Seed to Harvest: The Patternist series

Seed to Harvest is a collection of the four books that make up Octavia E. Butler’s Patternist series. The books are arranged chronologically and that is the order in which I read them. However, they weren’t written chronologically and I strongly suspect that I would have gotten much more out of this series if I had read the novels in the order in which they were written — as a dystopian final novel with three prequels.

Patternamster, the final novel in the series and the first to have been written, imagines a future dominated by telepaths linked by a mental pattern. In conflict with these patternists are the brutal and semi-human clayarks, bent on destroying the patternists. Ordinary humans, pejoratively described as mutes, are not important and serve only as slaves, victims or both.

The patternmaster controls the pattern and all who are linked to it, thus becoming the leader of the patternists. The current patternmaster is old and dying and the novel focusses on the conflict to replace him.

While the world of the patternists and clayarks is superbly well realised, the narrative itself is quite slight. This wouldn’t be a problem if I had read this novel first, but following on from the other three it all felt a bit anticlimactic.

Mind of My Mind tells the story of the emergence of the patternists. It centres on Doro, a 4000 year old mutant with the ability to transfer his consciousness into others’ bodies. It is Doro who has been seeking out similar mutants and breeding them in order to build a race of superhumans and a stock of bodies. While successful Doro’s efforts also backfire spectacularly with the emergence of Mary, a latent telepath who becomes the first patternmaster.

Clay’s Ark jumps forward a bit from Mind of My Mind and describes the emergence of the clayarks. As a standalone novel, this is only tangentially related to the rest of the Patternist series and — with reading the novels chronologically — it did feel like quite an abrupt turn for the series. With it’s microbial alien symbiotes, Clay’s Ark is also one of the most viscerally disturbing invasion stories I’ve read in a long time.

Wild Seed is the last book to have been written and the first chronologically. It’s about an immortal healer named Anyanwu (who makes a fleeting appearance in Mind of My Mind) and her encounter with Doro. When the story starts, Anyanwu is already 300 years old, while Doro is much, much older. Doro coerces Anyanwu into travelling with him from Africa to the US and the story centres on the conflict between the two and their very different views of humanity.

This is by far the strongest of the novels, with two very well-drawn protagonists, and the one that most explicitly delves into the themes of the series. These include racial prejudice, the ethical implications of eugenics, and the question of what it means to be human.

As a whole, the Patternist series explores several big ideas and leaves you thinking for several days afterwards. It’s well worth reading, but is probably better read in the order the books were written than in chronological order of the events.

Ancillary Mercy

Ancillary Mercy is both the conclusion and the high point of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy. The series follows Breq, the last splinter of a destroyed starship, on her journey from soldier seeking vengeance to…

I’m going to stop there because I don’t want to give away too much, but the ending is both surprisingly low-key and deeply satisfying.

At its best, science fiction is able to use a broad canvas to explore very human concerns. And the Imperial Radch trilogy — and especially Ancillary Mercy — really is science fiction at its best.

Autonomy matters. Personhood matters. And, if personhood is a function of sentience, then there is no rational reason to limit it to humanity. When the autonomy of people is acknowledged — regardless of whether those people happen to be human, or a sentient space station, or a warship, or more — then a small group can work together to achieve the seemingly impossible.

It’s a message that could easily come across a trite but, in Leckie’s hands, the effortlessly gripping narrative incorporates these ideas in a manner that is both unobtrusive and effective.

This is all the more impressive given the way Leckie cherry picks her way through the mass of space opera tropes. Rather than a series of epic space-battles, we have determined individual, a stubborn space station, a teenager, and a lot of discussion. While the backdrop for this novel is huge, involving an interplanetary war between the various selves of a divided, and quite possibly mad, tyrant, the focus is very much on the characters, their relationships and the immediate problems they face.

Ancillary Mercy is a superb finale to an excellent trilogy and a remarkably good novel in it’s own right. And while this story arc comes to a very satisfying conclusion, there is clearly a great deal of space for more stories to be told in the same universe. I sincerely hope that Leckie finds the time to tell some of them.

He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy

Terry Jones died yesterday at the age of 77.

I remember, many years ago, reading Starship Titaninic, a spin-off from The Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy which Jones agreed to write on condition that he could do so in the nude. Or so Douglas Adams claims in the introduction to the novel.

Terry Jones is, of course, best remembered for being part of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and as the director of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, in which he also played Brian’s mum.

This, for my money, is one of the funniest films ever made — if not the funniest. So here is the highlight of a film full of highlights.

Invader

It’s been the best part of a year since I discovered CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner series, of which Invader is the second novel, and I was very pleasantly surprised at just how easy it was to slip back into the world of the Atevi. It’s fortunate, too, as this novel leads pretty much directly on from its predecessor.

Nearly two centuries after the starship Phoenix disappeared into the heavens, leaving an isolated colony of humans on the world of the atevi, it unexpectedly returns to orbit overhead, threatening the stability of both atevi and human governments.

With the situation fast becoming critical, Bren Cameron, the brilliant, young paidhi to the court of the atevi is recalled from Mospheira where he has just undergone surgery. But his sudden and premature return to the mainland is cause for more than mere physical discomfort. For during his brief absence, his government has sent his paidhi-successor, Deana Hanks — representative of a dangerous arch conservative faction on Mospheira who hate the atevi. And though she should depart when Bren is once again able to fill his post, no recall order comes.

Cut off from his government and haunted by the continuing threat of assassination, Bren realizes his only hope may be to communicate directly with the Phoenix as the spokesman of the atevi — an action which may cut him off for good from his own species. Yet if he doesn’t take this desperate and illegal action, he may be forced to helplessly bear witness to the final destruction of the already precarious balance of world power.

As with Foreigner, Invader not only centres on the character of Bren Cameron, but resolutely refuses to look beyond the character. What he knows the reader knows and nothing he doesn’t know is given to the reader at all — and there is a lot that he doesn’t know.

Cameron’s job is to act as the sole point of contact between the Atevi inhabitants of an alien world and the human population that was stranded there two centuries previously. This puts him in the unique position oh having to navigate not just the diplomatic relationship between the two species but also the increasingly factional mess of human politics and the, potentially lethal, Atevi political environment. Added to all this is the unexpected return of the starship that turns a difficult situation into a nightmarish one.

If this makes Invader sound like a book that is primarily about politics, it is. It is also utterly, utterly gripping. A large part of this comes from Cherryh’s ability to ensure that you can fully appreciate the consequences of the endless discussions.

There is so much going on in this novel that it takes a while for everything to fully sink in. This is no bad thing as you really do get a feel for the sheer alienness of the Atevi, both as a species and as a culture. This came across, for me at least, much more strongly than in the first novel and presents a culture for which attitudes that humans take for granted simply don’t exist.

Invader is a superb combination of political thriller, hard-sf contact novel and anthropological discussion. I’m sorely tempted to go back and read it again, but I also really want to know how Cherryh pulls everything together in Inheritor, the third part of this sub-trilogy.

Reading Highlights of 2019

I started 2019 with the intention of blogging about every book I read. This is an intention that eventually fell by the wayside because there are some books about which I really don’t have anything to say. These were the books that were neither great nor terrible, and about which all I can say is “that was okay”.

This post is not about those books.

I also read some really, really good books, and these are the books that this post is about.

Among these were two novels by Sarah Pinborough: The Shadow of the Soul and The Chosen Seed. These are the second and third parts of the Dog Faced Gods trilogy and, if you like dark urban fantasy, this series is well worth a read. The series is both dystopian and apocalyptic and keeps you hooked from beginning to end.

I also read a couple of (completely unrelated) novellas by Adrian Tchaikovsky. The Expert System’s Brother is a science-fiction story masquerading as a fantasy and, while short, packs a lot of detail into the page count in a way that manages to be both immersive and gripping. The second Novella was Made Things which was a short and very readable tale about trust, loyalty and friendship. The question of what it means to be a person is a theme that often appears in Tchaikovsky’s writing and is one that is very apparent in both of these stories.

2019 was also the year in which I discovered C.J. Cherryh by way of Foreigner, the first book in her eponymous series. Foreigner is a first contact novel wrapped in a thriller, the twist being that, this time, it’s humans that have landed on an alien planet and having to navigate a completely alien culture. I cannot believe that I still haven’t gotten around to reading Invader yet — I shall have to rectify this very soon.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor utterly blew me away. At less than 100 pages, this was a very quick read but there is so much packed into this novella that it really is worth going back and reading it again. The synopsis I saw for this made it sound like a fairly unexceptional space opera. What makes it stand out is that by drawing on her Nigerian roots, Nnedi Okorafor manages to look at questions of culture and cultural identity is a way that is (to me) utterly original.

Another novel that felt completely new to me was The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. Again, by not relying on the usual white western stereotypes, Jemisin presents a densely detailed world that is like nothing I have read before. I have already read the second book in this (The Broken Earth) series, and will be picking up a copy of The Stone Sky just as soon as I have the time.

And finally there is The Jennifer Morgue by The Jennifer Morgue, the second book in the Laundry Files series. This is, subversively funny, often unnerving and absolutely spot-on about PowerPoint.

Made Things

What does it mean to be a person? Do you need to be human? What about artificial humans? These are the questions at the heart of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s novella, Made Things.

The novella centres on Coppelia, a puppeteer and street thief living alone in the magical city of Loretz. Well, not entirely alone because living in Coppelia’s attic is a small tribe of homunculi — living puppets, or small artificial people. The homunculi don’t entirely trust their host but do recognise that working with her is so much more profitable than not and that she is a risk worth taking. As the story starts, an slightly uneasy alliance has been formed between Coppelia and her guests.

Things are shaken up somewhat when a local crime boss decides that he needs Coppelia, among others, to break into a mages’ palace. Inevitably enough, things do not go as planned.

Made Things is a short and very readable tale about trust, loyalty and friendship. It has a great cast of characters, all of whom come to life (literally, in some cases) in a manner that is both engaging and believable.

Northern Lights

I have always encouraged the boys to read (which is not difficult) and now we appear to have come full circle, with the boys encouraging me to read (again, not difficult). Specifically, Macsen told me that I would really enjoy Northern Lights (also known as The Golden Compass in some regions), the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

He wasn’t wrong. The book is superb.

Obviously this novel, and the series of which it is part, is very much aimed at a teenage audience. But there is so much depth and detail to Pullman’s world that it really does draw you in.

Set in a world slightly parallel to our own, the book centres on Lyra, an orphan growing up in Jordan College, Oxford under the slightly unfocused guardianship of the college master. Plots are afoot, though, and Lyra finds herself on a journey over the course of which she learns about herself, her parents and the world in which she lives.

There is a great deal to like here. The characterisation is consistently solid and the world depicted is deep, complete and fascinating. By setting the story on an Earth that is almost, but not quite, like our own, Pullman manages to create an environment that is both familiar and strange, and one that never leaves you floundering. For someone who had never read a fantasy novel before, this book would probably be a very good place to start.

Northern Lights is also a book that works on multiple levels. On one hand, much of the plot revolves around a chase through increasingly mysterious lands which, even with the darkness of the ending, will appeal to any teenager. However, embedded in the world-building and in the motivations of the various characters is a deeper exploration of the way in which religion — when given too much power — both corrupts and harms those who fall under its influence.

I will certainly be reading the next novel in this series (just as soon as Macsen has finished with it) and I sincerely hope that we will see more of the panserbjørne, who must go down as one of the most spectacularly awesome fantasy races ever conceived.

The Obelisk Gate

This second book in N.K. Jeminsin’s Broken Earth trilogy picks up from the end of The Fifth Season. While it does suffer a bit from ‘Middle Book Syndrome’ (the need to get from the end book one to the start of book three), this does not detract from what is a powerful and effective story.

The season of endings grows darker as civilisation fades into the long cold night.

Essun has found shelter, but not her missing daughter. Instead there is Alabaster Tenring, destroyer of the world, with a request only Essun can grant.

As with the previous novel, there is a lot packed into the narrative and the author doesn’t expect to wait for you to catch up. As such, you need to pay attention while reading this. That attention is well rewarded, though, with some superb worldbuilding being both expands and deepens the reader’s understanding of the environment in which this novel takes place.

We also spend a lot more time with the additional characters, those that were mentioned or briefly encountered in the earlier book, and most of whom will clearly become a great deal more important in the next novel.

While this novel is not quite as outstanding as the first novel — and for narrative reasons it probably can’t be — it is an excellent story in its own right and one that sets things up for a superb, and possibly world shattering, trilogy.

Cast Iron

I don’t usually read crime novels so this is a bit of a change of gear for me. I should also note that this is the sixth book in a series and, not having read any of the previous five, it took me quite a while to get up to speed with the various characters and to fully appreciate the significance of events recalled from previous books.

Cast Iron, and the series of which it is a part, centres on Enzo Macleod, a Scottish-Italian forensic scientist who has spent the previous five books solving cold-case murders. In this case, the story starts all the way back in 1989 when a killer dumped the body of Lucie Martin into a lake in the West of France. In 2003 the body was discovered but no-one was ever convicted. We then jump forward to 2011 when Enzo becomes involved, opening a whole can of worms as he does so.

It’s this can of worms that Author, Peter May is primarily interested in exploring and this often results in the investigation on which the novel hangs taking a back seat to the milieu of events swirling around the main character. This is no bad thing, though especially given that identifying Lucie Martin’s murderer was remarkably straightforward.

As such, it’s the pulling together of various threads from the previous novels in the series that really provides the meat of this novel. For me, though, this created something of a problem in that the fact that I hadn’t read the previous books often left me struggling a little to keep up with some of the motivations and events.

That said, by about two thirds of the way in I did have a reasonable handle on how the ever-expanding cast of characters related to each other and pretty much understood what was going on. In many ways reading this felt a lot like reading a soap opera in that I was stepping into an ongoing narrative having no idea of who was who or what was going on, but things do become both clearer and more engrossing as the story progresses.

Cast Iron is a very readable and occasionally gripping novel and one that leaves me with a dilemma: I’m tempted to read the previous five books in this series, but I fear that doing so will feel more than a little spoilery given that I already know how things are going to pan out.

The Expert System’s Brother

I discovered Adrian Tchaikovsky back in 2010 when I read Empire in Black and Gold, the first novel in the Shadows of the Apt series. It didn’t take me long to read the rest of the series which remains, for me, one of the most original and effective sets of fantasy novels I have read in a long time. With the Children of Time, Tchaikovsky turned from fantasy to science fiction and showed that he has a sure touch in either genre.

This is useful because The Expert System’s Brother is a science fiction novella masquerading as a fantasy story.

After an unfortunate accident, Handry is forced to wander a world he doesn’t understand, searching for meaning. He soon discovers that the life he thought he knew is far stranger than he could even possibly imagine.

Can an unlikely saviour provide the answers to the questions he barely comprehends?

One of the many things I find so enjoyable about Tchaikovsky’s writing is the quality of his world building, and The Expert System’s Brother is no exception. The world in which the story takes place is rich, detailed and thoroughly immersive and all of this is integrated beautifully into the narrative. We are told only what Handry sees and knows but are able to understand so much more and it really is a joy to watch all of the pieces slot into place.

As a novella, this is not a particularly long piece but Tchaikovsky manages to pack a lot of detail into a very short work and paces it in such a way as to hold your attention throughout.

This all makes for an excellently told tale of humanity, how the struggle to survive can go awry and a thoughtful story about what it means to be human.