Monday, December 28, 2009

Avatar the silent movie

I can think of one thing that would save Avatar (written and directed by James Cameron) and make it a much better movie-going experience. See it with the sound off. No subtitles, please. This avoids the story, which is somewhere between lame and insulting, and the soundtrack, which runs from weak to annoying. All that would be left is the visuals, which are gorgeous and immersive. The last hour of shoot ’em up and explosions can be skipped, too.

There are two moments that approach honest emotion in the entire 2 hour, 40 minute movie: 1. When the main character, the paralyzed Jake Sully, first has his consciousness inserted into an alien avatar and he is able to walk and run. 2. After Jake and Pocahontas -- I mean the native Chieftain’s daughter Neytiri -- bond to flying creatures, very much like the dragonriders of Pern, they recount their flight, waving their hands through the air in an imitation of flight. All the rest is a boring retread of other stories and it is dead on arrival.

The story riffs on the following movies:
Disney’s Pocahontas -- check
Costner’s Dances with Wolves -- check
Every single movie where a white male shows an “inferior culture” how to fight and he is better at pretty much everything (from Tarzan onward, there are hundreds of these movies) -- check
This last trope was the subject of a panel discussion at Wiscon 31, called “What These People Need is a Honky.”

I doubt Cameron reads much science fiction, but if he did he might have come across a similar story by Ursula K. LeGuin, “The Word for World is Forest,” first published in novella form in 1972. Cameron is only 37 years behind in his source material, which is how far behind Hollywood science fiction movies typically are.

The production designer for Avatar argues that since the natives, the Na’vi, are blue aliens and not a specific Earthbound oppressed group (such as, say, Africans or Native Americans), the movie can’t possibly be racist.
“Think of the imagery of the Johnny Weissmuller movies of Tarzan and the portrayal of Africans, which any of us watch today and we go, ‘Oh, that's a little cringe-making.’ . . . By Jim (Cameron) picking a state of existence that does not exist and then all of the jumps of science — like combining human DNA with an alien DNA and projecting a character's consciousness into the new being — all of that creates a ‘there’ where you can stage a story that you can tell with a real freedom. ”
Actually, no. By making the natives non-specific they stand for ALL oppressed and exploited groups. The Na’vi are Tarzan’s Africans, Dances with Wolves’ Native Americans, and every other racist portrayal of an “inferior people” all at once.

Cameron is able to mount huge, visually stunning productions (Avatar, Titanic, The Abyss), unfortunately each film is hobbled by painfully bad storytelling. The characterizations are weak and plot developments are obvious far in advance. Who wrote these wretched, broken screenplays? Oh, that would be James Cameron.

Edited to add:
I don't mean to suggest that Ursula K. LeGuin's novella "The Word for World is Forest" is infected with the same sort of racism. Far from it. Her story is better in every way than the Avatar story.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Pump Six by Paolo Bacigalupi

This story is worth the price of the anthology. The wonderful contradiction of “Pump Six” is that it is both apocalyptic and optimistic at the same time.

Travis Alvarez works at a sewage treatment facility in New York City over a hundred years in the future. He and his wife have been trying to have a child for a while without success. They are hoping for a normal baby. “We’ve just got to stay optimistic,” says Alvarez. Normal birthrates are down. More trogs (de-evolved humans) are born every year. At work Pump Six, a sewage treatment pump, isn’t working correctly and Alvarez is the only one who is able to puzzle through the arcane manual.

Details about life in New York gradually accumulate: the skyscrapers are shedding their skins in a constant concrete rain, no cars are on the road, and most water isn’t safe to drink. Everywhere the trogs, the children of men, are found copulating in the alleyways and parks, beckoning Alvarez to join the fun. The future is going to shit, quite literally if the pumps fail.

Alvarez is a can-do character, ready and willing to solve problems, a character typical of optimistic 1940s and ’50s science fiction, which Bacigalupi seeks to subvert. As the enormity of the situation becomes clear both to Alvarez and the reader the story closes. The mix of emotions that the story ends with: optimism, sadness, sympathy, or pity, will depend to a large part on the individual reader.

“Pump Six” by Paolo Bacigalupi originally appeared in the collection Pump Six and Other Stories (Night Shade Books, 2008)
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Friday, December 18, 2009

Memory Dog by Kathleen Ann Goonan

Must we become a dog in order to offer unconditional love? Can we only receive unconditional love if we get it from a dog? Those are just some of the issues that “Memory Dog” raises. It’s an overstuffed story, with memory drugs, an unraveled marriage, political and social unrest, and “smacks,” a high impact variety of blog post that floats about looking for receptive people.

Unable to cope with guilt from the death of a child and the end of his marriage, a scientist at the forefront of new memory research transfers a mixture of his own edited memories and those of the family dog into a dog that is then released near his former wife’s home. The memory-enhanced dog forms an attachment with his ex-wife.

An unabashedly sentimental cocktail of regret, loss, love, and fractured memories, the story works despite being overcomplicated.

Is there a subgenre of science fiction stories about dogs? Some leap to mind:
“People of Sand and Slag” by Paolo Bacigalupi. (Dead dog.)
“Sergeant Chip” by Bradley Denton. (Military dog.)
“A Boy and His Dog” by Harlan Ellison. (Answering the old dating joke: Girlfriend asks boyfriend, which do you prefer, me or your dog? Woof!)
I’m sure I’ve overlooked many science fiction dog stories. Please add those that you remember in the comments.

"Memory Dog" by Kathleen Ann Goonan, originally published in Asimov’s, April/May 2008
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Orange by Neil Gaiman

This one is slick and amusing. The conceit is that the story is composed completely of answers to questions the reader doesn’t get to see. As the first lines say: “Third Subject’s Responses to Investigator’s Written Questionnaire. EYES ONLY.”

The funniest bits arrive early:
“7. Several times a day.
“8. No.”

The wildly speculative places that those answers take the reader are worth a chuckle. The actual story, alas, is familiar and prosaic, despite its unusual format. Told from the point of view of a 17-year-old girl, it’s the story of a nutty scientist mother with a laboratory in the garage and the irritating younger sister, Nerys, who is transformed by one of the mother’s experimental dyes into a glowing orange “Immanence” floating above the ground and demanding to be worshipped. When things begin to get out of hand, aliens arrive in a spaceship and intervene, taking the transformed Nerys away and promising not to harm her.

The clever format doesn’t actually work. Since the written questionnaire is presumably prepared in advance, the questions could not flow from the previous answers as the narrative requires. They do, thus undercutting the premise.

"Orange" by Neil Gaiman, originally published in The Starry Rift edited by Jonathan Strahan (Viking, 2008).
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Arkfall by Carolyn Ives Gilman

The claustrophobically confined life aboard living submarine craft and cramped space in underwater habitats is redoubled by the constrictive responsibility of being the sole caregiver for an “aged,” an unproductive senior with dementia. Osaji cares for her grandmother, which precludes many preferred assignments and marriage.

Care for seniors, not a common topic in science fiction, is sensitively handled. The indirect speech and passive-aggressive behavior within overcrowded living spaces is well considered. (For example, a request to return to the ship: “Will she be coming in soon?” The reply: “She will be pleased to.”) The author tips her hand a bit by providing Japanese names for most characters, except a loud American-sounding gaijin named Scrappin’ Jack Halliday.

Due to an undersea volcanic eruption, Osaji, her grandmother, and Jack are cast adrift far from known waters on a water-covered planet. The story turns toward planetary romance as they discover unknown flora and fauna, and glimpse an abandoned underwater city. The story has a leisurely pace and resolves well on several levels.

Still, practicalities kept coming to mind: How would pressure not be an issue, diving at various depths? Would a biological submarine (the “ark” of the title), based on autopoiesis, be as maintenance free as the story suggests? Would they actually rely on currents and not include a propulsion system? Would a society capable of space travel not have sophisticated imagery of the entire planet’s undersea floor?

It’s an interesting choice as both the lead-off story and the longest story in the anthology, and a mostly satisfying one.

"Arkfall" by Carolyn Ives Gilman, originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, September 2008
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Year’s Best SF 14: Introduction

Editors David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer provide a brief summary of the year 2008 in science fiction. Most of the economic news is predictably grim. Much of the information about print magazines and online magazines is now out of date.

Interestingly, the only novel and single-author collection mentioned in the entire introduction is emphasized here: “High points Daryl Gregory’s first novel, Pandemonium, and Paolo Bacigalupi’s first collection, Pump Six and Other Stories, possibly the two most important first books in our field in 2008.” Gregory’s book is moving up the “to be read” pile and readers of this blog have already seen mention of Bacigalupi.

Overall, Hartwell and Cramer say, 2008 was a fine year for short fiction, pointing to the magazines and original anthologies. They single out The Starry Rift, Eclipse 2, Fast Forward 2, and Clockwork Phoenix, published in the United States. They also cite original anthologies from Australia and Canada, Jack Dann’s Dreaming Again and Claude Lalumière’s Tesseracts 12 respectively.

They present their editorial philosophy, which has appeared in some form in each volume: “This book is full of science fiction -- every story in this book is clearly that and not something else. We try in each volume of this series to represent the varieties of tones and voices and attitudes that keep the genre vigorous and responsive to the changing realities out of which it emerges, in science and daily life.”

Link: Year's Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Year's Best SF 14

I’ll be writing briefly about each story in Year’s Best SF 14 edited by David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer (Eos, 2009). Items on the table of contents below will be updated with links to each post.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Peter Watts beaten, arrested at U.S. border

Canadian science fiction writer Peter Watts was stopped, beaten and arrested by U.S. border guards on Tuesday, December 8.

According to Watts’ friend, sf writer David Nickle (via Boing Boing):
“He (Watts) was stopped at the border crossing at Port Huron, Michigan by U.S. border police for a search of his rental vehicle. When Peter got out of the car and questioned the nature of the search, the gang of border guards subjected him to a beating, restrained him and pepper sprayed him. At the end of it, local police laid a felony charge of assault against a federal officer against Peter. On Wednesday, he posted bond and walked across the border to Canada in shirtsleeves (he was released by Port Huron officials with his car and possessions locked in impound, into a winter storm that evening). He's home safe. For now. But he has to go back to Michigan to face the charge brought against him. The charge is spurious. But it's also very serious. It could mean two years in prison in the United States, and a ban on travel in that country for the rest of Peter's life.”
There’s more on the story at Boing Boing and Peter Watts’ own account at his website.

For a little context, Peter Watts has a graduate degree in marine mammal biology and has written several highly regarded science fiction novels. Blindsight (Tor, 2006) was short listed for the Hugo Award for best novel. Donations to the legal defense fund can be made via Paypal to

Peter Watts' second post about the incident at his website
The Times-Herald (Port Huron, Michigan) article on the incident Friday, December 11
The Times-Herald (Port Huron, Michigan) article on the incident Saturday, December 12

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Windup Girl on the Rewind

“... (D)espite the slightly creaky plot, The Windup Girl is irresistibly readable for long stretches. What it does best, I think, is the frantic excitement of uncertainty.”
-- Niall Harrison (full review)

“Well written and impressive as it is--and this is still a work by one of the major voices working in the genre, if not a major work in its own right--The Windup Girl is undone by the ambiguity at its heart.”
-- Abigail Nussbaum (full review)

SF Strangelove’s review of  The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Time magazine named The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi as one of the top 10 fiction books of 2009.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Box

The Box (directed by Richard Kelly, distributed by Warner Bros., 2009)

Think of The Box as a feature-length Twilight Zone episode. It has the same preoccupation with moral dilemmas and with powerful outside agencies manipulating the fate of mere mortals. It successfully delivers the same spooky chills. Its central characters are cut from the same cardboard, standing in for everyman and everywoman.

In 1976, an ordinary couple, Norma and Arthur (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden), are presented with a box with a button on top. If they press the button someone they don’t know will die and they will receive a million dollars. Offering the box is the horribly disfigured Mr. Steward (Frank Langella). After Mr. Steward departs the couple discusses the proposition. Arthur opens the box. There is nothing inside. Eventually, on impulse, Norma presses the button. Elsewhere in town we learn a woman has been killed. Norma’s decision leads to an even more troubling moral dilemma at the climax of the movie.

Near the end of the movie another couple is given the box. The wife impulsively pushes the button, establishing that there are a string of three women who have pushed the button, succumbing to temptation. Each couple is expelled, like Adam and Eve, from their safe, ordinary lives.

Mr. Steward, injured in a lightning strike, is the enigmatic representative for “those who control the lightning.” The character is played with a wonderful otherworldly seriousness by Langella. Steward exhibits posthuman, near magical abilities. Twice the film references Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The film seems to view this as an excuse not to make any effort to explain the advanced technology on display.

An example of this technology is the three columns of liquid from which Arthur must choose. He makes the correct choice and he is transported several feet above the bed he shares with Norma, where she is at that moment resting. She must dodge quickly out of the way as Arthur and many gallons of water arrive nearly on top of her, in an odd rebirth.

While there are numerous loose ends, the story is involving and thought provoking. Still, as one imagines Richard Kelly is tired of hearing, it’s not up to the level of Kelly’s first feature, Donnie Darko (2001). Donnie Darko was especially adroit at quickly presenting several complex and sympathetic characters. We rarely get close to the characters in The Box, and when the opportunity arises they don’t fully engage our sympathy. The result is an abstract puzzle and the audience is left to fit some of the pieces.

The movie is based on the Richard Matheson short story, “Button, Button” (1970), and was adapted as a Twilight Zone episode which aired during a revival of the television series in 1986.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The book as object

Having received the finely crafted object that is the limited edition of Finch by Jeff VanderMeer (Underland Press, 2009), pictured here with the accompanying Finch CD from Murder by Death, and the trade paperback, I did pause to consider the physical object. Yes, I buy multiple editions of the same book. It may be a sickness. You decide.

On the subject at hand, the book as object, I can say that I am not ready to make the leap to digital books -- at least exclusively. Having thousands of books on a single sleek techno-object would simplify packing and moving to be sure. Still, I remain a skeptic. I’ve been through decades of software and hardware upgrades in computing, and then there are rights issues and format changes. How useful will those thousands of digital books be in 20 or 30 years? My wager is that a well-made hardback book will still be useful and valued long after today’s digital readers are a footnote in history.

Oh, and I can’t wait to start reading Finch. If you haven’t heard the name already, be sure to try some fiction by Jeff VanderMeer.

On the sidebar list of small press publishers I’ll be adding Underland Press and some others.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Syfy cancels columnists

Locus Online reports: “SCI FI Wire, the online news division of Syfy (formerly the Sci Fi Channel), has canceled all their columns, including long-running series from John Clute, Wil McCarthy, and Michael Cassutt.”

The folks at Syfy have reduced the chance that I will visit their site. A tip of the hat to Erin Kissane at for providing links (and links to links) to John Clute’s Excessive Candour book review columns dating back over 10 years. Clute's columns are more than just book reviews: They are meditations, offering a depth of insight rarely seen elsewhere in the science fiction community. Here’s hoping Clute and the other columnists will find online or print homes for their future work elsewhere.

John Clute’s book review columns have found a new home, every six weeks starting in 2010 at Strange Horizons.

Locus Online on cancellation of columns
Locus Roundtable on rescued Candour
Update link:

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Amazon's Top 10 Books

Amazon's editors' picks for the best Science Fiction and Fantasy published in 2009:

  1. Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente (Spectra) 
  2. The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Roc) 
  3. The Other Lands (Acacia, Book 2) by David Anthony Durham (Doubleday) 
  4. American Fantastic Tales (Boxed Set) edited by Peter Straub (Library of America) 
  5. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (Tor Books) 
  6. The Other City by Michal Ajvaz (Dalkey Archive Pr) 
  7. Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts (Gollancz) 
  8. Eclipse 3: New Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by Jonathan Strahan (Night Shade Books) 
  9. Interfictions 2: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing edited by Delia Sherman (Small Beer Press) 
  10. The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington (Orbit) 

Amazon calls this list "editors' picks." The plural is a bit misleading since this list was compiled by noted author and anthologist Jeff VanderMeer for Amazon. This is a diverse and interesting list, and includes a couple of authors who are completely new to me, which is a delight. It has pointed me toward some books I might not have picked up.

Links: Top 10 Science Fiction and Fantasy 2009
Cheryl's Mewsings with Jeff VanderMeer's response
Jeff VanderMeer blogs: Ecstatic Days and Omnivoracious

Monday, November 9, 2009

Caught reading in public

Being a nosy sort of person, I like to check out what people are reading when they read in public. At lunchtime today at Chipotle a young woman was reading George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (1996). In terms of fantasy and science fiction, Martin is the clear leader in my unscientific observations of what people read. It used to be that Stephen King was the genre’s favorite read-in-public author, and maybe it will be King again with Under the Dome (2009).

Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire epic, of which A Game of Thrones is the first volume of four extant, is a remarkable multithreaded novel, inspired by the Wars of the Roses, and it’s far from finished. The several thousand pages so far published read quickly and are dark, surprising, intricately plotted, and full of sex and violence. The story is told from a wide variety of well-drawn viewpoint characters.

I don’t, as a rule, read or recommend an unfinished work. I’ll make an exception and recommend this one.

George R.R. Martin: Not a Blog
Soon to be an HBO series? Update

Sunday, November 8, 2009

World Fantasy Awards 2009

A week ago the World Fantasy Awards were presented in San Jose, California.

  • Lifetime Achievement: Ellen Asher & Jane Yolen
  • Best Novel (tie): The Shadow Year, Jeffrey Ford (Morrow, 2008) & Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin; Knopf, 2008)
  • Best Novella: “If Angels Fight”, Richard Bowes (F&SF 2/08)
  • Best Short Story: “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss”, Kij Johnson (Asimov’s 7/08)
  • Best Anthology: Paper Cities: An Anthology of Urban Fantasy, Ekaterina Sedia, ed. (Senses Five Press, 2008)
  • Best Collection: The Drowned Life, Jeffrey Ford (HarperPerennial, 2008)
  • Best Artist: Shaun Tan
  • Special Award – Professional: Kelly Link & Gavin J. Grant (for Small Beer Press and Big Mouth House)
  • Special Award – Non-Professional: Michael Walsh (for Howard Waldrop collections from Old Earth Books)

The judges for 2009 were: Jenny Blackford, Peter Heck, Ellen Klages, Chris Roberson & Delia Sherman.

Having read enough of the fiction award winners to be able to say this is a strong group of winners, it appears to me that in the past decade the World Fantasy Awards are more consistent than the Hugos in handing awards to top notch work. Could it be because the World Fantasy Awards are not just a popular vote by convention members, but a hybrid of judging and popular voting?

World Fantasy Convention 2009: Awards
Previous discussion: Toward Better Hugo Award Winners

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Three films: Stalker, Bright Star, 9

Stalker (directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)

This Soviet-era film (movie poster at left) is loosely based on the excellent short novel, Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The Strugatsky brothers wrote the screenplay. This is an extraordinary science fiction film, which I have only now caught up with. A Stalker is a guide who brings people into and out of “the Zone,” a region where natural laws do not hold, space and time are bent in curious ways and constantly shift. Missteps can be deadly. Within the Zone is a room with a powerful, inexplicable object. Scenes of decaying buildings and tunnels are wonderfully photographed. This multilayered film touches on an amazing range of topics: family and trust, social responsibility, the limits of science, and how we think about the universe. For me, it has vaulted to the front ranks of all-time best science fiction films. I can’t wait to watch it again.

Bright Star (directed by Jane Campion, distributed by Apparition, 2009)

This is the best romantic movie (and, yes, Romantic movie) I have seen in years. The story follows the love affair between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, told mostly from her point of view. Their relationship develops leisurely and naturally. It has little in common with Hollywood romance films, which rush from one plot point to another, constantly hammering at the audience with what emotion should be experienced at every step. Bright Star has everything: exceptional acting, dialog, cinematography, and a convincing sense of period. It even has intelligent discussion about poetry. It’s the sort of quality film that won’t get much recognition from the Academy Awards (see an earlier post about how wide of the mark the Oscars usually are). Perhaps they’ll give it a consolation prize for costuming.

9 (directed by Shane Acker, distributed by Focus Features, 2009)

As much as this film is a visual treat, the story is a disappointment. The CGI animation gives a spectacular sense of scale and details of cavernous cathedrals and other architecture are impressive. Alas, the story is full of inconsistencies, a kind of grab-bag of post-apocalyptic clichés. The MacGuffin, a talisman that canvas doll come-to-life, 9, unwittingly uses to activate evil mechanical forces, was apparently not necessary to trigger all the evil mechanical critters that 9 and his friends were fighting up to that point. The mystical ending is unsupported by the preceding story. The canvas dolls are reminiscent of the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, one of many subtle and not so subtle nods to that 1939 film.

Wikipedia on Romanticism
Wikipedia on MacGuffin

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Road: sf or not sf?

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (Knopf, 2006)
 “My definition of science fiction is simply fiction in which some element of speculation plays such an essential and integral role that it can't be removed without making the story collapse, and in which the author has made a reasonable effort to make the speculative element as plausible as possible.”
Stanley Schmidt, editor of Analog magazine, in an interview at SF Site
It’s a rather incomplete definition of science fiction, which is a discussion for another day. Still it has its uses. Hold Schmidt’s definition up to The Road and the book doesn’t look much like science fiction. The post-apocalyptic setting becomes a painted backdrop that could be shifted out for another, say a camping trip gone very badly wrong, along the lines of the canoe trip in James Dickey’s Deliverance (1970).

McCarthy evokes a suffocating sense doom and gloom and it serves his story well. A story that is not about the end of the world at all. It is a story about a father and son, about endurance and sacrifice in life and death circumstances.

In both its subject and its prose, The Road recalls Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952). Both are composed of short, simple sentences. Hemingway has more rhythm. McCarthy loves the occasional obscure, well-chosen word. Both concern the relationship between a man and a boy. In Hemingway, it is a fisherman and his young apprentice. In McCarthy, it is a father and son, where the skill being imparted is simple survival.

The Road is a strong work and it would ornament any genre that would embrace it. If we believe Schmidt’s definition then science fiction must let it go.

SF Site interviews Stanley Schmidt

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Proto-science fiction: Voltaire’s Micromegas

In the short story "Micromegas" (1752), Voltaire takes the Lilliputian smallness and Brobdingnagian largeness of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and makes them larger and smaller still. Two visitors, one from a planet circling the star Sirius and another from Saturn, are incredibly large and the inhabitants of Earth are, by comparison, extremely minute.

At first the visitors have trouble detecting intelligent life. Eventually the devise better magnifiers and observe humanity and eventually to communicate with mankind. As the visitors discuss their discoveries and attempt to extrapolate, the visitor from Saturn says:
“I no longer venture either to believe or to deny; I no longer have any opinion about the matter. We must try to examine these insects, we will form our conclusions afterwards.”
If that sounds like a gloss on the scientific method, it is no mistake. This story has a scientific orientation and much is reasoned out by logic. Once communication is established with the tiny inhabitants of Earth an exchange of scientific knowledge is the first order of business, followed by notions of philosophy. It’s amusing and satirical, as can be expected from the author of Candide (1759).

"Micromegas" is written in conversation with Gulliver’s Travels, one of the most important proto-science fiction novels, and questions the conventions of science and society in similar ways. According to the edition at hand (Vanguard Press, 1929), Voltaire had a direct role in making sure the full text of Gulliver’s Travels was translated into French.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Martian Time-Slip

Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick (Ballantine Books, 1964)

Martian Time-Slip examines the loss of the secure sense of self. I suspect most of Dick’s novels grapple with that subject. This is only the second Dick novel I’ve read and I am willing to acknowledge that this is a significant gap in understanding American science fiction.

The book has the feel of dry, water-rationed, suburban California in the early 1960s, the time and place of its writing. Through the bored housewives and isolated housing, the reader can nearly feel the untrustworthy veneer-thin surfaces of everyday things. Only the native Martians, the Bleekmen, who recall the aborigines of Australia, seem fully rooted in reality.

Housewife Silvia Bohlen uses phenobarbital to ease her dusty, dreary life. Arnie Kotts’ vindictiveness and greed energize him through his day, yet he sees little of what goes on around him. Norbert Steiner, purveyor of nostalgic delicacies from Earth, truffles and caviar, visits his institutionalized autistic son, and then decides to kill himself.

Drugs, alcohol, and too much psychoanalysis (says I, with tongue only partially in cheek) leave these and several other characters vulnerable to the loss of sense of self. Manfred Steiner, the autistic boy, may be experiencing “a derangement in the sense of time,” according to his doctor. The time-slip affects several characters, but Manfred most of all. One particularly horrific dinner party is described in turn by several viewpoint characters, before, during, and after the time the actual party takes place. Some of the characters view the party through a haze of drugs, or hallucinations, or psychotic episodes. The result is powerful and affecting.

A note on the edition: The Library of America has now issued three omnibus collections of Philip K. Dick novels. Jonathan Lethem selected the novels and wrote notes for each volume. Physically, the books are excellent in every way, including a highly readable font. Seek out all three.

A view of Philip K. Dick’s Mars, courtesy of a recent dust storm in Australia.
Philip K. Dick boxed set from The Library of America or Amazon.
Matthew Cheney at Mumpsimus: Dear Library of America...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Collection of Links

Huffington Post has launched a new Books section, with a lead-off column by section editor Amy Hertz, prompting discussion in the science fiction community by Adrienne Martini at Locus Rountable and Niall Harrison at Torque Control.

Charles Stross on “Why I hate Star Trek.” Scripts using “tech the tech” confirm my worst fears about how Star Trek: The Next Generation was written. Stross says, “It's the antithesis of everything I enjoy in an SF novel” and he’s just getting started.

A pair of interesting articles online from the Los Angeles Times:
            The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard. Amusingly, the review dances around the title of the memorable Ballard story about Ronald Reagan, an utterly caustic and painfully prescient little masterpiece. Ballard is sadly underappreciated here in America. This collection is essential for any science fiction aficionado.
      Surprised author Tim Powers finds himself setting sail with “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Apparently the next movie in the Pirates series will be based, at least in part, on Powers’ novel On Stranger Tides (Ace, 1987). The article, by Geoff Boucher, now includes a correction and acknowledgement to yours truly, SF Strangelove, for his one line description of Powers’ novel Declare (William Morrow, 2001).


     At Sci Fi Wire, John Clute weighs in with a review of The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard
     "(H)is genius could almost be defined as a kind of preternatural alertness . . . Ballard seemed almost superhumanly awake to the flavor of the disaster of the world . . . Ballard is the great poet of the belatedness of the uncanny . . . The world is amnesia . . . "
     The nonpareil critic of science fiction, Clute has found a subject to match his wit. 

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books, 2009)

Many wonderful and horrible people, events, and ideas are woven together into this compact novel set in Thailand in a not-so-distant future after the present-day oil-based economy has burned itself out. Humanity’s downward spiral is rendered in all its pain and frustration through a variety of viewpoint characters, against a backdrop of a population that has been ravaged by plague after plague, political upheaval, hunger, and untrustworthy food. Filling the void left by oil is a new calorie-based economy, where muscle power and agricultural production are all that remain to keep humanity fed and industry moving.

The viewpoint characters are variously motivated by patriotism, opportunism, or mere survival. Each, as they pursue their goals, sows the seeds of violence, corruption, and exploitation. The novel is at its best showing characters making choices in moments of desperation, characters such as Hock Seng and the eponymous Emiko, who have been frightened and driven to extremes not just for a day, or for a few days, but year after year.

(From here forward there will be spoilers.)

Hock Seng, an ethnic Chinese by way of Malaya, was once a successful business man. He was traumatized by a revolution in Malaya and the brutal killings of his wives and children. He fled to Thailand (here called the Thai Kingdom) and exists only by sufferance, relegated to Yellow Card status. He manages a kink-spring factory for a foreign owner. Kink springs are wound by human or animal muscle power, capturing the energy for later use like a battery. He embezzles from the kink-spring factory as a matter of course. Because he keeps most of the money intended to bribe port authority officials, crucial new equipment is lost, which dooms the kink-spring factory that is his source of lively hood. Fraught with paranoia, mostly justified as it turns out, Hock Seng stashes his money inside the walls of his tiny apartment while preparing for the worst.

Emiko, the windup girl, is a genetically modified Japanese courtesan, abandoned by her employer when he returned to Japan. She has no documentation to allow her to stay in the Kingdom of Thai, and no means to leave. As a windup, also called the New People, she is considered not quite human and she has no status or rights. She survives as best she can working in a sex club, valued for her exoticism. She is abused on stage for entertainment.

Some readers will feel that the sexual abuse and physical suffering depicted with such intensity in the story is pornographic in nature. I am sympathetic to that point of view, yet I side with the author, who has chosen to show the erosion of our future prospects and the degradation of our environment through its effect on people. We are standing by and we are complicit, while our planet is being abused and ravaged. What better way to make this more immediate to the reader than to provide characters to personify the humiliation?

If this sounds overly serious or unpleasant, I would maintain, instead, that it is unblinking and trenchant. It refuses to let the reader off the hook for the bleak future that we appear to be stumbling headlong toward. The characters that Bacigalupi creates are the necessary intermediaries, making the situation more real seeming and lived in, and by their ability to move forward with their lives, provide an element of grace against dire events.

The masterful extrapolation of the future builds upon the excellent work the author has already done at shorter length in “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man.” Both stories are available in Bacigalupi’s first collection, Pump Six (Night Shade Books, 2008). Emiko recalls, in some ways, “The Fluted Girl” in the same collection.

There is a lot to think about and argue with in this book. The calorie-based future is innovative and well-thought out, and frightening in showing how far technology has narrowed without oil. Agriculture is dominated by large Des Moines-based companies that sell sterile, enhanced seeds throughout the world, where disease-ridden crops fail without the latest tweak to fend off genetic warfare. Long range transportation has regressed to dirigible and clipper ship.

Some issues the author has left for the reader to work out. For instance, how much of Emiko’s willingness to submit to degradation is built into to her artificial nature, how much is the result of the obedience training she received, and how much is simply a practical choice in response to her circumstances?

The ending offers plenty to think about, too. An old genetic scientist comes out of hiding and offers hope for Emiko’s unborn children: a faster, smarter, better people to succeed us.

One apparent oversight: How likely is it that no-one suspects that her windup nature allows Emiko to “over-clock” her speed when in danger, when this must be a significant feature of the windup soldiers referenced in the text? She over-heats quickly, like an over-clocked CPU, limiting the duration of her speed-boost.

So much is done right that there is reason to celebrate. The economics and politics, expressed through the lives of the characters rather than as lectures, open out in ever-more complicated vistas. The fictionalized future Thai Kingdom is full of life, with new sights, sounds, and flavors around every corner. Bacigalupi's first novel, this is easily one of the best science fiction novels of the year.

Links related to The Windup Girl:
Sci Fi Wire review: John Clute
SF Signal review: Jason Sanford
Publisher: Night Shade Books

Friday, October 9, 2009

Why Best Picture Oscars are like a Broken Clock

Academy pick: Titanic (Cameron)
SF Strangelove’s pick: The Sweet Hereafter (Egoyan)

Academy pick: Braveheart (Gibson)
SF Strangelove’s pick: Exotica (Egoyan)

Academy pick: Forrest Gump (Zemeckis)
SF Strangelove’s pick: Heavenly Creatures (Jackson)

Academy pick: Dances with Wolves (Costner)
SF Strangelove’s pick: Goodfellas (Scorsese)

Academy pick: Driving Miss Daisy (Beresford)
SF Strangelove’s pick: Do the Right Thing (Lee)

Academy pick: Out of Africa (Pollack)
SF Strangelove’s pick: Brazil (Gilliam)

Academy pick: Amadeus (Forman)
SF Strangelove’s pick: Stranger Than Paradise (Jarmusch)

Academy pick: Terms of Endearment (Brooks)
SF Strangelove’s pick: The Right Stuff (Kaufman)

Academy pick: Gandhi (Attenborough)
SF Strangelove’s pick: Blade Runner (Scott)

Academy pick: Ordinary People (Redford)
SF Strangelove’s pick: Raging Bull (Scorsese)

Academy pick: Rocky (Avildsen)
SF Strangelove’s pick: Taxi Driver (Scorsese)

Academy pick: Oliver! (Reed)
SF Strangelove’s pick: 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)

Academy pick: My Fair Lady (Cukor)
SF Strangelove’s pick: Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick)

The actual winners listed above are safe, predictable, comforting films. That couldn’t be more different from what I look for in a film. Sure, I want all the usual things: good story, acting, photography, and so on. But I also want to be challenged. I want to be shown something new, something I didn’t know that I was interested in until I saw it. I want to be surprised, not pandered to. That’s why I rarely agree with the Academy’s choice for best picture.

I will admit to doing some cherry picking to emphasize the cluelessness of the Academy. Every Oscar winner listed above is weak, ponderous, seriously flawed, or all three. As my broken-clock reference suggests, it should be apparent that if a worthy film wins the Oscar it is merely an accident.

You will notice that some of my choices are science fiction films (Brazil, Blade Runner, 2001, and Dr. Strangelove), a genre toward which the Academy is not usually generous. Does this reflect poorly on the science fiction films listed? Or on the Academy?

I bring this up since awards and their relevance is a continuing thread on this blog.

Wikipedia’s Academy Award for Best Picture

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Booker prize

The 2009 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, Britain’s most prestigious literary award, went to Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate, 2009) yesterday.

Here is a recap of recent discussion regarding the Booker prize in the science fiction community:

Kim Stanley Robinson takes a poke at the Booker prize judges
“… it seems to me that three or four of the last 10 Booker prizes should have gone to science fiction novels the juries hadn't read. Should I name names? Why not: Air by Geoff Ryman should have won in 2005, Life by Gwyneth Jones in 2004, and Signs of Life by M. John Harrison in 1997. Indeed this year the prize should probably go to a science fiction comedy called Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts.”

This stirred up some dust. Robinson’s New Scientist article, of course, had more to say than that. Among other things, we learn that Virginia Woolf was a fan of Olaf Stapledon in a previously unpublished letter.

Robinson's argument contains three main points:

1. British science fiction is in a golden age. (SF Strangelove says: Yes indeed.)

2. Science fiction is the literature of now. It engages and explores today’s issues in ways that no other fiction does. (SF Strangelove says: Agreed.)

3. It’s a shame that British science fiction writers and their books don’t get respect from the mainstream literary community. (SF Strangelove says: Um, not really. In the long run that blind spot will reflect poorly on the Booker prize rather than on the science fiction novels that the prize overlooks.)

For those who don’t know: Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the greatest American science fiction authors. His work includes: Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, Antarctica, and The Years of Rice and Salt.

Booker prize judges respond
The chair of this year's Booker judges, James Naughtie, admitted that Robinson "may well have a point", but suggested that "perhaps his arrows could be directed even more towards publishers than to judges. ...We judge books that are submitted."

His fellow Booker judge, John Mullan, was less charitable. Full article.

Additional links:
Adam Roberts reacts
The Man Booker Prize coverage
The Man Booker Prize website

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Harry Potter and the Bush Administration

David Langford’s October 2009 issue of Ansible is available and has many fine news items. This one is remarkable:

A former Bush Administration speechwriter's new tell-all book recounts that J.K. Rowling was considered for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but “people in the White House” objected “because the Harry Potter books encouraged witchcraft.” (p. 201, Speechless: Tales of a White House Survivor by Matt Latimer)

The George W. Bush Administration never ceases to amaze.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Red Dust

The worst dust storm in living memory blanketed Sydney, Australia, on September 23. Photos reveal an otherworldly dreamscape in rich tones of orange and gold.

Photos: Tom Coates’ Red Dust gallery and the Red Sydney Project.

Comments at the Red Dust gallery include the phrases “life on Mars” and “post-apocalyptic.” The science-fictional point of view has colored our perceptions.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Reno 2011 site recon

Chris and Steve York have created a fine photo essay mapping out the convention site for the Renovation World Science Fiction Convention, August 17-21, 2011.

Highlights: The party hotel, the Atlantis Hotel and Casino, is attached to the convention center by an enclosed sky bridge. The hotel has several restaurants, a spa, and an indoor pool.

Via Cheryl Morgan’s blog.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Banned Books Week

Books continue to be targeted for removal from schools, bookstores, and libraries in the USA. September 26−October 3, 2009, is Banned Books Week. According to the American Library Association, the 10 most challenged titles in 2008 were:

And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
TTYL; TTFN; L8R, G8R (series) by Lauren Myracle
Scary Stories (series) by Alvin Schwartz
Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Gossip Girl (series) by Cecily von Ziegesar
Uncle Bobby's Wedding by Sarah S. Brannen
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Flashcards of My Life by Charise Mericle Harper

According to the ALA the following authors have also been challenged in banning attempts: F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, Alice Walker, James Joyce, Toni Morrison, William Golding, George Orwell, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Aldous Huxley, etc. Pretty good company, I think.

For more information, here is the Banned Books Week website.

Friday, September 25, 2009

John Crowley's In the Midst of Death

Available now online at Lapham's Quarterly, a John Crowley essay "In the Midst of Death." As with most Crowley, it rewards careful reading and rereading.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Past Master

Past Master by R.A. Lafferty (Ace Books, 1968), published as part of editor Terry Carr’s seminal Ace Science Fiction Specials series.

R.A. Lafferty’s first novel, Past Master, is by turns fascinating and something of a mess. Hundreds of years in the future, the rulers of Astrobe, a world whose utopian ambitions have gone askew, send for a leader from the past to help them through their crisis. A jeremiad against a false utopia, the story is told with great energy, invention, and humor.

The leader they chose is scholar and statesman Thomas More, author of Utopia (1516). Lafferty’s great achievement here is that his portrait of More is a persuasive one. His More is a man of human failings and misconceptions, and, at the same time, bright, commanding and charismatic. Lafferty’s expert use of archaic English adds subtle shadings to his recreation.

More’s concerns, utopianism and Catholicism, are the twin concerns that thread through the novel. Is the impulse toward utopia creative or destructive? Can the Catholic Church endure and remain relevant across the centuries? These questions are explored, yet no easy answers can be expected.

Lafferty gathers together a strong supporting cast of characters and, alas, does little with them. The storytelling sags in the middle. It seems rushed in places and then it is slowed by overlong rants.

There are several marvelous set pieces, chief among them the interstellar journey that brings Thomas More to Astrobe. The problem for science fiction authors attempting to portray interstellar travel is not in coming up with the latest flim-flammery of an idea for an engine, but in convincing the reader that a journey that encompasses vast time and space has occurred. Lafferty's “passage dreams” concept is one of the most successful I have encountered at communicating that entire subjective lifetimes are passing during the journey.

It’s hard to resist interpreting Lafferty’s skepticism of the status quo as particularly relevant to the 1960s, when the book was originally published. Little that has occurred in the years since should diminish our distrust.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Julian Comstock

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles Wilson (Tor, 2009)

Julian Comstock is another in a long line of science fiction novels that superficially are about the future, when they manifestly are about the past. Set more than 100 years after the evocatively named “Efflorescence of Oil” – our era – there are several nods toward the future: global warming has opened the Northwest Passage, a moldering book about ancient moon landings is assumed to be fiction, and a dictatorial American government is based in New York City. These are window dressing. Where were the attempts to transition away from oil dependence? How was it that literacy and books have survived yet so little technical knowledge? The author’s concerns are elsewhere. He has created an interesting setting, but it is an alternate version of the 19th Century rather than the future. Characters travel by horse, coal-fired train, and wooden ship, and frequently speak in archaic 19th Century formulations.

The story is narrated, years later, in the first person by Adam Hazzard, a friend of Julian Comstock from their teen-aged years forward. Adam introduces Julian as a young man who will shape historic events. Adam, presented as overly naïve about the world, is a great fan of boys' adventure novels, especially those written by a contemporary Oliver Optic or Horatio Alger-like figure (19th Century again), and he hopes to one-day write the same sort of adventure novels himself. His version of the life of Julian Comstock, which actually focuses much more on the narrator’s life, is told in something approaching the style of a boy’s adventure novel, with an occasional layer of self-awareness.

Much of what follows keeps mostly to the boy’s adventure mode, as Adam and Julian escape military conscription, run away, get conscripted anyway, endure military life, and survive battles on land (fought in 19th Century manner), and sea (in 19th Century naval style) against the Dutch in Labrador. The battles and field hospital scenes become grittier and bloodier as the story progresses, intentionally subverting the boy’s adventure tone. Still, Adam remains relentlessly upbeat and optimistic, in near-parody of boy’s adventure mode, in the face of experiences, particularly in the field hospital where he participates in 19th Century-era treatment, that could be expected to be life changing.

Adam has many adventures on his own, apart from Julian, and on one of these he meets and immediately idolizes a young woman. In boy’s adventure mode, Adam has no notion of who the woman is, or what love is, and yet he is utterly devoted to her. As the author makes clear, Calyxa, the object of his desire, is more politically aware, more widely read, and more calculating than Adam. She deliberately and unscrupulously puts him in danger, and Adam welcomes it as a chance to prove himself to her. He rescues her not once, but twice. Yet, why she should consent to marry him, and eventually bear him a child, is less clear to me.

Julian Comstock is another character depicted in multiple layers, so that the reader sees that he is both more and less than his friend Adam believes him to be. Julian is the exiled nephew of the current President of the United States, Deklan Comstock. Deklan had Julian’s war-hero father was put to death years before, because he was too popular and he was becoming a threat to Deklan’s presidency. Julian, conscripted into the army under a false name, proves himself in battle and becomes popular with the soldiers and, through his friend Adam, with the public. Adam, the budding writer, documents Julian’s accomplishments in flashy boy’s adventure style. Unknown to Adam, the battlefield journalist who is supposedly helping him refine his writing craft gathers Adam’s work together, has it published, and Julian’s exploits become a bestseller. When Julian’s identity as a Comstock is revealed, Deklan promotes him to general and sends Julian to lead an attack in the north, hopelessly under-supplied and under-supported, to guarantee Julian’s failure. Julian and Adam endure a lengthy deadlocked siege in the north, while in New York, Deklan’s presidency unravels and he is deposed. This leads to an excellent scene where Julian, recovering from his wounds in a field hospital, is horrified to learn that he has been named the new president. He is temporarily unable to speak, due to his wounds, and Adam must speak for Julian as Julian madly scribbles with paper and pencil. Adam speaking for Julian, interpreting Julian for the public, is a recurring theme and presumably the reason the narrator is telling this tale.

Julian’s short presidency is not a happy one, as we learn indirectly through Adam’s narration. Adam's concerns, indeed Julian’s concerns, are elsewhere: Adam with his new wife and child, Julian with his ambition, oddly enough, to create a silent film about the life a Charles Darwin. Julian busies himself with a script, and hiring a director and cast. At the same time he attempts a number of ambitious legislative reforms with less than his full attention.

Julian’s interest in film and in Charles Darwin is established early on. With access to forbidden books from the age of the Efflorescence of Oil, Julian has taught himself some science. These books are banned by the conservative Dominion, a tightly controlled league of churches (Dominion Catholic, Dominion Episcopal, Dominion Baptist, etc.), which certifies churches, publication of books, and much else, too. Adam was raised in an uncertified snake-handling church, which made his family outsiders in the village where he grew up. The reader learns little about this snake-handling church, which I think is a missed opportunity. Adam is shocked to discover that another, minor character is a Jew. Judaism, also, is outside of Dominion certification. As with the snake-handling church, we learn little about how Judaism survives and integrates into society, which is another missed opportunity. We meet a Dominion elder, Deacon Hollingshead. Unfortunately, he becomes a rather simplified villain of the boy’s adventure sort. Julian uses the powers of his office to try to break the hold that the Dominion has on knowledge and education, and reduce Dominion influence in general. His film about Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution is part of this strategy. Adam simply looks on as his friend Julian misuses power, taking rash and ruthless action, including ordering executions and having heads put on spikes.

The narrator’s upbeat voice is substantially different from other Robert Charles Wilson novels I have read (Spin, Blind Lake, Chronoliths), which feature conflicted main characters, with lifetimes full of doubts and insecurities. In Julian Comstock, Wilson uses the credulous worldview of the boy’s adventure story, then undercuts it from time to time to give the reader a dose of harsh reality. It’s less consistent than, say, Voltaire, who in Candide mocks Pangloss’ optimism at every turn. The nostalgic 19th Century is combined with a forbidding 22nd Century setting, and the two don’t quite mesh. The resulting dissonance is interesting, but doesn’t fully resolve into a satisfying voice or story.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Toward Better Hugo Award Winners

As I have hinted in a couple recent posts (here and here) the Hugo Awards for fiction presented a month ago at Anticipation in Montreal, were a bit of a disappointment, and it’s far from the first year this has been true. In the four fiction categories only one Hugo went to a story that got my top vote (Best Short Story: “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang). None of the weakest nominees won, which perhaps is some consolation.

The final less-than-best result is foreordained by a nomination process that year-after-year places too many mediocre stories on the ballot. The process: whoever purchases a supporting or attending membership in the annual World Science Fiction Convention is eligible to vote twice, both nominations and final ballot, provided they bought their membership early. Why doesn’t it work? What would work better? I am open to suggestions. Hopefully the science fiction community is open to suggestions.

The problem has been expounded by Adam Roberts (Dear Science Fiction Fandom: Your shortlists aren’t very good) and Abigail Nussbaum (The 2009 Hugo Awards: The Best Novel Shortlist, Part 1 and Part 2).

Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Tiny Feast

This week’s Torque Control short story club story is “A Tiny Feast” by Chris Adrian:

The dual layers of “A Tiny Feast” work well: ordinary world and faerie, mortality and immortality, emotional vulnerability and aloofness. As I read this the two layers overlap and merge and shift focus. On the surface, the king and queen of faerie are humbled by unfamiliar human emotions of grief and helplessness over their dying adopted son. Underneath (which is cleverly presented as the false glamour that the faeries project) is an ordinary self-involved yuppie couple whose bland lives are made magnificent by their emotional turmoil and grief. The effect is transient in both layers of reality.

The writing only hiccupped twice for me:

“Within a few days, the poisons had made him peaceful. Titania could not conceive of the way they were made, except as distillations of sadness and heartbreak and despair, since that was how she made her own poisons, shaking drops of terror out of a wren captured in her fist, or sucking with a silver straw at the tears of a dog.”

This was distracting, in an “oh, the author is showing off” reaction. On reflection it added to the story.

“Titania was the only one among them ever to have ridden on a roller coaster, but she didn’t offer up the experience as an analogy, because it seemed insufficient to describe a process that to her felt less like a violent unpredictable ride than like someone ripping your heart out one day and then stuffing it back in your chest the next.”

This didn’t work and came across as a writer’s intrusion. I can’t really imagine Titania, or her ordinary equivalent, pondering word choice like a writer.

Overall: strong concept, strong execution, strong emotional payoff. Very fine indeed.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Small press listing

Down on the left-hand column I have added a list of links called “SF Small Press.” It’s a brief list of small publishers that have surprised and delighted me with new books. It’s a varied list: some publish reprint material long unavailable, some focus on new work; some are widely distributed, some you just have to know about; some offer new titles every month, some just one or two a year.

One category of books that mainstream science fiction publishers have largely abandoned is single-author collections, presumably because they don’t sell well enough. Since many writers do their best work at shorter lengths, their collections are often more rewarding than a shelf full of novels. The small presses offer all kinds of books, to be sure, and many wonderful discoveries, but if you want to find single-author collections there is no better place to look.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Night Shade Books


A pretty good haul in today’s mail. These are all titles from the excellent small publisher Night Shade Books. The surprise of the bunch? Paolo Bacigalupi’s first novel, The Windup Girl, which isn’t officially due out until September 15. Bacigalupi is a new writer to watch. His short fiction has been nominated for numerous awards in recent years. (“The Gambler” was my choice to win the best novelette Hugo a few weeks ago at Anticipation in Montreal.) His first collection of short fiction, Pump Six and Other Stories from Night Shade Books, was one of the must-have books of 2008.

I can’t pretend these are review copies, since this blog is new and traffic is low. I bought them and they are free, sort of. A few years back I bought a lifetime subscription to Night Shade Books, which I figure has paid for itself. So they are almost free. And, since I will be reviewing some of them on this blog, Night Shade Books gets a little extra mileage, too.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Early influences

At the Locus Roundtable, Adrienne Martini asks what title pulled you into the science fiction and fantasy genre and what made you stay?

I’ll take the opportunity to get nostalgic:

My earliest memories include reading (or being read to) Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales (1852), a rewriting of Greek myths, and Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories (1902). These remain some of the greatest fables for young readers I have encountered. There was a volume of tales about Robin Hood for young readers, which edition I don’t know.

I have very clear memories of my father reading C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950), to me and my older brother at bedtime, when I was age five or six, and how desperate we were for each new chapter. A couple years later, my grandmother brought us Turkish Delight and we finally tasted the exotic treat with which Edmund had been tempted.

At age 11, I borrowed Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man (1951), which my brother had been reading. I enjoyed it, even though parts of it were a bit too scary.

When I was 13, a friend at school recommended a book he had found in the school library, Robert Silverberg’s The Gate of Worlds (1967), which is perhaps Silverberg’s best young adult book, and remains overlooked by many, I believe.

That same year, over dinner, my mother (who had been a science fiction fan since long before I was born) and brother discussed a book they were both reading. It was about a desert planet, giant sandworms, and a mysterious drug called “spice” that was in all the food and turned the whites of people’s eyes blue. I borrowed it next, even though Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) was larger in scope and scale than anything I had read before. After that I was off to the races, reading voraciously.

Please add your own early reading memories in the comments here, or at the Locus Roundtable.

District 9

District 9 (TriStar Pictures)
Director: Neill Blomkamp; writers: Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell.

There will be major spoilers.

The best thing about District 9 is purely visual: the haunting image of a huge spacecraft hanging over the city of Johannesburg. It's a nearly constant presence in the film, visible from the city and from open fields -- an enormous enigmatic sign that something is about to happen.

The background for the story, which we learn in a rather ham-handed infodump in the form of a faux documentary, is that 20 years ago a huge alien spaceship arrived and parked itself over Johannesburg and did nothing. Humans went up to the ship in helicopters, cut through the bulkheads and found about a million starving “prawns,” a nickname the aliens were given due to their appearance. These alien refugees were then ferried to Earth, forming a large shantytown encampment of prawns, called District 9, located outside of Johannesburg.

The story resumes at the 20 year mark, as our main character, the overly naïve Wikus (played by relatively unknown actor Sharlto Copley) is put in charge of the forced relocation of the prawn population, which has doubled, to a location more distant from Johannesburg (echoing the forced removal of non-whites from District 6 of Cape Town during apartheid).

Predictably, the relocation effort goes badly. Wikus meets a prawn named Christopher Johnson, a name presumably imposed on the prawn by humans, and is accidentally exposed to a mysterious black liquid, which is potent alien technology and biologically active. Over the course of the remainder of the movie Wikus gradually transforms from human to prawn. He forms an uneasy alliance with the prawn, Christopher. If Wikus will help Christopher retrieve the tube of black liquid from the evil corporation that has confiscated it, Christopher will reverse Wikus transformation, returning him to his human form. Their plan, of course, does not work out exactly as they intend.

Much about this movie is quite likeable: it’s energetic, fun, and it has a sense of humor. There is an amusing bit about the alien prawn’s appetite for cans of cat food. One benefit of Wikus’ transformation is that he is able to use prawn weapons, which only fire when used by prawn. (Science fiction readers will recall guns that only fire when certain conditions are met in “The Weapon Shop” by A.E. van Vogt (1942).)

Unfortunately, the story becomes mired in some cliché movie components: the already mentioned evil corporation, violent private-contractor militia, violent Nigerians, and way too much shoot ’em up, blood, and car crashes. Instead of wasting time with these tired movie elements, the story could have developed along more interesting lines, telling us more about alien culture and history, and perhaps more about Wikus’ relationship with his wife. There was a third act waiting to be written, which had to do with story, rather than chases and guns.

Some mainstream reviews praise this movie for its originality and its ability to use science fiction to comment on present day social issues. This is rather more revealing about the reviewers than the movie. If we skip published science fiction and stay just with movies, Alien Nation (directed by Graham Baker, 1988), depicted stranded aliens who become a crime-ridden underclass in Los Angeles. The aliens were assigned human names. Alien Nation later became a television series, followed by several TV movies. The TV show X-Files made recurring use of a mysterious black liquid, and returned frequently to a continuing story line that included human-alien hybrids. The TV series was followed by two feature films.

District 9 doesn’t answer some basic questions:
1. The alien weaponry shown is rather large and hard to hide. Why wasn’t it confiscated long ago?

2. If there was an alien ship within reach, wouldn’t it have been teeming with human scientists and engineers trying to figure it out? Or scrap metal dealers taking it apart? After 20 years would there be anything left?

3. All the characters behave as if the huge ship is dormant, but how could it be? Vast energies would be required for it to maintain its position. Geosynchronous orbit (staying above the same spot on Earth with no further expenditure of energy) requires a height of 22,000 miles.

Blomkamp, like Duncan Jones, the director of Moon, is making his feature film directing debut, and they both show great potential.

Edit: After a friend and I went to see District 9, we decided to get some dinner. My friend remarked that he would not be having anything with shrimp.

Second edit: There’s an interesting review of District 9 by science fiction authors Howard Waldop and Lawrence Person at Locus Online.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Moon (Sony Pictures Classics)
Director: Duncan Jones; writers: Duncan Jones (original story), Nathan Parker (screenplay).

There will be major spoilers.

Moon is claustrophobic, set almost entirely within small living quarters on the moon. Sam Rockwell does quite well as the lonely lunar mine operator (the character is also named Sam) who has committed to a three-year contract. He is accompanied, for much of the movie, only by a computer intelligence, Gerty, voiced by Kevin Spacey. The situation and the sets recall such films as Kubrick’s 2001 (1968) and Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972).

The movie turns on Sam unraveling how he has been deceived about his situation. The pace may be slow for some viewers, but I found it quite involving. As Sam reveals the multiple layers of deception, we get an unusually strong and multilayered character study of Sam. The central conceit of the story, that Sam doesn't know he is a clone, is a bit of a letdown, since the novelty of clones as a science fiction plot device wore off decades ago. Still, it gives Sam Rockwell an opportunity to play versions of the same character interacting with each other and he does wonderfully. The clones age quickly, making it easy for the audience to keep track of who is who.

The film successfully creates a sense of mystery about Sam’s situation. The visuals, both inside and outside the living quarters, while not extravagant, are quite convincing. Gerty, the computer, is oddly the most empathetic character, even while limited to a very simple range of smiley-face emotions it can display on its screen. By the end of the film Sam (and the audience) is hanging on Gerty’s every smiley-face or frowny-face reaction.

The audience is left with some rather important questions: Why is it better to have dozens of short-lived clones in storage for serial use instead of regular workers? Why should the mining company lie to the clones instead of being honest about the situation? Surely there are comparable lonely jobs on Earth that people perform without being deceived.

Moon is Jones' feature film directing debut, and it suggests a promising future.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Listing the Best of Recent Fantasy Novels

Over at the Locus Roundtable, Graham Sleight has offered a list of the best, recent, adult, literary, fantasy novels:

Wise Children, Angela Carter
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke
Little, Big, John Crowley
Coraline, Neil Gaiman
Ash, Mary Gentle
Perdido Street Station, China Mieville
The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers

To winnow the list:
1. Wise Children -- I can't comment because I haven't read it.
2. Coraline -- I found this to be well-written, yet superficial. It hasn't made a lasting impression on me. Also, since Graham Sleight specifically describes his list as adult books rather than books for younger readers, this doesn't really fit.
3. Perdido Street Station -- This is uneven work. It seems to me to belong more to the horror genre.
4. The Anubis Gates -- A madcap, gonzo, roller-coaster of a book. It's quite good, however Powers has written better since this. I would substitute Declare, except it, too, belongs more in the horror genre.

That leaves:
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke
Little, Big, John Crowley
Ash, Mary Gentle

We are in agreement that these three are among the core works of fantasy in recent years. Each is an exemplar of fantasy world-building, and each creates worlds within worlds, or perhaps layers of worlds. Each is challenging and rewards re-reading.

I would add to this list Paul Park's Great Roumania quartet, a single novel published in four parts: A Princess of Roumania, The Tourmaline, The White Tyger, The Hidden World. (I suspect the total word count is similar to Ash or Perdido Street Station or Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.) An argument could be made that Park's Great Roumania is a work for young readers -- it certainly starts in a YA mode. It quickly moves beyond that and adults will find it just as challenging and rewarding as the other three on the list.

Friday, August 14, 2009


Anathem by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow, 2008)

This was my top choice among the nominees for best novel at the recent Hugo awards, announced at Anticipation in Montreal. According to the voting breakdown, Anathem finished third.

Anathem is not principally about story or ideas, although it contains plenty of both. The brilliant laser-focus is on process: how to reason, how to argue, how to integrate ideas, and when thought should lead to action.

Stephenson posits an alternate Earth, similar in many ways to our own. His mind-boggling achievement in science-fictional world-building is that he has recapitulated, in large part, Western philosophy and thought in a skewed alternate presentation that allows the reader to see it fresh. This is a hugely ambitious novel (and huge physically: the hardback is over 900 pages).

The story, for most of its duration, is set in a “math,” which is a hybrid of a college and a monastery. The book is mostly static, devoted to talking-heads. But what conversation! The characters discuss what they’ve learned, and integrate new events and concepts, covering great swaths of philosophy, math, and science.

Shaking up their understanding of the universe, and how they think their thoughts about the universe, is that great recurring theme of science fiction: first contact with aliens. The action, when it arrives two-thirds through the book, is involving and satisfying.

Realistically, there are some barriers to enjoyment of this novel: it’s huge, it’s people talking about abstract ideas, it’s not character driven, and for two-thirds of its length it’s not plot driven. For me, the only one of these that actually proves to be a drawback is that some of the characters are a little flat and various relationships move in directions that should have more emotional resonance than they do. There are some memorable characters, particularly Orolo and Jad. Another possible barrier is Stephenson's propensity for using invented terms, many of which are interesting and clever, and some of which are merely placeholders for equivalent terms. I fell head-over-heels for his term for someone who believes in Heaven and God: Deolater.

Despite these drawbacks, which are significant, this book is an amazing accomplishment. The strengths and weaknesses recall Isaac Asimov, who filled many novels with talking heads, and gave little consideration to depth of characterization. Stephenson seems well-prepared to take up the Asimovian mantle of the great explainer of concepts and ideas.