Friday, June 29, 2012

The City and the City - China Mieville

This story is very nearly a totally ordinary murder mystery, but the author is China Mieville, so obviously it can't be just straight-up fiction, and yet there is no magic in these twin cities - neither in Beszel or Ul Qoma. It is hard to imagine how this situation came to be, two cities physically overlapping one another, with the inhabitants of each hard at work ignoring the city they don't belong in. At first it seems that there must be some sort of magic involved, but there isn't - just the power of belief.

Tyador Borlu is a cop with a dead body on his hands. He's trying to figure out who she is, why she was killed, and who killed her. In order to do so, he winds up moving between his home city, Beszel, and the city of Ul Qoma which exist in the same physical space, but occupy very different psychological spaces. We see the world through Tyador's eyes, which makes things interesting, especially when he interacts with foreigners who mostly find it impossible to "unsee" the city they are not supposed to be seeing. Clearly the existence of two separate cities is just a trick of the mind, and yet it works - the inhabitants of these cities act as though they live in physically separate places. Each city has its own transit system, a slum in one city can coexist with a very nice neighbourhood in the other, people make international phone calls to the house just up the street. It makes absolutely no sense, and yet this is a communal fiction with a total buy-in from the locals. It helps that breaking these rules and "seeing" the city you aren't supposed to be in is a crime, policed by the mysterious "Breach". Possibly there is magic involved there, but it isn't explicit.

As far as murder mysteries go, there's nothing incredible going on here, but this particular crime and the scene are inextricably intertwined. The setting is fascinating and weird, and Mieville really plays the reader's attempt to immerse themselves in the setting, and accept its bizarre rules as fact, against them when it comes to figuring out the mystery. I really enjoyed this, but I'm not nearly as enthralled as I was by The Scar. Still, I would recommend it to anyone who likes a good mystery and can cope with a very non-standard setting - or equally to anyone who enjoys SF...even though it really isn't SF or fantasy - it just requires the same reading protocols.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Scar - China Mieville

This is the second book set in the world of Bas-Lag. While it comes after Perdido Street Station, it isn't exactly a sequel. Having an understanding of what the city of New Crobuzon is like helps a bit, but certainly isn't necessary.

The Scar is the story of Bellis Coldwine who has had to leave New Crobuzon following the events chronicled in Perdido Street Station (although she knows less about what actually happened there than you do if you've read the book). She didn't want to leave, and is deeply resentful of the events which have forced her to go, and of the places she is now forced to be. Bellis is an interesting character, hard to like at first, she is very cold and resentful, although it is easy to sympathize with her frustration at her current circumstances.

I think this may be my favorite Mieville story so far. The city of Armada is possibly the coolest city ever, and the world of Bas-Lag is totally fascinating. You get to find out so much more about the world than in Perdido Street Station. Mieville's in-cluing isn't nearly a subtle as some, but it is very well done. The characters themselves are wandering through a world which they don't fully understand, but simply have to accept and cope with, and the lack of upfront explanations for things forces the reader into this same mindset, which is really helpful when it comes to trying to understand a character like Bellis who is very cold and resists becoming involved with her new environment.

Armada is a floating city composed of hundreds of boats tied together. It travels, although very slowly, and is essentially a pirate economy. No one outside of Armada knows that it exists, and the Armadans work very hard to keep it this way. It has a really fascinating political structure with different individuals or groups in charge of policing the various regions of the city. I can't really imagine something like this working in reality. The effects of a large storm would probably be more severe than what's described in the story, and I can't imagine the boats themselves would be as structurally sound as they would have to be...but it is certainly plausible, and definitely interesting enough for me to happily ignore the fact that it probably shouldn't work.

Armada itself was my favorite bit, but there were so many other awesome bits too. The mosquito-people, the crazy library, the Ghosthead empire, the possible sword, the Lovers, Uther Doul. Every other page there was a fascinating new thing to think about, and the story unfolding as Bellis copes with life in Armada and her desperate desire to go home. The setting is almost better than the story...the story is just a scaffolding to hang all of the beautiful bits of scenery and background and character onto. Yet for all of that the story itself works too - it certainly doesn't detract from the scenery.

Overall, a ton of fun to read and definitely worth re-reading.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Embassytown - China Mieville

I'm on a bit of a China Mieville kick at the moment, having re-read Perdido Street Station recently. There was an interview with Mieville on BoingBoing recently and this bit really caught my attention:

Tom: Do you have a favourite among your books?
China: It will sound like a hedge, because generally I think my answer oscillates between three—can you oscillate between three things?—anyway, it does that. As a quick and dirty answer, the book that I think is probably the most seamless, the one that I think works best in its own terms, is The City and the City. The one that I think is in some ways the most ambitious, and that I've worked at the hardest over the longest time, is probably Embassytown. But the one that feels most kind of like an unmediated expression of my core, and that means the most to me for all its flaws, is Iron Council.

I don't know why I enjoy hearing an author's opinion of his own work so much, but hearing that this book was hard to write and then reading is pretty hard to read too! Just wrapping my mind around what was going on and the aliens involved took effort. I can't actually imagine writing this, let alone coming up with the concept.

It contains aliens who do not think like humans, and thus find it almost impossible to communicate with humans. In fact, it isn't clear that anyone is actually communicating what they think they are communicating, but they have some sort of a system which appears to work ok. The only other place I've seen this is C.J.Cherryh's Chanur series where there are a couple species of aliens - methane breathers - who have a lot of trouble communicating with the oxygen breathers, but they've managed just barely enough to put together some safety regulations and avoid huge incidents, but not quite enough that anyone is really comfortable. Coming up with alien modes of communication, and then trying to get the concept across to the reader when the reader should clearly be unable to communicate with one of these is difficult.

Then there is Avice, the main character, who is also a simile in the 'language' spoken by the Ariekei. They speak only truth, and so when they want to say "this is like the girl in the room who ate what was given to her", they needed a girl to sit in a room and eat what was given to her, so they paid her to perform this little scenario so that they could then refer to it. Utterly bizarre. Anyway all of this means that they cannot lie, but they are fascinated by lies and lying because of the odd mental dissonance it produces for them. Avice is a good character. She grew up in Embassytown, and then left on a spaceship, and is pretty much the only person ever to come back. She isn't back because she wants to be, she's back because her husband is a linguist and is fascinated by the Ariekei. So she doesn't quite fit in with any particular group in Embassytown, and seeing through her eyes lets us see all the different aspects of the Embassytown economy.

The story is fascinating and weird. It was really interesting, but I didn't really engage with the main character. Possibly because she didn't really want to be there? She was trying to feel aloof for most of the story, which made things difficult for me. Towards the end she really starts to care about Embassytown and its future, and at that point I really started to care about which point the book was basically over. Overall a very interesting book, but I'm not sure I would bother to read it again.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars - Steven Brust

Jo Walton's review over on really says it all.

This is the story of a young painter, Greg, who rents a studio with 4 other artists. They've been at this for 3 years, and none of them are earning a living from their art yet, they've mostly run through all their savings and are trying to figure out what to do next - throw in the towel or try to scrape together enough money to put on a show. Interspersed is the Hungarian fairy tale which Greg is telling them in installments, about a Hungarian Taltos who needs to find the sun, the moon, and the stars and put them in the sky so that there will be light. It is an old fairy tale, full of things which make no sense and I struggled with it. The story of Greg and his painting, and the other artists in the studio...was wonderful.

My favorite bit was definitely reading about the process of painting the monster painting which Greg is working on. I feel as though I learned quite a lot about art in the process, and I now want to go hang out in an art gallery for a while and read up on art history. The thing which I think could have been a lot of fun, but I don't have the background to appreciate: all the chapter titles were names of famous paintings (I think), and they may have been related to things going on in the story. So it might be fun to read through it again while reading up on all the title paintings.

I'm still pretty frustrated by the fact that I can't make any connections between the fairy tale and the story. Jo Walton suggests that the figures in the painting (Uranus, Artemis & Apollo) represent the sun, the moon, and the stars...but I'm not quite seeing how that works. And even if it does work, I still don't see enough connections to make the fairy tale work for me. On the other hand, the rest of the story was rather fascinating.

The Windup Girl - Paolo Bacigalupi

This book has gotten some awesome reviews, but what made me really really want to read it was the Big Idea piece written by the author himself. The review over on BoingBoing didn't hurt either.

The thing which fascinated me most, and made the book a little hard to read, was the absence of a 'good-guy'. Anderson Lake is a calorie man living undercover in Thailand, and he wants to get his hands on Thailand's seed bank - purely for his own profit. Hock Seng is a Malaysian Chinese whose entire family was killed during the uprisings in Malaysia and is now scraping an existence in Thailand, where the 'yellow-card' Chinese are not allowed to take most jobs. He is lucky and happens to be employed by Lake, but he doesn't actually like Lake and is actively trying to steal the plans for the factory, as well as skimming as much cash off the top as he can. So he's sort of sympathetic, but he's been hurt so badly that he really is just out for himself. Then there is Emiko, the wind-up girl. She is a genetically engineered 'New Person' who has been abandoned by her Japanese owner in Thailand where the temperature is causing her physical problems, and the permits which keep her from being mulched are so expensive that she is basically being tortured by her employer and has absolutely no recourse or even hope for the future. She initially seems sympathetic, but is driven by her situation into actions which are not 'good'. Then there's Jaidee - the Tiger of Bangkok - who is definitely a good-guy, he's on the side of Thailand and against the calorie monopolies, but he is a fighter and his actions often seem terrible to the people he is ultimately defending, and then he winds up dead and it becomes clear that his second-in-command isn't quite on the right side.

So it is hard to find a character to sympathize with. By the time I got fairly close to the end there wasn't anyone I was rooting for - they were all fighting so hard for their own survival, but it was really hard to see how anything good could possibly come out of the whole mess. Honestly the only 'character' you can possibly be rooting for is Thailand itself. It has managed to keep itself afloat thus far, but destruction looms. There was no 'right' ending looming on the horizon. Everything seemed like a potential disaster, but somehow Bacigalupi pulled out a very reasonable ending which actually left a decent amount of hope for the future, both of the country and of some of the more sympathetic characters.

Overall I'm really glad I finally got around to reading this and I would highly recommend it to anyone - but it isn't a feel-good book. It is a fascinating book full of interesting ideas and a fairly terrifying view of the future.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Unremembered - Peter Orullian

I was really looking forward to this, and really wanted to love it, but getting all the way through was a real struggle. I had read the short story "Sacrifice of the first Sheason" which I thought was intriguing, and then I read the author's description of the book and what he was trying to accomplish: , which also sounded great. Then I got my hands on the actual book, and while the story isn't bad, there were just too many little things which drove me completely crazy.

First off, it isn't at all clear what is going on. Which is fine, these sorts of stories you expect to unfold gradually, but it kept getting to a point where it seemed like we were going to have a bit of a reveal...and then nothing. The main character, Tahn, is just being dragged along by the Sheason, Vendanj, and we really have no idea what makes Tahn special. Except that he's got this weird gap in his memory, and there's something strange which happens when he fires his bow. Fine. There's something going on, if he actually knew what it was he'd be too scared to continue...really? He does a whole pile of really stupid stuff, jumping in and getting involved in other people's problems - he's a teenage boy who doesn't seem to have any fear of consequences at all, so I don't buy that things are too scary to explain to him.

Then there's Mira. She's a Far, and they only live until they turn 18. While some of the Far have more than 1 child (Mira has a sister), it is apparent from the story that not every Far has a child, and they all die by age 18. I'm seeing some problems here. Also, any culture where the parents all die before their kids hit age 10? You're going to have communal child-care. None of this kids getting fostered by some other woman...that woman needs to be having her own babies, and lots of them, not spending her energy raising someone else's children. This social structure just doesn't work, and even if there are bits that haven't been explained which could make it work, I cannot fathom any explanation that has a female of child-bearing age running around as a warrior.

Finally, the thing which bugged me the most was the language. I get that you want to use cool new terms for lots of things, and that you're trying to do interesting things with the language. Some authors manage to do fabulous stuff, usually by stealing from actual languages, but there are books like Clockwork Orange which do incredible things with language. Changing breakfast to endfast? That was just annoying. Calling your nasty monsters the "Quietgiven" and then referring to them as "Given"? Made me totally stumble. Having your characters use nicknames for one another is also great, especially when they're the slightly derogatory type that teenage boys come up with for one another, and when you're trying to emphasize that they're only boys and not actually men yet (really? did you really need to come up with a special word for teenager? I will grant that it is important to the story...but really?), but you need to do a better job of introducing the nickname. Like having it initially used in dialogue instead of during a chunk of narrative (which is from the POV of the person using the nickname, so it is just internal dialogue, but when the nickname is a common English word...just added to the overall confusion). Mixed in with the language was the interactions between the characters - the tones they use with one another were often at odds with the relationship between them. Like a reverential tone being used in reference to someone very young and inexperienced, regarding something fairly inconsequential.

So, I struggled through all of this, because I had enjoyed the short story so much, and really wanted to find out what was going on. There's some cool musical magic which wanted more elaboration. The Sheason's abilities are really interesting. The political situation is also pretty cool. But the story just isn't doing it for me. This little group has been dragged all the way to the edge of the earth so that Tahn can have a particular experience and become someone who will actually be able to stop the Quietgiven, but it just fell flat. They succeeded, but I'm still not seeing that they've substantially improved the situation. And the bit where he screws up and saves Mira - really? Was that really the best you could do? Surely there was a better way to set that particular bit up.

I'm just frustrated by this whole book. I want to love it. I want to read the whole series, but it is just way too long for something with this many flaws. I like Orullian's writing style, but there are just too many little things which jolt me out of the story, or make me have to stop and try to figure out what the heck is going on (like that little scene on the riverboat...they're gambling...with lives? experiences? that was just weird). So often I can see what he's trying to do, and it is awesome. There are tons of truly fabulous ideas here, so incredibly much potential, and yet it just isn't working. I suspect I will keep an eye on him, because these are all just things that should improve with time and experience.