The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

The blog's nonexclusive focus is on literary/mainstream fiction, thriller/crime/spy novels, and science fiction.  While the reviews cover books old and new, in and out of print, the blog does try to direct attention to books that have been recently published.  Reviews of new (or newly reprinted) books generally appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Reviews of older books appear on occasional weekends.  Readers are invited and encouraged to comment.  See About Tzer Island for more information about this blog, its categorization of reviews, and its rating system.

Entries in Kim Stanley Robinson (2)


Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson

Published by Orbit on September 3, 2013

Kim Stanley Robinson is full of ideas. The danger in a KSR novel is that he will develop his ideas with enthusiasm while relegating the plot and characters to the status of afterthoughts. When -- as in Shaman -- KSR decides to tell a story rather than disguising a series of essays as a work of fiction, he is a talented writer. In Shaman, KSR avoids pedantic lectures while achieving a blend of humor and poignancy in a solid, enjoyable novel.

In a departure from the work for which KSR is best known, Shaman looks at the past rather than the future, probing prehistoric characters to reveal the essential and enduring features of humanity. The novel begins with a rite of passage as adolescent Loon, sent naked into the woods on the night of the new moon, begins a wander from which he must not return until the full moon rises. Loon eventually ingests some mushrooms to induce a vision, a necessary step if he is to follow Thorn's teachings and become a shaman. Raised by Heather and Thorn after his parents died, Loon is restless (and like all young men, hormone-driven). He is an unwilling apprentice with little interest in becoming a shaman, although he admires Thorn's cave paintings. Thorn teaches him songs and poems that recall the past but Loon is focused on the future. He looks forward to the pack's summer trek and the festival at which a score of packs gather, in part because it provides his only opportunity to meet new girls.

The plot meanders a bit but it is largely the story of Loon's young life, and since lives meander, it isn't surprising that the plot does. At the novel's midway point, however, a story breaks loose when someone close to Loon disappears, sending Loon on a search to distant northern lands. At some point the story becomes one of hunter and prey; at another point it is a tale of wilderness survival. It's a good (but not a great) coming-of-age story that offers few surprises. Character development is strong and the plot is credible. To create an interesting change of pace, KSR occasionally departs from the main characters to focus on an outsider. Now and then KSR gives us an anthropomorphic look at the world through the eyes of a cat or a wolverine.

Robinson leaves it to the reader to give meaning to the poems of the past, a refreshing change from novels in which he spells out the past and present in excruciating detail. That's not to say that Shaman lacks detail. Robinson is known for his world-building, and his ability to create an imagined Earth of the distant past is just as impressive as his construction of an inhabited Mars of the relatively near future. This is a familiar world of rivers and onions and pine needles, a world abundantly populated by ravens and trout, lions and bears, all having symbolic significance to the tribal people who share the land with them. It is in fact the people -- their social organizations, customs, behaviors, and folklore, the hardship of survival and the joy of friendship -- that make Shaman memorable. From mating to domestic discord, behavior is recognizable, but dissimilar enough to be a convincing account of a distant time. The differences between northern and southern tribal peoples are akin to differing political philosophies: competition versus cooperation (perhaps the forerunners of capitalism versus socialism). Like all of KSR's work, Shaman is a book of ideas, here drawn from anthropology, sociology, ecology, and economics. Unlike some of KSR's novels, however, the ideas are expressed with subtlety, are carefully integrated into the story, and never get in the way of the plot that conveys them.



2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Published by Orbit on May 22, 2012 

“Worldbuilding” has been a popular buzz word in the modern era of science fiction, and Kim Stanley Robinson has always scored points for his detailed construction of alien environments.  In 2312, he turns his attention to asteroid building:  asteroids are captured, hollowed out, fitted with propulsion systems, made into terraria that double as transport vehicles, and populated with animals like arks designed by futuristic Noahs.  He also gives Mercury a city that travels on rails to avoid sunlight and imagines an Earth that has seen better days (particularly Florida, which is mostly underwater).  Yet worldbuilding alone does not a successful novel make.

2312 gets off to a promising start as a terrarium designer and cutting edge artist named Swan Er Hong, rocked by the unexpected death of her elderly mentor Alex, discovers that Alex left her a message to be delivered to Wang Wei.  Accompanied by Saturn’s liason, Wahrum, Swan travels to Io where she learns that Alex had a plan to revivify a moribund Earth.  Alex was also worried that the quantum computers (qubes) that run everything appeared to be going rogue.  Another of Alex’s friends, Inspector Genette, enlists Swan’s help as he tries to complete the investigation he started with Alex.  On a visit to Earth, Swan arranges for a kid named Kiran to escape his dreary life (the reader knows, of course, that Kiran will eventually reappear and play a crucial role in the story) before she returns to Mercury, where either a natural disaster or (more likely) a devastating attack briefly energizes the novel.

The energy, unfortunately, fizzles out, reigniting in spurts from time to time but never sustaining.  When the plot moves along -- when things happen -- 2312 is an imaginative and entertaining novel.  When, for long stretches, nothing happens, 2312 is a mediocre novel.  Most of the text in the initial three-quarters of the book does little to advance the plot.  It’s a long slog through a deep bog to get to the final quarter where the story finally comes into focus.

Throughout his career, Robinson has demonstrated a tendency to explain his many thoughts -- ranging from physics and geology to economics and politics -- at length, resulting in novels that are needlessly wordy.  That’s the primary fault that weakens 2312.  I often had the impression that Robinson was worried that his plot would get in the way of his ideas so he relegated plot development to the last few chapters.  I also had the impression that Robinson was more interested in showing off his considerable knowledge than in telling a tight, compelling story.  Knowledge, like worldbuilding, is fine, but tedious discussions of seemingly random ideas that do little to advance the plot reflect a sort of self-indulgence that detracts from the novel.

Robinson doesn’t write with literary flair; sometimes, in fact, his prose reads like a dry textbook.  Explanatory sections of the novel entitled “excerpts” are a thinly disguised excuse for the sort of expository pontification that kills a fictional narrative.  Fortunately, most of them are mercifully short.  Robinson also throws in a few meaningless lists (e.g., names of craters … who cares?).  Breaking up the narrative with these frequent digressions seriously disrupts the story’s flow.

Swan is the only character with any personality at all.  Robinson takes a stab at human emotion by putting Wahrum and Swan together, but the effort isn’t convincing, and the sex scenes (complicated by extra parts) are more silly than passionate.  Robinson is clearly more comfortable with ideas than people.

For all the worldbuilding, Robinson is at his best when he focuses on Earth as it exists three hundred years from now.  His vision is bleak but credibly grounded in environmental, political, and economic trends.  Even here, however, his writing sometimes devolves into a scolding lecture.  Some of his chapters would make excellent essays or editorials; as fiction, they too disconnected from plot or characterization to be riveting.

Alex’s creative version of a revolution and an imaginative means of launching an interstellar attack give the novel its best moments.  A shorter, tighter novel that focused on those elements would have been a great read.  As it stands, 2312 leaves the reader drowning in ideas and fails to deliver a truly engrossing story.