This book (The Claw of the Conciliator) and the next (The Sword of the Lictor) have more of a standard fantasy plot than the first book (The Shadow of the Torturer): a singularly talented guy on a quest carrying some powerful artifacts. These two books also begin to feel claustrophobic, as the same handful of characters keep showing up.
But after reading the first book, one should realize that one doesn't read these books for their plot or characters, but for Wolfe's amazing style and Severian's reflections. An example is probably more illuminating than my description:
"...Now it struck me that the will itself was governed, and if not by reason, then by things below or above it. Yet it was very difficult to say on what side of reason these things lay. Instinct, surely, lay below it; but might it not be above it as well?...
But is instinct truly that "attachment to the person of the monarch" which Master Malrubius implied was at once the highest and the lowest form of governance? For clearly, instinct itself cannot have arisen out of nothing--the hawks that soared over our heads built their nests, doubtless, by instinct; yet there must have been a time in which nests were not built, and the first hawk to build one cannot inherited its instinct to build from its parents, since they did not possess it... Perhaps that which came before instinct was the highest as well as the lowest principle of the governance of the will. Perhaps not. The wheeling birds traced their hieroglyphics in the air, but they were not for me to read."
There are plenty of helpful reviews here. I wanted to give the would-be listener a couple examples of Wolfe's writing style, which I chose nearly at random. The reason to read this book is for this style, which I found to be very lyrical and sharp, and not for plot or character. I thought the narrator was well-suited to this style, because he was slow and articulate--listen to the sample to see if you agree.
"We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges. When soldiers take their oath they are given a coin, an asimi stamped with the profile of the Autarch. Their acceptance of that coin is their acceptance of the special duties and burdens of military life—they are soldiers from that moment, though they may know nothing of the management of arms. I did not know that then, but it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in face to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious kind of magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all."
"I saw a caique, with high, sharp prow and stern, and a bellying sail, making south with the dark current; and against my will I followed it for a time—to the delta and the swamps, and at last to the flashing sea where that great beast Abaia, carried from the farther shores of the universe in anteglacial days, wallows until the moment comes for him and his kind to devour the continents."
Many sci-fi novels treat the communication barrier between aliens and humans as a minor inconvenience, to be hastily patched by something like a 'universal translator' so that we can get on with the plot. Refreshingly, in Blindsight, the communication barrier between the aliens and humans IS the plot.
Watts imagines an alien species so unlike us, evolving in such different conditions, that it is unclear whether the humans are communicating with a consciousness or an elaborate stimulus/response system like a computer program. The narrator, Siri Keeton, has seemingly been chosen for the mission because his bizarre personality is well-suited to dealing with this problem. A childhood brain hemispherectomy has removed Siri's ability to empathize with people, so he negotiates social situations as an elaborate computer program would, calculating and adapting responses that result in successful interactions.
The other characters are as interesting and bizarre as Siri, but his (understandably) emotionless narration style does keeps the reader from knowing their motivations and feelings very well. Aside from a stupid bit about vampires and crosses, this book avoids almost every sci-fi cliche and keeps the reader thinking at every step.
The author's decision to focus a science fiction novel on the main character Sandoz' crisis of faith and crisis of guilt is ambitious and interesting, but the accidental event that catalyzes these crises falls short. It comes across as an awkward act of a cornered author, not an act of God or a sin of Sandoz'. This event also leads to a great deal of drama of Sandoz being accused of heinous crimes, but this seems quite contrived when we see that he could just clear up the matter with a few sentences.
There are other examples of the author sacrificing plausibility and character integrity for the sake of drama. For instance, the novel flashes between 2019, when Sandoz and crew visit the planet Rakhat, and 2059, when Sandoz is recuperating and telling his tale to the Jesuit bigwigs. This frame structure is just there to create suspense--we know that something horrible has happened but Sandoz won't tell the Jesuits (or us) why. But since Sandoz' reticence doesn't fit with his character and the events, the entire frame structure comes across as a suspense tactic.
Finally, the novel's pacing is odd, and not ideal for an audiobook. Most of the book is plodding, a cast of sanitized characters bantering blandly and thinking admiring thoughts of one another. Then the last quarter of the book is very rushed, with the events almost entirely told and not shown, as though the author were under deadline pressure.
I decided to give up after I nearly fell asleep and drove off the road. This was during an endless and repetitive description of the rock formations Lem imagined to be on Saturn's moon Titan. I was already a bit sleepy from a 20-minute passage that served to convey little more than the fact that the main character put on a mech-suit.
Short vivid descriptions stimulate the imagination. These long repetitive descriptions stifled mine. If I had been reading the book instead of listening to it, I could have skimmed them or skipped ahead to the good stuff. The narrator is quite good, but I nonetheless recommend reading this book rather than listening to it.
Report Inappropriate Content