The OF Blog: December 2005

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Part II of My Admin Votes for the 2006 OF Awards

OK, for brevity's sake, let's just say that I will not be giving my choices in all of the categories for various reasons. For example, I am not a movie-watching person, having seen an average of 1-2 movies a year, so there won't be any choices there. Another is that I feel uncomfortable discussing rationale behind the more 'community' type categories here, so don't expect to hear how I voted for those categories. But below are my choices in a few categories that interested me, with brief explanations for most of them:

Best New Author of 2005:

This was a tough category to choose a particular winner or runner-ups to, in part because I haven't read that many authors that have two or less books out. But reflecting back on the books I've read in 2005, there is one story that I enjoyed most:

1. Caitlin Sweet, The Silences of Home - Although this is her second novel, Sweet has been a virtual unknown outside of Canada, which is a shame, as she writes some very good tales that envoke all sorts of emotions when the reader stops to consider what she is writing. While her first story, A Telling of Stars, isn't as much of a novel as a fable in many aspects, The Silences of Home (a prequel of sorts), is a fully-realized novel with interesting characters, a plausible and interesting plot, and an underlying theme about the fragility of truth and the lies that bend it. All of these elements combine to form a story that was one of my favorite reads for 2005.

2. Tim Pratt, Little Gods - Pratt is a really good short story writer. Although I have yet to read his first novel, The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, he gets this high position based solely on this one volume of collected short stories, which are excellently told and with a depth of meaning to them that many, more established writers fail to bring to the table.

3. Ian Cameron Esslemont, Night of Knives - Despite my choosing of this book as being Most Disappointing (due to technical/editing problems, not with his potential as an author), I believe Esslemont has the potential to develop into a solid, entertaining author whose stories should complement quite nicely those of tag-team partner Steven Erikson.

Most Hyped Event of 2005:

1. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - The numbers don't lie - millions of books sold in 24 hours, hundreds of people discussing the book in a one-week period over at OF. Love her or hate her (and I tend to like her), Rowling knows how to turn up the hype machine and get the ball rolling with her releases.

2. George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows - Again, a no-brainer, as fans have waited for 5 years for the fourth volume to the popularly and critically-acclaimed A Song of Ice and Fire series to be released. While early returns might have been somewhat mixed, it seems that the wait helped drive hundreds-long lines of people at his booksignings in November and December 2005.

3. Serenity - Although this is a movie and not a book, it seems that geeks and otherwise 'normal' fans of the cancelled Fox series Firefly made this movie a cult-like hype event. Although I've never seen the TV series and have no desire to see the movie, I thought I might as well acknowledge the hype that its fans gave to it and the numerous posts about it in 2005.

Most Underrated Book of 2005:

1. Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana - Although I could praise Eco's latest to the heavens, it seems that for the local reading public, Eco is a treasure waiting to be discovered. This would be a great book to start with, as it's one of Eco's most accessible and yet thought-provoking books, a tale that deals with memory loss and what it means to live only with a superficial relationship to the outside world via comic books and adventure stories, among others. A must-read book that sadly hasn't yet received the ink here at OF that it has elsewhere.

2. Kelly Link, Magic for Beginners - Link is one of the best short fiction writers out there. She's been nominated for all sorts of awards and was one of Time's Five Fiction book choices for 2005. Yet hardly a word about her here at OF unless I or Drkshadow03 (and maybe Jake) mention her. Almost a crime, that is. Hopefully, she'll get more ink here in the near future, as more people read her excellent stories.

3. Caitlin Sweet, The Silences of Home - I've already said plenty above about this novel. Let's just hope as her reputation grows, that this book and others of hers will find a wider audience outside of Canada and the few lucky Americans such as myself that have read her.

And those are the categories that I choose to reveal my votes. Perhaps this will encourage some to discuss them here or elsewhere. The true value of these things really deals with persuading people to think about the excellent fiction there is available and perhaps to buy some of the works mentioned here or elsewhere because of the praise received.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Skeptical about the Singularity

This post isn't meant to be a very detailed, researched response to what I perceive as problems with the concept of the Singularity, but instead just an introduction to possible questions/shortcomings about this belief. So there won't be extensive citations or even elaborate explanations behind my statements. But hopefully this will encourage some discussion, either here or elsewhere.

The term Singularity refers to an expected near-future event (some futurists have stated that they believe it will happen during the 3rd decade of this century) in which future rates of technological development will have accerlated to such a point as to make predictions of human society and its development practically impossible. The term comes from the physics realm and is meant to mirror the uncertainties that happen around a black hole. Supporters of this concept cite things such as Moore's Law (where computational abilities double around every 18 months) and anecdotal evidence about how technologies have developed at an apparent exponential rate throughout human existence.

All well and good, I suppose. There seem, however, to be certain constraints that haven't been taken into account by most proponents of the Singularity model. Now once upon a time, I was training to be a cultural historian and I can't help but wonder at the near absence of references to the cultural dimension. Yes, some have claimed that society today would be almost unrecognizable to someone from a century ago, but that's just a misleading statement. Yes, technologically, the farmer from 1900 might be amazed by the computers, cell phones, radios, TV, airplanes, and mass transport systems, but after taking a few minutes to orient himself, that hypothetical farmer would see a lot more in common. From the language being nearly the same to witnessing a similar social organization scale into the Haves and Have Nots (and yeah, some things about historical Marxism are valid in this context - deal) to how human paralanguage is basically the same, there is still quite a bit of a lag between technological concepts and societal reorganization. In a world in which we use words formerly associated with horse-drawn transportation to describe our manipulation of motorized transportation, it seems that a linguistic Singularity at least is still in the extremely distant future.

Oh, perhaps proponents might argue that at some near-future point that the very concepts of communication will change, perhaps with bio-mechanical augmentation. Perhaps, but then comes the issue of availability and public acceptance. Just as the ancient Greeks invented a working steam engine or the Mesopotamian civilizations had the concept of a battery (as witnessed by what was found within some of their idols) but did not develop related technologies, what advantage will there be for societies to develop these technologies if it would mean a widespread change in societal organizations in the decades or centuries to follow? Will we see renewed attempts to limit the spread of new technologies, such as what Great Britain attempted to do in the early decades of the Industrial Revolution? Will there be benefits (such as age-related research) that will be denied to a certain population, with the possible risk of societal revolt?

On these fronts, I have seen very little mention from the Singularists. Maybe I'm just too much of a skeptic here, but I can't help but see quite a few issues that just haven't been addressed to my satisfaction. But perhaps others here can point out counterarguments to what I said above?

Friday, December 09, 2005

Larry's Choices for the 2006 OF Awards, Part I

Again, like we've done in previous years, we're going to post separately what some of the Admins over at Other Fantasy believe are the best (and occasionally) the worst of what we have read or seen in the sometimes-wacky world of speculative fiction for 2005. Perhaps this list (mine will be posted about a week or so before Jake's) will spark some interest among those trying to decide who to vote for, while others might just be curious to read some of the books that I will mention.

Now my top 3 will not coincide necessarily with the Finalists for the 2006 Awards. I read many different things this year and if some of these don't happen to be in English, don't believe that I'm being a snob or anything. If anything, hope there's an excellent English translation available or that you will be able to find and read the books mentioned in the original. The more exposure books from outside the 'traditional' markets get, the better in my opinion, as I am convinced that the world out there offers a much larger palette of expressions and meanings than which can be painted using the English language alone.

Anyways, I've blabbed too much, so here are my choices for some of the categories (I'm leaving out community and movie-based options, as I would prefer to focus on the book world here):

Best Book Released in 2005

1. Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
- This was one of Eco's better efforts in my opinion. I've been a fan of his writing for ten years now and outside of The Name of the Rose and possibly Foucault's Pendulum, I believe this is Eco's strongest work. As I said here, Eco reveals more of his keen wit than he has before in his previous four novels, plus the level of introspection that the protagonist, Yambo, experiences just adds such a layer of depth to this story of a man who can remember the artifacts of his life, but not the actual memories of the people and places behind those artifacts. Although the story of an amnesiac has been done before by a great many authors great and small, Eco's twist to the story provides a unique depth and poignancy to this tale.

2. Yuri Andrukhovych, Perverzion - This tale within a great many tales of an Ukranian writer/gadfly who mysteriously disappears during a conference in Venice is an exercise of speculation and intrigue that quickly devolves into an intertextual exercise that engages the reader while the oft-funny segments will entertain. The translation was just published in English this summer and if Andrukhovych is any example, then there should be some very excellent works coming out from Eastern Europe into English translation in the coming years.

3. Caitlin Sweet, The Silences of Home - Sweet has written a tale within a tale that revolves in part around the ancient question of "What is truth?" A story of revenge and longing, The Silences of Home is a prequel of sorts to her earlier The Telling of Stars, but each book can be read independently of the other, plus the order of the reading can affect greatly how a reader perceives the connections between the two tales. The writing here was not as lyrical as in her first novel, but the characterizations and plot developments were done very well, leaving the reader to ponder at the end what exactly Truth was after all.

Honorable Mentions: Isabel Allende, Zorro; China Miéville, Looking for Jake

Best Book Read in 2005 but Published in Prior Year:

1. Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciónes (Spanish)
- It is no secret that Borges is likely my favorite author and after having read in Spanish for the first time this year this wonderful, wonderful collection of his, it is no surprise to those that know me that I would choose this for my favorite book read this year. The stories are thought-provoking, full of double intent and the imageries invoked will make the incautious reader wonder what is real and what is artifice. Of special note is the story of Pierre Menard, who seeks to recreate without copying the actual Don Quijote, with results that are surprising. A must read for fans of deep speculative fiction of the sort that Gene Wolfe loves to write.

2. Calderón de la Barca, La vida es sueño (Spanish) - This early 17th century play revolves around the interstices of Dream and Reality, as the players within begin to question which is which. One example of this is a monologue almost 2/3 of the way into the play, in which one character says this memorial soliloquy:

¿Qué es la vida?: un frenesí.
¿Qué es la vida?: una ilusión,
una sombra, una ficción,
y el mayor bien es pequeño,
que toda la vida es sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son.

(What is life?: A frenzy.
What is life?: An illusion,
a shadow, a fiction,
and the best good is small,
that all life is a dream,
and dreams, dreams they are.)

Enough said, right?

3. Carlos Ruiz Zafón, La sombra del viento (The Shadow of the Wind) - After reading this book, I could see better why Locus Online and other genre publications were eager to claim this book as their own. A story revolving around this mysterious, eponymous book and one child's almost fanatical devotion to the book he 'adopted' as the scene revolves around a mysterious man that seems bound and determined to eliminate all copies of this book from the face of the earth, La sombra del viento is in turns a fascinating mystery and a thoughtful look into the meanings that printed words hold for us and our imaginations.

Honorable Mentions: Alejandro Dolina, Crónicas del Ángel Gris; José Saramago, Ensayo sobre la ceguera; Gabriel García Márquez, Del amor y otros demonios; Jorge Luis Borges, El libro de los seres imaginarios; Laura Restrepo, Delirio

Most Disppointing Book Released in 2005:

Like last year, this category is very hard for me to remark about, because virtually all of the books I read this year, I enjoyed in some form and fashion. So just because I mention a book here does not mean that I believe it is a horribly-written or executed book. Instead, in most cases, it would just mean there were a few annoyances that kept me from enjoying the story as much as I enjoyed others this year.

1. Ian Cameron Esslemont, Night of Knives - Before some of the Erikson Reading Cult™ try to gang up on me and toss me out, I should note that this book makes it for the editing and typographical errors that plagued the book. These little annoyances kept me from enjoying Esslemont's story as much as I would have wished, although there is certain more than enough promise there to warrant future publications of his planned five books in the Malazan world.

2. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - While I certainly enjoyed this story a lot and believed it was a stronger effort than 2003's Order of the Phoenix, I just was left feeling that there was a bit too much exposition at times in the middle and that the ending was a bit rushed. While Rowling deserves most of the praise that she's received for the Harry Potter series, compared to the other readings I've done this year, this was relatively weak in comparison. Consider this a backhanded compliment of sorts, I suppose.

Most Disppointing Book Read in 2005 but Published in Prior Year:

Only one book came to mind here and this one was chosen as much because I felt it was a ripoff of much of Jorge Luis Borges than for any perceived deficiencies of writing. Yes, Paulo Coelho's El Alquimista just read as a trite, somewhat more shallow take on much of Borges's oevre than anything else. It just soured me on the tale told within, which wasn't that bad, but not good enough to help me overcome my initial distaste to the story.

I will add some of the other categories either later this weekend or sometime next week. Feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions here.
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