Review – Seveneves

seveneves

Seveneves, Neal Stephenson (William Morrow, 2015)

Neal Stephenson is world renowned for at least one of his works, 1992’s Snow Crash, albeit he’s published more than a dozen novels of varying styles: science-fiction, speculative fiction, historic fiction.

Seveneves, a massive novel that tells the epic story of humanity’s survival in space after the moon fractured, raining down on the Earth, is in my opinion like any other Stephenson novel, that is … dry, overly full of useful details, more plodding than boring. The overall story is what’s interesting, not any given character, passage, or the prose; considering many of his books top between 500 and a 1,000 pages it makes reading a Stephenson somewhat of an ordeal under these conditions.

I do recommend his novels but would categorize his work as niche reading.

I particularly liked The Diamond Age as a straightforward story of one, and Seveneves‘s last third taking place 5,000 years after the opening story.

I do look forward to Anathem and his older Zodiac.

 

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Review – Downbelow Station

Downbelow Station, C. J. Cherryh (DAW, 1981)

C. J. Cherryh’s masterful counterpart to Cyteen finally puts most of the elements of that vast and complex Alliance-Union fictional universe into place, at least for me. I have to mention that I first read Cyteen, understood it all (it did make very little mention of non-Union story elements, such as the Alliance, so that was a blessed non-issue), then tried Downbelow Station and had to stop mid-stride: none of it made sense. Until I read Merchanter’s Luck, that is, which takes a merchanter who is captain and sole crew of his little ship and makes him meet a gal from a giant merchanter ship of hundreds of families, and lets his education commence…and that of the reader. These few books, I believe, are the key to understanding Cherryh’s Alliance-Union universe. Without the pain. One should start with Downbelow Station (there is a primer at its beginning) and Merchanter’s Luck, followed by Cyteen and its direct sequel Regenesis.

So what makes this book worth reading? The characters, of course. This is Cherryh after all.

So we have Signy Mallory, the she-bitch captain of the carrier Norway, a little-described monster of a ship, one of a few built by Earth to put the far-away rebellious stations in their place. The novel centers on one of these stations, Pell Station, which orbit’s Pell’s World, which the station inhabitants call Downbelow, and thus colloquially refer to their own station as Downbelow Station. (Got that? Multiply this by a hundred, forget to add these bits to the primer at the beginning of the novel, and you might see where I got confused. And these are just the names…) Mallory is honor bound to obey her leader, Conrad Mazian, who reports to the Earth Company, Cherryh’s Weyland-Yutany of sorts, which runs Earth and wants everyone else to follow suit.

As the novel starts Pell Station is delivered a poisoned gift from Mazian: thousands upon thousands of refugees from evacuated stations. This influx informs the reader upon the station’s fragility as it taxes its politics and economy, and the rights it confers its citizens. Witness to the station’s subsequent slow disintegration is Mallory, who finds herself becoming a tiny less bitchy than usual as she gleans vast political plans in motion around her and feels powerless to effect them. On the station’s and planet’s side we’re also served Pell’s two prodigy couples, the station-master’s two sons and their quite formidable spouses.

On this background splashes infiltrators, traitors, death, revolution, and in fine Cherryh tradition a subplot of gentle aliens from Downbelow – the downers – and how longterm interactions with humans changes the latter for the better, a concept she is fond of and explored well in Forty Thousand in Gehenna.

But not all is rosy: some have commented on her difficult prose, and I strongly agree, but prefer to leave such analysis to the reader. I for one do not find it deleterious to the integrity of her works, if perhaps a bit annoying at times, making her writing slightly less enjoyable than it should have been. It’s not a deal breaker for me.

Also know that her vision of technology is far from current cutting-edge SF storytelling: her computers are static voice and key-accessed devices, there is seemingly no networking or decentralized archives of information, no cybernetics, or artificial intelligences. It is not a throwback to the 50s, in my opinion, but rather a stripping down of all non-essential storytelling elements, with her focusing on what she likes and knows. In that optic her technologies are not described nor do they need to be. One good example of this is the carrier Norway, such an important ship for which we do not know any capabilities besides her speed, crew complement, and that it carries four or so support vessels. But I’ve never wanted more details on these things, for they are ultimately inconsequential to her stories.

All and all, these four fantastic books – Downbelow Station, Merchanter’s Luck, Cyteen and Regenesis – comprise a powerful quartet you’ll never forget. Plus there’s plenty of add-ons if you wish to continue within the universe: Forty Thousand in Gehenna, Rimrunners, Finity’s End, and Tripoint, the last three which I have still to read. Goodies for those cold nights.

Pulp from the Collection

I have a lot of books, like most people I guess, but I do especially appreciate a few above the lot, for their rarity, exceptional design, who freakin’ signed it (Buzz Aldrin!), or whatever moves you. So let’s show a few of them, the rare ones, the ones for which finding images on the web is difficult.

Stephen King’s IT: Not a fan of the King (sorry folks), I far better like my Simmons’ Summer of Night. But IT has its place for just how fucked up the story is. A circle jerk, really, King? Gotta love those. So when I saw Cemetery Dance’s 25th Anniversary Special Edition I had to have it: oversized design (the size of a dictionary), slipcase, wrap-around full-color cover artwork, close to thirty pieces of color and black & white interior artwork, and a two-colors interior.

This just in…

…Subterranean Press’ signed, limited edition of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion.

474 numbered copies, 2012 print run, cover by John Picacio; a truck load of money (and three more volumes to go).

Not since the days of Doubleday’s 1989 hardcover has Hyperion looked so good. Plus it’s so big it will be a treat for the eyes to read, instead of squinting at the hieroglyphs that adorn the pages of the mass market paperback. I for one have read the four books only once and will enjoy them even more this time around.

Subterranean Press has printed some amazing books in the past years: Stross’ Palimpset, Simmons’ Phases of Gravity and The Terror, Reynolds’ Troika and Thousandth Night and Minla’s Flowers, Stephenson’s Zodiac, Martin’s Dying of the Light, Mieville’s Embassytown, Vance’s The Kragen, …

Let’s hope for more to come. Plus, the writers apparently get a lot on these deals…good for them.

Review – The Highest Frontier

The Highest Frontier, Joan Slonczewski (Tor, 2011)

Joan Slonczewski’s The Highest Frontier is not one of the author’s best, but close, and with it proves she can write at the edge of current science/sociological speculation. Unfortunately it is quite the slow start; you need to get to a bit more than half the page count to get an inkling of what will soon go down.

This story of young Jenny Ramos Kennedy, descendant of two presidential families (the Ramos clan came from Cuba after its inclusion as a US state), takes her to 22nd century Frontera college, a rotating cylindrical space hab with everyone living on its inside surface.

It takes a long time for us to get an idea of how this fictional universe works due to the information saturation in every single paragraph; not since the opening chapters of Greg Bear’s Eon have I read fiction so overwhelming. A few bits of the crunchies for your consumption: in the future the Internet has been replaced several times, the current iteration is Toynet, which “brainstreams” directly to/from your head; taxes are not payed but played at casinos; 3D printers are ubiquitous and most foods and objects – even houses – are printed; mindless multicellular aliens called ultraphytes have fallen to the Earth and are spreading, wrecking havoc on the human population for the cyanide gas they emit when stressed. The list is huge. And the language is a mix of English and Cuban expressions.

On this backdrop unfolds Jenny’s story as she tries to learn, and deal with her integration into the political sphere both on Earth and Frontera, and that the current times could spell doom for humanity if the right choices are not made (Slonczewski is a biology professor and most of her novels have a bent on protecting the environment and the consequences of not doing so).

In sum a good novel that delivers on all fronts.

Review – The Alice Encounter

The Alice Encounter, John Gribbin (PS Publishing, 2011)

The Alice Encounter is a novella by scientist-sometimes-author John Gribbin, printed under 200 copies, and first published in Interzone #84 (1994).

In this tale, a ship from a precarious human civilization is sent to the edge of the Kuiper Belt, near Neptune’s orbit, to investigate unusual numbers of cometary objects falling in-system that could threaten Earth and its Mars colony. An invisible and insubstantial alien ship is there, made of mirror matter (Wiki the stuff up to know more), and only its gravitic drive interacts with our “normal” matter, causing all the mayhem. Humans and aliens see each other as coming from a weird realm of dark matter – for us there is 90% dark matter out there, but for the aliens made of that stuff it is our 10% which is dark to them. (No spoilers here, this is all from the first few paragraphs.)

A bit dry and short, sometimes awkwardly written (no ghost writer involved, for sure), I would only recommend it to the most enthusiastic and thorough reader of SF.

Review – Natural History

Natural History, Justina Robson (Macmillan, 2003)

Justina Robson is known for her debut Silver Screen (1991), and Mappa Mundi (2001). Her third novel, Natural History, has an intriguing mix of ideas and themes but falls short of what (I, at least) seek in a novel, mainly some kind of meaningful (read satisfactory) exploration of the ideas, themes, and characters described therein.

The story is of a society made of unmodified humans and what are called the Forged: half-organic half-machine pseudo-humans which replace moving machines such as airplanes, space elevators, stellar probes, and spaceships, or fulfill dangerous-environment jobs such as spacejack. The Forged clash with what the author calls “the slavery of Form and Function” in their design, which is that one’s purpose and thus identity – as an intelligent entity – is locked into one’s design. For function follows form, so must you be your job, having been made for that job.

The story follows a small number of supporting cast, and two main characters – the Forged Isol and her literal stumbling upon an alien artifact in space, and the human archeologist Zephyr Dusquene and her investigation of alien ruins on a distant planet only Isol can reach. Filled with whiffs of revolution on Earth, the author deploys new ideas and cloaks old ones in better garments, wraps it up with good prose, and brushes on the plight of the Forged and their desire for freedom from form and function.

While not too well balanced, seriously lacking in deeper exploration of many of its main themes, and guilty of focusing on a new concept introduced late in the book, the novel is still a good read, one worth reading, but I suspect not her best effort. I might try her first two novels.