Monday, December 31, 2007

The Eternity Artifact Review

I mostly don't review the books I read. Most are simply not worth the effort, for me at any rate, of writing down what I feel about them. They're sorta . . . average, hehe. But every so often I read something that is so good or bad that I feel motivated to comment about it.

I'm most of the way through The Eternity Artifact by L. E. Modisett. On Amazon it has four stars. It makes me wonder the criteria that people use to review books.

Roughly speaking, the book is a waste of paper. It's bad in a complex and multi-faceted way that I'll try to get across. I'm going to say what the book is about, now, so this is a spoiler alert. Stop reading now if you don't want to have the plot sketched out for you. The book is about four people, an artist, a pilot, a professor-slash-commando who has kept up with his "commando moves" and a fundamentalist Christian spy and assassin who are part of a mission to outside of our galaxy because there's a stray planet that has an ancient alien city on it. Humans are the only known sentient life in the universe, and their culture is riven by conflict between secular and religious societies.

Calling it "slow paced" isn't accurate. The word is "boring". The story is told from four different first person perspectives, each perspective obviously and consciously attempting to give a different and distinct voice to the characters. Which, I guess, is successful (tho' I'll be talking a bit more about that later), but it means that almost everything that happens in the book is repeated four times. So, for instance, there is a space battle. It is first narrated by a shuttle pilot who is tangentially involved in the fight, but at least has a good seat for it. Then, in the next three chapters, the battle is narrated by the other characters, none of whom are involved on any level, and none of whom have even a good seat for it. It is literally them sitting in couches fiddling with controls or doing something else to distract them from the fact they have nothing to do during the battle. This is not a joke. This happens in a variety of ways with a variety ways, such as finding an alien city with nothing in it it is nevertheless important for three different characters to describe the various details of this alien city with nothing in it.

Indeed, whole chapters pass by, the upshot of which is they find nothing in this alien city. When something "exciting" happens it is literally finding out how the alien windows work for finding a shallow depression in the floor. But many of the chapters are quite literally the characters finding nothing of interest, but doing it from multiple perspectives!

I wonder at the narrative justification for this. I understand the urge to describe things, but he's open that nothing is happening, which makes me wonder why he's writing it down, then.

Part of the problem is, of course, the multiple and redundant points of view. Fairly recently, I posted about one of the cheap tricks writers will use to pad books is multiple points of view. This book is the patient zero of that behavior. One would think that the point behind having multiple points of view would be to illustrate different aspects of your story, and with one of the character's that's almost true, and the characters do, largely, have distinct personalities - but there's nothing to really illustrate because nothing happens. I mean, it's hard to say how little happens because it isn't happening! That the book takes a hundred and twenty pages to even start the expedition to the focal point of the story, that they spend another hundred and twenty pages finding nothing, with a couple of brief action scenes. For the differences of the characters to illustrate different things the story would have to have things happening. It doesn't. Those distinct voices have nothing to say.

Or, more precisely, very little to say. At a number of points the characters make absolute pronouncements. With writers it is, of course, often difficult to tell when it's the character or when the author is using a character to express a personally held point of view. But in any event, these pronouncements are often silly to the point of being juvenile. One of the more remarkable ones is the false dilemma that Modesitt brings up with education. One of the characters is a college professor and he says that individual computer education was a dismal failure, even as he teaches in a lecture class. His justification is that computers present a one-size fits all educational paradigm. This is downright goofy in two different ways. The first is that computer education is already as good as teachers in some subjects, and is rapidly improving. So it's observationally wrong. Second is the notion that a computer teacher would only have one educational strategy, which is nonsense. Different students would be able to use different programs and models to get results, and with even modest levels of learning the robotic teacher would become increasingly better at teaching a particular student. But what really, really made me laugh is that Modesitt's character praises lecture hall. More than any other kind of education, lecture hall is one-size-fits-all education, and it's pretty much the worst way to teach a given subject - indeed, it's often worse than no formal education at all. So, to say that computer learning has failed (when the evidence suggests the contrary) while praising what we know to be the worst system of education that there is . . . it's daft, and shows that author is sounding off when he should be shutting up.

I mean, to say it differently, the characters are just dumb. For instance, the book revolves around finding this "eternity artifact", the product of a highly advanced civilization that is no longer around, in the form of a city that is abandoned. The characters all seem to believe, for instance, that the aliens that created the city are "gone" because they haven't found any "evidence" of them in the centuries of human colonization of the galaxy. And I found myself thinking, "If they're able to build artifacts that work after billions of years of inattention, why are you presuming that they're gone? I'm pretty sure that if they don't want you to find them, you won't." All of this while the characters are even guessing that that aliens are from a different galaxy. OK, then you're basically saying that, yeah, you have no way of knowing if they're around or not. But then they turn around and make these presumptions about them. (It turns out that that the aliens left because the universe had changed. So they made a new one and went there.)

Annoyingly, it's also obvious that whenever a character admits that they're making a wild, specious guess that they'll be almost 100% right. Ugh. But, generally, if you're going to have your characters make absolute pronouncements, it might be a good idea to have at least basic reasoning skills, which the book does not demonstrate.

The book is also flawed with those individual first person voices of the main characters. In particular, one of the characters really leans on his thesaurus and his first person voice is this pretentious and stilted narrative. The character never uses a small word when a big one will do. The upshot is that one of the voices of the narrative is downright ugly. One-fourth of the book is quite intentional uglification of language in order to create an individual voice for the character. Well, okay, success in the sense that the voice is immediately identifiable. But like fingernails on a chalkboard, there's no compelling reason for it. It would have been splendid if instead of wearing out his thesaurus that Modesitt had instead insured what the character said was worth saying. (The character is also supposed to be quite clever, but when a person uses big words on one hand and fails repeatedly at basic reasoning skills on the other hand, what comes across is very far from intelligence, but idiotic pretense.) So, bad literary decision. It's generally a good thing to avoid making 1/4th of your book ugly to read.

The author also has the (fairly standard, alas) sci-fi praise for the military. "Military" as short-hand for "competence" is pretty vexing. Military training isn't better than other training (and in some ways it's worse - military education is . . . I mean, if viewed in terms of educational theory, pretty much the worst of possible models - long, authoritarian based lecture sessions is basically anti-education). Military people aren't any more moral, or responsible, or "honorable" than civilians (indeed, poverty, crime and rates of mental illness are lamentably higher amongst soldiers than the general population). But, again and again, sci-fi authors treat the military like the best depository for a society's cultural values, and as a short-hand for honest, honorable and competent, and it vexes me.

In particular, the military sci-fi shorthand of "commando" for "invincible in combat" is annoying. Elite soldiers are, of course, going to be pretty tough, but they're trained for fairly specific sorts of combat - small unit tactical combat with advanced weapons against military targets. You know, go behind enemy lines and blow up a bridge scenarios. It is what they train to do. (I won't opine about the effectiveness of commandos, generally. I know that there are two schools of thought on the subject - one is that they're absolutely necessary and the other that they're a waste of resources. I suspect the latter is more true than the former, but it's only a suspicion, hehe. I do know that their effectiveness, itself, is in doubt by experts in modern military theory. Even in the real world the correlation between commando and unbeatable badass is questionable even for those situations for which they are trained.) Most commandos are not martial arts experts, for instance. Martial arts plays, at best, a tangential role in commando actions. They have guns. The Rangers, for instance, during training spend two hours practicing what could broadly bet termed "martial arts" during their training. But inevitably these commandos are expert martial artists, tho' that style of fighting has almost zero place in a modern (much less futuristic) battlefield.

The professor-slash-commando character is problematic for me on a lot of different levels. Not only is he given the absurdly pompous voice, and commando is used as a generic term for competent (ugh, literally in the last twenty pages the author invents a new commando competence for the character as a pathetic deus ex machina, it is just magically revealed, so the author can now explain the parts of the plot that made no sense rather than having them be revealed over the course of the novel, which is a bit of crappy writing right there, but to have his explainer explain things the commando has to magically get another complex and technical skill which really has nothing to do with being a commando; it turns out that in addition to everything else, commando means "computer hacker" - no kidding, in the last twenty pages it's revealed he's a computer hacker, ugh). But the character is also involved, in a banal and predictable way, with the female pilot of the story. The romance between the two characters is . . . terrible. It is dull and neither of the characters show anything like real human emotions. But the most frustrating moment is when the characters realize that his arrogant langauge and her terseness are a way to keep others away from them, that they're defense mechanisms to protect their hearts. I started to get interested. A good turn could make me completely re-evaluate the characters. In particular, the awful langauge of the professor-commando needed to come apart. At some point in the book, in battle fury or lust, his voice should have changed into something barely human, I felt, because it was obvious that all of his exercise and mental discipline was to control himself. The ugly language might have been justified if it broke down, if the character cut loose or was torn apart. And then, in this banal romance, the pilot asks the professor-commando, "Why did you stop being a commando?"

I thought, this is it! Here's where he breaks down! But . . . I was wrong. He went on a scholarly tirade about how effective violence encourages power structures to more violence, which is true, but it isn't a human emotion. I waited for him to say, "They turned me into an attack dog. I left because I hated kill people" but it never came. And then they "made love", by which I mean they literally held hands and started into each others eyes. So, in addition to being emotionally retarded, they're also eunuchs. (I'm not sure they actually have sex in the entire book. They hold hands and gaze longingly at each other, and they cuddle, but I don't think they ever actually have sex.)

So the character, who is supposed to be the hero of the book, breaks down on every level. It's rather sad that this is the standard of characterization of award-winning science-fiction novelists.

The book is also supposed to be about fundmentalist religion, in part. But it's not. All the religious characters, so far, have been either literal suicide bombers (and Muslim, at that, ugh) or hypocritical murderers. It presents a powerful false dilemma. You go out of your way, on one hand, to emphasize the honor, egalitarianism and fairness of secular society by presenting the best of that society, while on the other hand show their foes as being little more than orcs. Holy false dilemma! I mean, it is legitimate, of course, to talk about the narrowmindedness and violence of religiously fundamentalist societies But it sort of ignores that even in most fundamentalist societies that the overwhelming majority of the people are, themselves, victims of the religion and the leaders. That most of them accept it because they literally have no other choices than obedience to their theocracy or death. (Which is a far greater horror than the violence they externally impose, I feel.) It's like . . . to make the point that "religions are bad" he has to create these straw men that are virtually caricatures of what they are supposed to represent.

You might want to think about what I said in that previous paragraph - think about it is that it is I who said it. Even fairly casual readers to my blog must get it that I'm not particularly religion friendly. But the way that Modesitt represents fundamentalist theocracies is downright childish.

The other major theme of the book is the dangers of any single-mindedness. When the professor-commando is revealed to be a crackerjack hacker to compel the explainer to explain things, it's all supposed to be dramatic and cool and demonstrate the author's political awareness or whatever. It ends up being pretty goofy. I mean, any time there's an explainer . . . that's generally a bad sign. If you've got to have the last twenty pages filled with a character filling in the plot holes, you're doing something wrong, and when you've got to whip out a deux ex machina to get the explainer to explain, and have the character spew out his plot like he was a comic book supervillain, you might want to rethink your profession. But, anyway, the explainer is a spy who has manipulated the fundamentalist religious forces to attack this alien world and seek the alien artifact knowing that it would destroy the fundie's fleet and provoke a big war with them that the secular forces could win. Wow. Something actually interesting. Too bad it happens only in the last twenty pages of the book, and then instead of being revealed it's just explained. Then there is some tsking and the explainer gets to go free. After all, as he points out, he did nothing illegal. Which is true. He didn't make the fundies attack anything, he just let them know that their enemies were going to make a discovery which they author believed would COMPLETELY CHANGE THEIR SOCIETY FOREVER . . .

Oh, yeah, the discovery of aliens is predicted by the characters to utterly and forever change fundamentalist society or something. It was pretty stupid, and one of those cases where the author doesn't know what the fuck he's talking about. The reasoning here is that if becomes common knowledge that aliens exist, technologically superior ones at that, religion could collapse because of the evidence that humans weren't special. Because, as we all know, that's what happened when science proved that life evolved naturally, or the universe was created without divine intervention, religion just collapsed and died off. Right? Religions would not merely form specious arguments to justify away the find, nope, while maintaining all the cherished religious truths. Ugh. It's idiotic. Long before we start exploring outside of our solar system, religions are going to have in place all the arguments they'd use if we find a technologically advance alien species.

After all, the Bible contains numerous non-human intelligences, already - angels and demons. Islam has angels, demons and djinn, who are capable of being good Muslims; Islam already has a position about aliens, functionally. They should be Muslim, hehe. Which is what universalist Christian religions would agree on, too, once they agreed the aliens had a soul, which would almost certainly happen because they'd be technologically advanced and at least as smart as we are. Dead aliens, like in the book, might keep the question up in the air, but fundies would go, "So what if there was life before humans? It says in the Bible there was. Humans were created last. Next question." It wouldn't be much of a big deal. But it gets invented into this HUGE, ENORMOUS THING and I'm scratching my head about it because it isn't that difficult a question to address, theologically speaking.

But . . . I'm done. The book is actually worse than this. There's the whole business with the fundie spy that I won't get into, tho' the upshot is that the character is meaningless. Just . . . meaningless. The whole story that involves the character sputters out to a stupid conclusion. The character could have been totally removed and the book would have lost nothing. So, it's worse than even my review suggests. It's bad. Don't read it. And I'm going to smack the guy who gave it to me, hehe.


handmaiden said...

Wow! that is one hell of a review. Almost a book in it's self. (haha)actually, it's prob. more exciting then the book, eh?

Although I am not qualified, like you are, to really analyze a novel, I find some of the books that make make best seller lists really appalling!
I've always thought my problem was that I believe reading should involve some sort of learning & mental stimulation & I just love good books. Even as a kid I'd rather read modern classics then "popular" fiction. (I mean modern classics like jack London, John Steinbeck, Pearl S. Buck, etc...)

I say, "There are so many good books out there, why waste your time on mindless crap?"

And if I could write, I think I'd write short stories, I love how good writers can pack everything so neatly into a compact space.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Happy New Year from Sicily.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you 100%. I picked this book up going by the cover art and the back cover description of the story. I had read Arthur C. Clarke's 'Rendezvous with Rama ' and loved the plot. So I thought this book could have some similarities... nope. On page 19 I decided that Mr. Modesitt was a really crappy writer. Take the first page of chapter 1 (Fitzhugh)... he used the words abnegation, abiosis, pedagogical & pedagogy all in that 1 page!!! I thought I would keep reading but after this review I may not. I was hoping for something interesting when they investigated the planetoid.

Anonymous said...

What a great review. The only thing I would add is that this book was probably a great idea in outline form, and then every single piece of fleshing out that was done was a disaster. I mean, all the elements of an adequate story are there, but none of it came together, as individual scenes or as an entire story. What a mess. Thanks for writing such an exhaustive and thoughtful review... with such a clear (and I think accurate) conclusion (ie, "don't read it).

However - to "Anonymous" - the puzzling thing to me is that Modesitt is not actually "a really crappy writer." Maybe this time he needed to pay some bills, or was kidnapped and forced to write at gunpoint, or something, but The Parafaith War is really quite a good book, and Adiamante (possible spelling mistake, sorry) also at least ends really well. In my opinion, he is worth another go, but gosh, this book was poor showing...


Anonymous said...

I am unsure you really followed and absorbed what you read. Your review is inaccurate, (they weren't christian fundamentalists, they were radical jewish fundamentalists with a hint towards them being of middle eastern descent), everything else you say just shows me that you have no understanding of the genre, and me explaining it probably wouldn't help.

Anonymous said...

Well I enjoyed the exploring the city a little more than you did..

The only thing that really pissed me off was the abrupt ending to their predicament with the flotilla at the end. Any how neelde pilot basically knew they were going to die but kept going out joyfully anyways.