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.

Fantastical Gothic Comedy Mystery with Corpses, a Castle, a Creature and a Raven your thing? Read the Raven Mysteries!

Marcus Sedgwick

Marcus Sedgwick aims for a younger audience with this, the first of five Raven Mysteries books.  Instead he gets me.

The ancient Guardian of Otherhand Castle has noticed a threat to the family and servants of the castle - a menacing and noxious tail, that may be connected to a mouth connected to the disappearance of a kitchen maid.  Soon he has observed another danger: the castle, which appears to have something of a mind of its own, is flooding.  Being a responsible Guardian, he attempts to warn the Otherhands, but this is more difficult than it would initially seem, since the Otherhands are variously, mad, stupid, obsessed with trivialities, conducting gruesome meteorological experiments or accompanied by a dangerous sticky monkey.  Even explaining the situation to the one sensible member of the Otherhand clan is not straightforward, because the ancient Guardian is a Raven.  Called Edgar.

This immensely entertaining, funny book combines ingredients from every comic-Gothic source that comes to mind, including The Adams Family, Beetlejuice and Araminta Spook with items from numerous more serious Gothic sources such as Gormenghast and one E.A. Poe, mixed together with Sedgwick's own strong Gothic sensibility and baked in a slightly rusty cake tin, rising to form a light and fluffy cake that it is a delight to consume.

It is worth noting that the book deploys illustration more effectively than any other novel with a similar target audience that I can remember.  (Admittedly I can remember few.)

I look forward impatiently to the next Mystery as told from the viewpoint of Otherhand's oldest denizen, Edgar the Raven.

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“Isn't it funny how we live inside the lies we believe?”

Please Ignore Vera Dietz
A.S. King
Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Reader, 2010

Reviewed by Sesana
4 out of 5 stars

Is it okay to hate a dead kid? Even if you loved him once? Even if he was my best friend? Is it okay to hate him for being dead?

Charlie is dead. Vera was his best friend, until she wasn't anymore. She loved him, until she hated him. Until he turned his back on her. And now he's dead, and she knows more than she's told about how Charlie died. But she's paralyzed by her complicated feelings of love and hate towards Charlie, by her own guilt about what she did and didn't do before he died, and by a lifetime of being told not to get involved.

Vera broke my heart. It wasn't just everything that she goes through over the course of the book (and does she ever go through a lot), it was her almost desperate need to ignore her conflicted emotions. Ignore, don't get involved, move on. And we see enough of her history to see how and why she got this way. But I didn't just feel for her. I felt for her father, unable to fully deal with being left by Vera's mother, haunted by his own alcoholism and the fear of Vera being just like him, and ill-equipped to love or show love. I felt for Charlie, horrible as he can be at times, because I can see how little prepared he was to make any better choices.

I think that's the strength of King here, that her characters are real and sympathetic and have fully believable voices. But the resolutions that do come can be a little neat. Vera's drinking problem is solved rather too easily, as is the relationship with her father. I was able to read that as steps in the right direction, and not as the final say on the situation, but that could have used more clarification.

Still, though I didn't love this book unreservedly, King did make me ache for her characters. Her treatment of grief and the complicated, conflicting emotions it can bring up was one of the most realistic I've read in a long time. And I will remember it, and especially Vera, for even longer.