Thursday 29 December 2016

EXO Books: The Last Day of Captain Lincoln (2015)

Edition: Kindle, 2015
Review number: 1503

The title of this novel is a good summary of its content, if not its purpose. Captain Lincoln is a retired captain of a generation ship, on which a carefully designed and controlled society keeps the population exactly stable: each five years, a new generation is born, each older generation moves on to a new phase of their life, and those who are 80 die to make room for the new children. What the book is not about is the social and emotional ramifications of this idea, making me wonder how the society actually works -  there are no rebels, no dissidents, no calls for changes to allow a greater population. Very little is explained or used to power a plot (readers don't even get to know the precise reason for the space flight, though its aim is to colonise another world).

The sociological ramifications of the idea are not in any sense important to EXO Books (a pseudonym which I unfortunately find irritating, for no particular reason). The Last Day of Captain Lincoln is not really a novel at all; the scenario is a framing device for a series of short essays about society and death. These main part of this consists of transcripts of lectures given to younger inhabitants of the ship - a distinct oddity in a novel set in the future, to use a communication method which has been criticised as ineffective for years in universities.

Because of this structure, the reader's response to The Last Day of Captain Lincoln will be determined by what they think of the ideas presented in the essay-like sections.I was actually surprised by the lack of profundity - the general message is that life is good, the afterlife is unknown, and the transition is difficult for the people facing it and those who care about them. Other than that, it seems to me that giving lectures (while convenient for the book) is an odd thing to do when you know it's your last day of life. Is this the best idea for helping with the transition that this carefully designed future society could come up with?

It is possible that I'm not doing the book justice. If science fiction novels have a serious intent, their message is not usually about the future but about the present. The Last Day of Captain Lincoln may be intended as a commentary on the attitude to death in today's Western culture, and this possibility is made more likely by the use of the names of assassinated US presidents Kennedy and Lincoln for current and former captains of the ship.

The most interesting parts of The Last Day of Captain Lincoln, for me, were the quotations heading each section; EXO Books has collected some profound thoughts about death from a wide range of authors. One of these in particular, the somewhat unexpected Isaac Asimov, provides a summary of the book in his aphorism about life and death, and I found myself looking forward to these thoughts far more than the content they frame.

It is perhaps superfluous to add that I didn't like the illustrations - this is mainly a question of the style not appealing to me than anything else.

This is a missed opportunity - the basic idea could have been used to say something more profound, more involving and more affecting. As one of the major aspects of death in any human culture is its effect on those continuing to live, not making the reader care about the characters is a major flaw. (Writing this at the end of 2016, with its litany of celebrity deaths and the reactions of fans constantly seen on social media, this side of death has been rammed home to me more forcefully than it might have been to EXO Books writing The Last Day of Captain Lincoln last year.) My rating: 4/10.

Monday 5 September 2016

Jo Walton: Among Others (2011)

Edition: Tor (2011)
Review number: 1502

Diary of a lonely teenager? Misfit at boarding school? Both form and setting of Among Others may seem to have been done until there is nothing new which could be extracted from the limp and tired ideas. Has Jo Walton managed it?

Morwenna (Mor) has run away from her mother's home in Wales, and sought her estranged father, who she has not seen since she was a baby. Her father's sisters promptly see her sent to Arlinghurst, a boarding school, one specialising in sports - not the most sympathetic environment for a teenage bookworm with a damaged foot. Mor has another thing which makes her different: all her life she has been able to see fairy spirits invisible to most, and believes her mother is a witch whose powers Mor has inherited (though she does not want to use these selfishly, as she feels that her mother does). It is interesting that the school is almost completely devoid of magic - she has to work at it through acts like burning letters from her mother - unlike the spirit filled world of the Welsh valleys she knew before.

Much of the novel is about the science fiction she reads, exhaustively, perceptively, precociously, and perhaps unbelievably. Most of what she says will perhaps mean little to those who haven't read everything from Poul Anderson to Roger Zelazny, or those who, like myself, don't share her likes and dislikes. I can really see this book being virtually unreadable if you don't at least know something about Samuel Delany and gender politics, John Brunner and dystopias, characterisation in Ursula Le Guin, world-building in J.R.R. Tolkien (just to mention a few of the recurring topics and authors). But at the same time this extended love letter to science fiction is surely one aspect of this novel which made it successful in both the Hugo and Nebula awards, joining the handful of genre classics which have won both.

At the same time, it is possible to read the novel as a magic realist work, where the magic seen by Mor is her own way of dealing with her life - an imaginative piece of private world-building. It is perhaps important if this is Walton's intention (whether it is or not only really becomes clear at the end). In some ways, the imaginary world view of the novel is more interesting, and gives a completely different significance to the diary, as an act of therapy.

How much you like Among Others will depend very much on how irritating you find Mor as central character, how much you understand and sympathise with her likes and dislikes in science fiction. I found her more annoying as I progressed through the book, and the dogmatic science fiction pronouncements seemed less interesting and more self indulgent on Walton's part. This is perhaps because Mor does not seem to change a great deal, which is surely a realistic portrayal of a teenager starting a new school, especially not one with a traumatic past. The dramatic events which led to her arrival at Arlinghurst are followed by...nothing much really. Making friends and enemies. Lots of reading science fiction. A bit of learning - her introduction to the works of T.S. Eliot is one of the more memorable moments of the novel.

While I can see why Among Others won awards, it feels to me that it did not really deserve to do so. The subject matter resonated with science fiction fandom, which explains why it won. But I would rate it lower because Mor was so annoying, and also because to me the ending was trite and unconvincing. My rating: 5/10.

Sunday 28 August 2016

Patricia A. McKillip: The Throme of the Erril of Sherill (1973)

Edition: Tempo, 1984
Review number:1501

Unusual, poetic fantasy - the first Patricia A. McKillip which I have read, after many recommendations of her as a fantasy author.

This edition also includes The Harrowing of the Dragon of Hoarsbreath, and is still extremely short as books go: it could fairly easily be read in a single sitting. Of that short length, the title story makes up about two thirds. It is the story of a quest undertaken to win the hand of a King's daughter - the very hackneyed theme of fairy stories. The story is intended for a young adult audience, and could quite easily be read to or by children, though I think it is likely that they would miss a lot of what is really going on. To an adult well read in fantasy, it reads like a cross between Jack Vance and William Morris, with a playfulness with language which may be influenced by  Jabberwocky or possibly comes more from Vance.

The language is perhaps the most obvious of The Throme of the Erril of Sherill's unusual qualities. Apart from the title of the story itself, there are made up words (a monstrous "borobel" could be straight from Lewis Carroll), and words which look almost right - perhaps versions from an alternate world where modern English developed slightly differently ("cnite" for knight, "Damsen" for the name of the princess - a damsel, and so on). This could be irritating, but I found it atmospheric.

But strange things also happen in the story itself. The cnite starts with the standard equipment of a knight - horse, sword, shield, armour - and as the quest goes on, he is forced to exchange these for magical items, the horse for a fire-breathing dog, and so on. The people he meets are rarely what you would expect on a quest - he does not slay monsters, rescue innocent maidens. At one point, there is an adventure which made me wonder if the whole story was not meant to be an allegory of aging and death.

The Harrowing of the Dragon of Hoarsbreath is apparently much more straightforward. A strange young man visits a strange island, where winter lasts twice as long as on the mainland, twenty miles away. He claims that this is due to a dragon, which he wishes to remove. This is an action with unforeseen consequences. Though told in a normal narrative form, it still seems that there is more to the story than is visible on the surface; the reader wants to invest it with a hidden meaning. For instance, is it about the unwisdom of making unwanted "improvements" to communities - doing away with tradition in the name of progress?

Altogether, two fascinating pieces of fantasy, well worth reading at any age. My rating: 9/10.