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).