Sunday, February 11, 2018

February Reads Part One

The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds
Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan

I know I read Altered Carbon in university, so let's say between 2004 and '06? I remembered a bit since then, the sleeves, the cyberpunk, the hardboiled detective stuff, and the solution to the mystery being really complicated. I had an overall favourable impression of the novel. Enough that I always meant to get around to reading more Morgan stuff (and I still will... eventually). I gave this a reread thanks to the recent Netflix adaptation as well as just a general hunger for science fiction. What strikes me reading this for a second time (a rare occurrence) is how much my interests in science fiction have changed. My overall opinion this time around is decidedly negative—partly because of some issues with the novel and partly due to my shifting tastes.

I suppose I'm no longer interested in the macho posturing that Altered Carbon is so keen on trafficking in. The hardboiled stuff, with the constant persistence on cigarettes, sex, seaminess, didn't really grab me this time around. In fact, I was very much put off by the machismo of the novel. Within 50 pages, the protagonist has referred to, more than once, his arousal and another character's breasts. It's like that famous tweet about a man writing a woman ("she breasted boobily down the stairs"); Morgan really needs us to know about how horny his protagonist is. Sex is an integral part of the plot if only because hardboiled detective fiction seems to require the unsavoury. Chandler's Marlowe was motivated not simply by money but by a chivalry, to right the wrongs committed against women (though women were just as often perpetrators as they were victims in Chandler's novels). The detective lifting the rock to see the insects crawling underneath is a necessary element to the hardboiled genre. Which gives us Morgan's loathsome world, a cynical bitter worldview which assumes almost all people are ruthlessly self-motivated. Sex is yet another weapon the rich use to dehumanize, humiliate, and control the poor, in Altered Carbon. A generous feminist reading of it might opine the novel is anti-capitalist but that would have to reconcile the book's fetishizing of guns and gun brands.

Likewise, a feminist reading would have to acknowledge that much of the plot hinges on prostitution and the possibilities of sex thanks to sleeving technology and virtual reality. It's not much of a surprise to reveal that its depiction of sex work is simplistic and moralizing. Prostitutes in this novel are either victims of violence or victims of circumstances, but more likely, both. The sexual violence in this novel is extreme. Most of it occurs offstage, thank heavens, but there is one significant scene in which the protagonist is sleeved into a woman's body for the sake of torture. We are regaled with brief, but still palpable, descriptions of torture against a woman's body, and it's the apex of gratuitous.

Altered Carbon just didn't interest me in the way it used to, I'm afraid. About halfway through the novel, I made a guess on the solution to the mystery (I had 100% forgotten the solution) and I'm very much convinced my solution is more clever than the one presented in the book. I found myself disappointed reaching the end of the novel when the reveal turned out to be much more prosaic than expected. Sure, it's thematically supported (sex weaponized against the poor and marginalized) but mine was a better use of the sleeving conceit. One wonders what kind of excruciatingly clever fix Adam Roberts could have conceived.

I should try more from Morgan though. While I didn't like Altered Carbon, I didn't hate it, and I can definitely see the author's potential. He lists "feminist" as an attribute in his Twitter bio and I can see the seeds of that awareness in the themes of this novel. I'll give another one of his novels I try, I think.

 Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky was a goddamn delight. I hadn't read any major work of science fiction in months (some novellas, including the superb Winterglass) and I felt the jones for it. Tchaikovsky is an author I knew the name of (and we follow each other on Twitter) but I hadn't read anything by him. I should have long ago because this was terrific. Not perfect but such a blast. Some reviews have mentioned the flatness of the human half of the novel and their preference for the generations-long history of the intelligent spiders, and sure, the spiders are the more compelling story, but I still found the human half worked for me. The arc of the humans in the novel is messy, such as their history, full of violence and deadends and frustrations, which juxtaposes quick neatly against the linearity of the spiders.

Pushing Ice was my first Alastair Reynolds since finishing his Revelation trilogy all those months ago. For about two thirds of Pushing Ice, I kept asking myself, "why don't I read every single word he's ever written? He's soooo gooood" but then I reached the final third and remembered why. After four novels, I get the sense Reynolds is a big fan of out-weirding himself. "Oh, the sentient weapons weren't weird enough? How about a whole cathedral on wheels that follows an elliptical orbit?" It's the same thing here. Once he's introduced his first alien species, he can't help but introduce a bunch more that feel weird for the sake of being weird. The last third of the novel is far too space opera-y when it should have stayed being the "engineers and scientists solve logistical problems" story that it was. I really liked this until I didn't.

The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander was a neat novella about intelligent elephants and radiation.

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