Friday, December 30, 2011

End of the Year

2011 draws to a close, marking the end of a year that has probably marked the biggest single change in my life, ever. Posts have been thin on the ground here at Spiral Galaxy, but I have no regrets. I've managed to keep: my child alive and healthy, my job (and gotten into a new and awesome group at NASA), the Locus blog going, and my book draft going (although with a new deadline of August 2012 instead of March 2012). Of the things that needed to be thrown overboard, this blog and other reviewing seemed the most reasonable things to go. But I haven't stopped reading! Here's some capsule thoughts on books I've read since little Gadget was born, on August 30th.

In War Times by Kathleen Anne Goonan. I had previously bounced off Goonan's work with the Queen City Jazz cycle, and this didn't change that. There are some authors where I can see their virtues, but the work just doesn't resonate with me, and Goonan appears to be one of those. I really liked the historical bits in War Times, but the jazz lost me and I didn't find the super-physics convincing. I had planned to read this preparatory to This Shared Dream, but I think I'll let that slide.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick. Charles Brown used to say that this book was the most horrific that he'd ever read, but it didn't strike me that way. One thing I liked is that between this and Ubik, I now know that I like PKD as a sentence-level writer much more than I thought I would. However, I was specifically reading these to see if they linked in with Greg Egan's altered/virtual reality futures, and I don't think that they do. PKD's characters are on very unstable ground, never knowing what their position is vis a vie reality, whereas Egan's characters are pretty much all rational actors in a rational universe, whether that universe is physical, digital, or both. Completely different affect and theme.

Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. Probably not the right book to read right at the beginning of my maternity leave. However, I found it very well written, very convincing, often amusing, and definitely enlightening. Thanks to Farah Mendlesohn for the recommendation!

Book by Book by Michael Dirda. A short book full of Dirda's notes on reading. Light and charming, but pretty fluffy. I've always enjoyed reading his thoughts, and this was no exception.

Howl's Moving Castle by Dianna Wynn Jones. I'd enjoyed the film when it came out, and enjoyed this as well. I hadn't before realized just how YA the original book was. I thought the middle got into a bit of a muddle, but definitely enjoyed the characters and the whole milieu.

Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert. I appreciated this for many of the same reasons I loved Les Miserables--the in-depth and incisive character portraits. I know people today who share many depressing characteristics with M. Bovary. But I didn't fall in love with it the way I did with Les Mis, probably because it lacked Hugo's epic sweep. By the by, it was Dirda's book that finally inspired me to pick this up.

God, No! by Penn Jillette. Another book full of assorted thoughts and vignettes, rather like Dirda's book but for atheists instead of life-long readers. Lots of amusing anecdotes from Jillette's improbable career and life.

The Alchemists of Kush by Minister Faust. This book deserves a bigger, better review than what I'm writing here. I loved it. It's a twinned tale of mythology and urban African-Canadian (although I imagine African-Americans would find it equally apt) experience. The contemporary and non-fantastic part follows a troubled black teenager as he finds a role model and a place in the community--although his is not an easy story and it doesn't have an easy ending. The fantastic portion describes a young man navigating a mythic landscape, learning about his powers and leadership. Argh, that makes it all sound too pat. I've loved everything I've read by Faust, and this was no exception. If nothing else, the poetry and rhythm of his language would be worth it. If nothing else, the reading list that the mentor figure gives to young Raptor would be worth it. The whole resonant package is even more worth it. And if I'm saying this as a middle-aged white woman, when the story is so intensely young, black, and male, then that tells you something (I hope) about the power of Faust's writing. The only major critique I'd have is that I felt that the author dodged a bit when the issue of homophobia reared its head. But that's a very small matter in a book that's much bigger than its relatively short length.

Embassytown by China Mieville. I loved Perdido Street Station and The Scar. I finished Iron Council. I enjoyed The City and The City. I bounced off of Kraken. And now I've bounced off of Embassytown. Reading the book, I kept waiting for an answer to the question: how in hell can a language that can't refer to things that haven't happened allow for engineering? But about halfway through, as the plot was ramping up, I realized that the main viewpoint character, the first person narrator Avice, was a complete cipher to me. She didn't seem to have a real character or personality, and I wasn't even sure what might motivate her. So I bailed out, abandoning the book altogether. It especially suffered in comparison to the books I read before and after it.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I'd been meaning to read something of Ishiguro's for ages, and I figured that Never Let Me Go would just annoy me. Remains was a beautiful read, with effortless prose that was wonderful to just swim through. Ishiguro has perfect mastery of tone, with no word out of place. It's a quiet tale, entirely about the character of its narrator. He's an unreliable observer of himself, but there are plenty of narrative clues that let us know what he doesn't know about himself. It's the quietly tragic story of a man who made a lot of wrong choices but can't let himself admit that. If I perhaps felt that some of the clues were rather obvious, making it easy for the educated reader to say I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE, YAY GO ME! the prose style made it very easy to forgive.

The Once and Future King by T. H. White. Again, this deserves a longer post. It was quite different than I'd expected, and seemed overly grounded in the politics of post-WWII England. The tone shift as it moves from book to book is dramatic, but it worked for me. While White makes it clear that he feels that the tragedy stems from Arthur's sin in bedding his sister (while under the sway of one of her spells), I really felt that the whole 'ordering all two-year-old boys to be killed' thing (while not under anyone's spell) got rather swept under the rug. I will say that I think I've read the Arthurian stories in rather the wrong order. One should probably read L'Morte de Arthur, then Once and Future King, then The Mists of Avalon. Whereas I read Avalon years ago, then this, and will probably never get to L'Morte. I retrospectively appreciate Mists of Avalon quite a bit more now, after reading this.

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi. I had bounced off of Rajaniemi's short fiction to this point, so I was happy to find that I finished this book. However, it didn't really stand out for me. It was a good read, but nothing that made me want to jump up and laud it. Again, I think Rajaniemi is just going to be one of those authors that I know I should like, that I have every reason to like, that I can see why other people like him, but I just don't like very much. C'est la vie.

Mind Children by Hans Moravec. Read this as research for the Egan book. Fascinating stuff, chock-full of techno-optimism. Not perhaps the best written ever, but you could make an entire career fleshing out the sfnal ideas in here, and one can argue that Egan did just that in the late 1980's and early 1990's.

The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross. I've enjoyed his other Laundry series books, and I enjoyed this one. Actually, I liked this one rather more than the second book in the series, The Jennifer Morgue. Fuller Memorandum is a fun book, I've always liked the premise of the universe, and I agree with the politics in the book, so it was all a very stress-free experience. During this time I started in on some of L. Sprague de Camp & Fletcher Pratt's Compleat Enchanter stories, and it was really striking how much Bob Howard of the Laundry is the heir to that sfnal-attitude-in-a-fantastic-universe tradition.

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett. I've been slowly reading the Discworld books in publication order, and I lucked out that I got to Hogfather right before Christmas. Perfect time to read this one as a nice mental break.

Science as Salvation by Mary Midgley. Another one that I'm reading for the Egan book. This book is a criticism of the narrative created by some scientists, especially those involved in popularizing science such as Freeman Dyson, that promise immortality in humanity's future. I don't agree with many of Midgley's critiques, but it was excellent food for thought.

So while I've been quiet, I haven't been idle! I'm doing a lot of reading in other areas for the Egan research, which combined with the baby-related lack of free time, means that I haven't been reading much for review or for my Golden Age reading project. When the book is done I hope to get back to normal reviewing reading. In the meantime I'm having a ton of fun with the Egan project, and with the baby, and with my day job, and you really can't ask for better than that!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Histrionic Waffling

Jack Williamson's Darker Than You Think [1948] is an unusual book for the "Golden Age" of science fiction; it focuses on the psychological as opposed to outward sci/tech adventure or even more purely sociological world-building. There are a lot of elements to appreciate, but the blend doesn't work for me--largely because of tone.

In the story, lycanthropes are real and less limited than simple old-school werewolves. They can transform into almost anything, are invisible to most humans when transformed, and manipulate probabilities (what today we'd more likely label quantum uncertainties) at will, enabling them to walk through walls and arrange nasty 'accidents.' However, for the most tenuous of hand-waving reasons, dogs and silver still pose a mortal threat to them.

Will Barbee is the protagonist, a decent newspaper reporter and alcoholic. The story starts as an expedition returns from an H. R. Haggard story--or rather, from an archeological/anthropological expedition in the deserts of Asia. The leader of the expedition, once a mentor of Barbee's but since estranged, begins to make a dramatic announcement, but dramatically falls dead in the middle of it. His younger assistants, contemporaries and friends of Barbee's, cut short the press conference with a show of "nothing to see here," and set about securing a green wooden MacGuffin.

Using his instincts, Barbee quickly determines that a new reporter he met at the conference, a woman wearing white fur named April Bell, is responsible for the doctor's death--she was carrying a kitten (the doctor was allergic to cats), and Barbee finds the kitten strangled and stabbed with a pin. Despite this rather disturbing scene, he becomes besotted with April Bell and starts trying to learn more about her.

Next, he begins having dreams where she calls to him, and he turns into various creatures, follows her, and helps her kill the other people involved in the expedition. It turns out that in ancient times there was a war between homo lyncanthropus and homo sapiens, which 'normal humans' more or less won. However, the lycanthropes are regaining strength, and April Bell enlists Barbee to help make sure that the anti-lycanthrope weapon the expedition brought back from Asia in the green wooden box is destroyed.

Barbee spends most of his time being psychologically torn in many directions. He's in love-or-lust with April Bell, despite the fact that everything he can find out about her paints a very unpleasant picture of a woman who is either a witch or psychotically disturbed. During his dreams of being a werewolf (or were-sabre-tooth-tiger, or were-snake, etc.) he is torn between arguing to save his friends and killing them. He checks himself into a mental institution and is torn between the fact that his dreams seem real (and the consequences are absolutely real), but everything he knows to be true about the natural world argues that lycanthropy is impossible.

Williamson's telling of Barbee's inner conflict makes this book unsatisfying and frustrating. It's obvious from the narration that Barbee's dreams are real--there are no conditionals about the language used (Barbee 'does' this and that, instead of 'feeling' like things are happening, or feeling like things 'might have' or 'could have' happened). The reader obviously is meant to understand that the fantastic explanation is the correct one, so when the psychologist explains how all this would look under a non-supernatural Freudian analysis, it is plain to us that it is so much obscuring fluff. However, it takes until the final pages of the book for Barbee to come to terms with the reality of lycanthropy and witchcraft. He spends almost the entire narrative waffling between the different poles of his inner conflict, and having general histrionics about the events he's involved with. That's a valid narrative choice--in the real world, I imagine most people would react the same way. However, for the genre reader to whom things like lycanthropy are more-or-less routine, I kept wishing that Barbee would get with the program, realize what's going on and how he's being manipulated, and seize some control of the situation. It is frustrating to read about him waffling back and forth, and disregarding really disturbing evidence, while allowing himself to be used by the very unpleasant (but apparently gorgeous) April Bell. And let's not even get into the fact that in the world-building background of the story, the Inquisition and witch-hunts were perfectly legitimate endeavors to protect humanity from a racial threat, and thus that materialist skeptics/humanists are enabling this racial threat to re-emerge by not believing in the supernatural. That's a position that I think any author in the last 30-40 years would be very hesitant to include.

So this is another classic genre piece that falls into the 'I'm glad I have finished reading it' category. As with so many seminal works, the story leans heavily on the novelty of the concept, and to readers for whom the concept is not only routine but almost cliched, the story becomes a bit tedious. This makes it harder to over-look the casual misogyny and endorsement of historical mass murder embedded in the structure of the tale. I think that the whole thing could have been more effective if the uncertainty of 'is this a dream or is this real' had been strengthened and sustained longer, but that may not have been possible when playing with some of these tropes for the first time. I like some of the world-building elements: the fact that the lycanthropes manipulate probability for their powers, their ability to turn into any number of animals, and the meshing of the world-building with the tenets of Freudian psychology was definitely novel. But overall, this story ends up being less than the sum of its parts.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Things Were So Easy Back Then

So over the last couple of weeks, I've been getting back into my sf classics reading. I pulled out my 1950's-era paperback of George Stewart's Earth Abides (1949), and then downloaded a copy of L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall (1939) on my iPhone. Old text, new tech--gotta love it!

Even though about 10 years separate these two books, I couldn't help but notice some similarities. In both, a single (white, male, graduate student) protagonist is thrust into a vastly alien landscape with no warning or preparation. In Earth Abides, Ish has been doing field research alone in the California wilderness. He's bitten by a snake, and thus misses both the end of civilization and the plague that causes it. In Lest Darkness Fall, Martin falls through a crack in time into Italy at the dawn of Europe's Dark Ages.

In the first third or so of each book, the protag has some time to take stock of the situation and get his bearings. Ish realizes the enormity of what happens, and is able to travel from San Francisco to New York and back (driving) before getting settling into establishing-a-future-for-humanity mode. Within the first day of being in historical Italy, Martin is able to understand the language, get some money, food, and lodging. The next day he's secured a loan to go into business introducing more advanced products to the ancient culture (starting with distilled brandy).

Let's start with the fact that Martin doesn't keel over from an ancient disease that he's not immune to. Even though he takes great care with his hygiene, given the prevalence of air- and water-borne diseases in ancient cities, this is a lot to swallow. And I find Ish's cross-country odyssey likewise full of super-human luck. I couldn't shake the feeling that both authors were glossing over huge numbers of practical difficulties in order to tell the stories they wanted to tell.

Which are both good stories, don't get me wrong. Even though it took me awhile to warm to Stewart's style in Earth Abides, it eventually won me over, especially the periodic interludes that explained how the natural world was adapting to the absence of humans as the decades pass. Apparently Stewart wrote other books that focused on the natural world rather than the human one, and I think that's the primary strength of this classic. I was also impressed that the central human relationship of the book was interracial, even though the narrative never makes a big deal of that. That had to be incredibly progressive for the time. Lest Darkness Fall was even easier to like. Martin's interactions with the easily-caricatured Italians and Goths are really funny, and the whole thing is fast-paced thanks to the aforementioned glossing over of difficulties.

Lest Darkness ends on a more triumphal note than the more elegiac Earth Abides. Martin has clear-cut goals (introducing technological and political innovations and stabilizing an Italian-Goth kingdom so that southern Europe doesn't enter into the Dark Ages) and is 100% successful is achieving them. Ish has more nebulous goals (trying to teach the children of his community enough so that they won't have to re-invent everything once the resources of the old world finally run out), but is only moderately successful. He doesn't manage to pass on the gift of literacy, and it doesn't take more than two generations for the younger cohort to return to magical thinking about the world. However, he does manage to make sure that they know about bows and arrows and how to make fire, so that's something.

Of course, both these books are problematic from today's point of view: Lest Darkness is pretty much exactly the kind of story that uses history as an theme park that Judith Tarr talks about in this post. And Earth Abides uses a terribly inaccurate view of 'primitive' anthropology as its model for how a post-technological tribal society might evolve. However, there's no arguing how influential both these stories were: Sprague de Camp's tale helped establish the entire field of alternate history that has thrived ever since, and Stewart's post-apocalyptic tale is one of the founding models of that trope.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

My Critical Reading List

While I'm list-making, I thought that I might also make a post detailing the critical works related to genre that I've read and still need to read. Lists like these definitely seem to help me focus when I'm staring at my to-read piles and asking myself, "What should I read next?" I hope that other folks will find them useful too. (The dates on many of these may be inaccurate--in some cases I may have dates from a later edition instead of original publication.) In the comments, feel free to suggest works to add or works that can be skipped. I've marked the ones I think (or suspect) are especially useful/important with **.

To Read
  • Pilgrims Through Space and Time: Trends and Patterns in Scientific and Utopian Fiction, J. O. Bailey [1947]
  • Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing, ed. Lloyd Arthur Eshbach [1947]
  • Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and its Future, ed. Reginald Bretnor [1953]
  • The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism [1959]
  • **In Search of Wonder: Essays on Science Fiction, Damon Knight [1960]
  • Heinlein in Dimension: A Critical Analysis, Alexei Panshin [1968]
  • Science Fiction Today and Tomorrow, ed. Reginald Bretnor [1974]
  • The Craft of Science Fiction, ed. Reginald Bretnor [1976]
  • **The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, Samuel R. Delany [1977]
  • Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction, H. Bruce Franklin [1980]
  • Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, Ursula K. LeGuin [1982]
  • David Lindsay, Gary K. Wolfe [1982]
  • **How to Suppress Women's Writing, Joanna Russ [1983]
  • The Rhetoric of Fiction, Wayne Booth [1983]
  • Benchmarks: Galaxy Bookshelf, Algis Budrys [1985]
  • **Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss [1986]
  • The John W. Campbell Letters, John W. Campbell [1986]
  • The Tale that Wags the God, James Blish [1987]
  • The Motion of Light in Water, Samuel R. Delany [1988]
  • Grumbles from the Grave, Robert A. Heinlein [1989]
  • Strategies of Fantasy, Brian Attebery [1992]
  • Reading by Starlight, Damien Broderick [1995]
  • Outposts: Literatures of Milieux, Algis Budrys [1996]
  • The Dreams our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, Thomas Disch [1998]
  • Critical Theory and Science Fiction, Carl Freedman [2000]
  • Concordance to Cordwainer Smith, Anthony R. Lewis [2000]
  • The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, Karen L. Hellekson [2001]
  • Decoding Gender in Science Fiction, Brian Attebery [2002]
  • Astrofuturism: Science, Race, and Visions of Utopia in Space, De Witt Douglas Kilgore [2003]
  • **x, y, z, t: Dimensions of Science Fiction, Damien Broderick [2004]
  • Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's Firefly, ed. Jane Espenson [2004]
  • A Sense of Wonder: Samuel R. Delany, Race, Identity, and Difference, Jeffrey Allen Tucker [2004]
  • Bound to Please, Michael Dirda [2005]
  • Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life, Michael Dirda [2005]
  • My Mother was a Computer, N. Katherine Hayles [2005]
  • Daughters of the Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century, Justine Larbalestier [2006]
  • Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, John C. Rieder [2008]
  • The Art and Science of Stanislaw Lem, Peter Swirski [2008]
  • On Joanna Russ, ed. Farah Mendlesohn [2009]
  • A Short History of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn [2009]
  • The Secret Feminist Cabal, ed. Helen Merrick [2009]
  • Chicks Dig Timelords, ed. Lynne Thomas and Tara O'Shea [2010]
  • The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism [2010]
  • Twenty-First Century Gothic, ed. Daniel Olson [2010]
  • Pardon this Intrusion, John Clute [2011]
  • **The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn [2011, pending]

Already Read
  • Immortal Storm: A History of Science Fiction Fandom, Sam Moskowitz [1954]
  • New Maps of Hell, Kingsley Amis [1960]
  • **The Issue at Hand: Studies in Contemporary Magazine Science Fiction, William Atheling, Jr. (James Blish) [1964]
  • More Issues at Hand: Critical Studies in Contemporary Science Fiction, William Atheling, Jr. (James Blish) [1970]
  • The Futurians, Damon Knight [1970]
  • **The Known and the Unknown: the Iconography of Science Fiction, Gary K. Wolfe [1979]
  • Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, Darko Suvin [1979]
  • Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction, James Gunn [1982]
  • **Starboard Wine, Samuel R. Delany [1984]
  • Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy, ed. Gary K. Wolfe [1986]
  • The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest of Transcendence, Alexei Panshin [1989]
  • I. Asimov, Isaac Asimov [1995]
  • Age of Wonders: Exploring the Worlds of Science Fiction, David Hartwell [1996]
  • Literary Theory, Terry Eagleton [1997]
  • **How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics, N. Katherine Hayles [1999]
  • Edging into the Future, ed. Veronica Hollinger [2002]
  • **The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, Justine Larbalestier [2002]
  • **Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer, Riki Wilchins [2004]
  • Soundings: Reviews 1992 - 1996, Gary K. Wolfe [2005]
  • The SEX Column and Other Misprints, David Langford [2005]
  • Polder: A Festschrift for John Clute and Judith Clute, ed. Farah Mendlesohn [2006]
  • **About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters and Five Interviews, Samuel R. Delany [2006]
  • **James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, Julie Philips [2006]
  • **The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn [2006]
  • **The Country You Have Never Seen, Joanna Russ [2007]
  • Writing the Other, Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward [2008]
  • The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. [2008]
  • What it is We Do When We Read Science Fiction, Paul Kincaid [2008]
  • **Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn [2008]
  • A Companion to Science Fiction, ed. David Seed [2008]
  • How Fiction Works, James Wood [2009]
  • Hope-in-the-Mist, Michael Swanwick [2009]
  • The Inter-Galactic Playground: A Critical Study of Children's and Teens' Science Fiction, Farah Mendlesohn [2009]
  • Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, Michael Chabon [2009]
  • Canary Fever: Reviews, John Clute [2009]
  • Bearings: Reviews 1997 - 2001, Gary K. Wolfe [2010]
  • **Evaporating Genres, Gary K. Wolfe [2011]

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Golden Age Reading List

For my own reference, to be updated as I read:

  • The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volumes I, IIa, IIb edited by Robert Silverberg and Ben Bova
  • World of Null-A, A. E. van Vogt [1945]
  • Earth Abides, George Stewart [1949]
  • Lest Darkness Fall, L. Sprague de Camp [1939]
  • Darker Than You Think, Jack Williamson [1948]
  • The Once and Future King, T. H. White [1958]
  • Tales of the Dying Earth, Jack Vance [1950]
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller [1960]
  • City, Clifford Simak [1952]
  • The Space Merchants, Fred Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth [1952]
  • Slan, A. E. van Vogt [1946]
  • A Case of Conscience, James Blish [1953]
  • Mathematics of Magic, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt [1941]
  • The Wanderer, Fritz Leiber [1964]
  • The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett [1953]
  • Conjure Wife, Fritz Leiber [1943]
  • Best of Science Fiction, ed. Groff Conklin [1946]
  • Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake [1946]
  • Fury, Henry Kuttner [1947]
  • The Humanoids, Jack Williamson [1949]
  • Star Man's Son [1952], or Star Soldiers [1953], or Uncharted Stars [1969], by Andre Norton
  • Long Loud Silence, Wilson Tucker [1952]
  • Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut [1959]
  • Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut [1963]
  • Three to Dorsai, Gordon R. Dickson [1959]
  • Way Station, Clifford Simak [1963]
  • The Planet Savers, Marion Zimmer Bradley [1958]
  • Little Fuzzy, H. Beam Piper [1962]
  • The Big Time, Fritz Leiber [1958]
  • Portable Novels of Science, ed. Donald A. Wollheim [1945]
  • They'd Rather Be Right, Mark Clifton [1954]
  • Best of C. M. Kornbluth [1939-1958]
  • The Body Snatchers, J. Finney [1955]
  • What Mad Universe, F. Brown [1949]
  • A Star Above and Other Stories, Chad Oliver [1955]
  • Untouched by Human Hands, Robert Sheckley [1954]

Might hold over for the New Wave:

  • Ill Met in Lankhmar, Fritz Leiber [1970]
  • Tau Zero, Poul Anderson [1970]

Monday, May 30, 2011

A Weekend of Egan

I had a really wonderful weekend up in Oakland, CA. I stayed at the Locus house for a few days, and ransacked their archives for non-fiction stuff related to Greg Egan. Everyone was wonderfully nice and accommodating--especially Amelia Beamer, who ran me around to and from the airport, Carolyn Cushman who helped me find things, and Kirsten Gong-Wong and Aaron Buchanan who took me out for Ethiopian on Friday. I had gone prepared to go to Baycon and maybe record a podcast or two if I had time, but instead I found ample material in which to bury myself for the solid two-and-a-half days I had.

I was able to find almost everything I was looking for--and even better, I found lots of things that I wasn't looking for. I think that's the biggest difference between making use of search databases + inter-library loan vs. actually having access to a large archive. I was searching mostly for reviews of Egan's books and reader responses to his stories, mostly in venues such as Locus, NYRSF, Interzone, and Foundation. I also found interesting discussions about posthumanism in sf and definitions and arguments about hard sf. I was able to pull copies of Eidolon, Utopian Studies, and SFStudies as I found them referenced in other venues. I enjoyed flipping through the Letters columns of Interzone particularly, as one got to watch decades-old flame wars unfold in slow motion--and also some letters from well-known names, before they were well-known. Most importantly, I got a great overview of critical reactions to Egan's work, how they've evolved over time, and additional avenues of research to pursue.

This was probably my last trip of the year--in July, August and September I definitely won't be able to travel for reasons of pregnancy and infancy. I don't have anything planned for June. Curtis and I are tempted by World Fantasy in San Diego (we bought tickets in Columbus last year), but it will depend entirely on the baby's health and my own. If we're both doing well I doubt I'll be able to resist the temptation, but if either of us is sickly we'll definitely let our tickets go to a good home. Anyhow, given that this was my last sf-related trip for a while, I'm glad it was such a great one.

Another thing that became clear to me is that I'm going to have to take off my reviewer-hat for awhile if I want to preserve my sanity over the next year or so when the baby and the book are both due. I've got a couple of things on tap to review, but I won't be taking any new assignments until next spring. I want to conserve energy for the book and for editing the Locus blog. I've also got a couple of articles I'm writing--I hope to be done with those by August, and also not take any new commitments along those lines. This might actually mean that I'll post more here, since I won't be 'saving my energy' for more official venues. But no promises!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Ancient Greek Folly?

I'm still having fun reading the ancient Greeks. I'm about a third of the way through Thucydides, so I've been learning a lot about ancient warfare, and modern and ancient rhetoric. When it comes to war and politics, I think my favorite thing about the classical Greeks is their deep and abiding cynicism.

Which brings me to Plato's Republic. It provides one of the early selections in the Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism that I've also been working through at odd hours. I remember reading the Republic for the first time, and thinking that when Socrates (or Plato) talked about literature, he must have been having a little fun at the expense of his interlocutor. After all, he proposes throwing out huge amounts of literature that we consider treasures of the Western world, including large chunks of Homer. Considering that even back then Homeric poetry was revered, I thought he must have had his tongue at least partly in cheek.

Coming across these arguments again in the Norton Anthology, I'm trying to give them their due. But is there any reason not to throw out all of his points? Is there any value in insisting that fiction literature be only upstanding, moral, virtuous, and educational; encouraging only right behavior and never giving examples of wrong action? I understand that there are probably still some folks who think this way--and any form of entertainment aimed at children will always be under a lot more scrutiny (see the cyclic uproars about: rap lyrics, video games, LGBT-positive children's stories, etc). But it seems both futile & silly.

Reading some of the Great Classics of Western Literature, I've noticed that some of them, especially those stemming from the oral tradition, probably survived partly because of their appeal to children. And in the same way that kids can watch a funny car-crash scene from Toy Story 2 twenty times in succession without any diminishing enjoyment, I can imagine some child from 2000 years ago saying "Tell it again, tell it again, Grandpa! Tell how the hero hit the bad guy so hard that his EYES flew out!" (from the Iliad). Or 1000 years ago: "Tell how Beowulf tore the monster's ARM off and BEAT him with it!" And let's not even get started on the Canterbury Tales. If you applied Socrates' standard to all literature, you'd have to throw out so much of what we now consider classic. Midsummer Night's Dream--gone!

Is there any defense of this approach today, or can I put it out of my mind? I don't want to dismiss it out of hand if there's something I'm missing, but I can't see it having much value in my own approach to literary criticism.

When it comes to the Norton Anthology, I'm looking forward to getting into Aristotle, who comes next. I haven't read Poetics or On Rhetoric before, and suspect that I'll find something that, if not more useful, will at least be new (to me).

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Some Great News!

OK, some of you may have noticed that I've been mentioning that I may not be able to travel to WorldCon or WorldFantasy this year. That's pretty much confirmed at this point, and here's why:

Curtis and I are expecting our first baby! It's due smack in the middle of Con season, with an ETA of August 28th. Needless to say, we are hugely excited!

The picture above is from the first ultrasound I had last week, where they estimated the little one is about 14 weeks along. I got to see it wiggling around, and we confirmed 2 arms, 2 legs, and 0 tentacles.

Now, I don't want Spiral Galaxy to become a baby blog--so of course I started a separate baby blog. For anyone who wants to follow what's going on in Curtis' and my expanding family (and see more pics), you can check out our new family blog. Spiral Galaxy should continue on uninterrupted.

Of course, babies throw a huge wrench into planning. It's easy to say that we will skip out on WorldCon and WorldFantasy this year. But what I can't predict is how much impact there will be on the rest of my activities: editing the Locus blog, reviewing for folks, and writing a book. The little one should be about 6 months old when my Greg Egan manuscript is due--how the heck is that going to work? I'll be trying to keep up with everything as long as I can, and with luck I'll be able to bow out of things gracefully when I start to get overwhelmed.

Speaking of grace: it turns out I've been pregnant since Mid-December, and I found out in mid-January. For those of you who got over-sharing, over-emo, or over-sensitive emails in that time, I most sincerely apologize. I've been cranking my internal censor up since I found out, and I'm trying to prevent that sort of thing from happening again. ::sheepish grin::

Monday, February 28, 2011

Awards Season!

I'm home sick today, but apparently a squidgy stomach has given me a clear head--I admit that I've read all the 2010 fiction that I'm going to. I'm just going to have to suck it up and do my awards voting and nominations based on what I've read so far. So with some extra time on my hands, I've decided to do my Hugo nominations and Locus Awards voting today. This is going by Hugo categories--I figure the fiction categories overlap, and in the non-fiction/anthology/collection categories I don't have too much to say anyway. But here's what I've got.


I focused so much on short fiction in 2010 that of all the novels on the Locus Recommended Reading list, I've only read 3 and a half. (The half was Mieville's Kraken, which just didn't work for me and I didn't finish.) And I think I've only read about six 2010 releases in total. So I'm pretty much leaving those categories alone when it comes to the Locus awards. However, for Hugo nominations I feel free to nominate books that I want to read, since I generally manage to read all the fiction on the Hugo shortlist. So here are five books that I want to read this spring:
  • The Dervish House, Ian McDonald
  • Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor
  • The Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi
  • Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay
  • How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu

Here I'm getting more into my comfort zone. By far the two best novellas I read this year were:
In the category of "haven't read yet but want to:"
All things I've read, and it was hard to narrow down to five:
Others I could have easily added:
Looks like I'll be doing a lot of typing over at the Locus poll--most of these aren't on the Recommended list.

Short Story

Again, all read & hard to narrow down:
Others I'd be happy to see nominated:
Looks like I'll mostly be skipping Best Related Work and Graphic Story this year. Also both the Dramatic Presentations - I'm glad to let other people tell me what I should be reading/watching in those categories.

Editor, Short Form
The above represent the short fiction magazines that I enjoyed most in 2010, as well as some great anthologies and collections. I'll again leave Editor, Long form to those more knowledgeable than I.


I've been keeping track of artwork that stood out to me as well this year:

I can't swear that all of these qualify, but through the year they have become my must-reads:
Fan Writer
Why yes, that is my peer group. Why do you ask? :p

Campbell Best New Writer

I'm never sure about the eligibility for this one--who's to say that an author that's new to me didn't have one sale five years ago that disqualifies them now? But here are a few names:
And that's it for me, putting a cap on 2010. As always I wish I'd read more, but there was some fantastic stuff that I did read. If you're eligible to nominate for the Hugos (member/supporting member of Aussiecon 4 or Renovation) the deadline is March 26th. The Locus award voting (open to everyone, but subscriber votes count double) is open until April 15th. Please make your voice heard!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

New Lovecraftian Fiction

It’s always nice to see a new short fiction market come online. Through SFSignal’s Free Fiction round-up, I spotted Lovecraft eZine’s debut issue and decided to take a look. I see from their submission page that they pay $50 per story, nothing to sneeze at. However, to put it charitably, it may take this magazine a few issues to find its feet. (To be fair, I thought the same thing about Lightspeed’s first issue, and they’re already producing award nominees.) All these stories have merit, but some extra TLC in the editing process would help them really stand out.

Issue #1 has four stories, starting off with “Sledding and Starlings” by Bruce L. Priddy. This was a nicely atmospheric piece about a couple who (for no good reason) decide to go sledding in the middle of nowhere in a snowstorm. Despite an ominous flock of starlings, they have fun for awhile until the wife disappears in an even more ominous fashion, sending the husband into paroxysms of grief and madness. The main problem I had with this story came in its final paragraph, which uses the “I did not think about the thing that did not happen” structure heavy-handedly to let us view the wife’s disappearance retroactively. Between deconstructing the syntax and using a late flashback to depict the story’s climax, this served to severely distance the reader from the scene, diminishing the horror of it.

“Rickman’s Plasma” by William Meikle was a story with a great premise that I couldn’t quite bring myself to finish. The premise is a nice blending of Lovecraftian magic with sf. The titular Rickman is trying to use his Dream Machine to capture the zeitgeist of the city, but he’s getting nowhere. With a flash of inspiration he points it to deep space instead, and begins to create a hypnotic and driving groove complete with a ball of plasma, and overlays it with his dreams. The plasma takes on a life of its own and starts eating people, starting with Rickman. Two policemen come to investigate. The death of one of the cops is particularly horrific, although my suspension of disbelief was shaken when her partner is unable to stop the elevator doors from closing and is forced to watch her death from the elevator door’s window. Generally speaking even the crappiest elevator won’t close the doors with an obstruction in the way. But no matter, the death was distractingly gory! Moving on!

Unfortunately, the story becomes increasingly distanced after that. The narrative viewpoint draws back to the city police as the plasma eats some city blocks off stage. It eats the cops, it eats the National Guard. I put the story down for good when the viewpoint is removed again, to the national level, as the plasma eats the state of New York, off stage. This scene shift is accomplished using exactly the same words as the first shift, which is distracting and a bit silly and once again distances the reader from any ongoing horrors the story might contain. I can see where the technique could be used to establish rhythm and ramp up tension, but here it struck me as artificial and jarring. So I’m afraid this story didn’t work for me.

“The Brown Tower” by John Prescott is the story of two young men investigating a spooky tower in a spooky small southern town. It really hits its stride at the end, as they face the consequences of poking their noses into the unknown, at night, armed only with lighters. The unspeakable horror is effectively sketched rather than shown, and the ending is genuinely gripping. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of awkward phrasing and dialog to get through before we get to that point. This bit was almost a deal-killer for me:
“Its rather unsettling isn’t it?” Mark said, but made no inclination of opting out of not entering the tower.

I can easily forgive typos, but the double negative ends up meaning the opposite of what the author wants it to mean here. And the rest of the dialog has a bad tendency to jump around in tone:
“I wonder what’s up there,” Lane said and pushed the accelerator pedal to its max.
Mark moved in his seat, drank a little from his coke can and eased forward to get a better view of the monument. “I have always wanted to check that place out. I think it’s been here since the town was founded, or that’s what my grandpa told me. I asked him about it a couple times when I was still in grade school.”

Just the inconsistent use of contractions skews the tone: given the “what’s up there” comment, I’d expect the next sentence to start “I’ve always...” instead of “I have...” Skipping between informal and formal dialog is definitely jarring.

“The Crane Horror” by Bruce Durham is a strong historical story with elements from both Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson. It ends this issue on a high note. The story is set in the late 1700’s (I believe) and the formal tone of the prose is appropriate and consistent throughout. It reads quite smoothly, which can be a challenge when evoking a historical tone. The shipwreck of a French ship on the shores of the great lakes brings horror to a nearby farmhouse. The narrator is a corporal in the local garrison, in love with the daughter of the homeowner. Despite his best efforts he cannot save the house or its people from the monstrous horrors of the lake. For Lovecraft fans, there’s a hint tying this story in with the overall Cthulhu mythos. Definitely well done, and raises my hopes for Issue #2.

By the by, I also wanted to mention that the artwork is pretty darn good throughout. It definitely adds to the atmosphere and continuity of the ‘zine. They’re all provided by an artist going by mimulux, for whom I’ll be keeping an eye peeled in the future.

Edited to add: Reflecting on this issue in the clear light of morning, it's a very woman-unfriendly collection isn't it? I mean, look at the stats:
  • 4 stories = 4 male authors
  • Story #1: one female love interest, disappeared/killed
  • Story #2: one female neighbor, killed off-stage; one female cop, killed bloodily on-stage
  • Story #3: Zero female characters
  • Story #4: two female characters; mother killed off-stage, female love interest driven irredeemably insane
  • Stories passing the Bechdel test: None
The overall effect is like a big psychic "No Girlz Allowed" sign on the front isn't it? It's interesting to note that as of last month, Weird Tales, the magazine that originally published Lovecraft, is now going strong under an all-female editorial staff, making Lovecraft eZine #1 feel all the more anachronistic. Still, this is easily fixed in later issues, so I'll continue to look forward to the next issue with interest.

Monday, February 21, 2011

More Numbers: 200 Short Stories

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've been reading a lot of short fiction. This has been partly for my column in Salon Futura (column #6 is here). I've kept up with the spreadsheet thing, although I've consolidated it into 1 sheet and moved more of my note-taking out of my Moleskine notebook and onto Evernote. Thanks to all this, I know that I have now hit 200 stories, and I thought I'd update the numbers here.

[Caveat Emptor, same as the first: this is the most biased possible set of numbers. It only tracks stories that I've read, and specifically stories that I've finished. I skip a story if it doesn't grab me. So these numbers inevitably reflect my own taste. But there is an underlying field out there, and my own proclivities can only distort it so much. Elements here consist of a huge number of subjective classifications, based on nothing more substantive than my own whim. Also, I've been limiting my reading to venues that I can read in a convenient electronic form.]

Here are the genres that I've seen:
SF 108
Fantasy 76
SF w/ some F 6
Horror 3
Alt hist 3
Mainstream 24
This round skewed towards sf because of a couple of anthologies that I read for other review venues, each of which was sf-specific.

Protagonist gender:

Male 95
Female 83
Less perfectly matched than the last time, possibly because of the late skew towards sf. Other protagonist categories:

Child/Teen 20
Transgender 3
Gender Undefined 4
Alien 6
Ghosts 2
AI/Robots 2
The number of stories passing the Bechdel test perfectly doubled to: 40.

I've also found 34 protagonists that are human and identified by non-white ethnic markers.

I'm also keeping track of POVs, but there's nothing terribly shocking here:
1st 81
2nd 3
3rd lim 75
3rd omni 31
3rd mult 8
More interesting are settings. Of those stories set on Earth:
Earth's past 21
Earth Present 42
Near future 51
Mid future 24
Far future 17
A few more far future tales this time, although again that was skewed by a specific anthology.

How about physical settings? We're still sticking pretty close to home:
America 68
Earth 39
Generic Fantasy Earth 25
We've got 47 stories taking place in some sort of space setting, including extra-solar planets, space stations, etc.

Finally, I've been keeping track of some tropes. Here are some of the most common:
Violence 64
Aliens 40
Happy Ending? 32
Shape-shifting 25
Biotech 20
Gods/Goddesses 20
Ecological damage 19
Politics 17
Religion 17
Mythical beings 16
Magic artefact 15
So that's what I've got so far. I feel a bit odd about the themed anthologies skewing the data, but they are equally part of the field. I definitely feel the need to read a fantasy-oriented one (maybe Zombies vs. Unicorns) to even things out.

Once again, here are the venues from which I've been getting my short fiction. Let me know if there are other places I need to be looking!

Strange Horizons
Fantasy Magazine
Abyss & Apex
Expanded Horizons
Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Port Iris
Crossed Genres
Basement Stories
Subterranean Online
Daily SF
Weird Tales
Brain Harvest
Midnight East
Absent Willow Review
Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine
Albedo One
Kenyon Review
Electric Velocipede
World SF Blog
Icarus [Much easier to access now that it's available through the Wizard's Tower Press eBook store]
Destination: Future [Anthology]

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Insanity and Happy Frankensteins

Things are ticking along pretty well over at the Locus Blog. We've had some good posts and comments already, and there's even more interesting stuff developing behind the scenes. So I thought I'd come up for air and toss off some impressions about more stories from the SFWA Hall of Fame Volume I, edited by Robert Silverberg. I talked about the first two stories back in November, "A Martian Odyssey" and "Twilight."

The next two are "Helen O'Loy" by Lester del Rey and "Microcosmic God" by Theodore Sturgeon (skipping "The Roads Must Roll" by Heinlein since I had read it several times before). "Helen O'Loy" is a story I had read about but never read before. It's usually mentioned, as in the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, as "One very obvious example of early sf's masculinist orientation..." Can't really argue with that. This guy builds the 'perfect woman' robot. He eventually falls in love with her, runs away with her, and lives out his life happily with her. At the end of his life, she kills herself so that no one will ever know she wasn't real. To say that this hasn't aged well is an understatement. A woman who literally exists for no other reason than to love and care for a man, where this is presented (mostly) as a positive, is just really creepy. Also, there's an aspect of what I'll call 'easy insanity' in this story as in many others from this period. The narrator suspects that towards the end, Helen's husband had simply forgotten that she wasn't human, and the narrator helps her keep up the illusion of aging. I might add that lots of people go conveniently and interestingly insane in these stories--I feel like that trope isn't quite so common these days.

"Microcosmic God" (1941) is one of the stories that will really stick with me from this anthology. When contrasted with Greg Egan's "Crystal Nights" (2008) it is especially chilling. The protagonist of Sturgeon's story is James Kidder, a self-made multi-millionaire who is good at everything he does. He goes to live on a private island to develop whatever sci-tech niftiness he sees fit. Eventually his banker (and only connection to the rest of the world) gets greedy and goes gunning for the golden goose. Kidder has been evolving a species of intelligent beings. He keeps them contained and forces them to evolve by presenting them with threats. He occasionally kills off some of them randomly to keep them from getting complacent. He makes sure that they can never survive in Earth's normal environment. When he gets attacked by the banker's forces (let's not think about that too closely), he directs the colony to invent an impenetrable force field, which they do. He is able to live out his life entirely in isolation after that.

I kept waiting for the colony to tell him to shove it and use their epic problem solving skills to escape and leave him hanging out to dry. Because that's pretty much what the beings did in Egan's story. Egan also has a self-made billionaire creating artificial life, only these are in a computer simulation. He also is using them to solve problems, although he wants them to investigate more about the nature of the universe. He also tortures them to get them to evolve: especially when he realizes that pain makes them evolve faster. In the end, hearkening back to sf's gothic roots (Frankenstein), they turn on him in a very satisfying way. To have Sturgeon's Kidder and Helen O'Loy's creator avoid the fate of all those other Dr. Frankensteins was jarring and quite disturbing. It seemed like some sort of ultra-colonialist hubris. Perhaps it's an indication of just how cocky and confident the Golden Age writers were that they thought that heroes could do things like this and not suffer any consequences for it. No wonder some people got all huffy when the New Wave came along and reminded them that the world isn't usually quite so accommodating.

That's not to say that the Sturgeon story isn't well written, I should mention. I'd put it in the top tier of stories here when judged by writing style (a tier in which I'd also include Heinlein, Blish, Keyes, and Cordwainer Smith). I also thought that this story was thoroughly thought-out and coherently executed in a way that "Baby is Three," the Sturgeon story in Volume IIa of the same series, wasn't.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Early Hugo Thoughts

So the nomination period for the Hugos is open, and already folks are talking about what's eligible, what's good, etc. As usual, I am woefully behind on my reading-of-novels-that-were-published-in-2010. I am not so ill-informed when it comes to short fiction, and my picks for the Hugo noms in the short categories will get a separate post later. But when it comes to novels, I think that my strategy will be to nominate books that I really want to read, so that I'll have an excuse to read them when they're nominated. (I'm usually very good at reading all the nominees between April and June.) So right now, my list looks something like this:

  • Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor
  • Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi
  • Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay
  • The Dervish House, Ian MacDonald
  • How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu
Or something along those lines.

I'm also wondering if I can't raise Niall Harrison's profile a smidge and help maybe get him nominated for Best Fan Writer. He got 22 votes last year, only 7 below the cut-off for the category, and I dare say that his 2010 work on Torque Control should easily convince anyone that he's a worthy nominee. Also, as he'll probably be moving more firmly into the Editor camp in 2011, having taken over as editor-in-chief of Strange Horizons, it may be that 2010 is the best possible year to get him a nod for Fan Writer. So I just want to remind anyone with a Hugo nominating ballot to consider him as one of your nominees, thanks!