Thursday, August 02, 2018

Mini Reviews - Tyrants Hiding in Asteroids and Mountains

So, it's been a month since Canada Day. You've had more than enough time to finally come-to after that rager of a party (or, perhaps, in your case, just enough time) and maybe a few too many rye-and-ginger-ales, or a two-four of retro stubbies from your favourite micro brewery, or maybe a regionally-made single malt whisky if you've got pretensions at being a sophisticate (and, since I do have such pretensions, I'd go for a dram of Glen Breton or Pemberton Valley or Shelter Point). You sat up slowly, brushing donut — or, specifically, beaver tail — crumbs off your red t-shirt with ketchup chip-dust-encrusted fingers, scratching at the sweat-stained toque or red stetson plastered to your skull, staring, somewhat alarmed, at the congealing remains of poutine and/or pig tails on the coffee table across your wood-panelled basement, your throat still raw from alternately howling O Canada, The Good Ol' Hockey Game, The Last Saskatchewan Pirate, the Black Fly song, and The Log Driver's Waltz (which you simulated, on said coffee table, while the animated short was crackling across the big screen behind you) for 10 hours straight like a total hoser. We won't even talk about the dried maple syrup that's still around the corners of your mouth. Good on ya, buddy.

And you may think the celebration of the Great White North's 151st is over. But it's not. There's one thing left to do: read some awesome Canadian speculative fiction. Which you should be doing anyway. But just in case you aren't, over on Twitter under the hashtag #CanadianSFAuthors, I started a list of writers from north of the 49th that you should check out, and a confederation of awesome people from around the Twitterverse jumped in and supplied a whole blizzard of other names in retweets and comments under the thread. What they put together glowed like the northern lights.

Here on the blog, since it's time for another set of mini reviews, I've decided to keep the Canada Day party going a little longer by sharing some thoughts about a couple of books that have been sitting on my to-talk-about pile for just such an occasion: The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts and Tyrant's Throne by Sebastien de Castell.

Much like that plate of old poutine you're shying-away from, I'll give you fair warning: Here there be spoilers.

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The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

It's a difficult thing navigating the cold, unforgiving tension of a Peter Watts book about people trapped aboard a starship circling the galaxy, while at the same time the unapologetic silliness of a J Geils Band song is looping through my brain. But that's the challenge I had to deal with reading Watts' newest story, The Freeze-Frame Revolution recently, and now that I've put that parallel out there, I defy you to pick up this book without immediately having those jaunty opening chords bouncing up from the depths of your pop culture reference base. Which might make your reading experience that much more unintentionally disturbing.

The Freeze-Frame Revolution is about the crew of the Eriophora, a large asteroid converted into a black hole-powered starship and sent out at sublight speed to circle the galaxy and build jump gates so the rest of humanity can travel instantaneously between the stars. Most of the builds are handled by the ship's AI, called Chimp; though once in a while (meaning every few thousand or million years) the computer will revive a few of the 30,000-odd crew members from cold storage to supervise some of the more tricky projects. From time to time, they encounter alien life (which sometimes ignores them, and sometimes tries to attack), but there's no sign of humanity coming through the gates, and no signals from home. Some of the crew, when they're awakened for once-in-an-eon shifts, begin to become concerned with the endlessness of their mission: beyond the lack of signals, there's no indication that they're ever going to return to Earth — or that there will even be a home left, or if humanity still exists, or if it exists in a form capable of (or willing to) welcoming them home. And then they start to suspect that Chimp may be killing them. But if you've got a HAL-9000 situation on your hands, how do shut him down if you're asleep most of the time and he can pull the plug anytime he wants? You have to conceive and carry out a plan very, very slowly.

Overall, The Freeze-Frame Revolution isn't as emotionally brutal as most of Watts' stories are: its characters are not subjected to the same level of emotional or physical savagery that those in, say, Blindsight or Starfish are, and, for all the unendingness and possibly pointlessness of the Eriophora crew's mission, the story doesn't have the same degree of existential bleakness of the afore-mentioned others. To that end, it's not as emotionally difficult a journey for the reader as his other stories are either. That said, this is still Peter Watts story, which mean's it's hard science fiction — in his case, not just a reliance on hard science (though greatly extrapolated in this far-future tale), but a story that's hard (if, in this case, to a lesser extent) on the characters, and (somewhat) hard on the reader, and there's a black hole's weight worth of tension, paranoia and fear pressing down on everyone experiencing this narrative.

It's a fairly short book, just 175 pages, making it a novella by today's standards, though it would have been perfectly acceptable as a novel 40-and-more years ago. But its length makes it perfect for the emotional pitch of the story and the way the plot pays-out: any shorter and it would feel rushed; longer, and the tension would feel forced and start to lose its punch. If there's anything that takes away from the story's punch (if only a little), it's the red letter code interspersed throughout the text. With the red letters sticking out like sore thumbs every so often, they draw the reader's attention away from the story as they cause one to wonder what they're all about, or to focus on mentally stringing them together (or recording them on a piece of paper as the reader goes along) to try to make sense of the hidden message. Ultimately, it's an attempt to be clever (in a meta sort of way, reflecting on a particular plot point of the story) and to provide an Easter egg for the reader that the story could do without. That said, the red letters certainly don't ruin it — I found myself starting to tune them out after a while.

I found it interesting that the AI's name was Chimp — a nice, round, funny-sounding name that deceptively makes the reader (and no doubt, initially, the characters) think of an animal that's less intelligent than a human that we can capture and control. Of course, chimps are reasonably intelligent, but more importantly, much stronger than humans, and if they choose to use that strength, they can easily kill people. In the case of TFFR, Chimp isn't as smart as his human crew, but he can kill them any time he wants. I also wonder if maybe his name isn't a kind of allusion to Caesar from Planet of the Apes — the chimp who said "no" — in that Chimp initially appears to be a kind of servant, but ultimately he has the upper hand and doesn't have to take orders from the humans. That said, the comparison breaks down when we consider that Caesar was as intelligent as the humans around him, while Chimp, ultimately, is not.

I also liked that the story serves as a metaphor for life in today's corporate culture. One can do one's job well, but a middle manager (not unusually, one who may be dumber than some of the front-line workers) either alone or acting on orders from unseen, higher authorities who are unanswerable to the people who actually get the job done (in this case, the superior, overseer AI that the protagonist, Sunday, ultimately concludes is lurking behind the scenes), can, without warning, eliminate individuals or entire sections of staff if the numbers suddenly indicate there's an inefficiency or impediment to greater profit that can be removed. They may not kill you literally, but middle managers like Chimp can be just as devastating to individual lives and office morale (never mind the company's ultimate success) when they cut staff in the name of number-driven efficiency/right-sizing. It also serves as a metaphor for projects or departments created by large organizations that lumber off on their assignment, but continue long past the point where they have any point (or, at least, any point that people on the front lines can understand) simply because they have lives of their own, and that there's often a futility of struggling against them, no matter how rational that struggle may be.

Buy this quick read about a very long revolution.

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Tyrant's Throne by Sebastien de Castell

By way of introduction, I have a confession: the end of this book made me cry. Go ahead, call me a wimp. I don't care. You know that part at the end? Where, just for a minute, Falcio gets to talk to... ah well, you'll see.

Tyrant's Throne is the fourth instalment in Sebastien de Castell's The Greatcoats saga, wrapping up the series (for now, anyway). After fighting to rebuild their country from the wreckage of civil war, install their assassinated king's daughter on the throne, overcome betrayal, bring hostile nobles and knights in line, re-establish the rule of law, and, along the way, overthrow a newly-created evil god and a horde of religious fanatics, Falcio, Kest, Brasti and the other Greatcoats (the kingdom of Tristia's wandering judiciary-and-police hybrids) are finally settling-in to resuming their duties of dealing with legal cases and occasionally still convincing, conniving, manipulating, and occasionally strong-arming wayward nobles into the fold. That is, until they receive word that battle-hardened barbarians from a neighbouring land across the mountains (think land-locked Vikings, or alpine Klingons without disruptors) are massing for an invasion in unbeatable numbers. Worse yet: they're being led by a rogue Greatcoat. Now Falcio has to pull together an alliance of Greatcoats, bards, rangers, and even his traditional enemies — the knights and the nobles — to stave-off the invasion so their fledgling kingdom has a chance to get back on its feet.

As usual, de Castell gives us a rollicking swashbuckler that includes laughs, romance, the afore-mentioned tears, and the occasional lesson on some of the basics of surviving a duel. There's also a nice moment in the final battle where music is used to sow confusion among the invaders — something that feels like a friendly nod to the old Macross (or, if you watched it on Saturday mornings here in North America, Robotech) anime series. And, as we've come to expect from the series, it's an exercise in new ways to make Falcio suffer. It's also a satisfying conclusion to the whole affair, and one that makes it (and the whole series) strong enough to warrant a re-read sometime down the road. I'm looking forward to seeing what de Castell writes next.


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