Friday, April 26, 2013

Here's Sand in Your Tropes!

Throne of the Crescent Moon
Saladin Ahmed
Penguin, 2012
ISBN 0756407117

The standard fantasy has a medieval setting. This standard is so pervasive that Orson Scott Card writes that he wasn't able to sell a science fiction story to a science fiction publisher because it started in a medieval setting.

That's not the worst of it, though. The worst of it is that standard fantasy has a Eurocentric medieval setting. Even when authors go to great pains to draw maps of non-existent places where the story takes place, it remains essentially Europe, somewhere between a thousand and five hundred years ago.

For me any change in that is welcome, so I knew I was going to enjoy Ahmed's story as soon as I started reading. OK, so it's the obligatory medieval setting, with powerful rulers and powerful magic users and powerful fighters. You can practically hear the D and D dice roll, though I don't mean it in disrespect. It's just so very standard, it requires no explanation, which is partly why authors write this way.

Adoulla and his loyal assistant Raseed set out to deal with some ghuls that reportedly killed most of a family. They meet up with Zamia, a desert warrior who can shapeshift into a powerful lion. As they compare notes, they realize that they are up against the most powerful evil wizard they had ever encountered. Of course, the wizard knows where they live...

What set this story apart for me was that Ahmed had set it in a fantasy Muslim kingdom. The language and setting were all beautifully done, and required no effort on my part to immerse myself into this world. It's vaguely reminiscent of A Thousand and One Nights, which provides an element of familiarity for readers from the West.

But Ahmed doesn't simply mine Sheherezade's stories. I found his story full of fresh new ideas, new to me, certainly, but also new to the genre. This is a well written book that ought to set a standard for what authors try to write in the future. It's got fighting and loving and magic and horrible creatures, if you're into excitement. And it has some great characters, like Adoulla, the crude wizard, or Zamia, the shape shifting desert woman. Though in places the story reads a bit like a Dungeons and Dragons adventure module, the writing is so good that even those of us familiar with that game should be willing to overlook it.

Throne of the Crescent Moon was the fourth of the 2013 Hugo nominees that I read. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Diamonds in the Sky

Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit, 2012
ISBN 0316098124

Three hundred years ago, in 1713, the schooner was the height of technology. If you had talked to people back then, even scientists like Descartes or Newton, they would have been unlikely to predict our world today: computers, cell phones, satellites, orbiting laboratories, molecular cancer treatments, laser surgery - that's just a very partial list of technological features of the early 21st century of which even knowledgeable people three hundred years ago would have had no inkling.

It's not any different now. Science fiction is seen by many as a genre of predictive fiction, and yet only rarely do writers manage to predict the future. Heinlein thought that by 2000 we'd be living on the Moon. Fifty years seemed like plenty of time to him to go from Braun's experimental rockets to lunar settlements. And if he completely misjudged the shape of the future, he's in excellent company.

If Robinson worried about getting the future wrong, he's given himself plenty of room. But it's a lovely future he's painting. 2312 has people living all over the solar system, with access to practically unlimited energy, from solar power stations in close orbit around the Sun to exotic technologies like fusion and antimatter. We travel in hollow asteroids filled with miniature ecologies on cometary orbits between the planets, and life extension is available so that we may live to be almost 200 years old, or older, depending on the subspecies of humanity we belong to.

But as Robinson lets us peer more closely at this paradisaical future, the worm in the apple becomes apparent. People are still people, and we still manage to act out on our less lovely emotions. So it happens that the story's heroine, Swan, and her companion Wahram barely survive a deadly attack on Terminator, Swan's home city on Mercury. As Swan, Wahram, and the diminutive Inspector Genette are on the trail of the attackers, more of the worm is revealed. This is especially evident on Earth, where banditry seems to be common and where political and tribal rivalries make life on the solar system's single most hospital planet more precarious than in some tiny terrarium whizzing about the Sun.

So there's plenty going on. But Robinson doesn't stop there. In Swan and Wahram he serves up two of the best realized characters in fiction. Swan is a complex woman, mercurial in the proverbial sense. She is believable as a woman with two lifetimes worth of experience, and her self discovery in the course of this story is nevertheless fascinating. Wahram, as saturnine as Swan is mercurial, makes the perfect contrast in their pas-de-deux, as he looks for routine in life, rather than disruptions. It is hard to imagine an unlikelier couple, and Robinson brings it off without a hitch. I think if 2312 turns out to be as different from the world of this story as the year 2000 was from Heinlein's imaginings, this book will still be worth reading then if only for this well done love story.

To be sure, the story has a couple of features that I didn't fully understand. There are a number of interludes, one or two between each chapter, with headings like "Lists" or "Excerpts." The first is lists of words, things, or ideas, without any narrative connection, though usually tied to some aspect of the foregoing chapter. I thought of them as a bit like illustrations between chapters. The excerpts are written as quoted passages, starting in the middle of a sentence, and ending in the middle of another, each passage providing some information, and the entire section serving as an info dump for 2312. I didn't think these parts were necessary, since science fiction for a long time now has traded in a set of familiar tropes, and this story is no different.

Then there were three interludes with the heading "Quantum Walk," which were more closely connected to the story, but I didn't realize the connection until well towards the end of the book. I had to go back and re-read those three sections. They made an interesting sidelight to the story for various reasons. I have not figured out if I can say the same thing about the "Lists" or the "Excerpts." Suffice it to say that they weren't intrusive, so I didn't see them as detracting from the overall story. I did notice the similarity between these interludes and Brin's interludes in Existence, and wondered if there was a new style developing. (Probably not, though.)

2312 was the third of the 2013 Hugo nominees that I read. I liked it a lot.