Brasyl: Ian McDonald

With Brasyl Ian McDonald has created something which is quite difficult to do. On weaving an intricate tapestry it can difficult to capture the large scale. Likewise when painting the large picture it’s difficult to concentrate on the small brush work. In Brasyl Ian McDonald has not only achieved an impressive overarching plot and a vivid detailed picture of life in Brazil, but he has done so over three separate time periods.

In the past Jesuit priest Luis Quinn is sent on a mission up river in a “Heart of Darkness” themed (superficially at least) episode to investigate a rogue priest. For the future segment a streetwise entrepreneur (amongst other things) deals with a surveillance government plus the effects of quantum technology. The final (not temporally…) segment is about a plastic surgery obsessed reality television executive and the stranger who seems to be taking her life apart.

One of the major themes running through the book is the idea of different universes coexisting. In the modern day Marcelina (our botox protagonist) has compartmentalised her life into different sections, work, family, lover and capoeira (more on this later). In the past the difference between the realms of science and religion are brought into contrast through the discussions between Luis Quinn and Dr Robert Falcon. Further differences are shown between the moderate, calming religion of Quinn and the more primitive/fundamentalist religion encountered deep within the jungle. Different universes are explicitly discussed in the future segment when the underlying technology and theory behind quantum theory, and specifically quantum computations are discussed.

Without wishing to give too much away this book is an excellent piece of work. Switching brilliantly between fleshing out the small details of the multiple worlds it inhabits and drawing connections between them. The language used within the book uses a variety of Portugese words where, presumably, no English equivalent would do justice. Although this can be difficult to get used to it all serves to place the reader in a different place.

All this said there are three minor criticisms (and one is so petty I can barely bring myself to write it).

The first is that I didn’t feel much difference between the present and future segments. With the notion of alternative realities running through the book and muddying the notion of what we’re used to ,it would have been nice to have something more concrete to separate the two eras.

The second is that Marcelina felt (and the extent to which this is on purpose is debatable) quite … plastic. Phenomenally shallow and with little character development. Almost like a more benign Patrick Bateman.

The third (and petty) criticism was the use of Capoeira as an actual martial art. It really isn’t a valid martial art and for a novel set in Brazil to completely ignore Brazilian Ju Jitsu is very disappointing.

That said, minor blotches on an otherwise riotous feast of ideas and action. Plus it has a playlist! More books should have  a playlist.

Hull Zero Three: Greg Bear

At first glance with Hull Zero Three, Greg Bear has produced a familiar tale of an amnesiac waking up in what seems to be a malfunctioning spaceship. A spaceship replete with dangers both malignant and uncaring, known and unknown. Something has gone wrong.

A small confession, one of my favourite sub-genres is scifi/horror. Unfortunately it appears to be one of the most difficult to get right, Sturgeon’s Law seems to be wildly optimistic when it comes to visual scifi/horror at least. Although, quite oddly, scifi/horror is one the genres where video games seem to better represented. System Shock 1/2, Bioshock, Doom 3, Dead Space, elements of Mass Effect and various other titles are all good examples of science fiction with a liberal dose of horror.

But I digress, in the written world science fiction horror is a very niche genre. Legacy of Heurot, Unto Leviathan, some scattered short stories, adaptations of movies (my 12 year old brain is telling me that the Alan Dean Foster adaptation of Alien was good) and some expanded universe novels of various franchises are all that I can think of. However with Hull Zero Three Greg Bear has, at first glance, thrown his hat into the limited science fiction horror ring.

But has he? There is no doubt that the first half of the book is strongly reminiscent of such films as Event Horizon and Pandorum but I’m not entirely certain that the intention of Greg Bear is to go for the jugular. I believe that the similarities of this book to such films is only a product of the similarity of setting and plot, not tone or intent.

The protagonist has little memory and what memories he does have are suspect which leads to a disjointed disconnect from the environment. First person perspective and a slippery descriptive process adds to this and engenders a, presumably, intentional air of confusion. The confusion works from a science fiction point of view as it allows for the simultaneous exploration of the environment by both protagonist and reader. Puzzles and mysteries are introduced only through information available to us all. We are held tightly to our amnesiac friend through shared experiences.

Unfortunately, at least if we are considering the work from a horror perspective, because we are working in situation where the main character is ignorant about his surroundings, and because the descriptive style isn’t enough to completely flesh out the world, it is difficult to truly create a sense of fear. This is the difference between watching a horror film where everything on screen is shrouded in mist and watching a horror film whilst the screen is shrouded in mist. What is there may be frightening, but we can’t actually see it.

This may sound overly negative, but it’s only negative if we’re looking at the book from the horror perspective. In terms of science fiction and general quality, the book is much, much better. Long term space exploration has of course been explored in many other books but some of the consequences and moral dilemmas of that are explored nicely here. The writing, when shifting away from the haunted house in space trappings of the first half, is taut and lean with numerous subtleties woven through the writing.

This is a well written book with a nicely though out, if unoriginal setting, which is greatly improved by the oft overlooked consideration of the moral implications of what we may do out among the stars.
But it isn’t a scifi/horror book and this is a shame as there is a terrible lack of good scifi/horror.

Von Neumann’s War: John Ringo and Travis S. Taylor

Ah Baen. I know what I’m going to be getting when I pick a Baen book up. Action and right wing politics. Going into Von Neumann’s War we get both of these from the very start. To be fair to both authors the politics aren’t quite as jaw droppingly awful as, say, Tom Kratman, but they are pretty obvious.

Brief synopsis, Mars is turning grey, rockets scientists investigate, conclude we’re going to be invaded, hire a Hooters waitress to run part of their project, prototype rockets, satellites and weapons with 100% success rate.

Anyway, the action starts in Iraq with the alpha male of this particular book being generally awesome and fantastic whilst escorting a group of international “eggheads”. Quick note at this point, If there’s one thing this book likes more than being a good honest member of the USA, it’s being an engineer as opposed to a scientist. In his endeavours he is ably assisted by his First Sergeant who, judging from the number of superfluous references to his skin tone, is a walking embodiment of a Spinal Tap album.

The action then switches to a Hooters bar where a group of engineers and scientists discuss the reduction in Mars’ albedo, whilst being served by a waitress paying her way through university by working in Hooters. I don’t really have any problems with this, I’ve discussed enough science/technical work in pubs and bars myself. Perhaps not a Hooters but I’m sure some of the people I’ve worked with would have quite like to discuss it in hooters. I would have had more of a problem with the Hooters waitress being the main female voice through the entire book but apparently it’s based in reality (of some sort) so whilst I have my suspicions about this I’ll just let it slide. Although a Russian mail order bride does feature more heavily towards the latter half of the book. I’ll just leave that there.

Without wishing to give too much away, plans are formed, planets are investigated and technology is prototyped and pushed into production remarkably quickly.

As for the writing itself, it’s a strange combination of reasonable action scenes, extended discussion about rocket building, satellite design and weapons manufacture all wrapped around a clichéd story with weak characterisation, limited to no character development and a universe which is so centred on the USA I feel that reading it has earned me a green card.

Just a small example, the first 70 pages or so of the tale is the USA reacting to Mars’ changing albedo and sending a probe to Mars (very fast! as the inside cover of the jacket helpfully explains). Throughout all this time no other country appears the slightest bit worried as we go blithely about our daily business, perhaps all our telescopes have been packed away or something…

Another major issue is the pacing. The switch from “difference in Mars’ albedo” to “INVASION!” seems fairly abrupt as well as the ending being so sudden it gave me whiplash.

Good points? It’s more jingoistic rather than outright xenophobic, some of the technology is neat, that’s about it.

Bad Points? Pacing, jingoism, characterisation, author biases, a sprinkling of Deus ex Machina when needed, combination of bad science plus overly technical engineering.

I didn’t like it, which is a crying shame as I was in the mood for some light hearted pulp adventure. Hey ho.

What I’m up to…

Hopefully I’m going to be using this blog to keep track of and review the various bits and pieces of science fiction and fantasy I’ve either read, watched, listened to or played. Or possibly, if technology moves on fast enough, smelled or tasted.

It should be a hodge podge of new and old and almost certainly of no interest to anyone but myself.

So anyway, on with the show.

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