Friday, June 29, 2012

Book review: "Aristoi" by Walter Jon Williams

As I mentioned few times already, I used to read both fantasy and SF, especially throughout high-school and first years of college. But as I was closing to receiving my college degree, I also started working. Sick of rereading same books all the time (I've read first three books of aSoIaF more than 5 times, LotR more than 10, whole Vorkosian series couple maybe 5 times... You get the picture) and finally with some stable income, I decided to order books from Amazon, but I also realized that I have neither time nor money to indulge in books too much. So I restricted myself on buying one book monthly (mass market paperback, at first), with rereads the rest of time and anime in between. And I also oriented myself purely on fantasy, since I really like, and there was a shortage of fantasy books in Croatia. But since I bought Kindle, the price of books halved for me. Also, there was a shortage of anime that attract me for the last few seasons, so I don't have any big plans on that side. And additionally, currently there is only two unfinished series with published books out there, "Deepgate Codex" and "Shadows of the Apt", while all others are on waiting for next installment (WoT, aSoIaF, "The Kingkiller Chronicle", "The Stormlight Archive"...)...

After this lengthy introduction, let me get to the point, which is that I plan to occasionally indulge myself with some SF hits once in a while. First of such books was "Aristoi" by Walter Jon Williams. I found the first mention of it in a post by Jo Waltonon blog. I usually (but not always) respect her opinion on books quite much, so I put it on my wis-hlist. And last week, while I was looking for what book to buy, I decided for it: less than 400 pages (I was looking for some quick read), a single work (didn't want to start a new series), and only 5$. Now, after finish it, I can only say that I fortified my decision to read SF occasionally.

"Aristoi" takes place in far future. After losing Earth in nano-technology induced accident, humanity has spread between the starts. They have AI, relatively safe nano-technology, Faster-Than-Light travel, perfect virtual reality and direct connection between mind and computer. They also conquered majority of diseases, live in largely free societies and don't lack much. And also very important, they reached a major advance in psychology by understanding and waking up hidden parts of their unconscious mind. All this progress is led by Aristoi. After successfully passing long and extensive exams, Aristos or Arista are given a solar system, and complete freedom in it (adhering to some common rules), with goal of benevolently ruling and advancing humanity in it (important to understand: common people can freely move to wherever they chose). So, in this blissful utopia we are introduced to Gabriel, moderately young Ariostos, talented, sensitive, especially oriented on architecture, art and design. One day, after having an unexpected and worrying conversation with not-particularly friendly Arista, he suddenly realizes that not everything is as certain as he believes - after this Arista dies in accident. Is this really and accident, or masterfully devised plot?

Let's first mention setting. I was looking for something leaning toward hard science fiction, but this was even better. Maybe some would say that "Aristoi" fundamentally is not hard-SF because it doesn't stress enough on how things work, but it has enough high-tech terms which sound plausible and believable to mask as one. For example, nano-technology: it is used, there are some brief mentions on technical details, and much on (realistic) dangers of it, but there are no extensive technical description of it. Or Hyperlogos (virtual reality/super-Internet): there is mention how it needs large (moon-large) data banks, some mentions of programming and algorithms but that's it. But every mentioned technology (including psychology) was consistent and believable - and impressive and though-provoking.

So, instead on exhaustive descriptions of setting (which is nonetheless), this book instead concentrates on plot and characters. It is thriller SF, I would say (hidden plot, investigation, trial...), but I changes to quasi-fantasy adventure in one part. This was the only turn-down of this book for me - not that it was boring or weak, but I expected something grander (epic) from it. It does have some clever and funny tricks. Plot is a bit predictable, although not much - it stays intriguing and interesting, but it lets you feel smart when you guess some detail in advance. There is a lot of humor, some sex, some art... a pleasant mix, all considered.  I must confess that I didn't like first few pages, until all clicked in its place and things got going.

Gabriel is clearly main character and we follow everything from his point of view, except some encyclopedic passages. He is a very complex and realized characters - and our view of him changes throughout the book. At first, he is very impressing person, fully in control of himself and his surroundings. But as the plot progress, we realize that all this self-confidence is only in his head and he looks quite naive. An in the end.... well, let's just say that he is not so tough any more, but he gets even more impressive despite of it. Other characters are not so deep, and some even few more like symbols than real characters. But this is OK, our focus is on Gabriel, after all. 

A quick thought: I just realized that this book reminds me much to Zelazny's "Lord of Light". It has a combination of high technology with religion, war between advanced humans that to non-advanced people look like fight between gods, air of mystery, influence by East...

In the end, I was very satisfied after reading "Aristoi" - it was a great read, interesting, fun and full of new ideas. I did expect more epic story, but it was great nevertheless. I would recommend this book to everybody who doesn't have aversion to science-fiction.

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