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Friday, October 25, 2013

Four Short Reviews: Dan Simmons' "The Abominable" and Mark von Schlegell's Three Superb Solar System Books (by Liviu Suciu)


"It's 1926, and the desire to summit the world's highest mountain has reached a fever-pitch among adventurers. Three young friends, eager to take their shot at the top, accept funding from a grieving mother whose son fell to his death on Mt. Everest two years earlier. But she refuses to believe he's dead, and wants them to bring him back alive.

As they set off toward Everest, the men encounter other hikers who are seeking the boy's body for their own mysterious reasons. What valuable item could he have been carrying? What is the truth behind the many disappearances on the mountain? As they journey to the top of the world, the three friends face abominable choices, actions--and possibly creatures. A bone-chilling, pulse-pounding story of supernatural suspense, THE ABOMINABLE is Dan Simmons at his best."
  
With a blurb that is both factually wrong - as the action takes place in 1925 - and misleading as the novel while having a lot of a suspense true, has nothing of the supernatural,  The Abominable is one of the prime example of how a potentially awesome and memorable novel is ruined by conventional action that lacks any imagination or subtlety.

For about 500 pages, The Abominable is  an extremely engrossing story of mountaineering with lots of technical details that ground it in reality, showing once again that what's possible really depends a lot of what level of technology we are at. Incidentally the book made me read a little about the Mt. Everest expeditions and how today what was once a dangerous adventure for the very few became a relatively common place thing at least for fit people with enough cash to pay for equipment and permits, and this is quite cheering as I expect similar things to happen with near space travel...  

But then The Abominable becomes the worst sort of "dumb Nazi supermen" against plucky heroes, not to speak of all the cliches regarding the heroes themselves and the Shangri La ending. In addition, the book is set in 1925 when Adolf Hitler was a blip on the horizon - a lunatic with charisma and dangerous ideas, but there were tons of such across history and only very specific circumstances - essentially the sudden impoverishment of the developed world after the 1929 crash - brought him to power, while other specific circumstances  - the Carthaginian peace of Versailles against what is by nature the most powerful nation of Europe since after all there was a reason the French, Spanish and later Habsurgs tried and succeeded in keeping Germany a dis-united war zone for so many centuries, while even after the complete devastation of 1945, in under 10 years Germany became the most prosperous nation in Europe again, truncated and all - allowed him to try and conquer the world and implement his genocidal policies, so the whole Nazi stuff is even stupider than if the book were set in 1938 for example a la Indiana Jones and this last at least was brainless entertainment and never aspired to more, but The Abominable was supposed to be an interesting novel...

This being so, the extraordinary writing skills of the author and the narrative momentum of the novel, still made The Abominable a recommended book, but with even a little more subtlety in its last 150 pages it could have been an excellent and possibly awesome one...

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"It's 2133. A priceless Vermeer is making its way back to Earth. Freelance Spacer Nick Wesley is charged with protecting the painting as it comes on board The Polly-Ann, the eccentrically re-fit cross system space-hauler of notorious Count Simwe Skaw. With Skaw poised to make a move, Nick secures the masterpiece with a so-called quantum lock. Meanwhile, back on Earth riots in Equator City are threatening stability of the C. Clarke Elevator. Even if he manages to outwit Skaw and his minions, Nick just might not make it back for Nora's Sunday Brunch on Penobscot Bay...

High Wichita is a key novelette in Mark von Schlegell's still un-winding science fiction future history, The System Series. A missing link between the novels Venusia (2005) and Mercury Station (2009), High Wichita is both a love-letter to pulp fiction and a pot-boiling caper story of its own."

High Wichita is a mind bending novella set in the universe of Venusia and Mercury Station and it is nicely illustrated too. Excellent stuff that contains quite a lot within 55 pages, mostly taking place across a Solar System liner of the author's imaginative 22nd century and is self-contained as its action goes, but it is directly related to the author's two novels set in the same universe, most notably, Mercury Station. Excellent stuff overall and here is a quote to illustrate the richness of the setting, while you can read more in the sample at Smashwords:

"Painting is a perfect pastime for the long hours of space travel. As the Lunar linershuttle came into equal velocity with the Polly-Ann, Nick Wesley was just putting the finishing touches on a rather successful paint-by-numbers portrait of his adorable wife. Now he laid his brush on the toppler and strolled to the windowmirror to take a gander at that legendary ship.
  Four thousand kilometers over Luna City, Count Skaw's refit grainovator bulged with eccentricity and complication. The hull's quasicrystal skin shoneyellow like a Chinese fish. Broad swaths of lightsuckers wrapped off and around the diamond barnacles of the sparkling, parasite autonomies, the stuck-on eateries, brothels, casinos, churches, markets and hotels, by which Polly-Ann paid for her own passage. The heraldry of the Concerns was not to be found among her bangles and baudles. Captain Count burned energy as he saw fit, without undue interference."

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"Primitive literacy is redundant. Mere words are expelled. We inaugurate a world of pure presence. The mind, that intrudes itself between ourselves and those memories too terrible to know, must keep us moving beyond the grasp of their claw. To control the flow, it will be necessary that political order be imposed always temporarily. The state shall enjoy direct, creative access to the real.It's the end of the twenty-third century. Earth has violently self-destructed. Venusia, an experimental off-world colony, survives under the enlightened totalitarianism of the Princeps Crittendon regime. Using industrialized narcotics, holographic entertainment, and memory control, Crittendon has turned Venusia into a self-sustaining system of relative historical inertia. But when mild-mannered junk dealer Rogers Collectibles finds a book about early Venusian history, the colony -- once fully immersed in the present -- begins losing its grip on the real. With his Reality-V girlfriend Martha Dobbs, neuroscop operator Sylvia Yang, his midget friend Niftus Norrington, and a sentient plant, Rogers wages a war to alter the shape of spacetime, and in the process, revisions the whole human (and vegetable) condition"

Chronologically the first novel of Mark von Schlegell published in his extremely imaginative near future universe, Venusia truly made my head spin and I felt dizzy though sitting on a bench when I was trying to imagine the landscape of the novel.

I quite enjoyed it overall - weird is too banal a word for this one, both in style - modernistic a la MJ Harrison - and in content  - from sentient plants to multidimensional twisting of reality - with the drawback is that you have to immerse yourself and not nitpick. If you like your sf to be truly crazy, forget Hannu Rajaniemi and read Mark von Schlegell instead, or maybe read both...

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"Published by Semiotext(e) in 2005, Mark von Schlegell's debut novel Venusia was hailed in the sci-fi and literary worlds as a "breathtaking excursion" and "heady kaleidoscopic trip," establishing him as an important practitioner of vanguard science fiction. Mercury Station, the second book in Von Schlegell's System Series, continues the journey into a dystopian literary future. It is 2150. Eddard J. Ryan was born in a laboratory off Luna City, an orphan raised by the Black Rose Army, a radical post-Earth Irish revolutionary movement. But his first bombing went wrong and he's been stuck in a borstal on Mercury for decades. System Space has collapsed and most of human civilization with it, but Eddie Ryan and his fellow prisoners continue to suffer the remote-control domination of the borstal and its condescending central authority, the qompURE MERKUR, programmed to treat them as adolescents. Yet things could be worse. With little human supervision, the qompURE can be fooled. There's food and whiskey, and best of all, the girl of Eddie Ryan's dreams, his long-time friend and comrade Kor? McAllister, is in the same prison. When his old boss, rich and eccentric chrononaut Count Reginald Skaw shows up in orbit with an entire interstation cruiser at his disposal, there's even the possibility of escape....back in time. Like Venusia, Mercury Station tells a compelling story, drawn through a labyrinth of future-history sci-fi, medieval hard fantasy, and cascading samplings of high and low culture. The book is a brilliant literary assault against the singularity of self and its imprisonment in Einsteinian spacetime."

Mercury Station is closer to what one would call "essential sf" than things usually labeled such; it is innovative in quite a few ways, and while Venusia was weird but with a sort-of-clear-plot/action and I have not decided yet if Mercury Station truly makes sense plot-wise, the things thrown in almost casually from a chrono-dynamics theory, to Quantum computers, to Medieval imagery and action combined with 22nd century Solar System intrigue, all in a package that will make you a bit dizzy but still compel you to turn pages, should make this one a must for any sf-lover. Highly, highly recommended!

1 comments:

Thrillhouse said...

You should read Mike Miller's "The Yeti" for a superior "treasure-hunting soldiers vs. mythological snow monster" story:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/149289544X

While I liked Simmons' "The Terror," his "The Abominable" was very slow and very disappointing.

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