Book review: Trees (vol. 1, ‘In Shadow’; vol. 2, ‘Two Forests’), by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard

13 10 2017

Warren Ellis is an English novelist, screenwriter, and comic book writer; Jason Howard is a comic book artist. Trees is an unfolding story told in comic book / graphic novel form, exploring the slow invasion of Earth by ominously tall, mainly inert pillars (the ‘Trees’ of the title).

Trees_vol1

In Trees volume one (‘In Shadow’), the effect of the Trees’ proximity to several locations scrattered across the globe (Spitzbergen, Manhattan, Rio de Janiero, Shu, Cefalu, Mogadishu) is sketched in apparently-disparate storylines that each kick off without anything much by way of preliminary scene-setting. It’s established from the start that the towering Trees are indifferent to, perhaps even ignorant of, the existence of human settlements at the locations of their incursions: aside from occasionally shedding waste (in the form, it seems, of copious extrusions of bright green sap), they mainly just stand there, interfering with radio transmissions and occupying what might, a decade ago, have been prime human real estate.

Most of the attention in vol. 1 is split between Spitzbergen, where biologist Dr Joanne Creasey has newly arrived at a research station to discover that her colleagues are in the habit of leaving frozen bodies scattered around the base of the local Tree, to see what actions the Tree takes to these incursions; Cefalu, where Eligia, the girlfriend of Tito (a thuggish fascist gang leader seeking to carve out a little empire for himself in the town in the Tree’s shadow) is looking to find a way out from under her boyfriend’s ‘protection’; and Shu, where Chenglei, an artistically-minded villager from the surrounding countryside, seeks permission to enter the Special Cultural Zone that the Chinese authorities have established as a protective measure following the arrival of a Tree. Once ensconced in the anarchic artists’ commune called Spaceship One, Chenglei realises that the feelings he holds for his transsexual neighbour Zhen are far from straightforward. But, particularly in the threat-charged environment that is a Tree’s neighbourhood, nothing lasts forever …

Trees_vol2

Trees volume two (‘Two Forests’) picks up the storylines from vol. 1. Though each of the storylines is advanced further, to a greater or lesser degree, most of the action this time around centres again on Dr Creasey (now a veteran of what’s referred to as ‘the Blindhail incident’ following events unfolding on Spitzbergen), who’s consigned as an urgent advisor to an archaeological dig in the shadow of the Orkney Tree as, it appears, an insurance against Spitzbergen’s fate (and accompanying electromagnetic pulse) repeating itself on UK soil; and Vince, the corrupt and ambitious mayor-elect of New York, who appears to have dealt his way into power purely to exact retribution for mistakes made by the city authorities (not least NYPD) in the immediate aftermath of the Tree’s arrival in Manhattan eleven years ago.

Within the sharply kinetic confines of the comic book format (the two volumes, though presented as graphic-novel-sized paperbacks, are constructed as sequences of respectively eight and six individual issues), there’s an impressive array, in Trees, of punchy characterisation and grainily expressive illustration; there’s also an intriguing and slowly-unfolding overall story. Though there’s no deeper connection than the trope of ‘alien-settlement-on-Earth’, the tone has quite a lot in keeping with District 9 in its grimy, unglamorous exploration of human reaction to the culture shock of alien intelligence. There’s a cerebrality and a humour to it, too, that heightens the often-confusing and fast-paced action: this promises to be considerably more than just another riff on ideas aired in books such as The War of the Worlds, Childhood’s End, and The Forge of God.

The second volume doesn’t end the story, though there does appear to have been a hiatus of at least a year since the most recent instalment (issue 14, which forms the last part of vol. 2). It’s certainly to be hoped that the series does continue, since vol. 2 moves the story into some very interesting territory, with growing hints as to the Trees’ purpose and the likely risks to mankind as the Trees carry out their mysterious assignment.

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Book review: Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi

22 09 2017

John Scalzi is an American SF author with multiple Hugo nominations: his novel Redshirts won a Hugo in 2013. I’ve previously reviewed his novella The Dispatcher, here.

OldMansWar

Old Man’s War—published in 2005 (and subsequently Hugo-nominated) but serialised on his blog Whatever two years earlier—is Scalzi’s debut novel, and the first in a sequence of mil-SF novels. Its narrator is the seventy-five-year-old John Perry, a widower and retired advertising copywriter from Ohio, who fulfils a pledge made with his late wife Kathy to enlist in the Earth-defending, alien-fighting Colonial Defense Force on his 75th birthday. The incentive for enlistment is the offer of rejuvenation, a powerful drawcard that ensures the CDF is inundated with willing recruits with a lifetime of valuable experience … and no idea, whatever, of what they’re getting into. The Galaxy, it seems, is a considerably more dangerous place than Earth’s citizens would tend to believe, and the CDF’s attrition rate is horrendously high as its soldiers take on a bewildering range of bloodthirsty alien races, each of them eager to lay claim to more and yet more of the desirable real estate in Earth’s neighbourhood. It’s an affectionately pulpy, unashamedly Heinlein-inspired perspective on the Universe; its saving grace is that it’s also sufficiently self-aware to critique and even lampoon the precepts upon which it’s constructed. The dialogue is sharp, the humour (for the most part) unforced, the changes in pace sometimes dizzying … it’s a story which doesn’t really transcend the limitations of the mil-SF subgenre, but I don’t think that’s its intent. There are flaws to it: the US-centric tone doesn’t really make sense in view of the underlying future history (there seems to be no satisfactory reason why the CDF intakes would be drawn entirely from the elderly of the United States, but they are), the body count is horrific, the combat sometimes seems more than a little gratuitous, and Perry conveys, overall, as rather too much of a ‘Mary Sue’. But there is some inventive play with the book’s familiar SF furniture and some well-drawn poignancy in the novel’s characterisation; and just enough uncertainty about the merit of combat sneaks through to avoid echoing the recruitment-poster sentiments of, say, Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.





Book review: Act One, by Nancy Kress

3 09 2017

Nancy Kress is an American SF writer whose stories often explore the societal implications of genetic engineering. She’s won numerous Nebula awards, alongside Campbell, Sturgeon, and Hugo awards, for her novels and short fiction. I’ve previously reviewed her books Beggars in Spain and AI Unbound.

ActOne

Kress’s Nebula-shortlisted novella Act One revolves around the genetics of empathy, with Barry Tenler, in his role as her manager, seeking to shepherd fifty-something actor Jane Snow through her preparations for a role in a movie exploring the social implications of Arlen’s Syndrome, a gene-therapy treatment designed to promote a heightened aptitude for empathy in wealthy clients’ designer babies. Barry has his own history with gene therapy and its limitations—he suffers from achondroplasia, a type of dwarfism, and an attempt to alter his unborn son’s genetic makeup led to the breakup of his marriage—but it’s not Barry’s relationship with epigenetics that causes the problem that develops as a result of Jane’s research for her role …

Kress’s characterisation is always effective, and the speculation that underpins Act One is intriguing. I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable on the subject of human genetics to know whether the thesis here—that genetic modification can lead to a substantially enhanced capacity for empathy and an awareness of the broader emotional context in human interactions—is genuinely credible, but the text at least emulates credibility, which is after all the underpinning of all successful hard science fiction. This is very much a story in the classic idea-as-hero SF mould, but the characters matter, and the central dilemma (for all that it is, so far as we know, a fictional fabrication) is sufficiently weighty that it’s worth dwelling on.

 





Book review: Revenger, by Alastair Reynolds

29 08 2017

Alastair Reynolds is a British SF author best known for his ‘Revelation Space’ novel sequence, although by now he has many other strings to his bow. His work is known for its generally faithful adherence to hard-SF principles while often managing, also, to incorporate elements of space opera.

Revenger

One of the reasonably widely accepted positions on the tropes of SF is that space piracy, as a concept, makes no sense, either logistically, physically, or economically. Revenger is a hard-SF novel, with strong YA undertones, about space pirates.

Arafura (‘Fura’) Ness is persuaded by her older sister Adrana to sign up for a six-month stint as ‘bone reader’ (in essence, a scryer of information gleaned from the technologically-augmented skulls of long-dead aliens; a task that can only be performed by those with the right combination of neural plasticity and cognition—which means, in practice, teenagers) on board Captain Rackamore’s sunjammer Monetta’s Mourn. Rackamore is a pirate, of sorts, but his primary interest is in plunder, not violence; and with fifty million formerly-occupied habitats, most of them sealed and left derelict, in orbit around the Old Sun, there’s opportunity aplenty for treasure-seekers trying to find tech relics of the Solar System’s many vanished civilisations. But Rackamore also has unfinished business with the infamous Bosa Sennen, whose Nightjammer is a watchword for terror, out in the Big Empty; and when Monetta’s Mourn comes off second best in an encounter with Sennen’s ship, Fura finds that she, too, has unfinished business with Bosa Sennen …

Revenger takes on the style of the pirate yarn whole-heartedly, from the stereotypically motley crews of misfits and ne’er-do-wells to the instantly-recognisable speech patterns and superstitions, and bolts these attributes onto a hard-SF framework that treats issues of intrasystem ballistics and momentum conservation with deadly seriousness. It’s a combination that could well seem ludicrous, and yet it works well, helped considerably by a tense and taut storyline that never really lets up and by characterisation that imbues Fura and those around her with complexity and pathos. If it’s not Reynolds’ most memorable achievement, it is, nonetheless, undeniably, a lot of fun.





Book review: Watch Over Me, by Claire Corbett

24 08 2017

Claire Corbett is an Australian speculative fiction writer, essayist, and academic with a background as a policy adviser in the spheres of health and the environment. She has written two novels and several short stories, and her work has appeared two years running in Best Australian Stories and has been shortlisted for various awards. I’ve previously reviewed her debut novel, When We Have Wings, here.

WatchOverMe

Watch Over Me is Corbett’s second novel. It’s set in what purports to be the present day, on what claims to be Earth, but the particularities of its geographical setting (the conquered city of Port Angelsund, located somewhere above the Arctic Circle) and its geopolitical backstory (a slow-unfolding and wide-ranging conflict between the forces of Garrison—Port Angelsund’s occupying force—and the distant, powerful, callously indifferent Coalition) do not properly mesh with our own circumstances.

The novel’s protagonist, Sylvie Falk, is a teenager who helps out with the business her mother runs, the Half Moon Café. We’re introduced immediately to the near-constant harassment and occasionally deadly danger Sylvie faces as a citizen of Port: she’s detained by ‘boy soldiers’ on the way through one of Garrison’s checkpoints with her four-year-old brother Toby, and only avoids a bullet to the back of the head through the intervention of a young officer in Garrison’s special forces, the Black Mambas, who witnesses her treatment and orders her release. The incident’s described in vivid, intimate detail, heightened by two complicating factors: first, Sylvie is painfully aware, all through the almost-fatal ordeal, of the hand-scrawled note in her possession from her older brother Jory (a fugitive freedom fighter training to play his part in the insurrection against Garrison’s oppression), who wishes to meet her for some undisclosed purpose in the coming days; and two, she becomes obsessed with her fleeting but probably life-saving encounter with the Black Mambas lieutenant. A few days later, a couple of Black Mambas visit the Half Moon, demanding priority treatment (as is their asserted right as elite members of the occupying force), and Sylvie’s stunned to realise that one of the officers is ‘her’ lieutenant who, though he appears not to recognise her, does seem to be taken by her … and with that, Sylvie is pretty much assured of the precarious role of the double agent.

The relationship that sparks between Sylvie and Lieutenant Will Maur is chillingly asymmetrical: he’s trained (and steeped) in power and its application, and she’s almost powerless to resist. At the outset, she has no interest in resisting: this is, after all, the man who saved her life. But there remains Sylvie’s obligation towards her brother Jory, a loyalty totally at odds with her burgeoning dalliance with (and subsequent effective capture by) the Black Mambas lieutenant. It’s clear that something in this setup is doomed to break. The voice which Corbett has selected—first-person narration by Sylvie, who so frequently refers to ‘her’ lieutenant in the second person that the tale is in effect a paean to a deeply troubling, deeply-felt relationship—adds significantly to the narrative’s innate tension. It’s clear, among other things, that Maur does feel very strongly for Sylvie; and yet, for all his proclamations of guardianship over her, he cannot protect her from all of the atrocities of which his colleagues and countrymen are capable. Those who require trigger warnings for descriptions of sexual assault should be prewarned that Corbett does not flinch from detailing such actions.

The book’s depiction of occupation is deep and multifaceted: the fierce arguments between Port’s subjugated citizens over the options of resistance, submission, or collaboration (Port has its own vigilantes, the Ultras, who mete out summary justice on those they consider to have assisted Garrison in some way, or perhaps just haven’t resisted with sufficient fervour); the senseless yet carefully-calibrated atrocities inflicted seemingly at random, by Garrison’s boy soldiers, on civilians of every age; the ‘war banter’ between Maur and his fellow officers, full of opaque metaphors, occupational in-jokes, and shorthand references to past sorties; the day-to-day focus of those who can’t know, when they arise in the morning, if they will still be more-or-less safe that evening. There’s a strong sense of invasion as marketing, of harassment as advertising: Garrison’s boy soldiers humiliate, assault, kill those who cannot fight back, in part because they can, in part because it’s what’s expected of them. Anything less would indicate a failure, on their part, to meet military KPIs. This focus obviously makes for strange bedfellows with the book’s other primary concern of love and abandonment; and yet it’s this juxtaposition, more than anything else, which makes the story work.

As a Tove Jansson tragic, I cannot consider my review complete without mentioning that Watch Over Me includes, as one of its few direct references to recognisable human ‘landmarks’ (the others are Paris; Kosovo; and a sequence of music tracks, ranging from folk to electronic to heavy metal, provided as a playlist at the book’s rear and occasionally referenced within the text) a mention of Jansson’s Moomin books, of which Sylvie gives a box set to Toby on his fifth birthday. I should also say that, just as the setting isn’t quite recognisable from contemporary cartography, neither does it appear to be quite present-day. There are aspects to the military technology (moth drones, spy-dust, and robot ‘doggies’) which seem to be near-future: in this sense, the story qualifies as science fiction, though its sensibilities are not as deeply science-fictional as, for example, the similarly impassioned and conflict-steeped Earth Made of Glass by John Barnes, nor the most inventively speculative of Iain Banks’s ‘literary’ novels, Transition. There is, though, a strong echo of Banks’s phrasing, pacing, and character development in Corbett’s writing here, as well as a pleasing solidity and patience. (It’s a very different book to her earlier novel, When We Have Wings, but that seems to be, I gather, a characteristic of her work: she has a preference for standalones.)





Book review: At the Speed of Light, by Simon Morden

6 08 2017

Simon Morden is a British SF writer whose ‘Metrozone’ series of novels, set in post-apocalyptic London, has won the Philip K Dick Award.

AtTheSpeedOfLight

In the novella At the Speed of Light, much of the action takes place on a rogue exploration vessel crewed by an AI known as Corbyn, whose ship matches pace with a derelict. The book starts, however, with an entity, also identified as Corbyn, finding itself newly awakened in a rudimentary homunculus on what appears to be a spaceship, with a set of ultimately-unachievable instructions to follow. It then segues to a mental-health consulation between a client, also named Corbyn, and a psychiatrist Wu Yu, which doesn’t end very well. If this sounds somewhat confusing, there’s probably a reason for this. I should say that the story does settle down after that, and the introductory material does ultimately become integrated with the story.

At the Speed of Light is presented more-or-less as a classic SF puzzle story, and there’s a lot of problem-solving embedded within it, to do with trajectories, motives, and material resource limitations. While the story’s central conundrum is, in itself, intrinsically interesting, there is perhaps a little too much priority assigned to respect for the laws of physics, and not enough to the requirements of narrative fiction: the prose, while admirably clear (it is, after all, an AI who, for the most part, is serving as a viewpoint character), does read rather stolidly in patches. This isn’t helped, either, by the sheer solitude of much of the story: though contact is established between Corbyn and the derelict, it’s a rather pallid transaction, with no real heat or spark to the exchanges. That said, the story does achieve what I assess it sets out to do, which is to craft a solid work of old-style SF with some overall poignancy and mystery, and readers who maintain an ongoing interest in that subgenre should find the story worthwhile.





Book review: Thunderbird, by Jack McDevitt

26 07 2017

Jack McDevitt is an American SF writer who excels at big-picture SF with an updated ‘Golden Age’ vibe to it. He’s been shortlisted for numerous SF awards, and won the Nebula with his novel Seeker.

Thunderbird

Thunderbird (2015) is a followup to a much earlier McDevitt novel, Ancient Shores (1996). While this second instalment can be read as a standalone, it makes considerably more sense to read Ancient Shores first. Both books deal with the discovery, on a Sioux reservation in North Dakota, of a functioning stargate, believed to be over ten thousand years old, permitting instantaneous travel to a few destinations at interstellar distances from Earth.

Thunderbird follows Sioux chairman James Walker, scientist Dr April Cannon, and radio show host Brad Hollister as they grapple with the best way to manage the Roundhouse’s disruptive new technology. There’s a network of stargates to explore, all with potential hazards (and the knowledge that, in all possibility, the device’s designers are still out there somewhere), met by a lot of political pressure to shut the site down. For every person who sees the Roundhouse as something akin to Aladdin’s lamp, there’s another who considers it to be Pandora’s box … in both cases, a device whose opening is legendarily difficult to undo.

There’s a less focussed feel to Thunderbird than there was to Ancient Shores. The second book has a more episodic feel to it, and though an overall story arc does eventually emerge, it takes its own sweet time to do so. The story’s telling is interesting enough—McDevitt doesn’t do dull—but I couldn’t help but think it’s a somewhat anticlimactic and scattered tale compared to the first book, an impression not helped by the prosaic pastorality of Eden, the planet whose exploration forms much of the book’s offworld narrative drive. Parallels can be drawn here with Fred Pohl’s excellent Gateway (another novel detailing the discovery of a magical-science transportation system permitting fast interstellar travel) and its disappointing sequels, or with Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (again, a novel of transportation by magical science, with attendant disappointing sequels). Perhaps, closer to home, one might recall McDevitt’s own copybook-blotting in his explanation for the enduring mystery of the malevolent ‘omega clouds’ first introduced in The Engines of God, wherein they are symbolic of the Universe’s deadly and incomprehensible nature, and then subsequently relegated to a still-dangerous but largely unsatisfying gimmick three books later. Thunderbird does cohere to a reasonable degree, and it gets to where it needs to, but it leaves me more strongly convinced than ever that, where a SF author has somehow hit upon the ideal way in which to build a novel around human discovery of ostensibly abandoned, magically-advanced alien tech (as Pohl did with Gateway and as McDevitt did with Ancient Shores), then he or she should make sure to never attempt a sequel of that work, since the revisitation will inevitably diminish the first book’s unfathomable mystery and sense-of-wonder. [There may well be exceptions to this rule—Alastair Reynolds’ Revolution Space series springs to mind—but I don’t think there’d be many.]

Thunderbird is not a bad book, by any stretch—it conveys McDevitt’s trademark sense of intriguing possibilities necessarily left unexplored, it even manages to be distinctly thought-provoking in several places, and McDevitt always knows how to craft a resonant ending—but it cannot help but seem slightly pale set against its predecessor.