Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Turkish Delight

Those of us who are fans of science fiction and fantasy love to read about exotic and imaginary places. We sing paeans of praise to that sense of wonder evoked by planets orbiting distant stars, by vistas no human being has ever laid eyes on, and yet our own world offers so much that is miraculous and amazing and colorful and exotic! Ian McDonald has noticed it, as well. He took us to São Paulo with his 2008 Hugo nominated novel Brasyl, and he does it again with this 2011 Hugo nominated novel The Dervish House, taking us to Istanbul, queen of cities. (I know, Elton isn't singing about Istanbul there.) This is the third of the Hugo nominated novels that I read.

Necdet (Nedjdet), a young man fighting with mental illness, moves to the big city, Istanbul, where his brother Ismet has a place. Ismet leads an Islamic street court, a tarikat, and lives in a dervish house, an ancient structure built hundreds of years ago by a now defunct Islamic sect that somehow survived centuries of wars and fires and urban renewal. Living under the same roof is Can (Jan), a nine-year old boy who is isolated from the world because of his life threatening illness which forces him to wear deafening plugs in his ears. Can’s only friend seems to be Georgios, an older Greek whose career as an economist has been sidelined by politics and his youthful participation in anti-government protests, which also lost him his life’s true love.

Adnan and his wife Ayşa (Aysha) also live in the dervish house. Adnan is a stock broker, about to make it big with three co-conspirators in a scam involving radioactive natural gas from Iran, while Ayşa, a scrupulous dealer in religious antiquities, is hunting for a legendary mummy that might be found somewhere in Istanbul. Finally, there is Leyla, a young woman fresh out of college struggling to prove her independence to her family, a noisy clan of people ranging all over Turkey, while working for a cousin who is trying to start up a nano technology business.

It is only a few years into our future, and the people of Istanbul must contend with religious extremism, with an overbearing police presence, and with political turmoil as the EU is finally going to admit Turkey into its ranks. In other words, not much has changed. Connected initially only by the dervish house, McDonald plots the course of the lives of the dervish house’s inhabitants and their supporting cast over the next few days. The plots intersect, sometimes directly, sometimes only incidentally, in the streets and alleys of Istanbul, and from one side of the Bosphorus to the other.

I enjoyed this story very much. McDonald had me spellbound from the second page, and the finish was complete and satisfying. (The first page has a guide to pronouncing romanized Turkish words: sounds formidable, but it wasn’t any kind of a problem.) Against the backdrop of Istanbul, described by McDonald in vivid but sparse brushstrokes of prose, this story was a great adventure well worth my time.

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Monday, May 16, 2011

A Fifty Year Old Vor-gin

Ah, yes, the name of Vorkosigan is well known throughout SF fandom. Lois McMaster Bujold is not only an entertaining story teller, but that little trickster, leaving a trail of havoc in his wake, must strike a chord with many folks who look in the mirror to sadly survey their own lack of physical prowess. The adventures of Miles have appeared in the Hugo short list a number of times, and Bujold has managed to take home that coveted rocket more than once on the strength of these stories. Cryoburn is yet another in this series of successes for this year’s Hugos, and the second nominee that I finished.

Miles finds himself the victim of an abduction, but are we worried? We most decidedly are not. We follow him instead, gleefully chortling as he lays one trap after another, occasionally "unpacks" an explanation for those around him who are less fleet of mind, and draws his prey into his net. If you’re a fan, you no doubt expect Miles to solve all of the puzzles. Well, I won’t spoil the story by telling you how it does in fact end.

This was actually the first Vorkosigan story I've ever read. I didn't know what to expect, but Bujold quickly drew me into the story. The various character are described engagingly, and the plot moves along at a pace that kept me turning pages. If I have any complaints, it’s that the setting was too generic, leaving me with a mental impression of a Star Trek set, with hastily spray painted styrofoam facades that have no substance behind them. Even potentially evocative locations like the cryo-crypts, were present in name only. While in this tale that’s easy to overlook - it was all about the action, after all - I’m thinking that for a Hugo caliber story I would want more substance to occupy my mind’s eye.

However you may feel about that, I thought this was a fun story.

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Sunday, May 01, 2011

The Gods Themselves

I tend to upset many of my more conventional atheistic friends when I point out to them how much being an atheist depends on faith. Faith, they say, has to do with superstitions. But I tend to agree with Sam Harris, who writes in The Moral Landscape that faith is not defined by what one believes in, but that one believes in something.

I believe that the universe is a predictable (no? how about this one then?) place (within the laws of probability that appear to govern quantum mechanics), whose laws human beings can discover through observation. I agree that such a place doesn’t necessarily exclude what some people might call a deity, but it would be at most a powerful being whose motives - being inhuman (like that one?) - are suspect at best.

There are a few authors who attempt to tackle the problematic relationship between people and deities. Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials describes a powerful being who is responsible for a lot of human misery by telling people mean things to do to other people. Clearly it is right to go to war against such a being, as well as his human servants. Jay Lake’s deity in Mainspring is more distant, a representative of Newton’s orderly clockwork universe who occasionally intervenes so that things continue moving as intended - the classic prime mover.

Roger Zelazny’s deities are more personal; often they walked among mortals, incarnations with supernatural powers. In Lord of Light Zelazny casts the idea in terms of access to powerful technology that is denied to others - a re-telling of the Prometheus myth. Neil Gaiman’s deities in American Gods and Anansi Boys also walk amongst mortals, but their survival depends on human belief, a kind of reverse solipsism. They use their natures and powers to persuade or coerce humans to believe.

N.K. Jemisin’s book The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is my first of the Hugo nominated reads this year, mostly because it was my last of the Nebula nominated reads, and the only one of two Nebula nominated novels that also got the nod for the Hugos. Kingdoms is the first of a series, it seems, but it is a self-contained novel, concerning the relationship between one young woman and several very real and personal deities.

Yeine is yanked from her comfortable and predictable existence as a princess of the Kingdom of Darre to go to the empire’s capital, where her estranged grandfather nominates her as one of his heirs. From the beginning she realizes that her days are numbered, but she intends to use her limited time to find out who murdered her mother, and perhaps exact a revenge. She soon discovers that she herself is part of a much deeper and older plot.

The deities that serve the Arameri, the ruling clan, are an ever-present reality. Yeine describes them as weapons. Sieh, one of these deities, agrees with her. He says he prefers that word to calling them slaves. After all, slavery is forbidden in the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The other deity with whom Yeine has a rather more intimate relationship, Nahadoth the Dark Lord, is not merely philosophical about his position. Since he was the leader of the rebellion that enslaved them, he also bears the brunt of human indignity heaped on them.

The story is far more complex than my two-paragraph synopsis, of course. Jemisin’s stylistic competence shines, as she writes from Yeine’s point of view - a Yeine who has already died, and is now retelling her story to someone who is unidentified for much of the novel. The plot weaves back and forth, galloping along with events one moment, and returning to contemplate something in the past the next. It is not conventional, but also not laborious to read.

Yeine and the deities are well fleshed out characters. Yeine’s human compatriots are less so, serving as archetypal stand-ins for moral failings and moral strengths. It’s a curious reversal of roles, but then the story turns out to be a reversal of conventional Christian theology.

It has been a promising start to my Hugo reading this year. It’s high fantasy, no elves, nifty ideas, and food for thought. Highly recommended, whether you’re voting for the Hugos or not.