Thursday, 21 March 2019

Review: Semiosis by Sue Burke

Semiosis tells the story of a small colony of humans, settling on a new planet. They have left Earth and mankind behind: to them, Earth stood for ecological disasters, war, strife, and failure. Now, on a new planet, they hope that a fresh start will let them make a good job of it. They went looking for a way to live peacefully, productively, in equilibrium with nature, on a blank slate green planet.

The book follows the first six generations of the colony, each faced with different problems. The first generation discovers that local plantlife is not the passive background scenery that they know from Earth: plants on this planet are changeable, perhaps sentient, while animals seem... domesticated. By plants.

With a premise like that, I had high hopes for Semiosis. Alien plants versus humans? I hoped for a book about a totally different way of being, a totally alien world.

Unfortunately, Semiosis is really a book about an isolated colony of idealists / ideologues, trying to make a utopia but mostly just bickering and struggling.

They name their world / civilization "Pax", and they are convinced that they are better than the people they left behind on Earth. Pretty soon, we get an inkling that these people were not just hippie idealists, they were also immensely rich, and they chose to use a huge wealth to run away to their ideal, perfect, gated community on a virgin planet. They did not try to make anything better on Earth, did not use their wealth for a common good, but to create a new version of "common" without the hoi polloi. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out they aren't inherently  wonderfully nice people...

I'd hoped for new, original, alien ideas. Instead, the book was a fairly bleak "small community of people being frequently shitty" tale. Sure, there were some decent folk among the characters in the book, but there was also an overabundance of arseholes in the text, and lots of general shittyness. I get it, there's no hope, people are people and even a self-selecting group of 50 will soon include conflict and shittyness that festers and grows, but still. I had been sold a book about alien plants, and it turned out to be a book about petty politicking, weaponised rape, a serial killer, xenophobia, and the pros and cons of genocide.

The plants were more interesting when we didn't get one of them as a narrator / viewpoint character: once we get that perspective, any alien-ness disappears and we're just dealing with a human narrator wearing a plant costume, not a real plant...

Semiosis was readable and not boring. It just wasn't the book I'd been sold, and it wasn't nearly as original or interesting as I'd hoped. It was cynical and bleak in its view of human nature, and it had no real overarching plot.

Rating: 3/5

Monday, 18 March 2019

Review: 1491: The Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

1491 is a book trying to give an overview of current thinking about what America was like before Columbus arrived. In particular, what the people, cultures and human ways of living were like (though animals and nature get a bit of a mention, too). It's also a book that tends to have unimpressive covers, both in the US and the UK editions. All I can say is I'm glad I eventually looked past the naff cover...

Pre-Columbus America is often described as "prehistoric" - because historians rely on written records, and, for the most part, such records were not generated by Indians / people who lived in the Western hemisphere. There are notable exceptions: the Maya, the Aztecs, and, perhaps, the Inka, though their khipus have not yet been decoded. However, these cultures cover only small regions and brief glimpses into time. As such, the story of human life in the Americas before the conquest is largely unknown. And where something is unknown, some people will see "mystery", or worse, a blank canvas to project their own theories and biases onto... unsurprisingly, many did.

1491 tries to give a reasonably balanced account of what is known, what is theorised (by credible experts), and what is contentious and why. The book ignores the quacks, fraudsters and fantasists, but even the experts evidently have frequently been wrong in the past.

Academics in the humanities and social sciences seem to spend half their professional lives forming loose tribes and having spats with each other. Fortunately, the reader gets only the rough brush strokes picture of the essence of those spats and is spared the petty detail. The danger of a book that tries to cover a topic where much is still under contention is that it might end up on "the wrong side of history" - not the evil side, but simply the side that comes to incorrect conclusions. 1491 spends a lot of pages describing how knowledge and theories evolved. Often, there seemed to be a consensus in the past, only for it to be overturned by later theories. Outliers sometimes gathered momentum, became mainstream, replaced an old consensus with a new one. 1491 presents current knowledge, current consensus, current thinking. 20 years from now, more will be known. 100 years from now, perhaps many of the current consensus theories will have been replaced by others. As such, 1491 is a book that probably has an inbuilt "Best Before Date". Then again, what human theory does not?

The author is not without bias - he makes it clear which theories and perspectives he finds more convincing. However, he does not shy away from presenting the counter-arguments. The result is a text that is surprisingly readable and frequently surprising.

Surprising, because its central thesis - and the current thinking of many archaeologists, historians, researchers and scientists - paints a picture of human life in America that is very different from the picture the general public have been taught (in school or by pop culture). It's a non-fiction book, but even so, SPOILER ALERT, I'm going to talk about the big picture, something which the entire book slowly creates.

The central thesis is that both American continents were quite densely populated by a plethora of human cultures. Much of the landscape was managed and shaped by humans, both in North America and South America, including the Amazon region. Indian farming took many forms - sometimes, intense farming of a style not alien to Europeans. Terraced farms, irrigated fields, fertilised soils, domesticated crops. However, many Indian cultures used other methods - methods which were not recognised by explorers or settlers or academics for centuries. In particular, they used fire to control the landscape, they planted desirable trees (which provided food or other useful resources) and removed less useful ones, and they adjusted the environment to suit their needs. In North America, this created a landscape alternating between fruit and nut bearing trees, fields, and grasslands, like an enormous park landscape. Indians were not just hunter gatherers, but responsible for consciously creating an environment rich in resources they could gather, with ample habitat for animals they preferred to hunt.

In the Amazon region, they found ways to create fertile soils (terra preta) and managed the forest around their villages to create incredibly diverse, edible gardens. There were some hunter-gatherer societies, but for the most part, humans on the American continents lived in cultures that farmed and altered the landscape to suit their needs. The Americas were not a wilderness, but a human curated, human created landscape. (However, having learnt over many generations how to manage their territories, Indians by and large used more sustainable methods than the Europeans who replaced them. )

Then came Columbus. On his third voyage, his crew was sick, beset with a plethora of diseases. When they met Indians, they passed on infections. Even as Columbus returned to Europe, the diseases went like a wild fire through the human population of the continents. Because Indians had not domesticated many animals (only dogs, llamas, alpacas, guinea pigs and muscovy ducks), they had not lived in close enough proximity to catch many diseases from their beasts. Europeans, Asians and Africans, on the other hand, had. Measles, smallpox, flu, and others had made the jump from cows, horses, pigs and birds to humans. When those diseases reached the Americas, the population there had never encountered them before. Worse, for reasons that are not fully understood yet, Indians' immune systems were less able to cope with viruses and bacteria, so the infections did not just catch the immune systems by surprise, but they wreaked more havoc in every person they infected. Within a few years, Indians were decimated by disease. Over the course of the next hundred years, between 90-95% of Indians died because of European diseases. It was a holocaust of unprecedented, and never-yet-repeated scope and tragedy.

So, when the first settlers and conquistadors arrived, they unwittingly arrived in the middle of an apocalypse (the conquistadors), or in a postapocalyptic continent (North American settlers). They arrived in a place where 30% or 50% of people had just died, and where more were continuing to die. They arrived in societies that were collapsing, or that had collapsed. The conquistadors managed to destroy two empires (Aztec and Inka) because those empires had just lost huge chunks of their armies and their leaders, and because the ensuing chaos and power vacuum destroyed their ability to defend themselves effectively against ruthless invaders. Even with all that chaos, the conquistadors had help from Indians who wanted to see those empires fall, and who wanted to use the conquistadors as a tool to bring about this change. Without having Indian allies, the conquests would probably have failed. Without the epidemics that preceded them, they would definitely have failed.

After the conquest, a huge myth slowly evolved: the myth of the Indians who lived, passively, in a Garden Eden, picking fruit, hunting, gathering, and not creating anything worthwhile. Or the myth of the noble savage, attuned to nature, living as human animal in The Wild. The myth of America as pristeen, pure, natural continent, until Europeans came to be enterprising and make good use of it / ravage it (depending on your political leanings). It's a myth that arose because most Europeans only ever saw the postapocalyptic continent, where forests were growing, human habitat was slowly being reclaimed by plants and animals that had been managed and kept in check for millennia, but which were now free to take up the suddenly vacant space.

It's not mentioned in the book, but recently, climate scientists have theorised that the so-called Little Ice Age / Medieval global cooling event was partially the result of the CO2 captured by forests that grew on previously cultivated land after Indian populations had collapsed.

1491 is an excellent book, well worth reading. It gives a sense of what was lost in terms of human heritage (even if no book could ever capture the scope of human tragedy involved). It suggests glimpses of what human heritage gained from Indians - not just fruit and vegetables and a healthier, more varied, tastier diet, but a more democratic, anti-authoritarian spirit, and a more free way of life.It's a fascinating read, and well worth your time.

Rating: 5/5

Friday, 15 February 2019

Review: The Loosening Skin by Aliya Whiteley

The Loosening Skin is another very smart, high concept,  immersive novel by Aliya Whiteley. She is truly one of the most original talents writing speculative fiction at the moment.

The novel is set in a world where humans shed their skins every few years. And with the skin, they shed something crucial: (romantic & erotic) love. So, every seven or eight or ten years, humans get a complete reset of their emotional attachments - aside from "The Bond" with their parents, which can survive the shedding, and, generally, platonic friendship.

We follow the story of a woman who sheds more than just love: she reinvents herself after every shedding. She's been a soldier, a bodyguard, a private investigator, a charity shop clerk. We get her story in 2003. 2005. 2006. 2013. Then, to her surprise, it's her shop clerk persona who is hired to investigate perhaps the greatest mystery, a locked room heist that should have been impossible...

Aliya Whiteley is brilliant at writing authentic, human characters. They're not usually heroic, but they might be involved in larger than life situations, albeit in a slightly selfish, slightly flawed, not always in complete control kind of way. No matter how strange the premise of her worlds are, the people who live there are always recogniseably, convincingly human.  So, too, in The Loosening Skin.

I pretty much devoured the whole book on a long train journey. It was mesmerising and evocative, as Whiteley's writing always is. It did get unsettling at times, but the sense of the uncanny was less all-pervading than it was in The Beauty (her masterpiece so far). However, the switches between third person and first person, the non-linear structure, and the final third of the book, jolted me out of the story a little. In fact, I felt the second ending, or the extended epilogue, wasn't really necessary: the story had ended, and then we got a new perspective, a sequel of sorts, stretching the novella into a novel-length book, but not, in my opinion, into a better whole.

Even so, if you want to experience a world that is very different and yet very recogniseable, and horror of the most human sort, The Loosening Skin is first rate speculative fiction, by a world class author.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Review: The Monster (Baru Cormorant) by Seth Dickinson

The Monster is the sequel to The Traitor, and the second novel of Seth Dickinson's Masquerade series. This review will contain spoilers for the first novel, so if you haven't read The Traitor, try that book first! It's brilliant!

The Traitor ended with Baru Cormorant's cold blooded execution of her true love, Tain Hu, in order that Baru would be able to ascend to join the shadowy conspiracy behind the Masquerade's throne. The Monster more or less picks up there, except that it gives us more detail, much more detail. The final few scenes of The Traitor are expanded on, so we get the night before the execution, the execution itself, its aftermath, and a huge amount of plot regurgitation. It takes The Monster about a fifth of its length to get to the point where Baru has written all of the letters that were included in the Epilogue of The Traitor. In short, The Monster works at a very different pace.

It's impossible to talk about The Monster without referencing The Traitor, as the book is very heavily intertwined with the events of the first novel. However, something big has changed. If you were expecting to read a novel about Baru using her powers, you'll be very very disappointed. After the cold, ruthless, driven prodigy of the first book, Baru has turned into a woman who has very little agency in the second book. This is incredibly frustrating - Baru's ascent to this position was a novel of learning, scheming, adventuring, and momentum. Now that she is in place, she finds that her powers are limited, that she's still in a game of scheming, but despite everything she has sacrificed, she is still more a pawn than a player. Perhaps more a pawn than ever before. After a looong introduction, a meeting of most of the conspirators finally occurs, and Baru is given a mission (along with two equal companions). She is still not pulling the strings, really. There is still hierarchy above her, and the meeting ends with the start of a chase that will last the entire book.

The  Monster is a confused, ponderous, messy novel, just as Baru is now a confused, brooding, messed up woman. She never recovers from the twofold trauma that occurred at the end of The Traitor - her brief coma that left her unable to see anything that happens on her right side, and her choice to go through with Tain Hu's execution. Surrounded by equals, Baru flounders: being a savant and a prodigy and being given peerless powers helped her thrive in the first book, but without the autonomy she enjoyed previously, she spends much of the second book being dragged along by events, drinking by day and brooding by night.

Meanwhile, the book no longer just sticks with her perspective. Instead, we now get other viewpoint characters, and even first person scenes from a different viewpoint character. We get a series of flashbacks of three characters in a different civilisation growing up, we get a tableau and an ensemble and too many ideas, most of which are not nearly as interesting as the first book's focus on macroeconomics and fiscal policy.

In fact, things get so messy that the author (and editors) seem to lose track of some ideas. So we get a gender-reversed scene of street sexual harrassment and a supposed matriarchy and Baru thinking that she has "never felt powerless walking down a street", even though the previous novel included feminist Tain Hu warning her that every action a female icon makes will be used to reflect on her sex (i.e. Baru has lived in completely patriarchical societies in Aurdwynn and Falcrest) and even though not much earlier there was a comment that there are no true matriarchies. Or we get a character who decides they are neither male nor female and should be referred to using the "they" pronoun, and then the book forgets about this in a few scenes and uses a gendered pronoun (not because of a viewpoint character / narration choice, but simply out of oversight). Complicated names, complicated titles, different heritages and languages and conventions, a plethora of cultural notions, beliefs, sexual habits and taboos... The Monster is a novel trying very hard to be ultra-diverse, ultra-smart, ultra-complex, and in the end it fails on the most elementary aspect: it forgot to include a good story in the mix.

Baru does not know what she wants. Everyone is reactive. It's not so much a novel of shifting alliances and politicking and schemes, but a novel of chaos and (a character's) slow collapse and confusion. It's singularly unsatisfying, bogged down, and depressed. Characters move from place to place, but by the end of the book, very little has changed from the beginning of the book. All the same questions are still open. All the same problems still exist. Nothing has been resolved, no one has gained much, everyone's been treading water and running around in circles like headless chickens and no one has gotten anywhere good. The book fizzles out without a bang. In short, where the first book was epic and fascinating and charismatic and cynical and driven, this book is made of depression and trauma and bitterness and anxiety and stress, but not in a good way.

Unfortunately,  I did not find The Monster an enjoyable read. I feel sorry for the author, because it reads like something written by a depressed person in a gloomy dungeon, tied to a rack of too many ideas, unable to find the key that would free the narrative and make the story work. But I might still buy the next book, in the hope that Baru finally gets a chance to shape events, again.

Rating: 2/5

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Review: The Traitor by Seth Dickinson

The Traitor (also known as The Traitor Baru Cormorant) is a novel set in an alternative world with alternative peoples, cultures, history. Unlike Westeros, it has no dragons, no ghosts, no magic - or at least, it does not have them yet, not in the parts of the world that this novel takes place in.

We first meet Baru Cormorant when she is a little girl in Taranoke, a volcanic island inhabited by fierce and loving people. Her family consists of two fathers and one mother, and life in Taranoke is seemingly uncomplicated when it comes to matters of society. There is sex equality, liberty, tolerance. There are also skirmishes between tribes, little wars, diseases, but Baru is as yet untouched by trauma.

Then, Empire arrives. The empire of Falcrest, the Maskerade, sends ships and goods and trade and comes with innovations like paper money and standard currency, with technology and medicine and progress. Baru is fascinated by the ships, fascinated by the people, fascinated by the way her parents are scared and the way her people trade their freedoms away for improvements in living standards and consumer goods. Soon, she is offered a place in an Imperial school, where she has a chance to learn so much about the world...

...but the most memorable lessons are not the ones about astronomy, navigation, mathematics. Baru's mind loves those things, and she excels, but they do not shape her soul. Instead, it is what happens to one of her fathers that leaves a mark on her self. Or what happens to her people while she is kept safe in school - a mass dying, disease and catastrophe, also the result of engagement with empire. And what happens to lesbians, gays, people who do not fit the empire's principles of "incrastic" hygiene.

Eventually, Baru leaves her island, aiming for the heart of the empire. Aiming to change.

The Traitor is an amazing novel. It is told in dramatic, epic prose. It is a novel that looks at the world through the eyes of accountancy, macroeconomics, history, and wonders about systems, changes, individuals, compromise, absolutism. Falcrest is a strange empire, filled with persecution, racial theories, eugenics and terrible persecution, but also with meritocracy, scientific progress, capitalist enrichment and even a certain kind of democracy. And power in that empire is not wielded by an individual, but by a cabal of people who hold the power to destroy each other, but who conspire together to keep wielding the power in their little group.

The Traitor is a novel of political theory and accountancy and grand drama. It's much more overtly interested in theory and philosophy than Song of Ice and Fire, but similarly epic in scope. Reading it a second time (as the next novel in the series has finally been published), it felt like a somewhat cold and ruthless and cynical novel - but that is the point. Baru is a ruthless character, a player, an operator, someone who is driven and hungry to succeed no matter the cost. The fact that she is not a psychopath makes the book all the harder to read, as she is all too aware of the costs of her actions.

I still recommend The Traitor unequivocally. Few novels made me sit up and think as much as this one. Now, in 2019, I think the novel grossly overestimates the influence and effectiveness of intelligent conspiracies, and woefully underestimate the impact of chaotic elements...  the world is apparently run by stupid conspiracies of stupid people being stupid. The past few years have been a hard lesson in how shameless, overt and incompetent the powers that be can really be. So the novel now feels ridiculously idealistic in its belief in the fundamental competence of the main actors that shape the world, even if they are mostly evil.

Still, despite having aged less well than I'd thought, Baru Cormorant is worth your time.

Rating: 5/5

PS: I also reviewed The Traitor Baru Cormorant in 2015, when I first read it.