SF Book Review, Part 10: The One That Includes Fantasy

While I've done my fair share of Science Fiction reading over the past few years, Fantasy has been relatively absent... I don't really have much against Fantasy or anything, I just tend to prefer Science Fiction, which tends to be more grounded. That being said, I've recently mixed a few fantasy books into my schedule, including some longtime residents of the queue, and I think you can expect to see a little more fantasy appearing soon as well...
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury - Hard to believe this is the first Bradbury I've ever read. I actually picked this up a while ago, reading it during Halloween season last year (after being reminded/shamed into it while posting about NPR's top 100 SF/F books). For the most part, I enjoyed this book, and there are some really tense sequences (I particularly loved the chase scene in the library), but I ultimately found the book a bit lacking. I can see why it's beloved, and there are certainly some great characters (the Illustrated Man is a wonderful villain) and eery overtones - carnivals are naturally scare places - but it didn't quite connect with me the way other classics of science fiction or fantasy have in the past. This is partly due to Bradbury's style, which I found a bit stilted, but it's probably more due to the fantastical nature of the plot. I wonder if I'd have liked this better if I read it when I was younger. I'm glad to have read it, and I enjoyed it well enough, but I was never blown away by it.
  • Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville - Ah, finally. This book has been on my book queue (and indeed, even on my shelf) for several years (I first mentioned it on the blog in 2009, but I'd already had it for at least a year at that point). So what's the deal with this thing? Miéville is one of the primary examples of The New Weird, a literary subgenre harkening back to the Weird fiction of yore, exemplified by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft. The notion of "Weird" being distinct from horror or fantasy is mostly due to the fact that a lot of that stuff was written before genre fiction achieved such a strict taxonomy. The "new" weird probably fits into that line too. There are elements of fantasy, horror, and even a little science fiction here, though I will say that the SF elements are little more than window dressing. Our main character, Isaac, is ostensibly a "scientist", but Miéville's conception of what a scientist does is... not very vigorous. For instance, Isaac's main breakthrough in the world of science? Crisis energy... a vague form of power derived by... placing things in danger? It's unclear, and it's ridiculous. Fortunately, Miéville's got a lot more going for him than against him. He's created a wonderfully detailed setting (though I will say he tends to go overboard in his verbose descriptions of such) and some evocative, fun characters. I was a particularly big fan of the Weaver, a sorta multi-dimensional being that takes the form of a spider, regards the universe as a work of art, and speaks in an unending stream of consciousness and free verse poetry. The villains of the piece, called slake-moths (which are huge, monstrous beasts with hypnotic powers and an appetite for consciousness), are also compelling. Lots of other interesting ideas populate the world, like the Construct Council and countless other races of beings. Again, I think Miéville gets a little carried away in his description of the world, and this wankery can get a bit tiresome at times, but it's a dense setting and I'd hope that future installments would perhaps be a little less exposition-heavy. Also, the main character of Isaac is a bit of a sad-sack, and while Miéville sets the stakes very high and manages to come up with a solid solution, there is a bit of an (intentional) downer ending. I'd call this a very good book, though it doesn't quite strike all of my chords. There are things I love about it, and things I don't particularly care for. Miéville has written a number of books set in this universe, and it may be something I return to at some point, but I can't say as though I'm rushing to do so at this point.
  • The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi - This debut novel from Finnish author (and string theorist) Hannu Rajaniemi has garnered a lot of praise, and it is indeed crammed with a lot of interesting ideas. I'm not entirely sure they all coalesce into a great narrative, but then, this is also apparently the first in a trilogy (*groan*). Unlike every other book in this post, and indeed, most of my SF book posts, this book is the hardest of hard SF. Not quite Greg Egan hard SF, but close. Rajaniemi thrusts you into this unfamiliar world with no real hand-holding, forcing you to infer a lot of the concepts and ideas from minimal exposure. Most of the characters are of the post-human sort, digital beings stuck in human body shaped shells, sometimes more machine than biological. Complex interrelationships and privacy controls, augmented reality, brain-machine interfaces and the like. If you've read other stories along these lines, you may be comfortable, but the casual reader of SF might be a bit overwhelmed. I came down somewhere in the middle of that mixture. I was never totally lost, but I wasn't particularly comfortable with everything either. The story itself is a little obtuse. Our main character is Jean le Flambeur (John the Gambler?), an infamous thief playing the traditional role of a trickster. He's reasonably likeable, though he isn't given a ton of space to shine. As the book opens, his mind is imprisoned in a weird state where it is forced to play endless variations of the prisoner's dilemma against copies of itself and millions of others. One copy of himself is freed by a woman named Mieli, who seeks his criminal expertise. Her motivations are vague, as is her plan. There is a bit of a heist involved here, but it is again rather obtuse and difficult to piece together exactly what Mieli (or rather, the person pulling her strings) is after. There's also a detective named Isidore Beautrelet, who is trying to piece it all together, and then there's the tzaddik, a sorta vigilante group that is nevertheless tolerated by the authorities. The story takes place on Mars, where society has attempted to limit the endless copying of minds by instituting radical control over your personal technology stack, including even your appearance. It's all very complicated and very interesting. Again, much of this is inferred during the course of events, and things can get a little dicey as you figure them out. Like I said, it never fully coalesced for me, but I still found it interesting enough, and I'd be curious how the sequels will read now that I'm familiar with the various concepts...
  • The Witch Watch, by Shamus Young - I've already mentioned this a few times on the blog, and I suppose it's impossible for me to be unbiased as I've been... internet friends?... with Shamus for a while now, but I had a ton of fun with this book. Oddly, it doesn't seem like it would be my kinda book. It's a fantasy set in the Victorian era of England, with a little steampunk thrown in for good measure. The main character of Gilbert is a sorta zombie who doesn't really remember how he died (though he still retains his wits). Most of these elements are not really in my wheelhouse, and yet Shamus is able to ground everything in enough reality that it all works much better than I would have expected (I will say that I bought the book without knowing anything about the plot or characters or anything). Shamus is a programmer, and so even the fantastical elements of his story operate with a certain logic and internal consistency. For instance, I often find the way magic is portrayed in fantasy as a major problem. It's often used and abused, with little or no limitations, leading to an improbable escalation of powers that quickly grates on me. But in this novel, magic is limited by both social and natural forces. First, magic is feared and abhorred by nearly everyone. It is controlled by two main forces: the "Church" and the titular "Witch Watch" (a sorta magic-specific British detective agency). The Church is absurdly ignorant in its treatment of the problem, simply killing those it suspects of magic, with no due process. The Witch Watch take a more balanced approach, preferring to actually study what makes magic work. These social limitations on magic make for a nice buffer, and they allow Shamus to avoid getting into too many details with how magic actually works. But when he does, it's still interesting and well considered. There are physical limitations on magic as well. There are some spells that can be cast without much preparation, but they take a great deal of energy out of the person casting the spell. So you can conjure up a big fireball, but after you do so, you'll be pretty tired (and unable to continue). Of course, limitations are a great literary tool, as there are always ways to get around them, and that sort of contortion is always entertaining. Now, the book isn't perfect. In particular, I found the flashbacks and epistolary sections a little distracting. Some of them serve a good purpose, though I'm not sure they required quite as prominent a placement as they received... But that is a minor problem in an otherwise entertaining and tight story. The characters are quite likeable and have a nice chemistry together. Shamus' dry wit is in evidence here, especially when Gilbert and Alice get to trading barbs, and the book is quite easy to read. Give it a shot, if it sounds like your thing...
  • The Tale of the Wicked, by John Scalzi - Ok, so this is a bit of a cheat, as this is a short story I read in a single (short) sitting, but it was a fun space opera tale and a nice precursor to Scalzi's forthcoming Redshirts novel. The story has to do with an AI unit stretching beyond it's normal capabilities and is a little reminiscent of those great, paranoid old SF movies like Colossus: The Forbin Project or Demon Seed (though things never quite run as amok in Scalzi's tale). Still, it's a fun little story. Only available online in kindle format, it's still just 99 cents, and was one of those impulse purchases Amazon makes so easy...
So there you have it. Next up on the reviewing front will probably be finishing off the Vorkosigan saga... I'm trying to delay that as long as possible (only 1.5 books left!), so it may be a bit, but I'm sure I won't be able to resist (also, apparently a new one is coming in November)...