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.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Graveyard Book

The Hugo Award for best novel was given out this past weekend to The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008). I should say up front that it wasn’t my top choice. I was a voting member, even though I didn’t attend Anticipation in Montreal, and my top vote went to another novel. Still, The Graveyard Book is a fine book, and already the winner of the Newbery Medal.

It’s a variation on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894), in which a boy, Mowgli, is raised by the animals of the jungle. In Gaiman’s book, a boy, Nobody Owens, is raised by the undead denizens of a graveyard.

Gaiman hits all the notes you might expect: the threat of death from both earthly and supernatural causes, an amusingly off-kilter education, a touch of childhood romance, an array of charming characters, growth and change, and a nudge out the door toward adulthood. It’s well done throughout.

For me it was spoiled a bit by Gaiman himself. The anthology Wizards edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois (Berkley Books, 2007), led off with “The Witch’s Headstone” by Gaiman, which would later become a chapter in the novel. This was one of the strongest novelettes of the year and it won the Locus Award. It drops the reader immediately into the setting of The Graveyard Book and offers most of the pleasures of that novel in a more compact and intense experience. Next to “The Witch’s Headstone,” the novel’s many digressions and side-trips seem flabby and a bit hollow. The Graveyard Book is a short novel, but after “The Witch’s Headstone” it seems overlong.

The Graveyard Book is the sort of book that lends itself to visual interpretation. The edition in front of me has a generous number of excellent illustrations by Dave McKean. I am not surprised to learn that it’s been picked up for a film. In the fantasy and science fiction genre, Gaiman is on a pace to rival Philip K. Dick for the most film adaptations of his work.

I’ll discuss the novel I did vote for in another post (follow here).

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

More on Mindfulness

To follow up on the From Mindblowing to Mindfulness post here a couple days ago, I guess I was assuming too much. Mindfulness to me means informing yourself about the issue: to be conscious and aware and informed enough to make useful decisions about diversity when editing an anthology of science fiction stories.

K. Tempest Bradford has weighed in with a thoughtful post Creating Better Magazines (and Anthologies) on A brief excerpt:

The magazines and anthologies that I love tend to have editors who have taken the time to examine themselves or their culture, to expend their knowledge of other people and ways of being, to open their minds. These magazines and anthologies contain far more stories I want to read by authors of many varied backgrounds.

In the comments Daniel Abraham wrote (excerpt):

What I hear you saying (and I may have misunderstood) is … Editors must -- in essence -- become better people. It's an impossible point to disagree with. Who could be against becoming a better person? But then I feel you leave them with no clear idea how to accomplish that. Without concrete, specific requests, it seems to me we put them in an impossible position.

To which I replied (too flippantly):

I can think of a concrete action: simply being mindful of diversity (women, people of color, LGBT, pick your issue). If an editor allows these thoughts to pass across their brain cells, it would seem unlikely to me that an anthology of all-white, all-male authors would result.

Daniel Abraham:

With all respect, I think "be mindful" is also too vague to be much use. Can you imagine anyone saying "No, I prefer to be less mindful"? I'm afraid it's too much like "change how you think"?

K. Tempest Bradford had this useful response:

Daniel Abraham, others have given good suggestions along the lines of what i would have, but I'll confess that i thought I was being pretty clear on what actions could be taken to rectify this. But then, I did a bad thing in assuming that what is clear to me will be clear to others -- I have these kinds of conversations all the time, and other people whose activism intersect with mine probably grokked me easily. Not so with people like yourself who are looking to take that next step but are unsure what the next step is.

There are many ways to start, but I think a big one is talking to people who are willing to clue one in. Asking friends, friends of friends, prominent authors, other editors, about what authors you're not aware of because they fall outside of your comfort zones. Ask for names, lists of books or stories, ask for people to tell you why this or that author is someone you should pay attention to.

There are even groups within the community dedicated to raising awareness about marginalized groups of writers. The Carl Brandon Society, Broad Universe. Both of these groups have websites, mailing lists, very outspoken members that attend conventions, blogs, you name it. Though it can be tiring for folks to be in I Will Educate You mode, the people at the forefront of these particular organizations are in those positions because they are willing to do that educating.

Carl Brandon Society
Broad Universe

Monday, August 10, 2009

2009 Hugo Awards

The 2009 Hugo Award Winners were announced last night in Montreal. Here are the fiction winners:

Best Novel: The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins; Bloomsbury UK)
Best Novella: “The Erdmann Nexus,” Nancy Kress (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2008)
Best Novelette: “Shoggoths in Bloom,” Elizabeth Bear (Asimov’s March 2008)
Best Short Story: “Exhalation,” Ted Chiang (Eclipse Two)

A pretty respectable result. I'll save my critique for another post. Here is the complete list of winners.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Reno in 2011

It’s official: the 2011 World Science Fiction Convention will be held in Reno, Nevada. Renovation will run from August 17-21, 2011 at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center. Renovation guests of honor: Tim Powers, Ellen Asher, Boris Vallejo, and the late Charles N. Brown.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Next Best Thing to Being There

Perhaps like me, you weren’t able to go the 2009 World Science Fiction Convention, Anticipation, now underway in Montreal. You can stay in touch.

Convention Reporter is doing an excellent job of aggregating links to people reporting from the convention, with interesting photos, interviews, etc. has video of the History of Tor panel.

The popular new technology of the convention appears to be Twitter. Useful search terms are #worldcon, #worldcon09, or #anticipationsf. Or you can search all three at once with this link. I expect to hear of a panel moderator who reviews and accepts questions via Twitter for discussion in real-time.

From Mindblowing to Mindfulness

When the table of contents of a forthcoming anthology, The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF edited by Mike Ashley, was posted online people commented that none of the authors were women or people of color. Yes, that’s a problem. I’d like to offer a possible new direction.

Years ago, I did some hiring at a certain university in California, and whenever we had a job opening I would receive a letter from the university's diversity officer asking me to be mindful of the gender and racial diversity of our employees. The letter was a welcome reminder for me and it caused me to take stock of how well the people under my supervision reflected the diversity of the pool of applicants and the general population.

Selecting stories for an anthology isn’t exactly the same as hiring employees, but I hope we can agree that consideration of diversity applies to both. What if, whenever an editor announces that an anthology is open for submissions, the SFWA diversity officer sent the editor an email reminder to be mindful of the gender and racial diversity of the authors? What’s that you say? SFWA (new redesigned website) doesn’t have a diversity officer? Perhaps that would be the place to start.


Sf Signal: the Mindblowing table of contents followed by many interesting and/or ill-considered comments.

Angry Black Woman: an intelligent and funny, if overly caustic, dissection of one of the comments on the SF Signal thread. a thoughtful post on the topic and many more comments

Or All the Seas with Oysters

“Or All the Seas with Oysters” by Avram Davidson, originally appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction, May 1958.

Summer reading is comfort reading and it can be a good time to revisit old favorites. This is probably Avram Davidson’s most well-known story. It won a Hugo Award for best short story.

Oscar and Ferd run a bike shop. Oscar is a beer drinking, skirt-chasing, outgoing fellow, and Ferd is a bookish nerd, before the word was invented. Ferd discovers what he calls “false friends,” creatures using mimicry, living in the bike shop. There is a pupa stage, a larval stage, and an adult stage. The story is delightful, compact, and a touch mordant. Well worth looking up.

One of the wonderful things about this story is that if you encounter someone else who has read it, all you have to say is: safety pins, hangers, and bicycles.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Doctor is In

You are reading the first post on this blog. The focus will be primarily on written science fiction. To a lesser extent it will touch on the fantasy genre, sf movies, conventions, and anything else related the science fiction genre or community. If there is such a thing as a science-fictional way of looking at the world, this blog will attempt to see through sf-tinted glasses.