Friday, November 17, 2017

Review: Alastair Reynolds' "Poseidon's Wake"

tl;dr: I need to find a book that I like.

I've read a number of Alastair Reynolds' books in the past, and have enjoyed them all, although I noticed a flaw in a number of them that was particularly notable in this book.  So when I took Poseidon's Wake out of the library, I was quite excited.

The premise of the book is a good one: ship thought destroyed turns out to instead have been cast light years across space; a message from it is received.

The bulk of the book is then the response to this message, I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that a mission to the ship is dispatched.

The world building is pretty good, although there are a number of elements that cause it to creak, some of which are the fault of the author, and some of the publisher.  In many parts it's reminiscent of the world-building of Arthur C. Clarke, with a cast that would be today described as "minority", although since apparently all the Europeans have gone  missing, that term is really an anachronism. Labels are in Swahili and Chinese, it's mentioned several times.

Ultimately though, I found this book to be supremely dissatisfying, so much so that it was a struggle to finish.  I distinctly recall page 488, as that was the page at which I looked at the page number and said to myself, "How much longer?"  Over one hundred pages, was the unfortunate answer.

So the problems: let's start with the publisher. When I finished the book, I turned to the acknowledgements page, to discover that his was the third of three books. Huh?

Nowhere on the outside of the book is this fact mentioned, the inside flap mentions "in the conclusion of his epic saga", but one shouldn't have to hunt for this information! No doubt the publishers, noting that each version of a series sells fewer copies, decided to elide this information in order to sell a few more.

So, much of my initial reaction, that much of the world-building is absent, is likely because it was in the two prior installments.  No fault of the author.

What is the fault of the author is the bad elements of world building, the plot, and the characters.

There are a number of major world building problems, however. It won't take anything away to observe that a major plot point involves elephants in space.  As you might imagine, elephants aren't well suited to space, or space suits. Elephants, you see, are prolific creators of dung. Elephant dung is mentioned a number of times, in particular when the villian anounces that she must clear her bowels before getting into a space suit. I'd already begun wondering how this problem was handled, as the dung in spaceships issue had been mentioned as a problem earlier. The solution to how elephants evacuate themselves in spacesuits is never resolved, however. Given that elephants in space suits desperately trying to get inside becomes a issue at one point, one was left wondering if they were desperate to evacuate their bowels. This is an issue which was not resolved in the novel, however.

That's just one example of a deus ex machina approach to story-telling.  Reconfigure an entire spaceship to make it suitable for elephants?  Sure, no problem!  Couple days' work.  Fix a hole in the hull? Sorry, that's a year or more. It just makes no sense.

I enjoyed a few of the characters, including the captain of the ship dispatched to find this missing ship, and the artificial intelligence robot Swift, who plays a crucial role and is an enjoyable character. The protagonist, who appears to be an interesting, likable man at the beginning of the story, turns out to be an idiot. I can't recall a single instance where the opportunity to make a mistake arose and he failed to take that opportunity. He gets treason out of the way early on, so most of the remaining mistakes are more minor, until later, but they grate. I thought this was just ill-considered storytelling on the part of Mr. Reynolds, until he has the character recount his entire history of idiotic mistakes at the end of the book, and realize it must have been intentional. It may well have been, but it didn't make for an enjoyable read.

One additional major mistake appears just before what would have been, in a better-crafted book, the climax.  I recall an episode of an old TV series (it may have been The Dukes of Hazzard), where in order to prevent the progress of a villian, our heroes affixed a chain from the engine of his car to a tree.  What happened to that car as the villian attempted to speed away from the tree is roughly what happens to this book when the fool of a protagonist makes this crucial mistake.  The engine is ripped out, although the vehicle continues to move.

The thrust of the plot up until that point seems to be forgotten, the crucial danger that our protagonist was willing to commit suicide to prevent just disappears.  The entire story falls apart at that point. Mind you, at the very end of a trilogy!

Sadly, the book still has a ways to go.  Much of the rest involves the other characters congratulating our protagonist for his idiocy, which turns out to have been entirely pointless, as the danger never materializes, and his "moral victory" turns out to be almost entirely Pyhrric.

While I was initially annoyed that the publisher mislead me into reading the third book of a trilogy first, something I prefer not to do, I now realize that they did me a favor.

The intense dismay and annoyance that I experienced as what should have been an enjoyable read fell apart in my hands would have been far worse had I read the prior two books first.