Thursday, May 26, 2011

Moving Blues

As of today, this blog is moving over to its address at Some of you may notice that all the comments and at least one of the reviews may not survive the move, but all of the content should be intact. This site will stop updating, and I hope I could join you all over at the Tumblr one.

As always, thanks for reading'


Saturday, May 21, 2011

Enigmatic Pilot

Everything truly dangerous is afraid of itself, and cannot resist a mirror
- The Narrator

           Constant readers of this blog doubtless know that I am a big fan of the works of Kris Saknussemm. My very first review was nothing short of glowing, and Zanesville, while flawed, was a fantastic debut novel. That this is the case makes it hurt even more that he has managed to disappoint me in such a manner with his current book. When I heard it was coming out in March, I was nothing less than overjoyed. That joy only grew when I found out he was doing it as a prequel to Zanesville, which meant in all likelihood that the same irreverent, gonzo tone that I'd found so endearing the first time around. When I finally interlibrary loaned the book and brought it home, I settled down to read it and was promptly so disappointed that I threw the damn book across the room.
           I don't know what I was expecting, but a limp, quasi-historical steampunk book was just about the last thing on my mind. The book starts off in the middle of a civil war reconnaissance mission, which ends with a strange figure bearing the familiar wheelbarrow-and-fire symbol of the good guys throwing a blanket across the sky and performing other strange, unsettling tricks. Then we jump to Zanesville, Ohio in the mid-1800s, and the events of the prologue (while they hint at the strange figure on the battlefield being Lloyd) are never mentioned again. The book follows the strange messianic figure from Zanesville, Lloyd Meadhorn Sitturd, a mechanical and scientific genius even at age six, during his youth. Lloyd and his family get a message from an uncle in Texas, telling them that they're needed. Because a free black family in Antebellum Ohio doesn't go over too well, they jump at the offer and set off on a riverboat towards the town of Freedom. On the way, Lloyd meets an unsettling cast of characters, all of whom want to use his gifts for their own ends, and many of whom are more dangerous than they first appear. It plays out as a coming of age story with one final twist that I have to admit, was kind of surprising and cool. But overall, I couldn't stand this book.
            I suppose my problem with it is multi-part. The first of these would be that it just doesn't match the same out-there tone of his other work. Where Zanesville was a black comedy in fun-house colors and Private Midnight was James Ellroy on bad acid, both very much insane and yet entirely acceptable in their own way, Enigmatic Pilot felt like Saknussemm trying and failing to restrain write something fairly conventional and still having odd elements here and there. Were this anyone else, or were it a first novel, then I'd praise it. But once again, as with Richard Kadrey, I know Saknussemm can do so much better and he just doesn't. This feels like someone trying to emulate Saknussemm, or even Tim Powers, and not really getting it. In fact, this feels like someone going on a steampunk binge, then an American history binge, and then trying to write a novel combining it all together. While there are some cool ideas, including the music-box people and the character of St. Ives (a gambler with the steampunk equivalent of a bionic hand), there just isn't enough to hold my attention for three hundred pages.
           Which leads me right to my next problem. In a book about people travelling across the country, things tend to stop with almost astonishing regularity. Each section of the book spends a significant amount of time in one of the cities that the Sitturds stop in, most of the time because it's significant to Lloyd's development, and occasionally because there's something important to the plot that goes on there. What's supposed to happen is a frantic chase from city to city as they get driven to the next location and must contend with the dangers and whatnot there. What happens instead is a halting narrative where the cool ideas collapse under the groaning and lethargic nature of the plot. Despite the occasional threat of two ancient conspiracies (both who want Lloyd because of his massive intellect and abilities), the plot and indeed Lloyd's development as a result are in no hurry to get anywhere. For all the time it took, you would think the book would get to Texas by the end, at least to set up the next book (this having been billed as a series, after all)
            But no. While by the end, there are some interesting dream sequences (or are they?) and one of the best final lines I've had in a book, they never get to Texas. In fact, there isn't even a real ending to the book. It just stops short of answering any questions. Now, while before I'd be willing to forgive Saknussemm for such a thing, that a book like this ambles along without giving us any idea of what's going on and doesn't even include a payoff is just unacceptable. Books can have no ending, but the non-ending has to occur organically. If your plot just stops and shrugs and goes "that's it, that's the end of that", then I can't condone it. 
           Finally, the book explains mysteries that never needed to be explained to begin with. I think this is the most egregious of its sins. Part of the fun of Zanesville was the mystery surrounding the protagonist and his origins. Now that the mysterious benefactor/god figure of the last book has been laid out in perfect, pretty detail in front of us, it's kind of pointless. If you know everything about the story, if all the mysteries are solved and very few new ones introduced, it's just kind of sad. For example, knowing that Vitessa (from Zanesville) is not only an evil corporation, but has existed since the eighteen hundreds and is run by an ancient conspiracy that might be from another dimension only serves to further distance this book from its predecessor. Part of this is the curse of the prequel...that any prequel to a work will only raise questions and explain things that don't need to be explained. And part of this is just the annoying nature of the book.
          So while there are bright spots, give this one a miss. It's a sad misstep from the previous nuts books. While I still look forward to anything Kris Saknussemm does, this is just disappointing and definitely not worth your time.

Still to come:

- Tim Dorsey's Electric Barracuda
- Jeffrey Ford's The Physiognomy
- Tim Powers's On Stranger Tides
- And when I can fit it in, a new "doorstopper" series with Thomas Pynchon's classic novel Gravity's Rainbow 

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Player of Games

"This is the story of a man who went far away for a long time, just to play a game. The man is a game-player named 'Gurgeh'. The story starts with a battle that is not a battle and ends with a game that is not a game.

Me? I'll tell you about me later.
This is how the story begins."
- The Narrator
            It's so wonderful when something I've been recommended to read by someone else works out well.  A lot of the places I frequent have listed the Culture series by Iain M. Banks as either essential reading, or at least a really, really cool series. Usually, when something like this comes along, I'm skeptical of it. People give me many recommendations, some of which have shone out, but most of which (like most things in my life) end in what could be called some degree of disaster. But after hearing about the Culture Novels endlessly, I finally broke down and sought them out. Since everyone suggested I read Consider Phlebas (the first book in the series and an introduction to The Culture as a whole), or The Player of Games (the most accessible of the series) first, I put them both on interlibrary loan and let them race it out*. Whichever one got into my possession first, I would read and put up here. As you saw with the review and the little book-cover graphic, The Player of Games beat Phlebas (arguably the hardest book to bring up in conversation without sounding ridiculous) by about a day. 
          It is, by far, one of the best space opera books I've ever read, barring maybe Dune. And I'm not making that boast lightly. Player of Games should be a classic if it isn't already. Iain M. Banks takes the kind of plots that already exist in science fiction, and he screws with them to the point that they're much less recognizable. He deconstructs, plays things for laughs, reveals certain key details that only have meaning much later, and in general does everything he can to tell these stories in a new and interesting way. By the time the book finally drops to a close in its final downbeat moments, the plot will have twisted and turned every which way possible, from the games and counter-games played on the planet of Azad to the possible interference by the shadowy group known only by the "oh crap it's innocuous"** name of "Special Circumstances". And I loved it every step of the way. 
        The Player of Games is the story of Jernau Morat Gurgeh, the most famous board game player and theorist in a futuristic Utopian society called the Culture. The Culture is a true utopia-- there are methods of immortality for those who wish it, people rapidly evolve to adapt to any new environment, anything about a person can be changed, there is an all-encompassing tolerance, and pretty much everything that can go right does. There's a shadowy side to it all, but we'll get back to that in a moment. For now, all anyone needs to know is that the Culture is a splendid place to live and Gurgeh is an unbeatable games master. But Gurgeh's life is getting dull. The games are all too easy, his friends are more concerned with reveling in small pursuits than progress and accomplishment, and the delights of the Culture are starting to bore him more and more. One of Gurgeh's companions, an AI-controlled robotic drone named Chamlis, cajoles him into talking to Contact, the Culture's diplomatic division, in the hopes that they might have an assignment for him. Gurgeh is eventually reached by a drone who claims to be from Contact (but might actually be from Special Circumstances) with an assignment: go to the Empire of Azad, an entity the Culture has had limited diplomatic relations with, and play their national board game, the game that governs their entire society and way of life, where the ultimate prize is the rank of emperor and side bets frequently include body parts and imprisonment. While Gurgeh declines, a blackmail plot by a drone "friend" of his forces him to accept the deal and go to the far-off Empire to play the game. As Gurgeh advances through the tournament, though, the bodies and enemies begin to pile up, leading to a showdown on a fire planet that seems both completely predictable (in that it's a climactic showdown) and completely unexpected (in that holy crap does nothing go as planned). 
         What makes the book great is its fully-formed world and the people in it. The Culture and Azad have their own languages, names, ideas, and various traditions. No planet seems generic, nor do any of the characters or concepts seem anything less than fully fleshed out. While Gurgeh's friends (both human and organic) don't feature often, they do seem like they have their own lives and pursuits, all congruent with the portrait we're given of the Culture. Even the ship names, such as Conflict of Evidence and Lack of Subtlety are unique to the Culture, though a bit of a running gag. While the villains of the work are monsters, to be sure, there's a certain twisted rationale behind their motives and methods. None of it seems manufactured or rushed-- you get a really good sense of who these people are and what their motives are, as well as where they fit into their cultures. Even more impressive than this is that the book is only three hundred and nine pages and manages to pack all the setting in without creating a ton of info-dumps. That every page can tell you both information and plot and still keep one interested is no mean feat, and Banks does it here effortlessly. 
        Furthermore, for a book about playing a board game over and over, the games are written more as fight or battle scenes than straight games. This is established early on with the board games played in the Culture, and carries on through the action of the book. Banks handles his action sequences with much more intensity and grace than most people would. In fact, most other authors would probably have either made the game a lot more hands-on, or played the sequences out with more internal stakes, so they could drive up the intensity but keep the game placid. What Banks does is that he actually goes out of his way to keep the turns interesting and yet still keep the game on its course. While I would most definitely lose, I find myself wanting to play Azad more and more from his descriptions of the game. Also, Gurgeh even loses games. Not enough to kick him out of the tournament, but where someone else would make their hero win every game, that Banks allows his to lose, sometimes to be utterly crushed, is a good touch. This further cements one in the events of the book.
        However, in the interest of some objectivity, I must point out a few things. One, that in certain places, the book slows down and does not regain its pace until much later. The pacing is normally great, but in a few moments here and there (usually between games), it kills the rhythm dead. The other major flaw involves the blackmail plot. It makes sense that Gurgeh is blackmailed for cheating in a crucial game before he leaves for Azad, as that drives the plot and makes it more sympathetic-- he can't leave or refuse the offer, because the blackmail is hanging over his head. But there is no real reason why he would cheat. He's not seeking glory, or playing simply for the accolades of his accomplishments, and he himself even says he could easily win the game without cheating. Add to this that the drone character who forces him into things is incessantly annoying, and the whole thing is just wrong. But these are small flaws, and best left forgotten.
       In the end, I am kicking myself because I don't own this book. I should own this book. I should not have to take it out of the library, though I do admit the sense of urgency and danger of late fees add to how quickly I finishd it. The Player of Games is a brilliant adventure story filled with dastardly villains, multilayered intrigue, narrow escapes, and some very interesting world-building skills. Pick this book up. Read it. Love it. I'm sure you will, as there's  precious little to hate about The Player of Games. I fully recommend this to anyone who likes a good space opera, and a good read in general.

*Which was arguably the most amusing way of acquiring books for review that I've featured here. I kind of want to do it again. Any suggestions, put 'em in the comments thread.

**The general rule of weird fiction, when not going completely out there, is this: The more innocuous a department or organization name, the more you should run away from it at top speed. If there's ever something called the "Department of Assessment", it usually means they're responsible for destroying the world if a crisis gets too large and their influence borders on the omnipotent.

Next Time: Enigmatic Pilot by Kris Saknussemm, the prequel to his whacked-out classic Zanesville.
- The Physiognomy by Jeffrey Ford
- Electric Barracuda by Tim Dorsey
And just in time for the movie and a comparison review:
- On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers