Doctor Who, Season Seven

The latest season of Doctor Who is in my view the weakest of the relaunched series. The basic problem is that the scripts were generally quite weak, and failed to follow through on the promise of their premises, or contribute to the ongoing developments in the series.

As usual, my ranking of episodes this season from best to worst:

  • Asylum of the Daleks (written by Steven Moffat)
  • The Name of the Doctor (Moffat)
  • Cold War (Mark Gatiss)
  • Hide (Neil Cross)
  • The Bells of Saint John (Moffat)
  • The Rings of Akhaten (Cross)
  • The Snowmen (Moffat)
  • The Crimson Horror (Gatiss)
  • Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (Stephen Thompson)
  • Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (Chris Chibnall)
  • The Angels Take Manhattan (Moffat)
  • Nightmare in Silver (Neil Gaiman)
  • The Power of Three (Chibnall)
  • A Town Called Mercy (Toby Whithouse)

(I’m excluding last year’s Christmas special, “The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe” from the list because I don’t think it’s really part of the season. But if you’re curious I rate it a “shrug”.)

Also as usual, there are spoilers ahead!

Continue reading “Doctor Who, Season Seven”

Matthew Hughes: The Other

In The Other, Matthew Hughes returns to his character of Luff Imbry from one of his early novels, Black Brillion. Imbry is a confidence man and handler of stolen goods, and the novel opens with one of his rivals getting the drop on him and shipping him off to the planet Fulda. This is a hardship for Imbry in several ways: Fulda is not very advanced, so he’s forced to put in real labor to support himself, and there’s something strange about the Fuldans which prevents Imbry from ever fitting in with them. Fulda is also very isolated from the rest of the galaxy so there’s no clear way for him to get off the planet.

He’s dropped on Fulda with a man named Tuchol, who is not very nice, but it’s unclear if he’s willingly in the employ of whomever nabbed Imbry. Tuchol turns out to be associated with what seems to be a small circus – at least, people who are able to perform various feats which they do for show – and Imbry falls in with them. Unfortunately Imbry soon comes to the attention of the police, one of whom takes a very strong disliking to him. So the story involves Imbry trying to stay alive, trying to avoid the police, trying to find a way off the planet, and trying to figure out the secrets of Fulda, four tasks which are all intertwined.

The challenge with writing a character like Imbry is to make the reader get behind him. Imbry has a jolly facade, but the reader is always aware that this guy is a criminal, albeit of the thieving rather than murdering variety. One of the reasons Black Brillion worked so well was that it played a more straightforward heroic protagonist off against Imbry, allowing Imbry’s amusing personality to shine without having to carry the book. Hughes mostly makes it work here, because what’s been done to Imbry is clearly so wrong that you can’t help but root for him to get out and exact his revenge. But I found it difficult to embrace him entirely. In a way, Imbry is the opposite number of Hughes’ Sherlock Holmesian character Henghis Hapthorn: Imbry is a criminal but is amusing and amiable, while Hapthorn is a good guy but also basically a jerk.

Imbry gets wrapped up in two different mysteries: First, what’s so queer about the Fuldans, and what makes some of them so irrationally hostile towards Imbry (if you’re familiar with Phil Foglio’s graphic novel Psmith then you might find some echoes of that here). Second, he gets dragged into a prophecy the Fuldans have circulated among themselves (with varying belief levels), leading to an even larger revelation which turns out to be rather clever.

Much of the enjoyment of the book comes from seeing how Imbry deals with the burdens placed upon him. He faces a variety of people who won’t listen to him, view him with suspicion, and to whom he cannot ingratiate himself. But his cleverness and personality often allow him to find a way to get by even among such people. The wit which works its way through all of Hughes’ work is in full flower here.

While I enjoyed The Other, I don’t think it measures up to some of Hughes’ other work, and I think Imbry’s status falling between hero and antihero is a big part of that. Though given how the book ends, I would be willing to read a sequel in which we see Imbry working a little more in his natural element. But I’m doubtful that Imbry is a strong enough character (without a significant development in his character beyond where he started) to carry a series of novels.

Alastair Reynolds: Blue Remembered Earth

Blue Remembered Earth is near-future SF, taking place in the 2160s. Following two centuries of climate change (global temperature shifts, depletion of traditional energy supplies, rising sea levels), Africa is on the cusp of displacing China as the dominant world power. The powerful Akinya family dominates Africa and has interests throughout the solar system, to which humanity is still confined.

Geoffrey Akinya and his sister Sunday are inheritors of the Akinya legacy, but both are marginalized by their family due to a shared lack of interest in its business affairs: Geoffrey researches elephants, while Sunday is an artist on the moon. But when their grandmother Eunice dies, their business-oriented cousins enlist Geoffrey to go to the moon to check out a safety deposit box she left behind. What he finds sends him and his sister on a treasure hunt throughout the solar system, following her path as an early explorer of Mars and beyond, despite great resistance from their cousins.

The novel has two major characteristics: It’s a world-building endeavor, and it’s a science fictional mystery involving a trail that Eunice left for her family to follow.

In general, I’m not a big fan of near-future SF, because the ideas are not big enough to satisfy me, and I’m just not terribly interested in extrapolating our current situation out only a century or two (i.e., a period where things are largely similar to our world today with some fairly straightforward changes). I appreciate what, for example, Charles Stross is doing in Halting State and Rule 34, but it’s more the story than the setting which pulls me along. I particularly dislike settings like that of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, with dreary settings, little hope, and unlikeable characters.

Blue Remembered Earth falls into a slightly different category: The setting isn’t dystopic, and the story is a mystery wrapped in the shrouds of history (a bit like Jack McDevitt‘s Alex Benedict novels in that way). Rather than the characters playing out a set of movements implied by the setting, they’re involved in their own story against a slightly exotic locale. And the mystery implies that there’s something a little more advanced out there as well, assuming it pays off properly. (I’ll talk about the mystery in more detail behind a spoiler cut below.)

This is one of Reynolds’ best efforts at world-building, and he does a good job of laying things out without it becoming tedious (although I did find Geoffrey’s research with elephants to be hard going). Some of the big hooks involve an omniscient surveillance system called the Mechanism which has essentially eliminated violent crime, aquatic transhumans, and most humans having virtual reality implants. There’s also a tension in manned space exploration being potentially supplanted by unmanned, as artificial intelligence gets to the point that it can take on the risks so humans don’t have to. (And if that sounds like a disappointing development, well, that’s one of the themes of the book.)

Geoffrey and Sunday’s quest operates as a travelogue of the solar system, as Geoffrey goes to the moon where he visited Sunday in the “Descrutinized Zone”, which is free of the Mechanism. There’s also a trip to Mars, which is just barely on the civilized side of being a frontier and has a few amazing wonders of its own. They’re accompanied in this by a telepresence simulation of Eunice herself, who embodies the character of the woman but naturally lacks many of her memories. But as Eunice was both family to the pair, and a significant figure in the exploration of the solar system, she plays a significant role.

Reynolds’ characterizations are not his strong suit, and BRE is not out of step with the rest of his work in this regard: Geoffrey, Sunday and Eunice are reasonably drawn, the other characters are largely two-dimensional. And there’s not a lot of character development – Geoffrey struggles a bit with not wanting to make waves with his family beyond what’s necessary for his research, but doesn’t want to just roll over and do whatever the cousins want, either. This tension does come to a head, but the resolution is somewhat dictated by outside forces, so there’s not a moment of epiphany or a significant character shift for him.

Blue Remembered Earth is sometimes noted as the first volume of a series titled “Poseideon’s Children”, but there’s almost no indication of that in the edition I have (save an offhanded comment in the author’s afterward), and the book in fact stands on its own perfectly well, not so much the first of a series as a novel which could have sequels.

Overall it’s a pretty good book, an enjoyable ride, probably sitting somewhere in the middle of Reynolds’ oeuvre in my opinion.

As promised, a little more spoilery commentary on the mystery side of the story after the cut:

Continue reading “Alastair Reynolds: Blue Remembered Earth”

Iain M. Banks: Matter

I read Matter last year around the same time I read Surface Detail, but they’re two very different books. While I quite enjoyed Surface Detail, I found Matter to be fairly tedious, and the ending to be a big letdown. This review contains mild spoilers.

The story revolves around members of the royal family of the Sarl, a medieval-level humanoid race who live on one of the levels of the artificial shell world of Sursamen. Ferbin, the heir to the throne, is forced to flee his nation when his father is betrayed and overthrown by his second-in-command, tyl Loesp. His younger brother, Oramen, is installed as regent, but tyl Loesp plans to kill him and become king himself when the time is right. Thirdly, their sister Djan Seriy Anaplian was gifted to the Culture years earlier where she’s become an agent of Special Circumstances, a group tasked with especially difficult and important missions.

While Anaplian travels back to Sursamen – a little tricky since it lies outside Culture space – Ferbin works to get out into space to contact her, while Oramen works to stay alive even as he is effectively exiled to oversee excavation of the Nameless City on the adjacent level the Sarl have recently conquered. He also learns that the Sarl’s advanced patrons, the Oct, are up to something in the Nameless City. That something turns out to be of extreme importance – and danger – to all of Sursamen, which Anaplian and Ferbin find they have to stop once they get to the planet.

When I started reading the book, my first reaction was, “Uh-oh, another medieval-setting Culture novel,” having not been especially enamored of Inversions. It’s better than that novel in many ways, as Ferbin and Oramen both being forced to grow up and deal with the new realities of their lives is expertly handled. And Anaplian’s adventurs outside Sursamen are also entertaining.

Unfortunately, the larger threat from the Nameless City really undercuts all of the nice character development, truncating the growing tensions in much the same way that Janet Leigh’s stop in the hotel truncates the story in Psycho. It then becomes a very different story, which itself has an unsatisfying ending, as nearly everyone comes to grief. While it’s a page-turning ride, the conclusion feels devoid of meaning and borders on a throw-the-book-across-the-room experience.

The enduring character of the story is Ferbin’s aide, Holse, who is a lower class man who is devotedly loyal to his master, largely at sea in the advanced environments he and Ferbin travel to, but who has enough presence of mind and sense of self not to be overwhelmed by them. But he’s not enough to save the book.

Banks’ Culture series is pretty uneven, with some great books and some weak ones. Matter is towards the lower end of the spectrum, which is too bad because it starts promisingly.

Jack McDevitt: Firebird

I’ve given McDevitt a hard time over his Alex Benedict novels since the terrific A Talent For War, but I’m happy to report that the latest in the series, Firebird, is the best since that inaugural effort, with a genuine sense of wonder, a nifty plot twist and a satisfying conclusion.

The story opens with antiquities dealer Benedict’s aide, Chase Kolpath, being approached to sell some items from the estate of Christopher Robin, a physicist of some note who disappeared several decades earlier. (Yes, unfortunately the disappeared man has the same name as the boy in Winnie-the-Pooh, but oh well.) Chase doesn’t know who he is, but Alex fills her in: Robin was notes as being a proponent of there being alternate realities, and supposedly having been trying to find a way to them. One evening he returned from a trip with his pilot, who dropped him off in front of his house, and he disappeared. The pilot then volunteered to help with rescue efforts in a major earthquake and was killed in the process. While Robin is assumed to have died, no one knows for sure. Maybe he found a a way to other realities and simply stepped into one.

Alex doesn’t really believe this, but hits the talk show circuit to build up Robin’s mystique to make the most money for his client. But then, as always happens, he gets bitten by the bug to find out what really happened to Robin. THe investigation turns up a few facts: That Robin had become interested in reports of mysterious ships that occasionally appear near worlds, stations or other ships and then disappear without ever being identified. That he had a friend he went on missions with who was killed on one of them. That he was interested in a world named Villanueva, where human life had died out centuries ago but the trappings of it had been left intact. And that he had bought several old spaceships and taken them out in the 15 years or so before his death, returning without any of them. It all adds up to something that doesn’t equal parallel realities, but does equal something just about as cool, which even raises the specter of one of the earliest background elements of the series.

McDevitt often stretches to put Alex and Chase in danger, sometimes a little too far as neither of them is a fighter, and the risks they take sometimes seem ridiculous. But he does a better job of balancing this than in recent novels. He also does a good job of taking one of the side plots and turning it into a serious moral dilemma and distraction from the main plot.

Best of all, once we learn what’s really going on, he lets Alex and Chase get to the meat of the problem, and there are several wrenching scenes where we learn what happens to several characters. Fortunately there’s also a satisfying afterward which ties up one of the loose ends. So McDevitt really gets just about everything right in the novel.

Overall the story doesn’t have quite the impact of Talent, and the nature of the series takes just a little wind out of the sails of the potential of the story (in a true standalone novel, there’s the potential for a lot more exploration of the plot twist which can’t really happen here without revealing more about Alex and Chase than can really happen here). But it’s still a really fun novel, and quite a page-turner too. If you’ve bailed on the series prior to this, I suggest getting back on board at least for this installment.

Why “The Angels Take Manhattan” Doesn’t Work

“The Angels Take Manhattan” was the “mid-season finisher” of season seven of Doctor Who, and the final episode of the series for the Doctor’s companions Amy and Rory. But despite having the fan-favorite villains the Weeping Angels, I don’t think the episode was successful, either internally or as a send-off for the pair. For two reasons:

  1. The Angels have passed their expiration date as villains, and
  2. The story fails in its emotional resonance.

My spoilery explanations after the cut:

Continue reading “Why “The Angels Take Manhattan” Doesn’t Work”

Jack McDevitt: Echo

Echo is another entry in Jack McDevitt’s run of far-future antiquarian mysteries, in which antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his pilot/aide du camp Chase Kolpath unravel a long-buried mystery. This time around, the mystery involves a stone from the former estate of one Somerset Tuttle, best known for devoting his long life to searching for intelligent alien life, in a galaxy humanity has been roaming for thousands of years and in which only one other intelligent life form has been found. The stone contains markings that don’t conform to any known human script, but before Alex and Chase can procure it, another party makes off with it.

The other party turns out to be Rachel Bannister, who had been Tuttle’s lover up until the time they both walked away from their quest – and she walked away from her job as a pilot – with Tuttle dying in a boating accident a few years later. Alex and Chase pull on the slender threads of the mystery before finding out what really happened.

I’ve discussed what I think are the failings of the Alex Benedict series in earlier reviews (low tech universe, somewhat superficial story), and Echo doesn’t really remedy those flaws. Clearly, the series is what it is. Yet I keep reading it, and indeed I devoured this book in just a few days (quite rapidly, for me!), so just as clearly, I enjoy it despite the fact that McDevitt clearly isn’t going to overcome its limitations and produce another A Talent For War.

The success of Echo is partly the suspense of who’s trying to stop Alex and Chase in their quest (and whether they’ll succeed), and partly the fundamental question, did Tuttle find aliens or didn’t he, and if he did, why didn’t he announce it to the universe? McDevitt does a pretty good job of resolving this mystery satisfactorily – if anything, he underplays his hand in the last few chapters, robbing the climax of some impact. And the last third of the book is a fairly rousing adventure exploring the star system our heroes’ quest takes them to. It reminds us that, fundamentally, they’re amateurs at this “brave new worlds” thing, surviving by their wits and the skin of their teeth. Alex in particular is far more at home dealing with people than with environments or animals (and Chase is only slightly better).

If you enjoyed earlier volumes in the series, then you ought to like this one.

Iain M. Banks: Surface Detail

The latest of Banks’ Culture novels is also my favorite since Use of Weapons, as it’s a good crunchy book with some interesting moral considerations and a lot of insight into how the Culture works.

The book opens by introducing the major characters, two of whom die in their first chapters (but, this being a Culture novel, that’s merely a minor impediment). First, Lededje Y’breq is a slave, indentured the Joiler Veppers, the richest and most powerful man on the planet Sichult, consigned to that fate because of the failings of her father years before. (Veppers’ point of view is also part of the book.) Second, Vatueil, a soldier in a war (about which more in a minute). Third (but least), Yime Nsokyi, an Culture agent of the arm of Contact called Quietus, which works with the electronically stored remnants of the dead. Last, Prin and Chay, a pair of aliens who have sent copies of their minds into their planet’s simulated hell, where the minds of the dead whom their world have deemed worthy of eternal punishment are sent, their goal being to expose the truth of the existence of this hell to the rest of their world.

In fact the framework of Surface Detail is a virtual war (a war game, if you will) between two sides supporting and opposed to these electronic hells; the Culture opposes them, but for various reasons is not part of the actual conflict. Vatueil is, and his side has a difficult decision to make as the war progresses. Veppers is also contracting with one side in the war, which makes Lededje’s existence interesting to various parties once people learn about her. Yime’s role might seem the most important given her job, but she’s actually a peripheral character to the plot overall. And while Prin and Chay don’t contribute directly to the plot, their stories are the most emotionally powerful, as one of them executes the mission in the real world while the other is left to suffer in the hell they entered.

Surface Detail is full of moral conflicts. The war over the hells seems like a proxy for the moral conflicts of the modern day (abortion rights, for instance), in which each side is utterly convinced of the rightness of their cause, while still being a believable science fictional concept. Banks doesn’t pretend to provide a balanced view, fair enough as this is a Culture novel and all of the characters are more-or-less aligned with its point of view on this matter. So the arguments in favor of the hells don’t hold much water in this book. And Prin and Chay’s experiences wholeheartedly support the Culture’s point of view.

Other conflicts are muddier. Lededje naturally enough wants revenge on Veppers, but the Culture (1) doesn’t hold dominion over Sichult, and (2) isn’t about to get directly involved in someone else’s desire for revenge. Of course, this being a Culture novel, there are deeper games going on here, and the Culture is perfectly happy to help transport Lededje back to her homeworld.

The best parts of the book involve two things: First, the insight we get into how the Culture works – people being revived after death, outsiders acclimating to life in the Culture, the degrees of personal freedom that people have in the Culture, and the nature of responsibilities in its post-scarcity civilization. And second, some of the crunchier high tech bits in the story, most notably the fast picket Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, which transports Lededje back to Sichult. There are also some nifty remnants of a much older civilization lying around which cause some issues.

The various plot threads dance around each other, most of them not directly meeting, but all relating thematically. Although there’s a rather nifty twist at the end which ties up some elements in a particularly satisfying manner. Although there are bits that seem superfluous (Yime’s presence in the book, for instance) and could have been edited out, and the story builds slowly until really getting going in the final third, overall Surface Detail is a thought-provoking and engaging adventure – quite satisfying, especially considering that some of Banks’ books leave me more baffled than entertained.

Why can’t they all be like this one?

Vernor Vinge: The Children of the Sky

Without knowing whether Vernor Vinge would ever write one, a sequel to his outstanding 1993 novel A Fire Upon The Deep has been eagerly awaited by his fans for 18 years. Unfortunately that sequel, The Children of the Sky, is quite a disappointment, having little of what made Fire such a great book (it’s one of my all-time favorites).

The book follows the lives of the humans who were stranded on Tines’ World following the defeat of the Blight in Fire. Ravna Bergsndot is the sole human with direct experience of the Blight, and who knows that a Blighter fleet is surely heading for them at slower-than-light speed. Helping to raise the children marooned on the world, the children of the scientists who released the Blight, Ravna also co-rules the local nation of Tines – the wolf-like pack minds of the planet – with the erratic Queen Woodcarver. Together they hope to bootstrap the planet to a more advanced level of technology in time to face the Blighter fleet.

The crux of the story are the challenges Ravna faces in her goals. Distrust among the Tiners in Woodcarver’s domain is the least of it; many children have reached adulthood and not only resent that they don’t have the technology they grew up with (including life extension treatments, which Ravna has completed), but some of them doubt Ravna’s word that the Blight is a threat, believing that their parents could never have released such an evil, and seeing the results of Ravna’s crew’s actions in Fire which stranded them there as more sinister. And a scheming Tine named Vendacious has allied himself with a powerful entrepreneur and rival to Woodcarver named Tycoon who seem to be pacing – if not outstripping – the humans in development.

While Children is a capably-written book, it’s missing the ideas content that is the hallmark of Vinge’s books. Indeed, A Fire Upon the Deep is a great novel not just because it’s well written, but because it throws out terrific ideas – and explores them in depth – with a frequency and density rarely encountered elsewhere in SF. Fire is a tall act to live up to – neither of Vinge’s next two books, including the prequel A Deepness in the Sky – really do so, but Children is perhaps his least ambitious book since.

The most compelling idea in the book is the notion of the “Choir”, the huge mass of Tines who live in the world’s tropics and have a rather different society than the lands of discrete packs such as Woodcarver’s. And it adds some small twists to the old chestnut of a plot where a few advanced people try to bootstrap a medieval society to a higher technology. But the book doesn’t build much more on the nature of the Tines – showing, I guess, just how deeply the race was explored in Fire – and doesn’t expand on the Zones of Thought or the Blight at all (the threat of the Blight hangs over the first half of the book, but if you’re hoping for a big showdown between the human/Tine alliance and the Blight at the end, you’re going to be disappointed). It’s a book of local political machinations rather than groundbreaking science fictional ideas.

For what it is, the book is pretty good, though rather slow to develop. The characters are enjoyable enough, and a few of them develop in interesting ways, but they’re not enough to really carry the book. If a book of politics and gamesmanship is what you want to read, then you’ll probably enjoy it.

But while the Tines are interesting, what I really wanted from a sequel to Fire was something that further developed the Zones of Thought that delineate areas of the galaxy and introduced some interesting new aliens. What Children actually is was quite disappointing to me.

Doctor Who, Season Six

Steven Moffat’s second season running Doctor Who shared one major characteristic with Russell T. Davies’ second season: Both were not as good as their first seasons. Moffat is overall a much stronger writer than Davies and his story arcs have been more interesting (far fewer Daleks, for one thing), but this season felt like he bit off more than he could chew, setting up a complicated set of plot threads, but the payoff has so far been rather disappointing.

Here’s my ranking of this season’s episodes from favorite to least:

  • The Doctor’s Wife (written by Neil Gaiman)
  • The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon (Steven Moffat)
  • The Girl Who Waited (Tom MacRae)
  • The Wedding of River Song (Moffat)
  • A Good Man Goes to War (Moffat)
  • The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People (Matthew Graham)
  • Closing Time (Gareth Roberts)
  • Let’s Kill Hitler (Moffat)
  • The Curse of the Black Spot (Stephen Thompson)
  • The God Complex (Toby Whithouse)
  • Night Terrors (Mark Gatiss)

Spoilers ahoy! Continue reading “Doctor Who, Season Six”