Recently finished Dean Motter’s 1996 classic, Terminal City. Some assortment of thoughts:
– It is a stylish piece. The titular city channels the art deco future imagined during the1930s World Fair: zeppelin docks, hover cars, clashing analog clocks, robot desk clerks, pneumatic tubes, high technology without the miniaturization, etc. Michael Lark’s art design, the thematic elements, and interweaving characters’ plots gives the setting a noirish aura.
– Some more on the art deco settings: it reminds me a little bit of the mid-90s Batman: The Animated Series.
– I can’t seem to confirm intent anywhere, but there appears to be a number of homages to Herge’s Tintin comics. There is a professor who bears a striking resemblance to a royal seals expert from King Ottokar’s Sceptre. Two comical, bumbling mustachioed twins channel Thomson and Thompson. (“What’s his name?” “Yes, Watt.” “No, what’s his NAME?”). There’s even a Latino general who bears a striking resemblance to General Alcazar. The name of his nation? Alcazar.
It was tough to care about the plot of Terminal City; it was a little bit all over the place, lagged in tying together all of the characters’ arcs, and the characters themselves were largely forgettable. However, it is just enough to keep the reader engaged in the world, and more importantly the city, and that is all that matters. What really strikes me about Terminal City is that the book is genuinely about the city, with the denizens as peripherals. Considering the dilapidated state of Terminal City, the reader is meant to recognize the design flaws in a future that was conceived to be a spectacle at a fair: splendor without substance. It is not a future that was ever meant to be lived in, and the malcontent state of humans signifies that. The setting is interesting to consider in the frame of urbanization; are the aesthetics worth austerity? Despite the weak-even-for-noir plot, this book does something rather special in terms of giving a personality to the titular city, and I would have a difficult time not recommending this book if you can get your hands on it.
While being a fan of well-written, hard science fiction, it has always been tough for me not to love a good space opera. The “good” part of that tends to be the hitch. The most enjoyable ones I have had the pleasure of reading include Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War (debatable whether or not this is actually space opera), and a number of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. Most recently, I have had a difficult time getting into Iain M. Banks’ Culture Series and gave up on Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series after the first book. I did not even get 150 pages into Kevin J. Anderson’s Saga of the Seven Suns.
So when Leviathan Wakes popped onto the scene last summer, I was hesitant. It took a good six months for the internet to convince me that I absolutely had to read this novel and I think it mostly lived up to the hype. Caliban’s War was a spectacular follow-up that improved upon almost everything in Leviathan Wakes.
What makes this novel remarkable is the world-building. Science fiction series tends to be either focused on Earth and a near future or a fairly distant future (or if not that, a near future that is very different). Space operas in particular tend to be somewhat far-flung across space, time, and different races/aliens discovered. The only notable exception I am coming up with off the top of my head is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. The Expanse Universe (the setting for Leviathan Wakes and its sequel, Caliban’s War) takes place in between, where mankind has mastered the solar system, but not the stars beyond. This is a point highlighted by the authors (James S.A. Corey is a pseudonym for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) and their effort really comes through. There is an emphasis on biological adaptations to outer space, high G space travel, and the physical characteristics of living in space stations on moons and asteroids. It is the type of stuff that is often overlooked by run of the mill space opera.
The plot elements of both books consist of noir mystery/horror, politics, and military action/adventure. Leviathan Wakes does this combination well, but Caliban’s War blows it out of the water with compelling characters that represent many of these elements without being complete caricatures.
If Leviathan Wakes had a weakness, it was some issues with the characterization of the two lead protagonists. At some points, it was fairly obvious that two different authors were writing the two different narratives throughout the novel. It worked well before the characters’ paths intersected because the characters were meant to have different lives that shape their outlook, mission, and manner of handling situations. When the chapters involved both characters but the narrative mostly focused on one of the characters, the momentum was a bit more inconsistent. In Caliban’s War, there are more main characters with narratives, but the characterizations are significantly tighter and more consistent.
I think one part that is often overlooked is accessibility. Science fiction, for all its presence in all forms of media, is not an easy genre to get into in the print medium. I doubt the Corey duo sat down and decided to make the books accessible, but these books are exactly that without sacrificing too much in the way of realism. The noir elements and the not-inconceivable solar system settings are welcoming in this respect. Highly recommend for anybody looking for good novels to bite into for the end of summer.
That’s what it comes to… Pogroms after all. Cut off just a hundred more heads, just a thousand more heads, just ten thousand more heads, and then we’ll be free.
Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
Terminal Café by Ian McDonald
Genesis by Poul Anderson
The Walls of the Universe by Paul Melko
Books – I’m reading Great Sky River by Greg Benford. I’m about 60 pages in, and I’m not sure how hooked I am. But at the very least, I’m intrigued.
The Galactic Center Saga by Greg Benford consists of six volumes. I happened to stumble upon all six volumes at a second-hand bookstore in DC a few years ago and, since they looked promising, bought them all. That was about four years ago — I hadn’t gotten around to them until last year. So far, I’ve gotten through In the Ocean of Night and Across the Sea of Suns. The former depicts humanity’s first encounter with an inorganic alien intelligence that enters Earth space and the subsequent fallout. The latter jumps forward two decades to humanity’s discovery of inorganic life systematically destroying organic lifeforms throughout the galaxy and the invasion of Earth itself. Great Sky River, flashes forward in time and space to an apparently (very) distant future on a planet where humanity is being hunted to extinction by inorganic lifeforms. The story follows one of the last bands of humanity (if not the last band, it’s not clear to me at this point, and I don’t want to spoil anything by looking it up!).
The premise is intriguing, but it hardly feels like I am reading the same series, which is probably a contributing factor to this being difficult to dive into. But I’ll soldier on, I have heard good stuff and it will likely be worth it.
Comics – I’ve gone through Batman’s Contagion story arc which expanded across the Catwoman, Robin, and Azrael series in the late mid-90s. I’ve also gone through the Cataclysm story line and am currently smack in the No Man’s Land arc. In Contagion, the Bat family have to deal with the effects and fallout of a biological agent released in Gotham City. Cataclysm deals with a massive earthquake that more or less demolishes Gotham City and allows Arkham inmates to escape. No Man’s Land is the subsequent arc that finds Gotham City cut off from the rest of America as an ancillary result of the earthquake, developing its own feudal(ish) system, with former members of the Gotham City Police Department and the Bat crew trying to maintain some form of order while villains like the Joker and Scarecrow try to cause their brand of trouble in what is essentially a new world. The dynamic shifts this story introduced in the late 90s is absolutely fascinating.
Music – I’ve been listening to Kaskade’s Strobelite Seduction almost non-stop since I purchased it. I’m in a distinct electro kick lately. Tiesto, Kaskade, Calvin Harris, Porter Robinson, Deadmau5, and a smattering of Skrillex songs have been racking up the play counts.
I would put Robert Charles Wilson as one of my top five authors in any genre. I would put him at number one for being strangely low-key and under the radar for how good he is. The guy has put out some of the most accessible character-driven, high-concept science fiction for about two and a half decade; but he barely registers a blip even among the genre fans with whom I’ve spoken. I’ve gone as far as to give away my own copies of his easier to find books (Spin and Darwinia, in particular) to people hoping to get them to read his stuff. This is all made stranger by the fact that he’s actually very positively reviewed in the professional and semi-pro critics’ circles (the Indelible being JV).
In an attempt to complete my collection of RCW books, I looked for the out-of-print ones the old fashioned way, scouring the shelves of second-hand bookstores in at least six major cities over the past three years: Boston, New York, DC, San Francisco, Denver, and Nashville. I was relatively successful with the exception of two of his earlier works: Gypsies and The Harvest. After failing in Nashville this November, I relented and used the wondrous Amazon marketplace to complete my collection in time to read Gypsies over the winter holiday.
I wasn’t let down. A hallmark of Wilson’s work is stories about broken people. When I began reading his work with Spin, he had this motif more or less polished. In Gypsies, the plot revolves around three siblings (Laura, Karen, and Tim Fauve) who suffer from three particular fatal flaws that make them very broken people in their own ways. Oh, and they can all open doors into parallel universes. This power is limited by their flaws; for instance, one of the siblings can only open doors to parallel worlds that are distinctly dark and dreary; another can barely use it because of her flaw. Despite the fairly significant power and all the hokey possibilities that come with it, Wilson handles it with poise and grace. The story is really more about the flaws of those three characters, how they came about (daddy issues, mostly), and how the combination of those flaws affect Michael, the son of Laura, who also manifests the gift. Michael may seem like the focal point in the story (and some reviews I’ve read make it sound that way), but it is really less about him than the previous generation.
Within the story, the “ability” is often discussed as seeing “angles” and “dimensions” in the fabric of reality that others cannot see. I note this because it’s an interesting way to describe Wilson’s work in this novel and all of his other ones — you think you know what you’re going to get if you see the plot overview, but this author continually approaches his stories at angles unique among science fiction authors, adding some unforeseeable depth and dimension to his stories. His work, both in terms of ideas and character growth, is food for the imagination and sense of wonder shared by everybody, not just fans of science or speculative fiction.
“What is it like when you lose someone you love?” Jane asked.
“You die too,” I said. “And you wait around for your body to catch up.”