The Doomed City by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

If someone asked me what The Doomed City was about, I’d probably say it’s like a Soviet Dhalgren. It’s also like a Cold-War Russian Dark City, but since this novel obviously came first, I’m inclined to say that at least one of these properties ripped off The Doomed City to some extent.

(It’s Dark City.)

The actual plot of The Doomed City is rather loose — the story follows Andrei Voronin and a selection of other men through their lives in “The Experiment.”

The Experiment is nebulously described at a variety of junctions, but basically it comprises everything that the characters experience and interact with. They live in a city, but one with no defined location, climate or demographic. The inhabitants of the city come from a variety of nations and time periods, though all seem to represent, in one way or another, different political viewpoints that would have been of concern to a Russian citizen in the 1970s.

One might think of the Experiment as a massive fish tank, controlled by some unknown race of superintelligent aliens, in which humans take part in the building and daily function of a society, one that’s an odd amalgum of the societies from which they came.

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Maybe they’re just floating on a rock in space?

The one key factor that seems consistent in The Experiment is that each subject begins his time on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder and slowly rises through the ranks of society. When we first meet Andrei, he’s working as a garbage collector along with a ragtag group of friends. As the novel progresses, he becomes a detective, then a newspaper editor, then a city councillor. His close friends become policemen, reporters, and fellow councillors in turn, maintaining a similar, if progressively more powerful, group dynamic.

As numerous characters remark throughout the book, “The Experiment is The Experiment.” The apathetic claim becomes something of a mantra, a short, faithful prayer, a confirmation that they know nothing, that everything makes sense because it just does.

When baboons run rampant through the streets, when a seemingly sentient building devours citizens, when an expedition to the outer reaches of this uncharted “world” devolves into a madness of walking statues, temporal anomalies, and mysterious ruins, “The Experiment is The Experiment.”

For all this strangeness, The Doomed City never seems to veer into the same “supernatural” territory that fans of the Strugatsky’s best-known novel, Roadside Picnic, are probably familiar with. It’s a bit odd — The Doomed City might actually contain more of the observable supernatural, but that isn’t its focus.

Rather than painting a landscape, in The Doomed City the Sturgatsky brothers paint a dense party scene, an interpersonal drama with countless players major and minor, each with their own wants, aspirations, faults and failings. Certainly, many of these characters are political mascots, straw men built to represent political ideologies and time periods.

There’s a distinct lack of women in the novel. Those who do appear could be replaced with either men or blow-up dolls without affecting the plot in the slightest.  The Doomed City is as much a product of its time as it is a comment on it. Does that make this particular flaw forgiveable? Maybe, at a stretch, although it does make it glaringly obvious that the Sturgatsky brothers are also the white men by and for whom history is interpreted — perhaps their coded opinion of events (for as much merit as it does have) should also be taken with a grain of salt.

There are a lot of grey areas here, and in the novel, and one thing that I can appreciate about it is that the authors do very little to try to adjust the contrast.

Is The Experiment the afterlife? Is it hell? A genuine scientific study by ultra-advanced aliens, or some kind of government conspiracy? By the end of the novel, you might have formed your own theories, which will either be shattered or supported by the novel’s deliberately ambiguous ending.

Read the book for its dense character studies and fascinatingly nihilistic social commentary — or put it down for its alienation of women and failure to build any real suspense.

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Mechanicum by Graham McNeill

Hey, it’s the second Horus Heresy novel that I’ve ever reviewed on the blog!

I’ve always been more partial to the Adeptus Mechanicus than the space marines or Imperial Guard, so I was expecting to enjoy Mechanicum. And it’s pretty good. My main complaint with it is its insistence on cleaving the plot into two (three?) distinct stories that don’t really overlap until the final chapter (and even then, it’s not particularly meaningful.)

The main plot follows Dalia Cythera, an Administratum transcriber with some latent psyker abilities who’s conscripted into helping Adept Koriel Zeth build a device called an Akashic Reader. Dalia’s not a particularly interesting character — her abilities come close to pushing her into Mary Sue territory and she doesn’t seem experienced or opinionated enough to really drive her own narrative. 

Zeth is more interesting — here’s a tech adept who actually values scientific knowledge and experimentation over faith in the Mechanicum’s “god,” the Omnissiah. (Of course, her values are ripped to shreds along with the rest of the planet, but, it’s nice of a 40K property to actually acknowledge the possibility of science over faith.)

Plus, look — a 40K novel with TWO female main characters! Too bad that Zeth gets an introductory description that spends more time on her “lithe, muscular physique,” “shapely armoured legs,” and “the curve of her thighs and the swell of her breasts” than on any demonstration of skill or personality.

Still, for all its failings, the book has charm. There are some great moments that express the conflicted humanity of the Mechanicum, and the age-old cyberpunk question of how much flesh and bone one needs to be considered “human.”

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Nice one, Graham

It’s also got a few moments where it’s clear the editor was asleep at the wheel.

 

 

The Honor of the Queen (Honor Harrington #2) by David Weber

The Honor of the Queen by David Weber

The second installment in the Honor Harrington series really gets down to business in addressing some of the issues that were raised by the first novel, such as “holy shit, a female main character!?” and also “holy shit, a female space battleship captain!?”

I’ll freely admit that even if I hadn’t already read – and thoroughly enjoyed – the first Honor Harrington book I probably would have picked this one up based on the ridiculousness of the cover illustration and summary alone. Look, we put covers on books so that we have something by which to judge them. Not everyone has the time to read a whole chapter of something they might hate.

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Look at that fucking cover! That scene doesn’t happen anywhere in the book, to my recollection, but unlike the cover of the first book, which actively annoyed me, this one is irresistibly over-the-top. You know what you’re getting into with this cover. That is a woman who can comfortably ride in a flying convertible, standing up, with a huge cat perched on her shoulders, while the dude driving doesn’t even question it. That woman is a stone cold bad-ass.

The Honor of The Queen lays down some feminist anger with hands heavier than Mjolnir, to start. Things pick up right where they left off on Basilisk Station. The inevitable war between the Republic of Haven, and Honor’s Kingdom of Manticore is still encroaching and Manticore is trying to gather strategic allies before shit blows up in their collective faces. Enter the planet Grayson, which boasts a strategic location and potential motive for allying with Manticore – as well as an incredibly hostile surface environment, stunted technological development, and some deeply ingrained fundamentalist Christian views on women’s rights.

For some reason Manticore decides that a diplomatic mission will make for a great opportunity to shove their social advancements down the throats of the Grayson dignitaries, and sends Honor to head the excursion.

While the women on Grayson are treated reasonably well (for pets), they’re not really allowed to work, go to school or own property. Seeing Honor and her female officers in uniform and ordering dudes around is just too much for the men of Grayson. Sexism ensues. Comments are made about Honor being on the rag. The hand is so, so heavy.

We soon find out, though, that the original colonists of the Grayson planet were split into two sects. The current citizens of Grayson are the descendants of the more moderate of the two, while the remaining extremist division escaped to a nearby planet called Masada. David Weber lays down a few really solid passages that not only serve to explain the differences, but also to give the reader an opportunity to change their minds about the Grayson people. The admirals of the two navies meet, and the Grayson commander repents, admitting that Honor’s captaining is on-point and there isn’t a legitimate argument to be made against her abilities or position. However, he notes that his culture’s views on women are so deeply ingrained that it will take many decades to make a dent in changing them.

I like the way Weber pulls this off. He made me sympathize with a character I was prepared to hate, and he did so without relying on a comparison to a greater evil (despite having one in the chamber.) So I give kudos for that.

Political stuff happens. This is a very talk-y novel. I’m not sure I appreciated that aspect of it, beyond what I just talked about. Anyhow, midway through, Honor and her treecat nearly single-handedly thwart an assassination attempt by some Masadan thugs. This makes a huge impression on the Grayson people, and suddenly a lot more of them are on board with the idea of a female naval officer. During the scuffle, our hero takes a rifle butt to the head and loses vision and muscle control on one side of her face.

That’s right, Honor Harrington has an eyepatch, now and presumably for the rest of the series. Because she wasn’t hard enough. Damn, Weber! You’re really taking no prisoners with this one.

Unlike the Masadans, who take a whole bunch of Maticoran P.O.W.s and, obviously, because this novel has feminist undertones, rape them half to death. Honor barely restrains herself from justifiable homicide, and from then on it’s a Grayson/Manticore versus Masada death-match.

I won’t talk too much about the web of lies that Masada weaves throughout the novel, partly because it would be spoilers and mostly because I found it hard to follow. Honestly that’s my biggest issue with this book. It’s fucking hard to follow. It’s densely tactical and political, and while I don’t tend to write off a book on that basis alone, I found that it really dragged in places because it spent so much time setting up and explaining strategic maneuvers.

If you’re expecting an intense feminist shit-kicking bonanza, well, you pretty much get it – just, diluted with a lot of men talking about how big their ships are. It’s the novel equivalent of a cocktail with way too much ice.

I also just need to point out that Weber knows all the rules for writing a book that feminists will like, and he likes to fucking flaunt it. At the very start of the book we’re treated to a scene in which Honor’s mom does the mom thing and pesters her about getting a boyfriend, pointing out which of her crew members are the hottest and generally being perfectly and wonderfully inappropriate.

And it never pays off. There is not a single moment of sexual tension in this novel. No one gives a shit. Ships get blown to particles in the vacuum of space and there’s not a single “we’re about to get fucked, kiss me now!” So I have to congratulate Weber on that because honestly, with such a potentially campy premise I myself probably would have wedged in at least one awkward sex scene.

Ringworld by Larry Niven

Ringworld by Larry Niven

I actually read this title a little while ago but I’m refreshing my memory for the blog because I feel it bears being written about. For starters, I really liked the story. The overarching plot is reasonably compelling. Unfortunately it’s marred by Larry Niven’s blistering disregard for women. This was published in 1970, and reading novels from a particular era, I think you have to steel yourself against some degree of oblivious, but belligerent, misogyny. That said, I’ve absolutely read other authors who allow the influence of their own era to exist within the book without it being completely awful for readers, who, 30+ years later are starting to get the  hang of this whole “women are actually people” thing and get queasy thinking about how recent a development that is. As I’m writing this I’m halfway through Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and the female characters in that serve mainly as either set dressing or plot devices, but Bradbury doesn’t seem to have an active hate/fear relationship with his women characters. Niven, on the other hand, sees women as pretty vessels. The female characters in Ringworld (all two of them!) could be convincingly replaced by aesthetically pleasing Tupperware.

It’s a shame because I liked the story so much. I just learned that there’s a colloquial term for this type of story: “Big Dumb Object” or “BDO” for short. In BDO stories the entire premise is based on the existence of this one big object, whether it’s a threat to humanity, a giant physical anomaly that later proves to be the ticket to humanity’s continued existence, or just a weird unexplored chunk of space rock. Gamers, think the Traveler from Destiny. In the case of Ringworld the titular object is all three of these thing, which is why a team of explorers are sent to…well, explore it.

Huge unexplored space objects are my fetish, so I was quite enthralled with Niven’s descriptions of the Ringworld itself. The author’s descriptions of alien worlds and made-up future technology are sometimes a bit hard to follow, but having a picture in your head is more important than whether or not the picture is accurate. The story’s fairly large in scope, with the huge distances taking years and years to travel, even with fantasy advances in propulsion technology.

The main character, Louis Wu, is honestly just some old rich guy who doesn’t seem to have much else going on. Accompanying him on the expedition is Teela, who we first meet when Louis ends up sleeping with her at his birthday party. Despite an age gap of something like 40 years she falls haplessly in love with him because it’s the future and they have anti-aging technology and people live way longer and because Niven is extremely transparent in the way he projects his own fantasies into his writing. And pretty much the only reason Teela joins the expedition is because she can’t bear to leave Louis and also because Louis can’t bear to go on this multiple-year space journey without someone in which to holster his dick. The other two characters are of different alien species – one of which has sentient males and non-sentient females. I don’t think I really need to say anything more.

The one other female appears toward the end of the novel. She’s a crew member from a marooned space ship. Hang on, did I say crew member? I meant ship’s prostitute. Okay. I am totally supportive of sex work as a legitimate way to earn a decent living, and, okay, this alien is portrayed as mind-blowingly good at her job, but it would be so nice to meet a female character who is in the novel for reasons other than “has a vagina.” I can’t say for sure, but I’m going to guess that a progressive portrayal of sex workers was not at the forefront of the author’s mind when he wrote the character.

My verdict? Buy the book. Buy it USED. Read it, enjoy it, throw it against a wall. Pass it along to your friends.