Thursday, July 31, 2008

Interzone #216, the Mundane SF edition.


I was less than 100% impressed with Geoff Ryman’s Mundane SF issue of Interzone. While I can appreciate the impulse that led him to promote writing within those rules, just obeying them does not automatically lead to better writing. None of the stories here are bad (I read all of them all the way through), but none of them knock your socks off and convince the you of the inherent superiority of this breed of science fiction.

Buzz Aldrin may appreciate this movement. He recently went on record speculating that sf made space too exciting, raising people’s expectations, causing the real space program to seem boring in comparison. Buzz’s argument is that in this way sf has hurt the space program. Ryman obviously has similar concerns, which I share to an extent. While we look out to amazing adventures in post-Singularity, post-scarcity, post-everything worlds, we forget about the hard problems that still plague us back here: class issues, real economics, multiculturalism, etc. This certainly doesn’t mean all mundane SF need be depressing or, worse, boring. Bruce Sterling’s Hugo-nominated “Kiosk” is a fascinating take on future economics that I think would fall under the Mundane rubric, and Ryman’s own Air, or Have Not Have is a brilliant and moving portrayal of technology reaching into the least technologically advanced corners of the world and what that really implies for the people who live there. (And we’ll just forget about the mouth baby, shall we?) Mundane SF at its best is fully capable of fulfilling my criteria for really great literature, as set forth in my “Reviewing Philosophy” post—to help me think about the world/universe in a different way. However, the stories in this issue never really achieved that.

“How to Make Paper Airplanes” by Lavie Tidhar most obviously plays to Ryman’s preferences. It’s set on an island with more natives than white people, with a gay protagonist and a decidedly non-Western outlook on life. It has characters talking about sf, especially space operatic sf, and how it has turned out to be so much bullshit. The story is completely plotless and in fact is in danger of degenerating into a string of non-sequiturs at the end. However, the overwhelming theme of loss and powerlessness (we can’t go out to space, we can’t save the guy’s lover from dying of disease) keeps everything unified. In that way it is quite successful.

So my dislike of it is a result of my own prejudices: I want to read about people moving forward and solving problems, not stoically accepting the failures of fate. This, I recognize, is very Western of me. Although I intellectually respect the tradition of Taoism and Buddhism, I have enormous trouble identifying passivity/acceptance as a virtue. Between being a Westerner and an engineer, I’ve been trained to look at that as fatalism, something to reject. After all, if humans had always accepted those virtues, we’d still be living in caves. It’s a universal question as to which approach does more harm: If we had avoided Western progress through struggle we’d be ignorant about the stars, we’d have short life spans, and we wouldn’t be able to sustain large populations. On the other hand, we wouldn’t have global warming, and we’d have never discovered the horrors of mechanized genocide. While I’ve always felt that the good stuff has been worth the bad, it’s important to realize that not everyone feels the same. This fatalism isn’t new in sf, but coming from a Western tradition makes it difficult to appreciate. SF itself is so rooted in Western “progressivism” that this kind of story is very rare. This story doesn’t necessarily sell its attitude to the audience, but it does put it out there which is worth something.

Striking a completely different note, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro contributes a high-seas adventure tale, “Endra—From Memory,” but with a few twists. For one thing, the high-seas adventure is needed because global warming has knocked us back to roughly medieval/renaissance days, and the only way to move between far-flung regions in this largely flooded world is by sail. Another twist revolves around the gender of the main narrator, which is never specified. That makes the romance between the narrator and the charismatic woman at the center of the tale nicely ambiguous—you can read all their interactions in two or three ways, depending on how you choose to think of the narrator. The last odd note is Yarbro’s choice of narrator. All the narrators are land-bound and see the main character only as she passes through their port on her way to other adventures. In fact, the main narrator tries to persuade her to settle down and stop her roaming ways, which would obviously be like asking the wind to stop blowing. The question is, why pick the stay-at-home to tell about the romantic figure? Perhaps it’s because it’s on land where the myths and legends live, even when their subjects are off and away. Still, I would have liked to have read about some of these adventures directly, instead of second hand. It’s a good story, but nothing ground-breaking (which really describes most of the tales here, unfortunately).

“The Hour is Getting Late” by Billie Aul is an interesting story set in the near-future. It deals with the relationship between Art and Criticism in the context of a popular-mediated-media-saturated future. In the course of creating a new Woodstock version for the Internet-and-beyond age (as well as a sop for those poor schmucks who only exist in Reality, without online input), the Artist is trying to get back together with the Critic. The Critic is desperately trying to keep her own identity, to not be subsumed by the Artist and his continual agenda. However, the Artist is getting the crowd on his side, and one thwarts the will of the mob at one’s own peril. It’s a good illustration of power relationships mediated through pop culture and Art, with a good point about Reality (and the perils of ignoring it) at the end. Something about it doesn’t rise to the level of greatness, and I think it’s the execution. The reader doesn’t quite get fully immersed in the story—one has to spend a lot of time thinking about what’s going on. It’s a bit forced. This subject was also tackled by Walter Jon Williams in “Pinocchio,” his contribution to Jonathan Strahan’s YA Starry Rift anthology.

“Remote Control” by R. R. Angell is what I think of as “classic” sf. It’s completely idea-centered, and any plot and/or characters exist only to carry the idea around. Here the idea is over-the-top and satirical, although it’s depressingly easily extrapolated. Perhaps you’ve heard of the deer farm where you can sign up on the Internet to shoot a deer via a remote-controlled rifle? That’s real, and that’s twisted enough. And you’ve probably heard of the Minutemen, the folks who’ve taken it upon themselves to patrol the US’s border with Mexico to try to spot illegal immigrants coming across and stop them (they claim they take action only by calling the Border Patrol, not shooting). Combine those two ideas and voila, you’ve got Angell’s story. This one wouldn’t be out of place even in Analog. So the point is that dehumanizing immigrants is a Bad Thing, and that letting rednecks take pot-shots at them is also a Bad Thing. I’m going to go out on a limb here and figure that Angell is probably preaching to the choir here (I sure hope so). The rest of the plot doesn’t add much to the Idea—the characters are so thin that even the narrator refers to them as types instead of names (“Legal,” “Marketing,” etc.) and the actual plot makes no sense. You have to believe that it’s worth it for someone to spend several million dollars to get a truckload of immigrants across the border by using a robot decoy, and you have to assume that the coyotes who smuggle immigrants across the border have forgotten everything they ever knew about tunnels. The economics don’t stand up to the lightest scrutiny, and ultimately the story doesn’t add up to much.

“The Invisibles” by Elisabeth Vonarburg is about a somewhat Asimov-Caves-of-Steel future where humanity has had to withdraw to climate controlled domes. To manage the population, transportation of people is automated. You key in a district as your destination, and you get dropped off there. However, for two people, they find themselves in places they don’t recognize for the first time in their lives. The story is told in two second person POVs, then an explanatory first person narration at the end. It seems to be about emotional traumas jarring us out of the ruts of our lives, and using those opportunities to make drastic life-altering changes. This seems like a fairly trite message, something we’ve read about a number of times before, and left me at the end thinking “So what?” A bit of a let down.

“Into the Night” by Anil Menon is about the perils of aging. An old Indian gentleman (from India) goes to live with his thoroughly modern daughter after his wife passes on. His daughter is totally secular and has no respect for the “superstitious” religious habits which have seen him through his long life. She tries to introduce him to up-to-date immersive internet tech, and he immediately finds himself in an unpleasant and compromising situation. His mind is going already, which doesn’t help. In the end, there will never be understanding between the two generations. The main problem I had with this is that aging is so universal an experience that the Indian background of the family had no impact on the story. It was simply wallpaper. The resistance to change, the failing mental faculties, the generational misunderstanding, the adherence to “God did it” in the face of complicated science—all of that could come from a WASP family, a Jewish family, a Chinese family, etc. I didn’t feel like I learned anything new about the culture of the characters from reading this story—apparently everyone reacts to the complications of aging in about the same way. Oh well.

Finally we have Ryman’s own contribution. “Talk is Cheap” deals with a low caste man wooing a high caste woman, although the man never thinks of it that way. He eventually gets her to leave her house and go on an actual walk with him. He’s a bit disappointed when she goes off with some new people she met on the walk, but she also comes around to him again. There is a lot of imagery in the story that didn’t necessarily make sense to me, with people’s roles being described in totemic, animal-metaphor style (he thinks of himself as a Dog, she jokingly calls herself a Hamster). Unfortunately for the closing dialogue to make any sense you have to decipher what the animal imagery means to Ryman, and I felt like I never got a handle on that. Which meant that, for me, the ending seemed to dissolve into a series of non-sequiturs. Probably if I read it a few more times I’d figure it out eventually, but the rest of the story doesn’t have enough going on to entice me to do that.

So in the end, after reading the whole thing through, there aren’t any stories here that made me really sit up and go Wow! That’s unfortunate, since these stories are being presented as a showcase of a movement. It might have been nice if Ryman had been able to set his own deadline, (when I have enough really great stories, then I’ll put together an issue), instead of being yoked to the magazine’s publishing schedule. I have no doubt that awesome fiction following Mundane rules will continue to be written, but the stories collected here don’t quite rise to that level.

Pre-Travel Panic

So here's what I've got to do today (some of which would've been done yesterday if it hadn't been for that damned-to-the-eternities-of-hell migraine):

  • Edit & Post my review of the Mundane Interzone
  • Write up notes on the last issue of Baen's and see if there's an essay in there somewhere
  • Edit my review of Flood by Stephen Baxter
  • Edit my review of Lord Tophet and send to SFSignal
  • Laundry
  • Mail out birthday present for my sister (whose birthday occurs during WorldCon)
  • Get car washed/waxed
  • Get pet food
  • Other random shopping bits
  • Fill out FAFSA for my next round of student loans [the FAFSA site won't take Safari or Firefox 3.0, and the copy of IE on my laptop is so crappy that it's refusing to open the FAFSA link at all. Not my day. I'll try it again from the road--maybe there's a brower on Curtis' laptop that might work.]
  • Back-up my laptop and the important files from my new Mac
  • Cook dinner
  • Pack
  • Print out list of hotels along our travel route
Well, the sooner I quit whining and start doing, the sooner I'll be done. Cheers!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Extra Spiffy Twittering

One more thing: I've added my Twitter feed to the sidebar over to the right. So if I do manage to actually do some liveblogging from Denver/Worldcon, you can keep track of it right here without having to sign up for Twitter.

I feel like I should be doing more productive things right now, but I console myself with the knowledge that I did draft a new review today (~1500 words) and that has to count for something, right?

Twittering

No sooner speculated upon than done. I think I've got the Twitter basics figured out and my cell phone configured. My user name there is SpiralGalaxy (KarenBurnham was taken already). Will I remember to actually do anything with it? Doubtful, but it's fun to experiment. This is the SGR Laboratory, after all!

Prepping for WorldCon

It's hard to believe that I'll be leaving for Denver in only 3 days. The plan is: we drive out of here Friday after lunchtime and see how far we get. Then we drive the rest of the way to Fort Collins, CO on Saturday, there to spend time with Curtis' wonderful brother, sister-in-law, and three nieces Sunday - Tuesday. We'll show up at WorldCon on Wednesday.

I'm not sure how much online stuff I'll be able to do while I'm on the road. My brother-in-law has plenty of 'Net access, but I imagine I'll have more important things to do. Once we check into the hotel at WorldCon, there's no telling how much Internet access will cost, so we'll play it by ear. I've got several things in draft form right now. I'm hoping to post one before I leave (a review of Geoff Ryman's Mundane issue of Interzone), and get one or two polished up to post automatically while I'm away (a review of Stephen Baxter's Flood, if nothing else).

I probably won't be able to contribute much to the WorldCon photo bonanza - while we're lucky that our digital camera weathered our trip to England, it died soon thereafter. (Much better to die in Houston than at Leeds Castle before we'd seen Cantebury Cathedral and St. Pauls.) We're on the fence as to whether to get one before we leave--right now I think we're leaning towards taking our time and getting my pro-photographer brother to find something for us instead of rushing to get something right now. Although there's the risk that Curtis might explode if forced to watch the Masquerade without taking pictures, so that will have to be weighed.

At WorldCon itself I'm currently slotted to be on two panels (my first EVER, wish me luck!) One is: "Book Reviewers: The Missing Link of the Publishing Industry," currently schedule for 11:30 on Friday. The other is: "Popularity vs. Critical Acclaim," scheduled for 4pm on Saturday. My co-panelists will include such luminaries as Graham Sleight, Jonathan Strahan, Farah Mendlesohn and James Morrow. Come see all the brilliant people that I will be sitting next to!

Anyway, we'll be shaking off our post-Hugo hangovers and starting the drive home lunchtime-ish on Sunday, and probably getting home Monday evening. I will have my cell phone with me, and I'm considering experimenting with Twitter (John De Nardo showed that it can be done when he went to the Nebula award banquet this year). If so, I'll post details here before I go.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Issue at Hand, William Atheling, Jr.


"William Atheling, Jr.,” was the pseudonym under which James Blish wrote criticism. The Issue at Hand collects the columns he wrote in that guise in 1952, '53 and '54, then in '62 and '63, finishing with a speech from 1960. There is an additional collection, More Issues at Hand which I can assure you I will be purchasing in the near future. His criticism is ruthless and insightful and still fascinating to read. It also gave me some insight into debates that have been raging for decades and still do today. This book is valuable for writers (to avoid the mistakes of the past), readers who want a glimpse into the past of the field, and any reviewer or critic.

Let's start off with something I found quite gratifying: Atheling was writing for fanzines. He started off in Redd Boggs' Skyhook, then continued in Richard Bergeron's Warhoon and Dick and Pat Lupoff's Xero. Given the esteem with which this criticism continues to be mentioned today, I had assumed that it appeared in the regular (and regularly edited) fiction magazines—Astounding, F&SF, or perhaps Galaxy. After all, older critics are always telling us bloggers that only properly edited reviews/criticism/essays are worth reading; if it's not edited by professionals, don’t bother. So to find out that this amazing criticism that has stood the test of time was published in fanzines, which, let's face it, were the blogs of their time, tickled me to no end. It is also quite encouraging to think that our bloggy blatherings really do have the potential to produce great criticism (and on some occasions have already done so).

Generally Atheling's reviews get deep into the craft of writing, both when it's well done and more often when it isn't. In his first column, after laying out the goals of his criticism and its justifications, he takes apart a story from the Sept. 1952 Startling Stories, "Night Talk" by Charles E. Fritch. Atheling starts out:
One would think, for instance, that no writer should need to be told that a story cannot get along without at least one believable person in it; and that no editor would buy a story that lacked such a person. If you think both these points self-evident, please turn to.... The basic point is that there is nobody in the story. The man from whose point of view the story is told has no name; he is referred to only as "the traveller." Also, he has no appearance; the sole clue we are given to help us visualize him is that he is wearing boots...and, on the second page of the piece, "clothing." The illustrator has given him fur cuffs, collar and hat, but this is a completely creative gesture on the illustrator's part, and gives the author more aid in reaching his readers than he has earned.... This may seem to be heavy artillery to bring to bear upon a story which can be little over a thousand words long, but I can't see why a story should be excused for being bad because it is short.
Atheling gets specific in his criticism, which brings us to another point: audience. Atheling had a luxury that we don't today. Writing for fanzines in the '50s and '60s, he could expect that most of his readers owned the magazines, and either had read or would read the stories he covered. He didn't need to worry about spoilers, he didn't have to give the context, and he certainly doesn't do plot summary. The essays read perfectly well without having the text to hand, although several times I wished I did so I could see exactly what Atheling meant and get more context. Today we can't assume that people reading our reviews have, or are ever going to, read the stories and novels we talk about. It's a shame, but really only in that we have to spend time writing plot summaries. It's boring, but necessary.

Atheling defends his detailed critiques from all comers. For one, he points out that he is performing a service for writers (one which he strongly indicates editors should be doing but aren't). He points out that writers rarely get any feedback at all on their stories, and if you rule out the "plot summary + I liked it" sort of review, often none at all. Once most of the magazines shut down their letter columns (which situation has not improved; only Analog today continues to have a regular letters column) the writers and the editors both became blind in an important way. It is inevitable that when they know letters won't get published the fans don't write them (I can only imagine how many more letters Stan Schmidt receives than Gordon van Gelder does), and then both the editors and the authors lose a valuable source of feedback. Authors need to know when something doesn't work so they can get better, and Atheling sees himself as providing this service, to a limited extent.

Also, Atheling had to contend with criticism of his own work. (Critics critiquing critics also isn’t new!) For instance:
Some time back, Damon Knight wrote me a letter about this column in which he said, among other things, "...I think it's a waste of time to bring up your big guns against short-shorts by Charles E. Fritch. You ought to aim at the top, where the cliches are being perpetuated, not down among the black-beetles."

Perhaps so...I have several times torn newcomers to shreds, and will be at it again in just a moment. I think Damon has a different conception of what constitutes aiming "at the top" than I do, at least for the purposes of this column. I am not particularly interested in criticizing authors, known or unknown, in a vacuum. If there is to be any point in analyzing what is printed in the professional magazines, the analyses should also be read by editors, who are usually at least as guilty as writers when a nuisance is committed....

To aim at the top then, let's examine such a case of editorial collapse on the part of a great editor: John W. Campbell, Jr. The story under consideration is "Final Exam," by a new writer (if that's the word I'm groping for) named Arthur Zirul.
His awareness of the larger industry that goes into making genre literature gives him more insight and a better aim than average, definitely something for the lowly reviewer to keep in mind.

Unfortunately, I am nowhere near the writer that James Blish was, so it is difficult for me to criticize a work down at the nitty-gritty level of word-craft (although after Geoff Ryman's tutelage at the SF Masterclass, I'm more aware of that level than I have ever been). However, towards the end Atheling speaks of higher aims that I also found gratifying. He is discussing non-genre authors playing in our sandbox (turns out the McCarthy/Atwood-style controversy has a provenance going back generations!) and why they are so often successful:
In short, all these books are about something. I submit to you that very few science-fiction stories, even the best of them, are about anything... For all their ingenuities of detail and their smoothness as exercises, they show no signs of thinking—and by that I mean thinking about problems that mean something to everyone, not just about whether a match will stay lit in free fall...

I am trying to discuss the kind of book from which the reader emerges with the feeling, "I never thought about it that way before"; the kind of book with which the author has not only parted the reader from his cash and an hour of his time, but also has in some small fraction enlarged his thinking and thereby changed his life. For this kind of operation an exploding star is not a proper tool; at best, it is only a backdrop.
This is so much like what I wrote in my "Reviewing Philosophy" post, that I'm just grateful that I demonstrably read the book after composing the essay; otherwise I would think myself a horrible plagiarist.

In general, Blish as Atheling is arguing for holding genre fiction to high standards, not giving in to excuses such as "it's just entertainment" or worse, "it's educational." He argues (as did Gary Wolfe at the Masterclass, which proves that this battle must be continually waged) that genre literature is LITERATURE, and should be read and written as such. The authors won't spontaneously get better if their mediocre efforts get published; and if the editors won't knock them into shape it's up to the critics.

I'm not sure that Atheling’s style of criticism is right for me—the word-by-word analysis of the craft of a story. I might experiment with it, but I doubt it will make up the core of what I do. However, it is immensely valuable to read the arguments for it, and to see it done brilliantly. His clarion call to not cut sf any slack just because we like it—that encourages me more and more, and will certainly influence me as a move forward with my reviewing experiments.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Halting State, by Charles Stross


So you’ve heard about Charles Stross’ latest book, Halting State, and you decide to pick it up. It’s been nominated for a Hugo, after all, and Stross generally never fails to be entertaining. You start to read. Ah, Stross is experimenting with second person narration! That makes sense; the story’s plot is largely about MMORPGs, which are essentially all from second person POVs. Anyone who has played a modern computer game, from Quake to WoW, will be used to thinking this way. And look, he’s writing from multiple perspectives. Not just one “you,” but three. Again, with frequent POV-hopping in games, that makes sense. The first character you read about is a female cop in Scotland. That’s pretty cool; you can see how she’ll probably be central to the plot, and she seems like a nice, no-nonsense sort of person. Next up, a woman whose spare time is dedicated to LARPing with big effing broadswords. Now that’s just cool. In her real life she’s an insurance adjuster of some sort. It’s a little hard to see how she’ll fit into things, but she’s already established her cool geek cred. But wait, who’s your third player? A recently fired computer games programmer, so drunk in Amsterdam that he’s been chained to a lamppost and can’t remember how he got there. About this time you realize that it’s easier to read about “him” doing stupid things than to read about “you” doing stupid things, and you begin praying for more expository dialog so you can get a break from “you went here, you did this” narration...

OK, I’ll stop now. Charles Stross never fails to entertain, but in this book he comes close. Second person narration is hard to sustain, even over a novella, so a novel's worth is pretty wearing. No matter how flawed, though, I couldn't actually stop myself from reading it all the way to the end. Stross had set up a mystery intriguing enough that I had to find out whodunnit.

The multiple-second-person-POV trick is legitimate given the subject matter of the book, and one has to give Stross credit for trying it. However, there's a significant difference between the second person POV gaming experience, and the reading experience. When you’re gaming, you have control over what “you” do. As a reader, the author is necessarily in control of what “you” do, which makes it more jarring and annoying when “you” do something you don’t agree with. Likewise, when gaming it is easy to be aware of the difference between my elven mage and my halfling thief. In Halting State it is less easy to keep clear which of the three main characters I am reading about. From the different descriptions you would think that these three would be easy to keep straight, but the voice of the narrator doesn't change sufficiently between chapters: no matter who "you" are, the voice telling you about "you" is always the same. That's probably the biggest flaw in the whole book.

Onto the plot. Someone staged a bank robbery in an online game. At the company running the financial system for that game, someone panics and calls the local police. "You," Sue, are the first officer on the scene. Various money people start getting worried. If this becomes known, it may cause stock in game companies to fall sharply. The insurance people get involved. Thus "you," Elaine, a bit of a gamer yourself, get sent with a team of auditors up to Edinburgh to try to cover their assets (as it were). They also hire "you," Jack, a recently laid-off game programmer who will be able to show them around inside the code.

As the plot thickens, the stakes rise. It’s forgivable, but more than a little disappointing, that the threat of raising the Elder Gods never becomes apparent, as it does in Stross' "Laundry" series (Atrocity Archives and Jennifer Morgue). Instead you get a maelstrom of corporate interests, industrial and international espionage, assassination attempts using LARPers, quantum computing, and national computer security.

As usual, there are a ton of great ideas here. Interestingly enough, if you combine Stross’ paranoia of the hacking of an entire country's inter and intranet with Edward M. Lerner's concern with RFID tracking, you may as well just stay indoors with your tinfoil hat on. Nonetheless, Stross’ projection of ubiquitous internet access into the near future is convincing, and his ideas about using that for LARPing are fun.

HOWEVER: that just doesn't compensate for the massive characterization flaws. Beside the lack of differentiation, there's also the matter of the romance between Elaine and Jack. Apparently, just because they're working together, they're opposite sex, and they're both gamers means they're destined to get it on. This is apparently so inevitable that Stross neglects to show us anything like a developing chemistry between the two. Elaine looks at Jack with a "well, he's not that bad" attitude, and Jack looks back with a "I'm totally oblivious because I'm not worthy of her" attitude, and the next thing you know they're in bed. Ouch.

Then there's poor Sue, the lesbian street cop caught up in all this. She doesn't drive any of the action. She's got no clue about gaming or white-collar crime. In fact, it's her ladder-climbing superior Liz who actually gets a handle on things and maneuvers the department through it, even as the big Ministry guns are being called in. My question is: why is our POV Sue and not Liz?

One more quibble: at the end, one of the bad guys actually starts monologuing instead of shooting our heroes. Stross knows it too. Here's a portion of the scene:

He looks angry, and a bit bewildered now. "It was working fine until you showed up." If it wasn't for you pesky interfering kids, I'd have gotten away with it...

In the end we do find out whodunnit, but it's less than 100% satisfying, and it feels like it took too long to get there, especially wading through all the second person narration. If you're looking for your next Stross book I'd have to say skip this one and head either for a "Laundry" novel or one of the volumes in his "Merchant Princes" series instead. Much easier to read, with much more coherent narration.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Status & Mind Mapping

Though things have been quiet around here, I've been busy in the background. I'm currently polishing a review of Halting State which I'll be posting this week. That way, even though I failed to review the Hugo nominees before the voting closed, I'll at least get to them all before the results are announced. That counts for something, right? I've also recently finished James Blish/William Atheling Jr.'s first review collection, The Issue At Hand and I'll be writing up my thoughts on that shortly. I'm currently reading Stephen Baxter's latest, Flood, and my non-fiction reading has shifted to Joanna Russ' collection of criticism, The Country You Have Never Seen. Very different from Atheling's style, but equally insightful.

Speaking of books and things to read, I'd like to point out that DreamHaven Books is having a huge sale on their used book inventory, running to about 50% off. They're going to be moving shops soon, so could use to have a lot of books off their hands. I got five, won't you help?

The other piece I have going right now is a review of Jonathan Strahan's Years' Best anthology, compared and contrasted to Hartwell & Cramer's Fantasy and Science Fiction volumes. This has been quite a challenge for me; it's the first time I've tried to tackle this sort of review. Below is the screen capture of something I've been finding quite helpful.

That's a mind map of the contents of all three volumes, complete with color coding. Never say that I don't go above and beyond the call for Strange Horizons! I found a very good free software package called Freemind that does mind maps. It's fairly intuitive and does everything I want it to. I've found myself using it much more than I expected. It's surprisingly handy for organizing thoughts and large amounts of information. It's also small enough to fit on my thumb drive, from which I always run it so I can have it with me on any computer I use. Very nice.

In other news I'm still waiting for my new iMac. My desktop finally gave up the ghost (not unexpected), and I ordered the iMac through my college last Monday. Unfortunately this means that they have to order it from Apple and have it shipped. Considering that I really want it now, I sometimes wonder if it was worth saving $200 and getting a free 8GB iPod if it means waiting more than a week... gosh darn those student discount programs! And thank heavens for my trusty laptop.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Last Colony by John Scalzi

A John Scalzi novel is sort of the antithesis of what I was talking about in my "Reviewing Philosophy" essay. Even eminent theoretician Wendy Pearson pointed out that sometimes theory just doesn't apply. You don't need to interrogate the subtext when it's all out there on the surface. Or, in the words of Duncan Lawie, applying hard-core post-modern theory to a writer like Scalzi would be like stomping puppies. So, keep in mind that I enjoy Scalzi's work and his blogging. I certainly do not want to discourage people from writing and reading entertaining entry-level sf. On other levels, however, Last Colony is not his best work. While I won't rake him over the coals for lack of multi-culturalism, there are other things going on that make this book less than totally satisfying.

Good: the Set Up

In the Old Man's War (OMW) series[1] Scalzi has created a universe that can sustain a wide variety of stories. The basic set up: humanity has moved out to the stars, and the good news is that there are plenty of colonizable worlds. The bad news is that there are lots of aliens with roughly the same biology as ours competing for those worlds. It's a kill-or-be-killed universe out there. So the primary player in human politics is the CDF, the Colonial Defense Force. They draw recruits from Earth, mostly colonists or aged folks to be soldiers, and strictly control the flow of information. Earth remains mostly in naive ignorance about what the universe is really like.

Neutral: Background

Scalzi drew some flak after the first volume for not challenging this political system. If you didn't know him through other means, it was possible to read about the soldiers, the bureaucracy, the military victories, and assume that Scalzi is a right-winger intent on glorifying the military. In Last Colony he thoroughly deconstructs the political system he created, showing its many gaping flaws. To do so he goes back to John Perry and Jane Sagan, heroes of the first volume, and their adopted daughter Zoe, introduced in Ghost Brigades.

Good: Politics

I appreciate what he's done here, and I wholeheartedly support the political impulse that leads him to do it. Military rule unchecked by civilian oversight is a bad thing, as is restriction on the free flow of information. However, unlike Ghost Brigades, the story never unifies all its threads behind that idea. There are some threads that don't contribute to making that argument, and the novel as a whole ends up feeling unfocused. This was particularly disappointing given the excellent thematic drive of Ghost Brigades.

Meh: Themes

One particular thread that didn't add up involves the alien Obin. In Ghost Brigades, Zoe's natural father defects to their side and uses his neural engineering to give this race consciousness. Prior to that they were sentient beings without consciousness, or perhaps without "souls." Peter Watt's amazing and unsettling Hugo-nominated novel Blindsight also dealt with this concept (in ways that not everyone found convincing). In Ghost Brigades, which was tightly focused on its main character's struggle with identity, it was easy to accept this premise. In Last Colony two Obin stay with Zoe at all times, reverencing her for what her father did for them. They have consciousness modules that they can turn on and off. The difference between "on" and "off" is generally manifested only in terms of experiencing or not experiencing emotions. This did not mesh with my understanding of what consciousness implies for a thinking being. My take on it was that non-conscious beings can do things by instruction or instinct (think termites building architecturally sophisticated mounds), but cannot break their natural reactions or change their own goals. Emotion may be a by-product of consciousness, but it seems that gaining it would have deeper implications than when Star Trek's Data gets an emotion chip.

Now, my take may or may not have any justification. But step back a moment: how does this sub-plot reinforce or add depth to the theme of stopping military/governmental abuses? It doesn't, so far as I can see. The Obin are not a huge part of the story, nor are they that integral to the plot (except inasmuch as they withhold and deliver information that John Perry needs to know). However, the nature of consciousness is an interesting question that gets little serious treatment in this story and seems completely disconnected from the overarching theme of the novel. (It may get more attention in later volumes - one would expect that Zoe's Tale may take a closer look at this.) This is exactly the sort of problem that Ghost Brigades did not have, and Last Colony suffers in comparison.

It probably didn't help that I felt the ending went too far: John Perry ends up unilaterally making decisions that will affect all humanity's chance of survival in the future. He takes a lot of options off the table, and I disagreed with his ultimate choice of tactics. For one thing, unilateral, irrevocable decisions are not exactly democratic, even if meant to restore democracy. Also, I thought of a different way for him to make the same point with less risk of drastically negative consequences, and thus was unhappy with his choice.

Interesting: OMW and BSG

As a consequence of the Masterclass, a question I found myself asking is: does this story need to be sf? I think it does in the same way Battlestar Galactica does. Truly existential threats focus the mind wonderfully. Both these series eliminate the question of: "Is the threat really that bad?" For BSG, it's hard to argue with the fact of billions upon billions of dead humans. In OMW, it's hard to argue with expansionist needs and limited territory. Also, some aliens think we're tasty. However, the next move that both these stories make is an impressive one: they undermine the monolithic quality of their existential threats. In BSG the Cylons start squabbling amongst themselves on numerous points, and in Last Colony we find out that different alien races have different factions and agendas, and some of them may be sympathetic to humanity. Or at least, may be willing to talk instead of shoot. SF makes this sort of move particularly dramatic. The history of the field is full of monolithic alien threats (e.g. Heinlein's infamous Bugs in Starship Troopers), so when a fictional work sets them up and then reveals them to be more subtle and nuanced, it has greater impact.

Weird: Characterization. Scalzi = Mary Sue?

The characterization in this novel is both a strength and a weakness. The strength is that you've got a witty lead character who is likable and competent, a kick-ass female secondary character, and their basically-has-her-sh*t-together young daughter, also empathetic. In the hands of a writer with a real flare of the rhythm of snappy dialog, this makes the story easy and pleasurable to read. However, if you've spent much time reading Whatever, Scalzi's solidly A-List blog, this starts to look suspiciously like a Mary Sue (or at least an author surrogate) set up. John Perry's voice is almost exactly that of John Scalzi on Whatever (they're both from Ohio too, although Perry left for space and Scalzi moved there from California). Jane Sagan, genetically enhanced kick-ass soldier, acts very much like Krissy, Scalzi's much beloved kick-ass wife. And Zoe, the very together pubescent daughter, is sometimes described in exactly the same terms as Athena, Scalzi's very together elementary school-age daughter. In previous books this dynamic was less obvious because the characters didn't spend much time together. In Last Colony they're established as a family unit, and one ceases to be able to separate them from the Scalzi household, at least as it's portrayed on Whatever. Is this good... creepy...? Only you, the reader, can make the call. I found it distracting.

Up-Shot

There is no denying that all the OMW books are fun to read. Scalzi's writing style moves the reader breezily through the story, stopping to appreciate the witty dialog and banter along the way. Also, it's good to see him interrogate the assumptions behind the military sub-genre of sf. Sometimes you can talk to the enemy, sometimes the military leadership isn't right, and sometimes you have to do something about that. You can agree or disagree with Perry's ultimate tactics, but it's very hard to argue with his goals.

But that's the problem. He's illustrating something here that most people already agree with. Unchecked military rule is a Bad Thing, as is censorship. These are things that we should fight. However, we don't all have command of space ships, bio-engineered soldier wives, and children who are the idols of a powerful alien race to help us do that. It is as an everyman that Scalzi asks us to identify with Perry, but it's as a man with access to extraordinary powers that Perry is able to correct the situation. There's nothing that schmucks like us, stuck on Earth, would be able to do about a situation like that. Now see, I'm getting too serious about this. We love to read about Heroes Who Fix Things. We've always loved reading about them. I love reading about them. It's why Asimov and Heinlein are still loved today, especially by me. Castigating Scalzi for following those conventions is, you guessed it, like stomping puppies. Still, it'd be great to see a writer of this talent and appeal go for something newer and fresher; something that changes the way we view the world instead of reinforcing the viewpoints of the last 60 years of sf. I can't blame him for doing it, and I wish him all the best sales numbers, but I do yearn for something a bit more.[2]

[1] The series so far includes, in order: Old Man's War, The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony and Zoe's Tale (out in August), with the independent novella The Sagan Diaries thrown in for flavor.

[2] Whoa, 1600+ words on a Scalzi novel. Between the Masterclass and all that writing for Strange Horizons, something must be affecting my brain.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Milestone

I should have a new review up tomorrow. I'll leave you in suspense as to which book it will cover. In the meantime though, I just have to indulge in some shameless self-promotion/bragging/squee-ing.

The July 2008 issue of New York Review of Science Fiction contains an article I wrote! For the first time, something I wrote all by my lonesome is appearing in ink-on-dead-tree form! (As opposed to contributing to a con report in Locus.) It's a version on my ICFA paper from 2007. It looks at Charles Stross' Glasshouse and Greg Egan's Schild's Ladder and discusses how they approach post-human gender.

2008 is turning out to be a deliriously wonderful year for me, at least in terms of sf/f reviewing, what with the Masterclass, getting into print, and being assigned to 2 panels at Worldcon. Whoa. Either the awesomeness will continue and I'll get my dream job by October, or the crash will be mighty and humiliating (or things will level off, as they tend to, but that's not so exciting now, is it?) Time will tell.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Carhullan Army at SFSignal

I wanted to point people towards my review of The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall at SFSignal. It's already sparked some good discussion, including some particularly interesting points from Abigail Nussbaum.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Gender Balancing Act

SFSignal last week posted a marvelous Mind Meld feature on gender balance in sf. It was sparked in part by Jonathan Strahan's mea culpa upon announcing that the Table of Contents of Eclipse 2 had only one woman's name on it. When I was in England, I spoke with Niall Harrison about this as well. His view (also expressed in the Mind Meld) is that it is imperative, especially for independent reviewers who can choose their own books, to make sure to get women's names out there in front of the public for discussion.

I'm hesitant to wade into this discussion for many reasons. I've already mentioned my own ambivalence about gender. However, since the Masterclass I've been thinking deeply about my approach to reviewing. Thus for honesty's sake I feel the need to address this facet as well. I consider myself a feminist in that I feel it is imperative for women to be able to pursue their individual destinies without feeling constrained by other's expectations. That ideal isn't possible to fully achieve; even WASP men have to deal with societal constraints. ("Son, why ain't yew out there playin' football?") However, women have more constraints to shake off than men do, and that's important to remember.

So in general I agree with those who think that women are not currently being given a fair shake and could use some help. Here I have to put out my own mea culpa. Since I started reviewing on Spiral Galaxy, Lo these 2 years ago, if you count up my reviews of novels, single-author non-fiction books, and single-author collections, my stats are: 134 books by men, 34 by women. That's 80% male (.797619), 20% female. Ouch. I have to admit that I am part of the problem.

So what's my excuse? I've got a bunch:
  1. I've been reading lots of moldy-oldy sf, stuff from before 1940. The gender balance on that stuff is atrocious. (Those books start to make up the "Canon" of early sf. Who decides what's in the Canon...? Probably folks who look more like James Gunn and less like Farah Mendlesohn. That's a discussion for another day.)
  2. For years when I was growing up to be a physicist/engineer, I rejected anything that questioned my machismo. I refused to take Home Economics or typing. I refused to learn to make coffee. I wore combat boots and took fencing. I never wanted to be shunted into secretarial work (sometimes that was a clear and present danger). I read Greg Bear and avoided Octavia Butler, just based on the names on the cover. I actively avoided female authors. Given how much of our tastes get set in high school (I still find combat boots comfy, even if I know better than to wear them to work—for work I wear hiking boots instead) I probably still subconsciously choose male authors over female ones, even if I really enjoy Elizabeth Moon and C. S. Friedman now.
  3. I am a physicist/engineer. I prefer science fiction to fantasy and eschew romance titles altogether. Thus I end up reading more male authors than female ones.
  4. I've still got issues with machismo. Strong emotions make me uncomfortable. Romance plots, unless they happen naturally in the background, turn me off. Again, stereotypically, I'm going to be leaning towards male authors here.
But no matter; it's still obvious that I am part of the problem. The easiest thing for me to do would be to agree with Niall and consciously select more female authors to review. But I'm not going to commit to that. (Please don't hurt me.)

For one, I'm still working through the old stuff. Like it or not, the vast majority of pre-1940s sf was written by men.

The more important reason is that it's not the fight that I choose. I've realized that what I want most from SF is the ability to think about the world differently than before, to get new perspectives. Just reading something by a woman does not automatically give me a new perspective—despite my waffling, I am one. What I want to focus on is getting my hands on more speculative fiction written by non-WASPs, non-English speakers, and non-Westerners. Ultimately I'm more likely to get new ideas from someone from Japan, like Haruki Murakami, or any black author, either Octavia Butler or Stephen Barnes, than from Catherine Asaro. Reading something by a person from South America, like Kalpa Imperial by AngĂ©lica Gorodischer (translated by Ursula K. LeGuin) (which I've now ordered) or even about South America, like Brasyl by Ian McDonald from Northern Ireland, is more likely to stretch my mind than reading Lois McMaster Bujold. I haven't been going out of my way to get ARCs for books like these, but now I will. I hope that I'll review more women in the process. When the criteria is new perspectives, authors like Kelly Link, M. Rickert, and Theodora Goss will float to the top. Just because someone is a WASP like me, male or female, doesn't mean that they won't have the next bleeding-edge speculation or totally different world-view. But living on a different continent, male or female, drastically raises the chances.

I'm going to give my new reviewing philosophy a solid year, then I'll run the statistics again, by gender and nationality, and we'll see what's changed.

Friday, July 11, 2008

For the Record

This is my public statement that I heartily agree with the stances Paul Raven at Futurismic and Andrew Wheeler at Antick Musings have taken over the whole Willaim Sanders at Helix brou-ha-ha.

I would yank my link to Helix, except I never had one. I supported their first issue and donated my small chunk of change to the cause. Then I was reading their forums where Sanders reacted to criticism from a woman by denouncing her using offensive language. Figuring that I wasn't welcome, I stopped reading, linking and donating.

This recent flap doesn't surprise me. He and his defender, Lawrence Watt-Evans (whose books I enjoy and whom I will not be boycotting), claim that he can't be racist/homophobic/misogynistic because he publishes fiction by minorities, gays and women. However, I've seen many an engineer be perfectly fine hiring a woman, then proceed to marginalize her to the point where she quits. They can't imagine themselves as misogynists, but they are. These things are more subtle now than standing atop a desk yelling "Back to the kitchen with you!" (Man, I hope that this won't make me a hypocrite when I post my take on the recent gender debates next week.)

And even those engineers are a darn sight more polite than Sanders is. Racist or not, the guy is simply a jerk. We could do with fewer of those in the field.

Brasyl, by Ian McDonald


So, now that I've outlined what I want from my speculative fiction, I need some examples. Is there anything out there that can meet my newly-high standards? Will I become some sort of cranky critic killjoy, categorically condemning everything as crap? Breathes there a book that exemplifies the principles of multiculturalism, new ideas, new ways of looking at the world, engaging plot, and artistic prose? Oh look, I have one right here. (How handy!) In fact it's a Hugo nominee this year. While I have my suspicions that Brasyl, by Ian McDonald, won't end up taking home the rocket, it should.

The story is told in three parts: past, present and future. In 1732, Father Quinn is a Jesuit priest who has come to Brazil to help deal with a rogue priest in the interior. In 2006, Marcelina is a reality TV producer who thinks she's come up with a sure-fire ratings hit. She'll find Barbosa, the goalie who didn't block the gaming-ending goal in a World Cup soccer match from the '50s, put him on TV mock-trial and see if Brazilians are willing to forgive him. As she tries to track him down some very odd things begin happening to her, as if a doppleganger is interfering with her life. Finally, in 2032, Edson is an entrepreneur working his way up out of the favela, the ghetto. When his brother steals a purse with a quantum-encrypted RFID system, he meets up with a quantumeira, an attractive rogue physicist hiring out her quantum computers for illicit purposes.

When all these threads intersect, and we finally find out what the ultimate conflict is, it is enlightening. It illuminates a much more fundamental question than simply "is all this real?" It picks an answer to that question, and then delves deeper into the implications. This is what really good sf should do.

It's interesting to compare Brasyl to its fellow Hugo nominee, Halting State by Charles Stross (about which more in a near-future post). Superficially, their near-future scenarios are similar. People have access to real-time heads-up computing in the form of web-connected glasses, and computing advances have led to quantum computing and largely ubiquitous surveillance that the characters must escape. Stross uses his story to make political points about personal and political struggles in such a world. McDonald gets deep into the structure of the universe and how we should move forward in a multiverse that may be just as strange as we can imagine. That difference in ambition is one of the many reasons why Brasyl is the superior work of the two (although as I'll make clear, I enjoyed Halting State perfectly well).

Another strength is that McDonald's characters are all interesting and completely different. Father Quinn is a powerful man who turned to the church because of his guilt over committing a murder. Marcelina has not signed up for an action-heroine life, but she will use all her resources to survive, even when the doppleganger ruins her already tenuous relationships with her mother and sisters. Edson is a man of many identities, refusing to be tied down to any one. Entrepreneur, young gay lover to an older man (who is also a physicist, helping with infodumping as needed), Efrim the empowered transvestite, Edson going after the beautiful lady physicist, DJ Pettycash the ruling DJ of the baile (street party - there's a very handy glossary in the back of the book), and many others. All of the main characters wrestle with multiple identities at different times, which reinforces the multiverse investigations of the plot and setting.

Each character/time line has a completely different tone and prose style. 2006 is written in the relatively straight-forward style that you find from most sf. The 18th century passages are written in a slower, more formal and poetic style. Edson's sections are exuberantly flamboyant. Consider this passage from the street dance:
Straight up Petty Cash catches PJ Suleiman's hip-swaying samba paulistano, hauls a mangue bass out of his sample array, and brings in a beat that has the bass drivers bowing and booming in their cabs. The crowd reels back all at once, whoa! Then in midbeat everyone is up in the air, coming down on the counterpoint, and the bloco is bouncing. Suleiman tries something clever clever with a classic black metal guitar solo and an old drum bass rinse, and it's itchy and scratchy but you can't dance to that. Petty Cash takes the guitar solo, rips off the bass section and bolts on funk in industrial quantities: an old gringo bass line from another century and a so-fresh-they-haven't-taken-the-plastic-off pan-rhythm. Efrim can see the track lines on Petty Cash's I-shades as his eyeballs sample and mix in real time. The audience are living it loving it slapping it sucking it: no question who wins this face-off.
Throughout that whole scene I found myself nodding my head to the beat of the invisible music - that kind of response, pulling the reader in so completely, is the work of a master.

I enjoyed this work so much that I almost hate to point out any flaws, but all books have them. This one has fewer than most. Quinn's traveling companion is a (presumably) fictional French scientist, Robert Falcon. In this time line he's invented a primitive computer for weaving patterns via punch-cards. In our universe this was invented by Jacquard in 1804. Perhaps this feat of prodigy would explain why Falcon is already bandying about the concept of Turing's universal computer 300 years early, but it rang a false note for me. Just because a concept is obvious to us now does not mean that it would be obvious to someone working with its antecedents. Another minor quibble is that Edson falls in love with one version of his quantumeira, then meets another one. For the ending to work one has to assume that his affections have transferred to the new woman (who isn't as cool as the 'original,' and McDonald doesn't quite sell the transition.

These points are really by-the-by. I haven't even started on the martial arts, the exotic cults, the honestly earned resonance with Heart of Darkness, the feeling that the people in the past and future really do think differently than we do, etc. It all comes together beautifully in a masterfully crafted package. I hope that via its Hugo nomination it gains a wide audience, many admirers and many imitators.

It's not just about genre

If everything had gone to plan, I would have posted a nice, juicy review yesterday. Instead I ended up spending just about all day in bed with a sheet over my head trying to block out the light. Migraine. Bleah.

Luckily I'm mostly recovered today, so here is one of the extra things I remembered while I was trying to avoid stray photons that might make my head explode:

To follow on from my 'manifesto' (see previous post), my criterion of "make me think about the world differently" applies to all literature, including mainstream and non-fiction.

Non-fiction gets off pretty easily; usually its only purpose is to present a new fact or a new idea. Some are better at it than others, of course. Plus, sometimes you get something totally unexpected, such as when The Chief, a biography of William Randolph Hearst, gave me greater insight into the class structure of America.

Mainstream fiction sometimes has a harder job - so much of it is written by suburban WASPs. For instance, Catcher and the Rye didn't do anything for me. However, books like To Kill a Mockingbird or The Color Purple can really change your views and give you new perspectives.

Anyway, I just wanted to make it clear that the standards I outlined work pretty well for just about everything I read, not just genre literature. Speaking of enlightening non-fiction, while I was suffering yesterday my copy of The Issue at Hand, the first collection of 'Atheling, Jr.' criticism arrived. I hope I'll have some time to delve into it today, perhaps after I post that review this afternoon.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Towards my own Reviewing Philosophy

I've been thinking seriously about what reviews should do. Blame the SFF Masterclass. After absorbing the books, the articles, the instruction, and the conversations, I realize that I need to do more with my writing. Reviewing at its best does more than simply alert people to new books by their favorite authors[1]. That's valuable, but it's simple and there are lots of venues for that. Reviewing should publicize the best of what's out there, particularly if it's under the radar. Niall Harrison mentioned the advocacy reviewing of 'William Atheling, Jr.' (James Blish's critical pseudonym) and Joanna Russ as models to emulate[2]. They reviewed things with an eye to what they wanted the field to be. It's a bit more challenging now; the field has come a long way since the 60s. The literary quality is better, and sf/f has come to recognize a broader universe of concerns. Still, there's always room for improvement. Reviewing should hold the field to the highest standards. Not everything is "the best," but by measuring the gap between what is and what could be, we can suggest a way forward. What else should reviews do? They should give people updates on the changing face of the field. Every new work changes the big picture of what speculative fiction is, in ways small or large. By knowing the history of the genre, a reviewer should be able to put a new book in context so that even if people don't get around to reading the book, they'll still be aware of its impact.

Pretentious? Yeah. Who am I to say what direction the field should go in? I'm a physicist with delusions of literacy. I started writing about what I read so that I could remember the plot of a book five minutes after putting it down. However, as I've written and read more and more and listened to people in the community, I've begun to see what the art of criticism can be. My reviewing can have a sharper focus than it has had in the past. I know I've been guilty of the "people who enjoy this sort of thing will enjoy this" review, and I want to put that behind me. Those reviews are boring to read, and let me tell you that after only two months of doing it, they're boring to write. So while I will continue to read Analog, because I enjoy SF puzzle stories as much as the next fan[3], I probably won't mention them here unless they do something really new. The same goes for the other magazines (although of course if some story does something astonishingly annoying, I'll probably mention that as well).

This evolution makes sense: reviewers come to read fiction differently than a lot of readers and fans. For one, we read lots and lots of stuff. After the nth iteration of a given theme, we're desperate for something new, something we haven't seen before. We read, as Gary Wolfe has put it, more cynically than the average reader. This is also a function of the fact that we have to write about this stuff. It's much easier to find something new to say about original material than to find a new way to say "yeah, it's OK." Sometimes this is a shame - it leaves us less time and inclination to read things we enjoyed in the past (now I'll probably never pick up that one Asimov robot anthology that I haven't gotten to yet) but it may be inevitable.

Here's the big challenge, and what I've given a lot of thought to. If I want to point people toward what's "best," how do I define that? It needs to be more rigorous than simply "stuff like the stuff I like." I don't have a coherent philosophy all worked out yet, that's part of what the new "Laboratory" appellation is for. I do have a few tentative ideas, open for argument and debate:

  • What do want out of my speculative fiction more than anything else? I want fiction that makes me think about the world differently than I had before. If I wanted to read about middle-class WASPs in suburbia, i.e. myself, there are shelves and shelves of that sort of thing available. Instead, I want to be exposed to new ways of thinking. Thus I particularly value:
  1. Fiction by non-Westerners and non-English speakers. We need more of this sort of thing. There are people living around us who live in profoundly different mental universes than our own. To find out what they think the future could be like, or what they imagine in their flights of fancy, is incredibly rewarding and important.
  2. Really imaginative aliens and monsters, to stretch our minds and try to encompass the Other.
  3. Reactions to new technology and the cutting edge of scientific research. If there's one thing the 20th century taught us, it's that the universe is much weirder than Newton could have dreamed. This will have a profound effect on how we live and how we perceive the universe and each other.
  • This means that the characters need to engage with their fantastic settings. There's no point in simply setting an episode of The O. C. on a space station. That's not fundamentally different from mimetic fiction. The characters need to really change in response to their genre environments. Historical people were different than we are now; people in the future will be different again; people living with dragons would be different in some ways as well (with apologies to Naomi Novik, whose Temeraire books I heartily enjoy).
  • Literary quality: if it's not well written, it's not good literature. At a minimum this means prose that gets out of the way. At its best this means style that lifts the reader up, reinforces the themes of the piece, and makes for a truly memorable reading experience.
  • I don't feel the need to police genre boundaries. It's fun to argue about, but each piece can speak to multiple traditions and must stand on its own as well. Hooray for slipstream! It's not all great, but a lot of it is original.
One thing that's important to remember is that when you're looking for something new, it's dependent on what you've already experienced. There are folks out there for whom Asimov's robot stories are new. Some people pick up Terry Brooks without reading Tolkein first and may be blown away. Some people may take affront when one says that Shanara is derivative; it's new to them. I think this is the reason why reviewers get reputations for being cranky. Likewise, I know I'll end up raving about things that a more experienced reviewer would know have already been done. The only thing I can say is that it will happen less frequently as time goes on.

Keep in mind that all of literature is a great big tent, and I'm never going to say that people shouldn't read what they like. Reading is meant to be enjoyable after all. Huge numbers of people enjoy Robert Jordan and Analog magazine, and they should feel absolutely free to keep doing so. However, they already know where to find the next story: Analog publishes 10 times a year, and Brian Sanderson will be writing the last volume of The Wheel of Time. In between publishing dates, Analog readers can read Hard SF anthologies, and Jordan fans can read Martin, Feist, Eddings, or any number of other big fat fantasy novels. My reviews should cover things that may not be so easy to find.

I'll still be writing about the older classics, many of which can't stand up to this more stringent scrutiny. However, I need to write about them in order to think about them more clearly. I've developed a bad case of: "How will I know what I think until I read what I wrote?" Also, I feel the need to understand the overall picture of sf over the last century. Even the little bit I've read already has deepened my understanding and enjoyment of what I'm reading now.

Is everything I review going to be the best thing ever? Will all of it fulfill my wildest hopes and dreams? Of course not. I enjoy non-ground breaking stuff, as does everyone. Will all my reviews suddenly become as good as Joanna Russ'? I wish! But if I can do my part to nudge the field to expand into new & nifty dimensions, then I should. We'll see how this particular experiment goes.

[1] Really good critics know this instinctively, but I'm a bit slow. I'm hoping that hard work will eventually compensate for lack of innate genius. It worked with math!

[2] Footnotes are fun! Sorry... couldn't resist. Anyway, the actual point of this footnote is to let you know that today I ordered copies of The Issue at Hand (Blish's first collection of Atheling Jr. essays) and The Country You Have Never Seen, Joanna Russ' latest collection of criticism. I'm putting my money where my mouth is, so to speak.

[3] There was one last year, where a guy got stuck oscillating in a frictionless parabolic mirror with nothing but the physics textbook he'd loaded into his space suit computer, and he had to figure out how to add enough energy to the system to escape. It was awesome! Nothing but a dramatized physics problem, but totally cool!


Saturday, July 5, 2008

Last Hugo Thoughts

Here's my brief take on the Hugo fiction, what of it I've read. This may not be the most coherent post ever; the incipient head cold of yesterday is full blown today. I've already spent 2 hours in the tub, and really wish only to return to it. Seriously, my femurs ache. How is that even possible?

This has thrown a wrench in my reading plans as well. I finished Heart of Darkness yesterday as planned, but instead of moving on to deadline work, I picked up Polder, the tribute to John Clute and Judith Clute, whom I met in England. I appreciate it much more now that I've met them and their flat properly.

But enough of my whining.

Best Novel

1. Brasyl by Ian McDonald. Phenomenal book. Hits a lot of my high points: excellently crafted prose, multicultural world view, real engagement with consequences of quantum multiverse weirdness.
2. Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon. A close runner up. Awesome alternate history + noir detective + character novel. Except that the bits don't necessarily reinforce each other as much as you'd like. There's no solid thematic reason for the detective story to be set in the alt history. All the bits work well on their own, and the prose is, as always, magnificent, but it's not quite greater than the sum of its parts.
3. Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer. Excellent near-future extrapolative sf with more than a tinge of Golden Age around it. There's a lot of genuine emotion here and grappling with the human consequences of its tech advances. Nothing groundbreaking, though.
4. The Last Colony by John Scalzi. I'm working on the review for this right now. Short version: not as good as Ghost Brigades, and sometimes comes perilously close to Mary Sue-ness.
5. Halting State by Charles Stross. Seriously flawed. The thriller plot is less effective here than in most of his novels, the 2nd person multiple perspectives aren't adequately differentiated, and the romance is presented as so inevitable that he never bothers to sell it to the audience. Even with all that, as I was debating whether to put it down, I had to finish it. Damn Charlie, I just had to know whodunnit!


Best Novella (For links to the nominated short fiction, see this SFSignal roundup)

1. "Stars Seen Through Stone" by Lucius Shepard. Amazing story, amazing prose. Really superb.
2. "Recovering Apollo 8" Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Great alt-history examination of the space project. Plays a bit fast-and-loose with the advances in physics, but as a tale of could-have-been and obsession, first rate.
3. "Memorare" by Gene Wolfe. Beautifully written, but seemed lacking in some way I can't put my finger on right now.
4. "All Seated On the Ground" by Connie Willis. Fun Willis story, contrived and amusing. Nothing new here.
5. (Shameful admission #1: I never got around to reading the Kress story. Blame the Masterclass!)

Best Novelette

1. "The Cambist and Lord Iron" by Daniel Abraham. It pains me not to put Ted Chiang first, but I just loved this story. It's a mundane fairy tale that takes the ordinary and makes it remarkable. Perhaps a too-neat ending, but that's easy to forgive.
2. "The Merchant and the Alchemist Gate" by Ted Chiang. Awesome story. The nested Arabian-nights structure worked perfectly for a time-travel fantasy tale. Beautifully written. It was pitch-perfect on the tone of Arabian nights stories, but I'm less certain that it successfully engaged with the cultural differences.
3. "Glory" by Greg Egan. Interesting blend of hard sf and questioning hard sf premises. Hard sf tends to look for answers, and in this story Egan argues that the questioning is more important, to the extent that we might intentionally turn down a final answer. Food for thought.
4. "Finisterra" by David Moles. Beautifully imagined setting, but the characters didn't quite work for me.
5. "Dark Integers" by Greg Egan. Doesn't work as a stand-alone story without its predecessor, "Luminous." Also, the way the hero ditched his girlfriend but then she took him back absolutely did not work for me.

Best Short Story

1. "Tideline" by Elizabeth Bear. Sure, it's a boy and his robot story, but the tear-jerking was well-earned.
2. "Last Contact" by Stephen Baxter. As British as British can be, they keep gardening 'til the end. Really a lovely mother-daughter tale with some good extrapolation.
3. (Shameful admission #2: I didn't get to the Swanwick, Resnick & MacLeod stories. Once again, I claim Masterclass distractions!)

So that's my fiction wrap-up. Ranking these was pretty hard, as with Abraham & Chiang. Certainly there was nothing I felt was particularly unworthy of a Hugo, with the possible exception of Halting State. Still, Charlie has to win one of these things eventually!

Remember to cast your votes (by Monday!), and I'll be looking forward to the awards ceremony at Denvention. Hope to see you there.


Friday, July 4, 2008

Selah (with Pictures)

I'm still recovering from holiday, which process may well be slowed down by the sore throat indicating the start of a head cold. I hope to avoid it - I'm chugging orange juice as fast as I can - but we'll see. In the meantime, I've uploaded some of the choice photos, with commentary, from our vacation to flickr - lots of good ones of people from the Masterclass, as well as some touristy ones. Once again, I'd like to thank everyone that we met. It was a fantastic trip, and we were really happy to meet so many friends, old and new.

Coming home has been a bit of a shock. After two weeks of mostly British accents, which I tend to interpret as 'educated' and 'refined,' people with strong Texas accents set my teeth on edge (especially when they're talking and giggling loudly about bodily functions, as the people sharing the shuttle to the airport parking lot were - I just wanted to smack them). They sound uncouth in comparison. We had a similar experience on the bus tours after the Masterclass - hearing Americans after spending time in a majority British crowd was jarring. However, we took some comfort in the fact that the couple acting most like stereotypical 'ugly Americans' were in fact Australians living in Ireland.

However, as you can see in the photo below, we are well and truly back home now.
On the left is Dodger, our Pit Bull-Dalmatian mix (70 lbs), and right is Hazel, possibly Pharoh Hound and Terrier (50 lbs). I promise not to go overboard on cute dog pictures, but I know I mentioned these guys to several people in England, so I figured I'd show you what they actually look like.

So what's next?

Well, you can see that the name change has gone into effect. I'm going to be going for quality over quantity for the next month or so. Posts may slow down a bit, but I've got lots of ideas. Coming soon you'll see reviews of Last Colony, Halting State, and Brasyl. Tomorrow I'm planning on putting in my Hugo vote (deadline July 7th!) and I'll be posting about my choices. I need to post something about the current gender flap as well. I'll also be posting about reconsidering my short fiction reviewing philosophy in light of conversations I've had with Gary Wolfe and Niall Harrison.

I'm currently reading Heart of Darkness (finally) which shouldn't take long; it's really grabbed me. I'll be reviewing The Carhullan Army, this year's Tiptree Award winner for SFSignal, and I owe a review of Strahan's Year's Best SF & F and Hartwell & Cramer's YB Fantasy and YB Science Fiction to Niall at Strange Horizons by the end of the month.

Also, I'm embarking on a research project on Stanley G. Weinbaum, to examine his oeuvre and his place in the genre. I thought he'd be a good place to start: his writing is interesting and funny, and he died at age 33, meaning it's possible to read everything he ever wrote in a reasonable amount of time. It's basically to see if I enjoy doing this sort of thing, and to help fill up an otherwise less-than-100%-productive summer.

So there'll be lots happening here, and during all of this I'll also be experimenting with trying to improve my writing style as well. Nothing like ambitious goals! Wish me luck, and stay tuned.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Still on Mental Vacation

I decided not to write anything important today. I made this important decision after talking about hitting the gym at CSU Long Beach this morning (a college I haven't attended for two years) and then, this afternoon, telling my father that "Yeah, we're back in Califor... Texas. Yes, I live in Texas now." Obviously my brain has not yet resumed normal functionality. So instead, I'm resorting to an Internet Quiz. I'm not proud.


73% Geek

Created by OnePlusYou


Thanks to Andrew Wheeler for the link. (Blame him, if you feel the need.)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Home Again

We're home, our house is standing and our own bed soon awaits us. Travel was filled with minor annoyances, but these were more than offset by a nice round of serendipity while we were waiting for our plane. As we wandered over to round up some lunch for me, we ran into Maureen Kincaid Speller and her husband Paul Kincaid, who are heading to the SFRA conference in Kansas. This made for a much better lunchtime than we'd expected.

I hope that they made their connecting flight OK, since there were some delays leaving Heathrow.


Will to stay awake is fading.... more tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Starting to Head Home

Wow, we're flying home tomorrow. We know that we scheduled the vacation for the right length, because we're half looking forward to getting home and half sorry to be leaving so soon.

Yesterday we did fine, even with Curtis' tender ankle. (We only walked ~11,000 steps, according to his pedometer... that's light for us in London.) We rode on the London Eye, which was just as cool as everyone said it would be. Also, by doing it on a Monday our total standing-in-line time was < 30 minutes. I'm looking forward to getting home and sorting through all the pictures.

Also, we went to the science museum and totally got our geek on. It was awesome. They have a 3-D IMAX film about the International Space Station (for which Curtis does systems engineering) that you have to see if you're there. It honestly brought tears to my eyes, it's such an amazing thing. The museum also has one of the Apollo capsules, and the display pointed out that at its peak, NASA spending was 5% of the USA federal budget. I can't even imagine what we could do if we had that kind of money now. Anyway, the whole museum was awesome, from a Cray-1 computer, to an early Random Number generator, to glass-blown Klein bottles, to space suits, to V-2 & V-1 rockets. It was a moving experience for the part of me that studied Physics and engineering.

A note that I forgot about on Saturday: seeing The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Globe Theatre was awesome. We had the standing room tickets, and we got to stand in the pit that was inside the stage. Best £10 we ever spent. Basically there were walkways extending out from the stage surrounding the pit, and we got to stand inside them, so that sometimes the actors were all around us. Seeing it live, with all the accents, timing, music, and stagecraft, reminds me of why Shakespeare is so great. It's never as good when you're just reading the words on the page. Seeing it performed brings it all to life, and the cast did a fantastic job.

So tomorrow we're flying home. The next post from me should be written in Texas once more, on Thursday, since Wednesday will be devoted to flying. It's been a wonderful vacation, and I've got a lot to think about.

Adventure Out Around the Asteroid Belt


"Waterbot" by Ben Bova is a straight-up Isaac Asimov-style story. From the initial expletive "Rats!" to hunting for water in the asteroid belt to being attacked by pirates, this is pure Golden Age sf. As such it doesn't offer anything new, just the Gernsback/Campbell formula of education, entertainment, and inspiration.

The narrator has been stuck with the less-than-desirable task of sheparding a "waterbot" out to the asteroid belt. It's got an on board AI and repair droids, but inevitably enough stuff breaks down to make sending a human engineer along worth it. (Don't think about the economics too much.) Living in enforced solitude is driving the narrator nuts, and he's even mean to the on board AI. It had been trying to improve itself by reading the textbooks he'd uploaded for himself, but he even goes so far as to make it delete some of them. Dude, that's just like kicking a dog.

Of course, the AI is right to have been working on improving itself: it had worried about being attacked by pirates, and right on schedule they are, indeed, attacked by pirates. They barely survive the encounter, and start limping back to inhabited space with dwindling resources and no hope of rescue. The narrator, after weeks of barely surviving, begins to contemplate suicide.

The moral of the story seems to be that AIs may be saner than humans, especially out in space. Its also uses the story arc where two incompatible people grow to like each other when thrown into hardship. It's the sf equivalent of the buddy cop movie, really. It's quite entertaining, and the AI is very easy to root for. In fact, the only problem may be that when the human is mean to the AI, we're already on the side of the AI. Preaching to the choir, I think they call that.