The Cat Who ★★★

I confess, the main reason I decided to pick up this book was not the author; I’m not a huge Heinlein fan, though his books are “classic” sci-fi, and I agree he is definitely necessary to the evolution of the genre. I can admit to his worth as a writer without being an ardent lover of his writing style. I picked up this book on a whim, and because it had the subtitle of “A Comedy of Manners.” If there’s one thing I can almost always enjoy, its a narrative comedy of manners. Add in some science fiction and space travel, and how could I resist?

In my mind, I can break up this book into three distinctly separate books. The first third was filled with all the little details that really make “a comedy of manners” in my mind. We meet an ex-army man and his new (as of two hours ago) wife fleeing from the bureaucracy of space-station life after a complete stranger is awkwardly killed at their table in the finest restaurant after delivering a mysterious message. They pick up a companion in the form of a man from the slums who was paid to kill them, but joins their side after promising not to kill them and help carry their luggage. They teach him about the importance of always being polite, and give him the charge of protecting the little bonsai tree they (for some reason) are determined to save while escaping the space station known as “Golden Rule.” This third of the story is all about adventure, and travel, and about solving the mystery of why Richard and Gwen are being hunted down and who killed the stranger at their table.

The second third of this book is all about some free-loving. Heilein was well known for his very open views on sexuality, and they definitely make an appearance in this book too. Some of the mysteries resolve, as we find out that Gwen has a interesting history, across several time-lines and parallel universes. She takes Richard home several centuries in his future, to her large, complicated, and polygamous family who all happen to be members of the Time Corps who are trying to save various universes by rescuing the first intelligent computer from history.

The final third of the book is shorter in length than the first two, but dense in ideas. Its mostly a philosophical rambling about the possible nature of time and reality. Its rather heavy on the exposition and explanation, but nontheless contains some intereting ideas. In this book, Heinlein claims that all universes are real, everything that could possibly happen has happened, somewhere and somewhen. Even ficitonal universes and characters are real, what Heinlein called “The World as Myth.” Richard meets his the hero of his childhood tv series, and contemplates on the morality of creating fictional villians that will become a reality in some universe. Heinlein fans will enjoy this portion of the book more than those who haven’t read many of his works because a good number of his characters from his previous books make an appearance, furthering his ideas that fiction is just as real as “reality.”

The book ends abruptly, with Richard and Gwen in the middle of the mission to save Mike (the intelligent computer) probably at the cost of their lives. It is revealed that the whole of the story has been narrated by Richard, in this moment speaking into a recording devise. And he poignantly asks the reader, who is the author who is causing such pain and despair? Who is the author who wrote this universe and is forcing him to live, and die, in these circumstances?

While I loved the initial set-up of the story, I ended up rather disappointed with the end. So many of the mysteries that intrigued me were never answered, or even worse, were poorly answered in awkward exposition that left plot holes an elephant could fall through.

The development of the charming and witty relationship that evolved between Gwen and Richard was put aside in favor of annoying justifications for “free love” and polygamous marriages.

Had the story continued in the same vein as that first third of the book, I think this novel could have won five stars from me, but Heinlein lost the thread of the most important piece: the actual plot. His priorities were obviously more on describing his idea free-love society, and on his World as Myth philosophy. While I did find the latter interesting, I think there may have been better ways to incorporate it into the story than pure exposition and long non-plot centric conversations.

In the Garden of Iden ★★★

Hands down, my favorite thing about this novel is its unique use of time travel. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a devoted Doctor Who fan, but that sort of time travel puts holes in plots like swiss cheese. Personally, I like my time travel to be complex and flexible, but still hold true to a logical set of rules. In this, Kage Baker has definitely succeeded.

In some not too distant future, a group of scientists and business men get together to solve some mysteries, make some money, and in general try to improve the lot of humanity. To this end, they create time travel. An agent can go anywhere in the past, or their own present, but not into their future. And they discover that they can’t change anything about recorded history. “If history states that John Jones won a million dollars in the lottery on a certain day in the past, you can’t go back there and win the lottery instead. But you can make sure that John Jones is an agent of yours who will purchase the winning ticket and dutifully invest the proceeds for you.” They also discover that they can’t take anything out of the past, but that doesn’t stop them from rescuing famous paintings from their recorded destruction in the past, and hiding them until they can be miraculously “found” in the future. In this way, the company grows, and with each success grows more and more mysterious.

The company also goes back and time and chooses adaptable intelligent children to turn into immortal time traveling agents raised to do the company’s bidding. This is how we meet Mendoza, a poor girl who is born in medieval spain and rescued from certain death at the hands of the inquisition by the company. She is whisked off to a company “school” and spends the next 12 years going through the painful process of becoming a sort of cyborg immortal, and learning the entire history of humanity, through the twenty-fourth century.

She concentrates her studies in botany, and when she is 18 she graduates and receives her first assignment at the home of Sir Walter Iden, in England. It seems the he has a remarkable garden which contains whole species of plants that will soon be extinct. The company wants her to take specimens of each plant to preserve it for the benefit of the future. With her travel several other anthropologist immortals who are there to study the reaction of the locals to the religious upheaval as Queen Mary is at the peak of her protestant prosecution.

Mendoza’s character is rather contradictory. She has little love for humanity (she often refers to mortals as “murderous apes”) and yet she fully believes in her job to find and preserve rare plants for the betterment of humans in the future. She knows she is much superior as an immortal than she would have ever been as a human, yet she clearly dislikes and is angry with Joseph, the man who rescued her from the inquisition and is her mentor in her first assignment. At first she is repelled by Sir Walter’s secretary, but invariably ends up being drawn to him and his stauch refusal to denounce his faith.

As you can guess, involved relationships with mortals are not encouraged by the company. They put the secret of the company at risk, and even if all goes well the mortal will eventually die leaving the agent emotionally bereft. And as you can guess, Mendoza doesn’t care and falls wildly in love with the secretary, Nicholas. And guess what? All does NOT go well…

I would have rated this novel much higher except that it combined two of my least favorite things: First person narrative and heavy handed forshadowing. First person narrative is something that has to be done very very carefully to keep it from becoming…annoying. Characters either become whiny and unlikable, or all-knowing and unrealistically self-less. Its just too difficult to tell a whole story from only one point of view. And when you combine this with unsubtle forshadowing, you get fairly unreadable lines, like “if only I had known what was to befall us then!” and “That summer was so sweet and delightful we didn’t see the storm gathering…” For me, this sort of style does not build suspense, it just makes me want to give up reading the book.

And yet, I did not give up reading the book. I even went and picked up the sequel “Sky Coyote,” which I ended up enjoying much more than this one. “Sky Coyote” is told from the point of view of Joseph, the mentor, who I find is a much more interesting character.

Both books leave you wanting to know more about the motives of the company. Are the good or evil? Who is actually running it? How will Mendoza’s not-so-veiled suggestions of future chaos actually come to pass? There is obviously a conspiracy, but where will it lead? Despite a few stylistic annoyances, I think I will continue reading to find out. Next stop: “Mendoza in Hollywood.”

Surface Detail ★★★★

An Impressive Work of Scope, and Gravitas

I think what we all really love about Iain M Banks is his ability to come up with an idea, and then to not only run with it, but to travel at light speed with it to the furthest edge of the galaxy of our imagination… and sometimes one step further.

His ideas aren’t merely creative and individual, they are unique because of the depth to which he explores them. Sure, people have created super-powerful futuristic space exploring societies before, but Banks has put much more thought into how such a society would develop, and the quirks it would have, and the repercussions of its power and technology. It is his attention to detail that makes the Culture so interesting and expansive. People have created AIs before, and even put them in ships, but Banks has actually given them a personality that is not, and never has been, truly human. How would something act that had come into being, fully developed, as war ship with capabilities a mere biological could never understand? How does such a being define itself? And we all know that our favorite detail of the Minds is the names they choose, unlimited by convention or character count.

Authors have certainly explored virtual reality before. They’ve played games with it, they’ve gotten lost in it, they’ve even dipped their toe in the vast ocean of implications that comes with true VR. With Surface Detail, Banks went scuba diving. What are the consequences of post-biological existence in near-limitless virtual realities that are managed by any society with enough cash to create an Afterlife? What if wars no longer needed to be fought in “the Real” and soldiers could be rebirthed at the will of their commanders, remembering everything they learned from all their previous “deaths?” And what happens when the pan-human galaxy is faced with a group of societies who truly believe hells need to exist to keep the living in line?

Strangely enough, given the extensive descriptions of a particularly nasty hell and multiple violent murders, this was one of Banks’ least complicated and overall positive novels. I had gotten used to the bittersweet taste of his often sudden conclusions that rarely leave a main character alive. This time we’re left with all our characters, if not alive in a biological sense, existing as individuals in whatever realm they started in on page one.

This novel did not “fall outside of normal moral constraints” in the way that Banks sometimes spins a plot. In Surface Detail, all of the bad guys were uncomplicatedly bad, just greedy men, or dirty politicians, or demons in hell. All of the good guys were just people trying to live their lives, do their jobs, or escape their abuser once and for all.

In many ways, Surface Detail catered more to fans than to strangers picking up their first Culture Novel. As frequent travelers within The Culture, we were gifted with detailed descriptions of space suit tech, protection droids disguised as tattoos, crazy war-ship minds, new branches of culture intelligence, and even a previous character that is not exposed until the very last sentence. However, I think a novice to the culture world would be left feeling a little unimpressed. The true scope and breadth and depth of The Culture is somewhat ignored, and all we see are the surface details of something that is so much larger. The characters themselves aren’t as complex as I’ve come to expect from Banks. The details were as exquisite and creative as always, but for all those extra pages, I think there was actually less going on than in (for instance) Look to Windward or Excession.

While this may not be my favorite novel by Iain M Banks, it was still an incredible piece of science fiction, and leaves the average modern space-travel novel behind in a trail of 4D space dust.