Monday, 13 October 2008

Review: "Night Sessions" by Ken Macleod

Having thoroughly enjoyed "The Execution Channel" and most of Ken Macleod's novels, I was excited to pick up a copy of "Night Sessions" on a recent trip through Inverness.

"Execution Channel" is a novel of the near-future, post 9-11. Terror, torture, surveillance, paranoia are intertwined in a near enough future that's eerily familiar. "Night Sessions" sets its sights a little further into the future, and yet seems no less relevant to the world around us.

The chief obsession of "Night Sessions" is religion, and Macleod tackles the material with his usual deep sense of history and fantastic imagination. The world has literally been to Armageddon, and still bears the scars of the "Faith Wars". A large portion of the world has reacted by rejecting religion nearly altogether. The Edinburgh in which "Night Sessions" is largely set has most traces of religion scrubbed from its public life. Churches are converted to public halls and bars. Religion still exists, but the police go out of their way not to be aware of their activities. It's a kind of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which permits religion to exist in the shadows of a secular society without attracting its wrath.

I won't go into anything further to avoid spoiling it. This is a genre-hopping novel, a sci-fi crime thriller steeped in the history of religion, and a great read. Highly recommended.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Review: "Footfall" by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

A couple of years ago, a colleague of mine recommended "The Mote in God's Eye" to me, also by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Since then, I've read and enjoyed "Oath of Fealty", "Lucifer's Hammer" and "The Burning City" by the same pair.

At around the time this book came out, I (as a twelve year old) was a huge fan of Stephen King, blazing through everything he had published to that point. Some of his books (notably "The Stand") were long, but all had a fairly simple vocabulary and cinematic plots. Reading "Footfall", I realized that it had that same feeling. It's a long, fast run over even terrain, where Banks and Macleod require slower passage over steeper ground. "Footfall" is also very cinematic. Each scene comes easily to mind and seems like something that can and should have been filmed (it would have made a good miniseries, and I swear bits of it showed up in "Independence Day").

If you've enjoyed "Lucifer's Hammer" or "The Stand" or any other similar bit of disaster fiction, this book is certainly enjoyable enough. Well worth taking along to the pub on a rainy Sunday (as I did).

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Review: "Excession" by Iain M. Banks

Having previously read "State of the Art", "Use of Weapons", and "Against a Dark Background", I've started filling in gaps and reading the rest of Iain M. Banks Science Fiction novels.

"Excession" is one of the best I've read so far (second only to the original "State of the Art" novella in my mind). I particularly like the details of the machine culture that sits parallel to (and in some ways governs) human society.

As with other Culture novels, "Excession" has a rich cast of characters and settings. The Affront culture in particular stands as a nice contrast to the tolerance of the Culture.

Banks has imagination to spare, and every aspect of the story just drips novelty and wit. Here's an example: as with every other experience in the Culture, childbirth is no longer an inflexible biological fact limited to one of two sexes. An individual in the Culture can change sex at will, get pregnant as a woman, and then become a man again, holding the fertilised egg in suspension indefinitely.

The story itself is more coherent than "Against a Dark Background", and ties together the various scenes better as a result.

This is a good book, one of the author's best, and well recommended.

Review: "The Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula LeGuin

"Light is the left hand of darkness, and darkness the right hand of light"

On a recent trip through Inverness, I was pleased to find a copy of "The Left Hand of Darkness" at Leakey's bookshop. I have enjoyed "The Lathe of Heaven", "The Dispossed", "Four Ways to Forgiveness" and other collections of her short stories in the past. What I've liked most in other works I've read is her ability to craft detailed and compelling personalities and cultures around a handful of key differences. An example would be the four-way marriage contract outlined in one of her short stories, in which each partner is paired with one opposite sex partner, one same sex partner, and has a platonic relationship with the remaining opposite sex partner.

The "Left Hand of Darkness" centers on the world of Winter, which has two key characteristics. One is that its climate is comparable to the lower arctic regions of Earth even at its equator. The other is that its inhabitants are asexual for 20 or so of their 26 month days, and only assume a gender when in heat (or kemmer).

Leguin takes these two vanishing points and paints a believable world. She is a gifted storyteller, and presents the worlds she writes not as dry facts and third-person narrative, but as a series of first-person moments and third-person histories. We see their present as a thing lived by people, and their past as a series of stories and rumours about people who lived before.

The story itself is slow to develop, but well laid out, much as "The Dispossessed" was. It is the journey as much as the waypoints that we are meant to savour. Through the person of an envoy whose world and world view are closer to our own, we come to appreciate the colour of the world, the subtle differences in personality and culture.

This is a great book by a gifted storyteller writing at the top of her form, and is highly recommended.