June 22nd, 2003

Books

Mike Resnick, The Outpost

Mike Resnick's The Outpost was as disappointing to me as The Return of Santiago. Essentially, this is a collection of tall tales told by figures of the wild west. Except the wild west is in space. I guess he is trying to say something about history and who records it. But the problem to me is that the stories themselves become tiresome.

Books

Stephen Carter, The Emperor of Ocean Park

Stephen L. Carter's new book is a work of fiction. Carter is well known for a series of non-fiction boks examining public policy, the law, and American society. I've read and own a copy of The Culture of Disbelief, his treatise on the banishment of religion from public policy discourse in America. According to the acknowledgments in the book, Carter has been working on this novel for years. It shows. This is a well-crafted mystery novel, and one of the first to be set among a predominantly wealthy black society.

Talcott "Misha" Garland is a professor of law. When his father, an erstwhile Supreme Court nominee and former appeals court judge, dies unexpectedly, the beginnings of a plot are revealed. People begin to ask Garland for the arrangements, something of which Garland is wholly unaware. He hasn't been particularly close to his father. Mysterious people follow him. He suspects his wife of having an affair. His sister comes up with the wildest conspiracy theories. And the enigmatic Jack Ziegler promises to protect Garland and his family in return for the arrangements. Only Jack Ziegler is an underworld figure, and cannot be trusted.

Okay, that doesn't really explain much of the plot. It would be hard. I think the book is a promising start for Carter's fiction career, but it has some big holes. Namely, the entire book swarms around an elaborate conspiracy. Elaborate conspiracies are hard to hold together. And few people ever try elaborate conspiracies. Most conspiracies I know about are simple. I dislike complexity in my mystery plots. I do not like a web of intrigue much. Luckily, the web does not become paramount until late in the book.

However, Carter makes up for it with his characters. All are well-formed, and all are nutty, some extremely so. Garland is a reserved professor of law. He strives to maintain that reserve at almost all costs. I don't have the words necessary to write much more unfortunately.

Two other things of note. The book is long. Around 650 pages. The books would have been helped by more generous use of the delete key. Second thing is that the book is primarily written in first person present tense. Most things I read are written in third person past, and sometimes in third person past. The first person present gives the book a much more immediate and ominous feel.

Books

Carol Emshwiller, The Mount

The Mount won the 2003 Philip K. Dick Award. As I have been hunting for fiction by writers I haven't previously read, this seemed a good candidate because of this award. It beat out The Scar by China Miéville. I figure anything that beats out China has to be worth a read. It was.

The basic plot is one you've seen before in other science fiction. An alien race has taken over the Earth, subjugating humans. We've become farm animals to them. Some humans (Seattles) are bread for strength and endurance. Such humans become mounts, horses for the aliens. The aliens (Hoots) have good senses and extremely strong arms and hands. But they have weak legs, leaving them essentially helpless without their mounts. Some Wilds remain free in the mountains, and periodically they raid Hoot settlements and free the Tames. On one such raid, they free Charley, the son of the Wild human leader called Heron. Charley is the mount for the Hoot, The-Future-Ruler-Of-Us-All.

The young Hoot is but a mere child, and Charley is barely an adolescent. Yet he saves his Little Master from death by his father's hand. The rest of the story follows his adventures from the Wild village in the cold mountains to the Hoot encampment and back again, to a final showdown with The-Present-Ruler-Of-Us-All. In between, Charley comes of age and finds his first love.

The first chapter is written from the perspective of the young Hoot. Most of the subsequent chapters are written from Charley's viewpoint, with one small interlude written from the human called Heron's position. I wish Emshwiller had written more from the Hoot's perspective, as the first chapter was a great hook. Other than some subtle hints, one wouldn't know that the books isn't about a horse and his rider.

The amazing thing to me is the books is only about 250 pages long. Emshwiller packed a lot into that length. She validates my theory that a good book need not be thousands of pages long. Writers often take several chapters to set up their SF worlds. Emshwiller doesn't. The story reveals along the way everything a reader need know. It actually makes the textual paragraphs without action interesting to read, rather than being filled with copious filler material.

I know burgunder has been on a quest to find worthy female authors. Check this out. I'll be picking up a few more of her books before too long.