The trailing edge of this summer’s reading list included David Brin’s The Ancient Ones, Iain Bank’s Excession, and Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear.
It also saw a considerable slow down in my reading pace due to the style of book I was reading. While The Ancient Ones was a breezy comedy, Bank’s Excession – like the rest of The Culture novels – is a heavy lift that requires considerable concentration. Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear is a more straightforward read, but a huge book – it clocks in at 1,000 pages. The audiobook – which is how I’m consuming the novel – is 42 hrs and 55 mins. That means most of July and a good chunk of August were given over to listening to a single book.
The Ancient Ones
As I mentioned in my summer reading list post, science fiction comedy is a difficult genre. It doesn’t help that Douglas Adams set an impossible scifi standard with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels, or that Terry Pratchett did the same for fantasy with his Discworld books. David Brin, the author of the hard SF Uplift novels as well as the post-apocalyptic The Postman, is a favorite author of mine, so when he released the comedy novel The Ancient Ones, I was willing to give it a try.
The book’s got a great setup: the namesake Ancient Ones in the books are humanity. Playing against type, it’s the humans who are the seasoned, experienced explorers willing to teach the younger civilizations how to survive in the galaxy. We’re paired with the Demmies, super enthusiastic aliens with impossible technology and relentless energy … pretty much exactly who Star Trek taught us we would be if we ever stepped out onto the galactic stage.
Unfortunately, rather than explore strange new worlds, The Ancient Ones visits a single, planet stocked with horror movie cliches and a ridiculous number of puns. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good pun. I love a bad pun, but this book would have benefited greatly from the world-hopping that so inspired Star Trek and its ilk. I enjoyed the book – it’s a fast and easy read – but I didn’t love it.
The Culture novels are like the dark chocolate of science fiction. Deep, rich, and nuanced, the books tend to meander from plot point to plot point on their way to their big payoff. That there’s always a satisfying payoff – and the quality of the writing beyond the wandering narrative – keeps me coming back to these novels.
Like the prior novels in the series, Excession takes place in a post-scarcity future in which human civilization evolved to become the Culture. The Culture is a galaxy-spanning, mostly-benevolent civilization: think Star Trek’s Federation thrown a few thousand years into the future. They aren’t unopposed in the galaxy; rivals like the Affront – an aggressive species that dwell within gas giant habitats – don’t follow the Culture’s benevolent outlook and are scheming to expand their own influence. Meanwhile, not everyone within the Culture is willing to follow the benevolent civilization’s Prime Directive-like approach to dealing with alien cultures, and seek ways to more aggressively uplift the galaxy.
Into this comes an excession, an incursion from beyond our reality with the potential to upend the Culture’s exceedingly advanced understanding of science. It’s the equivalent of a 21st-century civilization coming into contact with a 10th century one; it’s culture shock on a galaxy-shaking scale. The excession sends the various factions inside and outside of the Culture scrambling to understand and take advantage of it.
Excession has some great ideas, especially in its civilization-challenging premise, and as always its fun to read about the ethical gray areas that the agents of the noble (but meddling) Culture find themselves in. That said, I prefer the earlier Use of Weapons and Player of Games, both of which were more focused than this meandering tome.
Wise Man’s Fear
Patrick Rothfuss’s follow-up to The Name of the Wind is a doorstop of a book, weighing in 300 pages longer than the first one. The book starts off by continuing its Harry Potter-for-grown-ups vibe, with protagonist Kvothe attending the Arcanum, dealing with arcane rivalries, and furthering his education. Mid-way through the book, things change, with Kvothe heading out into the larger world seeking a patron and potentially a small amount of fame.
As with the first book, I enjoyed the world-building of Wise Man’s Fear, but it feels like Rothfuss is falling into Robert Jordan’s trap of building overly-large, overly-complicated set pieces with no real end in sight. Given that the book came out in 2011 — and his own editor is complaining about his glacial progress – that may not be far off the mark. That said, those set pieces are entertaining, and I’ll read the 3rd book if and when it comes out. I’m just not expecting Kvothe (and Rothfuss) to get anywhere fast.
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Cover art from the novel Excession. Credit: Spectra