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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Consider Phlebas - Ian M. Banks

Once a month or so I'll try to review a book from the annals of the genres.  This time I decided to give Ian M. Banks a shot with his first Culture novel Consider Phlebas.  I decided on this particular novel because Orbit, in their infinite wisdom (ok, so I like Orbit) was offering it in eBook format for $.99.  Orbit has made a habit of offering very popular author's first books in an effort to whip up new readers.  It works and it's another example of how eBooks are changing the market.  It may be apparent by now, but I read eBooks exclusively except when I'm working on advanced reading copies.

Banks has long been discussed as one of the better science fiction writers in the business - not to mention a very successful mainstream author as well.  I had high expectations going into the novel, and to be honest I came away disappointed.  Phlebas read like a collection of short stories that were turned into a novel.

Many of the other reviews out there (and there are many given Consider Phlebas was published over 20 years ago) react negatively to parts of the novel that are gratuitous.  Case in point, the opening scene consists of the main character chained to a wall in a room being filled with sewage.  The novel has cannibalism, senseless murder, and not one likable character.  However, none of these issues are problematic for me.  Having read some of the more edgy or nihilistic entrants into the scifi/fantasy genre in recent years I've become accustomed to not being able to like the main character.  I've become accustomed to being offended or disturbed by what I'm reading.  What I have not become accustomed to is poor storytelling and that is where Consider Phlebas falls short.

The plot is a simple one.  A war rages between the Idrians, a tripedal alien race intent on spreading their religious doctrine throughout the galaxym, and the Culture, a human/machine coalition.  Horza, our shapeshifting humanoid main character, is an agent of espionage for the Idrians.  When a Culture Mind (think a sentient spaceship) goes missing after a space battle, Horza is sent to find it and plumb its secrets for the Idrian war effort.

From the opening scene to the last scene there is very little that holds the various adventures of Horza together.  A series of random events take place to bring Horza to where he wants to go.  The reader is told what that goal is in the opening chapters, but then for the next 250 pages Horza makes no progress toward that goal.  Characters die (that the reader is given no reason to be attached to), Horza gets himself into tough situations, he gets out - but the plot doesn't progress at anything resembling a compelling pace.

It's not all bad.  The worldbuilding is tremendous.  There are times when scenes hit just the right note.  In fact, despite how much I struggled through Consider Phlebas, I will read future Culture novels.  I think there's a lot of potential in the world he's created and for all the problems with the storytelling, Banks is a good wordsmith.   I would not recommend the novel to others, and especially not to new readers in the genre, but it hasn't turned me off to Banks either.

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Quantum Thief - Hannu Rajaniemi

If The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes had a baby with The Lies of Locke Lamora and then gave it up for adoption to Neuromancer you would have a pretty good simulacrum for The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi. The book is at its heart a whodunit, or more specifically which whodunit. After finishing the book I'm not sure who did it. But I think that's the point.

The novel begins when a winged woman who talks to god rescues an amnesiac thief named Jean Le Flambeur at the request of her deity and brings him to Mars to remember. Juxtaposing this perspective is the antagonist, Isidore Beautrelet, a detective akin to Sherlock himself who in solving the murder of a chocolatier finds himself set against le Flambeur himself. Told at a breakneck pace the story follows our thief and his winged caretaker as he infiltrates Martian society to rediscover who he was and who he wants to be.

Quantum Thief takes place primarily on a Mars colonized with mobile cities. Technology has evolved to the point the line between artificial intelligence and human intelligence has blurred and an individual's consciousness is no longer singular. Rajaniemi eschews information dumps, and as a result it's easily 200 pages before you have any real understanding of the world his character inhabit. Ideas and words like exomemory, gogols, and gevoluts are pretty abstract terms that he forces the reader to define only through context.

I would be lying if i said such a complex setting did not obscure the plot. Oftentimes concepts that are barely understood become important plot devices. Some might find this off putting, and at times it can be. In that way it compares to the Malazan Book of the Fallen dectet by Steven Erikson. Rajaniemi is writing an intelligent novel for intelligent readers. He is not going to hold the reader's hand, rather he expects that being dropped into the middle of ocean without a lifeboat is perfectly doable. By the novel's conclusion I think he's right.

Not taking the time to educate the reader Rajaniemi frees himself to focus on the story and the prose. The result is a beautifully written book with a compelling plot and interesting characters. More impressively, for a first novel it's extremely tight with very little wasted language. The story is mostly self contained, but ultimately it's just a snapshot in time of a larger story revealed in the epilogue.

In all, The Quantum Thief is one of the better debut novels I've read. Its pacing and crime fiction flavor could lend it appeal to cross genre readers. I look forward to Rajaniemi's subsequent novels.

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Leviathan Wakes - James S.A. Corey

First of all, I need to give some kudos to Orbit Publishing. I was first exposed to Orbit a few years ago when they released the Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks in its entirety over a few months. This strategy provided Weeks with a strong shelf presence and offered reader's an assurance of a completed story arc.

Last week Orbit released The Dragon's Path, Daniel Abraham's highly anticipated first book in a new series. Attached to the end of the eBook version of Dragon was an advanced copy of Leviathan Wakes, Abraham's first foray into science fiction under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey. This inclusion has ensured that readers will begin to associate Corey with Abraham and furthermore it gives the online community an opportunity to give Leviathan some love before its wide release in June. Orbit clearly understands how the publishing industry is changing and they are responding. Now, on to Leviathan Wakes.

Leviathan is equal parts science fiction, horror, and crime fiction. Over the past few years we have begun to see drastic changes to the traditional science fiction and fantasy model. I have even begun to see literary terms like modernist and post modernist thrown around. Leviathan is not these things, in fact it's quite the opposite. It is a refreshing return to the science fiction many of us grew up on.

Set in our solar system with a technology level we can conceptualize Leviathan does not reinvent the wheel. The outset of the novel sets a grisly scene reminiscent of the sci-fi horror film Event Horizon leaving an entire ship dead. This simple event throws the solar system into open conflict pitting Mars against the Belters - those living on asteroids in orbit around the outer planets.

Corey tells the story from only two points of view - one a boy scout freighter officer and the other a hard boiled detective who would slide seamlessly into a James Ellroy novel. So many novels in the genre really suffer from the misunderstanding that ten POVs makes for an epic novel. By only showing the thoughts of two characters Corey tells an epic story in a very personal way. It gives his characters authenticity and gives the reader a sense of empathy.

Many who have read Abraham before are familiar with his excellent command of the English language. The Long Price Quartet was beautifully written and while Leviathan is well written it lacks a certain flare that I got from Abraham in the past. My guess is this is intentional. Where many science fiction novels feel vast in a spatial sense, Leviathan feels claustrophobic. From the Belters living in domes completely reliant on imports of air and water to submarine-esque spacecraft, Corey's vision of the future is somewhat bleak.

Leviathan is almost assuredly the first book in a series. Corey never takes the reader to Earth or Mars. I suspect that future novels will focus on the inner planets. With that said, the book absolutely stands on its own.  While I look forward to future novels, I don't feel like I need them tomorrow.

In all, it is a very satisfying read. Potential readers should remember to expect a certain amount of nostalgia for the past days of science fiction as well a certain noir flavor typical of early century crime fiction.

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