SF Book Review, Part 24: The Killer B's

Without going to far into the history of Science Fiction, there was a revival of epic, large-scale Hard SF in the 1980s led by three authors: David Brin, Greg Bear, and Gregory Benford. Dubbed the "Killer B's", they seemingly incorporated the strengths of New Wave authors while returning the genre to its rational, optimistic, Campbellian mode. Less navel-gazing, less counterculture, less dreary pessimism... Interestingly enough, it feels like we could use another such revival these days. Alas, we seem to have descended into an ill-advised political morass, misdiagnosing core SF tenants for political victimhood. It sometimes feels like there's no escape in modern SF (this is probably something worth exploring in its own post sometime, not in a short intro to some reviews)... but luckily, I have plenty of books like these to discover. Three are from the Killer B's, the other two are just from authors whose last name starts with a B (and one isn't even SF!) Cheating? If you say so. Let's stop quibbling and get to the books:
  • Startide Rising by David Brin - Earth's first Dolphin-led exploration vessel Streaker has crashed in the uncharted water world of Kithrup, pursued by bloodthirsty zealots fighting over them in orbit. They'd discovered a long lost fleet of spaceships thought to belong to the fabled Progenitors, an idea that is heretical to many competing and hostile alien races, who are now out to destroy the Streaker and its human/dolphin crew in order to hoard the secret to themselves.

    Technically a sequel to Sundiver, this could potentially be read as a standalone, and while I enjoyed both books, this one represents a dramatic improvement over Sundiver (which I'd say is overlong and muddled). At first I thought this might suffer from the same flaws, but it turns out that much of what I thought of as being needlessly tangential or episodic turned out to be artfully tied together in the end. And it's a really fantastic ending, one that surprises and delights at each new turn. There are a lot of plot lines here and Brin does an exceptional job setting them up and then bringing them together. There are still some loose ends which I presume will be addressed in the third book in the series, but this one remains satisfying in itself (a trick I wish modern authors could pull off better, if this past year's Hugo finalists are any indication).

    The perspective of "uplifted" dolphins is an interesting one and makes up the bulk of the novel, though we do get ample exposure to their small coterie of human crewmates as well. It's funny, I was trying to think what a film/tv adaptation of this might look like, and I suspect we'll never see it because the Dolphin bits might seem ludicrous if they're not visually perfect, even if it works great on the page. I suspect many will see Brin's optimism and notion of Earthican exceptionalism (uh, my phrasing, not his) as jejune and unsophisticated, but I kinda love it for that. Their escape plan is only hinted at, but you can piece together the big parts, leaving enough twists and turns for the finale. We don't find out much about the Progenitors, but the planet Kithrup has its own mysteries that make up for that (and it turns out, are not wholly unrelated). The book periodically checks in on the alien forces fighting in orbit, but these sketches are less successful. Perhaps it's because we only get little glimpses, but something about these races has never really clicked with me (even the ones from Sundiver). But that's only a quibble, this comes highly recommended, especially for fans of Hard SF and Space Opera.

    It won the Hugo and Nebula and while it is not the first work from the Killer B's, it seems to represent the tipping point at which people seemed to realize that something special was going on. This novel paved the way for Bear and Benford (even if, again, they were writing before this novel). This is perhaps an oversimplification and worthy of further exploration in its own post, but for now, I'll just say that I can see why this novel would have been inspirational. I will most certainly be revisiting this series in the future...
  • Blood Music by Greg Bear - Vergil Ulam is a scientist working on unlocking the computational potential of cellular material. When he crosses the line and uses human cells for his experiments, he's fired and directed to destroy his samples. Instead, Virgil secretly injects himself with the engineered cells with the hope that he could smuggle them out and recover them later to continue his work. Naturally, the cells have other plans. The mad scientist experimenting on himself is a time-honored, if a bit silly, story. One would think it's the sort of thing that wouldn't work in the rigorous confines of hard SF, but this turns out to be one of the best executions of such a trope that I've read. Virgil isn't exactly the most exciting protagonist, but he gets the job done, and Bear takes this story way, way beyond what I would have expected from the opening of the book. I mean, it goes to some really bonkers places. I don't want to say much to spoil it, but this is a great, standalone story that is well worth checking out. This was also nominated for the Hugo and Nebula, but lost out because it had the great misfortune to be published the same year as Ender's Game. You better believe I'll be reading more Greg Bear.
  • Timescape by Gregory Benford - Thrill to a story of time travel, tachyons, environmental disaster, encoded messages from the future, and... dinner parties? The politics of academia? Barry Goldwater? Marital infidelity and more dinner parties? Yes, so I'm a little more mixed on this tale of future academics (in the far flung year of 1998!) attempting to send a message back to 1962 in order to forestall an environmental disaster.

    The meat of that plot is fantastic, and Benford hits many hard SF tropes right in the sweet spot. I particularly enjoyed the examination of sending a message back in time, where Benford actually takes the movement of earth's entire solar system (and galaxy) into account whilst aiming the message (though that is later overridden by other considerations, it's still something I'd think more time travel stories would take into account, but don't). Likewise, the work of decoding the message and trying to figure out what it means is interesting enough, and even the bureaucratic encumbrances encountered during that process make for interesting reading.

    Where Benford falls down is, well, the dinner party portions of the novel, which, unfortunately, comprise far too much of the narrative. It's not that they're necessarily bad (though, yeah, some of it really is bad), just that they don't really fit with the rest of the story, feeling oddly out of place and wreaking absolute havoc over the pacing of the story. As a result, it feels like almost nothing happens until near the end of the novel, when you start to see repercussions of the messages from the future. What's more, as the reader, you're operating under more information than most of the characters, so you know what's coming next and not in a good, Hitchcockian sort of way either. It's one thing to have your characters go through the paces so that they can reach a logical conclusion that the reader already knows, it's another to have them spend 80% of the novel doing so. I've read some Benford before and while he always includes interesting bits and even some good turns of language, I always find myself disappointed on the whole. I can't say as though I'll be pursuing more Benford anytime soon...
  • The Player of Games by Ian M. Banks - A while back I got all fired up about finding some new space opera worth its salt and decided to read the first novel in Ian Banks' long-run Culture series, Consider Phlebias. Episodic, sloppy, and overstuffed, it was nonetheless imaginative, intelligent, and stuffed with extra-crunchy space operatic tropes. While I ultimately found it disjointed and mildly disappointing, I liked it enough to proceed with the series (uh, a few years later).

    It turns out that this second novel in the Culture series is a narrowly focused and sharply drawn narrative that represents pretty much the stylistic opposite of Consider Phlebias. No series of jumbled vignettes here, everything is tightly plotted and interconnected, following the perspective of a single character: Jernau Morat Gurgeh, the titular Player of Games, the best strategic gamer in the Culture. Having mastered all forms of gamedom, he's also bored out of his skull. One suspects this is meant to illustrate the dissonance that the concept of the Culture, a post-scarcity utopia governed by AI, represents. Would human beings react favorably to such a situation, or would the devolve into pure hedonism? Or violent rebellion? Gurgeh represents this conflict well. Left to his own devices, he has mastered games but discovered it an ultimately hollow achievement. What's next? What matters enough to be next?

    The answer comes in the form of Contact, the group responsible for interacting with other civilizations (diplomatically... or not, as the situation dictates). After some prodding and outright coercion from an annoying AI, Gurgeh accepts a long-term assignment to the empire of Azad in order to represent the Culture in their culturally-ascendant game, also named Azad. It seems that the entire empire, from the lowliest worker to the emperor, is governed by the game. In essence, ruling the empire equates to playing the game, and the philosophy of the game represents the philosophy of the empire.

    Fictional games are tricky to deploy in a narrative like this, and Banks gets around many of the difficulties admirably, describing higher-level meta-gamed and strategic philosophy more than tactical moves. This allows for some maneuvers that would be otherwise suspect, such as when Gurgeh manages a near miraculous reversal after almost immediately falling prey to a talented game player. But it also allows Banks to leverage an underdog sports analogy as well as provide several interesting game-related revelations that are insightful without feeling like a cheat on Banks' part. It is a little surprising that the empire of Azad would allow some of these shenanigans to go on as long as they do, but Banks manages to keep the explanations for Gurgeh's continuing success satisfying enough that it works. Some of the final revelations, while surprising to Gurgeh, might not be as surprising to experienced readers of SF (You mean to tell me that Contact has more pointed motives for Gurgeh's presence than they let on? No way!), but it all works well enough in the end, retaining just a hint of ambiguity as to what Gurgeh's endeavor actually means. Meanwhile, Banks' elevation of a game to civilizational levels gives him ample room for a multi-layered exploration of various themes and philosophies. I ultimately enjoyed this a great deal more than Consider Phlebias, and it hangs together as a narrative much better as well. Banks wasn't a member of the Killer B's and comes out of a different tradition, but I'm happy to include this one in a post like this. Once again, this is a series of novels that I will most certainly be revisiting.
  • Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold - A follow up to last year's Penric's Demon, this one follows Penric as he consults on the murder of a pig farmer and the request of Locator Oswyl (basically a police detective). They seek Inglis, a young shaman whose role in the pig farmer's murder is unclear. This takes place a few years after the last story, and Penric has gone through all the training needed to become a sorcerer, and his relationship with Desdemonia (so ably established in the previous novella) has grown and matured. As usual, Bujold weaves an interesting and entertaining tale, one that is, in some ways, simpler than the first novella, though it turns out to be a lot more complicated than that. I won't ruin it by getting into details, but it's a worthy read. It probably ranks below the last novella for me, but still pretty good on the whole.
And there you have it. The Six Weeks of Halloween fast approach, so put your horror hat on, it's going to be a bumpy, terrifying ride.