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.