Rocannon’s World is another Ursula K Le Guin paperback (I told you I recently bought a trove of these things). This one is a science fiction story about Rocannon, a high tech surveyor of planets and cultures, who gets trapped on a primitive world when the high tech enemy destroys his ship and crew. He and some stalwart companions must voyage across half the planet to find the enemy’s faster than light radio to get a message out to his allies. So yeah, it sounds like a basic colonial quest narrative.
What I loved about it was the long prologue, which is about a princess from one of the poor scrabbling cultures who travels to the stars to reclaim a treasure the colonialists stole from her ancestors. When she returns with the jewel, the vagaries of lightspeed travel mean that it was all for nothing and everyone she loves is dead. I love this because it puts the reader first in the head of the people who live on this world, and what their concerns are, before moving to the great scientific hero who must lead the primitives to save them from themselves.
Also, the quest is much more of a fantasy story than a technological one. Rocannon has an impermeable suit of protection, but he carries no weapons. At one point he is burned at the stake for days because his captors don’t understand it and think him magical, but he wins that confrontation by standing without water for that time, which is killing him just as surely (though slower).
The climax is a little anticlimactic, but I liked the book as a whole.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven is an awesome bit of science fiction. There’s a man named Orr who sometimes changes reality in his dreams. No one else knows that anything has happened, but the guilt over the responsibility of shifting reality is too much for him, so he does too many drugs to stop sleeping, is caught and put into therapy. This is in the first few chapters. Then it gets interesting.
His therapist has a machine that makes Orr’s dreaming more regularized and controllable and then starts using him to radically reshape the world to better fit his idea of what would be better.
It’s an amazing Dickian conceit but less madly written. I don’t know how I’ve missed reading this for so long. I found a trove of Le Guin paperbacks at a recent used book sale so I’m hoping to find a few more such gems in the heap (and am not reading anything about any of them ahead of time).
I was a little disappointed in Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City. It was a bit too aimless for me to really get into, and not weird enough for me to appreciate on those merits. It’s also so specifically about upper-class New York City, I couldn’t really connect to it.
It’s the story of Chase Insteadman, a former child star in a weird New York, where fog enshrouds everything beyond some street and a giant tiger is on the loose tearing up the subway. Insteadman has a fiancee astronaut who’s dying in space and he hangs out with Perkus Tooth, a former film critic, and smokes a lot of weed.
It wasn’t bad, but nothing about the book really got into my head or my guts. I feel like it might reward rereading, but I didn’t like it enough to really want to put in the effort.
The Farthest Shore is the conclusion to Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy (which was added to later). Sparrowhawk/Ged is now the archmage and he’s approached by a young prince who says magic is weakening. The two of them go on a quest to discover the truth of what is happening and set it right.
I love these beautiful little books. I think there’s something magnificent about these worlds that are conjured through these character studies hanging on bits of plot. I mean, the Kingkiller chronicle is great, but this series scratches a similar itch for the epic grand coming-of-age story without the length. Like the epic nature of these tiny paperbacks is folded in on itself, they feel so much bigger because they’re the length of a Robert Jordan prologue. It’s just great, and if you have any interest in fantasy literature there is no reason to not read it.
Neptune’s Brood is a great space opera about interstellar banking by Charles Stross. Seriously great.
The protagonist, Krina Alizond, is a banking historian who now that she’s worked her way out of her indentured servitude to the hugely wealthy intelligence that created her, is into Ponzi schemes and especially how they play out over huge distances and slower than light travel. There are tonnes of digressions into the history of banking and how to set up a colony around another star when you can only travel at a percent of the speed of light and building a ship to do that is planetary economy expensive. The solution is debt and repayment over the long long term.
Alizond, is also interested in what happened to her sibling (who was also forked off of the same hugely wealthy being) on a distant world so she’s going there by hitching a ride working on a chapel-ship dedicated to the Fragile (ie humans who have not been upgraded to actually function in space and over the timescales one needs to be thinking in if you want to make a difference in a huge uncaring universe). There are banking privateers and mermaids and queens and a (really boring) space battle. It’s set in the same universe as Saturn’s Children, but I haven’t read that one and it did not matter at all.
Definitely one of my favourite books of the year, and it even includes an epigraph from David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years (one of my favourite nonfiction books). If you like thinking about how things could be if they were different, this is a book you should read. We have science fiction basically so books like this can be made.
I was disappointed with Michael Murphy’s A Description of the Blazing World. The back blurb suggested a surreal story drawing ties between mysterious postcards, choose your own adventure books, the first science fiction novel and the big 2003 blackout in Ontario. The book had all those elements but it didn’t combine them in the way that I hoped.
There’s a man who gets obsessed with two people who have the same name as him, but his part of the story is creepy and he’s unsympathetic. The story of the teenage boy sent to live with his brother for a couple of weeks where he finds a mysterious copy of a book that has clues to his disappeared father is just annoying. I think the big problem is that neither of the main characters have any insight into anything. They just do things you as a reader can tell are bad ideas. It’s all a bit pointless and in the end it all gets laid out very clearly what happened.
Finally, on the craft side of things, I must be spoiled by Ryan North, but if you’re making Choose Your Own Adventure stories part of your novel and you present choices (with page numbers) in the context of the story, it is disappointing to the extreme that there’s nothing at the pages you choose to turn to.
This is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death is a collection of short stories about people who know how they will die as predicted by a Machine. It is, of course, a sequel anthology to Machine of Death (in which I had a story).
Matthew Bennardo, Ryan North and David Malki ! have put together a great collection of stories. As is usual with an anthology some are more to my taste than others. I quite enjoyed the stories that played with the idea of “unkillable” people (who’d all have cancer or something non-violent) and putting them into badass commando roles. My favourite of these was probably Tom Francis’ “Lazarus Fission Reactor Sequence” which also combined some office comedy as part of being a henchman for a supervillain in there too, but the grim science fictiony “Not Applicable” by Kyle Schoenfeld was also pretty great.
Rhiannon Kelly’s “Natural Causes” was my favourite of the more “realistic” stories because of how it dealt with small-town issues of appearances and conformity. And Ryan North’s “Cancer” laid down some real science and feelings.
So yes, this book did feel a bit more diverse than the first one. The stories covered a wider range of settings and people were definitely playing with some more meta-ish concepts surrounding the Machine. You should totally read it. (And if you participated in the Summer 2013 Humble Ebook Bundle you probably have a copy of the first volume to whet your appetite, so go read it first!)
The Wise Man’s Fear is the sequel to Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. It remains a solid fantasy story, though it feels a bit more generic as it goes along. Kvothe hunts bandits and goes to the faerie realm and becomes a badass fighter in an exotic school with different cultural norms around sec, along with his magickal university exploits. There’s not much crazily new to this story compared to any other high fantasy kind of thing based on someone’s D&D campaign.
But Rothfuss just writes it all really well. The dialogue is great. The situations are more realistic and well-detailed versions of things you see in lesser books. I’ve gotten a little frustrated with the breakneck pace of how much has happened in three years of Kvothe’s life, but whatever. You don’t read a fantasy novel for its boring people I guess.
So I kind of hated George Alec Effinger’s Those Gentle Voices, even though I liked one of the things it was doing. I really expected more because I loved his Marid Audran series. My main problem with it was that the first two chunks of the book set it up as a serious book of space exploration and possible first contact with alien life, then once the astronaut scientists arrived at the planet they were looking for they behaved like six-year-olds without proper supervision.
If it had been set up like a Stanislaw Lem story (especially something like the Trurl and Klapaucius stories in The Cyberiad) the completely stupid lack of planning for a first contact mission wouldn’t have bothered me nearly so much. The “scientists” set themselves up as god-kings on this planet on which culture evolves ridiculously quickly and they have insane amounts of material resources apparently. If it was being told more like a fairy tale, fine, but set up as science fiction it was constantly breaking my sense of disbelief.
What I did like is the structural thing where the book started with PART TWO, then things proceeded normally, until you reached the final section which was PART ONE and totally explained some of the oddities that started the book off. (Also, this was the first book I remember reading where there was a librarian character who is just antagonized by a protagonist for no reason and with no resolution, so that might have affected my judgment.)
Part of that is because of its small scale. There’s an author whose father has died and on his visit home for the funeral he stops by a neighbour’s farm. This prompts recollection of the story of the opal miner who was their lodger when he was seven, which is a story he’d forgotten. The story involves a creature giving people money and seducing his father so that he will never be able to get help.
I liked the story, it was beautiful and Gaimany. I kind of feel bad for saying it but I’d hoped for something more substantial.