SF Book Review, Part 2

The second in a series of short, capsule reviews of SF books I've read recently. Part 1 covered several Heinlein Juveniles and an Arthur C. Clarke novel. This part will cover a miscellaneous selection of old and new novels:
  • Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny (1967): My friend Aether has been recommending this to me for years, so I figured I should check it out. I liked it, but I really came away wishing I knew more about the Hindu Pantheon before reading it. I read Siddhartha (which Lord of Light supposedly resembles) in high school... but I remember next to nothing about it. The story follows Sam (aka Siddhartha, Buddha, Lord of Light, Binder of Demons, The Enlightened One, and probably ten other names) in his campaign against the gods. The setting is an Alien planet. When it was first colonized, the humans had to find a way to survive in the hostile environment, which happened to contain unfriendly indigenous races (styled as demons in the story). The humans employed their technology to fight them, often using genetic manipulation to essentially give themselves superpowers (to paraphrase the old saying, sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic). Over time, a small group of humans become very powerful, and after they had control of the planet, they began to style themselves as gods of the Hindu Pantheon. To maintain their power, they keep the rest of the humans in a medieval state while using reincarnation technologies to stay alive indefinitely. What I'm describing here is actually backstory, and mostly only hinted at during the story. Sam, our hero and a classic trickster, is an accelerationist, someone who thinks the rest of the humans should be able to progress beyond their midieval state (the gods always squashed inventions like the printing press, etc... before they had a chance to have a real impact). The structure of the story is somewhat fractured; each chapter tells of a different battle in the campaign against the gods. It sometimes felt like a travelogue (or battlelogue, as most chapters feature some sort of battle with the gods), and I was reminded at one point of various epic poems (Song of Roland came to mind, but like Siddhartha, I remember very little of that story). It's a very interesting novel, but again, I wish I was more familiar with the Hindu Pantheon before I read it....
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984): I'd actually read this before, just after I had read Snow Crash. But that was a long time ago (about 10-15 years ago) and I didn't have much context for either book (for instance, I realize now that I was reading them in the opposite order). I remember liking it, but not as much as Snow Crash. When I read it this time, distanced from Snow Crash and with more historical context, I enjoyed it a little more. With this novel, Gibson popularized the subgenre known as Cyberpunk. To me, it seemed to be indicative of SF catching up with computers, networks and hacking, which is what I liked most about it. But Cyberpunk is also dark and dystopic, featuring anti-heroes and other unlikeable types. This is generally not my thing, though a good author can pull it off and it works well enough here. Gibson was mixing stuff like traditional hard-boiled noir (shades of Raymond Chandler here) with SF tropes, and again, it works. Here we also see more of an emphasis on literary style and atmosphere than we did with stuff from the Golden Age, which had a more pragmatic storytelling style. Again, I'm not a huge Cyberpunk fan, but I do give a lot of credit to this novel for originating or popularizing a lot of tropes (not just SF ones). It's almost universally considered the finest example of Cyberpunk as well, which, when you consider that it was the first real Cyberpunk novel, tells you what you need to know about Cyberpunk (Snow Crash is often held up as another shining example and perhaps due to the satirical nature of the book, also the last). Still, I liked this book a lot.
  • A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge (1992): Of the 10 books I'm reviewing this week, this is probably my favorite. This is an exceptional hard SF novel set... well, in the whole galaxy really. A small group of humans stumbles upong an old archive (millions of years old) and accidentally awaken an ancient Power, which immediately begins taking over large portions of the Galaxy. A single family barely manages to escape from ground zero and ends up on an Alien planet. They may be the only ones that can defeat the ancient power, and the race is on to find them. The book is filled with absolutely fascinating ideas and concepts, as well as one of the most intriguing alien species I've seen (I wrote about them in a recent post). Vinge is one of the proponets of the singularity, and is somewhat infamous for making a prediciton that humans will have the technological means to create a superhuman intelligence by 2023. Regardless of what you or I may think of the singularity, it's clear that this would pose something of a challenge to Vinge in writing a novel set in the distant future. Since a superhuman intelligence is almost by definition, incomprehensible to a mere human, it's got to be difficult to write a story that features such "Powers" (as he calls them). Vinge attempts to get around this by dividing the galaxy into "zones of thought," only some of which can support a Power. The other zones contain certain physical limitations to intelligence and technology that make the singularity impossible. Most of the action in the story is set in a place called The Beyond, which is a zone where automation and nanotechnology work much better than is possible on earth (which is deep within "The Slowness"). I'm really only touching the tip of the surface here. Despite my ramblings on the ideas, the story is character-based and excellent. There are a several humans in the book, including an fascinating human named Pham Nuwen who has a special connection to a Power. There's an alien race called The Tines that takes the form of packs of dog-like beings. In some ways, they're very similar to humans, but in other ways, they are dramatically different, and Vinge does a good job extrapolating from those differences. The Tines are stuck in a medieval state that, for physical reasons, they could not transcend until humans land on the planet (and with the humans come technology, though it's not easy for the Tines to discern this at first). It's all very entertaining. The setting in general is just huge and sweeping, often referincing millions of years of galactic history. It's an ambitious novel, and Vinge does a good job hinting at the enormity and wonder of the cosmos. I'm not sure what to make of the ending, but it certainly fits the story and is quite interesting, to say the least. Vinge wrote a prequel to this novel called A Deepness in the Sky (I wrote about this a while ago). It features the character Pham Nuwen and another interesting Alien race (I read that before this), but I think that A Fire Upon the Deep is the superior novel.
  • The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon (2007): At first glance, this detective procedural doesn't seem like much of a SF novel until you realize that it's also an alternative history story. Set in the present, the bizarre premise is that during WW II, a temporary settlement for Jewish refugees was established in Alaska, and now the lease is about to run out. In this world, Israel doesn't exist, and there seem to be a lot of other subtle differences (particularly in Russia and Poland). The plot starts, like a lot of detective stories start, with a dead body. A down-on-his-luck detective stubbornly decides to investigate, eventually stumbling into a rather large conspiracy. At first, I hated this book. I was intrigued by the premise and the initial story, but Chabon's writing seemed awfully sloppy. After a while I got used to it, though, and the rest of the book was fine. I didn't realize what it was until Alex mentioned that Chabon had intentionally written the novel in third person as if it were the first. I'd have to read it again to really tell, but I'm willing to give Chabon the benefit of the doubt. In any case, while the premise is intriguing and most of the plot proceeds in an interesting fashion, I wasn't sure what to make of the ending. The novel actually won this year's Hugo award, which I found interesting. Worth a read if you're into noir-like mysteries, but it's also quite strange.
  • Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman (2008): This is a collection of short stories. Like a lot of short story collections, it's a bit uneven, but there are some bright spots. Here are a few of the stories I enjoyed the most:
    • A Study in Emerald - A fascinating blend of a Sherlock Holmes style story with H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. It ends a bit abruptly for my tastes (I want more!) but it was entertaining.
    • Other People - Interesting and very short, this Borges-like circular story is not exactly a feel-good story, but it's well done.
    • Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot - Basically a series of vampire-themed vignettes, it was actually quite funny at times. For instance, this one:
      They asked St. Germain's manservant if his master was truly a thousand years old, as it was rumored he had claimed.

      "How would I know?" the man replied. "I have only been in the master's employ for three hundred years."
    • Goliath - A short, entertaining story set in the Matrix universe (though without explicitely referencing that). I really liked this one.
    • Sunbird - I wasn't really sure what to make of this one until I got to the end and everything clicked into place. Good stuff.
    • The Monarch of the Glen - This is the longest story in the book, and is subtitled "An American Gods Novella." It picks up the story 2 years after the events of American Gods, and follows Shadow as he attends a rather strange party in Scottland. I really enjoyed this one, probably the best in the collection.
    So it started strong and it ended strong. There were several stories I didn't care much for, and a bunch of poems that didn't do much for me either. Still, it was worth reading, though I think there's a reason why I'm attracted to writers like Neal Stephenson, who routinely write 900+ page stories.
And that just about covers what I've read recently. At some point, I'll post the list of books that are up next in the queue.