Monday, December 30, 2013

This Blog is Dead, Long Live the Tumblr

At the end of 2013, it's time to face the facts. No posting in eight months means this blog is well and truly dead. Mostly that's OK: the reviews that I write generally get picked up by more professional venues, and my smaller thoughts wind up on other media. But for those who are still looking for me, here's where you can find me:

  • A new central "Karen Burnham" website for my information about my writing and engineering work, Not A Blog. This is where the domain now points. 
  • A new Tumblr, where I'll be keeping up with reading lists and small reading thoughts. 
  • I'm @SpiralGalaxy on Twitter, where I mostly talk about sf/f.
  • I'm on Facebook, but only friend people I know IRL. It's mostly for kid pictures.
  • For my engineering work, I have a LinkedIn account with all my current work experience.
  • I'm on Pinterest for pretty pictures and kid's crafts.

While I've given up editorship of the Locus Magazine Roundtable Blog, here are some places where I'm still regularly writing:

And of course the big news: the Greg Egan book will be out in April of 2014!

I'm cutting back on writing right now since I have a second child on the way. It's also due in April 2014! So this is the right time to wrap up this blog and shift instead to easier communication platforms. Thanks to everyone who's read this blog!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Early Notes from the San Antonio WorldCon

This past weekend I was able to join the majority of the organizers of the 2013 in San Antonio to go over plans, facilities, etc. It was a great and very productive weekend, and I was very happy to meet other members of the volunteer teams face-to-face (I'm running the Academic track of Programming). Having had a chance to walk the ground where the WorldCon will be, I wanted to offer a few notes for people who will be making plans for this Summer.

  • The thing I suspect will be most confusing will be the hotels associated with the convention. There's the Marriott RiverCENTER and the Marriott RiverWALK. The RiverCENTER is the party hotel, and will have a share of the programming items. That's also where the Con Suite will be. The RiverWALK is NOT the party hotel, but it is closer to the convention center itself. There will likely only be a couple of functions there. I've made my reservation in the RiverWALK Marriott.
  • The RiverCENTER (party hotel) has 4 elevators going up to floors 25 and higher, and 6 more going up to floors 24 and below. Chances that they will all be jammed after the Hugos? 100%
  • You cannot travel between any combination of the hotels or the convention center without going outside. You can get from any point to any other point by going down to the riverwalk, which should be cooler than street level. However, the riverwalk paths are somewhat narrow, and they get crowded in the afternoons (and will be much more crowded over Labor Day weekend) and it will be more difficult for mobility-challenged people to navigate. The street level may also be challenging over that weekend, since it sounds like there will be a street festival going on as well. So if you have to change buildings, leave plenty of time to get from point A to point B. 
  • Remember to wear layers! It will be roasting hot at street level, pretty hot along the riverwalk, and thoroughly refrigerated inside the hotels/convention center. I was wearing short sleeve shirts all weekend and wished I'd brought a jacket when I was inside the air conditioned spaces.
  • There are more food options within walking distance than you can shake a stick at: anything from a mall food court to a Denny's across from the Marriott RiverCenter (street level) to standard Mexican or Italian at the base of the Marriott RiverCenter (Riverwalk level) to high-end steak and nightclubs. 
  • There's also a liquor/convenience store between the two Marriotts on the Riverwalk. It has a sign prominently posted letting you know that it is perfectly fine to carry open alcohol bottles/glasses along the riverwalk; and that smoking is also acceptable along most of the riverwalk. Those will allergies take note!
  • For those with kids, if you head to the Convention Center and then climb back up to street level just beyond it, you'll find a really lovely playground at HemisFair Park. Our son (19 months) loved it, and it was generally full of a wide age range of kids. We didn't get to the Children's museum, but it looks like that is only 1-2 blocks away from the Riverwalk. The San Antonio Zoo is also nearby.
  • If you want to take a river tour by boat (recommended), there's a ticket station between the two Marriotts. However, my husband found that you can get 1/2 price tickets through the hotel concierge desk.
  • For those flying in/out who want to buy lots & lots of books but don't want to get charged for extra luggage: both the Marriott RiverCenter and the Convention Center have UPS stores inside them. Easy to ship books/costumes/artwork home!
I think that's about it from my notes. I suspect that people (as at all WorldCons) will feel like there's much too much walking to do, and it will be easy to get lost until you get your bearings. However, you're pretty much never out of line-of-sight to a nice bar or restaurant where you can have a seat and restore your spirits. I'm very much looking forward to the convention; it looks like we're going to be in great hands as relates to the ConCom. I hope to see lots of you there!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

2012 Year in Review

I noticed this post over on Neth Space and realized that I have all the information needed to do the same (I try to track my reading on Library Thing, and was getting my list up-to-date for awards nomination season).

However, before I get to the numbers, I want to let people know how happy I am to have been nominated for the BSFA award in the non-fiction category! It's for the essay on spacesuits that I did for Ian Sales' anthology Rocket Science, and I'm really amazed by how much attention it's gotten, first from the reviewers and now from the BSFA nominating population. 

I don't expect to win this award--Farah and Paul have both won before, Maureen did a brilliant job with her extended review series, and the World SF blog is a wonderful on-going resource. However, they're not kidding when they say it's an honor to be nominated. I'm also rather pleased to see that I appear to be one of the only nominees ever in this category for a piece that deals more with science than with literature. For one that makes me very happy as I hope to expand out into doing more science popularization writing in the future; and for two I hope that I can act, even in a small way, as a role model: women can't just do science, we can have fun doing science.

In the spirit of Science then, on to the numbers!

Books read in 2012: 30
Fiction: 19
Non-Fiction: 11
Collections of short stories: 7
Published in 2012: 15
Specifically read for review: 13
Specifically read as research for the Egan book: 8
By male authors: 17
By female authors: 7
Avg rating as awarded at the time: 3.4
Avg rating as adjusted after reflection: 3.33

(The male/female numbers don't include the short fiction anthologies unless they were single-author collections)

My highest rated book for the year was The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, followed by The Wiscon Chronicles Vol. 5, Timeless, and Beyond Binary. None of the books I read got less than two stars. 

So I'm running about 30/70 Female/Male, which isn't great. And only 30 books? In 2011 I read 53! Aaargh! Already the impact of having little Gadget running around is making itself clear. But I did better at reading things published in 2012 than I'd feared, although I still feel quite a bit behind the curve there. I've got high hopes for 2013 though, as I've already polished off four books so far, with a gender split of 75/25 F/M gender split (although two of those are from 2012... still playing catch up!)

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Driftings and Endings

I read Ian McDonald’s short story in the January issue of Clarkesworld, and it got me thinking about endings. If you don’t want spoilers, you’d better either stop reading or go read “Driftings” first because this essay is going to be spoilerific.

The story is about an artist who picks up debris from the ocean, much of it from the Japanese tsunami, and uses it to make art which he then sells to galleries. He meets a mysterious young woman and shows her what he does. She tells him a story about the pain that goes along with some of these artefacts. Meanwhile the water in the air over the seaside town is turning to salt water: salt fog, rain of salt water, the smell of rotting fish permeating everything. Acting on the woman’s gnomic pronouncements, the artist lovingly collects some of the debris he recently picked up, and offers it back to the ocean.

OK, now at this point the story gets three endings.

1) Reith drove back slick as a seal in his wet-suit. As he stepped out of the car the air caught him, breath to sigh to near-sob. Clean. Fresh. He turned his face to the clouds and let pure, sweet water fill up its hollows and stream from its angles.

I think that if the story had ended there, I’d be satisfied. The character realized that there were angles that he hadn’t considered regarding the kind of art that he was making, and he started the journey towards increased thoughtfulness, metaphorically speaking. But the next paragraph says...

2) Mouse Heart Robot: he had a pure, sweet idea for it

He’s got a new idea for an art piece. Is this idea a continuation of what he had been doing, showing that he hadn’t really learned anything? Would it be art in a radically different direction, incorporating his greater sensitivity and awareness? Having put this sentence in there, I would prefer that the author follow through and develop the consequences. Otherwise, it doesn’t add much--could go either way. It’s ambiguous, but not necessarily in a way that leads to greater understanding or reflection. And then...

3) Reith opened the door.
The living room was filled with hair. Long, sleek, black hair, hanging from ceiling to floor, sleek black hair, dripping with sea water. The door closed behind Reith. The wet hair rippled, as if someone were moving through it. The End.

OK, now what? The story just stops there--what happens next? I believe it’s a sign of a strong story if you wish that the author had written more rather than less, but I seriously feel that ending the story at this point does it a disservice. Yes, it is ambiguous.  But the character has taken actions, and those actions have consequences. One consequence is that the rain stops. OK, that’s a neat ending point. Another consequence is now a room full of hair, probably connected to the mysterious young woman. The consequences of that are not played out--the story just stops.

I was thinking about endings as well when I read a reprint of “Solitude” by Ursula K. LeGuin in Diverse Energies, an anthology edited by Tobias Buckell and Joe Monti. “Solitude” is about a woman who was raised by her anthropologist mother to be a bridge to another culture. Realizing that children adopt culture more readily than adults, she raised her daughter and son in this particular culture from about elementary school age. When they grew older she wanted to take them back to her home culture, a more “civilized” place, so they could continue their schooling, etc. The boy was ready to go, but the younger girl wanted to stay. She was now part of the culture, and returning “home” felt very alien to her. The story has a lot to say about growing up under the pull of two cultures.

However, one thing that really struck me was the structure. Midway through the story there comes a climax when the girl has to rebel against her mother in order to stay. She has to make a choice and then fight a battle to make her choice stick. When she returns to the planet, it serves as a resolution to the central conflict of the story, right? Having a read a whole lot of stories for Strange Horizon’s slush pile a few years ago, I can tell you that a less confident author would end the story at the moment of choice, not telling the audience which way the character chose, leaving it “ambiguous.” In the hands of a better author, you could have ended the story with the choice made, returning to the planet. And it would still be a darn good story.

But LeGuin is LeGuin, and she is brilliant, and so the story follows the protagonist into middle age. She re-integrates with her culture, has children, raises them, makes sure that they know about her original culture, and even makes sure that she communicates some of her observations back to her mother’s ship. It completely plays out the consequences of the choice that was made in the climax. There are other sub-plots with sub-climaxes in the latter part of the story; it’s a long enough story that there’s room to do that. To be fair to McDonald, he was working at a much shorter length. But that said, I would argue that the shorter story either needed to end with the fresh water rain, or a longer story was needed to develop the consequences of the room full of hair. Having the room full of hair without any further development seems unnecessarily frustrating.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal has an interesting article out: "Moondoogle: The Forgotten Opposition to the Apollo Program." In it he points out that support for the Apollo mission never approached 50% while it was active. As one historian put it:
Consistently throughout the 1960s a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost, with the one exception to this a poll taken at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969. And consistently throughout the decade 45-60 percent of Americans believed that the government was spending too much on space...
In 1979, only 47% of Americans thought it had been worth it; that raised up to 77% in 1989. he also points out some major cultural trends that opposed it: activists in the civil rights movement pointed out that the government was ignoring poor minorities while spending unprecedented amounts of money to send some white guys to the Moon; even a significant block of scientists argued that the manned space exploration was a sub-optimal way to get real science done.

 I think this is really important to remember when we're bemoaning the state of the space program today. I had long believed in a narrative that said: "Once upon a time, after WWII, everyone was super optimistic about the American future in space. It was the Golden Age of science fiction, and everyone agreed that heading into space was the right next step--especially since it meant we would beat the Commies!" So it was really a bit stunning to me to realize that the Apollo programs suffered any number of hostile OpEd pieces, angry Letters to the Editor, and accusations from scientists and pundits alike that it was a waste of resources.

 However, those facts make what's happened since make a lot more sense. How did we get from 'everyone loves space' to Skylab falling out of the sky in just a decade? Well, it's because most people didn't love space, and they still don't now. There was never a grassroots space movement. Certainly there were lots of folks who were rooting for NASA (and there still are!), but there were more who saw it as a big waste. We didn't get to the Moon via an up-swelling of popular support--we got there by the top-down fiat of a President and his successor (JFK and LBJ) who saw it as a combined PR victory over the Soviets and peace-time jobs program for the nation's best and brightest technical talent (who, Madrigal's article points out, probably didn't need the help). There's quite a bit more on the PR image issue in Nicholas de Monchaux' fascinating Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo. My review of it should be in the next issue of Cascadia Subduction Zone, and Rosten Woo wrote a great review of it in the LA Review of Books last year.

So perhaps it would be OK to spend less time worrying about the lack of popular support for the space program today. It might make more sense to focus on targeted lobbying efforts at the highest levels of government. It's actually a little bit heartening to me to learn that the Apollo mission succeeded in the face of fairly robust public opposition. That means that we don't need to get 200 million Americans on our side to make any progress. What we do need are effective leaders who can communicate clearly with folks who hold the purse strings.

 The future's not what it used to be, and it turns out that it never was.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Changing Up Spiral Galaxy

You may have noticed that the name of the blog has changed above: from "Spiral Galaxy Reviewing Laboratory" to "Spiral Galaxy Musings." It's no surprise that I've barely been blogging here for the last year. I realized that one reason for that is that almost any review I write goes to venues like SFSignal, Strange Horizons, Locus Magazine, or Cascadia Subduction Zone--so as long as I thought of my blog as a place for reviews, I didn't have much content to put here.

However, I have a lot of thoughts that aren't necessarily reviews, but that don't fit on Twitter (too long) or Facebook (all baby, all the time). So I think it's time to shift Spiral Galaxy's purpose, and make it more of a "Karen's Thoughts" blog than a strictly reviewing blog. I may still post reviews here, especially whenever I can get back into my Golden Age/New Wave/Non-Fiction Criticism reading lists. But I'd also like to post things like the following:

If any of you follow the Roundtable section of the Locus Magazine website, you might have seen Vandana Singh's post on early Indian SF that she'd love to see translated. She talks about Niruddesher Kahini a story written in 1896 by Jagadish Chandra (J. C.) Bose. She points out that he was a polymath: "His contributions to the science of radio waves predate Marconi, and he also pioneered research in biophysics through his study of electrical impulses in plants." I learned today that the IEEE agrees: they honored him and contemporary C. V. Raman in ceremonies in Kolkata, West Bengal this past weekend. The article describes Bose's work in physics, biology, botany, and archeology. Here's an interesting bit:
After graduating in 1884 with a natural science tripos (an honors baccalaureate), Bose returned to India. A year later, a recommendation from Rayleigh got him the post of professor at Presidency College, in Calcutta, the first Indian to hold that title there. The college’s British administrators offered him only one-third the salary of its European professors. Bose protested by taking no salary at all for several years until the college recognized his value and raised his salary to match his European peers, retroactive to the start of his professorship.
C.V. Raman did groundbreaking work in acoustics and optics, all while working as a civil servant in the Indian Finance Department. He won the Nobel Prize in 1930.

I love reading about the scientists who contributed so much since Newton's day and who aren't as well known as Einstein and Maxwell et. al. It's great that the IEEE is working to bring them some additional recognition. It'd have been even cooler if the article had mentioned Bose's role as an early science fiction writer!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Avengers: Comics and Fandom

I finally got out to see The Avengers movie, courtesy of a wonderful babysitter. I really enjoyed it, and I'm especially glad I got to see it on the big screen. I had fun, and it was everything I expected from a huge Joss Whedon superhero movie. What I'm about to note isn't a criticism, it's an observation, and it's VERY SPOILER-Y, so DON'T READ IT if you don't want the movie spoiled.

I want to talk about the character of Agent Coulson. In the movies that led up to the Avengers mega-movie, he'd become something of a favorite for me and many other fans. He appeared to be an every-man who knew a bit more than everyone else about what was going on. He was cool in a very MIB kind of way.

In the Avengers, he's established even more strongly as a fan-identification character. Pepper Potts knows his first name (Phil) and relationship status (strained, with a cellist in Portland). All the superhero characters respect him. And it turns out that he's a stone-cold Captain American fanboy, with a set of vintage trading cards, who goes all squee-ing on Cap during a plane flight.

So, having established Coulson as an avatar of fandom, Whedon kills him off halfway through the movie. Here's what happens: Coulson has a BFG aimed at Loki during Loki's escape, but starts to monologue. Loki stabs him. Coulson still gets to shoot the BFG, and hangs on long enough to have one last conversation with Nick Fury. Coulson tells Fury that the whole Avengers thing was never going to work, since they needed something... (to believe in, we're meant to fill in).

So, Fury uses Coulson's death as the thing that gets the Avengers to cohere as a team. Coulson (the fans) are the motivating force, the thing that they (the superheroes) want to do proud. I read this as Whedon pointing out the fact that superheroes and superhero comics are, fundamentally, by and for the fans.

But there's one extra bit--and Whedon hits it twice to (I think) make sure the point gets across. Fury tells Cap and Iron Man (the two egos most likely to clash) that Coulson died believing in them, in the concept of the Avengers. That's obviously a lie, since Coulson explicitly says that "it was never going to work." Fury also throws out Coulson's trading cards, now soaked in blood. Later, Agent Hill points out that the trading cards were in Coulson's locker, not in his pocket, and wouldn't have been blood soaked. Fury admits that he added a bit of dramatic flourish to motivate the team.

OK, so having set up this representative of fandom, Whedon kills him and uses him to motivate the superheroes. And Fury misrepresents him to motivate the superheroes even more. To me, this read like a very clear statement: We (the superhero comics industry) are doing this all for you (fandom), and we are also totally manipulating you to get the audience (and dollars) that we want. All this in a movie by fans, for fans, filled with fan service. That's not a surprise, and all art wants to work the most money possible out of its audience. I'd just never seen a piece of pop culture make the statement as explicitly as I saw here, and frankly I rather appreciated it.

So none of this detracted from my enjoyment of the movie, but it was a moment where my critic brain leapt up and said I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE! I'm surprised that more reviews haven't commented on the Agent Coulson character and how he evolved through the films--I assume that it is generally too spoiler-y to talk about so soon. Although maybe I'm reading too much into it? What do you think?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow must be the single most tragic science fiction story I’ve ever read. It compares to the most tragic stories I’ve ever read, full stop, except that non-fiction must trump fiction when it comes to tragedy. The Sparrow won the Clarke award back in 1998, so I feel like sufficient time has passed when it comes to spoilers. However, if needed: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

This tale hit me on emotional, intellectual, and visceral levels. As I was reading it my critic brain ran a constant parallel track, noting “I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE,” observing structure, and cataloging flaws in the world-building. But you know what? None of that mattered. In the end, it all paid off. The result was awful, and tragic, and moving, and worth overlooking any flaws that came before. 

The narrative unfolds in two parallel tracks, one starting at the beginning and building to the climax, and one starting at the end, detailing the aftermath and slowly building to the point where you find out what the climax was. There’s a hole in the story, and everything works up to filling it. I wondered if the climax could possibly be worth the build-up, but as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, it was.

The beginning thread tells how a group of friends come to be the core of a Jesuit mission to a new planet. The main character is Father Emilio Sandoz. He convinces two retired folks he’s good friends with to join him working in the slums of Puerto Rico. They befriend a young astronomer at Aricebo telescope and also a young woman who writes AI expert systems to replace human workers--she worked on modeling Sandoz’s linguistic skills, and was in the process of modeling the astronomer. The story spends a lot of time on backstory and character development before we get to the actual space mission, and that’s important. I’ll have more to say about how the characterization works in this book in another essay. 

Eventually the astronomer discovers a SETI signal that can’t be denied, and from the Jesuit point of view it seems that God has arranged things very neatly in terms of the friends and their skill sets and what they can bring to a mission. The Society throws together a mission very quickly made up of four Jesuits (Sandoz as the linguist), and the four non-Jesuits (the retired couple, the astronomer and the AI specialist). A lot about the design of this mission strains credulity. There is an unfortunate resonance with Robert Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast wherein a similarly composite family group starts exploring the universe with a minimum of preparation. Basically, everything happens much too easily to get the group where they’re going--but that actually reinforces the theme. At its core this book is about religion and perceptions of God. The Jesuits firmly believe that they are doing God’s work, and the fact that everything lines up so neatly over and over reinforces this viewpoint. 

Once they make planetfall things go slowly and irrevocably wrong. And we’ve known that since the beginning of the book, because we are first introduced to Father Sandoz as the sole survivor of this mission. He is horribly mutilated in mind, body, and spirit. He was tortured, found in a brothel, and he killed a child who sought to rescue him. He spent four months alone in a ship on the way back, and is being cared for by a Society of Jesuits that has been decimated in the aftermath of the revelations about the mission. The entire book is colored by the knowledge that all the central characters will die, except Sandoz who will be shattered. It’s like watching a closed room murder mystery unfold, except that instead of finding the killer you’re waiting to find out how they die. The build-up of suspense is slow and terrible. 

Ultimately many things happen, both good and bad. The mission makes a lot of mistakes that could have been minor but end up being major because there’s so much they don’t understand. It’s easy to condemn them for being idiots, although at every step they make decisions that make sense on certain levels. (Let me reiterate that the mission design is by far the weakest part of this story.) Some people die randomly, some for specific reasons. At the very end, alone and wounded, Sandoz is despairing, but has a moment of pure transcendence where it appears that it was all worth it, that he will be able to enact and communicate God’s will--and at that moment he is violated horribly, then repeatedly, and left with nothing. It’s in the aftermath of that horrible climax that we meet him. 

Never has a book that so entirely bound up with religion spoken to me so eloquently of the benefits of atheism. If not for his transcendent experience of the godhood, Sandoz’s fate would have been merely awful, instead of gut-wrenchingly tragic. I feel like the repetition of ‘Deus vult’ made the mission more complacent than they should have been, and that it made their fate much more horrific. Perhaps this is merely another dramatization of the ‘why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?’ question, but it is one of the most moving meditations on the question that I have ever read. 

I especially appreciate the fact that some of the characters die for no perceptible reason. It’s a criticism that I’ve often harbored about novels--in real life people just die. There’s no reason, there’s nothing they could have done about it, there’s no heroism or failing. ::rant:: I’ve sometimes felt that the over-the-top heroics of adventure protagonists serve as an implicit condemnation of people who die because of circumstances outside of their control. How many burning, exploding, collapsing buildings have action heroes escaped from, carrying their love interest in tow? It almost seems to say that if you were a real hero in your own life, you could have escaped from (say) the burning towers of the World Trade Center. But 2,000 people just died, horribly, trapped, because most of the time in real life, it doesn’t matter what you do, there are some situations you just can’t escape.::end rant:: 

And that brings us back to God--are the people who die senselessly disfavored by God? Are their deaths part of a larger narrative, and if so, is the result worth it? Do their deaths have more or less meaning if the result is triumph or tragedy? Again, atheism seems almost comforting, in that we have no one to blame or plead with--things happen, and all we can control is ourselves.

The Sparrow is harrowing, all the more so because of the contrast between the tragedy and the liveliness of the characters. In the early days of the story they are a fun bunch of people to get to know--witty, charming, and generally interesting. There are jokes and anecdotes--even in the aftermath a dark sense of humor helps Sandoz and his caretakers. Humor is one of the best buffers we have between ourselves and tragedy, and having that buffer yanked entirely away at the climax is yet another completely effective stab to the gut. Nonetheless, of all the books I’ve read this year, this was the hardest to put down. It is lovely to read, and the characters are easy to like, which makes reading about their dooms all the worse. By the end you’re so wound up for the blow that it takes only the lightest touch to make the tragedy come crashing down on you, and Russell delivers that touch elegantly, never belaboring the scenes. 

Obviously I was enormously impressed by this book. You’ll note that I haven’t spoken much about the aliens with whom the mission makes contact. That’s partly for reasons of length, and partly because they are much more in the background compared to the human characters. They have their reasons for acting, and we get some passages from their POV--but we mostly see the author’s hand guiding everything to set up the tragedy to come. For me the story is worth it, but I suspect that people from cultures that have been on the receiving end of colonization may not be so sanguine about the balance. The Jesuit mission is explicitly non-missionary; they want to avoid the pitfalls of colonialism, and want to learn more than convert. No one in the piece is an easy Bad Guy--no evil aliens, no Spanish Inquisition. But people with a different narrative of history than my own may have a much different perception of the book.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Evaporating Genres for Best Related Book

I don't want to bury the lede here: Gary K. Wolfe has never won a Hugo (???), and I believe that he should win one for his most recent essay collection, Evaporating Genres (!!!).

I didn't review Evaporating Genres when I read it, because I read it while on maternity leave and finding time to write, much less write coherently, wasn't really my strong suit. However it has stuck with me due to its strengths, mostly in terms of its breadth and depth in what it has to say about the field. Wolfe is amazingly well read, both in genre literature new and old and in works of literary criticism. (There are twelve pages of Works Cited at the end of Evaporating Genres.) As a professor with a PhD in Literature who has read, taught, and reviewed for over thirty years, he brings a depth of knowledge to the field that few others can match. All that is on display in this volume, in essays that delve deeper into his subject matter than the monthly reviews he has done for twenty years at Locus Magazine.

There are any number of approaches that critics can take in examining a field, and Wolfe opts for a wonderfully inclusive and accessible style. Far from policing the boundaries of genre and attempting to cram every work into a neat little taxonomy, he celebrates those works that stretch boundaries--that take whatever they need from wherever they find it to make something perhaps more beautiful and almost certainly more interesting than what came before. Hence his focus in these essays on writers like Peter Straub, the horror writer who won the World Fantasy Award for a book with no fantasy in it, and Elizabeth Hand, whose work moves from fantasy to science fiction to mainstream without ever losing the core style and concerns that make it special.

Unlike most academics, Wolfe stays up to date with what the genre is doing now, due to his monthly reviewing for Locus. While certain scholarly communities have only recently woken up and discovered that Ursula K. LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness is pretty spiffy, Wolfe also looks at "The Word For World is Forest" and her more recent work of criticism. M. Rickert, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Rudy Rucker are as likely to get mentions as Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein.

Wolfe also extends some of the work that he did in his groundbreaking book from 1979, The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction. There he examined several well-known tropes of science fiction through the history of the field, looking at how each in their turn have represented different things: the Barrier, the Spaceship, the City, the Wasteland, the Robot, and the Monster. All of these have in time been established, subverted, and subverted again. In Evaporating Genres he extends that approach to the Artifact, the Post-Apocalyptic World, and the Frontier, again examining how each has shifted and morphed over a century of genre literature. Reading Wolfe (in this book, in reviews, and listening to him in person, on panels, and on his podcast with Jonathan Strahan) gives one tools to help you get more out of your own reading and it suggests titles and connections you may never have encountered otherwise. Combine this all with a straightforward, accessible, personable style, and I'd say that you can't go wrong. This is exactly the sort of exemplary work that I think should be rewarded with a Best Related Book Hugo award.

A few other notes, which don't reflect on the current book but I think are important: The Known and the Unknown was eligible the very first year that the Hugo included a non-fiction category. It wasn't even nominated. Here's the list: The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, Peter Nicholls (Winner); Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials, Wayne Douglas Barlowe & Ian Summers; In Memory Yet Green, Isaac Asimov; The Language of the Night, Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Susan Wood; Wonderworks, Michael Whelan. The usual collage that makes up this sort of all-the-stuff-that-isn't-the-stories category. Now, on the strength of The Known and The Unknown and his other early critical writings, Wolfe won the Eaton award (1979), the Pilgrim (lifetime achievement) award (1987), and the IAFA Distinguished Scholarship (also a lifetime achievement) award (1998). Two of his review collections, Soundings and Bearings, have been Hugo nominated in 2006 and 2011. However, I think that Evaporating Genres is a much better entry to the category, containing in-depth essays that shed more illumination on the subject than collected reviews can, being constrained by the randomness of publishing schedules.

Looking at some other works that came out in 2011: the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is a perennial favorite of the Hugos, the first edition of which won the very first year of the category. But the current online version of the Encyclopedia is only half done; the remainder of the entries will be updated later this year. I personally would prefer to have it considered as a whole next year. John Clute, another scholar of amazing depth and breadth, has a collection of reviews and essays out, Pardon This Intrusion. I'll note that I think it suffers some of the same lack of focus as Clute and Wolfe's previous review collections and for the same reasons, and that Clute has won three Hugos previously for his various encyclopedic endeavors.

I think everyone reading this blog knows that I consider Gary Wolfe a mentor and a personal friend--heck, my copy of Evaporating Genres is signed to me, my husband, and my then-unborn, -unnamed, and -ungendered baby. Not to mention that I'm on the same masthead as he is at Locus Magazine. However, I truly feel that Evaporating Genres is probably the best book about the science fiction field published in 2011, and that it deserves the Hugo entirely on its own merits. The fact that giving it the award would also serve to balance some historical scales that I feel are a bit out of whack is merely icing on the cake.

Friday, December 30, 2011

End of the Year

2011 draws to a close, marking the end of a year that has probably marked the biggest single change in my life, ever. Posts have been thin on the ground here at Spiral Galaxy, but I have no regrets. I've managed to keep: my child alive and healthy, my job (and gotten into a new and awesome group at NASA), the Locus blog going, and my book draft going (although with a new deadline of August 2012 instead of March 2012). Of the things that needed to be thrown overboard, this blog and other reviewing seemed the most reasonable things to go. But I haven't stopped reading! Here's some capsule thoughts on books I've read since little Gadget was born, on August 30th.

In War Times by Kathleen Anne Goonan. I had previously bounced off Goonan's work with the Queen City Jazz cycle, and this didn't change that. There are some authors where I can see their virtues, but the work just doesn't resonate with me, and Goonan appears to be one of those. I really liked the historical bits in War Times, but the jazz lost me and I didn't find the super-physics convincing. I had planned to read this preparatory to This Shared Dream, but I think I'll let that slide.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick. Charles Brown used to say that this book was the most horrific that he'd ever read, but it didn't strike me that way. One thing I liked is that between this and Ubik, I now know that I like PKD as a sentence-level writer much more than I thought I would. However, I was specifically reading these to see if they linked in with Greg Egan's altered/virtual reality futures, and I don't think that they do. PKD's characters are on very unstable ground, never knowing what their position is vis a vie reality, whereas Egan's characters are pretty much all rational actors in a rational universe, whether that universe is physical, digital, or both. Completely different affect and theme.

Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. Probably not the right book to read right at the beginning of my maternity leave. However, I found it very well written, very convincing, often amusing, and definitely enlightening. Thanks to Farah Mendlesohn for the recommendation!

Book by Book by Michael Dirda. A short book full of Dirda's notes on reading. Light and charming, but pretty fluffy. I've always enjoyed reading his thoughts, and this was no exception.

Howl's Moving Castle by Dianna Wynn Jones. I'd enjoyed the film when it came out, and enjoyed this as well. I hadn't before realized just how YA the original book was. I thought the middle got into a bit of a muddle, but definitely enjoyed the characters and the whole milieu.

Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert. I appreciated this for many of the same reasons I loved Les Miserables--the in-depth and incisive character portraits. I know people today who share many depressing characteristics with M. Bovary. But I didn't fall in love with it the way I did with Les Mis, probably because it lacked Hugo's epic sweep. By the by, it was Dirda's book that finally inspired me to pick this up.

God, No! by Penn Jillette. Another book full of assorted thoughts and vignettes, rather like Dirda's book but for atheists instead of life-long readers. Lots of amusing anecdotes from Jillette's improbable career and life.

The Alchemists of Kush by Minister Faust. This book deserves a bigger, better review than what I'm writing here. I loved it. It's a twinned tale of mythology and urban African-Canadian (although I imagine African-Americans would find it equally apt) experience. The contemporary and non-fantastic part follows a troubled black teenager as he finds a role model and a place in the community--although his is not an easy story and it doesn't have an easy ending. The fantastic portion describes a young man navigating a mythic landscape, learning about his powers and leadership. Argh, that makes it all sound too pat. I've loved everything I've read by Faust, and this was no exception. If nothing else, the poetry and rhythm of his language would be worth it. If nothing else, the reading list that the mentor figure gives to young Raptor would be worth it. The whole resonant package is even more worth it. And if I'm saying this as a middle-aged white woman, when the story is so intensely young, black, and male, then that tells you something (I hope) about the power of Faust's writing. The only major critique I'd have is that I felt that the author dodged a bit when the issue of homophobia reared its head. But that's a very small matter in a book that's much bigger than its relatively short length.

Embassytown by China Mieville. I loved Perdido Street Station and The Scar. I finished Iron Council. I enjoyed The City and The City. I bounced off of Kraken. And now I've bounced off of Embassytown. Reading the book, I kept waiting for an answer to the question: how in hell can a language that can't refer to things that haven't happened allow for engineering? But about halfway through, as the plot was ramping up, I realized that the main viewpoint character, the first person narrator Avice, was a complete cipher to me. She didn't seem to have a real character or personality, and I wasn't even sure what might motivate her. So I bailed out, abandoning the book altogether. It especially suffered in comparison to the books I read before and after it.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I'd been meaning to read something of Ishiguro's for ages, and I figured that Never Let Me Go would just annoy me. Remains was a beautiful read, with effortless prose that was wonderful to just swim through. Ishiguro has perfect mastery of tone, with no word out of place. It's a quiet tale, entirely about the character of its narrator. He's an unreliable observer of himself, but there are plenty of narrative clues that let us know what he doesn't know about himself. It's the quietly tragic story of a man who made a lot of wrong choices but can't let himself admit that. If I perhaps felt that some of the clues were rather obvious, making it easy for the educated reader to say I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE, YAY GO ME! the prose style made it very easy to forgive.

The Once and Future King by T. H. White. Again, this deserves a longer post. It was quite different than I'd expected, and seemed overly grounded in the politics of post-WWII England. The tone shift as it moves from book to book is dramatic, but it worked for me. While White makes it clear that he feels that the tragedy stems from Arthur's sin in bedding his sister (while under the sway of one of her spells), I really felt that the whole 'ordering all two-year-old boys to be killed' thing (while not under anyone's spell) got rather swept under the rug. I will say that I think I've read the Arthurian stories in rather the wrong order. One should probably read L'Morte de Arthur, then Once and Future King, then The Mists of Avalon. Whereas I read Avalon years ago, then this, and will probably never get to L'Morte. I retrospectively appreciate Mists of Avalon quite a bit more now, after reading this.

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi. I had bounced off of Rajaniemi's short fiction to this point, so I was happy to find that I finished this book. However, it didn't really stand out for me. It was a good read, but nothing that made me want to jump up and laud it. Again, I think Rajaniemi is just going to be one of those authors that I know I should like, that I have every reason to like, that I can see why other people like him, but I just don't like very much. C'est la vie.

Mind Children by Hans Moravec. Read this as research for the Egan book. Fascinating stuff, chock-full of techno-optimism. Not perhaps the best written ever, but you could make an entire career fleshing out the sfnal ideas in here, and one can argue that Egan did just that in the late 1980's and early 1990's.

The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross. I've enjoyed his other Laundry series books, and I enjoyed this one. Actually, I liked this one rather more than the second book in the series, The Jennifer Morgue. Fuller Memorandum is a fun book, I've always liked the premise of the universe, and I agree with the politics in the book, so it was all a very stress-free experience. During this time I started in on some of L. Sprague de Camp & Fletcher Pratt's Compleat Enchanter stories, and it was really striking how much Bob Howard of the Laundry is the heir to that sfnal-attitude-in-a-fantastic-universe tradition.

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett. I've been slowly reading the Discworld books in publication order, and I lucked out that I got to Hogfather right before Christmas. Perfect time to read this one as a nice mental break.

Science as Salvation by Mary Midgley. Another one that I'm reading for the Egan book. This book is a criticism of the narrative created by some scientists, especially those involved in popularizing science such as Freeman Dyson, that promise immortality in humanity's future. I don't agree with many of Midgley's critiques, but it was excellent food for thought.

So while I've been quiet, I haven't been idle! I'm doing a lot of reading in other areas for the Egan research, which combined with the baby-related lack of free time, means that I haven't been reading much for review or for my Golden Age reading project. When the book is done I hope to get back to normal reviewing reading. In the meantime I'm having a ton of fun with the Egan project, and with the baby, and with my day job, and you really can't ask for better than that!