Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Finally stopped Browning around

So, Random House has finally announced that Dan Brown's next novel, The Lost Symbol (formerly known under the working title The Solomon Key), will be released in the US and Canada on September 15th, with a precedent-setting first run of five million copies.

Based on the plots of Digital Fortress, Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, let me try to divine the plot of this one:

  • We will have a tweedy hero, a man of letters but who can also run fast and jump down from heights if necessary. Since we already know this is the third Robert Langdon novel, this is an affirmation, not a prediction.

  • The story shall begin with a mysterious murder that sets off the plot.

  • The mystery of the murder will involve "symbology", which will drag Langdon into the plot.

  • The plot will involve a conflict between two conspiracies. One will be an established publicly-known organization that features in several real-life conspiracy theories. The other will be a historical or pseudo-historical group that also features in real-life conspiracy theories, but in reality is either long-defunct or harmless.

  • Langdon will quickly be paired with a young, attractive woman who is versed in some academic or practical discipline relevant to the plot, and physically capable enough to join him in mad dashes and rolling falls from great heights, but not capable enough to fight off the assassin. There will be no other female characters of significance.

  • Oh yes, there will be an assassin, likely directly responsible for the initial murder, and possibly others throughout the novel. He will attempt to add Langdon and his companion to his hitlist. The assassin will be typified by either "exotic" ethnicity (ie, swarthiness) or a physical handicap of some kind, as well as sadism and dogged persistence. SPOILER ALERT: The assassin will die.

  • The assassin will be working for a high-ranking member of one of the conspiracies, the mastermind of the main plot, but this puppetmaster's identity will be concealed until the climax, even from the assassin. SPOILER ALERT: The mastermind will die.

  • As Dan Brown is a strong adherent to the Law of Economy of Characters, the mastermind will be a significant character introduced in the first third of the book, who will be portrayed as one of Langdon's greatest allies during the bulk of the book. Statistically he is likely to be a white male, most likely late middle ages or older.

  • Meanwhile, the "obvious" villain will turn out to be a red herring and likely assist Langdon at or after the climax.

  • Langdon will be pursued by the authorities for most of the book, complicating his efforts to solve the central conspiracy and avoid being killed by the assassin. At the conclusion, the authorities will recognize their error and clear Langdon of all suspicion.

  • There will be intricate puzzles or riddles Langdon and his allies must work out to solve the central conspiracy. This will involve running around various landmarks of a city with a lot of established real-world history. These puzzles will either be so simple as to be laughable, or counterfactual to the real-world evidence.

  • Through Langdon and other characters, Brown will pontificate on historical theories or analysis of culture that are sure to rankle any professional or scholar (or relatively well-read layperson) of the field in question: some refer to this as being "Dan Browned".

If I'm found to be correct, I'm going to find someone to write an online app that just churns out Dan Brown plots and make me rich.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Gernsback Continuum

Mindful of the fact I don't seem to read enough these days, I've set myself a challenge: to read all of the 2009 nominees for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. The Hugo is one of the top prizes a science fiction author can receive, and they awarded annually at Worldcon, the annual convention of the World Science Fiction Society. As an added bonus, this year's Worldcon, Anticipation, will be in Montreal, and I'm thinking about going.

This year's nominees for Best Novel are:

  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, a juvenile fantasy in the vein of The Jungle Book that has already won the John Newbery Medal.

  • Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, a young adult novel about a group of teenagers fighting the attempts of their government to curtail personal freedoms in the wake of a terrorist attack. Think of the movie "Hackers" only a) the methods and technologies described are heavily grounded in realism and b) the enemy is a government security apparatus overstepping its bounds and shifting blame for its criminal activities onto libertarian-minded tech-saavy adolescents, instead of an evil corporation.

  • Saturn's Children by Charles Stross, a space-opera tale of sentient robots, continuing to live, work and play in a solar system-spanning society, long after their human Creators (i.e., us) have died out.

  • Anathem by Neal Stephenson, about monastic societies that preserve knowledge and learning in the face of societal collapse, and conflict with the secular authorities about what knowledge should be revealed. (The basic premise sounds similar to the venerable science fiction classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz.)

  • Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi, whose plot is contemporaneous with the third novel in his acclaimed "Old Man's War" universe, The Last Colony, with events related from the perspective of the titular 16-year-old protagonist.

Thus far I've read The Graveyard Book and Little Brother, and am almost halfway through Saturn's Children. Initial impressions:

  • Graveyard Book is textbook Gaiman, with an original premise, interesting, well-detailed characters, a moving plot, and a somewhat lacklustre ending. It's definitely recommended--even on his worst days Gaiman writes circles around the rest--but I didn't find it as compelling as say, American Gods or Neverwhere.

  • Little Brother is extremely fascinating, but also extremely didactic, and reads more of a combination of libertarian political manifesto and how-to manual for subverting government surveillance than novel. In other words, it's the novelization of Doctorow's personal ideology as regularly expressed on his site and the BoingBoing shared blog. Some might see that as interfering with the narrative, but science fiction is about exploring ideas. Using novels as soapboxes didn't stop Robert A. Heinlein from winning five Hugos either.

  • Saturn's Children is an engaging read so far, but not exactly compelling or innovative. To his credit, Stross considers SC to be the weakest of his last six novels (all nominated for the Hugo) and hopes to improve his record for most consecutive nominations without a win

  • Typical for him, Stephenson's book comes close to a thousand pages of dense prose and fabricated terminology, so I'm thinking I'll have to listen to Anathem on audiobook.

  • I don't feel right reading Zoe's Tale, the fourth book to be set in the "Old Man's War" setting, without some background so I'm going to attempt to read the other three first. I will certainly work on the first one, Old Man's War, as it is considered a modern sf classic.

Incidentally, Stross's blog post on his nomination seems to set the same tenor that all the authors have expressed: All of them are falling over with praise for each other (well, except maybe Stephenson, who doesn't seem to blog). Part of me wants to be at Worldcon when the award is announced, on the chance they'll all be there, and will go into a big group hug as the winner is announced, and cry tears of joy collectively (because there's nothing sexier than half a dozen geeks tearfully embracing--and I speak from experience).

More updates to follow!