book review: green mars

Green Mars is the sequel to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars. They’re books about Mars! Green Mars was good in its discussion of how a new world trying to become free might act. The politics between the various factions in play on the planet feel much more realistic than something in which people rise up in a monolithic block. So for its depictions of politics, I like the book.

What I don’t like is how distant I felt from everything. Part of that comes from the varying POV characters, but a huge part of it is the timescale the book covers. See, in the first book they also invented a life-extension treatment for humans that basically means they won’t die from natural causes. It means that the characters in this book are mostly members of the first 100 on Mars and by the end they’re well into their second centuries of life. Even the kids we meet at the beginning of this book are 70 by the end. I found connecting with these characters hard when we’d gloss over so much of their lives with “and then she spent a decade working on aquifers.”

I get that terraforming is a long process and as a writer you want to keep your characters in the mix, but I’m more interested in what someone who only had twenty years might have to contribute. The longevity thing is the disruptive technology in this book much more than the terraforming is. It makes it more alien and science fictional which is good, but I think I’d settle for a smaller scale story that made more of a connection with the characters.

Desolation Road remains my gold standard for Mars novels even though it has a bit more “indistinguishable from magic” style technology.

book review: the four fingers of death

Rick Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death is an odd kind of book for me. I really like the idea behind it (a “literary novelization of the 2020s remake of a 1960s B-Movie”). The construction of the framing story plus the Mission to Mars story that never shows up in the film being adapted is very neat. I like the future world Moody’s depicting, with its increasingly irrelevant NAFTA-bloc being overshadowed by Sino-Indian concerns so they’re trying to do these grand space gestures to delay the inevitable end of American hegemony.

But man, I hated reading this book.

The problem is basically that every scene goes on and on. Pages and pages are spewed out conveying nothing. I care about the one-sentence summaries of these characters, but the endless pontificating and monologuing that never actually help illuminate the characters or the situations made this thing a slog and a half. There were good bits and ideas and scenes (especially in the introduction and afterword), but they were buried in all this extra crap.

It’s funny because the narrator of the story is introduced as a baseball-card collector and writer whose grand contributions to literature are these stories that are 1 sentence long. So it’s funny to have the book be a monument to prolixity. But not funny enough to keep me from heaving a sigh of relief when it was done.

The whole thing made me miss Kurt Vonnegut, which was conscious on Moody’s part. But Vonnegut wouldn’t have taken 700 pages to do this book.

book review: red mars

Photo Credit: Mars, once by kevin dooley, on Flickr shared under a cc-by-2.0 license

I’m one of those people who loves a good frontier story. The idea of going somewhere new and pushing the edges of what the people you know have seen appeals to me. I’ve also heard that idea being described as a Western-centric colonialist/racist perspective so yeah, there are problematic issues there. But the beauty of science fiction is getting to do some of that bold infinitive splitting in places where there are not cultures to feel superior to. Which brings us to Mars.

I love a good Mars story. Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road, and Kage Baker’s The Empress of Mars are the two I can see on my shelves, but I’ve got my own Douglas Quaid thing going. Which makes it weird I’d never read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. I have now begun.

The first novel, Red Mars, begins with a murder once a colony on Mars has been established, then it jumps back in time to show us the trip from Earth and the training the First Hundred went through, then the work of starting a colony and the politics of science. Eventually the story takes us past the opening murder into greater politics and dust-storms and mysticism. The whole book spans decades (they also develop longevity treatments on Mars, while Earth is tearing itself down in overpopulated war).

We read about these decades through the perspectives of a bunch of the first settlers, and their perspectives are all very different. What I really liked about the book was that the political choices were real and taken seriously and not very much was solved easily. Getting into these characters’ heads made a difference and it was very clear how few villains there were, just people trying to make life work in a cold harsh place.

One of the things I found disorienting was some of the 1990sishness of it. There was still an assumption that in the 2040s the important nations would be the Americans and the Russians. There’s literally one Asian person in the first 100 colonists, and she becomes a mystic orgy saint pretty quickly. Hm. Maybe that’s not such a typical ’90s thing. There’s definitely a bunch of otherization going on with the Sufis and Bedouin that feature in parts of the story, which does get in the way of some of my pure enjoyment (this is a problem that Ian McDonald’s Mars books don’t have, FYI).

The science in the book was intriguing. Robinson really delved into what it would take to make Mars habitable and how that changes the unspoiled nature of a lifeless rock. That geology (sorry, areology) has purpose beyond being fit for people and commercial interests.

Very good book, though I’ll wait a while to read the next ones. I like to make this kind of story last.

book review: terminal world

Terminal World is another one of these Alastair Reynolds books that reminds me why I read him sporadically. There are neat science fictiony adventurous ideas in his books but the writing makes me clench my teeth. No one behaves in a neurotypical fashion: everyone’s dialogue is clichés or exposition-speak. It feels more like the transcription of a bunch of socially-awkward 14-year-olds role-playing. Which is a shame because the plot and setting would be pretty spiffy if it was described by someone with a bit of flair for language.

It’s thousands of years in the future, on what appears to be Mars, even though everyone calls it Earth (I think that’s supposed to be clever, to show that they’ve forgotten they were once colonists). In the giant spire city of Spearpoint there are different zones of technology, from the Celestial levels where the angels who can fly and are filled with nanotech live, down to Neon Heights and Horse Town. These zones aren’t just stylistic; the rules of physics are different in each zone, making the technology from a higher zone cease to function in lower ones. It’s a pretty clever idea that gets developed as the story goes on, and is a good excuse for energy weapons and dirigibles to coexist.

Quillon is on the run from the angels so he’s heading out of Spearpoint for a while. He has a guide and they rescue a woman and child who will “change the world forever” (of course). There’s nothing really surprising that happens in the book. And the prose is boring. But it would make a pretty good RPG setting to play in.

book review: the empress of mars

I loved Kage Baker’s The Empress of Mars. It’s about a bunch of plucky frontier-people who’ve been abandoned by the British Ares Company on Mars to figure their own shit out since Mars is obviously not profitable. It’s a story of building community and fighting off higher powers, and the importance of beer and having a good lawyer.

These kinds of Mars as the frontier stories (see Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road for my absolute favourite) are really enjoyable to me. There’s a character in this story who’s filled with romantic ideals of cowboys and I feel pretty much exactly the same as him, but with spacesuits instead of horses.

book review: ocean

Ocean is a great little scifi story about a UN weapons inspector who heads out to Jupiter’s moon Europa because a scientific team there found a shitload of billion-year-old alien coffins. There’s another corporation out in orbit of Europa too and they’re interested in the weapon potential of these alien devices.

The book is full of good Warren Ellis dialogue between bitter cranky people trying to save the world. The evil corporation guys have all had personality replacements for the length of their contracts so they’re full on corporate drones, while the heroic real people make terrible food and talk about sex a lot. There are some cool ideas about weapons in space, a great fight sequence using manipulation of the space station’s gravity, and Ellis’ old-school rocket fixation (transferred to the main character) helps to save the day.

I really enjoyed the book and it’d make a great movie.

book review: the quantum thief

I loved Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief so much. It’s about a thief who gets broken out of an eternal Dilemma Prison (where you enact the Prisoner’s Dilemma with copies of yourself and the rest of the prisoners in adjoining virtual cells forever) in order to steal something very important on Mars. There is also a hotshot young detective being groomed by one of Mars’ vigilantes who thinks he’s working on a case about uploaded soul privates but the truth is much weirder.

The society on Mars is called the Oubliette and it’s all about privacy controls and the access people allow to others. The currency is time until the person’s soul is uploaded into one of the Quiet, the slave machines that keep the world functioning until they get reincarnated. The Oubliette is quite chicly primitive to some of the other cultures in the solar system and it’s all just amazing. The world-building around a cat and mouse detective story was amazing (and very reminiscent of The City & the City). The characters were rakish and severe and outrageous and ultra-competent and awesome.

I highly recommend it if you like China Mieville’s more science-fictiony things or Charles Stross or want to think a bit harder than you would with an Alastair Reynolds book.