|Peripatus Home Page No spoilers||Updated: 28-Jun-2021|
Actually, there are one or two spoilers, but they’re well-signalled and I’ve tried to choose them carefully so they don’t actually spoil anything. (I guess a review, by its very nature, has to give some kind of foretaste of a book; otherwise it has no point.)
Fantasy and Science Fiction
2020 is the year I rediscovered fiction, having largely confined myself to non-fiction for the best part of 20 years. As a young man (yes; even I was young once) I was particularly fond of Ursula Le Guin, Vonda McIntyre, and James Tiptree (another woman author, despite the pseudonym), so it seemed a good idea to try a bit of sci-fi. I downloaded Ann Leckie’s Provenance and Asimov’s Foundation trilogy onto my trusty Kindle, and started into it.
Well, all I can say is thank god for Ann Leckie, because…
Isaac Asimov – Foundation Trilogy
I know this trilogy was written a long time ago, so I quite expected it to be horribly dated, but I wasn’t expecting such two-dimensional crap. If we ever used to like this stuff, what the hell were we thinking?
All of the characters are Humphrey Bogart or Peter Lorre; they’re caricatures – not characters. The dialogue is laughable. The basic premise, treating people like gas particles, seems inventive at first glance, but a moment’s thought and the idea is obvious rubbish. (Asimov was a chemist, so he’d have been inspired by Boyle’s Law or something similar.) The plot is the only saving grace, but most of the “big reveals” are telegraphed so they come as no surprise in the end. Only two significant “characters” (as poorly developed as the rest) are female, which we might overlook as being typical of the 50s and 60s, but the other faults have no excuse. Ugh!
Ann Leckie – Imperial Radch
I just re-read Ancillary Justice, thinking about a review. It made quite an impression the first time around on account of the different point of view, the approach to gender, the culture at the heart of the characters’ worlds. Obviously, this effect was lessened on the second reading; no longer a surprise. Nevertheless, the book earns five stars both times around and I have a sneaking suspicion I will have embarked upon re-reading the second Imperial Radch volume, Ancillary Sword, before this weekend is over. [I did.]
So, without spoiling anything or embarrassing myself by pretending to be some literary expert, which I am not, I enjoyed this book for its novelty, yes, but also for an interesting adventure story, well told, with sympathetic characters, and a mostly believable setting. To me it feels like traditional space opera, complete with space ships and aliens, but so vastly better crafted than the rubbish we used to read in the pulp days as to be a different genre. Bring your brain along to this party.
I cannot imagine reading these books other than in sequence, so the recaps near the beginning of the second and third books in the series, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, seem unnecessary. To be fair, the recaps in Sword are handled very well; they flow seamlessly and almost disappear into the fabric of the story. Those in Mercy are less adroit and slightly distracting. Nor do I feel they would be sufficient for somebody who had not read Sword first, so they seem pointless as well.
That said, I enjoyed both Sword and Mercy the second time around even more than the first time. Both, but particularly Mercy have more plot than I remembered and some terrific characters. Sword ends “perfectly” with every plot thread pretty much wrapped up. Mercy, conversely, has a somewhat messy ending but one which, I think, is supposed to be messy: some baddies slink away without a having had a good, satisfying thrashing; a few things are left up in the air. However, all the main narratives are wound up satisfactorily so you don’t feel you’re being blackmailed into buying a sequel. (There isn’t one, so far as I know, although Provenance is set in the same alternative reality.)
There are some great reviews of the Imperial Radch series available but, like most reviews and contrary to my own preferences, they are invariably littered with plot summaries. If the author had intended you to have a plot framework in mind before even starting the book, she’d have given you one. But she didn’t, so clearly that’s not the way you’re supposed to approach the book. Just read it; you don’t need the Star Wars-style “long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” thingo.
Tamsyn Muir – Locked Tomb (series)
Gideon the Ninth has become my favourite book … perhaps ever. I cannot recall any book since Lord of the Rings which even remotely grabbed my attention like this. And Gideon is, frankly, better. It probably won’t age as well as Tolkien’s classic, but in the meantime it is vastly – Vastly! – more affecting.
Ok, let’s deal with this. The small writing on the cover says “lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic mansion in space” or words to that effect. Gideon is unselfconsciously gay. That this passes completely unremarked by any other character in the book is one of Muir’s many subtle triumphs. But voyeurs need not apply; to the best of my recollection there’s one kiss (on the forehead) in the whole book which, by the way, is a story about redemption; not a giggle-fest for spotty teenage boys who can’t get girlfriends.
And what a story! Atmospheric, inventive, dark and funny and exciting and sensitive and I can’t say enough good things about it. This is a book with soul. Awesome.
A month after reading this book, I picked it up again, idly glancing through the first couple of pages. Before I knew it, I was half-way through for the second time, and the other couple of books I had been reading had just become unwanted distractions. This is such a good book and even better on the second time through.
If you haven’t read it yet, avoid plot summaries (and in the unlikely event that the author ever reads this, ditch all the notes; they’re pretentious and unnecessary) because the story is all you need and anything else just detracts from it. The author will tell you exactly what you need to know, when you need to know it. Read it carefully and attend; it is not enigmatic if you stay on your game.
The characters are wonderful; all of them – not just the handful of centrals. Some you’ll love and some you’ll hate and some you’ll change your mind about part way through. That’s life, right? No first impression survives getting to know someone, and in this book we really do get to know all the characters. They become real. I don’t know how Muir does it, but the result is just stunning.
The prose is a joy. I keep thinking it is characteristically Kiwi, but maybe I’m laying claim to something that isn’t really ours; after all, Muir lives in the UK now. Anyway, this is the sort of thing you’re in for:
Crux advanced like a glacier with an agenda. Gideon rolled backward off her seat as his antique fist came down, skidding out of his way with a shower of dust and gravel. Her sword she swiftly locked within its scabbard, and the scabbard she clutched in her arms like a child. She propelled herself backward, out of the way of his boot and his huge, hoary hands. Crux might have been very nearly dead, but he was built like gristle with what seemed like thirty knuckles to each fist. He was old, but he was goddamn ghastly.
Ok, sure, that’s perhaps the best paragraph on that particular page, but it’s not atypical. The whole book is made of wonderful writing like this.
Harrow the Ninth – Wow!
But, first, a note of caution for new readers: Do not buy this book unless you have already read Gideon the Ninth. This is not like some other trilogies where you can read the books stand-alone; it is more like a single book published in three instalments. Unless you have read the first book first, this one will be simply incomprehensible. (For example, the flashbacks are different from what actually happened in the first book, and the differences are a part of the story, too.)
For those who already made it through Gideon, and presumably enjoyed it, this story picks up Harrow’s tale a short time after the other left off, but I found it quite a different read so I won’t directly compare the two other than to say Harrow is more difficult. You need your wits about you. I’m on my third time through and still picking up nuances.
As some other reviewer said (sorry; I can’t recall where I read this), it would have been so easy for author Tamsyn Muir to just write more of the same. Easier, safer, possibly more lucrative. But – thank you so much Ms. Muir – you didn’t. What we have here is a whole different ball game; out of sequence, seemingly unmoored from its own history, but packed with fresh ideas and, still, that wonderfully precise prose where every single word is exactly the right word, in exactly the right place. This book didn’t just happen; it was crafted.
Apparently some people are put off by the second person voice. But, for god’s sake! You read Gideon, right? Morons.
Again, Harrow requires you to stay alert, and read carefully, and know what’s going on. If you’re too lazy for that, and just want to dance over the pages to pick up the gist of the action, then there are plenty of other authors for you to read instead. You’ll recognise them: they write 500 page tomes on the reg, that you forget as soon as you’ve put them aside and started the next one. You won’t have to wait for the next installment; it’ll be out next week.
But we will have to wait for the next Locked Tomb story. Swallow your lust for instant gratification until 2022.
JRR Tolkien – Lord of the RingsThe first time I attempted to read LOTR, I failed to make it through that interminable goddamned birthday party. Jesus wept; what a load of unmitigated drivel. Fortunately, a friend of mine wisely instructed me to simply skip the first few chapters and commence at the old forest. Since then, I’ve re-read LOTR several times, probably half a dozen at least, and I even made it through Bilbo’s fucking party once or twice, not that it was worth the effort.
So, that’s the first thing: For all its iconic status, Lord of the Rings is no masterpiece. Despite the author’s famously detailed planning (Tolkien’s son made an entire career out of publishing his father’s background notes) the book is riddled with plot flaws. The Nazgûl, evil undead witchy thingys, and the Dark Lord’s most deadly lieutenants, are foiled right at the outset because the ferry service across the Brandywine River has knocked off for the evening? Are you fucking kidding me? Later on, at Weathertop, they’re frightened off by somebody waving a burning stick at them? Really? Give me a break!
The characters are archetypes, which I think is a euphemistic way of making flat, uninteresting and frankly unbelievable characters sound classy. Without exception, the hobbits are infuriatingly cloddish. Just to pick off the easiest mark, Sam’s only virtue is loyalty; he’s prone to bewilderingly bovine behavior, such as lighting fires in the middle of enemy territory, and is utterly incapable of any independent action more demanding than planning his next meal. He’s like a big dog, only not so bright. The constant “lay your head in my lap, Master” simpering, apart from sounding decidedly icky – just ew! – is nauseatingly feudal. If there are truly any English rustics with that kind of pathetically servile mentality today, they need to be strapped down, made to watch Monty Python’s “Help! Help! I’m being repressed” sketch, then shot. Quite frankly, none of the characters in the book act with much intelligence, with the wonderful exception of Tom Bombadil: Faced with the choice of traipsing off to the ghastly slagheaps of Mordor, or staying home to while away the long winter nights with Goldberry, Tom stays put. It’s arguably the only smart decision anybody makes in the whole damned saga.
But, while it is all too easy to pick holes in LOTR, there is still something about it. After all, I have re-read this book more than any other (though the Locked Tomb books will overtake it, soon, I am sure) and there must be some explanation for that. Ursula Le Guin acknowledged LOTR as a major influence (on her thinking, if not her actual writing; The Language of the Night [Perigee], especially chapters The Child and the Shadow and The Staring Eye). It was published quite some time ago, 1954, but was by no means the first of its kind. Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter predated it by 30 years. Perhaps its sheer ambition is part of its success. Not only is the book very long, but the story is continental in scale, and the actors are drawn from diverse races and cultures. Some of the set pieces are wonderfully graphic; Éowyn’s stand against the lord of the Nazgûl is incomparable. Even Peter Jackson had the humility to leave that scene more or less as written.
How to finish? Well, the way I look at it, this book is not one of those where you worry about whether you’re going to enjoy it or not. If you’re interested in the genre, you’ll read it because you have to, and if there’s any re-reading to be done after that, well, you’ll just know.
Iain Banks – The Culture Novels
Normally I don’t much like Banks’s Culture novels. I was put off by the first one, Consider Phlebas, which despite having been enthusiastically recommended to me, is disjointed and ultimately pointless. This thing happens, then that thing, then another thing; and on and on. I understand the author subsequently indicated that the pointlessness was the point he was trying to make. Yeah, nah. Worse than that, it seemed as if the first couple of chapters of some completely different story had gotten mixed up in the manuscript. Somebody stuck up a mountain with a broken leg or something? I can’t really remember. What the hell was that all about?
So, anyway, I’m not recommending the series, but I did enjoy Player of Games as a stand-alone novel. A small handful of passages reek faintly of hormonal adolescence, which might try the patience of some readers, but at least it seemed to stick to a single narrative and did not squander its focus across a ridiculously-vast cast of ridiculously-named AI space craft and improbably evolved aliens. Which brings me to….
Excession. Buoyed up by Player of Games (a 50% strike rate is something I can work with) and, again on a recommendation, I gave Excession a try. The most I can say is that I managed to finish it. In the end, however, I was propelled more by bloody-minded determination than by any qualities of the story or the writing, which led me to think about why I didn’t like it. After all, the premise was intriguing, the AI-centric narrative was something that has previously appealed to me (Ann Leckie’s Ancilliary books; Martha Wells’s Murderbot Diaries), and who could doubt Banks’s writing ability after reading The Wasp Factory? But, here, the premise just fizzles out to nothing – it’s not even nihilistic for god’s sake – and the AIs are just stupid names and a handful of wisecracks, not characters at all. Banks’s indisputable talent simply dissipates, like a drop of wine in a lake.
AK Larkwood – Serpent Gates seriesThe Unspoken Name
The central character, Csorwe, is absolutely adorable. Even when she is being harebrained. And grows her adult fangs. I loved it, and I’m hanging out for the sequel (The Thousand Eyes; scheduled for release in 2021).
There are some scifi-lite elements in the story, and steam-punkish aircraft thingys, but the story is primarily ensconced in a straight-forward fantasy setting, with Old Powers and mages and swords. Goodreads suggests a similarity with Ursula Le Guin – I’m still undecided about that – but there are definitely some props in common with the Earthsea stories.
But, after all, props are just props, and “the play’s the thing” according to Shakespeare. And he would know. Shorn of its swords and magic, this is a story about loyalty, both misplaced and whatever the opposite is (“placed”?) Should gratitude engender uncritical loyalty? How much and how long? Surely even a huge debt cannot hang over your head forever, can it? Well, of course there are no answers to these questions, and Csorwe eventually comes to realise that … although by then it may be too late.
Martha Wells – Murderbot Diaries
I love the character and I love the writing and, from the artistic perspective, this is a fabulous series. But, I have to vent my frustration over the pricing model, which is cynical and greedy. At $4 for the Kindle edition, the first book in the series, All Systems Red, is a fair price for a novella. However, despite the next four sequels also being little more than short stories, they are priced the same as full-length novels. And that stinks, Martha.
The plot is great, albeit scrawny (you’ll read each book in a couple of hours or less) and the central character is awesome. If you want a soupcon of moral philosophy with your SF, there’s a bit of that, too, though not the heavy-handed Becky Chambers shove-it-down-your-throat variety; just saying. The pace is brisk and entertaining. I very much enjoyed All Systems Red, and the four (over-priced) sequels. The fifth sequel, Fugitive Telemetry, is not due out until later this year. It, too, is expensive. Let’s hope there is a bit more to it. Otherwise, it will certainly be the last Martha Wells book I ever buy.
Becky Chambers – Wayfarers series
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet surprised me in a good way. This book comprises a series of little vignettes, each dealing with some moral quandary currently in vogue with the woke crowd, which would normally annoy me immensely. However, the “substories” are uncharacteristically nuanced and carried off with considerable aplomb, which kept me reading and, all else being equal, would have earned five stars. But, oh, Becky! The past tense of the verb to lead is “led”. No ‘a’. The word that sounds like led but is spelled with an ‘a’ is the noun for element number 82 on the periodic table, a malleable silvery metal formerly used for plumbing and paint, until people realised how poisonous it was. (Refers to Kindle version of the book; perhaps the paper versions had editors who could spell?)
I gave the benefit of the doubt to the second book in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit. I had assumed it would resume with the ship and the crew, but no. Instead, we take up with two minor characters, following their “exit, stage left” from the first book. Alternate chapters provide the current narrative and a detailed backstory for one of them. Ms. Chambers is still bravely nailing some kind of woke banner to her mast, but there are (mercifully) fewer separate strands in the bien pensant lash this time around, which at least leaves a little room for some story amongst the moral instruction. Unfortunately, the narrative sags a bit in the early second half, and the ending is clearly signalled so there is no dramatic tension at all. I quite enjoyed it for all that. Sort of.
But what’s with all the “snacks”? Isn’t anybody in this alternative universe adult enough to make themselves a proper fucking meal?
Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third book in the Wayfarers series. Like the first two, it is characterised by a sanctimonious tone, often falling little short of didactic hectoring, instructing us in what all Right Thinking People must hold to be self-evidently true. This is extremely annoying but at least the first book, and the second to a slightly lesser extent, rewarded our forbearance with a good yarn. This book does not: Nothing happens; there is no story. Oh, yes, somebody dies in an accident halfway through – Half. Way. Through. – but even after reading 50% of the book we have so little investment in any of the characters that we simply do not care. I had only just set the book down having turned the last page (I forced myself to finish it, so I could write a fair review) and I could not for the life of me recall any of their names. One star for writing her name correctly at the top of the page, and frankly I think that’s generous. In summary, the book is garbage, fit only for the recycling bin.
I will probably never read the fourth book in the series, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. Just the title suggests more adventurous readers will be in for a good telling off.
Ursula Le Guin – Planet of Exile and City of IllusionsPrior to discovering Le Guin, most of my SF reading had been of the pulp variety. Perhaps that is not entirely fair: Arthur C. Clarke was always better than that, and he was probably my favourite author; it is him I remember, anyway. In a very real sense, however, Le Guin was the first author I read who appeared to treat SF as literature, by which I mean that the trappings of aliens and space ships were a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. Over time, I read most everything she wrote. Some, like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, were weighty and, frankly, a bit turgid, but these two stories are gems. Perhaps because they are short, little more than novellas, they are quite focussed, and the prose is beautiful. They can be read separately, and in reverse if you wish but, for maximum effect, read Planet of Exile and City of Illusions one after the other in that order.
Peter Hamilton – Pandora’s StarLife is too short to read this book.
I hate quitting a book, so I kept plugging on. I vowed to stop several times, then thought “one more try”. But, eventually, I quit about 80% of the way through (according to my Kindle). Life is just too short to plough through mediocre writing. If I want a marathon, Victor Hugo is equally long-winded, but, unlike Hamilton, he was also a brilliant writer.
There are lots of things I could say, but in the end it came down to this: Each time the author introduces a new plot strand into the book, there’s this enormous great back-story you’ve got to wade through before you catch up with the play again. By the time you’re half way through this enterprise, you’ll feel like you’ve started a whole new novel half a dozen times. Some of the threads are actually quite good, but no: getting there just isn’t worth the investment.
Shelby Mahurin – Serpent and DoveThe first book in the series, Serpent and Dove, has two main protagonists, and each of the chapters is told from one or other of their viewpoints. It is a nice idea, but it didn’t quite work for me. A few of the chapters are told from Reid’s point of view, but typically only when there is not much to say. Reid is two dimensional; like you’d imagine the guy from a Mills & Boon novel, not that I’ve ever read one. Fortunately, the great majority of the chapters are told from Lou’s point of view, and she is a much more interesting character, though a little bit too caricatured for my taste.
It’s a bit predictable. It almost works. I haven’t gotten around to reading any of the subsequent books; I’m not sure I will.
AG Riddle – PandemicI got bored and didn’t finish. I abandoned it having read 40% of it, according to my Kindle, so I reckon I gave it a reasonable crack. There is nothing really wrong with it, as such, but it just didn’t engage me. We got told quite a lot about the people in the story, but none of them ever seemed to emerge as actual characters that I could invest (or even believe) in. And, without that, a novel is only what some famous person allegedly said about history: just one damn thing after another. Yawn.
Arkady Martine – Teixcalaan series
A Memory Called Empire is the first of two (so far) books in the Teixcalaan series. Although a science fiction novel, set in a galaxy-spanning empire, but concerned with the drama of court politics more than space ships and ray guns. In this respect, it reminds me of Dune – or, at least, the impression Dune made on me when I read it about 100 years ago, in my early 20s. But whereas Dune is a bit of a slog, this book is riveting. I didn’t have to force myself to read it again for this review; the pages turned themselves.
The central character is Mahit Dzmare, and there are many other believable and fascinating characters in the story too, but the real star of the show is the glorious Three Seagrass, who I just can’t get out of my head. She is such a well-written character she almost seems more real than some people I know, and certainly more interesting. This is real writing; it takes rare skill to make an imagined person come alive like this.
As an act of gender politics, appropriately, the Teixcalaanli naming convention in this book is wonderful. Until we are told, how could we guess a gender for somebody whose name is Three Seagrass or Twelve Azalea or Nineteen Adze?
The only odd thing is the mail; surely a galaxy-spanning civilisation has remote access to encrypted mail down pat? The infofiche sticks are ceremonial, surely, and their temporary absence – in a room you cannot get to, for the moment, for whatever reason – does not render their contents inaccessible? But, that aside, well thought through, with no transparent idiocies demanded by an inflexible plot.
The second book, Desolation called Peace, crawls a little, at the beginning. There is a little bit of reminding the reader about what happened in the previous book, or perhaps trying to give new readers enough background to avoid the first book (why?) but I don’t think these are full explanations. It really is just a bit heavy for lift-off. So, you can imagine how I grinned at the final words from chapter two: “‘This,’ she said at last … ‘is a job for the Information Ministry.’”
Now we’re cooking!
I’ll still give it five stars, and I started it again as soon as I’d finished it the first time, but even so I have a couple of tiny gripes: Mahit is somewhat more hapless than I wanted; from what we’ve come to expect. Why all the agonising over Tarats orders? Surely the Mahit Dzmare of the first book would have just hoisted a finger at him and got on with it? And a wee bit of carelessness, too. Three Seagrass can’t read stationer on the station, but she can read a stationer comic book – quickly – a couple of days later on the Weight for the World? Hmm.
But I’m nit-picking, aren’t I? Another great book from Arkady Martine, now one of my two favourite authors, and I can’t wait for more.
M. John Harrison – Light/Nova Swing
Light is Viriconium with sex. Quite a lot of it, actually, the point of which eludes me completely. Looking for other influences, Samuel Delaney’s Nova is an obvious starter, and possibly even Michael Moorcock’s The Blood Red Game, but essentially this story is Viriconium moved into space. Vanished alien races take the place of the Afternoon Cultures and the Great Rust Desert is strewn across half the Galaxy.
If there is anything deeper in this story, I’m afraid it is quite lost on me: I think it is just a story. Annie Glyph, the rickshaw driver, is the only genuinely likeable character; all of the others are, in varying degrees, self-serving and mean spirited. In summary, Light is no masterpiece but an interesting and quirky read; compelling in places. Recommended.
Nova Swing is more of Light: a lot of atmosphere, some good characters, but an unmemorable plot. Indeed, by the time I got to Nova Swing I had completely forgotten if Light had any plot at all. My only conscious recollection of the book, at all, was the character I liked, Annie Glyph. Even as I read it, I suspected Nova Swing would go the same way, and it did, with me remembering only the feisty, eight year old Alice Nylon.
This, it seems to me, is the thing about Harrison’s writing. He has been described as a poet of decay, and he is certainly that, but, as is rather often the case in poetry, nothing much ever actually happens. Or perhaps it is all just a bit too deep for me, and I don’t understand.
Harrison’s style puts me most in mind of that other master ‘poet of decay’, Michael Moorcock. Indeed, a couple of Harrison’s earlier books, especially The Pastel City, have much in common with Moorcock’s The Time Dweller and Imrryr, Elric’s dreaming city, may well have been the inspiration for Viriconium. But, in Light and Nova Swing, the biomechanical futures seem to have descended more from Samuel Delany (Babel 17, Nova), perhaps by way of William Gibson. So, though I know of nobody who writes quite like Harrison, these are the authors I would suggest trying to anyone who might be interested.
James S.A. Corey – Leviathan Wakes
PLACEHOLDER – UNFINISHED
Is it expecting too much for science fiction authors to know a bit of science? I’m not trying to sound superior (well, not much) but genuinely curious. Like most SF authors, in my experience, Corey is confused about the difference between weight and mass, hasn’t thought through what it means for a large spaceship to rely solely on thrust to generate gravity, seems to think that an EMP will not propagate through vacuum, … etc. The old pulp authors at least had a decent handle on this sort of trivial middle school physics, and some, such as the venerable Arthur C. Clarke, whatever his other faults as a writer, made it work for them. The present day mob, not so much.
Well, Corey is hardly on his own, there, so I’ll leave it at that.
Seanan McGuire – Middlegame
The idea here, alchemy as opposed to plain old “magic” or whatever, struck me as novel though, in the end, I guess there’s no real difference. The improbable road and the impossible city never make much sense; at least they didn’t to me. Then there’s that solvent that supposedly dissolves most everything, though obviously not the bucket they just leave it lying around in…. But, for all that, I really enjoyed this book. The characters and conversations are rational (within the frame of the story, obviously) and natural sounding. Nobody acts with ridiculous stupidity. The bad guys are satisfyingly evil; the good guys are flawed but not to the extent that half the book is consumed in tedious, hand-wringing angst. At least one of them is hugely likeable (Dodger, for my money, but your mileage may vary). Although one conventionally expects the heroes to come through in the end in any/every book, Middlegame balances on a knife all the way and could go either way at any time. I certainly never felt we reached a point where what happened next was transparent, so full compliments to author Seanan McGuire for maintaining dramatic tension all the way to the finish line. It doesn’t quite have the emotional depth of The Locked Tomb books, but it is certainly among the handful of best books I’ve read in a very, very long time.
SF&F books in which the central protagonist is a female adventurer who does all the same sort of things as the male adventurers of a generation ago, including “getting the girl” except it is usually getting the guy in these stories, are surely a subgenre of their own by now. They are certainly quite numerous, so I am going to treat them as such.
There often seems to be a sprinkling of sex scenes through these stories ... and they are invariably excruciating. First of all, why? What they are even there for is beyond me, but there they are in all their hilarious unrealism. They seem to invariably be of “the barest touch of his fingertips on the lobe of her ear filled her whole body with tingling urgency” kind of crap that one imagines residing in Mills & Boon novels, setting up young girls for a lifetime of disillusionment since 1908.
Often, though not always, they are written by women, which surprises me a little because, on the whole, they generally strike me as a giant leap backward for feminism. They seem to me to offer just the same old selection of attitudes, platitudes, and stereotypes as the old Buck Rogers rubbish. Swapping the gender of the lead character ... ok, yes, it’s a reasonable first step, but if the woman in question is every bit the slave to her hormones as the walk-ons in the male genre (albeit unlike any real woman I have ever actually met in my life) then we haven’t achieved very much, have we?
Oh, well. That’s enough seriousness for now. Let’s read some of this tripe!
Sam Sykes – Seven Blades in BlackSeven Blades in Black is the story of a swaggering, wise-cracking heroine, who spits in the face of death, serially insulting the seemingly endless cast of villains lining up to kill her, and always taking the path most obviously destined to lead to mayhem, death, and other suboptimal outcomes. Each chapter (or so it feels; possibly not literally true) presents a new hazard that only the serendipitously timed and highly improbable appearance of some other actor permits our hostess, Sal, to spit and curse her way through to the next chapter.
It is all utterly peurile. A 13-year-old boy who doesn’t get out much may possibly find this drivel amusing; I cannot imagine anybody else who might.
There are no characters; even the ridiculous Sal is a two-dimensional stick figure. There is no allegory or metaphor. The story, such as it is, is entirely plot-driven. In this respect it somewhat resembles much of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s work – just one damn thing after another, to misquote somebody famous – though I cannot imagine Sal having the longevity of Tarzan … or even Tanar of Pellucidar!
It’s a shame, really, because the writing is reasonably good. Hmm; not sure I really mean that. But some passages are quite exciting and, despite everything, I managed to read the whole book, so there must have been some saving grace present.
Ann Aguirre – Sirantha Jax (series)
I really quite enjoyed the first Sirantha Jax novel, Grimspace, when I read it under lockdown in early 2020. I’ve re-read it for this review and it didn’t hold up so well the second time. The “romantic tension” isn’t tense; actually it’s rather juvenile now that I come to look at it more critically. And I got irritated whenever the characters acted like complete cretins, which is a good deal of the time. The suspension of disbelief, necessary in science fiction, just comes crashing down. For example, the central character just about gets the entire cast killed (some “expendables” do, in fact, die) upon arriving on a new planet, because her tough, clever, resourceful, companions, who have just broken her out of imprisonment, were too dumb to brief her about the single most notable aspect of the local environment? You really want us to swallow that? Nobody capable of breathing on their own is that dumb.
But, that sort of thing aside, it’s not a bad yarn, with plenty of action and – surprisingly – some very well-sketched characters.
Book 2, Wanderlust is more of the same and the cracks do not really begin to show until book 3, Doubleblind. As seems to be usual with this kind of “Beth Rogers” writing, despite its being nominally science fiction, the author demonstrates a profound ignorance of even Middle School-level science, and obviously couldn’t be arsed asking anybody to help her out. For example, this from near the beginning of Chapter 4: “They [an alien race] too need an oxygen-rich environment, although they like it spiked with a little nitrogen, which makes us silly in larger concentrations.” I think Aguirre must be confusing nitrogen – which comprises about 78% of our own Earthly atmosphere! – with nitrous oxide, a compound having as little similarity to molecular nitrogen as water does to oxygen. I guess that these stories are kicked out to a pretty tight deadline, too. How else to explain the numerous silly, careless, errors such as this from Chapter 5: “We will [go to the spaceport via] the maintenance tunnels that run parallel to the underground” followed shortly by “We soar over titanium spires toward the delicate firefly flicker of the spaceport.” Some underground! Worse yet, the utterly artless recaps for people who haven’t read the earlier books, compounded by the endlessly repetitious droning on and on about Jax’s relationship with March is getting seriously tedious by now.
Notwithstanding, Wanderlust and Doubleblind are still reasonable yarns; hardly art, but rollicking stories, with lots of invention and reasonable pace. Unfortunately, these qualities fall off precipitately in volume 4, Killbox.
I started to re-read Killbox just to see just what went wrong. I’m not sure I’ll have the energy to finish, which probably answers the question right there. As late as chapter 8 and we’re still regularly recapping the previous books (👎👎), warbling on about the goddamn relationship between the two main characters endlessly (👎👎), which is bad enough, but also repetitiously (👎👎👎), and nothing much has happened (👎). They’ve had a little skirmish and rescued some kids from slavers; five pages maybe. Still it could have worked, if the writing was any good, but it’s not. Most any literate person, or eight different people, could take a chapter each, read it, then rewrite it from memory in their own words, and there wouldn’t be much difference. [For anyone who is interested, I finally gave up re-reading somewhere in Chapter 20, where the male lead starts acting like a seven year old, punching the wall and wanting to walk out on his pivotal role in saving humankind – yeah, they were always going to give that job to a walking adolescent temper-tantrum, weren’t they? – because he’s discovered some long-lost nephew. Really? I mean, really? FFS!]
The first time around, I found book 5 simply tedious, and book 6, Endgame, was frankly a trial that only grim determination got me through. Nothing would induce me to reread these two. In the earliest books, the ideas were fresh, the characters all had something to contribute, and the love interest was kept sufficiently under control that it didn’t detract from the story. Well, at least it didn’t dominate everything else. But, along the way, great characters (and an entire war) appear to have been left behind, relegated to two dimensional roles, or simply forgotten, and the central character has morphed from a real kick-arse heroine into a moon-eyed teenager constantly angsting over the state of her fucking relationship. Oh, give us a break.
Warning – there’s a spoiler coming. Perhaps the most egregious of all these faults is the waste of quite well-written characters, many of whom are abandonned to wither on the vine. Consequently, for example, when Constance is finally killed, we’ve half forgotten who she is and really don’t care any more. I expect the author was simply milking the series for all it was worth ... she really should have stopped at volume 3. A pity.
T.A. White – Firebird series
Although I found it entertaining, Rules of Redemption, the first volume in the Firebird series, is far from being a masterpiece. To me, the most egregious flaw in these stories is that all of the characters constantly behave like retarded children, jeopardising serious, life-threatening matters with petty squabbles, peurile grandstanding, and “playful” (i.e., asinine) banter. There’s not one of them you’d put in charge of running a bath. The entire plot is characterised by stupid decisions and situations where some person “has no choice” when, actually, they could easily just say fuck that and do something different.
Ms. White clearly has no understanding of physics. To choose just one howler at random, the idea of dodging laser beams is hysterical.
The early part of the second book, Age of Deception, is marred by extremely clumsy recaps, obviously intended for readers who have skipped the first book, but probably insufficient to really bring them up to speed. Handling recaps is an art, which very few writers seem to manage well. Indeed, the very best writers, Tolkien, Le Guin, and now I’d add Muir to that list, simply don’t bother. If you want to find out what happened in the previous book, well, read it.
[Spoiler ahead, not that it “spoils” anything worth saving.] Alas, the foregoing is as nothing: The third book in the series, Threshold of Annhilation (oo, er), is hilarious, but not in a good way. Here it devolves that the resourceful, clever – indeed, little short of brilliant – Kira has entrusted secrets that she has spent her life protecting to an ill-behaved adolescent brat who just blurts them out any time she is blessed by a random audience. And does Auntie Kira give her a slap or otherwise move to stop the flow of disaster. No. She – are you ready for this – she rolls her eyes.
Oh, for fuck’s sake.
When somebody smugly overturns your life’s work, you do not just roll your eyes – niece or no.
And yet, for all that, the writing is quite compelling in places. Despite having to put the books down in frustration at times (figuratively speaking; in fact I just flick over to Dune, which I am reading concurrently) somehow I haven’t been able to completely abandon them at some point. I am still struggling through Annhilation and will probably get to the end, just to find out what happens. At the moment I do not even know if there is a fourth book in the series, but it will take a certain amount of resolve to pick it up, if there is.
Not Beth Rogers
Robyn Bennis – Signal Airship series
I have made a new heading just for these two books, to explicitly contrast it with the ‘Beth Rogers’ stuff. Yes, there’s a swashbuckling female lead, and a suave male character, and the traditional mutual antipathy which morphs via grudging respect into affection. However, they do not collapse predictably into one another’s arms in chapter whatever. Josette does not suddenly go soft in the head halfway through; she remains brave and principled and intelligent throughout. Mostly, in fact, all of the characters in these books behave like rational adults – you know, the way you can actually imagine real people behaving – rather than the absurd histrionics described above. And, underlying everything, is an historically accurate grittiness where, for example, soldiers hack at one another with swords on the battlefields, dying days or weeks later, as often as not, of sepsis in some overwhelmed field hospital. No; these stories are nothing like the dandified hormonal drivel of the previous section.
Ok, there are some silly bits – Josette’s drinking prowess, for example – but they’re rare and unobjectionable. This is the way female-led actioners should be written.
Suzanne Collins – Hunger Games series
With some misgivings, I’m going to put The Hunger Games in this section, too. Despite all the angst about which boyfriend she’s ultimately going to go with, and the book’s (bleugh!!) obsession with fucking clothes, Katniss is a worthy heroine: She doesn’t “need” a man to make her anything; she is self-sufficient and pretty cool (especially when played by Jennifer Lawrence; an actress worthy of better roles than she’s ended up typecast for; oh, well).
But, back to the books. Book, actually, because I only succeeded in reading the first one, and then only through gritted teeth and a grim determination to see it through. Well, at least the kids are reading something, right? Not really. My dismay set in as early as page 2, where unwary readers will encounter this twaddle:
I swing my legs off the bed and slide into my hunting boots. Supple leather that has moulded to my feet. I pull on trousers, a shirt, tuck my long dark braid up into a cap, and grab my forage bag.
Collins’s knowledge of footwear comes from Fifth Avenue, I guess. The kind of boots she describes would be useless for any kind of outdoor use. (Think army boots; tramping boots. They’re not made the way they are because soldiers and trampers are idiots.) And, surely, even in the benighted District 12, people put their pants on before their boots?
Still, they made a movie and cast Jennifer Lawrence in the role, so two stars for that, at least.
Get a Grip
You’ll see I enjoy fantasy (exhibit left). An important point to be sure of, however, is that readers of SF&F (mostly) well understand that it is fiction. So, no, although I do believe there probably is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, I do not believe it has been wasting its time coming to Earth in secret for the past half century, picking up yokels from remote American trailer parks, giving them a quick poke up the arse for no apparent reason, then returning them to tell their story to some benighted tabloid. I haven’t noticed swathes of people who have dropped dead in the streets from using their cell phones. If homeopathic remedies have any effect beyond placebo, and it is difficult to imagine how they might without resorting to complete mumbo jumbo, then they are still vastly – Vastly! – less effective than even aspirin, so why the hell would you bother? Crystals … oh, give me strength.
Turns out there’s an entire literature devoted to debunking this crap. What’s the point, you ask? The people who believe in UFO abductions etc. are obviously barking mad, or at least have some deep psychological need to run away from the real world. (The two are synonymous as far as I’m concerned.) No logical argument is going to do anything to shift their faith, because that’s what it is: a kind of faith. So is the point of this literature simply to make people like me feel superior?
Carl Sagan – The Demon-Haunted World
The Demon-Haunted World is well described by its subtitle: “Science as a candle in the dark”. As well as defining just what science is and, equally important, what it is not, this book is a sustained defence of rational thought, perhaps best conveyed in the author’s own words (page numbers refer to 1997 Ballantine Books edition):
“This book is a personal statement, reflecting my lifelong love affair with science” – p.25.
Sagan devotes a lot of space – quite frankly, more than it deserves – to the subject of UFOs, and even goes so far as to treat the legions of loonies who swallow this garbage rather sympathetically. (Again, more than they deserve, in my view. For example: “Instances in which the ‘memory’ suddenly surfaces, especially at the ministrations of a psychotherapist or hypnotist, and where the first ‘recollections’ have a ghost- or dreamlike quality, are highly questionable.” – p.156. Well, that strikes me as just a bit of an understatement.)
The following is fairly typical of his treatment:
“I had been interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial life from ... long before I ever heard of flying saucers. ... [However,] on so important a question, the evidence must be airtight. The more we want it to be true, the more careful we have to be. No witness’s say-so is good enough. People make mistakes. People play practical jokes. People stretch the truth for money or attention or fame. People occasionally misunderstand what they are seeing. People sometimes even see things that aren’t there.
(Not to mention another inconvenient fact: “The idea that Mr Spock could be a cross between a human being and a life form independently evolved on the planet Vulcan is genetically far less probable than a successful cross of a man and an artichoke.” – p. 375.)
“Some abductees say that tiny implants, perhaps metallic, were inserted into their bodies, high up their nostrils, for example. These implants, alien abduction therapists tell us, sometimes accidentally fall out, but ‘in all but a few of the cases the artefact has been lost or discarded’. These abductees seem stupefyingly incurious. A strange object, possibly a transmitter sending telemetered data about the state of your body to an alien spaceship somewhere above the Earth, drops out of your nose; you idly examine it and then throw it in the garbage.” – p. 185.
Speaking of which, the subject of religion makes a number of cameo appearances throughout the book. I liked what I read although I ended the book still not very sure of Sagan’s own religious beliefs, or lack thereof. Here is an interesting passage, quoted in the book from another source (the October 1989 issue of the professional law enforcement journal, The Police Chief):
By now you’ve got a good idea of the content and tenor of the book, but I can’t resist a final word. This is beautiful:
Christopher Evans – Cults of Unreason
This book is pretty dated now (published 1974) and some of the whacky beliefs it describes have all but disappeared from view today. Nevertheless, much of the material is still relevant, that which is no longer relevant remains interesting for its historical perspective, and Evans’s writing would be a pleasure to read if he was talking about woodworm. Parts of this book are laugh-out-loud hilarious.
The main topics he deals with are Scientology (about half the book), UFOs, “black boxes” (mysterious devices for which extraordinary claims conflict with evidence, not to say common sense), and “eastern” mysticism.
Like many of the older books on this general topic, Evans devotes more space – and frankly more respect – to UFO beliefs than they deserve. The following is typical:
“Most astronomers now agree that the universe is sufficiently large to accommodate thousands [today we would say billions] of suns with plantary systems, and that many of these are capable of supporting intelligent life. … [T]here could well exist civilizations immeasurably more advanced, scientifically and technically, than our own. The argument continues on obvious lines. … [W]hy should not a civilization with, say, a million years of recorded history be traversing the universe at will, even visiting our own little planet from time to time?
But I think Evans overlooks the fact that belief in UFOs (and all his other cults of unreason for that matter) are motivated by a deep yearning to believe in the supernormal. These sort of believers are filling a hole – maybe their lives are not sufficiently fulfilling; I’m buggered if I know – and logical arguments completely miss the psychological mark. At most they’ll rachet up the cognitive dissonance a notch or two; they won’t break the faith.
I guess the same goes ten-fold for Scientology, a belief system so self-evidently ridiculous that it has never interested me in the slightest.
Perhaps the funniest part of Evans’s book is reserved for his prosecution of Mr Cyril Hoskins, perhaps more widely known as T. Lobsang Rampa, author of The Third Eye and one or two other mystical pot-boilers.
Richard Feynman – The Meaning Of It All
This book, which holds so much promise yet, sadly and unfathomably fails to deliver, comprises three transcribed lectures delivered at the University of Washington in 1963. The first two of these lectures were obviously carefully planned, and although they fall far below Feyman’s best orations (in my opinion) they have structure, are fairly compelling, and arrive at a point. Regrettably, the third lecture was, by Feynman’s own admission (p. 61; page numbers refer to the Basic Books edition), poorly planned. Perhaps he thought he could wing it; he was, after all, an extremely clever man. But not that clever. To be blunt, and this man is one of my personal heros so it grieves me to say so, Feynman rambles on like an old sot.
One or two themes emerge from the mess, though the reader has to construct them, because Feynman does not. One nugget is the advice that it is not sufficient merely to demonstrate that an idea is possible. So many things are possible, but most of them are not true. What matters is whether the idea is likely. Is it sufficiently likely to be worth worth further consideration? And, in the case of flying saucers and whatnot, of course, the answer is ‘no’.
And the great man has some insights to offer regarding science and scientists, some of which, I suspect, would come as quite a shock to the suits who hold dominion over my colleagues and me; we who beaver away in our Crown Research Institutes….
p. 9: “The work is not done for the sake of an application. It is done for the excitement of what is found out. Perhaps most of you know this. But to those of you who do not know it, it is almost impossible for me to convey in a lecture this important aspect, this exciting part, the real reason for science. And without understanding this you miss the whole point. You cannot understand science and its relation to anything unless you understand and appreciate the great adventure of our time. You do not live in your time unless you understand that this is a tremendous adventure and a wild and exciting thing.”
p. 57: “No government has the right to decide on the truth of scientific principles, nor to prescribe in any way the character of the questions investigated. Neither may a government determine the aesthetic value of artistic creations, nor limit the forms of literary or artistic expression. Nor should it pronounce on the validity of economic, historic, religious, or philosophical doctrines. Instead it has a duty to its citizens to maintain the freedom, to let those citizens contribute to the further adventure and the development of the human race.”
Stuart Ritchie – Science Fictions
Science Fictions begins, fabulously, with the description of some very poor science (and one outright fraud, though I do not see that as especially relevant) and how its astounding result was overturned by better science. But despite usefully pointing out numerous pitfalls awaiting the unwary, Ritchie’s portrayal of science as a discipline in crisis – “a deep corruption within science itself” – is completely unhinged.
In fact, Ritchie demonstrates an embarrassingly poor understanding of what science is even about with this flatulence from near the very beginning of the book (around page 9; I’m reading the Kindle version, so cannot give an accurate page reference): “It’s naïve to hope that every single scientific study will be true – that is, a report of ironclad facts that will never be overturned in future research.” My god! No science is ever like that, and every scientist knows it. It is not even supposed to be like that. He continues: “All we can hope for is that our scientific studies are trustworthy – that they honestly report what occurred in the research. If the much-vaunted peer-review process can’t justify that trust, science loses one of its most basic and most desirable qualities, along with its ability to do what it does best….” What claptrap. Ritchie seemingly fails to comprehend that peer-review is simply a means to an end, and not even a very admirable end – to cull out the worst rubbish because none of us has enough time to read everything – and is most certainly not a “load-bearing” brick in the edifice of science; nor even a very important one. Neither Newton nor Darwin (nor, I suspect, Einstein) ever had to worry about peer-review, yet their contributions were Science with a capital ‘S’! Given the increasing ubiquity of preprint servers, I suspect the next generation of scientists may not need to lose much sleep over it, either.
As an aside, Ritchie goes on to say “I come to praise science; not to bury it….” The grandeur is strong in this one, young Skywalker.
Before going on, however, I should probably divulge a prejudice of my own: Ritchie is a psychologist, and even on my most generous days (rare events) I would barely entertain psychology as a science at all. I suspect the great majority of it is sheer voodoo, to be brutally honest. So, with that on the table, let’s move on.
But, in the words of Bernie Taupin, then again, no.
I was trying, really trying, to re-read this book, in the interests of fairly representing it in a review, but the didactic, sanctimonious lecturing just got on my tits. I couldn’t get much past the first handful of chapters, and then only by skimming. I read the thing once, but couldn’t stomach it a second time.
Fortunately, I do not have to: David Hand, in his excellent book Dark Data (2020, Princeton) demolishes Ritchie’s psychobabble far more eloquently than I could, and is worth quoting at length:
“These sorts of conclusions certainly seem alarming, but we must never forget that science is a winnowing process. Many of the critics seem to have an idealized child’s view of science, in which an experiment is a one-off exercise which seeks to ‘prove’ or ‘disprove’ the existence of some phenomenon. Science is more complicated than that. And it has to be so. By definition, scientific research takes place at the boundaries of knowledge, where uncertainty dominates. Because researchers are trying to separate a tiny signal from a mass of noise, it is only to be expected that often the noise will tip things in the wrong direction. Indeed, we might go further and say that if we did not see experimental results which failed the reproducibility test, then scientists would not be doing their job. They would not be adventurous or creative enough in testing the boundaries of understanding.
A couple of paragraphs further on, Hand coins a wonderful aphorism, which I’ll paraphrase as: things which might be considered “failures” by engineers, are just “results” in science.
Look, we all know that publishers are motivated by the need to turn a buck; they don’t really care about science. We all know that government funding agencies are in thrall to bureaucratic agendas, and that any pretense to conducting fundamental research outside of the university system has been sclerotic for the past couple of decades; that even writers in Nature say stupid things like growth in US federal research funding “must come with shifts in priorities [giving] higher priority to achieving national policy goals, beyond fundamental scientific knowledge” (Nature 587: 547), and on and on.
Hiding among all of Ritchie’s histrionic exaggeration – no doubt intended to sell the book, but at what cost? – there are one or two truths. Nothing we scientists don’t already know, but uncomfortable enough that we tend not to discuss them over dinner. Meh.
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