Thursday, 14 February 2019

A Case of Conscience by James Blish

I feel like I'm getting closer and closer to being able to do a theme on Catholicism and science fiction. I guess I'd have to recycle A Prayer for Leibowitz, which we read in my book club already, but then add Hyperion and The Sparrow, and now, to that list, I could add A Case of Conscience. One more book and I'd be all set!  (I come up with way more themes than we'll ever have time to do, but I enjoy thinking about them.)

Finishing this book also means I'm one book closer in my quest to read all the Hugo nominations for Best Novel. I'm over halfway there!

A Case of Conscience is an interesting book. In an afterword, Blish writes that he does not himself believe in Catholicism, but was trying to write a book that took that theology seriously, and I think, in the end, that he does a fairly good job of it. Near the beginning, I was irritated by some of the arguments, but then I figured out that they were actually more subtle than I was thinking, and, if taken at face value, did mean something was amiss.

The book starts out on another planet, Lithia, where, it seems, the first sentient alien race humans have ever discovered lives. A four-man team ("man" is chosen deliberately - there's a woman who is a scientist later, but not on the planet, and her role is mostly to be a nurturer, and to marry another character) is sent to assess the biology, geology, sociology, etc., etc., to decide how the planet should be categorized for further contact and/or exploitation. (They'd probably say the exploitation part under their breath, although if you read the book, you'll find that one character rapidly makes that subtext text.)

One of the members of the team, the biologist, I think, is also a Jesuit priest. As the book opens, the team is readying their report, and Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez has grown concerned. Lithia seems too perfect - everyone lives in perfect, Edenic harmony, and, what concerns him most, there never seems to have been a period of conflict in their past. They have no religion, and the biology of the dominant species is a literal representation of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny (AKA embryos reenact the entirety of human evolution before they're born). The Lithians have offspring that grow up outside the body, but go through various phases before they are reborn as fully functional Lithians, complete with the harmony, etc.

As a result, Ruiz-Sanchez believes this is an entire planet created by the Devil to tempt humans into irreligion, by giving them an example of an idyllic life without Christianity. I had issues with this at first, even within the logic of the book. Then I realized it did make internal sense. I was initially thinking that Ruiz-Sanches was saying that a world without religion that was idyllic must be demonic, which is circular reasoning if I've ever seen it. Then I realized that this character was saying something different - it wasn't that the world was idyllic (although that would have shaken his worldview too), it was that the Lithians had always had harmony, that there had been no period of development before they arrived at this perfectly balanced, perfectly harmonious, endpoint.

This leads him to fall into Manichaeanism, the belief that evil can create instead of just distort, and that heresy is of concern as he returns to Earth with a Lithian in an egg and then hatched. Egtverchi, as the baby Lithian is called, has no knowledge of Lithian society, but looks at that of Earth as he grows, and finds it grotesque. (Or is always just there as an instigator of evil.) On Earth, people live mostly underground, in huge complexes that were built through fear of nuclear war. Now people live in dense tight urban-like spaces, and unrest is growing. Egtverchi helps egg it on.

This is a fascinating experiment, writing science fiction that takes Catholic theology as a given, and then writes around it to take the story in interesting directions. Once I got the nuances of the argument, I didn't have to buy the worldview to appreciate what Blish is doing here.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

I have not read any of Ian McDonald's works before, although he's certainly been writing for quite a while. It was a name I was vaguely aware of, but hadn't heard anything at all specific about. I'm always up to try new authors, though, and when distributed free copies of Luna: New Moon for their book club, I snatched it up. What I found was solid science fiction. It doesn't feel like it's revolutionary (one intriguing plot thread aside), but it was character-based in a way I enjoy, and had a strong sense of the world, communicated well to readers.

That is to say, I don't think he's suddenly my favourite author, but I certainly won't mind reading more of his work. Specifically, I'd really like to see where this series goes from here, so I'll likely look for the next book. Your plan has succeeded,!

I can't get it out in my head that this book feels like a nod to Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Not so much in the overarching themes - as opposed to oppressed masses on the moon fighting for their independence from Earth, we have a moon that is already more or less politically independent, run by five families/companies. It's more in the fine details of the economy and social mores of the world that it felt like McDonald was, to some degree, building on Heinlein's ideas. Coming up with different answers, but asking many of the same questions of his universe to see what would make sense.

Specifically, on allocation of resources - atmosphere does not occur naturally, so if you don't pay, you don't breathe. In this world, that becomes very specific - there seems to exist technology to cut off breathable air right around someone's head who has run out of credit. Or who runs afoul of one of the powerful families who have some pull. And then again, on marriage. Where everything is contractual (also very Heinleinian), and laws are minimal, lifetime monogamous marriage does not make sense. We have shorter term marriages, worked out through long detailed contracts. It looks like you can have more than one marriage contract running simultaneously, each with different terms. Some turn into love. Some do not.

It feels weird to talk about this in terms of which authors the book reminds me, but the other that pops to mind is Kim Stanley Robinson. The machinations between factions and the politics felt like KSR, if not any of the details. (And McDonald is much, much better at writing women.) We move in and around one of the Five Dragon families, the Cortas. The matriarch of the Cortas came to the moon from Brazil, as an engineer, and saw an opportunity to become the dominant force in helium-3 extraction, moving from being a wage-slave dependent on the other Dragon families to founding her own dynasty.

As the matriarch tries to come to terms with her waning life, doing a life review with the help of a Brazilian priestess, her sons (and daughter) assert themselves, either within the company or outside it. Daughter is in parentheses, because she has separated herself most from the family, becoming a very prominent lawyer, and starting to involve herself in politics, unlike the rest of her family.  A birthday party of second son Lucas' son, Lucasinho, is marred by an assassination attempt. This precipitates rising tension between the Cortas and the Mackenzies, the oldest of the Five Dragon clans.

Trying to write a synopsis does not do this book any favours, because so much happens, and we have so many viewpoint characters. Let's just say that it's all interesting, and the ways in which people are entangled are intriguing, and the characters are really very good. Within the framework of a transition of power in a family company, a ton goes on, economically, politically, emotionally, and sexually.

Let's talk about the one idea that intrigued me right from the beginning instead of trying to sum things up. The youngest son of the Corta family is strongly affected by the presence of the moon in the sky. I kept circling these chapters, going "moon werewolves?"  Huh. (This does not seem to go over into actual turning-into-a-wolf physical transformation, but he feels different at different Earth phases, and he's not the only one. It has made him a bit feral, and there are others who feel the same way.)

Given that the next book is apparently called Luna: Wolf Moon, I'm guessing that plays a larger part than here, where it's a bit of an afterthought, but an intriguing one. I'll be interested to see what McDonald does with it.

All in all, this is solid science fiction. It feels very grounded in a kind of realism, but pays a lot of attention to people, too. The writing is nothing to write home about, but it's unobtrusive, and the tangled emotions that surround every decision drew me in.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Elizabeth and After by Matt Cohen

Back, many many years ago, when I worked at Indigo in Kingston, I remember this book coming in, and selling a butt-ton of them. I never got around to reading it at the time, even though it was a local author and all the things I heard about it were good. Now, in my early forties, I finally settled down to read Elizabeth and After, and I have to say that I enjoyed this just as much as I thought I might. It doesn't hurt that it's set in the near environs of Kingston - it's always nice to see your places reflected on the page.

In a weird coincidence, I was reading Elizabeth and After, in which one of the main characters ends up working at a local video store for a while, at the same time I was reading Universal Harvester, in which the main character works at a local video store. It meant I had to remind myself every once in a while that this was the book that was not horror, and probably added a strange frisson to my reading.

Instead of horror, we have straight Canadian literature, and it's just really, really well done. Elizabeth and After is set in West Gull, north of Kingston just far enough that the people who live there tend to only drive into the city on occasion. (And Kingston is not itself a big city, but it's the closest one to these people.)  It's a community where most have known each other for most of their lives, with occasional new arrivals, but just as many people leaving.

The book starts with a man in the old age home stealing a brand new Cadillac from the local Big Man's car lot, and joyriding it into the lake. It's a really wonderful introduction to the area, the people, and the eccentricities we're going to meet. He's not just a charming old man who likes joyriding, though. He's an alcoholic. He's a widower (Elizabeth's husband, and we get introduced to the car crash that killed her years ago.)  He's semi-estranged from his son. Nobody in this story is a flat characterization, and I think that's what I enjoyed most.

This book slips back and forward in time, bringing new aspects of the characters to light, and it's always done so well. The old man's son returns to town when his agreement with the police (probation?) finishes - he beat up the man his wife was cheating on him with. The wife asks him to come back to the small town where he is known far too well, to be in his daughter's life. He does. This has more levels though, than the trope about everyone in a small town knowing everyone's business. People are more likely to come to conclusions about their neighbours, perhaps, but it is not as simple as that.

There's a man in town, old now, who everyone quietly assumes is gay, as he's never had a relationship any of them have ever known about. As we go back and forth to the past, though, a quite different reason for never displaying a partner comes to light, as do more details about Elizabeth's accident, and the holes it left in many people's lives. We also learn about Elizabeth and how and why she came to live in this small eastern Ontario town, since she was definitely not born there.

We also get the childhood histories of Elizabeth, of her husband, of the other older man in the town. We do not get so close to the men who are the antagonists to various characters - those who want power in this small town, to be seen with power, and who react to losing it badly. There are some nice subtle things on the limits and abuses of power in this small town.

Most of the story comes back to Elizabeth as a touchstone - what she was, what she promised, what was lost, who is to blame. (Everyone thinks they are to blame.)  This isn't the story of people yearning to leave their small town. It's about people trying to be who they are where they are.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg

Elephants are interesting creatures. They're intelligent, inventive, and so, so much bigger than we are. I guess I'm not totally surprised that when science fiction writers go looking for ways to conceptualize alien species, they might come up with something that is remarkably elephant-like. I'm just surprised that I can point to several different examples of elephant-like aliens. Maybe my SF/F book club will do a theme on that at some point.

What does having an elephant-like alien species do? It puts humans in a physically fragile spot, and challenges our ability to empathize with them, I guess. In one of the books I've read, the elephant-like species is an invading and technologically superior force coming to earth, while Silverberg's take on this seems very much patterned on India immediately after the withdrawal of the British colonial forces, except without the division of India and Pakistan.

Silverberg also seems to be trying to do a Heart of Darkness thing here, as the main character travels deep into native territory to find a man named Kurtz, who is rumoured to have become a dark and terrible reflection of himself.  (It's been a long time since I've read Heart of Darkness, so I don't have a lot more to say than that. I wish I remembered more, so I could do a deeper dive.)

Using alien species as ways to examine race is, of course, not new in science fiction, but it is problematic. Who we call alien, and what features we project on to aliens has a logic all its own, and not a subtle one. The other is always the racialized other, and "humans" tend to speak from a white American or European standpoint. It flattens out races among humanity, making the default human characters almost universally white, and where they are not white, experience of race is rarely mentioned. It tends to get almost entirely projected outward. It's a nice fantasy to imagine a  universe where humans had utterly moved beyond internal racism and only retained external aspects...well, that's not really that pretty, and also pretty damned unlikely. As above, so below.

So, with all that being said, how does it work, in this particular book? The book is self-consciously hearkening back to certain aspects of British colonialism, although the humans are not necessarily British. There feel like strong parallels to India. (Interestingly, the only female human in the book has a name that suggests she might possibly be of Indian descent, but if there's a specific description that makes it clear, I missed it. The perils of not thinking visually.)

Wait, do the not-elephants have any women? Do they have any genders? There's a reference to two of the nildoror having sex, but when we meet individual nildoror, I feel like they're all given male pronouns, whether or not they would be applicable. Huh. I will have to check this.

The main character is a former colonial administrator returning to a planet, contrite that he was so racist before. Now he is seeing the nildoror as sentient beings for the first time, and not just beasts of burden, which is how he used to treat them. Most humans have left the planet as it is turned back over to the nildoror, but he has come, thinking to travel to the Valley of Mists to undertake the nildoror rebirthing ceremony. No human has reported on this ceremony, and while a few humans are rumoured to have undergone it, the stories say they come back as monsters. (Guess what might have happened to Kurtz!)

There is another intelligent race on the planet, the sulidoror, which are much like humans, and the main character now sees them everywhere, when they were mostly hidden before. He assumes the nildoror have subjugated the sulidoror in turn, but the answer is more interesting than that. And then the end of the book, oh what to make of the end? We get a turn to enlightenment in a Buddhist sense, or to incarnation in a Christian one.

If you like older science fiction, and this peaks your interest, it might be worth a read. It's not a perfect book, and some of the blind spots are rather glaring, but I found what Silverberg was trying to do here quite interesting.

Friday, 1 February 2019

Space Opera by Catherynne Valente

"Life is beautiful, and life is stupid."

This is either the first or second of the universal laws that are laid down by a philosopher from one species in this book, and it certainly struck a chord. This is a book that argues for more joy, more sparkles, more glam, not in order to pretend that the universe doesn't suck sometimes, but because when things are awful, we can still create some magic. It can't necessarily fix everything, but it's not pointless, either.

I have never seen Eurovision live. Last year, encouraged by Catherynne Valente's enthusiastic tweeting of the proceedings, I did track down some performances on Youtube, and...oh my. That is crazy and fun, and not really about good, necessarily. I'd be interested in seeing more, although perhaps not to the extent that I've bothered to bestir myself to find out when it happens next. (Okay, I just googled, it's in May.)

This book is, of course, spawned by a tweeted question to Valente about what Eurovision would look like in space. Obviously, that bore fruit, and now we have a deliciously messy look at exactly that. The tone is very similar to Douglas Adams, but the subject matter is all Valente's own. We have alien races that look like roadrunners, or sort-of teddy bears, or zombies or just about anything at all you could possibly think of. What do they all have in common? An invincible belief that their own race is sentient and a suspicion of anyone making the same claim.

This led to galaxies-spanning Sentience Wars, and when that was all over, the surviving races sat down and tried to figure out how to make that never happen again. And they came up with their own version of Eurovision. Any newly discovered planet would compete in the next one, and as long as they didn't come in last, they wouldn't be utterly obliterated for being not even sentient enough to know a good tune when they heard one. Of course, the other planets had gotten pretty sophisticated by then, and a simple tune wasn't going to cut it. You needed some showmanship.

When first contact is made, though, the list the alien brought with theirself as suggestions for who Earth send, it turns out most of them are dead. Well, all of them, actually. Except for Decibel Jones, who is something like a failed version of David Bowie and Prince put together. Glam as hell, he and his band, the Absolute Zeroes, had a smash album before falling apart musically and emotionally.

(There's a very good and disturbing sidebar about how upset the British and American governments might get if the representative of the human race were frivolous, bisexual, multiracial, and glam as hell. They'd rather supply their own, thank you very much, someone they can control. The aliens know that's a fast track to disintegration city, so they opt for Decibel Jones and the one remaining Absolute Zero.)

On the trip to the competition, Decibel Jones has to deal with the ghosts that brought him here, and the resentment/fondness of Oort, his bandmate, as well as the loss of the other Absolute Zero that brought them all low. They also have to contend with other aliens when they arrive at the venue, since winning or even placing in the competition has come to include some kidnapping and assassination attempts. Will the human race survive, when Decibel and Oort don't even have a song ready?

How does it read? Well, I start giggling on the very first page, and very frequently thereafter. In this one, Valente has a totally different tone, light and amusing, while bringing up issues of surprising depth. There's a knack of observation mixed in that reminds me of some of the best British comedic science fiction and fantasy, although it is only the main character who is British, not Valente herself. She's got the knack down pat.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Traitor's Blade by Sebastien de Castell

I've come back around to my "Read-Alike" project - this is the one where I take my top ten lists, and try books that are recommended by the NoveList database as read-alikes. This has been an interesting object lesson in how much books are how they are about things, not what they are about. (Thank you, Roger Ebert, for putting your finger on this so precisely!)  I can almost always see why the algorithm has spat out the results it did, but the books are often vastly different in how they approach similar subject material.  Some of these books have been downright terrible. Some are pretty good. One made it onto the next year's Top Ten list, so that time, at least, I found a gem.

I wasn't quite that lucky this time, but neither was this one of the read-alikes that I had to pull myself through bodily, to finish. This is quite good fantasy (with a couple of quibbles). It just doesn't in any way live up to the book that sparked the recommendation. Then again, The Lies of Locke Lamora is a pretty damned high bar to live up to.

In the end, Traitor's Blade was never a chore to read. I enjoyed it while I read it. However, and you can probably tell that there's a however, there wasn't much that made me eager to read any sequels, if there are any. Near the end, something interesting happens, and if the whole book had been about that storyline, I think I'd be much more interested. It is genuinely a bit innovative, but the rest is similar enough to things I've read before that I think I'm good having just read the one.

This is one of the problems with fantasy, sometimes. Some of the tropes have been worn so smooth that revisits to this territory are not my favourite thing. Something about those books would have to be deeply extraordinary to add an author to my list. That didn't happen here.

What we have is three men who seem like they're a reference to the Three Musketeers. In this fantasy kingdom (and magic itself is a little sparse on the ground, but not absent), there was a king. That king wanted to reform the kingdom, making it more just for the common folk, taking power away from the dukes and duchesses. In return, the dukes and duchesses had the king killed. The Greatcoats, the king's personal force, trained to be magistrates to enforce the new laws, did not prevent his death.

As the book opens, it's now been many years. Falcio Val Mond and two of his Greatcoat compatriots are reviled as traitors, both to the king and to the power of the duchies. They hire themselves out as mercenaries, but Falcio cannot let go of the dream of his king. When a wealthy trader they were paid to protect is assassinated, Falcio and his crew join a caravan taking a young woman to a faraway duchy, where political intrigue will ensue. Along the way, Falcio will keep getting distracted by injustice, but see no way to resurrect a dead ideal.

So, the quibble. The author makes a point that the Greatcoats were one-third women, and tries to make this a world without gender roles as strict as we might expect in something that seems roughly like Europe in the Renaissance. However, the main character still tries to use "fights like a girl" as an insult, and defends it even when called on it by other characters. Why would that even be an idiom in this particular world? What kind of sense does that make? It's a weird hill for a fictional character to die on, given that it in no way reflects the society that spawned him.

Oh yeah, and as soon as we get the main character's backstory, there's an immediate fridging for motivation.

Outside of that, the women characters are not bad. I don't feel like they're really really deep, but I don't really feel that the men are either. The characters are interesting enough, just not hugely complex. All in all, this is a swashbuckling fantasy that mostly doesn't have much magic, so it is like The Lies of Locke Lamora. Just nowhere near as much fun, or with as much to say.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

A friend loaned me this book because it has a tarot reader as a main character, and I'd just recently started reading tarot cards professionally, after having spent 25 years learning them quite thoroughly. The tarot reading is not a huge part of this book, which is mostly a thriller, and not a bad one at that. As it pertained to tarot, I thought it was perhaps unfortunate the exact take Ware decided to take, but it's not an unreasonable one. It's all about expectations from tarot reading, really.

The main character, Hal, lost her mother recently, and in order to make ends meet, has taken up her mother's role as a tarot reader on the pier of an English seaside town. She's in debt with usurious interest, and it's coming due, and her legs and life have been threatened. So, when a letter arrives about a grandmother that can't possibly be hers leaving her a bequest, she decides to see if she can con her way into a small amount of money.

Of course, when she shows up at the funeral and reading of the will, it's not a small bequest at all. It's the entire house, quite a large country estate. So Hal is caught by her lies as family secrets swirl around her, and she has to keep her own secrets while others are definitely keeping theirs - and worse, she starts to like some of the people she's conning.

Hal's a good character, by far and large. It's just too bad that she views her job, and tarot as a whole, as a con. She doesn't believe she can tell the future, so she relies on cold reading. And sure, absolutely, you can read that way. I don't think it's ethical at all, and so yeah, if that's what she's doing, there are issues. (I am terrible at knowing exactly what people are feeling while I'm reading tarot cards. I realized long ago, as a tour guide, that I often mistake deep concentration for disbelief. But then, I also tell people that I'm not psychic before I start their reading, and that I'm not there to wow them with what I know, or to tell them what their futures hold. I'm there to help them reflect on their present)

It gets strange because what Hal seems to think about tarot cards is not that far off what I think. There's no reason for her to run this like a scam. Be up front, tell people you're providing a mirror for their lives, a way to recognize patterns and understand personal stories, but that they'll be doing most of the work fitting what they know to what you're saying. But she thinks she can't say that, and so she runs it like a scam, which is frustrating, upset with herself when she pretends she can tell the future. (Also, the author tries to have it go both ways by having tarot cards whenever they come up, be uncannily accurate about situations.)

But really, that's not the focus of the book. The focus is the family Hal finds herself sort-of part of, the interactions between the three brothers who are her theoretical uncles. Hal discovers a picture fairly quickly of them as young people, with her mother there - a cousin of the family with a similar name to a daughter who disappeared many years ago. So, she's related, but not necessarily the way the lawyer's letter and the will describe. There are concerns about the money, but also about justice, and all three brothers are understandably very interested in whatever happened to their long-lost sister.

And some people don't want the truth to come to light, about the sister, about Hal, about the cousin. Some of the twists seemed a little telegraphed, but all in all, this holds together as a competent thriller set in a spooky old house in England. I'll say mystery too, because it does have some good central mysteries to be uncovered.