Monday, March 23, 2020

The Expanse, pt. 3: Abaddon's Gate

This post is going to be a little off-the-cuff because I finished this book about a week ago and I am beginning to lose some of the details.  I won't get too bogged down in the specifics of plot and so forth, but will stick to the broad themes and my impressions.
This is the third novel in The Expanse series and it does begin to feel like it is settling in.  The first novel, Leviathan Wakes, sets the stage for a densely populated and fast-paced sci-fi/adventure/detective story.  These elements seemed to be a little crammed together until I had a realization about the series that I will come back to in a bit.  That first novel was very satisfying and showed a lot of potential.
The second novel, Caliban's War, opened with a bang and started off very strong.  It got a little logy and recycled some plot elements from the first novel in a way that was not quite as satisfying as it could have been.  Familiar characters played their familiar parts in a satisfying way and the introduction of a few new personalities kept it fresh. 
The third novel of the series, Abaddon's Gate, takes a bit of a turn in a way that helped to renew the series' direction.  This book veered away from the lost-little-girl MacGuffin of the first two books to pursue a new course.  In the first two books the reader is introduced to the protomolecule, a piece of alien bioware that was first weaponized by humans and then seemed to become sentient.  At the opening of the third novel, the protomolecule has stationed itself as a gate among the outer planets and seems to react to a ship flying into it.
What follows is a three-way standoff between the forces of Mars, Earth, and the Outer Planets Alliance as they each attempts to cordon off and, ultimately, control the portal.  Holden and his crew, having been framed for sparking a hot war, are the first to enter the gate in their attempt to evade the other forces.  This is as far as I am going with plot summary.
The entry into the gate is the first major departure from a relatively realistic sci-fi world.  So far in The Expanse, the alien protomolecule is the only thing to really push the boundaries of suspension of disbelief.  There are the standard near-relativistic speeds that are currently out of our grasp and other space technologies, but these are part and parcel of most mainstream sci-fi and don't push credulity too much.  I wouldn't go so far as to say that this is hard sci-fi, but it keeps things pretty restrained. 
Here is the big difference for me: once the Rocinante passes through the gate, it experiences different physical laws of the universe.  The protomolecule is able to alter laws of physics, and this is a major shift from the preceding books.
In this regard, this series reminds me of Cixin Liu's Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy in which humans make contact with alien civilization who are able to alter physics.  That trilogy, like The Expanse, remains relatively realistic up to this point (Liu includes some medical/cryo tech that strains suspension of disbelief, but I mean this in a general way). 
For both series, the turn from realistic, if still fantastic, sci-fi, also marks a turning point for the characters in the story.  For Liu, this marks, literally, the end of the world as the characters perceive it.  For the characters of The Expanse, the future is less certain.  There are still a lot of books to come after this and this changes the nature of the world within this fiction.  I leave this book more interested to see where the series will go than at the end of the second book.

So, here is the realization that I hinted at earlier.  While listening to an episode of Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders' fantastic podcast Our Opinions are Correct about pulp fiction, I realized what it is about The Expanse that is simultaneously engrossing and a bit frustrating.  This series, it seems to me, takes many of its cues from adventure pulp.  James Holden, so far the central figure of the world of The Expanse, is a no-nonsense captain of a certain type.  He is unflaggingly tied to his sense of ethics and is a steadfast friend to his crew.  He plays a sort of moral center in this world that is largely built on his notions of integrity.  He maintains this sense of morality even as he kills and steals.  The books do recognize his flaws, but he persistently overcomes, and then reverts back to his own personality.  This is an energizing narrative to read.  He gets into jams with his crew, and they fight and cogitate their way out.  The serial nature of the books lends itself to the pulp aesthetic, as well.  I know that there are a lot of books left in the series and though I am not positive that Holden and his crew will continue intact through them all, I sort of suspect that they will, or that most of the characters will remain constant.  At a certain point, I would think that the appeal of the characters and their dynamic is as much a part of the appeal as the sci-fi elements. 
I have more books to go to see if this prediction bears out. 
Of course, none of this is to say that the books are worse, or weaker for it.  This just helps me to contextualize the world in a different way.  The series has been good so far and I will continue to read these for as long as I enjoy them.  In a way, I hope that I am wrong and that I will find in these books what I found in Liu's, but I am okay just enjoying the adventure for what it is for now.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Planet of No Return

One of the first posts I made on this blog was about sci-fi books that I used to find in the laundry room of the apartment building where I used to live.  Someone had dropped a bunch of pulp books from '70s down there and I liberated a bunch when I moved out.  One of these is titled The Worlds of Poul Anderson and contains three of his novels.  To be honest, I had not heard of Poul Anderson before but the books looked cool, so I took this one.  I have seen the name pop up a lot since that time and now, after having read the first novel in the book, Planet of No Return, I am a little surprised that I have not heard more about him. 
His writing is like a lot of sci-fi authors from the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  It is somewhat spare and straightforward.  There are fantastical elements, to be sure, but they are related in an earnest way that actually downplays the invention in it.  There is almost a reportage style that Anderson uses (Heinlein does this some, too) that mirrors some aspects of American Modernism. 

Planet of No Return is a novel of ideas, the plot being rather simple.  The primary conceit is that humans have developed a means of faster-than-light speed travel that can take them out into the stars.  The crew of one ship makes an expedition to a planet that a previous ship had gone to but gotten lost.  This expedition is partly to try to discover what happened to the first mission and partly to fulfill the purpose of the first mission, which was to judge the planet for suitability for colonization. 
Upon arrival, the crew finds that the planet is already populated by Rorvan, a seemingly primitive civilization.  As they try to learn the language, the crew ends up traveling a circuitous path with the Rorvan to the seat of their civilization.  It ends up that the Rorvan are actually far advanced compared with Earth humans and they have set up a ruse to try to dissuade the colonization.  Once the crew discovers this, they have to decide whether they are going to expose the plan or keep the secret and leave the planet alone.  A pretty cool idea. 
One of the big wrinkles in this is that one member of the crew, Avery, had actually been on the first expedition and was working in concert with the Rorvan.  See, Avery had been a member of a cabal on Earth that was, itself, attempting to work against outer space colonization because they perceived diverging arcs of history for humankind.  One arc leads to outer-space colonization and a decline of human civilization because they never need to learn to solve the problems of a home planet.  The second arc keeps humans on Earth for long enough to mature as a species and work together.  Avery sides with the more utopian sect that wants to remain on Earth longer. 
I like this idea because it removes the Rorvan from the equation.  They just happened to want the same thing that Avery's folks did.  The true conflict is between two visions of humanity's future, and it is not revealed until the very final pages of this short book.  But Anderson builds the tension in such a way that it does come as a surprise.
There is one last twist, and that is that the members of the crew who must decide the fate of humanity are of the opinion that venturing out into space is the way of freedom and that remaining on Earth according to Avery's plan (which does, to be fair, involve deception) is a limitation on this freedom.  This sort of frontiersmanship fits in with the libertarian philosophy of someone like Robert Heinlein.  Avery is cast as paternalistic because of his desire to shield humanity from outside influence and escapism, but he ultimately works against extraterrestrial colonialism and a far greater potential for paternalistic oppression.
The answers are not simple in this text and Anderson leaves this up to the reader.  No character's perspective stands out as the obvious answer but the question is left open as to the best course of action for humanity.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Foundation part 4: Second Foundation

This is part four of an ongoing series about Isaac Asimov's classic Foundation series.  I cover the first two books with varying degrees of detail here and here, provide a bit of an intro to this blog series here, and have an essay that I am quite proud of posted on here.
I don't want to retread too much ground here that I have already covered.  But I will warn that the piece is about Enlightenment philosophy and encyclopedias, and it is likely that I am going to return to these topics.

The first couple of novels plot out the downfall of the vast Galactic Empire as predicted by Hari Seldon and the science of psychohistory.  Seldon sets up an institution called the Foundation that is meant to serve as a chronicler of the collected knowledge of mankind, but covertly works as a bulwark against the Empire's fall.  This is all meant to shorten a dark age in the power vacuum that would have lasted for 30,000 years, but can be gotten over with in 1,000, thanks to Seldon's psychohistory.  This is a lot to get through, but the broad strokes don't matter too much right now.
Second Foundation opens with the Mule, the villain from Foundation and Empire, seeking out a legendary Second Foundation that is believed to exist as a plan B to the Foundation.  There is some notion that Seldon built the Second Foundation on the opposite side of the galaxy as Foundation in order to safeguard it.  This novel covers the fall of the Mule.  This character initially comes to power because he is a mutant who can control the emotions of others.  This helps him to force and keep loyalty in anyone he meets and, it is intimated, he is able to use emotion to counter and win out against science.  The Second Foundation beats the Mule and the original Foundation comes back to power.  There is a bit of a confusing power struggle wherein the Second Foundation remains hidden and the Foundation begins to suspect that the Second Foundation, also built around emotion, is trying to overtake it.  Again, these are just broad strokes intended to get to some more interesting parts.

I was first interested in the idea of the tension between emotion and science, or reason.  It seems an odd tension for Asimov to build into this series because these are not really counters at all, but complements.  What is it about emotional control that should be a threat to science in the first place?  There is also nothing necessary in the Second Foundation being any different from the first Foundation.  They could, and it seems logical that they would, be built upon the same principles.

I also found it interesting that Asimov plays more with the mythical rendering of Seldon's Plan.  In the earlier books, the characters had readier access to Seldon's ideas and plans but, by this point hundreds of years later, they have begun to regard the Plan itself as an agent.  This abstraction from the Plan actually works with the science of psychohistory as defined by Asimov because the knowledge of psychohistory disrupts its working.

One of the best parts of the series so far is the way that the whole science of psychohistory plays with the "great man" theory of history, both confirming and challenging it.
On one hand, Seldon continues to influence.  People still puzzle over his plan and the second foundation.  They also worry that the Mule was not predicted and unpredictable, so ruined the plan.
On the other hand, psychohistory is concerned with masses, billions of people.  Individual efforts don't matter.  Only mass, civilization-scale, activities have influence.  Except for Seldon, of course.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Doctor Sleep

I missed this book when it first came out a few years ago but came across it during the recent promotional campaign for the movie.  This book fits in with so many other of Stephen King's books for me: I like the story and the characters but they are just too long. 
This book is a sequel to The Shining in the sense that it picks up Danny Torrence's life as an adult.  He continues to shine and he has come to deal with both that and the problems that plagued his father.
We learn that he has been able to deal with some parts of what happened at the Overlook, and others he has had to lock away from himself in his own mind.
This book encapsulates something else about King's books that has become more apparent to me as I have gotten older.  King is interested in family legacy and the things that we seem to have thrust upon us.  Danny is an alcoholic like his father, and this has long been a theme in King's work.  But there is more.  Danny, now "Dan" as an adult, also has to deal with his own anger and find a way to reconnect with people.  He talks a lot about his mother and he thinks about Dick Halorann a lot.  The book is as much about his need to get out from under what happened to him when he was young as it is about anything.  He does this through the main action of the book, which is something that is unrelated to The Shining and not something I really want to get into here. 
Doctor Sleep is about dispelling the notion that there are things that are inevitable.  Dan sees signs of his own death at one point in the novel, but he is able to dodge his demise.  The novel deals more directly with alcoholism than some of King's other work, giving the reader some AA aphorisms and narrating meetings that Dan attends, as well as defining his relationship with his sponsor.  The elements of AA that seep in walk a line between individual choice and inevitability.  As it is presented in the text, AA is about staving off the inevitable, and accepting that for paradox that it is. 
I don't think that there is really a good comparison with The Shining in this novel.  The books are too different and are trying to do different things.  The Shining is a tighter novel, but it is also a less skillfully executed novel.  It requires a different sort of imagination than Doctor Sleep does because King seems more likely to fill in the gaps in his later work than when he was a younger writer.  His early novels left spaces for the reader to fill with their own fears.  More recent work seems to define the unknown a bit more.  This is not a judgement either way, just an observation. 
I have not yet seen the movie adaptation of Doctor Sleep, but am curious to see how it translates to the screen.  Adaptations of King's novels are always a mixed bag, but the quality of them has improved over time.  The last big question for me, though, is how an adaptation of this novel will stack up against Stanley Kubrik's adaptation of The Shining.

Monday, February 24, 2020

The Expanse, pt. 2: Caliban's War

Caliban's War, the second novel in James S.A. Corey's Expanse series, hits a lot of the same notes that the first novel does.  The crew of the Rocinante returns, with a few new additions, to continue their battle with the protomolecule. 
The novel opens with the crew fighting space pirates at the behest of the OPA, the newly-legitimized Outer Planets Alliance.
At the end of Leviathan Wakes, the protomolecule has crash-landed on Venus and no one really knows what it is doing there.  Of course this doesn't last long and there is a new threat for the new book.
Holden and his crew adopt a similar mission to the first book, seeking out a lost daughter.  Mei, the young daughter of Praxidike Meng, had lived on Ganymede and was kidnapped by her doctor with other immuno-compromised children.  The structure of the novel is similarly shaggy-dogged as the first novel as the authors juggle many different players in the game.  The crew of the Rocinante is always central to the action, but the stakes remain very high with cold-warring colonial factions and a threat to humanity.
The alterations to the protomolocule work well for the new novel and Corey manages to keep all of the players more or less clear.  I was a little dismayed that the second novel in was already recycling a lost-daughter plot, but it ends up working out well as a motivating factor.  The wider world of the Expanse now knows who the central characters are, so they are able to use this to their advantage in funding their mission. 
As I write this, I am finding it difficult to summarize the plot and to organize my thoughts about it.  This is partially because there is a lot going on in this novel and I don't want to get too bogged down in details.  This is also partly because I think I want to like this more than I do.  The books have been enjoyable and I don't have any real complaints about them, but something is keeping me from diving into the series a bit more fully.  I haven't figured out what that is yet, and I know that this makes for bad writing.  For now, I am going to continue reading the books.  I am interested in ferreting out what it is that is blocking me. 
So  stay tuned for another lack-luster installment in this blog series that muddles through a novel that probably deserves better.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Down Among the Sticks and Bones

I always hate saying that I am "surprised" that I like a book or a movie because it implies that I went into it expecting to dislike it.  Sometimes it is true that I pick something up to give it a shot, knowing that the odds are that I will not like it or not finish it -- this has been the basis of my reading too many Palahniuk books.  Generally, what I mean instead is that, having finished a book or movie, I liked it more than I would have guessed going into it.  It is a fine distinction and a weird nonironic double-positioning of knowing and unknowing.
All of this is to say that I read Seanan McGuire's Down among the Sticks and Bones recently and I am surprised by how much I liked it.  This post will be about McGuire's book, but I also want to unpack what I mean by being surprised to like this.  I want to analyze what readerly expectations are when picking up a book and how this may influence the reading process.

Each month gives away free ebooks of their releases if you subscribe to the site.  It is cool and I recommend that you do it.  The free books are split between sci-fi and fantasy.  I normally opt to skip the fantasy, but I decided to give Down among the Sticks and Bones a try based on the description.  I don't remember what that was now, but I will provide one of my own in a bit.
Where I got this book is the first part of my readerly expectation.  I tend to like Tor's publications because they travel a lot of the same roads that I do.  Much of their output is sci-fi and what falls outside of this is often dark, gothic, and weird in varying degrees.  They do publish some high fantasy that goes a bit beyond my tastes, but I understand the overlap.  Given the publisher's history, I figured that this was close enough to something that I might like.  I picked up the book knowing that it was a sort of fantasy --again, not a genre I tend to like much.  But I was not primed to dislike the novel because of this; rather, I was looking to this to defy my expectations in a way.

The novel is something of a postmodern-parable-reimagining of the Jack and Jill nursery rhyme.  In this telling, Jack and Jill are twin girls (Jaqueline and Jillian) born to selfish, status-hungry parents who mold them into tomboy and girlie-girl stereotypes.  The parents refuse to see the as autonomous humans and only care about how the girls fit into their idealized version of family.  The girls are props used by their parents and are largely ignored beyond that.
The first third of the book establishes the girls' early lives and the trajectory that their parents force on them. The girls' grandmother lives with them for the first five years of their lives but is turned away by the parents because of the way that she encourages the girls to seek their own personalities and shun their parents' expectations. 
After their grandmother is sent away, the girls develop a codependent/competitive relationship that ends up leaving each feeling alienated, as they don't even have one another to rely upon.  The parents, real pieces of shit, even go so far as to tell the girls that their grandmother left because she didn't love them anymore.
The novel takes a fantastic turn when the girls, now 12 years old, discover a hidden stairwell in the bottom of a trunk that was left behind in what had been their grandmother's room.  The two find a door marked "Be sure" at the bottom of a very long staircase and push through to arrive at a place called the Moors. Without going too far into this part of the story, the Moors is home to a small village presided over by the Master.  Monsters prowl the Moors and it exists in a state of suspended technology and witchcraft.
The twins, now free of their parents, match themselves to competing protector figures, adopt the nicknames Jack and Jill, and follow new directions according to their own personalities.  Jack, the sister forced into a strict traditional femininity, instead chooses to apprentice herself and adopts functional, masculine clothing.  Jill, the erstwhile tomboy, takes to a softer life with the Master, living in a fine castle and dressing in opulent gowns.  As the two settle into their respective roles, they drift ever further apart.
I am going to skip to some highlights now that I have gotten the characters to the heart of the story.  They learn more about the world they live in and themselves.  The fantastic world of the Moors is something like a medieval recreation.  The economy is subsistent and feudalistic.  The Master is revealed to be a vampire and Jack's master is a Dr. Frankenstein sort.  Werewolves and sea creatures roam the wilderness outside of the village.  Both girls learn that the Moor is home to many "foundlings" such as themselves, lost children who come from a different existence.  Some of these children find their way home and some live out their lives in the Moors.  Independently, the girls decide to stay on the Moors, each cleaving to her respective master.  Jack wishes to replace the doctor after she learns his trade, and Jill wishes to become a vampire and join the Master in ruling the village.
Something happens to close off the possibility of the girls staying in the world and they must escape back to their own world, having spent five years on the Moors.  The final scene of the novel finds the girls standing in front of their parents and new younger brother, no one sure what to do next.

So, this book does some surprising things.  Throughout the reading, I found myself wondering what the relationship was between the world that the girls came from and the one they have adopted.  This is never answered, which ends up being a point in its favor.  The girls live in a mysterious world that they learn little about.  The reader is placed in the same position of not knowing.  This helps to heighten the tension of the novel.  We know already that the girls don't have much to go back to, but this new world still does not seem satisfactory, but they both choose it.
Part of wondering about the relationship between the worlds is wondering how time functions.  A part of me expected the girls to eventually find their way back and to revert to the 12-year olds they were when they left.  This would fulfill some nursery rhyme type allegory about growing up or self-actualization.  The author doesn't do this.  The problems the girls face are compounded by the fact that they have left their own world to learn new rules in a new place.  Their parents and old world have moved on for five years without them and have, ostensibly, accepted the loss of them.  This actually deepens the allegory because growing up and finding oneself is not a simple quest with a clear goal.  This ending more accurately reflects the confusion of "coming of age" in that one is just as likely to feel the same confusion and misgivings as a new "adult" that one had as a child.  Becoming oneself and reaching adulthood don't solve any problems, they just shift to new sets of problems.  Where the novel leaves off, the girls will need to deal with their ew places, the new brother and the family dynamic that this creates, and struggle to keep reclaiming the personalities that they have fought for.  This is one of the moments that struck me most in reading this book.  The author left me with more to think about after the story ended.  To me, this is a welcome surprise and is one of the reasons that I liked this book so much.
Most of the book adopts the simple language and shallow characterizations of nursery rhymes, so when this last image leaves so much room for nuance, is comes as a surprise itself.  It makes a quick reversal in direction and opens the way for a new interpretation of the preceding story.

Earlier in this post I mentioned a nonironic double-positioning of knowing and unknowing.  What I mean by this is that, when considering a novel or story, the reader projects what kind of story they think it will be, they pretend to know more about the book than they do know.  This helps to set up expectations for what is to come.  This, I think, is actually a really useful heuristic when it comes to apprehending narrative.  This amounts to looking for patterns and building meaning from the way that a particular narrative either conforms to or deviates from familiar patterns.  When narratives surprise us, they deviate from expectations, or perhaps they conform to them in new or unexpected ways.  What this means for the reader is that they are in a state of expectation/anticipation and confirmation or deviation.

In this novel, much of it builds on familiar narrative tropes.  The naming of the girls, the reversal of their positions, their desire to stay in an unfamiliar new home rather than return to an unfulfilling old one all build a momentum for the narrative.  There are several places in the narrative that also disrupt this momentum, but it is the ending that is most jarring.  The surprise at having to re-evaluate earlier expectations of what the novel will convey is what is the more rewarding for it arriving in such an unexpected way. 
This is all back of the envelope narratology and I have not spent too much time fleshing it out, so if it sounds a little out there, I'm not taking responsibility for it. 

Monday, February 10, 2020

Books I couldn't finish...

Every now and then I come across a book that I can't make it through.  I typically try to get about 100 pages in before I finally give up.  Sometimes the books are too boring, about something different than I thought, or I don't like the author's voice.  Other times the subject matter is just too difficult or too far outside my area and I don't get anything out of it.  This last is the case for David Foster Wallace's Everything and More. 
I promise not to get too deep into discussing DFW as a writer here.  But a little background on him helps to put this odd book into context.  So most will likely know Wallace for either his fiction or his journalistic essays.  His most famous work of fiction, Infinite Jest, is a monster and one of my favorite novels.  I won't write about that here.  His essays were published both in a variety of magazines and in expanded versions in collections.  These range all sorts of topics and can be pretty funny.  DFW gets really invested in his subject matter and tends to have unique and perceptive perspectives. 
In addition, DFW also has a background in philosophy that helps him to write with great exactitude.
Everything and More is a departure from the majority of the rest of his work.  This book is on the mathematical concept of infinity.  He writes the book in his signature avuncular stye and includes loads of asides and digressive information as he goes.  But this book about infinity includes a lot of discussions about calculus and differential equations and a historical dive into mathematics in the 18th century.  A lot of this is interesting and deceptively easy to read.  The problem is that the math is actually pretty difficult.  Wallace claims that memories of college math should be enough to get through the book.  While I made it through some college math, I never got to calculus and even the notations for a lot of his material is unfamiliar.  This makes for some rough going for someone not really in tune with mathematics.  This isn't a fault of the book.
One of the more striking descriptions in the book is Wallace's attempt to parse the difference between zero and nothing.  I like this because it is illustrative of the promise of the book and a direction I would have liked to see it take more.  It also helps to explain both the depth that the book takes and Wallace's ability to break down potentially difficult topics. 
In this example, he describes two students who both fail (get a zero) on a history test, only one student is not enrolled in the class.  The enrolled student receives a zero and the non-enrolled student gets nothing.  Had the book contained more like this I likely would have made it further through.
I was initially interested in reading this book because of Wallace.  I was also interested in the concept of infinity, and particularly any intersections that it may have with sublimity, another concept that I find fascinating.  Although I did not expect Wallace to address these topics in conjunction in this book, I figured that I could make those connections on my own.
In the end, I am still interested in the concept and many of the specific ideas that Wallace presents.  I may return to this book eventually if I can up my math understanding a bit.