Monday, August 28, 2006

A Game Of Thrones, George R. R. Martin

Title: A Game Of Thrones
Author: George R. R. Martin
Rating: Good

This book came highly recommended, and while I'm glad I read it, I've read better fantasy. A Game Of Thrones is good, and the story is interesting, but it didn't quite rise to the "great" category for me.

The story itself follows several main characters - all of royal blood in one way or another - as they struggle through events in a kingdom in which the king's power is on the wane. Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of these characters, and the point of view jumps around between them. The plot is very complex, the cast of supporting characters is huge, the action is quick and the writing well paced.

It sounds like a perfect book, right? Alas, for me, there were a few flaws.

That huge cast of supporting characters is actually too large. It was impossible for me to keep them all straight, and even the appendix at the back didn't help much. (I tried looking up a couple of characters and couldn't find them there at all.) I toyed with the idea of taking notes to keep track of people, but this was supposed to be pleasure reading, and that seemed like more trouble than it was worth.

Martin is quite happy to kill off characters that he's spent time making you think are going to stick around. It was frustrating to watch someone you thought was important - and that you were going to get to know for a while - die. A corollary to that is that it is entirely unclear idea which characters - if any - the author thinks actually are important, and will stick around. He has little or no empathy for anyone in this story, and that comes through in the writing.

I never bought (or understood) the king's decline. None of the story is told from his point of view, and his actions seem to have no basis in reason that I can find. Something seemed off there.

I have seen the "each chapter told from a different point of view" approach work very successfully elsewhere. Here, however, it seemed to be a vehicle for obscuring important information, rather than something that assisted the telling of the story. Just when you thought you might learn something interesting the narrator's point of view would change, and some unknown amount of time would pass - possibly going back in time to tell another piece of the story that was happening in parallel.

There are actually two stories going on in this book, held together by only the most tenuous of threads. It is likely that the later volumes bring these stories together in a more direct fashion - you can sort of see it coming - but in this volume they were so disparate that it was distracting.

Finally, there was something about the writing that let me drop the book just about anywhere without hesitation. I could literally put it down mid-paragraph without thinking about it. Usually when I read, I get so wrapped up in the book that I don't stop before the end of a chapter at a minimum, and I have been known to sit up for hours reading to get to a good stopping point. That never happened here, and I don't know why.

I know others have raved about this book, but given that list of reservations, I cannot claim A Game Of Thrones is one of my favorites.

There was one other oddity here, but I cannot hold it against the author. Years ago I subscribed to Fantasy & Science Fiction and I read a novella in there that I still remember. I found that novella in here, in it's entirety. Martin had extracted the story of Dany and published it separately in the magazine. I don't think he even did much editing - just took all the chapters from Dany's perspective, put them together, and voila - a novella. In truth, I found that story more interesting in novella form, since it had no interruptions and thus better pacing. Rereading it here - split into pieces - was an interesting experience, and highlighted some of the other issues called out above.

Overall, I'd say this was a good book, and clearly the author put a lot of time and effort into its creation. I'll continue reading the series and hope for some subtle changes that might make the later volumes more appealing.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

3001, Arthur C. Clarke

Title: 3001
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Rating: OK

In my last review I complained that the short SF in the volume I was reviewing wasn't impressive. The next book I picked up - 3001 by Arthur C. Clarke - wasn't that good either. It was better, but not by a lot.

In 3001 we follow the story of Frank Poole. For those who saw the movie 2001, you may remember your last vision of Frank: he was released into space by the pod commanded by Dave Bowman, clearly dead. This story picks up the tale about one thousand years later. Poole's body is found in deep space and he is returned to life. Don't ask how - Clarke doesn't say - but he's back. Of course, it's not really a surprise that Clarke doesn't expound on Poole's recovery. Clarke is a noted visionary on things related to space and space travel, but not on medicine. So the fact that he glosses over Poole's restoration is expected, but it did leave me a bit cold.

In the first third of the book - in addition to seeing Poole return - we are introduced to the world of 3001. Clarke spends a fair bit of time (and a number of pages) describing the homes and lives of those living 1000 years from now. It's mildly amusing, though not really related to the plot. Sadly, it gets substantially less interesting when he heads off into more social, political or moralistic grounds, where I'm afraid it's just not that well thought out.

As to character development, Poole gets very little, despite being a fish out of water. Oh, he says a few things to imply that he's having some trouble adjusting to all the differences between 2001 and 3001, but we never really believe it. The rest of the characters are one dimensional, almost hackneyed, and thus not particularly believable.

Finally we get to the actual plot involving the monolith. While this was more interesting than the first third of the book's exposition, it was pretty thin overall. And the resolution was disappointing to this computer programmer.

The last 15% of the novel is actually a set of end notes, mostly about the research Clarke based his predictions on. It's all about 10 years old now (in 2006) and some of it hasn't gone anywhere since it was first published. But those end notes were actually more interesting (to me) than the novel itself. Clarke's style gets more folksy, and you can tell he's writing to convey information, rather than to tell a story. It works better for him, and what he says is both interesting and touching at times.

In all I'd guess this book was better than 2061 (which I read years ago and barely remember) but not by much. 2010 was much better than either of those later books, and a much better follow on to the original movie.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Year's Best SF 9, David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer editors

Year's Best SF 9
David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

There have been a lot of distractions lately, and they have kept me from reading as much as I usually do. As a result I picked up a collection of short science fiction stories to fill the few gaps I've had in my schedule. I wish it had been worth it.

Maybe my tastes are changing. Maybe I'm just getting older now, and I see things that I didn't previously see. Regardless, if this collection is the best short SF that 2003 produced, I really wonder about the state of that genre.

Most of the so called "hard" SF in here still had elements of the mystical in my opinion, and character development was nonexistent. The plots were uniformly uninteresting as well. In fact, having finished a 500 page paperback, I can only really remember bits from the first and last stories. The first because there was a unique concept presented, though not that well executed. The last because it was an novella - much longer than anything else here - and because it was the one I finished today.

In all, this was a disappointment, but perhaps that is my fault rather than the work itself. Maybe I am expecting too much from short fiction. Or maybe I have changed. Several years ago we let our subscriptions to both Asimov's and F&SF lapse because they just weren't all that interesting anymore. It seems nothing has changed in the years since, at least based on the contents of this volume.