November 13, 2012

Book 38: Norstrilia

Cordwainer Smith

From its wealth of ideas alone, it is obvious that Norstrilia was destined to be an influential work of science fiction. Its central plot and many of the surrounding details of the setting- which pertain to diverse subjects such as genetic modification, near-immortality, and the economics of scarcity- cover many traditional science fiction tropes and pet subjects of the genre. The book can become a bit difficult to follow at times, burdened by the weight of its ideas and a loose sense of the importance of plot, but it is nonetheless worth reading for the power of its concocted reality. The inherent humor within the book, tied largely to a critique of monopolistic economic practices and an interesting twist on the Abandoned Old Earth trope, would be better received if the plot were a bit sturdier, but overall the plot is sufficient to buoy its ideas- if just barely. Norstrilia is worth reading for these ideas and for its insight into the mind of its author, but as a book laden with characters and narrative, it falls a bit flat.

Grade: B

November 10, 2012

Book 37: Nightfall

Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg

This novel is a continuation of the famous short story, taking its conceit a bit further and exploring in more depth what happens when complete solar darkness comes to a world that experience perpetual light for hundreds of years at a time. The novelization bears many similarities to the original story, but manages to flesh that story out in greater detail, further exploring the nature and believability of information (and misinformation) and the foundations and consequences of religious beliefs. The setting is set in compelling detail; because it is largely a proxy version of Earth with a slightly different solar arrangement, its characters and cultures are accessible. This magnifies the importance of the central problem- what happens when the sun sets on a world of perpetual light?- and allows the plot to unfold as an extended thought experiment that ultimately shines a mirror on our own societies. The book can seem a bit heavy-handed at times, but operates with enough ambiguity to provoke genuine introspection on behalf of the reader; moreover, much as it may seem distasteful to some readers (as it was always bound to be, tied so closely to religion), the ultimate resolution is realistic and offers yet more (pleasant) ambiguity. As with much classic science fiction, the characters sometimes seem drawn strictly from stock molds, but as this is a novel of Ideas the lack of truly original characterization isn't too troublesome. Also appreciated is the novel's focus both on the buildup to and outcome of disaster- readers feel an almost tangible sense of doom throughout the novel's opening section and are strongly invested in the story by the time disaster eventually rolls around. Asimov and Silverberg's continuation of Nightfall doesn't radically alter the source material but does provide an introspective, thoughtful expansion of its ideas that should please many science fiction fans.

Grade: A-

November 2, 2012

Book 36: Shadow and Light

Shadow and Light
Jonathan Rabb

This book, set a few years after the events of Rosa, continues the story of German detective Nikolai Hoffner and, in a way, interwar Germany. This installment takes place in the 1920s and, as its title suggests, uses the burgeoning German film industry as historical decoration. Though the book does a good job of focusing on its main character and his sons, who play an expanded role in this novel, Rabb's eagerness to evoke the era occasionally gets in the way of the narrative. Readers can feel the almost unseemly effects when major historical developments are dropped right into the primary narrative path, and though Rabb has clearly done a significant amount of research the details sometimes feel a bit too convenient. Just as in the previous installment, major historical figures make cameo appearances that feel too unlikely to contribute to a sense of realism, as was likely the author's intention. Likewise, Rabb goes a bit too far overboard at times in pursuit of shock value, and the horrors he depicts (though secondhand) feel a bit sadistic even for a series predicated on murder mysteries. The images do leave a lasting impression and certainly paint the right-wingers in a sufficiently horrifying light, but at times they feel exaggerated, more like props to prove a point than essential parts of the story's fabric. Nonetheless, Rabb's vision of Weimar-era Berlin is captivating, and the central stories compelling enough to maintain the reader's attention. Hoffner himself seems drawn straight from life (though biographical details are occasionally revealed in clumsy information dumps) and, ironically for a fictional character, provides a sense of realism when history seems exaggerated to suit the author's needs. Shadow and Light is far from revelatory, but provides a sufficiently interesting mystery that continues the development of its compelling lead detective in a unique historical setting.

Grade: B