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.