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 clich├ęs 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.