House of Suns

April 29, 2008

House of Suns, by Alastair Reynolds

 

House of Suns, by Alastair Reynolds.

 

Sprawling, epic sci-fi set something like six million years into the future, House of Suns is, somewhat ironically, about the legacy of mistakes of the past. It follows the fortunes of a guild, or ‘Line’, of people known as shatterlings: clones of a single person created in the distant past whose sole raison d’être is to wander the infinity of known space watching human civilization rise, fall, diversify and mutate, and to meet every two hundred thousand years to share these experiences. Effectively godlike voyeurs, the shatterlings of the Gentian Line live by gathering the memories of their fellows, including every new technological and genetic advantage, functioning as a kind of benevolent hive-mind, loath to interfere in human development because they believe they are beyond that, but always intensely curious as to how everything is progressing.

Until someone — or something — starts killing off individual shatterlings…

This is a novel of many parts, and some of them are stunning: the incredibly surreal and conceptually stunning Vigilance, the form of interrogation called ‘sectioning’, the baroque and art deco Machine People, the various starcraft used, the ideas of trove collections and memory strands and the whole, epic, grandiose nature of the ideas behind the shatterling groups themselves. It is, however, quite sprawling, as I mentioned at the start, and occasionally in this sprawl of mad ideas, hard science and futuregasming a few things seem a little lost: what really did happen to Meninx, for example? Why, if we’re so far into the future, does so much of the technology used seem so recognisable? And it’s a little unfortunate that occasionally some of the bigger issues happen off-screen or are only alluded to (the predecessor Machine culture… and its predecessor as well).

Still, minor flaws which didn’t really spoil my enjoyment at all. Riveted from start to finish and wish it were longer. In some ways I’d class it as experimental Reynolds — him stretching his wings and moving away a little from what he’s been more comfortable with in the past — and for that I can easily forgive him the occasional aforementioned dissonance. I would rank it just behind his excellent The Prefect and the utterly wonderful Pushing Ice (which I rank most things behind, actually: it’s probably in my Top Ten favourite books, that one), but still recommend it hugely: it tries very hard and, in all the ways that matter, succeeds splendidly.

 

Line War, by Neal Asher

 

Line War, by Neal Asher.

 

Fifth and final volume in probably one of the best space opera series ever, in-my-very-humble-but-increasingly-well-read-in-the-genre-opinion (IMVHBIWRITGO?? kthxbye). In Line War, loose ends are tied up, megadeath becomes gigadeath (two million dead and a planet razed in the first twenty pages), Cormac and the AIs suffer a ‘falling out’ (my understatement gland just spontaneously imploded) and I enjoyed it so bloody much I’m going to gibber away in ridiculously uninformative dot points, sue me:

  • Jain tech — how can you not love a biological weapon that’s designed to eliminate intelligent society by the trillions? Especially when people infected with Jain tech don’t die when the ‘good guys’ kill them, but rather sprout horrible slaughterous organic weaponry from the death-wounds
  • Did I put ‘good guys’ in parenthesis? There’s a very good reason for that
  • Scale — hello Erebus and your tiny invading army of a mere 20,000 wormships. Yes, wormships. And a big shout out to the Cable Hogue, a close contender for largest battleship ever described, which finally makes a suitably apocalyptic appearance (and can’t orbit worlds because it’s big enough to affect tides)
  • Dragon — an organic lifeform/weapon/future intelligence many kilometres across… and the notable fact that several of those kilometres of subcutaneous matter are ‘weaponizing’…
  • War Runcible! And more war drones! Including a massive iron bedbug called Bludgeon and much more of Arach the spider drone with his twinned abdominal Gatling cannons, amongst many others.

And, yep, I am enjoyed and satiated into comprete complete incoherency now. Go forth and acquire as soon as possible, along with its predecessors in order: Gridlinked, The Line Of Polity, Brass Man and the utterly brilliant Polity Agent (poor Four-Pack). The man’s a genius, and he writes science fiction with the impact of a scotch bottle to the side of the skull: up there with Alastair Reynolds and Richard K Morgan.

Which is to say, the best you can get.

 

 

Lye Street

April 23, 2008

Lye Street, by Alan Campbell

 

 

Lye Street, by Alan Campbell.

 

Already out of print, so hunt the specialist booksellers. I don’t know how many copies were done but they went like snow on an Australian morning.

Lye Street is a limited edition novella, albeit a reasonably thick one, set between Campbell’s excellent Scar Night and his forthcoming Iron Angel. Mired in the gloomy, rusting, theocratical city of Deepgate, which hangs on massive chains over an abyss within which the God of Death lurks, it goes into greater detail about the angel Carnival, the scourge of Deepgate who has been hunting and killing one descendant of one particular family every fifty years for a very long time. The current descendant is attempting to summon a demon in an attempt to stop her, and Carnival herself, wherever she alights in the city, is finding messages scrawled and gouged into the bricks and ironwork telling her to go to Lye Street… that everything ends there…

Creepy and brutal, with many scenes still haunting me long after the story was done; in particular a moment when Carnival, broken memories surfacing and swirling, tries to bring herself back from her psychotic, endless mission and succumbs to the insistence of another that she could stop being a monster and be beautiful…

You need this. Hopefully when Campbell is established enough it’ll be reprinted as part of a collection for those who can’t find this edition, but I’d imagine it wouldn’t be too hard to find even if technically out of print at the moment; it’s very recent. Also get Scar Night, at least, and hopefully Iron Angel, which is just about out now and I’m hoping will retain the elevated standards of excellence and imagination that the previous two works have so effortlessly aspired to.

The Scalding Rooms

April 18, 2008

The Scalding Rooms, by Conrad Williams

The Scalding Rooms, by Conrad Williams.

 

Excellent, this. A short novel set in a decaying semi-dystopian world where the poor fight amongst each other to rifle the pockets of hanged execution victims as their bodies rot and tumble from rusting bridge spans, where a vast and collapsing abattoir creates a new, grisly form of life as well as takes it, where gang warfare and hits are just another way of making ends meet. It’s the story of Junko Cane, an abattoir worker in the hideous, run-down Eyes abattoir, battling to live and provide for a family he’s becoming increasingly alienated from, trying not to back to his old life in the gangs as a killer, and slowly becoming aware that there’s more to the abattoir — and the world — than he could have imagined.

Williams’ world is horribly brutal: everything is falling apart, rotting or rusted to death. Machines and society alike are breaking down, and the survivors are scrabbling more and more hopelessly, trapped in endless cycles of pain and despair. Monsters called Mowers come out at night seeking blood and the unwary, but are they really monsters at all…?

It’s a story reminiscent of China Miéville’s worldbuilding at his grittiest and most nihilistic, but even more depressing if that’s humanly possible. My only complaint? Too short — I wanted books and books, worlds and worlds of this.

Enthusiastically recommended. It’s a signed limited edition, not very expensive, from UK-based PS Publishing, and quite difficult to get elsewhere. Buy from them direct. You won’t be sorry.

Crrrrrrrrrrap

April 3, 2008

Apologies for the long delays in updating, my nonexistent audience. The embuggerance of work has kept me away from a computer.

That said, this is a Bad Review Post because sometimes things are just bad. In the tradition, however, of trying to be generally nice I will try and keep it short:

Winkie, by Clifford Chase 

Winkie, by Clifford Chase.

The story of a plush bear who, for reasons never adequately explained, is alive and then rather implausibly gets arrested for terrorism under the Homeland Security Act and charged with thousands upon thousands of offences. Winkie is given the world’s worst lawyer, won’t speak up to defend himself, has the most biased judge imaginable and… oh right it’s satire. Gosh, guess I missed the satire brick falling on my head. Some Americans aren’t happy with the way their government deals with terrorism? Homeland Security pisses them off? Well sure, but this doesn’t work. Not as a framework, not as an allegory, not as anything really.

Strange bothersome thing about Winkie: the author seems to have a fascination with bowel movements. One of Winkie’s goals in life is, when he strikes out for his own, to learn to crap. This segues rather weirdly and uncomfortably into him apparently crapping out a baby bear a little later on via some kind of faecal plush immaculate conception. Er… right. There’s also a rather exorbitant number of pages and little vignettes dealing with Winkie’s owner having difficulty toilet training himself. I mean, I can see the connection, the irony and the relevance but eww. Guess analytical crap isn’t my thing.

It’s a strange, sad book and the satire was both very obvious and frustratingly irrelevant, at least in parts. Too much emphasis on faecal matters for my liking. There were some strengths, but it’s a first novel and shows a bit, unfortunately. Although very occasionally, when he wasn’t being endlessly miserable or crapping, Winkie was quite cute and likeable. A shame the surrounding cast and story weren’t. 😦

And now a movie review, also brought to you by Crrrrrrrrrrrrap:

Beowulf (2007) 

Beawful Beowulf (2007) — screenplay by Neil Gaiman & Roger Avary, directed by Robert Zemeckis.

Hmmm.

Everyone says that Beowulf should be seen in 3D: it was designed that way, they say; without it you won’t get the full experience and it will look crappy, they say. Well, being stuck in the desert in the monsoon season and seeing it on a caravan park television movie channel, I unfortunately did not get to see it in 3D. Funny that I forgot to pack my trusty 3D glasses when I was sent to the middle of nowhere. So I will throw in a caveat here: perhaps Beowulf is indeed an utter masterpiece in 3D.

Because it sure wasn’t in 2D. If this is the future of computer-generated animation (CGI, for the 0% of the population who don’t know), we’re buggered. The occasionally well-rendered scene were buried beneath marionette people with stiff and unmoving faces, hair that stayed absolutely still except for the last quarter-inch which moved a little like a curtain’s edge, Angelina Jolie’s breasts digitally enhanced to the size of watermelons and pointing upwards so high they were close to poking her eyes out, and the most APPALLINGLY CRAP DRAGON ANIMATION EVER. It had a head like a gold potato and it flew like a bloody rod puppet and did I mention that it had a head like a GREAT BIG GOLD POTATO AARGH MY EYES MAKE IT GO AWAY

Oh God the Giant Space Chicken Monster in this 1950s movie was more convincing than Beowulf’s dragon. (Scroll halfway down that page to see the Giant Space Chicken Monster: it’s worth it)

It astonishes me that technology has come so far, and yet we can’t do the kind of seamless animation with a computer that we got with models, full-scale and miniatures and stop-motion in movies such as Dragonslayer. Which had a very impressive dragon indeed.

I didn’t particularly enjoy the dialogue or the story either: conversations between the players invariably came out stilted or lame, and the plot was sketchy and a little messy, with at least one very significant deviation from the original tale that kind of, in my opinion, rendered the original tale pretty much useless. For spoilery’s sake I will only say I’m talking about Grendel’s mother here and leave it at that. Sorry Neil and Roger: you’re both very talented people but this didn’t work for me.

Something that perplexed me even though I’m sure they had a reason was why Ray Winstone as Beowulf was digitally rendered to look exactly like Sean Bean. To the point where Bean must’ve approved his likeness or considered suing. Winstone apparently no longer has action-figure looks (according to the commentary on the DVD, I note, from his own lips) and so, fairly enough, didn’t necessarily want his character modelled on him, but why not create something new? And if you are using Sean Bean, why not have him voice himself…? And then there was the frankly surreal Matrix-y acrobatics fight between Grendel and Beowulf and AARGH THAT DRAGON IS BACK IN MY MIND GO AWAAAAY

I must say that I was under the impression it was supposed to be very violent and bloody and pretty much entirely for adults, but the version I saw looked very tame and there was surprisingly little blood. Also, when Beowulf was fighting naked (was that a spoiler? ah sod it) it was laughably bizarre to see objects just ‘happening’ to continue to cover his ‘manhood’ all the time (eg: someone holding a carefully positioned helmet or sword, Grendel’s arm in the way, etc etc ad infinitum). However, there is apparently an unrated version out there that is far more graphic, so perhaps the one I saw was a soft’n’squishy edited-for-mindless-TV-pap version. Which just made the whole experience even worse

Er, sorry. Not being very objective here, am I. Very well. In the interests of pure objectivity: I admit that I did not adore Beowulf, but I’m sure if I saw it in 3D, all of the previously mentioned issues would disappear in a puff of elegant perfection.

No, really.

OK, back to the book reviews next time, and something I hopefully did like. 😀