Carnival by Elizabeth Bear

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Date Read: March 15 to 30, 2018

Between 4 and 5 stars, and easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.

at once familiar and alien, like coming home to a place where you used to live.

It must seem like all I do these days is like or fall in love with every book I read. Not so. I read sample chapters all the time and abandon lots of books. I just don’t record them. The ones I do record are usually the memorable ones, many just happen to be favorites. This book is one of them, and wholly unexpected too. The title and cover just don’t convey what’s actually in the book. I mean, could anyone guess what this book is about based on that?

Anyhow. This book is the most fun I’ve had with a political intrigue space opera that’s written in the style of the novel-of-manners in a while. There are depths and layers and it’s a sort of culmination of all the issues we face today, presented in exact strokes, except the story is set in a distant future on an Earth-like planet. But all the things plaguing our world today is still very much present in the distant future, a future in which we colonize planets yet still have time to persecute queer people and have a stranglehold on reproduction rights. It looks as though we did not learn from the past or reconcile with it, and so these problems rear their heads once more, with force, in the future. I think Elizabeth Bear is trying to say something… I just figure out what exactly…

There’s a lot to unpack here, and this book is very hard to sum up because there are too many moving parts and so many layers, and there are just so many things to talk about. But simply, the beauty of reading this is letting the world (and universe) and all its loaded political predicaments reveal themselves to you gradually as you read.

At the start, we have a pair of male agents from the Coalition (hegemony) entering a foreign planet called New Amazonia. Their official purpose is opening trade talks and placating the planet’s leaders, but their unofficial purpose is finding and stealing the planet’s mysterious, much sought after energy source. Since the Coalition has already tried to take the planet once, although unsuccessfully, the agents expect negotiations to be tense, if not outright hostile from the start.

The agents themselves are controversial figures in this already dicey situation. Old lovers, working for an intensely homophobic organization, separated for over 20 years after their affair was outed; it was a high-profile scandal that strained their careers. One of them was sent back to his planet; the other was put through the equivalent of conversion therapy. Now the agents are reunited once again for this mission, which they are expected not only to fail but to fail spectacularly. To add more layers to an already layered problem, each agent has his own agenda and secret mission to carry out once on the planet, unbeknownst to the other.

New Amazonia is ruled by a matriarchal system, and it’s very much what you might imagine if you were to imagine the exact opposite of a patriarchal system. Saying any more would… spoil the fun, but hopefully some of the choice quotes below will give you a glimpse of the matriarchy at work. In short, there’s a lot of tension here and a lot of planet-side factions reacting to the agents’ presence; some are in support of, while most seem to be against.

Of course, not all is harmonious in New Amazonia. There is dissent among the population in the form of fringe groups, and many of them are men’s rights groups to advocate for men’s rights under the strictly matriarchal leadership. There is literally “a radical male-rights movement called Parity,” pronounced “parody,” and I just… This book was published in 2006. Once again, I think Ms. Bear is trying to tell us something, but I just can’t figure out what…

Every player in this game has hidden agendas, and they all are working against each other. So there’s a lot of sparring, scheming, duplicity, and intrigue. The dialogue is easily my favorite thing about this book. Every scene in which the characters discuss a matter of state or business, usually over a banquet, the interaction is heady and charged with a delicious, electric current. The whole book is politically delicious, and I enjoyed the hell out of it.

There are some instances and moments that I think were a bit too exacting, too obvious, with the messages conveyed and I thought they could have benefited from some subtlety, but overall, I like this book. I like what it is and what it’s meant to be.

“Now that we’ve established that we think each other monsters, do you suppose we can get back to business?”

[…]

The Coalition was a typical example of what men did to women when given half an excuse: petty restrictions, self-congratulatory patronization, and a slew of justifications that amounted to men asserting their property rights.

[…]

“Not only will whoever’s on top fight to stay there, but if you reset everyone to equality, whoever wins the scramble for power will design the rules to stay there.”

[…]

“Just because we’ve disavowed Old Earth history doesn’t mean we fail to study it. You can file that one with sense of humor, if you like.”

[…]

“Traditionally, the responsibility for safety falls on the victim. Women are expected to defend themselves from predators. To act like responsible prey. Limit risks, not take chances. Not to go out alone at night. Not talk to strange men. Rely on their own, presumably domesticated men for protection from other feral men—in exchange for granting them property rights over the women in question.”

“And the New Amazonian system is superior in what way?”

“Punishes the potential predator and arms the potential victim. If men cannot control themselves, control will be instituted. Potential predators are caged, regulated.”

[…]

This is what we are when we’re left to our own devices—savage, selfish, short-sighted. […] But free. Any government founded on a political or religious agenda more elaborate than “protect the weak, temper the strong” is doomed to tyranny.

[…]

“So slavery is more moral than engineering out aggression.”

“It’s not chattel slavery.”

“No,” Kusanagi-Jones said. “An extreme sort of second-class citizenship.”

“Not much worse than women in the Coalition.”

“Women in the Coalition can vote, can work—”

“Can be elected to the government.”

“Theoretically.”

“Practically?”

“Doesn’t happen.”

[…]

There were a lot of weird worlds, a lot of political structures based on points of philosophy. Not all the ships of the Diaspora had been faster than light, even; humanity had scrambled off Earth in any rowboat or leaky bucket that might hold them, and dead ships were still found floating between the stars, full of frozen corpses.

Vincent found it alternately creepy and reassuring when he considered that no matter how strange the culture might be, every single world out there, every instance of intelligent life that he had encountered, claimed common descent from Earth.

[…]

Strike two for utopia. The problem with the damned things always comes when you try to introduce actual people into your philosophical constructs.

Another excellent buddy read with Beth.

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House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Date read: February 22 to April 5, 2017

I meant to take it easy, but ended up blowing through the second half of this book in just 3 days. The pages just kept on turning by themselves, and I didn’t get much sleep.

Woke up this morning and was like

But seriously. What year is it?

This is not a review because I don’t have enough science in me to understand it or to begin diving in and deconstructing it, but I did enjoy it very much and it’s easily one of the best books I’ve read this year, maybe even this millennium. Will have to return for a few more rereads because I’m pretty sure I missed a ton of details in my rush to get to the end.

The concept of solar year is tenuous at best in this book because the story takes place six million years from now. I was in a bleak, gloomy, end-of-the-world state of mind when I started reading, so the idea that somehow humanity has a future six million years from now and that it’s a thriving future was extremely uplifting. And I approached the rest of the story with that in mind.

So. Six million years from the start of the main plot, the genius Abigail Gentian made an army of clones she called the Gentian Line and sent them out into the universe to learn and collect as much information on any planet with any signs of life as they can for the purpose of trade with alien planets and other clones of different lines. These clones, called shatterlings, reunite every couple hundred thousand years to share their findings, and they’ve been doing this for six million years.

At the start of the main plot, we follow two of Abigail’s shatterlings, Campion and Purslane, on a collection trip to a couple of planets. It’s kind of like a sea voyage, but in space, at high speed, and I was totally sucked into the story from the start. The prologue with Abigail as a child was all the hook I needed to jump in. I liked both Campion and Purslane almost immediately and the way they played off one another was very funny–love the subtle humor–and spending more time with them only increased my fondness.

Campion is on a quest, with Purslane’s help, to find something of value to bring back for the next Line reunion, but as usual he procrastinated so much that he’s behind schedule and would probably have nothing to show. The last time they all met he didn’t do very well, and thus the reason for their planet-hopping visits to many different galaxies in a short amount of time. They come in contact with a ton of interesting creatures and entities, many of which exist outside of time and space, and communication with them is fascinating to read about.

On one of these trips, Campion and Purslane come across and see something they shouldn’t have. And Campion, being Campion, careless and carefree, does something he definitely shouldn’t have, which then sets an unknown pursuer on their tail. The unknown thing goes after not only Campion and Purslane, but the whole Gentian line with the purpose of annihilating all of the shatterlings of Abigail’s creation.

It’s a race against time to figure out what is after them and how to destroy it, and it had me on the edge of my seat all the way through to the stunning end.

I love everything about this book–the action and adventures, the high-speed chases, the planet hopping, the ingenuity, the breathtaking breadth of deep space, and of course the characters–and yet I don’t fully understand any of the high concept science stuff. Love it anyhow though. Will have to seek out a real life science person who has read this book to explain deep space, time travel, astrophysics, the infinite universe, etc etc. to me.

Alastair Reynolds has created something truly special here–a enjoyable balance of interesting storytelling and theoretical science–and my mind is sufficiently blown.