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.)