SF Book Review – Part 32

Catching up on recent SF reads before Hugo season starts (or, uh, you know, write half this post and then procrastinate until we’re well into Hugo season):

  • The Shockwave Rider, by John Brunner – Set in a dystopian early 21st century America where the government has turned into an oligarchy that oppresses its people through computer networks. Nicky Halfinger has escaped from Tarnover, a quasi-corporate government program intended to find and indoctrinate gifted children to help keep the computer networks running, and so on. He’s a fugitive, but he’s able to use his knowledge of the networks to evade capture by continually changing identities. Soon he discovers he’s not alone, and sets about working against the oppressive government system. Published in 1975, this is a pretty precursor to what would later be known as “Cyberpunk” and hugely influential in the nascent computer hacker scene. Indeed, if you ever read any early histories of computer hacking (see: Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier for an example I recently read which unexpectedly contained references to Shockwave Rider), you’ll see the people breaking into systems and releasing worms/viruses often reference The Shockwave Rider as an inspirational text. The book itself is a bit tame by modern standards and has some odd narrative tics. A good portion of the novel is told in flashback, which when combined with our protagonist’s tendency to constantly swap identities can be a bit disorienting at times. This sort of narrative complexity sorta disguises that the plot itself is rather straightforward, though not without its requisite twists and turns. At this point it feels more interesting as a book that contextualizes later works (like stuff from Gibson, Sterling, Rucker, etc…) than as a story in itself. This is mostly just because I’ve already consumed a lot of what this influenced, so it doesn’t feel as fresh as it obviously did to nerds of its day. Enjoyable enough for sure, and it didn’t trigger a lot of my usual complaints about dystopia, but it’s seemingly fallen into the trap of being so influential that I’ve already internalized most of its lessons, so while it’s still interesting to see where it comes from, it also doesn’t add a ton to my understanding.
  • Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee – The ostensible conclusion to Lee’s Machineries of Empire series, this novel has been nominated for this year’s Hugo Awards. Shuos Jedao wakes up in a befuddled state. His memories tell him that he’s a 17 year old cadet, but he’s in the body of an older man. He’s been resurrected by Hexarch Nirai Kujen, who hopes to use Jedao’s military genius to reconquer a fractured empire… but Jedao’s ailing memories make that a bit of difficult. Making things more difficult is Jedao’s opponent, one Kel Cheris, who knows more about Jedao than he does about himself. So I guess I could get more into the plot here, but this series is dense stuff and thus it sorta defies short summaries. For the most part, I’ve enjoyed the series. There’s plenty of handwaving about the whole “Calendar” system, but Lee at least seems able to set consistent boundaries and rules around it, such that it never really spirals too far out of the reader’s goodwill. I do find Jedao to be a fascinating character, but on the other hand, it’s hard to pin him down. Part of the issue is that we never really get a good feel for the character. He’s been uploaded, chopped up, and spun around so much during the course of the series (indeed, before the books even begin) that you always see Jedao through some sort of intermediary. In the previous books, he shared a brain/body with Kel Cheris (thanks to a sneaky calendrical attack in the first book, she retains his memories, but not his consciousness). In this book we follow both Cheris and a reincarnated Jedao (a sorta backup with incomplete memories). Both characters struggle with Jedao’s past, which includes a traitorous massacre (this could be interpreted in other ways, I think?), but since neither character is actually the one who committed those actions, how responsible should they feel? This is a meaty conundrum for sure, but I don’t know that there’s ever going to be a satisfying answer. A part of me wishes we got a more simplistic, straightforward Space Opera set before this series that could then be recontextualized, but that’s unfair (oh, and we already got something like that, albeit a short one). The other characters and overarching narrative suffer a bit from the focus on Jedao, or at least, don’t hold interest as much. Some aspects of the worldbuilding remain unexplored (it’s sometimes intimated that the grand majority of the Hexarchate live pretty decent lives, but all we see is the beaurocratic nightmare of the military and political classes and the horror of calendrical attacks), but what we get is interesting and reasonably well done. I’ve long enjoyed Yoon Ha Lee’s work, so I’m curious to see what he tackles next. In terms of Hugo voting, I have not yet read the other nominees, but this one suffers a bit from being so heavily integrated in a series… but then, it’s still very good. I expect a middle of the pack showing, but only time will tell.
  • Arkad’s World, by James L. Cambias – I greatly enjoyed Cambias’s debut novel, A Darkling Sea. His follow up, Corsair, was perhaps not quite as great, but still really enjoyable. I liked some of his short fiction as well, so I was looking forward to tackling his latest novel. Alas, this one doesn’t quite live up to the standards that Cambias previously set. The story follows the titular Arkad, a young man who happens to be the only human being on an alien world. He makes his way through the planet in street urchin fashion, barely scraping by on the lawless streets. The arrival of three humans searching for a priceless artifact that could help free earth from the grips of an alien invasion offers a promise of escape for Arkad, who knows a little something about what is being sought. The group must make their way across the planet, traversing dangerous landscapes, negotiating passage with litigious aliens, fending off various bandits and monsters, amongst other hijinks. I’m finding that this sort of episodic storytelling often rubs me the wrong way, and this book is not an exception. There’s a lot going on and there’s some ambitious worldbuilding, but none of it is as clever as Cambias’ previous efforts. Some of the alien interactions contain the kernal of an interesting idea, but it’s rarely explored in depth. Some choices could be interesting, such as the oddly literal language tics employed by some of the aliens, but even those get played out by the end. Plus, since we’re covering so much ground, no one episode is able to impart the kind of depth Cambias was able to achieve in previous books. It’s certainly not bad, but it’s a distinct step down from the past couple of books.
  • The Consuming Fire, by John Scalzi – The sequel to Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire, this book picks up right where that one left off and progresses things well enough from there. The Flow, a transportation network that allows access to all the human planets/colonies/habitats, is collapsing. The first connection has already been blocked off, and one of our protagonist scientists has worked through the math well enough to predict future collapses (and even potential reopenings, etc…). Emperox Grayland II is doing her best to help the scientists out while fending off looming civil war from unruly governing houses. Will her political enemies gain the upper hand? Hijinks ensue. Scalzi’s delivered another page-turner that is quite entertaining in its execution, complete with his usual snappy dialogue and clever twists. Unfortunately, the worldbuilding is starting to show some strain. They call the network of planets ruled by the Emperox the “Interdpendency”, a reference to the fact that each Human colony is desperately dependent on the other colonies to survive. This was mentioned in the previous book, but this book drives home how dumb an idea that is. Ok, sure, no one expects the transportation network to collapse… but then, we find out that this sort of thing is not entirely uncommon, and indeed, we even see an example of an isolated human colony that’s only barely managed to survive being temporarily cut off from the network. There are some other twists and turns that could mitigate some of these concerns, and to be sure, the story and plot progress well enough, even if some aspects of the worldbuilding can’t withstand scrutiny. In fact, I rather enjoyed the novel, perhaps more than any other in this post. Scalzi is good at plotting and dialog, which keeps the pages turning, and he manages a decent enough climax, which is always a big challenge in the second book in a series. Despite any qualms I might have with the worldbuilding, I’m very much looking forward to the next book.

Phew, that’s all for now. I’m finishing off a couple of non-Hugo books at the moment, but I should be able to start some of the Hugo nominees shortly thereafter…

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