Elen sila lumenn omentielvo!

Friday, October 28, 2011

If only Shakespeare had written about exploding spaceships....



I'll be taking a bit of a break from reading space opera, since I may well have OD'd on the genre over the last few months. Here are notes on the most recent books of explodey-spaceshippy goodness that I've read.

:: Thumbing through my increasingly-bulky space opera collection, I found a book called Legends of Santiago by Mike Resnick. I know just by looking at the book that it's something I bought from the Science Fiction Book Club, during one of my various periods of membership, but I have no recollection of actually doing so, which leads me to believe it's one of those books I ended up with because I forgot to send in that stupid reply card. Obviously I opened the box when it showed up and decided to keep it, because it's space opera.

Legends of Santiago is actually an omnibus containing two novels by Resnick, Santiago and The Return of Santiago. I only read the first, opting to save the other for a later time if I liked the first book. The short verdict? Next time I decide to have a space opera binge, The Return of Santiago will be near the top of the list.

Santiago (apparently subtitled A Myth of the Far Future in other editions, but not in mine) tells the story of a bounty hunter named Sebastian Cain, at some indeterminate point in the future when much of the Galaxy has been colonized and humans have created a wide-ranging interstellar government called "the Democracy". In meeting with a fellow bounty hunter, Cain receives an interesting tidbit of information that could possibly lead him to the whereabouts of the most wanted outlaw in the entire galaxy, a mysterious figure known only as...Santiago.

Cain sets out after Santiago, pretty much for no other reason than the fact that Santiago represents the greatest single challenge possible to a person in his line of work. Along the way he meets other criminals, joining some and running afoul of others, and in some cases both joining and running afoul of them, as he slowly closes in on his goal.

Santiago is written rather like a space Western, and is told almost entirely from the point of view of various outlaw characters. The general feel of the book is – and I mean this as high praise – similar to that of Firefly, to cite the current reigning champion of space westerns. The main device of having everybody chasing after a particular Maguffin is executed by Resnick to perfection; Resnick sets the stage by establishing Santiago's legend in the book's prologue. Here's how that starts:

They say his father was a comet and his mother a cosmic wind, that he juggles planets as if they were feathers and wrestles with black holes just to work up an appetite. They say he never sleeps, and that his eyes burn brighter than a nva, and that his shout can level mountains.

They call him Santiago.

*

Far out on the Galactic Rim, at the very edge of the Outer Frontier, there is a world called Silverblue. It is a water world, with just a handful of islands dotting the placid ocean that overs its surface. If you stand on the very largest island and look into the night sky, you can see almost all fo the Milky Way, a huge twinkling river of stars that seems to flow through half the universe.

And if you stand on the western shore of an island during the daytime, with your back to the water, you will see a grass-covered knoll. Atop the knoll are seventeen white crosses, each bearing the name of a good man or woman who thought to colonize this gentle world.

And beneath each name is the same legend, repeated seventeen times:

Killed by Santiago.

I don't know how you stop reading a book that starts like that.

Resnick's creation of a criminal subculture is the best part of the book; he even gives the outlaws of the Galaxy their very own historian who is collecting their adventures into an epic poem. As the book went on, I started to figure that there were two major possibilities as to the actual identity of Santiago. I'm happy that one of these turned out to be correct.

I highly recommend Santiago.

:: Continuing to work my way through the adventures of Miles Vorkosigan, I finished the omnibus volume Young Miles with the novella The Mountains of Mourning and the novel The Vor Game. I'm rapidly discovering that these are some of the best character-driven stories around, and Miles Vorkosigan – the diminutive, birth-defected officer in the military of the highly-miliaristic society of the planet Barrayar – is a very compelling character. When we left him at the end of The Warrior's Apprentice, Miles had managed to finagle his way into the Barrayaran Academy at the behest of the Emperor.

The Mountains of Mourning sends Miles into the rural mountain country near his family estate on Barrayar, where he is tasked with investigating an infanticide. Miles's father, Count Aral Vorkosigan, gives him the assignment for reasons of his own, reasons which Miles gradually figures out as he delves into the backward mindsets of the rural mountain-dwellers and tries to figure out not just who murdered the child, but why.

In The Vor Game, Miles graduates from the Academy and enters active service. He, along with all of his cadet friends, is hoping for ship duty – but he is assigned instead to serve as Meteorological Officer on an icy island in the Barrayaran north. In typical Miles fashion, he ends up making enemies and friends up there, and also in typical Miles fashion, despite his best efforts, things go seriously awry and Miles finds himself allied with a failed mutiny and under arrest.

One thing I'm quickly learning about the Vorkosigan Saga is that everything is always twisting and turning. What starts off as a "young upstart sent to a dead-end military assignment" story soon becomes a war-intrigue story, delving into the politics surrounding star systems with control over wormholes to other systems. Bujold has an amazing way with all of this stuff, seamlessly blending the politics into the character stuff and back again, so we never get the feeling that the politics exists in a totally separate realm from the actions of our characters. I look forward to continuing the Vorkosigan Saga!

:: And finally, we have Leviathan Wakes, by James S.A. Corey, which is a composite pseudonym for authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. I find it kind of odd that they felt the need to create a pseudonym for their collaboration; I'm sure this has been done before, though, so I suppose it's not all that odd. I am confused as to why they just couldn't go with their actual names. Although I do know that sometimes when authors gain success in one genre, they have difficulty breaking into another genre under their own names, or that publishers decide to have authors use different names to make it easier to track such things. Such as Iain M. Banks, who writes SF under that name but omits the middle initial for his fantasy novels.

But anyway, none of that really matters. What matters is that Leviathan Wakes is just terrific. It's one of the most entertaining novels I've read in years. It's pure entertainment. It's a "large popcorn and a Coke" novel that screams out for a score by John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith or Basil Poledouris. There's a blurb by George RR Martin on the cover that refers to the book as "a kick-ass space opera", and that is exactly what it is.

What's interesting about Leviathan Wakes is that it is set in our own solar system, and nowhere else. This is a space opera with no FTL drive, and the first attempt at a Generation Ship has yet to be launched. Despite this, there is tension galore, action a-plenty, and a good amount of explodey-spaceshippy goodness. There are revolutionaries and government agents, there's a down-on-his-luck detective who is as hard-boiled as they come, there's a noir-ish search for a missing girl, there is war between Earth and Mars, and, believe it or not, there are SF-nally plausible zombies. This book is a heady mix.

The book begins with a young woman finding herself the only survivor of a vicious attack on her spaceship; soon after, her parents lean on an asteroid belt detective to find out why she has disappeared, while another innocent industrial ship happens on the wreck of the ship from the first scene. From these two threads, the authors put together an impressive show that gradually becomes bigger and bigger in scope until, at the end of the book, there are startling implications for all humanity. Best of all, the book leaves a lot of places where the sequels can go.

Leviathan Wakes is terrific storytelling, aided and abetted by a lot of snappy dialogue and interesting characters for whom we both root and wince when they take the wrong turn. If you're looking for an extremely well-crafted entertainment, Leviathan Wakes is it.

And that, folks, will probably finish me up for space opera for a little while, aside from a couple of short stories. I'm actually taking a month to not read any novels at all; just short fiction and poetry. After that, my plan is to spend a good chunk of the winter OD'ing on fantasy, possibly to the extent of doing a complete re-read of George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire to this point. As tends to be my case, my mood tends to go from "spaceships and blasters, ahoy!" to "Castles and swords and maidens, swoon!" when the weather starts to go cold.

2 comments:

M. D. Jackson said...

Okay, Jaquandor, you've sold me on Santiago. I must find a copy and read it... NOW!

I am a fan of the Vorkosigan books. I once spent a very pleasant hour or so talking with Lois Bujold about Miles Vorkosigan, about writing in general and about her fans. She is a wonderful lady and a marvelous writer.

Oh, and, maybe not spaceships, but Shakespeare does mention a chariot pulled by "... a team of little atomies". A reference to quantum mechanics? Maybe? No? Oh, well...

Jason said...

Oh wow, I read Santiago back in college, or maybe even high school, and had completely forgotten it until you brought it up again. Time to go questing through my archives and see if I still have it around, I think. IIRC, Resnick did a number of books set in the Santiago universe, not just the two the directly deal with him. You might want to look into that.