch or wizard.

8. In all, I feel like I missed something here. It’s a well-told story in all its parts, but it feels like it wanders overall. It’s got an engaging main character but I’m typically annoyed at her reactions—also at the reactions of the other characters. It’s got no theme really, but the myths are still interesting. It builds an engaging world, but then tells a typical fantasy messianic tale. It tries to encourage working together, then spends hundreds of pages showing how people can’t work together. It goes one layer deeper into the myth, uncovering possible causes for some of the fairy tale tropes, but doesn't really coalesce into a consistent vision of the world or myths. Based on this novel, I will not be reading more of Novak’s work, but I also didn’t hate it. If it wasn't for the one sex scene that adds nothing to either character involved, this would be a good young adult novel. Like I said, I’m bemused here: it seems to do nothing new, just does old things well and slightly shifted, but it is extremely popular all over the internet. Not the book for me, but enjoyable and a well told story.

12 May, 2016

The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin

0. Well, as of 26 April 2016, the nominees have been announced for the 2016 Hugo Awards. Five novels were nominated. I am reading through them all so that when I vote, I’m sure of why I think that one is better than the others. I understand the inherent ridiculousness of this—it is simply a popularity contest, after all. But I find it fun to explore new-to-me novels and writers, and learn from their works. The nominees are: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy, NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, Jim Butcher’s The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass, and Uprooted by Naomi Novak. Next up, The Fifth Season is a sensational book: so gripping and exciting. But I also think it’s flawed. (As a joke before my notes begin: clearly Jemisin has never watched CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada and those commercials for a bank that I will not name. After reading the title, I was half hoping for a speculative fiction hockey novel.)

1. The most astounding thing I found in here was Jemisin’s ability to delve so deeply into both the macro and micro scales in such a short space—the whole book is 520 pages or so, but much of that is appendixes. By the end, without reading the appendixes, I had a massive amount of understanding about the fictional world, its history, and its peoples; as well as about each character.
—The worldbuilding is spectacular. She even deals with geological history, which is important because it shows how consistent, interconnected, and wholistic her world building is. Geological events spark, sustain, and star in the titular fifth seasons—long periods of ash and gas blocking out the sun, and volcanic activities which are clearly the biggest influence on world history for this fictional world. Geological features determine the survivability of every community from the capital of the empire down to the lowliest roadside wellhouse, both in a fifth season and in the peaceful interludes between them. Even roads’ locations, types of material used for building, and how to engineer a flexible ridgeline are determined by the geological activity. The fifth seasons cause everybody to be insular within their community, precise and formal outside their community, and paranoid preppers on a personal level. Cultures are arranged around use-castes that are determined by a person’s essential usefulness to a community during the many emergencies geology provides. These are just a few, general examples, but I could easily list more. On a world where geology is as active as this, it makes sense that the entire culture is changed from what we are, and those changes are rooted around the geology. This is the basic premise worked out brilliantly: whether the author’s initial premise was asking what a geologically active world would cause a culture to look like, or what would cause a culture repressed to this extent, she ended up with a well-built, complex world that is incredibly consistent—to the point where I can’t tell whether the geology or the culture came first in her mind.
—And the characters are all so tied into this world-building that they’re defined by the world they live in, whether they’re for or against the repression of culture. Jemisin’s characters couldn’t live anywhere but where they do. Well, maybe they could, but that’d be unlikely. I mean, we’ve got a cast of stone-eaters and geomancers—which fit this world precisely. And that’s not to say they don’t compare to us: when they’re not informing or being informed by the world, they’re going through struggles and emotions that are understandable and relatable. Finding out everything you trusted wasn’t actually trustworthy? Check. Finding the skillful and abrasive outsider’s views on things explanatory to your own mysteries? Check. Trusting people in the moment and asking questions after the fact? Also in here. Experiencing loss and trying to continue living? Yup, a few times. Making a mistake and endangering those you love? Of course. You get the idea. There is a lot in this novel—a lot of emotional experience. And each circumstance and action serves to explain characters to a degree that I feel like I know these as people.
—Jemisin doesn’t overwhelm the novel with an intro-info-dump, forced classroom scene, or overbearing explanatory character. Rather, spread throughout the whole novel is a mix of small explanations and hints injected directly into the action and dialogue of the plot. For instance, when Hoa reveals himself as a stone-eater, Essun consciously files that away for later discussion, moves on with the immediate concern, then gets to questioning Hoa a few chapters later. This is how Jemisin builds both the world and characters: details naturally springing out of the plot foreshadow brief explanations that come a few pages or chapters down the line. This is incredible worldbuilding without relying upon the “history of every lichen-covered rock between the Shire and Mt. Doom”. This is world-building with a purpose that complements and strengthens the discussions and plot within the novel, rather than distracting from it.
—In short, while culture and geology get all combined together, the characters form a third strand in the knot. The consistency and complexity through these three threads is astounding. If this book were a person I would be amazed at their intellectual rigor. If for nothing other than this world and character building, I will be reading more Jemisin.

2. Structurally, this is fantastic. At the start, there appears to be three characters. There are three chapter families, one for each of the main characters—Damaya the child, Syenite the young woman, and Essun the woman. Each chapter focuses on one of these characters and doesn’t include the other two. But as the book progresses, realization slowly dawns, then is confirmed, that all three are the same person, but in different stages of life. Jemisin does something amazing here by collating three narratives from a single character’s life, showing successive slices of each, and effectively telling three time periods simultaneously: Damaya’s present and future; Syenite’s past, present, and future; and Essun’s past and present. It’s amazing because once this fact is confirmed in one of the last chapters, my mind immediately crawled backwards and forwards in attempting to piece everything together and that was an enjoyable puzzle. Each of the storylines works towards the fault line where Damaya becomes Syenite, where Syenite becomes Essun, and where Essun has to come to terms with being Syenite and Damaya as well. In this way, each of the three plots is engaging and exciting: even after the end is know in the sense that Damaya becomes Syenite who becomes Essun, I enjoy finding out the specifics. The whole novel has a prologue that I reread because it hints at things and contains specifics and mysteries not explained until much later. There are also two short interludes where the author breaks the fourth wall in the second person—but the first one could be from Hoa’s point of view. These help as pauses in the story to give the reader a brief respite to put all the pieces together, to foreshadow the coming chapters, and to let Jemisin drive home a few things these talking about.

3. The writing is all over the place. Some things I like, some I don’t. Really, there are four things that I want to discuss.
—First, the one everybody talks about: some of this novel’s chapters are written in the second person. At first, I was hoping that the novel would be about three characters, each one’s chapters written in a different person. It ended up being about one character but told from two different points of view—one written in third person and the other in second. That was clever and interesting. But how cool would it have been to have it turn out the way I was hoping? I was disappointed, but this disappointment is only because I expected too much. My fault for being disappointed, not hers. So I’m not judging the voices negatively—Jemisin wrote both effectively and it is a cool tactic the way she used it.
—Similarly, the fourth-wall breaking was fine. There are points in the second person portions where it’s ambiguous whether Jemisin is talking to the reader or Essun, and that ambiguity helps the reader understand what Jemisin is questioning through the plot. There isn’t too many bits where Jemisin talks to the reader directly, so it’s not overdone in the sense of explaining the whole book directly and making the narrative itself feel unimportant. She keeps a good balance between forcing the question on the reader and letting the reader come to it themselves by breaking the fourth wall so rarely.
—Third, she mixes colloquial and rare word choices in a way that doesn’t excite me, but I don’t really hate it either. It seems like some of the word choices don’t fit the tone or setting of the novel. For instance, on the same page she uses the words comm and ire—ire being a formal word choice, and comm being the colloquial abbreviation for community. This is fine, on the surface, but I don’t enjoy how much of the colloquial is within the novel. At my most pessimistic, it’s blog-writing trying to be fantasy. At my most honest, it almost works. Unlike Iain M Banks’ consistent colloquial formality played for laughs and to build characters, I found Jemisin’s colloquial-formal language to be inconsistent in density within the novel and in purpose of use. In each family of chapters, the mix of colloquial and formal is different, which makes some sense, but sort of sends me spinning. In short, I didn’t enjoy many of the word choices, though there were a couple of beautiful alliterative moments. But in a book where so much of the novel is so deeply thought through and interconnected, the word choices weren’t as well thought through.
—Fourth, the most annoying thing in the novel: Jemisin has one past tense sentence in the middle of the novel. I believe it is an error in editing, not intentional, but I spent a lot of time thinking about what it could mean.
No one in the Fulcrum talks about the Guardians’ politics, probably because no one in the Fulcrum understands them. The Guardians keep their own counsel, and they object to inquiries. Vehemently.

Not for the first time Syenite wonders: To whom do the Guardians answer?

As Syen’s considered this, they’ve reached the cove, and stopped at its railed boardwalk. The avenue ends here, its cobbles vanishing beneath a drift of sand and then the raised wooden walkway. Not far off there’s a different sandy beach from the one they saw earlier. Children run up and down the boardwalk’s steps, squealing in play, and beyond them Syen can see a gaggle of old women wading...

—Chapter 14
—In closing, the writing was fine. It wasn’t spectacular, but it didn’t hide points Jemisin was trying to make.

4. Thematically, Jemisin is talking about minorities and advocating understanding and working together among different people. She does this through showing how one character’s outsider point of view can influence and benefit another person. She does this through describing how the different people groups react and interact to the geology and each other. She does this through the universally second class geomancers. She does this through the unknowns in the history. She uses the theme to focus the novel, to tie all the threads of world-building and characters together. She uses the unique geomancers, who are inherently interesting because they are so different from us, as a central part of the novel, and this insures the reader never forgets the theme. In short, as everything here, the theme is rigorous.

5. The sex is overdone. After the first few times, I get what she’s trying to do with the sex—explaining that certain characters are less jealous than others. But after that, it just seems sensational and uninformative, and that’s a real bummer. I mean, if you’re putting sex in a novel, you necessarily limit the potential audience. And if the sex doesn’t payoff for the reader’s understanding, or the world building, then why is it in there other than sensationalism? To be clear, my complaint isn't that there is sex in the novel, it's that the sex doesn't inform the reader to the same extent the other aspects of the novel do. In point one above I state, "each circumstance and action serves to explain characters to a degree that I feel like I know these as people." The sex didn't always accomplish this, and that's my main complaint here. In this, it was slightly discongruous.

6. I am amazed by how rigorous and complex this novel becomes without losing its excitement. It remains an exciting adventure throughout, but is also a wonderful study of this fascinating world she has created. The way she focuses on the macro and micro is spectacular. My two big annoyances were the sex and the word choices. But they weren’t significant enough to turn me off of this novel or from reading her other works. I’m excited to read the next book in this trilogy, and some of her past work as well. Yet another example of fantasy being used to explain something in our own culture by recontextualizing it. And this is a good, good book. I can see why it’s so popular. I really, really enjoyed reading this novel!

05 May, 2016

Cyteen by CJ Cherryh

1. Structurally, this book is perfect, and that surprises me because I don’t often find myself structuring a story like this—or even appreciating this type of structure. It’s certainly something that I will have to try. Okay, let me stop and explain this structure. This is a six hundred and eighty page novel, with only fourteen chapters—so, the chapters are very long, except the first. Each chapter is divided into sections by roman numerals, containing from three to seventeen sections per chapter—the first chapter having only three, the rest having at least ten. Each section spans from a page to well over twenty pages. Almost all of the sections only concern one situation or character, or two when a conversation is center stage. Late in the novel, the few sections that jump between places and characters within the section really ramp up the tension. Typically, each new section shifts the scene or characters from the last section: introducing a new scene, conversation or action, and characters. In this way, each section is essentially a mini-chapter: containing a scene or story that has a traditional arc or cliffhanger. Each section focuses narrowly and really digs into the specifics of the situation. This works well because so much happens—a lot goes on in this novel. But all of it is offered up in these small, digestible sections that focus clearly on the elements important to the scene. That focus and specificity is what makes this tactic of quick scenes work so well here. This gives me that “one-more-turn” feeling Civilization and other turn-based video games are famous for—I want to read one more section before sleeping. And did I ever: last night I was up until 2:45 before turning off the light.

2. This structure lets Cherryh pace the novel well in the sense that she spends unequal time on any section and because there are so many sections, it doesn’t feel unnatural. Rather, by having longer and shorter sections, she is able both to spend an appropriate amount of time on each section, and to ramp up tension. Specifically, I think of one section near the end where Jordan does something very important and his two sons don’t know of it while they spend eleven pages discussing similar things. Through each of those pages, I’m growing more and more anxious, waiting for the shoe to drop. By drawing that conversation out, Cherryh allows tension to build, but it still fits in her structure nicely. In short, she doesn’t equalize the section lengths and instead follows the scene of each section to determine their lengths. And by spending an appropriate amount of time on each section, the whole is paced well.

3. Cherryh focuses each section through the old adage of never show the monster—in other words, do not over-describe. The theory here may be twofold: one, the reader is going to fill in more effective details from their own mind, and two, not all of the details influence the story, or are important to it, so by only giving the interesting details that are influential, the reader is not reading unnecessary fluff and the author can get into the important parts of the story right away. Cherryh follows this tactic by giving a couple interesting details, sparking the reader’s imagination, but then moving on to the action and letting the reader fill in the blanks. This is how she builds the world: slowly laying down details throughout the whole book—Novgorad is only really understood as a functioning city in the final chapter—and by aggregation of details within the reader’s mind, trusting the reader to connect the dots. And this engrosses and engages me. When a word like pedways is first dropped, I’m curious and I file it away until she explains it later—showing Justin in the Novgorod pedways in the last chapter, explaining both what they are and how people interact with them. It’s a series of clues that start to form a startlingly complete picture of the world. But she never just explains the whole thing: she never shows the monster, simply shows bits and pieces and lets the reader fill in the blanks in their own minds. She doesn’t just apply this tactic to the world though—it’s also applied to experiences and characters: Grant is tall and handsome and red haired and elegant, beyond that, nothing is known of Grant’s appearance. And those four descriptors are more than most characters have. Sam is buff and tall, Amy is long-faced, Maddy is shaped lustily—most characters, even main ones like Justin, Jordan, and Ari, only have one or two descriptors of their physical appearance. And this description tactic works well because it focuses the novel on their personalities, and let’s me fill in their looks from my own opinions and experiences. Brilliant description throughout.

4. The description works superbly except, of course, the eight page intro-info-dump. But even that I find myself sympathizing with and not being annoyed by because her Alliance-Union universe is unique and the setting for many of her books. In order to get the reader understanding important context and backstory, she uses the intro-info-dump. Most of her books appear to not be sequels of each other—this isn’t a series like A Song of Ice and Fire where each book directly follows the last—but some information is still helpful to the reader and lets Cherryh get to the story quickly. I still think Iain M Banks’ tactic of integrating the context into the story works better, and Banks’ Culture series is like this series in that any book can be read first in the series. But Cherryh does the best intro-info-dump I’ve ever read, because she applies this focusing tactic to the information given in the dump itself. It’s good here, and I think I may now see why so many authors utilize the intro-info-dump.

5. The character building is astoundingly effective. She describes the main characters through conversations and actions and internal monologue—though only some of the main characters receive space to monologue to themselves. Like Banks, Cherryh uses all three tactics on the main characters, two of the three on the secondary ones, and only one of the three on the tertiary ones. This effectively lets the reader know who the main characters are almost at the start of the novel. But Cherryh is incredible at giving each their own voice and responses, and keeping those consistent throughout without making characters boring or predictable. This also helps inform the reader the extent of Justin’s lack of balance when he does break from his usual cast of responses in the final chapter. I wish I could figure out exactly what she does to keep her characters so distinct and unique—even with Ari Senior and Ari Junior, who are so close to the same person—because I want to be as good as Cherryh. To take the example of the two Aris, first, Cherryh allows Ari Junior to have contextual differences from Ari Senior. Second, she allows these contextual differences to affect Junior in honest ways that make her different than Senior fundamentally, as shown through her actions—a desire to draw together and protect rather than separate and rule over, a willingness to attach herself and risk her own safety in order to help herself feel less lonely, et cetera. And third, these changes cause consequences that she has to deal with. In other words, Cherryh separates her characters through differences in knowledge, those differences causing different reactions and goals, and those goals and reactions integrating with other characters’ goals and reactions to cause consequences. Sort of like real life. And that’s really the strength of Cherryh’s characterization: she has them well defined and consistent in her own mind and stays true to that within the novel; and the characters seem realistic to real life—they have a few contrasting ideas that give them tensions, but not so many that they’re entirely philosophically inconsistent. Again, like most people. This is breathtaking character building.

6. The theme here discusses change over time. In a sense, it’s a study of "the sequel": that second generation, or third, past the founding of a culture or government or settlement. Through this study she discusses what affects a culture over the long term, and how people react to those changes. This discussion ties into technology, inhospitable space travel and communication, and long-term planning with unknown variables. For example, a quote from Ari Senior, addressing Ari Junior:
The human diaspora, the human scattering, is the problem, but Centrism is not the answer. The rate of growth that sustains technological capacity that makes civilization possible is now exceeding the rate of cultural adaptation, and distance is exceeding our communications. The end will become more and more like the beginning, scattered tribes of humans across an endless plain, in pointless conflict—or isolate stagnation—unless we can condense experience, encapsulate it, replicate it deliberately in CIT deep-sets—unless psychogenesis can work on a massive scale, unless it can become sociogenesis and exceed itself as I hope you will exceed me. Human technology as an adaptive response of our species has passed beyond manipulation of the environment; beyond the manipulation of our material selves; beyond the manipulation of mind and thought; now, having brought us out of the cradle it must modify our responses to the universe at large. Human experience is generating dataflow at a rate greater than individuals can comprehend or handle; and the rate is still increasing. We must begin compression: we must compress experience in the same way human history compresses itself into briefer and briefer instruction—and events on which all history depended rate only a line in passing mention.

Ultimately only the wisdom is important, not the event which produced it. But one must know accurately what those things are.

One must pass the right things on. Experience is brutal and an imprecise teacher at best.

And the time at which all humanity will be within reach, accessible to us—is so very brief.

You’ll see more than I can, young Ari.
This theme is quite applicable in our day-to-day lives. Long-term planning is always a crap-shoot and our best guesses can be completely invalidated by a technological leap, or a cultural upheaval. Because of this, Cherryh argues for doing the best we can, but also accepting what comes and being able to react and change. Contentment with one's lot in life, but still striving to better oneself and the world. She shows this through her characters.

7. Ultimately, this novel is spectacular. It doesn’t rely upon violence or sex—though there is some of that in there—it focuses on psychology. It becomes a fascinating character study of the main characters and cultures in a way that mirrors the world. Written by a Spokane author before Ruby Ridge, she definitely tapped into something of the time’s cultural consciousness in this novel in a deep way. To say that I love this book doesn’t seem to be enough. I wish I had written this book. Yeah, I’d change the intro-info-dump, and I’d tack another section or two of reflection onto the end. But even these things work with Cherryh’s voice and context. I feel so much loss at not having read Cherryh before 2016—if I had this influencing my life earlier, I would be a much more skilled writer today.

[Added 12 May 2016. 8. I now remember my main complaint: she starts out by saying over and over again how close Grant and Justin are, and how important Jordan is to them both—on a personal level. But she doesn't show this significance for far too long and I ended up having to take this on faith for what felt like a couple of hundred pages without seeing it. It was a case of too much telling and not enough showing. Which is odd because the rest of the book shows well. But eventually I understood their relationship with the secret language between the two and references they shared that set them apart from others. I just wish I would've seen it earlier.]

04 May, 2016

Matter by Iain M Banks

1. Compared to Banks' other Culture novels, this one has few characters. Like Inversions, the story closely follows the main characters. Here, the main characters are Turminder Xuss and Djan Seriy Anaplian, Ferbin and Choubris Holse, and Oramen and Neguste; while Tyl Loesp, Liveware Problem, and Tove are the three secondary characters that matter the most. There are a ton of other characters, but they’re in and out to reflect the main characters and provide other points of view about the central discussion of the novel. And that’s what Banks is doing: focusing on the main characters, and using the others to provide plot points, context, and story movement. Where in Excession he revels in tons and tons of characters, this novel has comparatively few. But it doesn’t detract from the scope of the novel: the scope is still satisfyingly complex and varied. I say satisfyingly because the discussions are wrinkled, varied, and deepened through the diversity of examples given in the novel. The dozens of tertiary characters contribute directly to the scope of the novel, while the six main characters keep it focused on the discussion of the novel. This shows Banks thinking deeply about what he includes and writes. It’s a tight, well done choice.
People craved self-importance; they longed to be told they mattered as individuals, not just as part of a mass of people or some historical process. They needed the reassurance that while their life might be hard, bitter and thankless, some reward would be theirs after death. Happily for the governing class, a well-formed faith also kept people from seeking their recompense in the here and now, through riot, insurrection or revolution.

A temple was worth a dozen barracks; a militia man carrying a gun could control a small unarmed crowd only for as long as he was present; however, a single priest could put a policeman inside the head of every one of their flock, for ever.

2. The way the novel converges successfully signposts the ending. This works because drawing the main characters closer together increases the tension—I mean, something has to happen when all the main character get together. He also did this in Excession, but it works very well here because the reader knows it’s coming and he draws it out a bit, allowing that feeling in the reader of knowing more than the characters and agonizing over the characters’ choices because of it. In Excession, everybody comes together except Sleeper Service; then when Sleeper Service finally makes a run for that common location, it surprised me a bit: I didn’t see the story set on Sleeper Service relating too closely, until suddenly it did. Here, all three of the main character pairs are immediately linked through their familial connections, while the three secondary characters are also connected to that family—though Liveware Problem only through Special Circumstances. This immediate connection allows Banks to tell three different sides of the same story. The closeness of the connection means that there isn’t a separate epilogue for any character after the climax, they are all resolved at one go, in the climax itself. This provides a satisfying finish to the plot and allows the epilogue to touch on the central story itself.

3. This novel is a direct mix of fantasy and science fiction. Lord of Light mixed fantasy language into a science fiction story. Inversions told a fantasy story with a science fiction ah-ha moment. This is both, simultaneously and successfully. Here, the Culture deals with societies that are much less advanced than it in general—hence Contact and Special Circumstances. In other words, there are spaceships flying over pike and shot battles. Where Inversions told its story from the side of the contacted, this tells both sides of the story at the same time—both contactee and contactor. And that, as a fan of the series, is a wonderful exploration of Contact.

4. However, though this fan service of exploring a contact situation more deeply is the basis of the story, the novel is not fan service. The theme, and it’s very prominent, is power. Power is the theme, but it’s also the main goal of each character, and drives the plot and story forwards. This triple focus of power shows just how prominent the theme is. Some novels have two themes: one for the story and one for the reader. This novel has one in three tactics: but it doesn’t grow dull because Banks discusses power from multiple points of view. Even just Ferbin and Choubris Holse’s conversations would be enough for me to state that this novel is about power, but Banks allows the theme into every other nook and cranny.
“Still, it is often easier to be the second in command, prince,” Hyrlis said. “The throne is a lonely place, and the nearer you are to it the clearer you see that. There are advantages to having great power without ultimate responsibility. Especially when you know that even the king does not have ultimate power, that there are always powers above. You say [the assassin] was trusted, rewarded, valued, respected . . . Why would he risk that for the last notch of a power he knows is still enchained with limitations?”
The above dialogue example shows how Banks is wrinkling and sustaining this discussion of power: through the characters. Like so many of these characters, Hyrlis is only on-scene for part of one chapter, then gone. Hyrlis exists only in his importance to Ferbin and the theme: nothing else. Like Hyrlis, all of the tertiary and secondary characters reflect the main characters and contextualize the central question, while each of the main characters is simultaneously attempting to locate power, or navigate it. Power is their driving force whether it’s what they want or what they’re reacting to.
That had always been his father’s ultimate aim, Oramen knew, though Hausk had known that he’d never see that day – neither would Oramen, or any children he would ever have – but it was enough to know that one had done one’s bit to further that albeit distant goal, that one’s efforts had formed some sturdy part of the foundations for that great tower of ambition and achievement.

The stage is small but the audience is great, had been one of King Hausk’s favourite sayings. To some degree he meant that the WorldGod watched and hopefully somehow appreciated what they were doing on its behalf, but there was also the implication that although the Sarl were primitive and their civilisation almost comically undeveloped by the standards of, say, the Oct (never mind the Nariscene, still less the Morthanveld and the other Optimae), nevertheless, greatness lay in doing the best you could with what you were given, and that greatness, that fixity of purpose, strength of resolve and decisiveness of action would be watched and noted by those far more powerful peoples and judged not on an absolute scale (on which it would barely register) but on one relative to the comparatively primitive resources the Sarl had available to them.

In a sense, his father had told him once – his contemplative moods were rare, so memorable – the Sarl and people like them had more power than the ungraspably supreme Optimae peoples with their millions of artificial worlds circling in the sky, their thinking machines that put mere mortals to shame and their billions of starships that sailed the spaces between the stars the way an iron warship cruised the waves. Oramen had found this claim remarkable, to put it kindly.
Above, Oramen contemplates his father’s goal, the theme of his father’s life. And guess what? It’s power. This contemplation is him attempting to come to terms with his power by learning from his father. But the only reason Oramen does contemplate this is because he believes his brother and father are both dead, making him the Prince Regent. Being the one about to be the king causes him to start contemplating this question. And this brings up my third point about how Banks supports his theme: power and power-plays drive the plot and characters forwards.
The Sarl would achieve a goal they had been pursuing for almost all the life of their departed king, the Deldeyn would be defeated, the loathsome and hated Aultridia would be confounded, the WorldGod would be protected – who knew? even saved – and the Oct, the long-term allies of the Sarl, would be grateful, one might even say beholden. The New Age of peace, contentment and progress that King Hausk had talked so much about would finally come to pass. The Sarl would have proved themselves as a people and would, as they grew in power and influence within the greater World and eventually within the alien-inhabited skies beyond, take their rightful place as one of the In-Play, as an Involved species and civilisation, a people fit – perhaps, one day, no doubt still some long way in the future – to treat even the Optimae of the galaxy (the Morthanvelds, the Cultures, and who knew what alien others) as their equals.
More than simply assassinations and fights, Banks realizes here that power is what contact is all about—contact being the process of the advanced Culture contacting a more primitive society. Hence the weird dancing around the Morthanveld, hoping to not step on any toes so that when the Morthanveld are finally High-Level Involveds, they will be a close ally of the Culture. Therefore, any contact with them is highly regimented and questions of power define how characters interact with the Morthanveld throughout. Myriad and funny and diverse examples of contact that are spread throughout wonderfully contextualize the central question, but in the end the discussion of power is, appropriately enough, tied off by the plot and story, not some lengthy closing oration. The plot itself, as it does in so many stories, shows the conclusions Banks draws from the theme: namely, power is simultaneously a benefit and a curse, always, no matter how much of it you have, yes even over your own self or a small part of your own self, and no matter how moral or amoral, ethical or unethical you are in using it. The whole novel begins and ends about power: from the assassination of the opening through the struggle for power on and off the planet at the end, this novel is about power and that question drives plot, story, character, and discussion to a satisfying level. I’m still interested, at the end, in discussing power, despite having just read 593 pages of discussion on it. That’s a testament to how wrinkled, diverse, and varied Banks allowed his theme to get. As always, on this site I’m not going to go into what Banks says about power, just how he says it. But I look forward to discussing these ideas and hierarchies with people.

5. And that writing! I mentioned the plot above, contrasting it to a closing oration, but the two closing orations are actually spectacular: “Oh go and fuck yourself,” closes the novel and “Ah, family life, eh?” closes the epilogue. Obviously, Banks still uses that wonderful, contrasting, colloquial and formal back and forth—as described in my notes for Excession. But here, he re-injects some of the gorgeous language found in the mouths of aliens in the first two novels. However, instead of the lengthy oration in Consider Phlebassee long quote in point four of this link—here there are lines and paragraphs spread throughout that just make me stop and stare.
“What fleeting titillations life continues to throw up, many-fold.”


This is how power works, how force and authority assert themselves, this is how people are persuaded to behave in ways that are not objectively in their best interests, this is the kind of thing you need to make people believe in, this is how the unequal distribution of scarcity comes into play, at this moment and this, and this . . .


“Power over others is the least and most of powers, betruth. To balance such great success with transient lack of same is fit.”
And this last example comes out of the mouth of an Oct. Through the Oct and other alien species, Banks varies his writing immensely: each has their own voice. For instance, that second quote above is a Culture citizen internal monologuing. Here is how an Oct talks:
“Oramen-man, Prince. That who gave that you might be given unto life is no more, as our ancestors, the blessed Involucra, who are no more, to us are. Grief is to be experienced, thereto related emotions, and much. I am unable to share, being. Nevertheless. And forbearance I commend unto you. One assumes. Likely, too, assumption takes place. Fruitions. Energy transfers, like inheritance, and so we share. You; we. As though in the way of pressure, in subtle conduits we do not map well.”
The Oct place verbs at the ends of sentences, they imply connecting words and subjects, they speak in phrases of probability. And the rest of the alien voices Banks uses are also changed from the Culture's and narrator's voices. In short, I love it. The wonderful colloquially formal language the Culture tends to speak is polished here, but it’s also contrasted with alien patterns and word choices that keep the novel’s writing changing, exciting, and varied. So far, this is the best writing I’ve read from Banks—the most engaging and consistent. He keeps getting better.

6. The buildup to the ending works well here, unlike the too lengthy ending to Consider Phlebas. Where Consider Phlebas drags out the buildup to the ending—it simply takes too long and I got bored—here he pulls out the buildup a ways, but not too far. Having the characters still coming together towards the end allows Banks to jump between them and resolve smaller threads in their stories before converging them and ramping up the converged action for a couple of chapters to the end. This tactic allows the ending to be more diversely set and charactered, giving it a variety that keeps me interested and the novel well paced.

7. The pacing of the whole story sticks to a typical tactic that I’m really starting to enjoy when it’s done well: the pulp fiction tactic of ending each chapter unresolved, then moving to the next chapter’s fairly slow opening and different character and location. It isn’t heavy handed click-bait type writing—it’s not that pulpy. Where the series A Song of Ice and Fire is pulpy with the way chapters end by implying main characters are dead, and then they aren’t; here, when Ferbin finally sees Djan for the first time, the chapter ends right after he realizes who she is. The next chapter is not about them, but once it gets back to those two a couple of chapters later, it opens with them hugging and beginning to talk. This chapter structure helps structure the whole novel and keeps the whole thing exciting.

8. In all, this book impresses me immensely. Banks thinks deeply about his writing and he is so skilled that the whole book is incredibly tight—like how chapter pacing ties into book pacing, or theme ties into every level of the novel. This is a feat of storytelling. It’s exceedingly well constructed. It’s also well written—the language is wonderful and wonderfully varied. But it’s not all a writer’s treat: it’s an exciting novel that held my interest through both the story and the theme—not just the writing and construction. The novel stands well on its own, with no other Culture novels being read first by the reader. In all, this is easily my second favorite Culture novel, and could be as good as The Player of Games. The two novels are so close in quality that I would have to read both again in order to tell which I like better. And I look forward to that! Right now, I think they’re essentially indistinguishable. Masterful book.
He had already asked the Nariscene ship why it bore the name it did.

“The source of my name,” the vessel had replied, “The Hundredth Idiot, is a quotation: ‘One hundred idiots make idiotic plans and carry them out. All but one justly fail. The hundredth idiot, whose plan succeeded through pure luck, is immediately convinced he’s a genius.’ It is an old proverb.”

Holse had made sure Ferbin was not within earshot and muttered, “I think I’ve known a few hundredths in my time.”