Photons With Character

Space dogfights, Zap Guns, Farmboy Heroes, Cool Made-Up Beasts

Century Rain

Posted by Q on March 11, 2009

The question of whether Alastair Reynolds’s sci-fi is reminiscent of Robert Charles Wilson (or vice-versa) is largely moot, because it just is. Same goes for the technological depth of his civilizations and the universe of wormholes. Whether it’s just as emotionally effective is a good question. Because, that’s where he does turn up short.

Century Rain is of that particular sci-fi genre where the myriad twisting and turning of the plot will get you in two worlds; one, an alternate-history earth in the 1950’s and another a nanotech devastated one three centuries later. The particularly clever bit is operating both at the same time (nearly) without involving any sort of time-travelling teleportation plotting. The plot setting is so prosaic, so near-science that it seems almost plausible.

On to the protagonists, the scene is that of an earth devastated due to technologies beyond the control of man (thankfully, not a nuclear war scenario). This devastation has resulted in two divergent groups being formed; the Threshers & the Slashers. Taken simply, one is a luddite (or a near approximation) & the other says forget the past & look to the future. The conflict between the two parties is an uneasy peace when our protagonist, an archaeologist, Verity Auger gets shanghaied into going to the alternate history earth (E2) because there seems to be trouble brewing. On the E2, we get to see a bass-player musician cum detective, Wendell Floyd, investigate the most peculiar scene of murder of a young woman who had recently come to Paris from US. Or had she. That is the beginning of the plot in a nutshell.

As I said earlier, the science behind Reynold’s book is solid. By solid, I mean it’s a fairly easy to spot genre half-science. But the way the science is integrated into the plot makes for pretty decent reading and on the whole the story looks good. And it better look good because that’s the only thing the book has going for it.

The character prose is just way too long. On my PRS500, this book came to about 1236 pages and I definitely got the feeling that somewhere between 350-450 words, a decent editor could have made it into a halfway exciting novella (if not a complete book) which would have rocked & rolled. What we get is just incessant plodding from one location to the other, easily anticipated plot-twists and nerdy half references to Casablanca & SlashDot. In spite of having a cool doomsday device, the endgame seems flat and without the gut of his other Revelation Space books

My rating on the book is 5/10. The poor characters and plotting let the book down majorly. Atleast it can be read independent of any other book in the series. That’s a mercy.

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The Steel Remains, or does it?

Posted by Q on March 11, 2009

Richard K. Morgan, that mouthful of hard-boiled gritty sci-fi ventures into fantasy with his take on the swords & sorcery shebang with The Steel Remains. Unfortunately, while the prose is just as testy and the characters suffused with just the same amount of rage & cynicism, the overall story remains spent & flaccid. Much like the end result of the protagonist’s pleasures.

While in no way influencing this review ipso facto, Morgan’s views on LOTR (On suvudu) where he decries the lack of insight into the other side; that rigid barrier between utter good & utter evil as the common failing of fantasy (most notably LOTR) drives much of the book. Taken in context, it seems as if Morgan is determined to show the other face of every upturned cheek, where evil has a human face and the ‘heroes’ have evil intent. That determination leads to a largely circumstitious prose which disappointingly ends with the evil vs good hinge anyway.

But first, a bit of background about the story.

The three primary characters are all veterans of a war in the recent past. Broadly there’s a swordsmaster – Gil Eskiath (with a legendary weapon made by a race long gone & techniques long forgotten), a barbarian – Egar the dragonbane (with a blessed lance) and an advisor to the King/half-breed human lady – Archeth. Unlike the usual fantasy fare, the King is not an outright evil despotic; he’s what D&D players might call Unlawful neutral. He does have his kick the dog moment and also has his (unpopular) protect his subordinates stand. Morally ambigious yet. The setting is that Gil is asked by his mother to search for a missing cousin who has been sold to slavery. Egar the barbarian has trouble with his clan-mates because of his agnostic behavior & frequent changing of bedmates. Archeth is out doing what she thinks the emperor should do to protect his empire. All are fashionably embittered with war, & fighting the good fight. The search for that cousin is the quest.

And, as a plot device it succeeds, brilliantly. At no point of time are we led to believe that this is the quest and to be honest, it is not. But having it as the central theme allows Morgan tremendous freedom to let his characters do what he makes them do best; Edgy,Violent & non-flinching action. Also the back-story is revealed in little bits & pieces which motor the plot along quite nicely. I’d say it again, the story is good, a little bit of fantasy staple, but interesting nevertheless.

Where Morgan triumphs in writing, is often about war-weary tough dark brooding heroes (remember Takeshi Kovacs). A sure-fire formula to make any story interesting. And Gil is exactly that. Talented, dangerous & doesn’t care whether he is lying in silks or in a boardhouse. And, oh by the way, he’s gay. That’s right. And we get the full treatment of his antics. Just the way we usually get for fair-haired maidens & blue-eyed boys tumbling around. Remember this point, because I’ll come back to it.

Shock & awe. That’s what Morgan’s books usually are. Whether they’re about an augmented soldier in the future conflicts of man, or a genetically new breed of superhuman fighters or these sword & lance swingers. When you pick up a book by him, what you see is basically his assault on the established tropes of the genre. And he has done that fantastically well till now.

And that genre-bending is quite clearly his unmaking here. Reading through the book, one gets the feeling that Morgan tried to be too different, too raw-edged with his characters. In trying to make every character a Gorbag in Minas Morgul, he blurs all characterizations that basically confuses the reader. Suddenly the so-called evil go legit and the heroes look like trespassers. His dwenda (basically the bad guys, I am assuming) were on earth before everybody else. They just want to rid everybody else (who they feel are trespassers) from here. And our heroes oppose them, fight them, kill them. Here’s the problem, Morgan gives these guys legitimacy and then takes it away. WTF!! And on our hero; If I replace every gorgeous guy in his bedroom with an equally gorgeous girl, what difference will I get? Will I have mutilated the story beyond repair? Will it all stop making sense?

I’ll tell you – It’ll make exactly zilch difference in the story. His homesexuality is completely incidental. Replace every blue-eyed boy with a brown-eyed girl and there’s no change. I am sure this is what Morgan intended to showcase; that we should also accept the fact that not all heroes get swayed by the hay, sunshine & bees. That somebody has the balls to write who and what one is, without pulling a Dumbledore on us.

The problem is that it all backfires miserably. And not just that one thing, it’s across the complete story. In that incessant drive towards upturning all tropes of fantasy in one genre-bender, the tale suffers. Sure the violence is visceral, the characters edgy and all the grit in the world is right there on the roads that they travel; but eventually the storyline is still that of a reluctant hero (Or if I may predict, a reluctant villain). That’s it all becomes Shannara on steroids.

Richard Morgan is a hell of a writer, that fact remains. This book is a 5/10. Sadly, that remains too.

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Review: S. Andrew Swann – [Apotheosis 1] Prophets

Posted by Q on March 9, 2009

Space Opera; that buzzword which has launched a thousand ships warping their way through the known & unknown space-time continuum rediscovers the spirit of the Big Dumb Object in this new series from Andrew Swann. Alex Benedict fans may note that there is definitely a new game in town and it’s kicking butt.

Overall, the premise of the story is pretty straightforward. There is an unknown anomaly in space around a distant star which needs investigating. And then someone does exactly that. And there are complications. And inevitably, the situation on hand is that science fictional special…all f*cked up.

Written with the right touch, that is all that a SO novel really needs. L.E.Modesitt Jr. specializes in those types. As a bonus for us, S. Andrew Swann does exactly that. And he also pulls a trick of the Malazan on us. Multiple POV characters. Yes, multiple POV. On a non-GRRM/Erikson novel. Whowuddathunk, right?

But before I get ahead of myself, lemme just construct a bit of a straw man of the Swann’s universe. Okie, so the setting is a far distant future when FTL has already made possible the first wave of humanity’s conquest of the galaxy and the subsequent breakdown of this pax imperium. The eventual wars following the meltdown of junta have also quieted down and now there is a loose alliance-based polity at work. So, yes the setting is of peace. Of the people, the confusion couldn’t be more pronounced. Prior to the war & meltdown, there were three main areas in which human endeavor has been put – nanotech, AI and genetic evolution of other sentient species. And religions have sprouted in and around these genetic missteps.

In the backdrop of this, there is a somewhat disreputable scrap trader who brings together a bunch of mercenaries (who are all obviously the eminently quotable POV characters) and scientists to investigate a possible anomaly in a distant star system. On their heels is the establishment (or all the separate interest groups in the story) and some jack-in-the-box mysterious character who is pulling everyone together. The story is about what happens when all of these players are made to meet in a spot far away from their respective strongholds.

The strength of the novel lies in the unique species that the author has managed to create and manipulate. The underlying emotions although are all too human though. But these characters make for a very interesting reading and the POV shifts are not abrupt enough to shake away your attention from the story. It is a fair bit difficult to start off as the back-story is spread across info-dumps in the first quarter of the novel which makes for a fair bit of plodding before you catch on to whatever is happening. However, persistence at this stage would be paid off handsomely later in the book when you do get sucked into the story.

Personally for me, the book tipped the balance into interesting enough that I’d care to read the sequel. Although the current Amazon listing shows only one review of that indefatigable (wo)man-machine Klausener with 4 stars, I expect to see a bit more traction as the novel hits the reading circuit.

I’d suggest 8/10

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Just another Nightside book

Posted by Q on February 13, 2009

Being John Taylor...you're doin it wrong

Being John Taylor...you're doin it wrong

Simon R. Green’s losing his touch, which shows clearly in his new Nightside book; Just Another Judgement Day, with yet another successful impossible adventure in the area formerly & currently known as Nightside. But first, let’s get there

The protagonist John Taylor is like a fantasy Chuck Norris; a lone ranger who brings justice to all those who ask for it, from him, personally. There’s plenty of available back-story in the 8 previous Nightside books which roundly establishes the fact. Usually he gets to tackle one really really tough Boss character in every book, the one here is called “the Walking Man” who, to paraphrase the author, is God’s wrath on evil-doers. But his definition of evil is rather straight-jacketed, which means that when this dude walks into Nightside, the ouroboros of good & evil, there’s gonna be literally hell to pay. And since this robot is powered by God’s wrath, there ain’t nobody who can turn it off.

The best thing about Nightside books is their often neatly wrapped conclusion. Plus action. Loads of action. And memorable characters, preferably with an adjectivized [yeah, sic] first name – Shotgun Suzie, Punk God of the Straight Razor, Walker…they’re all pigeon-holed characters who play their parts perfectly. They work like crocs, you see one and you know rightaway that its gonna fit well and you’ll be comfortable. All of SRG is like that, comfortable (and actionable) screen after screen, till it cuts to wrap. Which is usually neat, satisfying and everything

But this is rather wishy-washy. Although the bad side does have a usual invincible protagonist, the story ends with a bare whimper. And not even a believable one at that (whatever precious little there is to believe in fantasy anyway). Plus, the usual characters take a back-seat as a Nemo-like character makes his appearance as Johnny sidekick to Mr. Taylor. Which means few funny situations and fewer laconic humor. The overall novel suffers.

My rating 5/10. Readable if you’re a SRG fan, bilge if you’re a fantasy fan

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The Painted Man Review

Posted by Q on February 4, 2009

Also called The Painted Man

Also called The Warded Man

Also called The Warded Man, due to some copyright $hit. The man behind the endeavor is Peter V. Brett, a good man.

Now this would be the point where I CCP carefully googled info about Brett, his living habits, his dog’s name et al. Due to a paucity of time & patience, I’ll pretend that I actually do not know the author or what he does. All i/we care about is that he has a new book out that people should be reading.

Now, about the story environment…If this was sci-fi, I’d have called it post-apocalyptic. The situation before our tale begins is such; the world starts off just as described in a million other fantasy works; a village with what is now quaintly referred to as cottage industry environment. There’re farmers, healers, the horse stable guy, travelling entertainers & the works. Only, during the night, things aren’t so normal. Humanity is under siege by beings from the underworld called corelings, who rise from the surface as soon as the sun sets with an unhealthily insatiable taste for human meat. The only protection against these beings is a series of arcane & mysterious drawing called wards. The origin of these is lost in time (you can assume an apocalyptic battle between forces of good & evil in the ancient past). In some places, the wards are hard-coded (so to speak) i.e. etched/inked into the surface. In some places, they need to be constantly refurnished like a bad paint job. Hence humanity is in a constant struggle and night life sucks big time…literally.

Now the human interest story, a runaway boy, a rebellious girl & an orphaned sidekick (?) constitute the characters…note characters, not cardboard cut-outs. There’s a good amount of back-story built into these characters and the people they meet & the changes they undergo, as part of growing up feel natural instead of contrived. Ofcourse, the lead character’s story is more solid than the other two; but that’s forgivable.

The plot of the story is how these characters find ways (individually) to rebel & fight against the present situation that they are in; not just the societal but also those to find if there’s a way to combat those pesky, bloody night crawlers.

There is quite a bit of graphic & gratuitous violence happening from & against lead characters, a general move in line with the gritty “knights who say fuck” genre of fantasy. Which is becoming a bit of a fad these days. But hey, it has been well done here, so no complaints.

Overall, the plot is strong because there’s a single-minded handling to it; Find a way to stop & combat, if possible, against the corelings. So, the overall hook for the reader is always there. The plotting within the book, as far as action sequences goes, is very tightly done. The dialogue isn’t exactly competition to Neal Stephenson, but hey! it’s an amped-up pulp fantasy volume, with loads of grits thrown in.

As a first book in a trilogy, it definitely works. I’ll be picking up a copy of The Desert Spear as soon as it hits the interwebs (’cause publishers in this part of the world wouldn’t know a good fantasy even if it raised its heckles and bit them on the butt)

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Best Of 2008 – Fantasy Part I

Posted by Q on February 3, 2009

There’re a bunch of best of 2008 fantasy posts around the world(ironic, eh?). Some people have even blogged about it (and kept on updating). Seriously!

As is usual, my home country decided to skip the whole shebang about new authors and any such interwebs obsession. So, we have Brisngr as the bringr of good news in India, topping at #5. However, some time spent stateside and a favorable exchange rate ensured that atleast there was somebody flying the high kite of fantasy (or the kite of high fantasy, I cannot make up my mind)

So, without much ado, <drumrolls></drumrolls>

Best Completed Fantasy – Joe Abercrombie – Last Argument of Kings

we’r in ur website, stealin’ ur bandwidth

Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say that he’s the best anti-hero we got to see this year. Joe Abercrombie crafts a deliciously wicked tale with a standard cast of fantasy characters, who are all there but not quite. Arrogant-sob-learning-the-lessons-of-life, wizened-old-wizard-dude, grizzled-war-weary-veteran, scarred-armed-chick, hero-turned-villain-with-a-golden-heart; all of these are there, but there’s a subtle twitch in each. They behave like they’re supposed to, but somehow they don’t turn out right. Somehow Dorothy gets the feeling that she’s not in Belgariad anymore.

The best novel evaaaaah! – Patrick Rothfuss – Name Of The Wind

Awesomeness, that’s the name of the wind

Okie, so technically this is not a 2008 release (go tell that to the interwebs, eh). The story as told in two lines might as well be from Harry Potter; gifted orphaned child learns that he’s astoundingly talented in matters of magic & music. Goes to school & rocks the establishment. Defeats a powerful foe near the end of the book. Sequel awaited.

The difference is that the book written by this GRRM lookalike Rothfuss tugs at your heartstrings, the way the boy Potter could never could. It speaks of (& not about, mind you) a sense of desolation and a vast, unimaginable waste that the reader can feel from the text. An opening passage where you’ve been told, that when in the Waystone Inn, where people are drinking & the barkeep is polishing his cutlery, there is an all-consuming silence as deep & wide as the autumn ending, as heavy as a great-river stone, the cut-flower sound of a man waiting to die. Punch to the gut, check!

Rothfuss is a conjurer, he makes images out of words and songs out of those images. NOTW is one song, with its ebbs & flows. The truly brilliant part of the narrative is the First Person Speech; Kvothe is speaking his story to you. Not a detached voice in your head telling you to turn left & right.

That’s where the biggest pain point also is. As a third-person narrative, NOTW would have been a merely good book; with a FP view, it’s extraordinary. So, if you don’t like the character, or the way the narrator speaks, behaves or even says hello, you’d never enjoy the book

Rest of the list with exciting debuts & other notables to follow. I can hardly contain my enthusiasm :P (& come-on, let’s be realistic, old daddy ’08 aint kickin’ around anymore. Don’t think he’ll mind)

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Introductory Post, Or Why Photons With Character

Posted by Q on February 3, 2009

Light is a wonderful thing. It is also very confusing. See formula


Note: if you can’t understand, you’re clearly not teh TG

Note 2: The formula is the uncertainty principle. In simple terms, it means that you can either have a pet cat, or eat a cheezburger. But you can’t have both. Logic courtesy: ICHC

The function of Light is to illuminate, but light reading requires zero or no illumination. Scientifically it’s either a wave or a particle but throwing light on the subject makes things no clearer. The opposite of light is dim, which is a groovy XML tag. People feel no slight if you call them light; yet light clothing is frowned upon. All this constitutes the conclusion that Light is a dysfunctional family of photons whom you can’t invite for lunch. (Slick, eh. The way I rick-rolled you into googling photons)

With all these photons zipping around at light speed, we tend to think of them as a collective. No personality, all business. Have speed, must travel. To us, they are nothing but a blur, a smear or a streak of light. However, you gotta think, to a wandering photon, we’d also appear a blur. A single stream of grey tops mumbling around in our corner offices, plotting to take over the world?

SFF is a lot like this. Sword wielders dueling sorcerers & emperors, mages in downtown Manhattan, giant spaceships blasting away at Death Star, Aliens doing alien stuff – useful tropes for classifying this lit., but awkward party conversation. This blog is to maintain that great tradition. Reading it will still not get you laid.

No aliens were harmed in the making of this blog. No photons were destroyed in the server SQL query.

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