Michael Swanwick – Stations of the Tide (1990)

stations-of-the-tide

  • Genre: Science fiction
  • Pages: 252
  • My rating: 8.5/10

What a strange, cool novel. These days it would be the first book of a trilogy. But in the 1990s it just arrived on the scene, serialized in two parts and then published as a short, strange, mind-bending book, set in a totally realized science fictional world. Stations of the Tide tells the story of a man known only to us as “the bureaucrat”. He arrives at the planet Miranda, where more advanced technology is strictly controlled and mostly prohibited. The bureaucrat is chasing after a locally legendary man named Gregorian who had spirited away some prohibited technology.

Nothing is what it seems on the planet Miranda. The book feels like a Terry Gilliam movie, full of strange characters and slightly comedic and disturbing events. The bureaucrat keeps making the wrong assumptions while talking to the locals, leading to strange twists in the story and a deeper sense of mystery and not-belonging. The dialogues are full of insinuations and hints to all sorts of stuff. So, throughout the book we are asked to pay close attention to everything that happens and to be ready for anything. A bit like a Gene Wolfe story, in particular it has much in common with Wolfe’s novel The Fifth Head of Cerberus.

Feeling unhinged and confused is part of the reader experience; consciously designed so by Swanwick. He keeps throwing us into strange situations and then an explanation may follow later. The plot may feel scattered, and the scenes are like pictures that are slightly out of focus.

Part of the feeling of being unmoored comes from the setting. The whole continent where the bureaucrat is searching for Gregorian is in the process of being abandoned by everyone, because a once-every-2-centuries flood will transform the whole land. The clock is ticking. The bureaucrat is like a colonial agent who is searching the jungles for an enigmatic man, while his search is like a Heart of Darkness-esque travelogue into the mysteries of this planet. Only, he has a briefcase which he can talk to because it has an AI inside and he uses the backrooms of sweaty cafes to connect mentally to a “surrogate” robot body at the other side of the planet.

In the middle, the book totally freaks out. There are hallucinations, computer simulations, post-singularity technology that could’ve been written by Hannu Rajaniemi. If you weren’t confused before, you will be now. But I get the sense that there is a reason for everything. There is a reason, for example, why the Bureaucrat is never mentioned by name.

The greatest obstacle to really embracing this book, and maybe the reason that this book has stayed a bit obscure, is that the ambiguity is never really resolved into a neat storyline. Throughout the story, Swanwick pits technology against mysticism. At first I thought that he favored the romance of the occult over hard tech, but the story twists in ways so that the whole theme of the books stays unclear. There is too much going on and the connections between it all stay unclear. What saves the book in my eyes is Swanwick’s way with words.

Michael Swanwick is one of those writers who, whenever he releases a new work, the fantasy and science fiction community feels flummoxed by what they are reading and think: “Well… gee…eh, I’m not sure what to think about that.” His online ratings are not high because people tend to either love or quite dislike his stories. Stations of the Tide came at the right moment for me. It is one of those books that deserve rereads to get the full impact. Luckily, the scenes are all so striking and odd and Swanwick’s writing style flows so beautifully that rereading would be a pleasure.

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N.K. Jemisin – The Obelisk Gate (2016)

the-obelisk-gate

  • Genre: Fantasy / science fiction
  • Series: The Broken Earth, part 2
  • Pages: 448
  • My rating: 8.5/10

N.K. Jemisin continues her stunning story of the Stillness in The Obelisk Gate. Without spoiling the story, The Obelisk Gate continues the tale from two perspectives: that of Essun in the Castrima comm and of her daughter Nassun, who has been invisible so far.

The Obelisk Gate is a change of pace compared to The Fifth Season. Where the first novel moved very fast in a pyrotechnic display of huge events and emotionally traumatic twists, The Obelisk Gate is more like the Earth itself. It looks at peace, but under the surface huge powers are moving. With this I mean that the characters, Essun and Nassun, stay mostly put in one or two locations and deal with more mundane happenings than those in The Fifth Season. But in the background of the tale, mayor events are unfolding in the shadows.

The Fifth Season ends with a tantalizing question, asked by Alabaster. It comes so much out of the blue that for a moment I was struck silent. It clarifies in a single line that there is an entire history to this fantasy landscape that we and all the inhabitants do not have knowledge of. Could there be a better way to whet the appetite for the second instalment of the story? And indeed, The Obelisk Gate takes strides to lift the veil in parts. There are struggles between factors who have been largely invisible so far. We begin to get an idea where the Guardians come from and, corrupted or otherwise, on whose side they are. And what about the enigmatic Stone eaters?

Just like the Earth is broken, so are its people. Jemisin keeps exploring in this series the elements that shape our character. In The Fifth Season, she stressed how trauma changes people permanently. In The Obelisk Gate, she shifts focus to how we are the product of the people we meet. How relationships and fateful encounters with certain people chisel our character and that we are them and they are us. Essun, Nassun and Alabaster are the examples of this, and they are fully fleshed out as people. The characters are strong and three-dimensional in this story.

I’m a bit on the fence about the way Jemisin explains the deeper layers of the story. Essun is living in Castrima and trying to find her way in this society, eating up lots of pages in the book doing so. Then once in a while, we get an infodump about what is really going on in the wider world, either through Alabaster giving lectures or through interludes. I would have preferred following Alabaster’s adventures a bit more, and being present when he makes his own discoveries. That would have injected some more spice into the tale. But now, whenever an ‘Essun-chapter’ started, I didn’t feel that satisfying surge of anticipation of starting a new chapter.

Nevertheless, The Obelisk Gate ends in a major climax that keeps pushing the scale of the story. Like many great epics, the world-spanning scale of it is combined with the heavy weight of close personal connections. It is a fine continuation of the story started in The Fifth Season. We can now look forward to the final instalment of the story with the full confidence that Jemisin is going to deliver an outstanding trilogy overall. She feels in full command of the story she is telling, surely buoyed up by deeper personal feelings that motivate her to put this all on paper.

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Your Name (2016) Review

your-name

8/10

What would happen if you were suddenly to wake up in the body of someone of the opposite gender, in his or her apartment and life, and he or she would wake up in your body and your life? What if this would occur often enough that your start leaving messages for each other?

Your Name (Kimi no na wa) is the new film by a director who is quickly making a name for himself. Makoto Shinkai has earned high praise already in Asia and among amine aficionados elsewhere for his films 5 Centimeters per Second, The Garden of Words and more. These were all rather sort films of maybe 45 minutes, in effect telling short stories, often about young fragile love. Your Name stands in a direct continuation of this work, but it is a longer feature of more than 1.5 hour.

Your Name too is a romantic story with some science fiction or fantasy elements. Like most of Shinkai’s stories, it concerns a fragile new romantic love that blossoms up. Together with the pretty colors and minimalistic piano music, Shinkai often shows love as something fragile and bittersweet, framed in the lights and colors of the setting sun, and often doomed from the start. A certain vulnerability shines through his stories where the little moments of doomed romantic love are celebrated. It comes across as part of certain Asian cultures where everything is made hyperemotional, cute and vulnerable for its own sake.

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Shinkai’s work stands out for its beautiful artwork. All his films are absolutely gorgeous to look at. Extremely detailed and with amazing color work. And, I have to say, with oversaturated colors and lots of lens flares. I have named The Garden of Words before as perhaps the most beautifully drawn animated movie ever. Your Name does equal the same level of dedication and craftsmanship. There are scenes that last perhaps for half a second, but they must have cost many hours of work to create.

The pace of storytelling is a bit unusual. The movie starts out with a musical number that shows scenes from the entire movie, like a music video about the whole thing. We get all these glimpses that only make sense later on. Then, at two or three moments in the film, we suddenly engage the warp drive and a montage/music video rushes us through months of time. I’m wondering if this is because Shinkai is more used to directing shorter films. In any case, it doesn’t work against the film, but it is unusual.

Overall, the film is definitely worth seeing, mostly because of how pretty it looks and for the fascinating little science fiction story that unfolds. But I’d wish that Shinkai would rein in the teenage melodrama a bit. I would be very interested to see what he would do with other kinds of stories.

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Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance (2009)

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  • Edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois
  • Page count: 632
  • My rating: 8/10

Is there any writer alive today who could mimic the style of Jack Vance? Some of the biggest names from fantasy and science fiction try their hands on writing a Jack Vancian Dying Earth story. This collection shows that it is indeed very hard. Jack Vance was unique and if he had never existed, then no one would have had the imagination to create him, or his stories.

What this anthology is celebrating is of course the Dying Earth novels, of which Jack Vance wrote exactly four: Tales of the Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga and Rhialto the Marvelous. They are usually found together in a single collection. These novels started an entirely new subgenre of novels that are set in the far future, at the time when the sun is nothing more than a dying red disc. Human history has become so long that it is beyond our minds to grasp it, and a general nihilism has overtaken the human societies that are left.

The stories are generally about crafty wayfarers and jolly wizards who live in sumptuous mansions. Vance concocted a magic system with hints of technology that would later form the inspiration behind the Dungeons and Dragons games. His stories are full of dry wit. His style is wholly unique and impossible to describe well.

Each author added a personal memory of how Jack Vance inspired their writing. The collection is rich and full – Vance’s stories are clearly beloved – and the page count is even higher than the original four Vancian stories together. If you love the four Vance novels, this collection is an amazing addition to them. The authors in this anthology do their best to imitate his style, but also give their own twist to the Dying Earth.

Let’s look at the stories. If you’re a fantasy/sf reader, you’ll recognize some names here.

Robert Silverberg “The True Vintage of Erzuine Thale” (3.5/5) opens the anthology with a good tale about a wizard who gets robbed of his finest vintage. The tale is appropriate, but too verbose. Vance would have written it in half the pages.

Matthew Hughes “Grolion of Almery” (5/5) wrote a perfect tale. This is pure Vance, and Hughes’s crime writing is already heavily influenced by Vance. A complex story of grievances, magical wonder and decisive action. Typical Vance is that the characters fall into situations that are already made complicated by past conflicts and motives of revenge.

Terry Dowling “The Copsy Door” (4/5) offers an amusing story, occasionally raises a laugh, but a bit predictable and too straightforward.

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Liz Williams “Caulk the Witch-chaser” (3/5), her story feels like a generic fantasy story. A bit bland and indecisive in its structure. The ending seems out of place. It’s one of the weaker ones.

Mike Resnik “Inescapable” (3.5/5) is mainly occupied with referencing existing characters and he wants to provide backstory to a familiar name. It’s serviceable.

Walter Jon Williams “Abrizonde” (4/5) is off on a rocky start. He introduces too many nonsense names and the writing is clunky. But in the course of the tale he finds his rhythm and the story unfolds to something very entertaining and inventive. It’s great to see a Sandestin again.

Paula Volsky “The Traditions of Karzh” (5/5). Her story is a love letter to Cugel the Clever and his madcap adventures. The situations of her character are quite random and inventive, and the story echoes Cugel’s journeys to retrieve certain objects from strange places. Also, Cugel’s tormentor Firx is represented here as a slow-burning poison. Great stuff.

Jeff Vandermeer “The Final Quest of the Wizard Sarnod” (4/5) The title sounds like a Lord Dunsany tale, but the story that he presents is a fusion between Vance and the Vandermeer style of New Weird. This Dying Earth is weirder in its magic than we are used to. It’s a fine story in and of itself, but it is only a Dying Earth story in name. Vandermeer’s style doesn’t approach Vance in any way and I think he didn’t attempt to. What is sorely lacking is the dry wit and comedy of Vance. On the plus side, it features mushrooms.

Kage Baker “The Green Bird” (3/5). This one has some superficial signs of being set in the Dying Earth, including the character Cugel the Clever, but under the surface it felt like a completely different beast. Some characters felt like they were lifted from entirely different genres. The ending is good, but the rest I don’t know what to make of it.

Phyllis Eisenstein “The Last Golden Thread” (4/5) is a pleasant enough tale, without any great conflict or tension. It completes the story of Lith. Since Vance’s characters are so often devious or mischievous, I expected something bad to happen all the way through the story, but it never came. This one is a very rare Dying Earth happy ending.

Elizabeth Moon “An Incident in Uskvesk” (1.5/5) had nothing to do with the Dying Earth. I think she penned this story down at an earlier date as a generic fantasy short and just sent it to George RR Martin, and he kept it in because she is a well-known writer. The story is about a dwarf, and it is rather uninteresting.

Lucius Shepard “Sylgarmo’s Proclamation” (5/5). I am constantly impressed by Lucius Shepard’s writing. He’s lucid, witty and inventive, and his metaphors are stunning. More characters from Cugel’s past show up and seek him out to take revenge on past misdeeds.

Tad Williams “The Lamentably Comical Tragedy (or The Laughably Tragic Comedy) of Lixal Laqavee” (4/5). An ok story, but Williams is being very wordy. He seems to enjoy himself greatly. Conversations are spun out endlessly with archaic language that is more stilted than witty, and the ending is abrupt.

John C Wright “Guyal the Curator” (5/5). Maybe the best story in the collection! This is a proper homage. Wright added loads of little references to not just the Dying Earth novels, but some other Vance series as well. This is the work of someone with a deep love and respect for Vance. His writing is heavy and dreamlike, with lots of obscure words and dry witty conversations.

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Glen Cook “The Good Magician” (3/5). A story set in the milieu of Rhialto the Marvelous. Not Rhialto but Alfaro, a starting underdog magician, finds himself in the court of Ildefonse. Cook’s writing is a bit businesslike, but he adds some good humor to the tale. Ultimately, the story is a bit bland and ineffective.

Elizabeth Hand “The Return of the Fire Witch” (4/5). Rich in imagery and language. Elizabeth Hand’s story could very well play out in a fantasy world of her own making, different from the Dying Earth but just as fascinating. Stars two witches with a strained relationship and lots of mushrooms.

Tanith Lee “Evillo the Uncunning” (3.5/5). Reads more like a fairy tale about a young orphan boy who seeks his destiny. The boy meets a great storyteller named Canja Veck (hint: shuffle the letters around) and follows the locations of the old Cugel tales. Frantic, fast-paced, a bit too derivative, but ultimately an enjoyable tale.

Dan Simmons “The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz” (4/5). A fun, satisfying tale; longer than the others but well-paced. Simmons’s interpretation leans more overtly towards science-fiction. The tale transports us halfway across the planet, together with Shrue the Diabolist and the frequently recurring warrior princess Derwe Coreme.

Howard Waldrop “Frogskin Cap” (2/5). Very short, and doesn’t have a plot. At least, I couldn’t discover the clue to this story. It’s just a story of a magician walking to the Museum of Man and being the last curator. And that’s all. Some of the language is rather un-Vancian. Underwhelming.

George RR Martin “A Night at the Tarn House” (4.5/5). Three travelers encounter each other in a tavern (famous for its hissing eels!) and mayhem ensues. Felt like a western, like The Hateful Eight set on the Dying Earth. Good Vancian names and characters. One of the best stories of the collection.

Neil Gaiman “An Invocation of Incuriosity” (3/5). A bit short and disconnected from the rest of the collection. It felt like Gaiman wanted to present something different than all the other authors, but it didn’t do much for me, because the story itself was rather short and even a bit clichéd in its own way.

Jack Vance was 93 when this collection came out, and passed away a year later. He still had the time to see this collection and express his thanks. This anthology only underlines how great his work was and how much he will be missed.

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Jack McDevitt – Chindi (2002)

chindi

  • Genre: Science fiction
  • Series: Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins / Academy, book 3
  • Pages: 528
  • My Rating: 7/10

These are the voyages of Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins. Chindi is the third book of Jack McDevitt’s Hutchins or Academy books, but can quite easily be read as a standalone. In this episode, Hutch flies a motley crew of passengers known as the Contact Society around the galaxy in search for extraterrestrial life. They find a relay station of alien satellites and follow the trail from solar system to solar system.

Chindi reads like a spiritual sequel to books like Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (1973). It’s about space archeology and the ancient remains of long-dead aliens. But McDevitt already covered this in the first two books of his series, The Engines of God and Deepsix. So, this time, hints are found of alien machinery that still functions, and the so-called contact society hires Hutch to pilot a ship to search for real living aliens. The Society are a bunch of amateurs and Hutch must keep everyone in line while they tramp across the galaxy.

There is lots of potential in a story like this. But there is something about Jack’s writing style that makes me groan instead of smile. As an author, he feels too present in the text. The dialogues read as if he was struggling to make something snappy out of it. And the quotes at the start of the chapters read like his own opinions. I can’t dive into this story without seeing McDevitt typing away and feeling pleased with himself, while the story and the characters are a bit so-so. He doesn’t reach that top tier of writers and that makes his efforts at smug storytelling slightly painful.

At about 300 pages, a kind of repetition sets in. The group finds a clue, discovers something unusual, goes on an expedition, gets into peril and Hutch saves them, and they find a new clue. And they go through the cycle again. Repeat and repeat for a couple of cycles. But where is the story? There is no real tension in it, and 100 pages could easily be cut out. Besides some minor love affairs and dashed dreams, the characters could just pack up and go home, without leaving any plot threads unsolved.

McDevitt peopled his spaceship with all sorts: a UFO-nut, a porn actress, an undertaker, a painter. A varied bunch, you would say, but we hardly get to know any of these people. All dialogue in the text could have been spoken by any of these characters. Just switch around the names and it would still be the same story. Because the observations that they make and the emotions they describe are bland and barely in service of any character development.

A specific point of irritation in Hutch’s love life. Hutch as a character is generally appreciated by reviewers, because she is a classy heroine. Competent and down-to-earth (for a space pilot, heheh). But every male character, and McDevitt, keeps saying how beautiful she is. And because of her space pilot job, she is away for long stretches of time and keeps her lovers hanging on and pining, and she gets annoyed when they give up or check out. In general, McDevitt comes across as a white knight, criticizing men but gushing over how sexy and smart his female characters are.

The problems with the story and characters would not have been so pronounced, had the novel delivered on its premise of creating a sense of wonder. That is what it ultimately aims for, but doesn’t quite achieve. Arthur C. Clarke also wasn’t the greatest character creator, but while he is celebrated for his ideas, McDevitt’s ideas about alien life are not stunning or inspiring enough to make us forget about such flaws. His aliens and their artifacts feel mundane. While the novel isn’t all bad, the final 200 pages were still a slog to get through.

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The Accountant (2016)

the-accountant

7/10

The accountant must be the most involving film about accountancy ever made. Ben Affleck plays an autistic man, Christian Wolff, who found his own niche as an accountant for international criminals. Here he can use both his total disinterest in human affairs and his obsessive attention for facts and numbers. Somehow, The Accountant manages to combine the Jason Bourne films with A Beautiful Mind. When Ben is hired to spit through the accounts of a company, you even hear that clockwork music that James Horner wrote for A Beautiful Mind.

It can be no coincidence that the company that Christian is investigating is called Living Robotics, ‘cause that is how he behaves. There is even a shot where Christian talks with the CEO, and behind them there are a human and robot hand touching fingers, of course with the robot hand being on Christian’s side. Meanwhile, gangsters are on the prowl, and an investigator from the Treasury is on Christian’s tail.

All very stiff and heavy stuff, but it’s a strangely calming film for a thriller. I’m not sure if the form of autism portrayed here and how Christian deals with it actually exist in this way, or are overly dramatized. Autism is quickly equated to a knack for mathematics in this film. What is dramatized in a rather unrealistic way are the flashbacks of Christian’s life. Ultimately, the autism is more like a gimmick to create the story. But that’s quite a risk to take for a screenwriter when you think about it, because it’s making an action thriller with the handicap of having a lifeless lead man.

When Anna Kendrick shows up with a nerdy cuteness, she’s very welcome to add some life to the movie. A fellow accountant from Living Robotics, she has stuff in common with Christian but quickly finds herself nearly kidnapped by the criminals chasing him. I also appreciated J.K. Simmons and Jeffrey Tambor a lot as side characters. The film gets a lot of mileage out of its side characters. Lifts the whole thing up to a consistently interesting viewing experience.

Overall, not too bad. Except that Kendrick disappears halfway through the film. She’s there for some quick scenes that promise a much larger role, but then the story moves on and seems to put her aside. The Accountant is a bit uneven like that in its storytelling.

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N.K. Jemisin – The Fifth Season (2015)

the-fifth-season

  • Genre: fantasy, science fiction
  • Series: The Broken Earth 1
  • Pages: 465
  • My Rating: 9/10

There’s a lot going on in this book. Jemisin takes you by the hand and sort of gently guides you through a pleasant prologue that introduces us to her new world. But I found myself yelling: wait! What was that? What is happening? I don’t understand! I am being bombarded by strange lands and magical phenomena. We’ll just have to trust her that all will become clear in time.

A couple of things become clear: this is a story about a fantasy land in which people are born on rare occasions with magical powers. In particular, a power over geology. Gifted people called orogenes can call up earthquakes or suck the temperature out of their surroundings. These people are hunted down and killed when they are discovered, because they can be the instigators of many earthquakes, which makes this world a volatile place to live in. For ordinary citizens to survive, they are arranged in a caste system of builders and innovators, and so-called stonelore proscribes what to do in case the ground breaks open.

In epic fantasy tradition, we follow a couple of characters on their journey through these lands. Essun is a gifted mother, who just lost her gifted son, and in grief and rage she leaves her village. Jemisin presents her story in second person, addressing us as if we are the grieving Essun. Always a tricky perspective to use, but Jemisin pulls it off. She has a great authorative and sympathetic writing voice. Second is Damaya, a young girl with the gift who gets taken by a Guardian to be trained as an official magician to safeguard the world. Third is Syenite, a young orogene in training and on a mission.

What a dark, bleak book. We start out with child murder, another child abandoned by her parents, mass killing and forced sex. Ok. But don’t walk away yet, because Jemisin also wrote a highly original, unusual book that breaks with fantasy tradition in many ways. The orogene gift is a fascinating invention and worked out very well, and there are tantalizing hints all over the story that it is set in some sort of post-apocalyptic environment where electricity and asphalt are a thing, along with science fictional elements, even though the tone and presence of magic are distinctly high fantasy.

It wasn’t always easy to sympathize with the characters. One is so stricken by emotional trauma that she totally retreats within herself (which I understand as a reaction to trauma, but as a character to follow it’s not pleasant). Another one feels a constant hatred towards another character that feels undeserved. But the story moves fast and the emotional punches keep coming to draw you in. But it is also Jemisin’s underlying idea or message that it is pain that shapes us. Emotional trauma changes our character over time, and this theme becomes more pronounced the further the story unfolds.

It’s impressive how Jemisin builds up this complex world without explaining too much. The learning curve for the reader is quite steep, and the story is lean. In only 450 pages, which is meagre for epic fantasy, we are immersed into something quite unique. Even though the story is mostly a travelogue, people moving from one place to the next, there are tantalizing hints of a deeper plot playing out. There are a couple of factions, one more mysterious than the other, but The Fifth Season is mostly setting it all up in a slightly meandering way.

The Fifth Season simply has a lot to offer. Jemisin offers a world full of mystery that is envisioned with great care. It’s an eclectic mix of snippets taken from fantasy and science fiction that is somehow congealed into something wholly unique.

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