Mike’s Prattle


Richard K. Morgan – Broken Angels; Ian McDonald “Towards Kilimanjaro,” “Tendeléo’s Story;” Jeff VanderMeer – “The Festival of the Freshwater Squid,” “Exhibit H: Torn Pages Discovered in the Vest Pocket of an Unidentified Tourist,” “Corpse Mouth and Spore Nose,” “The Machine;” Caitlin R. Kiernan – “Escape Artist;” “Stoker’s Mistress;” “To This Water (Johnstown, Pennsylvania 1889),” “Giants in the Earth;” Jack Vance – The Brave, Free Men; The Asutra

Posted by Mike on June 17, 2010

The usual, more book notes, way behind…

Morgan’s “Broken Angels” is the second of the Takeshi Kovacs “trilogy” and follows on the successful Altered Carbon, which was an uncommonly strong science fiction debut. Looking at, say, Amazon reviews it seems that enthusiam for each book in the trilogy drops substantially, although I’m not so sure that isn’t because there’s a big switch in viewpoint from AC to BA. In Altered Carbon the conceit of shuttling around personalities from body to body was part of the shifty plot, but in Broken Angels it’s definitely more of a side factor played with at the beginning and end. Here Kovacs is in one body and lasts most of the plot in it. Second, we’re away from a more noir type of vibe and have moved into military science fiction. And I would think any serious reader of science fiction is likely going to find this genre pretty hackneyed by now, as it has far more in common with Hollywood movies and TV where tough guys and gals with an endless stream of witty one liners go against impossible targets and homo sapiens aplomb saves the day. Say James Cameron’s Aliens movie as a good example. Of course from an escapist perspective there’s a lot to be said for this kind of breezy good fun, especially when it’s linked solidly to a clever alien mystery, and I do mean in this case alien in the sense of alien, not alien as in prosthetics on a human. Here Kovacs has to lead his ragtag band of marines (or whatever) to secure a Stargate (well they really don’t call it that but…) and has to do so by way of miltary nanotech and nuclear radiation and such. Hackneyed maybe, but the story has new clothes and they’re quite flashy. Course it works for me that Kovacs is largely competent and that it’s just wave after wave of cool SFnal ideas, so I ended up having a blast with it, but on the other hand like with Altered Carbon, it’s not as much a book I’ll think about long after.

The two Ian McDonald stories are related to the Chaga universe and as it turns out I got through Kilimanjaro halfway through before realizing I’d already read it before. In this story the phenomenon where something from outer space has managed to start transforming a section of Kenya (and later many other places in the southern hemisphere) into a completely alien environment is seen from the perspective of an outsider, while with Tendeleo’s Story, written many years later and featuring an even more mature McDonald voice, tells a similar story from a woman who ends up being a displaced native, and thus the whole thing seems more personal. And really both stories mirror each other in terms of how the protagonist (and a secondary protagonist in both cases, both lovers) deal with the encroaching transformation, whether to reject or be part of it. And of course the descriptive powers of the transformed areas is just beyond belief, one of the reasons I loved Evolution’s Shore/Chaga so much. Then again the novel sequel was totally lost on me. Tendeleo’s Story is definitely major work though, eclipsing Towards Kilimanjaro significantly, it may actually be the best entry in the universe to date. Course I love me my novellas.

The quartet of Vandermeer stories here are all in Secret Life and are at least obliquely related to his Ambergris universe, the first volume of stories, of course, part of the great City of Saints and Madmen and I read them mostly to catch me up from that collection to the next novel Shriek: An Afterword which I incidentally just finished. In fact “The Machine” here is a part of that novel and probably bears more talking about in that content than here. “Festival” seems to almost be a bleed over into our universe where a very important Ambergris event becomes part of Floridian culture. Of course, with Vandermeer this whole process of reevaluating and looking at fictional events from completely different perspectives is all part of the fun. “Corpse Mouth and Spore Nose” is an incredibly creepy Ambergris moment and if the Machine presages Shriek, this one probably does so for Finch (which is in hand but part of a near future reading list). In it an unnamed private detective makes a transformative discovery. If in Shriek so much seems to happen (very provocatively) off screen, here this is up front and personal. The whole draw of the Ambergris novels for me is this slowly revealed mystery of the nature of the city and the relationship between humans the the subterranean grey caps, and the use of spores as elements of transformation seems to be an idea you constantly wonder why noone came up wit it beforehand or at least used it in this type of context. But more of that with Shriek.

Another group of Kiernan stories, the first of which is a textual entry into the Sandman universe which essentially revolves around the conflict between a teenager’s gender identity (as well as a relationship with a close friend) and the inevitable conflict due to conservative and religious upbringing and the tragic vector it takes. It ends up being beautifully touching in the end, very haunting and if you’re anything like me it just makes you angry, knowing that permutations of a story like this must happen all too frequently. “Stoker’s Mistress” might be described as a secret history of Bram Stoker’s life (and thus it draws some parallels to Tim Powers’ The Stress of Her Regard), where Stoker has a secret passenger which provides a possible perspective on his influences. There’s a segment here at a crossroads during travel where Stoker urges his driver to stop in an area with an evil reputation, only for the driver practically to beg them to contimnue as a powerful presence then begins to chase them that’s skillful and scary and really lifted the story for me. “To This Water” provides a supernatural secret history for the Johnstown Flood in 1889. And “Giants in the Earth” is part of a Moorcock/Eternal Champion short, merging the future decadence of the “End of Time” Moorcock milieu with Kiernan’s skill with paleontology. It feels less story than viginette but it’s so well drawn it’s hard not to love.

And finally the final two novels of the Durdane trilogy, difficult to talk about without spoiling the story given it strikes me as one very long book over all. If the first book was devoted to the story of a young man ending up working past political paralyzation to overcome a larger threat, the second book puts in action the plan to overcome the threat, while the third is the result of the conclusion of the second where the threat turns out to be something large and more encompassing than originally thought. And in a way this last volume kind of solidifies the whole thing as an adventure epic. And overall you’re always left with what seems like the overall Vancian philosophy (not that he’d put it this way): shit only gets done if you get off yours ass and do it yourself.


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