Posted by Sari
This is more than a bit embarrasing, my reading diary is about two years out of date. There are roughly about a seventy books which I have read and not committed my opinion for the posterity to enjoy. How will they survive without my definitive and ground breaking analysis on these works?! To remedy the situation at least a bit, here are some.
Gregory Benford: Martian Race
In Benford’s Mars exploration novel, the nation states have concluded that the best way to get a manned Mars mission off the ground is to pool resources and offer a huge reward for anyone who completes the mission. Two privately funded missions are on or on their way to Mars, racing to fulfill the requirements to win the grand prize. Benford extrapolates what kind of media circus a privatly funded Mars mission could be, what kind of life could be sustained on Mars, and finally, the pros and cons of competition and co-operation in such extreme circumstances.
There is something very old school and sciency as opposed to fictiony about this book. Technologically, a manned Mars mission is within our reach, and though this novel has enough babble about trajectories and payloads, it is the social and economic aspects of a Mars mission that Benford is really interested in. The characters are rather bland - including Julia, the biologist who is the point of view character - and their relationships are rather one note affairs. Even the Martian life Julia finds is somehow subservient to the social extrapolation. It is the idea that matters, and the the end result is pretty much a fictionalised version of Zuber’s A Case for Mars. Which is not a bad thing, but because the fiction in this science fiction is rather thin, one is left with a feeling that reading Zuber would have been enough.
Lois McMasters Bujold: Diplomatic Immunity / Cryoburn (Spoilerish)
Bujold has again written a Vorkosiganverse novel to fill her contractual obligations to Baen. I am not sure if this is a good or a bad thing. Miles has already had a number of satisfying ends to his story arch, so each new novel seems to be a little forced in terms of the whole series.
I re-read Diplomatic Immunity as a quick comfort read earlier this year. In the novel Miles and Ekaterin are diverted from their belated galactic honeymoon to solve a diplomatic incident in quaddiespace and end up trying to stop a bombing at a space station and an interplanetary war with Cetaganda. It is a nice novel. It is nice to see the quaddiespace again, to find out how Bel is doing and the detective story is also quite deftly handled. But after the novels from Mirror Mirror to Civil Campaing it does feel bland, even though Miles gets himself ina fix that nearly costs him his life.
The same can be said about Cryoburn, though there Bujold's penchant to mix adventure with quite deft handling of more serious science fictional ideas is more evident than in the preceding novel. This time Miles who has evidently settled into his life as a husband, father and an imperial auditor is sent to the planet Kibou-daini to look into a cryofreeze corporation expanding their operations to Komarr. Again, as is usual for Bujold, the surface of the novel is a action/detective story, while the theme of the novel is something more fundamental to human experience: dying. And because this is science fiction, also immortality. Most of the punch of the book is at the end where the themes come together with a real bang. Unfortunately, the story itself just lacks something to make this work as well as the best books in the series.
A.M. Dellamonica: Indigo Springs
This Sunburst award winning novel is an intrusion fantasy of the same sort as some Sean Stuart’s work: magic is breaking into our world and the consequences are alarming to say the least. It is a novel told in flashbacks about how Astrid discovered magic which manifests as a fluid callec vitagua which can imbue people and objects with power. Astrid is imprisoned and tells her story to Will, whose family has left him to join a magical cult founded by Astrid's friend and hopeless love interes Sahara.
Indigo Springs is one of those books I wanted to like more than I actually liked. Its writing is economical, the worldbuilding excellent, and the characters believable. Even so, it just did not grab me, and the ending wich is left pretty open for the sequel sort of annoyed me.
Robert Charles Wilson: Julian Comstock
For some quite inexplicable reason I have been attracted to this novel since the first time I saw a picture of it. It was just the name: Julian Comstock. For some reason I wanted to read about Julian Comstock. Jukka was not as enthused as I was so I held out investing in the hardback, even though every time I visited Akateeminen I felt compelled to lift a copy up and just look at it. This, obviously was a way to set yourself up for a disapointment. How could the book be as intriguing as the idea of it I had built up in my head for nearly a year. And it wasn’t my imaginary book, obviously, how could it be, but it was something quite as good.
Julian Comstock is a story of a post-apocalyptic America in the 22th century. Oil has run out and resulted in a collapse of the modern North America. By the events of the book, slavery is back as indentured servitude, America is ruled by a life-long president, is at war in Labrador against Europe, and religious life is regulated by Dominion which oversees different churches and controls access to the information salvaged from the ruins of the once great cities. Julian Comstock is the nephew of the current president who had Julian’s father killed as a traitor when he was getting too popular. Julian’s life story and his rise to the presidency is narrated after the fact by his friend Adam Hazzard, a naïve country boy Julian befriends while exiled to west by his uncle.
There are lots of things I liked about Julian Comstock. The story pulls you in, the worldbuilding works, the historical references to our times, to ancient Rome and to Civil War era US all mash well with the postapocalyptic America. Wilson has also made his future one where race is an unmarked feature, and – like in LeGuin’s Earthsea – the realisation that many of the characters including Adam are in not white is a much needed jolt out of complacent reading habits. I also liked the ending of the book, predicated though it was by the mapping of Julian Comstock’s life over emperor Julian the Apostate.
However, there are problems in the book. The biggest is one that is typical for many speculative fiction writers, and it is that of focalisation. In Julian Comstock, the sole focaliser is our naïve and thus unreliable narrator Adam, as the novel is presented as his memoirs. It is a legitimate way of constructing a novel, but does not quite work here. The register slips when Wilson needs to give reader necessary pieces of information Adam should not know or, even more crucially, understand, and thus Adam's character does not remain consistent. This could be explained by the difference between a young naïve Adam to whom things happen, and old jaded Adam who is telling the story, but if that is what Wilson was aiming for, the structure fails to make it clear for the reader. For me the problem is even more annoying as this feels like a problem with craft not art – artificial as that dichotomy may be.
But even so, this, the first of this year’s Hugo nominee novels I have read, set the bar pretty high. It will be interesting to see how it stacks up with more lauded nominees, especially the co-winners Windup Girl and The City and the City.