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Nebunovels II: The Final Nebulation

Saturday, March 28th, 2009 | Posted by James Enge

Apologies to David Soyka and all for posting off my usual day, but I thought I should keep finish what I started (for once in my life). It’s been a busy week, but I did finally manage to acquire and read the remaining Nebula-nominated novels.

And I’m glad to say that my preliminary generalization in the first installment of this post holds up: these books are not all created equal, but they are, in their way, all worthwhile reads. And none of them is genre-lite. Space squids could get freaked out reading some of this stuff.

Below the jump you’ll find the usual what-passes-for-thoughts.


Jack McDevitt, Odyssey

I’d only read one McDevitt book before, Deepsix, and I was guardedly looking forward to this one, which is set in the same universe.

One character in Deepsix annoyed me a lot, though: a sort of cut-rate H.L. Mencken in SPA-A-A-ACE! who ran around being curmudgeony and cynical and yet underneath it all you knew he had a heart of gold, and I hate people like that. Imagine my distress when I found that this character, MacAllister, not only reappears in Odyssey but, more often than not, he carries the viewpoint. Plus we are treated to excerpts from his ostensibly brilliant opinion-pieces as epigraphs and chunks of his diary here and there as chapter-chasers. Unplug your cliché-meter before you read this stuff; the mechanism may overheat dangerously at times. (Will the middle-aged schlumpfy man have sex with the gorgeous young woman he clashes with in Ch. 1? Of course he will. Why do you think they call them “love-handles”?)

The story is very slow to get under way, also. There is an intriguing opener, but from then on the mills of this novel grind exceedingly slow until the last third or so.

The portrait of future-Earth in this sluggish story is strangely unimaginative. It’s supposed to be the 23rd century, but the Washington Post and the Dodgers are still in business; the debates and arguments and stereotypes all seem straight out of the recent past, not the middling-distant future. And the widespread opposition to the space program, which is central to the plot, is flat-out ridiculous, given that the space program saved Earth from destruction the previous year.

There is ultimately a story here, in fact two stories that intertwine ingeniously. Both involve mysteries, one involving an alien species which seems to have hostile intentions towards humankind, the other a well-designed piece of human-vs.-human intrigue. The mysteries clash and merge in the novel’s climactic section.

But you’ll have to turn a lot of pages in this book before the plot picks up enough speed to be interesting. I’m not sure I would have bothered if I hadn’t undertaken to review it.

Terry Pratchett, Making Money

Ursula Le Guin famously divided Elfland from Poughkeepsie, the magical realm of fantasy from the mundane world of everyday life. The joke of Discworld, of course, is that Poughkeepsie is Elfland, or vice versa.

I’ll admit that Pratchett’s stuff doesn’t always work for me. In reading this novel my eyes started to glaze over from time to time, especially when characters engaged in two or three pages of arch dialogue.

On the other hand, Pratchett is still the master of the rationally ridiculous. “The will, in short, is legal. It does not have to make sense,” a lawyer tells the hero–after he has been left custody of the new majority stockholder of the Bank of Ankh-Morpork, said stockholder being a smallish dog. It gets weirder from there–with a transvestite (or is it?) golem and a crazy man scheming to replace the local tyrant by becoming him and driving him crazy, a lecherous ghost, exploding dentures, pineapple cream pies and the sad story of the woman who loved clowns–at least one clown–at least once.

But this is a novel, not just a joke book, and the best parts aren’t the throwaway gags (“We’re going to need some bigger notes”) but the sustained stretches of direct narration. The book really comes alive, for instance, in the early scene where Mrs. Lavish is taken away by Death (one of Pratchett’s best continuing characters). Pratchett has an almost science-fictional story to tell: the invention of paper money in a society that has become too complicated (or too leveraged) for a metal standard. Watching his con-man hero laboriously reason his way to the true nature of money was quite absorbing.

Pratchett’s worldmaking, as in anything I’ve read by him, is superb. His bizarre cartoon society, projected on an imaginary past, is more sophisticated, various and convincing than McDevitt’s late-20th-C. projected onto an imaginary future.

Ian McDonald, Brasyl

I should begin by noting that McDonald’s publisher, Pyr, also just published the first novel of an obscure S&S writer named James Enge. I’m pretty sure that’s not affecting my evaluation of the book, but caveat lector.

Somehow this novel encompasses a war over the nature of reality while telling three different stories laden with action scenes and dense sheaves of worldbuilding. Car-chases, knife-fights, sword-fights, wars, televison production meetings, quantum physics, theology, soccer–the intensity is staggering, but also intoxicating. The plotline of the book is braided, following a television producer in Brazil of the present (2006), a street kid and his innamorata in a Brazil of the future (2032), and a Jesuit priest in a Brazil of the past (1732). It takes a while for these three stories to become one, and by then they have become more than three, countlessly more.

The style is brilliant, almost literally–glittering with concrete details embodied in well-chosen words. McDonald’s description of one character’s love of Botox was jaw-dropping:

Marcelina loved the miniscule, precise moment when the needle entered her face. It was silver; it was pure;. It was the violence that healed, the violation that brought perfection. There was no pain, never any pain, only a sense of the most delicate of penetrations, like a mosquito exquisitely sipping blood, a precision piece of human technology slipping between the gross tisues and cells of her flesh.

It’s all like that, whether he’s talking about television screens or Q-blades or sex or mules dying of plague.

The quantum physics isn’t just genre window-dressing, either. The novel pivots on a dark speculation about the nature of reality which doesn’t appear until late in the book, so I’m loath to discuss it here. But, just when you think McDonald is going to slide into all-those-myriad-ways despair, he does something different and electrifying.

1 Comment »

  1. […] character MacAllister, the nature of which I have divulged in my previous utterance about which I complained in a previous entry. But one of the things that bothered me most was the scene where (for no plot-relevant reason at […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » No One Expects the Spanish Engequisition! - April 1, 2009 9:19 am


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