Category Archives: book reviews

2312 – Kim Stanley Robinson

2312

I really, really want to like Kim Stanley Robinson. I do. His ideas are beautiful. The Mars trilogy is the most in-depth analysis of Martian terraforming ever committed to print; Mark Watney couldn’t have planted potatoes without it. The Years of Rice and Salt combines a staggering scope (alternate world history, 1300-present) with a thoroughly original structure (following the reincarnations of a jati, a group of souls fated to meet again and again). In my middle-school years, he and Ursula LeGuin seemed to be the only voices for the earth and the wretched of the earth amidst a sea of gung-ho libertarians like Heinlein, Bradbury, and Frankowski.

But then you actually read the book, and your hopes are dashed. His characters are forgettable, his plots meandering, his prose wooden. I can’t remember which initial from Years of Rice and Salt is supposed to be the angry one, I or B. I recall a few passages of Red Mars, and one character because he was a sympathetic Frenchman at a time when we frogs were all “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” and one because he up and disappeared halfway through the book and I kept wondering when he’d come back.

I started 2312 full of the apprehensive hope that the last twenty years have made a better storyteller of this brilliant, idiosyncratic Author. I’m afraid Anne Rice was correct: we don’t really change, we only become more fully what we are. Kim Stanley Robinson is the Arthur C. Clarke of the 21st century: a consummate idea man who isn’t about to let mere writing get in his way.

2312 is full of absolutely amazing ideas: the Mondragon that has superseded capitalism, leaving “capitalism [as] the residual on Mars, as feudalism [as] the residual on Earth,” the art-world of Mercury and its capitol at Terminator, mutually-hermaphroditic sex, and, of course, the terraria.

terrarium.jpg

“Terrarium” for this style of vessel/colony, hollowed out of an asteroid and filled with biosphere, seems destined to enter the SF lexicon alongside terms like “ansible,” “waldo,” “hyperspace,” and “robot.” And Robinson’s inventive new ideas don’t stop at content, he has some brilliant literary strokes as well: the interstitial lists, extracts, and quantum walks are not only elegantly-presented exposition, they further the feeling of balkanization that Robinson characterizes his future with. 2312 has one of the very, very few examples of future works of art that effectively influences the story without being the focus of it, both Swan’s art installations on Mercury and those of other artists through the Solar System. Speaking of art, he even inverts the Famous Famous Fictional Trek trio near the end and lists “I Met Her in a Phobos Restaurant,” “Lovely Rita, Meter Maid,” and “We’re Off to See the Wizard” as drinking songs in that order.

But his characters. His plotting. It opens with a funeral and closes with a wedding, in fitting comic theater fashion. There’s terrorist attacks, two survival trials as Swan and Wahram are marooned, a romance that takes you from behind, the possibility of emergent AI turning against their masters, and the secret machinations of various factions…but none of them seem to connect to anything. Indeed, it’s hard to connect much of anything to anywhere. As one not-a-reviewer noted, “Swan Er Hong and Wahram prefer to run away from problems they don’t understand,” and the whole book feels less like a book, less even than a patchwork story, than it does like a picaresque. Our Heroes finish up one adventure (or, more often than not, leave it dangling like the worst Stephenson novel, as they did in Africa) and are whisked off by terrarium to the next one. Which is great! I’ve enjoyed a great many novels exactly like this, and even written a couple myself. Except, Robinson wants us to see a bigger picture and a greater drama to this balkanized novel, and it just doesn’t seem to work.

Which brings me to Swan.

I will probably remember Swan Er Hong a long time, if only because she consistently aroused vague disgust, which is probably not what you want in a viewpoint character. She’s over a century old but behaves like a bratty teenager – a smart one, but still emotionally immature and bizarrely inexperienced. She’s apparently never seen poverty on Earth before, nor been in love (despite a medical history in the middle of the book describing past loves and children), nor even lost a parent. She imperiously declares what is best for whatever planet she’s standing on or in, endangers her friends at least twice, and is generally an unpleasant person to be around and to read about. Her companion, Wahram, by contrast, is merely boring. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s oeuvre of forgettable characters, Wahram’s phlegmatic plodding is something even Robinson specifically notes as boring. Maybe this is why their romance seems more formal than real: on the one hand, you have the man who’s never perturbed even by losing his own leg, and on the other, the woman who constantly reacts to whatever’s in front of her. What kind of spark could you have there?

Kim Stanley Robinson has never been easy reading. I got that all the way back in seventh grade. But getting through it has always been interesting, even if I argue with myself about whether it was worth it. The sheer scope of Years of Rice and Salt still dazzles me, the meditations on humanity as cultivator or humanity as witness (Green vs. Red) in the Mars trilogy is some of the best philosophy in commercial fiction. Despite the meandering plot and the forgettable characters, despite the mannered prose and the hollow dialogue, I think 2312 was worth it. In 2012, when the book came out, the vision of a future where hope could be found, a future where humanity increases in genetic, cultural, and artistic diversity while still being human, a future where even Earth could be terraformed, was as alien to the omnipresent Singularity or Apocalypse as the liberal-green philosophy of Red Mars had been at the tail end of cyberpunk. Other authors have since taken up the call, dusted off the terraria, grappled with the intersexed and transcender implications, and explored other ways to terraform Earth. We wouldn’t have Sunvault and Reckoning without 2312, we wouldn’t have Ecopunk! without 2312, we wouldn’t have solarpunk without 2312. For that alone, the book is worth it.

(edited versions of this review have been crossposted to Goodreads and to Amazon.com)

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“Red Seas Under Red Skies” – Scott Lynch

“That’s a sweet piece,” said Jean, briefly forgetting to be aggravated. “You didn’t snatch that off a street.”

“No,” said Locke, before taking another deep draught of the warm water in the decanter. “I got it from the neck of the governor’s mistress.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“In the governor’s manor.”

“Of all the -”

“In the governor’s bed.”

“Damned lunatic!”

“With the governor sleeping next to her.”

The night quiet was broken by the high, distant trill of a whistle, the traditional swarming noise of city watches everywhere. Several other whistles joined in a few moments later.

“It is possible,” said Locke with a sheepish grin, “that I have been slightly too bold.”

tl;dr version: If you like the quote, you’ll love the book.

I was first introduced to Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies by a very excitable friend of mine (hi, B!). When B fangirls, she fangirls hard, and she fangirls with the evangelistical fervor of Oliver Cromwell. And as we were standing in Powell’s Books in Portland, she kept insisting I had to read this fantasy series that I’d missed out on.

Lynch’s first book, The Lies of Locke Lamora, concern the trials and tribulations of a gang of religious-minded con artists in fantasy counterpart Venice. I fell in love somewhere around page two, where the saintly beggar meets with !Fagin, pulls out a cigar, and proceeds to curse like a sailor while discussing the sale of a child. I only fell more in love as I watched Locke grow up, met Jean Tannen and Bug and the Sanza Brothers. The book was witty, scintillating, corrupt, rich, and ripe for the plucking.

I love thieves, conmen, and swashbucklers. I actually own David Maurer’s The Big Con, the linguistics study that inspired literally every con artist story you’ve ever seen that isn’t Catch Me If You Can. Fantasy con artists serving a thieves’ god in magical Venice and pulling the world’s most screwed-up Spanish Prisoner gambit? YES PLEASE.

Then I found out the sequel had tall ships in it.

Oh gods yes.

While I was toting it around, people would ask me what Red Seas Under Red Skies was about. And I always told them, “it’s Ocean’s Eleven on a pirate ship.” Red Seas opens with Locke and his stalwart companion Jean Tannen two years deep into a con to rob the richest casino in Tel Verrar, which seems to be the fantasy counterpart Genoa to Camorr’s fantasy counterpart Venice. The Sinspire has one, very important, rule: If you are caught cheating, you are put to death. And Locke and Jean have been cheating every single game since they walked in the door two years before.

As Locke notes, people will show up to compliment them on their unique skills, usually in the process of coercing them into practicing them for free. Some stuff happens, and he and Jean have to flee to the sea (despite having zero nautical knowledge whatsoever), where they promptly fall in with a pirate crew.

It’s a legitimate criticism that Scott Lynch apparently got bored with his book halfway through and ran off to write an entirely different book. It’s not as jarring as the same left turn in Les Miserables, but it’s jarring nevertheless. However, as the entirely different book is “Captain Blood with con men,” I can’t find it in myself to consider this a problem.

Lynch’s pirate gang is led by a middle-aged black mother of two who wears an impenetrable blinged-out bulletproof vest. Because any good sailor on the Brass Sea knows you don’t leave port without two things: A cat, and a woman on the crew. Preferably an officer. Preferably Captain.

Oh yeah. That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout.

One of the things I appreciate about the series is how inclusive and diverse it is…while at the same time being incredibly low-key and accepting of that diversity. There’s an early scene where Locke and Jean are being gondola’d by a young lady gondolier. Men on the shore make crude comments about her sexuality. She makes crude comments about theirs right back, because they’re all equally gutter trash. Neither Locke nor Jean find this at all remarkable, no moreso than the two most famous gladiators back home in Camorr being female nor their Captain being of a notably darker skin-tone than her first officer (or themselves). There are as many women guards and constables as there are men, as many female officers and pirates as men, and nobody bats an eye. It’s just …all taken as normal.

As it should be.

Scott Lynch clearly enjoys his nautical lore quite as much as I do, and nowhere does that shine more than in the taking of the Kingfisher. Rafael Sabatini may have written more seafaring derring-do, and, on the whole, it might be better. But, for my money, that one scene is better than any one nautical scene in Captain Blood. Yes. Really.

Locke goes mad with bloodlust. Jean falls in love. Locke falls in the water. They eventually make it to the pirate republic (because of course there’s one) and begin spinning new plots.

It’s not a spoiler to tell you someone dies in a Scott Lynch book. But it is to tell you who. If you’d rather not, although I frankly saw it coming from about halfway in, skip the block quote.

The only thing I really take issue with in Red Seas is how Lynch handles the death of the first mate, Jean’s lover, Ezri. By all rights, it should work: Lynch clearly has no problems whatsoever with women as people or as characters, Ezri has enough character development apart from Jean to stand on her own two feet, she sacrifices herself to save the ship, the captain, and her lover, and Lynch treated Bug and the Sanzas the same way in Lies.

It still feels like a fridging. Jean and Locke swear vengeance for her death, which motivates them for the last third of the book. And her death, while noble, struck me as hollow: She was moved by the needs of the plot, the need to pare back down to the Gentlemen Bastards, rather than by her character. She threatened to stick around, how convenient that she gave a Noble Sacrifice to save the crew instead.

Locke and Jean ended the last book with a death-offering, which by their religious beliefs must be stolen and in proportion with the skills of the thief making the offering and the value they held the dead in. The offering in Lies was suitably epic. The offering in this book may be worth less, but damned if it isn’t fitting.

And, of course, there’s a beautiful gotcha to cap off the epilogue.

If, like me, you like nonstandard fantasy, firmly grounded in a place and time and ideally one that isn’t “medieval-ish England-ish Franceland,” or if you like heists and capers, or if you like sea stories, I cannot recommend Red Seas Under Red Skies hard enough. Even if you haven’t read Lies of Locke Lamora, although you should anyway.

Because it’s Ocean’s Eleven on a pirate ship that turns into Captain Blood with conmen.