- Excession by Iain M. Banks - In the best 20 science fiction novels of the last twenty years discussion a few months back there was a spirited sub-discussion on the question of which was the best Culture novel, Excession or Use of Weapons. As the latter was already my favorite of his novels, I decided to make Excession my next Banks read. This was not quite a mistake--Excession is entertaining, funny, and as masterful a combination of SFnal invention, social commentary, and gosh-wow adventure as I've come to expect from Banks--but count me in with the Use of Weapons crowd. Excession reads like a better version of Consider Phlebas, the first Culture novel (with which I was rather disappointed). A McGuffin--in this case an alien artifact representing technology far in advance of the Culture or its main rivals and allies--appears in a semi-neutral location, and both the Culture and its less civilized enemies scramble to gain control of it. Unlike Consider Phlebas, Excession doesn't get bogged down in a guided tour of the galaxy's most exotic locations as it follows a single protagonist along a slow, meandering path to the goal/plot token. In fact, Banks takes the opposite approach, describing the Culture by flitting almost frenetically from one character and setting to another. This makes for a punchier, more exciting reading experience, but not a more substantial one.
For a 500 page novel encompassing conspiracies, intrigues, and interstellar wars, Excession leaves a curiously slight impression. It's all build-up and no payoff, and though the build-up, and the insight it gives us into the Culture's workings, is undeniably the point, this still makes for a weightless novel. Or perhaps a center-less one--it certainly doesn't help that of the main characters, the AI minds are never more than amusing, while the humans--an emotionally retarded Special Circumstances operative and his former lover, who has spent decades sulking over the messy end of their relationship--are a little dull and stuck in a soap opera plot. There's no one to care about in Excession, and the Culture itself is too big and too amorphous a construct to stand in for those missing emotional anchors. More than any other Banks novel, Excession put me in mind of Neal Stephenson's writing--the same focus on societies as systems, the same fascination with the minutiae of how those systems work, and the same ability to convey that fascination to the readers. Which is, as I've said, a lot of fun and very interesting, but as Banks isn't quite the social observer Stephenson is, not much more than that, and a great deal less than the meatier, more emotionally resonant novels Banks has produced.
- Counting Heads by David Marusek - It's interesting to consider Marusek's well-receiveddebut alongside Excession, because most of the accusations I've leveled against Banks's novel could just as easily be directed at Counting Heads. Like Excession, this is a novel primarily concerned with worldbuilding, and whose action doesn't make up a plot so much as a relentless scrambling on the part of many characters to get the plot started (though in Marusek's case the novel's ending is decidedly open-ended, and a sequel, Mind Over Ship, is due next year). But whereas Excession is, despite its length and breadth, insubstantial, Counting Heads is one of the most satisfying novels I've read this year.
The difference is due in part to Marusek's narrower focus. Instead of a galactic empire, he describes a few slices of Earth society in the late 21st and early 22nd centuries. In the wake of technological innovations that render humanity all but immortal and vicious nanovirus attacks which leave hundreds of thousands dead and lead to cities sheltering under giant force fields, North American society is ruled over by a self-selecting elite with very little transparency or accountability. Some humans are 'affs'--the wealthy who lead charmed and effortless lives, attended to by AI servants--but most band together in self-governing groups called charters which live off a patent or a piece of property, and both groups are dwarfed by vast batches of cloned workers, each optimized for a different task such as nursing or security. The story begins with Sam Hargyr, an aff whose cushy life and happy marriage are brought to a crashing halt when a computer error (or a deliberate attack on his wife, an up-and-coming politician) leaves him incapable of using his society's technological advances or its rejuvenation treatments. It then fast-forwards several decades, to an accident which claims the life of Sam's wife and leaves their daughter mortally wounded--a cryogenically frozen head waiting for a body to be downloaded into before her personality becomes irretrievable--and a pawn of her mother's enemies. The novel revolves around the efforts to regain that head--by Sam, by the daughter's AI, and by automatic protocols set up by Sam's wife in the event of her death--and around the people, natural-born and clones, who get caught up in this quest.
Counting Heads's characters aren't terrifically complicated, but their interactions with one another, with their communities, and with social institutions are. Marusek's clone characters are individuals not in spite of but within the confines of their genetic uniformity. They rely on their knowledge of the qualities for which their types were bred in forming their self-image and in their relationships with other clones--one plotline revolves around a social set whose members include several iterations of the same genotype--but those relationships are no less complex or thorny than ones between natural born humans. Marusek describes the polite disdain with which clones and natural humans view one another, as well as intra- and inter-charter tensions (which come to a head when Chicago plays host to chartist convention). Though palpable, none of these tensions boil over or turn particularly ugly. They may not always get along or like one another, but these people and groups work together to form a society, one which is far from perfect, but which none of them would like to see revolutionized. Counting Heads's greatest accomplishment is that, for all its flaws, the society it envisions works, right down to its most mundane and insignificant levels. Despite the novel's aimless plotting, Marusek's worldbuilding makes for an engrossing reading experience, and the more I think about Counting Heads the more impressive Marusek's achievement becomes. Though I don't think I'm going to rush to read the sequel--the point, I think, has effectively been made, and unless I hear that Mind Over Ship has a plot to match its worldbuilding accomplishments I think I'll give it a pass--I highly recommend Counting Heads to anyone interested in impeccably imagined futures.
- Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman - Alongside the explosion of film and TV superhero stories in the last decade, there's been a steady trickle of superhero novels, and if modern superhero stories--in comics as well as in the films and television series those comics spawn--are an attempt to inject psychological realism and moral ambiguity into the straightforward stories of heroism and good triumphant the form was created for, then these novels take that approach to its logical conclusion, submerging the fantastic in the utterly mundane. Which is how we end up with Grossman's novel, in which, despite its bombastic title, and chapter titles like 'But Before I Kill You' and 'Maybe We Are Not So Different, You and I,' the dominant emotion is an overpowering sense of ennui.
Superhero stories don't always have to be fun, but Grossman's characters--Doctor Impossible, a supervillain recently escaped from his nth imprisonment who quickly cooks up a new plan for world domination, and Fatale, a cyborg and former CIA fixer who has just signed up with the world's most famous and most dysfunctional superhero team--aren't angry or angsty or distraught. Mostly, they're in a bit of a funk. Doctor Impossible is still hung up on his unhappy adolescence and lonely, misunderstood years at a school for super-geniuses. Fatale is riddled with self-doubt and having trouble fitting in with her famous and messed up new colleagues. Neither they, nor the other superheroes in Fatale's team, can seem to work up an emotion more powerful than vague annoyance, and that flatness infects the novel, despite the daring capers and death-defying stunts that litter it. There's always an incongruity in modern superhero stories between their ridiculous, too-earnest premise and the seriousness with which they construct characters and relationships. Very few stories, in any medium, strike the right balance between the two (I'd argue that Joss Whedon's greatest asset as a writer is his ability to find it in almost everything he does). In Soon I Will Be Invincible Grossman errs too far on the side of realism, and his writing is nowhere near nuanced enough to justify that choice. The resulting book is the one thing a superhero story should never be--dull.
- Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon - Acting, once again, as a counterpoint to the novel before it, Chabon's novella is a masterful example of how to write modern pulp and still respect yourself in the morning. Like The Final Solution, Gentlemen of the Road is an after-dinner mint to Chabon's most recent, hefty novel, and like all of his published work since The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay it furthers his love affair with genre. Having covered comic books, Holmes-ian mystery, Chandler-esque mystery and alternate history, Chabon turns his hand to swashbuckling adventure, with a twist: every single one of the characters in Gentlemen of the Road, the vagabonds, the assassins, the holy men, the prostitutes, the king, the usurper, the deposed heir, as well as the title characters, the classic duo of reluctant heroes, is Jewish. In fact, as he says in the afterword, Chabon started writing Gentlemen of the Road with a single concept in mind: Jews with swords.
This, to me (and, I suspect, to many readers, Jewish or otherwise), is not a particularly shocking idea, but what I did appreciate about Gentlemen of the Road is that, though it is set in an exotic locale (the Jewish Khazar empire which ruled the Caucasus region until the turn of the last millennium) the story's point of view characters--the dour, ascetic Zelikman (who between his description as black-clad, stick-thin, with long, prematurely white hair, and the novella's dedication to Michael Moorcock, is clearly an homage to Elric), a Frank, and the Abyssinian Amram--don't treat it as exotic. It's a foreign country to them, but its basic concepts, culture and religion are similar enough to their own that they can easily find their way within it, and this is unusual both in pulp fiction and in most depictions of Jewish culture. Still, Michael Chabon doesn't write genre in order to subvert it, and despite a few other modern touches Gentlemen of the Road is a good old-fashioned adventure yarn, and a very entertaining one too. Chabon's writing is, as usual, a delight, at once distinctly his own and perfectly submerged in his current genre of choice, and his characters are soulful and vivid. More importantly, there are swordfights, elephant rides, double-crosses, shocking reveals, and a forbidden romance--all the makings of an excellent adventure. (The novella was originally serialized in The New York Times, and is still available online. This link leads to the final chapter, which contains links to all the previous ones.)
- Blindness by José Saramago - I've been meaning to get around to reading Saramago's renowned novel for the better part of a decade, and to my shame I must admit that it was only the upcoming film adaptation that finally spurred me to do so. Having read the book, however, I can't say that I've been depriving myself all these years. Blindness, in which an unnamed city is struck by an epidemic of blindness, whose first casualties are rounded up and quarantined in inhuman conditions, is at points quite powerful. The descriptions of the helplessness to which their sudden affliction reduces the infected internees, and the suffering they endure both due to neglect by authorities and the depredations of their fellow prisoners, are harrowing. The novel captures, in minute detail, the dehumanizing, decivilizing effects of a sudden catastrophe, and the ease with which people let go of much of their self-definition. On the other hand, the novel has a slow beginning and ending, and the atrocities it describes are undercut by the distancing, storytelling narrative voice Saramago has chosen. I think I'm less blown away by Blindness than I might have been because SFnal apocalypses are so much more common in literary fiction today than they were ten years ago when the novel was first published, and in particular I couldn't help but compare Blindness to The Road, which like it describes people grimly hanging on to life despite having no hope for the future, but which also focuses on the practical details of that survival in a way that doesn't seem to have interested Saramago, who was clearly writing a fable, and which to my mind makes McCarthy's novel stronger and more immediate.
Despite these reservations, I might have walked away from Blindness a much bigger fan if it weren't for Saramago's treatment of women. Although it is told mostly from the point of view of a woman, the only sighted person among the blind epidemic victims, Blindness treats women as something exotic and ineffable. Towards the end of the novel, the three female characters, who for a long time have been filthy and rank, wash themselves off in the rain, and the descriptive language in this scene is so obviously describing the male gaze that I found it difficult to get through. Saramago doesn't describe the women's pleasure in their bodies, and in ridding themselves of the physical and emotional grime that's clung to them. He describes the pleasure of watching, or imagining, them in this act. Even worse is his treatment of rape earlier in the novel, when a group of internees commandeers the food sent in from the outside and demands that women deliver themselves up in order to feed themselves and their men. Though his descriptions of the rapes are unambiguous and brutal, when Saramago refers to them he most often eschews the term 'rape' in favor of 'humiliation,' as though it's the women who have something to be ashamed of, and instead of focusing on the women's choice to submit to rape so that they and their loved ones can eat, he concentrates on the effect that choice has on the men, and the injury being done to their honor. At one point, he even describes the rape victims' husbands as 'cuckolds.' Though I admired parts of it, I came away from Blindness feeling that I'd just been exposed to the very unpleasant worldview of a man who has nothing to say that's worth hearing.