Out on Blue Six; Or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Review: Out on Blue Six, Ian McDonald, 1989.out-on-blue-six

There are several problems with this story of a failed utopia 453 years after “the Break” that brought our world to a close, but the main one was that McDonald’s prose and conceptions are untethered to the historical, cultural, and geographical realities he must extrapolate from in his rightly acclaimed later novels set in various parts of the world like India, Brazil, and Kenya.

The plot follows the adventures of Courtney Hall, cartoonist, whose satiric work runs afoul of the Office of Socially Responsible Literature of the Compassionate Society. She eventually finds herself in an underground kingdom and on a quest to go beyond the wall outside the city. The parallel plot follows Kilimanjaro West, an amnesiac man who shows up in that city and falls in with Kansas Byrne and her guerilla theatre troupe of the Raging Apostles. Of course, he has a destiny.

As is his wont, McDonald samples a bunch of cultural artifacts and mixes them into his story. I detected the Statute of Liberty, Mutant Ninja Turtles, Exorcist the movie, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, Alice in Wonderland, and the movie Brazil. Continue reading

Terminal Cafe

Since I’m working on a review of another Ian McDonald novel, Out on Blue Six, I thought I’d bring out this.

Raw Feed (1995): Terminal Cafe, Ian McDonald, 1994.terminal-cafe

A very impressive novel both stylistically and intellectually.

McDonald does more with the implications of nanotechnology than anyone except Greg Bear in Blood Music (taking a wide definition of nanotechnology). McDonald goes right to the heart of nanotechnology’s attraction: its potential to offer immortality. (McDonald calls the notion that “the first thing we get with nanotechnology is immortality” Watson’s Postulate after sf writer Ian Watson who set him straight on nanotechnology’s core importance.)

He bases the central idea of his book around an obvious notion: resurrecting the dead. MacDonald envisions an expensive process of resurrection paid for by making the resurrected dead (simply referred to as the dead) indentured servants with no legal rights or legal existence (nevertheless, they exist in a shadow economy connected to the land of the willing). Like the androids in the movie Blade Runner, the dead are primarily the product of one man, Adam Tessler, and linked to one corporation, Tessler-Thanos. Like the dead of Robert Silverberg’s “Born with the Dead”, the dead of this novel often feel little connection to the family, friends, and lovers of their previous life. As in Blade Runner, there is a fatal meeting between a band of dead from space (androids from space in the movie) and their creator. [In Traveler of Worlds, Robert Silverberg said of this novel, referring to its original UK title, “McDonald did do a version of ‘Born with the Dead’, a brilliant reworking of it called Necroville.”]

MacDonald creates a vivid world of wonderful imagery described with wit as he shows some of the more outré results of widespread nanotechnology running the gambit from virtual reality “bodygloves” (MacDonald has a real knack for creating plausible future jargon slang, and words) which hook molecular feeds up to the body’s optic nerves, inner ear, and the olfactory part of the brain) to shapechanging prostitutes and people engineered to live underwater or glide through the world to dinosaurs analogs running amok over the California landscape. (They are escapees from a disastrous Walt Disney project – the resulting lawsuits shut the company down, one of my favorite background bits.) His depiction of war in the nanotechnology age, while brief, was convincing and well thought out. The only objection I had to his depiction of how nanotechnology would work is I think the speed of some of the processes he depicts is exaggerated, and he seems to forget that all these processes require energy and the dumping of waste heat. Continue reading

Evolution’s Shore

The same old story. I’m off doing things — actually writing up new posts — so you get old posts.

This one gets dragged out now as a setup for a future title I might cover.

This novel, incidentally, was known as Chaga in its original UK release.

Raw Feed (1996): Evolution’s Shore, Ian McDonald, 1995.evolutions-shore

This novel reminded me of several other sf novels: the image of men living in a vast jungle populated by vegetable-like creatures reminded me of Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse, the image by a alien flora taking over the Earth is reminiscent of Thomas Disch’s The Genocides (a novel I’ve never read) and H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, and the theme of mankind pushed by alien agency into the next step of evolution evokes Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. (I suppose the Big Dumb Object could be said to bring up memories of Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama which I’ve also never read). In fact, Irishman McDonald seems not only a humorous writer but a glib (not in a good way) writer. I suspect he’s read many of the same things I have from Omni articles on clay as the origin of terrestrial life to an explicit allusion to the “Big Dumb Object” entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction . I base this on a book ad in which he stated he practiced “sampling”.

This book is full of trivial asides from the opening Gaby McAslan experience in varying Coriolis forces while crossing the equator (not actually possible but a repetition of a popular myth) to a statement on people from the Plains states marrying early (perhaps from a sociological article McDonald read?) to trivia on Auschwitz inmates composing opera to the several – too many, in fact – movie allusions (though, to be fair, this novel is only set 6-15 years in the future approximately). However, though I suspect McDonald adds these things from his mind as handy story padding, he usually puts them in at appropriate moments. Continue reading

The New Space Opera

Posting this retro review will be one of the few productive things I did today.

From July 18, 2009 …

Review: The New Space Opera, eds. Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, 2007.New Space Opera

What is “space opera”? The introduction succinctly and accurately calls it romantic adventure science fiction told on a grand scale. It then traces the history of the sub-genre from its stirrings in the 1890s to its full-fledged birth in the 1920s to its nadir in the 1960s and 1970s, when the New Wave made it unfashionable, to its rebirth, while American authors were developing cyberpunk, at the hands of the British in the 1980s and 1990s.

For that grand scale, I’d specify vast scales of time and space and weaponry. The fate of species – their lives or at least their sanity and cultural viability – should be at stake and not some mere individual’s happiness or survival. Some of the stories in this collection are good but not space opera. Some are both. But there aren’t enough good stories of any type to give this collection a higher rating. [I gave it three stars at Amazon.]

The following stories fall in the unsuccessful and not even space opera category. The setup for Gwyneth Jones “Saving Timaat”, the narrator helping in the negotiations between representatives of two warring groups, the one cannibalistic predators on the other, is good, but the emotional connection of the narrator to the cannibal chief and her motivations are too oblique. James Patrick Kelly’s “Dividing the Sustain” is a would-be comedy of manners about a courier aboard a ship of communist colonists and the steps he takes to get close to the captain’s estranged wife, subject of an unaccountable infatuation, and to avoid getting “stale”, a consequence of longevity treatments. Not at all interesting.

Nancy Kress has put out some wonderful work, particularly when she engages in speculating about the consequences of biotech. However, her “Art of War” seems just a writerly exercise in developing the title phrase into a story and playing around with the cliché of stern military father (here a stern military mom) and a disappointing son. The story’s war between alien Teli and humans and the place each species’ art plays in the struggle just didn’t have the grand feel of space opera. Continue reading

Cyberabad Days

Another retro review, a follow up to River of Gods, and from May 18, 2010.

Review: Cyberabad Days, Ian McDonald, 2009.Cyberabad Days

While it’s set in the same future India as McDonald’s vivid River of Gods, a world of old and new gods, soap operas, water wars, mech wars, gender imbalance, and new genders, it is in no way necessary to read that novel first. I read three of these seven stories before I read the novel, and they were satisfactory on their own. However, I do think the one story original to this collection, the concluding novella “Vishnu at the Cat Circus”, will have added pleasures if you’ve read the novel.

Each story concentrates on one or more aspects of McDonald’s India, and they mostly take place at various times before the novel’s events. Continue reading

River of Gods, or Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

In honor of From Couch to Moon posting her review of Ian McDonald’s River of Gods and, in a separate post, I’ll put up my retro review of it and the follow up collection, Cyberabad Days.

From May 25, 2009 …

Review: River of Gods, Ian McDonald, 2006.River of Gods

In the ancient city of Varanasi in the country of Bharat in the former nation of India it is 2047, the Age of Kali, and gods are being hunted there.

Those gods are artificial intelligences, aeais, who hide in the networks of businesses, sundarbans where illegal software is written, and even in the computing infrastructure of Town and Country, the nation’s wildly popular soap opera. American pressure and international treaties forbid all those aeais above a certain level of intelligence. Krishna Cops like Mr. Nandha hunt them down and perform a lethal “excommunication”. But in the burned out remanents of one sundarban he finds subtle evidence of a new monster.

The war between the new and regulated, man and the creatures emerging from the cybersphere of his world, ultimately snares many characters beside Mr. Nandha. There are Shiv and Yogendra, two hoods with a serious debt problem after their organ legging business has dried up. Shaheen Badoor Khan advises the Prime Minister about a water war with Awadh, another state born of India’s fragmentation, after it dams the Ganges. Vishram Ray’s stand up comedy career is aborted when his father, founder of the country’s premier energy company, Ray Power, pulls a King Lear and divides the company up between his three sons. Naji, the Afghan-born journalist, has ambition and bloodlust and the determination to make a name for herself whether it’s interviewing one of the aeais who plays a character on Town and Country or leaking information in a political war between fundamentalist Hindi politician N. K Jivanjee and the Prime Minister. Continue reading