As I've mentioned before, after a long gap of not thinking much of contemporary science fiction writers, I have hit on two - Adam Roberts and the late lamented Iain M. Banks - who for me represent the best that SF has to offer. I got a whole pile of their books for Christmas and review two here. In each case, these happen to be the worst book by this author I've read. By most people's standards they're good, but - to me - weren't quite up to the usual incredibly high quality. This is no surprise - I've never seen an author who didn't have ups and downs.
We'll start with Adam Roberts and Swiftly. As usual with Roberts this is an exploration of an audacious idea - in this case, we are in a world where the various species from Swift's Gulliver's Travels (see what he did with the title?) are real and encroaching on business and life in Victorian Britain. Of itself this is wonderfully imagined - the abuse, for example of Lilliputians (or their neighbours Blefuscudians, who have to repeatedly point out they aren't Lilliputians) to perform extremely detailed work in factories is brilliant. And the employment in war by the French of giants from Brobdingnag who reluctantly help them to partially conquer the UK, helped by Babbage engines with a twist, is equally clever.
However, Roberts also introduces other layers, going bigger and smaller than Swift's variants, with a destructive ultra giant in a spaceship and a plague caused by tiny creatures that wipes out large swathes of humanity. As is almost always the case with disaster stories, the result is a depersonalisation of the storyline where I find it hard to identify much with what's going on. And though the main characters survive the plague, they too remain a little distant and untouchable, in part because Roberts in probably trying to give them period sensibilities, which mix with some more modern viewpoints that sit a little uncomfortably. In the end, the latter part of the book, a seemingly endless trek from London to York for what felt like no good reason, dragged a lot. I'm glad I read Swiftly, but I can't imagine reading it again, where most of Roberts' books are high on my list for repeated consumption.
The other title that didn't quite work for me was Iain M. Banks' Consider Phlebas. The absolute joy and totally original creation of his science fiction books is the Culture. This hedonistic, clever, human and machine, seemingly anarchistic yet superbly functional empire without an emperor is a work of creative genius and in most of his Culture books it is front and centre. One of the problems with Consider Phelbas is that, although the Culture has a presence throughout as one side in a war, the book isn't about the Culture but rather an individual and his crusade against the Culture, which he feels is ultimately wrong for humanity. Because of this, he sides with the three-legged species with which the Culture is reluctantly at war.
The result is that the book descends into baroque space opera pure and simple, where Banks' books are usually far more, even though they use all of the language and paraphernalia of the space opera genre. If you enjoy pure space opera, this will be good news - but it's rarely my thing. There's an element of a quest story, but an awful lot of set piece battles and unpleasant scenes where the protagonist comes close to death in sadistic ways. Though there are brief asides set in the Culture (and one ambiguous Culture central character), they feel tacked on and don't particularly add to the story. I'm afraid it also felt far too long and some of the set pieces - notably when the mega ship hits the ice - were hard to follow descriptively. I've been fascinated by every Culture book I've read so far - but this one wasn't for me. I gather it was the first of the Culture novels, and it may be that the author was yet to settle into his stride.
Swiftly is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.
Consider Phlebas is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.