Oryx and Crake

The trouble with reading too much of the same author is that particular themes or motifs stop being clever and start being annoying.

Like, after this particular offering, I came away with this impression that our much lauded feminist author really hates mothers.  Or is it that she hates the role of motherhood and therefore writes women trapped in the roles of mothers struggling to break free, but somehow always manages to represent them from the positions of their children or spouses absolutely hating and resenting them?  I don’t know; there’s a distinction for sure, but I’m getting sick of reading stories where mothers who try to be or do anything are hated by all those around them for simply trying.  There is just so much shame heaped on mothers already, why do intelligent stories always have to buy in to the shame structure which already exists.

By contrast, I think of Boneshaker and how for once, for once, a story left me with the sense that being a mother is neither the be-all or end-all of life, but that it can be a story motivator without being the sole story motivator, and that it’s totally possible to have a meaningful respect-based relationship with your teenaged child.  And it took a steampunk zombie story to do this?  This shouldn’t be innovative.  No wonder so many women give up on the so-called literati shelves and turn to pulp for their escapism.

Which brings me to the rest of the story.  Yep, it was good.  It was intelligent, and witty, and the characters felt realistic and alive, and accurately motivated; the story was well paced, effortlessly crafted, and never broke immersion.  There were interesting concepts, if none original; the edge cities of privileged gene-factory employees, the crumbling yet crowded urban centres, the numbing distance of the internet’s dark side told in a wonderfully boring and completely integrated manner — it’s an essential to life now, like walking from room to room, it’s not even worthy of particular emphasis.

And I came away bored.

Maybe it’s just that this is no longer speculative fiction, it’s getting to close to life.  Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard all this before.  Telling me about it does nothing.  Tell me how to avert it, and maybe my reaction will be different.  Tell me how despite this, it’s not the end of the world, and I’ll embrace it.  This had an almost clumsy level of preachiness to it in the same way that Sherri S Tepper’s message is getting painfully repetitive.  We already know all the reasons why humanity is horrible and worth destroying.  Tell us why it’s worth saving.

My vote rests with Station Eleven as the best post-apocalypse novel I’ve read this year.  Oryx and Crake?  It’s way more clever than Station Eleven, but its message is tired and tiring.

Advertisements

Station Eleven

I loved this so much.  It was such a pit-trap of making me feel nostalgic for the act of nostalgia itself, but I enjoyed every minute of it.

This is a post-apocalypse story that has absolutely nothing new about it — except that it maintains a shining love for human fallibility and fundamental decency.  I felt for everyone.  The empathy was glorious.  The interwoven stories were neither too much nor too little.

If I were to relate this to anything, it’d be the blend of nostalgia and future-tech and human inspiration in Pacific Rim.  I’ve read reviews about Pacific Rim being the Gen-Y’s approach to apocalypse.  The time has passed for wallowing in our inevitable deservedness to suffer horrific civilisation crushing ends.  We have amazing technology.  We have innovation.  We have people resource.  We form teams, we aren’t single white male heroes/failures in this alone.  Survival is worth the effort because people are worth the effort.

Much love.

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

I read a detailed synopsis of this short story some time before I was able to find a copy.  The synopsis piqued my interest; body horror, a very weird inverse of cosmic horror (where despite the pitiful insignificance of the humans they nevertheless hold the full sadistic attention of a creature of far greater intelligence and power), tortures directly related to previous individual strengths (that old sadistic Dante’s Inferno).

Strangely, reading this synopsis turned out to be a big mistake.  By the time I found a copy of the story and read it, I was disappointed in how short the short story was. The synopsis was actually longer. The dry, impartial tone of the synopsis – never trying to force an emotion — made me feel far more horror than the POV character’s monologue – which tried and sometimes missed in being as evocative.  The synopsis’ descriptions of the various tiers of rusting hell through which the characters descend was more descriptive and referential than the single segued paragraph used in the short story.  So very, very weird.

This whole experience left me thinking more about the potential of using non-fiction voices in fiction storytelling (like a synopsis) as an omniscient narrator who does not in any way attempt to impart an emotional reaction — all while leaving plenty of room for the reader’s brain to fill the gaps with their own, possibly more intense emotional reaction.  The premise is memorable, but once is the premise is subtracted from the writing, the writing itself is not memorable.

I wonder if a synopsis of a Stephen King novel would also be more interesting than the novel itself…

Icewind Dale 1: Crystal Shard

I’m sure I will regret my decision to read through the entire back catalogue of the Forgotton Realms.

So, Icewind Dale: Crystal Shard.

The editing is atrocious.  The typos are atrocious.  Drizzt has a completely out of character and out of context compulsion to eat the mutton being cooked by a bunch of frost giants he’s in the process of killing.  (Was this supposed to be a running joke?  I cringed through this section.)  Wulfgar’s character development is entirely offscreen.  The story is a lessons learned regarding how much story momentum, meaning and opportunity are lost when you get too obsessed with telling rather than showing.

The in-joke of everyone else getting credit for Drizzt’s achievements borders on some very telling social commentary, but the clumsy way certain other complex concepts in the story are handled suggests that this was accidental.

I just cannot talk about Cattiebrie (spelled as Cattibrie, Catti-brie, or Cattie-brie) and the treatment of women in this story, or this will become a six page snarkfest about the 1980s and 1990s fantasy genre being the last bastion of those clinging to the false promises of the patriarchy.  The reason why some dude authors don’t write women into their stories?  Because they honestly can’t, and the attempt to do so under editorial duress is worse than the gentle and familiar insult of being fully excluded from the patriarchal storyline.  Just let those authors be, and gently strike through in red the word ‘woman’ from every page of their drafts.

 

The pacing is good.   Once the need to obsessively describe geography was overcome – about 1/3 of the way through – the flow and pacing really improved.  The affectionate love of weaponry and inventories is nostalgic and grounded in gameverse.

The realism is lacking (horses, avalanches, game tactics, poor concept of time/army movements/provisioning).  Characterisation was painfully shallow, with the main distinctions around race and class.  The closest non-fantasy comparison is a Harlequin novel, where White Male Billionaire or Black Lady Lawyer become the equivalent of a race and (job)class shorthand.  It’s interesting how FR fandom seems to have latched on to Drizzt — while this is my first encounter with a FR story with Drizzt, I can kind of see how his backstory tropes have a much more easily accessed (or at least, familiar) ‘depth’ than the other characters.  And Atypical Chaotic Good Drow Elf Ranger is a goodly sight more interesting than Typical Lawful Good Human Barbarian Warrior and Typical Lawful Good Dwarven Warrior and Typical Chaotic Good Halfling Rogue.  (Although the hints of Regis’ atypicality also pique interest – hopefully to be developed in the sequels.)

But it’s only a FR story?  It’s not supposed to be high literature? It’s not supposed to be deep?  Bullshit.  All fantasy, by the way its creator needs to pick and choose what’s going to transfer from real world concepts and experiences into the realm, how that’s going to transfer, and how it’s going to change, tells more about the context it comes from than the story itself.  I would have been less scathing and highlighted more of the moments of amusement and entertainment, but I also started reading the Realms of Magic anthology concurrently, and the stories, characterisation, diversity of characterisation, and interest factor in Realms of Magic is 1000x what Icewind Dales provoked.  There ARE mature stories and complex characterisations in Forgotten Realms, even in pissy little short stories whose sole intent is to beat a singular moral drum, and what’s more, good storytellers who at least make that single drum beat happen on cue. Unfortunately Crystal Shard really suffers by comparison, and I’ve yet to forgive it.  The elements of a good meaty story are there, but the overall execution was so raw it practically mooed.

Boneshaker

A surprisingly intimate story about a mother and son in an alternative universe Seattle.  I loved their rough as guts relationship that is nevertheless built on a quiet respect for what each other puts up with.  The lead characters are written really well and believably – and what a relief to have a teen boy written like a teen boy without being a needlessly obnoxious stereotype.

The peripheral characters all had somewhat of a generic texture, but at least that texture felt like a turn of the century Seattle with applicable ethnic range.

The difficulty with this story is usual expectations from mainstream fantasy / sci fi, which tends towards the epic / space opera — being that the story should make some kind of grand sweeping statement about all humanity while solving major world dilemmas via assorted macguffins.  This is not that story; this is a story about a relatively ordinary-complex mother-son relationship amped up by zombies and deadly blight.  The end revelation is an intensely personal one for the small family, not a worldchanging one, and all it does is reveal more about the complexity of the husband-wife relationship which predates the story.  This tale could have been set in a range of high risk settings, but there’s definitely nothing wrong with the steampunk setting and it certainly adds a bit of relevatory interest along the way.

I liked it and will follow the series, but it wasn’t one of those stories which changed my world view.

Old Man’s War

The back blurb comments made reference to Scalzi writing so closely to Heinlein that the book may as well have been written by Heinlein.  (As if that’s a compliment??) For reference, the only Heinlein books I’ve read are Stranger in a Strange Land and Time Enough for Love, and I couldn’t see the similarity.  Maybe the reviewers meant Starship Troopers, which, from the Wikipedia description, seems to follow the same plot structure – new recruit, learning about life as a murderer of alien beings, framework for the same discussions about morality and ethics and virtue.

Which is where my biggest criticism lies: this well written, well structured and entertaining story felt like every other story just like it, with the one major distinction being that it didn’t go out of its way to insult or exclude me for being female, ethnic, etc etc etc.  This is a terrible reason to like a story: hey, I read something written from the POV of a man about a traditionally masculine/parochial/prejudiced cultural institution and it didn’t make me rageful enough to throw the book across the room!  Yay!

So, the strength of the book is in its peripheral characters?  The texture of its surrounds?  The way that, my goodness, someone can finally envisage a future for earth which doesn’t endlessly repeat the same contemporary political framework?  (At least there was no mention of monarchy…)  But the book continues to repeat these structures, the military structure, the colonial structure, despite the superficial diversity of its cast.  (Remember: Avatar also had a superficially diverse cast.)  The moral and ethical questions are exactly the same as the ones asked now, even if it is set in a war with random aliens.  One lot of aliens, under invasion, even have a conversation exactly like a bunch of humans (more superficial diversity).  The gimmick of a 75 year old being recruited into a war rapidly becomes nothing more than a gimmick.  Seriously, a 75 year old reacts no differently to war than an 18 year old?  And considering the greater proficiency of the Ghost Brigades, what is the economic benefit in transferring the brain of a 75 year old?  Why not just clone the DNA of everyone on earth multiple times over and have a boundless army?  It’s not like any of them can return to earth.  What is restraining the ethics (or resources) of the CDF such that they only take volunteers, then promptly train any ethical consideration out of them, as out of place in the brutality of colonial war?

The BrainPal was mildly interesting, except it’s far too much like a brain-implanted iPhone to seem like anything more than an inevitability. The Consu were interesting as an alien race representing something somewhat different from human morality and motivation, but were never explored.  The transferred consciousness never went anywhere.  The new bodies never went anywhere.  The undercurrent themes and messages said nothing new.  The skip drive concept, explained only towards the end, is fascinating, but the consequences never explored.

I’d recommend this book to someone who likes space military stories, but for me it was just a bland, inoffensive, likeable, and generic war story that could have been set anywhere.  I was harder hit because of how many good reviews this series gets, but I have very high expectations for my sci fi, particularly when the book is clearly trying to focus on some moral undercurrent message which should apply to ‘all’ (cue wild laughter: the first and biggest mistake).  Stranger in a Strange Land did something completely different in questioning the foundations of human belief without actually moving to a conclusion except to keep moving; Old Man’s War only appears to reaffirm the foundations of human belief, in a very static way, and ends in that most traditional of motifs, reaffirming the value and virtue of marriage even across a body and consciousness transfer.  (The DNA remembers.  Cough.)  The thing is, most sci fi these days is so badly adulterated pap that this book stands out miles about the crowd: this IS a good story, it’s just nothing new.  I can’t even tag it with my usual “could have been more”, because it is exactly what it is.

After a quick scan of the summaries of next books in the series, I do not think I will read, seeing as the very next book seems to be an entire plot device just to give the newly re-wed sterile clone couple a child.