The Warrior’s Apprentice — Lois McMaster Bujold

Cover of The Warrior's Apprentice

The Warrior’s Apprentice
Lois McMaster Bujold
315 pages
published in 1986

As you probably know, Bob, The Warrior’s Apprentice is the second novel in the Vorkosigan Saga series of mil-sf adventures and came out in the same year as the first, Shards of Honor. Whereas that book starred Miles parents, this is the introduction of Miles Vorkosigan, the just under five foot crippled before birth by a neurotoxin attack on his mother, insanely charismatic, insanely hyperactive military genius who, at the start of the novel is trying to make it through the eliminations for officer candidacy in the Barrayaran Imperial Military Service. The written exam is no problem; it’s the physical tests that are a challenge for somebody who could break his bones just by sitting down hard.

His strategy is to take it slow and careful, but being seventeen he lets himself get goaded by one of his fellow candidates, takes an unnecessary risk and breaks his legs, with it shattering his chances to get into the military. Worse than his own disappointment is his grandfather’s, the liberator of Barrayar of the Cetegendans, who dies the next night — Miles convinced he killed him by breaking his heart. In his despair and sorry he’s glad to get away from Barrayar and, because of the political situation his father too would like to see him visit his mother’s family on Beta Colony, a nicely civilised part of the galaxy where aristocratic notions of honour are held for the anachronisms they are. He doesn’t travel alone; his bodyguard, sergeant Bothari, of course has to travel with him and he manages to persuade his mother to ask Bothari’s daughter, Elena, to come with him as well. He’s of course half in love with her and thinks a trip to another planet and perhaps the chance to learn more of Elena’s long dead mother, would get him into her good graces. Yes, Miles is somewhat of a nice guy but trust me, he grows out of it.

To be honest, Miles is a bit of a schemer and an impulsive gambler; not with something as uninteresting as money, but he does have a knack for spur of the moment impulses landing him in jams that only his gift for gab and quick thinking can get him out of. It’s this impulsiveness that got him to take Elena to Beta Colony and that, not even an hour after landing gets him into trouble again, as he intervenes in a dispute between a desperate pilot and the yard owner who wants to scrap the ship he’s holding hostage. In the end he ends up buying the ship, taking the pilot into his service, then devising a plan to actually pay for all this by smuggling a shipload of weapons to a planet under siege, in the process also rescuing a deserted Barrayaran officer stranded on Beta. All of this not so much planned, but the result of Miles boldy going forward to try and gain enough momentum to get himself out of the mess he just made. As Bujold puts it:

At the end of two days he found himself teetering atop a dizzying financial structure compounded of truth, lies, credit, cash purchases, advances on advances, shortcuts, a tiny bit of blackmail, false advertising, and yet another mortgage on some more of his glow-in-the-dark farmland.

Things get worse once his scheme actually gets underway and he and his plucky band of followers — most of whom following out of curiousity as much as anything — arrive at their destination. Ultimately it ends up with Miles in control of The Dendarii Mercenaries, a mercenary band he had first made up to get the representative of the planet he was going to smuggle weapons to to trust him and that ended up consisting of most of the mercenaries actually besieging that planet. Watching this all unfold is a collossall romp punctured by “I’ll figure something out” from Miles.

It’s in fact such an entertaining romp that it can be hard to notice the more serious parts of the story. These aren’t bloodless adventures and when people die, it has an impact, even on their killers. Early in a jump pilot dies as the result of an interrogation Miles had ordered to get the codes for a ship and it haunts him. Similarly, while the way in which he swears people to his service at the drop of a hat is played for comic relief, Bujold also makes serious points about loyalty and leadership.

I’m not sure when exactly I first read The Warrior’s Apprentice, but it was before Shards of Honor. The revelations about Elena’s true parentage and her father’s role in it therefore came as much as a shock to me as it did to her, as she turned out to be the product of rape, the mother who had supposedly died when she was a young child still alive, her father having been the rapist. In the hands of a lesser writer this could’ve been tacky, out of place in what seems at first to be a wish fulfilment adventure story, but Bujold handles this sensibly and believable. She doesn’t shy away from the fact that Elena’s ignorance of her father’s past did her no favours, or that Miles’ parents had been more concerned with her father’s well being than perhaps her own.

What also puts The Warrior’s Apprentice above mere wish fulfilment is the fact that Miles doesn’t get the girl. Elena falls for somebody else entirely, turns out to be her own woman, not just an trophy or a pet project. That’s really what puts the whole Vorkosigan series on a higher level than most other adventure sf series; Bujold never forgets there are other people besides Miles and while he might sometimes only see object to be manipulated, she never forgets.

Lagoon — Nnedi Okorafor

Cover of Lagoon

Nnedi Okorafor
306 pages
published in 2014

There has been a bit of a spat about the use of dialect and “non-standard” English in science fiction lately, as various people were critical about using dialect all together, finding it gimmicky or too difficult. As Juan Diaz put it “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over” which is more true than it should be. A novel like Lagoon therefore, which is not only set in a city and country –Lagos, Nigeria — unfamiliar to the average science fiction reader, but which is (partially) written in Nigerian English, using Nigerian vocabulary and grammar, may be somewhat of a challenge. Because while we as science fiction readers supposedly crave the shock of the new, often it’s only if it’s cloaked in familiar language and cultural expectations.

And I have to admit, I did have to struggle a little bit with Lagoon, getting used to the language and the setting, though to nowhere near the extent I had to get used to Feersum Endjinn. For me this was a turn-on rather than a turn-off; I don’t mind working harder for my entertainment if a book is worth it and Lagoon certainly is. This is a novel of first contact where the people encountering the alien are not square jawed space marines but a marine biologist (Adaora), a troubled soldier (Agu) and a world famous rap star (Anthony), taken as representatives of humanity into the sea as the aliens landed there, to be returned to Lagos with Ayodele, an envoy from the aliens who needs to meet up with the president of Nigeria to discuss the future of the country now they’ve made their home there.

As Lagos starts responding, first low key and cautious to the impact the alien spaceship made in the ocean and the subsequent flood of its beachfront, the four make their way to Adaora’s home that she left earlier to escape her husband, increasingly under the spell of a fundamentalist Christian cult and more and more convinced Adaora is a seawitch, something that her return home with strangers and an alien in tow doesn’t help with. That conflict is what drives much of the novel, but Agu and Anthony also have their own histories to content with, as they attempt to get into touch with Nigeria’s ill president. In a city already primed for chaos with what happened out in the ocean, their actions light the powderkeg as Lagos explodes, the alien contact only serving as the pretext for what happens, as various people try to exploit the crisis for their own end.

What impressed me in this is the way Okorafor allows almost every character, no matter how minor, have their own story and motivations, many of which having nothing to do with the aliens and what they represent, their stories crossing and intersecting with the main plotline until it becomes unclear what actually is the main storyline. Some people may find this chaoting or weak writing, but it fits the nature of the alien contact, too big, too incomprehensible, to be contained by a more linear story and not really contained here either. As in real life, we don’t actually get to know the resolution of every story she started.

There’s the Black Nexus for example, “one of the only LGBT student organizations in Nigeria”, who hope to use the event to come out and put LGBT rights back on the agenda of what hopefully be a new Nigeria. Really their story has nothing to do with what is supposedly a first contact novel, but it fits so well with what might happen in the real world if aliens ever did land in a place like Lagos.

The other way in which Lagoon isn’t your average, clinical first contact novel is that Okorafor takes great pleasure in crossing and recrossing the boundaries of fantasy and science fiction. Not only do we have marine life given intelligence by the aliens, not to mention the old gods of Nigeria coming to life (or perhaps remanifesting themselves), but there are also evil spider killing highways and other assorted oddities. In a lesser writer this would’ve been either a mess or incredibly naff, but Okorafor makes it work and is not afraid to leave things unexplained.

In the past year or so, thanks largely to mildly obsessed with afrofuturism, an art form, literary genre, music and more that’s rooted in African history and mythology as well as the realities of the African diaspora. Lagoon fits in well with this tradition, unapologetically straddling sf and fantasy as well as Nigerian history and the American science fiction tradition. Her own background, the child of Nigerian parents raised in America may have had something to do with this.

This is a novel I will have to come back to at some point and is certainly going on my shortlist for Hugo candidates for next year. One of the best books I’ve read so far this year, or any year.

Hurricane Fever – Tobias Buckell

Cover of Hurricane Fever

Hurricane Fever
Tobias Buckell
272 pages
published in 2014

On Twitter,Tobias Buckell asked for reviewers for his latest novel, Hurricane Fever, so I took him up on it. Buckell is a writer I’ve heard a lot of good things about and who in the usual sf fandom squabbles has consisently been on the right side, so I was keen to try his work out. Hurricane Fever is being promoted and indeed reads like a technothriller, though the setting, — a near future Caribbean menaced by almost constant hurricanes — is science fictional, if barely considering the actual state of the world. The focus of the story itself though remains solidly in technothriller territory and it wouldn’t take much to make it over into a contemporary thriller.

Prudence “Roo” Jones is a retired agent of the Caribbean Intelligence Group, now focusing on sailing his boat Spitfire and keeping his orphaned cousin Delroy in school and out of trouble. That all changes when Zee, an old friend of his spying days sends him a final message. His instincts tell him to ignore it, but he was a friend so he feels he has no choice but to go and pick up the package he died for. Not long after, decidedly Aryan looking, shaven headed thugs with a fondness for nazi tattoes attack him; there may be a connection.

Also coming into his life and at the same moment is Kit Barlow, Zee’s sister, looking for answers to what happened to her brother. She manages to find Roo just as the nazi thugs do and they have to trust each other to get out of the trap set by them. Once out of it though, can Roo keep on trusting her when he never knew Zee had a sister in the first place? And if she’s not who she says she is, who is she really? Meanwhile there’s still the question of what exactly the data Zee got Roo to pick up means and who the heavies send to retrieve it are working for.

Plotwise Hurricane Fever develops along familiar lines and I for one was able to correctly guess the bad guys plot quite early in the book, based on both the little proloque at the start of the novel and the nature of the data Zee sends Roo. That Kit wasn’t quite whom she seemed was obvious too, though the exact nature was a surprise and finally the fate of Delroy I’m afraid I was worried about from the start. But that’s not the real strength of this thriller anyway, even if Buckell is more than capable of building up and keeping the suspense.

No, what I liked more were Roo and Kit and their relationship. The story is told through Roo’s eyes and it’s clear that from the first moment they met and Kit introduced herself that he didn’t trust her story, but was willing to trust her. They work well together and both are competent people: no damsel in distress nonsense here, in fact she’s more in control than he is. Also appreciated: no obligatory romance.

The other thing I liked was the slow buildup before the thriller plot kicked in. It’s only in chapter eight that things kick off, first Roo and Delroy have to deal with getting into cover before the encrouching hurricane hits the islands. There’s a lot of sailing and the mechanics of sailing in this novel, a lot of nature and natural forces in counterpoint to the human intriguing driving the plot. And in the background there are always the realities of living in a climate changed altered Caribbean, the reality of having to deal with risen sea levels and near constant storms.

Ultimately what drives the plot is revenge. It’s the motivation for Beauchamp, the villain and it’s what drives both Roo and Kit, each driven to vengeance through the actions of Beauchamp. Yes, once again, it’s the unnecessary actions of the villain that prove his undoing; had he left both Kit and Roo alone, they wouldn’t have had a reason to stop him, wouldn’t even have known there was something to stop.

It’s another reminder that Hurricane Fever ultimately is “just” a well told thriller. However, it’s in the little touches that you recognise a great writer in a good one and it’s there that Buckell shows he can do much more. For example, as often in a thriller story, the hero has to infiltrate the bad guy’s lair by dressing up for a party he gives for his business associates. So Roo dresses to the nines in the best James Bond style, finagles an invitation — and is taken for a waiter. The first time this happens, this is an amusing aside about the assumptions about the (white) super rich; the second and third time, they help drive the plot.

Another example. The way Buckell consistently uses singular they and their when talking about people of unknown gender: “A dancer often kept their grace, an athlete a banked fire at their core”. A small thing, but telling and welcome.

Final one. Driving fossil fueled cars as a statement of power and wealth, something I last saw in David Brin’s Earth, that late eighties global warming science fiction thriller written at a time when climate change was still a dire but distant future threat, rather than an seeming inevitable reality.

To sum it up Hurricane Fever is an enjoyable, if somewhat predictable near future thriller, which is written much more intelligently and humane than it needed to be. Also, I need to read more of Buckell.

The Lives of Tao — Wesley Chu

Cover of The Lives of Tao

The Lives of Tao
Wesley Chu
393 pages
published in 2013

I read this because Wesley Chu was nominated for the 2014 John W. Campbell Award for best new writer and it was available in the Hugos Voters Package. I’d also seen it recommended at the local science fiction bookstore and had picked it up once or twice to sample it, though was never convinced enough to buy it. Because I was visiting my hometown for a couple of birthdays this weekend I took the opportunity of two long train journeys to read this, which worked out well.

From Myke Cole’s cover blurb — pulse-pounding, laughout-loud funny and thoughtful — you might guess that this was meant to be an action comedy story, which it was, but without the humour. This just wasn’t funny, I’m not sure it was actually ever meant to be funny and if you read this, set your expectations accordingly. The Lives of Tao actually is a geek wish fulfilment sf thriller, where the fat, underachieving, nerdy slop is taken out of his comfort zone and thrust into a worldwide conspiracy and finally gets the girl he’s been silently lusting after but was afraid to ask out. There may be a bit of pandering in this, you may have guessed.

The fat slob is Roen Tan and the way he’s trust from being just an office peon into the heart of a millions years old war between two alien factions covertly struggling to guide human history, is because one of those aliens had its host body die on it and Roen was the only one available to take him on. The alien is Tao, his previous host body was a suave James Bondesque secret agent with decades of experience and now Tao has to not only learn to work together with somebody new, but that somebody is as far from secret agent material as well, me.

The war Roen has been drafted into is between two factions of the same alien race, who crashlanded on Earth millions of years ago (and might have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs). They’re semi-corporeal, only able to survive on Earth long term by bonding with an animal. Millions of years pass, humans sort of start to get things going and the aliens start to guide human evolution with the sole goal of getting technology up to the level that they can go home. Along the way these aliens split into two factions: the Genjix, who are completely ruthless in chasing this goal and the Prophus splinter group, who are a bit more mellow and human friendly, who’ve been waging a covert war, manipulating history for centuries.

A lot of this book is setup material for what will be the rest of the series, as Roen is trained for his new role as one of the agents fighting this covert war and to help him with this he gets his own personal trainer, Sonya, who is basically the walking embodiment of the sexy, smart tough, uber capable female secret agent, there to both help the hero on his way and to serve as a trophy for his success. Chu sort of avoids some of the more skeevy aspects of this cliche; Roen falls for her and she for him as well, but they don’t get together and they become friends instead of lovers. It’s still such a cliche though and the way Sonya is consisently described, male gaze and all, is problematic too.

Much of the plot revolves around getting Roen into shape, while the Genjix are hunting for him and Tao and the latter slowly reveals to Roen his history. This is done in short paragraphs at the start of each chapter, much of which is set in the East and reveals that Tao had “possessed” e.g. Genghis Khan. As such The Lives of Tao is a typical setup book for the rest of the series, the second book of which has already been published. If you’ve read your share of thrillers and sf adventure stories, much of the shape of the story will be familiar to you, with the climax of the story being a series of set pieces.

The central idea driving the story isn’t that original either of course; giant conspiracies secretly manipulating history and historical figures being secret aliens are a dime a dozen in technothriller land. The way Chu has portrayed it here it seems all of history and anybody of historical importance was an alien, which is just one of those things you have to swallow for the sake of the story; a cool idea but which falls apart when you examine it closely. A lot of The Lives of Tao feels that way to be honest, e.g. if Roen/Tao is feared so much the Genjix pull out all stops to find him, why is he able to stay in his flat?

The Lives of Tao is not a bad book, certainly not for a first novel. It moves along quickly and Chu has a good eye for writing fight scenes, which help a lot in an adventure story like this. What lets it down are the sexual politics, especially in the climax of the story where the oh so capable Sonya becomes just another damsel in distress as well as some of the sloppy worldbuilding. As long as you’re not too annoyed by the first and can read fast enough not to stumble over the latter, this is a decent enough romp.

Fugue for a Darkening Island — Christopher Priest

Cover of Fugue for a Darkening Island

Fugue for a Darkening Island
Christopher Priest
125 pages
published in 1972

There are certain protocols you have to take into account as a reviewer when discussing the books of a new, young writer. Protocols that are still in effect when the author has aged more than forty years since the first publication of his novel and has become a grand old man in the meantime, prone to gently correcting younger writers. Anything that can be said about Fugue for a Darkening Island has to be tempered by the realisation that it is a fortytwo year old novel, not necessarily indicative of the writer Priest now is.

But the truth remains that Fugue for a Darkening Island is a problematic work, a novel with its heart I think in the right place, but which features certain unfortunate themes in Priest’s work that will return in later novels, somewhat muted. I’m thinking of last year’s The Adjacent, featuring a near future Islamic Republic of Great Britain as well as the much earlier A Dream of Wessex which had parts of Britain as a caliphate, but also of The Separation and its naive story of a better world created by a separate peace between nazi Germany and Britain. In short, Priest sometimes goes for settings you’d sooner expect to see in the stories of the more reactionary Baen writers and A Fugue for a Darkening Island is one of those novels, a near future Britain ripped straight from the front pages of National Front propaganda, as the country is flooded by a never ending stream of African refugees destroying the British way of life, its hero a decent middleclass Englishman trying to find a new home for him and his family.

If that sounds like the setup for a British version of The Turner Diaries, this wasn’t his attention according to Priest. In the introduction to the revised edition that came out a few years ago, he actually lamented the fact that what was received as a progressive story at the time of publication, became much less so over time. It is of course not alone in this; much of the earnest progressive commentary on the matters of race in the media of that time now comes across as borderline racist or worse today, if only because of a lack of input by those actually suffering from racism. Priest wanted to comment on the struggle with the birth of Britain’s multicultural society as well as the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the predicted “race wars” that were bound to happen in England through the usual science fictional exagerration. Which is what good science fiction writers should do, but when even the revised edition of your novel can still draw an admiring review from a rightwing xenophobic site, you do have to wonder if you’ve done the right thing. And for god’s sake don’t read the comments.

In Fugue for a Darkening Island a nuclear war has made much of Africa uninhabitable, leading to an exodus from the continent to better places, including Britain. The first most Brits notice of this is when bodies of refugees start wash up on their beaches (not unlike what’s been happening in the Mediterranean in real life currently). As the number of refugees increase and start to land in Britain, a rightwing government is elected to handle it; its autoritarian measures are useless though and as tensions increase, more and more white English take matters in own hand. Riots, street fights and racial conflicts lead to a general civil war as the country disintegrates and the central government disappears. All of which we see first hand through the eyes of Alan Whitman who is not the
most sympathetic of narrators, a thoroughly middle class family man, regularly cheating on his wife. T

The first words of his story are “I have white skin”, as he describes how he looks when the crisis first hit him and his family personally, then six months later, as the country has disintegrated. Throughout the novel we get these three distinct storylines, the first following Whitman in the present trying to survive in the aftermath of the civil war, the second telling how the refugee crisis went from background noise in his life to engulf him and the last telling the broader story of how the crisis came to be, following Whitman in his everyday life. It’s effectively done, the storylines echoing and re-echoing each other.

Whitman as said is not a sympathetic character and he comes over as flat and affectless, rarely emotional. This actually fits in well with the horrors he encounters. It also helps to counter some of the racist appeal of the scenario, avoiding lurid descriptions of racial violence. Nevertheless reading this some four decades later, the similarity with more noxious rightwing racial fantasies kept me uncomfortable throughout it.

Though this was mildly controversial when first published and made Priest known to a wider audience, Fugue for a Darkening Island is a minor work, something that points to his later, better work, but done much more clumsily and less subtle. Probably a novel you can safely skip unless you are a Priest completist.