One of the stops in John Scalzi’s tour to promote his new novel THE COLLAPSING EMPIRE included the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe: this historical theater has been in recent years acquired by author GRR Martin and it often hosts meetings with authors and book signings.
When I learned that a video of the event would be uploaded on the Jean Cocteau Cinema YouTube channel, I waited with intense curiosity to see two of my favorite authors chatting, and what I found was nothing short of delightful.
And delights must be shared… Enjoy!
Alastair Reynolds is easily one of those authors I tend to read sight unseen, because he’s always able to sweep me into these complex, galaxy-spanning stories that never fail to appeal to my sense of wonder. House of Suns is indeed one such story, and without doubt it’s the best one I’ve read until now, both for narrative scope and for sheer entertainment value.
Shatterlings are post-human individuals, clones of their progenitors who created hundreds of copies of themselves with the purpose of traveling far and wide across the galaxy, gathering information that is shared among members of a given Line at meetings that take place at appointed times. Shatterlings are very long-lived and able to increase that augmented life-span to millions of years, through techniques of suspended animation and cryo-freezing that help them overcome the tedium of long treks through interstellar space.
Purslane and Campion are two such shatterlings from Gentian Line, the House of Flowers, who have entered into a forbidden association: flaunting the Lines’ rules they travel together and have become lovers, and at the beginning of the story they are also late for Gentian Line’s meeting, which will certainly result in censure from their peers. This circumstance, however, proves quite fortunate for them because on approaching the system where the meeting is being held, they discover there’s been a massive attack on Gentians and that only a handful of shatterlings survived the massacre, some of which the two lovers are able to rescue, heading toward a safe place where the survivors will regroup.
If the story takes a little while to gather speed, once this event is brought to the table the pace increases exponentially from the investigation of the reasons for the attack to the brutal interrogation of some captured enemy agents; from the crushing loss of a murdered Gentian shatterling to a breathless interstellar chase that will turn out to be a journey of discovery, both of unsuspected information and of very unpalatable truths. The events are narrated from three points of view, those of Purslane and Campion in the present and that of Abigail Gentian, the founder of the House of Flowers, from the past, this one in a series of flashbacks that give the backstory of the Lines in bits and pieces. Other interesting players are represented by a few of the Gentian survivors the two meet on Neume, the planet where the refugees have fled to, and the Machine People: sentient artificial beings like Hesperus – who has been held in stasis for thousand of years on a planet visited by Campion and Purslane – and Cadence and Cascade, two mysterious synthetics who have befriended the Gentian refugees.
Abigail Gentian is a fascinating creature: artificially stalled in childhood for over 30 years, she describes her life in a huge, planet-spanning and constantly changing house where she lives alone but for her tutor, the household robots and her mother, with whom she infrequently interacts through video communications, when the woman is able to overcome the mind-breaking paranoia she fell victim to. Abigail’s only companionship comes from the visits of a boy from another influential family: the two share a strange love/hate bond that finds its more intricate expression while playing with Palatial, an interactive game giving the two of them roles in a medieval-like adventure that can become far too immersive, to the point of losing one’s identity and memories. Despite these fascinating details, Abigail’s character remains elusive throughout the novel, as do those of Campion, Purslane and other Gentian shatterlings, a fact that robbed some of the enjoyment from the experience.
Granted, the shatterlings are Abigail’s clones, imbued with her memories, so it would stand to reason that there would be a sort of uniformity in the core of their personalities, but it would also stand to reason that each one’s accumulated experiences would add different layers to an individual’s psychological makeup, making every offspring different from his/her progenitor. Even their “voices” fail to carry any substantial differentiation: it took me a while to focus on the fact that Campion is male and Purslane female, since their alternating chapters “sounded” the same, at least in the beginning, when some reference to the other allowed me to understand who was speaking. This lack of definition became worse when other Gentian survivors were introduced: other than their names, and a few individual leanings – like Betony’s desire to take over as lead, or Mezereon’s cruelty in interrogating the prisoners – there was no firm sense of differentiation between them.
Purslane and Campion’s relationship suffers from the same brand of indetermination: we are told they form a couple, that they are forced to edit their memories of the liaison before any Line meeting, to avoid being reprimanded for disobeying the rules, but we never perceive them as a couple until events separate them and Campion launches in a desperate chase to reach Purslane’s ship and rejoin his lover. That’s the point where we are finally able to see the feelings they share for each other, how deeply they are rooted and what each of them is ready to sacrifice to insure each other’s survival.
Ironically enough, I thought that the more human, approachable character was Hesperus, one of the Machine People: the long imprisonment from which the two Gentians free him – or maybe some event prior to his incarceration – have robbed him of most of his memory, and there’s a gentle, almost child-like quality to his wistfulness about the loss, and the need to recover it, together with the purpose of his mission. This gentleness, and his selfless attitude in helping out the shatterlings in several occasions, quickly made him my favorite character and the one I found more relatable than the flesh and blood ones.
Despite these issues, I greatly enjoyed the book because the questions examined throughout the story appear much more important than the characters moving through it. More than the inexorable rise and fall of civilizations, more than the political and economical maneuvering of the great Lines, more than the observation of societies born out of human colonization, some of which have even transcended human form, what really held my attention was the focus on knowledge and memory. Knowledge seems to have become the galactic currency: no coin or precious metal hold the same worth as information, and the contents of individual “troves”, the stores where such information is collected, seem to have taken the place of bank accounts. And in the search of knowledge shatterlings can even take great risks, like Campion does, for example, when visiting the Vigilance, a sort of archive of enormous proportions, run by a forbidding, mysterious intelligence.
Memory, on the other hand, takes center stage during the whole course of the novel. The shatterlings store, edit and share the memories they have accumulated in their long lives, and are able to manipulate them – either to delete risky details (as Purslane and Campion do to hide their relationship from Gentian Line) or even to erase damning evidence, as the story reveals when survivors pursue the reasons for the attack on their Line. Hesperus lost every memory of his past, of his mission, of the reasons for his presence in that portion of space, and lack of that knowledge renders him incomplete – and at times even makes him appear suspicious.
Memory is identity, and here it also becomes the defining quality of one’s personality: Gentian Line strictly enforces the erasure of a particular memory, that of a heinous crime perpetrated without intention, yes, but still will tragic repercussions, and that choice is seen as the erasure of guilt, of the consequences of that long-ago choice. Does forgetfulness also imply forgiveness? This is the lynchpin on which the end revelation turns, and the partial answer that is given does not even start, unsurprisingly, to explore the issue.
Complex and fascinating, thought-provoking and engaging, House of Suns is the kind of novel that leaves me thinking about it even after I’ve reached the last page, and even though it ends in a quite abrupt manner, after slowing down the forward momentum reached until that point with some heavy exposition, it remains a very satisfying read. The kind of story that could no doubt gain from a re-read, and a highly recommended one.
When I read the first reviews for this book I was quite intrigued: the trope about people waking up in a damaged ship and not knowing what happened is one I’ve always found fascinating. As I started reading Admiral, though, I had a few misgivings: the tone felt somewhat off, the exchanges between the characters a little stilted, the overall impression that of uncertainty – and not related to the situation at hand.
Yet something kept me reading on, the few disturbances I perceived not being enough to make me close the book: now I’m happy to have persevered because once the story finds its footing it becomes a compelling read, and a quite satisfactory one.
Four people wake up from stasis on what looks like an abandoned freighter: three of them are freshly graduated trainees from the Evagardian Imperial academy, the fourth is the unnamed narrator himself, whose stasis pod bears the markings of an admiral and should put him automatically in charge. I said should, because the three young officers react with varying degrees of puzzlement and suspicion to the man’s lack of uniform, un-military bearing and off-hand manners – not to mention the fact that the Admiral himself appears quite surprised of his promotion…
Lieutenant Deilani is the more vocal and mistrustful of the three: the Evagardian Empire just signed a truce with the Ganraen, with whom they have been at war, and finding herself in a re-conditioned Ganraen ship, with a man who doesn’t fit the image of an Evalgardian ranking officer, Deilani thinks immediately they are dealing with a spy, and proceeds to say so in no uncertain terms. The fact that all the Admiral does is deflect her accusations while offering no real answers only manages to enhance her doubts.
Private Salmagard, on the other hand, acts in a more detached manner – there are shades of Vulcan aplomb in her attitude – and seems more inclined to concentrate on the group’s more immediate problems, leaving the identity and fate of their senior officer to a more propitious moment.
And finally, Ensign Nils is the more accepting of the three: it becomes quite clear from the beginning that he’s a natural-born follower and responds well to authority – or what he perceives as such – preferring to deal with the many mechanical issues plaguing the group, and applying his remarkable engineering skills to their survival.
The ship the four find themselves in is deserted, the power is off and there are all the indications of massive system failure: the discovery of the bodies of the two-men crew, later on, only adds to the huge pile of unanswered questions they have to face before they can start working on a rescue plan. Here is where my initial reservations made themselves felt: first, the exchanges between the four people did not sound… natural (for want of a better word), the disparity between the almost-flippant tone of the Admiral and the trainees’ doubts – especially Deilani’s accusations – felt forced, not at all in sync with the situation at hand. Moreover, there were a couple of instances where I actually stopped and stared in bafflement at the page I was reading: for example, at some point the four discover that the ship suffered a hull breach, and the Admiral’s line reads: “I swore, amazed. We hadn’t even suspected a breach.”
Seriously? They did crash-land on a planet, and the very first thought should have been about hull integrity! Or again, take this little snippet:
“This is some kind of combat damage.”
I sighed. Couldn’t these three take a hint and just stop noticing things? (…) How could I convince them that they were happier just getting on with their lives?
Am I wrong in thinking that noticing things would be the first step toward ensuring their survival? As I said, these details took me out of the narrative flow and made me doubt the soundness of the story, or of the characters. But once I was past these initial… “hiccups”, I was completely captivated by the story and these four people’s plight, one that swiftly turns from a mystery-solving situation to a battle for survival. From that point on, I was one hundred percent onboard – and very happy to have soldiered on.
To define the planet where the ship crashed ‘hostile’ would be a massive understatement, and as the story progresses the dangers the four survivors face become increasingly deadly: unbreathable atmosphere, eerie green-tinted mist, weird rock formations and a very unstable ground are just the tip of the iceberg, because the Admiral and his trainees soon realize they might not be alone in there… More than once my mind flashed to the more harrowing scenes in the Alien narrative arc, and each chapter brought on a new, nasty hurdle to be overcome, either through Nils’ powers of improvisation or the others’ need to survive at any cost while they wait for rescue.
All through this I developed a certain fondness for the Admiral: from the very start he appears like the proverbial unreliable narrator – he makes no mystery about this point – and it’s also very clear that he is hiding something, but at the same time he comes across as a very resourceful person, and what’s more important he cares about his young charges, constantly urging them not to give up, even when the situation becomes most dire. No matter who he is, he acts like the ranking officer he appears to be, and his heart is indeed in the right place:
No I wasn’t a real admiral, but that didn’t make it okay for people to die on my watch.
At this point, his real identity becomes a moot point, and the almost-revelation that occurs toward the end of the novel is far less important than the road the foursome traveled to get there: the partial answers the readers glean from that part of the story might or might not be the truth (I keep thinking that the Admiral might still be dissembling, since it’s clear this is second nature to him), but at this point it hardly matters.
What does is the sheer fun of the adventure we enjoy getting there: there are times when this is all we want from a book, and on this score Admiral delivers in a very enjoyable manner. I will be waiting for the second book in this series with great expectations.
After greatly enjoying Peter Hamilton’s The Reality Dysfunction, the first volume of his Night’s Dawn trilogy, I wanted to read more about this author, but without committing to one of his more “monstrous” novels yet, and I settled for Mindstar Rising, again a first volume in a trilogy and, from what I understand, Hamilton’s first published novel.
The setting of this story is very interesting: midway through the 21st century England underwent a great deal of changes: global warming flooded many of the coastal areas, forcing massive migrations with consequent overcrowding, and climate became more like that of Mediterranean lands. Politically, the country is emerging from a ten-year long rule by an extreme-left coalition, and swinging in the opposite direction, with mega corporations slowly but surely taking control.
One such corporation, Event Horizon, just discovered a conspiracy to undermine one of their key products and calls in Greg Mandel, the main character, to uncover all the ramifications of the plot. Greg is ex military, part of the elite Mindstar Brigade, whose member were subjected to physical augmentations that enabled them to gain psychic powers: Greg, for example, possesses a high level of psi abilities and can sense when people are lying, and even catch the drift of their thoughts, even though he’s unable to actually read them. When the now-deposed dictatorship took power, Greg and his comrades were left to their own devices and now he’s hiring himself as a private investigator and sometimes strong-arm (or outright assassin).
As Greg’s investigation for Event Horizon goes on, we discover more about the deeply changed world in which he lives, and this world makes for a fascinating background to the escalating threat against his clients, whose ramifications extend in many unexpected directions, as the story unfolds with a good, sustained pace that held my attention from start to finish.
Greg Mandel’s character is presented in an intriguing way: as a disillusioned ex-soldier who was abandoned to fend for himself, he does not fall prey to the usual problems one might expect in these cases, like substance abuse or inability to relate to the rest of society, on the contrary he has found himself a quiet niche where he can exploit the abilities he’s been gifted with, while maintaining something of a low profile. He enjoys an extensive net of contacts in every stratum of the community, especially in the diverse and bizarre underworld that developed after the fall of the previous regime, and has learned how to make the best of what he is. All things considered, he looks like an ok guy, one that’s reliable and can command the respect of those he comes across in his line of work, but… Yes, there is a “but”.
All through the novel I could not shake the feeling that under that “nice guy” veneer there was an exploitative streak that did not go hand in hand with the fairer surface appearance. For starters, being as near a telepath as he is gives him an unfair advantage: if that can be an asset in the line of work, it’s also a dishonest leverage in day-to-day dealings with other people. That’s quite evident in his encounter with Eleanor, a girl who just escaped from a sort of cult group: the mental “nudges” Mandel employs with her can be considered cheating at best, and far worse under a closer scrutiny: in my opinion little does it matter that in the end he starts a serious relationship with Eleanor and seems to care deeply for her – the fact that he resorted to a form of “mind rape” in the beginning is no excuse.
Mandel’s less-palatable personality traits come to the fore again when, in the course of the investigation, he asks for the help of a former Mindstar comrade, Gabriel: a true prescient, she can predict the future developments of any situation, the immediate future of any person she comes into contact with. Such a gift means of course a great deal of strain, and for this reason Gabriel has chosen to keep to herself as much as possible: only leaning heavily on the ties from their shared past can Mandel convince her to come out of her self-imposed isolation and lend him a hand. I enjoyed very much Gabriel as a character, her snarky wit, her tired disillusionment, and her way of looking at her companions as somewhat unruly children: unlike the other female characters in the book she does not need her looks to project an air of competence, or to stand out – and here comes another of the details that made me sit up and do a double take. Because strong-willed, smart and capable Gabriel is “guilty” of the sin of not being beautiful: on meeting her again after several years, Mandel notices she’s let herself go, that she’ dowdy, frumpy, overweight – and it’s not just one instance, which might have accounted for the shock of seeing huge changes after so much time, it’s a leitmotif that’s repeated now and again in the course of the story.
Julia Evans herself, the granddaughter and heir-in-training of Event Horizon’s founder, seems to epitomize all that I perceived as wrong in the depiction of female characters in Mindstar Rising: she is gifted with high intelligence, an analytical mind and the willingness to learn how to lead her grandfather’s empire, but still most of her inner dialogs focus on her lack of a boyfriend, and on the unrequited attraction for a particular boy. To add insult to injury, we see her find several key elements in the unraveling of the scheme against Event Horizon, elements she finds through her highly enhanced analytical powers: when she does, she tends to lay them at Mandel’s feet, like a puppy waiting for an acknowledging pat from its master, instead of using them as the manager she is training to be.
Do really women come only in two categories in this novel? On one side we have Gabriel, gifted with agency and strength, but sadly lacking in the looks department. On the other we have Eleanor – beautiful but needing to be saved; Julia’s friend Katharina – beautiful, wanton and easily corrupted; Julia – beautiful and capable, but suffering from a sort of daddy complex. I might be wrong, but I think there was a pattern there…
That said – and as I write it I realize how much I needed to take it off my chest – the story remains a solid, intriguing one, particularly for the kind of world it describes, the changes that have encompassed it and its inhabitants. One of the most fascinating details concerned the various gangs that have taken over part of the cities, and the microcosm they have created in their little enclaves. For these reasons alone I might read the other novels in this series, in the hope that what so disturbed me here might be toned down in the next books…
Once again this amazing event celebrating Science Fiction in all its forms, shapes and genres is ready to launch: our wonderful hosts are Rinn and Lisa whose respective launchpads are situated at RINN READS and OVER THE EFFING RAINBOW. Follow the links for more information on launch schedules, plotted courses and the necessary asteroid collision warnings!
When I joined this event for the first time, in 2014, I enjoyed myself immensely and discovered a great number of fellow bloggers and genre enthusiasts, so that it was with deep regret that I had to pass last year, due to some work pressure and a lack of preparation. For this reason, this time I tried to… well, hoard beforehand some ideas and reviews that would be perfect for the event’s theme, so I could join the fun once more.
Many thanks to our wonderful hosts for their work and dedication: if not for you, we would not be here sharing our love for Science Fiction!
My schedule for the 2016 SciFi Month consist of:
** Selected quotes from my favorite SF show, Babylon 5, divided by season, so there will be five posts on November 2nd, 9th, 16th, 23rd and 30th;
** Reviews of SF short stories I read on a few online magazines, in search of new authors to explore: the four posts will go online on November 6th, 13th, 20th and 27th;
** Review of four SF full novels, that will go online on November 4th, 11th, 18th and 25th.
This will certainly be a very busy but fun month, and I can’t wait to see what my fellow participants are ready to share.
Final checks are ok, the panel’s light are all in the green and all systems are GO!
What are you waiting for? 😉