Indie Review: Of Ants and Dinosaurs by Cixin Liu

I love dinosaurs.

I wouldn’t consider palaeontology a hobby, and I can’t say I do a lot of research into it–but still, dinosaurs are cool. I love the child-like wonder that comes with them, and the sheer majesty of these enormous creatures.
I’m also fascinated by ants. They have an incredibly complex social structure, have developed a sort of culture, and even a rudimentary “collective intelligence.” Remarkable creatures–so when I came across Of Ants and Dinosaurs by Cixin Liu, a story that threw ants and dinosaurs into a symbiotic relationship in a fantasy/science fiction tale, I couldn’t say no. Nor was I disappointed.

The very premise of this novella–a society of ants and dinosaurs that cooperate symbiotically–was enough for me to put down the $0.97 for it. I expected a light hearted story, a fanciful tale of imagination like something out of Jules Verne. It is that, but the story is also a succinct allegory of cooperation, trust, and suspicion. It would present well to young adult readers, but the message works just as well for adults.
The story begins with a tyrannosaur enjoying lunch…until he gets a blob of meat stuck in his teeth. A colony of ants sees the problem and helps him dislodge it–they actually stream into his mouth to pick it apart while the dinosaur holds his lip back with a claw, how awesome is that?–setting the foundation of an alliance. Over the centuries, this partnership grows as both societies thrive, fitting into their own niches. Ants are masters of micro-circuitry, creating a technological infrastructure the dinosaurs couldn’t hope to because of their size. Meanwhile, the terrible lizards build huge machines of travel and industry, alongside a complicated political structure. The ants have fine motor skills and hard science; the dinosaurs have imagination and ambition. Held apart, neither would get very far, but put together they are more than the sum of their parts.
That in itself would make for a nice story about the value in sharing skills, but it’s when their alliance breaks down that we get some real meaning and conflict. There’s a nice contrast between two dinosaur societies as they develop nuclear weapons (and something even more powerful), causing an arms race and cold war that could only end in mutually assured destruction. But this is only a reflection of the real conflict, as the ants and dinosaurs do the same to each other.

It becomes a cautionary tale, begging the question of how far one should blindly trust, and when it’s appropriate to act in your own best interests. As presented, there are no easy answers. Both races seem doomed from the start because of their attitude towards one another, and I kept saying to myself “if only they could set aside their differences and listen…” Which is exactly the author’s intent, I think. The novella is a well presented moral lesson, one as common as common sense: it’s out there, but nobody seems to pay attention to it.

Suspension of disbelief is a required part of science fiction/fantasy, and in a book written for a younger audience it’s more forgiving. For most of this novella, it’s not a problem–my active imagination not only accepts that ants and dinosaurs could be friends, it does an animated happy dance at the very thought–but there were parts that I found challenging. Mostly, the problem lies in the numbers; the main story takes place some 50,000 years after the “primitive” ant colony and dinosaurs meet. A handful of millennia is an incredibly short time for sentient creatures to evolve into the kind of society presented here–and while it sounds like I’m nitpicking, it’s something that gnawed at the back of my head for the duration. I suspect Liu did this to avoid an “alternate history” book where ants and dinosaurs become the dominant species instead of humans, but I think  (personally) that might have been a better way to go with the story. Still, it’s a tiny criticism–really, the only one–of an otherwise excellent story.

The crafting of the story is well done. At times, it’s a bit heavy handed–there are points where the “show, don’t tell” adage is thrown out the window–and there were some bits that seemed difficult to swallow, even given the not-too-serious tone. Dialogue is a bit too expository at points. But I wouldn’t say that any of this is Liu’s fault–it was written for a Chinese audience–or that of his translator Holger Nahm; those languages being as complex as they are, something is doubtlessly lost in the translation. There are probably thousands of translations of the Tao te Ching, but no single one of them really touches on the nuances of the work. Taking that into account, I’m impressed by this book. I found it refreshing because it doesn’t take itself too seriously, while at the same time presenting a very serious message.

This is the kind of book I’d read to children; the sheer fun of it would make the message easy to pick up on. Of Ants and Dinosaurs is, in short, a wonderfully fun book to read.  Liu has a series of other books available, and each of them looks intriguing and original. I’m eager to read more!

Cixin Liu’s books can be found at Amazon.com. You can also reach him on Twitter

Advertisements

Women in Fiction, Part Two

On Monday, I posted an interview with one of my favourite Indie authors, Lindsay Buroker. The focus was women in fiction, and when I first wrote up the post, I thought of dividing it into two posts so I could comment on it without making it too long. But Buroker was so great I didn’t want to break it up–so we’ll discuss the ideas today instead.

There were some great comments in the last post, so let’s look at those first. The common theme was that Buroker’s lead character, Amaranthe, is able to stand out as a strong woman despite being surrounded by men. In fact, there are fewer female characters in the series compared to men, which is reflective of the society/World Buroker has built.
I’m of two minds about this: on the one hand, being surrounded by men and rising above them as a natural leader helps make Amaranthe a strong character. There’s a juxtaposition that works very well to highlight her qualities, and it’s mentioned several times that she lives in a male dominated society (though it’s obviously changing). In this sense, having a strong female character means something more–she’s strong in the face of patriarchy, in spite of it.
The flip side is that this juxtaposition only works because of the generally male oriented society in which we live. Amaranthe stands out so well because we don’t always expect a strong female character. In a real world example, it’s often news when a woman is elected to public office, because it’s normally men who fill that role. But the fact that it’s news is bothersome to an extent, and shows the inequality of the system. Highlighting a woman’s strength of character because one would normally expect a man in that role betrays a certain prejudice–we shouldn’t need that opposition to celebrate a woman’s strength. But it’s a double edged sword: if we don’t highlight that comparison, people won’t necessarily take note of it, and nothing changes.

I don’t mean this as a critique of Buroker’s characterisation of Amaranthe, of course–it’s not the author’s fault, and as noted in Monday’s interview, the character wasn’t written as an explicit feminist commentary. And, really, this is where Buroker should be applauded most: Amaranthe isn’t a strong female character because that’s a statement the author wanted to make–she’s strong because that’s who she is. I think that is the kind of strong female character we need in fiction–books, movies or otherwise. Strong women who are written that way without pretence, who are paragons just because they are. I think there’s a certain “societal expectation” sometimes that women should be  vulnerable or emotional and that men should be stoic and heroic, but those are imaginary lines that should be crossed more often.

Another great example of this kind of characterisation is J. M. Ney-Grimm. Her Norse-flavoured tales feature many strong women, and in fact the main culture portrayed in the books is a matriarchy. Again, it’s obvious that this isn’t done to make some sort of feminist statement, but because that’s what Ney-Grimm wanted to write. The genuine intent for both authors was to write the story they wanted to tell, and the fact that they end up with such strong female characters is just icing on the cake.

I think this is the kind of characterisation of women we need more of in literature and entertainment. Which brings me to my next point: the way women are generally portrayed in fiction. As Buroker says in the interview, strong characters often come off as bossy or super-heroic–there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground. The polar opposite–as seen in the new Star Trek movie–are women who are ostensibly powerful or intelligent, but end up needing to be saved by the male protagonists. Or, worse, women treated as sex symbols. There’s a particularly gratuitous scene in Star Trek where Carol Marcus is shown in her underwear for no reason (except to demonstrate that Kirk is a lascivious womaniser). J. J. Abrams has admitted that the scene was unnecessary, attempting to defend it by pointing out that Kirk is shown barely clothed as well. The missed point is that this contributes to Kirk’s character, while it does nothing at all for Marcus. This kind of sexualisation “for the sake of it” is rampant in entertainment, enough that it’s not always seen as a problem. Of course, this is a generalisation, but I don’t think it’s too far off the mark.

In the end, this is a very large issue with many layers and ramifications. I’m by no means an expert, and couldn’t pretend to come to any conclusion here–but I think it’s certainly worth the discussion. I think that writers like Buroker and Ney-Grimm are well on track in the way they represent women, and should be seen as examples to follow. And, really, that attitude should extend to homosexuality, race, age, and what have you–people are as they are, and their differences shouldn’t be the reason for their character, nor exploited as a statement. Of course, it’s a lot more complex than that, but it’s a start.

So, what do you think?

Women in Fiction, with Lindsay Buroker

So, I’m a huge Star trek fan–and of course, I loved the new movie. I thought they did a clever job with the material, the characters…but this isn’t a review. I wanted to touch on an issue that several blogs have picked up on: the way women are presented in the movie.
Star Trek has always had (relatively) strong female characters–Uhura is an excellent example. But although the two female leads in the new film have a decent amount of screen time–and they’re set up to be strong and confident–they come off as “damsels in distress” (to quote the above articles). It’s unsettling…and it got me thinking.

When I saw the film, I was reading Lindsay Buroker’s Beneath the Surface (reviewed last week). Buroker has always impressed me with her strong female characters; it’s refreshing to see women portrayed on the same level as men, something you don’t see in a lot of fiction. Generally–and yes, this is a generalisation, and likely a controversial one–it’s my experience that women in fiction tend to be represented as people to be saved, helped, or pursued. Even strong women characters like Uhura or Beatrice from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing* tend to play second string when a strong male character comes along. We could debate the whys and hows of this, but it’s an enormous topic–and I’ll freely admit that I’m not well versed in it. But I did want to get Buroker’s perspective, so we had a brief interview. My questions are in bold:

Your books tend to have very strong female lead characters, something not exactly typical in popular fiction. Was this an intentional choice (i.e. filling a perceived gap), or did it grow organically (it’s just the way you like to write)?
Thank you. I’m glad they come across that way. 🙂

I didn’t set out to make any statements or try to say, “This is how you write strong women, peeps–pay attention!” For the most part, I just like to write protagonists who drive the action. Even if my heroines are kidnapped and tied up in an enemy warship bound for who knows where, they’re going to try and take charge of their destiny rather than simply waiting to see what the world drops in their laps. I think those wilful types of people who make things happen have a tendency to be seen as strong characters. They’re naturally leaders instead of followers.
It is something of a challenge to make those kinds of people likeable–women in leadership roles are often seen as bossy or bitchy, even by their own sex–but by being in the character’s head, it’s possible to show all their vulnerabilities as well as their strengths. That goes a long way toward humanizing someone, and it’s a shame we can’t look into people’s heads that way in real life to see where they’re coming from.What would you suggest in ways to improve the way women are represented in fiction?

I actually think there are quite a few people writing “strong women” for television, books, and movies, but what gets to me is that these are often one-dimensional Xena-like-characters with superhuman abilities to kick everybody’s butts. I don’t know about you, but I know plenty of strong women and none of them do that. 😀
A lady I know always comes to mind for me during these types of discussions. She’s the middle child of 8 or 10 kids, paid her own way through school, built up a successful business from scratch in a male dominated field, ran a marathon after kicking breast cancer’s butt, and is fair and generous with everybody. That’s the kind of “strong woman” I’d like to see more of in fiction, and I think these are the kinds of role models young women need when they’re growing up.

I tend to see stronger female characters in Indie Fiction than I do with traditionally published books and entertainment (in general). Is this your experience, and if so, why do you think this is?
I have to confess that I haven’t read nearly as much independent fiction as I should have (I’m getting most of my “reading” done via audiobooks these days, and it’s still mostly traditionally published authors on Audible), so I’ll take your word on that. I’d guess, though, that indies don’t have to get past gatekeepers who tend to play it safe by buying more books like the ones that are already selling. Hey, those urban fantasy novels with the warrior women kicking vampire butts sell. Let’s print 50 more this year!

Can you point to other writers/artists that serve as an example of strong female characters in fiction that were inspirational? 
Lois McMaster Bujold always has strong female characters, and they’re rarely those brawny butt-kickers either. 😉 (I am realizing that I’ve used variations of kicking butt at least four times in this short interview… I assure you that such words rarely come up in my fantasy novels–maybe that’s why I’m unleashing them so often here!)
On TV (warning: I am a geek who has many SF series on DVD), I was always fond of Samantha Carter from Stargate SG-1. Sure, she’s a Mary Sue, but I loved that she was an astrophysicist and that her smarts were often critical to plot (I confess that one of my pet peeves revolves around characters who are described as smart but who never actually do anything smart :P).Thanks, Lindsay!

I’d considered breaking this interview into two posts, but thought better of it and posted the whole thing. I’d like to follow up with some discussion and thoughts on Wednesday, and I’d welcome your input–leave your thoughts in the comments!
In the meantime, I’ll invite you to check our Buroker’s work–it’s a great example of how women should be presented in fiction. And they’re just plain good books! Find them here on Amazon, and on Kobo. You can also check out her blog, Facebook and Twitter.
*Edited to correct my own mistake–I got the wrong play!

Indie Review: Beneath the Surface by Lindsay Buroker

Someone posted a quote on twitter recently–sorry, I can’t remember who or where it came from!–that said the measure of a good book was dreading to read the last chapter, because you know it’s going to end. I’ve come across many Indie books that had this effect on me–and generally, it’s the same authors who do it time and again.
With Lindsay Buroker, it’s gotten to the point where I’ll put off reading her books, just because I burn through them so quickly. I’ve held onto Beneath the Surface for months, knowing that it’s shorter than most of her work–it’s a sort of “interlude” between books five and six of Buroker’s Emperor’s Edge series–but as book six was recently released, I thought it was time to dive in.

The first thing I love about Buroker’s work is that it’s character driven. I got into the Emperor’s Edge series because of the steampunk flair, but the people really made the book for me. The series features Amaranthe Lokdon, an erstwhile officer of the peace (Enforcer) who’s found herself on the bad side of the law for all the right reasons. She gathers about her a motley band of heroes (including fan favourite Sicarius, deadliest assassin in the realm) in an effort to clear her name. Each of these characters is vibrant and exciting–and despite the large cast, Buroker deftly avoids the all-too-familiar author’s trap of developing one or two at the expense of the rest. All of them are distinctly unique, and insanely likeable. Yes, even the cold-as-ice, dagger-at-your-throat assassin. Actually, especially him.
The second thing I love about these books is that Buroker has chosen to use each one as a focus for one of the main characters. This allows for some dedicated character development as the series progresses, and is part of why each of her characters are so fully fleshed out. Beneath the Surface deals with a newcomer to the group–Evrial Yara, also an Enforcer–as she wrestles with the fact that she’s gotten tied up with these outlaws. At the same time, she finds herself alone with the company fop Maldynaldo, who is pursuing her relentlessly with amorous advances–which she may or may not want to return.

Yara is a wonderful character because she’s a reflection of Amaranthe. Both are well written, strong leading women, but they’re not perfect. They each have doubts and weaknesses, and neither of them realizes just how strong they are. They both come from a “means to and end” mentality–though Yara is longer to come to that conclusion–and honestly just want the best for the Empire and their friends. And both struggle with a “maybe-romance” that is unspoken or unwanted, but too delicious to resist. In many ways, Yara is a “proto-Amaranthe,” and it’s great to watch the group’s leader gently mentor the newcomer. It gives Amaranthe yet another dimension to her character, and it’s even better for the reader as we watch Yara come to some conclusions about life that she otherwise wouldn’t have, but that always lingered beneath the surface.

The plot of this novella concrns some magical artefacts that will destroy millions of lives if the Emperor’s Edge doesn’t deal with them first–and of course, in the process, the group ends up looking like the bad guys. But that’s not really what Beneath the Surface is about. It’s about the things we leave unsaid, the feelings we won’t admit to ourselves until it’s to late, the road less travelled. At first blush, it’s a fun adventure for the crew to keep fans entertained until the next book in the series, but the real treasure is between the lines. There’s more character development and growth in this novella than in other books, and it’s so successful because a lot of it is implied. Buroker has done such a great job over the series of getting readers attached to her characters that we feel 100% invested in what they feel, even if it’s not voiced aloud.

And of course, it’s not just about Yara and Amaranthe. The relationships between Maldynaldo and Books (the group’s picked-on researcher) and Sicarius and the once-Emperor are touched upon as well. Not everything is revealed; in fact some important points are left unspoken. It’s very touching, and almost bittersweet. I have to wonder if, in the next instalment, some of the characters will find that it’s too late to say what should have been said. Which makes me anxious for the next book, but also very excited–it’s the kind of risk that takes a book from simply fun to instant classic.

You can find Beneath the Surface, as well as the rest of the Emperor’s Edge novels, at Kobo and Amazon. The first one’s free! Buroker also keeps an informative blog, and is very active on Twitter.