Five Reviews, by Sean Melican

Five Reviews, by Sean Melican

Nocturne, by Jus Neuce, Aio Publishing, ISBN: 1-933083-01-8
Starship: Mutiny, by Mike Resnick, Prometheus/Pyr, ISBN: 1-59102-337-8
Silverheart, by Michael Moorcock and Storm Constantine, Prometheus/Pyr, ISBN: 1-59102-336-X
Galileo’s Children: Tales of Science vs. Superstition, Gardner Dozois ed., Prometheus/Pyr, ISBN: 1-59102-315-7
Starwater Strains, by Gene Wolfe, Tor Books, ISBN: 0-765-31202-6

Reviewed by Sean Melican

Both the physical and political geography of Nocturne is complicated and hindered by the lack of any maps. Nocturne is tidally locked to its dim red dwarf star. There is limited light and limited area for agriculture and aquaculture. Prime and Kaettegutt are politically independent, but Prime, and especially its capital, Jefferson, are dependent on Kaettegutt for fresh food, and on a planet devoid of any substantial resources or contact with the remainder of the galaxy, access to gourmet cooking is a status symbol. Restaurants in Jefferson do a brisk business, complete with intense competition and seasonal variations, similar to that of Earth’s fashion industry. The Back is entirely devoid of sunlight and, while officially part of Prime, the blue collar inhabitants operate with almost no oversight from Jefferson.

The story opens with a terrorist attack on one of Kaettegutt’s hydroponics units. Who did it and why drive the plot, though ultimately the solution of the aggressor is frustratingly ambiguous. Among those injured are Jenning, a Jefferson politician, and Kellan, a minor bureaucrat in Kaettegutt.

Much of the novel is dedicated to political machinations, which I found rather dull, but thought notable for the absolute lack of sexuality. Several of the characters who are politicians can read an ocean’s depth of meaning in a crooked finger or who stands next to whom at a party, and yet not once does a woman use her sexuality to manipulate others. It gives the novel a curiously sterile feel.

The more interesting story is that of Kellan and his roommate, Graham. After the attack, Kellan is an emotional wreck and Graham’s response, mitigated by unresolved issues from long before the attack, is to move to Jefferson without Kellan. He wants to start fresh. Unable to cope, friendless save for Graham, and without meaning in his job or life, Kellan uses his connections to follow Graham: the equivalent of following your college roommate across states and through thick red tape. Again, there is the same feeling of sterility, because Kellan and Graham’s relationship feels sexual but is not, and neither shows the least interest in women or sex.

Eventually, events come to an impasse, and Kaettegutt refuses to supply any food to Jefferson. Jefferson has limited storage, no agricultural capacity, and is now held hostage. (Similar to, but not the same as, the United States’ relationship to the Middle East and their oil fields.) In a terrifying scene typical of the extremely close writing that is quite precise and yet obscures more than it illuminates, Kellan and Graham find themselves in the logical outcome of the impasse.

It took me several attempts to begin the novel, largely because of the style of writing and because of the lack of dramatis personae, which would have been hugely useful when characters discuss which people are on which side of a rather complicated political system, and yet once I found a way in, the story hooked me.

Is it worth reading? Yes, absolutely. It is as hard scientifically as Bear, Benford, Brin, or Niven, but has the anthropological focus of the very best of Ursula LeGuin. Despite the flaws, the novel explores an alien sociology in such microscopic, and sometimes myopic, detail and in such a thoroughly realized world, that I found it impossible not to think about for weeks after putting the book down.

———•———

In Nocturne, people debate and debate again the least action the way a brilliant chess player might think through a match and the writing is dense at best and often borders on opaque. In Starship: Mutiny events move at a breakneck pace written in breathless prose. It took me weeks to read Nocturne. Seventeen hours after Starship: Mutiny was delivered, I’d finished it. (I say this only for comparison sake; both novels are excellent.)

Commander Wilson Cole has committed a brilliant tactical action in a brutal war, but that action is embarrassing to the Navy because it violates the rulebook. Commander Cole is then assigned to the Theodore Roosevelt, a ship full of men and women who’ve behaved honorably but in some way that cannot be officially acknowledged. Those on the Teddy R. are expected to serve out the remainder of the war on the edge, but Commander Cole didn’t join just to twiddle his thumbs. In less than a day, he has landed on the planet Rapunzel in an effort to determine what the enemy is doing and how to disrupt them. He commits the ship to action without his captain’s knowledge and commits himself to a thoroughly dangerous (and, of course, heroic) course of action. He does nothing that is technically wrong according to the rulebook, but his interpretation is not to the Navy’s, or his captain’s, liking. Events continue at their breakneck pace, lives are saved and heroes are forged (and sometimes killed) but the title essentially gives the ending away.

But Mr. Resnick isn’t interested in playing textual games. He’s interested in exploring the value of logic, the purpose of the military, the idiocy of both inflexible rulebooks and the where-the-wind-blows populist press, and most importantly the potential for heroism.

Aside from the colorful descriptions of the myriad aliens, the humans and the ship are deliberately generic, partially to keep gosh-wow out of an exciting, but ultimately sober, exploration of heroism. It also lets the reader decide how best to imagine the heroes, essentially asking the reader, even him- or herself, to believe anyone can be a hero.

———•———

And from a novel which argues that heroism can be found in anyone, we go to yet one more example of the predestined hero stories, Silverheart. The multiverse is in crisis and only one man, Max Silverskin, can save the day! He has been taken from his true and royal family so that, though he is of royal and heroic blood, he will understand the populace and lead them well. He need only collect the plot coupons, I mean, the magical talismans, and he will have enormous power and can set right what is wrong. Only Max… et cetera, et cetera. Why is it we live in a nation where anyone, even an ignorant, evangelical, failed businessman, can rise to be a leader, and yet so many of our fantasies assume not only predestination, but that kinship, or blood, determines leadership qualities?

There is some amusement to be derived from family names: the city of Karadur is led by four families–Silver, Gold, Copper and Iron–and the lesser royals are, naturally, a mix of the four and are named Pewter, Steel, and so forth but that is as good as it gets.

Max is a thief, but a good-hearted Robin Hood-like thief, and Coffin is a constable relentlessly searching for Max and ever one step behind. If this is not a deliberate homage to Les Miserables, it’s a remarkable coincidence because Coffin ends up on a catwalk above a river and thinks about throwing himself in, realizing that perhaps he has not been as right as he thought he was. Call it Javert Redux.

But there are so many moments in which the character and the reader are told what has happened and why, rather than through any sort of discovery. One that is particularly aggravating is when Max finally speaks to his dead mother who explains everything: why she left him, what she had to do and what he has to do, and how much she loves him and on and on, but prior to this climactic meeting, Max’s mother is barely mentioned. It is a necessary scene, but heavy with authorial intervention, and it is far from the only such instance. There are more so-I-didn’t-tell-you-then-but-now-I-will-because-the-plot-demands-it moments then there are where characters come to conclusions through their own efforts. Almost incidental to the plot, but as one more example of sloppy plotting, you’ll figure out the identity of the woman impersonating Sekmet long before the characters do.

And so much is rather generic. There are troll-like and elf-like creatures, different from their cardboard cutouts in name only, as if putting together odd phonemes can disguise a lazy imagination. Silverheart might be called a promising if flawed beginning for a first novel, but for two acclaimed veterans, it is a terrible disappointment.

———•———

Editor Gardner Dozois distinguishes religion from superstition by describing the latter as “Enforc[ing] willful ignorance through terror,” and writes that the “Battle [between science and superstition] may be more critical than ever,” and, “Science fiction provides one of the few places in modern letters where the battle… is openly discussed and debated.”

I disagree. At its core, science assumes the universe is knowable while religion assumes that God and His purposes are unknowable. Otherwise, there would be no reason for faith. But science fiction supports science. How much open debate is available when most science fiction writers take for granted that science is superior to religion, or, worse that religion and faith are vestigial social organs? (I can think of only two who don’t-Gene Wolfe and Orson Scott Card-and neither is represented in this anthology in what I believe is a terrible oversight. Mr. Card’s “Salvage” or Mr. Wolfe’s “The God and His Man” or “The Seraph from Its Sepulcher” would be an excellent contrast to the other stories presented.) Besides, even if this anthology had true debate at its core-and not the assumption that science is superior-how many people who don’t accept evolution or embryonic stem cell research are likely to pick it up? How many of you don’t laugh when reading, if you do at all, the Left Behind series? Mr. Dozois is preaching to the converted, so to speak.

Well, what about the stories? Like most anthologies, it’s uneven. George R.R. Martin’s “The Way of the Cross and the Dragon” reminded me of late night freshman alcohol-fueled debates. Wow! What a concept! Religion is a necessary lie perpetrated by a secret cabal of Liers for the good of humankind. (So much for open debate.) But it is the only truly bad story.

Robert Silverberg’s “The Pope of the Chimps” is a moving and rather brutal exploration of the birth of religion. “Written in Blood” is the only Islamic story and is both positive about religion (several stories aren’t) and more rife with powerful implications than many longer stories. James Alan Gardner’s “Three Hearings on the Existence of Snakes in the Human Bloodstream” is terribly didactic and full of flat characters behaving in ways contrary to their identities, but the story is built around an intriguing concept. Keith Robert’s “The Will of God, Edgar Pangborn’s “The World is a Sphere,” James Tiptree Jr.’s “The Man Who Walked Home,” and Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star” are all solid stories, though they all assume that science will always trump religion and that all religious mysteries have a rational, identifiable cause. And, as usual, Greg Egan steals the show, this time with “Oracle,” an astonishing alternate history culminating in a debate between Alan Turing and C.S. Lewis (though the names have been changed), an ending in heartbreak.

———•———

I feel as if saying, “There’s a new Gene Wolfe collection!” should be enough. But from the lukewarm reception various friends give Mr. Wolfe, it’s not enough.

So. The bad news: There are a couple of rather bad stories bookending the collection. “Viewpoint” has been done many times, most notable in The Running Man, and lacks the usual poetry of Mr. Wolfe’s writing. How it’s managed to find its way into at least one Best Of collections is beyond me. And “Golden City Far,” while poetic, is populated with rather bland characters. This collection also showcases some of the weaknesses of Mr. Wolfe, namely the problem of repetition: “Golden City Far” and “Of Soil and Climate” both employ the possibility that insanity and imagined lands might be more real than reality. But Shakespeare used twins unto death, so a little forgiveness is in order.

On the other hand, “Rattler” and “Calamity Warps” are light but fun; “Petting Zoo” is light at first, but ultimately devastating; “Mute” is as horrific and creepy as science fiction gets; “Pulp Cover” offers an alternate and more plausible scenario for alien abductions than most stories; “The Boy Who Hooked the Sun” is a neat myth; and “Try and Kill It” is a Predator-like story, but quiet and unnerving.

The strongest story by far is “Empires of Foliage and Flower”, which comes close to being packed profusely with puns and alliteration, but warily walks the line and makes a marvelous and moving mythology.



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