2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson, is perhaps the most ambitious science fiction novel I have ever read, as Kim Stanley Robinson attempts to truly capture the state of humanity in the 24th century. Three hundred years from now, humans have terraformed and/or colonized most of the solar system. Animals are preserved in offworld terrariums inside asteroids. The concept of binary gender has all but disappeared. Many people have personal A.I.'s, called qubes. Genetic modification and introduction of animal DNA is not uncommon.
By far, the best thing about the book is its meticulous, thoughtful—and thought-provoking—worldbuilding. Much of it comes in the form of interstitial Extracts, chapters of, well, extracts from fictional texts—and they are truly extracts, cutting in and out mid-sentence—that provide scientific and societal background. I found these sections both interesting and frustrating, as the jumbled, partial nature of them made them deliberately obtuse, as if Robinson didn't really want you to understand any of it. They walk a fine line between a clever form of infodump that gives the reader just enough information and a cruel tease that makes the reader feel stupid. Worse are the interstitial Lists, which are, well, lists, and it's even less clear what information they're supposed to be imparting. Finally, the interstitial Quantum Walk chapters are stream-of-consciousness gibberish that approach coherence at times but appear to be satisfied with not making sense.
Robinson succeeds in painting a picture of the future; even when the details seem impenetrable, the impression comes across because his prose is so evocative. There are some lovely lines buried in the 500+ pages. What does it mean to be human? What does life mean, when life now lasts over a hundred years? What is love in a world that spans the entire galaxy?
Sadly, the book is 80% worldbuilding, 20% story. It begins promisingly enough, as Swan Er Hong, a Chinese-Mercurian who lives in Terminator, a city on rails, learns that her recently deceased grandmother was into some secret cloak-and-dagger shit. This leads her to a potential terrorist conspiracy and thoughts of interplanetary revolution. The pacing of the book falters, however, as it quickly loses its initial momentum and then never regains it, content to wallow in subplot after subplot and occasionally remembering there's something interesting going on. The passage of time is also very unclear, and it was only when a date was finally given that I was certain we were in the year 2312, although I had no idea how much time had passed since the book began. It doesn't help that much of the book is summary rather than scene; Robinson is content to paint his picture in broad strokes rather than give you a visceral sense of being there. As a result, it's hard to get sucked into the story as a story, and after a while, I wanted to get to the end as quickly as possible not because I cared about what was going to happen but because I could move on to another book.
2312 is a fascinating look at the future, to be sure, but I prefer an engaging narrative to go along with strong worldbuilding.
Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed, came out the same year as The Killing Moon, and although they do share several similarities—fantasy by person of color about people of color, multiple third-person POV protagonists, a strong focus on religion, a superficial similarity in plot—they are quite different beasts.
Like The Killing Moon, the book eschews the traditional model of European fantasy, creating an Arab-influenced world populated with djenn, ghuls, and shape-shifters and ruled by a Khalif. Coming off 2312, it was a relief to learn about the world as the characters lived in it, with no clumsy exposition or awkward explanations; Ahmed deftly weaves the important information into the descriptions and the characters' thoughts so that the reader never feels lost. The world feels lived in, not too fantastical but with more than enough magic and supernatural elements seamlessly incorporated into the basic understanding of how it operates.
Although I found the worldbuilding itself refreshing, even more refreshing are the characters, who are not your typical fantasy archetypes. Three of them are middle-aged, one of them a fat, aging demon hunter who is too old for this shit. These older characters are allowed to have touching romances and kick a lot of ass. The younger characters are a warrior priest and a barbarian girl with the fury of a lioness. Ahmed switches between the characters' perspectives, but he frequently goes against expectations, telling the story from a wide swath of viewpoints rather than focusing on the ostensible main character. I grew attached to each character for different reasons; each one was complex and interesting.
The worldbuilding is somewhat flawed, though. I found it distracting that the religion in this Arab-influenced world was a thinly disguised version of Christianity, with references to the Traitorous Angel and the Lake of Flame and verses from the Heavenly Chapters that sounded like Bible verses. While it's a clever transplant, I expected something more culturally appropriate. Similarly, the dialogue can sometimes sound awkward when it mixes in more modern constructions with the heightened speech.
The book is the first in a trilogy, but, thankfully, it stands alone quite well and has a fairly satisfying ending. Our heroes investigate a series of grisly deaths committed by a creature who threatens the city of Dhamsawaat; meanwhile, the Falcon Prince plays Robin Hood and raises questions of morality and misuse of power in his little rebellion against the Khalif and the upper class. Although the villain is underdeveloped, the well-paced narrative builds to an exciting climax with important plot and character moments.
Throne of the Crescent Moon is a swift, engaging read with a world and characters I look forward to returning to.
After having enjoyed Throne of the Crescent Moon, I was hungry for more by Saladin Ahmed, and, as luck would have it, here in Engraved on the Eye was a short story collection that even featured some stories set in the Throne world, including the first meeting of the Doctor and his apprentice. Another Throne story is one of the best in the collection, and I hope to see the main character in the books proper at some point, as I believe her story has only just begun. By and large, Ahmed's strength is in his mood and atmosphere, crafting new worlds unlike the typical fantasy fare. The stories all feature non-white protagonists, and many have a Middle Eastern flair. You'll find ghuls, jinns, and, um, a rabbitwoman. While I must admit that I didn't really love any one story—although "Doctor Diablo Goes Through the Motions," a very short story about supervillains that has a different tone from anything else in the collection, is cute and successful because of its brevity—I found each one pretty interesting and different. Ahmed certainly has a thing that seems to be found in a lot of his stories—Arabic influence and focus on religion, for instance—but, in that sense, Engraved on the Eye is a perfect way to get a taste of his voice as an author.