Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Jeffrey A. Carver - Sunborn

Jeffrey A. Carver, Sunborn, Tor, 2008.

Usually when I read a book, it is a book I chose, based on knowing the author or reading a review, or at least a book I received from someone I trust. In this case, I picked up the book without knowing anything about it, or the author, just because the bookshop was offering a "second book at half price", and I couldn't find anything else I wanted for the second book.

The first indication I got that I might have made a mistaken choice was when I opened the book later that day and saw on the inside front page: "Volume Four of the Chaos Chronicles". I feel very strongly that books in a series should mention this fact on the outside cover. In fact, I have often avoided buying books for exactly that reason. If a book is part of a series, I would prefer to read the first in the series before deciding whether to continue. I wonder if this is, in fact, why the publisher failed to make it clear on the cover. I feel slightly tricked, and this is not a good feeling to have toward a publisher I often buy books from.

Different authors have different approaches to writing series. Some assume, correctly in my mind, that the series will be marketed in such a way that readers are likely to read the books in order. This leaves them free to develop the characters, the world and the plot line over many volumes, as if the series were a much larger work that can be taken as a whole (and some series are eventually issued together, in an omnibus edition). Other authors prefer to consider each volume as a stand-alone novel, and state that readers can read the books in whatever order. This requires them to include a lot of explanatory background material about previous events in each volume, which is often insufficient for readers encountering the series for the first time, and can be annoyingly repetitive for readers who have followed the series. In this case, I think the author managed to strike a reasonable balance, which may explain why it was not considered necessary to state on the cover that this was book four of a series.

The following review is from the view point of a reader unfamiliar with the series, encountering this author for the first time.

The plot is a standard quest. Our hero is a human called John Bandicut, who is travelling with three aliens and two robots. They all have translator stones, some sort of advanced technology or sentient artifacts, enabling them to communicate with each other. From what I understood of the backstory, they were given these stones and then taken from their home systems and sent on various missions. Bandicut also has a telepathic connection with some being called a quarx.

These characters are brought in to try to prevent a major disaster. It is unclear why they are considered qualified to do this, apart from having succeeded in their previous missions (described in the earlier volumes). As is usual in this sort of story, they encounter various dangers, team up with powerful allies, and eventually there is a happy ending as the disaster is averted.

I have to state here that I did not really enjoy this book, and found it lacking in many ways. I spent a lot of time while reading it trying to work out what wasn't working for me. I consider it insufficient to say "it wasn't well written", and more interesting to try to find out exactly in what way it was deficient. However, I did read it to the end, as I usually finish books I start (which is why I try to be careful with my choices).

First of all, the nature of the story meant that the characters were helpless. They were thrown into the mission without having any say in the matter, without any real reason for them in particular to be suited to the task, and without any driving motivation to solve the problem, other than the threat to all biological life in the galaxy... As the mission proceeded, at each point, the more powerful allies undertook the most important parts of the action, and our team on their own would have achieved nothing. Even the self-sacrifice at the end, a theme I seem to appreciate in most cases, did not involve one of our heroes, since in this sort of story they must all survive to the happy ending.

The characters were superficial and stereotypical, and despite the author's best efforts, did not engage my sympathy. Bandicut had the typical combination of courage and inner anxiety. His three alien companions were insufficiently drawn (perhaps on the assumption that readers knew them from the previous volumes). They didn't seem to have specific talents that would account for their being chosen by the translator stones or sent on missions for the good of the galaxy. The female alien, Antares, is an empath, one of the tritest stereotypes for females in SF. She is also humanoid enough to have a sexual relationship with Bandicut, which serves to reduce his sense of isolation in a way that does little to enhance the plot. The other two, Ik and Li-Jared, are male. It is not surprising that the aliens designated male adhere to human male attitudes, though Ik later joins Antares by developing his empathic side. The relations between these characters are explored to some extent, as is their reaction to being exiled from their worlds and everything they knew, but this failed to impress.

The two robots in the team, named Napoleon and Copernicus, in a human-centric naming trend that appears throughout the story, are intelligent but annoyingly servile. It seems to me that once AI exists and becomes superior to natural intelligence, "artificial" beings will not be subordinate or inferior to "biological" beings. These robots were supposedly intelligent, and played a role in the story, but their actions and words did not portray much of their intellectual superiority over the biological characters. Also, they were unfortunately and patronizingly, given childish nicknames, Nappy and Coppy. I assume that Americans may not know that "nappy" in UK English means "diaper", but any readers familiar with this usage will probably find it amusing.

The other beings in this story include two other robots, Jeaves and Delilah; an alien whose world is under threat; two entities from another universe; several sentient stars; and the enemy, known as the Mindaru. It bothered me that characters were referred to as male or female despite not being the sort of entities that require two genders for reproduction or social purposes. I would have referred to them all as "it". The enemy was another standard theme, the advanced artificial sentience that wishes to obliterate all biological life. This sort of enemy has been portrayed much more persuasively, and chillingly, by other authors.

The novel also contained another story, interspersed between the chapters but mostly unrelated. It features Julie Stone, Bandicut's human ex-girlfriend, who is on Triton, working with the Translator, an advanced entity connected to the translator stones the main characters possess. This story interested me more, as it was easier to relate to characters in a human setting. Julie embarks on her own adventure, showing a bit more initiative than the other characters (despite also having an advanced and powerful ally), and eventually survives. The happy ending implies that Julie and Bandicut will meet up in the next volume, which will be complicated by Bandicut's relationship with Antares. A love triangle! How original!

One of the most frequently cited bits of writing advice is "show, don't tell". This book was almost entirely "tell", with everything being made explicit. The attempts to show us the characters' inner feelings usually involved either spelling out their inner thoughts, or sometimes conversations about these feelings, rather than showing how these feeling influenced their behaviour and relationships. The descriptions of the empathic communications assumed a basic similarity in concepts that would enable some degree of understanding between vastly differing beings, that was bridged by the various advanced entities involved. All the impressive speculative astrophysics was explained in great detail, somehow removing the sense of wonder that it should have invoked. The great contrast between the immensity of the mission and the banal nature of the characters, who go through so much, mostly passively, and emerge unharmed and largely unchanged, makes the whole thing seem like a waste of time.

I do not expect I will read any further work by this author, unless I am given persuasive evidence that his writing, plotting and characterization have improved by at least an order of magnitude. In future, I will be even more careful when selecting books to read. Caveat lector!