All posts by Christian Sauvé

The Mars Trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam Spectra, 1992-1996, ???? pages, C$???.?? hc, ISBN Various

Red Mars: Bantam Spectra, 1993, 519 pages, ISBN 0-553-09204-9
Green Mars: Bantam Spectra, 1994, 535 pages, ISBN 0-553-09640-0
Blue Mars: Bantam Spectra, 1996, 609 pages, ISBN 0-553-10144-7

In the early nineties, a spate of books about Mars began to appear on the market. After being relatively ignored by SF writers since the first half of the century (when Edgar Rice Burrough’s romantic fantasy “Mars” series and Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles first appeared), the fourth planet was once again a ripe ground for extrapolation. Building on the initially-disappointing discoveries of the Viking missions, a new spate of Martian books began to appear, minus the little green men, canals or crystalline cities.

This new breed of books was mostly realistic, and either concerned with the first expeditions to Mars or the use of Mars as a background to realistic adventures. Thus, we had Mars (Ben Bova), Moving Mars (Greg Bear), Climbing Olympus (Kevin J. Anderson), Beachhead (Jack Williamson), Martian Rainbow (Robert L. Forward)…

But the “biggest” entry in this field was made by Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars. From the beginning, the trilogy prefaced by RM was destined to be a classic. One should only read the pages of lavish praise contained at the front of the paperback copy of RM to be convinced.

What was surprising, however, was the author’s name. A trilogy about the terraformation of Mars had a natural feel to it, almost an obligatory part of the genre… but to have Kim Stanley Robinson write it?

I would have expected Benford to write such a trilogy. Clarke, in his good days. Brin, perhaps. But Kim Stanley Robinson? My previous experiences with his short story collection The Planet on the Table had been underwhelming at best… While the Mars trilogy was getting good reviews all around, I was prepared to be bored.

I acquired RM in 1994, when I bought the CD-ROM “Hugo and Nebula Anthology 1993” This superlative CD, published by Clarinet Inc. (www.clarinet.com), contained all 1993 Hugo-nominated fiction, plus all of the 1993 Nebula-nominated short fiction… It’s an incredible CD: Buy it. I had the intention of reading everything on it, but with my growing stack of (physical) books, and lack of time, and reluctance to read a 500-pages on a computer screen… I stumbled upon a mint trade paperback of GM in May 1995 for a ridiculous price. (Bought it and laughed all the way home.) So there I was, with the two books, and not about to make the same mistake as when I started to read Stephen R. Donaldson’s ‘Gap’ cycle three years before the last volume was published. So I waited. And when BM came out in hardcover, I took a deep breath, went to a trusty library in Orleans that has a permanent 10%-off policy on new hardcovers and plunked down the 32,04$Can. Therein ends the story of how I got the trilogy.

Now, for the wrongness: There, I admit it: I was wrong. The Mars trilogy is one of the best thing I’ve read this year.

A lot of SF books usually deal with a new planet/gadget/concept in two ways: The first, common with “sense of wonder”-type of stories, is about the discovery, the initial rush of ideas that occur to a competent scientist or the adventures of a team of explorers setting foot on a planet for the first time. The second attitude is to use the said gadget as a part of the background. Think of hyperspace: There are stories where the intrepid scientists first stumble upon the hyperdrive, and countless other tales in which characters take a hyperspace liner like we would take the bus. But few stories deal about the various problems a hyperdrive company would have in perfecting its product from prototype to unspectacular piece of machinery. In Martian terms, Bova’s Mars is the discovery story while Bear’s Moving Mars is the backgrounder-type of novel. (Which isn’t true, actually, but let’s not quibble with my piece of reasoning, okay?)

If the reader retains only one thing of the massive 1,700+ pages saga that is contained in these three books, it’s the absolutely stunning display of subject range from Robinson. The Mars trilogy is a masterful virtuoso performance from one of the most talented authors in the English language. (How’s that for a blurb quote?) Robinson tackles on geology, history, environmental sciences, personal dynamics, politics, physics, rigorous scientific extrapolation, sociology… The reader is surprised, delighted and astonished at the sheer amount of meticulously researched detail.

In fact, one is so impressed that it seems almost too restrictive to call the trilogy mere “science-fiction”. At the same time, one also takes comfort in the fact that this sort of grandiose intellectual accomplishment wouldn’t be possible in any other field than SF. (Except, perhaps, classified Pentagon work… ahem.)

There is something in these 1,700+ pages for everyone. Hard-SF readers like me will foam at the mouth reading all the polysyllabic exposition terms. So-called literary aficionados will make small cooing sounds over Robinson’s careful prose. Readers who like a good story will skip the big words and be swept along with the onrushing tide of this epic.

The Mars trilogy begins where Mars left off: The first historical mission is over, but now we’re going back, this time to stay. Red Mars takes the reader from this point to the first Martian revolution. The other books take the story forward.

Red Mars is the best volume of the three. Mostly self-contained (you could stop reading after the first book, but who would want to?) it is the most pyrotechnical volume, and perhaps the most fascinating: SF often postulates that once mankind gets off Earth, it will suddenly become gentler and kinder… Not quite what happens in RM. People fight over power, money, rights, (in)equality. In fact, RM should be read for the simple statement that No, things are not going to be easy if we want to colonize Mars.

I was fascinated by the chapter in RM where the original colonists build the Underwood base. Seen through an engineer’s viewpoint, it’s suitably nuts-and-bolt to satisfy even the most unbelieving reader. Other highlights include the catastrophic effects of the first Martian revolution, again seen through the coolly calculating eyes of Nadia, the Siberian engineer.

Which brings us (clumsily) to the characters. While RM build most on the setting and the initial story, the two subsequent books really kick some dimensions in the characters. I have rarely felt an attachment to fictional constructs as I did at the end of Blue Mars, when I was almost moved to tears over the reconciliation of t
wo major characters. Not every character is as powerfully evocative. Some will be annoying to many readers, but that’s quite intentional. (Since you asked, my favorite characters were Sax (The Scientist), Nadia (The Engineer) and Art (The… er… corporate spy.)

The setting is also exquisitely realized, Mars taking on an almost-real texture. The changes in the planet’s atmosphere are sharply drawn, and also completely convincing. While Robinson takes a few risky assumptions regarding the composition of Mars’ crust, it makes for good fictional material.

The sweep of the events described in the trilogy is impressive, covering more that a hundred years of history. The solar system at the end of the trilogy is completely different from the beginning. This is an epic to relegate mere grandiose stories to a lesser status.

The three books are unequal. The first one is the most readable, as well as being the most exciting. The two others may contain less action, but fully develop the story. The conclusion is a bit disappointing, lacking a sense of grand finale that the series deserve, but at this point, any reader will feel disappointed at the close of such a rewarding trilogy.

As stated before, the scope of Robinson’s intent is impressive. He delivers as entertainment a series of thoughtful reflections on our common future. His extrapolations on the consequences of widespread longevity are -as far as I know- unequaled anywhere else in SF.

Facing such an ambitious intellectual achievement, it would be too easy to trivialize it on the basis of the few errors that Robinson made: One get the feeling that despite the fancy new words and political parties, things haven’t changed much in 100+ years. (This criticism is mostly invalidated by the last volume) Also, Mars seems a bit much like a really big park, where one can get from point A to point B effortlessly. The characters, at times, are like well-developed stereotypes (The Cynic Politician, the Mad Psychologist, the Nutty Scientist, the Unemotional Engineer…) Finally, the advances in robotics depicted are a bit… optimistic, shall I say?

Nevertheless, these are small inevitable imperfections in the magnificent Persian rug that is the Mars trilogy. It is easily one of the most important SF work of the nineties. So powerful, that I fear the terraforming field of SF may live for a looooong time under this series’ shadow.

Only the genuinely patient and inquisitive reader will retain the most from the Mars trilogy. For those with the time, however, it is a series not to be missed.

[June 1998: The Memory of Whiteness (Kim Stanley Robinson, 1985) could have been so much better, especially given what Robinson was able to do with his latter (1992-1996) Mars trilogy. This particular novel describes a far-future solar system tour of a classical orchestra, mixing music and physics. It’s not all bad or boring, but it’s incredibly long in spots: Robinson hadn’t quite mastered the narrative verve he later exhibited in his other works, and the result is an intermittently interesting novel. The Memory of Whiteness is all about music, so readers not familiar with classical composers will feel slightly lost. But the remainder of Robinson’s imagination is good enough that even when you think you’re lost-you’re not. (Especially laudable is the noteworthy effort of describing coherently some very-advanced physics.) Interesting, but imperfect.]

The Enemy Within, Larry Bond

Warner Books, 1996, 483 pages, C$27.95 hc, ISBN 0-446-51676-7

Fortress America is under siege: Everywhere, rebellious Americans are challenging the authority of the federal government. Bombs are exploding, the FBI is feverishly investigating, the public is scared…

Fiction or Fact? In recent years, America has finally wizened up to the fact that terrorism isn’t something that only happened to Others. The danger is clear and might even be contained Within…

Larry Bond is perhaps better known as the phantom co-author of Red Storm Rising, the gigantic WWIII superthriller by Tom Clancy. But Bond has since acquired a reputation by writing (along with phantom collaborator Patrick Larkins) tense, thick, very satisfying technothrillers.

The first, Red Phoenix, dealt with a second Korean War. Vortex with a South African crisis. Cauldron with a renewed threat by a France/Germany union. All three were complex 500+ pages, tightly-typeset epics, with a huge cast of characters and multiple twists all the way.

The Enemy Within takes a more intimate view: Mainly dealing with a Special Operations officer named Peter Thorn, it’s both less complex and more formulaic than his previous effort.

It’s also less satisfying, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

The premise is as simple as it is disturbing: In an Iran shaken by a power shift, a general plans to distract the USA’s attention by a series of carefully-planned terrorist acts on America’s soil. It’s up to Thorn to unravel the Why of these acts, who all look like they’re coming from extreme elements in the Unites States themselves.

Bond is still in top-flight form when he’s dealing with machinery, weapons and weapons-effects. His mastery of the clinical, cold omniscient POV is nearly absolute: His prose neatly dissects the effects of three pounds of C4 explosive placed in the gas tank of a 18 wheeler.

But when dealing with personalities, Bond still have lessons to learn. This isn’t as much a criticism of Bond as the genre itself: Technothrillers, much like SF, is a literature of gadgets and ideas. The Plot is King.

In Bond’s previous effort, the love story was a carefully hidden subplot that was overwhelmed by the other events. Whatever happened, the love story was nice and everything, but it wasn’t why we read the book, right?

In The Enemy Within, the Love Story is a major part of the story, as is the Revenge Story, the Betrayal Story and the Gonna Get’em Story. But they’re all centred on the Hero, contrarily to his other books where these Stories were dispersed on multiple subplots.

A much more personal book, but also one that ultimately disappoints slightly. The Heroine gets in trouble, the Hero goes to the Villain for Revenge. yawn. We’ve seen this before, I believe?

Still, techno-nerds like myself will delight in the meticulous technical details and the apocalyptic feel of a total telephone shutdown over the American Midwest. Internauts will find no faults in Bond’s use of the Net. The plot unfolds at a carefully controlled -if sometimes unequal- pace.

But -in addition to the restricted focus- Bond manages to have a disappointing conclusion that looks quite a bit forced and also trivialises what had earlier seemed as a Big Problem.

Sad, really. Bond had accustomed us to excellent thrillers, and he only delivers a better-than-average effort. He’s still on my must-buy list, with the hope that his next effort will be better.

In the meantime, Fortress America will read about right-wing extremists, I guess…

[September 1996 Footnote: Believers in synchronicity might want to read Tom Clancy’s Executive Orders for a subplot that echoes eerily of The Enemy Within, down to the Iranian villains using the Net for their dastardly devious acts of terrorism… and a climax that reminds me of Bond’s short story in David Copperfield’s Tales of the Impossible. ]

I, Robot: The Original Screenplay, Harlan Ellison (based on Short Stories by Isaac Asimov)

Warner, 1994, 271 pages, C$20.00 hc, ISBN 0-446-67062-6

The friendship between SF legends Harlan Ellison and the late Isaac Asimov is well known. But despite being good friends, the two had never collaborated directly on a book.

Until I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay (IRTIS), that is. As related in Ellison’s foreword, Asimov had received numerous offers to put the material contained in I, Robot to the big screen. All offers were less than satisfactory: The anthology format suggested by a collection of short stories isn’t a big favourite of movie-going audiences.

Enters Ellison, who writes a script combining fours short stories by Asimov into a script inspired in part by nothing else than “Citizen Kane”.

Simply put, a journalist decides to investigate famous robot designer Susan Calvin. Who is she? Why was she at the president’s funeral? The journalist has to visit several person before he happens on the truth, a truth that is as unsettling as it is satisfying…

The script, written in the seventies, has gathered dust on Warner’s shelves ever since.

Now, everyone can read the result of the collaboration, illustrated by the exceptional art of Mark Zug.

The result, simply put, fully lives up to its reputation of “the best Science-Fiction film never made”

The script displays an uncanny fusion of Asimov’s Hard-SF ideas with Ellison’s usual flair in characterisation and literary qualities. For those of you who haven’t always been able to stomach Asimov’s usually dry prose and Ellison’s sometimes incomprehensible works will find here an unusually readable script.

What impressed me the most about this script is that in addition of writing a story with great, sheer soul, Ellison has fulfilled the primary requirement of visual SF: Making us visit strange, impressive, real places. He doesn’t make the usual clichéed choices: Instead of making two people meet in a bar, he puts them in an arcology, etc… This might not sound like much put this way, but it’s handled superbly in the book.

Of course, a good part of the credit for the visualisation of the script goes to Mark Zug, who has drawn/painted for this volume a series of absolutely beautiful work of arts. These add considerably to the worth of the book. In fact, the greatest compliment I can think of is a criticism: There aren’t nearly enough of them!

In his introduction, Ellison states that the reader will be the judge of whether this would make a good movie. Well, for me at least, the verdict is clear: Yes. I’d pay without asking for an I, Robot ticket. In these times of insipid remakes of even more insipid past SF movies, I, Robot comes out as a contender with brains, looks and class.

Definitely recommended reading for Asimov and Ellison fans, as well as everyone in between. This isn’t like sitting in the theater, but it’s the best thing we’re likely to get…

The Gap into Ruin: This Day All Gods Die, Stephen R. Donaldson

Bantam Spectra, 1996, 564 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-07180-7

Capsule review: The Gap series offers a collection of riches rarely found elsewhere in SF, but for a very patient -and tolerant!- audience. Forget star ratings: This is Good Stuff.

I originally wanted to make this a review of the fifth and final book of the Gap Series, but reconsidered in favour of reviewing the whole story instead.

This is only fair, after all: This isn’t a series of unplanned, loosely-connected books. As Donaldson makes it perfectly clear in an afterword at the end of the first volume, five volumes were planned in this saga loosely inspired by Wagner’s The Ring opera cycle.

The series starts off “innocently” enough. Well, in a matter of speaking: While the first book is only 200 pages long, it does contain acts of cruelty only matched by the second book of the cycle.

Subsequently, the books get longer, and much more complicated. By the end of the fifth tome, the story is far removed from the original “love” triangle.

Simply put, in the first volume, a woman cop (Morn Hyland) gets captured by a pirate (Angus Thermopyle) and then gets rescued by a valiant hero (Nick Succorso).

“But that, of course, wasn’t the real story.”

The real story is that Angus is really the Victim, Morn the Rescuer and Nick the Villain. But then again, that isn’t the real story…

The Gap series fully moves on three axis: The one most familiar, the axis of action; the one so beloved of literary fans, the axis of (character) development; and finally, the favourite axis of conspiracy nuts, the axis of significance.

In other words, the “What’s Happening”, “Why it’s happening” and “What it really means.”

The “love” triangle has a meaning far, far removed from the three participants. All the way to forces controlling human destiny… but that’s a spoiler.

I still have a few reservations about the length of the series. It would have been possible to compress it into four, or even three very dense books. The reasons lies in Donaldson’s style: Events are seen from the point of view of one character at a time, one chapter by character. Evens often happen three, four times in prose, seen from the POV of different participants.

Donaldson also excels in atmosphere-building. He doesn’t write phrases like “and then he told her what had happened”. He tells it all, pages at a time. The dialogue doesn’t seem hurried: There are a fair number of useless lines. We are there. Characters constantly flashback to bits of phrases said earlier.

While engrossing, this makes the series far longer than some will tolerate. Events don’t happen at a break-neck pace -which will no doubt displease many- but half the pleasure’s in the build-up.

The conclusion is very satisfying, a change from some lacklustre finales we’ve been seeing recently (“Rama” for one). Some people die, some live, some are promoted, some get the retribution they crave…

But nobody will feel cheated by the ending. No gratuitous death. An optimistic outlook. Destinies accomplished.

Classification fans will have a tough time with the Gap series. What is it, exactly?

This isn’t hard SF. Donaldson takes far too many liberties with science, and even goofs up on light-speed delays in communications. Characters are unusually developed. Gadgets are tools, not ends in themselves.

This isn’t science-fantasy space-opera, even if it looks like one and is even inspired by one: The attention to detail displayed by Donaldson, the maturity of the books and the character-driven plot are not usual hallmarks of space-op.

Or if it’s Science-Fantasy SpaceOp, it’s a darn good one.

Characters, as mentioned before, are exceptionally handled. Even if far from sympathetic, they do engage our interest. (I personally found, however, that the “minor” characters -Hashi Lebowl, Min Donner, Koina Hannish, among others- were more interesting that the three stars of the cycle. Go figure…)

After 2,500 character-driven pages, you can’t help knowing them. This is something I wouldn’t mind seeing elsewhere in SF… but not necessarily in other 2,500 pages epics!

One final wish: The story is completed, done and over with. In clear, this means that it’s perfect as it is: No sequel, please.

I’ve mentioned before that this is a very hard-edged story. I mean that: The violence here is explicit and Donaldson doesn’t shy away from extremes. If you can read past the first half of the third book, the rest is less violent.

This isn’t Star Trek: Characters go through extremes that change them. And the extremes are extremes. Not a few casual SF, media SF and fantasy fans will be turned off by the subject matter. But those who can tough it out will find an extraordinary tale of power, abuse of power, betrayal and personal redemption.

I am tempted to liken the Gap series to an exceptionally rough endurance contest: Only the fittest make it to the end. But no one who does will be disappointed by the journey.

Now that the entire series is out (soon in paperback), readers who want to lose themselves in a marvellously textured world, who don’t mind a few lengths and who aren’t afraid of a darker tone will certainly want to read this.

Endymion, Dan Simmons

Bantam Spectra, 1996, 468 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-10020-3

The original Hyperion (Considering both Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion as a single volume) was one of these books that comes one in every decade or so: A brand-new universe, incredible characters, suspenseful plot and a heaven-sent style. What was fascinating about it was the ingenious re-use of several traditional SF elements, re-used in a terribly fresh way.

Thus, it wasn’t difficult to get excited about a sequel. Questions abounded: Given what happens at the end of Fall of Hyperion, is it even possible to have a sequel? Is Simmons able to maintain the same frenetic idea-throwing imagination present in the first book? Is this going to be another one of those insipid sequels?

Well, the book has been read and it’s very probable that you’ll only half-like the answers.

First off, an important caveat to the would-be buyer: Endymion is the third volume in a four-book series. Yeah, I was flustered too, especially when you consider that this isn’t explicitly mentioned anywhere on the cover…. Be reassured, however, that Endymion offers a real sense of closure, unlike other books that we shan’t mention…

Endymion is the story of Raul Endymion, a young man assigned to protect a young girl named Aethena. The book, predictably, is a succession of adventures on various worlds where Raul protects the girl. Fair enough? Of course, things are more complicated than that, involving TechnoCore AIs, a renewed church, multiple deaths and resurrections (literally) and, of course, Simmons’ usually delightful prose.

Casual and litt’reary readers alike will devour this entry of the Hyperion Cantos with gusto. However, chances are that most will feel a little disappointed with the meal. Why?

For all it’s various qualities as an adventure novel, Endymion is just that; an adventure novel. Of course, portentous things happen and we get a few tantalising glimpses of What’s Going to Happen in the Next Volume, but that’s it. Most of Endymion is Raul and Aethena and A. Bettik battling the odds beyond any reasonable chance of survival. Fun, no doubt about it, but once expects more from Simmons.

A good novel, certainly worth the price when it’ll come out in paperback, but smarter readers will read it when the sequel is published.

Well, here we go for another year on the painful coals of anticipation…