05 October 2018

Francistide

Yesterday was Francistide. I have recently become Orthodox and sadly the Orthodox Church does not recognize Francis (he lived after the Great Schism). But I was able to find a couple of Orthodox-style prayers that fit the occasion. (I don’t know where they originated, but I suspect they must come from an Eastern Rite Catholic source.)


Troparion (in Tone 3)
When riches had impoverished the world, you enriched it with the poverty of Christ, and by your love for all creation, you revealed to us the radiance of Tabor’s light, so that all nations see in you the deep desire of all mankind. Beg Christ our Lord to save our souls.

Kontakion (in Tone 6)
Hearing the words of the Holy Gospels, you left your earthly father to serve your Father in heaven, showing us the riches of poverty and the perfect joy of the Cross. And in opposing the pride of the mighty with the humility of the simple, and breaking down the walls of hatred with the power of your love, you became yourself an image of the crucified Christ, who is everywhere present and fills all things.

28 September 2018

Dark State

A review of Dark State by Charles Stross (Tor UK, 2018)
Originally published in Interzone

I have been waiting impatiently for this volume since I read its predecessor, Empire Games, last January. And it has certainly lived up to my expectations. Dark State offers a tense, action-packed fresh instalment to the Merchant Princes saga.

The complex storyline is played out across analogues of the Americas and Europe in several parallel timelines during the month of August 2020. Timeline 1 gets only a fleeting mention having earlier been the target of a nuclear strike by the United States. Timeline 2 is very like our own, except that the encounter with the world-walkers of the Clan has turned the United States into a paranoid surveillance state. In Timeline 3, the House of Hanover retained control of North America (but not the British Isles) until the end of twentieth century. It has recently been ousted by revolutionaries who have set up a New American Commonwealth in which the remnants of the Clan led by Miriam Beckstein have carved out for themselves a power base by encouraging the rapid development of the Commonwealth’s technological base.

Dark State literally picks up where Empire Games left off with Rita Douglas in the hands of the Clan. Rita is a US government world-walker, but she is also Miriam’s biological daughter and so an ideal go-between. The Clan do the obvious thing and release her to open up a channel for dialogue with the US government.

Apart from that, Part I deals mainly with the Clan preparing a diplomatic coup in Timeline 3. They want to help Princess Elizabeth of Hanover to defect to the Commonwealth. If they succeed, they will undermine the monarchist opposition at a crucial moment in the Commonwealth’s history: the First Man (their head of state) has terminal cancer and his death is likely to provoke a constitutional crisis. Meanwhile in Timeline 2, Rita’s grandfather, Kurt, and her girlfriend, Angie, are conspiring to protect her from her government handlers.

Part II, ‘Emissary’, set mostly in Timeline 3, focuses mainly on Rita and her new role as a go-between between the Clan and the US government. She learns more about her mother, her wider family, and the history of US–Clan relations from the Clan’s perspective. It is perhaps inevitable that she finds herself drawn towards Miriam. Stross hints that forces opposed to the Clan are beginning to manoeuvre in preparation for the First Man’s death.

In Part III, the plan to extract Elizabeth is set in motion. Unfortunately, it goes awry: The Clan’s agent successfully gets Elizabeth to Timeline 2. However, he is wounded in the process and subsequently captured by US operatives, leaving Elizabeth on her own in twenty-first century Berlin. In Timeline 3, the First Man dies, provoking the constitutional crisis they had feared. This part of the action ends inconclusively with the Clan cobbling together a damage limitation exercise that involves Kurt and Rita.

Stross slips in a final twist, which may prove more significant than any constitutional crisis. From their base in Timeline 4, the United States has been experimenting with a black hole, which is all that is left of a parallel earth in yet another timeline. Unfortunately, their experiment has not gone unnoticed: Some very advanced technology guarding the black hole responds aggressively. They may have advertised their existence to an advanced and potentially hostile alien (?) race.

In short, Dark State ends on a massive cliffhanger. Everything is up in the air. Will the Clan retrieve Elizabeth from Berlin? Will they survive the constitutional crisis that is about the engulf the Commonwealth? Will either world survive the encounter with whatever the Americans have awoken in Timeline 4? I’ll have to wait another year to find out!

I find the lack of resolution very frustrating, but I’m willing to forgive Stross. Not only does he write nail-bitingly good action, but he produces believable, rounded, sympathetic characters. I particularly like the way he has developed Rita from little more than a pawn of the Department of Homeland Security into an actor in her own right. And the icing on the cake is the way he plays with alternative political systems – he is genuinely interested in exploring how they work rather than using them as mere scenery (note the dedication to Tony Benn).

Since it begins in media res and ends on a cliff edge, would-be readers of Dark State should probably begin with Empire Games. Nevertheless, Dark State is essential reading for anyone who enjoys near future hi-tech thrillers.

21 September 2018

Raven Stratagem

A review of Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris, 2017)
Originally published in Interzone

This is the sequel to Yoon Ha Lee’s award-winning first novel, Ninefox Gambit, which was arguably last year’s most original SF novel, and probably also the year’s most complex and difficult to read novel. So can Lee repeat his success with this second volume of his Machineries of Empire trilogy?

Ninefox Gambit introduced us to Cheris, an infantry captain in the Hexarchate’s Kel faction. Because of her mathematical gifts, she was chosen to host the personality (soul?) of Shuos Jedao, the greatest military genius in the history of the Hexarchate (and its most notorious mass murderer). Between them, they thwarted a Hafn plot against the Hexarchate only to become the victims of a brutal assassination attempt once they were no longer of use to their superiors.

As Raven Stratagem opens, Cheris appears to have survived to rendezvous with a Hexarchate war fleet under the command of General Kel Khiruev. However, as soon as she is on board the flagship, she reveals herself to be Shuos Jedao. As such, she/he outranks Khiruev and can exploit Kel formation instinct to seize command. Ostensibly, his/her intention is to continue the war against the Hafn.

One of the fleet’s senior officers, Kel Brezan, attempts to resist Jedao’s takeover and in so doing discovers that he is a ‘crashhawk’, a Kel who is able to resist formation instinct. Normally a crashhawk would be treated as a traitor, but Kel High Command can see a use for him so instead promote him. His mission is to return to Jedao’s fleet, assist an assassination attempt on Jedao, and use his new rank to re-establish control of the fleet.

In this novel, Lee introduces the Hexarchs, the leaders of the factions that make up the Hexarchate, and gives us a flavour of their inter-factional squabbling and plotting. Most of the Hexarchs are obsessed with attaining immortality – a state that has allegedly been achieved by the strangely absent Nirai Hexarch, Kujen.

The exception is Mikodez, Hexarch of the Shuos. He has no desire for immortality, which in his view, ‘merely shows you what kind of monster you already are’. And he has no illusions about his own capacity for evil. He is quite happy to plot the destruction of his fellow Hexarchs. And if a covert alliance with Jedao can help him achieve that, so be it.

Lee’s world building is fascinating. We learn a lot more about the Hexarchate in this novel. He has envisaged a grandiose exercise in social engineering rooted in an exotic calendar, which depends on ritual torture to keep it functioning smoothly. And everything else depends on the smooth running of the calendar, from the military formations and esoteric weapons of the Kel, to the mothdrive that powers the Hexarchate’s ships, to the special abilities of the factions. Of course, all this comes at a cost: Lee’s Hexarchate is the ultimate totalitarian dystopia, and its most successful members are functional psychopaths.

An interesting side issue is Lee’s presentation of sexuality in the Hexarchate. Given the rigidity of the calendrical system described in these novels, I would have expected a correspondingly rigid approach to issues of sexuality and gender. In fact, these are surprisingly fluid, with characters changing gender and/or sexual orientation with apparent ease.

Without exception, Lee’s characters are complex and interesting – no mean feat when the society that has created them tends to dehumanize its citizens. Of course, all of them are damaged in one way or another. Mikodez is prepared to sacrifice his own brother to the cause. The Hexarchs are willing to use genocide as a tool in a vain attempt to influence Cheris/Jedao. Cheris/Jedao’s actions lead directly to the death of her parents. None of these characters should be likable. And yet Lee manages to convey that they are as much victims as villains. If they are evil, it is because the system that has created them is evil.

I particularly enjoyed the enigma that is the identity of Cheris/Jedao. By not writing from her/his/their perspective, Lee keeps the reader guessing about exactly what has happened. Is this Jedao in Cheris’s body? Or Cheris with Jedao’s memories? Or a novel fusion of the two? And even when the truth is apparently revealed at the end of the novel, one is left wondering whether this is really the case. Or does it just suit Cheris/Jedao for those around him/her to believe this for the time being?

Lee’s writing is a joy. It is replete with memorable images and phrases and leavened with black humour. And through it all runs a biting critique of (totalitarian) power structures.

In sum, Raven Stratagem is a brilliantly complex piece of writing that fully lives up to the promise of Ninefox Gambit. My one caveat would be, if you haven’t yet read Ninefox Gambit, you should probably tackle it first.

14 September 2018

The House of Binding Thorns

A review of The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard (Gollancz, 2017) 
Originally published in Interzone

In The House of Binding Thorns, Aliette de Bodard revisits the post-apocalyptic Paris introduced in The House of Shattered Wings. It is a city in ruins after an unexplained arcane war. Amidst this toxic wasteland, ordinary humans and immortals, alchemists and magicians, Fallen angels and Vietnamese dragons struggle to survive. On land, they are ruled by a number of Houses dominated by the Fallen, which offer their dependants and adherents a degree of protection from the dangers of the city. While, beneath the waters of the Seine, the dragons have established their own kingdom which is gradually succumbing to the poisonous fallout from the war.

The events of this novel are set a few months after the collapse of House Silverspires at the end of The House of Shattered Wings. Madeleine, an alchemist who had taken refuge in Silverspires two decades earlier after the coup in which the Fallen Asmodeus became the head of House Hawthorn, has been ejected by them because of her addiction to angel essence. But Asmodeus has a use for her, so she has been reclaimed by Hawthorn and is being weaned off her addiction.

This is an even more complex story than its predecessor, with multiple perspectives and several interweaving storylines. There is Madeleine, struggling with her fear of the sadistic Asmodeus and her desire for the essence that will certainly kill her, forced to serve him and finding herself playing a crucial role in the struggle for the future of Hawthorn.

Asmodeus may be a ruthless sadist, but that ruthlessness is utterly dedicated to maintaining the security of Hawthorn and its dependents, including Madeleine. He is an inveterate schemer, and his present scheme involves a marriage alliance with the royal family of the dragon kingdom.

Thuan is the nephew of Ngoc Bich, the ruler of the dragon kingdom. As the novel begins, he is working undercover in Hawthorn trying to trace the source of the essence that is corrupting the dragon kingdom.

Another escapee from the collapse of Silverspires, the immortal Philippe is trying to keep a low profile as a doctor within the human Annamite community of Paris. At the end of the first volume, he promised to find a way to resurrect a dead friend, the Fallen Isabelle. His quest brings him into contact with Asmodeus’s sister Berith and her pregnant partner Francoise who have been trying to carve out a life for themselves aloof from the machinations of the Houses.

In addition to the storylines driven by these viewpoint characters, it soon becomes clear that other forces are at work resulting in a range of mutually interfering conspiracies. Someone is plotting to undermine Asmodeus as head of House Hawthorn. But does the threat come from dissidents within the House or the exiles from Hawthorn who have taken refuge in House Astragale? At the same time, someone is supplying essence to the Dragon Kingdom (shades of the role of the Western powers in the opium wars), and the finger of suspicion points at Hawthorn. And on top of that, Ngoc Bich has to contend with a civil war fomented by elements disgusted by the essence trade.

The press release from Gollancz describes The House of Binding Thorns as ‘Urban Fantasy in its truest, darkest and most exceptional form’. It is certainly dark, but it has none of the cynicism and hopelessness that seems to have typified much recent dark fantasy. However, I wonder about the adjective ‘urban’. It may be set in the ruins of a great city, but much of the action takes place within the Houses, which are more medieval than modern, in the surreal aquatic kingdom of the dragons, and within Berith’s pocket kingdom hidden in her apartment. For me, these settings created a sense of Gormenghastian claustrophobia, which makes De Bodard’s Paris feel more gothic than grimdark. Much of the time, her characters may be driven by fear, but there is also a pervasive thread of hope. And the novel ends on a note of hope for the future – of Madeleine, of Hawthorn, and perhaps also of Paris.

It may be the second volume of a trilogy – and my reading was certainly enriched by having read its predecessor – but it can be read as a complex and satisfying standalone novel. On reflection, I have rarely read such a brilliantly executed piece of work. The complexities of the plot and the multiple perspectives are tightly woven together. She keeps the reader guessing as to what is going but without resorting to misdirection. And she ties the various strands together in a wonderfully satisfying conclusion. This is a must read for everyone who enjoys complex fantasies with well-developed characters and sophisticated worldbuilding.

10 September 2018

Thought for the day

Let books be your dining table,
And you shall be full of delights.
Let them be your mattress,
And you shall sleep restful nights.

                    St Ephrem the Syrian

07 September 2018

Empire Games

A review of Empire Games by Charles Stross (Tor UK, 2017)
Originally published in Interzone

Charles Stross’s new novel is the first part of a trilogy set in the same worlds as his Merchant Princes series. He premises a multiverse in which a family (the Clan) has discovered that they are able to travel between timelines, an ability they have used to accrue wealth and power by selectively importing luxuries into their own medieval world while operating a very successful smuggling operation in a world very similar to our own. Unfortunately, they come to the attention of the US authorities. In the conflict that follows, rogue members of the Clan assassinate the President and destroy the White House with a stolen tactical nuclear weapon. Having developed their own world-walking technology, the United States launches a devastating nuclear attack on the Clan’s homeland. A few Clan members take refuge in a recently discovered third timeline where one of their number has developed an alliance of sorts with the revolutionaries who have just overthrown the New British Empire and established the New American Commonwealth.

Fast forward nearly twenty years to the beginning of Empire Games. Miriam Beckstein, the central character of the Merchant Princes series, is now the Commonwealth’s Commissioner responsible intertemporal technology transfer. She has devoted the past two decades to improving the Commonwealth’s technological base so that when the United States finally comes calling they will be able to negotiate from a position of strength.

Meanwhile the United States has reacted to the attack on Washington by developing into a paranoid surveillance society. As part of its extended remit, the Department of Homeland Security has invested heavily in paratime research. They have discovered a number of timelines which they can exploit as cheap and secure sources of raw materials (particularly oil). They have also discovered traces of a very advanced race, which was wiped in a cataclysmic war across several timelines. The latter has reinforced the US government’s paranoia about world-walkers with the result that they are cautiously exploring the multiverse and preparing for an encounter with remnants of the Clan or other world-walkers.

Key to their strategy is a young woman called Rita Douglas. Put up for adoption at birth, she is the illegitimate daughter of Miriam Beckstein and so carries the gene that enables world-walking. US researchers have developed a technique for switching on the world-walking ability in carriers. By doing this with Rita, they hope to develop her as an intertemporal field agent. And in the event of them running across the Clan, they hope that she would be able to establish a back-channel for clandestine negotiations.

Empire Games is primarily the story of Rita Douglas’s recruitment by the paratime division of the DHA. It traces her rapid progress from mildly anti-authoritarian liberal twenty-something to relatively competent field agent of the DHS on her first mission to a different timeline. Working in their favour is the fact Rita’s adoptive grandfather, Kurt, has trained her in the art of keeping a low profile in a panoptical society. What they don’t know is that he is part of a multi-generational network of deep cover agents set up by East Germany before its demise.

A secondary storyline fills the reader in on Miriam’s situation. As if preparing for the inevitable encounter with the United States was not enough, the Commonwealth is locked in a cold war with the other nuclear superpower of that timeline, the French Empire. It is also gearing up for the first transfer of power since the revolution, and the government is riven with rival factions. The United States couldn’t have chosen a worse time to stumble upon the Commonwealth and the Clan refugees. But they unwittingly send Rita into this powder keg where she finally has a tense encounter with Miriam.

The story offers all that Stross fans have come to expect of his near future SF: There is plenty of action. The new major characters (particularly Rita and Kurt) are well developed, though I suspect someone who hasn’t read the earlier novels might find Miriam et al. rather sketchy. Above all, it offers a complex storyline underpinned by convincing worldbuilding and evocative descriptions. Empire Games has all the makings of a very satisfying novel . . . except that by the end of the volume nothing has been resolved! In short, the novel is immensely enjoyable but ultimately frustrating because the publishing schedule means that it will be 2019 before we discover how it all ends.

04 September 2018

It’s not just climate change, Stupid!

Don’t get me wrong. Anthropogenic climate change is a serious existential problem, which the human race must address as a matter of urgency. However, it is just one aspect of our impact on the environment, albeit perhaps the most obvious one.

A salutary reminder that there are other serious environmental issues facing us comes in the form of a research article that was published last year on PLOS ONE. Its title ‘More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas’ says it all, but just to hammer home the point, here is the abstract:
Global declines in insects have sparked wide interest among scientists, politicians, and the general public. Loss of insect diversity and abundance is expected to provoke cascading effects on food webs and to jeopardize ecosystem services. Our understanding of the extent and underlying causes of this decline is based on the abundance of single species or taxonomic groups only, rather than changes in insect biomass which is more relevant for ecological functioning. Here, we used a standardized protocol to measure total insect biomass using Malaise traps, deployed over 27 years in 63 nature protection areas in Germany (96 unique location-year combinations) to infer on the status and trend of local entomofauna. Our analysis estimates a seasonal decline of 76%, and mid-summer decline of 82% in flying insect biomass over the 27 years of study. We show that this decline is apparent regardless of habitat type, while changes in weather, land use, and habitat characteristics cannot explain this overall decline. This yet unrecognized loss of insect biomass must be taken into account in evaluating declines in abundance of species depending on insects as a food source, and ecosystem functioning in the European landscape.

[C]ascading effects on food webs’ means that because flying insects are a major food source for many species of birds we can look forward to more silent springs more than half a century after Rachel Carson’s seminal work. [J]eopardiz[ing] ecosystem services’ means that because flying insects are vitally important plant pollinators we can expect a serious knock-on effect on agriculture.