Friday, 25 December 2009

"Man Plus" by Frederik Pohl

I've been travelling for the holidays, which means I've finally been cooped up for long enough to read a few new books. Since I have a bit of time off, I also have a bit of time to write up some of the books I've finished but haven't written up yet. Look for a few new posts in the next few weeks.

I wouldn't go so far as to call Frederick Pohl one of my favorite authors, but I've enjoyed his work before. "Heechee Rendezvous" in particular is a classic, just the right mix of fantastic ideas and everyday human experience.

The world of "Man Plus" is one in which the Earth's resources are scarce, and war looms. Humanity's hopes for long-term survival turn to Mars (apparently they haven't read that Ray Bradbury story where we get to Mars only to find out that we already used up all its resources before moving to Earth). The story centers around transforming an astronaut into a cyborg whose altered body is capable of withstanding the rigors of life on Mars. It's terraforming at the human level, androforming if you will.

The life of the titular cyborg is a believable mix of tedium and existential terror, duty and depression. Like the protagonist in "Now Wait for Last Year" (one of my all-time favorites), this "Man Plus" is more motivated by the desire for love, companionship, and understanding, even though he is also bound by his ambition and sense of duty to country. He is a "man" (husband, soldier) first, and a "plus" (cyborg) second. The "plus" is what makes this a good work of science fiction, the "man" is what makes it great.

Although I haven't loved every book in the "SF Masterworks" series, this book is another gem that I'd never have encountered otherwise. Highly recommended.

Friday, 18 December 2009

"Eon" by Greg Bear

By all rights, I should love Greg Bear's "Eon". I loved his "Tangents", and enjoyed "Blood Music" as well. The subject matter seems almost perfect for me as well. If you told me a book by Greg Bear was about humanity unlocking the secrets of space travel in the aftermath of nuclear holocaust, I'd certainly be interested. If you added hints of time travel and parallel worlds, I'd be hooked.

For whatever reason though, the book left me a bit cold. In trying to understand why, I've been imagining a good science fiction story as a stool with three legs:

* Mind: The ideas or conceits that make the world different from our own
* Heart: The characters that help us feel the weight of this imagined world
* Body: The situations which allow the characters to explore themselves and the world they inhabit

A book like "Footfall" by Niven and Pournelle doesn't necessarily have the deepest characters, and its ideas are not all that challenging. What makes it enjoyable is the pacing, the characters are always doing something that advances the story. This a book that runs.

A book like "Dr. Mirabilis" has very few new ideas, and sparse action. It lives or dies based on how fully the reader sympathises with the main character. This is a book that must be felt to be enjoyed.

"Eon" had stronger ideas than characters or situations.  It lives based on the strength of its ideas.  This is a book which must be considered to be enjoyed. 

On balance, the characters and situations could have been stronger, but if you want a bushel of hard sci fi to mull over on a winter's night, you could do a lot worse.

Friday, 11 December 2009

"Matter" by Iain M. Banks

"Matter" is another epic space opera in the "Culture" series. I've enjoyed (and reviewed) "Consider Phlebas", "Look to Windward", "Use of Weapons", "Player of Games", "Against a Dark Background", "Inversions" and "Excession", and "Matter" is a fine way to end the run.

Banks is a master of bringing a fresh perspective to what could easily be repetitive and derivative material. Often he uses contrasts to keep the perspective fresh. In "Inversions" and "Consider Phlebas", we see The Culture contrasted with its enemies. In most Culture novels, we see The Culture contrasted with the more primitive societies it tries to nudge towards its higher ideals. In "Excession", we see The Culture contrasted with both an artifact from advanced society and its enemies.

In "Matter", we get the best of these contrasts and new perspectives to boot. We follow one of The Culture's newest recruits as she returns to her homeworld during a time of crisis. We also follow her brother as he works to escape the political turmoil of his homeworld and encounters his "Cultured" sister. As if that weren't enough, we also see how citizens (human and machine) of The Culture deal with technologies beyond their own when cut off from the full resources of their own society.

Banks continues to amaze with the imagination he brings to each book. The Culture series is astonishing in its scope, and in between all the fantastic ideas and characters are enough amusing and well-crafted phrases to make it nearly exhausting. I'll have to get plenty of rest before the new Culture novel is released next year. If you haven't already done so, take advantage of the deals and reprints leading up to the new release and enjoy the whole series.

Friday, 4 December 2009

"The Algebraist" by Iain M. Banks

The phrase "gas giant" was coined by the author James Blish in one of his stories, and is now widely applied to planets such as Jupiter. "The Algebraist" is a novel of gas giants (and the cultures they sustain).

This isn't a Culture novel, but it's the same style of epic space opera that fans of that series have come to enjoy. As with so many of Banks' books, there's easily enough material for three novels. The Archimandrite in particular is villain enough for a book of his own.

Entertaining as the Archimandrite is, this is not a novel about a brutally imaginative sadist. It's a novel in which the power of the seemingly powerless is revealed. It's a satisfying read and highly recommended.