Elen sila lumenn omentielvo!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Books without exploding spaceships are pointless crap.

My Summer of Space Opera continues!

:: Iain M. Banks's ongoing series of space operas set in The Culture – hence the term, the "Culture Novels" – still represent mostly a rich field of unsurveyed reading for me, but I've at least knocked off another of them: Consider Phlebas. This is actually the first-written of the Culture novels, but, after Player of Games, the second I've read. My understanding is that the Culture novels mostly comprise stand-alone stories, so reading order may not matter all that much, although I do plan to mostly stick with the publication order, as much as I can.

Consider Phlebas tells the story of Bora Horza Gobuchul, a "Changer" – an alien who can take on the appearance of other humanoid beings – who is actually working for the Idiran Empire during their galaxy-spanning war against the Culture. He is rescued by the Idirans, who task him with recovering a Culture Mind (a disembodied intelligence) that has stranded itself on one of the Planets of the Dead. Gobuchul's pursuit of his mission is pretty singular-minded, and along the way, he commits a large number of acts that fall into various places on the moral spectrum. This moral ambiguity on the part of the protagonist makes the book compelling in an interesting way, as Banks makes it hard to root against Gobuchul even as he is doing things that are, admittedly, less-than-moral.

The other notable aspect of the book, fitting enough for a space opera, is the Big Epic Scope of the thing. This is "widescreen" SF at its finest, with intelligent spaceships being flown into and out of artificial constructs that are so big it becomes difficult to imagine some of them. The morals of war are called into question, as well, as one such enormous object – called an Orbital – is slated for destruction by the Culture for no other reason than the fact that they have deemed it too hard to strategically defend, so therefore, it must be destroyed before the Idirans can capture it.

Consider Phlebas is very fast-paced, moving from one set-piece to the next fairly quickly, which is nice because there are a couple of set-pieces – most notably, the cannibal-cult Gobuchul finds himself captured by – that are a bit distasteful.

:: I've mentioned before that, in terms of genre classification, we have "space opera", which obviously involves at least a good portion of the story taking place in space. For stories that are similar in feel and scope to space opera but mainly stay on a single planet – Burroughs's "John Carter of Mars" novels are good examples – we have the term "planetary romance".

I'm at a loss, though, as to what to call Ryk E. Spoor's novel Grand Central Arena, which takes place primarily neither in space nor on a planet. Spoor creates something else, an incredibly vast setting, called..."The Arena". It's here that his story plays out. Spoor's dedication of the novel – to E.E. "Doc" Smith – indicates as much as anything what he is up to here: he is writing a novel of Grand Adventure.

As the novel opens, humans are about to test their very first faster-than-light drive, in a spaceship called the Holy Grail (heh – FTL travel being, of course, the 'holy grail' of SF writers). A crew of eight is selected (for their various skills, of course), led by pilot Ariane Austin, who becomes the de facto Captain when the ship emerges from supralight speed into...something. Something bigger than huge; something impossibly vast, which, as they explore, turns out to be full of thousands, if not millions, of other alien species. It turns out that someone has configured things such that any time a species attempts FTL travel, they end up in the Arena, a place where interactions between species can be influenced and controlled by unknown benefactors, where allegiances can be formed and enimites fostered. Their first ally describes the Arena thusly:

It is a place where we all meet and challenge, where bargains are made and broken and avenged, where an alliance may be built on blood and fortune. It is a place where faith is lost, and where religions are founded or proven true. It is where you shall confront, and be confronted by, truths and lies, enemies and allies, belief and denial, impossibility and transcendence.

So, of course, our heroes venture forth and meet many beings, some of whom are allies, some of whom seem to be allies but are really enemies, some of whom seem to be enemies but are really allies, some of whom are enemies outright, and some who just don't seem to care one way or the other. Grand Central Arena is loaded with scope and scale, as well as action, intrigue, and a bit of romance, as well. There are more than a few moments of the "Ye Gods, how do they get out of this!" variety. It's a long novel – nearly 700 pages – but with the exception of a few infodumps along the way, the book is mostly very kinetic in nature as crisis begets crisis begets crisis, with very real and likeable characters (including one fellow with a shadowy past who is literally superhuman, in positive and negative ways). I've never been terribly fond of describing a book as a "page-turner", but that descriptor is very apt for Grand Central Arena.

And yes, the title of this post is a joke. Yeesh, people!

1 comment:

Lynn said...

I absolutely love the title of this post because I run into so many people who say science fiction is "pointless crap". It's just so much fun to see someone saying the opposite even if it is just a joke.