Rosemary Kirstein, The Steerswoman

I think what I love the most about this story is the way it takes for granted that there’s no inherent power imbalance between men and women simply because of their respective genders. The women of this story are soldiers, innkeepers, sailors, warriors, farmers, poets, and have the freedom to do as they please sexually. In a delightful twist, the eponymous steerswomen of the story derive their “power” from observation, deduction, logic, and knowledge of mathematics.

The protagonist, Rowan, is a steerswoman too (with an impressive spatial sense!). Her companion on the journey, Bel, is a woman as well. In this, it reminded me of Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy which also features two women as its main POV characters. That’s the only similarity between these stories though. One of the biggest divergences is the way Kirstein treats magic (at least in this first book)—it’s shrouded in mystery given that it’s the domain of wizards who just don’t share their secrets with anyone. There are gnomes, and goblins, and dragons in the story and yet the few glimpses we get of magic definitely made me wonder about its source and brought to mind Arthur C. Clarke’s postulation that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

the steerswomanOne of the most fun aspects of the story is watching Rowan piece things together. She does this again, and again, putting her mind to the situation at hand, thinking, deducing, and arriving at the best possible options. In a way it’s watching the “scientific process” at work, and it’s extremely satisfying! There’s also some thoughtful and thought-provoking philosophical bits scattered throughout the story and the amazing thing is that they are so tightly interwoven with the actual plot that it took me a while to notice the depth of what the characters were thinking.

The Steerswoman is a story that has BOTH page-turning AND  quiet, subtle moments of storytelling. My only quibble is a minor character that appeared in the beginning, and was part of some scenes that led me to think that he’s going to be instrumental later on but wasn’t. My quibble isn’t that he did not appear again—but that he seemed to have been used to simply extend a few pages. However, this is a VERY MINOR QUIBBLE!

This, again, is an example of a book that does the whole magic-science (magic vs. science?) thing SO MUCH BETTER than Charlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky. The series is available in e-book format for a very reasonable price (apparently the rights reverted to the author, and she chose to self-publish), and I’d definitely urge you to give the first one a try!

Kirstein has two more books planned for the series but really the first book is so self-contained, albeit with some bigger questions left unanswered, that I don’t at all mind having started it! I’ve only read the first book so far but the structure seems similar to the Harry Potter books in that there are two parallel narratives arcs at any given point of time—one is the series wide unfolding with each successive book, and the other a book-length story that is resolved within the book itself. I could be wrong but I’m definitely going ahead with this series!

To end—

“I’m sorry, Bel, don’t misunderstand me. I don’t necessarily respect other people’s religions, or any religion. But the people—I respect them, and I give them the honor they deserve, whatever they believe.”

Mini Review: All The Birds In the Sky

This is a weird book. And I mean that in a value-neutral way. Anders’s writing, and the things she imagines. . . I couldn’t stop this sense of being an outsider looking into a totally different, alien-ish world.

Patricia is a witch, and Laurence is a super-genius engineer. She can turn herself into a bird and he can build super computers. They’re both interesting kids who face some REALLY ugly bullying and cruelty in school.

The trouble begins when we meet them ten years later.

Patricia’s desire to save everyone, and everyone admonishing her not to become an “aggrandizer” soon became tiresome. The weirdness had stopped being interesting, and all the details had started boring me enough to make me skim and skip paragraphs. The only reason I persevered was because I wanted to know how the “vision” that a sort-of-villain had early on in the book was going to play out. By the way, this sort-of-villain was probably my favorite character in the book. He is an assassin who becomes a counsellor and his ongoings had just the right hint of buffoonery in them for me to stop believing that he was really a villain.

The last one-third of the book would have been much better except that Patricia and Laurence have a Big Misunderstanding. Romance readers, you know what that means. Non-romance readers, that’s basically when an author uses miscommunication between the protagonists to further the plot. (or is there a better way to say that, romance readers?) It drives me nuts. Patricia becomes this cold bitchy person and Laurence a sad, sad man. It did not help that the post-apocalyptic world that Anders describes is. .  . meh. The misunderstanding IS cleared up a little later but by that time we were nearing the end and I just did not have the patience for it.

Then comes the end. Which was a little too. . . twee for me. Don’t get me wrong, I actually DON’T think that rationale/logic and intuition/perception are incompatible but I just did NOT like having this particular ending to the journey that Anders had been promising all along. To be fair, if I’d enjoyed the book more I can see how I would have totally argued FOR such a “simple” solution but it is what it is, reader!

Ok, rant over! I definitely want to hear from those who enjoyed the book!

Super Mini Reviews: All Seated on the Ground by Connie Willis

This is a fun holiday-themed novella with a super intriguing premise. The execution isn’t as great as the premise itself but it’s a fun book to pass time with.

Here’s how the story starts: Earth has been invaded by aliens. Only, they aren’t interested in turning everyone to dust. Or kidnapping any earth people for any nefarious experimentation. They don’t really seem to be interested in doing anything except being rooted to one particular spot (so much so that people started wondering if they were some species of alien plant life), and glaring.

“They just stood there. And stood there.” And glared:

[n]o plant ever glared like that. It was a look of utter, withering dissaproval. The first time I saw it in person, I thought, Oh, my God, it’s Aunt Judith.

Why have these beings come to Earth? Why are they glaring with such disapproval? Can they even understand us? And why do they react the way they do to certain words in certain Christmas carols? All these are questions that our heroine races to answer.

I loved the start of the story, and I loved the ending. The middle sagged a bit for me. The endless list of holiday songs became a little tedious though it left me in awe of the author’s prodigious knowledge of all the music! Despite the too-muchness of it, that music is the linchpin of this story was my favorite part about it. One of the reasons I love this time of the year is the music. I love how singing together feels so joyous, and magical, and Willis’s story captures this wonder perfectly.

A bit for you to enjoy:

The commission at that point consisted of three linguists, two anthropologists, a cosmologist, a meteorologist, a botanist (in case they were plants after all), experts in primate, avian, and insect behavior (in case they were one of the above), and Egyptologist (in case they turned out to have built the Pyramids), an animal psychic, an Air Force colonel, a JAG lawyer, an expert in foreign customs, an expert in nonverbal communication, a weapons expert, Dr. Morthman (who, as far as I could see, wasn’t an expert in anything), and . . . the head of One True Way Maxichurch Reverend Thresher, who was convinced the Altairi were a herald of the End Times.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I love stories which read like a love song dedicated to the everydayness of our lives. There’s something about that amplification of the extraordinariness in the ordinary—details that we take for granted, details that our gaze barely manages to register—that speaks to me in a way that nothing else can. I’m also a sucker for stories that focus on the indomitability of the human spirit, no matter the odds. Station Eleven is basically woven out of the warp and weft of these two strands, and so it’s no surprise that I really, really liked it.

A deadly, fast-acting flu wipes out 99% of the world’s population right at the start of the story. It’s a testimony to Mandel’s writing that the build-up to this inevitable, fast-approaching doom though devoid of any panicked scenes of chaos still manages to be completely chilling:

The conversation in Spanish went on in the nearby darkness. The shops still shone on the horizon; there was still no breeze. It was morning in New York City. She imagined Clark hanging up the receiver in his office in Manhattan. This was during the final month of the era when it was possible to press a series of buttons on a telephone and speak with someone on the far side of the earth.

Civilization as we know it is “brutally interrupted,” and is reduced to a barebones version of itself. Time flows back and the world becomes what it used to be before technology and industrialization convened to shape it in its currently recognizable form.

station eleven emily st john mandelWoven through this narrative of a residual humanity—that one would assume would be focused on survival rather than going about brazenly proclaiming “Because survival is insufficient”—is the portrait of lives before the fall. The fulcrum of these lives is an aging actor, Arthur Leander, who dies of a heart-attack in the very first pages of the book. The crossing over of these lives—their interconnectedness—and the way Arthur Leander himself is at the center of all these connections is one of my favorite parts about this book. (And for the record, I guessed correctly—the very first time I might add—the identity of the prophet).

The moving in and out of the pre-fall world and the post-fall world made reading Station Eleven a dreamlike experience. The act of looking at the current world through Mandel’s post apocalyptic lens, and the immediacy of this post apocalyptic world—just 20 years from an unknown current date—lent a poignancy to the story which wasn’t necessarily sad but was more akin to suddenly finding yourself becoming a spectator in your own life, and feeling like you’ve become a sort of voyeur even though you once knew everything intimately.

You walk into a room and flip a switch and the room fills with light. You leave your garbage in bags on the curb, and a truck comes and transports it to some invisible place. When you’re in danger, you call for the police. Hot water pours from faucets. Lift a receiver or press a button on a telephone, and you can speak to anyone. All of the information in the world is on the Internet, and the Internet is all around you, drifting through the air like pollen on a summer breeze. There is money, slips of paper that can be traded for anything: houses, boats, perfect teeth.

I don’t think I got attached to any specific character in the story but the writing and the wanting-to-know-how-it-all-comes-together was compelling enough to keep me reading.

[The following section might be slightly spoiler-y so just wanted to insert this here]

One last aspect that I want to mention was the way that the prophet’s character was portrayed towards the end. It would have been very easy to cast him as a raving lunatic who should be destroyed at all costs. That Mandel gives him a very understated backstory, and that the words “We long only to go home . . . We dream of sunlight, we dream of walking on earth” are central to the scene, and that these words come from the “Station Eleven” comic made me like Station Eleven a little bit more.

End of could-be spoilery-y section

I’ll end with another bit that spoke to me:

Toronto was falling silent. Every morning the quiet was deeper, the perpetual hum of the city fading away.

. . .

On silent afternoons in his brother’s apartment, Jeevan found himself thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt. No one delivers fuel to the gas stations or the airports. Cars are stranded. Airplanes cannot fly. Trucks remain at their points of origin. Food never reaches the cities; grocery stores close. Businesses are locked and then looted. No one comes to work at the power plants or the substations, no one removes fallen trees from electrical lines.

Ancillary Sword & Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword is the sequel to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice which swept up just about every sci-fi literary award possible last year. I’d read Ancillary Justice last fall and finished Sword a few days ago. What follows may contain key spoilers for the first book (and also the show Battlestar Galactica)—so, you’ve been warned!

When I’d first read Ancillary Justice I was struck by how its description of AI resembles the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica. For those of you who don’t know about BSG, Battlestar Galactica is a highly acclaimed sci-fi series that ran from 2004 to 2009. It’s ending is easily one of the best.est. EVER. I glommed on to it big time.

In BSG, there are several “clones” aka cylons—robots with AI who look human and are identical to each other and who exist in groups. So there are copies of Number One (a group of the humanoid cylon), copies of Number Two (another group of the humanoid cylon) and so on. In the Ancillary world there are several bodies of the same one mind. This hive-mind is often a spaceship which is crewed by humans and also “ancillaries” who are the ship’s AI fed into dead human bodies. There are groups of ancillaries, with about 10 ancillaries to a group. These ancillaries serve the human crew and act as the ship’s eyes, present as they are in several places at once.

Ancillary_Sword_Orbit_coverThe set-up in both the cases lends itself to contemplating issues of identity and also meditation on what it means to be a human being.

In Battlestar Galactica the question of identity is explored through two of the Cylons specifically: one of the Sixes who was instrumental in the destruction of the entire human race save a few thousand, and in an ironic turn of events one of the Eights who, as she falls in love with a human (I promise it is not as sappy as it sounds) and who in turn falls in love with her, sort of becomes a template for the future of humanity (and it isn’t as trite or simple as I make it sound). These two cylons have to contend with thoughts and feelings that their counterparts do not experience. Then there’s the humans who cannot get their head around the concept that Cylons, a creation of humans after all, could be anything remotely close to what a human being is.

In the Ancillary world Breq, our heroine/hero (I’ll get to the hero/heroine part later), is one of the ancillaries of the ship “Justice of Toren.” “Justice of Toren” is completely destroyed in the first book, save the one instance of Breq herself/himself. One of the defining characteristics of this particular manifestation of the “Justice of Toren” is that she/he loves music. It seems like such a trivial aspect to endow on a character and yet it serves to bring the whole issue of identity into a tighter focus. The destruction itself of all of it save herself/himself leads Breq over and over to contrasting and often interesting turns—the destruction of the wholeness of who she was feels incapacitating to her and yet without that destruction she could not have become one who has any sort of agency.

This is perhaps more the theme of the first book than the second. Ancillary Sword is more concerned with exploring what it means to be a person with agency in the context of a civilized world and what being civilized means in the first place.

Ann_Leckie_-_Ancillary_JusticeRadchaii (the civilization in which Leckie’s stories are set) have been annexing planets for thousands of years and they justify their invasions as their version of the “white man’s burden.” The absorption includes allowing the ruling classes of the conquered societies to continue with the rituals and traditions that are important to them. For maximum benefit, the Radchaii are focused on maintaining the status quo in the worlds they take over as this allows for the minimal of upheavals in the existing power factions. This is not to say that it’s not clear who the conquering hero is—it is. It’s just that the Radchaii have become really good at appeasing the worlds they stride into (to the extent that there are factions of the conquered who believe that justice would be theirs if only there was a way of getting Anaander Minaai’s (the Lord of the Radch’s) attention).

As to what it means to be a citizen of the civilized world, one of my favourite aspects about Leckie’s story-telling is her ability to show clearly the prejudices that inform the biases of many of the power differentials at work in her world. It’s insidious and just like real life the people of the Ancillary world aren’t even aware of them. The only one who seems to be clear-sighted is Breq. Given that Breq is after all thousands of years old AI I can find this prescience believable (mostly). However that didn’t stop her from being a little insufferable at times.

The one power differential which is absent in Leckie’s world is that of gender. Hers is a genderless world in the sense that while there are males of the species and the females of the species in the Radchaii society, both of the genders are referred to as “she.” Indeed this is an aspect of Leckie’s world-building that has been lauded almost everywhere. While I really admired this authorial choice, I honestly didn’t understand how it served the story other than being one less power differential to grapple with. (Addendum after some discussion with hubby: Perhaps the purpose is to affect the reading end of the experience rather than advance the story side of the exchange)

I was also struck by how the second book is called Ancillary Sword and not Ancillary Mercy given that the ship that Breq commands from page 1 of the second book is “Mercy of Kalr” and not “Sword of Atagaris” (another major ship/player in the book). Well it’s not that surprising given how the events unfold but it made me even more aware of one of the major threads that runs through the book: of what it means to be a conscious being. The humans in Leckie’s world find it alien that ships who are just AIs would have preferences or feelings. Breq addresses this in a line in the book which I of course cannot find now! She talks about how humans are unable to recognize that thoughts and feelings are tangled up in one another and are not as unconnected as one would tend to think. As someone who’s come to see that emotion follows in the wake of what I’m thinking, I found this parsing to be spot-on.

I cannot wait to see “Mercy of Kalr” taking the front stage in the third and the final book!

Among Others by Jo Walton – A Review

Among OthersAmong Others was a bit of a disappointment. In all honesty the disappointment probably stems from my notions of what a sci-fi / fantasy novel should be like. (And I am confused whether Among Others is a sci-fi story or a fantasy). Devoid of mindbending magic and fantastical creatures and the grand battles between good and evil Among Others is a pean to the sci-fi genre.

Morwenna, the 15 year old zealous sci-fi lover whose diary entries we read has just lost her twin. She has also run away from her evil witch of a mother who was responsible for her twin’s death. She is meeting her father for the first time and is settling down somewhat uncomfortably ‘among others’ – amongst a group of sports-loving, girly-girls who are as different from her as can be.

As an ode to books and the power they wield and as a revelation of a book lover’s somewhat tempestuous relationship with books they adore Among Others excels. I was sucked in by the intensity and the passion with which Morwenna discusses books. While the focus on sci-fi meant I had not read 90% of the books being talked about the minutiae of being a reader – of being held in grip by a book, of discovering one that forces you to reconsider your long-held cherished notions, of the fact that there are books that change one’s life and the eventual discovery that you aren’t the only one whose life has been changed, of there being “some awful things in the world, it’s true, but there are also some great books” – was all eminently relatable.

It’s just that I found myself disappointed with the overall plot.

The breathless quality of Morwenna’s narration set me up to expect unspeakable revelations being disclosed in the very next breath; however, the entirety of the the accident that led to the twin’s death, Morwenna’s mother’s role in all of it and the grand face-off between good and evil was over before I was aware of it. Again, I want to repeat that there’s nothing wrong with this by itself – it’s just that I was caught completely unawares.

Among Others depicts magic as something that could be construed as happenstance – no fire-breathing dragons and faery realms here. Miss Walton also touches on predestination vs free will. If there is such a thing as magic then who is to say that your reading of these words was not so much your choice as perhaps a circumstance already ordained to happen because of magic meddling in somewhere along the chain of events? Overall, I found the description of magic whimsical and refreshing:

Grampar’s chair resented anyone else sitting on it as much as he did himself. Gramma’s shirts and jumpers adjusted themselves to hide her missing breast. My mother’s  shoes positively vibrated with consciousness. Our toys looked out for us.

The element of magic is secondary to the story. The focus is on Morwenna coming into her own. That she can wield magic is incidental. Her identity is defined more by the books she reads than her ability to do something rare and secretive like magic. And yet it is this very aspect of Among Others which makes me question the necessity of magic in the story in the first place. The coming-of-age story could have been told with no introduction of magic in the first place. Its presence seems superfluous to the overall story. Then again, perhaps that is Miss Walton’s message – that our identity need not be defined by the presence of a superhuman ability (or the lack of it); rather it’s a conscious decision that we must make each moment through our choices.

There are also some lovely insights tucked into the folds of Among Others:

Class is like magic. There’s nothing there you can point to, it evaporates if you try to analyse it, but it’s real and it affects how people behave and makes things happen.

and

I hate it when people imply that people only read because they have nothing better to do.

and

If you love books enough, books will love you back.

Book lovers out there, I certainly recommend this for a one-time read. Fantasy lovers out there, put away your expectations in a little box and then come to Among Others.

Anathem – A Review

A while back while browsing through some sites I came across the name Neal Stephenson again and again and this piqued my curiousity. It led me to look up more on him, finally resulting in my buying Anathem, his latest novel.

Finally done with this behemoth of a novel I can say with confidence that in a word Anathem is an intellectual feast (ok that’s two words but you get my drift)! It’s also – to repeat myself – a behemoth of a novel. At 932 pages, it’s not a book which one can breeze through. The topics the book grapples with along with the dense prose requires one to be alert and actively engage with the story; anything less, and one will be left feeling dazed and lost!

The book follows the adventures of Erasmas, a young “avout” who is trying to save his planet from an attack from another civilization while also trying to find his mentor who was “anathemized” from the “concent” where they used to live. Yes, the book is peppered with words from language that Stephenson made up for the planet of Arbre where the story is set. While it took me almost half the book to become comfortable with the Arbran language, I can’t help professing a deep admiration for the clever way Stephenson transforms words from English into Arbran – so much so that at times I had the feeling that the words we use on Earth might perhaps have been derived from Arbran! <grin> Suffice it to say that this word-play is one of the aspects I loved about the book.

Here’s the second aspect which caught my attention: the whole concept of “concents”. Concents would correspond to what we call monasteries on Earth. These monasteries though weren’t peopled by monks of religions; they were peopled by monks of logic and reason. Communities of “avouts” or scholars of science, maths, and philosophy live a completely monk like existence in these concents. Entirely isolated from the outside Arbran society, the avouts spend their entire lives thinking about ideas and problems in maths and science and about thinking itself. There is no “contamination” so to say of the thought processes of these monks by the distractions of day to day life. Neither are they exposed to any kind of outside cultural influences. The avouts pretty much live in a bubble comprising only of themselves.

I find this way of living fascinating and scary. I can’t help thinking that such ways of living which exist in a veritable vacuum are dangerous. In my opinion the book didn’t address this point satisfactorily with Stephenson tending to paint this particular feature of the story in black and white. The people inside the concent are the wise ones while the ones outside are mostly caricatures of some form or the other who in the end realize the wisdom of the avouts and their way of thinking. Those who do not come around to this point of view are portrayed more or less as one dimensional characters. To be fair to Stephenson, the characters of Cord (Erasmas’ cousin sister) and Yul (Cord’s boyfriend) do straddle the extremes of the Avouts & the Saecular world (as the world outside the concents is known in Arbre) but overall the book does not really delve into the affects and effects of such “vaccumized” living deeply enough.

Next on the list of things which absorbed my attention is the Hylaean Theory. Here’s what it says: the objects and ideas that humans perceive and think about are imperfect manifestations of pure, ideal forms that exist in another plane of existence. Or another way of looking at it would be to say that everything there is —  already exists. Its existence is not dependent on our ability to perceive it. Thinking about it just makes it manifest for the perceiver – that’s all. To quote an example from the book, the number 3 was a prime number long before any human being realized this fact and will continue to be a prime number long after people cease thinking about this concept.

From references on the author’s website, I found out that the Hylaean Theory is actually a variation/derivation of Plato’s Theory of Forms. In fact, if you still haven’t made up your mind whether this book is for you, I’d suggest going to Neal Stephenson’s acknowledgment page to get a flavour of the things the book touches on: http://www.nealstephenson.com/anathem/acknow.htm Don’t let this page intimidate you though! I certainly didn’t grasp fully all the different ideas that Stephenson examines but that didn’t subtract from my enjoyment of the book.

One last thing I want to mention is the concept of multiple narratives that is used as a major plot device towards the end. The whole Multiuniverse, Multiple Narrative Tracks angle absolutely fascinated me. According to Stephenson, he based it on the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Here’s my Cliff Notes version of it: anytime you make a choice the world literally splits into multiverses with each universe playing out the results of each of the choices.

Through the course of the story one comes across many such ideas which are frankly intriguing. Anathem is a book which touches on philosophy, maths and physics with whole sections of the book devoted to discussions on these topics. I have to admit that I’m a little awed by Stephenson’s ability to weave all these ideas into one fascinating story. The fact that he strings together thoughts from a wide range of topics into one coherent and exciting story is what thrilled me the most about Anathem and I would love to read more such stuff!

A small note of caution if you’re thinking of reading the book: If like me 200 pages into the book you’re still not sure what the story is about don’t let that deter you! The main plot doesn’t start till almost that point but the story that follows is worth sticking with the book.