Monday, May 31, 2010

Premium Select Links

Today is a day for writing and revising, being the last holiday before school starts up again. (Only 73 days until my Masters Degree is completed!) So let me do a quick link round-up before getting down to work here.

  • My critique (NOT a review, I think) of Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl generated some good comments on SFSignal and a thoughtful post on the Apex Blog by John Ginsberg-Stevens. Apropos of that, Paul Raven at Futurismic points out that Windup Girl is looking depressingly predictive (although more in terms of genetically modified monoculture food crops than super-ninja geisha).
  • SF's favorite photographer, Kyle Cassidy, has been roaming around my old stomping grounds in central/northern Arizona. He's got an online photo-book up showing what he was able to do there using only his iPhone.
  • In the cool-science end of things, i09 has an article on tattoos that could help diabetics track their blood sugar. Very neat concept in the wearable/permanent body computing category.
  • I was very sad to hear news of Martin Gardner's passing. If it weren't for his writing, I'd be a very different person today, I think. I loved his math-puzzle book The Incredible Dr. Matrix when I was growing up. His skeptical books, along with Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World were instrumental in shaping my world-view.
  • Over at Torque Control, I'm a little behind on the non-fiction reading for the Masterclass (I'm reading-along-at-home, since I won't be able to get there this year). I've been particularly interested in the non-fiction articles: the one on how the sounds of railroads may have influenced the development of music and how technology has affected the practice of ethnomusicology have struck me as more sfnal than some sf. The ethnomusicology one is particularly insightful; I agree with Niall that the railroads article is a bit of a stretch and goes on a bit long.
  • Jonathan McCalmont's column on the video game Dead Space makes me much more interested in something that I'll never play than I have any right to be.
  • I've been grabbing sf/f desktop wallpapers from CreativeFan and Tor has wallpapers from each of this year's Best Artist Hugo nominees.
  • And the podcast conversations between Gary K. Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan continue to be very interesting. Podcast #4 sees them explains exactly my philosophy on 'cannons' and 'reading lists' (which is how I approached my 'classics reading' project).

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Near Future Weighed Down by Today's Baggage

"The People of Sand and Slag" (2004) was my first exposure to Paolo Bacigalupi's work, and it blew me away. What sort of people would we be, what would we do to this planet, if we could engineer ourselves to live on bare rock? It was disturbing and depressing and it really stuck with me. The next year I read "The Calorie Man" (2005). Again, blown away. "Calorie Man" provided a different and illuminating take on what fundamentally powers economics. Since then I've kept up with his short fiction, most of which I've loved (with last year's "The Gambler" being another favorite). I looked forward to his first novel with keen interest. What I found in Windup Girl were many of Bacigalupi's strengths, but also a great big glaring weakness that really hindered my appreciation of the book.

Windup Girl takes place in Bangkok, Thailand. In this future, like today's Netherlands, Bangkok is holding back the rising waters that (literally) threaten to drown it. The world we're in is firmly the same universe as "The Calorie Man" and "The Yellow Card Man," (2006) both of which I recommend reading before embarking on the novel. I'm not entirely sure that the 'calorie man' concept came through clearly in the narrative if you read it without knowing the background. So, we have a post-oil near future. Global warming has hit in full with rising tides drowning many boats. In the absence of oil, everything from transportation to city power has become more complicated. Interestingly, this book does not detail the actual nigh-apocalypse caused by the oil running out. The characters refer to the 'Expansion' (the time we're living in now), and then the 'Contraction,' a time of chaos and mass die-offs.

In this time of relative calm, we follow four characters in Bangkok. Anderson Lake is a westerner out to profit from Thailand's relative prosperity and farsightedness. Officially he is overseeing a factory that is developing kink-spring drives that can store energy more efficiently than current models. Unofficially he is looking for access to Thailand's enormous library of genetic material, a seed bank that stores its true natural resource. The motivation for all this is a little muddy if you read this as a stand-alone; "The Calorie Man" lays out the case for genetic diversity and its importance more clearly. Hock Seng is a 'yellow card,' a barely tolerated Chinese refugee from Malaysia. There the Islamic community rose up and slaughtered most of the Chinese community, even families who had lived there for generations. Hock Seng had been a very prosperous businessman, but was left with little more than his skin and a mass of psychic scars. He works for Lake but has only one focus: doing whatever he must to make sure that he never, ever gets trapped or taken by surprise that way again. He has plans upon plans, but what he lacks are the plans for Lake's manufacturing line, which he hopes to sell for protection and resources.

On the other side Jaidee Rojjanasukchai and Kanya Chirathivat work with the Thai customs agency. They protect Thailand from all enemies, especially foreign (and potentially plague-bearing) genetic material. Most customs officials are easily bribed, but Jaidee is the 'Tiger of Bangkok,' who actually cares about protecting his homeland. Off to the side a bit is Emiko, the eponymous 'Windup Girl.' She is genetically engineered to be a 'companion' to a Japanese businessman: a lover, but also a secretary and translator. Unfortunately, she was sold off by her former owner and wound up in a whore house, where every night she is graphically sexually humiliated in front of crowds of men. From Lake she learns of a colony of runaway windup people up north somewhere, but almost every motion marks her out as a created creature. Windups are popularly believed to be soulless, are illegal in Thailand, and are considered abominations by the new fundamentalist Christian sect, the Grahamites. (It seems that no post-apolcalyptic near-future is complete these days without some fundie Christians running around).

All of the characters proceed to navigate an *ahem* dynamically challenging environment. Thailand's government is not stable; one strong king led them through the Contraction successfully, but in the time of the book there is a child princess and a regent. The regent has one faction, and the army (including the customs agency) has another. A string of more-or-less random events brings all the pent-up conflict to a head, and everyone must survive as best they can. In fact, some of them don't survive. At the end, huge changes have been wrought in Thailand.

I definitely liked the range of characters that Bacigalupi picked for his points of view; they encompass the scene usefully from several different perspectives. Each of them is well-drawn, with clear motivations (although sometimes they fail to be much more than the collection of their motivations; I think Hock Seng and Kanya best rise above these limitations). I appreciate his vision of a post-oil future and what that might mean, how other tech could fill the gaps and what gaps might be left. I found the depiction of a political climate so volatile that any random spark sets off an explosion of pent-up conflict to be excellent.

Here's my biggest reservation about the novel, the bit that I may not be able to overcome. When you choose an exotic third world country as your setting, you have to deal with the modern-day baggage that it brings along with it in the mind of many (ignorant) Westerners--like me. The Western stereotype of places like Thailand is that they are already cesspools of political and economic chaos. (Consider Thailand's most recent flare-up of protests, violent repressions, and borderline civil war.) Basically, I feel like the future depicted here doesn't seem that much worse than the present that I imagine in Thailand and other countries in similar situations.

Likewise, Emiko is burdened by her real-world counterparts. Emiko is an enslaved whore, but lucky for her she is not only a genetically engineered geisha, she is also a genetically engineered super-ninja assassin who gets to kill the men who abuse her most horrifically and then survive the political crisis, violence and eventual flooding sparked by her revenge rampage. In fact, because of her super-abilities and the intervention of a random genetic engineer in the epilogue (a gun that was only barely and somewhat conveniently laid on the mantlepiece in the main narrative), she may be the future of humanity. (Although that future may ultimately lead us to "The People of Sand and Slag," still not a happy place.)

Now, I imagine (and Western anti-slavery activists tell us) that there are many, many women in sexual slavery in parts of the world right now who have no hope or ability to better their lot. They are not super-ninjas just waiting for the right trigger to wreck their just revenge. They live lives of torture and abuse and they often die young. Likewise, there are good government officials now standing up to corrupt ones, and there are political factions out there who don't care who they have to kill to get power, and there are Westerners seeking to take advantage of third world resources--sometimes they succeed and sometimes they get chewed up and spit out by cultures and forces they don't understand. There are barely tolerated refugees out there right now, and some of them make it and a lot of them don't. So I just keep thinking about the real enslaved prostitutes, and the real customs officials, and the real barely legal refugees out there in the world, and I wonder why, in Windup Girl's resource-depleted future, these characters seem to have more resources and more agency than their real world counterparts.

(I must note that this is a systematic bias of almost all fiction: we prefer to read about people who succeed--Heroes--or at least have the power to possibly succeed, rather than people who cannot change their own lot. But you would think that of any writer, Bacigalupi would be among the least likely to hew to this convention.)

How does this post-apocalyptic Thailand illuminate Bacigalupi's message? If we are meant to be shocked and dismayed at the sheer quantity of abuses, on levels of sex, gender, power, class, race, ethnicity and any other form you can think of, why not write a book about people living in these conditions today? Why not write non-fiction, or make a documentary? If, on the other hand, we are meant to be shocked by the horrors of this energy-scarce post-apocalyptic world, why not show the Contraction, when so much of the Earth's population died? Why depict the time when things have regained enough stability to duplicate the abuses of today? I hate to accuse the infamously depressing and dystopian Bacigalupi of having a too-optimistic ending, but too much of this book seemed like revenge fantasy: more bad guys die than good guys, the 'right' faction wins the day even though it causes huge disruptions to the nation, and the abused sex slave gets to kill those who enslaved her and in fact becomes the future hope of humanity.

Maybe this book would have worked better if I were more familiar with Thailand today; then I would clearly see the differences and be shocked by them. But it isn't so different from the images I have in my head of modern-day failed states--whether they be in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, or Africa--to shock me with how much worse things would be after the energy runs out. I still appreciate Bacigalupi's detailed vision of a post-oil future, but for me this milieu wasn't the best background against which to showcase that future.

I must also mention that I was almost certainly put off the whole enterprise by the extraordinarily graphic and unpleasant descriptions of Emiko's sexual torture at the hands of her oppressors. I assume that Bacigalupi chose to show those scenes in such detail in order to make her ultimate revenge both justified and a cause of celebration. But I've never really been good at stomaching scenes like that; reading them hurt in a much more visceral way for me than most other depictions of random violence.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Aprils Links bring May...

It's amazing to look back on this last spring semester and realize how inactive I was online. Only a handful of reviews, and almost no blog comments. I've been reading a lot in books, magazines and online. So in my brain I've much more connected; basically I was just lurking everywhere. So thanks to all the folks who actually post regular content--at least I feel like I know what's been going on, even if I haven't been actively involved.

  • Thanks as always to Niall Harrison, especially for hosting discussion on the awards lists such as the Clarke Award. I'm jealous that he'll be going to the SFF Masterclass again, and I'm looking forward to seeing what new discussions the reading list and participants will spark.
  • Likewise, I also appreciated Nic Clarke's take on the award nominees.
  • Abigail Nussbaum continues to write awesome reviews, including this one of Joe Hill's Horns. It didn't make me excited about Horns itself, but it does impress on me the necessity of picking up 20th Century Ghosts.
  • I've been enjoying Jonathan McCalmont's Blasphemous Geometries column on video games over at Futurismic; definitely some interesting perspectives on a field I'm less familiar with.
  • I've been extremely saddened by the border-crossing difficulties and abuses suffered by Cheryl Morgan, Peter Watts, and Adam Israel. So many things continue to go in the exact wrong direction instead of the right one. I am very glad that Cheryl has found a home for now and that Dr. Watts avoided jail time. I hope that Adam's case gets better instead of worse.
  • I loved the recent podcast with Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe. It felt just like hanging out with them at a con, except that they weren't interrupted ten times and got to actually complete some of their thoughts.
  • Thanks to Jay Lake's links I've been enjoying the conservative blogger Daniel Larison. It's nice to read an opposing viewpoint that you can really respect.
  • In more general interest news, I've been enjoying reading items from both The Atlantic and the Smithsonian online. James Fallows in particular could write about a phone book and make it interesting and worthwhile.
  • I was very happy to hear that Asimov's magazine will be accepting online submissions, I hope it works out well for them. I also wanted to give Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld mad props for designing their submissions system; he (and his magazine) continue to be made of awesome.

Anyway, I'm hoping to get back into the flow of things a bit more soon. I've already begun my Hugo reading, and posts will soon be following. I have plenty of draft reviews, but I want to smooth out the language a bit more. However, I doubt that I'll be going full-tilt this summer. I'll be taking a (relatively easy) summer class to finish off my Masters Degree, but I've also signed up for quite a bit of overtime work this summer. So we'll see how it goes.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Stuff that Makes Tolkien Look Like a Radical Progressive

Imagine reading The Lord of the Rings. Now imagine it without any truly memorable or empathetic characters, or any good dialog. Imagine the battles scaled down, the bloodthirstiness ramped up, and the quests made kind of pointless. Now imagine no longer! E. R. Eddison's Worm Ouroboros was published in 1922.

I'm being a bit harsh here, but really, this one makes Tolkien look like a superlative genius. The fact that his characters rise to two-dimensionality is a huge improvement over Ouroboros. After so much of my pre-1930s reading, I've come to believe that the fact that Tolkien's characters are so memorable and well-beloved is what truly lifts his work above so much that came before. This makes him seem almost sui generis, but all these earlier examples show that he clearly is not. Ouroboros in particular is a direct ancestor of LotR, and apparently it is well established that Tolkien read it. But this is the book that makes me picture Tolkien reading it, throwing it down and shouting "I can write something better than this!" and stomping off to start The Hobbit. Ouroboros shares with LotR a somewhat Norse outlook on things, a supernatural bad guy, quests, etc. What it lacks is epic scope and any trace of charm.

The main players in the story are Demonland and Witchland. Despite the names, all the people involved in the conflict are basically human, and Demonland turns out to be the 'good guys.' Witchland is ruled by a King who made a deal with some sort of evil powers to get insti-reincarnation. Whenever he gets killed, he spawns again in his Iron Tower. This is symbolized in his ouroboros ring (this ring, once mentioned, will have no further importance to the story). Early in the story, Gorice XI gets killed in a wrestling match with a demon lord, and Gorice XII pops up.

To avenge the death of his previous self, Gorice summons up a eldritch sea monster to wreck the demon fleet heading home. Lord Juss, our super-heroic hero, survives, but his brother Goldry Blusco is nowhere to be found. Nonetheless, Juss is sure that Goldry isn't dead (WTF?), and heads off on a quest to rescue him. While he and his only-slightly-less super-heroic lordly sidekicks are away, the Witchlanders conquer and sack Demonland. Chalk one up for incredibly bad leadership on Juss' part.

So Juss goes off questing. This has many different phases: wandering through a peaceful landscape, holed up in a fort with several hundred men against several thousand, wandering some more and being nice to animals, and mountaineering up to the abode of a demigoddess. She confirms that his brother isn't exactly dead, and Juss can get to him with the help of a hippogriff. However, their first hippogriff gets hijacked, so they head back to Demonland and kick out the Witches.

The Demons start cleaning things up, and eventually Juss finds another hippogriff. He flies over, climbs some more, avoids some temptation, and rescues his brother. Now the Demons go on the offensive: they destroy the Witches' fleet, and land on the Witches' doorstep.

Now the Witch King Gorice has a choice: fight square or use magic? Unfortunately, there's a hitch: a prophecy related to his immortality that says if he unleashes the big magic again, he'll be really dead this time. So he fights square, but loses due to the tactical brilliance and general heroic-ness of Juss and the Demons (although Juss' hard-won brother doesn't play any pivotal role in the battle, and one of the more interestingly ambiguous side character gets killed off almost casually).

Then the Witch King goes off to try magic while his inner circle poisons itself through treachery. The Iron Tower falls (Gorice's last moments happen totally off-stage), breeching the walls and allowing the Demons to come waltzing in.

Yay, they've won! There's peace all over the world and the Demons rule everything. But, when talking to the demigoddess who helped them with the brother quest, it turns out that the Demon lords are all sad. They'll have no more epic fights in which to prove their valor and heroism, no mighty enemies worthy of their might of arms and storied weapons. They've got nothing to look forward to except peace and prosperity for all of their days; how boring! So the demigoddess actually brings all the bad guys back to life, and the last page of the book literally returns to the first page--hence the ouroboros.

So yeah, just the fact that in LotR the third age actually ends, the elves actually leave, and Frodo really can't go home again looks like a brilliant dose of realism compared to this stuff. Some of Ouroboros' other flaws: Lists of stuff in lieu of descriptions. Spending way too much time with the bad guys, seeing them be mean to each other and lewd with women. It makes them silly instead of threatening. And it doesn't help to make your battles sound really epic when you actually give the troop numbers: 800, 3000, 5000, etc. I think the biggest number is around 6,000, which is supposed to be a devastatingly huge force. Considering that this was written after WWI, I found it almost quaint--maybe the readers of the time found it comforting.

Also, there are lots of other minor plot points that are never really paid off. One good guy gets hit with a curse, and all the terms of the curse come true (of course), but it doesn't really seem to bother him that much. And generally, we are supposed to understand that things matter because the author says so, not because he shows them. These guys are awesome/heroic/really evil/really good/really attractive/etc.--because he said so! None of them really come across as any of those things in casual reading. Certainly the characters all blur together after a while (especially the three Witch lords whose names all begin with 'Cor-').

You can definitely see the Norse influences here: the emphasis on personal heroism over actual leadership and the desire for perpetual war to prove valor, among other things. There are also place names such as "Threngrim." However, it's definitely not a pure influence: "Threngrim" is in the same region as "Taranadale" and "Owlwick." That must have set the linguist in Tolkien twitching.

Of the classics I've read so far, the only one with really memorable characters is George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin, which was written specifically for children. Actually, I'll throw Alice in Wonderland in there too, also for children. I suspect this may be one of the reasons that Tolkien started with The Hobbit instead of the more adult-oriented LotR. Even Lord Dunsany, whose short fiction I've enjoyed immensely, wasn't that big on character. Over time I'm definitely coming to realize why Tolkien stood out in the field the way he did.
For an interesting alternate take, see Georges T. Dodds' review at SFSite. It acknowledges all the flaws listed above but loves it anyway.