27 December 2009

Favourites of 2009

Inspired by SF Signal's recent Mind Meld posts on the "best genre-related books/films/shows consumed in 2009," I thought I might give my Top 10 lists for SF&F novels and short stories read this year (for the first time) -- seeing as most of what I read was originally published before 2009. Then, I'll throw in a list for films.

Favourite SF&F Novels Read in 2009 (Out of 4 Stars)
1. Watchmen (Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, 1986)  *****
2. Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson, 1992)  ****
3. Blindsight (Peter Watts, 2006)  ****
4. Anathem (Neal Stephenson, 2008)  ****
5. Green Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson, 1994)  ****
6. River of Gods (Ian McDonald, 2004)  ****
7. Revelation Space (Alastair Reynolds, 2000)  *** 1/2
8. The Last Unicorn (Peter S. Beagle, 1968)  *** 1/2
9. Chasm City (Alastair Reynolds, 2001)  ***
10. Darwin's Radio (Greg Bear, 1999)  ***

Most Disappointing: Calculating God (Robert J. Sawyer, 2000); Hominids (Robert J. Sawyer, 2003); Consider Phlebas (Iain M. Banks, 1987).

25 December 2009

Further Thoughts on Avatar (dir. James Cameron, 2009)

Some further reviews and commentaries on Avatar:
Nick Mamatas (a silly rant, interesting for the level and bile of its silliness)
'Avatar' and the War of Genres (Gerry Canavan)
When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like "Avatar"? (Annalee Newitz @ io9)
The Blue Future of Video Games (Stephen Totilo @ Kotaku)
Intentions be damned, Avatar is racist (SEK @ Acephalous)
John Scalzi on the most memorable SF films of 2009
The Wertzone
SF Signal (Scott Shaffer)
Locus (Gary Westfahl)
Speculative Horizons

     I wrote in my other post on Avatar that Art functions to challenge and potentially change how we see our world and ourselves, relating this idea to what I think constitutes the central theme of the film: to see differently, to perceive in a new way.

     One clear sign that a work of Art has succeeded in this function can be found in the multiplicity of readings, arguments, critiques, reactions, and emotions generated by the film. With Avatar, the variety and even vehemence of readings of the film are proving most important in this respect. If anything, the film is at least inspiring discussion and debate -- not just about whether it's awesome or sucks, but for its politics and sociocultural meanings.

     More specifically, I suggest that a significant part of the film's success resides in its openness to multiple, various interpretations . . . as well as in the way it exposes, or reflects back, the reductiveness or overdetermination or oversimplification of some of those interpretations. Put in a slightly different way, Avatar, I think, is quickly becoming an excellent example of how people will see in a work of Art what they want, need, desire to see, thereby closing themselves off from, blinding themselves to, or outright distrusting the wider, more universal meanings at play in the film. In other words, Avatar appears to be generating both insightful commentary and misprisions (i.e., willfull misreadings).

     A common critique of Avatar claims that the story is clichéd, conventional, too simple, unoriginal, boring, vapid, and so on. The standard question goes, "With all the investment in technology and making the film look great, why couldn't Cameron develop a better, more intelligent story?" By extension, the critique of the story involves charges that the script is poor, the dialogue being awkward and overly obvious and "cringe worthy."

     On one hand, such a critique assumes (and discounts) that Cameron did not make careful, purposeful choices regarding the plot, characters, setting, and key incidents; on the other hand, such a critique also reveals an inattentiveness to the role of the dialogue in the film, which is to establish and forward plot, character, setting, and incident.

20 December 2009

Reading Asimov's Science Fiction (Dec. 2009), Part V

[Part IPart IIPart III; Part IV]

7. Mike Resnick, "The Bride of Frankenstein" (pg. 80-87) ***
Read 20 Dec. 2009. I think of this kind of story as a stunt. Not an experiment, but a stunt: like trying to see if you can jump through a burning ring of fire on a motorcycle while, maybe, juggling chainsaws. Mind you, the story is not that absurd, but it's a stunt nonetheless -- one that I enjoyed a great deal, particularly for its cheeky re-imagining of Mary Shelley's characters in a mostly-tidy domestic arrangement, with the creature as a dedicated pacifist who devours tragic romances such as Anna Karenina and Romeo and Juliet. The wife is our narrator, through entries in her journal, and we learn about her daily frustration with the loneliness and strangeness of her domestic life, not to mention her open distaste for Igor, the hunchbacked servant, and her manifest discomfort with the creature. One key is Resnick's revision of the creature: "'I don't kill things. . . . I have been dead, Baroness . . .. It is not an experience I would wish upon anyone or anything else'" (83); "'Therefore, we must be here for a higher purpose -- and what higher purpose can there be than love?'" (86). The other key is the tone of the narrative, which remains steadfastly light, in the sort of knowing, wink-wink, self-conscious lightness that understands the story is playing around with very familiar expectations while ending up basically at the same place as the original, yet shifting the register of the original (i.e., the creature's demand that Victor make him a mate) from tragedy to romance. I like Resnick's inventiveness, perhaps especially because I am so familiar with Mary Shelley's novel: (re)telling the story from the Baroness' point of view nicely resets our impressions of the dynamics between the characters. Yet I can't shake the feeling that the story's a stunt, that it might have done more with a "what if?" revision of that novel's story.

19 December 2009

Thoughts on Avatar (dir. James Cameron, 2009)

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
– John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn"

True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest,
What oft was Thought, but ne'er so well Exprest,
Something, whose Truth convinc'd at Sight we find,
That gives us back the Image of our Mind ....
– Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism

One of the basic functions of Art is to challenge us to see our world and ourselves in new ways, to perceive and look at Life differently.

To see in new ways, to perceive differently: this, we might say, is the raison d'être of science fiction, a genre/mode/tradition that relies upon the estranging and unfamiliar as a means by which to comment upon now, upon today.

Of all modern art forms, film most powerfully and concretely has the ability to change how we see our world and ourselves, to put before us the estranging and unfamiliar, thereby introducing us to new worlds whether they be of the past or the present or the future, another country or culture, other lives outside of or unknown to us.

Avatar does all of this, as a work of Art, of science fiction, of film -- on an epic, sublime, and breathtaking scale.

It seeks nothing less than to remind us of the stunning, heartbreaking beauty of Earth, a beauty that we must value as more than a mere commodity. It aims unabashedly to alter how we see Earth by giving us Pandora, a world so magnificently surprising and colourful and alive that it asks us to be swept away by and utterly immersed in the beauty of its newness . . . asks us to care for it and protect it from ourselves.

Reading Asimov's Science Fiction (Dec. 2009), Part IV

[Part IPart II; Part III]

6. Benjamin Crowell, "A Large Bucket, and Accidental Godlike Mastery of Spacetime" (pg. 66-79) *** 1/2
Read 17 Dec. 2009. Smart, humourous, witty, focussed, sly. Hints of homage to Douglas Adams. A climax and an ending that neatly balance the expected and the slightly ambiguous. This is a fine, fine story, starting with the title and not slowing down until the last word; I wonder if it will appear in some "Best of 2009" collections next year. One thing that Crowell does especially well is maintain what I'll call a consistency of tone, of voice: the writing has energy, confidence, purpose, intelligence, keeping the narration neatly poised between Horatian satire and a kind of honest, wry appraisal of why humanity has all the necessary skills to forge a unity among various alien peoples in spite of itself. Sidibé's simple desire to help a fellow diplomat on board the "GalCiv" spaceship leads her, innocently, to form an intricate network of trading goods and favours, which leads to the importance of the bucket -- not to mention some of the aliens in her "cohort" aboard the spaceship suspecting that she's ultimately after "Complete galactic domination" (74). In the end, this is what she achieves, just not quite in the way we (or she) would expect, for in just going about the daily business of the trade network and wishing for a 15-minute nap between appointments, she cultivates co-operation among all her fellow GalCiv diplomats. "'I was only -- you can't -- I don't really know what I'm doing. They didn't vote for me or anything'" (79): her reward? Why, the godlike mastery of spacetime, of course, bestowed by, well ... perhaps by God himself/herself/itself. In the end, the story is positive, optimistic: humanity as the connector of the Milky Way's races and nations, despite its intentions to the contrary. Sly, indeed.

7. Mike Resnick, "The Bride of Frankenstein"

8. Brian Stableford, "Some Like it Hot"

16 December 2009

Reading Asimov's Science Fiction (Dec. 2009), Part III

[Part I; Part II.]

4. Nick Wolven, "Angie's Errand" (pg. 44-54) ***
Read 16 Dec. 2009. A very strong story, from the craft of the words to the strength and complexity of the main character Angie to the plotting and resolution. This is the sort of quality writing I expect to find in a top market such as Asimov's. Wolven presents a distinct voice in the narrator and demonstrates an attentive ear for sound and rhythm: "The sheer waste of it made her stomach knot, but afterward her blonde hair fell in feathery masses that softened the severity of her starved cheeks" (45); "Vestiges of glass in the frames of townhouse windows glistened in the afternoon light like unshed tears" (50). There's crispness in the language, and poetry. Angie encourages the reader's sympathy: the older sister turned single mother to her sisters and brother after the "Crisis" (a deliberately vague recent apocalyptic event); she is at a point of crisis herself, believing she needs a man for help and support; she faces a nearly predictable danger because of this belief, and comes through changed with an inner conviction, "patience," and "confidence" (54) -- a change that develops plausibly, naturally from the story's incidents. Those incidents are measured carefully, generating and never quite fully releasing a tension that infuses everything in the story (characters, setting, events, words). On the cusp of giving in to the cliché consequences of a lone, vulnerable woman in a threatening world of lawless men, Wolven throws a couple of twists at the reader that bring relief but also pathos. This story treats gender roles and stereotypes in a more neutral, thoughtful way than Genge, as people revert to old, primal needs yet also find new sources of strength because of the "Crisis." A few moments of awkwardness set the story back a tad, though ("At the word spoil a sob rose in her throat. She swallowed it hastily, releasing Emily's collar" [44]).

15 December 2009

Reading Asimov's Science Fiction (Dec. 2009), Part II

[Part I.]

2. Sara Genge, "As Women Fight" (pg. 24-33) **
Read 13 Dec. 2009. This story has an inventive idea, and metaphor, at its centre: a somewhat evolved human culture, apparently owing to the influence of long-ago visitors from outer space, is built around the potentially annual exchange of bodies between husbands and wives -- rather, exchange of personalities, or selves -- depending on who wins a "Fight" (actual, ritualized physical combat). Yet the story is too heavy-handed with its biases regarding the implications of this idea/metaphor. People switch bodies in order to inhabit, experience, and understand the minds and desires and proscribed roles of both genders; the women, however, are made to be the more desirable choice (faster, heightened senses, etc.) overall, while the men fit into clichéd behaviours and types, despite the story's admirable attempts to blur and challenge gender constructions/constrictions. The main character, Merthe, is an effective focalizer: ambiguous; confused; at a point of personal and cultural conflict, and so willing to do things differently and accept the consequences; chivalrous, heroic. I wonder, though, if switching bodies and a transferrable consciousness/self/personality aren't becoming overly conventional in SF now? Also, Genge seems to be reaching for the substance of Russ or Tiptree, Jr., but the . . . artistry feels not quite up to the task.

11 December 2009

Reading Asimov's Science Fiction (Dec. 2009)

Certainly, if planning to write stories and get them published, reading and knowing the best markets is a good thing. Hence, I will make an effort to read issues of Asimov's consistently for a few months and try to gauge the kind of story that gets sold to and finds its way into this leading market.

I will give each story a rating (out of four stars) and offer my thoughts on what did and/or did not work.

1. Jeff Carlson, "A Lovely Little Christmas Fire" (pg. 10-22) ** 1/2
Read 12 Dec. 2009. This is a good, serviceable story with a dash of humour and a sprinkle of hardboiled-detective attitude. The point of view of the main character, Julie Beauchain, feels a bit artificial at times: the narrative is too pointed in ensuring that the reader knows she's black and a woman and hot for her man/partner Highsong. Yet the bringing together of current corporate capitalist greed and US defense/military R&D initiatives in genetically engineered and augmented termites allowed to run amok makes for an intriguingly plausible dystopian America. Tightly paced and plotted; entertaining; engaging main character. For me, though, it ultimately lacks a multilayered substance in its meaning(s), and the writing at times is awkward or a little forced (e.g., "If she was worth her weight, she would've jumped Highsong or at least smooched a bit ..." [p. 18]).

2. Sarah Genge, "As Women Fight"

3. John Shirley, "Animus Rights"

4. Nick Wolven, "Angie's Errand"

5. Jim Aikin, "Leaving the Station"

6. Benjamin Crowell, "A Large Bucket, and Accidental Godlike Mastery of Spacetime"

7. Mike Resnick, "The Bride of Frankenstein"

8. Brian Stableford, "Some Like it Hot"

16 August 2009

Reading Year's Best SF 14 (Hartwell and Cramer)

I am gradually making my way through Hartwell and Cramer's Year's Best SF 14 (EOS, 2009) and thought I would rate the stories out of four stars as I go, perhaps with some occasional commentary.

1. Carolyn Ives Gilman, "Arkfall" ***

2. Neil Gaiman, "Orange" ** 1/2

3. Kathleen Ann Goonan, "Memory Dog" *** 1/2

4. Paolo Bacigalupi, "Pump Six" ****

5. Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette, "Boojum" *** 1/2

6. Ted Chiang, "Exhalation" ****

7. M. Rickert, "Traitor" ** 1/2

8. Cory Doctorow, "The Things That Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away" **

9. Vandana Singh, "Oblivion: A Journey" **

10. Robert Reed, "The House Left Empty" ** 1/2

11. Michael Swanwick, "The Scarecrow's Boy" ** 1/2

12. Ted Kosmatka, "N-Words" ***

13. Alastair Reynolds, "Fury" ** 1/2

14. Ann Halam, "Cheats" ** 1/2

15. Jason Sanford, "The Ships Like Clouds, Risen by Their Rain" ** 1/2

16. Mary Rosenblum, "The Egg Man" ***

17. Daryl Gregory, "Glass" ***

18. Jeff VanderMeer, "Fixing Hanover" ***

19. Rudy Rucker, "Message Found in a Gravity Wave" *** 1/2

20. Karl Schroeder and Tobias S. Buckell, "Mitigation" *** 1/2

21. Sue Burke, "Spiders" ***

20 April 2009

A Response to Ted Gioia's "Notes on Conceptual Fiction"

Source: Gioia’s essay can be read here. I was originally linked to it from SF Signal. See some discussion about Gioia’s essay here.

I feel the need to respond to Ted Gioia’s essay “Notes on Conceptual Fiction” because it represents bad criticism, even if its heart is in the right place. Gioia’s terminology proves suspect and unstable, and his categories and grounds of judgement in the end commit the same fallacies as those he critiques. Most importantly, as much as Gioia argues for the importance of SF&F to fiction of the last century or so, which he is correct to do, he ultimately does a disservice to SF&F by attempting to value it on its own terms, in contradistinction to broader, traditional terms of literary merit.

31 March 2009

Ian McDonald's "Verthandi's Ring" (2007)


Source: The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection, ed. Gardner Dozois (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008), pp. 90-100; originally published in The New Space Opera, ed. Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan (New York: EOS, 2007).

A piece of advice for new writers I keep hearing recently is to look at published SF&F short stories and analyze them in detail to learn how they work -- i.e., plot, tension, characterisation, the function of each “scene,” and so forth. I am on the right track with this blog, then.

In analysing Elizabeth Bear’s “Tideline” I learned a great deal about the role of setting in an SF short story. The success of Bear’s story, I felt, resides in the limited focus of its immediate setting, while the wider backdrop is sketched in just enough to give the reader a fair sense of the state of the characters’ world. Bear’s attention to sound patterns, rhythm, and metaphor also proved instructive.

With Ian McDonald’s story “Verthandi’s Ring,” similar criteria apply for its success, but the scale (or, reach) of their implications is quite different. “Verthandi’s Ring” is one of those stories that catches your attention the first time you read it, in a way that you know it does something wonderful and enticing, even profound, yet you can’t quite pin down precisely what that something is, at least initially. “Verthandi’s Ring” is one of those stories that needs a second reading. That is when the pieces fall more securely into place, the narrative becomes clearer, and its artistry unfolds like a flower opening up to the morning sunlight.

21 March 2009

Battlestar Galactica: Riding Off Into the Sunrise


Battlestar Galactica (BSG) came to a close last night (Friday, 20 March 2009). Such a fitting close, I think -- for all of its resolutions, for all it left us to ponder about the show and about ourselves.
Very quickly, of course, opinions are divided about what happened in the finale. People are unhappy or unsatisfied with some things, even angry or disappointed or feeling betrayed. People are questioning the logic and plausibility and appropriateness of what happened to some of the characters. I’ve even seen comments already claiming that the ending has ruined the entire series for them, that the finale’s second half in particular didn’t fit with the series and its mood and all that it promised.

To all of these criticisms, I would say that perhaps having some trust in Ronald D. Moore and the show’s producers and writers to finish BSG on their terms should be our starting point. We do get personally invested in shows such as BSG; they can become a source of meaning and inspiration for us. Such personal investment, however, often leads to a kind of need to criticise and dismiss a show when it doesn’t satisfy our picture of what it should or should not do. This is not, I think, the position from which to assess the finale or BSG as a series.

On that note, here are my thoughts on what I saw and what I took from the finale.

17 March 2009

Musings on Watchmen, the Film


This entry will possibly be a bit desultory. Nonetheless, I feel the need to get some thoughts on having seen Watchmen into words, into some measure of coherence. Powerful art can do this to a person.

First off, I admit that I have not read the graphic novel. Thus, I went into the film not knowing the story, not carrying any preconceptions or prejudices about what I wanted the film to do nor not to do. (Apparently, there’s some debate about the film’s ending, which is different from the graphic novel’s.) It simply looked like a great, very intriguing film; I’m always up for the latest comic book film adaptation (at least, good film adaptations); and I enjoyed Zack Snyder’s 300 quite a lot, so I wanted to see what he would do with an even bigger canvas. Then I read Roger Ebert’s 4-star review, and I knew I was seeing this film no matter what.

At the conclusion of his review, Ebert writes, “I’m not sure I understood all the nuances and implications, but I am sure I had a powerful experience. … it’s going to inspire fevered analysis. I don’t want to see it again for that reason, however, but mostly just to have the experience again.” This basically sums up my reaction to Watchmen, though of course there’s more to it. Film, I think, can give one an “experience” like no other art -- visual, aural, physical, intellectual, aesthetic. Bruno Bettelheim has written, “the art of the moving picture is the only art truly of our time, whether it is in the form of film or television.” As much as I love literature, film does something unique in its bringing together of so many technologies to tell stories, to give us an “experience.”

14 March 2009

Elizabeth Bear's "Tideline" (2007)


Source: The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection, ed. Gardner Dozois (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008); originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction (May 2007). Winner of the 2008 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.

(The story is available online at Asimov’s and Bear’s web site.)
From what I can gather, starting with and honing one’s craft in short stories (or novellas) looks like a relatively common and effective way to get the feet wet in the ocean of SF&F publishing. To that end, I’ve turned my attention to recent SF short stories of late, as found in The New Space Opera (Dozois and Strahan, eds.) and The Year’s Best Science Fiction #25 (Dozois, ed.); Year’s Best SF 13 (Hartwell and Cramer, eds.) also waits in the wings. My quest? I want to figure out not just what makes a good short story, but what makes for a good, even great, science fiction (or fantasy) short story.

A major challenge of an SF&F short story is what I’ll call locating the reader in the story’s world. Because SF&F fundamentally relies upon presenting worlds that are not this one, whether they involve a future/alternate Earth or a Mars or a Bas-Lag (from China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and The Scar), short stories must get things just right -- i.e., not too little and not too much of their worlds, but enough to orient the reader solidly in what makes a story’s world distinct, plausible, captivating. So far, short stories that I find myself struggling with have not given me enough concrete context to locate myself in their world, in the sense that they assume I will make the connections, leaving certain details obscure, shadowy. (For example, see “Saving Tiamaat” by Gwyneth Jones, found in The New Space Opera as well as YBSF #25.) The short stories that engage me, however, do so in large part for how they provide just the right amount of context, connections, and details in order to establish a setting that supports and enhances the story. In other words, they locate me carefully in their worlds such that I feel like I “know” where I am.

If the reader is successfully located in the story’s world, everything else falls into place. Short stories have only so much time, so their focus must be limited and exacting with the setting and the characters. This is not to say that short stories cannot be complex or multilayered (as I’ll write below, Bear’s story achieves such complexity); rather, it is to say that -- perhaps not unlike a poem -- a short story must know what it wants to do, with every single word.

Elizabeth Bear’s “Tideline” does all of these things nearly to perfection.

08 March 2009

Robert J. Sawyer's Hominids (Tor, 2002)


I continue my study of SF&F works with Robert J. Sawyer’s Hominids (2002), which won the 2003 Hugo Award for Best Novel. As I mentioned in my thoughts on Sawyer’s Calculating God, I am starting with Sawyer in large part because of his success and recognition: I figure, he must be doing something right –– so, what is that something?

Hominids was an entertaining read overall, especially the plotline focussing on Adikor’s murder trial in the Neanderthal version of Earth. Yet I finished the novel dissatisfied with it for various reasons, which I’ll describe here. It is stronger than Calculating God, but like that novel its parts fit together uneasily in the end.

A clear strength of Hominids is the immediate dramatic action of the opening chapter, with the destruction of the SNO detector chamber and the rescue of Ponter Boddit. This is an effective hook; it had me ready to read on and to want to learn what this was all about. From here, Sawyer skillfully manages the dramatic irony and tension between the two storylines, as Chapters Three and Four introduce us to the Neanderthal side of the equation, focussed on Adikor and Ponter’s quantum computing accident that brings the storylines together (structurally and thematically). For the rest of the novel, dramatic irony and tension reside primarily in Adikor’s murder trial and attempts to know what happened to Ponter, if not to get him back, which is balanced by Ponter’s experience as the “stranger in a strange land” and his growing resignation to the reality that he must make a life for himself in the Earth of humanity.

Another strong element involves the world building of the Neanderthal version of Earth and how Sawyer introduces the reader to it through the plot of Adikor’s murder trial. The alternate Earth of the Neanderthals feels distinctly different yet always plausible, and –– even if at times it shades a little into the role of a near-utopia in contrast to our Earth –– it touches on some intriguing sociocultural and scientific questions: i.e., the use of Companions, personal computers implanted in an arm of every Neanderthal, has led to a kind of Orwellian “Big Brother” society, in which a person’s every action and word are recorded and available for viewing according to certain protocols (such as legal cases); the means of population control practiced by the Neanderthals are at once attractive, such as regulated mating and procreation cycles (with a new “generation” conceived every ten years), and troubling in their implications, such as the legal eradication of undesirable genetic traits (say, a tendency to violence) by sterilizing all males of a criminal’s family.

Also, Sawyer’s choice to present complicated and detailed scientific information through dialogue between characters contributes to the novel’s dramatic tension and to engaging the reader. (The points in the novel when the narrator provides such information are some of the weakest because they bend the “show don’t tell” rule a touch too far, such as the description of and statistics about the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory that open the novel.) This technique makes the science (in Hominids, that of evolution and quantum physics mostly) part of the story, avoiding the need to delay the plot for “info dumps.”

Despite these strengths, however, the novel as a whole falters owing to some awkward and flat characterization, a central plot element that remains unresolved by the end, and, most significantly for me, in terms of style and artistry.

The weakest characters are those of our Earth, particularly because Sawyer paints them with clichés and relies upon stereotypes. Louise Benoit, for instance, is a 28-year old French Canadian woman from Montreal and postdoctoral student involved with the SNO: certainly, an intelligent, ambitious woman, one might suspect? Yet we rarely see this possible side of Louise’s character as the narrative consistently encourages us to pay attention to her sex appeal. The initial description of her tells us she is “statuesque,” with a “mane of thick brown hair” (15); we learn of Louise’s mildly exasperated awareness of grad student Paul Kiriyama’s clumsy attraction to her; then, before the end of Chapter One, she is stripped down to her underwear, thankful to have “worn a bra today” but wishing “it hadn’t been as lacy” (22). After Chapter One, Louise becomes a background character; she serves chiefly as a contrast to Mary –– the sexy, beautiful woman who can get nearly anything she wants from men by wearing t-shirts tied up to expose her stomach versus the plain, 38-year old professor “long separated” (59) from her ex-husband and uncomfortable with her own sexuality. When Louise thus offers the complicated (and fascinating) scientific explanation for how there could be parallel Earths with divergent evolutionary outcomes and for how Ponter ended up in our Earth, trusting her authority in such matters is difficult. Not only does she read up “on this on the Web” (362), regarding evolutionary theory in particular, which is Mary’s field, but she effectively dismisses Mary’s contributions to the discussion. Sawyer, I think, undermines Louise in these ways, such that when she clearly demonstrates she’s not just another pretty Quebecoise face, the foregoing objectification of her cannot simply be set aside.

Turning to the plot, Mary, in fact, experiences perhaps the most intense and uncomfortable event of the novel when she is raped on the campus of York University, in Chapter Six. The rape happens suddenly and brutally, both to Mary and to the story, even if Sawyer somewhat obviously prepares the reader for it: Mary telling her graduate student Daria to be careful (59); Mary deciding she doesn’t need to call the “campus walking service” for an escort at 9:25pm in August (60). The issue with the rape is not so much that it happens, but its role in the plot: i.e., providing Mary’s motivation for going to Sudbury at a moment’s notice; providing the context for Mary’s eventual attraction, physical and emotional, to Ponter. I acknowledge that Sawyer throughout handles Mary’s reaction to the rape with sympathy. Yet the violence of it, finally, seems unnecessary, for I’m sure Mary, as an expert in Neanderthal DNA, would willingly go to Sudbury purely for the sake of academic curiosity and scientific enquiry; moreover, I suspect her attraction to Ponter could just as easily develop naturally.

In going with the rape, however, Sawyer misses an opportunity both to follow up on Mary’s actions right after it happens and to bring it to a more fitting resolution in the plot. For me, Mary does a startling and incredibly courageous thing once her attacker runs off into the night: she gets back to her office and lab, collects the attacker’s semen sample, and puts the sample and her underwear in a “fridge” with other “biological specimens” (66). I understand that Hominids is the first book of a trilogy, and I admit that I have not yet read the subsequent books (Humans, 2003; Hybrids, 2003). As a reader, though, I kept looking for some kind of return to this courageous aspect of Mary (which sets her apart from Louise) and some kind of resolution to the rape –– such as Mary handing the semen and underwear over to the police, buoyed by her tentative love for Ponter (she is already losing weight and painting her fingernails red). Instead, we leave Mary contemplating carving “MV+PB” (412) on the wall against which she was raped and walking “forward, into the future” (413). In the end, then, the sudden brutality of the rape needs a more … substantial closure, especially for how crucially it affects Mary’s motivations and psychology in the novel.

Character and plot constitute tangible, clear markers of the stumbles in Hominids. Having read two novels by Sawyer, though, I found myself struggling to identify what leaves me unsatisfied with them, despite being entertained by both, particularly Hominids. Then I realized that my dissatisfaction had to do with style –– with artistry, or even poetry, if you will. Let me explain.

In essence, Sawyer lacks what we might call an artistic or poetic sensibility. We come across the occasional instance of an insightful and surprising metaphor or simile. Yet we never soar with the artistry of the opening of William Gibson’s Neuromancer: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Nor do we reach the psychological complexity at the end of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds: “Of a night I see the black powder darkening the silent streets, and the contorted bodies shrouded in that layer …. They gibber and grow fiercer, paler, uglier, mad distortions of humanity at last, and I wake cold and wretched, in the darkness of the night.” With Gibson and Wells, the poetry of the language communicates the atmosphere, mood, and tone of their futures. With Sawyer, style is subservient to the idea(s) at his novel’s heart. With Sawyer, the idea forms the body, the frame; style functions basically as clothing (from, say, Old Navy or Joe Fresh), as the bricks and windows and doors that give a house a bit of colour and character. Sawyer’s style does not inspire, does not search for a beautiful turn of phrase, does not catch the breath with its ingenuity or uniqueness.

A comparison of Sawyer with another nominee on the 2003 Hugo ballot might be helpful, China Mieville’s The Scar (Ballantine, 2002):

     Watching over [the blackness] was Louise Benoit, twenty-eight, a statuesque postdoc from Montreal with a mane of thick brown hair stuffed, as required here, into a hair net. She kept her vigil in a cramped control room, buried two kilometers –– “a mile an’ a quarder,” as she sometimes explained for American visitors in an accent that charmed them –– beneath the Earth’s surface. (Sawyer 15)


A mile below the lowest cloud, rock breaches water and the sea begins.

     It has been given many names. Each inlet and bay and stream has been classified as if it were discrete. But it is one thing, where borders are absurd. It fills the spaces between the stones and sand, curling around coastlines and filling trenches between continents. (Mieville 1)

These passages come from the beginning of each novel. Next to Mieville’s enticing style (“borders are absurd … the spaces between the stones and sand, curling around coastlines”), which quickly intimates a sort of depth and keenness of observation, Sawyer’s language feels unpoetic, thin, too straightforward.

John Keats wrote in a letter of 16 August 1820 to Percy Bysshe Shelley, “You I am sure will forgive me for sincerely remarking that you might curb your magnanimity and be more of an artist, and ‘load every rift’ of your subject with ore.” My dissatisfaction with Sawyer lies here, with the lack of “ore” in his writing. On the one hand, I recognize that this is a matter of individual, subjective taste, that Sawyer’s stuff is not for me. On the other hand, I also recognize that Sawyer has clearly found a formula and level of style that suits his purposes, which are entertaining the reader with provocative ideas and dramatic action. I see him as fitting into the popular or “pulp” tradition of hard SF, and he is certainly successful within that framework. In my own fiction, therefore, I would want to achieve Sawyer’s facility with hooking the reader, plotting, and making challenging (and well researched) scientific ideas accessible. Ultimately, though, I would look to achieve the sort of artistry of a Gibson or Wells or Mieville –– to inspire with poetry as well as with speculation.

Here are links to some reviews of Hominids:

Strange Horizons

The SF Site

Challenging Destiny

SF Reviews

03 March 2009

Keys to Publishing

I came across the following podcasts rather belatedly, but enjoyed them nonetheless. The series is "Keys to Publishing," and it was presented by Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing and I Should Be Writing, involving words of wisdom from various published SF&F authors. Here are the links to the relevant podcasts:

• Key #1 (Persistence): AISFP 56
• Key #2 (Commitment): ISBW 94
• Key #3 (Balance): AISFP 58
• Key #4 (Market Awareness): ISBW 96
• Key #5 (Feedback): AISFP 59
• Key #6 (Write More): ISBW 97

Lots of sage advice in these keys, boiling down to keep writing and write often, understand the market, and revise smartly.

Bits that really stick with me, as I ponder starting to write SF&F: to be a writer and get published, you must be "extraordinarily, bloody persistent"; those who lose faith are unpublished novelists; make writing a kind of regimen or habit, doing it every day, whether 300 or 1000 words; if you're not actively trying to sell your work, writing is just a hobby; "write harder, faster, deeper, slower" -- i.e., write constantly and work your way through blocks.

Many thanks to AISFP and ISBW for this series.

02 March 2009

Best of 2008 Lists

Some "Best of 2008" lists are out for SF&F:

There is some intriguing overlap between Locus and The SF Site: Iain M. Banks, Matter; Greg Bear, City at the End of Time; Cory Doctorow, Little Brother; Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book; Neal Stephenson, Anathem (by most accounts, the SF novel of the year, and perhaps one of the most significant novels of 2008 in general); Michael Swanwick, Dragons of Babel; and others.

I have Anathem in the on-deck circle, and I am interested in the Banks and Bear novels (just purchased Bear's Darwin's Radio); Swanwick seems worth checking out, especially because I see that his short stories in particular are consistently garnering Hugo/Nebula nominations.

UPDATE: Over at Realms of Speculative Fantasy is a 5-part summary of several "best of" lists culled from various blogs and web sites. Certainly a Herculean task, and much appreciated. Here are the links to each part: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6.

28 February 2009

Robert J. Sawyer's Calculating God (Tor, 2000)


As mentioned in my blog Mission Statement, I would like at some point to try writing science fiction and/or fantasy. Toward that end, I figured reading and analysing the works of successful SF&F authors might be helpful and instructive.

I start, then, with Robert J. Sawyer and his novel Calculating God (2000). I start with him primarily because, by his own and others’ admission, he is currently the most successful Canadian SF author and one of the most recognised SF authors in general. Chance, for the most part, brought me to Sawyer, yet I became truly curious when I stumbled upon his website –– specifically, his series of essays on writing and publishing advice. “What makes Sawyer tick? What makes him successful and an award nominee/winner?” I wondered.

So, my thoughts on Calculating God ….

I want to approach the novel in terms of its narrative structure, of its formal strategies. For me, the novel ultimately stumbles in these terms, though it does also offer some effective lessons in plot and character.

The good stuff first, then.

Sawyer’s opening hook is excellent; it immediately establishes interest in the story, the novel’s premise, and the main character (and narrator). The handling of scientific discussions and debates mostly through dialogue between Tom and Hollus, and from the intimacy of Tom’s personal meditations, makes them accessible and intriguing; moreover, Sawyer manages anthropology, paleontology, chemistry, biology, and astronomy with confidence, demonstrating the fruits of thorough research and giving the story a mostly strong foundation of plausibility. As well, the idea at the novel’s heart is provocative, engaging: i.e., the attempt to “calculate,” or prove scientifically, the existence and intentions of God, which Sawyer tackles mostly through theories of evolution. Finally, Tom Jericho offers the reader a complex and intriguing voice, and Jericho’s struggles with lung cancer are treated with pathos.

As a whole, however, the novel’s various pieces do not quite fit together comfortably.

A major problem, I feel, resides in an inconsistency of tone. The title and the cover image (a detail from Michelangelo’s painting on the Sistine Chapel ceiling) promise a certain level of gravity and sophistication –– large questions of faith and science, of existence and creation. Such expectations, though, are undermined by off-key notes of humour, silliness, and caricature, elements that also at times trouble plausibility and suspension-of-disbelief.

Regarding humour, the interest established by Tom’s opening words (“I know, I know––it seemed crazy that the alien had come to Toronto” [1]) quickly gets troubled by the initial appearance and description of Hollus: “The alien sidled up to the blue-blazered security officer … and said, in perfect English, ‘Excuse me. I would like to see a paleontologist’” (4); “It tried again: from the left-front leg came the syllable ‘bon,’ and from the right-front came ‘jour’” (8); “‘Of course, if you want, I could give you an anal probe…’” (9). I admit that I smiled and laughed at the irony of the alien playing satirically with our conventions of alien visitors/invaders, and I was endeared to Hollus’ character, but on reflection the tone of Sawyer’s humour is out of step with the scale and profundity of the issues he wants to tackle. A kind of cuteness creeps into the novel here, with an alien sidling up to a counter and speaking out of two mouths in “perfect English” and then in French. Such cuteness seems to operate at cross-purposes in a novel speculating on first contact and the nature of God and creation and the universe, not to mention with the pathos of Jericho’s thoughts on his cancer, looming death, and wife and son.

Elements of silliness (for lack of a better word) also disrupt the expected gravity of the novel’s subject. The aliens themselves come close not just to implausibility but also to the ridiculous. Granted, from the perspective of evolutionary biology, perhaps also of imagination, who can say for certain what forms species from other planets (and hence other environmental stresses) might take. Yet six-legged spider-like aliens with two mouths (Forhilnors), or four-armed and headless aliens with 360-degree vision (Wreeds), become difficult at times to accept seriously. These are not the suitably horrifying Martians of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds or the believable gill-breathers of Murray Leinster’s “First Contact.” As well, the name of one of the alien species, “Wreeds,” plays uneasily in the novel, like an out-of-tune guitar string (this issue crops up again in the novel’s latter stages with “Wibadal,” the name for the hybrid creature begotten by the Betelgeuse entity).

The caricature comes in the subplot, with the white-trash, fundamentalist-Christian, pro-life abortion clinic bombers Cooter Falsey and J.D. Ewell. (More on the subplot below.) They are, in essence, an exaggeration of this type of person and of this ideology. I think Sawyer passes up an opportunity with these characters to explore the psychology and morality of the creationist, pro-life position in view of the scientific pursuit to prove God’s existence. Instead, Falsey and Ewell are simplistic, predictably violent and destructive, and thus more comical than truly frightening. As with the humour and silliness, then, the caricature of Falsey and Ewell produces an inconsistency in tone in the novel, a disjunction with the seriousness intimated by the title and cover image, and found in the erudite discussions of evolutionary theory and Jericho’s medical condition.

A second significant problem appears in the occasional shifts between 1st-person and 3rd-person narration, the latter tied specifically to the subplot involving Falsey and Ewell and two police officers who nearly catch them. I see this shifting between 1st- and 3rd-person narration a lot in recent SF, and it is usually awkward or disorienting, particularly because it occurs without a clear justification or rationale for doing so. (See, for instance, Neal Asher’s short story, “Alien Archaeology,” in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection, ed. Gardner Dozois [St. Martin’s, 2008]. An effective use of shifting the narrative perspective is Dan Simmons' Ilium/Olympos duology.) Calculating God lacks any such justification or rationale. The break from Jericho’s narration comes jarringly; the purpose of it appears mostly concerned with setting up dramatic irony and tension for Falsey and Ewell’s attack on the Burgess Shale fossils at the ROM. Here, I wonder why Sawyer did not stay with Jericho’s narration, perhaps fleshing out Falsey and Ewell’s background from newspaper stories, police reports, a CBC documentary, or the like. Doing so might also have given the subplot more credibility and strength.

In some respects, a related problem is continuity in Jericho’s narration. We get his narrative in retrospect: “It happened like this …” (1); “We hadn’t expected Hollus to show up for dinner in the flesh” (156); “the agony … had been growing worse, and I had been growing weaker” (334). Yet not only is Jericho in the process of dying from cancer during the bulk of the story, we learn right at the story’s close that he has died, which raises the question –– upon looking back –– of how and why we get his story, which Sawyer leaves thinly answered. Jericho says at his and the novel’s end, “I told Hollus to write down my final words and transmit them back to Earth … so that Ricky, or whoever was still there, would know what I’d said” (334). At this point, Jericho is near Betelgeuse, some 400-plus light years from earth and so some 400-plus years in the future from the story’s main events. I see this as a troubling of continuity because we spend so much time with Jericho’s personal, internal thoughts and impressions (“But I was exhausted by this point––absolutely bone weary” [280]), the intimacy of which becomes difficult to accept considering the novel’s final stages. Here, then, I think Calculating God needs a clearer rationale and a more plausible, innovative device for providing us Jericho’s 1st-person narration. We do learn, for example, that Jericho kept a thorough journal of his time and discussions with Hollus; we also learn, as just mentioned, that Jericho had Hollus record and transmit his last words from space. Thus, who, ultimately, put together Jericho’s journal entries and those last words? When was this done, and why? Perhaps a device such as a frame narrator, along with identifying and dating Jericho’s journal entries, would address these questions and alleviate the problem of continuity (see Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness for a good example).

Considering the nature of these various structural and formal problems, I am struck by the mention of an editor (David G. Hartwell) in the novel’s publication data and by the novel’s nomination for a 2001 Hugo award (losing out to J.K. Rowling, though apparently garnering the most votes for an SF novel that year). While Sawyer does proffer an engaging hook and central idea, which he supports with accessible and at times fascinating discussions of evolutionary science, the novel’s missteps detract from the gravitas suggested, if not demanded, by the subject matter. I am left, in fact, uncertain as to the audience Sawyer envisioned for Calculating God. On the one hand, the hard-SF elements of the novel as well as Jericho himself (54 years old, dying of cancer) target, certainly, a relatively educated, likely adult reader; on the other hand, the discordant notes of humour, silliness, cuteness, and caricature somewhat “dumb down” the narrative, suggesting maybe a YA reader.

In the end, Sawyer’s novel teaches me much about pitfalls to avoid: inconsistency of tone; inconsistency of narrative perspective (or, at least, the lack of a good reason for switching between 1st- and 3rd-person narrative); an unclear or potentially implausible rationale for the narrative we are given; and, perhaps most significantly, biting off more than one’s abilities can successfully chew. If I set Neal Stephenson’s recent Anathem or Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos and Ilium/Olympos duology alongside Calculating God, their aesthetic, intellectual, and philosophical complexity and challenges overshadow Sawyer. Still, Sawyer’s skill with hooking the reader, developing a sympathetic and rounded character, and assured handling of intricate scientific ideas and debates are positives to take away from Calculating God.

Up next, another work by Sawyer: Hominids, the first novel of the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy ….

24 February 2009

Mission Statement

Travel By Thought is to be a place for my musings on and comments about what I am reading, with a view to one day trying my hand at creative writing, particularly science fiction and/or fantasy.

The blog's title comes from a song of the same name by The Church, from their 1983 album Seance. The sentiment, though, comes from John Keats' sonnet, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" (1816): reading takes you places; reading is a form of experience, of gaining knowledge; reading can be like the discovery of the previously unknown, of the utterly new, changing our sense of self and reordering our sense of the world; and some works strike us with a unique and profound power.

There will not be reviews as such, then. Rather, my musings and comments will (I hope) be more like case studies, more like investigations of the particulars of novels or short stories or poems (or perhaps even films) -- of what makes them soar or what makes them fall on broken wings.

First up, at some point, will be Robert J. Sawyer's Calculating God (2000) ....