Tag: alastair reynolds

Books roundup


Books read recently:

  • Tim Powers, On Stranger Tides: In the last days of piracy, Jack Shandy is forced to join the crew of pirate Phil Davies–never suspecting that this will lead him on an adventure on the high seas in search of the fabled Fountain of Youth, nor that his path will cross that of Blackbeard, voodoo sorcerers, and a nefarious Oxford professor. As always with Powers, tremendous fun underpinned by a tremendous sense of history and myth. The use of voodoo magic and of the Spanish myths of the Fountain of Youth is particularly effective, and it all comes to an awesome ending. (my favourite character died about halfway through the book, but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the rest of the story)
    This is the one that was officially optioned by Disney for Pirates of the Carribbean IV. At the very least, it should have cool plot elements, if they don’t make too much of a mess out of it.
  • Alastair Reynolds, Revelation Space. Humanity has taken to the stars, and seeded faraway worlds such as Yellowstone and Sky’s Edge. On the isolated planet of Resurgam, archeologist Dan Sylveste conducts research into the extinct race of the Amarantin, extinguished by a freak sun flare before their civilisation could achieve spaceflight. But, unbeknown to him, plans are already afoot to dispatch him–for the truth that lies on Resurgam is far too dangerous to come into the light of the day…
    Written before, but set after the events of Chasm City (and having a cameo by Chasm City‘s main character), it essentially follows the same progression of unravelling a central mystery–this time much bigger-scale than Chasm City. Who or what is moving the various factions around Sylveste? Why did the Amarantin die? And who is Sun Stealer, the shipbound entity that drives people mad? The end did feel like it dragged on for slightly too long, but the worldbuilding is masterful, and the plot is impressively constructed and orchestrated. And it was Reynolds’ first novel, too. I am in awe. (and will go look for subsequent volumes in the series).
  • Valerio Evangelisti, Cherudek (French translated from Italian): a really oddball novel, part fantasy, part historical, part SF. The main part is set in 14th-century France, and features pitiless main character Nicolas Eymerich, Grand Inquisitor of Aragon, who has to investigate the odd massacre of English troops by what seems like resurrected zombies. Another thread follows three Jesuits investigating a 20th-Century sleepy Italian city, where bleeding insects and burning men seem to be common hallucinations. And the final one is the narrator, stuck outside of space in some kind of eternal torment. It all comes together in the end, rather efficiently.
    It’s the sort of thing you tend to read in horrified fascination more than out of any real empathy: Eymerich seems to have few emotions except anger, which makes it hard to care for him, and the real tension is figuring out how the threads of the narrative fit together. Much less efficient than the Reynolds in this matter, though: Reynolds’s characters are not his strongest suit, but they are at least sympathetic; here, Eymerich is really a cool, efficient and intolerant bastard. The book, however, is full of neat if dark ideas, which form a strong part of its appeal; and Eymerich’s foil Father Corona ended up drawing most of this reader’s sympathy (I suspect part of the reason the other threads exist at all, other than for structural reasons, is because they feature other characters, far more sympathetic than Eymerich; he’s the kind of character you don’t really want to be with for long). Part of a very successful series in Europe, but I’m not really sure I can stomach another one of those.

Progress, and thoughts on suspense


So, this weekend, I have been a good little trooper: in spite of a busy schedule (errands to run, plus Sunday spent celebrating the BF’s PhD), I managed to finish the edits on Servant of the Underworld and to send off a synopsis to my agent for Foreign Ghosts. Now I get to angst on my cover (not that I need to worry overmuch, judging from the awesome one AR unveiled for fellow author Lavie Tidhar). Also working on Author’s Notes to go into the book–still waiting to hear on how long those are allowed to run…

I have also been reading Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space (very good so far), and it’s set me thinking a bit about what keeps me reading. Both the Reynolds novels I have read so far rely on the same way of maintaining suspense: you don’t know exactly what’s going on, through a combination of characters not revealing the secrets of their past, of characters having forgotten them (something that happens pretty easily in a universe where you can reconfigure memory at the snap of a finger), and of characters being plain ignorant of the implications of what they’re running into.

Some readers might find this dishonest (especially the bit where you’re not told about things characters know), but for me, it works pretty darn well. It keeps me turning the pages, and at a much faster clip than usual–I’m already halfway through the book, having started it yesterday.

It’s a very peculiar way of maintaining suspense: not through the characters or through the conflicts of the plot, but rather through gradually working out what’s at the story’s core.

It’s also a very SFnal one. This is just an extension of what we do when we ease ourselves into a new universe: we read the story, soaking up information as we go and figuring out the rules of the world on our own, rather than have everything handed to us in an exposition-glut. Except that here, the rules don’t stop at the quarter mark, but go on to encompass the whole story: the story effectively ends when you’ve seen all that underpins the universe in question, explained all the niggling details that didn’t seem to make sense in the beginning.

It’s also an extension of mysteries. When you think about it, the plot of a mystery (I’m thinking old-fashioned ones, not the thrillers that rely on knowing whether the serial killer is going to get the detective before he can be unmaked) also follows that same kind of logic: the story events only make sense once the detective (and by extension, the reader for whom the detective is a proxy) figures out exactly what was going on: who killed the victim, why so-and-so is lying, why extra murders are being committed, why so-and-so has been acting weirdly in the days before the murder… In cases like Revelation Space, you’re effectively removing the proxy: you, as the reader, are the one gradually piecing the bits and pieces of disparate information and working out what the heck is going on.

And, finally, and that’s probably the reason why it works so well: it’s an extension of scientific reasoning. You notice such-and-such a weird phenomenon, and you have very little idea of why you’re seeing it. As your research goes on and you gather more knowledge, though, you gain a better understanding of why it’s acting that way–until you finally reach the point where you can amend the existing laws or apply them to include your new phenomenon. (at least, that’s the ideal. I wish things would work out that way in real life. They do tend to be messier, at least in applied computer science). It’s a typical scientist/engineer paradigm: you want to get at the heart of why things are working that way–in the case of the story, you want to know why everyone is reacting that way, and why things turned out this way.

As I said: not for everyone. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s a far more effective way of driving the narration than just conflicts (I’ve never been a big fan of conflicts, unless they’re between two sets of characters I care equally about).