Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Book)

The Darren language has a word for the attraction one feels to danger: esui. It is esui that makes warriors charge into hopeless battles and die laughing. Esui is also what draws women to lovers who are bad for them—men who would make poor fathers, women of the enemy….It is glory, it is folly. It is everything not sensible, not rational, not safe at all—but without esui, there is no point in living.
I continue my reading of the 2011 Hugo Award nominees with N.K. Jesmisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, a dark fantasy that was also nominated for the 2010 Nebula Award. The book is the first in the Inheritance Trilogy. The story centers on a fascinating cosmology, based loosely on the Hindu idea of Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer. It is somewhat reminiscent of Gaiman’s American Gods, the 2002 Hugo Award winning novel.

The story is told by Yeine, a young woman from Darr, a minor kingdom. After the death of her mother, Yeine is summoned to Sky, the capital of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by Dakarta, who is her maternal grandfather and the king. While plans are being made for her to be declared Dakarta’s heir, she realizes that she is a really only a pawn, a convenient sacrifice. As the plot unfolds she learns more about the gods and godlets, who are the servants and weapons of the ruling class. She finds also uncovers the truth about her mother and the deal her mother made with the gods.

Because I am not a great fan of dark, twisty tales, I did not actually enjoy the book. I was, however, fascinated by it. I liked the tone of the narration, including all the digressions. I was curious to see how the story would unfold, to the point of being riveted in the last 50 pages. I admire Jesmisin’s ability to create an original and convincing world. I am not sure what this says about the book’s chances of winning the Hugo Award. We will see.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Cryoburn (Book)

Cryonics. Cute kids. Kidnapping. Corruption. Commoditized contracts. Critters.

I have begun my reading of the 2011 Hugo Award novel nominees with Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn, which is also nominated for the 2011 Locus Science Fiction Award. It is the 14th book in the Miles Vorkosigan Saga and was written eight years after the last book, Diplomatic Immunity. At this point Miles is 39.

The book centers on the concept of cryonics, freezing dead and terminally ill people with the hope of reviving them at a later time. Emperor Gregor sends Miles to investigate a corporation on Kiboudaini that wants to expand into Komarr, which is part of the empire. In the beginning of the book Miles evades a kidnapping attempt but is still drugged. While disoriented, Miles is befriended by a runaway boy, Jin. The boy’s mother, a protester against  cryonics  in favor of universal access to cryonics, was arrested and frozen, supposedly until the authorities can find a cure for the mental illness that caused her to protest. Miles now has two missions, to protect Komarr’s interests and to find out the truth about Jin’s mother.

I very much enjoyed reading Cryoburn. I believe that most fans of Miles will be very happy with it. I especially enjoyed the narrative. While Bujold wrote the novel in the third-person, she helps us look at events through the eyes of Jin and of Miles’ armsman Roic, adding a dimension to the story. I haven’t read the other Hugo nominees yet, so I don’t have an opinion about whether this is the best book. One inherent drawback is that it is a later book in a series. The very end of the book is not going to make any sense to people who have not read the earlier books.

Note: If you are new to the Miles Vorkosigan Saga and want to read the books, I recommend looking in the back pages of Cryoburn for a list of the novels and novellas. World Without End also has an excellent list. Be aware that the books were not written in order; ignore the dates and pay attention to the book number!!!! While Falling Free is an enjoyable book, you can skip it without missing much from the Miles plot. Shards of Honor and Barrayar are about Miles’ parents and events leading up to his birth. I read them in an Omnibus called Cordelia’s Honor. In order to understand many of the later books, you need to be familiar with the earlier ones.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Diplomatic Immunity (Book)

Her [Ekaterin’s] voice sharpened. “If you die on me here, I will not be grieved, I will be pissed…Are you listening to me, Miles Vorkosigan? Don’t you dare die! I won’t have it!”
Diplomatic Immunity, Book 13 of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, continues some threads related to genetic engineering that were begun in earlier books: Quaddies, Betan Hermaphrodites, Cetagandan Haute humans, Jackson Whole hybrid species.

Briefly, Miles and Ekaterin are on their year-late honeymoon, before the impending decanting of their first children from their uterine replicators, when Emperor Gregor sends Miles to Graf station to act as a negotiator in a diplomatic situation. Barrayan officers from a military escort had gotten out of hand after a security officer was reported missing. To make sure they are financially compensated for damages, the Quaddies have detained the crew, detained their passengers and impounded their ships. Soon Miles discovers that Bel, his old friend from the Dendarii Mercenaries, is working on the station. When Miles, Bel, and a mysterious passenger are shot at, it becomes clear that there is something more sinister going on than a diplomatic misunderstanding.

Diplomatic Immunity is a science fiction, mystery. I was disappointed in the book, but I think that was partially due to reading it so soon after A Civil Campaign, a romantic comedy. The two books have a very different tone/feel. Also, I really needed to remember another earlier book—which I more or less did—for the plot to make sense. On the other hand, the book does contain some of Bujold’s wisdom on life, a few touching scenes, and action.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Civil Campaign (Book)

Love. Slander & Dirty Politics. Love. Butter Bug Vomit. Love. Patriarchy & Changing Times. Love.

Civil Campaign, the title of Book 12 in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, refers to Miles Vorkosigan’s strategy to marry the widow Ekaterin Vorsoisson. It is a science fiction, romantic comedy with some politics thrown in. It was nominated for various awards, and the chapter where Miles throws a dinner party wins my vote for funniest Bujold chapter ever. (Do not read this chapter while eating because you will be laughing too hard.) It is as though all Miles' mischievous karma comes back to bite him at the same time.

Briefly, while everyone is busy preparing for Emperor Gregor’s wedding, Miles is trying to tactfully woo Ekaterin. His cloned brother Mark, who is head over heels in love with Kareen, brings home a houseguest with an unusual business. In the meantime, interesting political maneuvers are going on in the council, the unexpected results of Barrayar’s patriarchal government. Chaos ensues. Some unusual romantic pairings are also made.

When I first began to read the books in the Vorkosigan Saga, I didn’t understand why it had so many fans. Now, I have a hard time putting the books down. I am realizing that reading a series is a different experience from reading an isolated book or reading books loosely related because their stories are set in a common world. On another note, lately I have been paying attention to the cadence of Bujold’s plot development. It seems to me that she creates a lot more hills and valleys, giving the reader more chance to breathe. This adds to my enjoyment of her books.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Demolished Man (Book)

Murder. Nightmares. The Man with No Face. Peepers & Espers. Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun. Id & Super-ego. Motive. Demolition.

Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man won the 1953 Hugo Award, the first Hugo Award ever given out. The novel is a classic and has a tone that reminds me of the old Twilight Zone TV Series.  The book is relatively timeless; although, it does contain some of the 50’s attitudes toward women. Also, 1950’s readers probably would have been more familiar with the psychological concepts and references to extra sensory perception than current readers. Otherwise, if I had never heard of the book and someone had torn out the copyright page, I might have mistaken the book for a much more current novel.

Briefly, in a society where there have been no murders in 79 years, Ben Reich murders Craye D'Courtney. Lincoln Powell, the head of police, is a telepath—called a “peeper” or “Esper”—and knows that Reich committed the murder, but that is not enough for a conviction. Lincoln must find conventional proof. Much of the story consists of a cat and mouse game between the two. Bester also has the reader wondering. “Who is the man with no face?” “What is demolition?” “What is Reich’s motive for the murder?” “Who is trying to harm Reich?”

The Demolished Man is one of the books that helped create the foundation for current Science Fiction. I almost feel that reading it was a rite of passage for me.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Double Star (Book)

Brother, until you’ve been in politics you haven’t been alive….It’s rough and sometimes it’s dirty and it’s always hard work and tedious details. But it’s the only sport for grownups. All other games are for kids. All of ‘em.
Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein is both timeless and a wonderful relic. Something about it just makes me smile, conjuring up in my mind some of the current retro trends in fashion. This winner of the 1956 Hugo Award--the third Hugo Award for a novel ever given out--is a short, simple book, full of slang from the 1950’s. Yet, the basic theme can easily be applied to our current time.

Briefly, a somewhat down on his luck actor sees an astronaut in a bar on Earth. The actor decides to make friends, thinking the astronaut might be a source of a little money. The astronaut offers the actor an unspecified acting gig. In time the reader finds out the acting gig is to impersonate a major political figure, who has been kidnapped, for a one-time political appearance on Mars. The plot goes in some interesting directions from there.

This is not a particularly deep book, but it has a meaningful message. It speaks to some of the social issues of the 1950’s as well as the basic disillusionment many of us feel toward politics. The description of humankind’s expansion into the solar system and the aliens from Mars is interesting because of the way it reflects on the 1950’s. While this isn’t a “must read,” it is definitely worth reading.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Komarr (Book)

Tien had protected her proudly, she reflected, in the little Vor-lady fortress of her household. Tien had spent a decade protecting her so hard, especially from anything that resembled growth, she’d felt scarcely larger at thirty than she’d been at twenty.
On one level, Komarr, Book 11 in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, is a science fiction mystery. On another level, it is a story about the transformation of Ekaterin Vorsoisson, wife to head of terraforming Tien Vorsoisson, mother to nine year old Nikki, niece to Imperial auditor Professor Vorthys.

Barrayaran Imperial auditors Miles Vorkosigan and Professor Vorthys are sent to Komarr to investigate the destruction of a soletta array (mirrors used in terraforming to focus the sun’s rays) and an ore spaceship. Is it an accident, sabotage, or something even worse? The auditors stay with Vorthys’ niece Ekaterin and her husband Tien. Miles is promptly smitten with the niece. He does not realize that she is dealing with an abusive husband who has a debilitating genetic disorder and a son who also carries the disease. What begins as a boring investigation takes some unexpected twists and turns.

I know I keep repeating myself, but Lois McMaster Bujold is a good storyteller, and this is another good story. Bujold helps the reader to understand Ekaterin, who will continue to be an important character in the later Vorkosigan Saga books. The love smitten Miles is absolutely darling. Bujold takes on the issues of disability, genetic disorders, prejudice, and women’s rights & roles. Compared to other books in the Vorkosigan Saga, Komarr does not have as much adventure and defying of authority. The variation in plot styles from book to book helps keep the Saga interesting.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Memory (Book)

Harra Csurik* had been almost right. It wasn’t your life again you found, going on. It was your life anew. And it wasn’t at all what he’d been expecting.
Miles. Memory. Milestone. Mystery. Melding. In Memory, Lois McMaster Bujold chronicles a turning point in the life of Miles Vorkosigan. Miles turns 30. After mishandling his seizure condition, he is forced to leave the Barrayaran military as well as the Dendarii Mercenaries. He is at loose ends and possibly dangerous to himself. --Although, he does manage to accidentally find Emperor Gregor a wife during this time-- When Simon Illyan, the long suffering and Miles-abused head of Imperial Security, suffers damage to the memory chip implanted in his brain, Miles feels compelled to help. Soon, Miles is drawn into a mystery. In order to solve it, he must combine his personas of Lord Miles Vorkosigan and Admiral Naismith.

Memory is the tenth book in the Vorkosigan Saga. It was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Science Fiction awards. While not actually winning any awards, I believe it is tremendously rewarding for those who have been following the saga. The story contains the usual humor, some deep moments, and a healthy dose of mystery. It draws on many of the plot lines from earlier stories, looking at them from a more mature Miles perspective. And, as always, it is nice to catch up with old “friends.”

*Harra Csurik is the woman whose baby was murdered in Border’s of Infinity. Miles visits her a decade later in Memory.

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Fire Upon the Deep (Book)

What I most admire about Vernor Vinge is his ability to create interesting worlds—planets and galaxies—and alien species. In A Deepness in the Sky he describes the Spiders. In the 1993 Hugo Award winner, A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor describes a number of interesting species, including the Tines. For me they are what make the book worth reading. The Tines look like odd shaped dogs, but each pack shares one consciousness. They can’t function as singletons, and at times may need to add new members in order to be fully functional. The consciousness of one individual, the Woodcarver, has survived for over 500 years, despite losing individual members. When a human and Tine interacts, Vinge not only has to describe what the Tine is saying, but also what various members are doing. Despite the Tines being doglike, Vinge stays away from anything that is cutesy or cartoonish.

Briefly, a human colony experimenting with ancient technology accidentally releases an entity, the Blight. Before the Blight destroys the colony, one spaceship escapes. It carries a family, over a hundred children in deep-sleep, and a countermeasure that may possibly destroy the Blight. The spaceship crash-lands on Tines, a medieval planet inhabited by the Tines, a dog-like species. The two parents are murdered. Their two children are rescued/captured by opposite factions in a war. In the meantime the Blight begins to wipe out thousands of worlds. A group of two humans and two plant-like aliens tries to find the ship with the countermeasure and rescue the children.

I admit that I again got bogged down in reading A Fire Upon the Deep as I did with A Deepness in the Sky. I am not sure whether I wasn’t emotionally invested enough in the characters or if the plot's peaks and valleys don’t match the rhythm I like in a book. Intellectually I found it very interesting. The book is highly rated on a number of websites.

This book marks my completion of reading the Hugo Award winners from 1958 through 2010. Yeah!!! I still plan to read two more Hugo Award winners, books published before the Hugo awards were given out annually. I also plan to read this year’s nominees, which requires that I catch up on Bujold’s Vorkosigan series. After that, I want to choose my reading-list a little bit more organically. I enjoy quirky books with warm characters and interesting science or, sometimes, history.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

I Need Somebody to Love (Reflections)

I need somebody to love when I read a novel. As I finish up reading the Hugo Winners from 1958 to the present, I have been reflecting on my experience. I enjoy and feel rewarded by novels where I can learn more about science. I appreciate and admire an original setting. Quick pacing or witty narrative can make a book more fun. But the deal breaker for me is character development. Looking at the ratings on Worlds Without End, my local library’s website, and the listing of awards, I can see that is not true for all science fiction and fantasy readers.

I need characters for whom I can feel significantly empathetic in order to feel motivated to keep reading a book. Otherwise finishing the book is more of a chore for me and less of a pleasure. I like my characters fully fleshed out and four-dimensional. I want to know their quirks and flaws, their aspirations, and their fears. I like to know a little bit about their back-stories. The Civil War veteran Enoch Wallace in Way Station by Clifford D. Simak and Ender in Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card especially moved me. The novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell created a unique experience for me. A number of times while reading the book I caught myself wondering whether Mr. Norrell was a good, likeable person. In retrospect, I think that he is so much of a curmudgeon that he gets a free pass.

I enjoy books where I relate so much to the characters that I begin to experience my own world from their viewpoints. When I was walking to my local library a few days ago, after I finished reading Paladin of Souls, I noticed black smoke coming from the local funeral home; obviously someone was being cremated. What fascinated me was that I saw the scene out of Ista’s eyes. I felt her feelings. I heard in my heart words that seemed like they would have come from her. Bujold’s writing, when it is at its best, does that to me. Similar experiences have happened to me after reading numerous other Hugo Winners. Sometimes this gets a bit weird. After reading the books in The Neanderthal Parallax trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer—Hominids won a Hugo Award—I experienced my world from the viewpoint of an evolved Neanderthal. Similarly after reading David Brin’s Startide Rising and Uplift War, I experienced the world from the viewpoints of a neo-dolphin and a new-chimpanzee.

All the Hugo Award winners—with perhaps an exception or two—are good or great books. But, for me, they were not all enjoyable books. Orson Scott Card, in the introduction to Ender's Game, talks about what we as readers bring to the experience of reading a book. I realize I bring a longing to have someone take me by the hand and share their world and life experiences with me. Each reader of a book, including a Hugo Award winning novel, will bring a different set of desires and experiences.

Paladin of Souls (Book)

Tch, tch, tch, look at yourself, bittersweet Ista. Saint, sorceress, dowager royina of all Chalion-Ibra, converses with gods, when not cursing them…

I believe that the reason Paladin of Souls won the 2004 Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Fantasy awards goes beyond Lois McMaster Bujold’s usual masterful storytelling. The story resonates with something deep inside many readers. It is an example of the hero’s journey, an archetypal experience that leads to wholeness. The book speaks to our internal questioning about our purpose in life, as well as our struggles to communicate with the Divine—in the world of Chalion, the five gods. Don’t get me wrong, this is also a fun, relatively fast-paced adventure.

Bujold first introduces Ista, in The Curse of Chalion, as Teidez and Iselle mother, a woman made mad by a curse put on the kingdom and by the guilt of accidentally murdering her husband’s male lover. By the time Paladin of Souls takes place, Ista has recovered, but her family and servants are still overprotective of her. Ista runs away from home in the guise of taking a spiritual pilgrimage, accompanied by a spiritual adviser and a minimum of servants. (Her lady-in-waiting is a courier who knows more about horses than royal ladies.) After being attacked by raiders, Ista is rescued by a patrol from Castle Porifors. But, something more sinister is going on than just an expected attack from a rival kingdom. In addition, at Castle Porifors Ista comes to realize that she is the answer to someone else’s prayers. As the plot unfolds, she slowly becomes a paladin—a champion or hero—to souls.

Paladin of Souls is the second book of the three book Chalion Series. My guess is that many people could easily read it as a stand-alone novel. It is one of my favorite Hugo Award winning novels.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Curse of Chalion (Book)

Welcome to sainthood, Cazaril. By the gods’ blessings, you get to host miracles! The catch is, you don’t get to choose what they are…
The Curse of Chalion is yet another example of Lois McMaster Bujold’s wonderful storytelling ability. At the beginning of the book, Cazaril is a broken man. He has been betrayed, physically and emotionally assaulted, and falsely accused. Like some of the main characters in Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, Cazaril is also a man of high moral integrity and honor. He goes back to the castle where he served in his youth. There he is appointed to the roles of secretary and tutor to a young woman. The rest of the story involves his attempts to teach and protect her.

I admire Bujold’s ability to tug at my heartstrings. I stayed up way too late last night so that I could find out what finally happens to Cazaril. The Curse of Chalion was nominated for a number of awards and is the prequel to Paladin of Souls, a Hugo winner.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Book)

Theoretical, Practical, & Street Magicians. Fairies. Prophecies. Enchantment. Kings. Servants. Rogues. Napoleon.

The winner of the 2005 Hugo and British Fantasy Society awards, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, is a (somewhat) grown-up fairy tale. Although it is a rather long book, the wry humor of the narration and the plot twists and turns make it a fun read.

In the early 1800s, when the people of England think magic is a thing of the past, Mr. Norrell presents himself as a practicing magician. Early on in the story he brings back a woman from the dead, partially as a way of proving his abilities. Unfortunately he uses the services of a fairy, which leads to some unexpected and unpleasant consequences as the story unfolds. Norrell soon finds that he is not the only practicing magician. The young man Jonathan Strange also decides to take up magic and finds that he is quite good at it. Norrell is proud and bases everything on information from his huge library of books, which he tries to keep from aspiring magicians. Strange is much more free and experiential. Their relationship threads its way throughout the book. At different times within the story they are student and teacher, rivals, friends, and colleagues. Also winding its way throughout the book is a prophecy given by a supposed huckster and street magician foretelling the fates of the magicians and a “nameless slave.”

While Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is primarily good entertainment, Clarke is also mindful of the issues of classism, racism, and sexism, which were even more prevalent in the early 1800s. Clarke also seems to allude to other ideas, using magic as a metaphor. In one exchange Arabella, Strange’s wife tells him, “I thought you meant to be a magician not an explorer!” Strange answers, “It is the same thing. An explorer cannot stay at home reading maps other men have made. A magician cannot increase the stock of magic by reading other men’s books.” In my opinion, the world needs more well-read explorers.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Deepness in the Sky (Book)

A sun that turns on and off. A spider race. Folk heroes in disguise. Brilliant slaves. People in cold sleep. Nanotechnology. Deceptions. Exploitation.

I found the 2000 Hugo award and Campbell award winning novel, Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge, brilliant and thought provoking, but I did not enjoy reading it. For me it was too long, too dark, didn’t have enough warm, and didn’t have enough science to keep my attention. Perhaps the bad guys were just too evil for me. Yet, the premise is fascinating.

An inhabited planet encircles a sun that goes on and off—almost like a furnace—every two hundred and fifty years. The planet has a very hot period, an inhabitable period, and a frigid period when the inhabitants must be in a type of hibernation underground: in the deepness. The inhabitants are a spider-like species. During each inhabitable period, the Spiders must rebuild what has been lost to the cold and relighting of the sun and then further their technology with the time they have left. Two human races go to the planet just before the relighting the sun. One is a merchant race, the Qeng Ho. The other is an opportunist race, the Emergents. The Emergents have found that by using a virus and magnetic wave technology they can create a group of slaves so focused that they are almost machinelike—think someone with Asperger syndrome but many times more focused. The Qeng Ho and Emergents briefly go to war, and the Emergents come out the winner, but their resources are seriously depleted. Along with the captured Qeng Ho, they wait for the Spiders to achieve enough technological knowledge so that they can help rebuild the Emergent ships. The Emergents monitor the Spider technology and then infiltrate and corrupt it.

I was fascinated by the concept that all civilizations rise and fall, gaining and then losing technological ability. Another interesting idea—not explored enough—was human’s ability to relate to a totally alien species. A third concept was the right to control one's own destiny.

A Deepness in the Sky is the prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, the 1993 Hugo award winner.