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.