Monday, June 21, 2010

"A Wild and a Wicked Youth" by Ellen Kushner

A "coming of age" fantasy, it feels a little like a story ticking items off a checklist: Here we learn that Richard is fabulously agile and has an unusually developed sense of balance. Here he meets a broken-down old swordsman who will, over the course of years, teach him about swordsmanship. Here is a homosexual encounter. Here is Richard's first public display of his early mastery of the sword. Here is his first heterosexual encounter.

That makes it sound overly routine. Instead, it is quite fine. It takes place within the author's "Riverside" series of novels and short fiction. I haven't read any of this series before. Now, I would like to.

"A Wild and a Wicked Youth" by Ellen Kushner originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, April/May 2009.

Related post: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Four, table of contents

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Ferryman by Margo Lanagan

A gem of a story, told in evocative prose, it is a literalization of the ferryman of the River Styx. To bring the ferryman his lunch, his daughter, Sharon (which I don't think rhymes with Charon, but nevermind), descends a dark stairway while singing. This is excellent throughout. My minor protest is that the story seems too hermetically sealed. I wondered what might be visible outside the windows of Sharon's house.

"Ferryman" by Margo Lanagan first appeared in the anthology Firebirds Soaring (Firebird-Penguin, 2009) edited by Sharyn November.

Related post: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Four, table of contents

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Island by Peter Watts

There is a struggle for survival both inside and outside the starship. Inside the ship the human crew contends with Chimp, the artificial intelligence that runs the ship. Outside, a vast alien "island" must negotiate for its own existence. Watts story is rigorous and bleak and easily one of the best science fiction novelettes of the year. It is a finalist for the upcoming Hugo awards.

Coincidentally, I was listening today to the Notes from Coode Street podcast, Episode 6: Live with Gary K. Wolfe, where Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan were discussing "The Island." They were drawing a distinction between the kinds of stories that work and don't work as good introductions to the genre for non-science fiction readers, and they both agreed that "The Island" was an example of a story that would not be easily understood by non-science fiction readers. I can see their point, to an extent. I think "The Island" asks a lot of a reader who is not familiar with standard tropes of science fiction. Still, this is exactly the challenging material that I would want a non-sf reader to engage with. This is science fiction at its best and its most rewarding.

"The Island" by Peter Watts first appeared in The New Space Opera 2 (Eos-HarperCollins, 2009) edited by Gardner Dozois and Strahan.

Related post: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Four, table of contents

Thursday, June 10, 2010

On the Nature of Story

Alien eye-stalk
First in an open-ended series.

What is it we do when we read science fiction? What is it we do when we write science fiction? What is the nature of story?

Story, it has been said, is a way of organizing life experience. Story is remembering. Sometimes, as with Gene Wolfe, story is explicitly ordered by the function of memory.

Story imposes order on incident for the purpose of gathering meaning. If too much order is imposed the story becomes rigid and artificial. If there is too little order the story becomes formless and incoherent. There is a magical middle ground between order and chaos that replicates life. Or at least it replicates the way we perceive life in our story-based view of the world.

Does that mean that story is a valid way of processing information about the world, or more valid than some other way? Not at all. It happens to be the most accessible way that humans process perception of the world, and prior to the emergence of math and science it was the only way.

I had been noodling around some of these ideas when I read Graham Sleight article, Excellent Foppery, which he gave as a talk at Readercon 2009. It is about habits of human cognition and touches on Shakespeare, Wolfe, James Wood, Breughel, and more, and you should go read it. Sleight manages to make more sense than what I wrote above.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Night Cache by Andy Duncan

"The Night Cache" is a love story. While working at Yarns Ignoble bookstore, Jenny and Destiny have a "meet-cute" moment. They share an interest in scary old movies, ciphers, and geocaching. They become lovers. Tragedy intervenes. The story is told sweetly, with a charming sense of humor and a wonderful ear for dialog. It left me wanting more.

"The Night Cache" by Andy Duncan first appeared as The Night Cache (PS Publishing, 2009) by Andy Duncan.  This novelette was produced in an excellent hardback edition from the estimable small press PS Publishing. Having that edition at hand, I can say it is worth getting a copy. PS Publishing produces remarkable books year after year. Please see the "SF Small Press" list of links at the right for this and other small publishers that deserve your attention.

Related post: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Four, table of contents

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

William Gibson's Top Ten SF Novels

William Gibson (his new novel, Zero History, is expected this September) has chosen his top ten science fiction novels:

  • Tiger! Tiger! (The Stars My Destination) (1956) by Alfred Bester
  • The Crystal World (1966) by J.G. Ballard
  • Pavane (1968) by Keith Roberts
  • 334 (1972) by Thomas M. Disch
  • The Forever War (1974) by Joe Haldeman
  • Dhalgren (1975) by Samuel R. Delany
  • Arslan (1976) by M.J. Engh
  • Great Work of Time (1991) by John Crowley
  • Random Acts of Senseless Violence (1993) by Jack Womack
  • Holy Fire (1996) by Bruce Sterling

This is an exceptional list. If you google "top ten science fiction novels" you'll get some pretty low-grade results. Gibson's list looks even better by comparison. Note Gibson's parameters: novels only and the time frame is 1956 to 1996. I've read eight of the ten (not the Ballard or Womack), but I know enough about those two novels to respect their inclusion. I could argue with some of the choices. The list is short on women (Mary Jane Engh is on her own). I would add Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974). If there's only one novel from the 1950s I might favor Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human (1953), but I will concede that the Bester novel is just as important. For Crowley, I might have gone with Engine Summer (1979); or for Sterling, I might have chosen Schismatrix (1985). These are minor quibbles. I might have to go back and re-read Great Work of Time. Holy Fire is a favorite of mine and it is probably Sterling's most accomplished novel, but Schismatrix was the first Sterling novel I read and sometimes it is hard to separate my person experience of a novel from my critical view of a novel.

Be sure to read Gibson's brief commentary on each title on his list.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Three Twilight Tales by Jo Walton

These three very short linked stories are a delight. There is nothing particularly original or innovative about them. They are fantasy in a rural, medieval mold that is familiar to genre readers. By turn they concern a man made of magic, a peddler, and a king. They are slight, yet they are well done. The passage describing the items on the mantelpiece of the village pub has more wonder and stories within stories than many longer works achieve.

"Three Twilight Tales" by Jo Walton first appeared in the anthology Firebirds Soaring (Firebird-Penguin, 2009) edited by Sharyn November.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
Boneshaker (Tor Books, 2009) by Cherie Priest is composed of interesting parts: airships, zombies, a new drug, an 1870s Seattle locale, and a fraught mother-son relationship. Each piece works pretty well. It does not, alas, add up to more than the sum of its parts. If the reader is new to the genre, and this novel appears to be marketed to the young adult audience, then the reader may be satisfied. For those of us who have read about airships or zombies before, we might have hoped for something more. For instance, the mother-son relationship might have had a little more depth to it. In fact, they rarely occupy the same scene.

The mother, Briar, spends most of the book searching for her missing son inside the walled, zombie-infested remains of Seattle. She is appealing and entertaining, which makes it all the more painful when the author pointedly tries to mislead the reader about Briar's relationship with the evil Dr. Minnericht. An important conversation between the two characters makes little sense after revelations late in the story.

A colorful cast of characters are brave or crazy enough to live inside the walled section of Seattle. They are there because the poison gas that created the zombies can be distilled into a profitable, addictive, and illicit drug. The problem is that we are shown that no-one needs to live inside the wall to harvest the gas. Airships can scoop up the gas without ever touching down. Why, then, would anyone choose to live there?

Boneshaker is an enjoyable, action-oriented read, and it is a finalist for the upcoming Hugo awards. It probably won't get my top vote for the Hugo for best novel, but that is the subject of another post.

Friday, June 4, 2010

It Takes Two by Nicola Griffith

Nicola Griffith’s story treats gender and sexual behavior in an intelligent manner. It is stylishly written, moves well, and has a good resolution. Unfortunately, I didn’t believe it for a moment. The internal logic of the story demands that the main character, Cody, would allow herself to be the subject of experimental modification of her personality and behavior in order to sign a client. I didn’t buy it. There is nothing to suggest that Cody is reckless. This problem is doubled by the fact that another woman has to be brought into the scheme and convinced to undergo the same experimental personality modification. Even more damaging to the logic of the story, Cody and her friend Richard, both believe they know exactly what the client’s reaction will be when Cody displays the behavior she is programmed to perform. I didn’t buy that either. Real people (as opposed to abstract characters used to advance the plot) behave in unexpected ways. Even if the client has a fantasy about witnessing a public display of sexuality, when his fantasy becomes reality his reaction could be strongly negative. A very interesting story where the internal logic didn't hold up.

"It Takes Two" by Nicola Griffith originally appeared in Eclipse Three (Night Shade Books, 2009) edited by Jonathan Strahan.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Lost: A Look Back

Lost represented the triumph of appealing characters and fine acting over an incoherent story. What kept me coming back for six seasons certainly wasn't the multitude of never-explained mysteries or the numerous plot-lines that were dropped by the writers like hot potatoes. If this had been a written work, rather than television, I would have abandoned it long ago, and I suspect most of the audience would have done likewise. As a visual medium, it revolved around the people. Lost had a large cast of well-chosen actors and they sold this unhinged, rudderless story. Long after I had given up hope that the writers knew what they were doing, or that the story would make a lick of sense, I kept watching. As the end of the series approached the question became: how bad would this train-wreck be?

Lost should be a case study in why a room full of writers should not be asked to produce long-form narrative. If Lost had been episodic, with discrete hour-long stories, no problem. Whoever had the initial vision for the show -- J.J. Abrams presumably -- apparently left the writers on their own sometime during the first season ("See ya, losers!"), and the writers were left to tread water ever since. Lost is what happens when a story is written by committee.

Compare other television series: Twin Peaks or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which represented the singular vision of their creators. Love them or hate them, those two shows are examples of originality and strong creative leadership. Lost had no such integrity, no guiding vision.

The final season was especially disappointing, focused as it was on the simplistic good versus evil story of Jacob and the smoke monster, yin versus yang, light versus dark, weighed down with heavy amounts of Christian imagery. After seasons with more interesting conflicts, to end up where the story did was both trite and dull. Where were the days when Jack and Locke argued about the guiding principles of faith and science? When was Ben, easily the most compelling antagonist the show had to offer, last actually a factor in the story? As a substitute for Ben, the smoke monster was not nearly as interesting. When were the mysteries of the island last intriguing and dangerous? When did the show last have a sense of humor? Not during the last season.

The self-indulgent final episode had its entertaining moments and its howlers. This wasn't an ending to a six-season show, this was a six-year cast reunion. The number of tearfully reunited friends and romantic couples was taken to such an extreme that it became self-parody. In the end it was a series that overstayed its welcome, undercutting what was once enjoyable about the show and diminishing the series as a whole.

Related post: Lost in the Writers' Room