Thursday, October 26, 2006

Ex Libris: The Deceiver's Tale

(Warning: this review has hints of spoilers.)

Sometimes the magic trick works and sometimes it doesn't.

When I first picked up Alastair Reynolds's SF-standalone Chasm City, I thought this should be good: a disaster-struck city shadowed by loss and fear, a nanotechnology out of control, with steampunk and noir in the bargain. Alas, it was not to be. Unfortunately, throughout my reading, I found myself questioning the telling of the story until I found myself doubting the truth of the narrative.

That's why when I read this excerpted interview of writer Christopher Priest in Locusmag, I immediately thought of Chasm City:

"Readers should be made to work a bit and they shouldn't take anything for granted. For me, the unreliable narrator keeps people alert. Some people get fed up with it and can't be bothered, but the people I think of as serious readers very much like it."

Priest's quote is quite serendipitous since I thought the method of the unreliable narrator likens the writer to a magician: one has to write enough to fool the reader for the big finale at the ending. (And just in case you haven't heard, Priest has a book that's been turned into a movie, The Prestige, about two magicians. But I digress...)

In this case, Reynold's book has two story-lines: one is of a bodyguard named Tanner Mirabel out to revenge himself against Argent Reiveich for the death of his employer. His chase takes him from planet Sky's Edge to planet Yellowstone and its now-infamous Chasm City, where a machine plague has struck and rendered most nanotechnology in the city as dangerous. As Tanner's chase takes him into the depths of Chasm City, he finds himself dreaming the life of Sky Hausmann, the infamous founder of Sky's Edge and the second storyline in this book. As Tanner closes in on Argent, he finds that the past and present may be nothing but lies and his dreams could be closer to the truth.

Ironically, despite the excellent 'Blade Runner' tone of the book, inconsistencies started popping up that I started asking questions about the story. This is where I started thinking in terms of the unreliable narrator. Unfortunately, to use Priest's quote, this story pushed too far in making me question the story. To use the magician metaphor further, I wanted to see what was behind the magician's curtain and this sadly took me out of the narrative's flow.

Overall, I really wanted to enjoy this book. Despite some complaints I had about the story (the city was not well-realized as compared to other books I've read, the ending was somewhat abrupt and flat), Chasm City was pretty good.

This was one book wherein the story was too smart for his own good.

(More reviews to follow...)


Eldritch00 said...

I've been skipping this entry...until I saw that it was actually a review of Chasm City and not The Prestige.

I'm not quite sure I understand what your (main) problem with Chasm City was, so feel free to clarify things for me. My brain is fuzzy and oversaturated with final requirements.

From what I can understand, the novel didn't draw you in, perhaps because the language wasn't compelling enough or because it's a novel that seems too ambitious for its own good. Perhaps even both. If so, I somewhat agree with both criticisms.

However, while I was attracted to the idea of the city of the title (and was a bit disappointed with its treatment) and the "mystery elements," my main purpose for reading it was to see if I could make the jump to the trilogy. In that case, Chasm City fulfilled its purpose for me.

Also, when you refer to the "unreliable narrator," were you speaking about Tanner Mirabel? Or Alastair Reynolds as the "unseen narrator" behind the first-person POV?

I enjoyed this book a great deal, as you well know, but I really prefer the other three Reynolds novels that deal explicitly with the Inhibitor threat.

In fact, I primarily recommend this one as a background to the "trilogy." I'm glad I started with Chasm City, despite Revelation Space having been published earlier. I'm even gladder that I enjoyed my first Reynolds enough to want to get into the other books, which have a different feel altogether.

Strangely, Century Rain is the Reynolds novel that has acquired so many mixed reviews. I hope Reynolds continues to hone his "mystery writer" skills, since he's very interested in that genre, but I think his strength really is in the so-called widescreen baroque space opera.

Pardon me if this comment is as incoherent to you as it is to me.

M.R.M. said...

I always wondered if Reynolds' stuff was good. I've read the first few pages of "Revelation Space" and thought it was interesting enough, but have had way too many books pile up (you know how that goes) for me to consider buying it.

skinnyblackcladdink said...

bc: er, me, i wasn't bothered by chasm city 'being smart'. i mean, reynolds creates smart SF, but i don't think it's the same thing as what you mean with this post. i may be wrong, but i think what you mean is it was 'too clever for its own good.'

then again, me, i didn't find it very 'clever', either, being pretty straightforward when you think about it. guess it stems from my reading style: i automatically assume all narrators are unreliable, and the more airtight a narrator's story is, the more suspicious i am of it.

chasm also has a lot of iffy bits, like that annoyingly awkward monkey-swinging transportation thingy. and hokey bits as well, particularly at the end with the fangs and all.

on the other hand, unlike you, apparently, i *did* like this book, hokiness, iffy science and all. it was, in the end, a bit of 'jolly dark fun', and got me into the revelations space trilogy.

while it's true i wasn't particularaly impressed by 'absolution gap', i really got into century rain, but, oddly enough, i got tired of it about two-thirds of the way in. i can offer no explanation for this, it just somehow got old for me all of a sudden.

er, if that was senseless drek, keep reading this comment, even though the next bit is for eld.

eld: i don't think i'm making much sense right now either. just got back from a long meeting so me head is split near in twain or twine or something, so, no, sorry, i didn't get what you were saying either LOL. i might comment on whatever it is you said next time i check out bc's site, but right now, i'm a rambling bit of mush. not even sure i got what bc was saying. but being a one-time reynolds fan (not sure if i still am), i thought i'd throw in my two cents, however mangled they may be.

banzai cat said...

eldritch: Hehe sorry about that. I've been trying to post a picture of the book cover; unfortunately, blogger isn't cooperating.

Anyway, like you, I was also using the stand-alone Chasm City as a jump-off point into Reynolds' writings. I suppose my main complaint is that the story was rather ambitious in its approach though I do appreciate Reynolds' effort in telling the story. And yes, sorry if this was unclear but Tanner Mirabel was the 'unreliable narrator' that made me suspicious about his origin. However, I'd stop here as any further comment might give away the story. (Let's chat on this the next time we meet.)

mahesh: Heh meself I picked up this book because I figured I have to give all the upcoming new British SF writers out there a try. It was actually friend eldritch's recommendation that pushed this book up my reading list, that and the fact that a city is its subject matter. ;-)

banzai cat said...

skinny: Whoops! Where did your comment come from? This is what I get for waiting to answer too long but unfortunately, I can't get my brain to work properly. Looks like you and eld ain't only the ones.

Seriously, I figured that 'smart' = 'clever' but yeah, what you said. On the other hand, meself I place an automatic trust on the narrator unless given warning and Tanner's actions screamed inconsistency so much. Oy. (Which is why I have to re-read Gene Wolfe's Severian stories again. Hey, I was young then.)

And yeah, I wasn't particularly impressed with the swinging cars thing, part of my 'meh' reaction to the strangeness of Chasm City. It made me wonder if that's one difference between SF and fantasy writers, the way they handle setting.

As for reading Reynolds again... very probable. But given how many books and writers are out there, unfortunately not anytime soon.

JP said...

>>I figured I have to give all the upcoming new British SF writers out there a try.

Adam Roberts! Adam Roberts!

I quite enjoyed Chasm City, actually, it felt very like a typically convolutued Van Vogt plot, refracted through a prism of post-cyberpunk crystalline muck. His other books, as Eldritch says, feel much more substantial, plot wise.

banzai cat said...

Haha actually quite right about Adam Roberts as one of his books is also on my to-read pile, including Ken Macleod, Ian MacDonald and Cory Doctorow (okay, the last one ent British but still...).

Alas, am currently overloaded at the moment so they're a bit down the road at the mo.