Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, June 23, 2014

1999: The Naked God (Hamilton, Peter F.)

Stodgy progress toward a quick, flawed conclusion (3/5)

How do you face 1,332 pages?
How do you confront 469,000 words?
My solution: Dedicate as many waking moments of my day for 16 consecutive days. I could have read four or five normal-sized novels in the same time, but I chose to finish Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy.

I may have glutted on the first two books, requiring two months of recovery before attempting to finish the trilogy; in foresight and hindsight, this was a wise choice. My grasp of the numerous plots didn’t slacken and, after all that time away, I had developed a thirst for immersing myself into a thick novel. The only other to-be-read novel in my collection which comes close to rival this length is Roberto BolaƱo’s novel 2666.

Hamilton’s The Naked God is a rite of initiation (after this, all books are short), a rite of passage (I would have eventually read this), and rite of finality (the trilogy’s capstone). It might be a superlative novel in some regards, but the grammatical superlative “greatest novel” I cannot bequeath; rather, the base form adjective “satisfactory” must be used without any use of emphatics.

Rear cover synopsis:
“The Confederation is starting to collapse politically and economically, allowing the ‘possessed’ to infiltrate more worlds.

Quinn Dexter is loose on Earth, destroying the giant arcologies one at a time. As Louise Kavanagh tries to track him down, she manages to acquire some strange and powerful allies whose goal doesn’t quite match her own. The campaign to liberate Mortonridge from the possessed deteriorates into a horrendous land battle, the kind that hasn’t been seen by humankind for six hundred years; then some of the protagonists escape in a very unexpected way. Joshua Calvert and Syrinx fly their starships on a mission to find the Sleeping God—which an alien race believes holds the key to overthrowing the possessed.”


Quinn Dexter has made it to the surface of Earth using his dark powers to conceal himself and infiltrate key arcologies. Though his desire to see Banneth dead in Calgary, New York is on his immediate list to seed with the possessed, who will in turn seed other cities across Earth. Little does he know that Earth has been watching out for him, trying to understand hi s motives and figuring out how to destroy him before he destroys the planet. The secretive and powerful B7 group flexes its might to cordon off entire arcologies, quarantine cities and shut down transportation; the danger is unparalleled, so their efforts reflect this.

The B7 group also has a avuncular eye out for Louise Kavanagh and her sister Genevieve. The upper-class sisters from the devastated planet Norfolk utilize their father’s wealth in London while staying at the Ritz, splurging on outfits and even implanting a neural net (against the taboos of her home world). B7 understands the importance of her connection to Dexter; they strategize ways to allow Louise free reign of transport and indulgences. Her naivety is valued by B7.

Louise’s beau, Joshua, has been selected to head a mission to find out what and where the Sleeping God is. The Kiint are interested in the Sleeping God, too. With Syrinx, their first destination is a anti-matter production station which Capone is using to fuel his war against the Confederation. This visit kills two birds with one stone: (1) Joshua gets loaded up with essential anti-matter fuel for the 1,000+ light-year journey and (2) they can destroy Capone’s only source for anti-matter. However, when Capone’s fleet comes to refuel, they see the Confederation ships, which results in a standoff. One ship hangs back observing their next jump, a jump which is aimed either at empty space, meant to deter following, or toward one of the Tyrathca colony home worlds.

Since the habitat Valisk had been transported through the ether to a senseless, dark universe, the ex-possessed suffer with cancerous growths and ghosts haunt the surface, one of which is Dariat, who is still in tune with the mind of the habitat. The wisps of darker mist outside the habitat don’t interact with its mass, but probing beyond the mist proves fruitless. Unexpectedly, something from the void visits them, smashing through the windowed hull and attaching itself to a source of energy. Soon, these nebulous aliens gather more and more in order to seep away the life force of the habitat, but not without a fight by tooth, nail, and, most importantly, with flame.

Having lost his secret anti-matter station, Al Capone must find other ways to antagonize his enemy: the powerful yet abstract Confederation. He decides to rain terror onto local worlds by seeding them with possessed, too. Each planet’s orbital defense network destroys most of the shot attempts, but only one survivor is enough to turn a planet from non-possessed to full-blown possessed. One of his most devastating missions—sending a human bomb to Traflagar—comes to fruition and really, really pisses off the Confederation. Capone may not have realized the repercussions of the attack until it’s too late.

The Kingdom of Kulu has decided to post a massive front against the possessed on the planey of Ombey. Effectively sealed off, the attack begins with the orbital defense platforms firing lasers down upon the red cloud hanging over the province. The band of orbiting lasers pour dispersed energy into the cloud, into the possessed generating it, and into every single possessed person in the Confederation. When the cloud dissolves, the moisture that was pent up is released in an epic rainfall which erodes the land, turning everything into mud. The ground forces, mechanic bodies of transferred personalities, must trudge through the mud and capture and evict the possessed from every single little town of the province… except the patch of land where resistance quickly becomes escape when the entire landmass under their feet disappears. Now in a soupy dark void, tens of thousands of soldiers are displaced and thousand of the possessed must face death by suffocation as the air is slowly used up.

Meanwhile, Ione and her habitat Tranquility had faded an attack by Capone but, rather than sit and die, Tranquility instantly materializes in Jupiter orbit, shocking everyone and giving the Confederation a damn near heart attack. The Kiint were less sure of the tactic and displaced themselves through space to their home world, a distant location where a necklace of planets circle a sun unknown to humans… well, most humans that is. The Kiint’s secret ability to transport themselves is also shared with a number of human “observers” who had witnessed the last two thousand years of human history and now are trying to intervene; should the Kiint assist the humans in ridding themselves of the possessed or is their non-intervention policy an ethical choice?

They live in interesting times.


Though I finished the novel in sixteen days, the book felt sluggish. With 300 pages left, I couldn’t see how all the plot lines could wrap up in time… then with 200 pages left, I again couldn’t see how everything could be resolved… with 100 pages left, I suspected everything would be revolved thanks to some deux ex machina; and certainly, my suspicions proved correct. With over 3,400 pages dedicated to the trilogy, how could everything boil down to a one-all solution (the end to The Reality Dysfunction offered a hint). The plot thread which leads to the novel’s conclusion is tenuous; the impetus is weak, the follow-through is linear and the finale is too grandiose.  While the vehicle for the deux ex machine isn’t exactly “out of the blue”, the reality and function is what tips the ridiculousness scale.

A novel could be written about the deux ex machine in this trilogy, or perhaps a trilogy itself.

As mentioned above, the numerous plot thread felt hasty; they trudge along at a snail’s pace without developing very much meanwhile feeling like the reader was simply being set up for something (that something is the deux ex machine). Reading the third book in the trilogy felt stodgy, a very inorganic process following the preceding two books… in other words, it felt forced (much like the conclusion).

Then there are holes in the trilogy:

                1. Why did Laton, way way back in Book 1, sacrifice himself and offer a message reassuring people that there is a way past the beyond: not everyone is doomed to be a wandering soul (with very little satisfaction, there is an answer to this and it affects the course of mankind’s future history). The importance of his role in the first third of the book could be the stuff of a prequel, but words of assurance don’t return until the conclusion is drawing out.

                2. As Joshua is gallivanting about the galaxy in his anti-matter powered spaceship, his crew come across evidence of the Kiint following the exact same line of inquiry; they’re methods of electronic restoration is identifiable, their concern about the Sleeping God known. Yet, in the three giant leaps it takes to get to the conclusion, the Kiint are only implicated in the first step. If they are so powerful and all-knowing, why could they not take that one step further, like the measly humans did?

                3. Quinn’s dark powers peak near the conclusion when he tries to summon the fallen angels of his God’s Brother. The result of his invocation startles him and startles the reader. There’s a crossover of plots regarding Quinn and the invocation brings the two separate plot threads together in a wholly unexpected and, to the reviewer, inexplicable way. Considering Quinn’s prowess with connecting with the dark side or whatever, he ought to be capable of tapping more greatly into the same realm… but what he invokes is way out of right-field.


I guess pleasure can be found in the Night’s Dawn trilogy, not from the thoughtful prose or engrossing storyline, but from the challenge. The challenge in reading the trilogy is to keep all the storylines in your mind without having to refer to the character list or flipping back to the preceding chapters. For me, it’s a bit too much (1) military action, (2) galactic gallivanting, (3) whimsical fornication, (4) fantasy of the soul, and (5) downplay on importance of alien intelligence.

Regardless, I always look forward to Hamilton's projects.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

2009: The Apex Book of World SF (Tidhar, Lavie)

Good collection which overuses the word “whilst” (4/5)

I was born, raised and educated in America but I’ve lived more than a third of my life in Thailand, almost my entire adult life actually; it has become my homethe place, people and customs I’m most familiar with. America is a foreign country. When I visit, the weather is unpredictable, the food is terrible and the shows people watch on TV are shameful, indulgent.  Anyway, the general atmosphere is oppressive.

Being (what I hope doesn’t sound hokey) a global citizen, many of my friends and students come from different backgrounds: Turkey, France, Lao, China, Brazil, Russia, Myanmar, Singapore, Korea, Switzerland, Australia, Ireland, Canada, Portugal… just to name a few off the top of my head. Each time, I’m exposed to a different narrative, a fresh perspective on life. Verbalizing the difference between each cultural narrative is impossible, but a warm quality of humanity is pervasive; stereotypes dissolve: not all Koreans are technologically savvy, not all Chinese are ugly tourists, not all Singaporeans are submissive law abiders, not all Irish are… well, actually, they are—that one’s true.

In essence, this mingling of cultures, this sometimes demonized “globalization”, has stirred the soup of our shared narratives. Many people are now raised in bilingual, bicultural families. This leads us to the question: What is World SF? Is it a story which typifies a people or a merely exotic surname? Is it a story exhibiting tactic cultural norms or merely engrossed in myth? In the end, the stories in this collection don’t have that exotic spark of foreign culture but they DO all have some wonderfully exotic names. If the reader is looking for foreignness within speculative fiction, these are not the stories you are looking for; but if the reader is interested in narratives which are difficult to access, this just may be it.

As mentioned in the paragraph above, this is a collection of “World SF” where “SF” does not stand for “science fiction”, as it commonly does, rather for “speculative fiction”: fantasy, horror, sci-fi, alternative history, etc. if you come looking for science fiction, these are not the stories you are looking for.

------Complaint Section, skip if desired------

One gripe: Being a global citizen and also being an English teacher, I understand that some countries prefer to use “while” and others prefer “whilst”; however, the use of each is not exclusive. Americans only use “while” but the British, for example, juggle the two. Take these great British novels for example:
  • Virgina Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: while (32 times), whilst (0 times)
  • E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View: while (54 times), whilst (1 time)
  • Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None: while (10 times), whilst (1 time)
The stories in this collection very, very oddly only use “while” once (page 148); every other story exclusively uses “whilst”—sixty-six times to be exact, two of which aren’t even real words:

  • Meanwhilst (?): pages 26, 45, 67, 289
  • After a whilst: pages 44, 47, 105, 111, 144, 146, 219, 258, 323
  • For a whilst: pages 110, 142, 154, 160, 210, 222, 237, 238, 248, 257, 259, 265, 277, 282
  • Worth your whilst: page 119
  • Worthwhilst (?): page 305
  • All the whilst: page 319
“Meanwhile” has 57,900,000 Google hits; “meanwhilst” only has 62,600 results.
“Worthwhile” has 15,500,000 Google hits; “worthwhilst” only has 9,650 results.

Editor’s fault? Publisher’s fault?
This collection (Apex, an American publisher) has a version of Aliette de Bodard’s “The Lost Xuyan Bride” that contains “whilst” 10 times. Anyone can access Aliette de Bodard’s website and read another version of “The Lost Xuyan Bride” (first printed in the British magazine Interzone, 2007) that contains “while” 10 times.
Mutually exclusive?

------End of Rant------

Thailand, S.P. Somtow
“The Bird Catcher” (2001, novelette) – 4/5
Thailand’s own boogieman isn’t a strand of fiction—he actually existed and is actually preserved in a forensic museum just west of Bangkok. Nicolas has a story: He found his way to Siam as a stowaway from China where he was in a concentration camp. He arrived on the same boat as Si Ui, the man who caught and ate live birds. When they meet again, bird livers aren’t the only thing Si Ui has a hunger for.

Netherlands, Jetse de vries
“Transcendence Express” (2007, shortstory) – 4/5
In the Dutch lowlands, research into quantum computing hits stride when crossed with biology, resulting in a bioquantum computer (BIQCO). Liona, once a straight-laced follower of innovation, follows her boyfriend to Zambia where he is a volunteer. She, too, volunteers her knowledge to the community. The homemade BIQCOs slowly learn from the children and, in time, the children learn from them.

Israel, Guy Hasson
“The Levantine Experiments” (2009, shortstory) – 5/5
An 11-year-old girl, having been born, weaned and taught language under nearly absolute isolation until the age of five, is under constant observation as an experiment. Her home—a cell; her fixation—a crack in the wall; her limitations—endless. After two years of dreaming exclusively of the crack and its alienness of the light and dark voids beyond it, she is rescued into another prison.

China, Han Song
“The Wheel of Samsara” (2009, shortstory) – 3/5
From Mars, a girl with wonder in her eyes visits a Tibetan lamasery where 108 wheels spin in the wind—the Wheels of Samara. The 36th wheel, however, is discolored, counter-rotating and makes strange noises in the nightly wind. Back on Mars, she tells her learned father of the phenomenon. He eventually travels to Tibet to witness the relic and is confronted by a reality unknown to his precious science.

Australia/Fiji, Kaaron Warren
“Ghost Jail” (2008, shortstory) – 2/5
The slums called Cewa Flats are evacuated because of, what the Chief of Police says, the sacred ground under the site. Keith and Lisa, journalists from the newspaper, visit the Flats where the residents tell them of the contractible cancer of the breathe. Deciding on a closer look, Lisa discovers the Flats to be haunted and Rashmilla, a spirit contact, informs her that the gravestones render her escape impossible.

China, Yang Ping
“Wizard World” (2009, novelette) – 4/5
Lured into his own death by a character with the handle of Pig Tongue, Xingxing is miffed as to why he can’t access his account on the MUD game. Not having left his room for three years, he seeks help within the game under a new account; his Wizard friend Porket helps him discover the widespread hacking of the entire game program. Even in the year 2097, some vindication must be done in person.

Philippines, Dean Francis Alfar
“The Kite of Stars” (2003, shortstory) – 4/5
Only sixteen and love struck by the reckless jaunt of a young, influential astronomer who “only has eyes from the stars”, Marie becomes inspired to meet the young stargazer whatever it takes, or whenever. Her grand idea is to ascend in a kite for him to observe her, but the kite maker insists on the impossibility of its construction; regardless, she sets out for sixty years to retrieve the 1,000-part list.

Israel, Nir Yaniv
“Cinderers” (2004, shortstory) – 3/5
On a personal quest of wanton murder, Huey, Louie and Dweye kill various people by various methods, eventually racking up more than eighty deaths. The narrative trio attain singularity when the Demon, an outside force bent on curing the multiple personality war of his mental disease, kills the remaining personalities. However, the inner qualm of the murderer goes deeper than the split personalities.

Palestine, Jamil Nasir
“The Allah Stairs” (1990, shortstory) – 3/5
Laziz was the small, pale, awkward boy in primary school with the recurring bizarre story of sending his father up the Allah Stairs because of the abuse inflicted upon little Laziz. Years later and grown to adults, two ex-classmates revisit the apartment they and Laziz used to live in, where they see the Allah Stairs in Laziz’s room. They track the man down for an explanation and reassurance.

Malaysia, Tunku Halim
“Biggest Bassest Bomoh” (1997, shortstory) – 4/5
Idris Ishak is crazy about Zani Kasim, the new secretary who has become his object of worship. Her popularity among the staff and utter beauty doesn’t keep him from having a few tries at dates with her. Eventually his reality intruded on his fantasy and he resorted to contacting the witch doctor his friend recommended. His wish for iron-clad reciprocal love becomes true when she visits his home.

France, Aliette de Bodard
“The Lost Xuyan Bride” (2007, novelette) – 4/5
Jonathon Brooks is an American investigator with a curious history of having a deceased wife and fleeing the east state of America for the west state of Xuyan. The case of his missing daughter of a tech company founder sends Brooks on a path with the local ring of mafia, whom the young missing girl is betrothed with, and into the southern country of Mexica and their discriminatory isolation.

Philippines, Kristin Mandigma
“Except from a Letter by a Social-Realist Aswang” (2007, shortstory) – 5/5
In a meta-fictional twist on a Kafkaesque reality, an editor bitingly responds to a story submission by a fledging author who penned a novel about fighting monster cockroaches on an alien planet (a la Heinlein) while Earth itself is being protected by “alienated capitalist soldiers” (167-168). The Filipino editor questions the author’s socialistic allegiances and defends herself as a “baby eater”.

Croatia, Aleksandar Ziljak
“An Evening in the City Coffeehouse, with Lydia on My Mind” (1999, shortstory) – 4/5
Zargeb is full of beautiful women. This situation doesn’t impinge upon most minds but does drive one man into a voyeuristic indulgence. He secretly seeds houses with “flies” which record the subject’s most intimate encounters. He sells these thousands of terabytes of footage, but one gorgeous subject he want to keep for himself. The footage, however, shows her having some rather strange bed partners.

India, Anil Menon
“Into the Night” (2008, shortstory) – 3/5
Displaced from Mumbai to the Pacific island of Meridian, an 82-year-old Brahmin finds the transition difficult in part by his language preference for Tamil, his unfamiliarity with the science his daughter spouts off about, and the alienation from his culture. His emotionally disconnected daughter staunches his chance of integration and the memory of his wife fills him with discomfort in a technological world.

France, Melanie Fazi
“Elegy” (2007, shortstory) – 5/5
Deborah and Benjamin are the parents of twins, whom they adore even after their disappearance from their bedroom. Benjamin regresses to drunken stagnation and emotional detachment while Deborah pleads to a majestic tree on the hill which bores the generic likeness of Adam and Anne; she pleads with sacrificial words and the blood of her hands. Only a human sacrifice, she thinks, can appease it.