Sunday, September 27, 2009

C. J. Cherryh: Cloud's Rider

C. J. Cherryh's Cloud's Rider is the successor to her Rider at the Gate, which I reviewed last year. This book was far more psychological than the previous, delving deeply into the reactions of all the characters to the dark telepathic sendings of the rogue nighthorse stalking the village.

In Rider, Danny Fisher teams up with Cloud, one of the telepathic Nighthorses on Finisterre, where a small human outpost seems to have been abandoned on a remote hostile planet. The humans who remain cloistered in the villages try to hide from the power of the ambient telepathy of the native fauna, and as a result are unable to exploit the resources of the world. The riders have allied with the nighthorses, which enables them to travel more freely, which makes them a crucial lifeline connecting the remote villages. But there's a lot the humans don't know about the planet.

In Rider, we see that nighthorses can sometimes go rogue (in that case because its rider died in an accident) with disastrous consequences for an entire village. In the end, Danny Fisher agrees to escort the survivors, the three Goss children, Carlos, Randy, and Brionne. Brionne was at the center of the tragedy, having been the focus of the rogue's attention, but at the divide between the two books, she is in a coma.

Cloud's Rider starts out with the quartet struggling up a mountain road in a blinding snowstorm. They end up walking for a couple of days, dragging Brionne behind them on an improvised travois. They had intended to stop halfway up the mountain at a permanent rider's shelter with provisions that ought to be enough to sustain them for quite a while, but the snowstorm causes them to miss the shelter and end up in Evergreen village--not large enough to stand up to the sendings of the rogue that seems to have followed them up the mountain.

The bulk of the story takes place in Evergreen, where the politics is intense among the villagers, the miners, the preacher, and the doctor who adopts Brionne. Some of the villagers quickly recognize that the now abandoned village at the foot of the hill represents a major source of wealth for whoever can claim it when spring brings an end to the unrelenting winter blizzards.

But the focus is on how Danny, Carlos, Randy, and Brionne react to their circumstances and the malevolent presence in the telepathic ambient. As villagers, Carlos and Randy would normally be expected to be oblivious to the rogue's sendings, but they were in Tarmin when everything came crashing down and took a long trek in the presence of Cloud, so they know it's all real. Randy is drawn to the nighthorses and envies the romance of the riders' way of life. Carlos just wants to get back to Tarmin and make use of his blacksmithing skills. Brionne's outlook has been warped by the sendings of the rogue, and her delusions and paranoia are affecting the villagers around her.

Once again, Cherryh has done a masterful job of developing characters whose differences and similarities are highlighted by the juxtaposition with alien thoughts and alien approaches that are perfectly consistent and highly intriguing. I very much enjoyed this story sequence.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

John C. Wright: The Golden Age

John C. Wright's The Golden Age didn't work for me, though it would seem to have a lot of things in its favor. It's a futuristic high-tech story with a focus on personal enhancement and social interaction technology and little in the way of weapons or overt conflict. There is little in the way of visible government and secures cooperation with the society's mores via social pressure. Since everyone has access to largely unlimited resources, anything short of the ultimate form of ostracism leaves a lot of room for many variations in behavior and personal expression. I think the beginning of the story failed to grab me because of the reluctant hero angle. The protagonist, Phaeton, takes a while to admit that there's a problem and he has to take the responsibility to figure out what happened and why he's not getting what he wants even if he doesn't understand how he could have caused the problem.

Eventually Phaeton realizes that his memory may have been altered, and begins to suspect a vast conspiracy to silence him for something he doesn't remember doing or wanting. He bucks a lot of social pressure to investigate his past and figure out what he must have been trying to accomplish and who would have been trying to stop him. I thought the evidence he found seemed flimsy in the context of the story-with even his ostensible friends urging him to accept the world as it seemed to be, his constant bucking of the system seemed more like a habit of being contrarian than a dogged determination to find the truth. Of course, according to Wright's story, Phaeton was correct to trust his instincts, and there really was a vast conspiracy to suppress the evidence he'd discovered, and the entire society was at risk. But like Cassandra, Phaeton is doomed to be doubted, shunned, and ignored. In a society with serious life extension this is a long-lasting problem. The novel ends inconclusively, to be continued in a later volume.

I liked the technology and the way the society was organized. But from Phaeton's viewpoint, it's presented as an instrument of the society's downfall. No one is in charge, so no one is responsible for battling the external existential threat. The lack of centralized monitoring or control enables Phaeton to continue his investigation, and to amass enormous tools and weapons, but his refusal to cooperate with others leaves him ultimately very weak, and unable to recruit allies to his project.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Alistair Reynolds: Pushing Ice

Alastair Reynolds's Pushing Ice is a great story, weakened slightly by following the first contact story that justified the initial adventure to a lot of inter-species intrigue. The adventure is a good psychological thriller with lots of interactions among the crew of an asteroid miner that gets unexpectedly diverted to an interstellar chase in the wake of Janus, one of Jupiter's moons that suddenly leaves orbit and heads for the stars. This is a great premise that justifies a good amount of conflict and chaos, as they move from studying Janus, to realizing the implications of effectively being towed at high speed toward distant stars, to finding a way to survive on the surface of a not-quite dormant alien ship.

The crew goes through internal struggles over whether to abandon the chase while there's still some hope of returning to earth, which involves both politics and some violent attempts to overthrow the captain. The hard feelings left behind color all the crew's later attempts to survive long term starting with supplies meant for a much shorter trip. They spend their time studying the star they're heading for and the moribund uncrewed craft they're tethered to.

Eventually they arrive at an immense structure that provides room for ships from several different species. The Fountainheads are highly advanced and provides rejuvenation facilities that restore several of the human crew (including one who had been in cryonic suspension for most of the trip). The humans get conflicting advice from different alien groups about who they can trust and who is dangerous, and not surprisingly, different factions decide to trust different groups. Eventually, Janus itself is the target of several alien species who expect to be able to reap large energy resources from the craft. I thought the interactions with the aliens and the human political machinations occasioned by the aliens to be much less interesting and more poorly motivated than the first half of the story, concerning how the human crew got along and what they had to do to survive the long trip. The first half definitely made the story worth reading, though.