Monday, September 29, 2008

Killers, edited by Colin Harvey


From the wonderfully named Swimming Kangaroo press comes Killers, a new anthology. However the operative level of whimsy comes not from the name of the press, but from the book's title: Killers is aptly named and focused on its subject matter. The cover of the ARC I have lists its genre as “Speculative Mystery,” but let me name it truly: Horror.

Editor Colin Harvey’s introduction makes his interest in stories that blur genre lines clear, and I heartily agree. I’ve developed the opinion (although it’s hardly one I’m qualified to have—I’ve read very little horror fiction over the years) that horror is not a genre, it’s an aspect or authorial tool that can be inserted into any other genre. Thus one can have psychological horror, science fiction horror, supernatural horror, etc., and no one should worry about enforcing boundaries. The scariest thing I ever read is a short story by Jonathan Lethem, included in The Asimov's SF 30th Anniversary Anthology. Titled “The Happy Man” it deals with child abuse and the victims thereof; it partakes fully of the traditions of sf, fantasy and mainstream psychology all at once. However at the same time its horrific nature is such that by the end of the story I found myself literally curled up on the couch, every muscle tense.

None of the stories in Killers quite reach that level of visceral reaction, but they generally support Harvey’s thesis: boundaries should always yield to storytelling. The eleven stories in the anthology don’t worry too much about genre, but they certainly get their points across. Mostly this involves scary treks through the minds of profoundly disturbed individuals. The anthology starts off with “Doctor Nine,” by Jonathan Maberry. The eponymous Doctor is a supernatural creature deeply enmeshed in death, and possibly the imaginary friend of a nine year old psychopath, whom we meet as she is killing her sister. This hits two major fear buttons: children being harmed and children being evil—scary stuff to say the least and a good start to the collection.

“Dead Wood” by Sarah Singleton maintains an excellent creepy atmosphere before arriving at a fairly standard horror twist—this one may be a pure “mainstream” story. “Virtual Analysis” by Philip J. Lees is one of the sf-flavored stories in the collection. It deals rather improbably with a serial killer in a VR experiment, again it ends with a twist. This story is a bit less well-executed than others; the tension doesn’t quite reach the levels one would want. The very short “Pushover” by Bruce Holland Rogers consists of nothing but twist, but it’s a good one. “Beautiful Summer” by Eugie Foster takes on the obsessive ownership engendered by gazing upon extraordinary beauty—the first person narration is perfectly rational which makes the ending all the more startling. Harvey’s own sf entry, “Just Another Day,” deals with experimental research in Iceland. It’s one of the longer stories and works well as straight sf; as a horror story it fails to frighten. The matter-of-fact narration better suits mystery and sf than really scary horror. Of course, the story invokes all three, being one of the only stories to use traditional detective/mystery plotting as well. This may explain the “Speculative Mystery” monicker on the cover, as opposed to going straight for the “Horror” label.

“Losing Paradise” by G. C. Veazey combines the horrors of vampirism with that of old-school unregulated mental hospitals; the latter completely overshadows the former. Thus the plot ends up less interesting than the setting. “Hunter-Killer” by Charlie Allery involves the murder of AIs. It’s moderately successful as sf (although a “big reveal” comes from something that should have been obvious), but not scary at all—it’s hard to get that visceral feeling from AIs, especially in the confines of a short story (this one also partakes of a more traditional mystery/detective plot, like “Just Another Day”). The last story, “The Good and Gone” by Lee Thomas, is urban fantasy involving possession and serial killing, certainly disturbing. It also has a gay protagonist who isn’t evil, which I appreciate.

The two stories I find most frightening are “Visibility Down to Zero” by Paul Meloy and “Index of an Enigma” by Gary Fry. They both take place inside the minds of profoundly disturbed individuals, and they stay chaotic and unstable all the way through, never giving the reader any solid ground to get her bearings. In “Visibility” the main character is a cop with a daughter in a mental institution, he’s in therapy himself and having progressively weirder dreams. “Enigma” involves a psychologist going back to his home town for a conference. He’s clearly an asshole, picking fights with harmless cranks, but in the night he’s also—haunted?—by something, perhaps something from his obviously unhappy childhood. As one would expect, his degree in psychology gives him no real insight into his own issues. The resolution may let the guy off a little too easily, but the story effectively ratchets up the tension right up to the climax.

I want to emphasize: my review should be taken with a grain of salt; I rarely read horror and almost never seek it out, so I don’t have much grounds for comparison. That said, I would be surprised if any of these stories become award winners. They don’t seem to be quite of that caliber. However, they are all effective stories. I wasn’t tempted to skip any of them. Those that aren’t particularly scary are interesting as mysteries or as sf, which I see as a big advantage to working across genre borders. Several of the stories are viscerally frightening, usually because of the unstable psychologies involved, regardless of genre framing. All in all, this solid collection should entertain anyone with an interest in horror without artificial limitations.

In the matter of sales and format, I want to give props to the publisher. Yea though my ARC is a traditional dead-tree pre-publication edition, the book itself is available in a few electronic formats as well as plain old paper. If you go to Swimming Kangaroo’s product page for Killers, you’ll see editions in html, pdf, and mobi available for $4 vs. $14 for a trade paperback. I applaud both their production and their pricing scheme—it would be wonderful if more publishers adopted a similar model. Better for the environment, better for getting eBooks out there, and better for the pocketbook. Bravo!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Ike Photos up at Flickr


I've posted some photos up at Flickr. A couple are from our "enforced vacation" in San Antonio. Others show remaining damage on the University of Houston campus (11 days post-storm), the rest (see photo to the left here) show some remaining damage in our neighborhood (12 days post-storm). Things are totally back to normal for us; Curtis went back to work on Monday. However, riding home on Tuesday night I counted at least 7 areas along the I-45 in Houston without power. I know that my Digital Signal Processing professor didn't have his power back on Tuesday. Hurricanes pack one hell of a wallop!

New Review up at Strange Horizons


I'd like to mention that my review of Superpowers by David J. Schwartz is up at Strange Horizons. While you're over there, you should also check out the insightful article by Sam J. Miller, "Who Killed Thomas M. Disch?"

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Obscure Book Meme

Via Andrew Wheeler, this seems the perfect way to chew up a few minutes between classes.

What ten books do you own that you think no one else on your friends list does?
  • All Fishermen Are Liars: True Adventures at Sea by Linda Greelaw
  • The Book of the Sword, Richard Burton
  • The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (and How to Do Them), Peter Sagal
  • The Complete Tightwad Gazette, Amy Dacyczyn
  • Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, Tony Horwitz
  • Doctor on Everest: Emergency Medicine at the Top of the World, Kenneth Kamler
  • Don't Call Me Brother: A Ringmaster's Escape from the Pentacostal Church, Austin Miles
  • Ghost of the Hardy Boys, Leslie McFarlane
  • How to Lose a Battle: Foolish Plans and Great Military Blunders, Bill Fawcett
  • I Watched A Wild Hog Eat My Baby: A Colorful History of Tabloids and Their Cultural Impact, Bill Sloan
  • On Fencing, Aldo Nadi
OK, that's eleven. So sue me. Prove me wrong! Do you have any of these?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

July/August Analog


Analog did me a huge favor with this issue. It leads off with the first installment of a three part serial (“Tracking” by David R. Palmer) that I found so unreadable, I skipped it after only the first few pages. This means that I got through the double issue much faster, and I’ll get through Sept. & Oct. much faster as well. How bad is it? Told as if from diary excerpts, I present to you the first paragraph:
Yes, Posterity, your Humble Historiographer does feel guilty about this—but what was Teacher thinking? What did he expect? What else could I do…?
Who the hell starts their diary entries in media res? The second paragraph gets a little better:
Oops, forgetting manners. (There’s a surprise.) Sorry. All right; let’s start over:
But then it worsens:
Hi, Posterity, Candy Smith-Foster here again—Plucky Girl Adventurer, Intrepid Girl Aviatrix, Spunky Savior of Our People, etc., etc.—at your service.
OK, I need something amazingly amazing to happen REALLY fast to overcome my distaste for a person who self-describes as “Spunky” and “Plucky.” However, several paragraphs about breakfast don’t cut it, even if they self-servingly hint at but don’t directly get at the fact that she’s somehow the savior of her people. Throw in a faux-abbreviated-for-terseness-”diary”-style of writing:
Clearly, in retrospect, from moment eyes opened today, chain of events resembled ballistic curve: foreordained progression, leading directly from bed to Teacher’s announcement to Yours Truly’s reluctant but immutable decision—thence to current AWOL status.

Well, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s… etc.

As turned out, however, anarchic decision, subsequent obviously proscribed actions, took healthy bite out of unease dogging heels since morning’s first awareness. Perhaps qualms more a function of psychic feedback spawned by own upcoming brash actions echoing back down timeline rather than intangible warning of yet another impending doomy threat.
This person doesn’t have time to write “from THE moment MY eyes opened today” but has time to write “Yours Truly” and speculate on retrocausaility? Seriously? I flipped to the end of the story; it uses that prose style throughout. While it probably says all sorts of things about the personality of the narrator, it’s really annoying to read. Thus it establishes the narrator as an annoying person I don’t want to read about. So I won’t.

Most of the other stories in this issue fulfill the acronym RUMIR that I lifted from a Joanna Russ review (“The stories are routine, unoriginal, mildly interesting, and readable.”) “Sand and Iron” by Michael Flynn reminds one of his Wreck of the River of Stars, with its dysfunctional starship crew—although that sort of personal dynamic doesn’t get as much play in a novelette. It’s a pretty cool story, with interesting alien artefacts, but it stops too soon. “A Plethora of Truth” by Bond Elam revels in taking pot-shots at televangelists—Real Year = 1988. “Let the Word Take Me” is a puzzle story with humans trying to figure out an alien language—it reminded me strongly of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok,” one of my all-time favorite Trek episodes. However, the TV episode was actually better because it lacked overbearingly stupid bureaucrats and arbitrary deadlines, plus it included aliens equally eager to communicate. “Junkie” by Maya Kaathryn is “Toy Story” meets “Galaxy Quest.”

The best entry is the concluding novella “Tenbrook of Mars” by Dean McLaughlin. In a way it’s a pean to the engineer hero—he’s an engineer, and managed to keep a colony on Mars alive for decades while it was cut off from most outside help. The best parts of the story are the slow revelations of the catastrophe and what exactly Tenbrook did, why, and how it worked out. It’s very gratifying for an engineer, and also a manager, to see Best Practices engineering management save the day. However, there’s also an odd flashback romance plot that may function as political commentary (it’s hard to tell)—it seems to serve mostly as padding. It’s a convenient way to end the story on an “emotional” high point, but it seems 100% contrived, and detracts from an otherwise solid story. “Tenbrook of Mars” is pure Campbell, but there’s nothing wrong with that when it’s done well.

Monday, September 15, 2008

In Which We Arrive Home and Discover Something Surprising

We left San Antonio around 10am, after breakfast and a long, hot shower (which we feared would be our last). We drove along the Alt-90, not seeing too much damage until about 50 miles out from our home. First it was small branches down, then larger ones, then signs down, only 50% of the traffic lights working... it didn't look good.

As we neared home, we saw a housing development much like our own. New houses, roughly comparable construction. At least 70% of the wooden fences were down, and almost every house had roof damage. Larger and larger trees were blown over. We figured that's what we were in for.

However, as we crossed I-45 towards home, we noticed some working lights and two operable gas stations without insane lines. On the final overpass heading home we saw that another area of our subdivision had no apparent roof damage. The traffic light at our turn was working, and all the roofs on the way home appeared whole.

We got to our house and noticed two things immediately. 1) The Library window was unbroken. 2) The garage door opened.

In fact, NO windows were broken, there was NO water in the house, we lost NO shingles (that we can see), our wooden fences are WHOLE, and we have POWER, GAS, and WATER (even if it has to be boiled).

To say that we are ecstatic would be an understatement. In our wildest dreams we never imagined life would return to normal so quickly. We are INCREDIBLY lucky. Other parts of our area have much worse damage--certainly the shoreline folks got nailed, the Boardwalk in Kemah may have ceased to exist, and even downtown League City, a little farther inland from us, got hit with some small tornadoes after Ike passed through. Then there's the fact that so many in the greater Houston area still lack power, water and gas.

We want to thank everyone who offered us good wishes and help if needed; while we're mighty glad we didn't need to throw ourselves on anyone's charity, we feel amazingly blessed to have such good friends. If any of you feel like you can, please remember those in Houston who are going to have a much rougher time getting back on their feet. The Red Cross and the Salvation Army are a great organizations that are an incredible help in times like these. If you can throw a few bucks their way, it would be a real help.

For us, all's well that ends well. It was a more drama-free experience than I'd expected, and we got incredibly lucky. Thanks everyone!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

We have a plan, but not much info



Life here in San Antonio has been nice and relatively relaxing. We've taken the dogs on a couple hikes out at Eisenhower Park on the outskirts of town, which makes for nice & tired puppies. We've got a minifridge, a microwave, and AC. This afternoon I'm planning on catching up with homework and some writing.

We've also got a plan; we'll stay here on Sunday night and try to head home on Monday. The League City website says "PLEASE DO NOT RETURN TO THE CITY OF LEAGUE CITY UNITL MONDAY SEPTEMBER 15, 2008. Certain areas of the City are without power and there is some localized flooding. Emergency Operations personnel are currently engaged in damage assessment."

However, there isn't much specific information yet. We can't quite tell from the maps whether we're in a 11-13 foot storm surge zone (which should be fine) or a 20+ foot storm surge zone (which would be Very Bad). Also, we won't know until we see for ourselves whether our windows survived - even if we escape flooding, wind-driven rain would damage a lot of stuff (and likely a LOT of books). So we've just got to wait and see. We do know that two of our fencing friends who weathered the storm in Dickinson, about two miles from us, made it through safely and are not flooded. That bodes well.

Thanks for everyone who has called or emailed to check up on us, we really appreciate all the good thoughts. I'll keep this updated, but the real news should come on Monday.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Never, Ever Skip a Testing Step.

Plan A was board up & hunker down; that failed. Turns out our windows aren't deep enough to accommodate the plywood locking clips. (Much swearing was heard.) Plan B is to evacuate; we've made a hotel reservation in San Antonio, so that's where we're heading. With any luck we'll be home Sun night, Mon morning. Wish us luck! I'll be twittering status updates periodically.

Monday, September 8, 2008

F&SF, July


July's F&SF contains nothing outstanding, but several pretty good stories. Some of the highlights:

"Fullbrim's Finding" by Matthew Hughes returns to his Majestrum universe. It's a Vanceian place—the universe is old and winding down, ennui is setting in. I read several of the stories set there, but lately the stories have failed to enthrall. This story fails to completely revive the franchise, but it takes a different tack. Recurring hero Henghis Hapthorn is hired to track down an errant scholar. He quickly follows the clues to find the poor man catatonic in an inn on a run-down planet. There are many catatonic folks in that inn being cared for by the proprietor. All of them came seeking truth, hoping to find it from something living in a high mountain cave. None of them came back whole.

Hapthorn decides to bite the bullet and go up to the mountain to see for himself. He of course comes back just fine. And he gets to tell us the ultimate explanation of the universe, including the explanation of human suffering. I admire Hughes for going all the way, for not pulling any punches. A lot of authors with a set-up like this would fade to black, but he puts it all out there. Unfortunately, the “ultimate explanation for everything” comes across as mighty cynical and just this side of trite. So, kudos to the author for being bold, but I doubt this one will stand the test of time.

"Reader's Guide" by Lisa Goldstein is fun. It starts off as a list of questions, the sort of thing one would use as discussion topics for a social Book Club. The book the questions address is obviously mediocre, and the question-writer doesn't hide his contempt. Eventually we get the story of the questioner (he likes to think of himself as a Reader), a person living and working in the ultimate library. The story is funny, and easy to relate to if you're a person who loves books. (We also get to sneer at crappy literature, and who doesn’t enjoy the pleasures of snark from time to time?) Speaking as a reviewer, I felt the story spoke to me particularly. It's nothing terribly deep, but enjoyable.

"The Roberts" (Michael Blumlein) is the main novella for this issue. It's an interesting piece, but it seems painfully naive. Basic concept: Robert is a guy who both lucky and unlucky in love. He lives a cyclical life: he falls in love with a woman, and riding the crest of love he becomes incredibly professionally creative (as an architect) at which point he starts spending all his time working, eventually losing the woman, losing the creativity, and losing work. To break the cycle he orders a custom-designed woman to be his lover (we'll realize this is not at all plausible and move on). (And let’s not think too hard about the fact that the guy solves his problems by creating another living being to fulfill his needs, instead of maybe examining his own problems—why is it that he can only work creatively when being loved by someone else? The whole story could probably have been averted by a trip to a psychologist’s office.) The new person, Grace, loves him even when he's working, but eventually he feels guilty for not spending enough time with her. He buys her a clone of himself, and so does she. So now there are four people: three "Roberts" and Grace. (I totally expected another Grace to show up eventually, but the author never goes there.)

So now it becomes a story about a polyamorous group, which makes it pretty shocking when the original Robert gets upset that Grace is having sex with the other Roberts. Really, he somehow thought that wasn't going to happen? Idiot. Basically the whole thing gets resolved rather tritely, with the two new Roberts forming a couple and the original Robert and Grace forming another, and going their separate ways. It would have been more interesting to see them work out their problems and form a stable group; some people can make that sort of thing work, after all.

Another troubling thing is that the author brings up rather heavy-handed stereotypes of manliness and femininity, and doesn't challenge them in any way. Some examples:
“He was raised by his mother, who adored him, and he learned, as many sons do, that love bears the face and the stamp of a woman.”

“Unlike many men, he did not despise or fear women, but rather he exalted them, on the whole a rather more forgivable offense.”

“Robert not only liked the idea of women, he liked the fact of them, he liked to be around them and beside them and face to face with them, he liked their company, their loving nature, their adaptability, their strength, their subtlety of thought. Women were the brick and mortar, the bedrock, of his world.”

“Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, Grace—with all the wisdom, incentive and desire of a woman put on Earth to love her man and to help him in times of trouble, a woman with a job to do, a woman, like all the best women, without a selfish bone in her body—was hatching a birthday plan of her own.”

“No. 3 [created by Grace] was more talkative than 1 or 2. He was more accomodating, more domestic, more attuned to others than himself. Good for a chat over tea or coffee. Good for a drive. Good for watching TV sit-coms or dramas with.”

“No. 2 [created by Robert] was more project-oriented. He liked to do things more than talk about them. He had ambitions. He liked to stay busy. Barely a day went by that he didn’t wake up with a plan.”
This is all so exaggerated that I figured it must be satirical. I kept expecting an inversion or some other subversion, but he appears to use them unironically. Perhaps that's part of an overall strategy of simplifying, but all the simplifying makes for a much weaker story. Still, I'd recommend folks read this one and see what you think of it—I'm sure opinions will vary.

The last story of note is "Poison Victory" by Albert E. Cowdrey. Cowdrey appears to be working through examinations of human evil (see "The Overseer"), so it actually makes sense for him to turn to the Nazis. Here he uses an alternate history where the Germans didn't lose Stalingrad, more or less conquered Russia, and haven't been beaten by 1949 as Hitler is about to die of more or less natural causes. He continues the theme that evil and good are intensely personal—and that the banality of evil can capture almost anyone when it's both easier and more profitable than do-gooding. It's not a particularly great alt-history, and it doesn't have anywhere near the verve that Cowdry's work set in the American South has. It's interesting, and good enough, but compared to some of the author's other work it's ultimately disappointing.

Pandemonium!


I've written a review of Daryl Gregory's Pandemonium and it's up today at SFSignal. This is Gregory's first novel, but I've admired his short fiction for some time now. With this book, he makes the transition to novels pretty easily; it's really great. Go read, then buy!

Friday, September 5, 2008

July Asimov's


So I’m really behind, but I swear I’m catching up. I’m reading August’s stuff now, and it’s only the beginning of September! Lookit me go! Dated as it is however, I’d like to mention some things about the July issue of Asimov’s. Things in it may pique some folk’s interest, and some things I’ll want to remember around awards time.

First, a novelette titled “Lester Young and the Jupiter’s Moons” by Gord Sellar. It’s an alt history written in the first person. A 1940s jazz musician narrates, and he writes with the cadences and informal, slang-laden style of that time and scene. (In the introduction the author says he’s specifically mimicking the style of Miles Davis’ autobiography.) Here’s the opening:
His first night back on Earth after his gig on the Frogships, Bird showed up at Minton’s cleaner than a broke-dick dog, with a brand new horn and a head full of crazy-people music. He’d got himself a nice suit somewhere, and a fine new Conn alto. Now, this was back in ‘48, when everyone—me included—was crazy about Conn and King and only a few younger cats were playing on Selmer horns.

But it wasn’t just that big-shouldered suit and the horn; the cat was clean. I mean clean, no more dope, no more liquor, no more fried chicken. Hell, he was always called Bird—short for Yardbird—on account of how much fried chicken he liked to eat. This was like a whole different Charlie Parker. He was living clean as a monk. He was walking straight and talking clear. His eyes weren’t all fucked-up and scary anymore, either.

As you can tell, this 1948 is a bit different from ours. Aliens came down sometime around WWII and started throwing around money and tech. They hire human entertainers to perform on their intra-Solar System cruise ships, including the narrator. (Not just jazz entertainers—ballerinas, rodeo riders, trick shooters, can-can girls, you name it.) The aliens dose up the performers with some sort of drug that enhances play-back memory and also allows them to “blur.” (Phase-shift? Inhabit differing quantum realities simultaneously? The narrator doesn’t understand it, so we don’t get the full picture.) This allows for some crazy musical ensembles. However, the whole thing takes on a creepy and xenophobic air when one of the musicians reacts badly to the drugs. Amongst other side effects he loses his creative ability and can only perform exact playbacks; that’s death for a jazz man. The narrator orchestrates a working-within-the-rules rebellion to get out of their contract early. It’s a bit simple, but interesting both from an alt-historical point of view and as a story.

What really stood out for me was that narrative tone. If the antecedent hadn’t been stated right up front, I’m pretty sure I would’ve found it offensive. The language of the 1940s was casually racist and misogynist, and it’s not much easier to read even if the narrator is black. (Certainly in this alt-history the discovery of aliens hasn’t ushered in an immediate era of racial harmony.) Linking it to a known figure like Miles Davis made it much easier to swallow, and once you get into the rhythm of it it’s great fun to read. I’m wondering if that reaction, letting an outside source dictate the extent to which you can allow yourself to enjoy the story, is good-bad-or-neutral. Not sure about that one.

The stand-out story in this issue, the one to remember come awards time, is “Vinegar Peace, or, the Wrong-Way Used-Adult Orphanage,” a novelette by Michael Bishop. In it if your children pre-decease you, you get picked up by the government and stuck in an inverse-orphanage old-folks home. (After all, now you have no kids to take care of you when you’re old and decrepit.) The place is surreal, having several different areas with different purposes. There are different ways to mourn; the Cold Room is a particularly intense and horrible metaphor. Despite the over-the-top satire and surrealism (the protagonist’s kids died in the “Worldwide War on Wrongness;” some of the rules at the “Orphanage” seem as random as Terry Gilliam's’ Brazil), this is a moving depiction of the grief a parent feels at losing an adult child. The story intensifies when you realize that Bishop lost his son just last year. Jamie Bishop was killed in the Virginia Tech massacre, April 16, 2007. Jamie was 35.

The story makes progress towards some healing, at the end. It moves through confused anguish, towards a reasonable adjustment and accommodation with the knowledge of tragedy. That’s not to say that it ever becomes OK, but perhaps that it becomes livable, survivable. Given that Bishop is the voice of tragic experience here, it’s particularly reassuring. This is an amazingly written story that I hope doesn’t get overlooked.

There’s also a cute short story in this issue, “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” by Kij Johnson. I enjoy her writing quite a bit. Her use of animals to tell tales that illuminate human characters was also on good display in the 2003 novel Fudoki. “26 Monkeys” is a story about a troop of performing monkeys that move from owner to owner. The monkeys know the magic trick, the human just enables them. It’s a fairy tale sort of story, but a nice one. Although it feels familiar, it is also unique.

Finally there’s the latest installment in Brian Stableford’s series of stories set in an alternate early Elizabethan world. Each one claims to be a stand-alone; this one is a novella titled “The Philosopher’s Stone.” This is the third one that I’ve read, and it most seems like part of a novel. I suspect that we’ll see all of these together in a book someday. The conceit is that several of the best minds of the era built a working ether ship in the mid-1500s, sailed into space and met aliens. There are many alien factions, and humanity is about to get caught up in their conflicts. Upon their return to Earth, the various luminaries can’t agree on how to move forward: one believes it was simply a dream, another goes off to do experiments elsewhere, yet another tries to agitate for human politics to become engaged with this implausible threat from beyond (a difficult sell while Protestants and Catholics are at each other’s throats throughout Britain).

In this installment Edward Kelley accidentally/fortuitously winds up with an alien artefact. The artefact tells him that he has to get it to John Dee, the famous alchemist (and one of the original ether ship sailors). After tribulations, Kelley completes his mission and finds not only Dee but also Giordano Bruno, the famous Italian heretic. (Kelley’s reputation as a Con man doesn’t help matters.) The Queen’s religious purist squad captures all of them, but the artefact reveals some of its powers and gets them freed. Kelley is now deeply enmeshed in plots that go to the highest levels, up past mere monarchs and into lofty dimensions. This is a fine story, but it felt like its main purpose was to move pieces around, getting them set up for the next set-piece in the sequence.

The whole series is a bit odd. One needs a significant amount of historical knowledge to really appreciate it. I felt reasonably conversant with this time period, but I had to keep running to Google and Wikipedia to see me through. It will be interesting to see how it all ties together in an overall narrative eventually—it may end up being simply too esoteric for its own good.

As Others See Us, League City Edition

When we moved to League City, we discovered that this is a very nice town for used bookstores. They generally have nice owners and while their genre sections are sometimes small, they're often of surprisingly high quality. As we were unpacking, I realized I had a bunch of duplicates, so I decided to sell them to a used bookstore that was just opening, and whose owner said she needed stock. It's a decision I definitely came to regret. As with every other time I sold books I ended up regretting it. The upshot: the only store I have credit with is the one I dislike the most. (I'm not naming the store since I suspect I'd have had negative feelings about whichever place I sold books to.)

Today, after 7 months I decided to go back in and use some of that store credit--otherwise I'd have given her about 20 books for free. (Grrr.) Here's the dialog:

Her: Hi! It's been a while since I saw you.
Me: Yes, it has.
Her: Can I help you find anything?
Me: No thanks, I'll probably take a stroll through your SF section.
Her: OK.

Time passes as she chats with a father and infant child.

When I see she's unoccupied:

Me: Excuse me, have you seen any Salman Rushdie come through?
Her: Who? [Already a bad sign.]
Me: Salman Rushdie.
Her: Do they write science fiction?
Me: No, he writes mainstream fiction.

[At this point let me brag a bit about NOT saying "Have you been living under a rock for the last 20 years?" I think that's an admirable display of self-restraint, right there.]

Her: Well, it'd be over here... what are some of the titles?
Me: Well there's "The Enchantress of Florence" and "The Satanic Verses"

Let me pause here and explain how the words "Satanic Verses" seemed to ring to every corner of the suddenly absolutely silent bookstore...

Her: Well, they might be over here, but if it had "Satanic" in the titled I'd probably shelve it over there [pointing at the SF section, chuckling (nervously).]
Me: Well, that's great.

[BTW, I had noticed a lot of haphazard shelving already: Carl Saga's Broca's Brain in SF (instead of non-fiction), all the astronomy books in the section labeled "Astrology," David Brin's The Postman stacked in "Historical Fiction," stuff like that.]

I was also going to ask about Carl Hiaasen, but I was so despairing for the stupidity of the world that I just checked out and left. I did end up getting 6 books for $13.50, and spending about a third of my store credit. I just wish I'd found more that I wanted, because once my store credit runs out I'm never, ever going back in there.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

"The Country You Have Never Seen" by Joanna Russ


I've had some massive writer's block trying to write this review. I think it's keeping me from writing other reviews, so I'd better get past it. It's down to a combination of factors that are making me extraordinarily nervous about writing about this book.

For one, there's my enormous respect for Joanna Russ. The Female Man was a revelation to me—not 100% in touch with the GenX female experience, but some of what she said still rings incredibly true. And her writing is so visceral! I've also appreciated all of her short fiction that I've read.

Next there's the success of my review of the James Blish/"William Atheling, Jr." critical collection The Issue At Hand. I got a lot out of that book, and several people told me how much they appreciated the review. Considering that Atheling and Russ are often mentioned in the same breath as being part of a better, truer tradition of reviewing—people who used reviews to profitably further an agenda—I expected this collection to be equally inspiring.

But The Country You Have Never Seen is significantly different. For one, it's less focused than the Atheling collection. It's a collection of reviews, essays and letters spanning twenty years or more. It includes reviews written for outlets as diverse as F&SF, the Village Voice and College English. The essays mostly involve feminism and history. The letters are great, I'm glad they're included, but they're mostly reactions to things she feels are stupid (and in the letters she doesn't pull any punches).

So this isn't a collection of her feminist criticism, or her genre criticism, it's a collection of a lot of different kinds of non-fiction writing. That's nice, but not quite what I was expecting. Her reviews of genre materials, mostly done for F&SF, don't differ markedly from what Liz Hand writes nowadays. (Liz is one of my favorite dead-tree fiction magazine reviewers, but her place in history will be for her fiction, not for her magazine reviews.) Basically, when she mentions feminist themes in her genre reviews, I barely notice—what she's saying is completely uncontroversial to me, and some authors still have these sorts of problems today. E.g. Her review of “Options” by John Varley, part of Terry Carr’s Universe 9:

“Options” seems to maintain that even in a sexually egalitarian society the only people who can really treat the sexes equally are those who’ve experienced life as both—though at the same time the convincing, mildly drab lunar society Varley describes is clearly not egalitarian, a contradiction with which the author doesn’t fully deal. Biology matters, or should, but it doesn’t, or shouldn’t—Varley’s metaphor of androgyny brings with it hidden assumptions that the problem is a physical problem. Varley has been admired for his female characters and “Options” is very well written (there are details that are a real tour-de-force for a male writer), yet the story is really the fearful husband’s, not the serene and informative wife’s, as its lack of emotional involvement and its summaries of what should be dramatized make clear.
One could easily read or write that today. It was interesting to note, in passing, that it wasn’t her feminism that generated the most angry letters at F&SF. The opinion that caused her to have to write a Defense of Reviewing (every word of which is as true today as the day she wrote it) was when she dissed heroic/epic fantasy as both bad and bad for you. Oh, the outcry! The outraged fans! No matter how things change, some things seem eternal.

Of course, she has an amazing talent for getting exactly to the point of something. Consider this review of a Harry Harrison edited anthology:
Harry Harrison’s One Step From Earth is a collection of nine stories bound together loosely (and not altogether truthfully) by the idea of matter transmission. There is another hypertrophied introduction, hypertrophied in this case because it has nothing to do with the stories; in fact the matter transmitter described in the introduction is of the kind used in only on the nine. Two of the tales don’t really need matter transmission at all. The stories are routine, unoriginal, mildly interesting, and readable.

That’s the whole review, and that last sentence probably describes at least 75% of everything published in the short fiction magazines, even today. I’m thinking of abbreviating it RUMIR to save myself the trouble of writing variations on that sentiment over and over.

Then consider the opening of her review of Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism:
That’s not an issue.
That’s not an issue any more.
Then why do you keep on bringing it up?
You keep on bringing it up because you’re crazy.
You keep on bringing it up because you’re hostile.
You keep on bringing it up because you are intellectually irresponsible.
You keep on bringing it up because you are shrill, strident, and self-indulgent.
How can I possibly listen to anyone as crazy, hostile, intellectually irresponsible, shrill, strident, and self-indulgent as you are?
Especially since what you’re talking about is simply not an issue.
(Any more.)

Here you can see the style that also informs works like The Female Man applied in a non-fiction milieu. This also is a perfect example of the sort of thing I’m ambivalent about. This sequence rings absolutely true, and is still used to get folks of differing opinions to shut up. However, it can also be used to calcify one’s thinking. If circumstances change, and people are trying to get you to update your thinking, you may think you’re being attacked like this. For instance, in my view workplace harassment has changed drastically over the last generation. The law is now firm, and the culture has changed. There are still issues about women in the workplace, but they’re more subtle now. Sometimes though, it seems like people want to refight old battles, insisting that the problems they used to fight are still the Big problems—that may be easier than admitting that you’ve won and moving on to the next annoying thing that seems to defy solution. However, when other forces are saying “Look, you’ve got sexual harassment laws. Ipso facto, there are no problems facing women in the workforce and if only 10% of your engineers are women that must be the chick’s fault,” the fact that the folks who should be trying to move forward seem to be stuck in the past isn’t helpful. So when the person in the middle (me) tries to say to them, “Look, physical groping just isn’t the central problem anymore” the old-guard can assume I’m using the tactic Russ laid out above, and keep from changing.

Now, feminist criticism is not one of my main concerns as a reviewer, and it's not likely to become a focus for me. Certainly I notice when authors get weird or particularly old-fashioned about gender (I'm looking at you, Joe Haldeman's Marsbound!) and I don't hesitate (too much) to point it out. However, gender weirdness can come from any direction these days (see my review of Sarah Hall's Carhullan's Army), and generally the problems are more subtle than what so often pissed Russ off. So from this collection I learned more about reviewing for the mainstream, reviewing non-fiction, and some of the discourse surrounding the feminist movement of the 70s and early 80s. It's valuable, and interesting, but not as directly relevant to my current endeavors as the Atheling collection.

This is no fault of Russ', and I hear little voices in my head shrieking about my provincialism. I rebut the little voices! I'm not dissing or ignoring mainstream literature; in fact my various genre readings have several times prompted me to go out and find "mainstream" titles so I get a more complete background. (Ian McDonald's Brasyl finally inspired me to read Heart of Darkness, for instance.) I am well aware of the fact that genre literature does not and should not exist in a vacuum, or in its own ghetto.

Instead it's a combination of what I'm looking for right now, which is help in becoming a better reviewer/critic of specifically genre literature, my ambivalence with old-school feminism, and the wide-ranging nature of the collection as a whole that have led to my trepidation about writing about it.

Bottom line: this is a good collection. It showcases many facets of Russ' non-fictional writings. She had a phenomenal range of topics and styles that is admirable. It is a particularly valuable window into the feminist movement of the 70s and the frustrations they faced from within and without. However, it's not quite what I’m looking for right now. I think I'll wait a few years, then get a copy of How to Suppress Women's Writing. Being more focused, I’ll probably get more out of it.

Ugh. This review is crap, but I’ve got to get it off my plate now. Apparently, for whatever reason, I am not capable of writing a good review of this book right now. This is a shame, because it deserves better than this. To Joanna- my hearty apologies. I’ll be better the next time I review one of your books, I promise!