Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Time for some obligatory year-end musings. 2008 was the year of short fiction for me--I mostly kept up with Analog, Asimovs, F&SF, Baen's Universe and Interzone. As of now I'm pretty much caught up (reviews of individual issues will be forthcoming). I'm partway through Dec. F&SF, and I just received the latest two issues of Interzone from Fictionwise, so I'll be plowing through those soon. I am definitely looking forward to filling out my Hugo nomination ballot this spring; I doubt that I'll ever be so thoroughly well-informed and -read in these categories ever again.

However, given my new (and more fun than I expected) position as a slush pile reader for Strange Horizons, that's it for me and consistent short fiction reading. I still enjoy it, but I won't be making it a focus this year. I need to free up time for other reading.

In 2009 I plan to read and review recent releases for Strange Horizons, SFSignal and Fruitless Recursion (among others), but to focus on genre classics and older international fiction here. For instance, I've got some William Hope Hodgson (The Night Land, 1912) and Lord Dunsany ("The King of Elfland's Daughter," 1924) downloaded to my eBook, and I recently found out about some older collections of German and Austrian SF from Gary Wolfe's column in Locus. I've also got the recent Speculative Japan anthology sitting on my to-read shelf. To fill out more of my background in literature, I'm also hoping to read all of Dante's Divine Comedy and Chaucer's Cantebury Tales this year--I know the basics about these works, but I think I'll enjoy getting more of the details.

Now, to wrap-up some loose ends from 2008. I present a list of those interesting books that I read this year but which won't get real reviews--either because I thought they weren't really relevant, or I couldn't think of anything terribly profound to say about them. This post will serve to rid myself of a guilty conscience in relation to these worthy books, so I can move forward into 2009 feeling guilty about more important things, like getting all those magazine reviews up!

This is Helen Thomas' memoirs that don't include the second Bush administration. In retrospect, I wish I'd waited for whatever updates she'll be doing. Still, this is a pretty amazing account of both a woman pioneering a field through sheer competence and an insider view of how different presidents and press secretaries have chosen to deal with the press. Interesting and insightful all the way through--you should probably wait for the sequel, though.

What the heck can I say about this classic that hasn't been said? I was inspired to read it by Ian McDonald's much-heralded Brasyl, and I'm very glad I finally did. It's shorter and more interesting that I had previously assumed. I was particularly struck by its incredibly focused diction; almost every sentence reinforced the theme of Death.

This is a wonderful tribute to some wonderful people, John and Judith Clute. I had bought the book in 2006, but was only able to read it straight through and appreciate it after meeting them and seeing their famous flat in Camden this summer as part of the SFF Masterclass. This has appreciations, criticism, reviews, and also short fiction that features their flat--including a particularly memorable story by Geoff Ryman involving the resurrection of Pablo Picasso. An eclectic collection for a fairly niche market.

The second collection of James Blish's criticism as "William Atheling, Jr." is more of the same--interesting and insightful, but not as revelatory as the first volume. This one gets into more depth with some of this arguments with contemporaries, and also chronicles some of the other early critical efforts within the genre.

I have to admit, I'm a total space junkie. As such, there was little in this book that was particularly new. I appreciated a view from the press side of the space efforts, and Barbree certainly cares deeply about the American space program. He has some interesting bits on the aftermath of various disasters, especially from the industrial side, and some anecdotes about the astronauts that I hadn't read before. However, I don't think this book stands alone as well as something like Failure is Not an Option by Gene Krantz.

Eric Idle's account of a solo tour of America where he attempted to expand his skills into stand-up comedy as well as performing the tried-and-true Monty Python sketches and songs. I found the first bits about tweaking the live show to be interesting, and because I'm not as well read in Python as I am in NASA, lots of the autobiography and Python anecdotes were new to me. Towards the end it got a bit repetitive, but especially in the first half it's often hilarious.

Yeah, I know. But I got it as an eBook from Baen's Webscription site. I had read a lot of these blog entries when they were originally published. I had planned to skim through a lot of it, but found myself re-reading them instead. These things hold up surprisingly well, mostly because of Scalzi's breezy and snarky style. Of course, this is a best-of collection, and in 10 years of blogging he had a lot to choose from. All you can say is, anyone who enjoys Scalzi's blog, which appears to be at least half of all 'Net users, will enjoy this book.

Pratchett's amazingly sinister take on Elves... you don't want to meet them in a dark alley and you certainly don't want to invite them into your realm. Also, lots more fun with the Witches. I was particularly happy to see Magrat, the youngest, finally come into her own.

Another guilty pleasure of mine (I think the only other such genre that I didn't hit this year is outdoor adventure non-fiction, such as Into Thin Air or The Worst Journey in the World). So how does one become a forensic anthropologist, anyway? Well, apparently it can be a fairly roundabout process, and Dr. Bass' memoir describes how the field has developed and gives many juicy case studies of how it's applied. I was happy to get more details about studies I'd only heard about, such as the ones involving insect colonization on corpses. Macabre, but fascinating.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Pratchett <=> Aristophanes?

Here’s a cheerful review to lead into the holidays. Small Gods is the thirteenth book in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. I’m obviously quite behind (I only started reading Discworld in late 2006), but I’m eagerly catching up. I’ve found that when you pick up a Discworld book, you never know just what you’re going to get. Politics, celebrity culture, the magic of movies, tourism, capitalism, women’s rights, undead rights… you just never know. Small Gods tackles philosophy and religion head on.

Brutha is a novice in the priestly complex of an extremely overbearing religion. The god is Om, and the country is Omnia. They are absolutely nothing like the Catholic Church. They've got a Cenobiarch, not a pope, and a Quisition, not an Inquisition. See?

One day a tortoise falls into Brutha's garden and starts talking to him. The tortoise claims to be Om. It turns out that he's lost believers--everyone worshipping at the church of Om believes in the Church, not in the Great God Om, and gods dwindle when they're not believed in. Brutha is one of the only remaining people who truly believes in Om, thanks mostly to an overbearing grandma and a lack of imagination.

Given the somewhat madcap plotting of these books, I'll give you the quick run-down of the other plot threads: the Church is expecting the next prophet any day. The head of the Quisition has been setting himself up for it--he scares everyone. He plans to conquer Ephebe, the place that is nothing like Athens, that we've been to in other books (including one of my favorites, Pyramids). There's also a rebellion movement afoot in Omnia, one that believes that the world is not spherical, as Om proclaimed, but instead is flat and rests on the back of a giant turtle. During the Ephebe segment, the rebellion ends up with a couple of philosophers. One turns out to be an engineer who may end up regretting building engines of war, even in a good cause, and the other refuses to have anything to do with the lot of them.

That's a lot of plates to keep spinning, but by this point in the series Pratchett knows just what he's doing. He keeps them all going and ties them all together with ease. In the end, Brutha is as pivotal as you'd expect, and things generally turn out alright. Along the way, we see the deep power of true believers and how one is as bad as the next, and that people really should make their own ways without doing things just because "God said so" because usually He didn't.

Now, as it happened, I was reading the section in Ephebe at the same time I was reading Aristophanes’ The Clouds. Aristophanes was a playwright who lived at the same time as Socrates in Greece. His specialty was comedic plays, and Clouds is a direct hit on Socrates. In it, a man and his son have racked up some serious debt. They hear that learning philosophy, especially from Socrates, can help a man win any argument at court, no matter how unjust. First the man, then the son, goes to Socrates to learn. Socrates mostly doesn't want anything to do with them (especially the obnoxious father), but eventually teaches the son. As a result, the son ends up arguing convincingly that it is right and proper for sons to beat their fathers--so the father gets his just deserts.

While I am not the first one to note this, there is a distinct similarity in the outlook between Aristophanes and Pratchett. For one, while they mock, they do so with understanding and respect. The main philosopher in Small Gods is Didactylos, who lives in a barrel and says "Bugger" a lot. In general the Ephebian philosophical debates end up in fisticuffs. However, they do end up the wisest of the cast, especially Didactylos who opposes getting involved in the Omnian civil war. Likewise Socrates and his philosophy students in the Clouds say many silly things, about how gnats fart and various things about the gods. However, Socrates is smart enough to see the father off for a complete idiot, and at the end I felt that the Aristophanes’ moral is that even good things can be turned to bad ends by people who wish to use them that way—it’s not Socrates’ fault if some people use what they learn from him for less-than-perfectly moral purposes.

The other marked similarity between the two involves their contempt for pretentious pie-in-the-sky thinking. I read Clouds directly after reading Plato's Republic in which Socrates argues for all sorts of things that are impossible unless people somehow become perfect. It's this mash-up of highfalutin' thinking meeting everyday Joes that makes the Clouds so funny. Likewise, it's the meeting of a huge, all-powerful church and a very small god with normal folks like Brutha and Cut-Me-Own-Hand-Off Dhblah that generates much of the humor in Small Gods (and in most of the Discworld books). I'm not claiming to have discovered some eternal principle of humor here, but it's pretty neat to see two authors so distant in time and space having such similar wry views on human nature. They're not angry comedians, they're just bemused by people being people no matter what philosophers or priests think they should be. Will the Discworld books stand the same test of time that Aristophanes has (~2400 years)? I doubt Pratchett himself thinks so, but I rather hope they will.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Meme I Can Get Behind

Now that I'm back in the land of the high-speed internet connection, let me jump on this bandwagon. Thanks to John at Grasping for the Wind for starting all this. I'm sure all our Technorati ratings thank him as well.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Prosaic: Weather and Travel

So, when we moved here, we asked about snow. And they said, "Oh it snowed once like, thirty years ago. It doesn't snow in Houston!"

We beg to differ.

And as you'll see from the daylight picture, some of it is still around this morning!

Of course, when we moved here last year they also said "Houston never really takes direct hits from hurricanes!" So in retrospect, we should have been buying snowshoes.

I'd say we were lured here under false pretenses except for one thing. Everyone also said, "You'll love it here except for the weather!" And we do.

In other news, I'm leaving on some hastily arranged travel today. My father's in the hospital in central Arizona, so I'm heading up to help out. It doesn't look life-threatening so far; his pacemaker went off a few times and upon further examination they found some blood-clots hanging out where they oughtn't. Still, I'm glad to go up and cheer folks up and help around the house as needed. I should be back in Houston on Tuesday, preparatory to my final exam on Thursday night. While I'm there I'll be away from high-speed internet connections, so I'll be less responsive to email and comments than usual.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Reviewing the Unreviewable

Just a note to let you know that I have a review up in Issue #3 of Jonathan McCalmont's Fruitless Recursion. I review A Companion to Science Fiction, a gigantic tome of critical writings about sf edited by David Seed. It was a daunting challenge (it took roughly a month just to read), but I'm happy with the way the review turned out.

This issue of Fruitless Recursion includes a multi-pronged examination of recent H. P. Lovecraft scholarship in the form of two reviews and a critical interview, as well as a review by Duncan Lawie of one of my all-time favorite books of sf criticism, The Issue at Hand by James Blish/William Atheling, Jr. Read and enjoy!

Monday, December 1, 2008

...Except Geoff Ryman.

When I titled my last post "Good Writers Doing Good, but Unexceptional, Things" I should have added: "Except Geoff Ryman." The only excuse I can think of for forgetting his story: once I had noticed a theme of unexceptionality, I mentally sorted "Days of Wonder" into a different category and never got back to it. I found this story unique and perhaps award-worthy. It's almost impossible to review this story without spoilers; the story is set up in such a way that watching the worldbuilding unfold is almost as dramatic as the character arc. So if you want to experience this story untainted by me, go read it now.

For the rest of us: in the far, far future, humans are gone. However, we leave our legacy in a large number of genetically engineered beings. Most of them have drifted far away from humanity, carrying only bits and pieces. Most of the action centers around a tribe of "horses." They're a long way from our horses: they groom, they're matrilineal, they can do primitive metalworking (with the help of the squirrels) and they can use weapons. They walk on four legs sometimes and two legs when needed.

One member of this tribe, Leveza, is much closer to us than usual. She mates for love, not randomly; she walks on two legs more often and has a shallower face. Her child is born mostly helpless instead of jumping up and running around within the first day. She is also inventive. These differences cause her a lot of friction with both the narrator, her partner, and the more traditional elements of their tribe. [Exercise for the reader: compare and contrast Ryman’s treatment of Difference in this story and The Child Garden. I can’t do it, I’ve got finals coming up!] Things come to a head when they start their annual migration and have to deal with the big “cats” that prey on them. Leveza doesn't simply kill them and/or leave them be, she actually captures one and learns from it. This does not sit well with the rest of the tribe at all. Even her own partner worries about this trend. Leveza transgresses custom after custom, until she is finally kicked out of the tribe altogether. We learn in a sort of coda that she turned out alright--certainly she has a worthy goal to work for, reuniting the species and all their disparate knowledge. However, she makes deep sacrifices, all deeply felt.

This is an intense story, both on the part of the protagonist and the narrator. The basic story of a tribe member becoming an outsider isn't new (that one's as old as time), but this is a particularly interesting take on it. I found the world-building to be particularly good as well, both plausible and oddly surreal. One quibble is that it drags in the middle, during the long migration, as the main character begins to split from the tribe. I think some scenes could have been cut or described more briefly to move things along faster. However, between the world building, the characterization, and the deep treatment of its theme, this story more than makes up for any minor problems with pacing.