29 August 2016

Ninefox Gambit

A review of Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris, 2016)

I’m not really a fan of military science fiction, but the blurb for this novel caught my fancy and I was vaguely aware of the author’s reputation as a short story writer, so I decided to give his first novel a try.

The first thing to be said is that it is not an easy read. Lee begins in media res with his main character, Captain Kel Cheris, fighting for her life on an alien battlefield with no explanation of what is going on. But the very alienness of the situation makes for a gripping tale and the reader is swept along as Cheris is pulled out of that conflict and promoted: she has been selected to lead the response to a calendrical heresy that is threatening the Hexarchate. The full resources of the Hexarchate are put her disposal and she opts for the help of a long-dead Shuos general, Jedao, who was condemned as a mass murderer. With Jedao and a powerful task force, Cheris tackles the heresy head-on at what appears to be the focal point of the problem.

As you might expect, they succeed in defeating the heretics. But what is really interesting is the larger story that Lee has constructed around this straightforward narrative. We learn that the Hexarchate is not the benign institution Cheris believed it to be. We discover something of Jedao’s history and begin to get an idea of what might have driven him to mass murder. And by the end of the story, we discover that we are really only at the end of the first act of a much larger story.

Little details distinguish and bring to life the various cultures and castes under the power of the Hexarchate. For example, for some unexplained reason the Kel, the military caste of the Hexarchate, have a particular fondness for cabbage. But what I enjoyed most about Lee’s world building was his creation of an esoteric calendrical mathematics that underpins the technology and culture of the Hexarchate. This mathematics is never explained but somehow pervades the whole to create the impression that one is indeed eavesdropping on an alien culture. I have rarely come across such a successful depiction of the alien. (Too often SFF authors think that they can lift elements from Chinese or Japanese culture and that counts as alien!)

Lee’s characterization is as gripping as his world building. It is not often that readers will find themselves sympathizing with a character who freely admits to being a mass murderer!

This is easily the best work of science fiction I have read in 2016. My one frustration with it is that the next volume of the trilogy isn’t yet available!

26 August 2016

Coming soon to Android…

…Windows programs!

I discovered Crossover a few years ago when I was experimenting with Linux. Developed by Codeweavers, Crossover does a similar job to Wine, allowing (some) Windows programs to run in a Linux environment. They also do a version that allows Windows programs to run on Macs.

Now they have announced a new version of Crossover that will allow Windows programs to run on some Android systems, specifically those on Intel-based computers. Chromebooks are the obvious target for the new program, but hopefully it will also work on Android tablets with Intel chips.

You can sign up to try out a preview version of it. I have done so and I’m looking forward to seeing whether I can get Idealist to run on my tablet. Very sensibly, Codeweavers are making no promises about what Windows programs will run satisfactorily in the new environment. But I’m hopeful about getting Idealist to work because it ran well on Linux using Crossover.

10 August 2016

By their fruit shall ye know them

A couple of weeks ago, a leading evangelical theologian endorsed Donald Trump as ‘the candidate who is most likely to do the most good for the United States of America’. For some reason, I can’t help thinking of an event that had a formative effect on the theology of the young Karl Barth. In his own words,

One day in early August 1914 stands out in my personal memory as a black day. Ninety-three German intellectuals impressed public opinion by their proclamation in support of the war policy of Wilhelm II and his counselors. Among these intellectuals I discovered to my horror almost all of my theological teachers who I had greatly venerated. In despair over what this indicated about the signs of the time I suddenly realized that I could not any longer follow either their ethics and dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible and of history. For me at least 19th century theology no longer held any future. (The Humanity of God, p. 14)

08 August 2016

Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction

A review of Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction edited by Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson (Wesleyan University Press, 2014)

Green Planets is a collection of papers jointly edited by a professor of English literature, Gerry Canavan, and Kim Stanley Robinson, whose credentials as a SF writer should ensure the volume a readership outside the small world of academic literary studies. According to the back cover copy, it explores ‘the close relationship between science fiction, ecology, and environmentalism’ and ‘considers how science fiction writers have been working through this crisis’.

Canavan introduces the volume with a historical overview of environmentally conscious SF. He offers some explanation of terms that will be used and sets the scene for the structure of book, which is built around opposing understandings of utopia and dystopia in language appropriated by Samuel Delany from W.H. Auden.



Part 1 is entitled ‘Arcadias and New Jerusalems’ and contains four chapters exploring the long-standing opposition between pastoral and urban utopias. Christina Alt’s opening chapter offers a depressing comparison of two of H.G. Wells’s stories – depressing because one of the seminal figures of the genre first presents a pessimistic vision of the future of humanity in The War of the Worlds and then offers an eco-fascist vision of an earth cultivated to serve human interests in Men Like Gods. Michael Page illustrates the perennial struggle between evolutionary optimism and apocalyptic pessimism with the aid of Simak’s City and Stewart’s Earth Abides. Gib Prettyman explores the Taoist dimension in Ursula Le Guin’s utopian fiction (and en route convinced me that I should read her paraphrase of the Tao te Ching). Rob Latham concludes Part 1 with an examination of New Wave critiques of eco-imperialism in hard SF.

The second part, ‘Brave New Worlds and Lands of the Flies’, consists of five chapters focused on the dystopias corresponding to the utopias of Part 1. It begins with Sabine Höhler’s study of Garrett Hardin’s Exploring New Ethics for Survival, which is perhaps slightly off-topic as Hardin was an ethicist rather than a SF writer and this book was really an apologetic for his right-wing ethical stance dressed up as SF for ease of reading. However, the chapter does make the interesting point that all arks are discriminatory. This is followed by Andrew Milner looking at an Australian example of climatic apocalypse, Adeline Johns-Putra analysing Maggie Gee’s The Ice People, and Elzette Steenkamp exploring ecological concerns in South African speculative fiction. Of these three chapters, I found Johns-Putra’s the most thought-provoking in that it uses SF to challenge gendered understandings of caring in environmentalism. Part 2 concludes with a piece in which Christopher Palmer looks at the effect of the ubiquity of apocalypse in recent literature.

Part 3, ‘Quiet Earths, Junk Cities, and the Cultures of the Afternoon’ is an attempt to explore the interstices between the utopias of Part 1 and their corresponding dystopias. Eric Otto looks at Paolo Bacigalupi’s strategic use of dystopias to commend their opposite. Brent Bellamy and Imre Szeman offer a study of what they call science faction – recent speculative extrapolations from current science to earthly life after the (near) extinction of the human race. Although such material is only tenuously connected with SF, I found this chapter the most thought-provoking in the book. Bellamy and Szeman demonstrate the inherent conservatism of these extrapolations: by highlighting the supposed ease with which with the environment would recover after the end of the human race, the books they analyse present ecocatastrophe as a mere mis-step, something that might be avoided by the appropriate technological fix. In Chapter 12, Timothy Morton uses Avatar as a peg on which to hang some rarefied thoughts on ecology and post-Enlightenment philosophy. To conclude the section, Melody Jue links Lem’s Solaris and Greg Egan’s ‘Oceanic’ to bring an ecological dimension to the surface/depth dichotomy in SF.

In addition to the essays that make up the bulk of the volume, there is an afterword in the form of a dialogue between Canavan and Robinson, which concludes on an upbeat note rejecting the charge of pessimism that is sometimes levelled at ecological SF. Last but not least, Canavan has compiled a fairly comprehensive annotated reading list for anyone who wants to pursue ideas raised by the volume.

Given the multi-author nature of the work, it was inevitable that the quality of contributions would vary. There are some dull and uninteresting contributions. Indeed, one or two are little more than extended book reports. But those are more than compensated for by the thought-provoking chapter, the ones that throw up ideas that you will want to develop in entirely different directions from those taken by the authors. In conclusion, the book certainly fills a gap in the market and offers an invaluable starting point upon which, hopefully, other scholars will build.

03 August 2016

Live Like Francis

A review of Live Like Francis by Leonard Foley and Jovian Weigel (Franciscan Media, 2016)

This little book began life over half a century ago as The Third Order Vocation. It was subsequently updated to harmonize with the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order approved by Pope John Paul II in 1978. In that form, it has been widely used by people exploring a call to living Franciscan ideals in the midst of daily life. This latest form of the book looks outwards to people beyond the SFO who might also wish to explore the Franciscan way.

It is structured as a spiritual workbook rather than something you would simply read through from cover to cover. Fifty-two chapters offer a year of weekly reflections covering every aspect of life as a Franciscan Tertiary in five parts. Part 1 (Foundation) goes to the heart of the Franciscan (and Christian) vocation – Jesus Christ. Part 2 (Conversion) explores the process of turning to follow Christ in terms of poverty, humility, chastity, and obedience. Part 3 looks at the life of prayer. The largest section of the book, Part 4, follows the Tertiary into the world and explores the Tertiary's role as one who seeks justice, peace, and the well-being of creation. And the brief concluding section touches on the Franciscan family.

Within those sections, each chapter follows a common pattern. It begins with a reading from St Francis (or from time to time the Rule of the SFO) and a meditation on that reading. This is followed by a number of questions intended to explore our response to the reading and meditation. There follows a related reading from the Bible and one from the wider Franciscan family in order to root our reflections in both Scripture and tradition. By way of conclusion, there are some questions/suggestions challenging us to apply our meditations to daily life and a concluding prayer.

So far I have only dipped into this book and read sections rather than working through it week by week in the manner intended. But what I have read convinces me that taking a year to work through these meditations would be a valuable exercise for any Tertiary (or indeed anyone who is serious about following Christ). I plan to use it that way myself and to recommend it very strongly to my fellow Anglican Tertiaries and to any novices and enquirers who cross my path.


01 August 2016

Silent Hall

A review of Silent Hall by N.S. Dolkart (Angry Robot, 2016)

Take five refugees from an act of divine judgement on their home; set them loose in the big, wide world; and have them stumble upon a dubious wizard. Throw in a prophecy which seems to refer to these five, conflict with elves who are the very antithesis of Tolkien’s noble elder race, and the need to free a long-imprisoned dragon. This certainly sounds like a recipe for an exciting new voice in epic fantasy.

Unfortunately, a satisfying dinner is much more than just an exciting recipe. The secret is in the cooking, and this particular effort can only be described as half-baked.

The plot is quite linear: they did this, and then they did that. Yes, we get several different perspectives but they are working together more or less as a team, discovering their unique gifts, gathering the artefacts the wizard wants them to find.

The characters are plot-driven rather than the plot being character-driven. A quarter of the way through the book I felt that none of the characters had yet shown any real agency. They seemed to be entirely at the mercy of the events that overtook them. Perhaps partly because of that, the characters also come across as fairly superficial – even the attempts to present the central characters as complex are superficial. And the minor characters are just ciphers, no better than the redshirts in Star Trek.

To cap it all, the world-building is at best rudimentary. There are clear ethnic differences between our heroes’ homeland of Tarphae and the mainland, but the author gives no hint of any cultural or linguistic differences in spite of the large distances involved. It simply beggars belief that disparate peoples in a pre-modern world all speak the same language, worship more or less the same gods, and share more or less the same myths – without any evidence that they had once been part of a single empire.

Now I admit that this book was up against stiff competition. I read it just after reading the latest from Guy Gavriel Kay and Paul Kearney. But this was not merely not in the same league, it was several divisions below them. Very disappointing.

25 July 2016

Retribution

A review of Retribution by Mark Charan Newton (Tor, 2014) – originally published in Interzone

Retribution is the second volume in a series of crime fantasies whose central character, Lucan Drakenfeld, is an agent of the Sun Chamber, which enforces law and maintains peace across the Vispasian Royal Union, a loose federation of diverse nation-states. Lucan is by no means a typical fantasy hero: he has no particular martial or occult skills, he suffers from epilepsy, and he is plagued with self-doubt. On the other hand, he is basically a decent human being and refreshingly optimistic in spite of his constant exposure to the darker side of human nature. To compensate for some of his weaknesses, Newton has given him an assistant, Leana, who is a skilled warrior. The first novel, Drakenfeld, combined this likeable central character with a plot in which good ultimately triumphs and the truth is revealed, which led me to hope that the series might be the beginning of the fight-back against the grimdark tendencies that have infected so much recent fantasy literature. So I have been eagerly awaiting this sequel.

The new story begins just a few weeks after the events recounted in Drakenfeld. Lucan and Leana have been ordered to Kuvash, capital of the northern nation of Koton, to investigate a brutal murder. Two more murders that bear certain similarities to the first take place shortly after their arrival. In all cases, the victims were tortured before death, their bodies were mutilated and subsequently left to be found in public places. But what clinches the connection between the deaths is the fact that all the victims had possessed examples of an extremely unusual gemstone. As Lucan and Leana follow the trail of clues, it leads them to uncover a decades’ old conspiracy implicating leading members of society in human trafficking and a sinister religious cult. In addition to carrying out the duties that brought them to Kuvash, the Queen of Koton co-opts them to protect her daughter, and they succeed in foiling an assassination plot by a rival clan. Meanwhile, the precarious political situation in Lucan’s homeland, the neighbouring country of Detrata – a political situation brought about in part by their previous investigation – has degenerated to the point where an imperialist senate has gained power. At the end of Retribution, as Lucan and Leana leave Koton, Detratan legions are marching into the country.

Retribution is well plotted. Its story arcs are carefully woven together and equally carefully disentangled in the denouement. The story is also well paced with just the right amount of action to keep the reader’s attention. Nevertheless, I struggled to like this book. I was hoping for a departure from grimdark tendencies, but instead this volume is unremittingly grim. By the end of the novel, Drakenfeld’s decency and optimism are looking increasingly naive and his rejection of a gift with the potential to cure his epilepsy may well strike the reader as quixotic.

By comparison with its predecessor, the characterization in Retribution was disappointing. Some effort was clearly put into developing two new characters – Sulma Tan and Princess Nambu – but many of the others were stereotypical. Unfortunately, given that this story could otherwise stand on its own, Lucan and Leana were not as clearly characterized in this volume. We are given new insights into Leana’s background, but in spite of this she seems less likeable: gone is the clear-sighted observer of a strange culture who is easily able to match Lucan’s intelligence; here she comes across as cold and even psychopathic.

One of my irritations with Drakenfeld was an excess of unsubtle info-dumping, which I felt was exacerbated by the combination of a first-person perspective and a setting with which the central character was very familiar. I had hoped the foreign setting of Retribution would allow any necessary info-dumping to be handled more naturally. Unfortunately I still found the info-dumping distracting. Another irritation that has found its way into this volume is a tendency to overuse vague descriptive adjectives. In addition, at times I felt the language – particularly in some of the dialogue – was strangely formal. The result was that I was less able to enjoy the story because these issues kept forcing me to pay attention to the mechanics of the writing.

In conclusion, this is a well-constructed story, which more or less stands on its own (though I would recommend would-be readers to begin with Drakenfeld to get a better understanding of Lucan and Leana and, indeed, of the historical background to the Vispasian Union). Sadly I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it because of the aforementioned issues with the writing. However, anyone who enjoyed Drakenfeld will certainly want to read Retribution as the second act in a larger drama involving the future of the entire Vispasian Union.