Gateway

Gateway / Frederick Pohl

Since it’s the day after Christmas I’ve decided to feature a book about how we live in a desolate, dangerous universe where everyone you love will most likely die an arbitrary and meaningless death.

Yay!

Gateway is an interesting book to read in 2015. It has a lot of good and interesting ideas, but the plot is predicated on a psychological model that feels horribly outdated.

There are some other novels set in the same universe but so far Gateway is the only one I’ve read so I can’t really speak to its value as an entry point.

Plot summary

Robinette Broadhead, former worker in the “food mines” is rich and famous. After multiple successful interstellar journeys he has retired to Earth. Deeply traumatized by his experiences, he avails himself of a computerized therapist.

So how is it?

It’s very good but deeply flawed. Gateway’s portrayal of space exploration is fascinating. Interstellar travel is possible only via the use of alien craft of unknown origin. It’s not even known how to refuel the craft or even how to figure out how much fuel is remaining. The vast majority of expeditions find empty space or don’t return at all. It’s an enigmatic setting and the way Pohl tells an entire story without ever giving any real answers is masterful.

Fully half the novel consists of Broadhead’s therapy sessions. Broadhead is deeply suspicious of his AI therapist and the AI’s motives remain in question for the vast majority of the book. That might turn some readers off, but it follows the “alternating chapters in two timelines” approach that helps keep things fresh. Interspersed throughout are personal ads, lecture transcripts, and other “primary source” documents that do a great deal to illuminate the culture of Gateway and the background of the story itself without too much exposition.

But…

The biggest issue with Gateway is that it is, like all things, a product of its time. The core of the book is an exploration of Broadhead’s psychology. What that means is that some of the “explanations” we get later on are predicated on what are now largely discredited ideas about sexuality and psychological development. Published only two years after the APA statement that homosexuality is not a mental disorder and four years after the other APA removed homosexuality from the DSM, Gateway’s portrayal is fairly progressive but is deeply rooted in Freud’s theories on human development – theories that were 40 years out of date when Gateway was published.

I can appreciate Gateway for what it is but its reliance on an outdated theory of mind in a book featuring a high-tech future therapist breaks the immersion somewhat. It’s still a good book and one I enjoy but for that one thing.

This is an issue that happens frequently – see also the extremely 1950s social roles of Asimov’s The caves of steel. It’s not terrible but books like Stand on Zanzibar were able to portray a changing cultural landscape far more effectively.

Gateway is a book about exploration. The text itself is an exploration, both of Gateway and of Broadhead himself. The actual exploration that the characters themselves do is essentially meaningless and largely fruitless. It’s a book that paints a decidedly pessimistic picture of space exploration but for all its bleakness the book manages to avoid being depressing, on the whole.

Recommendation

Gateway is like Way station. It’s a book that I highly recommend to people looking for classics but otherwise I tend to stay away.

I’ve encountered a couple of essays lately about how young people today don’t read “the classics”. I think one of them was by Scalzi. Both of them presented complaining about how “kids these days” just don’t get “the classics” and how that’s somehow dumbing down the world of sf fandom. I’m glad, since it’s a ridiculous proposition and the reliance on using works 40+ years old to try and win new readers to the genre seems misguided at best. Sf is aggressively a product of its own time and in that light attempting to canonize some “golden age” and treat the genre like it needs to be experienced chronologically seems doomed to failure.

The point is I don’t think it’s a good idea to recommend anything older than 5-10 years when asked for generic recommendations, especially when it’s a recommendation for a young person. I could barely make it through Astronaut Jones in 1993; more than twenty years later the book has even less cultural relevance. I make partial exceptions for people who have actually lived through the era in question as they will generally have the first-hand experience of the cultural context necessary to truly get into the work.

To put it succinctly, as a rule generally avoid recommending books to people that are older than they are. The older the reader the more you can get away with bending that rule, and if you know the reader very well then obviously that knowledge should take precedence. There was one person I know, born in the 1990s, who refused to read any sf published after the mid-80s because they felt like more recent sf suffers from a “longer is better” mindset. They aren’t as restrictive now but that’s the type of person I recommend books like Gateway or Way station to.

Way station

Way Station / Clifford D. Simak

Way station is what happens when you write a pastoral science fiction novel set in the present [at time of writing] on Earth.

It’s most definitely not a novel about ray guns and spaceships and things that go boom, although pretty much all of those things are there. I’d compare it with This Immortal/Call me Conrad by Zelazny. It’s a book that takes the assumptions of golden age science fiction and inverts them in interesting ways.

Brief plot summary

A Confederate soldier is chosen by aliens to run Earth’s way station, a sort of highway rest stop for interstellar travelers. Only aging when he ventures into the outside world, he collects the stories of the aliens he encounters.

So how is it?

I really enjoyed it but it’s a book where not much happens. It’s a fairly quick read though and that saves it from being too boring.

Way station is a gentle novel. It’s about a guy who lives a lonely life, going for occasional walks but generally keeping to himself. There’s an overarching plot but it’s really not very important. The resolution of the plot itself is fairly underwhelming which would be a problem in another novel and will certainly disappoint readers looking for a golden age sf adventure story.

It’s a simple book with a big heart and as a horrible sentimentalist I like it for that. It’s about as far opposed to something like Wasp factory or The boys as it’s possible to get.

Recommendation

Way station is a book I recommend relatively often to specific people. It’s short and not very stressful, so it’s good for people who don’t want to have to invest a lot of time and effort into it. It’s very much an old school science fiction novel though so I generally only recommend it to people already looking for something in the genre.

I’ve found that many fans of old school sf haven’t actually read this one, so it’s also a fallback for those looking for classics they somehow missed.

Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice / Anne Leckie

There’s a reason Ancillary Justice got nominated for every sf award under the sun. It’s because Leckie is the first real successor to Ursula K. Le Guin.

Plot summary Setting

The Raadch Empire is constantly expanding. Most Raadchai have never seen the Dyson sphere that is the empire’s center. The ruler of this empire, Anaander Miannai, personally rules uncountable systems via her vast numbers of clones linked together by cybernetic implants. The Raadch’s vast expansion has been enabled by the use of ancillaries – human bodies whose personalities have been erased and who are controlled by hyperintelligent ships.

Continue reading Ancillary Justice

Fallen

Fallen / Celeste Bradley

And so we go from a historical romance that I recommend whole-heartedly to one I can only recommend half-heartedly. Or perhaps that I can recommend half of whole-heartedly.

Plot summary

“Eppie” Eppingham is in a spot. After being invited to the Lady Celia’s room he finds himself too drunk to remember which room is in fact hers. Startled by an unexpected intruder in her bed, Lady “Izzy” Isadora promptly smashes him in the head with a candlestick. The noise attracts others. In order to save face, Izzy claims that Eppie is her fiancé. Stuff continues to go on from there.

Continue reading Fallen

One good earl deserves a lover

One good earl deserves a lover / Sarah MacLean

I find myself increasingly reading historical romance. I find myself getting tired of so-called ‘Hard” science fiction which feels more like an exercise in dull determinism than an enjoyable reading experience. I’m also growing a little bored with the endless large-scale melodrama of fantasy and “soft” science fiction. Mystery novels almost invariably end up being too predictable or devoting themselves to defending Status Q.  Ostensibly “Literary” fiction either ends up drowning in angst or featuring “important” statements about social problems that I end up dealing with enough in my daily life that I don’t have the energy to deal with them in fiction. I know other people who feel this way – most of them have gravitated towards YA fiction which is reasonable but it’s an area where I’m frequently overwhelmed and for some reason I’m more comfortable being seen in the Romance section than I am in the YA section.

So in the interest of reading something not inflated by its own self-importance that manages to be at least minimally witty I find myself reading historical romance novels pretty much by default. (It also helps that my spouse is a fan of the genre so they are also readily available and I have a plausible excuse when people see me buying them or checking them out of the library.  As a result of all this Sarah MacLean has become one of my favorite authors. She does a good job of telling an entertaining, frequently hilarious story without whitewashing how horrible living conditions were for the vast majority of the population of Regency England.

This is the second book in the Rules of scoundrels series, a quartet of novels mostly notable for the fact that none of the major characters are leading lights of the ton and none of them have the excess of social capital that usually makes problems go away in these kinds of books.

Brief plot summary

Pippa, sister of the protagonist of the previous volume, is an intellectual young lady with a problem. Her fiancé is notoriously dull and she herself has no idea how a marriage is supposed to “work”. In an effort to learn more about relationships she enlists Cross, one of the four owners of the town’s most notorious hell, the Fallen angel.

Continue reading One good earl deserves a lover

The shadow throne

The shadow throne / Django Wexler

If you come to the second book in the Shadow Campaigns series expecting something along the lines of the first then you’re going to be disappointed.

The shadow throne maintains the general style and tone of the Thousand names but with a drastic change in setting comes a drastic change in the book’s priorities.

Brian McClellan’s Powder mage trilogy gets called “A French Revolution with wizards” (Kirkus) but in McClellan’s work the Revolution is more set dressing. The shadow throne is 1789 Paris in a way that is astounding.

Brief plot summary

Captain Marcus d’Ivoire and Lieutenant Winter Ihernglass have returned to Vordan. The King is dying and the Duke Orlanko is maneuvering himself into power. The Duke has some hold over the Princess Raesinia, who has plots of her own.

Continue reading The shadow throne

The Belgariad

Pawn of prophecy / David [and Leigh]* Eddings

Pawn of prophecy is the first of the Belgariad, a quintet of fantasy novels that are remarkable in their minimalism.

Like the Dresden files, the Belgariad was written to prove a point. While the Dresden files were written to be an intentionally bad mish-mash of genres, the Belgariad was written to demonstrate that a series can have the most clichéd, cookie-cutter plot possible but still be entertaining as long as the characters are interesting.

It’s mostly successful, to the point where it serves as a useful point of reference for other works of epic fantasy. It’s also personally significant for me which may color this review somewhat.

*Context: Leigh was a coauthor on the books but M. del Rey insisted her name be left off because he thought it would have a negative impact on sales. Books first published after his death properly credit both authors.

Brief plot summary

There’s a mysterious magical artifact that was stolen! A farm boy with a mysterious past finds himself drawn into the quest to retrieve it, accompanied by a grey-bearded sorcerer. Accompanied by several colorful comrades they must travel through many countries, each one with a population mostly defined by a few highly distinctive cultural traits.

Continue reading The Belgariad

The summoner

The summoner / Gail Z. Martin

The summoner is the first installment of the Chronicles of the necromancer series. It follows the story of Prince Martris Drake who can talk to ghosts. It’s particularly interesting for the way it plays with some of the “classic” fantasy tropes. It’s not dissimilar from the way this works in Mistborn – it’s a fairly straightforward fantasy but some of the normal tropes are reversed. In this case the most obvious inversion is that the titular necromancer is the hero of the story.

Brief plot summary

Prince Martris Drake is the heir to the throne of the kingdom of Margolan. Unfortunately, his vicious brother has other plans. Narrowly escaping the coup, Tris and his companions attempt to gather allies so they can retake the throne of Margolan and prevent his brother’s vampiric advisor from freeing the Obsidian King from his prison.

Continue reading The summoner

Gone home

Gone home

Gone home isn’t a book, but it is a novel. Sort of. Kind of. It’s a video game, except that it’s not.*

So I’m going to break out of my normal medium and do a video game review. Because I think it’s important. Yes, Gone home has already generated enough blog posts to circumnavigate the globe, but haven’t done one yet and a blog is nothing if not an inherently self-centered platform.

*I don’t actually buy this argument in the slightest. It’s absolutely a video game. I’ll address this later on.

Brief plot summary

It is, culturally, the height of the 1990s. You play the role of Caitlyn Greenbriar, a new college graduate returning home from their European adventure. Your great-uncle died while you were away your family has inherited his mansion and moved in. So you arrive on the doorstep of your home, where you have never been. But the door is locked. Nobody appears to be home. A note is pinned on the door: from your younger sister Sam, it says not to go looking for her.

Continue reading Gone home

The boy with the porcelain blade

The boy with the porcelain blade / Dev Patrick

The boy with the porcelain blade is a book that wears its influences proudly: Gormenghast, Dune, We have always lived in the castle, etc. The author and the blurb both claim inspiration from Scott Lynch but I don’t really see it.

Anyways, it’s a sf novel (whether it is better classified as “science fiction” or “fantasy” is ambiguous).

Brief plot summary

The Orfani are a group of disfigured children who live a fairly comfortable life under the king’s protection. Inhabiting a spider-infested castle, the Orfani are sponsored by the various Houses and overseen by the mysterious Majordomo. Life for the Orfani is a series of plots and counterplots as they try to do away with each other, but the reasons why are unclear. A fencing master with a grudge against Lucien, one of the elder Orfani, will soon set into motion a series of events that will reveal the secrets of the Orfani, the never-seen king, and the kingdom itself.

So how is it?

It’s pretty good. It took me a while to get into though, as I was initially expecting something quite different from what I got, and the structure is such that vital information about the characters’ motivations is not revealed until very close to the end.

The boy with the porcelain blade is structured similarly to The dispossessed. Chapters alternate between the “present” of the book and the protagonist’s past. What this means is that the entire plot remains fairly obtuse until the very end, when the “flashback” chapters start to reveal Lucien’s discoveries that cause him to behave the way he does in the “present” chapters. This means that it’s a book that you have to take on faith and trust that the things that don’t make sense now will be explained eventually. Lucien starts out seeming like a spoiled brat throwing a tantrum, which was one of the reasons this book took me far longer to finish than it would normally have. In the end though it felt worth the read.

As I said, I was  initially expecting something very different – largely because the book cover and the acknowledgments referenced Scott Lynch three times. But there’s none of Lynch’s sense of humor here, none of the playfulness. So I had some trouble initially trying to figure out the funny parts. Once I realized that a far, far better comparison would be Gene Wolfe’s Book of the new sun. Reading it with that perspective I started to enjoy it much more.

Taken as a whole, I really do think it was a good book. It’s not exactly a light adventure story though. It’s more of a “literary” work. Frank Herbert and Gene Wolfe are the closest comparisons I can find.

Recommendation

This book was published only recently, but I’ve recommended it a few times already. So far nobody has been able to find a copy (I guess I was just lucky that my public library had it) so I can’t say for sure how successful those recommendations were.

Still, it’s a good recommendation for fans of Herbert and Wolfe. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone who wasn’t explicitly a fan of one of those books. It’s “literary” enough that people looking for “fun” reading will probably be disappointed. There’s also some body horror here, but it’s not too extreme and it shouldn’t be off-putting for anyone who has the stomach for Book of the new sun.