Noumenon, by Marina J. Lostetter

Noumenon Marina J. LostetterMy path to this book was a meandering one. In my day job I repair computers: recover data, replace screens, cleanup malware, that sort of thing. A few years back a woman came into my shop when an external hard drive of hers had failed. Unfortunately, the mechanical damage to the drive was too extensive for me to be able to recover any data in my shop, so I recommended a place out of state she could send the drive to. This usually happens once or twice a week, and I promptly forgot about the whole encounter.

Flash forward to a few months ago, I’m walking through the local Barnes and Noble when I see a stack of signed paperbacks on the Sci-Fi shelf. Usually this happens when a writer visits a bookstore for a signing, or is just in town for whatever reason. They’ll sign their books on the shelf, and then B&N staff will slap those “Signed by the author” stickers on them. It’s a fun little treat for readers, and it helps to move the merchandise. I pick up a copy and flip it over, read some blurbs, check out the cover art, etc. It looks promising. Harper Voyager has been on my radar as a pretty solid SF imprint since they published The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet a couple years back. And this writer’s name is just really familiar for whatever reason.

I pull out my work phone and start googling her because I’m sure I’ve heard of her before, but as I’m typing it suggests a contact in my phone before the usual google supplied results. Wait, do I know her? And then it clicks. She must be a client of mine, so I pull up my client records and realize she came into my shop a few years back to get some data recovered. Well, that’s fucking cool. I’m going to buy this book and check it out.

Turns out, it’s pretty great.

Marina J. LostetterThe basic setup of the novel is that of clones aboard a generation ship embarking on a voyage into the unknown to check out an anomalous star. They’re thinking it might be a Dyson Sphere, or some new stellar phenomena. The thing I found the most interesting about this book is that the main setup is treated more as a setting than a story. In most BDO novels I’ve read, it’s all about the BDO itself. In Noumenon, the real story deals more with the clones, their struggles aboard the ship, and the difficulties and different yet familiar societal problems that emerge from this unique situation. The narrative is told through a series of vignettes that cover a few hundred years, or two thousand, depending on your relativity. Sometimes hopeful, sometimes dystopic, these vignettes build on one another to tell a larger story about humanity, nature vs. nurture, hypocrisy, prejudice, and the complications of sentience.

Some of these stories resonated more with me than others. I was also impressed with the scope of themes that were covered. In some ways I was reminded of the structure of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, or the more recent Old Man’s War novels (The Human Division, and The End of All Things) built out of several stories or novellas. The comparisons to Alastair Reynolds’ House of Suns will also be obvious to readers, and some similar themes are addressed in that novel, but Lostetter’s prose and approach is so different from Reynolds’ that I don’t really find it an apt comparison.

Noumenon Infinity Marina J. LostetterAll in all I’d say Noumenon is the messy, chaotic history between A and B and C. The history that usually gets swept under the rug, or left between the lines in the history books. It’s a terrific story, and I’d highly recommend it.

Noumenon Infinity, the follow-up, comes out August 4th. I’ll definitely be picking up a copy, but I’ve got to be honest, I’m going to buy the UK edition, because holy shit that is one gorgeous cover. I mean, look at it. Beautiful.

Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks: Peripheral Storytelling and the Politics of Genre

Consider PhlebasIn my introductory essay on Iain Banks and the Culture, Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Principle of Charity, I mention that he approached fiction with a certain kind of duality, representing and considering ideologies and viewpoints antagonistic with one another. In Consider Phlebas, his first published novel in the series, he takes this to an extreme, showing us the Culture almost entirely from an antagonistic point of view before giving readers a glimpse of the positives. It went way over my head the first time I read it. I think I didn’t know how to read it exactly, or even what it was. Only after moving on to The Player of Games and finishing it, did Consider Phlebas start to take form and make a measure of sense to me. It’s not without its problems, but what it does well, it does very well and I have to commend it. Iain Banks is an incredibly nuanced, subtle writer, and he accomplished something unique with Consider Phlebas.

The narrative begins with a short prologue detailing the birth, escape, and subsequent pursuit of a Culture Mind in a rare time of war, followed by a particularly grim introduction to our protagonist, Bora Horza Gobuchul, in which he is slowly drowning in a prison cell via sewage and waste created as a result of a banquet held in his “honor”. It’s a startling introduction, and when I think back on the series as a whole, one of its most striking moments.

After that introduction the story appears to be a fairly standard space opera, populated with the familiar tropes of the genre: a cast of bizarre aliens, strange locales, and a lone protagonist with an overly simplistic moral code fighting for their life through a series of perilous adventures. However, when Banks is involved, things are never that simple, especially with regards to genre tropes. Under this familiar surface, Consider Phlebas is a much more nuanced story. The narrative is structured somewhat like a sixteenth century Spanish picaresque novel, a form of episodic storytelling in which a “picaroon” (rogue or untrustworthy anti-hero) rambles from place to place, stumbling into situations that are ultimately used to satirize the society in which he lives. By combining the form of picaresque with the notoriously conservative, highly American genre of space opera, Banks carved out a niche to comment on space opera and politics. When it was published in 1987, Consider Phlebas is arguably the spark that initiated the New Space Opera fire, effectively reinventing a long stagnant genre and taking it in a more literary minded, left leaning, progressive direction. Writers like Alastair Reynolds, Ken MacLeod, and Peter F. Hamilton continued the change forward from there. There have been several others over the years, but most recently progressive American writers like John Scalzi, James S.A. Corey, and Becky Chambers have helped keep New Space Opera going well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, alongside the British writers that continue in that tradition.

Iain BanksHistorically, space opera has been a simplistic genre. In fact, before being adopted by publishers and fans, the term “space opera” was used pejoratively to describe the simplicity of the drama. Think: soap opera. Space opera protagonists usually travel around correcting wrongs and promoting an idealized version of American morality, while their views and opinions were confirmed for the reader. In Consider Phlebas, Banks contrasts this by having Horza fight alongside the objectively-in-the-wrong Idirans, as they wage a crusade-esqe holy war against the Culture, a post-scarcity, multi species, utopian society run by artificially intelligent machines known as Minds. The Culture are arguable the “good guys”. For the most part the Culture keeps to themselves and does whatever they want, but Contact division, and within it “Special Circumstances” goes around interfering with other societies, nudging them here and there in an effort to slowly bring them alongside the Culture’s way of thinking. Idirans win arguments by killing and conquering the opposition, the Culture wins them by showing its opposition why its views are correct so effectively, they can’t help but adopt them as their own. Horza despises the Culture, and everything they stand for. He comes from a species that is mostly extinct, possibly as a result of interference in its past. He doesn’t believe artificial intelligence is life, sees the Culture as hedonistic gluttons who take no active role in their existence, sees the Idirans as the lesser of two evils, and decides to fight on “the side of life”. The enemy of his enemy is his friend.

“Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you (319-321).”
– T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

I think Consider Phlebas operates surprising well as meta commentary on belief, hubris, and the politics of genre. There is a lot to be discovered between the lines in this book. The title itself is quoted from a line of the T.S. Elliot poem The Waste Land, which serves as a warning against hubris and a call for historical contemplation. The preceding line in the poem is also sourced for another Culture novel title, Look to Windward, which deals heavily with the far reaching impact of the Idiran/Culture war. I’ll be touching on the connection between these two novels when I write about Look to Windward in the coming months. They are possibly the most connected of any two in the series, but the threads are still tertiary. Excellent sources for these between-the-lines details are Simone Caroti’s “The Culture series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction” as well as Paul Kincaid’s “Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Iain M. Banks”. These are books I’ll be recommending frequently. Both Caroti’s and Kincaid’s insights are numerous and have dramatically expanded my perspective on each of the Culture novels.

Consider Phlebas is a strange introduction to, and not necessarily an accurate representation of, the rest of the series. The main narrative, while entertaining, is a distraction of sorts from the more interesting story happening between the lines, where the book sneakily introduces the reader to the Culture by peripheral means. It handles a huge amount of world-building, and is multilayered and complex. It’s one thing on your first read, and something else entirely on subsequent visits. It isn’t the best Culture novel, and will usually show up on the lower end of most fan rankings.

Personally, I think it’s a fantastic entry once you know what it is and how to read it. It has some pacing problems in the second half, and a painfully uneventful, tension building ~80 pages near the end, but I think the lack of love it receives in contrast with the Culture novels it preceded is mostly a result of being almost universally misunderstood. I find that a large chunk of its value lies in what it contributes to the experience of reading the rest of the series, and I think it’s a mistake to reduce or negate its contribution.

My favorite sections of the book are the short “state of play” interlude chapters, with the character Fal ‘Ngeestra, one of the handful of Culture citizens who can occasionally match the strategic intelligence of the Minds that run the Culture. Her conversations with the drone Jase give us a nice introverted, contemplative respite from the more adventurous, swashbuckling chapters of the main narrative. Fal ‘Ngeestra holds up ideas and turns them, thinking about them from all angles. She’s able to comment on the story as it’s happening, almost like the narrator in Don Quixote or other epic picaresque novels. She serves as just a step below an omniscient point of view, and our only glimpse into the proper Culture society in the book. She speculates about the other characters, revealing exposition about the Changer race, the Idirans, and the history of the Culture itself. She’s able to see the Culture from the perspective of the Idirans, and the Idirans from Borza’s perspective. She thinks the way that Banks writes, examining ideas from multiple sides, poking holes in arguments and patching them until they’re watertight.

“We are a mongrel race, our past a history of tangles, our sources obscure, our rowdy upbringing full of greedy, short-sighted empires and cruel wasteful diasporas… “

“…We are such pathetic, fleshy things, so short lived, swarming and confused. And dull, just so stupid, to an Idiran.”

The dynamic play between these different veins of Consider Phlebas truly embody Banks’ style of storytelling, and represent the antisyzygy that underlies his writing. He knows readers want the action and adventure, and he delivers in strides, but still finds a way to bury the soul of the story on the periphery of the chaos. This is how the Culture is introduced to us, hidden in the horse, wheeled through the gate because it’s large and exciting.

The Player of GamesAll that being said, Consider Phlebas is a weird way to start a series. If you’re not feeling up for a long novel that is best, and sometimes only, appreciated through a close analysis of its themes and commentary for your first glimpse of a series, The Player of Games can genuinely serve as a better entry point. Since the Culture novels are almost entirely standalone, you can cycle back to Consider Phlebas at any point after you’ve read some others without missing anything particularly crucial. However, if you’re a patient reader, and can intentionally postpone gratification a little, it’s better to start the series here, just know that the best is still to come.

 

Up next: The Player of Games, my personal favorite in the series, where we’ll become intimately acquainted with life in the Culture: Orbitals, Minds, Drones, Contact, Special Circumstances, etc… and of course the empire and game of Azad.


Culture Essay Index:

Iain Banks’ Culture series: Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Principle of Charity

Consider Phlebas: Peripheral Storytelling and the Politics of Genre


Science Fiction: Five Short Reviews

Under The Skin Michael FaberUnder The Skin, by Michael Faber
Literary science fiction that is compulsively creepy and disturbing in all the right ways. Orwellian by way of Ursula Le Guin or Octavia Butler. More Animal Farm than 1984. I think fans of Jeff VanderMeer’s style of New Weird fiction would have a lot to enjoy here.

It’s a moral story, without particularly taking any one side, mostly just intended to provoke some discussion I imagine. It could easily be interpreted as an animal rights activism novel, but I’m not so sure it actually is. I thouroghly enjoyed Under the Skin; very unnerving and hard to put down.

I read this before watching the film, and loved both. They are as different from one another as they are similar.

 

The Affirmation Christopher PriestThe Affirmation, by Christopher Priest

I genuinely can’t decide if I liked this or not. I certainly enjoyed reading it, but doing so was somewhat like losing my mind. I also have a suspicion that Priest crafted the novel precisely to elicit this effect on the reader, which makes me respect him even more in an odd way. All in all, I’m very confused, but I still enjoyed it.

I have a theory that this book inspired Haruki Murakami to write Sputnik Sweetheart. There are just so many similarities in story, narrative, and theme between the two novels to ignore. Plus, I kind of love the idea of Murakami reading Christopher Priest. Maybe I’ve invented this whole thing.

The closest conclusion I can come to is that The Affirmation is a story about mental illness, or maybe alternate realities, or maybe self identity, or maybe something else entirely. I really don’t know, but it was good and I’d read it again.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet Becky ChambersThe Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

I’ve never read a book quite like this. There wasn’t much of a story at all, but it was still engaging just on the strength of the characters alone. Each chapter felt like a moral-of-the-week episode in a nineties TV series. The overall arc is more about the characters and how their relationships change over time than any actual describable narrative.

That all sounds kind of negative when I read it back, but it’s not meant to be. Mostly I’m just impressed with how well it worked here, because I think something like this would be incredibly difficult to pull off.

It’s a comfort read, like a warm bowl of soup, but with fantastic world-building and great characters. This universe is very lived in, and extremely ripe for more stories in the future.

Chasm City Alastair ReynoldsChasm City, by Alastair Reynolds

“How long would you have to live; how much good would you need to do, to compensate for one act of pure evil you’d committed as a younger man?”

Very, very good. One of those books that I massively enjoy having read, past tense, but ultimately didn’t enjoy while reading. It slogs, and turns its wheels for about 200 pages in the middle, but I see now why it was necessary, and it ultimately pays off in strides.

Strong similarities to Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons, except that it didn’t rely on a reveal in the same way, instead slowly telling the reader what is afoot. It’s subtle, but I strongly suspect that it’s intentional. I picked up on it around 1/3 of the way through, and was initially disappointed, thinking that it might be a shocking twist ending that was too obvious and heavy handed. However, my initial assessment of the reality of the situation I thought I comprehended early on, was incomplete and less than half of the true picture.

Ultimately, this novel is about redemption. It’s a personal favorite of mine, and I suggest it to everyone.

Saturn Run John Sandford CteinSaturn Run, by John Sandford and Ctein

It’s been a while since I’ve read some good old fashioned hard science fiction. Hard SF novels are a different sort of beast than most novels. I find they usually need to be approached differently and appreciated using a different set of metrics.

It doesn’t have to be the case, but a lot of times hard SF will lose itself in the details, which can be fun if you’re interested in those specific details. Other times, hard SF will sacrifice an ungodly amount of character development for those same details, which is a little less forgivable, but it’s amazing what I can forgive in the narrative department when I’m really into the “hard” part of the science.

Saturn Run, unfortunately, falls victim to both of these pitfalls, but you know what? I don’t care, I’m letting it slide. Different metrics for different books. It describes in detail one of the coolest conceptual heatsinks that I’ve ever come across. It’s not particularly well written in the traditional sense, and the prose is merely passable, but the conceptual stuff here is fascinating, and it’s really fun once it gets going.

I do think the novel nailed the sort of macro decisions that humanity would make in this sort of first contact scenario, but at a micro level the individual characters were not very believable to me. The story also dragged a lot in the middle. I would’ve enjoyed it much more if it were tightened up a little. But, it had a stellar second half and it really stuck the landing. Somebody could come along and adapt this into a fantastically entertaining smart summer blockbuster a la Interstellar.

The Promise of the Child, by Tom Toner

I haven’t seen worldbuilding of this breadth and scale since Iain M. Banks’ Culture series, Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, or Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space. That’s not to say that the story is anything like those other series, but the worldbuilding is just as expansive as they are, if not more. It’s just absolutely massive, and well thought through. I think when all is said and done The Amaranthine Spectrum will stand at a similar level as those Culture/New Sun/Revelation Space novels in the canon of great SF works.

This is far future Speculative Fiction with tight roots to its past. A lot of that past is still the future for us, some is closer to our present, and some is our past both recent and ancient. The future of 14,6xx that Toner has assembled is fascinating. Humanity has fractured into a prism of species, spread across the galaxy. There are various wars between them and among them. At the top of the power structure and social hierarchy are the Amaranthine, the descendants of humanity who have unlocked some of the secrets of immortality. But, a new secret has been unlocked by a member of a lower – as far as the Amaranthine are concerned – Prism species, and a new challenger to the Amaranthine’s rule is gaining traction among some of their factions. Things are changing for the first time in a long time.

The story starts in the deep end, and you have to learn to swim in this world to understand what’s going on. I’ve always been a big fan of this approach to storytelling. It’s more challenging, but it makes the story that much more rewarding, the journey that much more exciting as you unpack things in your mind. This learning-to-swim stage lasts for around 200 pages or so, and then you’ve firmly got it and you’re swept away in the novel. There’s a lot of mystery, secretive dealings and espionage in the story, which always adds a fun layer for me. The prose is fluid and beautiful, the characters and their societies well rounded and interesting. The narrative throughout is subtle and requires some focus at times. This isn’t a book that spoon feeds the reader; you have to pay attention, but your attention is rewarded.

This first book in the series feels a little disjointed at times on a first read. Mostly I think it had a lot of heavy lifting to do, introducing the reader to this massive universe, and telling a compelling story at the same time, are difficult tasks to do simultaneously. It mostly succeeds at both, but sometimes I felt a little lost in it. I believe it will age very well when taken in context with the series as a whole. Flipping back and rereading parts after finishing, I think it has huge potential for future rereads. This is one of those books that you get a lot more out of the second time through, when the worldbuilding is already established, and you can just enjoy the story and let it take you on a journey.

I’m excited for the second book in this series for the same reason: a lot of the heavily lifting has already been done. I can’t wait to see where this all goes. It’s new and fascinating territory.

House of Suns, by Alastair Reynolds

This is my first Alastair Reynolds standalone novel. Having previously absorbed everything remotely related to his Revelation Space series over the last few years, I wanted to dip my toes into some of his one-off writing before digging into his newer series work. For some reason this book has been out of print in the US for a few years, making a physical copy a little tedious to come by, but I did eventually find one. Come on ACE, it’s time for a reprint!

Coming from the RS camp, I was surprised with the linearity of this story. The whole thing is written in first person, with two main point of view characters in alternating chapters. Every 6-7 chapters brings a flashback interjection that slowly reveals details and moves everything forward. I suppose adding unnecessary linear complexity to a story that already has so many strange new concepts in it, might’ve been overkill on the reader. As a result, the story flows nicely and was easier to follow than Revelation Space. I’d say this would be a terrific jumping in point if you were interested in checking out Reynolds’ work.

House of Suns is epic in every way the word can be defined. The scale of some of the conceptual elements was so broad that I initially had some difficulty finding a handhold to comprehend them. I felt like it stretched my mind a little bit just reaching for a way to relate. The best Science Fiction always does this for me in some way. It exists in that sweet spot directly between what you currently understand, and what you are capable of understanding. The best stories can be a linchpin, connecting you to your future, slightly more experienced self. I suppose this is true of all fiction, but I find it particularly so with the genres of Speculative Fiction, which are after all, more interested in investigating the “other” than fiction firmly rooted in the realm of realism often is.

The amount of mind-bending concepts Reynolds managed to pack into this novel while maintaining a coherent story is impressive: Star dams, ring worlds, causality, time dilation, artificial intelligence, solar system relocation, ancient technology, the nature of memory, longevity, cloning, wormholes, civilizational “turnover”, etc. It’s simply exploding with these huge ideas, but the story is never sacrificed in favor of them. It churns along, always moving forward.

Reynolds occasionally gets some slack for his character development or lack thereof, each character’s voice tending to just be the author’s voice, etc. So, when I realized that most of the characters in House of Suns were literal clones of the same character, I rolled my eyes a little and thought “Well, I guess that’s one way to get around the criticism.” But, it actually worked very well here.

These clone characters are “shatterlings” with indefinitely long lifespans that have drifted from their source individual, and each other, for 6 million years (epic scale!) and are essentially unique individuals as a result of their differing life experiences. Because they are clones, instead of noticing their similarities, you’re drawn toward their differences. The ways in which they are similar just reinforce the fact that they started from a near identical point. It’s a brilliant way to reframe the reader’s perception regarding character work without actually changing the writer’s approach to characterization. It feels very self-aware, and it’s clever as hell. It’s almost like he’s acknowledging his critics, but saying “See, it’s not necessarily bad, it’s just how you look at it”. Personally, the character work in Reynolds’ books has never bothered me, but if it bothered you, I think you’ll find this one has a refreshingly different take.

The story concludes satisfactorily, but leaves some things open for more. I would absolutely love another novel set in this universe, and the point at which this novel arrives could be seen as a great widening of that universe’s potential scope. It’s ripe for more tales, and I hope we get them. Reynolds has said: “I would like to return to this universe but I have no fixed plans for when that will happen.” Fingers crossed that those plans will materialize soon!