As the one year anniversary of this blog creeps closer, I’ve realized I haven’t done many of the things I had planned for it. While I’ve been moderately good about posting my thoughts on movies and the like, my discussion of written entertainment has been alarmingly lax. (I attribute this to the desire to be more timely with movie discussions, since they only live in theatres for a short time, but it is also, no doubt, due to my inherent laziness.)
That said, I have (surprisingly) been doing quite a bit of novel reading this year — at least, for me. Ever since I started university over 10 years ago, my novel reading has dropped off, primarily because if I start reading a good novel, I have real difficulty putting it down, and that doesn’t slot well into a demanding school schedule of assignments and projects and labs and exams.
I never stopped buying the novels, though, and so when I finally did an anlaysis of how fast I was buying books, compared to how fast I was reading them, I decided that I had to start reading a lot more. Thankfully, this has been a pleasant task.
While I had been intending to do individual posts about each book that I’ve read in 2008, at this point I know that’s never going to happen, so over the next few posts, I’m going to give some brief capsule reviews of those books, and hopefully set the ground for individual discussion of my future readings.
I’ll start with the first three novels I read this year.
Triplanetary, by E.E. “Doc” Smith
Triplanetary is an early pulp space opera, part of the Lensman series that laid the foundation for much of the space opera that came after. In the series, it is first chronologically, although most people recommend the third chronological book (Galactic Patrol) as the proper starting point, so as not to spoil some of the surprises and mysteries in the later books.
So, the writing quality here was absolutely dismal. It was incredibly rough, the characters were quite flat, the “science” was preposterous… and yet, I really couldn’t put it down. As was said in the introduction of the Science Fiction Book Club edition I was reading, the series is driven by “pure story” — for all he lacked in polish and craft, Smith sure as hell came up with interesting ideas, and strung them together so that I needed to see what was going to happen next.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Triplanetary in general, but it’s an interesting early example of the genre, and I do intend to read the rest of the series, to try and learn from Smith’s sense of plot and pacing. I just don’t think most modern readers would be so forgiving of the flawed prose as I am.
Queen of Candesce, by Karl Schroeder
Queen of Candesce is the sequel to Shroeder’s Sun of Suns, which is a novel I absolutely loved. It picks up following the fate of one of the first novel’s characters, Venera Fanning, and while it is technically a sequel, it is really a stand-alone novel in the same universe, about a character who lived through the events of that earlier book. I say this to clarify that it’s not a middle book, or an incomplete story — while reading it with Sun of Suns under your belt will give it a fuller context, it really is a self-contained story about Venera.
These books are both set in a most interesting world — I giant, air-filled sphere floating in space, filled with miniatue fusion reactors that act as tiny suns, with free-floating settlements in rotating cities clustered around them. Flight and freefall is the natural state of things — there is no up or down, except that created by the rotation of the cities. This leads to a world quite unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before, and would be worth the read itself.
Thankfully, however, Schroeder gives us plenty of other reasons to read than just his fantastic world-building. Where E.E. “Doc” Smith was pure story and little craft, I think Schroeder hits an excellent balance between the two — presenting an intriguing page-turner, but with quality writing, compelling characters, and a new and exciting world to explore.
The premise of Queen is that Venera Fanning finds herself stranded in the huge, ancient city of Spyre after the events of the previous novel. With practically nothing but her wits and will, she has to navigate a confusing world full of new cultures and odd rituals, striving to acquire enough resources to make her way home. While this made it quite different from Sun of Suns, I did find one compelling parallel between the two books — ultimately, both of them are about the main character letting go of their obsession, their anger, their despair, that thing that was hanging over them and controlling their lives. I’m curious to see if that’s a thematic element that is continued the the recently released Pirate Sun.
This series is exciting and fun, and these books are certainly among my favourites these days. If the notion of air pirates, zero-gravity sword fights, ancient mysteries, and a scientifically plausible universe appeal to you, you need to read these books.
Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson
Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin does not, perhaps, need me to promote it, given that it won the Hugo award for best novel. It has been widely reviewed and praised, and it deserves every bit of praise it gets. It’s a fantastic novel — beautifully written, with a scope that is vast and cosmic, but told quietly through the lives of three friends, alternating moments of tension, mystery, revelation, and wonder.
That said, it’s not the style of novel I usually enjoy — in fact, the first hundred pages actually took me quite a while to get through (a lengthy wait in an airport helped with that), as the front of the book follows the main characters from childhood. While this gives a lot of interesting character background and development, it doesn’t so much deal with the big ideas and concepts, which is what I find most interesting in science fiction.
Once I got through that first patch, however, I couldn’t put the book down as the characters — now grown — started to engage with each other as adults, and with the mystery of the Spin, the event that cut the earth off from the rest of the universe, slowing the passage of time on earth to such an extent that the sun would go nova within the lifetime of everyone alive on earth today.
Anyway, Spin is a beautiful, wonderful, book. If, like me, you’re a reading that likes getting immediately into the thick of things, I still encourage you to keep pushing with this book, because the payoff is completely worth it. Highly recommended.