Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Angel of Darkness

I first encountered author Caleb Carr's work through his best-known novel, The Alienist. A police procedural, The Alienist centers on a group of modern-minded sleuths, from both inside and outside the formal police department, who combine their skills and talents to solve a series of grisly murders in 1896 New York City. The book is thickly populated with actual historical figures (Theodore Roosevelt is practically a first-tier major character) and lovingly described locations.

More than that, the book struck me as an ingenious piece of work: it was essentially a technothriller that happened to be set a century in the past. The core group of investigators are at the forefront of crime-fighting technology, and are ready and willing to try out cutting-edge methods.

At one point they attempt to employ the new science of 'fingerprinting', the idea that each person's fingerprints are unique, and that a person's presence at a scene could be established by the prints he had left behind. And at another point, they attempt a different unproven science: they remove a murder victim's eyes and process them back in the lab, in the hope that the last images the victim saw before his death can be extracted from the eyeballs like pictures can be developed from film in a camera.

Fingerprinting and eyeball-image-developing are presented as similarly unproven, barely tested technologies, and our heroes have no way of knowing ahead of time which will yield fruitful results and which is a dead end. I liked that. It made The Alienist feel like science fiction, even though the narrative stayed firmly grounded in the 1890s. It made me wonder if Carr had ever written a novel that was actually science fiction.

I'm not going to name names. I'm not going to go into any detail about my next Carr-ian reading experience. But let's all just agree to agree that Caleb Carr has never written a book in the science fiction genre. And, if any of you happen to be in a bookstore or library and you think you see a science fiction novel by Caleb Carr, just leave it on the shelf and walk away. Trust me on this. You really don't want to investigate any further.

It's too bad Caleb Carr never wrote any novels that were explicitly science fiction. It's too bad they never made any sequels to The Matrix.

My confidence in Carr badly shaken by the reading experience I will not discuss, I bought The Angel of Darkness a while later. It is a sequel, reuniting most of the main characters of The Alienist and presenting an adventure that unfolds along similar lines. A baby is kidnapped from the wife of a Spanish diplomat in New York City, in the tense period that preceded the Spanish-American War, and the investigation spearheaded by chief protagonist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler turns up a gruesome trail of dead children connected to the suspected baby-snatcher.

The narrator from the first book (and Watson figure to Dr. Kreizler's Holmes), New York Times journalist John Moore, is demoted to comic relief status. The new narrator is Stevie, the rescued street urchin who was a supporting character in the first book.

The Angel of Darkness is not a bad book. It's a fairly exciting page-turner (it had better be, at over 600 pages) and is intelligently written. But I didn't enjoy it anywhere near as much as The Alienist. And I think a lot of the reason why has to do with my attitude towards sequels.

I like sequels that break new ground. Or, I like sequels that stand on their own just as much as the original story. I do not care for 'The whole gang is back to go on another adventure!' stories. And unfortunately, The Angel of Darkness is very much that kind of book.

Part of it is the perhaps unavoidable fact that, with The Alienist, I felt like old tropes had been assembled into a new and exciting form. But with The Angel of Darkness, the form was a familiar one. Also, in The Alienist, it felt like anything could happen. Obviously Teddy Roosevelt was going to survive, as were the characters who appeared in the 1919 frame story. But the other fictional named characters really seemed in mortal danger, and there was one death that genuinely shocked and surprised me. Contrast with The Angel of Darkness. I'm going to spoil it for you: even though The Angel of Darkness is a fairly bloody book, every 'good guy' who returns from the first book will survive the second. But that's not even much of a spoiler, since I never felt like any of the 'old friends' were ever in any danger.

Finally, it would be interesting to discuss the portrayal of certain non-white characters in the novel. I'm not certain if one character in particular really crossed the line into offensive territory, but I'm going to go with 'probably yes'.

Spring Fun

Spring Fun is about a young Taiwanese woman who has just committed suicide. The novel traces her life and the influences upon her thinking, that have led her to this final step.

The novel focuses both on the protagonist, who spent much of her childhood in Amsterdam, and several of her friends, who show different sides of being female and Taiwanese.

Lynn-Yuling Tzeng's novel (purchased here in Taiwan, although I can't recall exactly where) is an interesting, locally-published creation. For the first time I can remember, I have a book with no publishing information to be found anywhere on it, and Internet searches come up with very scanty results. Even tiny publishing houses generally put their brands on books they publish, so Tzeng's novel is something of an interesting anomaly. I wish I could remember how it came into our possession.

This is going to sound unkinder than I mean it, but here goes: This book clearly never saw a professional editor. It's not just that the prose makes me think it was written by a non-native English speaker and then proofread by a native speaker who didn't feel at liberty to edit on a large scale. It's also the odd and inconsistent use of footnotes, and a generally not-quite-polished style.

And that's not meant as negativity -- I rather liked the slight clunkiness. It brought me feeling a bit closer to the author, as if I was reading a manuscript. It didn't take me long to get accustomed to the style, and then I felt perfectly at ease with it.

I just have one negative thing to say about the novel. I know it's explicitly a feminist work. I'm not even going to say there's nothing wrong with that -- that would just sound condescending -- but rather, I like that; I like reading books written by people who are not coming from my own viewpoint. That said, I wish there had been male characters in this universe who weren't jerks. That's all.

The busy part's over

I haven't updated this thing since December 2. That's largely for two reasons:

1. Moving. We've moved from our old place in Jingmei to a much nicer apartment in central Taipei. As it turns out, even when nothing goes wrong (and nothing did go too horribly wrong for us), moving is a hugely time-consuming and stressful process, one which has made me appreciate the idea of making do with less stuff.

2. Christmas, which was ultimately a smaller deal for us than moving, but which did involve a lot of scurrying about busying ourselves with various errands.

Now I pledge to update at least a few more times before the end of the month/year.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Usurper of the Sun

My first Japanese SF novel, Housuke Nojiri's Usurper of the Sun starts off with high school astronomy buff Aki becoming one of the first to view an astonishing new phenomenon: someone or something is disassembling the planet Mercury in order to create a gigantic ring around the Sun.

Over the next few years, Aki goes on to become one of the world's most well-respected experts on the Ring, as the situation on Earth goes from bad to worse. The Ring grows so thick it drastically reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches Earth. The resulting climate change causes crop failures and famines that kill a billion people.

So when a crewed spaceship is prepared to visit the Ring to find out what humans can do about the situation, Aki is of course one of the four chosen to make the journey. I found the novel at this point readable but not exceptionally compelling. The first third of the novel reads like your standard Big Dumb Object story, the kind of hard SF that I respect but don't consider to be my favorite subset of science fiction.

My interest perked up considerably when, with 2/3 of the book left to go, the Earth people's mission to the Ring turns out to be unexpectedly productive. The Ring is destroyed, and Earth is saved. For the time being, that is. Aki and crew return to an Earth which now needs to prepare itself, logistically and psychologically, for the possible arrival of possibly very angry aliens.

This is where Usurper of the Sun becomes the sort of speculative fiction I like. Glimpses of an Earth simultaneously giddy with accomplishment and very apprehensive about the future struck me as fairly realistically done.

What really intrigued me, though, were the philosophical questions raised by the utter inscrutability of the aliens. This was some of the best speculation I've seen yet about aliens who really might not think like human beings. Rather than aliens who merely don't appear to come from an Anglo-Saxon-derived culture, which is what we get all too often in science fiction.

(Note to future SF writers: The mindset of an actual alien from another star system is likely to be less comprehensible to the average human, than the mindset of a human with autism. Autistic people are human too. Space aliens aren't. Housuke Nojiri gets this.)

I wasn't terribly happy when, at novel's end, the aliens turned from incomprehensible to comprehensible far too easily. I know it wrapped up the novel nicely, and to his credit, the author did justify it pretty well in-universe. It's just... after so much talk devoted to how alien the aliens were, I felt like they shouldn't have been rendered knowable so quickly.

That said, the philosophical musings of the final two thirds were enough for me to enjoy Usurper of the Sun. I'm well aware this recommendation probably won't get people rushing in droves to buy the book. (Unlike certain extraterrestrial civilizations, I'm not mind-blind.) But hey, it's what I enjoyed.