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.
Yesterday, Washington Post published an opinion piece by Richard Cohen, highlighting how President Obama seemed to be a man without passion for the issues he pursued throughout his first term. According to Cohen, the president spent significant political capital on passing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), but that was never his crusade, and he spent very little time speaking passionately in favor of it. After a comparison with Robert F. Kennedy, Cohen concludes that “Obama never espoused a cause bigger than his political survival.”
The article is worth a read, but I have a fundamental disagreement with Cohen on what Obama could have possibly done in terms of espousing those causes that are bigger than his political survival. By nearly any measure, President Obama ran a centrist, if not right of center, administration and still came up against unparalleled resistance from opposition that outright vowed to make him a one-term president. If Mr. Obama came armed with huge liberal causes, that resistance would not only come from the Republicans in Congress, but many moderate Democrats. The country is just that right of center at present. Considering he was also greeted by a flailing and volatile economy on his first day in office, there was just too much that required immediate attention to ‘care’ too much about the bigger issues. I am not making excuses for the president; I feel strange every time I take it on myself to defend the ACA, which is inadequate compared to actual universal health care, but it was easily the best of two viable options and lays the groundwork for the future.
As I alluded to in my earlier, I do not believe the American public is ready to support (with their votes) something they may even appreciate. That is not disparagement of the voting public; it is appreciation for the power of interests that convince voters to vote against their own interests. Many people appreciate the lifesaving benefits of the ACA’s individual clauses, but opt to run with the narrative they are inundated with: it is a big government takeover, freedom, etc. Any grand effort on by the president would be up against these interests.
The kind of gambit that Mr. Obama could have taken with any number of issues would have been unlikely to go into effect, and even if they did, would have gone largely unappreciated. However, Mr. Obama’s presidency has quietly led us left from the far right where the Bush Administration left us, if not quite as far enough for liberals, progressives, and people who bought into the 2008 campaign rhetoric with no cynicism for what one man can do in four years. I personally take issue with the administration’s treatment of human rights, but it’s not as if a vote for any other candidate that has a shot would change that situation for the better. Given another four years, I believe that the Obama administration will continue to move America back towards a true, moderate center and make those sweeping causes more palatable to the American public. If the will of the nation is behind positive changes, it will be far more sustainable than the will of one man.
A quick note on re-organization:
I love music and speculative fiction, but I am fortunate enough to possess a range of other interests. Since there is zero outside pressure or other authors dictating the content of this blog, I have decided to expand this to include many of my other interests, ranging from the web at large, sports, politics, film, television, etc. I enjoy creating content, but have had multiple instances where I’ve felt confined on this page when I should not. So while extending apologies to anybody who began to follow this blog because of the original scope, I do hope I can continue to entertain you with the expanded content.
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