Senlin Ascends by Josian Bancroft

The premise of Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft, is… odd. In Thomas Senlin’s world, which is somehow modeled on ours but is just enough different, there is a tower of Babel, a monument to some powerful and previous civilization that is at the center of Senlin’s dreams. The tower is the epitome of knowledge and Senlin, a school teacher, desires more than anything to bask in its glory. When he gets married, this is where he takes his bride for their honeymoon.

However, the tower is nothing like he imagined, like the guide books he devoured described. The book describes his journey in the tower, which feels so much like an odd adventure quest. As Senlin learns about the tower, he learns about himself as well, and grows from the timid school teacher into something more.

So, the plot really revolves around Senlin understanding the true nature of the tower and encountering various characters and executing various tasks, almost like a strange role playing game. The tower would be an excellent setting for such an adventure. It almost reminds me of these roleplaying adventures I led when I was a kid, where we had a random dungeon in which each room was a random environment or place. The tower almost feels the same. As Bancroft writes in an interview at the end, he wrote this book because “I liked to be surprised and delighted, liked to gasp and laugh, and wanted to share the whole mad experience with someone else.” The tower is the perfect place to share such experiences. Anything goes, and what happens in one level doesn’t have to have anything to do with the next level.

But, what makes the story stand out isn’t so much the plot but the characters and the setting. The tower is its own character, with each level a completely different setting with its own set of people and activities, essentially a world unto itself.

One of the first things Senlin encounters after making it inside the tower is a beer-go-round, where people have to pedal, making the entire thing spin, until enough energy is pumped into the machine to make beer spray everywhere.

As Senlin makes his way through his journey of discovery, of both the tower and himself, he meets a number of characters that challenge his world view. “Never let a rigid itinerary discourage you from an unexpected adventure,” they tell him, and “I’d rather be a nothing at the center of everything than a puffed-up somebody at the edge of it all.” He meets powerful people that pull the strings, at least in their part of the tower. These people provide him lessons in power: “The powerful never trust. They respect and are respected. Trust is a weak bond, and it is for the weak.” and “Powerful mean fail just as much, if not more often, than the failures. The exceptional thing is that they admit it; they take and hold up their failures. They claim their disappointments; they move on!” Each person Senlin encounters teaches him something new, provide him a new perspective on life and the world that he had never considered.

This is the first in The Books of Babel trilogy. I’m certainly looking forward to what Senlin finds as he keeps climbing the tower.

The Rising and The Liberation by Ian Tregillis

In The Mechanical, Ian Tregillis introduced a world in which the Dutch had found a magical/alchemical way to create robotic servants and soldiers that were much stronger and faster than any human and never tired. They had used these creatures to essentially conquer the world, with the exception of a remnant of France that struggled for survival in what they called “New France,” a colony of France in the Americas. What the Dutch never realized is that their creations were more than simple machines, they think and have their own wills, though those are subjugated to the demands of their Dutch masters in their creation. A few of these machines, called Clakkers, break free, becoming rogue. Really, this is their story.

In The Rising and The Liberation, the second and third book in Tregillis’ Alchemy Wars trilogy, the war between the French and the Dutch, and the consequences of one Clakker, Jax, gaining free will, are followed. The points of view shift between different characters, typically focused on three different perspectives in each book. The Rising is really focused on the last battle in the war between the Dutch and French, with the fate of the French civilization in the balance. But, a new power arises in the meantime and The Liberation follows that new development.

Without going into the plot, again Tregillis focuses on what it means to have free will, what having command of your choices means, and the cruelty that people can exert on one another. Some of the characters are truly vicious, some out of perceived necessity, others because that is inherent to their nature. I like that, in Tregillis’ world, things aren’t black and white. Characters nominally on the side of good act abhorrently, while others that might be thought of as evil do good deeds. They all have realistic motivations and often think they are doing what is best, even if that means being cruel to others. These aren’t superheroes that always make the morally best choice, they make the best choices to advance their survival or their cause, which are sometimes morally dubious.

If I have one quibble, the climax of the series is a bit abrupt and it isn’t quite clear what the characters were doing to make it happen. But, the rest of the story flows well, the characters are well developed, and the more philosophical aspects of the story form a great backdrop. There is a lot in this world that remains unexplored, including the fate of the other peoples of the world, which is only alluded to; the future of the Clakkers; and the real mystery about their creation. There is a lot of rich territory here that can be mined if Tregillis so desires.

This is a series I may well revisit again in the future.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene, isn’t my typical reading fare. Written in 1940, it tells the story of a so-called whiskey priest, one who has fallen from the Church, in Mexico during a time when the Mexican government was persecuting the Catholic Church. The story follows this priest as he tries to evade the authorities and encounters people from various walks of life in rural Mexico. These people have their own stories that intersect that of the priest to varying degrees. Most don’t end happily.

Throughout his travels, the priest struggles with his place in Mexican society. He is one of the few priests left, even if he is broken goods, so he is one of the few that can administer the faith. However, any time he does, he takes a chance that the authorities find him and execute him. Should he stay or should he go? This internal struggle is set against the backdrop of him trying to hide from those hunting him.

Greene has a powerful way with words, and the nature of his story allows him to philosophize about all nature of things:

  • “He was a mystic too, and what he had experienced was vacancy — a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all.”
  • “Instead of food they talk to you about heaven. Oh, everything will be fine after you are dead, they say. I tell you — everything will be fine when they are dead, and you must help.”
  • “How often the priest had heard the same confession — Man was so limited he hadn’t even the ingenuity to invent a new vice.”
  • “If God had been like a toad, you could have rid the globe of toads, but when God was like yourself, it was no good being content with stone figures — you had to kill yourself among the graves.”
  • “He had always been worried by the fate of pious women. As much as politicians, they fed on illusion.”
  • “Nobody really knew how long a second of pain could be. It might last a whole purgatory — or for ever.”
  • “Sweat cleaned you as effectively as water. But this was the race which had invented the proverb that cleanliness was next to godliness — cleanliness, not purity.”

The priest, in the end, isn’t the most sympathetic character. He is a bit of a coward, and he hates the people that demand he serve as a priest for them. But, despite his fear and his cowardliness, he is a good person at heart, even when his actions don’t always belie that fact. As Greene weaves the story of this fallen priest, you never know what his ultimate fate will be, either physically or spiritually, and that is what sucks you in.

The Peripheral by William Gibson

If you’ve never read William Gibson, it can be a chore to get going. He takes the adage of “show, don’t tell” to an extreme, not really describing the worlds he creates as much as throwing you in to the middle of them. He invents jargon and concepts that he throws at you as if everyone knows what they are. It is only by reading, by immersing yourself in his world, that you can learn what he is saying. But, the end is always worth it.

The Peripheral is another such story. As with all of his books, Gibson creates a near-future world, taking some of our current trends in technology and society to an extreme. Here, he creates two worlds that somehow communicate with one another through devices, through peripherals, that are essentially robots that people temporarily inhabit, giving them a new identity — a new body, a new gender, a new experience — at least for a while. Understanding the relationship between these two worlds is part of the story, so I won’t give it away, but it is another intriguing world that Gibson has built. He creates concepts that are alien but built upon our own experiences that are ingenious. For example, describing how two characters secretly talk to one another:

Whatever randomly synthetic language the one spoke, the other understood. Never the one thing long enough to provide a sufficient sample for decryption.

That is, these two characters speak in almost random sounds — now like birds, the next in grunts — that only they can understand. And they don’t speak in any one long enough for anyone to figure out what they are saying. The story is filled with these technological marvels that flesh out Gibson’s futuristic visions.

The main characters, Flynne and Nick, find themselves trying to save Flynne’s world from some truly nasty people who’s only concern is power. These people almost seem like evil incarnate, but, really, what is evil? Such people don’t view themselves as evil. Gibson touches on the nature of evil: “That evil wasn’t glamorous, but just the result of ordinary half-assed badness, high school badness, given enough room, however that might happen, to become its bigger self.” He also touches on climate change and the dangers it poses to the world, and how governments manipulate our every day lives.

I always find Gibson entertaining and thought provoking. His worlds are both alien and familiar, with technological marvels that you both covet and are repulsed by. I look forward to the next one.

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is always an entertaining and often a thought-proving writer. In Anansi Boys, he tells the story of Fat Charlie and his brother Spider, a brother Fat Charlie didn’t know he had until he was well into adulthood. Their father is rather special, but Fat Charlie doesn’t know that. He only knows that his father is a good-for-nothing that seemed to abandon him and his mother when he was a child. It is only when his father dies and Spider comes into his life that he realizes who his father, and by extension he himself, really are.

Gaiman shifts the story telling from the point of view of different characters, some of which are actually quite creepy. His characters are well developed and he gives even the worst of the villains solid motivation.

As Fat Charlie learns about who he is and who is brother is, they both have to escape the plots of powerful forces aligned against them. Without revealing too much of the plot, they have to learn to work together to make it out alive.

Gaiman’s writing is always clever, and he has a number of nice lines that were memorable:

  • “The nature of parents is to embarrass merely by existing, just as it is the nature of children of a certain age to cringe with embarrassment, shame, and mortification should their parents so much as speak to them on the street.”
  • “Today, like every day, roughly five thousand people on the face of the planet will experience one-chance-in-a-million things, and not one of them will refuse to believe the evidence of their senses.”
  • “…he noticed that anything louder than the gentle Brownian motion of air molecules drifting softly past each other was above his pain threshold.”
  • “…as a small girl she had been unable to envision a God who disliked anyone enough to sentence them to an eternity of torture in Hell, mostly for not believing in Him properly…”
  • “The important thing about songs is that they’re just like stories. They don’t mean a damn unless there’s people listenin’ to them.”
  • “Naturalists have pondered this for years: there are spiders whose bite can cause the place bitten to rot and to die, sometimes more than a year after it was bitten. As to why spiders do this, the answer is simple. It’s because spiders think this is funny, and they don’t want you ever to forget them.”

As with all of the Gaiman I have read, in Anansi Boys he deftly combines a clever plot with great characters and some deeper rumination about the world we all share. Another great story by a master storyteller.

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

%d bloggers like this: