Sunday, November 21, 2010

An Artificial Night

by Seanan McGuire

An unexpected pleasure, this. Certainly a lot better than Rosemary and Rue, Feed, or even A Local Habitation. There are problems--the overall thinness of the worldbuilding, emotional flatness of the not too bright protagonist, the book consistently snarking in a way that is about as tenth as amusing as the text seems to think it is. Nevertheless, it's a step up in quality in a number of ways. Unlike all her other novels up to this point, McGuire wrote a book that doesn't depend on any kind of mystery or conspiracy with a psychotic mortal. Instead it's a standoff with a creature of myth and terror, someone who makes no attempt to hide and who everyone knows immediately is the villain. That avoids the utter idiocy of the previous Toby Daye books as well as Feed, and settles into an overall momentum that's quite engaging. The book feels significantly better paced for the main part, with action sequences spread across the bulk of it organically, and some areas where things are really quite tense. There are also some very appealing supporting cast members, I'd like to have seen more of them but as was they brightened the book considerably. Tybalt is one of them, naturally, the other has to be May, Toby's harbringer of doom that just keeps hanging out. She's so cheerful and weirdly optimistic that there's a lot of pleasure in seeing her interact with people.

The book is far from perfect, and has some issues that should have been cut in the first draft. Blind Michael is rather anti-climatic when he finally appears, for one thing, and doubly so when he's killed off far too easily. It doesn't really make sense why Toby is being employed in this crucial matter, and she continues to not be smart enough to keep the work viable. And there was a reappearance of Julie that that was completely unnecessary, serving no plot or emotional point beyond dragging things out for another chapter. I also wish the worldbuilding made even a little sense, the whole practice of conservative xenophobic changelings routinely entering their children into public school with humans is rather silly. Plus for this book there's the notion of a group of immortals being surprised by Blind Michael's kidnapping, despite him doing this for ages every hundred years. Still it was fun, exciting and makes me interested in McGuire's next book, even if it's in the Newswatch series.

Similar to and better than: Dead Beat by Jim Butcher

Similar to and worse than: Daughter of Hounds of Caitlin Kiernan

Sunday, November 14, 2010


by Connie Willis

I read Blackout several months ago. Atrocious in quality, an incredibly dull experience that makes me even more puzzled over Connie Willis' high reputation.
Too much of the book revolves around coincidences and people not quite meeting each other, the future is thoroughly anachronistic (phones with cords in 2060 Oxford?) and the setup is exceptionally derivative. It's unfunny, unexciting and relentlessly dull. Exceptionally little happens, the characterization is thoroughly cliched, and as a take off time travel it's thoroughly flawed. Time travel has been done so many times, often quite creatively, that for Willis to come along in 2010 and simply recreate the experience of the Blitz is not enough, it's failing to offer anything like an appropriate amount of creativity. What's worse, Willis isn't a very good historian. Not in the context of the details of London as such, but in her writing historians in a credible manner, which given most of the protagonists are historians makes a rather large problem. For one thing, there's the notion that given timetravel a future Oxford can think of nothing better to do than send people into the most dangerous hot-spots of the past to observe what's going on. Second, the people that go back are exceptionally stupid, focused on a very narrow portion of the past and left floundering when the inevitable happens and they can't easily get back.

Another problem is the whole presentation of history that emerges here, where apparently the point is to witness heroics and accomplish them. In a rather clumsy update for modern conditions 9/11 is added to the list of great heroic exploits under crisis, to which is also included the Blitz and Pearl Harbor, among others. It's a thoroughly Eurocentric view, for one thing, it's also one that prioritizes individual exploits and flashy altruism above a real understanding of complex social conditions. There's one point where one of the historians fears that Churchill is dead, which would cause the loss of the war to the Germans. This is frankly a stupid viewpoint that shows the historian in question to be a moron, there's no credible reason to believe the Germans could have been able to land on British soil regardless of success in the bombing campaign. Furthermore to accept Churchill as the one bulwark is to buy into the worst kind of simplistic propaganda. It's fairly obvious the ways that this book fails as a novel, but it's also quite underwhelming taken as serious engagement to the past. As a corrective, Clive Ponting's 1940: Myth and Reality is a short read and an effective dismantling of the more simplistic nostalgic view.

I hated this book thoroughly and have zero interest in reading the concluding volume or really anything else Willis has written or will write. There is quite literally no point. I would be curious to hear from people who liked this book more though. What is the appeal? Obviously there's a lot of subjective impression involved but it's pretty blatant that as a piece of science fiction this book doesn't add that much, that the plot is by any standard exceptionally slow, and that the characters are not terribly complex.

Out of the Black

by Lee Doty

There's a scene early on in Out of the Black where Ping is being questioned by the FBI. He's introduced to two agents of differing personalities and promptly declares: "'You know Garvey, I already like and trust you, but Bad Cop here scares me. You know...' Ping paused, stroking his chin in a parody of deep thought, '...the weirdest part is that the two of you together make me want to cooperate fully.'" [120]

Ping subsequently continues to think of the two as Good Cop and Bad Cop, and the narrative follows this approach. That moment captures a lot of the sense of this novel, and is probably a guide into whether a given reader will enjoy this work or not. If you found this interlude and the direct self-awareness of the moment a clever point of energy and humor, then it's likely you will enjoy the larger book. There is after all a fair amount to recommend it, fast pace, decently twisting plot, an unfolding setting, and a work that balances overt humor with a fairly light tone throughout. This is a book where it's easy to see why many people have responded favorably, and if someone approaches the book and likes it on those terms fine for them.

I didn't like that early scene, however, and have to count myself as one of the people who were put off by the overly self-aware narrative and the wider tone it supported. The problem is that this writing fundamentally is a case of cliches, and having the characters be aware of and engaging with such cliches doesn't ultimately make it any more creative. This lack of creativity, the courting of low ambition made the story drag at just the points where it put the most emotional emphasis down. I can be accused of holding too high standards, perhaps, but at some level this remains a five hundred page piece of speculative fiction, and there is the potential for the author to do noteworthy things with that area. Instead what's provided is ultimately a thin narrative, working decently when it's trying to be frightening, working less effectively for my money when it's trying to be humorous, but in any case working for a fairly low bar of action. There's nothing that precludes a novel from being both an effective action-experience and delivering a something of substance, but in this incarnation the later seems to not have been on the table. It becomes most apparent near the end when truly cosmic horror emerges and the narrative would benefit from a sense of real collapse and menace. Instead, what emerges are specific scenes of tension framed by talk of ninja-zombies, in a way that shows the story ultimately failing to take itself seriously.

This all makes it sound like I'm harsher on the book than I really am. There were some good lines and inspired moments--"Most were wearing that evil gonna-get-to-cut0someone grin considered socially acceptable in pre-muder situations." [183] but the work as a whole suffers from over-statement, over-emphasis, forcing a measure of character response that suits a type of wry meta-commentary but is not credible in the situations depicted as such. Along with the story showing too little, ultimately, of real credibility and force there is too much of some of the characters, reveling in their thoughts and cultural comparisons, to an extent that it makes the whole venture appear as rather silly. I'd take Issak Kaspari picturing himself as a mad scientist [223] as a strong example of this, where his quirks and imagination are inflated to a point where any sense of his complexity or larger believability as a character get smothered. What people are saying and thinking is far too obviously in for the state of allowing the novel to position itself in the field.

With all this I'd still have considered it fairly passable, considering the relative effectiveness of the final story, but there's a final major factor that weakens the text. The worldbuilding is where the lack of creativity really becomes crippling, and the issue of taking the future seriously becomes much harder. In essence, this does not feel adequately like a believable extension beyond the present. While there are clear indications of technological change the political dynamic is overly conventional, and the cultural references are incredibly overt. The constant references by characters to Blade Runner are implausible but perhaps can be excused thematically, but the issues go beyond that, with people having a deep working familiarity with The Matrix, Cool as Ice and similar films of that era, but not anything beyond that, or really any cultural construct after the present. It would be as if the whole of our current literary references had no one latter than Henry James. It's incredibly implausible, and features as a real point where more authorial innovation and willingness to go become the conventional would have been effective.

Not a terrible book by any means, but an overly unambitious one, without strong enough humor or sentence-by-sentence writing to give the book enough substance.

Similar to and better than: Feed by Mira Grant

Similar to and worse than: Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds