Sunday, March 27, 2011

Diving the Wreck

I just finished reading Diving the Wreck, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. This is a novel that grew out of a couple of Reader's Choice Award-winning novellas published in Asimov's. I liked it fine. It's about a woman (called only 'Boss') who dives wrecked spaceships, largely for historical interest. The book is really focussed on the dangers of those dives, playing up the tension pretty effectively. This is not science fiction where people happily don spacesuits and whip about the place safe and secure -- oxygen is scarce, suits rip easily, and a single mistake can cost you your life.

The writing is straightforward, which makes the book easy to read. I also liked Boss' story arc. She spends time throughout examining her own motivations and mistakes, in a way that makes her come across as very capable, but completely believable. Maybe not likeable, but admirable.

The book, I feel, is an excellent demonstration of an author keeping her promises. For example, Rusch makes it very clear that diving wrecks is dangerous, that people can die. And then people do. That's satisfying, but it also means (at least in this case) that there wasn't any point where the book particularly surprised me.

You could do far worse than pick up Diving the Wreck, but it probably won't change your world. Sometimes, though, that's exactly the sort of novel you're looking for.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

I play one on television

I just got through watching the latest episode of Stargate Universe. The show has been cancelled after only two seasons, and I think that is potentially* a real shame. It's really good sci-fi television, and I say that as someone who has no love for any other part of the Stargate franchise (except perhaps the movie).

I was thinking as I watched it tonight that one of the things I really like about it is its portrayal of scientists. The show is about a group of people -- roughly equal numbers military personnel and civilian scientists -- stranded on an alien starship a very long way from home. It has examples of the standard scientist archetypes: the untrustworthy megalomaniac Nicholas Rush (excellently played by Robert Carlyle), and the naive boy-wonder Eli Wallace (David Blue). They're well-written, more than just archetypes, but they're familiar.

The thing I really like, though, is that there are a few more scientists on the recurring cast -- Volker (Patrick Gilmore), Brody (Peter Kelamis), and Park (Jennifer Spence) -- and they're just ordinary people. They've got personalities, they're smart without being scary or sinister or staggeringly brilliant, they're sympathetic. That sort of portrayal of scientists (and smart people in general) is rare in television and film, and I find it very pleasing to watch.

I'm sorry it's getting cancelled, I really am.

* I say 'potentially' because the show's creators have known for some time that they're being cancelled. With any luck that's given them an opportunity to wrap the story up satisfactorily, which is pretty rare for American television.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Update: To Say Nothing of The Dog

In the end, I decided to suck it up and give To Say Nothing of the Dog the attention it deserved. Having made that decision, it took me only two days to polish off the second half (the first took me almost three weeks).

I was right about the difficulties I was having: they had nothing to do with the writing, and everything to do with the way I was reading it. This book is a really clever mystery, and I was missing that because I wasn't concentrating. I didn't get the big twist, but I got enough of it to feel like I hadn't been totally left behind. I'm quite certain all the clues were there to piece the whole thing together, if only I'd paid closer attention. Even better, the hints were so beautifully integrated with the story that they never once called themselves out.

A few times, the main character was just on the verge of working everything out. I'm not sure if it was purely a writerly trick, but every single time he reached that point, I felt like I was almost there too. Whether it was a trick or not, it was excellently done. 

In fact, that's my overwhelming impression of the whole novel: it was really well orchestrated. The payoff had all the satisfaction of a good mystery solved, but it also had all the (guilty?) pleasure that comes with the resolution of a good period romance. It even managed to sustain the dry humour right to the very last line. To Say Nothing of the Dog is definitely going on my bookshelf, because I'm sure I'll read it again. Quite a turnaround from my thoughts just two days ago, hey?

I haven't spoken yet about the other two books by female authors that I've read this year -- Elizabeth Bear's Dust and Nancy Kress' Steal Across the Sky -- but I will say that this plan to read more SF written by women is really paying off.

Monday, March 21, 2011

I read in small chunks

Eesh. I promised I was back to regular posting, and then immediately went silent again. For nineteen days. Sorry about that! I've got an excuse, or at least an explanation: I'm really struggling with Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog. And whenever I find my reading a bit of a chore, everything else slams to a halt.

So why am I finding To Say Nothing of the Dog slow going? It's a good question. It's true that it is a time travel story, and I'm not particularly fond of those. But it is well written, and often drily funny, and set almost entirely in a time and place that I enjoy in historical novels (Victorian England -- there's a bit of Jane Austen, and a bit of P.G. Wodehouse to it).

In the end, I think it is purely a mechanical issue. I read in many small chucks across the course of a day. A couple of pages waiting for the bus, a couple of pages waiting for the kettle to boil. The chapters in To Say Nothing of the Dog are fairly long, and completely without breaks. These things are combining to make the book feel really disjointed. It doesn't flow, because I keep interrupting it.

If you're supposed to write what you like to read, there's a lesson in this for me. Short scenes, frequently breaks. The issue that's vexing me at the moment, though, is this: do I push through to the end of To Say Nothing of the Dog, or do I put it aside for a time when I can give it the attention it deserves?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Back (and Engineering Infinity)

Alright. I'm in the new city, and I've started the new job. Haven't found a place to live yet, but that'll come. I've had lots of opportunity for reading (and lots of relaxing time away from the computer), so it's time to get back to it.

I'm going to say a few words about Engineering Infinity, the anthology by Jonathan Strahan that I mentioned earlier. I found this one to be a bit patchy. There were some stories in it that I really enjoyed, but just as many that didn't really grab me.
It's billed as hard science fiction, but Strahan notes in the introduction that the anthology "moved away from pure hard SF to something a little broader." I actually think this is perhaps its biggest weakness. It isn't laser-focussed, so I couldn't really read it as a bunch of different authors poking around the same ideas. Conversely, it wasn't really broad enough to entertain me with variety. This kind of thing works fine in best-of-the-year collections, where each story is a gem, but I think I prefer more (or less) focus in my general anthologies.

As I say, though, it did have some stories in it that I really enjoyed:

-- "The Invasion of Venus", by Stephen Baxter. What happens when aliens rock up in our solar system, but they're only here to exchange fire with other aliens living on Venus? I think I liked the sheer size of the conflict in this one, coupled with the way it was told from the very personal perspective of two old friends on Earth. Interesting also because I'm not usually a huge fan of Stephen Baxter.

-- "The Server and the Dragon", by Hannu Rajaniemi. A sentient server in a galaxy-wide network drifts lonely and unused around a star on a very wide orbit, until it is one day visited by a (digital) dragon. I'd call this one a hard space opera story, and that's probably why I liked it. I'm a sucker for that sort of thing.

-- "The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees", by John Barnes. A novel take on the panspermia theory. Cool things here were the central idea -- big and dramatic, and a new take on an old bit of SF -- and the partially-explored background of one of the main characters, an android created for the purpose of solar system exploration. I don't think I've read anything else by John Barnes, so I'll have to see what I can find.

Honorable mentions go to Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "Watching the Music Dance" (a nice bit of anthropological SF), Peter Watts' "Malak" (perhaps the most typical hard SF story of the bunch), and both Karl Schroeder's "Laika's Ghost" and Charles Stross' "Bit Rot" (for the sheer gonzo joy of them).