January 18, 2012

Your micro-review roundup: 18 January 2012

(Because I make my way through so many books and movies for CCLaP, I regularly come across projects that are interesting enough unto themselves but that I simply don't have much to say about, or at least not enough to warrant an entire entry. I thought, then, that on occasional weekends I would gather up such "micro-reviews" and post them all in one large entry; they can also be found on CCLaP's main book and main movie archive pages.)

Singularity Sky, by Charles Stross

Singularity Sky
By Charles Stross

I recently had the chance to acquire every single book ever written by trippy sci-fi author Charles Stross, and so have decided to spend the year actually reading and reviewing them here for the blog; and I've decided to read them in chronological order, too (or, the general books by chronological order, then take on the themed series one at a time), which means that first up is his 2003 novel debut Singularity Sky, which along with his other early classic Accelerando are the ones that really first established him as a major genre force, and that helped cement the cliche of the SF "British Invasion" of the early 2000s. And so that's what makes it an even bigger shock than normal to find out that the novel is not a serious-minded brainteaser, like I think of whenever I think of the other Stross novels I've already read, but rather a very funny absurdist comedy along the lines of late-period Robert Heinlein. Not actually a story about Ray Kurzweil's famous theory of the "Singularity" (that is, the moment in the future that computers gain sentience, and thus usher in a new blazingly fast era for humanity where the mechanical and the biological blur into unrecognizable forms), the novel instead takes this Singularity moment as its historical start, and the fact that humans quickly figure out how to time-travel, at which point a mysterious alien force known as the Eschaton literally create a human diaspora to stop such development, by taking 90 percent of Earth's population and magically scattering them on various inhabitable worlds across the cosmos, these people now free to develop whatever kinds of societies they want but with "the big E" stepping in again whenever a "law of causality" is about to be broken, doing things like wiping out entire star systems to ensure that these stupid hairless apes don't accidentally erase the universe's existence.

Our actual tale, then, takes place hundreds of years after the events just described, when this scattered humanity have formed an endless series of different governments, tech capabilities, and even corporeal forms; to be specific, it's the story of a race of post-human creatures known as "The Festival" who exist mostly as forms of pure information as they travel the cosmos, who literally create new fantastical bodies whenever they stop at a new star system, then proceed to create a kind of benevolent chaos in that new system for awhile (the actual "Singularity Sky" of the book's title), swapping unheard-of technology for new info about the universe from that new system before finally getting their fill, dumping their temporary bodies, and taking off again for yet another century-long flight to the next habitable system, in this case the recipients being a militaristic quasi-fascist colonial dictatorship who shun technology and who clearly resemble the Bush administration that was in power when this novel was first published in the US.

As always with Stross, this is a lot of infodump to take in at once, with the above recap only scratching the surface of this expansive storyline, and with my promise that the whole thing becomes much clearer once you read the actual book; but like I said, the biggest surprise is that Stross plays all this mostly for laughs, a sort of ridiculous adventure tale about a backwards military that purposely builds outdated tech into their warships for the purpose of "tradition," and who then tries to fight a conventional war against a group that can barely fathom what the concept of "war" even is, and who are so technologically advanced over their opponents that they see the traditional battles as little more than you or I swatting at a pesky fly on a hot summer day. I know this all sounds a bit disjointed in a small write-up like this, but trust me when I say that the whole story when written out is a comic masterpiece; and it's easy to see why this made such a big splash when it first came out, after a 1990s that saw perhaps the lowest point of SF in its entire history. It comes highly recommended, and needless to say that I'm looking forward to the next book on the list, 2004's Iron Sunrise which just happens to be a direct sequel to this volume.

Solace in So Many Words, edited by Ellen Wade Beals

Solace in So Many Words
Edited by Ellen Wade Beals
Weighed Words LLC / Hourglass Books

When it comes to literary anthologies, it can be nearly impossible sometimes to give an overall critical score to such a varying collection of stories, so today I'm not even going to try; instead, I wanted to at least call your attention to this remarkable new compilation, put together by Ellen Wade Beals and with her mounting essentially a one-woman war over the last year to try to get it out to a wider and wider audience. Inspired by the overwhelming sense of helplessness that Beals felt after the one-two punch of September 11th and Hurricane Katrina, this attempt to even define the word "solace" (which as Beals explains in her introduction is not quite "succor," not quite "comfort," not quite "love," but perhaps a complex combination of them all) boasts an impressive list of contributors, including such big names as TC Boyle and Joe Meno; and while by definition the pieces themselves vary in quality from great to only so-so, in general I found this to be a very worthwhile read, a rare statement for me when it comes to anthologies. A good example of comfort food for the literary soul, it comes heartily recommended.

Out of 10: N/A

The Restoration Game

The Restoration Game
By Ken MacLeod

This book has been getting a lot of play recently from some unusual sources for being put out by a mainstream science-fiction publisher, and the reason becomes obvious once you read it; because although containing some fantastical elements, this is mostly a very astute political thriller that deals with a lot of issues from our own times all the way back to the Nazi era, and even way back into antiquity. The story of a young Scottish female computer programmer originally from "Krassnia," a fictional former Soviet republic that sounds like it's supposed to be located right around where the Victorian Age's Crimean War was fought, the tale is a complicated one involving the ancient half-myth history of the region, a secret about the area that the Russians have been hiding from everyone else since World War Two, a modern "Arab Spring" style uprising that may or may not be taking place there soon, and whether or not the CIA may or may not be helping this revolt along by commissioning the creation of a local-language "World of Warcraft" style MMORPG, that actually exists as a safe gathering place for protestors to make their plans, and which may or may not accidentally actually reveal the location of this giant secret that everyone is trying to get their hands on, because of the videogame's terrain being based on an old out-of-print hippie guidebook to the area's folklore penned by our hero's mother in the countercultural '60s, to cash in on the "Lord of the Rings" craze going on at the time. Whew!

It's a lot to take in, but Ken MacLeod does it with a lot of aplomb and humor, making this much more Graham Greene than Ben Bova; and kudos to Lou Anders and Pyr for taking on this hip, ripped-from-the-headlines title to begin with, and expanding their scope beyond the steampunk, urban fantasy, and other traditional fan favorites that they're mostly known for. A hard-to-classify book that will generate a lot of passion from its fans, this is one of the rare genre tales here at CCLaP to get a score in the 9s, and it comes happily recommended to a wide general audience.

Out of 10: 9.2

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:10 AM, January 18, 2012. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |