New Old Friends

Books are old friends. Here is where I mention the new ones I've made.

Month: June, 2012

Railsea by China Miéville

I can understand, a little bit, how Gabe and Tycho feel.

I’m not saying that I don’t like China Miéville; he is in fact one of my favorite authors and I find his work endlessly creative even though it has its shortcomings.  But I also can’t blame them for wanting to punch him in the face for using the word “moldywarpe”.  It does smack of über-cuteness and smug self-awareness.  And I don’t care, because the book totally makes up for it.

Sham Yes ap Soorap is an apprentice to the doctor aboard the moletrain Medes, on the hunt through the railsea.  Bear with me here: the world is nothing but earth and rocks; there is no ocean.  In its place vast tracts of land spread out between the islands of rock where the cities are, crisscrossed with countless railroads.  All commerce rides the rails, and not just on steam trains; some trains are pulled by animals, some run on clockwork or by wind, and a shunned few are slave-galleys.  Nobody will set foot on the ground here; the superstitious believe it to be poisonous to the touch, but really it’s just teeming with nasty burrowing critters who will tear you limb from limb, from the vicious naked mole rats (dog-sized, natch), to six-foot earwigs, to owls the size of a house who can pick up a train car and tear it to bits with their talons.  The grandest of all, though, are the great moles, who are hunted by the moling trains for their skin, meat, and blubber.  The Medes‘ captain is in pursuit of the biggest of them all, a bone-colored great southern moldywarpe named Mocker-Jack, who took her arm long ago.  Yes, it’s Moby Dick.  On a train.

Railsea is the second of Miéville’s works written for a younger audience, and it shares a number of characteristics with Un Lun Dun, his first.  The presence of a young protagonist goes without saying, but a general love with words and wordplay runs all through both works.  Railsea is a more mature work, though; characters get drunk and carouse, and wake up hung over; animals (obviously) and characters die; the descriptions of the railsea’s inhabitants, human and otherwise, is generally frightening and occasionally terrifying.  Where Un Lun Dun nods to The Phantom Tollbooth, Railsea nods to The Odyssey, and when Sham is taken by pirates it’s not the least bit romantic or swashbuckling; he is treated exactly as you’d expect a captive of real pirates to be treated.  Miéville doesn’t dwell on gory details, but he doesn’t pull a lot of punches either.  The result is a well-balanced piece of fiction; generally light-hearted, yet with a bit of shadow always lurking just out of reach and occasionally flashing directly into focus.  A mature ten-year-old can probably handle this one, whereas I’d recommend Un Lun Dun for anyone whose reading vocabulary is up to par.  It’s not as deep or weighty as, say, Embassytown, but it’s not supposed to be, and while it doesn’t feel as gleeful as Kraken, it’s still a hell of a lot of fun.


The Unreasoning Mask by Philip José Farmer

This will be more of a stream-of-thought review, because I’m still strugging with how to describe this book, and frankly with whether or not I like it.  On one hand, Farmer has obviously poured a lot of creativity into this novel, something that usually earns brownie points with me and can make up for shortcomings in the plot or dialog, but it doesn’t help so much here.  It could be because, after so recently reading The Ice Schooner and The Scar, and gearing up for China Miéville’s new Railsea, I’m burned out on Moby Dick homages (although I’ve since read, and enjoyed, Railsea.  More on that later.)

I think, boiled down, my biggest problem here is that the captain won’t shut up.

Ramstan (he has a first name, but frankly I couldn’t be bothered to page through again to find out what it is) is captain of al-Buraq, a living ship with a revolutionary new instantaneous drive. Mankind is most decidedly not alone in this universe, and Ramstan is on the run from another alien race from whom he has stolen their god when he learns that planet after planet is being completely annihilated by forces unknown, and he is is the only one who can put a stop to it.  It’s an interesting plot that touches on religion and the fuzzy line between obsession and compulsion, but it is continually undermined by Ramstan and his inability to stop complaining and take some damn responsibility.  And then, when he finally grows a pair and starts to confess to his crew about what he’s done and why they’ve been running, he launches into uninterrupted monologue (granted, it’s over shipwide loudspeaker, but still) that just seems to go on, and on, and on.  Frankly, nobody actually talks like that, and it breaks a lot of the verisimilitude that Farmer had otherwise skilfully established.

The Unreasoning Mask is not a bad book; its concepts are sound and their consequences logical and well-explored.  It’s just not a particularly good book either.  If you can get past the general clunkiness of the dialogue, you’ll likely enjoy the read.  I simply didn’t.

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Education: None.
Skills: None.
Merits: None.
Recommendations: None.

So reads the personnel dossier of one Gulliver Foyle, protagonist (not hero) of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.  Gully Foyle is a nobody, a brute, Mechanic’s Mate 3rd Class aboard the spaceship “Nomad” with no prospects for promotion, cursing the gods in his thick gutter dialect as he ticks off his 171st day marooned alone in space.

The future is a weird place.  Mankind has, purely by accident, learned to teleport (or “jaunte”).  All of the habitable planets and moons are inhabited, and there is a tense economic war/standoff between the Inner and Outer planets.  Corporations have mutated into noble families overseeing their chains of shops, their daughters and valuables shut away inside cunning labyrinths to protect them from jaunting intruders.  Society is undergoing the kinds of wholesale changes that leave it “trembling on the verge of a human explosion that would transform man and make him the master of the universe.”  And Gully Foyle couldn’t care less about that, or about anything else.  He’s been in space, alone, for 171 days in pure survival mode to the point where, seeing a passing spaceship, he can’t believe his salvation…or that the spaceship, the S.S. “Vorga”, after slowing and looking him over, accelerates away and leaves him to die.  It is this insult that snaps him out of his lifelong funk and finally gives him a reason to live: in his words, “Vorga, I kill you filthy!”.

There are few wholly original stories, and this is not one of them.  You can think of it as The Count of Monte Cristo in space, if you like, but there’s much more to it than that.  Foyle is one of the most anti anti-heroes I’ve read, at least in recent memory; single-minded, savagely violent, and despicably amoral, he nevertheless elicits grudging admiration for the sheer volume of energy he expends as his he tortures, rapes and murders his way along his search for the “Vorga” and her crew.  Meanwhile, a planet-wide search is ongoing for him as the last survivor of the “Nomad,” which was carrying the only supplies of an experimental superweapon that could turn the tide of the solar war for good.  Both hunter and hunted, Foyle is an embodiment of pure seething rage and determination, making for a truly memorable character, and his sheer bloody-mindedness propels the story at breakneck pace toward a synesthetic finale of literally cosmic scale.

Clocking in at less than 200 pages (in my copy, anyway), this book is tightly written and plotted and simply barrels along from the first page to the last, with many touches familiar from Bester’s other work: gutter dialects, dialog with no indication of who is speaking (sure there’s a word for this), synesthesia represented by switching to illustration and odd typefaces, and of course rape.  Not nearly as much of an acid trip as Golem100, this is generally regarded as Bester’s finest work and is often mentioned as one of the best science-fiction novels ever written.  I’m not sure that I quite go that far, but it is definitely a classic of the genre and a must-read for any fan thereof.