Reviews

CHILDREN OF MEMORY (Children of Time #3), by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

I have to confess that I approached this book with some hesitation: while I enjoyed Children of Time (despite the spiders, which is saying a lot!), I was less sanguine about Children of Ruin, mostly because of the pacing, which at times felt a little too slow for my tastes.  Children of Memory does suffer slightly from some pacing problems and from a few lengthy philosophical digressions, but the mystery at its core was so intriguing that it kept me motivated to read on until the very end.

Unlike its predecessors, this third installment in the series focuses more closely on humans, and in particular on the humans of an ark ship, the Enkidu, traveling the long distance toward one of the promised terraformed worlds with its huge cargo of frozen colonists. When they reach their destination, a planet they will name Imir, the ship has suffered grievous damage and lost a significant part of its cargo – both people and machinery destined to the creation of the colony – while the crew also discovers that the terraforming project partially failed its goal: Imir is a cold, harsh world with extreme weather patterns, and it will require an enormous effort to establish even the basic living conditions. 

After a temporal jump of a few generations, the novel follows the colonization of Imir through the eyes of Liff, a pre-teen girl whose strong spirit is fueled by fairy tales of adventures and great discoveries: thanks to Liff we learn that the colony never truly took off beyond mere survival in what looks like a frontier environment, the constant breakdown of modern tools and machinery forcing the colonists toward a more primitive society than the one they hoped for. What’s worse, there is a strange obsession in the populace toward “Watchers” or “Seccers”, i.e. people outside of their limited community, who might be actively working against its survival: although it seems more myth than reality, this belief fosters an acute climate of suspicion that verges toward paranoia.

A different narrative thread focuses on the small crew of an exploratory vessel from the arachnid/octopus/human civilization we encountered in the two previous books: having reached Imir they debate on the best way to approach the colony, deciding that one of them will try to monitor it in incognito, posing as one of the colonists from the outlying failed farmsteads: Miranda, a combination of human appearance and Nodan consciousness (the parasitic life-form discovered in the previous book) joins the people of Imir working as a teacher, and on her meeting with Liff forms a strong bond with the keenly curious young girl.

Here is where the strangeness begins, because we are presented with often contradictory evidence about life on the planet: several generations have elapsed since the first landing, and yet Liff seems to think about Captain Holt (the expedition leader) as her grandfather; or she is seen living with both her parents while in other narrative segments she’s an orphan living with her inattentive uncle, and so on.  This is the mystery that captured my attention and led me to wonder what was truly happening on Imir, not forgetting the further element of a strange signal coming from the planet that leads the onboard A.I. patterned on Earth scientists Avrana Kern (a constant presence throughout the series) to investigate it with the help of the new uplifted species of Corvids we get to know in Children of Memory.

It’s not easy to recap this novel in a handful of spoiler-free sentences, because this book is as complex as it is intriguing: the main attraction for me was the solution to the contradictory experiences of young Liff (and here I have to admit that my own theories did not even come close to the reveal), but there is much more here to keep a reader engrossed.  Faithful to the pattern exhibited so far, Adrian Tchaikovsky presents us with a new uplifted kind of creature, the Corvids from Rourke’s world, another planet that proved hostile to humanity but where these birds’ intelligence evolved in a unique pattern of paired individuals forming a collective whole and represented here by Gethli and Gothi, whose discussions about sentience are nothing short of fascinating, besides offering some sparks of humor thanks to their peculiarly worded exchanges that at times reminded me of the chorus elements in Greek tragedies.

Equally intriguing are the observations on the composite society originated by the joining of humans, arachnids, octopusses and Nodan parasites who have learned to coexist peacefully and create a space-faring society whose curiosity about the rest of the universe is the main drive toward exploration. In this respect, the human-looking Miranda is a perfect example of this commonwealth of species: her search for knowledge is somehow marred by the dichotomy between outward appearance and inner substance, which leaves room for some interesting, and at times poignant, considerations about self-image and identity.

The colony on Imir offers other chances of commentary on human nature: the regression to a more primitive way of life, forced by the lack of equipment, seems to have brought on a parallel regression in mindset, since the inhabitants of Landfall (the sole planetary settlement) look more like villagers from a Medieval era rather than the inheritors of a modern society. Their dread and distrust of the “other” (which comes from a very specific reason) brings about a tragic “us vs. them” mentality that is depicted in a few dramatic scenes which effectively display the dangers of mob mentality when paired with fear and ignorance.

Children of Memory is however slightly weighted down by some philosophical digressions on the nature of sentience, which are intriguing on their own but – in my opinion – take more space than necessary in consideration of the need to learn the solution to the mystery that Imir presents to the visitors. Still these digressions were not enough to keep me from forging on and reaching the intriguing reveal: if that was the challenge that the author presented to his readers, I can say that I was able to meet it head on 😉

My Rating:

Reviews

DUNE MESSIAH (Dune #2), by Frank Herbert

I have often lamented the fact that re-reading books I enjoyed in the past can sometimes lead to deep disappointments, due to changed tastes and to the evolution of writing styles, so I’m glad to acknowledge that my re-read of Dune Messiah did not incur in that kind of problem and, on the contrary, made me enjoy the novel even more than on my first encounter.  The younger me who read Messiah for the first time was disappointed by the lack of epic-ness that was so much a part of the first book, nor did she enjoy seeing Paul Atreides become somewhat diminished; now I was finally able to appreciate what Frank Herbert was doing with his character and the world he had created.

The story starts twelve years after the final events in Dune: Paul Atreides has extended his power over the empire, mainly through a galaxy-wide war of conquest waged by his Fremen armies and fueled by the religious fervor that invested him with near godhood; it’s the jihad he foresaw and tried to avoid, to no avail – we learn that it ‘killed sixty-one billion, sterilized ninety planets, completely demoralized five hundred others’, a series of staggering numbers that, instead of consolidating his rule, has created mistrust and discontent, so that now some of his enemies (and some of his former allies as well) are plotting to dethrone him, putting an end to his rule.  Prescience already warned Paul of what’s brewing in the shadows, and here we see him trying to navigate the possible futures, knowing that every one of them will entail devastating losses and even worse consequences.

What Dune Messiah amounts to, in the end, is the story of a man gifted with amazing powers and yet powerless to prevent the catastrophes he envisioned: despite the prodigious skills he acquired through both nature and motherly teachings, he remains a human being, with all the frailties and contradictions this entails, and seeing them, seeing his struggles and the pain they carry with them, helped me connect with his character on a level I had not reached in the first book.  Which brings me to a consideration that struck me, this time over, as I thought about Paul’s dilemma and the road he would/could not choose here, leaving it open (as I already know it will happen) for his son to take: in my review of Dune I mentioned how I consider it a landmark in SF just as Tolkien’s LOTR is for fantasy, to the point that I saw a sort of parallel between Paul and Frodo. Paul knows – has seen – a way out of those devastating futures, the terrible purpose that will turn into the Golden Path for young Leto, but is unable, or unwilling, or both, to accept it and ultimately gives up, choosing to wander alone in the desert, maybe to die; Frodo reaches the end of his perilous journey only to fail – and he was destined to fail since he was only the Ring Bearer, not the Ring Destroyer, thanks to Tolkien’s always precisely chosen wording – carrying forever the burden of that failure and equally choosing exile, no matter how pleasant, to remove himself from it.   I’m aware the comparison might be quite a stretch, but it’s one I can’t seem to get out of my mind, and I would love to hear what my fellow bloggers think about it….

Back to the novel itself, I found that despite the reduced page count, if compared with its predecessor, it expands the reader’s knowledge about the universe where the story takes place: the main narrative focus is still set on Arrakis, granted, but the presence, amid the conspirators aiming to remove Paul from power, of a Guild navigator and of a Tleilaxu Face Dancer shows us a glimpse of the various powers inhabiting the galaxy. The navigator is described as something only vaguely resembling the human being it must originally have been, the exposure to the spice gas that renders it capable of forging paths through space having transformed the creature in a weirdly horrific way, but the truly fascinating character is that of Scytale, the Face Dancer.  A bio-engineered shape shifter, Scytale is the product of Tleilaxu gene manipulation, and an intriguing creature as well, particularly in the peculiar affinity for the people it must impersonate – and therefore kill – that translates into a sort of sympathy (the Face Dancer’s own words) for the victim, almost a regret for the necessity of the act. It’s a choice that turns Scytale into much more than a simple enemy, a simple killer, and gifts its personality with depth and intriguing shades.

The Tleilaxu are also involved in another part of the plan against Paul Atreides because they bring one of their creations to his court in an attempt to distract and destabilize him: their skills in bio-manipulation can literally bring the dead back to life – through a process that might be cloning, even though it’s never explained – in the form of gholas, perfect copies of the dead although deprived of their memories. The ghola which is brought to Paul’s court is no one but his former instructor and friend Duncan Idaho, who gave his life to allow Paul and his mother to escape from the Harkonnens.  Duncan is a character who does not enjoy great narrative space in Dune, and yet he leaves a deep impression, to the point that his reappearance hits the readers just as much as the intended target in the story.  There is a poignant quality to Duncan’s journey, the drama of a person who knows there is a past waiting for him to be unlocked, and also that such unlocking will require a high price to be obtained, and it’s almost as touching as that of Paul, of his dilemma and of the bittersweet meeting with his old-time friend.

As a sequel, Dune Messiah works far better on a re-read, particularly when one is aware of what will come after: it is indeed a bridge between the two distinct halves of the Atreides’ family history, but most importantly it sets aside the more “adventurous” themes of its predecessor for an in-depth examination of the nature of power and how it can betray its wielders, no matter how many skills they can call into play.  The author’s choice of mixing what might have been a somewhat dry commentary with some powerful emotions is what turns this novel into a touching journey and one that is enhanced – not lessened – by hindsight.

My Rating:

Reviews

ELDER RACE, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

This Adrian Tchaikovsky novella packs several themes in a successful mix between science fiction and fantasy that I found delightfully entertaining. The story is equally divided between two points of view: Lynesse Fourth Daughter is the wayward scion of the realm of Lannesite, more interested in the lore and legends of her people than in the practical duties of a queen’s daughter, and so she’s always getting into trouble and harshly reprimanded by her mother and elder sisters.  Nyr Illim Tevitch is a lowly anthropologist assigned to study Lynesse’s society, a distant offshoot of human colonization: he’s been left alone to monitor the culture, since his companions returned to Earth some time ago and never came back, prompting Nyr to accept the dire fact they might never do so and that he might end his last days alone.

Rumors of a demon plaguing the nearby lands have reached the court and been dismissed by the queen as nothing more than the peasants’ excessive fantasy, while Lynesse is convinced that the realm might be threatened by a danger similar to that faced by her ancestress Astresse Once Regent, who successfully vanquished it with the help of the sorcerer Nyrgoth Elder.  So, against her mother’s wishes, she takes the long journey toward the wizard’s tower to ask for his help on the strength of the ancient compact signed with her great-grandmother.  The “wizard” is of course the anthropologist who long ago, and against the rule that prohibited the observing scientists to have any contact with the locals, lent his help to Astresse, and is now whiling away the long, empty years in suspended animation.

Lynesse’s resemblance with her ancestress – for whom it’s clear that Nyr harbored some very strong feelings – and her impassioned request for help clash with the scientist’s deeply settled despondency and depression, not to mention the sense of guilt for having already broken the rules once, and his unwillingness about doing so again, even though it’s become clear by now that there will be no retribution from back home,  given the too-long silence from Earth.  Still, the young woman’s determination and some curiosity to inspect the disconcerting phenomenon that Lynesse describes as a “demon”, ultimately convince Nyr to travel with her and her companion Esha Free Mark to the affected lands, in a journey that will prove enlightening for both of them.

The clash of different cultures has long been one of the main themes in science fiction, but here in Elder Race the conflict – and ensuing misunderstandings – come from two different lines of evolution of the same people, just as the two points of view, Lynesse and Nyr, represent the two genres merged in this story.  From the fantasy-inspired outlook of Lynesse, Nyr’s abilities and technological tools are nothing short of magic, and serve only to reinforce her faith in the powers of the aloof wizard, and in his ability to find and vanquish the demon infesting the land.  For his part, Nyr is battling with his own conscience and the contrasting feelings engendered by the bizarre situation, and keeping them at bay with the Dissociative Cognition System, or DCS, an implant that allows him to disconnect himself from his feelings so that he can conduct his observations with emotionless detachment – the only downside of the DCS being that he must turn it off at regular intervals to avoid a dangerous accumulation of repressed emotions, a practice that ends up enhancing the aura of mystery surrounding him from the locals’ perspective.

The theme of the Heroical Quest is played to the hilt in Elder Race, and with no small amount of tongue-in-cheek humor, particularly where the language barrier comes into play, giving way to an amusing “comedy of errors” flavor that reaches its peak as Nyr tries to explain the hard reality to Lynesse, only to see technical details turned into fairytale terms by a translation that shares very little ground with the common language once employed by the original colonists.  There is a chapter where the two versions are given side by side, and the gap between the actual reality and the one perceived by Lynesse shows, in a quite amusing way, the chasm that has opened between the two cultures, so that, for example, the term “scientist” used by Nyr becomes “wizard” in Lynesse’s tongue, taking the reader straight to Arthur Clarke’s famous sentence about advanced technology and magic…

Nyr’s frustration, and Lynesse’s difficulty in connecting with him, are not only the product of the changes in language but also of the changes in the way one looks at the world: where the anthropologist (especially when he engages the DCS) bases his observation on hard science and provable facts, Lynesse is driven by the stories she heard from early childhood, stories of heroic deeds and slain monsters, of weird magic and amazing feats, so that the two of them are kept apart not only by the terms that are lost in translation, but more importantly by a legendarium that for the girl is as close as humanly possible to reality while for the scientists it’s an unexplored land.  If you have seen that superb Star Trek: TNG episode titled Darmok, you will know what it means to be unable to understand someone whose language is so steeped in legends as to be totally incomprehensible.

And yet, despite these seemingly unsurmountable obstacles, the two manage to form an effective team: where words fail them, actions and – above all else – faith in each other’s commitment to the quest end up creating a bond that is a delight to behold and that adds a touch of sweetness to the mix of adventure and humor that are the main ingredients of the story, a story that despite its shortness ended up being even more enjoyable than Adrian Tchaikovsky’s longer and more complex books.

My Rating:

Reviews

JETTISON: short movie Review

A week ago I posted a sort of teaser introduction to this short movie by director JJ Pollack, which has finally been released today and can be viewed on the DUST channel on YouTube. 

As I anticipated, Jettison focuses on a young woman, Rebka, who ships out to fight an interstellar war, and becomes the victim of time-dilation due to the relativistic consequences of faster-than-light travel.

The inspiration for Jettison comes – in the director’s own words – from Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, to which homage is paid in the choice of some names mentioned in the story: like Haldeman’s main character, Rebka finds herself dealing not only with the harsh realities of war, but with the crueler impact of relativity which manages to take away everything she cares for.   

The director’s choice of filming Rebka’s story in black and white adds a further dramatic layer to her journey, enhancing the starkness of her condition and the encroaching sense of alienation engendered by the increasing time differential between herself and the family she left home – and between her and the friends/lovers she meets as a soldier.

No information is given about the enemy Rebka and her fellow soldiers are fighting, but it’s not important because the focus here is set inwards rather than outwards, so that it hardly matters wether this enemy is human or alien, nor does the story need any alien landscapes or special effects to convey its meaning.

One of the details that I found most striking is revealed in two similar scenes where we see Rebka in a holding capsule prior to departure: in the first one she’s anxious because her encounter with the unknown is becoming a reality, but she’s also excited, ready to face any challenge her new life will present; in the second iteration, she’s already been subjected to painful losses and the realization that there is no going back, not really, and we see her crying in hopeless despair.

I was surprised at the depth of information and character development that could be packed in such a short movie where minimal dialogue is employed to carry out the story and much is left to the images: my advice would be to watch Jettison more than once, because there are many details that might elude you the first time, and its impact increases with each new viewing.

As for me, I’m very grateful for the opportunity I was given by JJ Pollack to expand my “explorations” in a new, intriguing direction, and to take inspiration from Jettison for a long-overdue reread of Joe Haldeman’s classic novel.

My Rating:

Reviews

JETTISON, short movie presentation – #SciFiMonth

For this last day of this year’s SciFi Month event, I have something special to share: it’s both an upcoming review announcement and my choice for today’s prompt about favorite discoveries during the month of November.

A few weeks ago I was contacted by JJ Pollack, the director of the short SF movie Jettison, which will premiere a week from now on the YouTube DUST channel (I will give you the link as soon as it’s available). 

Film Director JJ Pollack

Mr. Pollack asked me if I was interested in watching and reviewing the movie prior to its release to the public, and once aware of the story’s core theme, that of a young woman who enrolls as a fighter for an interstellar war, leaving behind everything and everyone she cares about, I was immediately hooked.

As we first see Rebka, the main character, she’s telling her friend that shipping out is the only way to get off-world: clearly she sees her life as boring, seeks some form of adventure and is ready to accept the consequences of time dilation caused by the bridging of such huge distances.  If at first she takes those consequences lightly, as time goes on one can see the toll it takes, as her friendships, loves and attempts at a normal life out there all end in disappointment and painful losses.

Rebka’s return home brings to light the terrible price she paid for her choice: long decades have lapsed during her absence and she’s only a vague memory among her descendants, and all that she has left is her life as a soldier, a life steeped in bitterness, disillusionment and loneliness.

I’m sharing a trailer for Jettison that will give you a taste of what this short movie is like, and I will be back with some in-depth comments once it goes online: to say more at the moment might enter spoiler territory, and I want you to watch Jettison with the same frame of mind I had on my first encounter – it will have a far greater impact this way, trust me.

Enjoy and keep on the lookout for the link to the full movie!

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher
Reviews

SciFi Month Prompt: OUT OF THIS WORLD – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher

Once again I choose to respond to this prompt by seeking some alien landscapes in the amazing archive at PIXABAY: you have no idea of the sheer amount of beautiful creations you are presented with by asking for “alien landscapes” in the search bar!

Choosing a limited number of them among the veritable embarrassment of riches submitted by the very talented people who share their work there was not easy, but it had to be done. My advice would be to go the site and look for some more: you will not be disappointed…

Reviews

EMPIRE OF SILENCE (Sun Eater #1), by Christopher Ruocchio – #SciFiMonth

When I first saw this novel mentioned by one of my fellow bloggers I was intrigued by the story but did not follow immediately on the desire to read it, so that when I recently went back to look for it I discovered that the series now amounts to four published novels, with a fifth slated to come out by the end of the year (not to mention a few novellas filling out some narrative corners).  It might be enough to cool the enthusiasm of anyone with an already over-bloated TBR, yet I choose to pursue my initial interest in the story, and now I’m certainly glad I did.

The series takes place some 20.000 years in the far future, when humanity has moved out into the stars creating the Sollan Empire, ruled according to a strict class system: Hadrian Marlowe is the protagonist of the saga and at the very start of the novel, written as Hadrian’s memoir, we learn that to remove the menace of the alien Cielcin, with whom humans had been at war for centuries, he destroyed a sun, and in so doing he obliterated both the Cielcin and billions of humans as well.    In his youth, as the eldest son of the Marlowe family (lesser nobility from the planet Delos whose uranium mining facilities empowered them with notable financial clout) Hadrian had some difficulties in accepting his role, being gifted with scholarly inclinations and an impulsive character, neither of which sat well with his cold and ruthless father. When an incident threatened his public image, Hadrian was to be replaced as heir by his younger brother Crispin, and sent to the Chantry, the Empire’s religious power worshipping the memory of lost Earth and professing a strict dogma enforced through methods resembling those of the Spanish Inquisition.  Trying to evade a fate he found abhorrent, Hadrian ended up on the planet of Emesh, alone, penniless and unable to reveal his identity for fear of being forcibly sent to the Chantry: to survive he entered the brutal gladiatorial games of the Colosso, where a chance encounter with a Cielcin prisoner launched him on the path that would turn him into the man who destroyed a sun…

This is a very compressed synopsis for a novel depicting the early years of a quite eventful life, of which Empire of Silence is only the first part: there is a great deal to parse in this first book of the saga, which proved to be a compelling read despite a few setbacks that can be easily attributed to the novel being a debut work – and as such it’s still a very well crafted one, its problems easily forgiven and forgotten in the engaging tale of Hadrian Marlowe’s journey from riches to rags to… whatever will come along the way. If at times the narrative loses its momentum, stalled by what might feel like an excessive focus on details or inner musings, it’s understandable that the author wanted to give his readers a full immersion in the world he created and let himself be swayed by maybe too much enthusiasm. Still, those moments were not enough to drive me away, because I have to admit that with such a powerful “hook” as the knowledge of Hadrian’s future, the exploration of his past becomes compelling and compulsory.  

The world building is fascinating: the empire is ruled by a feudal system that borrows many elements from the Roman Empire, even employing many of its terms and some of its customs like the gladiatorial games in the Colosso, which amuse the nobility and enthrall the populace according to the age-old rule of panem et circenses. The few alien races encountered during humanity’s expansion have been enslaved and are used either as workforce or fodder for the games in the Colosso, any consideration for their rights smothered by the Chantry’s ruthless doctrine and the abject fear they inspire.   The ruling classes – or palatines – enjoy genetic enhancements which confer them improved physiques and a longer life-span, the physical differences setting them apart from the rest of the populace just as much as their social station does.  It’s an intriguing society we see depicted in this series, one where such technological advancement as genetic engineering go hand in hand with a deep loathing for machines and computers, which is enforced by the Chantry under the stigma of heresy.

The alien Cielcin are presented as equally intriguing, their motives and actions filtered through the wartime propaganda so that readers are left to wonder if they are truly the proverbial monsters or if there is more to their quest than the simple need for expansion: the protracted meetings between Hadrian and a captured Cielcin officer – one of the most harrowing segments of the story, due to the descriptions of callous torture inflicted by Chantry interrogators – seem to lead toward a different interpretation, which of course begs the question about Hadrian’s act of genocide disclosed at the very start of the novel.

As Hadrian describes the background in which his life takes place, he also proceeds in revealing himself with little or no attempt at sugarcoating: he freely shares his triumphs and his mistakes, the impulsive choices which often tend to land him in a situation that’s worse than the one he was trying to escape, his capacity for compassion and the mad urges that put him in danger more than once. There were times when I felt like slapping some sense into him, often forgetting that – at this point in the story – he’s still relatively young and therefore prone to mistakes, not to mention a victim of his upbringing and the cold environment in which he grew up, whose influence we learn by contrast once Hadrian establishes a rapport with his fellow arena fighters:

They cared because they chose to, and they did so with a gruff but quiet indelicacy that propped me up in my despair and whispered that this was what it was to have a family.

Being aware from the beginning of Hadrian’s fate might rob the reading journey of some surprises – we know that any danger he faces will not be a mortal one, for example – but on the other hand we are keenly curious to learn how such an epilogue will come to be, and that is the main attraction of this saga. The first book ends with the start of what promises to be an adventurous voyage of discovery, and while not being a dreaded cliffhanger, it left me anxious to know what kind of challenges the protagonist will face in the next installment. And luckily for me, I will not have to wait long to discover it 🙂

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher
Reviews

THE SINS OF OUR FATHERS (The Expanse 9.5), by James S.A. Corey – #SciFiMonth

A short story from the universe of The Expanse is hardly enough to compensate for my sadness at the end of the best SF series I read so far, but it’s still a very welcome surprise, even more so when it ties off one of the threads left hanging by the main storylines in the saga.

Jannah is one of the newly colonized worlds reached by humanity through the ring gates system, whose collapse has now isolated those worlds from the rest of the galaxy. The colonists on Jannah have so far been dealing – like everyone else in their same situation – with the uncertainty of cut communications, dwindling supplies and lack of replacement parts, when a new problem surfaces: some previously unknown creatures have been attacking the settlement, and their defenses might not hold much longer.  The group of colonists is of two minds about how to cope: stay and keep defending themselves, or relocate the village in a different area, and tempers rise in the confrontation, opening the way for the strong and ruthless to impose their will.

One of the stranded colonists is an old acquaintance: Filip, the son of Naomi Nagata of the murderous leader of the Free Navy Marco Inaros. He’s a few decades older than the last time we saw him, and he’s been living a nomadic life since then, haunted by the guilt for his actions when he was his father’s lieutenant, and trying to keep as low a profile as possible.

His past was like a wound that wouldn’t heal, he’d spent his life dodging justice that might not even have been looking for him except in his head. That had been enough to break him.

Once Filip recognizes in fellow castaway Jandro the signs of the man’s narcissistic thirst for power that were at the roots of his father’s character, he understands that history might repeat itself and the ghosts of the past come knocking at his door once again…

Despite the dreary, almost hopeless atmosphere of this short story, I enjoyed very much the character study at its core: humanity manages again to show its failings and its inability to learn from the mistakes of the past (the sins of the fathers mentioned in the title). We see the bully Jandro understand that the lack of laws and organizations able to implement them have left a door open for a show of force and the possibility of seizing power; we also see how people deprived of self-esteem, or agency, tend to attach themselves to such individuals as Jandro, giving in to their basest instincts to gain the leader’s approval.  It’s a scenery with which Filip is quite familiar, one which has the effect of reopening the emotional scars he’s still carrying after so long.

When we last saw him, Filip was a teenager, confused, lost, oppressed by guilt –  and more important eager to distance himself from the looming figure of his deadly charismatic father: the choice to take on his mother’s surname – Nagata – his way of expressing a willingness to cut the ties with that past. And yet, at the start of the story, Filip is still running from that past, and from himself: until now, when things became unbearable, or too comfortable, he always moved on and left without turning back, in a form of self-inflicted punishment: 

[…] if anything ever went right for him, if he ever seemed in danger of gaining something he might be able to keep, he ran.

Now, with the collapse of the gates system, that possibility is gone forever, and that’s probably the reason he  finally takes a stand – a way to avoid history repeating itself and of atoning for his own sins. It might not be a true redemption (not considering the way things develop) but it’s the beginning – the hope – of one. And it’s enough.

The Sins of Our Fathers might very well be our last chance to visit the Expanse universe, but it’s a quietly moving, very satisfactory one.  Even though I keep hoping that the authors might still have something in store for us in the future…

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher
Reviews

CONSIDER PHLEBAS (Culture #1), by Iain Banks – #SciFiMonth

When, some time ago, I decided to acquaint myself with Iain Banks’ famous Culture saga I went, of course, with the publication order and started with Consider Phlebas, but my experience with the book was not a positive one, since the story seemed to go all over the place – both narratively and in the figurative sense.  My reading journey for the Culture might have ended then and there if not for a number of comments I read online about Consider Phlebas not being the best starting point for the non-initiated in Banks’ writings, and so I moved – with greater success – to Player of Games and Use of Weapons, and then to a few other titles in the series. 

So, armed with a few more Culture books under my proverbial belt (although not as many as I would like…), I decided to go back to Phlebas and see how it fared this time: it worked indeed a little better, granted, but still it felt so different from what I’m used to from this author that I found myself unable to change my initial opinion in a very significant way.

The story develops on the background of the war between the Culture – a post-scarcity, utopian, galaxy-spanning conglomeration of civilizations –  and the Idirans – a belligerent society with xenophobic tendencies; keen on capturing an escaped Culture Mind (a very powerful AI), the Idirans enroll one of their agents, a Changer named Bora Horza Gubuchul. Changers are humanoids gifted with the ability to transform their appearance, and therefore to infiltrate any environment without arousing suspicion: Horza is also perfect for two reasons, because he hates the Culture passionately as his masters, and because he served, long ago, on the planet where the runaway Mind has gone to ground, so he’s quite familiar with the territory.

Horza’s task proves far more arduous than anticipated, leading him through a series of adventurous mishaps (for want of a better word) that nonetheless offer the author a way of introducing the setting for this series and acquainting his readers with the Culture and its many facets.  This is indeed the aspect I most enjoyed in this second journey through the book: elements like the concept of the powerful Minds, or the sentient drones gifted with often quirky personalities, are standard fare in Iain Banks’ Culture novels, and here they make their first appearance in a very intriguing way; and again descriptions of the huge space habitats called Orbitals, veritable worlds artificially constructed to offer any kind of terrain or environment, are nothing if not mind-blowing and fascinating.  But where these details – made now familiar by the books I’ve read before this – still prove intriguing and thought-provoking, the story fails (still) to get a grip on my imagination, and the characters suffer the same kind of fate.

Horza’s weird adventures end up feeling a little too much, to the point that any intended dramatic effect resulted more farcical than dramatic: he starts with a harrowing experience when he’s sentenced to a gruesome death in a cell that’s going to be filled with the bodily waste of a banquet’s participants; rescued by the Idirans he barely survives a ferocious space battle only to be retrieved by a band of pirates/salvagers with whom he engages in the spectacular failure of a preposterous heist; a shuttle crash lands him on the section of an Orbital where a crazy cannibalistic cult is waiting for the end of the world (and this segment is even more gross than the waste-disposal cell one, believe me); and finally he enters in an outlandish card game called Damage where lives are at play besides fortunes. All this before truly engaging in the mission the Idirans hired him for…

It’s clear that Consider Phlebas is more plot- than character-oriented, and there is nothing wrong with that, but I’m still not sure where the failed heist, the Orbital debacle or the “cannibals interlude” serve this plot, since none of these narrative elements have any relation with the search for the runaway Mind. None of this – be it adventurous or merely grotesque – serves to highlight or develop Horza’s character, which remains the same detached-from-everything (and everyone) personality from start to end, making it very difficult, not to say impossible, to form any attachment to him.  In a similar way, the long, sometimes overdrawn, sequence of “adventures” prolongs the wait for the real task Horza must accomplish, so that when it finally comes into play it’s lost any appeal or involvement – or at least that’s what happened to me, to the point that I skimmed the whole segment to reach the end more quickly.

I realize I’ve been somewhat harsh with this book, maybe undeservedly so, but it’s clear that something important for me was missing from it and it failed to capture my attention despite the familiarity I acquired with this saga over time. At least I can agree that even with my first approach it was still enough to keep me interested in Banks’ Culture, to the point that I enjoyed the following books and that I will continue my exploration with the ones still waiting on my TBR.  So maybe this is not a complete loss, and that’s the reason my rating for Consider Phlebas gains a half point more than I would have given it on its own… 

My Rating:

Reviews

SciFi Month Challenge Prompt 14/11/2022 – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher

Today’s challenge prompt asks to PUT HUMANITY IN PERSPECTIVE, looking for images where a tiny human is dwarfed by a huge alien landscape – which is the situation we might find ourselves in once we start to set out feet on some extraterrestrial worlds.

As usual, when looking for some interesting images, my first stop is at PIXABAY, where I can find so many freely downloadable examples for any given clue, all of them from very, very talented people. Here are some of the pictures I found showcasing vast expanses where small humans looked all but lost…

Impressive, aren’t they? 😊