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2001 - Year in SF&F: Reviews



THE WONDER TIMELINE: SF&F RETROSPECTIVE
Read other issues here

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(right image: art by Bence Kresz)


Alastair Reynolds
"Chasm City" (nv)

(Revelation Space series: 2)
© 2001, Gollancz /Ace
--sf novel : 2002 Locus /9
--novel : 2002 British SF W

--/ third place space sf novel DRB top lists
--/ wonder award
--/ adventure award
--/ awesome scale
--/ shock value


This novel is quite a different beast from "Revelation Space": it's darker in tone, unapologetic (and often unjustified) in plot twists, baroque in its structure and towering ambition. A reader might get in turn bored, shocked, confused, astounded, and perplexed... it is, however, a black obelisk of a novel, a vast achievement, a master work nevertheless. Think of it as a Dashiell Hammett hard-boiled mystery set to steampunk gears and the brooding lustre of China Mieville's novels, with an added layer (somewhere deep down) of vintage Philip K. Dick's angst. Its pacing and sudden plot twists reminded me of A. E. Van Vogt's approach to writing (which can be summarized as "a new revelation, or a new plot twist, every few paragraphs"). The first half the story tended to drag, however, and I almost wished for action to speed up, and for prose to display (maybe) a little more emotion. Still, it ended up to be an all-out cinematic trip, certainly worth the admission.

I have to say, many people will find the tone and setting of this novel somewhat depressing. Even with the occasional display Chasm City's extraordinary glamor and glitz, and plethora of unmistakable steampunk- and cyberpunk- wonders and references, still - the overall effect of doom and sheer cold-bloodedness of main characters would get to anybody (there is not a single good-nature human being in the story, for a long time). But guess what, all this turns out to be just an appropriate build-up to the final sentiments that Reynolds masterfully hides in the ending. There is Grace in this universe after all! And a deep yearning for things pure and innocent... While these things are hinted - only hinted! - in the novel, they work underneath to shape the characters and to usher in an acceptable (though still pretty convoluted) outcome.

The novel opens (literally) with a bang: the explosive destruction of an enormous space elevator structure, and a subsequent voyage to Yellowstone/Chasm City (which brings to mind some of the Jack Vance's baroque destinations), interspersed with flashbacks of a "Generation Ship" odyssey to another star. I was deeply impressed by Alastair Reynolds' development of his anti-hero, Sky Hausmann, in this part of the story: he is a tyrant in the making, a ruthless figure, a peek into dark souls of the likes of Stalin and Hitler. His is a fascinating progression of evil that's being justified in the name of an idea, in the end revealed as sheer lust for power. Many will find this character hard to stomach (there is even an appearance of a much-maligned Joker figure) - and yet... yet... there is a sort of the redemption lurking just outside the view, a possibility for a transcending change that cannot be explained, and can be only felt. I applaud Reynolds for not stating these things clearly, and for the subtle emotional nuances that break through the cold facade of this book's gritty plot... Well done.

There is much to be said about the Pandora's Box of visual delights in this novel, and I attach some works of art that (barely) touch on that splendor. One word of caution, though: nothing in this novel is what it seems from the start, so prepare to be astounded... after enduring the long, meticulous exposition in the beginning. Chasm City will grow on you... and then you will wander in the twisted jungles of its buildings looking for, and not finding the happy-ending, unless you can uncover a certain happy-ending inside of you. And that seems to be exactly what Reynolds was intending.
(review by Avi Abrams)



(art credit: Marcin Jakubowski, Mark Goerner)

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(original unknown)


Alastair Reynolds
"Glacial"

(Revelation Space series)
© Spectrum SF #5, 2001
--novella : 2002 Locus /15
--/ fourth place space sf novella
--/ adventure award
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award


What a perfect title for a murder mystery concoction! Chilly in a most intriguing way, slightly morbid, it glimmers with Alastair Reynolds's barely hidden joy at writing such an orderly, distinguished space investigation story (as someone noted, Reynolds likes mysteries). While not as maniacally spectacular as other entries in this collection, this story is indeed a solid, competent example of the "sf mystery" sub-genre, much better than similar (and rather more famous) stories by Isaac Asimov.

The plot revolves around various mysteries inside a deserted human colony (of a period before events in "Revelation Space" novels, approximately around the same time as "The Great Wall of Mars"). Other reviewers noted that "The Great Wall of Mars" and "Glacial" are best read after "Revelation Space" and before "Redemption Ark", as they give a gripping account of Clavain's early years.
(review by Avi Abrams)

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Also in June, 2001:




Andy Duncan
"The Chief Designer"
© IASFM, Jun 2001
The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories, 2012
--novella : 2002 Hugo
--winner : 2002 Sturgeon W
--novella : 2002 Locus /3
--short fiction : 2002 SE SF Award W
--novella : 2002 Asimov's Reader Poll /4
--novella : 2003 Nebula

--/ fourth place sf story
--/ style award
--/ emotion award


A lovely paen to the sheer idea of "relentless space exploration" - and to famous Russian rocket designer Sergei Korolev (who sent off Yury Gagarin into space). Here is a quote from an excellent review by Norman Spinrad (IASFM, March 2002) that illuminates the heart of the story, while shedding light on some interesting qualities of a Russian soul:

"...From my own occasional personal contact with cosmonauts and with Russians and Russia in general, there is something in the Russian soul that allows them to be unashamed and unabashed romantics. I'm no expert, but somehow I doubt that there is an exact translation in Russian for “corny.”

Perhaps this up-front and unapologetic romanticism is also what attracts the culture to ideologies, from pre-revolutionary Pan-Slavism to Marxist utopianism, and now, with its demise, to the renaissance of the always nationalistic Russian Orthodox Church.

Russia, it seems, abhors an ideological vacuum... and it's not that far from the visionary idealism that is the more sophisticated and complexly adult version of the gosh-wow sense of wonder that drew generations of kids to those simple-minded SF pulps.

From the very beginning, indeed from before the beginning, going back to Tsiolkovski's nineteenth century speculations, the true goal of the Russian space program — of the engineers and cosmonauts and of its guiding light Korolov, if not all of the bureaucrats and politicians above them — was the exploration of the solar system and beyond by humans, the expansion of the species out into the great wide universal yonder.

Why?

As a famous jazz musician once said in a somewhat different context, if you have to ask, you're never gonna get it."
--Norman Spinrad, 2012


(art copyright: John Berkey)

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