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Monthly Archives: July 2011

Fire and Reign: George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons

Book #15 for 2011: A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

In a recent interview that I either read or saw with George R.R. Martin, he said that he likes to add new viewpoint characters in each book of the Song of Ice and Fire series, allowing the story to spread out further and further into the world of his alternative middle ages, bringing new kingdoms, countries and continents into the world-encompassing war that began near the end of A Game of Thrones.

Great idea, George. Pity it doesn’t work.

If anything has weakened the last couple of books in the series, it’s that none of the new characters, the ones introduced since the first book, has been as interesting as the members of the Stark, Lannister and Targaryen families, and it’s still the initial set of eight viewpoint characters (at least those among them who have survived) and their immediate relatives that the reader cares most about. The increasing bloat of secondary characters nearly swamped the fourth book of the series, A Feast for Crows, and if the series recovers its footing in the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons, it’s because Martin wisely concentrates the narrative on the three strongest viewpoint characters remaining from that initial eight: Tyrion Lannister, Daenaerys Targaryen and Jon Snow (though one of the most fascinating chapters in this book is about the most underused of the original set of characters: Bran Stark).

A Dance with Dragons is a very good book, and vastly better than its frequently tedious predecessor, A Feast for Crows. If I don’t rate it quite as high as my two favorite books in the series, A Game of Thrones and A Storm of Swords, it’s only because some of that secondary character bloat still persists and there are some scenes in the midsection of the book that sag and drag a bit. (You can tell when Martin’s inspiration is starting to wane, or maybe his appetite is starting to wax, because he spends page after page describing the foods his characters are eating. Lark’s tongues are a favorite. So are crusts of bread soaked in bacon grease.)

But surrounding these scenes are some wonderful set pieces and I don’t think it will surprise anybody that this is the book where he finally unleashes Daenaerys’s unruly adolescent dragons on the world. (It’s in the title, so if that’s a spoiler, it’s Martin’s fault.) And a thrilling, terrifying trio of reptiles they turn out to be. It’s also the book where winter is no longer merely coming but has clearly started to arrive. (The title of the next book, The Winds of Winter, implies that things will be getting colder still.) Two of the three main characters get cliffhangers at the end, though for some reason the cliffhangers seemed a bit more ambiguous this time around. One of them made me say “WTF?” more than it made me say “Wow!”, but it still made me want to read the next book to find out what the hell happened. And it’s difficult to say exactly what the final scene of the book portends, but it seems to signal some major changes in the story.

So is the book worth reading? Oh, yeah. Even if some scenes are slow, A Dance with Dragons is still a clear return to form after the occasional stumbles in the previous book and there are some wonderfully unexpected twists. As usual Martin goes on far too long, but I’m happy to forgive him for it. I do have to wonder exactly how the television series will handle the way Martin left so many of these characters out of the previous book, but the producers have already begun to film certain sequences out of order relative to the books and one supposes they’ll simply have to do some plot thread juggling when seasons four and five arrive.

But what are they going to do if Martin hasn’t written books six and seven in time for seasons six and seven? Your guess is as good as mine. But I definitely see a spin-off series for those dragons.

The End of the World Ain’t What It Used to Be: Daniel Wilson’s Robopocalypse

Book #14 for 2011: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

A science fiction novel by a relatively unknown writer hitting the New York Times bestseller list? And Stephen Spielberg has not only bought the rights to it but plans to direct the film version himself? WTF? Science fiction is supposed to be a dying genre, at least in book form, so how exactly did this small miracle happen? I have some suspicions, but more about that in a moment.

Daniel H. Wilson is an expert in robotics and has previously written some whimsical “nonfiction” books on the subject, with titles like How to Survive a Robot Uprising and How to Build a Robot Army. I haven’t read them, but I assume they speculate, rather humorously, on how someone (or something) could go about doing precisely those things. Robopocalypse, the novel at hand, shows the theory that must have been in those books being put into practice, as an artificial intelligence named Archos hacks its way into the global computer network a few decades in our future and starts using robotic devices, which by then are rather common, to slaughter the human race.

The book takes the form of a kind of literary documentary of the resulting human-robot war, transcribed by a soldier in that war named Cormac Wallace based on holographic records that Archos has stored in a datacube discovered underneath arctic permafrost. This conceit allows Wilson to write the novel as a series of vaguely connected scenes linked together by brief descriptions of what happened in between them. The novel follows several recurring characters in different locations and ultimately documents both the events leading up to the war and the war itself. The story, as you might guess, has elements of 2001: A Space OdysseyAI: Artificial Intelligence, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines and the Terminator films, though I’ll give Wilson credit for thinking the technical details of the story through more thoroughly than most writers do.

Is the novel any good? Well, let’s just say that I think it will make a good movie. Wilson is a decent enough writer and his prose occasionally even achieves a kind of elegance, but the choppy nature of the narrative nicely destroys the chief advantage that novels have over films: the ability to flesh out background detail and give the characters believable lives. Having just finished four volumes in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, I couldn’t resist comparing Martin’s writing with Wilson’s. Martin loves to give the reader a voluminous amount of detail. Much of it is extraneous to his plot, but the result is that his characters and their world have such a dense sense of reality that the reader can’t help believing in them and even believing that the world goes on existing after the book is closed. Wilson sketches in so few details that I barely believed his world existed while I was still reading about it. Whenever I would start to get involved with a character, Wilson would cut away to someone else’s story.

In the Acknowledgments section at the end, Wilson says that “[t]he filmmakers at DreamWorks SKG expressed inspiring enthusiasm and support for this novel from the very beginning,” which leads me to suspect that Spielberg was behind this novel from the start. It certainly has all the requisite Spielberg scenes: a touching ending involving a nonhuman intelligence, a couple of suspense scenes with people trapped in tight spaces while being tracked by malevolent creatures. (Remember the raptors chasing the kids through the kitchen in Jurassic Park or the Martian eyeballs stalking the survivors through the basement in War of the Worlds? Substitute robots for raptors and, yeah, that scene is here too.) The choppy documentary style has the advantage of allowing Wilson to write only those scenes that are likely to be in the movie while skipping over all those pesky details that come in between. I think Wilson wrote the novel pretty much to order and the publisher, aware of the Dreamworks tie-in, pushed the book hard with its publicity department. Presto: the minor miracle of a science fiction novel on the bestseller list.

Of course, there also seems to be a trend for apocalyptic thrillers lately. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal suggested that last summer’s bestselling vampire apocalypse novel, Justin Cronin’s The Passage, had something to do with this. And to give Wilson his due, Robopocalypse isn’t quite the weak cup of tea that The Passage turned out to be. But, as apocalyptic novels go, it also isn’t likely to eclipse anybody’s fond memories of Stephen King’s brilliantly apocalyptic The Stand.