Read Warm Words & Otherwise: A Blizzard of Book Reviews Online

Authors: John Grant

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Reference, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #History & Criticism, #Criticism & Theory

Warm Words & Otherwise: A Blizzard of Book Reviews (31 page)

BOOK: Warm Words & Otherwise: A Blizzard of Book Reviews
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Picoverse

by Robert A. Metzger

Ace, 389 pages, hardback, 2002

At
InfinityPlus
we maintain a rigorously egalitarian policy in our book reviews. Books from small presses – and even self-published books – are given exactly the same treatment as those from the larger and better-established houses. In theory at least, it doesn't matter if your book is from Bantam or iUniverse: it has the same chance of being reviewed, and will be expected to conform to the same standards.

This has one obvious disbenefit so far as the reviewers are concerned: all too often we have to plough through garbage. But that is far outweighed by the benefits of the policy, most particularly that, with surprising frequency, we come across marvellous books that otherwise we'd never have read – indeed, that otherwise would never have impinged upon our consciousness at all. To give a measure of this, this reviewer discovered that his slate of five titles he listed on his Hugo Nomination form as his personal choice for Best Novel of 2001 contained two books from print-on-demand houses.

Why are some of these books that have been ignored by the larger houses so good? What they have – the best of them – is often a freshness, a vigour, an enthusiasm. To generalize wildly, the books coming from the established imprints are, at least in the USA, tending more and more towards the formulaic, the safe. To be sure, there are a few excellent fantasies being released by the big houses, but the majority seem to be merely romantic adventures set in a thoroughly familiar otherworld. Similarly, while the major firms are publishing some excellent sf – whether of the thought-provoking or just-for-entertainment variety – all too much of the rest is just the same old same old. One has to assume this muffling of the imagination in the theoretically imaginative genres has to do with commercial pressures and the search for safety: the new and daring represents a risk, whereas a rehash of the tried and tested should be at least
nearly
as successful as it was last time.

I would argue that such policies are in fact commercially disastrous even in the medium term, but that is another discussion.

No such constraints apply to the small presses, of course, and most certainly they don't apply to the self-publishing author. I do not imagine there's a small press which, or a fiction writer who, doesn't desire to sell stacks of books, but nevertheless the freedom is there to experiment – most importantly, perhaps, to produce books that aren't afraid to
challenge
the reader, but also to issue novels that are, because of the vigour I mentioned earlier, just heaps of fun: wild romps in which the author's imagination is allowed simply to let rip, and to hell with the consequences.

There are common characteristics among many of the best novels in the latter category that come from the small print-on-demand houses and the self-publishing imprints. Some of these are not so desirable: the spelling errors, the occasional instances of weird grammar, the typos, and all the usual myriad signs that the expense of a copy editor has been spared. But others are joyous; for example, the lack of plotting conventionality, the endless inventiveness, and – to focus on sf – the exuberantly wacky science.

Wacky science need not in itself be a good thing, of course, no matter the exuberance; if it's packed with elementary errors at the most fundamental level then the reader sooner or later will lose patience with it. But wacky science that is at least
plausible-seeming
as it draws on the frontiers of quantum physics, cosmology, robotics, nanoengineering ... well,
that
sort of wacky science is probably what brought us into the field of sf in the first place, packed as it is with potential for generating the elusive Sense of Wonder.

There is a point to this long preamble, and I'm getting to it right now.

Picoverse
displays all the characteristics of the very, very finest of the small-press publications. It has lashings of wacky science of the best possible type – indeed, its science is, within the confines of a fiction, utterly convincing. The enthusiasm of the text, like the pace, never flags: one has the glorious sense that the author was enjoying this wild rollercoaster ride as much as we readers do, and quite possibly even more. Ideas are everywhere. The plot skids and jumps seemingly without ever a fear the reader might be left behind, gasping. The scope is too great to be contained within a single universe, but that doesn't matter because the author blithely creates a plethora of new ones – while equally blithely destroying a fair number as well.

It has to be added that, on the downside, there are also the other characteristics of a small-press publication. Aside from a hailstorm of oddly placed commas, I spotted frequent instances of: "criteria" used as a singular noun, "lead" used for "led", "breech" used for "breach", "waddle" used for "wattle" ... The author has the very curious habit, which should have been excised – it is doubtless born from his writing of technical papers – of italicizing supposedly "difficult" words on their first appearance, even when this is within quoted dialogue. I never did work out quite what the word "cavication" was supposed to mean, although a furtive search on Yahoo! (my extensive battery of dictionaries having proved unable to assist) showed that at least the word seemed to exist. There were grammatical errors, too: "... but that one hundred pounds were well distributed", for a sole example.

Also in keeping with the traditions of the small press was that it was the author who sent
IP
the review copy of
Picoverse
, the publisher presumably balking at the expense.

The only thing distinctive, in short, is that
Picoverse
comes not from a small press but from Ace.

Well, Ace deserve to be congratulated on publishing one of the most riotously enjoyable pieces of hard sf to come this reviewer's way in a good while. This novel is a true feast of the scientific imagination, both utterly uninhibited and, for the reader, immensely liberating. The hugely laudatory cover quotes – and this book has
lots
of them, from folk like Robert J. Sawyer, Gregory Benford and Charles Sheffield – which one would normally dismiss as just so much white noise, are in this instance entirely deserved.

So what is
Picoverse
all about, then?

Well, in a universe that is extremely like ours but which differs in at least the minutiae of its recent history, a gang of scientists funded by covert government grant construct a device capable of generating smaller daughter-universes. It takes them a while to realize that their own universe itself could be a dependent daughter-universe created by the scientists of a greater one, and so
ad infinitum
, and by about that same time they discover that at least one of the officials with whom they are interacting is a rogue corrective android from the next universe up the ladder of realities. As the scientists enter and explore – are
forced
to flee into and explore, because of all the skullduggery that's going on in all directions – a selection of the picoverses further down that ladder from their own, they discover of course their own alternate personae, leading to much confusion and irony. In the end it seems that the young son of one of the scientists, whose versions are found scattered through the picoverses in various different guises, good and bad, and grown to various different ages, holds the key to a restitution of reality and the extinction of all the deleterious cross-linkages between the picoverses. But can the versions of the son always be relied upon? Indeed, can even the main good-guy protagonists be relied upon, either to act for the good or to be what they seem?

All is eventually resolved, of course, at least so far as our own welfare is concerned: this wonderful romp delights in taking us to very brink of the abyss but would never dream of doing anything so depressing as actually plunging us into it for a finale. Whether all the plot strands are entirely resolved is another matter; there seemed to me to be a few ends left hanging loose, but I confess that by then I was so enjoying myself that I didn't much care – besides, it must have been about 4am by then, because I couldn't bear to put the book down and switch out the light until I'd finished.

Picoverse
may not be great literature – although who is to judge what that term means? – but it most certainly is great science fiction. If your taste for the genre has become jaded by constant recycling of the formulaic, well, look no further for a source of abundant refreshment. If you want a joyride through the farthest shores of the imagination, or if you simply long for the youthful time when you could read a whole book with a great big grin of sheer enjoyment on your face, then again
Picoverse
is for you. And if you're among the unlucky few who have yet to encounter the Sense of Wonder and are baffled by the phrase, then it's pretty obvious which book I'm recommending you rush out and buy.

And let's hope that Ace bites the bullet when issuing the paperback and pays for a proofreader/copy editor to go through the text so that the reprints which
Picoverse
so manifestly deserves are freed from all those trivial but irritating blemishes.

—Infinity Plus

Bronwyn Book One: Palaces & Prisons

by Ron Miller

Timberwolf, 283 pages, paperback, 2001; reissue of a book originally published in 1991

This is the first in a four-volume series starring Bronwyn, the ousted princess of Tamlaght, written by an author who is far better known in the sf/fantasy world for his artwork, especially his space artwork – although he is a much more versatile artist than that remark might suggest. He was also the author, with Frederick C. Durant III, of the enormous, Hugo-winning 2001 book
The Art of Chesley Bonestell
, so his auctorial credentials are well established.

Tamlaght is a kingdom in a fantasyland whose technology is primarily medieval but with some more modern stuff – up to about the 1950s – thrown in. The old king having died, the elder of his two children, the halfwit Prince Ferenc, is set to inherit. However, Ferenc is completely under the thumb of the scheming Lord (Payne) Roelt, whose sole desire is to screw the kingdom for his personal coffers. Ferenc's younger sister Bronwyn, next in line for the throne, discovers some letters that damningly reveal Roelt's plots and the extent of his domination of Ferenc. Before she can move to take these before the Council of Barons, with the intent of having Roelt banished (or worse) and Ferenc disqualified from succeeding to the throne, there is a price put on her head and she is on the run.

Somewhat snotty by temperament, she would probably last about five minutes among the common scum of the streets of Blavek, Tamlaght's capital, were it not for the intervention of the huge, grotesque, none-too-bright sarcophagus-maker Thud Mollockle. With the help of the ever-loyal Thud and various other companions – notably a gypsy called Janos Plodsku and later an iron-thewed human-reared-as-a-Kobold called Gyven – she is first spirited away from Blavek and then conveyed secretly around the country, having divers adventures.

This is a highly entertaining romp. At its end, all is well set for the next volume of the tetralogy, although the conclusion of this volume is by no means unsatisfying. The tale as a whole is one that Robert Jordan might well have told at five times the length and with only one-fifth of the fun and wit. After some orotundity that should have been edited out during the first thirty or fifty pages, the writing settles down to an engaging ease. The characters of Bronwyn, exasperatingly status-conscious though she is, and perhaps more especially of Thud Mollockle, who proves to be a Kobold changeling (the counterpart of Gyven, a human baby taken in place of a Kobold substitute), are appealing and interesting.

Miller's own excellent cover artwork depicting Bronwyn gives the clue to her interest as a fantasy heroine. This is far from the usual buxom blonde maiden who would seem more at home on a chocolate box. Instead we're presented with a
real
-seeming face, and this sense of reality is carried over into the written character. A disenfranchised princess with an attitude problem might seem something of a cliché in high fantasy, but in Bronwyn the bloody-mindedness comes across as an integral part of her personality, rather than, as in most such fantasy protagonists, a gloss laid over an empty shell – a means of disguising the fact that the standard Princess Cliché has no personality whatsoever, being designed to be identified with by female readers as their ideal selves and to be the target of the silent lusts of adolescent male readers. Bronwyn, by contrast, is someone you might or might not like if you actually met her, which makes her infinitely more appealing as a fictional character.

The only trouble with this romp, enjoyable though it is, is that there's nothing
more
to it. It is obvious Miller is perfectly capable as a writer of giving the text that extra
something
which distinguishes great romps from merely good ones. There are grins and gasping adventures a-plenty here, but one wishes either that the book had some sort of a subtextual interest or at least some striking conceptual originality – preferably, of course, both. As it is, the novel doesn't leave the reader with any lingering food for thought: it's merely temporal entertainment, a diversion for a few hours.

But as that – simply as entertainment –
Palaces & Prisons
scores highly, which is more than can be said of many of its direct rivals.

—Infinity Plus

Remnant Population

by Elizabeth Moon

Del Rey, 336 pages, paperback, 2003; reissue of a book originally published in 1996

Elizabeth Moon is best known for her military sf, and consequently I avoided her work like the plague until about a year ago, when her exquisite novel of autism,
The Speed of Dark
, came my way. I still have no desire to read her military sf, but I've bored people rigid ranting to them about how good
The Speed of Dark
is.

Remnant Population
(a reissue of a 1996 novel) isn't quite that good, but nevertheless I enjoyed it more than most of the sf I read during 2003. An old woman, Ofelia, is left behind on a colony planet when the Company decides to pull out. Much later, a new colony is attempted, but it's beaten back bloodily by intelligent natives no one knew before were there. While Earth tries to figure out what to do, an expeditionary party of the natives finds Ofelia, and communication is established. She is forced into the position of acting as mediator between the natives and Earth.

That's just about the whole of the plot, actually, but the book is entirely engrossing, partly because of the character of Ofelia herself, mainly because of the aliens Moon has created: through Ofelia's eyes they become comprehensible, but always they're entrancingly alien. I recommended this so hard to my non-sf-reading wife that in the end, to shut me up, she read it. To the astonishment of both of us, she loved it too.

—Crescent Blues

BOOK: Warm Words & Otherwise: A Blizzard of Book Reviews
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