The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

Harry August is reborn, ad nauseam, as the same person, in the same life, at the same point in time. As per the book’s title, the novel relates the salient details from his first fifteen lifecycles, but the narration is not Harry_Augustchronological (the novel’s first sentence is from his eleventh life). Harry meets others like him (although their kind is rare) who have established a secret organization called the Cronus Club. They refer to themselves as orobourans (the circular snake, eating its tail) and/or kalichakras (a Vajrayana Buddhist term for the wheel of time). Kalichakras are rare, but Harry is even rare among his kind: he is a mnemonic, retaining all memories from previous lives. A ‘regular’ kalichakra retains quite a bit of their previous-life memories, but these memories fade during additional lifecycles.

The knowledge that is gained in each kalichakra’s lifetime gives them an inequitable advantage, which they use to advantage. It is unknown whether the kalichakras are reborn in the same universe, or whether they are born into an alternate reality each lifetime, but their timelines generate the same major events (e.g.: WWII)  each time they live through them, and they do not attempt to interfere with any major event. Kalichakra have, in the past, attempted to change history for the better, but the effects were devastating and the Cronus Club deals severely with kalichakras who attempt to meddle.

harry_august_hardbackThe plot unfolds in a manner quite similar to a time-travel story: a kalichakra is changing the future and, with each successive life-cycle, the end of the world is occurring earlier (kalichakras from the future deliver this message back in time through a chain of re-births). Harry must find and defeat this event-changing kalichakra, a campaign that lasts multiple lifetimes.

The novel delves into the ennui of the kalichakra, and Harry frequently ponders the purpose of existence. The themes include memory, companionship, love, friendship, intrigue and torture, but there is no grand romance tangled into the tale, which I think is better without it.

The plotting and world-building is very good; the pace of the story kept me involved enough that I was able to suspend disbelief regarding elements that didn’t quite work for me.

Harry was definitely the protagonist; but, after I’d finished the novel, I wondered if there really was a villain. There was an antagonist who performed villainous acts, and the ends do not, in my opinion, justify the means, but the antagonist’s ultimate goal could be interpreted as divine.

Recommended.

 

Note: there two other novels that have used this particular ‘rebirth’ set up (Ken Grimwood’s Replay (1986) and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life  (2013)), but all three works use the plot device differently.

Blueprints of the Afterlife, by Ryan Boudinot

Blueprints of the Afterlife is a strange beast; after finishing, I was left with a confused sense of what had happened. The author takes the reader on a journey back and forth in the time-line of the plot and I was left with a certainty that much of the action that takes place does not reside in what we would commonly term ‘reality.’ Portions of the novel are set in a time before an apocalyptic event, and other sections occur in the confines of a quantum computer network.

“We’ve been trying to wire the frontal lobes into the Internet so everyone can eventually become their own Wikipedia or, rather, share Wikipedia with others who are logged in.” [p. 115]

BlueprintsoftheAfterlife_frontcover.inddThere are good reasons why this novel was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award (“…for distinguished science fiction published in paperback original form in the United States”); in particular, what is reality? One character is caught in superposition within a quantum computer, another character is an Olympic champion dishwasher who is writing a novel on empty pizza boxes, there is a sentient glacier that runs amok, there is a violent war with cyborgs (newmen), a woman’s body is used to harvest organs (e.g.: penises are grown on her breasts), the internet has developed into a bionet that can be beneficial (diseases can be cured as they occur) and detrimental (DJs are able to control people remotely), and Manhattan — which was destroyed in the apocalypse — is being reconstructed on an island in Puget Sound, thanks to the blueprints created by a hippy before the apocalypse (oh… I almost forgot about the dwarf monk IT techs, the giant head in the sky, and the Last Dude who has a magic refrigerator…). There is a lot happening, much of which only becomes clear as the reader travels further into the quagmire, and some of which remains murky even after the final word is read.

 I found the story to be a bit choppy: I assume it would be smoother if read a second time, but I didn’t quite enjoy it enough to warrant a re-read (perhaps in a few years I might think about it…). There are too many calculated, surreal scenes and, although the characters were initially constructed quite nicely and appeared to be on the threshold of dovetailing together in a momentous finale, they were all, ultimately, somewhat hollow and ineffective (although this is, I assume, deliberate).

Very close to the end there is a conversation between an editor and her boyfriend, Sylvia and Rocco. Rocco is curious about a book she is currently involved with…

“So, tell me more about this guy’s novel.”

Sylvie sighed. “It’s about the beginning of a new world. There’s a rampaging glacier in it. Clones. Giant heads that appear in the sky.”

One of those.” [p. 405]

It’s not really ‘one of those’ (it is shelved in the fiction/literature section of the bookstore); it is a fascinating novel, but it fell a bit short of excellent.  There are clearly computer game elements within the novel and, as an outsider, this may have been responsible for the disenchantment I experienced with some sections.

Recommended, but be prepared for an eccentric ride…

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Jack Glass, by Adam Roberts

In Jack Glass (The Story of a Murderer), Adam Roberts sabotages the golden age of science fiction and detective fiction. Genre conventions are used and abused as the novel slowly morphs into parody. There is a distinct postmodern style, which I often enjoy; but, after an interesting set up, I was disappointed with the novel’s unsatisfactory resolution. Jack Glass won the BSFA Award (2012) and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (2013) for best novel.

Jack_Glass_Adam_Roberts_coverThroughout the novel, the word impossible is used as an ingredient for postmodern deconstruction; the impossible is merely very difficult. While reading, I was reminded of a line in The Princess Bride when a character (Vezzini) keeps using the word inconceivable, and another character (Inigo Montoya) responds by saying: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The book is divided into three sections, with (at least) one murder in each section. The novel’s intriguing introduction makes it clear that Jack Glass is the murderer in each section, but the why and how are the unknowns that provide the mystery elements.  Each successive section increases the scope of the novel, both in terms of setting, and plot convolutions.

The first section is quite brutal and grisly.  It takes place on a prison asteroid (escape is impossible); there are seven criminals on the asteroid and one is, of course, Jack Glass. The prisoners are left alone on the asteroid and they are supplied with some rudimentary equipment to help them carve out a livable habitat. It is a cruel sentence, and the chance of survival is low, but the authorities will return for them in eleven years; either the criminals will be dead, or they will have made a habitable asteroid that can be sold for a profit (the prisoners would be free, but they would receive no money).

The second section takes place on Earth, where two rich, genetically modified sisters — Diana (almost sixteen) and Eva (twenty-one) — have come from space to stay at a family manor; they have a retinue of servants, bodyguards, and a tutor. Jack Glass is in disguise, but his true identity soon becomes obvious to the reader. The Earth’s gravity makes simple movements awkward (for those used to the low gravity of space), a servant is murdered (Jack Glass’ part in the murder is specious), and there is much more going on than it first appears; among other things, there is a hint that a connection exists between supernovas and faster than light travel (of course, FTL travel is impossible). There is a great deal of unscrupulous political maneuvering between powerful clans. The plot thickens.

The final murder — a seemingly impossible event — takes place at Jack’s home in space.

In each section, Jack Glass is reinvented and each modification in his character causes the reader to redefine the novel’s conventions. A step-by-step stripping of Jack’s masked personas takes place; I suppose this is an attempt to evoke sympathy in the reader, but his raison d’être eventually succumbs to caricature (perhaps this is intended as another shot with the postmodern deconstruction ray-gun).

Jack Glass is well-written — some of the writing is excellent — but the novel is too smartassed for its own good. It is an enjoyable read, but lacks the depth required to sufficiently oil the postmodern gears that Roberts is so eager to grind.

I’ve read two novels by Adam Roberts (the other being Yellow Blue Tibia) and I think he has the potential for an exceptional book, so I’ll keep working through his oeuvre (although I may become impatient if all of his novels begin with great promise and end with inefficacy). He has written a new novel — Bête — that will be published later this year.

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This Immortal, by Roger Zelazny

This Immortal, by Roger Zelazny, was originally called …And Call Me Conrad (in shorter format, published in two parts in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1965); I prefer the original title, and apparently Zelazny did too. …And Call Me Conrad tied for the Hugo award in 1966 with Frank Herbert’s classic novel Dune.

Zelazny_thisimmortalThis Immortal is set on a future Earth, a long time after a nuclear war. ‘Hotspots’ from the war still exist, and there are primitive human tribes and some strangely mutated, mythological-like animals that are large and dangerous.

A sentient, alien species, the Vegans, are curious about humanity and the Earth is a popular tourist location; Vegans have purchased some parts of the planet, which is not exactly popular with Earth-based humans. Vegans are blue skinned, have spiracles in their chests, and are generally haughty regarding their superiority.

The novel is revealed in first person narrative by Conrad, and his ‘voice’ makes the story endearing, though in the beginning sections of the novel Zelazny pushes rather awkwardly to make Conrad sound like a ‘happening dude’ (I suppose he can be forgiven; it was the 1960s); once past the first couple of dozen pages, the story settles in (perhaps I was simply inured to the vernacular by then).

It becomes clear early on that Conrad is at least centuries old; the reason for his extended lifetime is never explained, but is possibly due to a mutation from a hot zone. It is also hinted that Conrad may be the ancient God Pan.  Conrad was the leader of a resistance movement that attempted to protect the Earth from  infiltration by the alien Vegans, but those events were far in the past and Conrad is now a caretaker of Earth’s historical areas (his involvement as the resistance leader is not generally known; nor is his age).

The mutant animals in the story are a bit over-the-top, and many of the scenes are dated and pulpy, but there is also subtle depth in the novel. For example, there are brief scenes depicting the universe from the alien’s perspective (note: Conrad also has some telepathic abilities); I particularly enjoyed the Vegans’ ability to see deeper beauty in the ultra-violet spectrum, and it is sections such as this, as well as Conrad’s discussions with other characters (in particular, Hasan, the assassin), that enable the novel to rise above a propensity for superficial pulp fiction.

Conrad is tasked with the job of guiding an important Vegan, Cort Myshtigo, through a tour of Earth’s ruins in Egypt and Greece. Vegans are blue-skinned aliens who find humans intriguing, if a tad odd (why, for instance, would an intelligent species use nuclear weapons?). There is a group of humans who believe Myshtigo is scouting for ideal real estate on Earth, and they want to murder the alien, but Conrad believes there is something more to the alien’s visit and vows to protect the blue-skinned being as they travel in a group through historical areas and mutant-filled landscapes, and around hotspots. It is not until the end of the novel that the truth of Myshtigo’s visit becomes clear.

I enjoyed Conrad’s character, more so as the story unfolded. There is a bit too much pulp in the novel; nevertheless, it is a quick read, the intriguing sections made the whole a worthwhile experience, and the conclusion is satisfying.

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Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban

Riddley WalkerRussell Hoban (1945 – 2011) made no secret of the fact that Riddley Walker was inspired by the painting of The Legend of Saint Eustace at Canterbury Cathedral. He began the novel the day he saw the painting, and completed it five and a half years later (he was able to maintain an income during that time by writing children’s books). He first wrote the story in ‘Standard’ English, but carefully worked out the Riddleyspeak that became the finished product and added layers of texture to the work. In Hoban’s Afterward  [SF Masterworks; Gollancz, 2012], he jokes: “I was a good speller before I wrote that book; I no longer am but can live with that.”

Riddley Walker is a tale of the fall of humanity, and echoes of humanity’s former technological heights are common; Riddley doesn’t ‘make plans’, he programs his actions; Pirntout (printout) means conclude; and glitch my cool (my personal favourite) means ‘upset me’. Riddley often mentions the Puter Leat (computer elite) who existed before the Bad Time. He also mentions a girt box of knowin (computer) that people hooked-up to via an iron hat, and they could programmit pas the sarvering gallack seas (past the sovereign galaxies). He talks about the many cools of the Addom (molecules of the atom, and an allusion to the biblical Adam), which they are the party cool of stone (particles of stone), he mentions the strong and the weak inner acting (the strong and weak forces interacting), and much more. Riddley bemoans what humanity once was, and how far they have fallen: O what we ben!

From the first sentence of the novel, the reader knows it will be a different experience:

On my namin day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundle Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint lookin to see none agen.

The sentence above isn’t a particularly difficult section of the novel, but it certainly sets the mood. Riddley Walker can be a struggle to read; some people find that reading sections out loud helps, and it was designed that way, written in phonetic vernacular, with a British accent in mind (and, to be specific, an accent from the county of Kent). Punctuation is ignored, with the exception of periods. There is a limited vocabulary; so, as the reader progresses through the novel, it becomes easier to decipher the text, a first-person narrative by the protagonist, Riddley Walker, who is considered a literate man of the world although he is only twelve years old.

The book is written in a manner that forces the reader to slow down in order to demystify the story; just as Riddley Walker must slowly puzzle things out for himself (by the way, the names of characters in the book are representations of their personalities: Riddley Walker, Fister Crunchman, Abel Goodparley, etcetera). I assume that the book was purposely written so that the reader is forced to sound some sections aloud in order to comprehend the meaning; in Riddley’s world, information is shared orally, and Riddley’s writings form the possibility of a re-invented media.

The reader soon realizes that the events take place in England (‘Inland’) sometime after an apocalyptic, nuclear event (it is stated in the novel that over 2,400 years have passed since the apocalypse, but that seems too long a time for the slight degradation in language; after all, it is still recognizable. There are many misguided ‘facts’ within the novel and I suspect that less time has passed than what is stated). Riddley’s world is slowly revealed through the mists of confusion: there are struggles between agricultural groups and hunter-gatherers, wild dog-packs terrorize the countryside, and the government distributes its politico-mythic messages using portable puppet theatres (politically revamped Punch and Judy shows).

There are many intriguing descriptive passages within the book; Riddley stretches his language, and a few times he becomes frustrated with the limitations of words as tools of expression. The language is rife with distorted technical and political terminology, and allusions to religions abound, especially St. Eustace, referred to as Eusa in the novel, which can be interpreted as St. Eustace, USA (the first country to use a nuclear weapon on an enemy), us, use, and possibly you.

And there are many humorously reinvented place names; Dover is Do It Over, Herne Bay is Horny Boy, and Sandwich is Sams Itch. I’ve never been to Kent, but I’m sure that knowing the area would add to the reading enjoyment (Note: the edition I read didn’t include a map, but I found one on the web that overlaid Riddley’s world on a map of Kent as it is now).

The plot is interesting, but much of the enjoyment comes from untangling the language; it immerses the reader, who must ‘riddle’ things out as s/he ‘walks’ through the story.

There is a short glossary at the end of the book, but if you’d like some further help while reading, the sites listed below are useful (I found that reading a chapter and then perusing the annotations, while flipping through the pages of the chapter again, solidified the story). The SF Masterworks edition I read (Gollancz, 2012) has a nice Introduction by Adam Roberts, and two Afterwards; one by Russell Hoban, and the other by David Mitchell.

Highly recommended; but be forewarned, it is probably not a novel to take for a casual read on the beach this summer.

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A couple of resources (that also contain links to other resources):

Riddley Walker Annotations : with chapter-by-chapter notes, images, a map, and much more.

Russell Hoban’s official website

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Feersum Endjinn, by Iain M. Banks

feersum-endjinn-cover-artFeersum Endjinn is a non-Culture Science fiction novel by Iain M. Banks (for those who don’t know, Mr. Banks has been diagnosed with a terminal illness: more information. A sad update:  Iain Banks passed from this realm on June 9, 2013).

The action takes place on Earth, far into the future. Reincarnation is a common occurrence, facilitated by the uploading of mindstates into a massive computer network known as the data corpus or the cryptosphere (often shortened to crypt). An individual is allowed a certain number of real-life ‘reincarnations’ and then their mindstate is uploaded into the data corpus for another series of virtual reality lives before being absorbed into the data-stream. There are also artificial intelligences within the cryptosphere.  

Long before the beginning of the novel, a large portion of humanity left the planet to seed the stars (The Diaspora). The remaining humans have lost the ability to understand advanced technologies; unfortunately, the solar system is drifting into an interstellar dust cloud (referred to as the Encroachment), which will weaken the amount of the sun’s energy reaching the Earth, resulting in an end to all life on the planet. There may be a device (possibly within a neglected space elevator) that will save the planet, but the knowledge of how to use it, or what it is, has been lost.  

The story unfolds in four threads that eventually converge. Each chapter reveals the progress of four principal characters: an enigmatic woman, possibly an emissary from the crypt (an asura), who’s powers are gradually unveiled; Hortis Gadfium, a high-ranking scientist who is a member of a group trying to uncover a secret that may save the world; Alandre Sessine, a General who is about to discover a conspiracy of the heads of state, is assassinated several times (in real and virtual lives), and is searching for answers in the cryptosphere; and last, but not least, Bascule, a young teller, a job that depends on submersion within the crypt (I should also point out that Bascule is dyslexic: his sections are spelled phonetically, like the book’s title. Some might find these sections difficult/annoying, but I thoroughly enjoyed them).  

Mr. Banks does an excellent job of imagining a virtual reality world and the immensity of a space elevator: his canvas in this novel is extensive. It’s hard science fiction, but doesn’t always feel like it. The characters are likeable and interesting (particularly Bascule), but they were not plumbed to any great depth: the novel is plot and concept driven. Banks does a wonderful job of creating a believable world and dancing the reader through it. If you’re not a science fiction fan, you might think it is interesting, but unspectacular; but, for a hard science fiction geek, it’s amazing.