Monday, February 27, 2017


It's been a while since I spent some time with good old Henry James, America's greatest social novelist.* And it's only because I stumbled across a nifty-looking biography of the man when Open Road Media had a 24-hour free-for-all on Amazon that I realized I hadn't read any James since Portrait of a Lady. But which to read, which to read?

Then I encountered, somewhere I don't remember, an observation that Princess Casamassima was likely an inspiration for Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, probably my favorite Conrad after Nostromo, and so there I went.

But so anyway, stop me if you've heard this one: Boy meets Princess. Boy falls head over heels for Princess.  Princess loves communists. Boy pretends to be communist to get closer. Princess sees through him but figures she can get him to bring her some real communists. Boy complies and brings her tiny half-French bastard bookbinder. Princess will love bookbinder and pet bookbinder and hold bookbinder and squeeze bookbinder and she will call bookbinder George. Exeunt Boy, with blue balls. Exeunt bookbinder, by his own hand. As such.

Which is to say that neither the Princess Cassamassima, nor the bookbinder, Hyacinth Robinson, is the driver of this plot, even though the book is named for the former and the latter is the point of view character. Hyacinth is so passive that even his choice of profession only comes about via the vigorous exertions of others; the Princess is equally passive, at least until someone finally brings her what she wants and she must work a bit to keep it. 

Doing all the actual work of the novel is a character who hardly appears in it, at least at front and center: the gentlemanly, the cosmopolitan, the conventional Captain Sholto (the Boy), who manipulates everything behind the scenes: he's even partly responsible for the radicalisation of Hyacinth, who might have stayed a drinking dilletante himself had he not been presented with Sholto's annoying example of same. 

And the romance- and- radicalization plot isn't even the only thing. James has at least as much fun with two other stories, both of which would be right at home in a modern high school dramedy: The competition between Hyacinth and Sholto over who a picturesquely poor family " belongs" to (settled, inconclusively but forever, when the Princess sails in and takes it over. They're hers.  They were always hers. You boys were just keeping the sofa warm for her), and the even more brittle-ly funny one between the Princess and one Lady Aurora, better born than the Princess but a middle aged spinster, whose lifetime of actively visiting and nursing and spending her meager allowance on the genuinely poor is somehow made to look amateurish and gauche when the Princess announces that actually, she owns nothing  ( probably because her estranged husband took it all away?) and "when thousands... haven't bread to put in their mouths, I can dispense with tapestry and old china." 

Straight out of, say, Clueless, or maybe Mean Girls, am I right?

What this all amounts to seems to be James' version of social satire,  a take on the class war that doesn't take it very seriously. James' socialists don't really seem to understand socialism, and spend most of the novel trying to hide this from one another while also trying to simultaneously impress each other with how aware and committed they are, and to discreetly pump each other for information as to what they should be doing to further their cause. Thus there are moments of actual humor, genuine laugh-out-loud moments, that I did not expect from James.

Does that mean a re-assessment is in order? It may. But I've got a lot of other stuff going on, so don't hold your breath for one, K?

*Indeed, the last time I took him up, I was just beginning to have joint problems and thought recording audioboo blog posts was a temporary solution until they got better, ha ha ha ha ha ha sob...

Jack Vance's EMPHYRIO

Despite its originally having been penned in 1969, it's really hard not to see Emphyrio as a sort of allegory of our current predicament, you guys, so I'm not even going to try. Hey, it's not like this is the first time. Remember how I read Philip K. Dick's The Penultimate Truth in terms of the 1% versus the 99%? Yeah, like that.

Only more so.

Emphyrio is a coming of age story set in a world not very much like our own except in all of the ways that it is, or could be. A world in which a populace of extremely skilled and worthy artisans are required to craft only one-of-a-kind originals and sell them via their guilds for a pittance, which is pitched to them in the language of a Welfare State but is really just starvation wages the artisans are indoctrinated to believe could become, if managed correctly, Financial Independence, but let's be honest, are just enough to keep them slavishly creating astonishing works of art that middlemen can get rich on. A world in which a really, really silly religion (as in prayers are performed as intricate, acrobatic dance routines that no one ever really masters but everyone feels more or less obligated to keep trying to learn) combined with a Welfare administration that is slavishly following regulations laid down by a government that no longer exists (and thus can never be amended or updated, no matter what changes in the rest of the universe) and ruled over by a parasitic elite that is still profiting from "investments" made centuries ago, investments in basic infrastructure that was destroyed by war and mismanagement on the part of the government that no longer exists and... See where I'm going.

Enter Ghyl, son of an especially talented artisan who is also a bit of a sneaky non-conformist, who enjoys a rare free-range childhood before settling into the family craft, who is raised on legends of an ancient non-conformist named Emphyrio who once exposed lies, spoke truth to power, saw the universe, and then... Well, that part of daddy's ancient manuscripts didn't survive the centuries so, really, who knows how that story ended?

Ghyl's story, then, is mostly a gentle coming-of-age, but also the story of how a myth can become a self-fulfilling prophecy that can repeat in ways no one imagined. Ghyl follows in Emphyrio's footsteps as he strives to learn how Emphyrio's story ends and to find out if Emphyrio ever really existed, and winds up changing everything, just like Emphyrio maybe did.

That's all great right there, but this is also Jack Vance, whose Dying Earth novellas are not only gorgeous prose masterpieces in their own right but are also major inspirations for an obsession of mine, yep, Gene Wolfe's Solar Cycle, which means tons of heady ideas, extravagantly beautiful prose, wry and satirical observation, and sensual details of color and aroma and tactile sensation and longing and all of the good stuff that one reads quality escapist literature for.

And it's a book that is (barely) older than I am. Yet it still resonates perfectly. Truly, it is an SF Masterwork, and one I'm kicking myself for only reading now (and that only because my good pal Jonathan Green asked me recently if I've read much Vance and I realized that it's been a LONG time since I read those Dying Earth novellas but I'd bought tons of Vance on the strength of those, only to have them just languishing on my e-readers unread).

Near damned perfection.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

James S.A. Corey's CIBOLA BURN

"Apocalyptic explosions, dead reactors, terrorists, mass murder, death slugs, and now a blindness plague. This is a terrible planet." -- James Holden
After three novels taking place inside asteroids and moons and space stations and vast bizarre alien artifacts, and aboard spaceships plying the void between all of these things, at last we come to the surface of what most people would think of as a planet. There's breathable atmosphere, sort-of-normal gravity, a close-to-normal day/night cycle, something like plants and animals, and even buildings and food.

Only it's not Earth. Or Mars. Or something settled via a generation ship like the Mormons were building in the first Expanse novel. Oh, no.

It's in another star system altogether. Only we don't really know how far away it is. Or how the technology that gets us there works.

So now we're sort of in Frederick "Heechee" Pohl territory as events unfold in Cibola Burn, the fourth Expanse novel by the two-headed alien we call James S.A. Corey. And we have the protomolecule that has wreaked havoc in three prior novels back in our good old Sol system to thank for it, but that's all we know; we done passed through the gate that was built for us, but when we got to where it led us, there was nobody home. Ruins that might be described as Lovecraftian if not Cyclopean, yes. Aliens (except for the flora-and-fauna analogs found on the first planet we settle), no.

It's refreshing, this being on a planet business. But lest we think this is just going to be a novel of exploration and discovery... Have you read the other books in this series? Or at least the epigram above? Yeah...

So this planet, called New Terra by the Earth-based corporation that claims to own it but Ilus (as in an early name for the city of Troy) by the people who first settled it* is quite a place, but not a great one for human habitation for all its abundant clean, breathable air and fresh liquid water. The local life forms' biology is incompatible with ours, for a start (much is made early on of bugs that persist in biting people, only to drop dead minutes after feasting on human blood). Crops have to be grown in soil imported from our system, etc. All in all, seems like more trouble than its worth, except for two things: scientific curiosity and mineral wealth in the form of vast and easily mined deposits of lithium (the stuff that makes the batteries in most of our consumer electronics work).

Before you can say "space opera", Ilus is at the center of a major conflict, as the colonists try by various and violent means to fend off the corporate/scientific mission that is just landing there as the novel opens. The colonists don't want to lose their colony; the scientists don't want to lose the opportunity to study a fresh and uncontaminated new ecology (oops); the corporation wants to assert ownership and control.

Ut oh.

Enter the crew of the Rocinante, whom our old friends, UN muckty-muck Crisjen Avasarala and Outer Planets Alliance honcho Fred Johnson, have dispatched to mediate between these parties because Holden is the only moral high-horse riding uncompromising asshat for the job, they both agree. Holden is not thrilled with this, but the protomolecular ghost of [REDACTED] wants him to go, too, and is capable of haunting even Holden's dreams, so yeah, off they go.

All this alone would make for a pretty interesting story, especially with its two new viewpoint characters, colonist-turned-reluctant-terrorist Basia, corporate security dick and former partner of [REDACTED] Havelock, and brilliant biologist Elvi** keeping things interesting, but this is an Expanse novel, so it's never just going to be about human politics. The protomolecule is still very much a thing, and the long-vanished aliens who made the protomolecule also made the gate through which everyone gets to Ilus -- and left a lot of ruins on the planet.

And a lot of stuff inside it as well. Stuff that is triggered by the arrival of Holden and protomolecular puppet [REDACTED].

Cue epic shitstorm eloquently described by Holden above. It's a terrible planet, you guys.

I'll confess to having occasionally been annoyed at some aspects of Cibola Burn, most notably how the vast world of the Expanse still seems to contain a paucity of characters. Did [REDACTED]'s old partner really have to be the guy on the corporate spaceship? Wouldn't it be more probable that an entirely new guy held that role, since there are billions and billions of humans out there now? Of course, by that same argument, mightn't that vast human Expanse also contain someone more qualified and capable than Holden, Amos, Naomi and Alex to handle the powder keg of politics on Ilus? Not that I don't love these guys. It's just getting increasingly less probable that these same four people are at the center of every major develop in human history, over and over again. But I accept that this is a probably a bow to the necessities of series writing; few readers, I expect, would want to read a series that realistically kept throwing new figures into the forefront with every plot development. We read sequels for the characters, most of us, way more than for the world-building. What happens to so-and-so next is more important to us than what happens to all of humanity next. We're just wired that way. Dickens knew this without having been told by science. So do we.

Now the Rocinante and the rest of humanity is poised for yet even more difficulty and adventure. That gateway didn't just offer up Ilus to us, but thousands of other planets. All of which, as Avasarala points out, don't need to be terraformed to be habitable, like poor old Mars. Who's going to want to stay there now that it's so easy to go somewhere with free air and water and shelter from radiation? But then, what happens to Mars' formidable arsenal of heavily armed spaceships and missiles and nukes when there's just a skeleton crew left behind on Mars to govern them and their use? Collapse of the USSR anyone (insert your favorite Red Planet joke here)?

So yes, onward to Nemesis Games very, very soon.

*Who are themselves refugees from the disaster on Ganymede that was the centerpiece of the second Expanse novel, Caliban's War, refugees who were turned away from every human population center they tried to stop and and so finally just sailed on through the gateway and started their own illicit colony on this new planet.

**Which, I've run into a lot of reviews online in which people complain very loudly about Elvi, because she is portrayed as falling hard for Holden and letting it cloud her judgment to a dangerous degree. They don't like that she has this weakness and regard it as regressive and anti-feminist that so much of her story seems to revolve around this. And I can see their point, as I rolled my eyes a bit at her, too (even though she fully recognizes her feelings as dangerously distracting and unprofessional). But I say this rounds her out nicely. AND I'll point out that, as a friend of hers correctly diagnoses, what is really going on isn't that she's fallen in love with Holden, but that she's spent two years on a spaceship without receiving any physical affection (by her choice; she's declined to participate in the partner swapping and teepee creeping behavior of her fellow scientists) before crash-landing on an alien planet just in time for ALL THE CRISES TO HAPPEN and, being a mammal still, what she really needs is some intimate human contact. Which her friend is happy to provide. Which clears her head just in time for her to do the important work, have the important breakthroughs, that basically save the day. In conclusion, I'd like the point out that this is pretty much exactly the same situation Randy Waterhouse finds himself in, in Cryptonomicon, and nobody complained about sexism or stereotypes or regressive gender attitudes in that book.