Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Review of “Altered Carbon” novel by Richard Morgan


In Richard Morgan’s 2002 debut, cyberpunk is blended seamlessly with hardboiled noir in a futuristic dystopia where the mind can be stored in a mechanical cortical stack and bodies are worn like interchangeable clothes.

Plot Summary:

Six pages into this ~400 pg novel our protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, is shot and killed.

Next chapter. Kovacs finds himself downloaded into a new body on Earth, light-years away from his home. His mandatory criminal sentence has been given a six-week reprieve courtesy of Mr. Bancroft, a rich, influential Meth (as in Methuselah, who supposedly lived 969 years). Kovacs has been hired based on his reputation for the sole purpose of solving Bancroft’s own death, attributed to suicide by the local police whose advanced forensic techniques have shown no clues or suspects to the contrary. Bancroft finds the diagnosis impossible, since he lacks motive and was surely aware that the large clone facility he owned would immediately place him in a new body (a process known as “re-sleeving”).

Kovacs must find out what happened in the roughly 48 hours that occurred after Bancrofts last remote backup and his violent death. He has a wealth of experience as an Envoy (an elite, but cruel, military organization akin to a space-age Delta Force) and as a criminal of various trades, but he is a cultural outsider on Earth with little in the way of clues or trustworthy allies.


“Altered Carbon” grafts the style of Mickey Spillane’s amoral criminal underworlds onto the type of dystopic cyberpunk universe recognizable to fans of “The Matrix” or the works of Neal Stephenson. Both halves of Morgan’s well-balanced noir/SF equation merit discussion.

The future-Earth of “Altered Carbon” is informed by the technological, social and pharmaceutical trends available to the culturally literate 21 century writer, an asset that makes Morgan’s book feel viable and contemporary. However, the aesthetic is fairly obvious and familiar by modern standards: neon lit streets (now with ads broadcast directly into the minds of those passing by), unsavory dens of drugs and prostitution, black-clad citizens with biological and synthetic enhancements, etc.

What makes “Altered Carbon” unique is not just the addition of sleeving into new bodies, but the skill with which the idea is executed. The nuances are worked out and plot holes avoided. The background is fed to the reader gradually and in an unobtrusive, highly-integrated way. Most importantly, the implications are fully explored and applied in enough original variations to make the idea seem fresh (although it’s far from new) and sustaining.

The detective/mystery side of the book also draws heavily from its own genre traditions, particularly film noir and the pulp novels of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Morgan doesn’t quite possess the flowery prose stylization of Dashiell Hammett or the cynical weary rasp of Raymond Chandler, but he has the rawness, directness and attitude of Spillane’s best work. The result is that “Altered Carbon” reads quick and hard, chock full of violence, sex and crime in a way that will alienate or disgust the more sensitive and earn dubious accolades from angsty adolescents.

However, woven into the surface qualities that elicit unsophisticated, but fully earned, citations as “cool” and “hip” is a complicated critique of morality gone rotten. Morgan makes his readers cheer for acts of cold-blooded violence one moment and just as easily makes them realize the disturbing or reprehensible implications the next. Kovacs is a remarkably despicable character who earns our redemption (if at all) more through charisma and determination than by possessing the type of underlying personal code trademarked by characters like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. Kovacs is effective at what he does primarily because he is able to lie and trick, not because he possesses the typical array of cyberpunk hero skills like fighting, hacking or even being observant.

The moral ambiguity and instability mounts steadily, culminating in a series of dark revelations. The narrative makes ample use of genre staples like femme fatales, alley chases, crime lords, vicious assassins and even underground boxing but does so with wit, energy and personal style where baseline originality is lacking. The mystery itself, while slow to get off the ground, is a satisfyingly clever and elaborate plot with the undertone of conspiracy and paranoia that accents the best cases. However, Morgan hasn’t quite gotten the knack of inconspicuously slipping in clues and it’s often obvious when something will later be important because he gives an extra paragraph of explanation more than he usually dedicates to innocent details.

Ultimately, “Altered Carbon” can not really be considered the most important, original, stylish, strange, believable, dark, thoughtful or well-written novel but it scores well across all criteria. Morgan is the type of talented late-comer that re-invigorates material with the Tarantino-type sixth-sense for knowing what to borrow and how to spin it.

Altered Carbon’s release in 2002 stirred quite a bit of hype and a touch of controversy too. It won the Philip K Dick Award and had its film rights snatched up almost immediately for a hefty sum, but received backlash from intellectual quarters such as Inchoatus, whose reviews I usually respect. Make sure to read the accompanying rebuttal.

To cover for my personal bias I’m presenting a more fluid scoring this time around.

My Grade: A+ (not because it’s perfect, but because it’s a personal favorite)

More objectively: A

If you don’t care for one of either cyberpunk or noir: B+

If you don’t care for both cyberpunk and noir: B-

Review of “Hothouse” novel by Brian Aldiss


Hundreds of millions of years in the future mankind, indeed animalkind, is in the decline. Humanity is evermore eclipsed by vegetable life, which thrives in the endless sunlight of an earth that has long since stopped revolving.

Written in 1962 as a series of five short stories and later republished as a contiguous novel.

Plot Summary:

Lily-yo is the leader of a matriarchal band of feral humans struggling to survive a merciless existence in the mid-canopy of a distant-future jungle where the entire sunlit surface of the earth is covered in interconnected Banyan trees. She soon abolishes the tribe sending the children off on their own and leading the adults on a ritual/journey/suicide in seedpods bourn into space.

Meanwhile, the children led by the in-fighting Toy and Gren head on a journey to establish a new colony. They are in for far more then they expected and soon encounter the various predatory vegetables writhing throughout the jungle, an intelligent morel (fungus) with an agenda of its own, several disparate animals competing for an ever-diminishing number of ecological niches and much more. To spoil the intriguing locals visited along the journey would ruin much of the fun, but suffice it to say that Aldiss adequately explores the possibilities of his influential, compelling landscape.


Aldiss has a powerful propensity for imagining and developing environmental extremes and his greatest strength lies in his imperturbable ability to evoke a sense of wonder and otherworldliness. In the first segment of the book Aldiss appears to explore and exhaust so much of his initial premise that the reader might begin to panic and worry that no material (or purely redundant material) will be left for the rest of the book. Fortunately, the author’s imagination is up to the task of generating original and interesting new niches for life to blossom.

That being said, the later sections aren’t quite as powerful and evocative as the early locals and the serialized, episodic nature is conspicuously choppy in terms of narrative flow.

Aldiss succeeds best at evoking grand imagery, but he doesn’t seem to have the patience for clear and expressive descriptions. The result is quick-sketched moments of beauty and wonder that lack specificity and atmosphere. (see Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for an example of vividly realizing a jungle setting). For instance, aural and olfactory qualities are rarely mentioned. There are few visceral description of the heat or textures nor is there much mention of the complicated dappled lighting that must inevitably have made life in the mid-canopy a perpetual twilight. The physiological reaction of the characters to their environment fails to make the reader feel physically present. In a particularly sloppy twist about a third of the way into the book, Aldiss gets around to mentioning that humans have shrunk to a fifth their original size, but never mentions whether the measurements he uses in his descriptions are relative to the characters’ size or the reader’s size (inches, feet and yards were all based on length of bodyparts). He seems to switch between the two scales inadvertently throughout the book.

This fits with the general style of the novel which clearly lays out a pattern of soft science. I think more rigorous thought and technical acumen could have only improved the novel, but it is first and foremost and globe-trotting survivalist adventure and not a scientifically grounded planetary survey. In fairness, Aldiss can often reasonably fall back on the built-in defense of his characters primitiveness and logically limited knowledge to explain away the lack of technical detail and the speckling of unplugged plot holes.

On the other hand, the author tends to use the prehistoric (or posthistoric in this case) savagery of his protagonists as too easy an excuse to avoid character development, dialogue and realistic reactions.

If I seem to be rather harsh, I should mention that taken as a whole, Hothouse is a remarkable and awe-inspiring novel with an exciting adventure at its heart. I found it to be a condensed, if less matured, alternative to Aldiss’s Hellconia series from the 1980’s which revisits similar themes but with a sluggishness that often overwhelms the scenes that should fill us with wonder.

Grade: B

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Sarantine Mosaic

I'm sure that by now Brian is regretting his decision to visit the cesspool of uncouth boorishness that is Vienna, but I'm holding down the fort here by posting a review of The Sarantine Mosaic, a two-book series by Guy Gavriel Kay, which is made up of the books Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors.

This series, while not as strong as some of his earlier works, such as The Lions of Al-Rassan, Tigana, or A Song for Arbonne, is still characteristically Kay. Like all Kay books, the two in The Sarantine Mosaic feature an epic scope, richly detailed settings, complex and well-developed characters, tortuous plot development, and a pseudo-historical setting; in this case, a fantasized, slightly magical version of the city of Constantinople (Sarantium) during the reign of the Emperor Justinian I (Valerius II). I'm not going to give a plot summary because if you want a general overview of the events in the book, you can simply read up on the life of Justinian I. Kay only maintains historical accuracy when it suits his purpose, however, so browsing Wikipedia (or whatever other source you choose) won't reveal any secrets.

If this sounds like a lot to pack into two books, it is. The Sarantine Mosaic is a demanding read, with every one of its over 1,100 pages packed with information. None of the characters, descriptions or events are throwaways, and anyone who thinks otherwise will soon be kicking himself for not paying closer attention to the description of the Emperor's handwriting style when it becomes important 300 pages later (not an actual example from the book, but similarly minute items are given prominence quite frequently).

Kay does a good job of giving the reader subtle hints and reminders when he references events or people that haven't been mentioned for a few hundred pages, but it is still tough to empathize with all of the dozens of characters comprising his cast, and that makes some of the poignant moments fall flat. Kay forces you to pay so much attention to the smallest details of his writing that sometimes the emotional effect of his text is lost as you try not to miss significant word choices.

I want to let Kay speak for himself a bit here, because the back of Lord of Emperors contained an excellent essay by Kay on his writing process and his views on the fantasy genre, which I think it will be helpful to share:
"Fantasy has never been in its essence about constructing elaborate magical systems for dueling sorcerors or contriving new versions of an enchanted ring or further variations on the use of hypens and apostrophes in invented names. Fantasy is—at its best—the purest access to storytelling that we have. It universalizes a tale, it evokes wonder and timeless narrative power, it touches upon inner journeys, it illuminates our collective and individual pasts, throws a focusing beam on the present day, and presages the dangers and promise of the future. It is—or so I have argued for years—a genre, a mode of telling that offers so much more than it is usually permitted to reveal." (560)

Kay's writing perfectly matches his views. When the current Harry-Potter-induced fantasy craze ends, and all the books written by 15-year-old kids who were following the "sorcerers + magic rings + weird names = bestseller" formula that Kay denounces are forgotten, mouldering in dusty basement boxes across the country, Kay's books will still be on bookshelves, well-loved and well-read.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Secret Influences of Harry Potter

Over the last ten years it has been very much in vogue to trace the many literary influences that are “borrowed” by J. K. Rowling in her popular “Harry Potter” series. Usually these analyses focus on Tolkien fantasy and Greek mythology. This essay will delve into a less frequently cited but equally influential subgenre that has shaped the Harry Potter novels: the myth of England.

England is a fictional island nation replete with kings and queens, carriages, castles and crumpets. As a genre, readers usually refer to its elaborate mythology as “English literature” or “English history,” terms that I will use fairly interchangeably even though hardcore fans insist upon a subtle distinction. Like many successful franchises, an entire convoluted “universe” developed with central classic works and innumerable spin-offs, each with ardent fans and skeptical critics.

Like Tolkien fantasy and its self-evident lineage from the J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series, scholars also tend to look for a foundational English literature work although they disagree with rather it should be found within the subgenres of Arthurian legend (popularized by T. H. White in his “Once and Future King”) or in Shakespearian literature. Clearly English literature borrows heavily from both and even evolved a smattering of Steampunk elements when later fabulist authors such as Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters introduced the “Industrial Revolution” or “Victorian” cycle.

Speculation as to where Rowling would have been able to come into contact with English literature ranges wildly. The period between 1980 and the present was certainly an era where English literature had fallen out of a favor with the public and was rarely seen except in specialty stores. Nevertheless elements of Rowling’s novels show undeniable traces of the English mythology.

Consider the bizarrely structured Hogwarts School with its subdivision into competing, strangely named “houses” complete with a highly stratified division by year, housemasters and exotic impractical rituals. Often thought by poorly-read critics to be a product of Rowling’s imagination, an observant reader can spot suspicious similarities to earlier institutes ingrained in the mythology of England such as Oxford and Cambridge.

Once the idea takes hold, the scholar can find a myriad of references, nods and outright plagiarisms. The train which travels to the school is right out of the Industrial Revolution cycle, with a little of Steampunk’s back-cast eye towards how a primitive society might develop technology parallel to our own. Hagrid’s cottage and the nearby town of Hogsmeade are both clearly modeled on English cities, architecture and society. Other critics have pointed out the similarities between the Quidditch, with its nearly incomprehensible set of arbitrary rules, and the reoccurring English fairy tales about cricket and polo.

It is perhaps timely that an author should revive an interest in such an antiquated and romanticized subgenre as the myth of England. After all, Rowling’s broad adventure-chocked simplifications and chummy schoolmate camaraderie are a welcome break after the fractionalization and variety of late English literature creations. One had literally to rely upon the supplements of intricate maps, character charts and timelines just to follow the main plots, not to mention the billboard hierarchies, intricate politics and endless rise-and-fall-of-an-empire wars. Die-hard, socially inept fans had even retreated into private languages like British English, Cockney and Scottish which will remind social scientists of similar phenomenon with Tolkien’s Elvish and Star Trek’s Klingon. The diversity of authors each writing offshoots and spin-offs aimed at obsessive specialty audiences had introduced a plague of contradictions and created an exclusionary subculture nearly as vast as Star Wars.

Traditional English literature has meanwhile lost its shine, wallowing in an endless repetition of chipper street urchins, gnarled misers and sexist depictions of powerless women. Its canon of worn clich├ęs perpetuated by its “classic” authors like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, E. M. Forster, James Joyce, Rudyard Kipling, D. H. Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf have been replaced by more exciting and culturally relevant authors.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Review of “The Ticket that Exploded” novel by William S Burroughs

William S Burroughs takes experimental literary techniques and controversial subject matter to their ultimate extremes. Cutting and pasting pieces of other works, his earlier books and previous paragraphs within the novel, Burroughs creates a patchwork of non-linear, non-narrative sexual obsession and mindless babble.

Plot Summary:
An entity known as Mr. Bradley cavorts about vaguely in a skin-tight spacesuit having sex, getting raped and experiencing drug-trips. The pattern repeats in rather abstract recombinations. Eventually we are introduced to the “main story” involving the Nova Police and their criminal rivals, the Nova Gang, who uses sex, drugs, media and more to control dupes and marks.

However, don’t be misled by the fact that a few narrative straws can be grasped at: there is no plot.

Due to a strange coincidence, I went from one descendant of John Dos Passos’s influence (“Stand on Zanzibar”) to another (“The Ticket that Exploded”). The results could not have varied any more. Brunner uses the cut-up technique in a figurative way to provide a prismatic array of information formats and alternative angles that challenge the notion of objective knowledge even as it seems to inundate us with more information than we can digest.

Burroughs has a much more avant-garde take on the cut-up technique, literally wielding scissor upon the works of other authors, his earlier career and his own book and then pasting the pieces back together in semi-random order. He also develops a "fold-in" technique whereby he merges two halves of seperate texts and transcribes the resulting nonsense sentences. The finished gibberish is a total disaster, failing (as I think it intends) to tell a story and only marginally limping along with a stagnant atmosphere (where it presumably hoped to succeed).

Burroughs’s finds his artistic possibilities trapped inside the narrow focus of his own sexual obsessions and limited vocabulary. His dense non-sentences only rarely rise to inspiration (as in the diary style chapter) above the surging tides of interchangeable imagery. After twenty pages of mindless saturation, all emotion, insight and even shock value are dissolved by the endless repetition (exacerbated by the cut-and-paste technique’s further duplication) of drug-colored homosexual encounters and discussions of amorphous mutable body halves. The same visual cues (white smoke, phalluses, green skin), olfactory descriptions and textures are cycled for dozens of iterations. Burroughs’s bare themes repeat like a broken record.

The disturbing Freudian transparency only makes me appreciate Spinrad’s “The Iron Dream” yet more.

There is hardly anything here to recommend except that the length is mercifully short. Worse than simply a bad book alone, it makes me realize that Burroughs’s imagination is painfully limited, casting new doubts on my previous experience with the author’s work (“Naked Lunch”). My skepticism in his talent increases as my fascination with his legend plunges.

In Burroughs defense, I read his original 1962 version, never released in the states. The revised 1967 Grove Press edition is generally considered superior. I don't have the will power to confirm.

Grade: D-

Friday, March 2, 2007

Review of “Stand on Zanzibar” novel by John Brunner

Drawing influences from the experimental British sci-fi New Wave, the “cut-up” technique developed by John Dos Passos and the theories of Marshall McLuhan, Brunner created the first classic of multi-perspective world-building SF. The book was written in 1968 and runs 500+ pages with information interweaved from two central plots, short 5-minute glimpses into the lives of minor characters, newscasts, contextual data, local legends and more.

Plot Summary:
I used to think that Brunner’s novel was a military SF work, extrapolating from the title that some desperate last stand was taking place on the tiny island of Zanzibar. In truth, the enigmatic title refers to the idea that if the 7 billion citizens alive in 2010 were given a 1-foot by 2-foot plot of land to stand on, they would all fit onto the title island. By the end of the story, many must metaphorically be treading water near the shore.

As the title concept suggests, Brunner tackles overpopulation as his primary target. In the dense urban chaos of 2010 strict eugenics legislation restricts couples to a maximum of two children and only if both parents are free from congenital disorders. As the book opens (in an exhilaratingly confusing sequence of difficult mixed-media passages), color blindness is being added to the list of restricted items. Jealousy of reproductive rights and the extreme crowds, often prone to spontaneous riots, have led to outbreaks of muckers: regular citizens who fly into berserker rages and kill as many people around them as possible.

As the fabric of society begins to deteriorate, two roommates (African American Norman House and WASP Donald Hogan) find themselves drawn into the inextricable mess of foreign policy. House becomes involved with the struggling, anomalous African country of Beninia while Hogan is sent against his will to the controversial communist island nation of Yatakang (both fictional countries). A third major character, Chad Mulligan, is introduced through his works as a cynical gonzo sociologist.

House and Hogan provide approximately a quarter of our knowledge about this future earth (comprising the chapters labeled “Continuity”). Other chapters are classified as “Tracking with Close-ups” (brief peeks into the lives of a variety of random citizens), “Context” (background information from encyclopedias, reports, books, songs, etc) and “The Happening World” (patched together streaming data similar to modern day RSS feeds, blogs and news tickers).

There is no doubt that much of Brunner’s concept for the book was far ahead of his time. This includes his innovative story structure with the division of multiple sources as described above. His attempts to use any and every medium at his disposal (and many that he makes up, effectively predicting modern technologies and sources of information) to build a virtual future with believable culture, politics, communication, economy, legislation, history, fashion and more are highly successful and foreshadow many of the techniques in postcyberpunk.

However, it is probably not surprising to find that most of the book’s other elements don’t always measure up to the ambitious structural achievement. The primary plot threads of House and Hogan run fairly slowly and without local climaxes, very steadily rising until all the action explodes in the final third. While the conclusions of both threads are well-developed, intriguing and thematically relevant, the first two-thirds of the book are forced to simmer on the backburner so that all the best narrative material can be served in the finales.

While the auxiliary stories, sources and perspectives are fully interesting and worthwhile, Brunner is hampered by occasional short-sightedness and sometimes runs against the limits of his creativity and talent. There is a certain question as to whether an author should be retroactively judged on the accuracy of his predictions and in general I think this is mildly unfair. (Certain cases are gratuitous. A further discussion can be found at the first “Dos and Don’ts” article.) Nevertheless, Brunner’s 2010 is often mired in 1960’s trends with the cold war still cruising along, racial tension still running high and computers restricted to super-powerful machines that understand human grammar and are only owned by rich meta-national corporations.

Brunner does tend to be more right than many of his contemporaries, my precious Philip K Dick and Vonnegut amongst them. His futuristic fashion trends are actually quite believable and interesting; his supercomputers have correctly been miniaturized even as they improve in speed; his interest in genetics remains curiously apropos in our present society.

Only two aspects regularly induced cringes: Brunner’s woefully cheesy 60’s-inspired future slang (he ain’t no Burgess) and alarmist attitude towards a population of 7 billion. It will have to get a lot higher before we see the phenomena the author predicts. Nonetheless, “Stand on Zanzibar” is easily one of the best books to deal with population issues.

What had a more significant impact on my final grade for the book is that Brunner’s reach often exceeds his grasp. Though I can’t fault him for trying to mix in every format and medium, he isn’t quite as creative as he thinks he is, leading to some songs, poems, commercials, social commentary and humor which fall flat or feels amateurish.

Grade: B+