Sunday, November 21, 2010

An Unusal Beginning

It’s weird how many different ways there are to read things. If I had picked up Greg Egan’s first novel An Unusual Angle just on a lark, I may not have finished the first chapter. That said, reading it in the context of researching Egan’s fiction for a critical book, I found it fascinating. I mentioned that I was reading it and someone asked me if it was “good.” I didn’t even know how to answer that question. The way I was reading it, “good” wasn’t even something I considered.

Here’s what Egan says about this novel when asked about it in his first interview in Eidolon:

For the benefit of those readers who have no idea what the book is about - most of them, I hope - An Unusual Angle is a kind of eccentric teenage loner story with surreal elements. The narrator literally has a movie camera inside his skull. I wrote it when I was sixteen, although I revised it slightly just before it was published, six years later.

It was very big-hearted of Norstrilia Press to publish it, but it didn't do them, or me, much good. They blew their money. I laboured under the mistaken impression that I could now write publishable fiction; it took me a while to realise that that simply wasn't true. Quarantine is the eighth novel I've written, and the first publishable one. That An Unusual Angle was published at all was really just a glitch.
He’s not wrong about that. Here’s a paragraph from the first page:

I’ll track-in from darkness, that’s a good way to start; isolate the school in a frame of blackness, cutting out all distractions. And then what? It’s too late to make more plans, here comes the vital (fatal (unexceptional)) corner.
He’s got nested parentheses, italics, and single-word paragraphs all on the first page, and the narrator even calls himself out for “melodramatic crap” in the fourth paragraph. So yeah, it’s not “good.” But it is interesting.

This is Greg Egan we’re talking about. The guy who can dramatize general relativity and talks about sex between digital entities. He’s the hardest hard sf writer since the 80’s. But in An Unusual Angle, there’s very little sf. In fact, if you wanted to be a little quirky, you could categorize this story as slipstream.

At first I thought that the ‘camera in the head’ angle of the story was purely metaphorical--that the narrator was using that as a mental technique to distance himself from his unpleasant and boring school days. But the narrative makes it clear that it has physical reality, so that pushes it from kind of mainstream over to slipstream. I think it works rather better as metaphor than it does as a concrete reality. Certainly the info-dump segments that explain (rigorously) how the camera came to be and how it operates were less than 100% convincing.

Most of the touchstones of this story are from film: counter-culture films from Britain in the 60’s and 70’s feature prominently (such as “if...”), as well as TV, movies, and sf. There’s a surreal and sarcastic rabbit that may or may not be an alien, and may or may not be a projection of the narrator’s self.

But mostly there’s a kid in high school (the story covers four out of five years of schooling), way too bright for his classes, bored almost literally out of his skull. There are no characters other than the narrator; some of the teacher’s get names but they’re just archetypes. None of his classmates even get names. There’s no real antagonist here except “the system,” probably another reflection of those counter-culture mainstays. The (unnamed) narrator is disgusted by criticism and depicts in-class lit crit as an act of disgusting vivisection. He often uses scientific imagery, and he’s always way more precise about it than your average writer: he specifies that someone’s enthusiasm is “1000 watts (RMS),” and if you don’t understand what that means you can at least see that for most people it’s enough to say “1000 Watts” without specifying the measurement system.

In interviews Egan mentions that his first love was film. He even made a student film and was admitted to film school before abandoning it. Presumably this manuscript derived from that period of his life. Reading it from the perspective I did, I have to say that I thought that this “wasn’t bad”--certainly I expected rather worse after reading that interview snippet above. Once the narrative settles down into the middle bit you can see some of the smooth and introspective style that characterizes his later work. Thank goodness by the time he published Quarantine (with Century/Legend press in 1992) he’d done away with nested parentheses. Given that I’m going to have to err on the side of brevity in my analysis, I suspect that I won’t be able to give much time to this particular work from the author’s cannon. He probably won’t mind. But I’m very glad that I read it. It’s a rare glimpse into the mind of a developing proto-author.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Golden Age Odyssey

Starting in on the Golden Age, it feels like I’ve gone back to the beginning. When, at the suggestion of Charles N. Brown and Gary K. Wolfe, I started to beef up on the classics, I first picked up Adventures in Time and Space, edited by Healy and McComas. It collected fiction from 1938 to 1946 and was extremely influential--especially because it was part of a Random House anthology series, and thus stocked widely in libraries all through America.

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I is a different beast, even though it contains a few of the same stories. The Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) was founded in 1965 and promptly started handing out Nebula awards. However, they needed a way to recognize the excellent sf written before the Nebulas came into existence. Instead of doing some sort of retro-Nebula award, they created these anthologies. This one covers short stories from 1934-1964, as voted on by the 1966 membership of SFWA and then tweaked by editor Robert Silverberg and others.

I haven’t finished reading the anthology yet, but I wanted to put down some initial thoughts on Stanley G. Weinbaum and John W. Campbell:

The more I read “A Martian Odyssey” (1934) by Stanley G. Weinbaum, the more I’m impressed by it. For one, it depicts a human expedition to Mars crewed by an American, Brit, Frenchman, and German. Considering the fact that it was written between the two World Wars, that must have been about as progressive as writing about joint US-Soviet expeditions in the 70’s. Next, here’s what happens when our hero Jarvis, after crash landing on the Martian surface, first sees some alien life:

“All I could see then was a bunch of black ropy arms tangled around what looked like [...] an ostrich. I wasn’t going to interfere, naturally; if both creatures were dangerous, I’d have one less to worry about.

“But the bird-like thing was putting up a good battle, dealing vicious blows with an eighteen-inch beak, between screeches. And besides, I caught a glimpse or two of what was on the end of those arms!” Jarvis shuddered. “But the clincher was when I noticed a little black bag or case hung about the neck of the bird-thing! It was intelligent! That or tame, I assumed. Anyway, it clinched my decision. I pulled out my automatic and fired into what I could see of its antagonist.”

So instead of being instantly driven mad by something with tentacles, as so many protagonists in the 1930’s did, he takes stock of the situation, identifies a creature that might be intelligent, and acts to protect it. Very cool! So he and the Martian, Tweel, become friends, and the Martian helps him get back to his base. Here’s another amazing passage:
“...don’t get the idea that there was anything screwy about Tweel. In fact, I’m not so sure but that he couldn’t teach our highly praised human intelligence a trick or two. Oh, he wasn’t an intellectual superman, I guess; but don’t overlook the point that he managed to understand a little of my mental workings, and I never even got a glimpse of his!”
Basically Tweel and Jarvis manage to communicate, but mostly on Jarvis’ level. They established some math, and the fact that Mars is the 4th planet from the sun, but Jarvis could never make heads or tails out of Tweel’s language. The Martian never used the same word for the same thing twice in a row, and seemed amused by the human’s fixed name. So Tweel wasn’t just a friendly alien (rare enough in the 30’s), he was also Other in some important way.

I also regret even more Weinbaum’s early death at age 33 (from lung cancer). He died 18 months after “Odyssey” was published (his first publication!) and only published 13 stories in his lifetime. When I read this story I notice that the dialog flows better than most stuff written at the time, that it’s funnier than most others, and that the characters are at least slightly more natural than most--and I wonder: Could Weinbaum have been the Robert Heinlein of his day? Heinlein came on the scene five years later in 1939, with “Life Line.” Then I think about Heinlein’s leaning towards social engineering and politics, and Weinbaum’s obvious love of aliens, and wonder how the field might have been different if he’d lived to age 70.

“A Martian Odyssey” is followed by “Twilight” by John W. Campbell writing as Don A. Stuart (the stories are printed in chronological order of first appearance). Never has a story suffered more by placement. Technically, both "Odyssey" and "Twilight" are club stories (as was H. G. Wells’ The Time Traveller): a person has an encounter, and we hear about it when he tells it to someone else in a safe setting. However, "Odyssey’s" club tale is a lively adventure, packed with good-natured interruptions and jokes as things build to the climax--at which point, just like a real audience, the listeners get quiet as Jarvis finishes the tale. "Twilight" is being recounted by a real estate agent who picks up a time traveller in his car. The time traveller has gone too far into the past after having gone too far into the future. He tells the agent about a future where man has forgotten how to operate the machines that run the world, and mankind is slowly dying out. It is very elegaic, with mentions of sorrowful songs and the like. However, in no way does it read as if a real person were saying it out loud. In fact, it even mentions the agent trying to sing snatches of the mentioned music, heard third hand, and somehow getting some of the impact across to the narrator. Let’s just say that it doesn’t sell the premise very well, shall we?

The other interesting thing about the Campbell story is what it shows about the mindset of the sf community in 1966. Remember, these stories were chosen by nominations and votes of the SFWA members. For the anthology they limited it to only one story per author so as to get the maximum number of authors represented. (By the by, even in 1966 they managed to avoid the all-male TOC problem--they have Judith Merril’s “That Only a Mother” and Lewis Padgett, a pseudonym of husband-wife team Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, writing “Mimsy Were the Borogroves.”) I’m betting that if people had to choose a single Campbell/Don A. Stuart story today, they would pick “Who Goes There.” After all, it was turned into a movie a couple of times, and still influences the field (cf Peter Watts’ “The Things”). But apparently in 1966, people could point to “Twilight” as being more worthy in some way. (I’ll have more to say about alternate choices when I review more of the stories.) It’s interesting to see it laid out so clearly: that not only does the field evolve, but the field’s understanding of itself evolves as well.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Con Panel Bingo, Complete!

As promised, an updated and completely-filled out version of the Con-Panel Bingo card. If I were a younger geek, I would have written a little java program that would randomly generate a 5 x 5 grid with the different entries shuffled for anyone who wanted to click on it--that way people could have their own custom version. If anyone wants to write an app like that, please do--I'd like to see it! For now feel free to grab this version & print it, or as Michael Lee suggested on Twitter, just use it as a drinking game! At least it will help pass the time during those panels... you know the ones I mean. ;-)

Thanks to everyone for the suggestions!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Golden Age Reading List Draft

So I only wrapped up my pre-WWII genre reading list a couple months ago, but I'm starting to have thoughts about the Golden Age. As it turns out, reading classics occupies a different part of my brain than my contemporary reviews (as for Salon Futura and Strange Horizons) or my Egan research. It's a bit more relaxing, and I've found that I'm missing it. So, here are some initial thoughts towards a Golden Age list. What I'm looking for are things that are important and influential to the development of the field--things where reading the classics gives me extra insight into the field today. I'm leaving out Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Cordwainer Smith, Alfred Bester, John Wyndham, and Ray Bradbury because I'm comfortable that I've read all their most important pieces. I'm hoping for suggestions about things I need to add--or even better, things I can chuck off the list. I've added the ones I think are most important/non-negotiable in bold.

Here are books that I already own:
  • The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volumes I, IIa, IIb edited by Robert Silverberg and Ben Bova
  • Slan, A. E. van Vogt
  • Darker Than You Think, Jack Williamson
  • Earth Abides, George Stewart
  • Tales of the Dying Earth, Jack Vance
  • City, Clifford Simak
  • The Space Merchants, Fred Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
  • The Big Time, Fritz Leiber
  • A Case of Conscience, James Blish
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller
  • The Complete Compleat Enchanter, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt
  • Agent of the Terran Empire, Poul Anderson
  • The Wanderer, Fritz Leiber [Optional]
  • Little Fuzzy, H. Beam Piper [Optional]
  • They'd Rather Be Right, Mark Clifton
  • The Planet Savers, Marion Zimmer Bradley
  • The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett
  • Conjure Wife, Fritz Leiber
  • The Once and Future King, T. H. White

Here's the list of potential acquisitions:

  • Lest Darkness Fall, L. Sprague de Camp
  • Portable Novels of Science, ed. Donald A. Wollheim
  • Mathematics of Magic, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt
  • Best of Science Fiction, ed. Groff Conklin
  • Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake
  • Pilgrims Through Space and Time, J. O. Bailey [Non-fiction, the Pilgrim award is named after this book]
  • Fury, Henry Kuttner
  • World of Null-A, A. E. van Vogt
  • The Humanoids, Jack Williamson
  • What Mad Universe, F. Brown
  • Star Man's Son, or Star Soldiers, or Uncharted Stars, by Andre Norton [Whichever I can find first.]
  • More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon
  • Long Loud Silence, Wilson Tucker
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers, J. Finney
  • Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut
  • Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut
  • Untouched by Human Hands, Robert Sheckley
  • Three to Dorsai, Gordon R. Dickson
  • Tau Zero, Poul Anderson
  • Best of C. M. Kornbluth
  • Ill Met in Lankhmar, Fritz Leiber
  • A Star Above and Other Stories, Chad Oliver
  • Way Station, Clifford Simak

Part of me really wants to narrow this down because I feel like I'm procrastinating in getting to the New Wave, where I'm definitely weakest. And this list could easily take me 5 years to get through at the current pace. Your thoughts?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Con Panel Bingo

So there we were in the audience of a panel that started at 10pm. We were already a little less than perfectly sober, and my husband and I started playing 'Panel Bingo.' I tweeted some snippet, and a couple folks said they'd like to see that for realz. I couldn't believe that it didn't already exist, but a cursory Google search didn't bring up anything quite like what I had in mind. So here is what I've got so far. As you can see, there are still empty spaces--please help fill them! We've all been there, we've all got various panel pet peeves--here's the place to share. Thanks!

If the image isn't coming through well on your browser, here's what I've got so far:
  • [Center] "This is less of a question, more of a comment"
  • "Well, actually..."
  • "...Therefore..."
  • Audience member with more expertise than panelists
  • Knitting
  • Ranting Audience member
  • Author with fort made from own books
  • Ranting Panelist
  • Shameless name-dropping
  • Question that takes more than 1 minute to ask
  • Panelist interrupting other panelist
  • "I don't know why I'm on this panel..."
  • Author answering question with reference to own books
  • Totally unqualified panelist
  • "I'd like to ask the panelists to introduce themselves..."
  • Audience member who thinks they have more expertise than the panelists
  • ???

I Show Up in Random Places

For instance, I was in the Dealers Room at WFC, and Gary, Jonathan and Alisa waved me over to join their podcast. At the beginning I was totally nerd sniped by Jonathan's shiny new omnidirectional microphone. I've included a picture so that you can see why. It's very shiny! And the part of my brain that specialized in signal processing during my MSEE was very curious about why it was so big. After we wrapped up I picked it up and it's also pretty heavy. I'm betting it's got some up-front firmware filtering so that the software package doesn't have to wade through so much noise. Anyway, it was pretty cool and I managed to sound mostly intelligent even though I had no clue what they'd been talking about when I showed up.

I can also be found nattering on at brief length about fantasy series on the latest SFSignal Mind Meld.

Monday, November 1, 2010

My World Fantasy Con was Made of Awesome, How 'Bout Yours?

Fresh off the plane from WFC (I spent so much time Tweeting the con that I wanted to put #wfc right there). I wanted to get some thoughts down before they all fly out of my head.

For one, I'm once again reinvigorated about being part of this community and doing cool things in it. I'm pretty sure that this will be the week that I *finally* get that review written for SFSignal, get a blog post about Egan's first novel up here, and get caught up on some short fiction. Heck, look at me actually blogging about it in a reasonable time frame! It makes so much difference to get together in the same room with half a dozen people who *care* about this field intensely, and who range across a huge spectrum of background and experience. This WFC was only my second, but I can see it becoming one of my non-negotiable cons, like ICFA is. It also comes at a good time of the year for my work schedule, and that's not trivial.

So, how awesome was it? Well, I had several long talks that would have made it worth my while even without all the drinking and laughter. I had long talks with Liza Groen Trombi of Locus Magazine and Mark Kelly of Locus Online. Plots were hatched that will, with any luck, come to fruition in the next few months. I also talked to Ted Chiang about something interesting we might try to cobble together for the next ICFA meeting. I was able to hang out with John DeNardo, Patrick Hester and John Anelio who've become podcast buddies--meeting folks face-to-face after so long of only knowing them online is always a thrill. I spent some time working the Locus table and got to know Alisa Krasnostein of Twelfth Planet Press, in from Australia, and even sold one of her books!

I did get out to two panels, a reading, and was on a panel myself. My panel was titled "Critical Theory and its Discontents," with Gary K. Wolfe moderating. I was spectacularly unqualified to be on that panel, and none of us had much clue on how to focus it. Gary goaded me into mentioning the difference between scientific theories and literary theories in the arena of rigor, but no one wanted to get into much of a flamewar. Luckily we got a lot of help from the audience, especially Farah Mendlesohn and Kari Sperring. So it ended up being interesting enough and I got some good feedback from audience members afterwards. Still, the best description that I heard afterwards was: "The wheels were spinning, but they never really touched the ground, did they?"

The other panels that I went to included one on John W. Campbell's Unknown magazine, and one on Religion in Tolkein. In the Unknown panel, it was interesting to hear from people like David Drake, David Hartwell and Mike Resnick about publishing back in the 40's and 50's. They listed a bunch of good stories and authors, and emphasized the importance of payment structures to authors and what they chose to write and submit. The Religion and Tolkein panel was unfortunately on at 10pm on Saturday night, and I went to support Daryl Gregory who was on it. Eric Van and Ellen Denham came well prepared with scholarly information about Tolkein's views on religion and Middle Earth, and the audience was remarkably erudite for it being so late. The reading I got to was by Siobhan Carroll, writing as Von Carr, who read from "Sister Jasmine Brings the Pain." It's a perfect story for a reading--ninjas, vampires, androids, telepaths, robot dogs and more, fast paced and funny. I also got to have dinner with her and her fellow Clarion alum Beth Wasden.

After that it would all be name dropping. I was telling Caroline Ratajski (who writes as Morgan Dempsey) and Emily Jiang that if I had intentionally structured my life with the goal of being able to have lots of interesting conversations with interesting people, I couldn't have done much better than this. (Even though apparently that sometimes includes listening to rather famous people trading colonoscopy stories--they shall remain unnamed.) I had many fascinating conversations, learned a lot, and I'm still processing and integrating all of it. But it will show up in my reviews, slowly, over time, because it's all part of learning more about this wild and woolly field we're all in.

Pardon the cliches, I think that means it must be time to try to catch up on some sleep. Forgive inaccuracies or indiscretion, and hope to see you all in San Diego next October!