Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Daniel Abraham - The King's Blood

The King's Blood is the second volume in Daniel Abraham's Epic Fantasy series, The Dagger and the Coin. As fans of Abraham's diverse bibliography have no doubt come to expect, this is a novel filled with gripping characters and momentum, and it is a supremely gripping Epic Fantasy novel. The flaws that it does have come as a result of the series' size and scope, which can threaten to leave a single plotline's potential unexplored or shoved aside.

In my review of the first volume, The Dragon's Path, I said that it "ended before its most interesting elements could come to the fore." Does that still hold? Well, yes and no. Like A Song of Ice and Fire, The Dagger and the Coin has a series of political plots and struggles against a far larger mythic background. Like (the first three novels of) A Song of Ice and Fire¸ that political plot charges forward, twisting and turning about, while the larger arc contents itself with hints and crawls. The spread of the Spider Goddess' priests is certainly an important event of the book, mind you. Their growing presence inspires a fair bit of foreboding in forward thinking characters and readers alike and the actions they inspire from others are certainly dramatic. But that last part's the key. The priests are important so far primarily in how other characters react to them, whether that reaction's gullible (inevitable?) following or violent (doomed?) resistance. The priests themselves, however, have yet to become central; the earthshaking threat that they pose is still nothing more than vague whispering on the horizon.

That slowness of pace might have, after two volumes, grown obnoxious if not for the gripping nature and fast pace of the political plotline. Abraham uses short chapters and a multiplicity of viewpoints to progress quickly through momentous events without short changing them. He is adept at showing less to imply far, far more; by giving us the key scenes in a war, and making discussion of it play into the chapters and lives of the characters not directly involved, Abraham is able to get across the scale, importance, and impact of a massive conflict without trudging through its every escalade. By using each point of view to reinforce the others, Abraham is able to create a far wider tapestry than he would be able to otherwise and to make every stroke far more convincing.

Furthermore, Daniel Abraham is a master of making his characters likable. Now, mind you, likable is very, very different from blandly good. This is not a cast without depth or variation. But Abraham removes moral ease by a seemingly infinite ability to show us what is most dear to the characters and feel it alongside them. We may be horrified by what they do, but we understand why. When we are in their heads, we know their joys and their terrors. Their most despicable acts seem wholly justified, until we free ourselves from their perspective and realize the horrors we have watched unleashed. The main example of this is no doubt Geder, the noble propelled through the ranks by his allegiance with the priests and surfeit of blind luck. Geder is prickly skin personified, but his small wishes, his love of reading, and his desire to avoid humiliation humanize him. His nigh limitless power then makes him terrifying. Always, Geder's perspective dances on the razor's edge between endearing and sickening. No matter how much the reader tries to disconnect from him and focus on his crimes, it tips back.

As in the first book, Dawson is an unyielding conservative, a man who believes change is always wrong and that order and etiquette are all that hold us back from the abyss. He is the kind of man who will die before surrendering what he believes. He comes to view the priests as an abomination polluting his beloved Antea, and he will die to expunge them. He is an elitist, a man who believes that: we [nobles] have been born better (p. 274) and who says: When a low man crosses me, I execute him. (ibid) Abraham's said that he based the character on the German author of Diary of a Man in Despair, who hated the Nazi's lower class origins. The idea of evil pitted against a greater evil is certainly a strong one, and one that's been made to work innumerable times in the past, and Abraham imbues Dawson with an incredible force of character and personality. 

But while Dawson faces incredible worldly challenges, he faces no real ideological ones. In my review of The Dragon's Path, I said that "Abraham seems to have left out the part where his reprehensible character has equally reprehensible foes." Here, the problem is rather the opposite. Outside of a very few utterances like the one I quoted above, Dawson's prejudices are never put to the test or even brought to the fore. He never interacts with characters of a lower class, never has to either disregard the merit of an inferior man or overcome his beliefs. His idea of natural superiority is, here, a background part of his character. Outside of a few such observances, he could simply play the part of the purely loyal white knight; he's a Ned Stark burdened with blemishes, but whose blemishes never come into play.

Cithrin and Marcus both begin the story struggling to keep control of the bank branch that Cithrin established in The Dragon's Path. By the book's end, both have wandered rather far afield, called from that local struggle to larger things. For Cithrin, the change happens quickly. In order to defeat the notary that's strangling her local bank, she goes to the headquarters of the Medean bank, which leads to some of the novel's wittiest lines, such as when she tells Komme Medea that his notary has the soul of a field mouse and the tact of a landslide. (p. 193) From there, Cithrin finds herself involved in great happenings around the map, including the turmoil in Antea.

The biting dialogue is not the only successful part of her plotline. As in the seminal Long Price quartet, Abraham weaves economics into a larger narrative to the great benefit of it all. Money, as well as swords, presents a route to power in Abraham's world. Cithrin says of her childhood dreams that: The dragon turned out to be money. […] Coin and contract and lending at interest were what let me fly. (p. 362) Of course, as Marcus' stint as a bank enforcer goes, coin and blade are not wholly divorced; the former, in fact, might be as hollow without the latter as the latter would be insignificant without the former.

Despite its excellent use of money and the bank's structure, however, Cithrin's story suffers from being divorced from the bank she worked so hard for in the prior volume. Here, she ventures damn far afield, and it can be difficult at times to relate each step on the way to her larger purpose. Immersed in the politics of Camnipol in particular, the unique aspects of Cithrin's story are endangered by the weight of the more intricately tied together narratives around it. The threatening feeling of aimlessness is certainly not aided by her justification of a major decision as a whim, a moment's madness. (p. 285) Abraham is too gifted a writer of character to allow things to totally devolve, but one coincidence in her storyline in particular does verge on making the whole affair feel less like a plot than an artificially guided wander.

Though he stays put for most of it, Marcus Wester's plotline suffers worse than Cithrin's for their splitting up. When she departs, his role as her protector is made rather difficult, and he's more than aware of the problem. The solution seems to be Master Kit, a character from the first novel and an apostate member of the priesthood. Kit tries to enlist Marcus in a grand quest to defeat the Goddess, and, though Marcus refuses at first, it's clear that he'll eventually acquiesce. That certainty, and his continuing fixation with a plotline that Cithrin has already moved past, serve to make most of his scenes until near the end feel like treading water, no matter how enjoyable the small parts of each of them might be. As for Master Kit, it does make the reader wonder than his urgent quest, established in the prologue, had ample time to wait about in one place until Marcus finally got around to changing his mind.

Much of the criticism, my own no exception, of The Dragon's Path seemed to center on its worldbuilding. The King's Blood does add a great deal to what we know, it does not fill in every detail of its world in the way that some other fantasy novels (The Wheel of Time, The Way of Kings, etc) do. That being said, the nature of the world, and of its impact, becomes far clearer here. Every character is driven by the recent past, by the shape of the nations on the map and by the history formed character of the men that inhabit them. As one character says, the nature of history defines us. (p. 204) But what is known about history is not the entirety of it. The Dagger and the Coin is as driven by the limits of historical knowledge (p. 43) as it is by the history that is known. Almost everyone knows that: Anything could be buried below Camnipol, and no one would ever find it. It was a city of lost things. (p. 337) This is the story of those lost things coming to the surface, the causes and events buried beneath the causes and events that seem to shape the characters and present world, and this deeper history threatens to throw everything that built up after off its back as it rises.

As for the magic system, we may not have gotten to understand all of its origins or consequences yet, but what we do see of it is fascinating and filled with unsettling promise. The priests' power lies on the barrier between the truth and the lie. They can always tell when you are lying. And they can always make you believe that they are telling the truth.  The priests say that words are the armor and swords of souls, (p. 210) and their claim seems true; with their power, they can remake any man they meet. This ties into the line between being and being thought of, the difference between truth and certainty, and the difference between pretending to be something and being it, all of which are chief themes in much of Abraham's work (such as in the story The Curandero and the Swede from Leviathan Wept). As one character says, We are the stories people tell about us. (p. 441)

Having reached the end of its second volume, I can say that The Dagger and the Coin has so far still not awed me to the same extent that The Long Price quartet did. That being said, it is intriguing, fresh, fast, and fun, and its every ominous motion is on a canvas that threatens to be torn through in the next few pages. The Dagger and the Coin is so far one of the most entertaining fantasies I've read in a while, and its next volumes promise to be far better still.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cameron Pierce - Cthulhu Comes to the Vampire Kingdom

Last week, Innsmouth Free Press published my review of Cameron Pierce's Cthulhu Comes to the Vampire Kingdom. In case you were wondering, the book is just as bizarre as the title makes it sound. You can read the review here.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Publications 7 and 8

Over the past week or two, I've had two rather nice pieces of news that I didn't get a chance to report.

First, there's my horror flash Painting Nothing, which was just accepted by The Gloaming for publication. Painting Nothing was written rather early compared to most of my other horror stories, and it's admittedly not as subtle and is a bit more blatant in its worship of Thomas Ligotti (I wrote it as I finished Teatro Grottesco for the first time). Still, I think it's a nice tale, and I hope you all enjoy it when it surfaces.

Then there's the matter of Legwork, which is a rather strange fantasy short I wrote some time ago when high on the inspiration energy of having just discovered Haruki Murakami and the short fiction of Jeff VanderMeer. Fantastic Frontiers Magazine thought it worthy to be in their debut issue.

With these two sales, I have a total of four forthcoming stories, which is a rather unprecedented (but quite nice) experience. Oddly enough, the past months' onslaught of publications comes in a time when my output's been rather sluggish. Since the fall, I've only managed four stories (one of which sold to Beneath Ceaseless Skies), which is rather below last year's frenzied pace. Still, the summer should hopefully give me some time to get the numbers back up.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

B.B. Griffith - Blue Fall

Released in 2011 by the author's Griffith Publishing, Blue Fall is the opening to a series of books centered on the explosive and barely containable world of the Tournament. I had issues with Griffith's pacing and world building, but the action scenes at the book's center are damn good and strong enough to keep the reader charging through the book's pages.

The Tournament is at the novel's very core, and the characters' varying takes on it are fascinating. To some, it's a sport, a World Cup of team shooting (p. 297). A refuge for competition without limits. (p. 392) To others, it's a hive of luxury and decadence, a plaything of the rich, the product of fabulously wealthy men and women who had been born in the wrong era and yearned for the days of the gladiator and the Coliseum. (p. 239) Some view it as a chance to mean something, to avoid dying in some little duplex without anybody giving a good goddamn." (p. 500) And, to others, it has the challenge of the first of those, the significance of the second, and the height of the third. It's a return to the days when whole nations, entire races of people, pinned their hopes and futures on individual warriors. Whole wars were won and lost on the outcome of a single battle between heroes. Entire countries were moved. Empires rose and fell. (p. 475)

Unfortunately, the Tournament's actualities are just as hard to pin down as its purpose. We hear that no one on earth was out of their [the Tournament's] reach (p. 443). But that doesn't seem to make sense. Who and what is this Tournament? For an all powerful organization, one has to wonder why they seem to have only a single worthwhile courier and why, for all the mentions of their security forces, they're unable to control their players in any way. More important than the makeup, though, is the question of secrecy. It makes absolutely no sense that the Tournament wouldn't be found in about three days. Why? Because its fights are in broad daylight. In hotels and streets, subways and highways, and worse still. Because its battlegrounds are packed with civilians, and because the organization seems wholly incapable of containing any amount of information at all. Admittedly, the ferocity of the round that we see is constantly remarked upon. The Tournament is growing more visceral, harder to contain. It's turning into a war (p. 297). But that doesn't quite explain it. The players marked as psychotic aren't the only ones that are careless. Even those that seem comparatively sane have no problem with logic like: If the madmen of Black can destroy a dance club with impunity, then we can certainly make a bit of a stir on a runway. (p. 263) Positing no greater media or security presence at an airport than at a dance club is simply mind boggling in our post 9/11 world. Besides which, I just want to point out that any organization so focused on secrecy should avoid making a uniform for itself, let alone something like dark jumpsuits emblazoned with a white letter T. (p. 464) Real inconspicuous, guys.

We first learn of the Tournament from Frank Youngsmith, an everyman and a nobody, an investigator of insurance claims. In the novel's first third, he follows the oddities in a case, stumbles across something that doesn't seem possible, is warned away, and then seems to disappear altogether. His neighbor enters his apartment and finds him gone, the place searched. At the end of the book, a Tournament official tells him that he somehow managed to find and make public more about our work than anyone in the history of our organization. (p. 498) How he did that sounds like an interesting story, right? Maybe even one you'd like to read a book about? Well, Blue Fall is not that book. I don't mean, mind you, that Frank's story is badly told here. I simply mean that it's not here. At all. Frank vanishes entirely from the book for hundreds of pages, and everything from just before his quest's beginnings to its conclusion is entirely absent, an omission as striking as if every third chapter had simply been cut from the novel.

For the characters who are actually present, characterization here is of two halves. During the actual matches, things are too fast moving for in depth portraiture, but Griffith successfully throws in details, emotions, and dialogue to give us vivid, larger than life players that are, in their own ways, flawed. Unfortunately, Griffith seeks to broaden his characters beyond their sport. Of course, I'm not saying that characterization beyond the boundaries of plot is a bad thing. But it doesn't work here, because the entirety of the novel's plot is within the Tournament's framework, leaving the rest of the burden of characterization to chapter long backstory-discharging info dumps that cover the players' lives before they were recruited. Griffith's writing is compelling enough to prevent these from growing truly boring, but they never grow interesting, either, and our real questions (why are these seeming nobodies chosen for the Tournament rather than, say, Special Forces officers?) remain unanswered. These flashback chapters don't add much in the novel's early stages, when the characters are first getting introduced, but the two or so that follow the Tournament's commencing are annoyingly intrusive breaks in the action.

So, okay. We're a fair few paragraphs into this review, and I've been pretty hard on Blue Fall. But it has a redeeming feature, and it's a pretty big one: Blue Fall is a damn fun book. Once it gets going, Blue Fall starts picking up momentum and never stops. Before long, it's a speeding vehicle filled with gunfights, bravery, and set pieces that can be best summed up as awesome tumbling about in the backseat. Alright, that metaphor kind of crashed and burned. Nonetheless, watching the Tournament unfold in all its mayhem is glorious. 

Griffith's writing is always clear and capable of some very good lines (In the interims between dinners, time seemed to physically beat upon him. (p. 246)), but it's in battle that it gets great. Firing off multiple match ups at once allows Griffith to flip between them fast enough to keep the tension sky high up for chapters on end. More impressive still is how, in a novel with numerous teams and even more numerous players, Griffith keeps it all from blending together into gunfighter stew. No matter how many fights are going on at the moment, and no matter how many different tactics are about to succeed or blow up with explosive glory, it's always perfectly clear where each team member is and what their goals are. Furthermore, those set pieces I was just talking about aren't just window dressing. Players successfully and not so successfully make use of every part of their environment, giving us scenes like deafening gunfire mingling with still louder music in a dance club and traffic jam-trapped motorists being tricked into becoming distractions by the players. Like I said before, I have no idea how even one of these messes could ever be hushed up, but their creation's a joy to witness.

Blue Fall is dedicated to anybody who's "been known to open up a book simply to escape," and what a nice escape it is. While elements of Griffith's world building don't seem wholly plausible, and while the pacing of the exposition can be clumsy, Blue Fall is still a powerful read, one propelled forward by the strength of the combat at its center. Despite my issues and reservations, I will be reading the next volume in the Tournament series.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Seven

If only Buffy had stayed dead. When she fell at the fifth season's close, the show had three absolutely excellent seasons (the aforementioned five as well as its second and third) under its belt and had established itself as a master of humor, drama, and horror. Then came season six, a mixture of poorly executed trauma and failed farce. Looking back, even that utter wasting of great characters and potential – an exploding outward in a thousand unfocused and irrelevant directions instead of a cohesive arc – would have been a preferable ending place. That's not to say that season seven imitates its predecessors faults, mind you. No, this show does get back on what might, from a distance, look like the right track. It's Buffy against the forces of darkness again, everything tied into one character-trying and plot-twisting arc. Only, when we weren't looking, the once-right track eroded, fell to pieces, and – much as this metaphor's starting to go off the rails – lost just about everything that once made it worthy. What's left is po-faced, embarrassingly grandiose, undercutting of everything that has gone before, and jam packed with enough new characters to staff an entire network's worth of awful spinoffs.

Let's start with the characters. Not the main characters, mind you. Oh no. Remember when the show was actually about the people on the box art? When they had focused arcs that interacted with each other, that grew and changed? When we could watch their growth and know them with all the clarity we'd have had if they'd existed? We've left all of that far behind. Of course, this isn't the first batch of new characters we've had. By this point, Buffy'd been going on for a damn fair while, and new blood was always a part of keeping things fresh. But it's not that new people are introduced here, and it's not that they don't work. Some do. D.B. Woodside, for instance, is quite enjoyable as the school's principal, and freelance vampire hunter, Robin Wood. The problem is that there's nothing but new faces here. An onslaught of them. Literally dozens of the bastards, flooding the set in utterly uncharacterized hordes until Buffy's living room is so packed the camera needs to pan for whole seconds to show all of the nameless faces. Before long, it starts to seem that the writers have wholly forgotten how to make us care about characters and are just hoping to hide that fact with sheer numbers. It doesn't work. By the end, I was looking on Andrew (the season's surviving member of the Trio/Three Douchebags in a Van that so marred the sixth) as an old friend in comparison to everyone around him.

So who are all these people? Potential Slayers, of course. It turns out that the slayers are all part of one bloodline, and we learn that the Watchers' were the ones that kept track of them and trained them so that they would be ready, if they were called up. (Of course, Buffy received no such pre-Slayerhood training, but we've bigger fish to fry at the moment than one little retcon.) Now, the First Evil is hunting them, and it's up to Buffy to collect, protect, and train them. So that's what she does. Before long, her house starts to resemble – and then just outright become – less generic slice of suburbia and more a refugee shelter. As for the potentials themselves, there are so many that there's no time at all for the writers to distinguish them, let alone make us care about them. As a result, they range from faceless to obnoxious, and they never amount to anything until the final (regrettable) episode. In the meantime, though, we are shown them striving to better themselves (they fail) and, occasionally, succumbing to their foes and dying. Surprisingly, the perishing of unnamed, uncharacterized clutter fails to provoke tears.

Only two characters in all of this actually manage arcs, and the main one is, obviously, Buffy's. Arc, though, might be the wrong word. It implies continuous change, moving towards a climax and a new being. That's not quite accurate. Buffy has one jarring shift near the beginning, and then she trudges along, constantly pointing at the aforementioned change in case we missed it, until the show's end. Here, Buffy must go from fighter to leader. She does this by making speeches. Endless, endless, fucking endless speeches. For entire stretches, she'll make one an episode. They're awful, so self consciously inspirational that you want to cover your ears from the embarrassment. To give just one glimpse of them:

I'm beyond tired. I'm beyond scared. I'm standing on the mouth of hell, and it is gonna swallow me whole. And it'll choke on me. We're not ready? They're not ready. They think we're gonna wait for the end to come, like we always do. I'm done waiting. They want an apocalypse? Oh, we'll give 'em one. Anyone else who wants to run, do it now. 'Cause we just became an army. We just declared war. From now on, we won't just face our worst fears, we will seek them out. We will find them, and cut out their hearts one by one, until The First shows itself for what it really is. And I'll kill it myself. There is only one thing on this earth more powerful than evil, and that's us. Any questions?

That's from Bring on the Night. Lest you think it a climactic moment, it's the first of the just-discussed many, the season's veritable hordes of speeches, and it's far from the last time that Buffy will decide to take the fight to the enemy and then promptly not do anything until the next speech.

Spike... is actually still awesome.
Then there's Spike. His arc here works. Amazing, I know. It is, I think, the only complete storyline to do so. Spike, soul in hand, is tormented by what he's done. In his vulnerable state, the First Evil comes to him and vies for control of his soul and purpose. It comes to a head in Lies My Parents Told Me, where Giles and Wood decide that Spike is too dangerous to their team and attempt to slay him and where Spike, as he's beaten by Wood, comes to terms with his vampirism and what he's done. The only blemish on the whole thing is that it's such a small part of the season's overall time and that its buildup, execution, and aftermath are all but lost amidst every(regrettable)thing else. Anya's return to humanity might have managed to reach some of Spike's heights, but suffers far more from its lack of screen time and is wholly submerged by dreck before long.

The pacing of season seven is the worst pacing Buffy's ever had. The levity's almost wholly gone now, replaced with a failed sense of impending doom that just translates into endless brooding. Characters mope, motivate themselves, head out on some ill defined venture with no clear goal, fail, and proceed to mope once more. There's no sense of progress at all, not from Buffy's side and not from her foe's. There's no relief from this at all, because the side stories vanish as we progress. Then again, considering how poor efforts like Him are early in the season, that may be for the best.

Well doesn't this look like an interesting villain.
The enemy causing all of this, our final big bad, is the First Evil, the being of evil incarnate that we first met in season three. Now, the First Evil is incorporeal. That might, you may be thinking, pose a problem. It does. The writers get around this in two ways. First, through the introduction of avatar type characters. In the first half, we get the ubervamp (no, seriously). It's a vampire with far more strength and almost none of the vampire's traditional weaknesses. It also can't speak and, so, has no personality to speak of; it moves about the screen with roughly the same force of character that a scurrying raccoon, inadvertently given super strength, might have. Then, after a brief stint with Spike, it settles on Caleb, played by Nathan Fillion. Now, I love Nathan Fillion. Firefly's Mal Reynolds is likely my favorite character in television. But Caleb is a failure, just another villain who trudges about, doesn't properly react to punches, and hits really, really hard. He also spouts nonsensical pseudo-religious mush. Fascinating. Sadly, things are even less interesting when the First Evil chooses to act with its own untouchable charms. As we see in Conversations with Dead People, it talks to people. Before long, they're all aware that it's evil incarnate they're speaking with. They still listen. Apparently, knowing that it's the embodiment of everything you've ever strove against isn't reason enough to disregard its advice. Needless to say, mayhem ensues. Needless to say, it's stupid.

To show how utterly worthless this season is as a conclusion, though, we must really look closer at the finale. The last two episodes – End of Days and Chosen – are pitch perfect examples of irredeemable, inexcusable failure. As one of my friends and fellow viewers noted, the climaxes in these two episodes somehow manage to combine being contrived and being totally flat. No matter how much the writers cheat in the set up, and no matter how much we might grit our teeth and go along with it, they still can't bring off a good finish.

Apparently, Joss Whedon looked
at this design and thought,
"Yes, that looks suitably ancient."
We begin with Buffy's acquisition of the Scythe, a mythical battle axe that, we later learn, she wrests from Caleb in a bitter struggle. I say "later learn," even though we see the scene in real time, because there's no struggle at all. She just picks it up. It seems, judging by conversations to come, that it was supposed to be a sword in the stone moment, but that's just about exactly the thing that could use some prior set up. Anyway. Buffy gets the Scythe, which looks, at best, like it was from some faux-Medieval video game and, at worst, like it's from Rock Band.

Buffy goes off to research her new toy. Luckily, it's the fifth result on the first website that is tried. She tracks down a mysterious woman to learn more about it. This woman is a pagan, in an Egyptian style tomb, in California. Not a Native American, though, we're told. Alright then. Get out of the way, history, and let's proceed.  The woman gives a long speech. Once she's done, Caleb (who was, evidently, standing directly behind her without her commenting and, maybe, hiding in her dress to stay out of frame) snaps her neck. He and Buffy fight and, as Buffy almost dies, Angel steps in to save her. He then stands off to the side while she almost dies. When Caleb finally falls, Buffy and Angel embrace and kiss. Spike, who was evidently watching from the corner and decided to not intervene as Buffy fought for her life, grimaces. Angel then goes home, but not before dispensing a magical amulet. Fatuus ex machina.

Most of that, mind you, is about five minutes, and I'll spare you a blow by blow of the scene's rest. After all, we've a climax to cover! Once the final episode's first half (consisting entirely of brooding and a planning scene we're so artfully kept away from) is over, we get to the big finish. Buffy, the rest of the cast, and the horde of faceless, obnoxious potential Slayers enter the Hellmouth to have a throw down with the First Evil and defeat its army of ubervamps before they can invade Helm's Deep. Their victory comes from two avenues. First, Willow uses the power of the Scythe to make every woman who might become a slayer a slayer right then and there. This may have been a very good idea. It might have been a powerful closer, a last statement about the empowerment of women in a show that dealt so heavily with such scenes. Completely lacking set up as it is, it doesn't quite make it, to say the very least.

Hey, the amulet that random stranger
gave me with no explanation twenty minutes ago
turned out to save the day!
Well isn't that just dandy!
That's nothing at all, though, compared to the source of their ultimate victory. That amulet that Angel brought, less than an hour ago? It saves the day. When Spike wears it into the Hellmouth, it fills with light, destroys the ubervamps, and saves the world. I'm not leaving out a step, mind you. None of this is set up. At all. In any way. We get no inclination of what the amulet does before it does it. It plays no role in the character's plans. It seems like it would have done the same thing if worn by an invading gerbil. It is a deus ex machina of monolithic proportions, an embodiment of the ultimate failure of every writer that so much as added a comma to the show's script. It is the apotheosis of pathetic writing.

The plot's resolution is ridiculous, and don't be fooled into thinking that the characters save it. They don't even try. In terms of their physicality, there's the slight question of why Buffy, mortally stabbed moments before, not only proceeds to soldier on but totally forgets about her injury. Really, though, that's small beans compared to what happens inside the characters' heads. One can only assume that a side effect of entering the Hellmouth was a complete lobotomy, an end to all personality and emotion. It's the only possible assumption for Xander's only comment upon Anya's death to be, "That's my girl," said with a smile on his face. Lucky we get to avoid an actual display of emotion at the closing, right?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer started rocky, grew great, crashed and bombed with season six, and then seems to have fallen far enough to tunnel through the earth's core with this last miserable offering. The characters are gone, drowned in a faceless tide. The plot is tired and overwrought. The world is saved by an unforeshadowed magical amulet. The season is rubbish. If only Buffy had stayed dead.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Vernor Vinge - A Deepness Upon the Sky

So high, so low, so many things to know. (p. 775)

A Deepness in the Sky is the prequel to his fantastic, Hugo winning novel A Fire Upon the Deep. But unlike most prequels, A Deepness in the Sky doesn't blandly putter about the backdrop or spend its time retconning with sledgehammer subtlety. Though we are exploring Pham Nuwen's history, we're doing so in a fashion far enough removed from the earlier (/chronologically later) novel that A Deepness in the Sky has space to become its own story. In fact, the closest connection between the two is thematic, with A Deepness in the Sky presenting a claustrophobic counterpoint to the mind-boggling expanses of its predecessor.

A Deepness in the Sky is a book of humanity constrained. By the time of its occurrence, humankind has grown far beyond what we can now imagine, but true greatness – the ends of misery and suffering, the permanence of civilization and justice – remain out of reach, nothing more than impossibilities and "Failed Dreams" (p. 323). We've learned much through all these thousands of future years, but mainly we've learned of limits (p. 770). Unable to go beyond the speed of light, no culture can survive between planets and systems, and so planetary civilizations rise and fall. At the height they're wonderful things, but there is so much darkness. (p. 770) No matter how great a civilization may grow, it cannot be eternal. A Fire Upon the Deep showed a path of potential and nigh endless ascension, of mobility and transcendence if only one could overcome the dangers. A Deepness in the Sky, taking place entirely within what that other novel would call the Slow Zone, has the rises and falls without the possibility of growth or apotheosis. It shows humanity endlessly struggling against the "wheel of time" (323) and humanity being endlessly broken upon it. 

It is this inevitability that the outsider, planet-born Pham Nuwen strives against. He dreams of a single Humankind, where justice would not be occasional flickering light, but a steady glow across all of Human Space. He dreamed of a civilization where continents never burned. (pp. 556-7) Motivated by that dream, Nuwen approaches the disparate Qeng Ho trading culture and tries to meld them into a unifying force. But his dreams prove impossible. Mere organization is not enough; humankind is fundamentally outmatched by time and space.

Outmatched within its own boundaries, that is, for the novel's main action takes place far past the establishment of this cycle of rises and falls, takes place as humankind reaches something utterly alien: the On/Off star (which emits no heat at all for 215 of every 250 years) and, on the one planet that orbits it, the Spiders, a nonhuman technological race. Then there's the fact that the Qeng Ho expedition to this star is not the only one. The Emergents have also arrived, a disparate human civilization that possesses its own dark secrets and strengths. 

After their so ominous introduction, it's not that surprising when the Emergents prove villainous and betray the Qeng Ho they'd pretended to coexist with. The Qeng Ho expedition must not only struggle to survive under the Emergent's tyranny but also, in Pham Nuwen's case, struggle to find a way to finally overcome the necessity of these endless and unwinnable life and death struggles. Nuwen, though, is not the only one striving.

Nuwen's counterpart in the space borne part of the story is Tomas Nau, the Emergent's leader, who has reached his own solution with the aid of Focus, an Emergent science that allows once-free individuals to be turned into hyper efficient slaves. This transcendence through cruelty is efficient, allowing not only short term miracles but also the long term coordination and stability that would be needed to truly enact the kind of justice and greatness throughout space that Nuwen envisions. But, though he's initially drawn to use of the Focused, Nuwen eventually realizes that the cost is too high and that any utopia created with such inhumanity at its center is not worthy of its own immortality.

The far opposite of Nau's practicality only approach might be Sherkaner Underhill's. Sherkaner's one of the sentient spider-like creatures that the whole story revolves around, but his role isn't that of a prize passively sitting by while his betters fight over him. No, Sherkaner's busy with his mad ideas, playing the role of the resident and eccentric mad genius, spouting out a thousand flights of brilliancy and fancy a second and then moving on before they're all the way out of his mouth, a tireless flirting around what might just be possible without ever letting the difficulties of reality in, a job that falls those around him to face in order to make use of his mind.

It is, eventually, something like Sherkaner's method that triumphs. No matter how well meaning or ruthless we are, Vinge shows us that we alone are not enough to triumph over time, fate, and inevitability. No, for that we need technology and an endless search for what is possible. In the end, the On/Off star doesn't give Pham Nuwen the answers, but it does show him that answers are not impossible, and, as readers of A Fire Upon the Deep know, that is eventually enough to get him (and all of us?) the rest of the way. As Nuwen himself puts it, "We've finally found something from outside all our limits. It's a tiny glimpse, shreds and drags of brightest glory." (p. 770)

Tying into all this is actually the question of classification. I've seen A Deepness in the Sky often called Hard Science Fiction. That's, well, rather bizarre. Let me remind you, oh venerable and impossible to pin down internet classifiers, that this is a novel that contains a star that turns itself off every once in a while and genuine antigravity, to name just the two most obvious case-breakers. My point here goes beyond simple quibbling with genres, though. A Deepness in the Sky is not a work grounded in the current trends of scientific thought, and one could go so far as to say that that's the entire point of it. This is not a novel about what we know, but rather about what we don't know, and Vinge is damn careful throughout to divorce it from the strict boundaries of 21st century plausibility. As such, and making full use of Clarke's third law and all that goes with it, Vinge makes frequent references to the "magic" of such incomprehensible things things, be they the On/Off star (p. 197), the previous and inconceivably advanced prior dwellers on Arachna (p. 254), or even Focus technology (p. 294). There's even a mention of the Weird (which, though this is certainly not Horror in either its methods or its mindset, is a rather related field) in the form of a reference to your typical Cthulhonic horror (p. 297).

But, my thousand plus word reveling in Vinge's fascinating thematic arc now past, there's also a story here, and, though I've no doubt done my inadvertent best to convince you otherwise with all my blathering, it's not a pretentious one at all. At its best, it's fantastic. Vinge plots like a hunting hound given flight, free to go anywhere he can imagine and downright damned if he won't explore ever interesting nook, cranny, and consequence of what he's dreamed up. But there are flaws, too, and some are, alas, quite grievous. In my review of A Fire Upon the Deep, I said that "Vinge’s characters, and even his plots, are well overshadowed by his ideas" and that "once just about all’s explained and understood […] a bit of the excitement leaves the affair." In A Deepness in the Sky, we, alas, reach that point far sooner, a likely result of the novel being far more stationary, with much less stage space, and so running out of new and totally out there sights to throw at us far sooner. Once that point's reached, and with the exception of Pham Nuwen's flashbacks, things are up to the plotting and the characters. And things don't go nearly as well.

Once its fantastic opening is done, and once we've settled into its middle section, A Deepness in the Sky proceeds to trudge along for a truly incredible amount of time. There is a climax coming, of course, but we know roughly what shape it'll take from a quarter or a third of the way through, and the vast majority of the character's actions aren't so much bringing it about as they are talking about what they'll do when it hits them of its own volition. This idle and often almost eventless pacing is highlighted by the timescale. Years and years pass over the novel's course, which just seems to turn the character's profitless determination and motionless enthusiasm into, well, nothing at all. Then there's the bewildering way that so many of the novel's intermediate game changers happen entirely off screen and are only alluded to in passing. This is bad aboard the ships, where we spend the majority of our time, but is far worse on the Spiders' world of Arachna, where gaps and skips leave the villain developing somewhere totally out of view and inconsequential feeling and, because of it, undefined by anything but uninteresting blanket statements like Whatever was evil, Pedure was very good at it. (p. 583)

Characters in general prove, if not a problem, not exactly a strength. Like in A Fire Upon the Deep, they're wholly ruled by the forces around them, but here there are long periods where none of those forces are particularly evident and we're left with not much but the characters themselves sitting around. Vinge is decent at creating believable and realistic individuals, but, whether by design or by virtue of falling short, the reader never comes to grow close to any of them. This works for characters like Pham Nuwen and Sherkaner Underhill, both of which are too much larger than life and to scheming to serve as easy points of reader identification, but it does end up leaving the work without any real emotional center, with a bunch of characters that make certainly well realized minor characters but none that the reader ever truly lives through.

Despite these flaws, though, A Deepness in the Sky is a stunning and expansive read. It's not quite as breathtaking or simply excellent as its predecessor, but it still does show off Vinge's skill and imagination, still stretches out and smashes (delightful!) holes in your imagination. Though A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky are separate enough to be read individually, their combined effect shows both the possibilities for greatness and for disaster in the author's vision of the future, and each is a daring and powerful work of Science Fiction. Put in order, the two show a probable arc for technology's progress. Most of this novel is a seemingly endless stagnation that follows that technology's brief arrival, but just because the answers are hard to find does not mean that they are not there, and Vinge seems sure that technology will eventually able us to succeed at our most fundamental goals.