The Fountains of Paradise…

The Fountains of Paradise…

 

… a.k.a. the (other) one with the space elevator

Arthur C. Clarke found perfection in Sri Lanka and I both admire and envy him for this. Some of us spend a lifetime searching for this kind of perfection, while he not only managed to find it, but he lived with it and allowed it to inspire him in writing absolutely amazing novels… among which “The Fountains of Paradise”.

I read this one well after “Rendezvous with Rama” and “Childhood’s end” (both of which I absolutely adored) and, for some reason, I honestly thought that I shouldn’t have expected that much from this book. After all, lightning had already struck twice in the case of Sir Clarke’s novels and I had also been disappointed by “The City and the Stars”, or worse, “The Last Theorem”.

But this… Between the physics, the dreams and the characters…

This is one of those books that delves well into science-fiction waters, all the while not forgetting that the person delving is still a human being. Most authors like to pluck their readers from their comfy armchairs and throw them to some planet revolving around Altair, where they must fight squirrel-looking giants. But with Sir Clarke, the starting and ending points are almost always on boring old Earth… home. He is forever bringing the aliens to us, but not in a terrible sort of way, and he never lets us forget that we have a brain and that we might as well use it in order to welcome our guests properly.

We return once more to a certain island that ends up becoming the centre of the world and we watch a clever engineer build a really impressive bridge to the stars, despite the obstacles men and gods throw his way. He is remarkably intelligent, surprisingly modest (although he might just seem so because he never has the time to brag) and understanding. Sir Clarke tends to cram plenty of characters in his books, thus making spotlight stealing an almost impossible sport. However, Van Morgan does steal the spotlight and manages to hold it, even with his calm and hard-working demeanour that would normally label him as a boring old nerd. But, somewhere between the science and the professionalism, he grows on you… so much so that the last pages of the book are heartbreaking and almost unbearable.

This is not an action-packed novel. Most plots are related to Van Morgan’s attempts to find himself a sponsor and convince a group of monks to relocate their temple, and to King Kalidasa’s fear of being overthrown by his brother. Not very exciting stuff, many would think…  except that the present and the past are intertwined beautifully and we are shown just how correct some legends are.

The Prefect… a.k.a. “I know what you did last summer”, now in 3D

The Prefect… a.k.a. “I know what you did last summer”, now in 3D

I swear Alastair Reynolds is like crack. It’s bad for me, expensive, ghastly long and yet I always find myself reaching for one or another of his books whenever I go shopping. This novel was even worse, because I figured that if I had read Revelation Space and Chasm City, I might as well go for this one. Also, I am currently in the middle of Galactic North…

Anyway!

The Prefect is a tragic, high-tech detective story occurring between (and thanks to) two of the most traumatic events the humans settled around Epsilon Eridani had ever been subjected to (so far). It involves revenge, one evil electronic entity who wants to save everyone by killing them (first “wft?” moment), another evil electronic entity which turns out to have actually been misunderstood the whole time (a situation which could have led to something quite awesome if only the Clockmaker had made another appearance in the series), revenge, some minions, over-the-top technology and implants, revenge, an atomic trio formed of an old and wise prefect and his two juniors (one young female who is never in control of anything and one genetically modified pig who is actually better at his job than the rest of the genetically modified humans), deadly technology and a supreme commander who must continuously stay awake and in complete isolation and still manages to kick a**… oh, and did I mention revenge?

It’s long, it’s over the top (the two tags that should always be used when describing an Alastair Reynolds novel, which is a shame, because his short stories are awesome), but it’s fun… even the incredibly over the top, almost cartoonish bits. Such as Gaffney’s escape from prison which is straight out of any 90s movie involving Bruce Willis and baddies (see Die Hard). But, it managed to keep me glued… or better put, high. Also, the whip-hound is one cool weapon.

The book ends on a deceitful high note, because the reader (especially if subjected to other books in the series) does end up with a lot of questions, such as: where the hell are the prefects when the melding plague starts destroying the habitats and how come they weren’t able to stop its effects? And even more so, where the hell is the Clockmaker during the Revelation Space ark? See, I told you it’s crack…

Still, it was fun and easy to read (despite reaching the 600+ page count – seriously, are authors paid per word nowadays? Whatever happened to books that managed to be brilliant in 200 pages or less? – See Fahrenheit 451).

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi… aka “Beam me up, Scotty!”

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi… aka “Beam me up, Scotty!”

Let’s face it, science-fiction writers bluff a LOT. With the reader, with their characters, sometimes with the whole universe and other times even with themselves. This novel, however, reached a whole new level (practically invented it), because this author has bluffed his way through the entire story. And I’m not just saying that because its protagonist is an almost omnipotent thief.

The first couple of chapters are fantastic. The prison and what the thief goes through inside it are described perfectly and yes, the whole thing gets you hooked. Unfortunately, after the first couple of chapters, the book turns into an anime script (with very few exceptions).

This would have been a pretty fun read if not for several lethal facts:

*Grown-ups with, literally, centuries of life experience are acting like a bunch of moody, angsty teenagers. I get the eccentricity is some cases, but this is almost ridiculous. I expected huge egos, limitless power and almost omniscience… and I got huge egos, cheap tricks and almost no one having any kind of control over anything.

**Something that was quite disturbing and unforgivable for me… and, I should think, for any female individual reading this book: the sex scene… which the author tries to gloss over by repeating several times that no, Mieli was not present during the important bits because her mind wasn’t actually connected to her own body (consent, anyone?), so it was actually ok… no, no dear author, it really wasn’t…

***The showdown – much like the entire book, come to think of it – is so choked on terminology (one that is never quite explained, mind you) that you can barely understand what the hell is going on. It is one giant linguistic/phraseologic chaos… featuring lethal particle beams, computer viruses… and honest-to-God sword-wielding pixies straight out of a “Magical Girl” game/anime…

Recommended to: people who like lasers, conspiracy theories (although the storytelling fell quite a bit short in the build-up), explosions and anime!!!

Still, the book gets two stars (on Goodreads) because I liked the ship (though I understand that it gets destroyed at some point in the future, so there’s that…), the time beggars scene and because the whole thing wasn’t boring. The pacing was pretty well done and while there will be groaning in annoyance and LOTS of eye-rolling, there won’t be any sighs of boredom or keeping one’s eyelids open with toothpicks.

The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem… aka “Science Bros – The Original”

The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem… aka “Science Bros – The Original”

Before Rodney McKay and Carson Beckett, before Tony Stark and Bruce Banner… there were Trurl and Klapaucius.

Whether exploring the Universe, getting kidnapped to save this princess and that nation or wanting to invent the perfect society, these two are forever getting into trouble and bantering away while getting out of said trouble, quite possibly until the end of time or even beyond it. And don’t even get me started on their mentor. I swear I had a female version of his terrifying me all through college.

Although most of the collection revolves around these two “mad” scientists, there are also a number of “fables” focused on electronic knights, their diamond-like ladies and inhospitable lands to be conquered. Although these stories are written in a fashion even more accessible than the “Cyberiad” itself (they appear to be almost bedtime stories – and rightfully so, since I recall reading fragments of these in elementary school), a closer look will lead an older reader to well-hidden meanings and a special kind of magic. Having re-read them last year, it felt almost like watching the elements from the periodic table take human-like shape and embark on great adventures. Mr. Lem somehow made chemistry romantic!

As other reviewers have done so before me, I too must praise the translator. (Un)fortunately, the only version of the Cyberiad translated in my mother tongue is a rather old one (twenty years old, to be precise). This means that the translation, while being a really good one, is singular (hence the book’s out-of-print status).

There are certain authors (especially in the science-fiction genre) who manage to turn their words into life. Stanislaw Lem is such an author. And even if this life is lived by characters made of liquid metals and noble gases, it is still life. I think that this motif, alongside Trurl and Klapaucius’ godlike abilities (and childlike behaviours) are what both surprised and impressed me most in this collection. Definitely an oldie but a goldie!

The Last Theorem…

The Last Theorem…

…or the lesson editors and even writers everywhere should learn when it comes to smashing the very different styles of two or more authors (regardless of their individual talent) and squeezing them in the same story. You want different takes on the same facts? Ask for short stories revolving around the same idea and compile an anthology. Did no one ever learn anything from the disaster that is the Dune series post Frank Herbert?

In case you did not know, this novel was co-written by Sir Arthur C. Clarke (towards the end of his life) and Frederick Pohl, another science-fiction giant. Sadly, it was also quite a confusing jumble. The book had no linear plot, no climax and a really foggy conclusion, that came out of a different galaxy.

The book features a young mathematician who, after several trials of life (some of which are really shocking and painful even to read), comes to solve Fermat’s famous theorem (hence the title) and becomes famous, marries a beautiful woman and somehow ends up living the high life, in a rather stark contrast to his childhood and teenage years.

I’ve had several rather big issues with this book. The first is the idyllic life Ranjit ends up living. No PTSD resulting from what seems to be at least a year of torture? No remaining feelings for his teenage crush/love? And how does said crush end up being in such a high position at such a young age? I got that his daddy was a big shot, but nobody ends up working for the dark side of the UN at twenty…

We are continuously led to believe that Ranjit holds the key to some big future events and we are finally shown a LOT of funky aliens… Further on, we are regaled with the story of Ranjit’s life (most of which is not even connected to his mathematics anymore, but with daily family events and international politics)… and we wait for the aliens to finally get to Earth… and wait… and wait… and wait some more… and when they finally get here, they almost commit suicide because one Grand Galactic (the US, Russia and/or China of the Universe) counters their previous orders to destroy the human civilization, after having noticed the latest high-tech weapon and reaching the conclusion that humans finally got smart enough to use weapons that do not cause mass murder, but rather economic and technological destruction… which, in the actual world, would eventually lead to some kind of mass murder… As I said, this is a rather confusing novel, with several parallel plot lines which are never given an adequate conclusion.

In the end, Ranjit does not seem to actually have anything to do with the actual intergalactic events, other than the fact that the Americans wanted him for some kind of work… which is never detailed… but is supposedly relates to the Silent Thunder project… but why? What was supposed to be his actual contribution? What was so special about him (other than the fact that he has solved Fermat’s theorem and was handy with numbers…)?

In the end, his children seem to be more involved in the grand scheme of things. His daughter had more to add to the plot (by winning a round of funky Olympics and then, by chance, ending up the image employed by the MANY kinds of aliens for communicating with the human kind), as well as his son (a character for whom I had so many hopes), but their parts got cut short in the end. His wife could have also played a bigger part, but (while I am pleased with the social status analysis concerning Myra’s role as a woman, scientist and mother) she ends up doing little more than being continuously suspicious of the higher powers’ good intentions and limits herself to reading AI-related articles, instead of writing them herself.

The first part is far better than the rest of the book and I can actually see Sir Clarke writing it down. Although strange, it has depth and continuity. But the style soon cracks down and the novel turns into said jumble. Now, I understand the circumstances surrounding the writing process of this novel, but that is no excuse for the actual lack of editing. True, my translated edition definitely added to my poor opinion, but not as much as I would like to believe.