What Makes this Book So Great — Jo Walton

Cover of What Makes this Book So Great

What Makes this Book So Great
Jo Walton
446 pages
published in 2014

What Makes this Book So Great is that it’s written by Jo Walton, who has a real talent for making you both reconsider books you know well or long for books you’ve never heard of before. I’ve known Jo for almost twenty years now, from when we both independently discovered internet, usenet and rec.arts.sf.written, where it didn’t take long for her to become one of the most interesting posters there. It was no great surprise that she became a professional writer, or that Tor would ask her to do the same thing she did on usenet on their website, the end result of which is this book. You could call it the non-fiction counterpart of Jo’s Hugo and Nebula award winning Among Others

What this is than is a collection of some 130 columns written for tor.com in 2008-2010, mostly discussing a single book, sometimes going into more general topics about reading books. As Jo makes clear from the start, she isn’t a critic and she’s not reviewing these books, she’s just writing about the books she’s reading and why she likes them. Because she’s been reading for a long time, because she’s a writer herself, because she’s been thinking and talking about books, about science fiction in the ways only an intelligent lifelong reader can, these columns are interesting whether or not you’ve read the books in question.

Now Jo Walton is one of the persons who’ve done a lot in shaping my own reading over the past twenty years and a lot of the novels she’s talking about here we used to discuss on usenet way back when. Reading this felt a lot like going back to those days and at times I wanted this to be an usenet discussion rather than a book just to say “yes, but” or “have you thought of”.

To be honest, because she did so much to shape my reading, because so many of the books she likes are also favourites of mine, it’s hard to be very objective about this book. Whether or not you’ll like it depends on how much you like Jo’s voice and enthusiasms. If you’ve read Among Others you’ll already know that she grew up reading science fiction in the seventies and that while she does read outside of the science fiction and fantasy genres, those are her home turf.

Her tastes, as seen in the columns collected here, run to the more literary part of the genre, rather than the hardcore Heinlein/Campbellian tradition. Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke do appear, but writers like Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, Tanith Lee, Ursula LeGuin or Jack Womack get as much if not more attention. Jo also spends much time looking over less well known writers, both writing inside and outside the genre, to bring to the attention interesting books otherwise overlooked. It’s interesting to see which writers she pays the most attention to, which seem to be mostly those writers rec.arts.sf.written was in love with in the nineties: both Steve Brust’s Draegeran novels and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga get long series of reviews, as do the Alliance/Union novels of C. J. Cherryh. Other rasfw darlings like Vernor Vinge, Iain M. Banks and John Barnes also make multiple appearances.

The picture of Jo Walton you get is that of an intelligent, demanding reader who wants both intellectual stimulance as well as a good story. She doesn’t have much truck with experimental writing, or so it seems, as most of the book talked about are fairly mainstream in their construction, but doesn’t go for much pulp either, the occasional indulgence like Jerry Pournelle’s Janissaries nonewithstanding.

I’d read a lot of these columns when they first appeared on tor.com a few years ago, but rereading them was no punishment. What Makes this Book So Great made me want to reread those books I already knew about and seek out those that were new to me, which I find is the ultimate sign of a book like this: to make you curious about the books discussed.

Dark Eden — Chris Beckett

Cover of Dark Eden

Dark Eden
Chris Beckett
404 pages
published in 2012

Dark Eden won the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award and was also a finalist for the BSFA Award, which is why I got it from the library when I saw it there. It won against fairly stiff competition like Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion as well, so I was curious to see if it was worthy of the win. To be honest, I was slightly disappointed. This isn’t a bad novel, but it’s a bit on the slight side for my liking.

To start with the positives, the world Beckett depicts in Dark Eden, a planet far out in interstellar space, a rogue wanderer without a sun, with life only possible through the presence of geothermal energy, which the local lifeforms have evolved to make use off one way or another. Trees grow out of the heat channels running from the planet’s core, the basis for a complex ecology that luckily for the people that crashed into Eden, turns out to be compatible with human life. Five people landed on Eden, three people decided to try and leave again, two remained behind and started a family. Twohundred years later their descendants number roughly fivehundred, still living in the same valley their ancestors landed in, having degenerated into hunter gatherers, losing most skills and knowledge of their ancestors in the process.

This is the central conceit in the story you need to swallow to be able to enjoy it. We don’t get to see the original crash landing or how the castaways first made their home on Eden, but get to hear their story in bits and pieces through the legends, plays and stories their descendants tell about them. So we never get to know why two of the five, Tommy and Angela decided to stay on Eden and not only stay, but start a family in such bleak circumstances. Was it an accident, design, was it entirely voluntarily on Angela’s part? We don’t get to know, nor why they decided to do so knowing full well the risk of inbreeding that would plague later generations. For the story Beckett wanted to tell, Eden needed to have its Adam and Eve and so it got it.

The other thing you need to swallow is how Beckett lets his characters talk. Dialogue is in a simplified, slang ridden dialect, with emphasis created by doubling up words, which gets old old fast fast. Time is calculated in womb times, fucking is called slipping, there are various mangled words (Genda, Any Virsy, etc) that you can feel smug about for knowning when the characters don’t. Once you get used to it it’s not too bad, but it did take a while for me to do so.

As Dark Eden opens, the population explosion in the small valley the Family lives in has reached a crisis point, though nobody recognises it. Food resources are getting more and more scarce and more and more people have to work harder and harder to feed everybody. The situation is made worse by the fact that the Family is bound by tradition to live together and close to where the original castaways landed and that the Family is hence literally hidebound and utterly inflexible in its traditions, venerating the elderly and ruled as a sort of matriarchy, which we’ll get back to.

Dark Eden is a traditional science fiction sort of story and it’s no wonder then that as its main protagonist it has a young man, John Redtree, brighter and more curious than the overwhelming majority of the Family, who is the only one who both recognises the danger it is in and willing to take action to prevent it. It also turns out John is a bit of an inventor, at one point inventing proper clothing, though the idea of animal husbandry comes from somebody else fortunately, or the Clan of the Cavebear in space vibe would’ve been even stronger.

As it is, the story flows along expected lines. John chafes against the traditions and restrictions of the Family and pushes for change. The elders don’t listen, while the younger generation does, things come to a head and the Family is split, with John and his followers moving out, ultimately attempting to leave the valley system they’ve lived in ever since the crash landing.

Interwoven with this is the secondary theme, of the transition between a traditional, incurious, cooperative matriarchal society to one where aggressive, restless men are in charge, both for the better and the worse. As it’s put in the story: “The time of men was coming, I could see,” says Tina. “Women had run things so far, when there was just one Family, but that was over now, and in this new broken-up world it would be the men that would get ahead.” Beckett presents this both as inevitable and largely positive, even if also releases the spectre of violence and murder into Eden. It does make for a gender essentialist sort of story, where the male characters are dynamic and forceful and the women are content to follow.

What saves it is the presence of Tina Talltrees, as smart as John and smart enough to see that for all his good sides, he’s a bit of a psychopath, always wanting to be in control, always looking for a new challenge, sometimes too eager to seek conflict rather than compromise. After John, Tina is the most prominent voice in the book and her general sarkiness cuts through some of the earnestness of the rest of it.

Dark Eden is ultimately a traditional science fiction novel of change and the conflict it brings, slightly more sophisticated than its golden age models in that it recognises change, even if necessary, is not always entirely a good thing. It’s clearly an attempt to write a serious book, but it didn’t challenge me enough and I’m surprised it won the Clarke Award.

Terminal World — Alastair Reynolds

Cover of Terminal World

Terminal World
Alastair Reynolds
487 pages
published in 2010

I find Alastair Reynolds hard to review. I like his work well enough to keep reading his novels, but I find it hard to say anything useful about them. As a writer, he has his feet planted firmly in the hard science fiction camp, where “hard” means no FTL ships or time travel and only the right sort of technobabble and jargon. He is however, unlike far too many American hard sf writers, not blind to literary virtues and not half bad at creating plausible, lived in futures either. All in all, most of his novels are solid, core science fiction, where if you like that sort of thing you’ll like them, but perhaps with not much to talk about other than the plot or the setting. They’re evolutionary, rather than revolutionary novels.

Terminal World is a case in point. This is a standalone adventure story set in the far future, where the world as we know it has changed considerably. It’s slowly dying, with what remains of humanity clustered on and around a gigantic artificial spire called Spearpoint, which from top to bottom is divided into zones of ever decreasing technology: Circuit City, Neon Heights, Steamtown, etc. Transfering from one zone to another is not easy: people who do it suffer from zone sickness, while higher technology stops working in a lower tech zone. Away from Spearpoint the world is largely wilderness, with the various zones becoming much larger as they spread out from the spire. What we have here in fact, is the planetary equivalent of Vernor Vinge’s Zones of Thoughts he divided the galaxy in, in A Fire Upon the Deep and sequels. It’s a great setting, with a never quite revealed secret at the heart of it observant readers might puzzle out for themselves.

And yet, the story that’s told in it is somewhat pedestrian. It starts with Quillon, an angel from Circuit City, the highest and most advanced part of Spearpoint, who’s a political refugee now living in Neon Heights. Where the first is roughly post-singular, the second is of a nineteenfifties technology level. When assassins from his former home turn up to hunt him down for the secrets in his head, secrets he himself is unaware of, he has to move down and out of Spearpoint, into the great unknown.

Once out of Spearpoint, Terminal World suffers from a common problem with fantasy novels, in that the story has to feature all the dangers and locations Quillon is told about before leaving town. For large parts of this Quillon is largely a passive observer, whom the plot happens to as it moves from set piece to set piece.

What saves the book are those set pieces. There is for example the Swarm, a steampunkish fleet of dirigibles, zeppelins and heavier than air aircraft forming their own, 24/7 airborne community, having evolved out of Spearpoint’s air force, long forgotten in the city itself. There are the self assembling, vampiric cyborgs which are the greatest threat in the wilderness and especially, there’s one scene at the end of the book that redeems it all by itself.

Because the zones are shifting, the Swarm and Quillon manage to move into a territory that for thousands of years was on a far too low a technological level for even normal humans to exist. Deep in the heart of it the Swarm comes across a huge graveyard of rockets and planes, of an increasingly primitive nature as they moved deeper into it, the end result of hundreds, perhaps thousands of years of failed escape attempts by the inhabitants of a now dead, twin city to Spearpoint. It’s a chilling, awe inspiring scene, but it’s only one scene and it has no further bearing on the plot.

It may perhaps be what Reynolds is doing, while the plot goes on its steady way, is play a game with the reader. A game in which the true nature of the world is never quite revealed, but hints are given. A dying desert world of which the atmosphere is slowly leaking into space as its inhabitants likewise are slowly losing their technology, their marvelous city dependent on the most basic of resources gathered from the countryside, resources also slowly drying up. It’s a world of barbarians taking over without understanding the high technology of their ancestors, a world indeed with two moons in the sky.

Now which world does that remind you of?

Ancillary Justice — Ann Leckie

Cover of Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice
Ann Leckie
385 pages
published in 2013

It’s funny how you don’t notice how ingrained gender is until you get your nose rubbed in it. In Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie makes it clear by the third page that when her protagonist Breq uses “she” and “her” she uses it as a neutral pronoun, yet unless I paid close attention or Leckie explicitly outed a character as male, I kept thinking of every character she meets as female. That’s I think a response more readers will have, as we’re just not used to thinking of the female form as universal; traditonally it has always been “he” or “him”, or something like singular “they” for those of us aware that the male isn’t actually universal. It may seem like a too clever writing trick, a clumpsy attempt at showing the reader the gender assumptions build into the very language we use, but I don’t think this is actually what Leckie had in mind. What it does instead is establishing the fundamental strangeness of Breq herself even before we learn she’s the last remaining component of a thousands years old warship’s AI.

That consistent use of “she” and “her” foregrounds the difference of the Radchaai culture Breq comes from. It’s a bit of unexplained strangeness that tells a lot about their society, culture and history, most importantly that the Radchaai are inherently matriarchal in the same way most if not all actually existing human societies are patriarchal. But there’s more going on with Breq’s gender blindness, as other Radchaai seem to have far less trouble differiating between men and women, even if they use the same pronouns for both. Meanwhile Breq not only has pronoun troubles, she also has trouble remembering which secondary sexual characteristics are male and which are female. It’s this that singles her out as not quite human.

As it turns out, Breq is only the last remaining fragment of One Esk, which used to convince of some twenty ancillaries, these being the depersonalised bodies of Radchaai enemies converted to housing an AI submind. One Esk herself was just one part of the warship Justice of Toren, which has thousands of ancillaries — though most are deep frozen until needed — alongside its Radchaai crew. Breq’s memory, as One Esk, goes back thousands of years, most of which was spent conquering and “civilising” various non-Radchaai systems.

The Radchaai, it seems, are not very nice, an expansive interstellar empire busy assimiliating every other human system and have done so seemingly forever. In an offhand mention halfway through Ancillary Justice it’s explained that all this is done to protect the mother system, a giant Dyson Sphere at the heart of the Radchaai Empire, whose inhabitants are barely aware of the outside universe. It’s an interesting idea for a galactic empire, reminiscent of the popular imagination of what the Roman Empire was like. The Radchaai method of operation is to attack and conquer other human systems, subvert or kill its rulers, crush resistance, then offer the remaining, docile population membership in the empire.

Ancillaries like One Esk/Breq play a large role in this subjugation/pacification, unhesitantly obeying orders of their (human) officiers but without all the messy rape and abuse of human soldiers. To non-Radchaai meanwhile they’re objects of fear and loathing, being after all the converted bodies of previous victims of Radchaai expansion.

When we first meet Breq she’s on a quest of vengeance against those in the Radchaai empire who killed her, killed One Esq, having been a singleton for nineteen years when the story opens. In Ancillary Justice‘s second storyline we learn how this murder came to pass, as the story goes nineteen years back in time, to One Esq’s last posting in a backwater city on a newly pacified world. In essence then, this is a colonial murder/revenge story.

The colonial revenge story is one that’s somewhat old fashioned these days, now that western countries don’t really don’t have colonies anymore, just some protectorates and overseas departments it doesn’t do too much good to look too closely at. But they used to be a thing in the twentieth century, stories about murders that the colonial justice system couldn’t handle because they were perpetrated by those at the heart of it, to those who were the least protected by it, leaving no other option than to go outside it to get justice. It’s of course impossible to have true justice in a colonial situation, as colonism depends on declaring some peoples second class, non-citizes, slaves or sub alterns. One Esk is the latter, a willing tool of the oppressor because she literally cannot be anything but. What shook her so hard that her programming failed is what at the heart of Ancillary Justice‘s plot.

As a whole though, it’s so much more than that. Leckie is a brilliantly evokative writer and Ancillary Justice was one of those novels I couldn’t wait to finish yet didn’t want to end. She has a great eye for the telling detail; for example I loved the way she had One Esk sing to herself. If you have twenty bodies to sing with, why wouldn’t you? Yet she’s the only such ancillary to do so…

I’d only heard of Ancillary Justice or Ann Leckie when I read Ian Sales’ review. At the time she was new enough not to have a Wikipedia page. In his review he mentioned that Leckie had a lot of buzz behind her, similar to Kameron Hurley with her first book, but I was skeptical. If it was so good, why hadn’t I heard of it before? However, Sales’ review was enthusiastic enough to get me to try it for myself and now I know why Leckie deserved the buzz. She’s nominated for a Clarke Award; I hope she gets it.

Plague Ship — Andre Norton

Cover of Plague Ship

Plague Ship
Andre Norton
192 pages
published in 1956

Hold on to your tail fins, space fans. This retro rocket boosted tale is sure to knock you out of your orbit. Oy, did this very fifties future slang get old fast in Plague Ship. This is another of Norton’s books at Project Gutenberg and mildly irritating as its language occasionally was, it was also the perfect kind of light adventure science fiction to be read in small snatches on my phone, while getting coffee at work.

Plague Ship is the second in Norton’s Solar Queen series, about the adventures of the crew of the ship the series is named after, free traders trying to eke out a living making the kind of trading deals the big companies can’t. The Solar Queen is literally a huge rocket ship, complete with humongous fifties tail fins to land on. Amongst its crew is Dane Thorson, Cargo-master-apprentice and our hero, prone to saying things like “rest easy on your fins” and “right up the rockets” and all other sorts of horrid expressions you have to read around.

Plague Ship starts with the Solar Queen visiting the planet Sargol, for which it now holds a trading license, due to the events of the previous novel. This planet is the source of a new sort of jewels which are very much in fashion back on Earth. Getting those jewels means dealing with the natives, which isn’t the easiest of tasks, as these have a very rigid concept of how negotiations should take place, which the Solar Queen’s crew has no choice but to adapt to. Worse, it turns out there are also representatives of one of the big trading firms present on Sargon, waiting to see if the Solar Queen slips up so they can take over their licence…

Luckily, through a series of misadventures, in which Dane plays a large role, they do manage to get the natives to trade as it turns out they’re very partial to catnip. However, as they blast off from Sargol their problems are only starting as most of the crew, save for Dane and three others fall ill to a mysterious sickness. It’s up to the four of them to get the Solar Queen back to Earth without being quarantined or giving the big trading company an excuse to take over.

I’m not sure if Plague Ship was originally published as a serial, but it sure reads like one. Dane is put from one dangerous situation into another, with no time to catch his breath. He and his friends not only have to deal with getting the Solar Queen back to Earth with all their fellow crew members helpless and sick, no, theh also have to evade the space patrol and land on Earth without their knowledge. Then they have to find a way out of the radioactive zone they hid in, a remnant of World War III (another very fifties sf obsession) and get their plight known to the people of Earth, to get out of the fix they’re in. It all moves along quickly, too quickly at times, with no time to really dig deep into anything.

For me personally, I would’ve been happy had Norton kept the focus on the Solar Queen’s adventures on Sargol and skipped the rest of the plot. She had a knack for introducing small, telling details to sketch a world, (also on display in The Time Traders) and what she put in about the tribes of Sargol made me interested in reading more about them. Once the Solar Queen left the planet it all became a lot less interesting.

Nevertheless, if you can get used to the very fifties feel of Plague Ship and are not too bothered with how lowtech the Solar Queen and future Earth are, this is actually a perfectly adequate adventure science fiction story. It’s something you could read in half a day and ideally suited to read in short snatches on your mobile when bored.