Monday, April 20, 2009

New Review Up

Just a quick note to mention that I've reviewed Ken Scholes' debut novel: Lamentation over at SFSignal. Quick version: this is a good fantasy novel and very readable, but he hits some cliches pretty hard. Still, I'm interested to see if he's setting those cliches up to be undermined in later books in the series, so I think I'll be sticking around for this one.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

...And, Just for Completeness' Sake

The other half of Paul McAuley's "Essential Books" meme, this one dealing with Fantasy & Horror. Same rules as before. Again, thanks to SFSignal for the link.

  1. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus MARY SHELLEY 1818
  2. Tales of Mystery and Imagination EDGAR ALLAN POE 1838
  3. A Christmas Carol CHARLES DICKENS 1843
  4. Jane Eyre CHARLOTTE BRONTE 1847
  5. The Hunting of the Snark LEWIS CARROLL 1876
  6. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde ROBERT LOUIS STEPHENSON 1886
  7. The Well At The World's End WILLIAM MORRIS 1896
  8. Dracula BRAM STOKER 1897
  9. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary MR JAMES 1904
  10. Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things LAFCADIO HEARN 1904
  11. The Wind in the Willows KENNETH GRAHAME 1908
  12. Jurgen JAMES BRANCH CABELL 1919
  13. A Voyage to Arcturus DAVID LINDSAY 1920
  14. The King of Elfland's Daughter LORD DUNSANY 1924
  15. The Trial FRANZ KAFKA 1925
  16. Lud-in-the-Mist HOPE MIRRLEES 1926
  17. Orlando VIRGINIA WOOLF 1928
  18. The Big Sleep RAYMOND CHANDLER 1939
  19. The Outsider and Others HP LOVECRAFT 1939
  20. Gormenghast MERVYN PEAKE 1946
  21. Night's Black Agents FRITZ LEIBER JR 1947
  22. The Sword of Rhiannon LEIGH BRACKETT 1953
  23. Conan the Barbarian ROBERT E HOWARD collected 1954
  24. The Lord of the Rings JRR TOLKEIN 1954-5
  25. The Once and Future King TH WHITE 1958
  26. The Haunting of Hill House SHIRLEY JACKSON 1959
  27. The Wierdstone of Brinsingamen ALAN GARNER 1960
  28. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase JOAN AIKEN 1962
  29. Something Wicked This Way Comes RAY BRADBURY 1963
  30. The Book of Imaginary Beings JORGE LUIS BORGES 1967
  31. Ice ANA CAVAN 1967
  32. One Hundred Years of Solitude GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ 1967
  33. Earthsea URSULA LE GUIN 1968-1972
  34. Jirel of Joiry CL MOORE collected 1969
  35. Grendel JOHN GARDNER 1971
  36. The Pastel City M JOHN HARRISON 1971
  37. Carrie STEPHEN KING 1974
  38. Peace GENE WOLFE 1975
  39. Gloriana, or the Unfulfill'd Queen MICHAEL MOORCOCK 1978
  40. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories ANGELA CARTER 1979
  41. Little, Big JOHN CROWLEY 1981
  42. The Anubis Gates TIM POWERS 1983
  43. The Colour of Magic TERRY PRATCHETT 1983
  44. Mythago Wood ROBERT HOLDSTOCK 1984
And here we see the *problem* with focusing on classics for the last couple of years: 7 books from before WWII, and only 4 books from after? Whoops. Well, time and a chronological reading plan will eventually solve that problem.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

I'm Obviously a Sucker for a List Meme

Via SFSignal and Andrew Wheeler, (bold means I've read it, italic means it's on my to-read list, etc.):

Paul McAuley's List of Essential SF Titles

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus MARY SHELLEY 1818
Journey to the Centre of the Earth JULES VERNE 1863
After London RICHARD JEFFRIES 1885
The Time Machine HG WELLS 1895
The House on the Borderland WILLIAM HOPE HODGSON 1912
Brave New World ALDOUS HUXLEY 1932
Star Maker OLAF STAPLEDON 1937
I, Robot, ISAAC ASIMOV 1950
The Martian Chronicles RAY BRADBURY 1950
The Dying Earth JACK VANCE 1950
Childhood's End ARTHUR C CLARKE 1953
The Space Merchants CM KORNBLUTH & FREDERIK POHL 1953
Tiger! Tiger! ALFRED BESTER 1956
The Death of Grass JOHN CHRISTOPHER 1956
The Seedling Stars JAMES BLISH 1957
The Midwich Cuckoos JOHN WYNDHAM 1957
Starship Troopers ROBERT A HEINLEIN 1959
A Canticle for Liebowitz WALTER M MILLER JR 1959
Solaris STANSLAW LEM 1961
Hothouse BRIAN ALDISS 1962
A Clockwork Orange ANTONY BURGESS 1962
Cat's Cradle KURT VONNEGUT JR 1963
Martian Time-Slip PHILIP K DICK 1964
The Crystal World JG BALLARD 1966
Flowers For Algernon DANIEL KEYES 1966
Lord of Light ROGER ZELAZNY 1967
The Left Hand of Darkness URSULA K LE GUIN 1969
The Fifth Head of Cerberus GENE WOLFE 1972
Ten Thousand Light Years From Home JAMES TIPTREE JR 1973
The Forever War JOE HALDEMAN 1974
Inverted World CHRISTOPHER PRIEST 1974
The Female Man JOANNA RUSS 1975
Arslan MJ ENGH 1976
The Ophiuchi Hotline JOHN VARLEY 1977
The Final Programme MICHAEL MOORCOCK 1968
Engine Summer JOHN CROWLEY 1979
Timescape GREGORY BENFORD 1980
Neuromancer WILLIAM GIBSON 1984
Divine Endurance GWYNETH JONES 1984

Pretty good list. I might have made some substitutions (perhaps Helliconia instead of Hothouse for Aldiss?), and I'm not sure there's *nothing* essential after 1984. But certainly the quality of works and authors is very high. I'm also happy to see that my program of reading the classics means I can fill in more of the first half of this list than I could've before.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Less a Review, and More a Thank You

In my quest to read more classics, I came up to Rudyard Kipling's classic YA tale, Kim. I especially wanted to read this because I realized that it influenced quite a bit of espionage fiction that came after--most notably in my mind, Tim Power's excellent Declare.

As I began reading it, I was fairly pleased with the way Kipling treated race. It's obviously a central concern of the novel--the second paragraph makes it clear that Kim is White, and this is emphasized many more times.

There was some justification for Kim - he had kicked Lala Dinanath's boy off the trunnions - since the English held the Punjab and Kim was English. Though he was burned black as any native; though he spoke the vernacular by preference, and his mother-tongue in a clipped uncertain sing-song; though he consorted on terms of perfect equality with the small boys of the bazar; Kim was white - a poor white of the very poorest. The half-caste woman who looked after him (she smoked opium, and pretended to keep a second-hand furniture shop by the square where the cheap cabs wait) told the missionaries that she was Kim's mother's sister; but his mother had been nursemaid in a Colonel's family and had married Kimball O'Hara, a young colour-sergeant of the Mavericks, and Irish regiment... His estate at death consisted of three papers - one he called his 'ne varietur' because those words were written below his signature thereon, and another his 'clearance-certificate'. The third was Kim's birth-certificate. Those things, he was used to say, in his glorious opium-hours, would yet make little Kimball a man. On no account was Kim to part with them, for they belonged to a great piece of magic - such magic as men practised over yonder behind the Museum, in the big blue-and-white Jadoo-Gher - the Magic House, as we name the Masonic Lodge.

While Kipling makes it clear that the poorest white is superior to the richest Indian, he also respects many of the native characters in the story. One of the reasons Kim is so successful is that he can move amongst and communicate with the native population. One of his best mentors is a Muslim horse trader from what I assume would today be Pakistan. Probably the most impressive figure in the book as a whole is a Tibetan lama--who holds up well as a pretty impressive character. I had a mental picture in my mind of the racism present in society at the time Kipling was writing (1900), and decided that Kim was probably pretty darned enlightened by the standards of its time. I felt the same way about King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard (1885) -- sure it's racist, but it seemed to accord a measure of respect to the African population that I thought would have been uncommon at the time. Certainly by the time Haggard wrote She, he'd abandoned any sort of enlightened attitude at all. So I'd heard at times about people taking issue with Kim, but I'd never investigated the matter at any depth, and didn't quite see what the problem was.

I was in the middle of reading Kim when Racefail09 entered my consciousness. I came to the discussion very late, but I tried to follow some links, especially to the early material. And I read I Didn't Dream of Dragons. That made a huge impression on me--all of the sudden, I was reading Kim and understanding why it is persistently hurtful. Sure, read by a white audience of its time, it may have been slightly progressive. Read by a white audience today it's antiquatedly Colonialist, but still can be charming. However, read by an Indian audience either then or now, it must be incredibly painful. The casual assumptions, the dismissiveness. As Deepa D. put it:

Do not tell me, or the people like me who have grown up hearing Arabic around them, or singing in Swahili, or dreaming in Bengali—but reading only (or even mostly) in English (or French, or Dutch)—that this colonial rape of our language has not infected our ability to narrate, has not crippled our imagination. When I was in class 7, our English teacher gave us the rare creative writing assignment, and three of my classmates wrote adventure stories about characters named Julian and Peggy and Tom. Do not tell me that this cultural fracture does not affect the odds required to produce enough healthy imaginations that can chrysalis into writers. When we call ourselves Oreos or Coconuts or Bananas (Black/Brown/Yellow on the outside, White on the inside)—understand the ruptures and bafflement that accompanies our consumption of your media while we resent and critique it.
I started to read Kim differently. It didn't seem so charming anymore. Sure, the Tibetan lama is awesome, and the real bad guys are Russian and French. However, the assumption of English colonial benevolence didn't sit quite so well. The assertion of innate racial difference no longer seemed quaintly antiquarian. I began to read it from another viewpoint, one that saw the insulting depictions--especially of one Bengali spy who is very clever but suffers from an amazing inferiority complex re: the English, also the sherpa-type laborers and other native populations--and saw how hurtful they are.

I'm not on Livejournal, and I haven't made any really public statements about Racefail. However, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank so many people who have written. You have helped me understand why even casual, non-KKK-crazy, every-day racist assumptions HURT. Why attempts at tokenism don't help (River and Simon Tam in Firefly have an Asian surname, and as xkcd pointed out, that future is supposed to be half Chinese dominated. But they're played by white actors. WTF?) From your anecdotes, from your long and thoughtful posts, from your repeated assertions in the face of commenters who were telling you that it's not that bad, that you should just shake it off, I learned why that's just not possible or right. I read differently now because of what you've written. I'm thinking here specifically of Tempest Bradford (Angry Black Woman), coffee & ink, Mary Ann Moharanj and Deepad--they've written the main posts that I read. But there were a whole ton of folks leaving comments with names I didn't catch, and I want to thank them too. I'm sorry that so much of the sf/f community decided to be complete assholes about this--you shouldn't have to suffer more for trying to get folks to understand an important truth. When it comes to dickish behavior from so many quarters, all I can do is point to Torque Control's post on the subject and say I whole-heartedly agree.

I'll continue to try and read differently, to read with an awareness of race that I had previously been privileged enough to ignore. I'll try to support small presses like the start-up Verb Noire, PoC authors both established (e.g. the incredible Nalo Hopkinson) and new (Craig Laurence Gidney) and blogs like World SF news. The more viewpoints that feel welcome in sf/f, as I have previously maintained, the better off we'll all be. The future will be incredibly diverse, and more diversity in writing about the future will help everyone think about it in more interesting ways. So while I haven’t become some enlightened being overnight, at least I know to be aware of things I wasn’t before, and hopefully I’ll be able to seek out more authors who will enlighten me further.

PS - this isn't as much a review of Kim as it is a description of an evolution in my thought process. However, Kim is over 100 years old now. You can find out lots about it if you want to. It certainly was quite influential for a significant swath of genre fiction, and worth reading on that account. Also, it is a rather fine illustration of colonialism in action, if you want to see what that looked like at the time. And it's a fun read, although the language hasn't dated terribly well. I'm not in any way saying that people shouldn't read it--just that folks should be aware of its glaring flaws and less willing to give it a pass just because it's old, like I was going to do.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Very Short Fiction Collection

This is a slim volume of short stories, perfect for airline or beach reading. In The Flattered Planet, A. R. Yngve proves himself to be an author of idea-a-minute inventiveness, but not much maturity. Especially with the politically oriented stories; they have all the subtlety of a brick to the head. (On a more general note, with the election of Barack Obama, stories that assume that the default 'President’ is like Bush Jr. aren’t aging well.) Of course, subtle is hard to do in stories with a maximum length of about 20 pages (small pages with large font and significant margins) and a minimum length of 6 words. (Of the flash-fic my favorite is: “He killed for the elixir of eternal youth. He got life.”) And some of the ideas are good: there's beautiful imagery in a story of underground women whose habitat is threatened by oil drilling (although inasmuch as they are portrayed as a threat, they contribute to a rather myopic treatment of women throughout). There’s also a good one about quantum observers and how even mundane things may effect the universe.

On the other hand, some of the stories devolve into outright silliness: in the opening story, one of the longest, increasingly powerful NASA telescopes discover an Earth-like planet. Following an unrealistically accelerated timeline, they see more and more detail, realizing that it's not just Earth-like, it's *exactly like* Earth. Eventually we send a probe, and they realize they're being watched. They paint their Moon in such a way that we can see it, claiming that we are poor copies of them. The viewpoint astronomer believes that they're a poor copy of us, and conceives a plan to send up a message flipping them off. In another, a thinly disguised Cory Doctorow is repeatedly revived after death, and forced to perform for the amusement of tormentors, since the ‘copyright’ on his life and experiences has expired and people can do what they want with him.

That's really where these stories fall down; even when the ideas are intriguing, Yngve tends to take the low road to silliness instead of examining them with any thematic depth. Still, it's much easier to forgive stories when they are <4000 words long; at least you haven't invested that much. So if you want a light read that throws around ideas like they're confetti, you could do worse than this. However, even with all the ideas in the air here, due to execution none of them completely rise to the level of thought-provoking.

Edited to Add: A. R. Yngve's Response