Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Time for some obligatory year-end musings. 2008 was the year of short fiction for me--I mostly kept up with Analog, Asimovs, F&SF, Baen's Universe and Interzone. As of now I'm pretty much caught up (reviews of individual issues will be forthcoming). I'm partway through Dec. F&SF, and I just received the latest two issues of Interzone from Fictionwise, so I'll be plowing through those soon. I am definitely looking forward to filling out my Hugo nomination ballot this spring; I doubt that I'll ever be so thoroughly well-informed and -read in these categories ever again.

However, given my new (and more fun than I expected) position as a slush pile reader for Strange Horizons, that's it for me and consistent short fiction reading. I still enjoy it, but I won't be making it a focus this year. I need to free up time for other reading.

In 2009 I plan to read and review recent releases for Strange Horizons, SFSignal and Fruitless Recursion (among others), but to focus on genre classics and older international fiction here. For instance, I've got some William Hope Hodgson (The Night Land, 1912) and Lord Dunsany ("The King of Elfland's Daughter," 1924) downloaded to my eBook, and I recently found out about some older collections of German and Austrian SF from Gary Wolfe's column in Locus. I've also got the recent Speculative Japan anthology sitting on my to-read shelf. To fill out more of my background in literature, I'm also hoping to read all of Dante's Divine Comedy and Chaucer's Cantebury Tales this year--I know the basics about these works, but I think I'll enjoy getting more of the details.

Now, to wrap-up some loose ends from 2008. I present a list of those interesting books that I read this year but which won't get real reviews--either because I thought they weren't really relevant, or I couldn't think of anything terribly profound to say about them. This post will serve to rid myself of a guilty conscience in relation to these worthy books, so I can move forward into 2009 feeling guilty about more important things, like getting all those magazine reviews up!

This is Helen Thomas' memoirs that don't include the second Bush administration. In retrospect, I wish I'd waited for whatever updates she'll be doing. Still, this is a pretty amazing account of both a woman pioneering a field through sheer competence and an insider view of how different presidents and press secretaries have chosen to deal with the press. Interesting and insightful all the way through--you should probably wait for the sequel, though.

What the heck can I say about this classic that hasn't been said? I was inspired to read it by Ian McDonald's much-heralded Brasyl, and I'm very glad I finally did. It's shorter and more interesting that I had previously assumed. I was particularly struck by its incredibly focused diction; almost every sentence reinforced the theme of Death.

This is a wonderful tribute to some wonderful people, John and Judith Clute. I had bought the book in 2006, but was only able to read it straight through and appreciate it after meeting them and seeing their famous flat in Camden this summer as part of the SFF Masterclass. This has appreciations, criticism, reviews, and also short fiction that features their flat--including a particularly memorable story by Geoff Ryman involving the resurrection of Pablo Picasso. An eclectic collection for a fairly niche market.

The second collection of James Blish's criticism as "William Atheling, Jr." is more of the same--interesting and insightful, but not as revelatory as the first volume. This one gets into more depth with some of this arguments with contemporaries, and also chronicles some of the other early critical efforts within the genre.

I have to admit, I'm a total space junkie. As such, there was little in this book that was particularly new. I appreciated a view from the press side of the space efforts, and Barbree certainly cares deeply about the American space program. He has some interesting bits on the aftermath of various disasters, especially from the industrial side, and some anecdotes about the astronauts that I hadn't read before. However, I don't think this book stands alone as well as something like Failure is Not an Option by Gene Krantz.

Eric Idle's account of a solo tour of America where he attempted to expand his skills into stand-up comedy as well as performing the tried-and-true Monty Python sketches and songs. I found the first bits about tweaking the live show to be interesting, and because I'm not as well read in Python as I am in NASA, lots of the autobiography and Python anecdotes were new to me. Towards the end it got a bit repetitive, but especially in the first half it's often hilarious.

Yeah, I know. But I got it as an eBook from Baen's Webscription site. I had read a lot of these blog entries when they were originally published. I had planned to skim through a lot of it, but found myself re-reading them instead. These things hold up surprisingly well, mostly because of Scalzi's breezy and snarky style. Of course, this is a best-of collection, and in 10 years of blogging he had a lot to choose from. All you can say is, anyone who enjoys Scalzi's blog, which appears to be at least half of all 'Net users, will enjoy this book.

Pratchett's amazingly sinister take on Elves... you don't want to meet them in a dark alley and you certainly don't want to invite them into your realm. Also, lots more fun with the Witches. I was particularly happy to see Magrat, the youngest, finally come into her own.

Another guilty pleasure of mine (I think the only other such genre that I didn't hit this year is outdoor adventure non-fiction, such as Into Thin Air or The Worst Journey in the World). So how does one become a forensic anthropologist, anyway? Well, apparently it can be a fairly roundabout process, and Dr. Bass' memoir describes how the field has developed and gives many juicy case studies of how it's applied. I was happy to get more details about studies I'd only heard about, such as the ones involving insect colonization on corpses. Macabre, but fascinating.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Pratchett <=> Aristophanes?

Here’s a cheerful review to lead into the holidays. Small Gods is the thirteenth book in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. I’m obviously quite behind (I only started reading Discworld in late 2006), but I’m eagerly catching up. I’ve found that when you pick up a Discworld book, you never know just what you’re going to get. Politics, celebrity culture, the magic of movies, tourism, capitalism, women’s rights, undead rights… you just never know. Small Gods tackles philosophy and religion head on.

Brutha is a novice in the priestly complex of an extremely overbearing religion. The god is Om, and the country is Omnia. They are absolutely nothing like the Catholic Church. They've got a Cenobiarch, not a pope, and a Quisition, not an Inquisition. See?

One day a tortoise falls into Brutha's garden and starts talking to him. The tortoise claims to be Om. It turns out that he's lost believers--everyone worshipping at the church of Om believes in the Church, not in the Great God Om, and gods dwindle when they're not believed in. Brutha is one of the only remaining people who truly believes in Om, thanks mostly to an overbearing grandma and a lack of imagination.

Given the somewhat madcap plotting of these books, I'll give you the quick run-down of the other plot threads: the Church is expecting the next prophet any day. The head of the Quisition has been setting himself up for it--he scares everyone. He plans to conquer Ephebe, the place that is nothing like Athens, that we've been to in other books (including one of my favorites, Pyramids). There's also a rebellion movement afoot in Omnia, one that believes that the world is not spherical, as Om proclaimed, but instead is flat and rests on the back of a giant turtle. During the Ephebe segment, the rebellion ends up with a couple of philosophers. One turns out to be an engineer who may end up regretting building engines of war, even in a good cause, and the other refuses to have anything to do with the lot of them.

That's a lot of plates to keep spinning, but by this point in the series Pratchett knows just what he's doing. He keeps them all going and ties them all together with ease. In the end, Brutha is as pivotal as you'd expect, and things generally turn out alright. Along the way, we see the deep power of true believers and how one is as bad as the next, and that people really should make their own ways without doing things just because "God said so" because usually He didn't.

Now, as it happened, I was reading the section in Ephebe at the same time I was reading Aristophanes’ The Clouds. Aristophanes was a playwright who lived at the same time as Socrates in Greece. His specialty was comedic plays, and Clouds is a direct hit on Socrates. In it, a man and his son have racked up some serious debt. They hear that learning philosophy, especially from Socrates, can help a man win any argument at court, no matter how unjust. First the man, then the son, goes to Socrates to learn. Socrates mostly doesn't want anything to do with them (especially the obnoxious father), but eventually teaches the son. As a result, the son ends up arguing convincingly that it is right and proper for sons to beat their fathers--so the father gets his just deserts.

While I am not the first one to note this, there is a distinct similarity in the outlook between Aristophanes and Pratchett. For one, while they mock, they do so with understanding and respect. The main philosopher in Small Gods is Didactylos, who lives in a barrel and says "Bugger" a lot. In general the Ephebian philosophical debates end up in fisticuffs. However, they do end up the wisest of the cast, especially Didactylos who opposes getting involved in the Omnian civil war. Likewise Socrates and his philosophy students in the Clouds say many silly things, about how gnats fart and various things about the gods. However, Socrates is smart enough to see the father off for a complete idiot, and at the end I felt that the Aristophanes’ moral is that even good things can be turned to bad ends by people who wish to use them that way—it’s not Socrates’ fault if some people use what they learn from him for less-than-perfectly moral purposes.

The other marked similarity between the two involves their contempt for pretentious pie-in-the-sky thinking. I read Clouds directly after reading Plato's Republic in which Socrates argues for all sorts of things that are impossible unless people somehow become perfect. It's this mash-up of highfalutin' thinking meeting everyday Joes that makes the Clouds so funny. Likewise, it's the meeting of a huge, all-powerful church and a very small god with normal folks like Brutha and Cut-Me-Own-Hand-Off Dhblah that generates much of the humor in Small Gods (and in most of the Discworld books). I'm not claiming to have discovered some eternal principle of humor here, but it's pretty neat to see two authors so distant in time and space having such similar wry views on human nature. They're not angry comedians, they're just bemused by people being people no matter what philosophers or priests think they should be. Will the Discworld books stand the same test of time that Aristophanes has (~2400 years)? I doubt Pratchett himself thinks so, but I rather hope they will.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Meme I Can Get Behind

Now that I'm back in the land of the high-speed internet connection, let me jump on this bandwagon. Thanks to John at Grasping for the Wind for starting all this. I'm sure all our Technorati ratings thank him as well.

7 Foot Shelves
The Accidental Bard
A Boy Goes on a Journey
A Dribble Of Ink
A Hoyden's Look at Literature
Adventures in Reading
The Agony Column
Andromeda Spaceways
The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.
Ask Daphne
Australia Specfic in Focus
Author 2 Author
Barbara Martin
Bees (and Books) on the Knob
Bibliophile Stalker
Bitten by Books
The Black Library Blog
Blog, Jvstin Style
Blood of the Muse
The Book Bind
The Book Smugglers
The Book Swede
Breeni Books
Cheaper Ironies [pro columnist]
Cheryl's Musings
Critical Mass
The Crotchety Old Fan
Damien G. Walter
Danger Gal
Dark Wolf Fantasy Reviews
Darque Reviews
Dave Brendon's Fantasy and Sci-Fi Weblog
Dear Author
The Deckled Edge
Dragons, Heroes and Wizards
The Discriminating Fangirl
Dusk Before the Dawn
Enter the Octopus
Eve's Alexandria
Fantastic Reviews
Fantastic Reviews Blog
Fantasy Book Critic
Fantasy Cafe
Fantasy Debut
Fantasy Book Reviews and News
Fantasy and Sci-fi Lovin' Blog
Feminist SF - The Blog!
The Fix
The Foghorn Review
Frances Writes
From a Sci-Fi Standpoint
Fruitless Recursion
The Galaxy Express
The Gamer Rat
Genre Reviews
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Grasping for the Wind
The Green Man Review
Highlander's Book Reviews
The Hub Magazine
Hyperpat's Hyper Day
Ink and Keys
Jumpdrives and Cantrips
Lair of the Undead Rat
League of Reluctant Adults
Literary Escapism
Michele Lee's Book Love
The Mistress of Ancient Revelry
MIT Science Fiction Society
Monster Librarian
More Words, Deeper Hole
Mostly Harmless Books
My Favourite Books
Neth Space
The New Book Review
OF Blog of the Fallen
The Old Bat's Belfry
Outside of a Dog
Pat's Fantasy Hotlist
Piaw's Blog
Post-Weird Thoughts
Publisher's Weekly
Reading the Leaves
Realms of Speculative Fiction
Reviewer X
The Road Not Taken
Rob's Blog o' Stuff
Robots and Vamps
Sandstorm Reviews
Sci Fi Wire
Sci-Fi Fan Letter
Sci-Fi Songs [Musical Reviews]
The Sequential Rat
Severian's Fantastic Worlds
SF Diplomat
SF Gospel
SF Revu
SF Signal
SF Site
SFF World's Book Reviews
Silver Reviews
The Specusphere
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
Speculative Fiction
Speculative Fiction Junkie
Speculative Horizons
Spiral Galaxy Reviews
Spontaneous Derivation
Sporadic Book Reviews
Stella Matutina
The Sudden Curve
The Sword Review
Tangent Online
Tehani Wessely
Temple Library Reviews [also a publisher]
True Science Fiction
Urban Fantasy Land
Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic
Variety SF
Walker of Worlds
Wands and Worlds
The Wertzone
With Intent to Commit Horror
WJ Fantasy Reviews
The World in a Satin Bag
Young Adult Science Fiction

Foreign Language (other than English)

Cititor SF [Romanian, but with English Translation] [French]

Foundation of Krantas [Chinese (traditional)]

The SF Commonwealth Office in Taiwan [Chinese (traditional) with some English essays]

Yenchin's Lair [Chinese (traditional)]

Fernando Trevisan [Brazilian, Portuguese]

Human 2.0 [Brazilian, Portuguese]

Life and Times of a Talkative Bookworm [Brazilian, Porteguese]

Ponto De Convergencia [Brazilian, Portuguese]

pós-estranho [Brazilian, Portuguese]

Fantasy Seiten [German, Deustche]

Fantasy Buch [German, Deustche]

Literaturschock [German, Deustche]

Welt der fantasy [German, Deustche]

Bibliotheka Phantastika [German, Deustche]

SF Basar [German, Deustche]

Phantastick News [German, Deustche]

X-zine [German, Deustche]

Buchwum [German, Deustche]

Phantastick Couch [German, Deustche]

Wetterspitze [German, Deustche]

Fantasy News [German, Deustche]

Fantasy Faszination [German, Deustche]

Fantasy Guide [German, Deustche]

Zwergen Reich [German, Deustche]

Fiction Fantasy [German, Deustche]

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Prosaic: Weather and Travel

So, when we moved here, we asked about snow. And they said, "Oh it snowed once like, thirty years ago. It doesn't snow in Houston!"

We beg to differ.

And as you'll see from the daylight picture, some of it is still around this morning!

Of course, when we moved here last year they also said "Houston never really takes direct hits from hurricanes!" So in retrospect, we should have been buying snowshoes.

I'd say we were lured here under false pretenses except for one thing. Everyone also said, "You'll love it here except for the weather!" And we do.

In other news, I'm leaving on some hastily arranged travel today. My father's in the hospital in central Arizona, so I'm heading up to help out. It doesn't look life-threatening so far; his pacemaker went off a few times and upon further examination they found some blood-clots hanging out where they oughtn't. Still, I'm glad to go up and cheer folks up and help around the house as needed. I should be back in Houston on Tuesday, preparatory to my final exam on Thursday night. While I'm there I'll be away from high-speed internet connections, so I'll be less responsive to email and comments than usual.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Reviewing the Unreviewable

Just a note to let you know that I have a review up in Issue #3 of Jonathan McCalmont's Fruitless Recursion. I review A Companion to Science Fiction, a gigantic tome of critical writings about sf edited by David Seed. It was a daunting challenge (it took roughly a month just to read), but I'm happy with the way the review turned out.

This issue of Fruitless Recursion includes a multi-pronged examination of recent H. P. Lovecraft scholarship in the form of two reviews and a critical interview, as well as a review by Duncan Lawie of one of my all-time favorite books of sf criticism, The Issue at Hand by James Blish/William Atheling, Jr. Read and enjoy!

Monday, December 1, 2008

...Except Geoff Ryman.

When I titled my last post "Good Writers Doing Good, but Unexceptional, Things" I should have added: "Except Geoff Ryman." The only excuse I can think of for forgetting his story: once I had noticed a theme of unexceptionality, I mentally sorted "Days of Wonder" into a different category and never got back to it. I found this story unique and perhaps award-worthy. It's almost impossible to review this story without spoilers; the story is set up in such a way that watching the worldbuilding unfold is almost as dramatic as the character arc. So if you want to experience this story untainted by me, go read it now.

For the rest of us: in the far, far future, humans are gone. However, we leave our legacy in a large number of genetically engineered beings. Most of them have drifted far away from humanity, carrying only bits and pieces. Most of the action centers around a tribe of "horses." They're a long way from our horses: they groom, they're matrilineal, they can do primitive metalworking (with the help of the squirrels) and they can use weapons. They walk on four legs sometimes and two legs when needed.

One member of this tribe, Leveza, is much closer to us than usual. She mates for love, not randomly; she walks on two legs more often and has a shallower face. Her child is born mostly helpless instead of jumping up and running around within the first day. She is also inventive. These differences cause her a lot of friction with both the narrator, her partner, and the more traditional elements of their tribe. [Exercise for the reader: compare and contrast Ryman’s treatment of Difference in this story and The Child Garden. I can’t do it, I’ve got finals coming up!] Things come to a head when they start their annual migration and have to deal with the big “cats” that prey on them. Leveza doesn't simply kill them and/or leave them be, she actually captures one and learns from it. This does not sit well with the rest of the tribe at all. Even her own partner worries about this trend. Leveza transgresses custom after custom, until she is finally kicked out of the tribe altogether. We learn in a sort of coda that she turned out alright--certainly she has a worthy goal to work for, reuniting the species and all their disparate knowledge. However, she makes deep sacrifices, all deeply felt.

This is an intense story, both on the part of the protagonist and the narrator. The basic story of a tribe member becoming an outsider isn't new (that one's as old as time), but this is a particularly interesting take on it. I found the world-building to be particularly good as well, both plausible and oddly surreal. One quibble is that it drags in the middle, during the long migration, as the main character begins to split from the tribe. I think some scenes could have been cut or described more briefly to move things along faster. However, between the world building, the characterization, and the deep treatment of its theme, this story more than makes up for any minor problems with pacing.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Good Writers Doing Good, But Not Exceptional, Things

The Oct/Nov double issue of F&SF comes, as usual, packed with stuff. UN-usually, however, I don’t really see any award-winners here. This issue contains stories by good, established authors practicing the craft they are known for, but not necessarily pushing themselves into new territory.

Albert Cowdry starts off with a short story: "Inside Story." He returns to his favorite setting, New Orleans, post-Hurricane Katrina. Cops investigate disappearances of people living in FEMA trailers. No points for guessing that there's something unusual going on; unfortunately this unusual thing takes the hero to another dimension/realm/place, and that weakens the story. Cowdry is strongest when his stories most closely link to New Orleans itself (see "The Overseer," which I'll be nominating for a Hugo at least this year), and the ending of this story seems disappointing in proportion to the time it spends away from the city.

"Sleepless Years" gives us a nice take on Zombie-ism by Steven Utley. A gentleman died and left his body to science; they reanimated him. However, he's got no rights since he's "dead." He also can't sleep, which tortures him. The experience of a human being in a situation where they're regarded as little more than an amazing test subject is not a new one, but it's done well here.

"'The New York Times' at Special Bargain Rates" has Stephen King's heroine talking to dead people on the phone. Also not new; King himself has done this before. This time it's all fairly benign, although the woman cannot act on a vague prophecy from her dead husband and ends up feeling bad. This is a low key example of excellent craftsmanship.

The ever-prolific Robert Reed provides "The Visionaries." This ambiguous story describes a writer offered a Faustian bargain as he gets started in writing. It turns out that some of his stories may (or may not) provide a window into a real future. Various conspiracy theories regarding the Faustian organization get kicked around at sf cons. Although the nature of the deal changes over time, the author comes to believe that he may really be seeing the future. This is a tale that has both funny and unsettling bits; I'm sure the contrast is deliberate, but it feels like the story isn't sure what it wants to be. The two threads--what the author sees in the future and what he thinks is happening now--don't mesh perfectly. However, the inside-baseball bits are fun, and Reed is always a solid story-teller.

"Private Eye" looks at the ubiquitous surveillance future, less through a Big Brother lens and more through a YouTube one. The narcissism/voyeurism angle is again, nothing really new. I'm a bit surprised that Terry Bisson didn't offer something more unique here.

"Whoever" by Carol Emshwiller is an interesting story that mutates as you read it. A woman may be suffering amnesia, or be some sort of universe hopper, or perhaps a time traveller. Perhaps she takes over other bodies. In any case, she wakes up with no memories of her past life, with nothing more than the clothes on her back, and gets to reinvent herself. Her conscious process of looking at who she wants to be is great; I'm less thrilled that she immediately gets a male protector (or at least accepts the guy who wants to fill that role, she makes some noises about not burdening him but does so anyway), but that's a minor quibble.

I had already read "Evidence of Love" somewhere else, so I'll skip that one here--M. Rickert is also always worth reading. Depressing and confusing, but with awesome craft. (See Paolo Bacigalupi in F&SF, Sept.)

"Planetesimal" by Tim Sullivan is a slight story that is neither a good character portrait nor a good sf story. On a large asteroid/planetesimal, a commited-to-duty security officer has to escort a totally-geeky-introverted-whiny-dedicated-to-his-science geologist. Their craft breaks down and they have to try to outrace the sun (Red Giant) back to base. They fall into a crater (which hadn't been there before), and get sucked into some sort of time-warped mining operation. The geek wants to stay there forever and be king of his little fiefdom, the security officer wants to get him home. At no time do they rise above their stereotypes. The "mining" thing is silly, and the science is just awful. Check this out: "They had a long way to go. But with the light gravity, it was the equivalent of only a few kilometers." Really? I didn't know that low gravity warped distances--maybe high gravity relativistically, but on a small planet? Obviously it should be something like "it [would feel like] the equivalent of only a few kilometers," but these sorts of lazy mistakes are littered all through this story. Bleah.

Finally "Scarecrow's Boy" involves a mighty sophisticated AI helping out the child of a diplomat and in the process liberating itself from a useless master. It's not necessarily plausible, but in Swanwick's hands it's a solid story.

Monday, November 24, 2008

So What Should SF Be Talking About?

The stand-out story of the Oct/Nov Asimov’s is "'Dhuluma' No More," a short story by the up-and-comer Gord Sellar. I appreciated it for its truly international perspective. In this story a documentary film-maker goes along with a bunch of African iceberg herders. However, that's just a cover; the African guys have a radical agenda. They hijack a submarine containing a bunch of UN climate scientists. In this future, the UN has sponsored a sort of anti-global warming pollution project; they spew specific particulate matter into the sky to reflect more sunlight away from the Earth's surface. However, this has drastically changed weather patterns, benefitting some and hurting others. The Africans are pretty sure that they're (as has been true throughout history) on the short end of that stick. This passage has some qualities of wish-fulfillment:
"That's a baseless overstatement..." Follesdal said

Ngunu lifted his pistol, aiming it at the CEO's heart, and ground his teeth. Follesdal eyed the gun, and raised his hands a little. "Uh, yes, some scientists think that."

"Some?" Ngunu cleared his throat, tensing the hand holding the gun very slightly. I zoomed in carefully on Follesdal's face, to keep the gun out of the videos. "Hands down. Quit lying," Ngunu said, moving the gun closer to Follesdal's chest.

I almost smiled then. After all those years, looking for a way to make businessmen quit lying and admit the truth--and here it was, really so very simple. I almost wished I'd thought of it before.

This story hits a lot of Big Issues, and Makes You Think. Obviously there's the idea that whatever we come up with in the West to mitigate climate change will have a real effect on real people; they may come looking for us someday. This often gets left to the side in writing like Kim Stanley Robinson's Capitol Trilogy or Ben Bova's climate engineering columns in Analog. There's also the dilemma of the passive observer: the filmmaker is forced to make a decision to stay uninvolved or to actually help the Africans in their violent action. He can't hide behind his cameras anymore and he has to take a side. This is something of a call to action to all of us who read the news but think that news is what happens to other people. I'd like to see more of this sort of story, and I'll be thinking of this one when I look at the Hugo ballot this spring. This is a short story, but with enough weight that it feels longer. In this case, that's a good thing.

Another story I particularly enjoyed is Nancy Kress' "The Erdmann Nexus." On first blush it's a weird little story: in a nursing home for the elderly, people start to have weird mental experiences, and apparently they start to affect reality. The eponymous Erdmann is a physics professor emeritus, and he's trying to figure out what's really going on. There's a much larger cast of characters than is normal for a novella: Erdmann's favorite nursing home assistant is a young woman with an abusive husband; he's a cop so restraining orders have been hard to enforce. There's a neurological researcher studying something completely unrelated but he gets drawn into the mystery. Then there's the population of the nursing home: the insatiable gossip, a retired famous ballerina and a man with a crush on her, a new-agey woman, and assorted others. At times it all threatens to spiral out of control, and it seems that Kress sometimes allows it to ramble, just to give us a feel for humanity in all its messiness. In the end however, it all adds up to Something Transcendent, and all the people involved get to make consequential choices. I've had trouble with Kress' stories in the past for some reason, but this one finally overcame the resistance I'd had to her style.

My other favorite was Robert Reed’s novella on "Truth." The elevator pitch would be "Government operatives try to extract intelligence from a member of a group of time-traveling terrorists." It's a psychological story, very claustrophobic. I think it's a bit too long, but the twist is pretty awesome. It also makes a strong case for the fact that when we over-react to terrorist threats, we do far more harm to ourselves than the terrorists ever could. Preaching to the choir there! But that's a timely debate, and stories like this one, written by an author who is unfailingly entertaining, add a valuable dimension to the discussion.

Amongst the other stories: Brandon Sanderson, the poor man assigned to finish Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time saga, provides an action-adventure story in “Defending Elysium,” a novelette. It felt longer than that, which I'm not sure is a good thing. It was fun to read, but not much more.

"Prayers for an Egg" deals with strict class barriers in an alien species. It's a bit of Uncle Tom's Cabin set far, far away. It rang true, but I'm not sure that we need these sorts of stories now. In general, stories like this either appear to be about causes long since won, or they're too over-the-top to address the more subtle concerns we have today. Today we need less parables about how slavery is wrong (and that when you put your future generations in the hands of an oppressed people, those kids may be at risk) and instead perhaps we need tales about the dangers of more subtle forms of class oppression. I'm trying to think of some examples and none are jumping to mind: economics like Bruce Sterling's “Kiosk?” Charlie Stross' economic wars? Bacigalupi's future dystopias? Stories like Reed’s “Truth” speak more to 2008 than this one. However, I’m willing to entertain counter-arguments on this assertion; I may be on shaky ground here.

Fianlly, Ian MacLeod provides an alternate history in which various events lead to India conquering and occupying England instead of vice-versa. When "The English Mutiny" it is both more violent and less successful than Ghandi's movement, let’s just say that. This is an interesting story, looking at class differences that MacLeod feels would be preserved even in the face of occupation by a foreign power. I think it could have packed more of a punch had it been a bit shorter. Sometimes the narrator starts wandering around to show us more of the landscape, and the story loses focus.

Friday, November 21, 2008

International Links

Time for some Linkage! Plus, it's International Linkage, which makes it more delicious:

  • Science Fiction in India. Does what it says on the tin. Posts of note so far include answers to a questionaire about the cultural significance of sf--Arvid's answers are interestingly different from those on, say, Nethspace. Thanks to Cheryl Morgan for the link.
  • Niall Harrison reviews short fiction, including some short fiction from China published by the Guardian.
  • The Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler. An online short fiction anthology, in English, by Philippine writers. I've only just started reading this, and will eventually review it, but I wanted to make sure news spreads about this. Thanks to SFSignal for the link.
  • Via just about everywhere, Book View Cafe is a new online short fiction venue. It is publishing at least a story a day by women authors, including Ursula K. Le Guin, Jennifer Stevenson and Vonda McIntyre. Although I'm inundated by short fiction these days, this will probably be a good spot for people looking for something new every day.
  • Over at, Brian Slattery reviews a new anthology: Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain. Exactly the sort of thing we need to see more of. Thanks to Duncan Lawie!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Interzone #217: Better Late than Never?

First off, I want to note that there have been some problems with my Interzone subscription on Fictionwise. For some reason the upload to the Fictionwise site (and hence distribution to me) is lagging a looooong way behind their print distribution. I finally got issue #217 in October, and #218 is nowhere to be found. I've heard other people talk about it, so I know it's out there. This is a big contrast to my other subscriptions which are always delivered well ahead of the cover date (I have the January issues of Analog and Asimov's, and the December issue of F&SF as of today). I'm sure there are logistical challenges of which I'm unaware, but it does make me reconsider where my subscription money should be going.

Banalities aside, how was this issue? It certainly had some good stuff in it. "Africa" by Karen Fishler is an interesting future story: aliens kick all the humans off Earth because we've done too much damage. The main characters are the only humans left in orbit; their continuing mission to prevent any human from ever returning. However, over the generations their population has been reduced to a father and a cloned son, and they know that their time is ending. A human ship pulls up with a woman and her dying father; they're apparently all that's left of the portion of humanity that went outward. The whole living-on-ships thing turned out to be unsustainable. The woman has one predictable last request, and the clone-son has rather predictable qualms about turning her away. You have to swallow a lot to buy this story: the aliens leave humans to guard Earth? Isn't that rather like having the fox guard the hen-house? Also, why would the woman, many generations removed from the Earth, be so obsessed with it? Etc. However the emotional portraits of the son and the woman are moving and well-done.

Jason Sanford's "The Ships Like Clouds, Risen by Their Rain" is likewise implausible but with characters that feel true. The humans of a small town live on what appears to be a literal mudball. Ships come from far away and rain down organic material on them, and our main character's job is to keep watch for the ships so everyone can get inside. These drops replenish the soil, but also cause local flooding and devastation. Sometimes a child of the village is smart and ambitious enough to get taken up by the ships; at least that's what people think when they disappear. There is also a fairy-tale-like taboo about not digging around underground. Eventually the taboo is broken and answers are found. This is an archetypal story about thwarted dreams and the hope of realizing them. The old woman is a great viewpoint character and Sanford does a good job of bringing her alive.

Paul McAuley's "Little Lost Robot" is just about the Exact Opposite of the Asimov story he references in the title. Asimov's lost robot was simply a man-sized robot trying to get away with something, trying to escape. McAuley's is a planet-sized solar-system-killing war machine... that finds itself with not much left to kill. It finds its way to a solar system and has a conversation with what may be a remnant of humanity. McAuley has done an interesting thing in giving the "robot" four distinct functional avatars: Librarian, Philosopher, Navigator and Tactician. However, the Philosopher got damaged somewhere along the way, and that lack gives and extra frisson of tension to the story.

"The Two Headed Girl" (Paul G. Tremblay) is much odder. A young girl has two heads, but the second one keeps switching between different historical figures. The main thrust of the story is her search for her estranged father, as she's been raised by her single mother. She also has to deal with ostracism and other emotional perils of young adulthood. It is a really weird story, and I felt like it didn't cohere. I didn't see the connection between the two-headed-ness of the kid and her need for her father. So it just ended up being weird. In contrast, Suzanne Palmer’s "Concession Girl" is a typical working-class heroine saves-the-day on an alien planet story, much fun.

"Comas of Central Park" is almost a story about the bitch-socialite character from "Stand on Zanzibar" who threw parties at which her goal was to humiliate her guests in creative fashions. In this story, one of the guests finds an incarnation of the god Pan in Central Park and brings him to the party--he's like a cross between a genie and a traveling orgy. In amidst all the sex, he helps the protagonist and the socialite learn important things about themselves. I can't say I liked it, especially because the characters seem largely stereotyped; but eventually the author does dig down underneath the stereotypes to get to some interesting bits. Here's a spoilery point: Pan reveals to the main character that she's really got suppressed lesbian desires for the socialite. She freaks out. I would assume she would freak out over being attracted to such a loathsome specimen of humanity, but instead she's freaked out at the thought of being gay. Huh? For that type of jet-set crowd? That struck an unbelievable note to me.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Bacigalupi Kicks You in the Stomach, But in a Good Way

The obvious stand-out in the September issue of F&SF is "Pump Six" by Paolo Bacigalupi. You may recognize the title: it's also the title story in his short fiction collection (out this year) Pump Six and Other Stories. As titles go this one may not leap off shelves and into readers' hands, but it's a heck of a story. It shares the same outlook on the future as most of Bacigalupi's other stories: incredibly bleak. Let's look over his oeuvre, shall we? "People of Sand and Slag," is one of my all-time favorite sf stories. In the future humans can survive on 100% synthetic substances; anything can be made into food. The biosphere is almost completely wiped out, but one group of soldiers finds a dog. They try to care for it and succeed for a while, but finally get bored with it. "Calorie Man" (another one of my favorite Bacigalupi stories; I read it when I was just getting back in to sf/f short fiction): in the near future oil, gas, and coal are pretty much totally gone. Manpower powers everything; food powers people. That's great except that all the crops are under patent by megacorporations who make it illegal for anyone but themselves to grow any food. Ta-da: ultimate monopoly. Whoa. "Pop Squad:" In a world with effective immortality, over-population is such a concern that having unlicensed children is illegal. The protagonist of this story hunts down single mothers and turns them in--they're depicted as no better than drug addicts. It's totally soul-deadening, even for the hero.

Now in "Pump Six," you have a future where pollution has made people progressively more stupid. The hero is smarter than most; he at least knows not to use a lighter to check for a gas leak. He's trying to keep the sewage pumps for New York running, but they're finally starting to wear out and the last people who truly understood them are long dead. He treks over to Columbia University to try to see if their engineers can help; it turns out the university hasn't actually held classes for years. All the "students" are lounging around on the grass like contented apes. It's implied that actual devolution is being caused by the pollution, and existence as happy, mellow, stupid (and short-lived) primates is what's in store for humanity. As usual with Bacigalupi, it's a story that hits you right in the gut; it makes you feel the hopelessness on a visceral level. The only other writer that consistently hits that note for me is Alfred Bester (especially his story in Adventures in Time and Space, “Adam and No Eve”). Bacigalupi is brilliant at coming up with these scenarios, making them seem scarily plausible, then smacking you around with them. For a writer as consistently dark and depressing as Bacigalupi the thing that keeps you reading his stories is his incredible skill, and he's got that in spades.

"Arkfall" by Carolyn Ives Gilman is not a bad story by any means, but coming after a story like "Pump Six" it ends up seeming as light and fluffy as a cloud. It's basically a story of opposite people finding a third way, and it depends on a very contrived scenario to do it. On an alien planet, most people live in organic bubbles surrounding a sea-floor vent. They live in close proximity and have adopted mostly Asian-style social customs to deal with it: family comes first, individualism is out, no one argues directly with each other. A tourist to this world is a brash Westerner, some sort of former space jock. Inevitably he and a woman from the native culture get trapped in a bubble for an extended period. She eventually learns to be more assertive and take control of her fate; he eventually learns to get over himself and sometimes just let the world work. It's a very yin/yang sort of story. It's nicely done, but again it feels like cotton-candy dosed with opiates compared to Bacigalupi.

Another wonderful, if contrived, story comes from Michael Swanwick and Eileen Gunn. It's in the form of correspondence between an author and a certain company. Michael, the Chief Creative Officer of "Guilt Eaters of Philadelphia" promises to relieve Eileen of the guilt that comes from being a writer and not writing; she is heartily skeptical. They go back and forth on different philosophies of life, the appropriateness (and the mechanics) of what he's proposing, before finally coming to a (to me) unexpected but satisfactory arrangement. While this too is somewhat fluffy and definitely silly, it also digs a little deeper into what it means to be a writer, examining what motivates these crazy people.

The other stories in this issue fall into the RUMIR category. "Search Continues for Elderly Man" is another "he's probably dead but it may be VR" story, with some very nasty bits thrown in. I couldn't quite get at the point of it, if there was one. "Picnic on Pentecost" has a sort of hive-mind alien crash-landing on a planet. Only one part survives and cannot die; she has to fulfill the planet's plans for her. "Salad for Two" by Robert Reed keeps you turning pages. A young woman benefits from an early patron and builds a good life for herself. The future comes and she lives through it, profiting and moving out into the solar system; eventually she realizes that her life may not be what she thought it was. It's a nice twist ending, but it almost feels like Reed trivializes the neat world- and character-building he's done in the story by hanging it all on the "twist." "Run! Run!" by Jim Aikin has mean ol' fundamentalist Christians hunting down Unicorns; one farm girl tries to stand in their way. OK, I get the symbolism—Unicorns as wild sexuality and religious nuts who think all sex should be suppressed. However, while I'm no fan of the Religious Right, this story felt bludgeoning to me.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sam Moskowitz Wants You to Know It's All Don Wollheim's Fault

As far as I can tell, The Immortal Storm is Sam Moskowitz’s book-length justification for what happened at the first World Science Fiction Convention, held in 1939 in New York. Along the way he goes back to the earliest days of fandom and takes his story right up to the beginning of WWII, but in the end this is all about him telling his side of a fan feud. The material that makes up the book was originally serialized between 1945 and 1952 in the fanzine Fantasy Commentator. That in and of itself is a tremendous feat; not many have the energy and/or obsession needed to keep a fan history project going for seven years. However, it is exactly in the matter of energy and obsession that Moskowitz distinguishes himself in this book.

Moskowitz briefly takes us back to the earliest days of science fiction, the fantastic, and fandom. He traces a line to modern sf from the great classics of the world such as the Odyssey and Beowulf. Along the way he is not afraid to use hyperbolic flattery:
The only difference between the science fiction fan of today and the Homer of yesteryear is that the fan of today knows there is a sufficiently large kernel of truth in his dreams to make them possible of realization—that the fantastic fiction of today may well become the fact of tomorrow.
Really? The only difference? Kewl.

However he quickly gets back to more recent history, particularly the magazines. I found it interesting to see how fantastic content preceded Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories—for instance Weird Tales had been around for almost a decade at that point. Back then “fantasy” generally meant supernatural horror of the Lovecraft variety, another point I hadn’t realized before.

Next comes the important point: Amazing Tales has a letter column, and fandom is born. Fans write letters, argue with each other, and start forming clubs and publishing fanzines. A few years after that, they start gathering at conventions small and large. This remarkable pattern of activity, which has now persisted for about eighty years, followed immediately upon the publication of sf-specific magazines. There is obviously a segment of humanity that needed an outlet of just this nature, and jumped at it the instant it was available. It really makes you wonder: what did fans do before fandom? That’s one of the few questions Moskowitz doesn’t have an answer for.

He’s more interested in the magazines and fanzines; in many ways his approach is that of the collector. In chronicling the rise and fall of seemingly innumerable fanzines he points out which ones are good and bad; which ones are rare and common and why. One gains a lot of respect for these guys—in the depths of the Great Depression they come up with hektographs, mimeographs and actual printing presses to make fanzines and send them all over the country. Given that the entry cost for my generation is a computer and an internet account to get yourself a blog, I think we must doff our caps to the pioneers of old. And not hold it against them too much that most fanzines only lasted a few issues before fading away. (However, it also gives me a sense of historical continuity: people who revere First Fandom cannot criticize the blogger fans for merely being unedited and poor of grammar; however bad we are, they were worse.)

So, no sooner did fandom start than fan fights arose. By page 10 one of the first sf (or stf, back then, for Gernsback’s unpronounceable term “scientifiction”) clubs, the Scienceers, is feuding internally and with Hugo Gernsback. Apparently in the beginning there was a lot of tension between people who were primarily fans of the fiction and people who were primarily fans of the science. So fan clubs would schism between those interested in pursuing amateur science experiments such as rocketry, and those primarily interested in discussing and collecting the stories. We know which side won out (see the subject material of this blog, for instance), and Moskowitz’s sympathies are also perfectly clear on this matter. What did fans want ultimately? More reading, less blowing stuff up.

Of course, there were still many metaphorical blow ups to be had. As Moskowitz relates all this “objective” history, it becomes clear that he is a “historian” of strong opinions. He obviously isn’t particularly fond of Forest J. Ackerman (at the time of this writing, one of the only survivors of the cast of this book, although currently ailing) but on the other hand Hugo Gernsback can do no wrong. He starts out fairly hostile to Bob Tucker, but quite sympathetic to William Sykora as events unfold. At all times and in all ways, Donald A. Wollheim is portrayed as a jerk. Then, when Moskowitz himself enters the story, we find out the cause of his retroactive opinions.

Moskowitz attempts to maintain objectivity by referring to himself always in the third person—it doesn’t work. In fact, it’s pretty giggle-worthy. Here’s a passage chosen more or less at random:
Moskowitz refused to remit him [Ackerman] further consideration, maintaining that Ackerman’s original letter suggesting the agreement would remain in his files as evidence that his interpretation had been reasonable; that the contribution had been unsolicited; and that, even without Ackerman’s contributions, the extra convention journals would have found ready buyers. He returned to Ackerman, after some delay, a copy of the first issue of Imagination, which had not been sold at the auction. (Ackerman had intimated that Moskowitz intended to keep and eventually sell this item for a small fortune.) This exchange was the foundation of the anti-Moskowitz attitude held by Ackerman thenceforth.
How would this anti-Moskowitz attitude manifest itself? Well, it all comes down to the first World Science Fiction Convention. In 1937, a group eventually called the Futurians, whose members consisted of (amongst others) Don Wollheim, Fred Pohl and John Michel, had formed a committee to organize a WorldCon to coincide with the World’s Fair in New York in 1939. Between 1937 and 1938, the committee hadn’t really done much. Also around this time, Moskowitz and Wollheim became bitter enemies for various reasons of fan club and fanzine wars. So in 1938, Moskowitz founds “New Fandom” with the express purpose of bootstrapping a large fan organization with enough cred to organize the WorldCon. In this he succeeds. Fast forward to the con; the Futurians show up. After talking back and forth the New Fandom organizers (which along with Moskowitz are John Tausari and William Sykora) demand that the Futurians pledge their good conduct. Several do so (such as a young Isaac Asimov and others), but a core of six of them (including of course Fred Pohl and Don Wollheim) refuse to promise to behave themselves, and so are not granted entry. As far as I can tell, this event is “The Immortal Storm” (unless he means the constant, or “eternal” fan bickering that has characterized fandom since its earliest days; he never quite specifies).

So the con goes on and it’s a great success. But there’s a cloud cast over it by the Futurians, and after the con battle lines are drawn in the fan magazines. Ackerman, returning home to California, influences the Los Angeles Science Fiction League to write up “The Expulsion Act!” in its newsletter, thus engendering Moskowitz’s eternal enmity. Factional disputes continue, but Moskowitz finally decides to wrap up his story just before Pearl Harbor, thus leaving the enduring impression that in his mind, WWII is an anti-climax compared to the fan feuds that went before. Here’s the final paragraph:
As a back-drop loomed the threat of another World War as Germany began a systematic annexation of nearby countries and provinces in Europe and France and England came to grips with her. The culmination came on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Things would never again be quite the same in science fiction or science fiction fandom.
Reading the book, one has to realize that everything Moskowitz writes is skewed very purposefully, and that he has a poor reputation concerning printing fully truthful things. James Blish (who features only marginally in Immortal Storm) has this to say about Moskowitz as a scholar in More Issues at Hand (1970):
The most astonishing of these ‘inside’ volumes is Sam Moskowitz’ The Immortal Storm, a history of the publications and internal politics of a small segment of science-fiction fandom, centered upon Mr. Moskowitz himself and written in what appears to be Middle High Neolithic.

Moskowitz is also responsible, however, for one of science fiction’s five authentic books of criticism, Explorers of the Infinite (World, 1963). (It will be noted that Mr. Moskowitz, like many of his fellow enthusiasts, has a weakness for grandiose titles.)… Though Moskowitz is the nearest thing to a scholar that science fiction has yet produced, his research—as P. Schuyler Miller and others have pointed out—is not always trustworthy; and in the past he has shown an irritating tendency to wax polemical in defense of his errors, in preference to correcting them. (1)
I had heard the same thing from other sources, so I approached this as one man’s account of fannish history and would be very hesitant to cite any facts from it without checking them. So it ends up being a fun game of “follow the bias,” figuring out what various people did to piss off Moskowitz such that he portrays them negatively even when describing things they did before he was an active fan.

The most amazing thing about Immortal Storm is that Moskowitz never wavers in his determination that this stuff matters. It is just as important to him in 1952 as it was when it was happening in 1938-9. He feels it intensely, and his over-blown language conveys a lot of that passion. Another example:
But again stark drama was preparing her lines for recitation, and what was to follow, coupled with the coincidence of simultaneous events, was to deal catastrophe to fandom as a whole. Ragnarok had caught the entire fan world napping!
This has to be contrasted with another fan history, The Futurians by Damon Knight, published in 1977. I read this book almost two years ago, but never reviewed it. It seemed like a disorganized, almost lackadaisical collection of anecdotes—valuable to the historian as a source, but not terribly illuminating. It is an important book; compared to Moskowitz’s “New Fandom,” the Futurians and their members were crucial in shaping the field through its Golden Age: Wollheim as an editor, Fred Pohl and Judith Merril as a writers and editors, Asimov as a writer (as well as Cyril Kornbluth and Harry Dockweiler/Dirk Wylie), Virginia Kidd as an editor and Damon Knight as a writer and critic. The Futurians grew up and moved out into the ranks of the professionals, while after New Fandom faded away, its fans apparently mostly stayed fans. So it makes sense that Knight would want to collect something like an oral history to make sure some of their story is preserved for the future. However, he doesn’t care with the same fiery passion as Moskowitz; he’s done other things of import and his time with the Futurians is just one interesting bit among others. Futurians covers the events of Immortal Storm, by the way. It takes a little less than a chapter. Knight admits that Wollheim was quite an asshole in his fan days (“In August, tired of destroying other people’s clubs, Wollheim and his friends decided to create one of their own. They called it the Futurian Science Literary Society. Its first open meeting was held on September 18, 1938.”) But it’s just not that consequential. This lack makes Knight’s book lackluster compared to Moskowitz’s, even though the former is certainly more useful for any serious historian.

Immortal Storm holds a reader’s interest for a variety of reasons. I learned quite a bit about fannish history and the inside story of how fanzines used to work. I was astonished at how recognizable the fandom of yore is to fandom today. Even though I’m not hooked in to hardcore fandom, I’ve heard the charges of “not fannish enough,” which were also leveled back then. The way that some fans are dedicated to making their voices heard about the fiction itself [cough, cough “Guilty!”], whereas for other fans, fandom itself becomes their obsession, also rings true. By 1932 Moskowitz already describes fanzines that are dedicated to documenting fandom itself, without any reference to the fiction they’re all supposedly fans of. This phenomenon surprised me when I first started going to Cons (about 10 years ago now), but now I’ve gotten used to it. So, as long as you are not using this book as a primary source of unchallenged veracity, there is a lot here for the contemporary reader. You get a good feel for the shape of the field as it was in the 1920s and 30s, and Moskowitz’s burning intensity keeps you turning the pages. There are worse faults to have in a book of history.

(1) Blish also has this to say: “People who read nothing but science fiction and fantasy—the Moskowitz syndrome—are fundamentally non-readers, just as people who read nothing but detective stories are non-readers; their gaping jaws signal not wonder, but the utter absence of any thought or sensation at all. They are easy to spot by their reactions when a fifty-year-old story-telling innovation finally reaches science fiction: They are either utterly bowled over by it and proclaim it the wave of the future, or they find it incomprehensible and demand the return of E. E. Smith, who, unfortunately, is dead.”

I Blather on About Peter Hamilton's Latest at Strange Horizon

This is just a note to point you to a review of Peter F. Hamilton's latest block- (and foot-) buster, The Temporal Void. It's the second book in a trilogy and it shows, but it's also a gee-whiz-enjoyable space opera (with some of the moral squidgy-ness that seems to accompany that genre). Anyway, my review of it is up at Strange Horizons for all to see.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Utopia by Thomas More

Science fiction has a strong historical connection with Utopian literature. People have long dreamed of a better place where everything is perfect. Plato contented himself with having Socrates derive such a place from first principles around 360 B. C. in Republic. In 1516 Thomas More relates the conversation of a traveller who has been to such a place. His eponymous Utopia is set on an isolated and defensible island (although not so isolated that it does not trade with its neighbours). In 1887, Edward Bellamy sets his in the future (as we were running out of undiscovered islands by that time) in Looking Backward: 2000-1887. Charlotte Perkins Gilman goes back to the isolated valley in Herland, a feminist utopia published in 1915. Eventually we have to set them on distant planets, as Ursula K. Le Guin does in 1974's The Dispossessed (although I hasten to add that Le Guin's work is more nuanced and less didactic than the other examples here).

More's Utopia starts out with More and some friends meeting a traveler, Raphael Hythloday, in Flanders and inviting him home for dinner. They speak of people they know in common, lavishing praise on More's mentor, Cardinal John Morton. They speak of affairs back in England, and Raphael begins to mention that things could be much different there. He compares England’s affairs to a land far away in which he spent five years. At first he mentions very specific criticisms—particularly against the monarchy and court politics. They get into a debate that starts with More suggesting that such a well-travelled man as Raphael should be a court advisor. Raphael finds the idea abhorrent and explains why, getting into a debate with another of More's friends. Finally they ask Raphael for a full accounting of this land, Utopia, and that monologue makes up the bulk of this (not very long) book.

Generally speaking, the elements highlighted in the description of a utopian society reflect the primary concerns of the author. More appears to be most concerned with eliminating court politics, hereditary monarchy, and reforming criminal justice. He believes things could be much simpler. In the course of the lecture, he occasionally harkens back to Plato: the importance of wide educations for the citizenry, women being able to fight alongside as men, the importance of having an incorruptible ruling class. In fact, as in most other utopias one can think of, More believes the money is the root of all evil. His citizens do not pay for what they need and there are always enough of the necessities for everyone. In fact, they make the chains of their slaves (criminals) and their chamber-pots out of gold, to constantly remind themselves of its worthlessness. (But they still keep it handy should they need it to pay mercenaries to fight wars for them—no pacifism here!) Religion is a Good Thing as long as no one gets too exclusive about it; the inhabitants genially listen to and adopt bits of all the religions they're exposed to. The only danger zones: believing that you've found the one true answer and trying to damn all your non-believing fellows, and atheism. Atheism is Right Out.

In general, this seminal work of utopian literature has the same problem as all its successors: it requires perfect people. Despite the gestures towards a better criminal justice system, you're left to believe that either no one there would ever commit a crime, or those that do would take their chains of gold and hop on the very next trading ship out of there. Likewise, to believe that in the absence of gold men will resist being corrupted by pure power is probably overly optimistic.

Having read some of the more recent works of utopia (particularly Looking Backwards) I'm not sure that reading this founding book added much to my knowledge. It really is just like all the others, but with little fillips that place it in its historical context. It is interesting to put it in a line tracing from Plato (with whom the introduction assures me More was familiar)—I would guess that later works draw more from Utopia than from the Republic, although all share the same impulses. Certainly its important to be aware of that thread in amongst the different strands that make up science fiction’s past—as well as Westerns, Space Opera, Detective stories, etc. I for one am grateful that utopianism has waned over the last few decades—they really are tiresome and seem to exist only for people of good sense to argue with. I probably could have stuck with second-hand knowledge that Utopia started the whole shebang, but there's some value in seeing for myself just how little drift there's been in that technique over the centuries.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Meme I Can Get Behind

Copy this sentence into your livejournal if you're in a heterosexual marriage, and you don't want it "protected" by the bigots who think that gay marriage hurts it somehow.

I'm sure Blogger will suffice. If you're in California and can vote, vote No on Prop. 8.

This is, I hope, the most political I will be on this blog. I don't intend to make it my politically oriented soap-box, I promise.

Friday, October 24, 2008

More Thoughts on Incandescence

For some reason Greg Egan's work always inspires me to think more deeply about SF and literature. I used his Schild's Ladder in a paper on post-human gender in 2007 and I'll be using his short fiction in a paper on Suspension of Disbelief in 2009 (based largely on this review I did for Strange Horizons). Now I'm thinking about science fiction and characterization, which ties in with my thoughts on Stephen Baxter's Flood, a discussion of which is here and my review of which is here.

In my review of Incandescence, I mentioned that it is at heart a novel about science. In my previous post I mentioned that as such, it doesn't really have much in the way of characterization or stunning prose. It has a heck of a plot that's contrived to show off science: its importance and how it can bring joy and meaning to our lives.

Now I'm asking myself: could this book be written in such a way as to include all those things? Leaving aside the somewhat trivial matter of prose style, let's focus on characterization. Could this story work with fully-realized, three-dimensional characters?

The thing is, one of the hallmarks of good characterization is character growth, usually in the form of some sort of emotional realization/epiphany. Nick Mamatas wonderfully sums up this approach to a novel:
Novels are long stories, you see, that depict a "slice of life" featuring a middle-class protagonist. Psychological realism is prized in novels. Moral instruction was once fairly common in novels, but is now considered gauche. Novels end when the protagonist has an epiphany, such as "I am not happy. Also, neither is anybody else."
For the curious, the rest of that paragraph, mocking the literati describing a novel, continues, :
Further, many long fictions are called novels even though they are really adventures, and these ersatz novels may take place in a fantastical setting and often depict wild criminal behaviors and simplified versions of international intrigues instead of middle-class quandaries. Sometimes there are pirates, but only so that a female character may swoon at their well-developed abdominal muscles.
I think this is the sort of thing that Niall Harrison was pushing back against when he said, in the Flood discussion:
I do think asking if we can’t “have both” ideation and characterization is a bit of a red herring. Obviously, it’s perfectly possible to have both, since the elements of fiction are not a zero-sum game, but that doesn’t mean both have to be present to allow us to describe a book as good. I’m mildly allergic to arguments based on class properties, I think. So far as I’m concerned, a story that foregrounds ideation over (a certain kind of) characterization is no more inherently a failure (or a success) than a story that foregrounds (a certain kind of) characterization over ideation is inherently a success (or a failure); and stories that have both are not inherently superior to stories that only have one.
(Now I feel bad for citing Niall when he's not around to defend himself. However, that's the price he pays for spending a holiday week in Wales with good friends, books, and food. Thpppth!)

The thing is, Egan's characters in Incandescence do grow, but their growth is intellectual, not emotional. I wonder if in the common view of "characterization" the mainstream has ruled out intellectual concerns in favor of emotional ones. Rakesh, Paramthan, Roi and Zak all have perfectly satisfying internal lives, pursuing and discovering knowledge. For many humans, that is a perfectly legitimate and reasonable description of their lives. For some, that is much closer to their real internal state than the sort of suburban angst for which "mainstream" literature is famous.

Basically what I'm asking is: would it be legitimate for us to conclude that some sf is just as good at characterization as any other branch of literature if you allow that intellectual revelations are just as satisfying and legitimate as emotional ones?

The other thing is that I feel that a certain kind of character has been legislated against in the annals of literature: the un-angsty scientist. That is, the scientist who is basically at peace with themselves and their fellow human beings (or aliens), for whom the life of the mind is their primary life. They may have minor personality conflicts with those around them, and they may think deeply about the philosophical consequences of what they do, but they don't spend much time ruminating about their childhood, repressing anger with their spouse, or getting into screaming matches with their siblings. They have more important things to do, which things probably revolve around the plot of the book. I think many, if not most, real people in this universe have the capability of putting aside less pressing concerns, even emotional ones, if there is a real crisis at hand. I would argue that they should not a priori be labeled "two-dimensional" for doing so.

This is not to say that many sf heroes are not made of cardboard: many are. No one is looking for deep introspection--emotional, philosophical or intellectual--from Kimball Kinnison of Doc Smith's Lensmen (and I refuse to let Stephen Baxter off the hook for his randomly-acting-info-dumping characters). There is likely no real person in this world who would be described as similar to Mr. Kinnison. But simply because a character is figuring out things about the universe instead of things about their mistress shouldn't be an automatic disqualification from being a "well-rounded character." Some real people are really like that.

Edited to add something I realized as I was writing a reply to a comment on this post: Sometimes I think literary people don't think real scientists/engineers are real people. For instance, I've heard people say: "this character is completely unrealistic" at which point I would have to refrain from saying: "but she reminds me so much of myself." I've heard that some authors get the same reaction; they model a character on someone they know, then hear from critics saying that the character is obviously fantastic/impossible. Maybe it all comes down to execution, or maybe some readers refuse to admit that real people exist who think and feel differently than they do.

Or am I just making excuses now?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Incandescence Review

I've got a review of Greg Egan's latest novel of science, Incandescence, up at SFSignal today.

What I don't do in that review is wrestle with a dilemma: in Incandescence some elements are front and center which distinguish SF from "literature." The book has a plot, and it has a philosophical core/argument. It does NOT have convincing characters or poetic prose. It is, in fact, didactic, hearkening back to the days when Hal Clement taught us about gravity. In my mind, Incandescence is the best physics lecture I've ever read, and I understand gravity and General Relativity better for having read it. And I liked it!

It's an old problem: I want to defend sf as literature, but ghod love me, I love it even when it isn't. How is one supposed to define consistent standards/aesthetic under these sorts of conditions? I love Stapledon but I think Baxter's characters are woefully underdeveloped? I love Gene Wolfe for his sweep-you-off-your-feet prose, but also enjoy reading Asimov and Heinlein? How can I possibly justify these stances? Old question: why was A. E. van Vogt so loved when by most objective standards he was lousy? Going back further, James Blish (as William Atheling, Jr.) had to ask why Abraham Merritt was so loved when he was so obviously awful.

Most of the time I want sf to stand up with the best mainstream literature has to offer, and ideally you could get someone with the ideas of an Egan and the prose of a Wolfe or Chabon. It's times like this though, where I start to understand the drive towards (and difficulty of) developing a separate aesthetic for sf.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer

Kalpa Imperial is the product of celebrated Argentinean author Angélica Gorodischer. No less an authority than Ursula K. Le Guin provides the translation. It is a loose collection of stories that share a common setting, the empire of the title: the “Greatest Empire that Never Was.” In some ways Kalpa is a traditional fantasy milieu—a monarchy with strict hierarchies that keep getting overthrown every few generations, based on the glory of the past, without much technology above that needed to sail ships and build castles. However, its stories share the tone of fantasy more than the trappings; one doesn’t find much in the way of overt magic here, certainly no guiding wizards. While some farm boys make good, they do it mostly through their own efforts and luck, not via being a “Chosen One” of some nature. In many ways the stories in “Kalpa Imperial” read more like historical fiction set in a time and place that never existed.

The sense that things were better in the old days suffuses all the stories. The opening story “Portrait of the Emperor” tells of the founding of the empire, but even then the first emperor builds upon the ruins that he alone has the courage to explore. The Golden Throne upon which he sits was not built by him or his craftsman, it is a relic from days when people achieved more than we could ever imagine. This sense pervades all the stories: the characters never believe that they are living in golden days, they never believe that they are achieving a pinnacle of any sort. The times they live in are always somewhat decadent, somewhat violent, somewhat degraded.

This sense is possibly a human universal; it certainly dates back to our earliest writings. Homer speaks repeatedly of how much better men were during the Heroic age (i.e., The Trojan War) than we mere mortals that make up his audience. In the Iliad he writes: “Aeneas seized a great stone, so huge that two men, as men now are, would be unable to lift it, but Aeneas wielded it quite easily.” Tennyson captures this feeling most beautifully at the end of his poem Ulysses:
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Of course, Tennyson is much more optimistic than Gorodischer’s storyteller. These storytellers (each story except the last starts with the phrase “The storyteller said:") seem to have a mission to make sure that those listening do not harbor too many illusions. At the beginning of my favorite story in the book (“Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities”):
The storyteller said: They gave all kinds of names to it, they made up all kinds of origins for it, and all of them were false. The names were mere inventions of obscure, scheming little men whose sole ambition was to get one step higher on a miserable official ladder or obtain a place among the palace lickspittles or a little extra money to satisfy some petty vanity. And the origins were laborious artifacts constructed to display some influential personage as a descendant of the hero who was supposed to have founded it in a fit of divine madness.

The story goes on to relate the “true” history of the city—from its beginning as a stopping post between the capital and the ports, its first mayor who was the only survivor of a bunch of bandits wiped out by the militia, its subsequent rises, falls, periods of being in favor and out of favor. It tells the story of the city, not of the people within it although they sometimes surface. In a way it is like an Olaf Stapledon story, covering an individual microcosm in the same way he tackled the universe. There’s something both real and world-weary in the way the tale is related: regular folks, good and bad, make decisions almost randomly that later generations build up into acts of greatness or folly—legends add grandeur to banal reality. While one would imagine that in the normal course of things storytellers would be the main perpetrators of this sort of heroic white-washing, these storytellers don’t countenance that sort of thing. They put the smallness back in the stories of the “great,” and for that alone this books stands as a nice counter-balance to much high/epic fantasy.

This is not to say that the stories aren’t interesting! I don’t want to make this sound like a depressing or boring short story collection. These stories tell of rebellions both successful and un-, revenge and obsession, good leaders and bad ones, insane ones, insane ones who are also good ones, and battles for reasons good and bad.

The Empire has never been able to conquer the lands to the South, but often tries. The final story, “The Old Incense Road” finally tells us a little bit about the South itself—at which point one’s knowledge of the book’s context makes it hard to avoid overlaying allegorical elements onto the narrative. The South is hotter and more tropical, less technological and more tribal, with a slower pace of life—standing in a similar relation to the Empire that South America does to the United States. The Empire never understands the challenges of operating there and certainly does not grasp the cultural differences and their import. One man from the Empire ends up, through a series of random happenstances, sort of “going native,” spawning legends about himself as he wanders through the jungle, rumors which are then misinterpreted by Empire intelligence agents. At this point one need must remember that “Kalpa Imperial” was originally published in 1983 although it wasn’t translated until 2003. While most of the stories are not “political” in the sense of bearing on contemporary politics (they are very political in the sense of dealing with governance and power relationships), “Incense Road” may strike a little closer to home. Various Western superpowers have been meddling in places they fail to understand long before our current misadventures in the Middle East, and certain South American countries still bear the scars of some of that meddling.

Kalpa Imperial is an impressive collection of short stories. In their tone of decay they remind me somewhat of “New Weird” authors Jeff VanderMeer and China Mieville, although she obviously predates them by a decade or two. Still, that feeling of urban realism in a fantastic setting, of people and politics driving events instead of magic, binds them together. I was a little disappointed that the stories did not feel more exotic or foreign—aside from the parts about the South, most of the stories deal with a realm similar in most ways to those found in Western history and fantasy literature. Of course, Argentina is a country with a thriving European culture (especially in Buenos Aires) made up of numerous ex patriates who settled in the exotic continent of South America—it makes sense that the Western literary tradition would be the primary influence on these stories. Nonetheless, I hope to see more of Gorodischer’s work translated in the future; if not by the masterful Le Guin, then at least by somebody. It would surely take a uniquely incompetent translator to ruin the work of such a talented author.