24 December 2010

Favourites of 2010

This is the Great Post of Lists! Yes, my lists of my favourite reads, films, and music of 2010! Ordered and ranked, no less!

To the listmaking, then . . . .

Favourite Novels/Books Read in 2010 (Out of 4 Stars)
1. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (David Mitchell, 2010)  *****
2. Blue Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson, 1996)  ****
3. Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro, 2005)  ****
4. Redemption Ark (Alastair Reynolds, 2002)  ****
5. Autumn Rain Trilogy (David J. Williams): The Mirrored Heavens (2008), The Burning Skies (2009), The Machinery of Light (2010)  *** 1/2
6. Dreaming in Books: The Making of the Bibliographic Imagination in the Romantic Age (Andrew Piper, 2009)  *** 1/2
7. The Windup Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi, 2009)  *** 1/2
8. Absolution Gap (Alastair Reynolds, 2003)  *** 1/2
9. The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins, 2008)  *** 1/2
10. The City & The City (China Miéville, 2009)  *** 1/2

Honourable Mention: I Am Legend (Richard Matheson, 1954).

Notable Disappointments: Boneshaker (Cherie Priest, 2009); The Quiet War (Paul McAuley, 2009); Wordsworth Translated (John Williams, 2009).

Currently In Progress (i.e., Could Get Finished By the End of the Year and So Might Affect the Above Top 10): Under Heaven (Guy Gavriel Kay, 2010).

Favourite Short Fiction Read in 2010 (Out of 4 Stars)
1. Charles Oberndorf, "Another Life" (2009)  ****
2. Peter Watts, "The Island" (2009)  ****
3. Stephen Baxter, "The Ice Line" (2010)  ****
4. Sarah Genge, "Malick Pan" (2010)  ****
5. Allen M. Steele, "The Jekyll Island Horror" (2010)  ****
6. Geoff Ryman, "Blocked" (2009)  ****
7. John C. Wright, "The Far End of History" (2009)  *** 1/2
8. Mary Robinette Kowal, "The Consciousness Problem" (2009)  *** 1/2
9. Chris Roberson, "Wonder House" (2010)  *** 1/2
10. Carol Emshwiller, "The Wilds" (2010)  *** 1/2

Honourable Mentions: Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette, "Boojum" (2008); Stephen Popkes, "Jackie's-Boy" (2010); Michael Swanwick, "Slow Life" (2003); Rachel Swirsky, "Eros, Philia, Agape" (2009); Peter Watts, "The Things" (2010).

Notable Disappointments: Neal Asher, "Shell Game" (2009); Peter M. Ball, "On the Destruction of Copenhagen by the War-Machines of the Merfolk" (2009); Damien Broderick, "Dead Air" (2010); Marissa K. Lingen, "The Calculus Plague" (2009).

19 September 2010

The New Space Opera 2

Editors Gardner Dozois and Jonathan continue their efforts to encapsulate and forward the state of SF space opera today with The New Space Opera 2 (EOS, 2009). Their 2007 collection The New Space Opera provided a very strong selection of stories from top SF authors such as Dan Simmons, Ian McDonald, and Alastair Reynolds. The New Space Opera felt fresh and at times exhilarating, with even the substandard stories tapping into the sense-of-wonder and the vastness of scale (in ideas, actions, settings) at the heart of the subgenre. In the introduction to The New Space Opera 2, Dozois and Strahan observe, "The true heart of science fiction has always been the space-opera story" -- a form they believe is "where much of the cutting-edge work in today's genre is being done" (1). Except for a couple of stories, however, The New Space Opera 2 overall falls short of the fresh, "cutting-edge" feel of the first collection, the sense-of-wonder strangely a bit flat and muted.

        In fact, many of the pieces don't push far in terms of inventiveness and scope, for ideas and aesthetically. Some pieces proved oddly boring for me, such that the collection as a whole was underwhelming. I am not alone in this response: Rich Horton, for The SF Site, writes, "Many of the stories are, truth be told, a bit routine, or a bit too arch in their attitude towards the genre"; Richard Larson, for Strange Horizons, suggests that several stories "suffer from being too long" and so some "monotony," which led him to "wishing I had more of a visceral reaction to what I had just put myself through." This sense of the "routine" and of "monotony" that Horton and Larson identify describe fairly well my experience of the bulk of the collection. I rarely reacted viscerally to many of the stories, whether owing to the ideas or to the writing, or both. Instead, I found myself puzzled at the relative poverty of imaginative reach and aesthetic daring. That said, as a whole the collection supplies more competent and good stories than decent or outright poor stories, and so I rate it at 3 out of 4 stars.

        Here are the stories and my ratings of them (out of four stars), with the five best stories in bold:
1. Robert Charles Wilson, "Utriusque Cosmi"  ** 1/2
2. Peter Watts, "The Island"  ****
3. John Kessel, "Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance"  ** 1/2
4. Cory Doctorow, "To Go Boldly"  ***
5. John Barnes, "The Lost Princess Man"  ** 1/2
6. Kristine Kathryn Rusch, "Defect"  ** 1/2
7. Jay Lake, "To Raise a Mutiny Betwixt Yourselves"  **
8. Neal Asher, "Shell Game"  **
9. Garth Nix, "Punctuality"  ** 1/2
10. Sean Williams, "Inevitable"  ***
11. Bruce Sterling, "Join the Navy and See the Worlds"  ***
12. Bill Willingham, "Fearless Space Pirates of the Outer Rings"  **
13. John Meaney, "From the Heart"  ***
14. Elizabeth Moon, "Chameleons"  ***
15. Tad Williams, "The Tenth Muse"  ***
16. Justina Robson, "Cracklegrackle"  ***
17. John Scalzi, "The Tale of the Wicked"  ***
18. Mike Resnick, "Catastrophe Baker and a Canticle for Leibowitz"  **
19. John C. Wright, "The Far End of History"  *** 1/2

13 September 2010

Asimov's Science Fiction (Apr./May 2010)


This double issue is overall a rather strong one, offering a variety of themes/subjects and styles, as well as a few real surprises. I count one truly excellent story and three extremely good stories, with the rest being average to quite decent. With nine stories, I won't comment extensively on all of them -- just the ones for which I have something to say. Ratings are out of four stars.

1. Gregory Norman Bossert, "The Union of Soil and Sky" (pg. 10-39)  ** 1/2
This one is an "alien archaeology" story, a subgenre that I tend to like as the archaeologist and/or archaeological dig on an alien planet affords an effective frame through which to present alien cultures and histories. Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "The Spires of Denon" from the April/May 2009 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction and Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space are good examples of this subgenre for me. Here, Bossert creates an intriguing world in Aulis and alien people in the Aulans, who are represented by Henry (on the dig team) and who communicate through metaphor and simile by a series of hand and finger gestures. The revelation of what Winnifred and her team actually discover deep underground proves intriguing, as Bossert has ancient Aulan history literally come alive in a definitely alien way.
        Yet I found myself unsurprised, in the end, for as a whole the narrative feels too familiar and predictable, particularly in the plotting. Also, the writing is noticeably awkward in places, with some odd grammar hiccups at times. For example, "'[...] Like biology. And physics; the varitropes move, and that means a source of energy. [...]'" (15): this is inattentive proofreading and unwieldy grammar, especially the mixing of the sentence fragment "And physics" with the semicolon and then a complete sentence following, this entire clause already coming after a sentence fragment (though an appropriate one in the context of the dialogue). Such moments are distracting and reduce the quality of the story.

2. Molly Gloss, "Unforeseen" (pg. 40-48)  *** 1/2
A wickedly biting satire of the insurance/benefits industry, narrated by Forbes Kipfer, a claims investigator for Remediable Death Insurance -- in a future when people can be revivified/restored after dying, but only if the insurance claim is not denied. Gloss metes out the details of this future carefully, using the case of the recent death of Madison Truesdale's mother as the window into Kipfer's job and so the politics and economics that govern remediable death claims.
        Kipfer's voice and perspective are distinct and consistent throughout: edgy, jaded, expert, intelligent, exhausted, punchy. He equally well rants cuttingly about the foolishness of people in making their claims ("You have to wonder what in hell people are thinking when they file a claim for their eighty-nine year old grandpa with a history of emphysema or congestive heart failure ..." [41]), and reaches moments of existentialist insight ("What you're left with is people minding their own business and the sky falls on their head" [43]). He can also adjust his preconceptions if necessary, as Madison Truesdale consistently does not fit into what he expects of her situation, in that her mother's death truly was an accident.
        What Goss communicates most engagingly through Kipfer is a sort of postmodern ennui and cynicism, a coldness formed by too much experience of a cynical word but with faint hints of a warmth that might make it to the surface if perhaps not for the industry in which Kipfer works. Kipfer appears to be developing not quite a death wish, but certainly an apathy about death: "[...] I began to think of taking up smoking. Smoking plus living in Thousand Oaks under that cloud of dirty air might take some randomness out of the equation. Anyway, that's what I was thinking" (48). In the end, then, this story is fundamentally one of horror. It affords no happy ending or clear resolution, and the consequences of the literal control over life (or, resurrection) by insurance companies take to a logical extreme the situation we see today, particularly with medical insurance in the US.

26 August 2010

The Burning Skies and SF as Historical Allegory


In my post on David J. Williams' The Mirrored Heavens, the first book of his Autumn Rain trilogy, I explored the ways in which the use of the present tense in the narrative supported and expressed the political edginess of that novel's themes. The unrelenting presentism, or nowness, of the narrative, I suggested, reflected not just the nature of the novel's events as experienced by the characters, but also the nature of the characters' world -- which in turn reflects something of the nature of our early 21st-century world and its increasingly rapid pace of life and complex sociopolitical and environmental situations. Specifically, I offered the possibility that one can read The Mirrored Heavens as at least in part a science fictional envisioning of, if not commentary on, the mood of the world as created by the Bush administration in its post-9/11 years. I feel even more certain of this reading after finishing the second book of the trilogy, The Burning Skies.

        The Burning Skies, in fact, heightens the presentism and political edginess of the narrative by steering the story further into the centre(s) of power of the 22nd century, where the stakes become measurably higher and the dangers and mysteries more acute. In doing so, the novel reinforces what I take to be a fundamental goal of the trilogy as a whole: to illustrate the consequences and implications of the global sociopolitical and socioeconomic climate post-9/11 and, now, post-George W. Bush. The picture is a tenaciously dystopian one.

        What make Williams' future such a bad, undesirable place are certain elements of that climate shifted to logical, plausible outcomes. Thus, The Burning Skies offers an opportunity to delve more deeply into the relationship between narrative form and thematic content in the Autumn Rain trilogy specifically and in SF more generally. To do so, I wish to consider how the novel exhibits SF's potential to function as historical allegory -- here, an allegory of mood, atmosphere, and tone, buttressed by Williams' terse, fierce, restless dialogue.

19 August 2010

Asimov's Science Fiction (Mar. 2010)


Continuing to play catch-up with my reading of Asimov's Science Fiction for 2010, I've now finished with the March issue. This issue proved disappointing in its overall quality, lacking a true standout like the January and February issues, but also lacking a group of at least a few stories that I would consider good to very good. Still, there are two strong pieces and one real gem. Ratings are out of four stars.

1. William Preston, "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" (pg. 12-33)  ** 1/2
Preston offers a kind of alternate history vision of a pre- and post-9/11 world in which the boundaries of morality have shifted, needing someone such as the old man and his team to keep the world in balance (known as "'the Work'" [12]), mostly covertly. The tone established by Preston alludes to the feel of espionage and secret ops, with elusive identities and classified missions and the sense of the narrator -- Lanagan, anthropology professor and former member of the old man's team -- always looking over his shoulder, never quite free of the suspicion and distrust of others developed while an agent. Before 9/11, the old man took on various missions throughout the world to deal with tyrannies and injustices, and this aspect of Preston's setting is the strongest feature of the story, I think: a mostly "hidden" (18) group, working off the grid, to hold the bad guys at bay "when official action had proven useless or unavailable" (17). Moreover, this aspect of the setting creates the context for the shift of morality after 9/11 occurs, as the National Security Agency desires to find the old man, who went quiet just before the attack on the towers and has remained so. Lanagan gets put in the difficult position of leading the NSA to the old man, gradually feeding on the tenuous reasoning served by his NSA contact: why did the old man let 9/11 happen?
        I see in this sort of question perhaps something of the trauma of 9/11 that remains unresolved, with Preston exploring the need to find a cause on different levels (individual, national, and international), the need to make sense of 9/11 and why the good guys failed. What Preston does well in presenting this question is to suggest the tensions today between what we can and cannot believe about the historical record (of 9/11, certainly): "Much of what the least credulous believed to be untrue about the old man's adventures was, instead, true. . . . And so a quotidian substructure of lies supported an utterly authentic architecture of the fantastic" (17). (I like the hint of genre self-reflexivity here: i.e., how SF&F, as with all fiction, gives readers "lies," yet also asks, if not demands, that the reader approach the "fantastic" as being "authentic," certainly within the world of a specific story.) Yet placing the burden for 9/11 on the old man's shoulders ultimately seems too easy, and the embedded critique of the manipulation of the world that is "seen and unseen" (34), which confuses everyone about the distinctions between heroes and villains, feels too obvious in the end.

10 August 2010

Year's Best SF 15


I just finished reading through Year's Best SF 15, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (EOS, 2010) and wanted to record my thoughts on the volume, particularly regarding what nuggets about SF short story writing I can glean from it. I'll offer some general comments on the volume overall, and then I'll highlight a few individual stories and discuss what I think makes them especially successful.

        (For my brief post on Year's Best SF 14, see here. I gave that volume as a whole 3 out of 4 stars.)

        First, some details about the volume. Year's Best SF 15 contains twenty-four stories, with nine of those stories written by women (around 38%). Authors included range from veterans such as Bruce Sterling and Nancy Kress, to more recent but established names such as Alastair Reynolds and Peter Watts, to newer/up-and-coming writers such as Mary Robinette Kowal. Stories were published in 2009, and Hartwell and Cramer selected works from a variety of venues/markets: a collection published in India; magazines such as Asimov's Science Fiction, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, and Interzone; anthologies of original stories such as Other Earths (Nick Gevers, ed.), The New Space Opera 2 (Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, eds.), and When It Changed (Geoff Ryman, ed.); online markets such as Strange Horizons. Asimov's wins the race with five stories, while a few venues are tied at three stories (e.g., Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction 3). Only one online market was used for the volume, Strange Horizons, though the editors selected two stories from it. Nearly all subgenres of SF are represented: alternate history, space opera, alien encounters, hard SF, near future SF, parallel/enfolded timelines, artificial intelligence, multicultural/postcolonial, time travel, and so forth. Thus, a good range of authors and subgenres, with perhaps too few women writers and with a decidedly heavy emphasis on print markets.

        Here are the stories and my ratings of them (out of four stars), with the five best stories in bold:
1. Vandana Singh, "Infinities"  ***
2. Robert Charles Wilson, "This Peaceable Land; or, The Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beacher Stowe" *** 1/2
3. Yoon Ha Lee, "The Unstrung Zither"  *** 1/2
4. Bruce Sterling, "Black Swan"  *** 1/2
5. Nancy Kress, "Exegesis"  *** 1/2
6. Ian Creasey, "Erosion"  ** 1/2
7. Gwyneth Jones, "Collision"  ***
8. Gene Wolfe, "Donovan Sent Us"  ***
9. Marissa K. Lingen, "The Calculus Plague"  * 1/2
10. Peter Watts, "The Island"  ****
11. Paul Cornell, "One of Our Bastards Is Missing"  ** 1/2
12. Sarah L. Edwards, "Lady of the White-Spired City"  ***
13. Brian Stableford, "The Highway Code"  ***
14. Peter M. Ball, "On the Destruction of Copenhagen by the War-Machines of the Merfolk"  **
15. Alastair Reynolds, "The Fixation"  ***
16. Brenda Cooper, "In Their Garden"  ***
17. Geoff Ryman, "Blocked"  ****
18. Michael Cassutt, "The Last Apostle"  ***
19. Charles Oberndorf, "Another Life"  ****
20. Mary Robinette Kowal, "The Consciousness Problem"  *** 1/2
21. Stephen Baxter, "Tempest 43"  ***
22. Genevieve Valentine, "Bespoke"  ** 1/2
23. Eric James Stone, "Attitude Adjustment"  ***
24. Chris Roberson, "Edison's Frankenstein"  ***

06 August 2010

David J. Williams Links to Mirrored Heavens Post

Author David J. Williams has linked to and commented very positively on my recent post on his novel, The Mirrored Heavens, at his Autumn Rain Trilogy site:

Some discussion of my post and the novel is underway there, so do check it out.

Thanks for the link and the kind words, David!

01 August 2010

Asimov's Science Fiction (Feb. 2010)


Time to get back on track with my reading and study of Asimov's Science Fiction for 2010. This will be a single entry, with shorter comments on the individual stories than previously. Ratings are out of four stars.

1. Caroline M. Yoachim, "Stone Wall Truth" (pg. 10-22)  ***
The most attractive aspect of this story, for me, is the setting. In a world of tribal warfare, the king can sentence people to the wall, a strange artifact of the past with the seemingly magical power to expose the true colours of a person's soul, particularly the blackness of sin. Njeri, the main character, is the surgeon who cuts such people open on the wall, sews them back together, and returns them to life. This is a world in which morality is made manifest: the wall is the place of judgement; the sewing permanently marks individuals, making them outcasts. Yet, as Njeri discovers, the wall's function has changed drastically from its original purpose, when the Ancients actually used it for "love," exposing "their shadows" to each other and taking "knowledge from the wall" (21). Yoachim closes the story effectively, at the point of Njeri awakening (literally and figuratively) in order to change her society, her world. Overall, a good, well focussed, and engaging story: a kind of allegory about the marring of original intentions, about moral conflict and readjustment; a dextrous slipping from the impression of fantasy to the realisation of SF.

2. Damien Broderick, "Dead Air" (pg. 24-33)  * 1/2
An unsuccessful piece on many levels, even after two careful readings. I see how the story works as a dystopian vision of our contemporary world -- racism, television, a consumerist culture that forgets its past for the immediacy of now, environmental breakdown, distrust of scientific authority, and so forth. I see that Broderick provides a basically unlikeable main character and focalizer, Jive Bolen, to express the frantic and disintegrating nature of this nearish future, and to hone in on the disbeliever who eventually has his convictions challenged. I understand these things; I am aware of the satirical tone. What proves unsuccessful is the execution. Jive is distinctly unlikeable, offering little reason for identification or sympathy, and little context is provided for why he is so unseemly as a person. Where I get stuck, however, is the prose. Along with the odd new terms that feel odd solely for the sake of being clever ("pape" for newspaper, "truckee," "petacomp," "thays," "waitron," and more), and with the discordant German phrases, the prose is . . . obfuscating, choppy, crusty, deliberately difficult. Moreover, the central conflict for Jive -- whether the dead appearing on television are truly the dead or an elaborate propaganda hoax -- remains effectively unresolved. The editors' introduction calls the story "a decidedly Dickian meditation" (24), but I see the story as more Van Vogtian than Dickian, such as the Van Vogt of "The Weapon Shop," just without a payoff for the crusty and difficult prose.

29 July 2010

The Mirrored Heavens and Forms of SF Narrative


I met David J. Williams and discovered his Autumn Rain trilogy several weeks ago in June, when he did a signing and reading at BakkaPhoenix Books here in Toronto. Before that day, I had heard of neither author nor trilogy. Yet I decided to get a copy of The Mirrored Heavens, the first novel of the series -- for I like my cyberpunk, and the BakkaPhoenix staff offered very high recommendations of the book.

        The Mirrored Heavens definitely gave me a refreshing and exhilarating reading experience. The more I think about the novel, however, the more I am impressed by how challenging Williams makes the novel on several levels, weaving together breakneck pacing, significant narrative decisions, a conspiracy-theory atmosphere, and a political edginess into a whole that generates a rather plausible (and disturbing) vision of our nearish future. What interests me most are the narrative decisions and political edginess: the former, because I think they raise intriguing questions about what literary SF can do with forms of narrative; the latter, because I am surprised that reviewers of the novel seem to have shied away from addressing the historical context to which I believe it responds. Moreover, these two elements, in fact, mutually reinforce each other, revealing a novel more complex than it might appear at first blush.

The Present Tense. Every review of The Mirrored Heavens mentions that Williams chose to write it in the present tense, which takes some getting used to but ultimately suits the story Williams tells. Also, almost every review of the novel mentions how Williams' work on videogames influences the plotting and the pacing, with the implication that although this produces great action scenes, it somewhat detracts and distracts from greater depth in the setting and the characters. I want to explore what I see as the broader implications of Williams' use of the present tense, particularly by suggesting that the "videogame feel" of The Mirrored Heavens links the novel to what are arguably the most widespread and accessible forms of SF narrative today -- i.e., film/TV and videogames -- as the novel simultaneously successfully adapts those forms to the medium of literature.

        Putting the narrative of Mirrored Heavens in the present tense, Williams does confront his reader with an initial disorientation of sorts. By default, essentially, literary narratives employ the past tense, reflecting the inherent understanding that narratives come after the fact, so to speak: we tell our stories after the events have occurred; events themselves have no plot at the moment(s) they are occurring, only later when we arrange them as a story, thereby giving them a certain relationship to each other and so giving them meaning, relevance. French literary theorist and cultural critic Roland Barthes identified what he called the "predictive function of the historian," who, in constructing and plotting a history, always "knows what has not yet been told" (see here; my emphasis). In a way, all narrators are historians, telling about what has already happened, choosing what will be told and aware of what must still be told. (Several novels of the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, purposefully cast their fictional narratives as histories: to name merely a few, see Fielding's Joseph Andrews, Scott's Waverley, and Eliot's Middlemarch.) So, when readers encounter a narrative related in the present tense, certain assumptions and expectations are disrupted, even undermined. Hence, this defamiliarizing form of narrative takes some getting used to.

12 July 2010

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy


        Three days ago, I finished Kim Stanley Robinson's Blue Mars (1996), the final novel in his Mars trilogy. I took nearly a year to read all three books, with breaks -- for various reasons -- between the first two, Red Mars (1993) and Green Mars (1994). For me, the Mars trilogy stands not just as one of the true masterworks of 20th-century SF, but also as one of the great achievements in 20th-century fiction regardless of genre.

        What follows is not a coherent argument about why I hold such a high opinion of the trilogy, but more a collection of thoughts on the books that should comprise a fairly decent picture of that opinion.

Three Books As One. The trilogy needs to be seen as a single whole, not unlike The Lord of the Rings. It's not just the consistency of the same core characters in the three books, or the central themes that run through and evolve during the series (colonialism, science and/as politics, memory and nostalgia, the powers and perils of human ingenuity, self-interests vs. community interests, debates about terraforming and economic systems, etc.), or the progress of about 200 years of internal and alternate history that tangibly affects the characters' lives. As a single whole, the trilogy maintains a persistent, unifying vision and tone, a particular feel or atmosphere -- centred in Robinson's evocation of the landscape, colours, conditions, challenges, and alienness of Mars.
        Also, simply, the trilogy constitutes one long story/narrative, and a story/narrative that closes its circle(s) by returning to its beginning at its end, in an act of narrative nostalgia, reader nostalgia, and character nostalgia, with all three elements changed in the journey from beginning to end and reminded of that change. By the close of Blue Mars, the weight of everything experienced by the characters and the reader since Red Mars feels immense, complex, intimate, organic, inspiring, sublime. Humanity has such potential for beauty and wonder . . . it need only overcome itself.

Walkabout. Around halfway into Green Mars, I began thinking of the trilogy as a distinctly "ambulatory" narrative. Characters constantly move about Mars: John Boone's solo navigation of the new world and its burgeoning cultures, or Nadia and Arkady's flight around the planet, in Red Mars; Nirgal seeing the world for the first time with Coyote in Green Mars; Ann and Sax, separately, exploring the untouched or increasingly alive parts of the planet in Blue Mars. There are many more examples, and together they all constitute a sort of baseline plot structure for the trilogy (at micro- and macro-levels). Robinson unfolds Mars to readers by repeatedly taking them on treks and trips and travels over the planet's entirety, above and below ground, in the air and on the seas, even occasionally into orbit. Most importantly, though, he does this through the individual viewpoints of a variety of characters who see and approach Mars with their own motivations, needs, uncertainties, hopes. So, Mars remains perpetually new and surprising; it keeps changing, physically and socioculturally.
        Doing this also lets Robinson create and develop what I call the "poetry" of Mars. Whether it's John Boone marvelling at the planet's craters and chasms and chaoses (Red Mars), or Sax and Maya picking out and naming the different colours of Martian sunsets (Blue Mars), Mars becomes an utterly fascinating and plausible and concretely detailed alien landscape -- with a beauty all its own, at local and individual as well as global and communal scales. So much of the vision and tone of the trilogy reside in this "poetry" of Mars, whether Robinson spends time carefully detailing the biological/chemical make-up of Martian rock and dirt or the procedures for altering Mars' atmosphere to make the surface breathable. This is how Mars acquires substance, substantiality. This is how Robinson provides opportunities for the reader to become invested in the world, the characters, the story.

15 June 2010

I Hype, You Hype, We All Hype

My previous post on Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, hype, and taste has sparked a bit of discussion in other online places, and I thought I would add some further thoughts related to what I read in those places.

     First of all, author Mark Charan Newton, in his post Good Hype, Bad Hype, offers some valuable insight on the role of hype in the book trade. Good hype, he writes, is the traditional "word-of-mouth" talk about a book, "decentralised" and of "the people" -- which now occurs in "internet forums and blogs"; this sort of hype is good "because it causes discussion, gets people excited and ... is not influenced by corporations." Bad hype, on the other hand, involves a process beginning, essentially, with publishers/publicists and the "marketing blurbs" they use to "get reviewers excited" about and so "raise expectations" for a book, which they hope are passed on to readers; this is hype as seduction, as "marketing speak," and must be distrusted. Newton concludes with the observation that, from an author's point of view, "it's better to be talked about than not talked about" (alluding to one of the fine witticisms of the estimable Oscar Wilde).

     The corollary to Newton's conclusion, I suppose, is that all press is good press, particularly if such "press" keeps an author and his or her books on people's shelves and in people's conversations. In a highly competitive marketplace such as publishing, and more specifically such as the SF&F field, being part of the conversation is certainly crucial, and authors have an array of tools now to do so. My concern in my original post on Boneshaker, though, related to how the conversation about the novel -- to use Newton's distinctions -- predominantly assumed the tone of seductive "marketing speak," misleadingly raising expectations for it. Thus, there can be bad hype masquerading as good hype, influencing readers' tastes and potentially straying from more honestly critical assessments of books (whether positive, negative, or neutral).

     Gav's post on NextRead, Comment: When a good book is just a good book..., makes for a fitting companion piece to Newton's post, as he spends some time delving into the matter of hype from the perspective of the reviewer. He acknowledges that publishers want to "sell" a book as "the best thing since xyz" and considers how reviewers might or should handle these situations, where a publisher's hype may find its way into the "hyperbole" of a review. He suggests, "Bloggers though should probably ... take care that they are actually saying something of substance." Furthermore, he wonders whether reviewing can sometimes involve a "nervousness to be more direct" about a book's flaws, which entails the risk of steering readers away from "a book that we on the whole liked." At the end of his post, Gav closes with a rather self-reflective promise: "For my own part I'm going to try and be more sensitive [to] hyperbole and try my best to keep calling a spade a spade." Thus, he identifies a way in which reviewing can manage expectations for a book, perhaps better serving readers through more honest appraisals.

     Such honest appraisals are important, otherwise the "wrong impression" is communicated, potentially leading readers to believe a book is "the next blockbuster" that could "change your life." In this context, Gav quotes from my original post as an example of what happens when reviews create the "wrong impression," which certainly occurred in my case. I never expected Boneshaker to change my life (I leave that to the bonafide classics, inside and outside of SF&F), but I did expect what a great number of reviewers claimed I would get in the novel: fun, entertainment; fast-paced action; something new and fresh. Reviewers, I discovered, had not called a spade a spade. Hence, I became interested in thinking about the consequences of hype as seen specifically with online reviews.

11 June 2010

Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, Hype, and Taste


Guy Gavriel Kay, in his June 4th guest blog for BSC on "Under Heaven, and the Book World Under Siege," discusses how the internet has fundamentally changed the relationship between authors and their works, between authors and their readers. "The principle consequence," he writes, "is the disappearance of spaces ... between author and consumer and between author and work." One such space is that of privacy: authors increasingly lack this privacy, Kay observes, as readers/consumers believe they have a "connection" with a "writer online" and so can feel justified in attacking an author for, say, being late with a new novel; yet authors participate in this wearing away of their privacy by blogging about their daily lives, by needing to maintain an online presence in order to market their works and their personality (or, brand). From Kay's perspective, this lack of privacy for authors risks "eroding . . . the space that can be necessary to produce not only good art but a good life." Certainly, Kay reveals a nostalgia for a perhaps simpler time when authors truly enjoyed a kind of distance from readers. Yet, from the perspective of a reader, I see a further implication of the internet's effect upon Kay's "spaces." Namely, we are potentially also witnessing a lessening of the distinction between the critic and the general reader, with the consequence that authors and their works can quickly receive a great deal of hype -- often at the expense of more critical assessments of those works, of more considered reflection upon the grounds of taste.

     My experience with Cherie Priest's Boneshaker (Tor, 2009) led me to thinking about these issues.

02 March 2010

Saving Science Fiction From Itself?

Kristine Kathryn Rusch's essay "Barbarian Confessions," from the book Star Wars on Trial: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Debate the Most Popular Science Fiction Films of All Time (eds. David Brin and Matthew Woodring Stover, 2006), is currently available on the Smart Pop Books web site, but only for a limited time (until March 5th, apparently). I was originally linked to it from SF Signal.

        John DeNardo of SF Signal terms Rusch's essay "controversial," which certainly encouraged me to read it. The controversy, I suspect, stems from Rusch's diagnosis of the condition of SF and her recommendations for how the genre can heal and remain healthy.

        The basic aim of this diagnosis involves a defense of tie-in novel series (i.e., for Star Trek or Star Wars, and the like), which is the sort of SF generally looked down upon by what Rusch calls "the Science Fiction Village," yet also the sort of SF that sells well, takes up its share of "shelf space," and -- most importantly, for Rusch -- entertains its readers. (Rusch herself has written several tie-in novels.) SF, Rusch argues, has strayed from and actively resists what makes Star Wars great: "an escape, a journey into a new yet familiar world, entertainment. A good read." Such resistance to "entertainment" began with the New Wave, the result being the predominance of "dystopian universes," "nasty ... world-building," and "insularity," along with the abandonment of "gosh-wow, sense-of-wonder stories." Therefore, according to Rusch, the prescription for SF is "more grand adventure, more heroes on journeys, more uplifting ... endings": the very stories offered by tie-in novels, which Rusch claims are "keeping SF alive."

        For me, Rusch's essay proves especially relevant with regard to James Cameron's film Avatar, particularly a strain of negative response to the film within the SF&F community. I wish to address this negative response to Avatar by comparing it to the consistently positive response to Duncan Jones' Moon, where Avatar represents SF-as-entertainment and Moon SF-as-"work" (Rusch's term). I am fascinated by and deeply appreciate both films for what they do as films and as SF. Yet, echoing Rusch, I believe Avatar will do more than Moon to keep SF alive as a thriving and relevant genre. In fact, Avatar is the kind of film (and possible novel tie-in) that can save SF from itself.

25 February 2010

Reading Asimov's Science Fiction (Jan. 2010), Part IV

• See Part I.
• See Part II.
• See Part III.

6. Carol Emswhiller, "Wilds" (pg. 76-82) *** 1/2
Read 2 Feb. 2010. This story is a strange one to find in Asimov's: not clearly either SF or fantasy. Yet it is wholly engrossing and superbly executed. I'm going to call it a fantasy of sorts (maybe even a fable), as its unnamed first-person narrator lives out the fantasy of escaping from and leaving behind the everyday world of rental cars, jobs, neighbours, and so forth, by discovering and then surviving in "the wilds" (77). The world rejected by the narrator is our world, now -- not an SF near-future or alternate past, but now. Emshwiller thus constructs a fantasy of the reconnection with nature and the primal and the physical, wholly unmediated by technology or other modern conveniences: a fantasy of awakening to one's deepest and true desires ("But even as I swallow little snakes, I'm singing" [77]), and so to one's essential self, the world be damned ("I look at my reflection and I see exactly who I am" [82]). For the narrator, such rejection and reconnection relies upon "hiding" as his "way of life" (77): finding the highest, most inaccessible place "away from everybody" (76); building a tower of stones to give himself a better view, but making it look like a "natural formation" (77); eventually, he dresses "in mud" and smells of "ferns" (82), invisible to campers and hikers. Even the woman who shows up at his mountain with a Gucci purse filled with $50,000 worth of $100 bills is escaping and hiding. She's running from the law, certainly, having "'just picked ... up'" (81) an unguarded bag containing the money, then buying herself the Gucci purse, dinner at a "'fancy French restaurant'" (81), and a car -- as she says, "'Stuff I've never had before'" (81). She acted in defiance, then, of a world that alienates her (economically, materially), a world to which she was hidden. However, her motives for coming to "the wilds" are not as pure as the narrator's, for she remains tied to the material(ist) desires of the world, wanting to retrieve the bills scattered about the narrator's mountain, instead of, like the narrator, truly confronting her self and becoming "part of the wilds" (79). All of this is told by Emshwiller with a sharply focussed and consistent voice, the narrator's short and constrained sentences feeling decisive and practical, offering only as much communication as is necessary, but everywhere hinting at loss and nostalgia. What sort of world, we might ask, causes a man to cast it off utterly, to the point of real nakedness and drinking water "as an animal would" (82)? What is so alienating about such a world that a man's true self is concealed from him. The narrator does something I suspect many of us have contemplated or fantasised about doing. Yet the cost of his victory suggests caution at the end, for he achieves a wholly solitary life, hidden from campers and hikers,  secretively leaving $100 bills in their shoes and pockets and hats while they sleep, playing "mysterious" (82) songs on his flute at night. I am sympathetic to his desires and choices, even jealous of them. I don't know that I would have the courage to realise them.

06 February 2010

SF Signal Meme: What Book Are You Reading Now?

I haven't done something like this before, but thought I would follow the meme started by John DeNardo at SF Signal, What Book Are You Reading Now?

(1) What book are you reading now?
Redemption Ark, by Alastair Reynolds.

(2) Why did you choose it?
Last year, I read and loved Revelation Space and Chasm City, so I want to continue with and finish Reynolds' Revelation Space trilogy (Absolution Gap is on deck). As well, I am now a dedicated fan of Reynolds' work, so I want to see if I can get caught up with all his novels in the next, say, year or there about. Finally, after recently reading some Earth-based, near-future SF (Beggars in Spain, Snow Crash), I was in the mood for a far-future space opera.

(3) What's the best thing about it?
I'm just about 100 pages in, so obviously I can't speak to the novel as a whole, but Reynolds is doing in Redemption Ark what I enjoyed in Revelation Space: shifting between a variety of point-of-view characters, moving the reader not just among different perspectives but different parts of the setting (geographically, politically, historically) ... not to mention different subjective timelines. Though it's early chapters yet, I'm already curious about the relationships and tensions between the Conjoiners and Demarchists, because the characters are intriguing, distinct. Then there's Reynolds' always fascinating far-future tech and neo-cyberpunk sensibility.

(4) What's the worst thing about it?
Again, I'm only about 100 pages in, but I will say that some of the shifts between different point-of-view characters are not signalled clearly enough, especially when they occur within the same chapter. I've found myself disoriented a couple of times (but I found my way quickly enough). Also, I'm not sure why, but it's taken me at least three or four attempts to start and make significant progress into each Reynolds novel I've read. I wonder if it's about becoming accustomed to Reynolds' style or about the density of information Reynolds establishes right away? Or, both? In any case, once I really get going, putting down a Reynolds novel is not easy.

05 February 2010

Reading Asimov's Science Fiction (Jan. 2010), Part III

• See Part I.
• See Part II.

4. Chris Roberson, "Wonder House" (pg. 53-69) *** 1/2
Read 31 Jan. 2010. Alternate history SF, (re)imagining the confluence of events and inspirations that created the comic book. I will admit that I thoroughly enjoy this sort of story, which meditates on not just the origins of a form/media (comics) but also treats with playful reverence the origins and concerns of its own genre (SF) -- and does succinctly, never swerving from its tone or its subject, moving the story (and the reader) inexorably to the moment of revelation that is a joy because it is understood, anticipated right at the last second before it arrives. On the planet "Fire Star" (54), Yacov Leiber and Itzhak Blumenfeld have been running "Wonder House Publications" (53) for twenty years, their fortunes rising adn falling (or plateauing) by their ability to publish "terribles" (54) -- i.e., pulp magazines -- that readers desire. Roberson brings us into their publishing house and lives at a moment of crisis and the need for change, as Wonder House's fortunes are in decline, Yacov and Itzhak's editing a bit out of step with readers' current tastes. They brainstorm different ideas for new or renewed stories and series, such as "'war title'" (55) or a "'gun-slinger title'" (55) or a "'character title, like Doctor Buckingham'" (55) or "relaunching Celestial Bureaucracy'" (56), but find various reasons why such titles would not work in the present climate for terribles. In the process, Roberson crafts a history of Fire Star's terribles, which clearly mirrors Earth's history of the the pulps (especially from the Gernsback era of the late 1920s on, I think), bringing that history to a point of transition, for what Wonder House needs is something truly new, truly innovative if it will reclaim its "readership" (57) and marketshare. That something truly new is the simultaneous arrival of SF and comics, as Segal, a young writer doggedly trying to get "regular work writing for terribles" (58), and Kurtzberg, a young artist, bring their "'thing'" (58) to Yacov and Itzhak: a story about a man from the future sent back in time, depicted by Kurtzberg as a "muscular figure wearing a skin-tight costume" (58) . . . and, yes, think Superman, for this man from the future will have "the Hebrew letter Shin" (58) as a log on his chest, which stands for "'Shaddai,'" or "'The Almighty'" (58). Initially sceptical, Itzhak sees the potential in what Segal and Kurtzberg have brought to Wonder House, having the flash of inspiration to put the focus on Kurtzberg's illustrations as the main narrative, with Segal's text used in "'snippets'" (59) on top of the illustrations. "'This could work'" (59), Itzhak says, and the reader agrees, because the reader knows he's right. So, a story about the very moment of the creation of a new form and a new genre of story, and thus a story that is also about Story itself. Roberson's shifting of the origins of SF and comics to another planet and into another cultural register from the default Anglo-American roots of both SF and comics in our history lends his piece another layer of inspiration, surprise. (I particularly appreciate his use of SF to imagine the beginnings of SF . . . and the publication of his story in a magazine that can be seen as the modern-day evolution and inheritor of the pulps, er terribles.)

29 January 2010

Reading Asimov's Science Fiction (Jan. 2010), Part II

• See Part I.

2. Felicity Shoulders, "Conditional Love" (pg. 32-43) ** 1/2
Read 28 Jan. 2010. This is a well-crafted near-future dystopia in which genetic engineering creates enhanced children -- and can go wrong, requiring special medical and social institutions to handle the mistakes, such as the "Gene-Engineered Pediatric In-Patient Center" (32). The main character, Dr. Grace Stellar, has been working for eleven years at GEPIC, treating and dealing with the children dropped off or "dumped" (32) by their parents: such as Minerva, born without arms or legs, but in the process of having her arms grown by a combination of a special gel and operations. Then there is the new kid, John Doe, genetically modified to be "above the mean for cuteness" (33), yet has what amounts to constant short-term memory loss (think Memento): each time he sees someone, he starts all over again with, "'Who are you?'" (33). Shoulders weaves in intriguing aspects of the wider sociocultural consequences of "guppies" (34), as children such as Minerva and John Doe are called by some: i.e., the police detective Bob Kafouri, who is trying to gather enough evidence to bring down not just individual "'opt-docs,'" but the entire "'industry'" (35). The story's setting feels wholly plausible, and unnerving. Also, Grace makes for an effective main character and point-of-view, for we gradually understand that she is reaching (or has already reached) a kind of crossroads, an internal crisis built up after years of treating and caring for discarded, genetically misengineered kids. John Doe, about six years old and named "Danny" by Bob, serves as the catalyst for Grace finally to take drastic action, as she knows the cruelty of his memory loss will make him a difficult case to find the proper care for. The decision Grace makes is revealed expertly by Shoulders, leaving the reader with a mixture of compassion and a bit of horror. Yet I feel about this piece much like I felt about Landis's: I just read the prologue to the real story; I just got the build-up to the truly interesting matter of how Grace deals with her act of resistance and its effects upon Danny (and Minerva). Again, I am asking a writer to give me a different story than what I read, but, again, my sense is of an opportunity missed for a more challenging, provocative, and dynamic story. For instance, Danny and his memory loss defect contains great potential for exploring more of the implications of seeing/not seeing, recognition/not recognizing, in a society that dumps and disowns its failed human experiments: why do parents and doctors and corporations engage in their various blindnesses? what would make them see the moral, ethical, and very material costs of their hubris? would Grace's act of resistance become a flashpoint for wider social change?

27 January 2010

Reading Asimov's Science Fiction (Jan. 2010), Part I

I continue with my project of reading Asimov's Science Fiction to learn what kind of story gets accepted in one of SF&F's top markets. The Dec. 2009 issue was, I thought, fairly decent overall, but lacking at least one story of true excellence/brilliance. I'm intrigued to see what the Jan. 2010 issue holds in store for me.

1. Geoffrey A. Landis, "Marya and the Pirate" (pg. 14-31) ** 1/2
Read 26 Jan. 2010. Something of a space opera, this one, featuring a seemingly vulnerable young woman alone on a spaceship with a valuable cargo and the titular pirate who wants that valuable cargo but who has a healthy sense of compassion and honour. Landis sketches in effectively a setting with an interplanetary economy that has left some (mining) colonies bankrupt, desperate, and engaged in illegal activities such as stealing necessities such as water -- the mission of Domingo Bonaventura, our pirate. Landis also establishes and maintains a steady tension in the relationship between Domingo and his captive, May Hamilton (a.k.a. Marya Hayes): sexual tension, as well as the possibility of the need for violence on Domingo's part ("trust" is something of moving target between Domingo and May). The plotting is sharp, with good momentum, especially in the latter stages of the story as Domingo and May face nearly certain death in a spaceship careening toward Earth's atmosphere with little chance to change course. Also, Landis saves a few surprises and revelations for the end that deepen both characters. However, it's those surprises and new layers to the characters that I feel make for the true story . . . and Marya the character who has the most intriguing choices to make and conflicts to resolve, as well as the background I most want to know about (just how did she end up on a ship by herself with a cargo of valuable water? why would she want to "get in contact with a pirate" [42] later on, besides romance?). I realize that I am asking Landis to write a different story. Yet I feel like there was an opportunity missed here, like I read the prologue to the real story -- although this reaction can also be seen as a testament to the world and characters Landis offers in the story, for I do want more of both.

2. Felicity Shoulders, "Conditional Love" (pg. 32-43)

3. Steve Rasnic Tem, "A Letter from the Emperor" (pg. 44-52)

4. Chris Roberson, "Wonder House" (pg. 53-59)

5. Robert Reed, "The Good Hand" (pg. 60-75)

6. Carol Emshwiller, "Wilds" (pg. 76-82)

7. Allen M. Steele, "The Jekyll Island Horror" (pg. 84-100)

08 January 2010

On Story and Avatar

Thoughts on Avatar
Further Thoughts on Avatar


Back to Avatar again, this time to offer some thoughts on its story and its script, particularly because I keep seeing the same comment(s) about the film with unfortunate regularity.

     For an example, I quote Ken of Neth Space:
The story is terribly cliché, predictable, heavy-handed, and quite hypocritical coming from Hollywood. And it's a great movie. ... The presentation is spectacular ....
This passage effectively sums up the general response to Avatar across much of the SF&F blogosphere, and from people with whom I've discussed the film. At this point, the response itself is becoming clichéd and predictable. I see two consequences: first, the perpetuation of a misconception about Avatar's story; second, an unwillingness to engage with that story on its own terms and to consider why Cameron made specific choices.

     To see a review that does engage with the story and consider Cameron's choices, I recommend Roz Kaveney's piece at Strange Horizons. It is the most thorough and astute commentary on the film I have read yet.

     I want to suggest something about Avatar's story that might initially seem a bit addled to some: namely, that its supposed clichés and predictability in fact constitute its great strength and the source of its emotional power -- and that Cameron did this on purpose.

03 January 2010

Book Reviewing and Blogging

Recently, a fair amount of discussion (and debate) on book reviewing and blogging made its way across the SF&F blogosphere. I found this discussion intriguing and informative, and so wanted to collect and organize the various comments here.

Author Mark Charan Newton cast the first stone with his blog post, What Makes a Good Book Blogger? (From a Writer's Point of View).

Some book bloggers/reviewers responded (reading the comments for these posts expands the discussion significantly):
The World in the Satin Bag

The discussion also led to blog posts on the issue of reviewing from 2008:
OF Blog of the Fallen: 1 March 2008 and 10 December 2008
Jeff VanderMeer (29 March 2008)
Hal Duncan (8 June 2008)

Finally, James at Speculative Horizons posted his excellent and helpful tips on blogging and reviewing: Things I've learned about blogging.

01 January 2010

2009 Books Read and Films Seen

Now that it's a new year, I need to clear the slate for my reading and film lists, but I wanted to ensure that both lists did not just dissolve away into cyberspace never to be seen again (by me, at least).

My "best of" lists for 2009 readings and films are here.