Tag Archives: Science Fiction – Space Opera

Use of Weapons

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Use of Weapons [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Iain M Banks, book 3 of The Culture series.

Banks Use of Weapons

The third novel of Ian Banks’ Culture concerns an agent Zalkawe recruited for chiefly military work by the Culture’s Special Circumstances operative Sma. He is not himself a Culture man, nor is he especially sympathetic at his best, and in some ways this book felt like a return to the form of the first book Consider Phlebas, with the viewpoint agent working for the Culture rather than against it. The chapter IV that described Zalkawe’s first integration into the Culture was the most straightforward of such passages in the books so far.

The chronological structure of Use of Weapons is curious and effective. It alternates two series of numbered chapters, one running forward in time and counting up (One, Two, Three …), the other running backward and counting down (XIII, XII, XI …). The earliest episode of the novel takes place at its midpoint in chapter VII during a set of flashbacks, but these are not given their full context until the end of the book. The most recent events are set into bracketing Prologue and Epilogue passages, along with a short postfactory chapter “States of War.”

This volume was for some reason longer than I had expected it to be, and although it read at a good pace, it took a lot of attention to complete. I’m looking forward to the change of tempo offered by the next in the series, State of the Art, which collects short stories in the Culture setting.

William Shakespeare’s Star Wars Trilogy

William Shakespeare’s Star Wars Trilogy: The Royal Imperial Boxed Set by Ian Doescher has arrived at the Reading Room, a gift from the Librarian’s mom (presumably in celebration of my new prescription for glasses coming soon, which means I may be able to comfortably read again). This box set includes Verily, A New Hope [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]; The Empire Striketh Back [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]; The Jedi Doth Return [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]; and an 8-by-34-inch full-color poster. This collects the adaptations of the original trilogy from the ongoing William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series. (This might seem tangential, but these are, after all, books with monomyth in iambic pentameter, and more, so I felt like I’d mention the arrival. Plus, I intentionally and willfully cross the Town-Gown-Tau divide all the time …)

Doescher William Shakespeares Star Wars Trilogy the Royal Imperial Boxed Set

“Experience the Star Wars saga reimagined as an Elizabethan drama penned by William Shakespeare himself, complete with authentic meter and verse, and theatrical monologues and dialogue by everyone from Darth Vader to R2D2.

This Royal Imperial Boxed Set includes all three New York Times best-selling volumes in the original trilogy: Verily, A New Hope; The Empire Striketh Back; and The Jedi Doth Return. Also included is an 8-by-34-inch full-color poster illustrating the complete cast and company of this glorious production.

Authentic meter, stage directions, reimagined movie scenes and dialogue, and hidden Easter eggs throughout will entertain and impress fans of Star Wars and Shakespeare alike. Every scene and character from the film appears in the play, along with twenty woodcut-style illustrations that depict an Elizabethan version of the Star Wars galaxy.”

Doescher William Shakespeares Star Wars Trilogy the Royal Imperial Boxed Set Panorama


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Radiance: A Novel [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Catherynne M Valente

Valente Radiance

Catherynne M. Valente’s cinema-themed space opera fantasy Radiance is decidedly non-linear, jumping around an alternate continuity that runs from the middle of the nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth. Fragmentary shooting scripts, press clippings, recording transcripts, promotional materials, business records, and other documents are assembled to gradually immerse the reader in a solar system where humans live on all the planets, and Earth’s moon is the center of an interplanetary movie industry.

The book’s jacket copy characterizes it as “decopunk,” a feasible nanogenre, and not inapt. But in fact it progresses through a set of different genre moments–like movements of a musical work–established through the framing device of a movie in pre-production, going through major revisions. What starts out as film noir (The Deep Blue Devil) gets re-tooled as gothic horror (The Man in the Malachite Mask), then a fairy tale (Doctor Callow’s Dream), then a musical revue (And If She’s Not Gone, She Lives There Still), with a vein of mystery throughout that is more spited than satisfied by the brief final cut (Radiance).

I did find it a little slow going at first, but I did eventually take to it. It’s definitely it’s own thing, both in the story it tells and how it tells it. The cinematic dimension is integral, thus setting it apart. But the organization around the vanished girl Severin Unck seems to place it in or near the catena of elegiac mysticism that runs from the Middle English Pearl through Schwob’s Monelle. In contrast to the authorial motives understood for those books though, Valente confesses herself to be (at some remove) the basis for Severin, since the germ of the book was her own experience as the daughter of a filmmaker father.

The book is wonderfully weird throughout, with its recurring refrain of “X which is not really an X” to describe all manner of otherworldly creatures that have been quasi-terrestrialized through language. The descriptions of what X “really is” become crazier and crazier. (Patsy replies, “It’s only a model.”) For all that Radiance is a book about movies, it is intensely literary, and the reading of it is nothing like the rhetorical ductus of popular Hollywood. It’s an art film of a science fantasy, full of classical allusions, narrative ruptures, and character enigmas. Yum.

The Player of Games

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Player of Games [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Iain M Banks, book 2 of The Culture.

Banks the Player of Games

I read this second novel of the Culture hot on the heels of Consider Phlebas, and despite the shared setting of the interstellar civilization of the Culture itself and a few formal similarities, the feel of each book differs widely from the other. They are both structured around an ambivalently sympathetic central character with special abilities, and told by an obscured narrator, but the pacing of Consider Phlebas is faster for having shorter and more numerous chapters, along with more incidents of catastrophic violence. Of course, the protagonist of the first book is a declared enemy of the Culture, while The Player of Games is himself a Culture man.

The context of the first book was a rare war involving the Culture as a belligerent, but this one accounts for an alternative way in which neighboring hostile powers might be managed. The Empire which serves as this book’s foil for the Culture is constructed with a lot of telling detail, and the game-as-pervasive-practice-and-pattern is played out here in a way that goes far beyond its archetype in the John Carter pulp adventure The Chessmen of Mars. I was a little disappointed that the complete opacity of the Culture’s relationship to terrestrial humanity was not at all relieved in this book, but it is set some centuries after the previous one, and thus also further from us in time.

For the screen-oriented sf set, I’d recommend the Culture books to those who are more sympathetic to the “left” trajectory of Star Trek as opposed to the “right” approach of Star Wars. I think there’s actually good fodder for the screen in this series (although not in the absence of capable screenwriters!), and their merits are not so much in their “literary” form or substance as in the accustomed genre pillars of world-building, technological imagination, social commentary, and “ideas” generally.

I will read more of these, but I’ll take a pause until Use of Weapons falls into my hands, rather than vaulting over the sequence to the next one that I already own a copy of.

Consider Phlebas

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Consider Phlebas [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Iain M Banks, book 1 in The Culture series.

Banks Consider Phlebas

I had been intending for many years to read Iain M. Banks science fiction series The Culture, of which Consider Phlebas is the first volume. Because of this persistent aspiration, I collected several of the books before even beginning to read.

Considering how lauded The Culture is, I was surprised at the extent to which the book is pretty conventional space opera, but I certainly enjoyed it. The increasingly intelligent handling of interstellar travel in recent decades of sf seems to have left me with an allergy to FTL “jump drives,” although Banks does a little better than pure handwavium for the technology. The plotting and structure are not ordinary, and those who want straightforward adventure with triumphant endings might find this book unpalatable. The worldbuilding is ambitious, and it’s easy to see from just this one (of what I am assured is an extremely varied series) that there will be many interesting environments and large-scale events in these books.

Consider Phlebas is focused on a “short” half-century war between two interstellar powers, the Culture and the Idirans. The chief viewpoint character works as a spy for the Idirans, but there are “State of Play” chapters that offer the Culture perspective on events as well. A documentary conceit to provide greater narrative unity to the text is supplied in an epilogue. . . . . (Hover over to reveal spoiler) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The use of “A.D.” dating in the “historical” appendices is a curious choice. It does demonstrate that the Culture is older than modern terrestrial civilization, and that the events of the book are actually within our historical period although elsewhere in the galaxy. It does not establish what relationship, if any, the “humans” of the Culture have with Earth.

I expect to continue with The Player of Games fairly promptly.

3001: The Final Odyssey

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews 3001: The Final Odyssey [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Arthur C Clarke, book 4 in the Space Odyssey series.

Clarke 3001 The Final Odyssey

This “Final Odyssey” is the last and least of the three novels that Arthur C. Clarke wrote to extend the ideas introduced in 2001. The setup is clever enough: Frank Poole, a Discovery expedition member murdered by HAL 9000 back in 2001, is recovered in his excursion pod still exiting the Solar System, and he is restored to life by fourth-millennium super-science. Much of the book–the more interesting parts, really–concerns his difficulties and successes adapting to a “braincapped” posthuman society after a thousand years out of circulation.

At one point Poole’s birthdate is specifically given as 1996 (199), which would have made him only five years old when crewing the Discovery. This sort of retroactive discontinuity is common to the Odyssey Sequence, which Clarke called “variations on the same theme … not necessarily happening in the same universe” (261, quoting 2061).

The interactions with Poole’s previously monolith-integrated colleagues were a little disappointing. In particular, Heywood Floyd went missing altogether, while Dave Bowman and HAL were collapsed into a character called “Halman.” This element of the plot is focused on a threat posed by the monolith network, and defeated by human ingenuity. Clarke later rather sadly noted that his narrative resolution here was notably similar to that already used in the film Independence Day, which “contains every known science-fiction cliche since Melies’ Trip to the Moon (1903)” (253).

There is a certain irony in the book’s extensive criticisms of religion and metaphysical thought generally, while the Prologue and Epilogue construe the “Firstborn” creators of the monoliths as basically divine entities who may yet judge and sentence humanity. Perhaps inspired by the then-recent (in 1997) Aum Shinrikyo attacks, Clarke makes religiously-motivated terrorism responsible for biological and informational attacks that lead to greater global cooperation among governments in the early twenty-first century (216).

The book includes two pieces of interesting end matter. The Sources and Acknowledgements provide a chapter-by-chapter review of scientific justifications for the speculative technological elements of the novel and references to relevant current events. The Valediction is an author’s retrospective on the full Odyssey Sequence. In it, Clarke protests too much perhaps that “it’s all [his] own fiction” (262), disclaiming any co-authorship for the four books, but thus downplaying the significant contributions of Stanley Kubrick to the development of 2001 from “The Sentinel” and the features of the cinematic narrative later retrofitted to the not-sequels.