Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Dogs of War - Adrian Tchaikovsky

Dogs of War is a standalone sci-fi novel from Adrian Tchaikovsky (whose science-fiction credentials include the superlative Children of Time, which we looked at very favourably last year).

It’s a book which explores a lot of interesting ideas, including the role of artificial intelligence in society, exactly what we define as humanity, the ethics of conflict resolution and the manufacturing of sentient biological life. But it does all of this through a variety of different perspectives, from civilian medical personnel to military bioforms, offering a personal view as an immediate and emotional underpinning to its exploration of these big ideas. It is one of the finest sci-fi novels I’ve read this year, and if you’re looking for a new book to read in the genre, it should probably be this one.

So, looking at it in detail, what’s it about? Well, the central character is Rex. Rex is a bioform, an artificially created life. We’re along for the ride in Rex’s head, and that head is one which marries sentience with different instincts to our own. Derived from canine stock, then bred for war and cybernetically integrated with weapon systems, Rex is extremely loyal to his Master, and extremely dangerous to those he’s told are the enemy. He works in a unit with other bioforms, each as weird, wonderful, and thoroughly deadly as the last. Perhaps the greatest triumph of the text is in giving the reader a great many non-human viewpoints to consider – from Rex’s canine loyalties and desire to help, to the combined consciousness of a cloud of weaponised bees, and the quietly murderous thoughts of a giant reptile. They’ve been given the ability to think, and to communicate with each other, within the bounds of their cybernetics, and each of them thinks differently, speaks differently, and reads differently on the page.

Unfortunately for Rex, his desire to do what his Master wants, indeed his almost inability to refuse, means that he may do some rather bad things. This throws up some exciting questions, first about the role that diminished actors could take in the commission of what might otherwise be war crimes, and about the responsibility and ethics that would come with the creation of new sentience. Actually, the lack of ethics is something more on the table here. At the same time, there’s an ongoing conversation about whether these bioforms, created in laboratories to fight others wars, are themselves actually people.  That particular thread rumbles in the background of the narrative; as a reader, it’s possible to walk alongside Rex as he begins to feel, if not more human, perhaps more independent – and as we begin to see him as something other than a weapon, as he is portrayed that way, so too does the wider context round bioform rights open up.

There’s a fair bit of action here, laced bloodily throughout the text. It’s never glorified, and the consequences are shown, with a stark light that lets the reader form their own opions on the conflict. At the same time, the combat periods are kinetic, fast paced scenes with real impact – and the moments which explore what’s left behind are thoughtful and affecting without being mawkish. I have to admit, Rex’s unit working together is an awesome sight – and also one which is terrible. Kudos to the story for giving glimpses of both.

There’s other stuff in here too; the narrative is layered through with complex questions. If Rex and his bioform colleagues are alive, what does that say about artificial intelligences, also in their infancy in this near-future world? If bioforms are awarded personhood, how does society deal with people who are always heavily armed or actively designed to kill? Seeing that the conflicts Rex has, to be someone, to decide whether he actually wants to be anything other than a follower of his Master’s voice – well, they’re beautifully, honestly portrayed, and a very difficult read. At the same time, they ring true, evoking the US civil rights movement, or the institutional struggles of South Africa. This is a book which is trying to look at big issues in a future context, and also tell us something about humanity, and I think it succeeds.

Rex’s personal story – well, by the end of the book, listening to his voice, his thoughts, his feelings, and knowing has sacrifices, I’d been moved to tears several times. Though the story approaches and explores these grand ideas, and does so with complexity and nuance, it’s not afraid to give us stakes in the game. This isn’t a dry, academic exploration of social changes. It’s raw and bloody and personal – and fantastic.

Once again: this is one of the best science fiction books I’ve read this year, perfectly blending larger themes and big ideas together with a personal, emotional story; it’s a feast for the mind at the same time that it wrings out the heart, and I can’t recommend it enough – go buy it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Shadowblack - Sebastien De Castell

Shadowblack is the second of Sebastien De Castell’s ‘Spellslinger’ series. The first, a cunning blend of coming of age tale, fantasy and weird western, was very enjoyable – so I had high hopes for this one too. Shadowblack re-emphasises a lot of the good things about the first volume, including the sharp banter, the well observed, convincing characterisation, and the world I wanted to see more of, then adds some new narrative spices of its own.

Where the first book was set in an oasis of magic users, and centred around Kellen, an adolescent coming rapidly to terms with the fact that he didn’t actually have any magic to speak of, we, along with Kellen, are now outside that oasis, thrust into the wider world and wondering what on earth happens next. Unfortunately, it turns out that the Badlands outside of the oasis are, well, not very nice. There’s radiating heat, scrubby brushland, and rather a lot of horse manure. It’s a barren land with a big sky; to me it evokes a start, Western-style vista. De Castell draws out the difficult beauty of these Badlands in the tribulations of his protagonist – struggling against an uncaring space, but one with a beauty of its own, means that geography helps shape character.

If the Badlands, and the fractured region of which they’re a part aren’t enough, then there’s the Academy. A thriving university town, with students from the richest and most influential of this world.  If it feels a little parochial in some ways, that just serves to provide a patina of authenticity to the experience.  If the Badlands feel like the edge of the world, then the thriving, hopeful town in which the Academy sits is its crowning jewel and greatest contrast. It’s to De Castell’s credit that he makes both environs feel alive.

The unlikely trio from the first book are back. I have to admit that for me the star of the show is always Reichis, the squirrel cat. He’s a few pounds of fur, sharp teeth and a sharper attitude. Reichis has a degree of focus which I suspect the other characters envy – he’s a fan of baubles, and of murdering small animals, and as long as nothing interferes with those cat-activities, he’s fairly happy. That said, he also enjoys trying to educate Kellen in the ways of the world, with a distinct lean toward solving problems by disembowelling them. Acerbic, he may be, but Reichis leaps off the page as a convincing portrayal of a person who isn’t also a human. Over the course of the text, he exhibits a bit of personal growth, bringing his team mates a little further into his heart. But in the meantime, his dialogue is sharp, witty, and often hilarious, and the action sequences he appears in are have a penchant for kinetically charged brutality which kept me turning pages.

Ferius is Kellen’s other mentor, a traveller with a set of alchemical pouches, cards that are both prophecies and weapons, and her own line in dry repartee. Where Reichis is the personification of the id, Ferius is calmer, more collected. She has her own goals, and a certain enigmatic magnetism. Quite what drives Ferius has remained unclear, but in the interim she serves as a solid counterpoint to Reichis, and as one of the few people around Kellen who seem prepared to let him realise his potential, rather than have him enact some scheme of theirs.

Having spoken about Reichis and Ferius, I just want to take a moment to say that the dialogue here is absolutely pitch perfect. The banter has that amiable edge to it, as colleagues and friends take swipes at each other. Where it’s more serious, the emotional payload is raw and convincing, and threats of violence come freighted with depth and weight that gives them serious menace. In either case (and indeed in the more standard everyday chit chat as the characters go about their business) the language absolutely scintillates, and the rhythm and texture of the dialogue goes a long way to keeping the pages turning. That it is (much like in De Castell’s Greatcoats series) by turns hysterical and genuinely emotional and honest is a great help too, of course.

Kellen is our protagonist again, and I have to admit, he feels spot on as a teen conflicted about his place in the world. The coming-of-age tale is in full flow here, as he steps into a world which is fairly confident that he isn’t special. Being on the run from his own people, and not entirely willing to share who he is with the world, Kellen is rather occupied trying to work out who he, well, is. Or rather, who he wants to be, now that he’s out from under the constraints of his society. There’s a part of Kellen which is a sulky, surly teen, but there’s a score of moral choice there as well, and the steel of adulthood slowly becoming visible beneath it all. Quite who Kellen is I’m not entirely sure, and he isn’t either, I suspect – but watching him try and work that out, deciding what his own principles and morals are, and what they’re worth, well, it makes for an intelligent, sometimes troubling, but always interesting read.

The plot – well, no spoilers here. I will say that it rumbles along at a reasonable pace though. There’s an assortment of trickery, thievery and fast talking. There’s even a little bit of magic, here and there. The stakes, as ever, are high, both personally and in a wider context, and there’s a tension and sense of consequence which ties up with the stellar characterisation and cracking dialogue to keep the pages turning. Is it worth reading? Oh yes. Our trio are always at their best when they’re in hot water, and they’re definitely there this time. This is a worthy successor to Spellslinger, and if you were wondering if the sequel could be as good, I’d say you can now stop wondering, and start reading. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The New Voices of Fantasy - Peter S. Beagle (Ed.)

The New Voices of Fantasy is a collection (edited by Peter S. Beagle) of some of the best short fiction from ‘up and coming’ fantasy authors. There’s some Nebula and Hugo award nominees and winners amongst these stories – and if awards aren’t the only indicator of quality, still they’re suggestive. The work as a whole is of a very good standard, and there’s some interesting themes explored, and questions asked – and, occasionally, answered.

There’s a range of stories here, from the hard-edged sentiment of Max Gladstone’s “A Kiss with Teeth”, where Vlad the Impaler struggles to relate both to the modern world, and to his family, to the lyrical modern mythology of Usman T. Malik’s “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn”, or the quiet secrets and gentle romance of Amal El-Mohtar’s “Wing”. Given there are nineteen stories in the collection, there’s always going to be some that fit a particular reader more than others, but the overall quality is very high. I won’t go through them all, but there are definite highlights.

I have a lot of affection for Alyssa Wong’s “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” – a young woman who feeds off negative emotions is slowly drawn towards monstrous acts. Wong portrays a fragile, confused, powerful woman, unsure of who she is and wants to be – and the sacrifices she’s willing to make whilst working that out.

“Left the Century to Sit Unmoved” from Sarah Pinsker is a piece of fantasy in the modern day, exploring why people are prepared to take risks, to fall with and for each other. In this case, the fall is literal, as inhabitants of a town leap into a possibly bottomless pool. Not all of them return, but the exploration of why people would jump in the first place is compelling and emotionally evocative.

Ben Loory’s “The Duck” is a heartwarming piece, ostensibly about a duck who falls in love with a rock. The other ducks are perhaps less than supportive of this decision. The piece is a pleasant allegory, exploring what it means to fit in, or to deliberately not do so. It wants to examine what people are willing to do for each other, and for love, romantic and otherwise. It’s likely to raise both a chuckle and a smile or two.

Maria Dahvana Headley’s “The Tallest Doll in New York City” is an enjoyablu whimsical piece where the buildings of New York are both sentient and mobile. It’s a love story of architecture, with a thirties thread running through it. The protagonist, at least nominally, is a waiter in one of the buildings, who is also on the lookout for romance in this Valentines Day modern fable.

Those are, of course, just a sample. There’s more here, from the wry, ironic and often darkly appalling “Here Be Dragons”, tracking a pair of con-men in a sword-and-sorcery world, now trying to fit back in to village life with their wives and children, to the travelogue-esque “My Time Among the Bridge Blowers”, a story which is putatively a description of a small mountain society, but which also explores the ideas around power, formation of narrative and colonialism.
As I say, there’s probably going to be some stories here which you find better than others, but the sheer diversity of work on display here, and the excellent overall quality, make this a collection that’s certainly worth exploring.