The October/November 2006 double issue of Asimov's Science Fiction has an On Books column from Norman Spinrad entitled "The Big Kahuna." This time out, Spinrad reviews our books - John Meaney's Resolution and Ian McDonald's River of Gods, along with Del Rey author Peter F. Hamilton's Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained.
Thematically, the piece is something of a follow-up to his earlier "Aussies, Brits and Yanks," which appeared in the April/May 2006 Double Issue of Asimov's and which was exclusively devoted to five Pyr titles - all reviewed quite favorably. In fact, Spinrad quotes extensively from that review in this one.
This time out, Spinrad is less than 100% about John Meaney, though it is worth noting that his criticisms of the work are more to do with what he sees as the marketing and economic realities of SF publishing today, which- as dictated by the major chains refusal to stock hardcover works with a price point over $25 - in his opinion force publishers to break works which should have been single mammoth tomes into a duology or trilogy format.
Spinrad says, "This presents the writer with a literary problem, it produces a paradox that is inherently impossible to resolve fully. To wit, do you presume that the only readership for books two and three are people who have already read book one--and worse, that the only readership for book three is those who have read the first two volumes? Or do you attempt to make each book a novel that anyone can pick up and read cold?"
Whichever way the author chooses to address these questions leads to compromise in Spinrad's estimation, though he acknowledges that Meaney "does as good and clever a job of bringing the reader who missed the first two up to date without turning off the reader who hasn't as perhaps can be done." Along the way he praises Meaney for certain courageous narrative choices and even gives him points for making good on a promise that Frank Herbert never lived to fulfill in his own Dune series. (So, I'm pretty happy with his overall assessment.)
Now, I cannot speak as to what editorial pressures might or might not have shaped the Nulapeiron Sequence as the work was already available from its UK publisher (Bantam/Transworld) before I came on the scene. It was then, and remains today, one of my favorite works of hard science fiction from the last decade. Nor have I read Peter F. Hamilton's duology, which Spinrad sees as suffering from the same problem. Though I must say Spinrad's assessment of Pandora's Star does pique my interest and turn me off for the very reason's he states. (I may end up adding it to the enormous reading pile eventually, however, being tipped over the edge by learning here that Hamilton uses the speculative device of interstellar railway lines connecting commuters across the stars via wormhole traversing trains - an idea which fascinated me when I first encountered it back in 1992 in Ben Aaronovitch's brilliant Transit, one of the best of the Doctor Who books from the Virgin line and a media tie-in work that managed that rare feat of being genuine speculative fiction. Come to think of it, Peter did look a bit like Colin Baker at Interaction last year. But I digress...)
Norman Spinrad does raise an interesting point, whether correctly or incorrectly applied in this case. I know that I would have much preferred Gene Wolfe's recent Wizard Knight as the single book which Locus insists on calling it. And I did pick up the SFBC's edition of Sean Williams's and Shane Dix's Geodesica, precisely because I wanted to read that work in its one intended volume. That and the collector that I am always prefer hardcovers to paperbacks. But it's hard to fault publishers when they are up against the realities of what the chains will or will not bear - I think we're all agreed that it's certainly better to publish a Gene Wolfe work in two volumes than not at all - and I couldn't truthfully promise you'd never, ever see such a contrived duology from Pyr. (None so far but never say never.) Nor is this phenomenon necessarily new - wasn't The Lord of the Rings originally conceived as one tome? Still, I'm curious about Spinrad's proposed alternative, as with his novel Russian Spring, which his French publisher elected to publish "as two volumes without hiding that this was one continuous novel and published them simultaneously. You could buy volume one and read it before you decided whether you wanted to go on, and if you did, you could buy the second volume immediately, or you could buy both at one time, or, in the case of Russian Spring, the two volumes in a fancy boxed set." Would such a solution work over here? I don't know, but it bears thinking about, and I'd love to hear some further discussion on the subject.
Meanwhile, I can't say I'm anything but absolutely thrilled with Spinrad's opinion that Ian McDonald's River of Gods is "a literary masterpiece." Spinrad writes that "I can't think of a better science fiction novel I've read in years.... This novel is a masterpiece of science fiction by any meaningful standard and even some that are not." Spinrad is certainly not the first to offer this sort of opinion, with the Washington Post proclaiming that River is "a major achievement from a writer who is becoming one of the best sf novelists of our time" and F&SF hailing the work as one of those once in a blue moon masterpieces like Neuromancer, Altered Carbon, or Perdido Street Station. Certainly, River of Gods is the book that has best plugged into the immediate zeitgeist (Charles Stross's Accelerando sequence being the previous holder of that honor, though I would place their greatest impact as when his tales appeared in their original Asimov's run as individual stories.) But it will be interesting to see if a) like Charlie's Accelerando narrative, River of Gods gives rise/calls attention to any similar global/nonWestern centric works in its wake, in the way that Charlie kick started the recent wave of Vingean Singularity fiction to the forefront, and b) if decades hence McDonald's masterpiece will indeed be remembered on a par with such classics as Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, or Neuromancer. Time will shortly answer that first question but we'll have to wait a bit longer before we are sure of the latter.