Camping this weekend, which means breaking out vacation-suitable light fiction reading (as opposed to my normal heavy reading of, um, comic books) like James Alan Gardner’s Ascending . I’ve been rationing out my Gardner consumption, because a) it’s nice to have a bank of light fiction to draw from when I need to and b) each of his books, even though they’re in a series, has been completely stand-alone, so I’m not too tempted to just keep reading until they’re all gone.

That last point deserves a bit of elaboration. It’s not terribly unusual to have books that are stand-alone within a series — Pratchett does it, Bujold does it, lots of others do it — what’s unusual is to have books set in the same universe, featuring many of the same characters, that nevertheless feel like they’re in a different setting, perhaps even a different sub-genre. Expendable took place in a Star Trek-esque space adventure setting; Commitment Hour was a low-tech old-Earth setting with gender themes; Vigilant was an alien culture and biology thing reminiscent of Speaker for the Dead; Trapped was vaguely Three Musketeers-ian; Ascending, it turns out, is Ancient Space Civilization stuff, a la Niven’s Known Space or Brin’s Uplift universe.

It’s also got a distinctive narrative voice, specifically that of Oar, an alien glass woman-child who was a minor character in Expendable. Oar is something of a naïf, direct and straightforward, but a bit alien; this turns out to make for a great narrator. The result is section headings like “Wherein I Am Not Dead After All” and “You Would Not Think Annoying Persons Could Find You In Outer Space, But You Would Be Wrong”, and passages like:

I began to circle the ship’s exterior, wondering why alien races always make their machinery unattractive. Surely the universe does not require space vehicles to be large gooey balls wrapped in string; a sensible universe would not even approve of such a design. If you constructed your starship out of nice sleek glass, I believe the universe would let you fly much faster, just because you had made an effort to look presentable. But one cannot suggest such things to Science people — they will laugh at you and make you feel foolish even when you know you have an Astute Perspective On Life.

and Oar’s conversation with a higher class of being:

“...I’m so far above you on the ladder of sentience my IQ can only be measured with transfinite numbers, and I promise there’s only the teeniest-tiniest-eensiest-weensiest chance my plan will go wrong enough to get you killed.”

“Hmph,” I said. “Tell me your plan and let me judge for myself.”

“Tell you my plan? I can’t tell you my plan. My plan is so complex, your brain doesn’t have the capacity to comprehend it. This entire universe doesn’t have the capacity to comprehend my plan — there aren’t enough quarks to encode the simplest overview. I’ve got fifty-five million backup universes grinding away at figuring out what I have to do next, and that’s just the underlying logic, not the user interface. No way I can tell you my plan.”

“In other words,” I said, “you do not have a plan.”

“Well, I’ve got a few rough ideas. My greatest strength is improvising.”

Not to mention what might be one of the best sentences ever written in the English language: ‘“I am exceedingly vexed,” I said, elbow-deep in spittle.’

Oh, and also the book has a terrific plot, ancient mysteries, alien races and cultures, and piles of exciting action. As light fiction goes, this is truly top-drawer stuff and you should really read it unless you’re totally wrinkling up your nose in distaste at that icky spaceship stuff.

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