Monday, April 16, 2007

The Unholy Reanimation of Dr Vector's Book Club

I wasn't going to blog about this book. But it's stuck in my head like a thorn.

In the first edition of Dr Vector's Book Club I recommended Dan Abnett's Fell Cargo, which features pirates fighting zombies. That recommendation stands; if anything, it's stronger now. If you want to give Abnett a try but don't want to blow a wad of cash on a hardback or an omnibus, get that book.

On the strength of Fell Cargo, I've been not-so-patiently waiting for The Founding, an omnibus which collects Abnett's first three Gaunt's Ghosts novels. The Founding was finally published in February, and recent airline travel has given me time to devour it, and to press further into Abnett's oeuvre.

I was going to write about The Founding. It's good military SF; if you've burned through David Drake's work and you're looking for something else to scratch the itch, you could do a lot worse. But it's merely good.

Eisenhorn is great.

Like many of Abnett's books, Eisenhorn is set in the Warhammer 40K universe. That doesn't matter, in that no prior knowledge of the universe is necessary to enjoy the books. And it matters a lot, in that the WH40K universe is a handy setting for exploring certain questions.

And Abnett is angling for very big questions. Is it okay to use evil to fight evil? How much? Should dangerous knowledge be locked away or destroyed? What about dangerous people? Is a bad person ever beyond saving?

Would you voluntarily sacrifice one innocent life to save others? Who? When? How many?

In the WH40K universe demons are real, heresy is contagious, and the church and the state are one. Gregor Eisenhorn is an Inquisitor, tasked with uprooting and destroying the major threats to human civilization: aliens, mutants, and heretics (the three branches of the Inquisition, and the titles of the individual novels, are Xenos, Malleus, and Hereticus). Thanks to advanced technology, high caste humans of the far future have lifespans measured in centuries. The Eisenhorn trilogy spans something like 300 years, during which time Eisenhorn builds up a supporting organization, tackles ever more dangerous adversaries, and increases his own knowledge and power. Whereas most WH40K novels deal with soldiers and combat, the Eisenhorn books are more like mystery thrillers. Well, science fantasy mystery thrillers punctuated by frequent firefights, anyway.

Actually, what comes to mind when I think about Eisenhorn are two comments that I read about Steve Erikson's Malazan books. First, that they are "epic pulp". That's just about perfect for Eisenhorn. They are epic, and they are pulpy. And yet Abnett is just using pulp trappings to tell a much more subtle and interesting story.

Second, that the characters are too powerful and there are too many battles. That made me laugh when I saw it written about the Malazan books; no criticism could make me want to read a book more. However, I found the Malazan books impenetrable, mainly because of the Star Trek Effect (see below). Abnett's books are a lot more accessible, and by accessible I mean "easy to follow" and not "poorly written". By the end of the trilogy some of the characters are outrageously powerful, but none of it feels forced or unearned because you've followed the character's development all along and seen the specific choices and events that shaped their fates.

The book is not perfect. My main gripe deals with what for want of a better term I call in-story logistics. What are the rules by which the universe operates, where does everyone stand, and how do you know? These are questions that tend to be easier to answer in science fiction than in fantasy. A plasma torch either does or does not have the power to cut the head off a combat cyborg. If it does not, I don't want to read three more chapters and find that the same plasma torch can now cut through the hull of a multi-kilometer space dreadnought. That kind of thing makes it impossible for me to suspend disbelief, and I think that factor above all is what makes most genre fantasy unpalatable to me. A wizard who can levitate his residence just because it pleases him should not be seriously threatened by a barbarian with an axe. I call it the Star Trek Effect: if you can beam onto the Borg cube at all, don't screw around sending Worf and Data. Send over some antimatter and save the Federation, even if means ending the episode 38 minutes early.

Warhammer 40K is a science fantasy universe. In other words, spaceships plus magic (like Star Wars). And that may be part of the problem. I have some idea of how a battalion of Leman Russ tanks would fare against a battle titan, but the fantasy elements are less well constrained. In the Eisenhorn trilogy we see a lot of examples of what daemons can do when they're pissed, but there's really no frame of reference for those events. What are the limits of a daemon's speed and power? Which laws of time and space can they violate, and which can they not? What would ever convince a human agent that he could engage in combat with a daemon and succeed? Under what conditions is success possible?

To be fair, almost nobody gets this right. Darth Vader is supposedly less agile than Anakin Skywalker because he's more machine now than man, twisted and evil, but General Grievous is even more mechanical and he's a freakin' acrobat. The Nazgul are supposedly in thrall to the One Ring but they are able to attack Frodo while he's wearing it (shouldn't they be, like, worshiping him?). No, no, don't flame me, I'm just sayin': fantasy is a tough genre. Magic has to have rules to be believable, but it has to be at least somewhat miraculous or it ceases to be magical.

In Abnett's defense, his characters always seemed to know the score even if I didn't. Their words and actions are all happily consistent, and Eisenhorn is still one of the best (science) fantasy books I've read.

Some reviewers knock Abnett for a couple of things that turn up in a lot of his books: he has no compunctions about killing major characters, and his endings tend to be a bit abrupt. The first one is not really even a complaint in my book; it's more like a compliment for being able to write characters that we care about and still being tough enough to tell the necessary story. It's also true that Abnett's books come to quick ends; you can't help noticing that there are only 15 pages left when you're still gearing up for the final confrontation. On the other hand, this ain't Return of the King. You're not going to cry at the end and neither is Samwise Gamgee, so there's no reason to drag it out for half a dozen endings. I know it's cliche, but really, seriously, the Eisenhorn trilogy is about the journey, not the destination. It's not what Eisenhorn does to the bad guys that's of primary interest; it's what he does to himself and his loved ones along the way.

Go read the durned book.


The second image above is Daryl Mandryk's winning entry from the CGSociety MachineFlesh contest. It's not related to Eisenhorn, but it could serve as an illustration for a scene in the book.

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Feast your eyes

If you dig fantasy and science fiction art, you can do a lot worse than to check out the CGSociety's CG Challenges. There have been twenty of these now, and for the seven most recent ones the winning image and a passel of runners-up are posted for your viewing enjoyment. Each challenge is built around a different theme. 'Grand Space Opera' is chock full of spaceships and floating cities and other coolness.

If you're more into biomechanical horror, check out 'MachineFlesh'. This is one of the runners-up, Francis Tsai's Reluctant God. I don't know why, but I love it. I can feel the cold and the wind; I wonder what these living signposts are pointing the way toward--or away from!

Incidentally, Ballistic Publishing put the Grand Space Opera and MachineFlesh entries into book form. Get the skinny here.

For something less scary and more whimsical, try 'Journey Begins'. This is also a runner-up, Clint Cearley's Children of Ten Twenty-Five. Probably the closest that anyone has come to putting my childhood into one two-dimensional image.

My favorite challenge is the latest one, 'Eon: Worlds Within Worlds', which features artwork inspired by Greg Bear's novel, Eon. Eon was one of the most important science fiction novels of the 1980s; it is possibly the most important hard science fiction novel of recent decades, and it may be Greg Bear's best book. An asteroid drifts into Earth's orbit. Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts explore the asteroid, which is hollow and contains a series of chambers that are many miles in diameter; the whole thing rotates to produce artifical gravity. Each of the first six chambers is dedicated to a different environment. The seventh chamber has no end; it is the terminus of an infinitely long tunnel of artifical spacetime called the Way. You'll have to read the book to get to the rest, and I highly recommend that you do, especially if you liked Rendezvous With Rama (the original, well-written book by Arthur C. Clarke, not the execrable Gentry Lee sequels).

The artwork in the Eon challenge lives up to epic visions of the novel. The image at the top of the post is yet another runner-up (for some reason the winners never appeal to me as much), Valery Plaksin's Flying Away. Better still, there are trailers. Yeah, you heard me. I wish I could see a set of cool trailers for all of my favorite books, but this is a great start.


As long as we're talking about cool art online, there is a ridiculous amount of anime art at the curiously-titled Point-Blank Gallery. I found it by Googling for Yoshiyuki Sadamoto's book Der Mond, which collects a ton of his art for Neon Genesis Evangelion and other anime series. The entire book is up at the Point-Blank Gallery, with every page available as a full screen or larger image. Dunno how long that will last, so get over there.

Get ready for some side-scrolling: all known bodies in the solar system larger than 200 miles in diameter are shown together here. You'll notice that Pluto is just one of a loooong series of rocky bodies floating around the outer solar system, and it is not the largest. Personally, I think that instead of bumping Pluto down from full planethood we should have bumped all the rest of them up. Bring 'em on! We're big kids, we can handle a solar system with 20 or 30 planets.

Finally, I gotta give some props to Bob The Angry Flower. Mike Taylor has been trying to turn me into a BATF fan since 2000. Mike, your seven lean years are over. And it all happened on the strength of this comic:

Oh no, I've just been hit by a Quit-Blogging-And-Get-Back-To-Your-Damned-Dissertation Ray!

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