Sunday, May 12, 2013

Stealing Ideas?

Gary Gibson

Heinlein was a nutter.

Iain Banks is the best.

That's what I learned from this book.

Trouble is, I already knew Heinlein was crazy and Banks single handedly saved hard SF from extinction.

The main problem I had with this book is that it kept making me think about other SF authors' works instead of Gibson's own. Let me explain...

There's a society based on an updated version of Spartan principles, which plays a central role in the story. It's not portrayed in an at all favourable light. This can't be seen as anything other than a response to Heinlein's Starship Troopers where-in a society based on an updated version of Spartan principles is portrayed as some kind of ideal in all apparent seriousness.

There's a part where a character quotes T.S.Eliot at a critical moment...the same quote as gives Iain M. Banks' first book its name. There are also aliens with stupid jokes for names...

Ever since the warped but wittily named Minds of Banks' Culture burst onto the scene, other authors of space opera have been copying the idea with no success, whether they be naming starships, robots or aliens...

There are also obvious thematic links to Alastair Reynolds and the Alien films, or at least the first one.

So here's what all this amounts to; all books have antecedents, all authors have conscious or unconscious influences, but if, as a writer, you fail to mix up all your influences with enough of your own ideas or atmosphere, your readers will fail to credit you with the results.

If you write a direct counter-argument to another book, that book will distract readers who have read it - unless enough else is going on for it to only emerge afterward. If you make obvious reference, for no good reason, to another author, during a climactic scene, the reader of both writers will be distracted from the action at a critical moment.

One reason this is so distracting is that Gibson failed to engage my sympathies early - it must have been half way through a 600p book before I began to care about the main protagonist. Another is that too much is given away early - indeed in the back cover blurb, for that matter. Whilst there were late surprises, most of the general outline of what is going on is given away by clumsy foreshadowing.

I have the feeling Gibson could get better if he pays attention to his weaknesses and works to improve but that hasn't really happened for Peter F. Hamilton, whose multi-tome space operas are not really as good as Gibson's - on the evidence of just this first volume, anyway.

The second half of this book is quite good, from a thriller perspective and I will grant Gibson this; whilst mind-computer interfacing plays an important role in this story, it isn't what it's about, which is a huge relief, because,"Look how cool my imagined gadgets are!" feels nigh ubiquitous and really boring nowadays, as an SF theme.

Instead, Gibson is talking politics and human nature - which has been an SF theme from the birth of the genre, really. But it's more interesting and vaster in scope than, "Wheee! Bio-electronics!" He's also saying something that is a direct counter to much of the aliens-vs.-humans SF of the Cold War era. Or he might be - because now that vol.1 is out the way, a less predictable situation has been set up and he's made me interested enough to tackle vol.2 - despite my nearly quiting at p200.

So if you stick with it, you might like this one - or if you aren't a jaded SF reader, you might too, or if you just don't care about that stuff and want a 'friller, maybe this is a reasonable choice - but you'd probably like Neal Asher better in the lattermost case.

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