Saturday, July 08, 2006

Book Reviews: M. Helprin; K. Roberts; V. Vinge; C. Priest; R. C. Wilson

Note: As promised, here they are. Let the solipsism commence.

These are reviews that I've written in the last two months or so. I've been keeping a book log for a couple of years, but have little desire to go back and edit my earliest screed, so May/June seems a good enough place to start. The letter grade, if you were wondering, refers more to my enjoyment and less to any objective level of quality.

Spoilers abound, and I don't care.

Mark Helprin, Winter's Tale (A-)

Winter's Tale is is a tall tale, and an intimate one, dense with hyperbolic prose, as though Helprin has an abundance of color (blues, whites and grays, mostly), stuffing about four hundred pounds worth of it into what's essentially a fifty pound story. All that fanciful description is nice though, and Helprin is evidently one of those guys that can just turn the crank and spew out the magic. Read it and let those words just keep washing over you.

But the book is long enough so that some language patterns get annoyingly reused. And it's not much in the way of plot either, and the millenialist latter two-thirds of it seems like an unnecessary appendage. He introduces whole new characters and a whole new perspective and a whole new historical setting, all after the good part wraps up the nineteenth century Peter Lake. The worst failing of the story, however, is that for a story that's about New York, it's not much like any New York I've visited. It sneaks by on the stuff that's hard to fact-check--I've never noticed the maritime geography much (and I doubt even the residents do) and I don't have a time machine to 1880--but the vitality and scenery and streets and cars and the rest all seem off. The existence and life of some characters never is quite explained or never quite makes sense (and Jackson Meade, Cecil Wooley, Mootfowl are a lot worse for the effort at explanation). The upstate mysticism increases over the course of the novel.

Still, Helprin is so effortless with the language almost every fault or faux pas can be forgiven.

Though Winter's Tale is in many ways inimitable, it still draws comparisons with other inimitable works. Foremost, it draws one with Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, which is also about a city. One much more bizarre and disfunctional than the other, and altogether quirkier. Helprin's probably the better talent (by a nose), but Peake's imagination and visual sense really rule that contest. (And Peake nailed a few paragraphs that are just plain untouchable.) Another comparison is with John Crowley's Little, Big what with the end of the world and all, and the return of innocence (Tolkein in reverse--the recovery of the Wild Wood and not it's loss), as well as other, lesser (and more, uh, imitable) gentle EOTWAWKI fantasy fiction (Stephen King's Dark Tower maybe).

Vernor Vinge, Rainbows End (B+)

I feel a little guilty about plugging this guy's "(growing) writing chops." He's still a wonderful idea man, the best in the business maybe, but, well, he's not like Mark Helprin, who made the magic seem cheap. The characters grow and stuff, but not really in an organic manner. I like where he's trying to take them, but they just kind of drift there instead of develop. It's not that they're badly drawn, really, they just don't arc very well. A worse sin, he's got men who are poets, and well, he's got no poetry written into the story. (That would take real literary balls mind you, but the absence is conspicuous. One or two couplets would have done it.)

The plot turns the pages though, and the people are interesting enough to sell the ideas. The ideas really are great though. Better than anyone, Vinge can put together not just an idea, but a complete universe of ideas, and make it fit together with all the ramifications and all that subtext. We're dumped into a world of highly integrated wearable computing. Vision is enhanced with information. Touch interfaces are catching up. Present-day culture has adjusted believably. It's pre-Vingean singularity but things are moving fast. The characters repeat "it's hard to keep up." Kids are smarter than their parents, and mastery of the video game-like manipulation of technology is much more important than any mastery of the physics (a neat, but frightening angle, which Vinge credibly explored). Information is everywhere, and it is king. The distributed computing is similar to that in Neal Stephenson's in The Diamond Age, and no doubt elsewhere, borne out by ubiquitous and invisible network nodes.

(As is often the case in books like this, I wonder first, where the power comes from, and second, what do the rest of the 5.9999 billion inhabitants of the earth fill their time with.)

I really can't state enough that no one weaves a technological society better than Vinge does,
even if he's a so-so literary writer. Oh well.

Keith Roberts, Pavane (B+)

Pavane is an introspective alternate history hinged on the untimely assassination of Elizabeth I and the 400 extra years of middle ages which occurred as a consequence. I'm okay with the downer mood, but I can see why new writers are often advised to move things along with dialogue and to go easy on the adjectives (especially for shorts, several of which this novel is composed). Roberts does a lot of telling, less showing. He's a tolerable writer for all that, though, and I do like his name. You don't necessarily have to rely on those snappy plots when you're good enough, and Roberts almost is.

Pavane as a whole is better than some of its parts. Occasional stumbles in pacing and too-much narration persist, but the story improves drastically when, the greater arc finally becomes apparent (about the fourth segment in, which is too long to wait), and by the novel's end, things are fitting together fairly nicely. There's a sweeping theme that's revealed as well, a theory of alternate histories, wheels of time, and fairies that holds together better than I would have guessed, had I read a synopsis of it. (A pavane is a court dance, with a formal pattern. So's history, Roberts would say here.) It's a long way to get there, however, and the early cues are pretty subtle.

(Pavane was brought to you by the word "skirled")

Christopher Priest, The Separation (A)

Starry-eyed review: Whoa!
Cynical review: I liked it better when it was called The Prestige

But hey, you see that grade? I've got little cynicism in store for this one. It's just that it's difficult to miss Priest's general fascination with twins, and almost impossible not to compare his different twin stories. (He's got twin children of his own, according to the book jacket, and I've gotta wonder how comfortable they are with it.) The Separation is the superior of the two. It's all that, plus a nice bag of alternate history.

The Prestige was a great story in it's own right--playing with doubles and twins and with the intriguing secrecy (and disappointing reality) of professional magicians--but it was regrettably scuttled by a really stupid science fictional premise (Nikolai Tesla had built and endowed a teleporter that left behind plastic corpses). Priest gets out of this one by avoiding revealing the premise altogether. It's twinning in the verb sense, splitting of a single entity, here about a historical turning point.

The main characters are twins too, formerly close but now estranged, and they pull a switcheroo of sorts into alternate realities. We're introduced to the pair via a war historian, in whose reality the second world war ended in 1941 with an accepted German peace proposal. The story is told in fragments, including notes of (imagined) history texts, letters, and, prominently, the diaries of each twin. It's hard to do justice to how well Priest weaves these all together.

The first twin is a pilot, and while passing the German peace delegation (twice) over the English channel, somehow enters another reality in which his brother dies, and, we slowly realize, it's the reader's (i.e., our) universe. The second twin survives in his version, but has realistic sidebars in several other alternate realities, each increasing in length, and each going kablooey with a sudden and dream-like fraternal confrontation. There is evidence for at least two of these being "real" under the premises of the story, however (our historian and the deliverer of the notebooks are real people in different timelines), but I suppose it's best to assume that the most real is the one in which the reunion was indefinitely forestalled.

A final note: the historian is the only part (and it's the dullest part) told in a third-person omniscient viewpoint. Some definitive closing this voice was very much in order, but it's infuriatingly neglected. I'm sure Priest did it on purpose. I don't know if I approved.

(The word that Christopher Priest couldn't get out of his head: "obsessed")

Robert Charles Wilson, Spin (A+)

Robert Charles Wilson may well be my favorite author. He writes in a manner and on themes that appeal to me greatly on a personal level. I can't think of anyone who speculates more interestingly and more sensitively on the biggest questions of all. Why are we here? Are we alone? Is there a point to it all? Even when he answers no (or a plaintive I don't know), he makes it feel like there's a point in asking, even if it's only from the worm's perspective. Especially when it's from the worm's perspective. Yeah, there are better eyes for character and better stylists and tighter plotters even in science fiction (but you have to look hard for them in the ghetto: I'm more inclined to delve among the famous or canonical), but Wilson is unparalleled in defining just how small is the scope of humanity and in the face of that, just how much it's worth caring about. And as ideas go, they're always big and brave and smart (even when they're silly).

I can't say he's ever really disappointed me, but just the same, one leg of the stool or other was always a little weak. I've been waiting for some time for Wilson to crank one out of the park on every level. I've been waiting for something I could take to my wife and my friends, hold it up proudly, and say this is what science fiction can do. Spin just may be it.

Read it already.

(R. C. Wilson brings this to you with the word "regolith")

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