Posts tagged re-post
Re-post review #3:
David J. Williams’ The Mirrored Heavens is 21st century, next-gen cyberpunk, a grim imagining of a possible future our current international climate could easily produce. Four separate but inter-reliant plotlines fire like lasers, closing and eventually colliding in a breathtaking finale. Twists and turns are matched with breakneck pacing as Williams catapults the reader ever forward, ever onward with the tale of US counter-intelligence agents Jason Marlowe and Claire Haskell, who are stuck in the middle of the most monumental events since the end of the second Cold War. The Phoenix Space Elevator is humanity’s greatest technological achievement, a display of unified American and Eurasian power. It also goes down in flames before the end of Act One, setting the whole novel (and the series) into motion as various special forces try to hunt down Autumn Rain, the mysterious terrorist cell which executed the seemingly impossible strike.
Williams’ Razors are the 22nd century descendants of the original cyberpunk hackers and netrunners, who operate in a completely realized second world, the Zone. Their counterparts and teammates are Mechs, cyberware-enhanced soldiers who use awesome battlesuits to play out explosive choreagraphies that would have Michael Bay and John Woo exchanging high-fives.
The first novel ends at a turning point that positions the reader ready to plummet headlong into the next chapter of the story, satisfied but yearning for more.
The Mirrored Heavens shows how the cyberpunk genre is a still-valid mode of speculation about our future, a potent warning against global proliferation of arms and consolidation of control. Most of all, it shows the disastrous possibilities which could spin out of a 21st-century Cold War, with the US set against superpowers in both Europe and Asia.
Disclaimer: David J. Williams was a classmate of mine at the 2007 Clarion West Writers Workshop. I consider him a good friend, which of course colors my opinion, though the book’s merits stand on their own.
Re-post review #2 with more commentary at the end.
Misborn is Campbell-nominee Sanderson’s second novel, and the first in an unknown-length series in the Final Empire. Basic premise: A thousand years ago, a prophesied hero emerged to save the world from ‘The Deepness’ — he did so, then proceeded to take over the world and be a jerk to everyone. The ‘skaa’ peoples were enslaved (note the extra vowel. According to EU Star Wars Corrolary #1, it means they’re all clones. It also means they are not in fact a whole race delineated by their taste in music.) and the Epic Hero turned Lord Ruler sets up shop as absolute dictator with rival noble families serving as his aristocracy.
Mistborn follows street-urchin turned Magic Wuxia asskicker Vin and Charming Rogue Revolutionary Kelsier as they fight against the Lord Ruler and his creepy-as-hell Steel Inquisitors, Terminator-like folks with steel spikes through their eyes.
The magic system of Allomancy is one of Mistborn‘s strengths. Allomancers come in two types — Mistings and Mistborn. Allomancers can burn metals in their system to invoke several different abilities. One enhances physical abilities, one enhances senses, others let Allomancers push and pull on metals (to achieve wuxia-esque jumpy mobility), and so on. Mistings can only burn one metal, while Allomancers can burn all 10. Guess which type our heroes are? The multi-metal-burning, wuxia-style jumping around no-metal-blade using types, of course!
It’s a solid ride, with well-realized characters and one of the more believable romances that still uses standby tale types. I got all the way to the end before realizing that there are only a handful of female characters in the novel with speaking parts.
Please pardon this digression while I rant:
ATTENTION, AUTHORS! — Just because (one of) your lead character(s) is male/female, doesn’t mean you can then get away with having (almost) no other relevant/prevalent male/female characters in the novel! Aside from Vin, there are about 4 important female characters in the novel, 2 of which are already dead, and one of whom serves no more purpose than to be a gossip.
This example brings up a piece of folk wisdom regarding gender representation. There’s a saying which holds that a small proportion of women in a mixed gender group will seem only slightly imbalanced, and a group with 40% of women will seem women-heavy to many. This brings us back to the default-ness of the male gender in many/most societies, and our lingering biases in how people react to women taking action, taking charge, or taking center stage. Many/most geek cultures have been traditionally male-dominated, while some geek cultures have traditionally been female-dominated (fan fiction writers, especially slash fan-fiction communities).
As the demographics change, with a larger number and larger proportion of women in many geek cultures, geek culture must deal with this unconscious bias, as well as the fallacies of tokenism and the valorization/objectification of the beloved minority. Companies/cultural producers take advantage of the demographic, putting attractive geeky women in positions as hosts/objects of fandom, e.g. Blair Butler in G4TV’s Fresh Ink series about comic books. On one hand, it’s good to see women as well as men in positions of note within geek communities, as cultural producers, consumers, or critics. On the other hand, it’s important to look behind the surface and ask questions about intent, motivation, bias and market forces. A female possible host may be just as knowledgeable about the subject as a male possible host, but by selecting the female host, the producers/network/etc. is both giving a woman the chance to exert agency/power in the culture, to give a different perspective, but they are also likely making that decision to further their own profit agendas by playing to demographics. None of these decisions are simple or without nuance.
In closing, I’m glad that Sanderson chose to portray a complex, fleshed-out female lead, but I’m unhappy that in exchange for that one well-developed character, he seems to have neglected to populate his story with more than a tiny handful of other female characters of note.
This is one of several reviews essays that I’m re-posting from my personal blog, since they are directly of interest to the mission of 21st Century Geeks.
Internet-ly famous blogger/writer/digital culture activist Cory Doctorow’s first YA novel Little Brother posits a near future San Francisco that suffers a terrorist attack, leading to a mega DHS crackdown. Our protagonist is Marcus aka W1n5t0n, who is an ex-LARPer turned computer geek and Alternate Reality Gamer. Marcus is detained by the DHS and treated as an enemy combatant, and then declares war on the DHS after being released. In interviews and podcasts, Doctorow has explicitly stated that the book is intended to be pedagogical, with anti-surveilance/DHS techniques, technologies, and ideas spread liberally throughout the book, as well as general techie life-hacks. These educational asides are both a strength and a weakness. Marcus’ voice blends with Doctorow’s own in those explanatory passages, but they usually fall on the near side of being trying. The geeky romance subplot is solid, and fairly adorable.
The world of Little Brother is a few years ahead of our own, but it’s easy to imagine every single thing in the novel coming to pass, right down to the DHS turning a post-terrorist-attack city into a police state, surveilance and profiling gone mad to the point where our own government causes us more terror than faceless nameless terrorists from Otherplacia. I think some people already live in Doctorow’s future, and more are going all the time. There’s a cultural current in the USA (and to a lesser extent in some other Western/Northern developed coutnries) which Doctorow is pointing out. It’s part warning and part polemic rallying cry. Freedom of information as well as of speech.
One of the taglines of the novel is ‘Don’t Trust Anyone Over 25′ — a modification of the older ‘Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30′ from the Vietnam era. Well, I’m 25. The novel is in some ways a rallying cry to Generation Y/the Millenials, a group which most generation dileniations would count me as a part. I grew up with computers in the house, and I can simultaneously remember getting a computer and not really remember not having one. Generation Y is also sometimes called the 9/11 generation — I was a freshman in college when the towers went down, and all of the years of my legal adulthood thusfar have been in W’s America. Little Brother is about being young enough to still have fire under your ass, about being idealistic enough to stick it to a corrupt system and arrogant enough to think that you can personally do something about it.
I loved it, but I don’t think the book was really written for me. There’s a lot of stuff about personal rights and privacy that I already knew, but a fifteen year old nascent geek might not. I think that Little Brother will be the kind of novel that will be the right story at the right time for a great many young people, the exact thing that’s needed to cast back the curtains, to shine a light on the ugly truth behind the USA’s desire to ‘protect’ us.
Balancing our needs for Individual Rights (Privacy, etc.) vs. Security is a question we’re going to have to keep asking ourselves this century, as technology develops at a breakneck pace and international stresses make the rapidly-shrinking and vanishing resource world seem like tight quarters. I won’t be surprised if it gets banned in a number of districts, if it’s the kind of book that teachers risk their jobs by trying to get it onto the curriculum. I intend to teach it when I can, as long as it stays relevant. Maybe if we’re lucky, by the time I could teach it, I won’t need to. Sadly I don’t think that’s likely.
So go read it. Learn how to hack your computer and your life. Then pass the book on to a young person and see what happens.