Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Song Worth Singing

Winter Song
by Colin Harvey
Angry Robot
mass market, 407 p., $7.99

In Britain, the robots are angry.  I'm not sure why they're angry, but they are.  So angry, in fact, that they are planning world domination.  They say so, right there in their books. 

The conquest has already started.  First Britain, then earlier this year, America.  Walk into any decent bookstore and you'll find a number of books from Angry Robot on the shelves.  I first heard of this imprint earlier this year.  The only name I recognized on their list was Lavie Tidhar, although I've since learned that Chris Roberson and Tim Waggoner have been added to the lineup.  Roberson I like, a lot, and will feature here at some future point.  The only thing I read by Waggoner (a horror writer) I didn't care for; too sick and twisted for my taste.

I'm going to be looking for more of Angry Robot's stuff.  And not just because I liked this book.  On the back of every one of Angry Robot's books I've picked up, there is a list of books you might enjoy if you enjoyed that one.  On the back of Winter Song we find the following volumes:  Seeker by Jack McDevitt, Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, and Helix by Eric Brown.  Now McDevitt is one of my all time favorites, as is Wilson, and Brown is rapidly becoming so.  I haven't read Spin yet, but only because I missed it in hardcover.  The thing  that impresses me about Angry Robot providing these lists is that the books aren't just by them.  The McDevitt was published by Eos, the Wilson by Tor, and the Brown by Solaris, if memory is correct.  To recommend your competitor's books takes a lot of class.

Anyway, the story here is old fashioned science fiction adventure.  Karl Allman is cutting through what he believes to be an empty star system on a delivery run when his ship is attacked.  The ship's AI, callled Ship, manages to eject Allman on a trajectory towards a planet on which Ship's records show a partially terraformed colony was abandoned centuries before at the beginning of the Long Night.  The Long Night was a conflict between the Terraformers (name self explanatory) and the Pantropists, who wanted to reshape humanity.  Just why there are ships in this system is a question that is never answered.

This particular system is the Mizar system, a multiple star system.  It was colonized by a group from Iceland wanting to maintain their culture.  All of the planets have Icelandic names.  The planet, Isheimur, which is Icelandic for ice world, lies just outside the habitable zone.  Any survivors will be struggling to maintain that designation, as opposed to the title deceased.

Karl Allman manages to survive reentry, but not without damage.  Before Ship was destroyed, it downloaded into Allman's brain a portion of a backup AI.  Unfortunately, the download wasn't completed, and it is the personality that is in control when Karl wakes up.  If yo imagine a superintelligent child with no social skills, you probably have a good idea of the AI's personality.  There's a reason the colonists who find Karl name him Loki.

The chapters in the first part of the book alternate viewpoint characters.  The other two viewpoint characters are Ragnar, the chieftain of a settlement, and Bera, a young woman who was taken in by Ragnar as a young girl.  Ragnar to a large degree is a product of his environment, harsh and unfeeling in many ways.  Bera is treated like chattel by most of the members of Ragnar's household, especially by his daughter Hilda.  Bera has recently given birth to a child out of wedlock and refused to name the father, for reasons we eventually learn are sound.  Because of her silence, she is denounced as a whore and the child left outside to freeze on Ragnar's orders.  I told you he was harsh, but then so is the law of survival on this planet.  Ragnar's actions are completely legal.

Karl lands shortly after Bera's son has died, and she is given the chore of restoring him to health.  By rescuing Karl, Ragnar has placed on him a debt of repayment.  It doesn't help matters that Karl and Loki, unaware of each other at first, switch back and forth as the dominant personality.  And Loki has all of Karl's desires, but none of his socialization or self control.  Can you say "sexual tension"?

Ship had sent off a distress call just before being destroyed, and Karl wants to find a population center so he can send a followup message.  He doesn't realize he is in a population center.  I won't say too much more, because I recommend this book and don't want to spoil all the surprises for you.  Needless to say, there's more to the history of Isheimur than any of the settlers suspect.  The Winter Song of the title plays into this history. 

Harvey does a good job of showing the problems inherent in a small population struggling to stay alive in a harsh environment in which it has no long term prospects. He shows how the climate has influenced the culture that has developed as well as the internal politics, both strength based and sexual, that arise in a small group of people with what essentially amounts to an elected dictator as leader.  He also does a masterful job in one portion of the book of giving a tour of the environment on the planet, including the fauna.  There are some surprises here.  MAJOR SPOILER:  I especially liked that the other colonists, you know, the ones the Icelanders don't realize are there, were from Kazakhstan.

Not all the questions are answered.  For one thing, as one of the characters points out, there's an awful lot of activity in a supposedly abandoned star system.  Why?  The book ends on something of a cliff-hanger.  Harvey gives us a glimpse of the wider universe, but only a glimpse.  I want to know more.  His latest book just hit the shelves a few weeks ago.  Damage Time is a near future thriller.  I plan on picking it up.  But I want to know more about Karl Allman's wider universe.  Hopefully Colin Harvey will show us some in a future book (or books, hint, hint, Colin).

In the meantime I'm going to await the coming of our robot overlords.  I should probably find something appropriate to read.  Maybe Lavie Tidhar's The Bookman, or Kell's Legend by Andy Remic.  Hmm....which to choose?

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