Sunday, 24 February 2008

Review: "The Centauri Device" by M. John Harrison

I've been picking my way through the SF Masterworks series published by Gollancz in various bookstores as I travel about. My latest acquisition in the series is "The Centauri Device" by M. John Harrison.

John Truck, the principal character, is a self-proclaimed loser, unlucky or otherwise unaccomplished in his career, relationships, and life in general. There is, however, one thing unique to John Truck, which is his birthright, and which makes him sought after by the powers that be.

I must confess that I tend to prefer other variations on the theme. I enjoy reading about a character who begins with very obvious limitations, and who is forced by circumstances or by some internal drive to improve. A quintessential example of the rising loser would be Gully Foyle in Alfred Bester's "The Stars My Destination". Another would be Robinette Broadhead in Frederick Pohl's "Gateway" series.

Although John Truck does not rise all that much, he also does not start as low as Gully Foyle, which is a point in his favor. John Truck lives in the moment, or perhaps a bit beyond the moment, looking for the next thing he can think to do, with no larger plan or purpose (at least until he becomes embroiled in the search for the Centauri Device). His journey does not elevate him terribly, but does highlight that he is well intentioned if flawed.

On balance, I would have to say that although I probably won't reread "The Centauri Device", it's worth a look if you enjoy reasonably well written prose and anti-heroic characters.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Review: "Oath of Fealty" by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

I picked up a handful of used paperback editions of books jointly authored by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, which I'll be working my way through and writing up shortly. I read some of the "Ringworld" books in high school and enjoyed "Mote in God's Eye" a lot more recently, so I decided to pick my way through other works in their library.

The first I finished is "Oath of Fealty", which is set in the near future, or at least the near future of 1981. It centers around an arcology built in the wake of a disaster in Los Angeles. Instead of aliens and advanced technology, "Oath of Fealty" deals with a change in culture, politics, and economics. It's a satisfying work, and only very slightly dated.

Like "Execution Channel", "Oath of Fealty" is clear to portray the changes in society as steps along the path to a distant and more fantastic future. The seeds of the future are believably rooted in the soil of our modern society. In both "Execution Channel" and "Oath of Fealty", the distant future is one of space travel, but the near future is firmly earthbound.

I would say that this book would be a good read for readers of general fiction who don't mind a little bit of speculation as well as for avid Science Fiction readers.

Review: "Dark Benediction" by Walter M. Miller and "State of the Art" by Iain M. Banks

As you may have noticed, I tend to process books by comparing them with books I've already read. Having just finished two collections of short stories, I figured I would write a review of both and compare them to each other.

"Dark Benediction" is a collection of stories by Walter M. Miller, most famous for having written "Canticle for Liebowitz". "State of the Art" is billed as the only collection of short stories by Iain M. Banks, whose "Player of Games" I recently finished and reviewed here.

I enjoy well written short stories quite a bit, as you may have guessed from my earlier reviews of the Saki and Charles Herman Bosman collections. A good short story cuts away a lot of the descriptive detail and just presents the bare ideas. Some authors (such as Borges) excel at the short form. Others such as Philip Dick write good short stories with the occasionally brilliant highlight.

Of the two collections, I would say that "Dark Benediction" is the better collection. Many of the stories are memorable, engaging, poignant, with only the occasional misfire that seems dated or rings hollow. I highly recommend the collection (previously published as "The Best of Walter Miller Jr").

"State of the Art" on the other hand, is somewhat uneven. A number of the stories seem like early attempts. They don't build up much of an engaging set of ideas, and their resolution is unsatisfying (I particularly disliked "Odd Appendage", which just felt like a poorly crafted joke told at too great a length rather than a decent story). The two that rise above the rest are "Descendant" and the titular "State of the Art". "State of the Art" is a novella set in the same universe as "Player of Games", and the longer form suits the material and Banks' writing style. The dynamic of "State of the Art" is well chosen, as it allows Banks to expound on the Culture as well as Earth in the late 1970s. I'd say it's worth picking up a copy just for "State of the Art" and "Descendant", but I'll probably stick to his longer works from now on.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Review: "The Player of Games" by Iain M. Banks

In "The Player of Games", Iain Banks presents a society centered around a game called "Azad", which is so nuanced that life itself is a reflection of the game and vice versa. The standing of players varies according to their performance in the tournaments held every few years, and the winner of the tournament assumes the role of emperor.

Into this society is thrust a human expert in Game Theory, a man who is a generalist, an expert in almost all games, a man perfectly suited to make sense of "Azad" and the society that shares that name.

This book reminded me in some ways of "The Game Players of Titan" by Philip K. Dick. In "Titan", a group of aliens from Titan imposes on human society a simplified version of the game that is the basis of Titan's society. "Bluff" as portrayed in "The Game Players of Titan" is a simple game by comparison with "Azad", more about luck and psychology than complex strategy. Although "Azad" is described in terms that leave much to the imagination, it is portrayed as a means by which an individual's intelligence, wisdom, and even morality are intimately tested against that of their opponents.

Banks' skills are used to good effect as he depicts the difference between the societies, the central clash between human society ("Culture") and "Azad" is well crafted, and his depiction of gender dynamics reminds me of some of my favorite short stories by Ursula LeGuin.

Anyway, suffice to say I plan to read more of his novels when I get the chance.