Jun 30, 2010

The Windup Girl - Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi is a relatively new name in the genre, but obviously one to pay close attention to. His debut, The Windup Girl, won first the Nebula for best novel, and then - just a few days ago - the Locus for best debut novel. It is also a finalist for the Hugo, and in my personal opinion fully deserves to win.

The Windup Girl is a "biopunk" story, set in a world where Global Warming has raised the sea levels and Carbon fuel sources are almost depleted. Biotechnology is the dominant science, and its forerunners are the "Calorie Companies" - megacorporations that control most of the world through the iron grip of food production. No natural sources of food could survive the engineered plagues and pests that ravage the ecosystem, and only the Calorie Companies have the knowledge and resources to stay ahead of unstoppable mutations, various new strains and their rivals' newest bio-threats. To add insult to injury, most of those threats are deadly to humans as well, and so people live in constant fear of plague and starvation.

The story is set in the city of Bangkok in the Thai Kingdom - one of the last countries thriving without the help of the Calorie Companies whose representatives are forbidden to set foot on its soil. The Thai possess an unimaginable treasure - a seedbank holding specimens of the extinct natural flora - and the megacorporations want to get their hands on this genetic wealth. But the triumvirate running the Kingdom - the Somdet Chaopraya, regent of the Child Queen; General Pracha, head of the Environmental Ministry; and Akkarat, leader of the Trade Ministry - are holding the threats at bay.

Into this tapestry are woven the stories of five characters. Anderson Lake, an agent of one of the Calorie Companies, trying to find a way into the seedbank; Hock Seng, an illegal "yellow card" immigrant - survivor of the Malaysian purge of the ethnic Chinese - who works as Lake's secretary in the factory he uses for a cover; Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, the "Tiger of Bangkok", an idealist captain of the White Shirts (the enforcement wing of the Environmental Ministry), who becomes involved in the intrigues between General Pracha and Minister Akkarat; his lieutenant and protegee, Kanya, who is not what she seems to be. And the Windup Girl herself - Emiko - a Japanese "New People" construct, the product of a race that grows its soldiers, workers, secretaries and geishas in vats. Called "Windups" because of the tell-tale stutter-stop motions built in their genomes, the New People are the spine of Japanese economy. Bred to be the perfect secretary and companion, Emiko serves her master unquestioningly, her whole being designed to be submissive. But when it turns out that a ticket for her return trip to Japan would cost more than for her master to just buy a new secretary when he gets home, she is abandoned in Bangkok - a place where her very existence is an abomination, where she hasn't even got the right to live, and where her extremely smooth, almost pore-less skin leads to constant overheating. Her condition is exploited by a man named Rileigh, who uses her as entertainment in his brothel.

Their stories intertwine, while building tensions threaten to drown the city in a civil war between the warring factions of the government. Bacigalupi paints a picture of an irreparably damaged world that tries to get back on its feet while malicious forces strive to control the lives of billions with biotechnological monopoly. After the "Contraction", following the collapse of Western Civilization, the time has come for a new Expansion, and the Calorie Companies would direct it if given the chance. But evolution has taken a new course, and in this ever changing nightmarish reality the only ones who cling to the old order are the humans themselves.

The Windup Girl is a warning environmental tale of what could happen after the depletion of fossil fuels, and where development of bioengineering may lead us. Not all technologies are overly believable (the kink-springs for example take some disbelief suspending), and most characters give out mixed signals to say the least (when they aren't outright scheming opportunists), but somehow it all works in concert with the magnificent world-building, making Bacigalupi's debut novel a brilliant work of Science Fiction, and one that really deserves all the praise it's been getting.


Jun 29, 2010

Empire in Black and Gold (Shadows of the Apt, Book 1) - Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky is one of those names that everyone hears about these days, part of what I like to call the New Wave of Fantasy. His Shadows of the Apt series got a lot of praise both in the UK and the US, so I decided to give it a try.

The world Tchaikovsky paints is one where prehistoric giant insects threatened humanity with extinction. To escape that fate, humans developed a form of meditation that gave them physical and symbolical traits of the insects that surrounded them. Thousands of years later there are numerous human races called "kindens". Each kinden has the traits - or Art - of the insect they are connected to. Some of those traits are inborn, others - like flight or the ability to see in the dark - have to be achieved through meditation during childhood. Not everyone has the same abilities, and not everyone is equally strong with their Art.

For centuries the Elder races have ruled unopposed - the Moth-kinden mystics, their Mantis-kinden warrior servants; the subtle and manipulative Spider-kinden, and the graceful Dragonfly-kinden. But then, five hundred years prior to the story's beginning, the lesser kinden - the slaves of the Elders - started a rebellion. Both an industrial revolution and a renaissance, it freed those kinden from the yoke of their masters, but it also revealed another difference between the different races of the world. The Elder kinden turned out to be "Inapt" - incapable of comprehending the mechanics of even the simplest mechanism. Soon the new "Apt" kinden ruled unopposed, while the Moths and Mantids withdrew into secluded places, their old ways and mystical beliefs laughed at by the new masters of the world.

The story begins in the Lowlands, where city states thrive, bound by commerce and the occasional bickering. At the center of it all is the glorious city of Collegium - a place of learning and invention, of commerce and philosophy. But now a new force has risen in the west - the Empire of the Apt Wasp-kinden. They move like an unstoppable tide, using their deadly Art and engines of war, as well as the numerous enslaved races under their command. The Lowlands refuse to acknowledge this threat, preferring to pretend that life will go on as before, and even going so far as to supply the Wasps with weapons for their far-away wars. Only the Beetle artificer Stenwold Maker realizes the true nature of the invaders. After witnessing the fall of a Beetle city beyond the western border of the Lowlands, he starts to build an army of spies, while at the same time his warnings against the Wasp Empire fall on deaf ears.

It is now seventeen years after the battle of Mina. The Wasps are at the door of the Lowlands, but they come under the banner of peace and commerce. And Stenwold is not ready. What's worse, the Empire seems to have taken interest in him. And in the center of the intrigue, assassinations and conspiracies are thrust four students of the Great College - the Beetle-kinden Cheerwell (Che) Maker, Stenwold's niece; Salma, a Dragonfly-kinden prince from the faraway Commonweal; Totho - an Ant/Beetle halfbreed artifcer; and the Spider-kinden Tynisa - Stenwold's adopted daughter of mysterious origins. They have to rely on each other to escape the clutches of the Wasps and somehow prevent them from invading the Lowlands.

Empire in Black and Gold is a great sword and sorcery adventure set in a New Weird/Steampunk world that sometimes resembles Ancient Greece, and sometimes - classical pseudo-medieval fantasy. World-building is one of Tchaikovsky's strongest points. From the mechanical factories and forges of dirty crime-ridden Helleron to the shadowy streets of conquered Myna, to the mountaintop holds of the Moth-kinden, the world of The Shadows of the Apt is fleshed-out and intriguing, while still making it clear that we haven't seen even a tenth of it.

The race concept is also one of the best I've seen in years. Even though there isn't one non-human race in Tchaikovsky's world, it is still filled with humans more fantastic than any classical fantasy race. No elf could hold a candle to the shadow-dwelling Moth-kinden sorcerers, or their daylight brothers, the enchanting Butterfly-kinden. What's more, it is a world where it is normal for any human with a flying kindred-insect to be able to fly himself, even though Beetles are notoriously bad at it while the little Fly-kinden are the best fliers in the world. That makes for some pretty spectacular aerial battles in addition to the amazing ground action.

The characters are also very well thought out. Even if they are somewhat two-dimensional - with most of them you know where you stand from the beginning - there is a lot of thought put into their actions and behavior. I like imagining better versions of situations with intense dialogue - it's just the way I'm wired. It's not rare that an author makes their characters act or speak stupidly for the purpose of plot-movement. Not so here. I was really impressed when Che - a mousy little creature of middling talents for the most part - stood up to a Wasp officer interrogating her with the following (I rephrase obviously): "Why won't you just let it go and let me leave? I know nothing. I am just a student that has been thrust into something monstrous. What threat could I be to your Empire?" What's more, this conversation did have impact on the story later on. Kudos to Tchaikovsky for being able to make his characters behave convincingly without the story suffering for it!

What Empire in Black and Gold isn't so good at is the pacing of the story. It takes more than a hundred pages to actually get going, and then sort of stumbles in many directions at once, not really getting to the point until the very end. That is not to say the novel is boring. Even if we forget the amazing world-building, the book is still packed with action and adventure. It is just a bit aimless for a while, but I guess that's ok for the first of four parts.

I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Adrian Tchaikovsky's debut work. It's scope is vast, the world-building is of the first degree, the characters are likable and interesting. And what's even better - Empire in Black and Gold is considered to be the weakest in the series so far. Personally, I can't wait to get my hands on Dragonfly Falling.


Little Brother - Cory Doctorow

I put off reading Little Brother for some time. See, I have this subconscious aversion to the term "Young Adult". Which is weird, considering how I've loved almost all the YA books I've ever read, but there you have it.

Man, do I hate myself for waiting so long! Cory Doctorow's all-too-real dystopian vision of "security measures" gone wrong is one of the most gripping and compelling stories I've read this year. The story is set in an unspecified future a few years from now. Marcus Yallow is a 17-year old boy living in San Francisco. One day, while ditching school with his friends to look for a real-life clues from an on-line game, he becomes witness to a terrorist attack on the Bay Bridge. Being in the wrong place at the oh-so-wrong time, Marcus is nabbed by the Department of Homeland Security. A few smart-ass "I know my rights and I wanna know what I've been charged with" retorts on his part lead to a week of physical and mental torture, while the DHS extract all his little teen secrets from him just for the heck of it. After that he is released, together with two of his pals. The fourth - his best friend Darryl - remains missing.

In those few days the city has changed. It is now an Orwellian nightmare of surveillance, security checkpoints, tagging and random checks on the street by the forces of the DHS. Even broken and scared, Marcus still can't quell the fury and indignation he feels at this violation of his freedom and privacy. And after what has been done to him, the only course he sees is making them pay for it. And taking the country back from tyranny in the name of "security". Thus begins a story of a techno-revolution that is not dissimilar to the movements in the 60s.

What I loved about Little Brother was the feeling of urgency, the looming shadow of a reality that is rapidly turning into a Fascist nightmare. Also, the main character Marcus is one of the most believable teens I've seen in a novel in a long time. He is not idealized, but neither is he dumbed-down for stereotype's sake. He is a smart, socially aware boy who makes mistakes, feels fear and insecurity; he is vulnerable and cocky at the same time, he mouths off and gets into trouble. But his naivete is also a shield and a sword in the battle with a foe that any "mature" person would never even consider standing up against.

The level of techno-slang in Little Brother is just about right for someone like me who browses the net every day, but considers "hacking" to be something akin to VooDoo mysticism. I can't really say where the real slang ends and the imaginary technology begins, but Doctorow has made his book so believable, so real, that it doesn't matter. It all adds to the feeling of imminent danger, of a future that could very well be now.

What I didn't like about Little Brother was the amount of explanation. I realize the book is meant to be read by younger people, but even so the info-dumps are just a bit too much, and some of them are situated at points where the reader really expects the story to move. I don't mind a one-sentence explanation of a term or concept, but two pages of crypto-theory just puts a stopper on things.

This is a small problem though. All in all Little Brother is a great story of a techno-age rebellion, one that I really empathised with, and with a main character I thoroughly loved. It is a warning of what could very well already be happening, but it is also a promise: that when it all goes wrong, it won't be the Big, but the Little Brother - the Little Brothers - watching, and that they will never let it happen without a fight. And if we could believe that - well, then we are the Little Brothers.


Jun 28, 2010

Escape From Hell! - Hal Duncan

I am forced to admit to a terrible shame. I am yet to finish Hal Duncan's amazing Book of All Hours. I got stuck halfway through Ink and it still awaits my return to its impossible multiverse. That said, I loved Vellum and what I read from its sequel. It was just too much, too fast, and at the wrong time, but I have every intention of finishing it. I consider The Book of All Hours to be one of the very few truly unique and genius pieces of speculative literature out there.

Escape From Hell! is a completely different work. It is a small book, almost a novella, in which Duncan pays tribute to a very particular brand of B-movies. It is the ultimate "escape from..." story, in which four characters die and are sent to Hell - a demonic, twisted version of New York City. A hooker, killed by her pimp. A homosexual boy, beaten to death for his orientation (his name is Matthew btw). A hitman, done in by his competitors. A hobo suicide. They couldn't be more different and the places they find themselves in Hell have nothing in common. The hooker is locked into a cheap motel room, where a never-ending stream of Hell's brutal sadistic policemen come to use her as they please. The kid is sent into a "hospital", to be "cured" from his homosexuality. The hitman is constantly beaten and tortured in an underground facility, while the hobo becomes part of Hells homeless community, who are - literally - invisible, except for the special scanners of the police force that raids the streets mercilessly. But as the four of them manage to break away from their personal horrors, something draws them to each other and finally they decide to do the impossible. But the media quickly starts following their progress, and as every denizen of Hell focuses their attention on the escapees, the four find a secret, hidden in the bowels of the city - the reason for Hell's very existence.

Escape From Hell! is disarmingly camp and funny, but it is also bloody, vicious and somewhat disquieting. The blending of B-movie action scenes with character studies and the very real and complicated relationships between the four heroes of the story makes for a really interesting experience, and while the plot is ridiculous in its extremity, it is still intense and compelling. Hal Duncan - a fervent attacker of Christianity's hypocrisy (the way he perceives it) - does not shy from uncomfortable topics, and his book has some very interesting thoughts on the nature of faith, religion and dogmas.

Still, Escape From Hell! is by no means any sort of propaganda. It is a work of pulp art, elegantly executed, flamboyant, charming and disturbing. The characters are likable with all their flaws, and even though the story is short, I truly cared for them by the end. If you are into intentionally campy entertainment, this one is a must. Even if you aren't though, it still offers a lot more than many other "serious" books out there.


Eclipse - Stephenie Meyer

I am not a fan of bashing popular things. In my view, if something is really popular, there's a good reason for that, and even if it is by no means my reason (as is the case here for example), I'd at least give it the benefit of the doubt. I also like figuring stuff out for myself, so when the first Twilight movie was around the corner, I took a deep breath and jumped into the book itself. I was surprised at how "ok" it was. I was expecting either something way better, or something way worse. It wasn't until I learned more about the modern vampire branch of the Urban Fantasy genre that I realized that this series is obviously if not as good as it gets, then pretty darn good considering the competition.

All in all I enjoyed Twilight. Not enough to grab New Moon right after it, but enough to appreciate that there was a reason for the whole madness surrounding the series. Even if the book is not the best literature there is, it still somehow connects to you, makes you care about its characters and the world they live in. Still, I only read New Moon when that movie was around the corner, and even though it was a bit worse than the first one, it was still fine.

But then came Eclipse. In New Moon I had survived Bella's constant whining and spinelessness where her beloved vampire Edward was considered; it was somehow justified, since he had abandoned her and all. Not so in the third installment of Stephenie Meyer's series. There is a certain quality to Bella, which I like to call BLATANT SEXISM. Something one wouldn't expect from a woman author, but something one gets in abundance from Eclipse anyway. In one word - Bella acts like a cow. Easily distracted from what's important by her Edward staring at her, able to forgive him any transgression into her privacy and freedom, constantly reminding us how much she loves him and how she gets epileptic seizures whenever he's away from her... If it were a 300-page book, that would have been tolerable, considering that there's also a lot of world-building and action for a change. However, Eclipse is more than 600 pages long, and when you add lovestruck wolf-boy Jacob in the picture, constantly panting around Bella and asking her to choose him instead of Edward, the soap drama just gets way too effin' much!

See, the problem with this book is that it's about half as big as it should have been, and most of it is comprised of the main characters being annoying as hell. Too much attention is given to trivial details, and even though the plot is supposed to be about the newest plan of deranged vampire Victoria to kill Bella as a revenge for Edward killing her mate James in the first novel, you end up feeling that the most important parts are the ones where Bella whines about how she wants to be turned into a bloodsucker herself so that she can be with her love forever and ever and ever, and how she doesn't want to marry Edward even though she is willing to die for him, because - apparently - she doesn't want to be "that girl", whatever that means.

So, as much as I've been defending the Twilight series over the years, I have to say that Eclipse was plain bad. It just drones on and on, and if you are not a girl, imagining Rob Pattinson and Taylor Lautner shirtless while reading, it simply doesn't work. There is a decent world-building part, and the action scene in the end is by far the best in the series so far. And it still isn't enough to drown all the whining and lip-biting. I have the tentative hope that the movie will be better, because it seems to focus more on the action, but I still don't think I'll be reading Breaking Dawn before it hits the big screen.


The Island of Doctor Death And Other Stories And Other Stories - Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe has always been the kind of author that makes me feel guilty and maybe a little dumb. All his works - but especially his short fiction - require undivided attention, an almost maniacal eye for detail, and no doubt a passion for solving puzzles. The part that makes me feel dumb is knowing that the mystery is right in front of my eyes. Hiding in plain sight is always the trick with Wolfe, and one of the reasons his fiction is so exquisite. Alas, that knowledge rarely helps in unraveling the layers of innuendos, the significance of the character names, or the little details in the way words are arranged. Feeling guilty comes later, when I realize I've barely scraped the surface, but just couldn't force myself to start reading all over again. I am rarely able to reread before a long time has passed.

With all that said, I am nothing if not a sucker for punishment, so I keep reading Wolfe's works and keep loving them. The Island of Doctor Death And Other Stories And Other Stories is one of the more ridiculous titles of short story collections out there, and the reason for the repetition is the titular story, The Island of Doctor Death And Other Stories, which is a part of the so called "Wolfe Archipelago" - four stories that all have the words "Island", "Doctor" and "Death" in them. Here endeth the similarities though, as we can see from two of the other three parts of the Archipelago, also published in this collection. While The Island of Doctor Death... is a sort of magical realism and externalized metaphor for escapist literature (the characters from a pulp Science Fiction novel resembling The Island of Dr. Moreau all come to life, manifesting in the company of the young main character Tackie to help him with his real life problems), the second story, the Nebula award winning The Death of Dr. Island, is - in Wolfe's own words - "a thematic inversion" of it. The real island from the first story is replaced by the artificial satellite of "Dr. Island". The AI psychiatrist "Doctor" himself is now the villain of the story while the good boy Tackie is turned into the vicious and unstable Nicholas who has to be "cured" by the mind-screwing space station.

But Wolfe wouldn't be Wolfe if he made things that easy, and the third part of the Archipelago, The Doctor of Death Island, is nowhere near as comparable to the other two as they are to each other. It gives us a world in the near future, where humanity has achieved immortality at the price of losing love, ambition, literacy and other little things of the sort. Unfortunately for the main character - a convicted murderer - a life sentence in this world is still a life sentence. Although the author himself insists that themes of the other Archipelago stories persist here, I was not able to find them on the first reading. I also found the story a bit underwhelming, compared to the other two, and especially The Death...

Other highlights of this magnificent collection are:

The Hero As A Werwolf (the mistake is intentional) where humanity has turned itself into the "Masters" - a race of art-loving near-immortal creatures that never suffer from diseases, hunger or compassion. The remaining humans are hunted and purged, but they have learned to survive by feeding on the Masters. Thus the "Werwolf", from the Anglo-Saxon wer, which means "man"; the hero is a "man-wolf" - a noble creature turned into an animal, but still better in Wolfe's eyes to the soulless Masters.

Seven American Nights has to be my favorite story from this collection. In a future where America has barely survived a genetic apocalypse, leaving almost all of its citizens malformed and mutated in some way, a man from Iran arrives on its shores. The story is told through Nadan's journal. But it seems to cover only... six nights. Seven American Nights is by far the most intriguing mystery among the fourteen stories and a shining example of Wolfe's love for the "unreliable narrator". First of all, the number of nights does not match. Second, Nadan is vain, and trying to impress his potential readers - his mother and fiance. Also, at some point he gets paranoid about the intrigues in which he has inadvertently involved himself, and tears pages from his diary in fear that someone might read them. Also there are moments where he is obviously not in his right mind, be it under the influence of drugs or just raging fear. None of the characters - not even Nadan himself - are what they seem to be, and there are many theories as to what really happened, and how many nights he spent in the enigmatic third-world country of America.

Hour of Trust again sees America almost destroyed, this time by a vicious anarchist civil war. The only opposition are the big corporations which have taken the side of the failing American army, and are trying to raise funds from other firms in Europe by staging a party where their expected victory over the rebels in Detroit is to be aired live on TV. Here there seem to be no big secrets to unravel, but Wolfe gives indications for the ending from the very beginning. Names are important, and actions, and also little words. The strongest point of the story is in the atmosphere. You could feel the desperation, even if the main characters can't, the delusions of the Old Order that things could ever get back to what once was. Hour of Trust is a story about change, and about a world dying so that it can be reborn. It is also a little sad, because Wolfe never gives guaranties that what comes next will be better than what was lost.

All the stories offer more on second and third glance. I could write about the New Testament allusions in The Hero As A Werwolf, or about the multi-faceted relationship between Tackie and Doctor Death in The Island of Doctor Death...; or of the many layers of mystery and misleading clues in Seven American Nights. But I am neither qualified, nor willing to steal the incredible sense of wonder and fulfillment that comes with untangling Wolfe's stories by yourself. Suffice to say that after almost twenty years of reading SF and Fantasy, I am yet to find another author with such eye for intricate detail, and able to tell a self-sufficient straightforward story with another straightforward story hiding in plain sight inside it. And yet another one, thrown in for good measure. It is not a coincidence that Gene Wolfe has been labeled by many of his colleagues as the greatest living stylist in American literature. It is not an empty title, and I am yet to read a book or short story from him that disproves it.

As for The Island of Doctor Death And Other Stories And Other Stories, I couldn't find a single story inside that I didn't love, and I just couldn't recommend it enough.


Jun 27, 2010

Of this and that...

I was wondering how to start this post. Obviously I didn't think of anything smart, as evidenced by this viciously uninspired beginning. I have been around a while (less than I try to make it seem), and it suddenly hit me like a headshot! There were NOT enough blogs on the Internet! So, being a responsible person (shut up, I am!), I decided to do my share and start writing about what I like most. Which is Fantasy and SF literature.

There's nothing more to it, really. I've been writing reviews for almost a decade now - in online sites and hard-copy magazines - and taking up blogging suddenly felt like the thing to do. Whether I have the patience to post regularly, or whether I'll turn out to suck at it, remains to be seen... uh... read. I plan on posting reviews of books (old and new) and sometimes movies or some such, plus other things, when the mood strikes.

So, if it turns out that you find something on this blog that you like, let me know. Let someone else know too. It would really mean a lot to me!

Also, I'm not a native speaker. Be nice!