Review: THE GLASS FLOWER, by George R.R. Martin

0bebd-martinMy first encounter with this story was through the audio version read by Australian actress Claudia Black, whose amazing performing skills made it quite special (the different voices she can bestow on the main character’s acolytes, for example, being a case in point).  Shortly thereafter I bought and read the collection “Dreamsongs”, a retrospective of GRR Martin’s stories, interspersed with information about his writing career, and it also included The Glass Flower.  This time around, I decided to merge the two, re-reading the story while listening to Ms. Black’s performance, and it was indeed an enhanced experience: when simply listening, my mind tends to wander and I lose focus on the finer details, but listening at the same time as I’m reading the text makes for a total immersion, something that made me appreciate this story even more.

On the swamp world of Croan’dhenni there’s an alien artifact that allows the exchange of consciousness between the participants of the game of mind: the old and infirm, or the simply jaded in search of new experiences, must petition the game’s mistress, Cyrain of Ash, for that privilege.  Cyrain is almost two centuries old and presently inhabits an adolescent’s body, the young and innocent flesh a stark contrast to the woman’s wisdom and cunning: she has held this position for a long time, and though quite aware of the danger presented by her obsequiously scheming acolytes, she is certain of her own strength and resilience and harbors no fear about the future. As she says herself, “I do not defeat easily”.

This status quo in Cyrain’s little domain is disturbed by the arrival on Croan’dhenni of Kleronomas, a cyborg: once a famous general and scholar, he was believed dead for the past few centuries but has now resurfaced in search – as he says – of death: he wants a flesh-and-blood body that will decay and die.  After so much time, immortality has become a burden for the indestructible cyborg.  Cyrain, who has gone through several bodies in her quest to keep the ravages of time at bay, is intrigued by Kleronomas’ desire and accepts his petition as she would a challenge: once the game of mind begins, this challenge will bring unexpected discoveries, and an even more unexpected outcome.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this story is indeed the game itself, the way it’s played and the pain that it entails, because to be able to move one’s consciousness from one body to another, the subject must be strongly motivated, and pain is indeed the ultimate instigator.  And that is only the tip of the iceberg: the game requires that for every player who has been accepted, there must be a prey, a body whose mind is not strong enough to withstand the invading assault of the player. Still, not everything goes according to plan, as testified by the multitude camped under the walls of Cyrain’s keep: those who could not manage the transfer, or those who ended up in the wrong body. The mistress of the game feels no compassion for them, because, as she says, “I steal their bodies, but they lose their souls themselves.”

Inside this terribly beautiful narrative lies the story’s core concept, the value of life, and the age-old question about the merits of a long life versus a meaningful one, embodied by Cyrain on one side – she who above all values her glass flower, immutable and enduring in its perfection – and Kleronomas on the other – the man who was once flesh and now yearns for the natural decay denied to a cyborg.  It’s also an exploration of the concept of self, and how much of it could survive when disassociated from the body it was born in – or in Cyrain’s own words: “Who are we after all? Only who we think we are, no more, no less.”

The contest between the two weaves between word-play in reality and willpower-play in the game, and it’s a fascinating challenge, enhanced by Martin’s skillful writing: much as I enjoy his longer works, and the richness of plots and characters I can find there, it’s in his shorter stories that I often find his best qualities, as if they were concentrated and distilled in a way that a full novel does not achieve.

The more I read this story, the more I can see its exquisite perfection, not unlike that of the titular glass flower.

My Rating:


Use of Weapons – Iain M. Banks



This book offers a completely different scenario from my previous encounter with the late Mr. Bank’s Culture series, and a totally engrossing one. The main character, Cheradenine Zakalwe, is a Culture agent who acts on behalf of Special Circumstances division – the shady entity I already encountered in Player of Games. In other words, Zakalwe is the kind of person the Culture employs for “dirty” jobs, those that its enlightened population is now incapable or unwilling to perform.

As I noted in my review of Player of Games, the Culture offers its citizens practically everything: it has been defined as a post-scarcity society, one where every need is met, every desire (no matter how outlandish) is fulfilled; there are no poverty, hunger, sickness. Yet I had the definite feeling that this Utopia lacked something fundamental, and I believe it could be a sense of purpose: how could I otherwise explain its citizens’ manic drive for the eccentric, the bizarre?  Here is where Special Circumstances comes into play, its members striving to bring the Culture’s way of life to other (less enlightened?) societies, maybe as a form of ultimate denial against that perceived lack of purpose: what it looks like, at least from my perspective, is a form of high-handed meddling that often requires unsavory compromises or, in more extreme cases, the choice between the lesser of two evils.

Here is where Cheradenine Zakalwe comes into play, a human-shaped monkey wrench thrown into the works of a particular society to undermine its social structure or channel an existing conflict into a direction more suitable to Special Circumstance’s goals. And Zakalwe does fulfill his tasks with enthusiasm, uncaring of the dangers and the physical harm that come with the job: at some point he is even beheaded, a situation that seems to have little physical consequences, but adds further baggage to an already complicated psychological profile. This man seems to actively seek that kind of punishment, and as I read along I often wondered why, especially when the slowly accumulating details kept hinting at some deep-seated guilt with its roots in the past.

This is one of the novel’s most fascinating aspects, since it develops on two alternating story-lines: one of them advances in a conventional way, following the attempts of Special Circumstances’ agent Diziet Sma and her drone partner Skaffen Amtiskaw to recall Zakalwe from his self-imposed retirement and employ his services in the reinstatement of a political leader, the only one able to avert a brewing war; the other story-line moves backwards in time to expose Zakalwe’s tormented past and uncover the layers of guilt and self-loathing at the roots of his personality.  It’s a very unusual narrative method, and yet it never confused me, but rather increased the suspense as the details on the protagonist built up a widening picture headed toward a momentous revelation.

It’s this revelation that puts Zakalwe’s actions in the proper context: he’s looking for a purpose, driven by a burning need to do something good that will wash away the horrible sins of his past, so it comes as no surprise that he’s doomed to failure because those past actions are truly irredeemable, but most importantly because I think his so-called saviors – be they the Culture, Special Circumstances or both – are not exactly the “good guys” who can offer him that kind of deliverance. For them he is nothing but an instrument, a weapon, to be used for their purposes. No redemption attached.

If Player of Games gave just a hint of the arrogance of the Culture’s mindset, bent on shaping the universe after their own image, here the long list of situations and conflicts into which Zakalwe is all-too-willingly dropped widens the scope of their actions, making it look like a grand-scale plan with chilling overtones.  Considering the vast influence wielded in the Culture by artificial intelligences, I could not avoid wondering if this “grand scheme of things” is something conceived by thinking machines rather than the humans who gave them status and a place in society.  Certainly the cold pragmatism with which Zakalwe (and how many more like him?) is handled lends substance to this hypothesis: he is an instrument, and his own needs and desires are used to propel him toward fulfilling the Culture’s goal.   He tries desperately to prove he’s not the monster he knows himself to be, and by doing the Culture’s bidding, by being their tool, he seeks atonement and maybe a fresh start, not realizing that his status as a weapon robs him of that very humanity he’s trying to recapture.

At the end of the book I was surprised to discover that I still felt a measure of sympathy for Zakalwe despite the knowledge of his past sins (and they are truly terrible): I think that his desperate search for redemption, the long backward journey Banks takes his readers on, was meant to do just that – leave us in the middle of the road seeing both sides of the equation. I can appreciate very much the fact that we are left with no definite answers, because there are none indeed…

Finally, a few notes on the style: I perceived a marked difference in Bank’s narrative here, if compared with Player of Games: it’s more convoluted and requires a greater degree of attention – not just because of the two diverging storylines, but also because of the language itself. Both of these aspects led me to believe that Banks asks a great deal out of his readers, yet also expects to find what he wants. And from a reader’s standpoint this is quite gratifying.

My Rating: 9/10



The Player of Games – Iain M. Banks



For a long time I’ve wanted to tackle Iain M. Banks’ famous Culture saga, that’s been often hailed as one of the most fascinating and interesting of our times. Several years ago I did read the first book, Consider Phlebas, and though I didn’t exactly dislike it, it somehow failed to captivate me.

Then I happened to read some comments on the internet about how the second book, The Player of Games, is really the best introduction to the Culture series, so I decided to try again. And this second attempt went much better.

In short, on the planet Azad the social, political and economic life revolves around a game – also named Azad – that shapes the empire and its people, whose entire life is dedicated to it, to the point that the outcome influences their social standing. Jernau Gurgeh, a renowned game-player from the Culture, is sent to Azad to participate in the Game and at the same time to act as a Culture representative. What apparently starts as a diplomatic mission of sorts, with some double-dealing overtones, soon becomes much more, especially for Gurgeh: Azad will put to the test his game-playing abilities, of course, but also the very foundations of who he is as a Culture citizen and as a person.

The story itself builds a constant momentum that involves the reader deeper and deeper, just as Gurgeh finds himself pulled into the Game to the point that it becomes more real than reality itself. One of the best characteristics of the book is that it skims over the rules of the Game, showing it through the players’ reactions rather than through a dry list of technical detail, so that the story-telling remains very fluid – and enjoyable. If this is typical of Banks’ narrative I might have found another favorite author, because I prefer stories where the storyteller leaves details to the readers’ imagination rather than boring them with unnecessary explanations that slow down the pace.

The Culture is however the main protagonist here: a star-spanning civilization that has reached such levels of sophistication that its citizens have left behind the troubles of contemporary humanity – not having to battle with illness, poverty, political or social strife, people from the Culture are free to pursue their goals, be they purely hedonistic or more knowledge-oriented. In other words, Utopia. The differences with the Azad Empire are glaring: the reader learns, together with Gurgeh, that the Empire is indeed a cruel, merciless entity and that behind a glamorous façade lurks an underworld made of sadistic pleasures.

And yet the Culture itself is far from perfect, because even if the citizens live charmed lives, boredom seems to lurk in the sidelines as the consequence of having it all, of wanting for nothing: if the citizens feel this irresistible pull toward something new – the more extreme, the better, like playing life-threatening sports, indulge in outlandish recreational drugs or changing sex back and forth – this could be the sign that the very lack of strife at its core has taken something vital away from the Culture.  Gurgeh himself clearly feels this: there is an undertone of despair – unspoken as it is – in his search for more challenging games, and I had the feeling that he considers the Culture too stifling in its perfection to suit his needs, even though he’s unaware of it.  Maybe this is the reason he’s contacted for playing on Azad, because he still cares enough about winning, because he faces this kind of challenge like a serious endeavor, not simply one of the many diversions the Culture offers: and if this is indeed the case, if winning is what really matters to Gurgeh, then the next question would be about the reasons for the Culture to involve itself, through him, in the game of Azad, whose winner becomes the empire’s ruler.

Here is where we learn that the Culture is far from a distant, benevolent entity that cares only for its citizens’ well-being: Gurgeh is not an ambassador sent to illustrate different values and viewpoints – he’s rather a one-man army whose goal is to overthrow the old, cruel empire of Azad in favor of something else, but without the unavoidable bloodshed.  The Culture comes into the light as the ultimate manipulator, acting not through brute force but rather shaping events, individuals or circumstances by steering them in determined directions, and working though proxies.  Like Gurgeh.

I encountered one remarkable detail in that regard: while on Azad Gurgeh uses the local language instead of the Culture’s own (called Marain) and with time this seems to alter his way of thinking, to mutate his response to situations. To the point that his companion, the sentient drone Flere-Imsaho (yes, in the Culture drones are considered sentients, and some of them have quite an attitude) tries hard to engage him in conversation in Marain to draw the man back to a different way of thinking.   An apparently small detail, but a thought-provoking one.

All in all this was a great start to what I think will be a fascinating immersion in a multi-faceted universe: how could I resist, for example, huge ships with peculiar, tongue-in-cheek names like “Just Read the Instructions” or “So Much for Subtlety”, whose sentient Minds are way too interested in human affairs? Or the mysterious entity called Special Circumstances that has all the characteristics of a secret organization bent on shaping the course of politics or history? It’s more than enough to keep me reading on…

My Rating: 8,5/10



In the Lost Lands – George R.R. Martin

A more fantasy-oriented tale than In the Morning Comes Mistfall, though I must admit – having read a good deal of Martin’s works – that he enjoys mixing different elements in his stories to obtain unexpected results.

I own the audio version for this one as well, again read by Claudia Black, who lends further depth and life to both characters and background.

Grey Alys is a witch – or better, an enabler: she always grants your wishes, no matter how outlandish. The problem is, you never get exactly what you hoped for…  When the powerful Lady Melange asks Grey Alys for the secret of skin-changing, the woman brings her back a white wolf pelt that will turn the fulfillment of the Lady’s desire into an endless nightmare.

The ending of this story is suitably horrifying, even though much is left to imagination rather than detail, and yet that’s not what matters here: the main body of the story concerns Alys’ voyage into the titular Lost Lands, in the company of the mysterious Boyce.  The Lands are desolate, the mute testimony of a possible past cataclysm, and yet they possess a sort of savage beauty that can be appreciated only by people able to look beyond surface appearances. Re-reading this shortly after “Mistfall” I became aware of the thematic similarity about beauty being found in the most unlikely places, and it was a happy discovery.

Alys and Boyce share that same deceptive appearance: both of them holding secrets, both of them presenting ax exterior look that belies their true nature, they seem two of a kind, destined to a fruitful allegiance. As if often happens with GRR Martin’s tales, what ultimately happens turns readers’ expectations upside down, then tramples them in the mud… He does so in a masterful, spellbinding way, though, capturing the reader’s attention through striking descriptions and a cunning build-up of tension.

Grey Alys shines throughout the story: her quiet, almost unassuming ways speak of untapped depths and dark secrets, and her calm detachment is far more chilling than outright malice. There is no open cruelty in her actions: she hastens other people’s demise, or observes their unavoidable misfortune, with the same aloof calm she would display in accepting her own. Alys seems to know there is an unavoidable fate awaiting us all and she neither embraces or runs from it, allowing fate to play its cards: there is only one moment, near the end of her journey in the Lost Lands, when she – in the form of a magnificent bird of prey soaring in the air – utters a shrill cry in the silence of the Lands. Given the turn of events that transpired in the story before this moment, I wondered if it was a cry of victory or one of despair. It would work either way, and that’s so typical of Martin, who often leaves us in the cold, wondering…

That poise, that confidence, is what makes Grey Alys different from run-of-the-mill “witch” figures, and singles her out from the narrative norm: her best, most telling image, is the one at the beginning of the story, where she sits languidly caressing a grey rat as if it were a common pet – alarming and at the same time unforgettable.


With Morning Comes Mistfall – George R.R. Martin

This short story is part of the two volume collection Dreamsongs by GRR Martin, a sort of writing journey illustrated through single stories: the first time I became aware of With Morning Comes Mistfall was by listening to its audio version read by Australian actress Claudia Black – it was an incredible experience, both for Ms. Black’s amazing performance and for my discovery of the lyrical side of George Martin’s writing.

Until that moment I had only read his A Song of Ice and Fire novels:  a new (for me) way to present the fantasy genre, gritty and uncompromising in its depiction of violence, cruelty and bloody political schemes.    Even though the ASOIAF books do contain vivid descriptions, because Martin is indeed a masterful storyteller, I was not prepared for the emotional impact in his portrayal of Wraithworld: the author’s skill in bringing these images into sharp focus is seamlessly matched by Ms. Black’s rendition, enhancing the story’s a magical quality that is perfect for the theme being developed here.

Wraithworld is a place where mists rule the lower depths by day and rise to cover most of the mountain peaks by night, and those mists are said to be a shield for the Wraiths – dangerous creatures, as unsubstantial as fog, that prey on unwary travelers.  Much of the mystique of the planet comes from this mystery that also fuels a steady influx of tourists who lodge at Castle Cloud, an eagle’s nest over the tallest peak dominating the sea of mists below.   Through the eyes of the narrator – a journalist who’s come to Wraithworld to cover the scientific expedition bent on disproving the Wraiths’ existence – we soon learn that what really matters is not that evidence but rather the beauty of the planet, something that catches the journalist by surprise as he starts exploring the place and lets himself be fascinated by its savage charms.

As I re-acquainted myself with the tale I saw how it fits the never-ending argument about speculative fiction: does it really matter whether a story is “true”, meaning based on real, everyday facts, as long as it’s entertaining and enriching? Over the years I’ve had to defend my reading preferences against this kind of argument: many people, some of them close friends, have commented with amused bafflement – or thinly veiled mockery – my penchant for reading science fiction and fantasy.  Their claim being that it’s silly to lose oneself in stories about worlds, peoples and creatures that don’t exist.

These skeptics’ attitude is embodied, in the story, by the scientist Dubowski: he comes to Wraithworld with a plethora of scientific instrumentation that should help him vanquish the figurative mists clouding tourists’ perceptions.  Proving that the Wraiths don’t exist will – in Dubowski’s eyes – shine the light of truth on the planet, freeing it from what he perceives as foolish superstition. The scientist is so driven by his goal, so fixed in his attachment to reality, that he never sees the natural beauty of Wraithworld, never wastes his precious time in watching the mists rise at night from the depths of the forests, or being vanquished at dawn when the sun rises revealing the mountain peaks.

I believe that as Dubowski willfully blinds himself to such beauty, so do those who are unable to accept the wider horizons of imagination, restricting their path to what’s known and tangible and closing their eyes to what could be only because they can’t touch, measure or weigh it.  There is a deep vein of melancholy running through this story, the sense of something precious being ignored and abandoned by the wayside: to me it means that when we forgo our sense of wonder, our willingness to ask ourselves “what if…?”, we deprive ourselves of something vital that could only enrich us.

In a way, it hardly matters if “magic” exists or not: what matters is that we believe in the possibility of it….


"Repent Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman – Harlan Ellison

I have been meaning to re-read this short story since I saw the promising news about an upcoming movie based on it: the very fact that Harlan Ellison and J.M. Straczynski will renew their creative cooperation from the times of Babylon 5 – one of the very best science fiction series ever – gives me great hope and not little expectation for this movie.

The story is a classic: in a future world where time – and being on time, always – represent the one law whose transgression can mean death, a mysterious rebel tries to put a monkey wrench into this perfectly oiled mechanism. Not with impassioned speeches or acts of terrorism, but with pranks – and so he styles himself as Harlequin, the ultimate jester, hunted by the dreaded Ticktockman, upholder of the establishment and Master of Time.

The story appears fresh and actual even now, almost fifty years after it was written: it made me think about how Ellison’s writing style feels timeless, as do many of the topics he developed in his works.  Repent Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman, is one such example: time does indeed rule our days, either when we try to keep our busy schedules or when we wish for some free time of our own, the latter being such an elusive beast….

In this future dystopian world Time and punctuality have eaten humanity’s soul, robbing it of every joy that makes life worthwhile: there are two such examples in the course of the narration, and though they are polar opposites in mood, they give a clear picture of the society. The first concerns a woman receiving a dreaded Termination Notice from the Ticktockman: she desperately hopes that it’s for her husband (as it indeed is), because she’s terrified at the notion of losing her life – to the point that she wishes that fate on her spouse, or even on one of her children. As long as it’s not her. This chilling little detail speaks loudly about the way the totalitarian rule of Time has changed people.  As does the other snapshot, the one about a medical convention whose participants laugh in high amusement at the Harlequin’s antics, as if they had forgotten the simple act of laughing, or the meaning of it.

I’m curious to see how the upcoming movie will portray all this, and much more: considering the involved parties, I have high hopes about the outcome.


Revisiting old favorites: The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold

Some time ago I embarked on a re-read of this series, one of my all-time favorites, and discovered that the intervening years have only  enhanced my enjoyment of the story, of Ms. Bujold’s writing style and of her approach to important social issues.

It might be somewhat difficult to characterize this series: some have labeled it as “space opera”, others as “military sci-fi”, and so on, but the truth is that there is a bit of every sub-genre one can think about in Bujold’s work, combined into a well-structured, compelling story that grows and expands with each successive book, gaining in power and depth as it entertains its readers.

The hero – or better, anti-hero – of the saga is  Miles Vorkosigan, born with serious physical impediments on a world that makes strength and military prowess the pillars of society. Far from being crushed by his disabilities, Miles fights against them all his life, driven by the need to prove himself, sometimes beyond the limits of human endurance. He does indeed manage, through sheer force of will and great intelligence, to emerge and carve a place for himself, all the while regaling us with fun, exciting and wonderful adventures.

What I love most about Ms. Bujold’s writing is that it flows along simple lines while at the same time managing to convey deep meanings and touch on significant themes: the mark of her ability is in the down-to-earth approach that needs no preaching to drive her meaning through.

Above all, Bujold’s work is… well, “trans-generational” is the best way I can describe it: Miles’ adventures can be quite satisfying both to young adults (to whom they can teach a great deal without ever being pedantic) as well as to older people. The style of writing is such that it can be enjoyed no matter your age or your preferences.

One of the reasons this character grows so quickly on his audience is that we look at the world through his eyes, experience his outer troubles and inner turmoil in a direct way. Far from self-commiserating on his shortcomings (even though they cut deeply), Miles faces them with wry, sarcastic humor that’s often more mature than his years. What’s more important, he’s not one those stereotyped “boy geniuses” that we often encounter in books and tv, the ones that breeze through obstacles as if they weren’t there, the ones, let’s admit it, that we love to hate.  Miles is fallible, he constantly doubts himself and he makes mistakes, sometimes fatal ones. His path is one of constant strife, against his shortcomings and against himself, and his victories are more often than not tainted by painful losses. This must indeed be one of the reasons Bujold’s readers learn to care so much about him.

Once I encountered a sentence that sums up quite effectively this character: he happens on people – usually unsuspecting ones – and he changes their lives forever, whether they want it or not. This is true both for the fictional people in the stories and for the readers, especially those – like me – who rediscover his old stories or greet new ones with the same enthusiasm reserved for a dear friend.