Third-Person (Limited)

Oct 1, 2013

Above All Things by Tanis Rideout

Book cover for ABOVE ALL THINGS by Tanis Rideout
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Above All Things follows the mountaineers of Britain’s 1924 Mount Everest expedition. In particular, it’s about the relationships between the men who dared to climb in conditions unfit for humans and about the people they left behind, back closer to sea level. If you don’t know much about this expedition or George Mallory, I urge you to read about them after you’ve read this book. It’ll be more fun that way.

Everest As Uncharted Territory

The Mount Everest of decades past had more in common with the deep, dark unknown of the ocean or the fiery belly of a volcano than with the rest of the earth that we know, inhabit, and call home. Today, Everest remains deadly and somewhat alien, but it’s not so unknown. Expensive commercial packages that include trained guides, state-of-the-art equipment, and an ample supply of food and oxygen enable novices to make the dangerous climb. This has turned Everest into a crowded, trash-ridden, feces-covered place. Each year, thousands ascend for bragging rights, meandering among those who remain, frozen in place, if not in time.

What Mount Everest looks like today

Overcrowded Everest. More pictures on National Geographic.

It’s hard to imagine such crowding—and, frankly, such comfort—when reading Tanis Rideout’s Above All Things. In 1924, Everest is uncharted territory, an untamed beast. Rideout forces you to consider how scary and desolate the uncharted part must have been. Mountaineer George Mallory and the others don’t only have to survive the mountain’s bitter cold with inferior equipment. They also have to climb with no map to guide them. Being first has its drawbacks. Worse, some who climb already have failed attempts haunting them. Rideout brilliantly communicates the climbers’ anxieties, leaving you with a sort of claustrophobic panic as each character’s life depends on watches, compasses, and gut feelings.

Above All Things is detail-oriented, and Rideout does much to place readers in the time period and draw attention to the expedition’s primitive equipment.

George woke with his feet numb from a small drift of snow that had gathered in the tent near them. The flap had come undone in the night and the canvas rumbled and snapped, almost tore apart as the wind ripped at the material. The roar of it was deafening, but they weren’t snowbound. Not yet.

As a fan of stories about people struggling to survive—perhaps I’m a sadist?—I expected to enjoy following the mountaineers every snowy step of the way. But I didn’t expect to care about them so deeply.

Many historical fiction novels are heavy on information, but light on character depth. Rideout avoids this by telling the story through the characters’ relationships. Every success or failure the mountaineers experience on Everest is influenced by their sometimes close, sometimes strained relationships with one another, or by their memories—and vivid hallucinations as the air thins—of friends, family, and lost loves half a world away.

Even now he felt torn. Part of him hated being separated from Ruth and the children. And another part hated himself for being so damn sentimental. It was weak. Still, there was the luxury of freedom this far from home. He felt different away from Ruth, away from everyday life, and he was never quite sure which person he was, which he wanted to be.

Rideout gives voice to those left behind, too, with some chapters dedicated to the first-person perspective of Ruth Mallory, George’s wife. Ruth, who is listless and forlorn in George’s absence, is not always fun to read; she is a woman with no identity outside of her husband and, to a lesser extent, her children. However, having read Rideout’s closing notes about Ruth, I think Ruth may be accurately portrayed here and simply a product of her time and status. Her life is small and dull, but the characters that surround her—men and other women from her and George’s rather incongruous life together—mostly make up for it. And though Ruth can be frustrating, she adds to George’s complexity and to the narrative overall.

The final third of the book is where Rideout really finds her pacing. You grow more and more nervous the closer the team makes it to the summit. With each mistake or sacrifice, you want them to turn back, but they don’t. They’re blinded by it—whatever Everest is to them. In George Mallory’s famous, actual words, they have to climb “because it’s there.”

Above All Things left me with the hollow sweetness that comes from finishing a good book, and I’ve since thought a lot about the expedition and Rideout’s interpretations of the people who went on it. I’m not sure I’ll ever understand the impetus behind wanting to conquer mountains, but I do have a greater appreciation for those who first climbed Everest. After all, you can’t help but be in awe of people who argue over the “sportsmanship” of using oxygen to survive.

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Quotes from Above All Things

Their hands described reckless adventure, sailing over longitudes and latitudes, past here there be monsters and the arched backs of the sea serpents painted on the blue of the Indian Ocean, and into the port of Bombay.

“It’s just that the bad turns make for better stories. No one wants to hear about the hike you took where nothing happened.”

“Then the coolie’s hands thawed,” he went on. “I don’t know which was worse. The freezing or the thawing.” Both were terrible reminders that the body was nothing but pulpy meat, easily ruptured, broken, frozen, thawed. That was the worst of it, knowing the myriad ways a body could be destroyed.

Jul 1, 2013

Earth by David Brin

Book cover for EARTH by David Brin
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It’s the year 2038, and Earth ain’t doin’ so well. The planet is overheated and overpopulated. Economies have failed; income inequality is rampant. And somewhere, deep inside the earth, a technological innovation has gone awry as an artificial black hole may eat the planet from the inside out.

Hard Sci-Fi in a Nutshell

Earth was published in 1990, and it’s set in 2038. This dates the book occasionally, but, as with all aging science fiction, it’s interesting to see what the author was and wasn’t able to predict about our present. (Let’s all hope Brin’s completely wrong about future catastrophes involving black holes, though.) Old predictions about our present and future, however, no matter how intriguing or impressive, don’t necessarily breathe life into a story. When it comes to spirit, Earth is pretty much all “head” and no “heart.”

Brin is a scientist himself—according to his website, he’s even cowritten “NASA-funded studies with California Space Institute, regarding robotics & space station design” (so, like, wow)—and like many scientists who dabble in fiction, he journeys into the hard sci-fi genre, attempting to create plots that are theoretically possible, even if improbable.

This sort of writing isn’t for everyone, and it’s why there’s hardly any heart to Earth. It’s also why hard science fiction can sometimes seem preachy as an author tries to teach readers a lesson. It’s a genre where good characterization is frequently sacrificed at an altar of science, projected or pseudo. Earth does have its preachy moments—it would just about have to, given the book title—but it’s the characters who suffer most as Brin molds them from stereotypes (or obvious stereotype reversals) and dedicates the content of their thoughts and dialogue to awkward infodumps.

In my experience, these are expected shortcomings of the hard sci-fi genre, but Brin’s Earth faces a much more common problem seen in works from all genres of fiction: there are too many characters and subplots, and most prove to have no purpose. To me, this is unacceptable in a book that is seven hundred pages long. I can’t quite shake the feeling that Earth wasted a bit of my time, and that was with considerable skim-reading.

So what did I enjoy about Earth? I can answer that easily. Between some of the book’s chapters, you find nonfiction-styled excerpts that are about the state of the planet and society during various periods in (future) history. It comes as no surprise that Brin is better suited to nonfiction, and these bits and pieces turn out to be a much more interesting conduit for his predictions. If I could have read the entire story through a filter of these fictional articles and transcripts, my feelings about this book would likely be very different. As it is, though, these works were what kept me tolerating the rest of the book.

Whether you will like Earth or not depends upon how important quality characterization is to you and how much clichés—surprise, there are aliens—and a deus ex machina ending will bother you. As to that ending, I must quote a Goodreads reviewer’s comical thoughts:

Just be prepared to be disappointed by the ending. Just make up your own, and pretend like the written ending isn’t real.

If you can be satisfied with contemplating interesting scientific possibilities alone, you may find you’re able to overlook Earth‘s shortcomings. Some readers will no doubt love it.

If anything purely objective can be said of Brin’s writing, it’s probably that it’s a good example of what’s to be found in the hard science fiction genre. It plays well enough to its audience, but not everyone is part of that audience.

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Quotes from Earth

Apocalypses, apparently, are subject to fashion like everything else. What terrifies one generation can seem obsolete and trivial to the next.

One of life’s joys was to have friends who gave you reality checks…who would call you on your crap before it rose so high you drowned in it.

…worried governments suddenly began pouring forth reams–whole libraries–of information they’d been hoarding, stumbling over themselves to prove they weren’t responsible for the sudden outbreak of gravitational war.

Jan 29, 2013

The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Book cover for THE FALL OF HYPERION by Dan Simmons
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Following the events of Hyperion, war is brewing between the Web’s Hegemony and the Ousters. As political leaders and military officials prepare for battle, secrets and betrayals are revealed. Meanwhile, on Hyperion, the Shrike pilgrims fight for their lives as the Time Tombs continue to play tricks on their minds and bodies.

More Questions Than Answers

Though I personally enjoyed The Fall of Hyperion more than the first book in the series, it still had lots of ups and downs. I can’t help but think that if Dan Simmons hadn’t created such an interesting setting in the planet Hyperion and original, frightening monster in the Shrike, I wouldn’t be as impressed as I am.

The Hyperion Cantos is a big series with many characters and many ideas—too many, in fact. While the general theme found in this book explores the relationship between creator and creation, there’s a lot of jumping around before any message is to be found. The pacing is uneven, sometimes slow when you figure something out far sooner than the characters do, and there are more loose ends than there should be.

A sizable portion of The Fall of Hyperion is told from a new character’s first-person perspective. While the consciousness of the cybrid “reincarnation” of John Keats lives on in the implant Brawne Lamia carries with her on Hyperion, a second cybrid has been created back in the Web with a slightly altered version of this same persona. He goes by the name of Joseph Severn, a painter and the historical John Keats’ friend. Joseph finds his persona overlaps in surprising ways with what’s left of the first John Keats’ cybrid data as Joseph’s dreams take on the shape of the Shrike pilgrims’ waking reality. These dreams of the others are relayed in separate chapters in third person.

As in Hyperion, Simmons plays with narrative perspective and tense. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t make for the most comfortable read, particularly in the first half of the book. It takes time to warm to Joseph and the Web he inhabits. It’s a rather dry world that mostly consists of flimsy characters talking about military logistics and planets you never see enough of to care about. Then, for me, Joseph’s “dream connection” to Keats made me pass that strange and arbitrary point where I could no longer suspend disbelief. (Apparently my brain accepts portals and organic metal monsters, though.) It was far too convenient that the Shrike pilgrims were always awake and doing something of note when Joseph was asleep to “watch” them through the first John Keats. Right, sure. It’s hard enough for me to chat with friends in Australian time zones.

Still, I was glad for Joseph’s dreams because I continued to care the most about the Time Tombs and pilgrims he saw in them. There are some really great scenes where they face the Shrike, who only becomes creepier and more mysterious as the pages turn. The only negative thing I can say about this part of the plotting and world-building is that sometimes, in an effort to keep everything mysterious, Simmons never provides answers. Then, if you do find an answer to a question, it may be unfortunately anticlimactic. There’s a very good reason TV Tropes includes this series on its Kudzu Plot page.

This is most frustrating when it comes to Colonel Kassad and Sol and Rachel’s stories, all of which fall flat merely, it would seem, for convenience. There’s room for more information about these and other characters, but whether Simmons can give them the story arcs they deserve over the next two books is questionable—especially since the rest of the series isn’t focused on any of these characters.

Finally, philosophically speaking, The Fall of Hyperion ends up in some strange territories I don’t like. I enjoyed much of Simmons’ exploration of the relationship between creator and creation: who controls whom, chicken and egg. But I don’t see any reason why that theme had to go in the direction of gods and religion. By the end of this book, the series has moved further away from science fiction, to venture into some messianic fantasy, prophecies and all. There’s no need for it, and I’d argue there’s little lead-up to it.

As the next book in the series, Endymion, mostly features different characters, I’m thinking readers never get answers to a number of remaining questions. Though I enjoyed The Fall of Hyperion more than its predecessor, I’ll skim-read the rest of the series, if that, just to know more about the Shrike. Reviews for those books aren’t likely to follow.

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Quotes from The Fall of Hyperion

Tyrena was a dinosaur who refused to become extinct–her wrists, palms, and neck would have glowed blue from repeated [anti-aging treatments] if it had not been for makeup, and she spent decades on short-hop interstellar cruises or incredibly expensive cryogenic naps at spas too exclusive to have names; the upshot was that Tyrena Wingreen-Feif had held the social scene in an iron grip for more than three centuries and showed no signs of relinquishing it. With every twenty-year nap, her fortune expanded and her legend grew.

He pulled and struggled and twisted even as the creature hugged him more closely, pulling him onto its own blades as if he were a butterfly being mounted, a specimen being pinned.

“A less-enlightened personage once asked Ummon, ‘What is the God-nature/Buddha/Central Truth?’ Ummon answered him, ‘A dried shit-stick.'”

Jan 21, 2013

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Book cover for HYPERION by Dan Simmons
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In the distant future, Old Earth has died, humans have spread throughout the universe, and technology has blossomed to both our advantage and detriment. As large-scale war looms, several people are called on a pilgrimage to the planet Hyperion—so named after English Romantic poet John Keats’ unfinished work. It’s on Hyperion that the mysterious and deadly monster known as the Shrike can be found near the Time Tombs, a place that confounds archaeologists and physicists alike. As the travelers make their journey, each recounts his or her life story, revealing the many ways they are all connected to each other and their destination.

Science Fiction Meets The Canterbury Tales

The universe author Dan Simmons has created in Hyperion is expansive, with many characters, worlds, and technological devices. Entering such foreign, futuristic territory tends to go one of two ways in speculative fiction: Either the story begins slowly as you are introduced to the mechanics of the world, or the author opens a floodgate and hopes you’ll keep up. Simmons chose to unleash the flood, and there’s a lot of techie jargon at the beginning of Hyperion—some of it dated—that might put off readers who aren’t usually open to science fiction. (Tree ships? Fatline messages? All Thing? Farcasting?) Still, if you can roll with this brand of immersion, the book is mostly rewarding beyond its lexicon of buzzwords and occasional pitfalls.

Hyperion is separated into several parts. The book’s present-day story, where war looms on the horizon, is told in a limited third-person perspective, but most of the book is made up of several first-person accounts, á la The Canterbury Tales, from each of the main characters who are on the Shrike pilgrimage. Each character is on the pilgrimage for either personal or political reasons; all are guarding secrets and frightened for their lives.

There is the priest who is physically and horrifically tied to Hyperion, the famed colonel who’s had inexplicable visions, the brash poet whose muse is a monster from nightmares, the scholar who hopes his daughter’s heartbreaking illness can end on Hyperion (as it started), the detective who carries the memories of a reincarnated writer, and a government official who is weighed down by his knowledge of endless corruption and conspiracies.

These first-person accounts are a mixed bag. While I loved the stories the priest, poet, and scholar told, and the government official ended up having some things of interest, I was less intrigued by the tales the war general and detective had to tell. I did some skim-reading. Perhaps that’s a matter of taste, though, and Simmons does deserve credit for giving each character a clear voice, regardless. He’s also pretty good at bending genres whenever and wherever he pleases.

For me, where Simmons falters most is in thinking we need to know about all of the elements of his world. Presumably, this is the reason he chose to write the book in a way that allowed him to tour the universe. As much as I enjoyed some of the characters’ backstories, I would have preferred Simmons stayed out of the past and instead focus on what was only relevant to the third-person plotting that surrounded each backstory. Despite the largeness of the world and some of the individual character’s histories, this book has a very small story itself: some people journey to another planet. Enjoyable or not, the detours into each traveler’s past seriously detract from the book’s present. As such, Hyperion feels a little like a teaser for the real story that’s set to unfold in the rest of the series.

So what makes me generally like this book and want to continue reading, as I plan to?

Above all, it’s the Shrike, which is one of the best, creepiest monsters I’ve encountered in science fiction or horror. I’d rather not spoil the details that exist about the Shrike because how they are revealed through the character backstories in Hyperion is really great. Simmons kept my skin crawling every time the Shrike—and the mysterious cult who follows the monster—came into the picture. I suspect much of the acclaim for this book and the series is based on this creative bogeyman.

Hyperion has its problems, both technical and creative, but I’m looking forward to seeing what befalls my favorite characters and the Shrike that lies in wait. (I have so many questions. Is the Shrike just misunderstood? Is the whole world universe going to end?!) Whether Simmons can hold me for the entire series depends largely on the next book, The Fall of Hyperion.

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Quotes from Hyperion

In the beginning was the Word. Then came the fucking word processor. Then came the thought processor. Then came the death of literature. And so it goes.

The lieutenant took his time scanning their visa chips, letting them wait in the drizzle, occasionally making a comment with the idle arrogance common to such nobodies who have just come into a small bit of power.

And Sol awakened half laughing, half chilled by the dream. Amused by the thought that the entire Talmud and the Old Testament might be nothing more than a cosmic shaggy-dog story.

Dec 26, 2012

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

Book cover for THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS by Karen Lord
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With planet Sadira destroyed, the few remaining Sadiri—mainly men—seek refuge on Cygnus Beta, a veritable melting pot of refugees, races, and cultures. It is here, with the help of biotechnician Grace Delarua, that they search for distant Sadiri cousins with whom to reunite and potentially marry. Their journey takes them far and wide into different places and cultures, all of which have some relation to the now lost Sadira. Along the way, Grace connects with and befriends the reserved Sadiri people, changing her life and theirs forever.

Genocide Shouldn’t Be Lighthearted

Karen Lord’s debut, Redemption in Indigo, has been on my reading list for quite a while, but having never gotten around to it, I jumped at the chance to receive a review copy of her latest book, The Best of All Possible Worlds, and was lucky enough to receive one from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. When I read the official book summary and saw Lord’s writing was compared to Ursula K. Le Guin’s, I thought this was going to be an enjoyable reading experience. Alas, some things are not meant to be. The Best of All Possible Worlds is not anything like what its cover and official summary suggest.

There’s no doubt this book has an audience. Many reviews for it are very positive. But I don’t think I’m part of that audience, and I have doubts as to whether most other science fiction readers will be either. Outside of a few humanlike aliens with “psychic mind-linking” capabilities, this is very fanciful science fiction—and, sadly, not that interesting of a fantasy. It’s a far cry from being the social commentary on genocide and racial/ethnic integration I thought it would be. Stripped of all its needless subplots, the story is primarily a run-of-the-mill romance, right down to its stereotypically over-emotional female lead, Grace Delarua.

Joral leaned forward and said earnestly, “You seem to be very sad about leaving. It is all right if you wish to cry, First Officer Delarua. We will not think badly of you. We understand this is common behavior for many Terran females.”

“Well, I’m Cygnian,” I snapped. “And I wasn’t going to cry.” I swear, nothing irritates me more than being overemotional in front of a Sadiri. They make me feel so silly.

It’s Grace Delarua’s first-person perspective you’re mostly stuck with, with occasional (better written) stints in a third-person perspective that focus on the activities and feelings of her eventual (obvious) love interest, Dllenahkh. I unfortunately found it difficult to care about either character, though, never quite connecting to Grace’s unrealistically haywire emotions or Dllenahkh’s forced alien qualities. (He is similar to Spock from Star Trek.)

It doesn’t help that countless one-dimensional minor characters come and go for no good reason. This unfocused plotting means that by the first quarter of the book, Grace has had multiple jobs, taken numerous trips, and visited her sister’s family. The latter subplot could give soap writers a run for their money.

“You bastard,” I said. “I warned you: if you hurt her, if you hurt any of my family, I will deal with you!”

“I’m not hurting them,” he protested. “I take good care of them. They’re happy.”

“Happy little puppets,” I spat, gripping my right wrist in an effort not to slap him. “I should report you to the authorities.”

“You won’t,” he said simply. “You love me. Never stopped.”

Such melodramatic scenes are common in the book.

The problem with The Best is that it’s too superficial, and no amount of melodrama or tangents can mask that. There’s not much in the way of world-building, there’s little effort to flesh out main characters, the dialogue tends to be forced, and the story is too predictable from the beginning. Maybe I’m being too harsh. Then again, in a book that is at least somewhat about people being displaced after highly successful genocide, it’s awfully lighthearted. It feels as though readers are meant to find it cute and amusing that many of the Sadiri men are looking for wives who more closely match their genetic and racial makeup so they can produce, I suppose, purer babies. I find that creepy, not cute—not the ingredients for romance.

Qeturah almost laughed out loud. “Relax, Delarua. It’s a compliment … I think. She was saying that you should be registered on the special list for potential Sadiri brides, and when I pointed out that there was an upper age limit for that, she suggested that extending your fertile years would take care of objections.”

I was already dazedly shaking my head at the wrongness of it all.

“Don’t worry. I told her that with the amount of Ntshune heritage you have, you’ll probably be able to have children for quite a bit longer than the average Cygnian. I estimate you have another twenty-five years, maybe even thirty.”

Because, really, what’s the value of a woman who can’t birth children?

The Best feels a lot like a first draft: something with a glimmer of potential that hasn’t yet been realized. For all these reasons, I can’t give this book the positive review I was hoping to, and I think it will be some time before I try another novel by Karen Lord.

Aside: It appears Del Rey / Random House rather distastefully opted to use a white-skinned woman on the book cover, even though Grace is said to have “cedar-brown skin” (chapter eight, “The Faerie Queen”).

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