The November 2014 issue of Mythaxis is out now. Eight original stories of fantasy and science fiction. Enjoy.
Monthly Archives: November 2014
The Hydrogen Sonata: Another great piece of science fiction from Iain M Banks. It’s a Culture novel, and many of the participants are Ships (i.e. Artificial intelligences, based in various space vehicles). The biological characters are mostly non-human. The Culture is Banks’ protagonist civilisation, consisting of many races, planets, space habitations and ‘Minds’ – the above-mentioned artificial intelligences.
The plot? Skullduggery and deception accompany the transition of a non-Culture civilisation to a sort of Nirvana state, and The Culture appoints itself policeman to do a spot of peace-keeping.
All of Iain Banks’ fertile imagination is called into action for this cosmic who-done-it cum thriller. If you’re a science fiction fan, don’t miss it. If you’re not, you will find it very hard going, I fear.
I loved it.
Surface Detail has everything a science fiction fan could want: Galaxy-spanning space travel, space war, artificial intelligences, many races of aliens, The Culture, effective immortality, after-life experiences, telepathy(of a sort), telekinesis (Star Trek style (“beam me up, Scotty”)), spaceships in huge quantity, many of them with amusing names, ship drones, avatars, and that’s only what I can remember right now.
In addition, it has a complex plot: murder, love, hate, thrills, lots of tasty detail, and (for Banks fans) a delicious surprise in the LAST WORD of the book (so don’t skip).
I shall have to read it again, and soon, because I suspect that I missed some of the exquisite detail. Unlike a number of Banks’ books, it doesn’t have too much carnage at the end.
Highly Recommended if you want a bit of a change from Jane Austen.
Matter. What little comment I have seen elsewhere is of the usual variety, “It isn’t as good as ‘The Player of Games'”. I’ll give them this. It isn’t the same as The Player of Games. In my opinion, it is just as good as, if not better than, his early Culture novels.
A non-spoiler plot summary follows:
The early part of the book concerns a race called the Sarl, human in appearance, who are in conflict with their near neighbours on an unusual artificial but ancient planet. The King of the Sarl is assassinated, and his family are in danger from the plotters.
The home world of the Sarl is “looked after” to an extent by more advanced but mostly non-human races. These other races, and the very advanced civilisation called The Culture, involve themselves or are drawn into an increasingly complex crisis which concerns, at one level, the Sarl, but, more importantly, one of the guardian races. The crisis deepens and grows at an alarming rate, and it is not clear how to deal with it.
Surrounding this basic plot is a vast richness of imaginative background. The details of the races, the worlds, the creatures, the technology – especially the technology. Culture fans will recognise some of this, but he doesn’t repeat himself much. Because of the wide variety of personages and places, there is a fat appendix at the back of the book, which I didn’t discover until I’d spent a lot of mental effort trying to remember all that stuff.
I relished the book from end to end. Banks writes awfully well, even when he’s writing a pot-boiler like “The Steep Approach to Garbadale”. With his sf, he’s deeply engrossing for anyone who, like me, enjoys a lot of “cool stuff” in the books he reads. Banks makes an attempt to build up some inter-personal action in the novel, but it’s essentially much bigger than a drama. It’s Galactic politics. When Banks, who destroyed his passport in protest at the Iraq war, writes about politics, I am always looking for the Left Wing moral in the tale. He gets plenty of moral into Matter, but it’s not especially Left Wing in bias.
If I have a criticism, it is that after a steady build-up over the whole book, the end feels a little rushed.
I don’t read Iain Banks for his politics, fascinating though the result often is, I read him for the height, width and depth of his imagination, and that is what you get in Matter.
(but don’t read it if you don’t like sf)
First of all, it’s not a Culture book. I fancy Banks is finding the environment of the Culture too restrictive for his imagination, though most readers, myself included, find The Culture quite mind-expanding enough.
But here we have the star system Ulubis, with, principally, its Earth-like planet and its gas giant planet, Nasqueron, and the inhabitants of each. The human protagonist sets off on a quest in Nasqueron, interfacing with the ancient race of Dwellers. He is searching for a “book” characterised as “The Algebraist”, in which secrets, important to his culture, are rumoured to be documented. Meanwhile, the Ulubis system is invaded. I shan’t tell you any more about the plot, except to say that, while it starts perfectly coherently, it doesn’t entirely hang together throughout the book, and it’s up to an epilogue to attempt tie it up after a fashion. I cannot entirely blame Banks for this. The plot that is promised initially would take a trilogy of the size of LOTR to resolve fully, and only the chief Quest is covered in any detail. The chief Quest is resolved entirely satisfactorily. It’s the detail of the sub-plots that suffers. And one of the two principal villains is not particularly evil, while the other is over the top.
So much for criticism. I have to heap praise on Banks for his evocation of life on a gas giant, for the playing out of the chief part of the plot, for the description of space battle tactics, for numerous planet models, including especially the water planet.
And I am pleased with him for resurrecting E E Smith’s galaxy-spanning universe with its super-weapons, coruscating explosions and other cool adolescent sf stuff, while dispensing with E E Smith’s steely-jawed American heroes and feisty American heroines from the Lensman series.
The aliens are suitably alien, not just humans in Dr Who suits. The technology is casually believable. The gadgets are great, the space habitations excellent. The narrative is gripping.
Frankly, the book was a whole lot of fun, and a great read for an sf fan like myself. I can see where the literati of the chattering classes are going to tear strips off it, but I don’t care. I recommend it.
A brief run-down of Iain M Banks’ books.
A number of his books are set in the framework of The Culture. This is a large conglomeration of space-going races in an environment in which energy and materials are effectively free, and the citizens of this Empire can devote themselves to lives of their choice. The citizens of The Culture live on planets, as you’d expect, artificial worlds and vast spaceships. The spaceships have quirky names and manufacture themselves without reference to living species. A certain sub-compartment of The Culture is “Special Circumstances”, devoted to interfering with emergent nations.
The Culture is variously the hero and the villain in the books, and some have postulated that it is a metaphor for the USA, though I think Banks was coy on the subject.
An important feature of the Culture are the electronic brains and the robot drones, all of whom are vastly intelligent, though all have personalities, and are, by and large, nicer than the living races. This is not the classic computer intelligence as Big Brother tale.
(These potted summaries do not do credit to the vast imaginative settings, excellent story-telling and characterisation that Banks achieves.)
Consider Phlebas – the excruciating adventures of a sort of freelance spaceman who gets caught up in a space war.
The Player of Games – a product of the Culture competes with the cream of an alien nation on their home ground.
Use of Weapons – an experimental kind of novel with two intertwined timelines, one forward and one backward. I’d rather have read it as a conventional novel, but it works either way. It concerns a soldier of Special Circumstances, and demonstrates the lengths to which they will go.
Excession – The Culture comes up against something vastly more powerful than itself.
Inversions – Culture meddling, seen from the point of view of the meddled-with. Set on a planet which is still in a medieval state of civilization.
Look to Windward – Cunning multi-threaded tale, again the aftermath of Culture meddling, set in two rich but very alien environments, with more non-human participants than is usual with Banks.
The State of the Art – Short stories with some Culture element.
Matter – A large novel concerning warring medieval-level races on an artificial planet which is divided into concentric shells
Surface Detail – A wonderfully detailed and minutely imagined setting for what amounts to a religious war, and the attempts by a playboy to interfere with it. There are six story threads.
Hydrogen Sonata – Another vast spacescape against which races and artificial intelligences wage diplomatic war that would put Machiavelli to shame. It’s all about one race who are preparing to promote themselves to a sort of Nirvana.
Against a Dark Background – Extremely good Quest-oriented sf novel. Funnily enough, the published book omits the excellent Epilogue, which can be obtained on the internet.
Feersum Endjinn – Set on a weird world, populated by weird characters, but extremely gripping. The chief protagonist speaks a hopeless patois resembling Text Speak. You quickly start to sub-verbalise his chapters, whereupon it becomes quite comprehensible.
The Algebraist – Space war, gas planet races, a mysterious book. These are some of the ingredients of another space opera, vast in scale yet human in many ways.
I would also add a book that rightly belongs in the modern novel canon, but which has a parallel universe element to it:
Transition – Multiple narrators and characters flit through a variety of time-streams to meddle with each others’ lives. Very fast-paced, somewhat bewildering at times, but great fun.
He is a science fiction author, originally focussed on the far future, though he more recently wrote a series of novels set in the twenties or thirties of this century.
This book, however, is set in the present, and is very approachable by the non-sf reader. The first part of the book, in particular, is rivetting to me. There are threads concerning advertising logos, the internet, film making, dead technology and more. He is basically a culture guru, and I particularly enjoyed his contrasts between New York and “mirror-world” London.
I’d commend it to anyone who enjoys modern novels.
When Pattern Recognition first came out, I was so entranced by the setting that I built a website illustrating many of the locations, which Gibson himself later admired.
I am, belatedly, adding a couple of previous reviews to this blog. I discovered that I had a number of reviews, mostly on Gibson and Iain M Banks, that I hadn’t published here.
I try, when reviewing a book, not to say too much about the plot, and, particularly in this case, there are mysteries, gradually revealed, which add to the pleasure of the experience.
William Gibson is known, primarily, for his science fiction. He has a substantial back catalogue of six novels and a volume of short stories in the sf genre, and one modern novel – Pattern Recognition.
There is a connection between Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, other than the fact that they have a character in common. Both are set in the present day, and both have at their core some generally recognized tragedy – 9-11 and Iraq, respectively. These world events, though essential to the stories, are nevertheless tangential to them, just as they are to most of our lives.
The starting point Gibson uses in Spook Country is one he often uses. A mysterious authority figure hires a specialist to find out something for him. The specialist eventually succeeds, and the result is a surprising revelation.
It’s a good plot outline for a novel, and Gibson has played extensive variations on it. As with all good literature, you read it for the journey rather than the destination. Gibson’s prose is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it certainly is mine. To tell the truth, there seems less of Gibson’s trade mark “verb-light” writing in Spook Country than in previous books. To a large extent, it reads like a rather complex thriller. His characters are engaging, his insights fresh, nothing is obvious, his locations are convincing.
With Oshosi at his shoulder, Tito rounded the corner of the playground fence and ran toward East 16th. Oshosi wanted him out of the park and its calculable geometries of pursuit. A cab slid in front of him as he darted into the traffic on Union Square East; he went over its hood, meeting the astonished eyes of its driver as he hurtled past the windshield. The man slammed his horn and held it, and other horns woke reflexively, a sudden uneven blaring that mounted to a new crescendo as his three pursuers reached the stream of traffic. Tito looked back and saw one of them maneuvering between bumpers with queer, high steps, as if trying to avoid wetting his feet, while holding something aloft like a token. A badge.
In Pattern Recognition, Gibson used a single protagonist method of narration. The reader experienced the whole story from Cayce Pollard’s point of view. In Spook Country, he returns to the multiple viewpoint method he employed in most of his earlier novels.
To an extent, I found this a harder book to get into than Pattern Recognition, partly because of the multiple viewpoints. I was never quite sure whose “side” I was on until near the end. I miss the sf technology William Gibson used to bring to his books, but I welcome the persona he used for sf being brought to a modern novel.
Milgrim was feeling better. He’d asked Brown for a Rize, in the little park, and Brown, engrossed in whatever he was doing on the laptop, had unzipped a pocket on its bag and handed Milgrim an entire unopened four-pack. Now, behind Brown’s upright screen, Milgrim popped a second Rize from its bubble and washed it down with the tea-water. He’d brought his book in from the car, thinking Brown would probably work on the laptop. Now he opened it.
He found a favorite chapter: “An Elite Of Amoral Supermen”.
“What’s that you keep reading?” asked Brown, unexpectedly, from the other side of the screen.
“’An elite of amoral supermen’,” Milgrim replied, surprised to hear his own voice repeat the chapter-title he’d just read.
“That’s what you all think,” said Brown, his attention elsewhere. “Liberals.”
In pre-publication interviews for Spook Country, Gibson has revealed more of his writing techniques than he has in the past. Most notable to me was his assertion that he starts the plot and characters and lets them roll, rather than plotting the book in detail first. He backs off if he spots himself forcing the action. This is not an uncommon technique among authors. Apparently, he had no idea what was in the plot-pivotal shipping container when he started the book. I guess we just have to be grateful that his subconscious writes a great story.
My initial judgement was that Spook Country is not as engaging as Pattern Recognition was. Fewer cool concepts and less exotic writing. But, like great music, Gibson’s novels never seem to reveal their full richness at once, and my second reading proved more rewarding. But, importantly, it’s a William Gibson novel, and there aren’t enough of these in the world.
It is my preference, before reading a book, never to read reviews, blurbs or other ‘spoilers’, which might blunt my enjoyment of it.
As a result, in the first few chapters of The Peripheral, I was struggling for context. There is some joy, for a reader, in the sensation of wonder (“I wonder what’s going on” type of wonder) that William Gibson can evoke. Reading becomes, not a passive activity, but an adventure of discovery as you begin to grasp the thread, and, in this novel, the thread leads to somewhere particularly mysterious and gripping.
In his 1980s first novel, Neuromancer, Gibson introduced, among other ideas, the vision of cyberspace, a concept some ten years or more ahead of its time. We tend to forget that most of the other concepts in that early book: eye implants, orbiting habitats for the rich, whole brain dumps, for example, have not yet come to market.
In The Peripheral, Gibson weaves a story, interesting enough in itself, around lots of exciting concepts. There is nothing a science fiction fan likes better than a book full of cool concepts. Some of which, like 3d printing and haptics, are currently in their infancy, while others are still remote from the drawing board, to put it mildly. But we are never treated to an illuminating explanation of these marvels. It is Gibson’s style to show technology, even speculative technology, in practical use, leaving readers to comprehend for themselves the implications.
The two main protagonists are an unlikely couple – Flynne, a girl from backwoods America, and Netherton, a London-based PR executive from the upper echelons of celebrity. They play out an enforced dance, their actions being controlled by a loose organization with immense power and money, an organization in conflict with a similar union of political and financial resources. Flynne is the stronger of the two – indeed most of the powerful characters are female; Gibson seems to favour strong women in his novels.
The characters from near-future rural America – Flynne, her brother, some ex-military pals, and the townspeople nearby – are drawn into an elaborate alliance devised by Netherton’s colleagues – a campaign in which Flynne and her cohorts prove surprisingly capable, despite being suddenly immersed in technology beyond their experience.
Other than Flynne and Netherton, most of the characters are not explored. Mostly you are expected to deduce personality from what they say and do, rather than sharing in their thoughts. This is a novel of ideas and action, not personalities.
Also, because Gibson doesn’t waste many words on irrelevant description or expansive atmosphere creation, quite a lot happens in very few paragraphs, leading to a large number of very short chapters. There is a reason for this, in that a lot of simultaneous and parallel narratives are taking place throughout, but it made me a little uncomfortable, though this is my only niggle with this excellent novel.
Above all, it is Gibson’s fertile imagination, his instinctive knowledge that people will use technology in ways the inventors couldn’t have predicted, and his effective use of language that make this book, like all his previous oeuvre, a fascinating read. I have already started reading it again, because I know I must have missed quite a lot on a first reading.
Below: The commemorative bookmark for William Gibson’s London promotional tour Nov 2014