Friday, January 27, 2012

Three novels that were too damn long

I've read three novels published in 2011 that were just too damn long. At some point, my interest faded and it was only the desire to see it through that compelled me to continue reading to the end.

A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin, 1040 pages
Reamde by Neal Stephenson, 1056 pages
1Q84 by  Haruki Murakami, 944 pages

A Dance with Dragons is a middle volume in Martin’s multi-volume epic, A Song of Ice and Fire, that began with A Game of Thrones (1996). The current volume is the fifth, yet I dare say even Martin seems unsure how many volumes (or years) remain before the end. This is the sort of series that is really one long continuous story. Each volume offers little, if any, closure. It’s the sort of series that I usually avoid reading until the final volume is published. Reading this series has taught me again why I adopted such a policy. Still, there is much to enjoy. In the current volume, there is a wedding scene that is achingly well written, evoking a spectrum of strong emotions. On the whole, alas, it wanders. Characters travel, deals are made, battles are fought or avoided, and so very little is accomplished. It’s a pleasure to spend time in the world that Martin has carefully created, even if the time spent seems aimless.

Reamde is an exercise in plot, or so Stephenson has said in interviews. Unfortunately, by focusing on plot Stephenson has stripped away many of the reasons I enjoy his novels. While Reamde has a science-fictional gaze on the world, it is not science fiction. It’s set in the immediate future. He is the great explainer of concepts, as I’ve written before on this blog, and here he explains a new massive-multiplayer online game, and the economics of gold-farming within the game, which may seem overly familiar if, like me, readers have played a MMORPG sometime in the past decade. What remains is a thriller involving computer hackers, the Russian mafia, and terrorists. A diverting ride, yet disappointing coming, as it does, after a more thoughtful novel, Anathem (2008). (SF Strangelove’s review of Anathem.)

Murakami’s novel 1Q84 (or trilogy of novels, as it was originally published in Japan) is set in Japan in an alternate version of our year 1984, notably different for the presence of two moons in the sky and a handful fantastic events, such as an immaculate conception. The story exists somewhere on the spectrum of what John Clute calls fantastika, which embraces science fiction, fantasy, horror, and related works. I would call it an example of fantastika-lite, where the fantastic elements are used merely for mood and effect, rather than as concepts to be examined and explored. The underlying story is a boy meets girl, boy and girl are separated, and eventually boy and girl are reunited. This simple structure did not sustain my interest for 900-plus pages. These pages are filled with enormous amounts of repetition and padding. Characters frequently repeat dialog back to each other, then they share, and re-share, and re-re-share the same information and concerns over and over again. Amid the multitude of digressions there are some interesting stories within stories. Not enough to make it worth recommending. I could go on about the dozens of “pervy” references to women’s breasts, or the unconvincing way that female characters talk to each other about their breasts (“like a teenage boy’s fantasy of a woman describing another woman’s breasts”). The quotes are from Charles Yu’s review of the book and he has done a fine job. (Charles Yu’s review of 1Q84. Edited: link updated.)

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Gathering of Links

News item: Connie Willis was named the 2011 recipient SFWA Grand Master Award. (follow here)

News item: Gene Wolfe will be celebrated with the Fuller Award, a new Chicago-area literary award, and an evening of entertainment. (follow here)

Samuel R. Delany: "I think of myself as someone who thinks largely through writing.”
-- From a Paris Review interview. (follow here)

William Gibson: “E. M. Forster’s idea has always stuck with me -- that a writer who’s fully in control of the characters hasn’t even started to do the work. I’ve never had any direct fictional input, that I know of, from dreams, but when I’m working optimally I’m in the equivalent of an ongoing lucid dream.”
-- From a Paris Review interview. (follow here)

"He has handed us a map to his own magic doorways." From the New York Times review by Pagan Kennedy of William Gibson’s new book of essays Distrust That Particular Flavor. (follow here)

"At the core of sf lies the experience of science ... The Mars and stars and digital deserts of our best novels are, finally, to be taken as real, as if to say: life isn’t like this, it is this." Gregory Benford on rereading The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of (1998) by Thomas M. Disch (via SanJuanJon). (follow here)

Soviet-era visions of Mars (via BLDGBLOG). (follow here)

"Extra(ordinary) People is my favorite of Russ’s collections, a forceful, beautiful, astounding book that leaves me low on words to compensate for how I respond to it." Brit Mandelo reads Joanna Russ's Extra(ordinary) People (1984). (follow here: part one and part two)

Elizabeth Hand has two novels forthcoming, Available Dark, due February 2012, and Radiant Days, due April 2012. Hand was recently interviewed on The Coode Street Podcast (follow here). Hand writes about six favorite books (follow here).

Jeff VanderMeer's essay on overlooked books from 2011 convinced me to spend cold hard cash for several books that I had managed to miss (follow here).

VanderMeer gives a rundown of the 2011 nominees for the Philip K. Dick Award, in which he calls Maureen F. McHugh's After the Apocalypse "a brilliant book." I'm reading it right now and couldn't agree more. (follow here)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

New Eaton Collection website

The newly revised and updated website for the Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy has just made its debut. The collection is available to the public and searchable through an online catalog. The collection contains over 100,000 science fiction, fantasy, horror and utopian books and nearly as many fanzines, plus pulps, comics and related materials. With a total of over 300,000 items, it is the largest publicly accessible collection of its kind. The Authors' Archives contains manuscripts, correspondence, and papers from Robert Adams, Gregory Benford, David Brin, F.M. Busby, Michael Cassutt, G.C. Edmondson, Sheila Finch, Robert Forward, Horace Gold, Anne McCaffrey, William Rotsler, James White, Colin Wilson, and several others. The Eaton Collection is located at the University of California, Riverside.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

This American Life

This American Life (which originates at radio station WBEZ in Chicago and is available on many National Public Radio stations and as a free podcast) is usually a slice of life show, taking a topic and looking at it from a variety of perspectives, sometimes humorous or poignant. That is not to belittle the show. It is probably the best slice of life radio show ever made. At other times it offers journalism and analysis. It has offered several of the best reports on Afghanistan and several more on Iraq. Episode 310: "Habeas Schmabeas" (and later updated as episode 331: "Habeas Schmabeas 2007") is essential listening for anyone who wants to understand the detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay (today reaching its 10th year) and the violation of the legal principle of habeas corpus begun by the George W. Bush Administration and continued recently by legislation from Republicans in the U.S. Congress.  As the great recession has arrived and dragged its feet, there have been a series of first-rate economic and financial stories. This American Life offers affecting stories in endless variety, engendering laughter, tears, and outrage. It arms listeners with useful information.

This week’s episode "Mr. Daisey and the Apple factory" (episode 454) tells the story of a man who wanted to know more about the people who make Apple Computer products. What starts out as a personal story becomes a journalistic investigation. Highly recommended.

Related links:
Mr. Daisey and the Apple factory
Foxconn workers threaten mass suicide

Edited to add:
This American Life retracts the story. Mr. Daisey turns out not to have been much of a journalist after all. An entire episode is devoted to the retraction and it is a fascinating unraveling of the story behind the story. (follow here)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

More about Hugo nominations

I may have sounded a little cranky about the habits of Hugo nominators in my last post, which is unfortunate. My point, at the risk of beating a dead horse, is that there is a wealth of excellent short science fiction and fantasy published each year, never ceasing to amaze me. This excellent short fiction is easy to find in the pages of the various Best of the Year anthologies. Alas, it is less easy to find in the shortlists of Hugo nominations. Perhaps it is the simple fact that professional editors putting together Best of the Year anthologies spend more time and look at more diverse sources when seeking out the best short fiction than does the average Hugo nominations voter. If so, let us borrow their years of expertise and long hours of effort in gathering their choices for the year’s best. Read their selections from 2011 (Strahan and Horton and Dozois) and engage in the conversation about what is excellent and what is not.

Oh, by the way, Hugo nominations are open now.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Best of the Year anthologies and a special plea to Hugo voters

The editors of three of the Best of the Year anthologies have announced the tables of contents for their upcoming volumes, which will arrive in book form over the next few months.

A special plea to Hugo nominations voters
Last year I said that the short story and novelette categories for the Hugo Awards did a poor job of representing the best of the short fiction that was available and that people who want to find the best fiction would be better served by reading the various Best of the Year anthologies.

This year, I urge everyone who is considering nominating work in the short fiction categories of the Hugo Award to read the stories listed on these tables of contents first. These stories should be the starting point, the minimum requirement for reading for Hugo nominators. Sure, read plenty of other stories, too. Read widely and enjoy. Nominate the best by March 11.