January 2012 Archives

January 31, 2012

New Model Army - Adam Roberts

New Model Army by Adam Roberts starts with a great idea at its core: what would happen if a fully democratic fighting force, enabled by modern technology, took on the regular British Army? The new fighting forces are called New Model Armies, they use wikis and continuous comms, they have no hierarchy, they vote democratically on everything, including tactics, and always follow the majority. They're not guerrillas as such, but at a moments notice they evaporate to nowhere. And they're contracted by the Scottish government to force what turns into the War Of Succession.

The story follows a single character, who tells the story from their perspective in the past tense, through battles and loses and victories.

The ideas are intriguing. The reaction of the British Army is disbelief and they try and discredit the enemy as terrorists. The point made by the NMAs is that they are truly democratic, they don't put a cross on a piece of paper every four years and pass their decisions to a representative, everyone takes part, there are proposals and counter proposals for everything, things are decided and the majority is followed. Often when the idea of everyone voting on an issue is discussed in the real world current politicians dismiss it as unworkable. You can see their reluctance to even have a referendum on big issues. The attitude is "we're in, we won, see you in 4/5 years". It's about power not democracy. This novel felt like a rallying call against the status quo. With of course a look at the drawbacks. Later in the novel the main character confronts an American soldier and tries to goad him, the only point that succeeds is about what real democracy is. Which is the point. The American is fighting for democracy, yet the enemy is more democratic than him.

The middle section of the novel becomes more personal, following the lead character as he returns to an old lover. This section does personalise the story, adding some background to the main character's life, however I was itching to return to the big ideas.

Well, I got what I was wishing for, because finally the novel, as is said in SF parlance, "goes off on one". Which I feel slightly contradicted about. On one hand I love it when a story has the guts to go crazy, take the big idea and go bigger than anyone expected, to go a bit abstract and bonkers. On the other hand I wanted a more concrete resolution to the novel, with more of the blanks filled in and maybe a bit of the aftermath, it felt like the start of something, not the finish. On balance though I think I come down on the "glad it went bonkers" side.

The story also wins point from me for setting the main part of the tale in Southern England, where I now live. Purely personal, but sometimes it's nice when a location you know gets turned into a war zone. I'm pretty sure that anyone who has had the joy of interacting with the twosn of Basingstoke or Reading will probably enjoy those scenes too.

All in all a truly thought provoking Science Fiction novel with big, big ideas and moments that made me want to jump up and scream for the revolution.

January 22, 2012

Week Notes 22nd Jan 2012

This week in Big Dumb Object land:
  • Reading New Model Army by Adam Roberts, so far, loving it.
  • Watching some more Fringe. Still in season three, and it continuous to be impressive.
  • Still thinking about how great Sherlock was.
  • Watching the last ever series of Hustle ;-(
TODO list:
  • Watch Alcatraz

January 17, 2012

The Islanders - Christopher Priest

The Islanders by Christopher Priest pretends to be a guide to the islands in The Dream Archipelago. A travel guide for would-be explorers of the thousands of islands which band the world of the story. Of course, this being Christopher Priest, nothing is quite what it seems. There's an introduction from a (as then) unknown writer and then the first few guide entries are functional descriptions of the islands: geography, climate, currency and confusingly the multiple names for the island depending on the local patois. So far, so intriguing.

The entries progress to different types, not just the quick functional entries but other kinds of stories. There are first person accounts, letters, third person accounts. As the entries progress a common history and story of the islands emerges. Certain characters reappear, their stories told from different perspectives, often with contradicting facts. Sometimes I read an entry and then doubted my memory as something seemed to be wrong. If it was any other writer you might assume that it was an error, but with Priest you can be sure it's intentional, seeding doubt and adding differing sides to every tale.

The writing varies with the style of the entry, from the functional descriptions to some wonderful poetic descriptions of the islands and the characters feelings. Sometimes it felt like dancing, quick, quick, slow.

There are a lot of themes, they swirl around, in and out.  The two that stand though are love and art, with several stories of romantic entanglements and love lost, stories of people searching for who they want to be, of art and the sacrifices for it, of the circumstances that created great art, often sad. There's a lot to think about, it's not plot driven, but there are plots within the stories and a greater arc for each of the characters. You could describe the novel as a collection of short stories, but if so you'd have to qualify it as highly interconnected stories that form a greater whole and you still wouldn't really be giving a true picture. It's more than a collection, it is a novel, because all the parts build on each other, clarifying (or confusing) the picture, creating something more. 

The novel is also knowing and self-referential. There's a point where an artists novels are described, and that one of them was not successful because it doesn't have a traditional plot. There's a mention of Priests own novel The Affirmation, said to be written by one of the characters. Not done in an irritating manner, but instead leaving me to wonder what else I'd missed, and what other layers there were to be peeled back.

If you've enjoyed Christopher Priest's other books you will definitely enjoy The Islanders. If you're after a straight-ahead-thriller, this isn't it, but if you want an intoxicating, slowly revealed puzzle of a novel, with true heart and soul, you'll like it. I liked it a lot.

January 10, 2012

Arctic Rising - Tobias Buckell

With his new novel Arctic Rising, Tobias Buckell may well just have invented a new sub-genre : near-future optimistic global warming thriller. 

Set in the Arctic after the ice-caps have melted, Arctic Rising is fast moving and styled as a thriller, one incident leads to another and another, things escalate, we're swept along with the heroine as her world changes. The first half of the novel especially succeeds in this regard, with short sharp chapters and threat and an enigma. The second half of the novel changes somewhat, the focus panning out from the personal challenges in the story to encompass global aspects. The novel climaxes with a set of sequences that brought to my mind James Bond films, not ridiculous but expansive and explosive. On the surface this second half worked for me as a thriller, I can easily envisage a film adaptation, fast paced, panoramic, visually explosive, however I found myself wanting some more poetry within the prose, maybe a pause to revel in the majesty of the Arctic and what was happening. But that's a personal preference for how I like my novels, anyone who is distracted by descriptive discursions and wants instead a taut thriller will more than likely dismiss my criticism. 

The optimism comes from imagining how the Arctic would exist once the ice caps had melted, and for that region the world envisaged is a positive one: shipping lanes are open, trade thrives, natural resources are easier to get to, the economies of North Canada and Greenland boom. For that region there is no downside. The effect on the rest of the world is mentioned, somewhat in passing, with regard to another main character who used to live in the Caribbean but who's home island is submerged due to rising sea levels. Sad, yes, but because the focus is, enjoyably, on the booming Arctic when the plot depends on us understanding the downsides of the melting ice-caps and the emotions characters feel with regard to that, I was not convinced. The intensity and anger at global warming displayed by some of the characters felt unreasonable to me, given the upsides created in the Arctic region. Maybe that's just me revealing my adapt-to-survive tendencies? The native Caribbean character does however continue with Tobias Buckell's tradition of creating enjoyable dread-locked action heroes who you'd want on your side of a fight.  

So in the end, Arctic Rising is a modern Science Fiction thriller, aimed, intentionally or not, at a modern thriller reading market. I enjoyed it, but my disappointment was that I didn't get to linger longer within the creation of a thriving Arctic region, the intricacies and the wonders within it.

January 7, 2012

Current BSFA Nominations - One Week Left

The current nominations for the BSFA Awards are online. Take a peek and nominate anything you like that's not on it.

I have a story you could nominate if you like it: Trails which was published at Daily Science Fiction.

January 3, 2012

Most Wanted: 2012 Edition

Things that I currently most want in 2012:

  • Duncan Jones' SF film Mute. Or the other SF film he was planning to make, either will do.
  • The Dark Knight Rises. More Nolan magic please.
  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod. I wasn't keen his last novels but before that there's been some moments of brilliance, so anything new I'm looking forward to.
  • Alcatraz. A new TV series with JJ Abrams name attached to it? Yes please. Plus Jorge Garcia. Bizzarely it will be shown by Watch in the UK, a channel which no one watches.
  • More Fringe. I might even make it to season four soon.

January 1, 2012

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!
Wishing everyone a happy new year and that it brings you love and peace and happiness.