The OF Blog: January 2008

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ursula Le Guin, Worlds of Exile and Illusion

How can you tell the legend from the fact on these worlds that lie so many years away? - planets without names, called by their people simply The World, planets without history, where the past is the matter of myth, and a returning explorer finds his own doings of a few years back have become the gestures of a god. Unreason darkens that gap of time bridged by our lightspeed ships, and in the darkness uncertainty and disproportion grow like weeds.

In trying to tell the story of a man, an ordinary League scientist, who went to such a nameless half-known world not many years ago, one feels like an archeologist amid millennial ruins, now struggling through choked tangles of leaf, flower, branch and vine to the sudden bright geometry of a wheel or a polished cornerstone, and now entering some commonplace, sunlit doorway to find inside it the darkness, the impossible flicker of a flame, the glitter of a jewel, the half-glimpsed movement of a woman's arm.

How can you tell fact from legend, truth from truth? (p. 3)
This opening sequence to Rocannon's World, the first of Le Guin's Hainish Cycle novels, reveals quite a bit of the spirit to be found in reading this 1966 novel and its two succeeding novels, Planet of Exile (1966) and City of Illusions (1967). Le Guin, unlike the "Golden Age" SF writers, is much more interested in the social aspects of human life and in her SF and fantasy novels many of the themes that she so explicitly states in the quoted passage are explored at great length.

As the first of her Hainish Cycle novels, Rocannon's World sets up so much of the history behind things such as the Ekumen and the FTL communications device called the ansible, that the story itself is as much of a historical artifact in feel as are the subjects that Rocannon, an envoy of the Ekumen, has devoted his life to studying.

Now unlike my previous examinations of Gene Wolfe's fiction, my reflections here will be minimal, as I want to highlight certain aspects of Le Guin's stories so those who haven't tried her works might become curious, so please excuse me if I do little else but to highlight certain passages that will serve as showcases for her ideas and intentions here. The one I am about to quote says so much about Rocannon's role as an observer that those who want more than just a wham-bam! action sequence might be warned that Le Guin is much more interested in how we relate to peoples and cultures that are dissimilar and yet sometimes akin to our own cultural world-views.

By evening of the second day Rocannon was stiff and wind-burned, but had learned to sit easy in the high saddle and to guide with some skill the great flying beast from Hallan stables. Now the pink air of the long, slow sunset stretched above and beneath him, levels of rose-crystal light. The windsteeds were flying high to stay as long as they could in sunlight, for like great cats they loved warmth. Mogien on his black hunter - a stallion, would you call it, Rocannon wondered, or a tom? - was looking down, seeking a camping place, for windsteeds would not fly in darkness. Two midmen soared behind on smaller white mounts, pink-winged in the after-glow of the great sun Fomalhaut. (p. 28).
Note that Rocannon does not give any value judgments regarding these animals and their riders; he observes. Le Guin's background was in social anthropology (in fact, her father was the first to receive the Ph.D. in Anthropology in the United States, back in 1901) and much of the plot and tension in Rocannon's World revolves around a sort of a xenoarchaeology, as this nameless, somewhat "primitive" (ever a loaded word in anthropological circles these days) world serves as a great case study not just of how such a culture evolved, but also for how an outside agency, the Ekumen, has sworn not to interfere but only to observe. One may raise the question here of the possibility of post-colonial movements in Africa and Asia during the 1950s and 1960s might have influenced Le Guin's take on the matter. I suspect strongly (based on prior reading of latter Hainish Cycle novels) that there is something to this, but I shall leave it up to the reader.

In the second book, Planet of Exile, we are introduced to two humanoid species living on the planet Werel/Alterra, one of them from Earth itself, living in a sort of uneasy truce. The two apparent offspring of the ancient people of Hain, but the Alterrans may have been genetically modified, since at first interbreeding with Earth-descended humans is not possible. But on a planet that takes 60 years to revolve around its giant sun, the seasons are according long and winter is fast approaching. What happens in such a situation when two mostly-separated groups who do not easily comprehend each other are forced to come together in order to survive the years' long winter?

In this tale, Le Guin elaborates more upon the principles that underlie the Ekumen, or the League of All Worlds:

"Six hundred home-years is ten Years here." After a moment Seiko Esmit went on, "You see, we don't know all about the erkars and many other things that used to belong to our people, because when our ancestors came here they were sworn to obey a law from the League, which forbade them to use many things different from the things the native people used. This was called Cultural Embargo. In time we would have taught you how to make things - like wheeled carts. But the Ship left. There were few of us here, and no word from the League, and we found many enemies among your nations in those days. It was hard for us to keep the Law and also to keep what we had and knew. So perhaps we lost much skill and knowledge. We don't know."

"It was a strange law," Rolery murmured.

"It was made for your sakes - not ours," Seiko said in her hurried voice, in the hard distinct farborn accent like Agat's. "In the Canons of the League, which we study as children, it is written: No Religion or Congruence shall be disseminated, no technique or theory shall be taught, no cultural set or pattern shall be exported, nor shall paraverbal speech be used with any non-Communicant high-intelligence life-form, or any Colonial Planet, until it be judged by the Area Council with the consent of the Plenum that such a planet be ready for Control or for Membership...It means, you see, that we were to live exactly as you live. In so far as we do not, we have broken our own Law."

"It did us no harm," Rolery said. "And you not much good." (pp. 167-168)
In the final book in this omnibus collection, City of Illusions, the people of Werel again are mentioned, but this time it is over a thousand years after the history detailed in Planet of Exile. Earth has been captured by a mysterious alien race called the Shing, who are able to "mind lie," or to create illusions that ensnare people in its insidious web. The main character of this novel, "Falk," is a man stripped of his memories, with alien eyes. It is a mystery as to where he came from and the what/who aspects of his being, a mystery that Le Guin uses as a touchstone for exploring issues such as control/freedom, patriarchal societies and their weaknesses, the application of Taoist philosophy to matters of social governance, and so forth. Of the three novels, it is City of Illusions that is given more space (a shade over 150 pages, compared to the 100-110 pages of the first two books) to develop its ideas and in hindsight, it presages the themes that are later explored in The Left Hand of Darkness. The passage quoted below illustrates quite nicely the dichotomy between the League and the Shing:

"We hide from the Shing. Also we hide from what we were. Do you see that, Falk? We live well in the houses - well enough. But we are ruled utterly by fear. There was a time we sailed in ships between the stars, and now we dare not go a hundred miles from home. We keep a little knowledge, and do nothing with it. But once we used that knowledge to weave the pattern of life like a tapestry across night and chaos. We enlarged the chances of life. We did man's work."

After another silence Zove went on, looking up into the bright November sky: "Consider the worlds, the various men and beasts on them, the constellations of their skies, the cities they built, their songs and ways. All that is lost, lost to us, as utterly as your childhood is lost to you. What do we really know of the time of our greatness? A few names of worlds and heroes, a ragtag of facts we've tried to patch into a history. The Shing law forbids killing, but they killed knowledge, they burned books, and what may be worse, they falsified what was left. They slipped in the Lie, as always. We aren't sure of anything concerning the Age of the League; how many of the documents were forged? You must remember, you see, wherein the Shing are our Enemy. It's easy enough to live one's whole life without ever seeing one of them - knowingly; at most one hears an aircar passing by far away. Here in the forest they let us be, and it may be the same now all over the Earth, though we don't know. They let us be so long as we stay here, in the cage of our ignorance and the wilderness, bowing when they pass by above our heads. But they don't trust us. How could they, even after twelve hundred years? There is no trust in them, because there is no truth in them. They honor no compact, break any promise, perjure, betray, and lie inexhaustibly; and certain records from the time of the Fall of the League hint that they could mind-lie. It was the Lie that defeated all the races of the League and left us subject to the Shing. Remember that, Falk. never believe the truth of anything the Enemy has said." (p. 228)

In those two paragraphs, so much of Le Guin's themes are condensed into a concisely written and provocative analysis of the Enemy's position that one might be tempted to take those points and apply them to our own lives and what we see presented before us each and every night a news program is on. If one of the key attractions of "soft" SF is its willingness to turn the mirror towards us to reflect our present realities rather than our ambitions, then Le Guin's early SF works well in that regards. I cannot recommend highly enough that people try her work and this omnibus is a very good place to start.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Interview with Ekaterina Sedia

Over the past two weeks, I have conducted an email interview with Russian-born novelist Ekaterina Sedia, whose latest novel, The Secret History of Moscow, was published in November 2007 by Prime Books. In this interview, we discuss a wide range of topics related to SF, cultural matters, and even a tiny bit of mutant plant stuff. For more on her, visit her website.

Sometimes in order to understand a book or series, one has to know something about the author who wrote the book. What can you tell us about yourself, your background and how it might relate to your first two novels?

First, I'm a big proponent of books standing on their own -- that is, the writer should not be relevant to how the book is perceived. On the other hand, of course all writers' experiences inform their books – what they choose to write about and, more importantly, what sorts of underlying assumptions come crawling from the prose the minute you take a close look at it.

So to answer your question -- I am a plant ecologist, I teach in a liberal arts college; I started out in neuroscience but switched to plants when I began graduate school. So teaching and science are my primary occupations, with writing a close second. I was born in Moscow, but have been living in the US since early 1990's. I started writing in 2003, and since then I had two novels published (two more are forthcoming), as well as a couple of dozen short stories.

My place of birth is relevant to The Secret History of Moscow, obviously -- much of it is grounded in personal experience. In pretty much everything I write one can notice a persistent theme of not-belonging, which probably stems from my own situation. I do not mean alienation of a brainy kid in a movie version of high school -- rather, a deep cultural rift when you realize that none of the people you interact with on a daily basis share your basic frames of reference. Which can be both wonderful and disconcerting. But identity, and especially national identity, and the ways in which it is shaped, is a prominent theme, I suppose.

Interesting, as I did indeed notice this sense of a "cultural rift" in reading The Secret History of Moscow, particularly in the portrayals of many of the mythological creatures of the Underground. How much of a challenge, if any, was it for you to write of these Slavic mythological beings such as the rusalka in a way so as to not confuse the English-speaking audience who are not familiar with these myths?

I tried to subtly point out what those things were and worked what they did into text by how characters reacted to them and what sorts of things they anticipated, but I didn't specifically attempt to cater to the American audience. If there's anything I would say a writer should always avoid it would be talking down to the readers. I tend to err on the side of explaining too little rather than too much -- I read some book where things are overexplained, and it just sets my teeth on edge.

So I would take it that you try to avoid infodumps whenever possible in your work?

And this is where I contradict myself. There's nothing wrong with infodumps, ie conveying information in a lump. Sometimes, you can spread it around, but sometimes it's the most direct and best way to get your point across. I think the general 'avoid infodumps at all cost ' trend is really about avoiding awkward infodumps -- when info is conveyed for no particular reason, or from no particular point of view, or the dreaded 'as you know, Bob'. I certainly have tons of infodumps in Secret History, but I tried to do them through the eyes of characters. Same info, different emotional loading. Or something like that.

When I mentioned overexplaining, it's not so much providing info in a lump but treating the reader as a dim child. Most people are very good at figuring things out from context without having their nose rubbed in it.

So in other words, would you agree that the reader needs to be more active in the reading/discovery process, rather than being a passive observer of whatever the author wants to write or tell the reader?

Oh, absolutely. I agree with M. John Harrison on some things. I'm not opposed to immersive worldbuilding per se, it's just not something I enjoy reading or writing. I like my books to be a bit more open. I don't think any of the two is necessarily superior though -- it's all a matter of taste.

What led you to come up with writing The Secret History of Moscow? Was it born out of strictly personal memories, or were there also influences from stories that you might have read?

This was a book I always wanted to write -- first, it's history written by the losers, the view from the eyes of those who have perished during various cataclysmic events. Then there's a religious component -- I always found religion fascinating -- this conflict between the pagan past and the Christian present. You can find it pretty much anywhere in Europe, although it's the Celtic paganism that is more frequently exploited in fantasy lit. Also, the idea of a city as character, changed by its accumulated layers of history and myth. I thought it would be interesting to write about this triangle between city, people and myth, and to play with the ways each of them changes the others.

It does have some personal memories -- mostly the city, really. There are a few homages in there, especially to Viktor Pelevin who is one of the most consistently interesting Russian writers working today, as well as to Gaiman's Neverwhere and other underground secret world books. And, of course, history. I relied on personal recollections of history lessons in 4th-5th grade for that part, as well as things overheard and just learned in some unknown fashion.

I find it difficult to tease apart individual influences -- it's more like this huge mass of everything I ever read, experienced or thought about. Some of it comes out in writing, but it's difficult for me to trace. And comparisons can be tricky as well -- for example, this book has been compared to both Neverwhere and Nightwatch trilogy, but it is neither of those books.

You spoke above of this triangle between City, People, and Myth. In the course of writing this novel, was there anything about how you portrayed the city of Moscow, or its people, or its history and myths that surprised you in the sense that you didn't set out to cover at first, or were all the angles planned before you began writing your first draft?

I didn't really plan much in advance, beyond a general idea of the plot. So yes, there were many surprises, mostly in the ways people interacted with the city. They were either battered by it or tried to survive unnoticed; Galina is the only one who actually engages with it in a positive way -- it is her city, after all. She sees beauty and comfort in it. For the rest, it is all about how to persist in this city. I actually noticed it after I finished the book.

With history, there was a real struggle which time periods should be written about, because there's so much and all of it is so bizarre and so interesting. So it was sad for me to let go of some things I wanted, just to keep the book from collapsing onto itself.

As a trained historian, I did notice those periods and kept thinking about the struggles involved. For those that are not as familiar with Russian history, could you please describe in general terms some of the struggles that took place during those time periods that are reflected in your book?

Well, the earliest one is 14th century, when Moscow was a dependency of Tatar-Mongol Golden Horde. Then there's the Napoleonic war of 1812, the Decembrists' revolt in 1825, the pogroms of the late 19th- early 20th century, WW2, Stalin's repressions and Kruschev's thaw. The latter two are probably fairly familiar to most American readers, but I don't think many realize how horrible and repressive the government has been throughout most of the history. The Decembrists' revolt was largely about freeing of the peasants who at the time were property, tied to the land. Afterwards, the repression of the Jewish populations who were restricted in where they could live and whose property and lives were destroyed the moment there was some unrest and dissatisfaction; czar Alexander (and Nicholas) was quite happy to incite pogroms and to blame the Jews anytime there was some dissatisfaction with the government.

Basically, whatever time you choose, you can find some form of oppression, and that was a really fascinating notion for me. In every epoch, there are winners and there are victims, and sometimes they trade places.

I wonder if some of the cynicism comments (from both positive and negative reviews) might be because of this seemingly unrelenting cycle of oppression. What sorts of differences have you noticed between American readers and readers from Russia or elsewhere outside the United States?

I honestly do not see how talking about oppression equates to cynicism; if anything, ignoring it would be cynical. I understand that people may get annoyed when they expect escapism and get a fairly grim and fairly realistic book; but I would not call it cynicism. And I cannot make such a general statement as a difference between readers -- everywhere you find readers who want different things from their fiction. Which is a healthy and normal thing.

In addition to being a writer, you've done many other jobs. For those unfamilar with you, what sorts of jobs both inside and outside the speculative fiction sphere have you done?

Writing-wise, I edited a couple of anthologies. Paper Cities will be coming out in April 2008 from Senses Five Press, and it collects urban fantasy from a bunch of writetrs I admire -- Catherynne Valente, Hal Duncan, Barth Anderson, Cat Rambo, Vylar Kaftan, Greg van Eekhout, Jay Lake, and a number of other wonderful folks. I'm also working on an anthology for Prime, Russian Winters, that will collect Russian myth-inspired stories. There are a couple of other editing projects that are kicking around, but nothing yet definitive.

Outside of writing, I had a bunch of jobs -- laboratory technician in a neuroscience lab, bartender, a seller of used records... a bunch of things, really. I don't think I ever had a job I didn't like.

In regards to Paper Cities, there was a question asked on a forum that I frequent about what is 'urban fantasy' ? Is there a quick and easy definition for this term?

Heh. No. It seems to me that recently the idea of 'urban fantasy' mutated from 'predominantly contemporary fantasy taking place in real world cities' into vampire/werewolf/fey genre. There is an urban fantasy community on LJ (of which I am a member) called Fangs, Fur and Fey -- and it's a pretty good descriptor of this portion of UF market. Then there are of course all sorts of sub-categories and sub-sub-categories, from New Weird (that doesn't seem to really mean much anymore) to Post-Industrial Fantasy (the anti-manifesto of which can be found here) to Paranormal Investigation to probably a million of other things I'm forgetting right now. I prefer to stick with the original broad definition, but remain aware that other people might use the term differently.

Sounds like the definition of pornography that a US judge once gave, something like I can't define it, but I know it when I see it. But after reading that link, a question occurred to me: If fantasy is, after all, a mood, then what sorts of moods have readers discovered in your works?

Generally, pretty dark. I think my books are hopeful, but concede that this might be a minority opinion. I don't think books should provide simple answers to complex questions, and what is generally described as optimistic stories (a la golden age SF) do just that -- technological solutions traditionally glorified in those are rarely as simple and consequence-free as portrayed. I hear some people grumbling that SF is pessimistic nowadays; I disagree -- I don't think it is pessimism but rather recognition of technology's limitations. Optimism without cause is delusion.

Same with fantasy. I am interested in myth, but I feel that myths change and grow as time goes by, as religious and political climates shift, so I don't tend to perceive myth as static. And once one acknowledges that real world seeps into myth and colors it, then writing about real places and real politics seems necessary, and that in turn affects the mood. Did I say dark already?

So would it be fair to say that one of the criticisms leveled against fantasy writings, particularly secondary-world/epic fantasies, is that the themes and the plots appear to have become static in some form or fashion?

That's a complicated question. For one, I'm not convinced that SF is all that much more progressive or forward looking. Both seem very eager at times to embrace status quo -- your basic plot when the order is upset somehow, and the entire book is spent restoring the way things ought to be is equally frequent in fantasy, SF and horror. So there's stasis in that sense.

Then there's a frequently heard criticism against message fiction and fiction that attempts to engage with political/ethical issues. Also, books that oppose the status quo are perceived as agenda books while those that maintain it -- just entertainment, which I find a bit strange. Surely, both have a message -- only the message in the latter is less noticeable because it is more familiar.

Before The Secret History of Moscow was released, you had another novel and some short stories released. Would you please share with us a little bit about those tales and how they might be similar to or different from The Secret History of Moscow?

My first novel, According to Crow, was published by Five Star/Thomson Gale in 2005. It's basically a shameless riff on the Biblical story of Judith and Holofernes; I even kept the cutting off of Holofernes' head. But in my version, the protagonist is a son of the woman who saves her city by cutting off the enemy general's head and said beheaded general. It's a secondary world fantasy, and it was very fun to write, because I am a sucker for swords and trekking across deserts and childhood traumas. But the protagonists are all outsiders, with the narrator being a biracial teen traveling between two countries at war with each other. So yes, identity crises ensue.

Short stories are more varied -- I write everything from fantasy to horror to SF (some of which was published in Analog). So there is a lot of variety, or at least I like to think so. I have a story which is somewhat similar to The Secret History online here. It's called "Zombie Lenin," and that's pretty much what it is about. You can see some traces of The Secret History's origin in that one.

Otherwise, they run a gamut. I love shorts because they allow for such diversity of styles and themes, affectations, and really experimental and baroque stuff -- the kinds of things that could become annoying in a novel can be done in short form very nicely. That is not to say that novels cannot be experimental, but I find that my writing voice in novels tends to be less varied and closer to what I find natural.

Sounds like you run the gamut of styles. In your upcoming novel, The Alchemy of Stone, how would you describe its plot, setting, and its overall mood ?

This is a very plotty book, with a general ambiance of clockpunk (I doubt it actually qualifies as steampunk since it's not taking place in the real world but rather a secondary one.) So the mood is of gritty industrialism, pollution, revolution both industrial and social, and the role of ethnic minorities in it. But with gargoyles and automatons, so I think there's plenty of shiny there. I think it is somewhat similar in tone and setting to Miéville's New Crobuzon novels.

Speaking of matters such as clockpunk, steampunk, and even Miéville's works, who are some of the authors that you believe a reader who's enjoyed your fiction might want to explore next?

Mainspring by Jay Lake is a very good clockpunk novel. Among slightly older works, Swanwick, Di Filippo, Neal Stephenson. And of course classics -- Blaylock, Jeter, Tim Powers, Bruce Sterling. Those are all steampunk as it ought to be.

Other excellent writers are Catherynne Valente, Jeff VanderMeer, Lyda Morehouse. But I assume people read them before they got to me -- I am, uh, new.

And finally, we have a tradition of asking a rather non-serious question that the author can answer whichever way s/he prefers: Considering your day job, have you ever found yourself tempted to write a story about a mutant plant that could take over a metropolis quicker than kudzu has claimed the South? And if not, would you be tempted to think about doing so after reading this question?

I've written that story, about a plant that causes instant decay of anything it touches. Shockingly, it didn't sell.

A pity, since kudzu (and squirrels) are the two main biological threats to the power supply here in the mid-South. Thanks again for agreeing to do this interview!

Thank you -- it was a real pleasure, and I enjoyed your questions. Also, I would be happy to answer any post-interview questions or engage in discussion, if there's interest.

Friday, January 25, 2008

David Keck, In a Time of Treason

David Keck's first novel, In the Eye of Heaven, debuted in 2006 to mixed reviews. Some praised the book for being "gritty" (or as I would put it, not enamored with the trappings of a mythical medieval era), with a main character, soon-to-be-knighted Durand Col, that was unassuming and more of an Everyman than a prototypical hero. Others felt confused by the opening sections of the novel, which did feel a bit vertiginous in places when I first read it almost a year ago. These detractors noted how Durand's personality just seemed to be such a reaction to the Hero stereotype that he just seemed to be little more than a passive observer in a confusing, twisting, sometimes hard to fathom war between feudal forces.

It took a second read of In the Eye of Heaven earlier last weekend for me to decide if I even wanted to read its sequel, In a Time of Treason. But when I decided to leave aside my own preconceptions (or rather, my post-conceptions, in this case) and accepted that Keck wanted to achieve a muddied state of affairs for this first novel, my opinion of the first book rose from it being a dog's supper of a story to a flawed, but ultimately intriguing novel with enough plot elements set in place to hold out some hope that In a Time of Treason would be at least a solid, decent read.

My expectations were surpassed in this novel. Compared to the confusing plot developments of the first novel, where the characters seemed to be so wrapped in the "fog of war" that the reader could barely decipher what was transpiring beyond a very "local" level, events in In a Time of Treason are much clearer. Durand's lord, Lord Lamoric, is still engaged in fighting off the rather dark and sinister Duke of Yrlac, who is still trying to woo the lords of the land to supplant the king and to place Yrlac on the throne. But yet the king's edicts have estranged him from the majority of the lords and Lamoric faces longer odds. But beyond that treason lies the hint of another about to bloom into full force: that of Durand's smoldering passion for Lamoric's bride, Deorwen.

This love affair, which has been developing throughout the two books, creates such a tension within Durand as to make his hitherto bland character into a conflicted, dynamic one. It is his interactions with Deorwen that drives this story, making it more than just another cod-medieval fantasy/political thriller. If In the Eye of Heaven focused on the rites of passage in becoming a knight errant, In a Time of Treason takes an equally ancient story, that of the Lancelot-Guinevere tragedy, and explores its boundaries a bit further. Although formula misused or overdone can ruin a story's suspense, there are times with a formulaic approach towards character/plot development is called for and this was such a case, as Keck's story grabbed my attention and held it much longer when the Durand-Deorwen dynamic took center stage.

This is not to say that the novel is brilliant. Keck's sparse writing style sometimes leads the reader wanting more and on a few occasions, the similes just do not work the way Keck intends for them to do. Below is a passage from the Advance Review Copy edition and while it should not be read as being "definitive," I believe it'll give the idea here:

The tottering procession wound its way from the cliff top of Burrstone Walls to the hovels of Burrstone Landing. The livestock was still indoors, but they passed millstones. Of the thousands cut from the old pits, some slender fraction had fetched up along the roads each year broken. Now, wheels like moldy cheese were heaped by the hundred. Some were cracked, some split, others were lost under carpets of moss and sod. This was Burrstone. (ARC p. 28, Ch. 4)
Ignoring the obvious places for correction (after all, ARCs are often riddled with typographical errors, omissions, etc.), I still found the effect of that small passage to be rather "off" in the sense that while Keck obviously is hinting at a rather run-down and abandoned place, the wheel-cheese simile just didn't work for me; it was a bit too ambiguous and it broke up the rather direct descriptions found elsewhere in that small passage. Many parts of the book are like this. It is irritating, but not a dealbreaker in terms of whether or not I would enjoy the story as a whole. As I said above, the strengths of the novel are really good, as Durand's personality is much more conflicted and thus more "human" than in the first novel. The action is clearer and it is easier to follow the plot progressions without feeling that one has read it a dozen times before. The conclusion was plausible and left me curious to know what will happen next in the third volume. However, the writing still needs work if the series is going to continue to hold the interest of readers. While it certainly is better than in In the Eye of Heaven, there were places where the pacing and the prose lagged in In a Time of Treason. Perhaps the third volume will continue to see growth in this department. Mildly Recommended.

Publication Date: February 19, 2008 (US), Hardcover.

Publisher: Tor Books

Jeffrey Thomas's Deadstock now available as a free e-book

Jeffrey Thomas (author of the Punktown novels) is one of those authors that I have heard much about over the past few years, but for some reason I never remembered to purchase one of his books for reading. Thanks to a heads-up from Jeff VanderMeer, I now can correct that oversight by reading his 2007 release, Deadstock, via a free PDF e-book download here.

Expect a review sometime in the next few days, provided of course that I have the time/energy for reviews. But since this is an author whom I have heard a lot of wonderful things (and a few not-so-wonderful, to be honest), this likely will go towards the top of the reading list. Now if only I could find out some way to read some of Thomas Ligotti's novels for free (legally, of course), I would be a very happy camper...

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Memes are not necessarily facts

I found this link to a Wired article by Clive Thompason about SF being the "last bastion of philosophical writing." Curious, I read through the entire thing, paused a bit, thought some more, and then had a single verbal reaction:

This is bullshit.

Yes, not quite the most eloquent of retorts, but yet it was an honest reaction of mine, one that I've had from time to time when reading comments such as his. But since this has been on my mind more and more lately, I thought I would address this pernicious little meme that seems to claim that SF, this mostly-2oth century creation, has assumed the mantle of being "the fiction of ideas." So while I'll be using Thompson's article as a starting point, rest assured that my rebuttal is far more general in intent and scope than just addressing a few of the generalizations that Thompson makes in his short article.

Which brings me to my point. If you want to read books that tackle profound philosophical questions, then the best — and perhaps only — place to turn these days is sci-fi. Science fiction is the last great literature of ideas.

From where I sit, traditional "literary fiction" has dropped the ball. I studied literature in college, and throughout my twenties I voraciously read contemporary fiction. Then, eight or nine years ago, I found myself getting — well — bored.

Why? I think it's because I was reading novel after novel about the real world. And there are, at the risk of sounding superweird, only so many ways to describe reality. After I'd read my 189th novel about someone living in a city, working in a basically realistic job and having a realistic relationship and a realistically fraught family, I was like, "OK. Cool. I see how today's world works." I also started to feel like I'd been reading the same book over and over again.

The first question I had when reading this section was, "What in tarnation is this here 'literary fiction?' Are we talking about something extremely specific and defined, or is it a negatively-defined term, such as 'no Hobbits or space rockets allowed here?'" Thompson gives no details, nothing to support this assertation; "literary fiction" is just there, dull, stolid, bereft of ideas, according to him. So naturally, I have to dig further and question this assumption with some probing questions.

First, is "literary fiction" something that might earlier have been called "Borgeois Fiction," that fiction which reflects a conservatism endemic to the middle, non-working classes? The type of fiction that is very mimetic in scope because of its apparent descent from the Naturalism of Zola or Dreiser or the rather sparse stylings of a Hemingway? Novels that are more concerned with the "social condition" rather than the "human condition," as some might call it?

Working from just those questions and being quite aware that I may be off in my presumptions here, if "literary fiction" is to be defined so narrowly as to concentrate only on those aspects, then one must wonder if this is akin to assumptions by many readers both inside and outside of "fantasy literature" that "fantasy" equals Orcs and Hobbits and Elves and Dwarves and Dark Lord, oh my! Because when I look at my bookshelves and I see book after book of fiction that does not fall anywhere near the "speculative fiction" umbra or within the apparent parameters of Thompson's definition, I have to wonder.

For example, take Don DeLillo's 1985 classic, White Noise. While it is firmly entrenched in "the real world," one might argue (there are no flights of "escape" to other lands, to other imagined possibilities), DeLillo has bent the apparent rules quite a bit in that dark comic novel. Using various symbolic "white noise" moments throughout the novel (the dull blare of the TV set, radio transmissions, sirens, etc.) that represent all-too-well the droning nothingness devoid of any real societal implication, DeLillo's novel is not just the same-old, same-old. Rather it represents one facet of life, one that isn't too terribly pleasant, I'll admit, but one that bears keeping in mind: it represents the notion, the idea perhaps, that in our loud and brash American society, that silence and non-communication have somehow switched places with solitude and reflection. In order to communicate something, one has to be silent long enough to unsettle another.

If this is not a good enough example, then there are others. In Bret Easton Ellis's 1985 debut novel, Less Than Zero, we see not just a drug culture that reflects the seediness of the 1980s, but also the burned out, exhausted, buried in the hail (as Bob Dylan sung about in his 1975 classic "Shelter from the Storm") culture that saw little point in just dreaming big - that shit's all poppycock. While certainly not the sort of "literature of ideas" that Thompson seems to have in mind, I don't believe one should be quick to dismiss novels such as Ellis's, because they do seem to reflect quite well the prevailing societal attitudes.

So I am left wondering if by "literature of ideas," Thompson is looking back rather than looking forward. Do these "literature of ideas" contain social utopias? If so, would St. Thomas More's own original Utopia be claimed as being "SF" despite being written in Latin almost 500 years ago? Or how about Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and their ideas on how to engineer a proletariat uprising? Too 19th century? If so, then what about the various "Marxist" groups that are still active today, still writing novels that suggest solutions for how to deal with various matters?

Continuing this even further, Thompson's rather curt dismissal of "literary fiction" as being just a series of permutations off of a particular stimuli-response path leads one to wonder if this "literary culture" perhaps should have been qualified with the addition of "Anglo-American" to it, since there are quite a few novelists from Latin America in particular (and doubtless elsewhere in the world that I have yet to discover due to my own linguistic limitations) whose novels, hyper-realistic as they might be, that are presenting quite a few pertinent questions that aren't often as easily visible in their Anglo-American brethren. For example, take some of Alberto Fuguet's work since the early 1990s. This Chilean (who spent part of his childhood in California before his family emigrated back to Chile in the mid-70s) author in works such as Mala Onda (Bad Vibes) and Las películas de mi vida (The Movies of My Life) questions, via the all-too-"real" lives of his protagonists, just how "right" these social/cultural movements, so many of them imposed from "above" by the cultural hegemony of the US pop culture dissemination, are in the lives of others. These are deeply subversive fictions, ones that contain "ideas" without screaming "IDEA! IDEA! IDEA!" out at the reader.

But yet these are "small-idea" novels, I suppose. Here is more of Thompson's argument:

Teenagers love to ponder such massive, brain-shaking concepts, which is precisely why they devour novels like Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, the Narnia series, the Harry Potter books, and Ender's Game. They know that big-idea novels are more likely to have an embossed foil dragon on the cover than a Booker Prize badge.

Adults and serious intellectuals used to love ruminating over this stuff, too. Thought experiments formed the foundation of Western philosophy — from Socrates to Thomas Hobbes to Simone de Beauvoir.

So, then, why does sci-fi, the inheritor of this intellectual tradition, get short shrift among serious adult readers? Probably because the genre tolerates execrable prose stylists. Plus, many of sci-fi's most famous authors — like Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick — have positively deranged notions about the inner lives of women.

Ah, yes. The old "massive, brain-shaking concept" argument. Almost a dinosaur, that, I suppose. Gone the way of the Dodo and the Yippies, one might wonder, except of course for the "reservation" that is SF. Why am I getting this mental image of an asylum, a place where certain "dangerous thoughts" have been shoved off to the side, swept under the rug, and intended to be out of sight, out of mind for the general populace (who presumably is more wrapped up in reading about the all-too-realistic struggles of Pietro dealing with his life struggles while he works as a construction worker building skyscrapers in New York City)? Must be some nefarious plot to drain "idea seeking" from the general public.

But Thompson's references to Socrates through Beauvoir is a bit disingenuous, I believe. Yes, these authors were concerned with issues of "truth," but yet "truth" still occupies a major place in philosophical writing, just it's not capital-T "Truth" that holds court, but rather a more fractured, less cohesive small-t "truth statements" that occupy the hearts and minds of quite a few philosophers and authors (to the determined opposition of many others). But Thompson likely isn't interested in "postmodern" fictions, since the very Ideas that he craves have been whittled down to small-case "ideas" that explore more minute facets of our global societies and cultures.

Thompson's weakest argument occurs when he just throws in the "execrable prose" bit (I can only presume he is talking about the rather wooden style of an Isaac Asimov, for example), followed immediately by the "deranged" ideas of a Heinlein or a Dick. There really is no exploration of this (not that Thompson would have had much space due to the limitations of his article's intent), so I can only point out that there must be something else other than the "execrable prose" and the misogynistic attitudes of two prominent (and dead) SF authors that is at play here. If I had to present a hypothesis for testing, I would suggest that there be a closer look done at the relationship between societal attitudes on relationships, religious/cultural symbolism, demographic shifts, etc., as I suspect there would be quite a bit more cynicism and lack of faith in "Idea" in a time of cultural turmoil.

And now for the final part of Thompson's argument, that dealing with certain "literary" writers:

But the worm is turning. For whatever reasons — maybe the reality fatigue I've felt — a lot of literary writers are trying their hand at speculative fiction. Philip Roth used a "counterfactual" history — what if Nazi sympathizers in the US won the 1940 election? — to explore anti-Semitism in The Plot Against America. Cormac McCarthy muses on the nature of morality in the Hobbesian anarchy of his novel The Road. Then there's the genre-bending likes of Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Susanna Clarke, and Margaret Atwood (whom I like to think of as a sci-fi novelist trapped inside a literary author).

Those aren't writers whose books are adorned with embossed dragons. But that doesn't mean they don't owe that dragon a large debt.

On the surface, this would sound convincing, except when one looks back over the past century or so, every now and then we see evidence of the same appropriation of tropes to suit particular authors' needs. Books such as Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow or Mason & Dixon, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World or William Golding's The Lord of the Flies have long been "claimed" as being "SF," but yet there's been such a strong connection of those stories (and their authors) with such very "real" things such as World War II, the eugenics "program" of the National Socialists, or with the sometimes-violent hierarchies that youth develop (things that can be seen even today in the rise of "fight clubs," some might argue). Chabon and Lethem write stories that speak quite well to the problems of today, while an Atwood questions takes certain trends and teases them out into a near-future setting. While on the surface these sound like a "triumph" of SFnal elements, one would have to question whether or not there really has been such a strict divide in the first place?

So while Thompson's piece sounds nice and cheery and rah-rah, go, SF, go, boom-sis-bah!, I just cannot help but to question whether this oft-repeated meme of "SF is the Literature of Ideas" really is that "true" of a statement. While certainly there is much of worth in SFnal writing, comments such as that show just as much of a tendency to segregate and to exalt uncritically the genre as what certain SF proponents accuse the "mainstream" "literary fiction" crowd of doing. I suspect the "truth," muddied as it is, if not fractured into innumerable shards, lies somewhere in the ties that bind all fictions to the material cultures from which they sprang. But what do I know? I'm just asking questions and doubting any and all possible answers here.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

J.G. Ballard

As has often been the case lately, I have been battling a case of insomnia. Browsing through some of the sites in one set of Bookmarks, I come across a link to a newspaper article about British SF writer J.G. Ballard. It is one of those very sad, introspective pieces, as Ballard, now in his late 70s, apparently is in the last stages of his fight against prostate cancer. Diagnosed in 2006, Ballard decided to write his autobiography of his life growing up in war-torn China during the 1930s and 1940s, the setting for his most famous novel, Empire of the Sun.

Although I have been meaning to read more of his work (to date, I have only read his excellent 1978 short story collection, The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard), what little I have read to date has been enough to convince me that Ballard is one of the more gifted and inquisitive of SF writers, at least of the past 40 years. I recently re-read the short story collection and I couldn't help but notice how he not only knew how to begin and to end his tales, but that interwoven into a great many of his tales were some very troubling questions about human society and our passions. I had planned that "someday," when I had read much more of his work, that I would do an extended discussion of his work like I have done with Gene Wolfe's and am planning to do with Ursula Le Guin's. But I had no idea that Ballard was dying and part of me marvels at the tone he takes in that article. But after glancing through an extract of his soon-to-be-published autobiography, Miracles of Life, perhaps I need to find a way to make that "someday" much closer to the present.

And for those readers of this blog who are not familiar with J.G. Ballard, I can only hope that you will read these two links and my few, poor words and go to your local library or bookstore and read as much of his work as you can. Too often people on the SF blogosphere get caught up in exploring the best of the new. It just might be time to discover some of the talents from the rich past before they have faded into a tattered, moldy memory.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Too many books read, too little time

I seem to have become swamped for time/energy the past week or so. I have a huge backlog of books read that I wanted to review, some of which will end up being reviewed at more length later this year when I've read their sequels. So with that in mind, here are some books that I enjoyed reading that I will try to review in the coming weeks:

Elizabeth Bear, Blood and Iron; Whiskey and Water - these are the first two books in her Promethean Age series. Since she has two others coming out later this year, I'll probably wait until then to review all four of them at once. I can say that I enjoyed these two volumes that have an interesting urban history/secret history take on contemporary life.

Paul Kearney, The Mark of Ran - This first volume to his Sea Beggars series was very concisely-written, but I just didn't feel much of a spark to it. But there's enough promise that the succeeding novels will be read in due time, at which time I might revisit this for a full review.

David Keck, In the Eye of Heaven; In a Time of Treason (ARC) - Speaking of authors whose books benefited from a revisit, I found his first volume to be much more enjoyable the second time through than when I originally read it about 9 months ago. It improved in my opinion to being a passable secondary-world fantasy and the second volume (coming out on February 19th) improved significantly from the first. I will try to free up the time to write a fleshed-out review sometime in early February.

Joe Abercrombie, The Blade Itself - This was one of those debut novels that I put off buying for some time due to the rather vociferous praise it was receiving in some forums that I frequent. I read it, found it to be promising, but there were some problems that I had with the prose that hopefully I'll address in a full review in the coming weeks.

Daniel Abraham, A Shadow in Summer - After a sluggish start, I found myself enjoying this one quite a bit and I want to read A Betrayal in Winter soon, as I think it would be best if I review the two halves together.

Jeffrey Ford, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque - I loved the premise behind this 2002 novel and how well Ford executed it, despite a few rough patches near the end. If I have time, I'll write out a fuller review in the next month, but if not, suffice to say this is a novel that I would urge people to consider reading.

Edward Carey, Observatory Mansions - I bought a used edition of this book after seeing it in Jay Tomio's Top 100 for the past decade and seeing that the story of a very quirky group of people living in a rather dilapidated apartment complex might hold something of worth. I enjoyed it, although certainly its rather "odd" narrator might be offputting for those who are unwilling to try reading a tale told by an O-C personality type PoV.

Richard Morgan, Market Forces - I enjoyed this screenplay-turned-novel more than I thought I would, although the story of a rogue capitalist/freebooter might not be the sort of tale that's going to appeal to the Kovacs crowd.

Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, Salon Fantastique - While I enjoyed many of the tales told here (Jeffrey Ford's "Night Whiskey" being a highlight of the anthology for me), most of the stories just didn't feel as though the authors challenged themselves enough. They were competently-told and written well, but some of the pieces just didn't work for me and I'm going to have to take the time some time to ponder why that was so.

Those were the first-time reads that I wanted to cover in more depth, but which in some cases might have to wait a while. After all, I really do want to get on with writing/posting my review of that Le Guin omnibus that I mentioned last week, but do expect at least some of these to have a full review written in the coming weeks.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Anthony

Before I begin looking at the book itself, a few words as to why I chose to review this instead of the half-dozen others I had recently read. Recently, I had an email conversation that dealt with, among a great many other things, works of fantasy that were challenging and which showed some daring to go away from a now "conventional" model. Afterwards, I started to look through my bookshelves and chose a book that I had bought a few months ago at the urging of a very dear friend of mine. It was Gustave Flaubert's 1874 classic, The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

Throw out whatever preconceptions of Flaubert's work you may have garnered from a read of Madame Bovary or Sentimental Education. This is not a Realist work. Far from it. The book reads like a hallucinatory drama/prose work and its language is extremely vivid. The book has a blurb from Sigmund Freud that I think will set the stage nicely for the quotations to follow:

"[The Temptation of Saint Anthony] calls up not only the great problems of knowledge, but the real riddles of life...and it confirms the awareness of our perplexity in the mysteriousness that reigns everywhere."
The English translation of this book is contemporary with the book itself, done by Lafcadio Hearn (himself a rather interesting figure) around 1876, and is written in a style which will appear to be rather ornate to the modern reader, but which contains some excellent renderings of Flaubert's own high style. The story, based on the legenda surrounding the monastic hermit St. Anthony (who lived during the second half of the third century AD) and the various temptations that he faced, has been the subject of Western art for over a millennium now. Flaubert spent over thirty years crafting this story, tossing out elements and altering scenes to fit his own changing opinions regarding what constituted the proper vehicle for approaching this legend steeped in misteria. In the end, Flaubert went with a prose-play form, where in italics, the reader has the "scenes" described at length, before the prose dialogue hits like a thunderclap. Below are some excerpts:

It is in the Thebaid, at the summit of a mountain, upon a platform, rounded off into the form of a demilune, and enclosed by huge stones.

The Hermit's cabin appears in the background. It is built of mud and reeds, it is flat-roofed and doorless. A pitcher and a loaf of black bread can be distinguished within also, in the middle of the apartment a large book resting on a wooden stela; while here and there, fragments of basketwork, two or three mats, a basket, and a knife lie upon the ground.

Some ten paces from the hut, there is a long cross planted in the soil; and, at the other end of the platform, an aged and twisted palmtree leans over the abyss; for the sides of the mountain are perpendicular, and the Nile appears to form a lake at the foot of the cliff.

The view to right and left is broken by the barrier of rocks. But on the desert-side, like a vast succession of sandy beaches, immense undulations of an ashen-blond color extend one behind the other, rising higher as they recede; and far in the distance, beyond the sands, the Libyan chain forms a chalk-colored wall, lightly shaded by violet mists. On the opposite side the sun is sinking. In the north the sky is of a pearl-gray tint, while at the zenith purple clouds disposed like the tufts of a gigantic mane, lengthen themselves against the blue vault. These streaks of flame take darker tones; the azure spots turn to a nacreous pallor; the shrubs, the pebbles, the earth, all now seem hard as bronze; and throughout space there floats a golden dust so fine as to become confounded with the vibrations of the light.

Saint Anthony

who has a long beard, long hair, and wears a tunic of goatskin, is seated on the ground cross-legged, and is occupied in weaving mats. As soon as the sun disappears, he utters a deep sigh, and gazing upon the horizon:

Another day! another day gone! Nevertheless formerly I used not to be so wretched. Before the end of the night I commenced my orisons; then I descended to the river to get water, and remounted the rugged pathway with the skin upon my shoulder, singing hymns on the way. Then I would amuse myself by arranging everything in my hut. I would make my tools; I tried to make all my mats exactly equal in size, and all my baskets light; for then my least actions seemed to me duties in nowise difficult or painful of accomplishment.

Then at regular hours I ceased working; and when I prayed with my arms extended, I felt as though a fountain of mercy were pouring from the height of heaven into my heart. That fountain is now dried up. Why?... (pp. 9-10)
In this opening scene, not only does the reader get a very detailed (almost too detailed, perhaps) picture of the desolate desert, but the careful reader can see in Saint Anthony's opening "monologue" some of the disaffection that will serve as the conduit by which the various temptations sent by Satan shall reach him during the course of the night to follow.

Continuing a bit further, this dissatisfaction with his solitary life and his straining against the yoke of holy servitude that he placed upon himself becomes even more apparent:

Laughing bitterly:

A happy life this indeed! - bending palm-branches in the fire to make shepherds' crooks, fashioning baskets, stitching mats together - and then exchanging these things with the Nomads for bread which breaks one's teeth! Ah! woe, woe is me! will this never end? Surely death were preferable! I can endure it no more! Enough! Enough! (pp. 14-15)
But in this moment of frustration, an interesting act occurs that will play an important symbolic foreshadowing role for later in the book:

He stamps his foot upon the ground, and rushes frantically to and fro among the rocks; then pauses, out of breath, bursts into tears, and lies down upon the ground, on his side.

The night is calm; multitudes of stars are palpitating; only the crackling noise made by the tarantulas is audible.

The two arms of the cross make a shadow upon the sand; Anthony, who is weeping, observes it.

Am I, then, so weak, O my God! Courage, let me rise from here! (p. 15)
Anthony, inspired by this perhaps natural occurrence, goes back into his hut and reads passages of how the Most High exalted his believers upon even the most puissant of monarchs. Stories of how the faithful overcame great obstacles and temptations, from avarice to lust to hubris to each of the other Seven Capital Sins. As Saint Anthony falls asleep, Satan himself materializes out of the desert air and his devils begin a bit of mischief that leads to Anthony awakening and being confronted first by the lust-filled "Queen of Sheba," whom he can barely resist. In the following passage, Satan has assumed the form of a fellow hermit/saint, Saint Hilarion, in order to tempt Anthony to committing the grave sin of heresy:


Hypocrite! burying thyself in solitude only in order the more fully to abandon thyself to the indulgence of thy envious desires! What if thou dost deprive thyself of meats, of wine, of warmth, of bath, of slaves, or honours? - dost thou not permit thy imagination to offer thee banquets, perfumes, naked women, and the applause of multitudes? Thy chastity is but a more subtle form of corruption, and thy contempt of this world is but the impotence of thy hatred against it! Either this it is that makes such as thyself so lugubrious, or else 'tis doubt. The possession of truth giveth joy. Was Jesus sad? Did he not travel in the company of friends, repose beneath the shade of olive trees, enter the house of the publican, drink many cups of wine, pardon the sinning woman, and assuage all sorrows? Thou, thou hast no pity save for thine own misery. It is like a remorse that gnaws thee, a savage madness that impels thee to repel the caress of a dog or to frown upon the smile of a child.


bursting into tears.

Enough! enough! thou dost wound my heart deeply.


Shake the vermin from thy rags! Rise up from thy filth! Thy God is not a Moloch who demands human flesh in sacrifice!


Yet suffering is blessed. The cherubim stoop to receive the blood of confessors.


Admire, then, the Montanists! - they surpass all others.


But it is the truth of the doctrine which makes the martyrdom.


How can martyrdom prove the excellence of the doctrine, inasmuch as it bears equal witness for error?


Silence! - thou viper!


Perhaps martyrdom is not so difficult as thou dost imagine. The exhortations of friends, the pleasure of insulting the people, the oath one has taken, a certain dizzy excitement, a thousand circumstances all aid the resolution of the martyrs...

Anthony turns his back upon Hilarion and moves away from him. Hilarion follows him.

Moreover this manner of dying often brings about great disorders. Dionysius, Cyprian and Gregory fled from it. Peter of Alexandria has condemned it; and the council of Elvira...


stops his ears.

I will listen to thee no longer! (pp. 48-49)
And so it continues, each temptation building upon each other, Saint Anthony assailed more and more with each sharp thrust. Flaubert's story structure lends itself well to creating such highly charged scenes, imaginative in how these temptations are portrayed in both symbolic and literal forms. By the end of this 200 page book, the reader has seen Saint Anthony brought to the cusp of collapsing into concupiscence, only to be granted a last minute reprieve...perhaps. It is this ending (and for any who know the story of St. Anthony, this is no "spoiler," as it takes a close reading of how Flaubert presents this well-known end for the full effect to hit the reader) that left me feeling drained, exhausted, and full of questions and images of what would happen in a similar case. This is an effect that most books lately have not had upon me and it is a rather addictive one, I will admit. I can only hope that those reading this may be persuaded into looking at this somewhat-obscure gem of Flaubert's and to give it a chance. Unsettling works of such a nature as this are none-too-common and perhaps it'll be an intoxicating read for you as well. Most highly recommended.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Author Spotlight: Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin is one of those writers whose gifts for storytelling, characterization, and just plain challenging yet concise writing often are overlooked by those wanting to read "the best" in speculative fiction. Last month, I decided that I wanted to read more of her fiction for 2008, starting with the Hainish Cycle books that I own.

In the coming days and weeks, expect reviews of the three earliest Hainish Cycle books, Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusion (collected together by Tor Books in 1994 in an omnibus edition entitled Worlds of Exile and Illusion), to be followed by reviews of her two most famous Hainish Cycle novels, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and finally a much later Hainish Cycle novel, The Telling. In addition, I plan on reviewing a non-Hainish Cycle novel, The Lathe of Heaven, and if I can find the books in my local library, her Earthsea fantasy books. Hopefully later this year, I'll have the money to spare for buying her latest YAish series, not to mention the upcoming April novel based off of Vergil's epic poem, Lavinia.

So expect some citations, discussion of anthropology, languages, Taoism, and anarchism in these reviews. Hopefully there are many more fans of her work out there than the relatively few voices I've heard over at this remote corner of the SF blogosphere. After all, Le Guin truly is one of the greats in the field for a variety of reasons and I hope that my upcoming posts will reflect this greatness to some degree.

Lord Tophet cover art

I just found out that the cover art for Gregory Frost's upcoming sequel to Shadow Bridge, Lord Tophet, is now up at Amazon, so I copy/pasted that image here for others to see. The book is listed as going on sale on July 29, 2008 (which happens to be my sister's birthday, coincidentally), so if you wanted to know how Shadow Bridge's story arc concludes, you only have a shade over six months to wait!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Almost Humpday Links Post

Jeff VanderMeer has finished Predator: South China Sea. He offers up "tips" on how to complete a novel in around two months and have it feel like it's a thing that doesn't suck.

Although others doubtless have read this, the Preliminary Nebula Ballot is up.

Christopher Barzak won the Crawford Award, given to debuting fantasy authors, for his One for Sorrow, which I reviewed earlier this month.

John Picacio has the artwork up for the upcoming Michael Moorcock release, Elric: The Stealer of Souls. Very impressive work there.

Lucius Shepard has a hilarious booksigning story about offending an audience outside of his expectations.

Nick Mamatas reminds us that there are nuttier O-C types out there than SF bloggers.

Robert of Fantasy Book Critic recently posted a very nicely-done list of a few dozen SF authors' picks for Best of 2007, anticipated 2008 releases, and updates on their personal work.

Shadow Unit, a new multimedia project from Elizabeth Bear, Emma Bull, Sarah Monette, and Will Shetterly, is now up. Apparently there'll be regularly-updated "episodes" in the very near future.

Clarkesworld Magazine recently interviewed Daniel Abraham.

Prime Books' Fantasy Magazine has a regular feature called "Fantasy Friday: Blog for a Beer" Since many of us like "adult beverages" and like to rant and rave...

John Scalzi has done Ten Things You Probably Haven't Done

Finally, if you want to learn more about a radical 60s group, I just posted a short review of Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History on my personal blog.

And that's about that for the week. I need to get back to thinking up a few more questions for an upcoming interview that I'll be posting here later this month.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

George R.R. Martin (ed.), Wild Cards: Inside Straight

Although I grew up watching all sorts of cartoons both on Saturday mornings and turning the 2:30-4:30 PM time slot weekdays on the local UHF stations, I never really found comic books to be all that interesting. Maybe it was as much to do with not reading much fiction until my teenage years (which then were taken up with sports playing, so even then it was little more than what was required in my college prep/advanced classes), but I never really tried reading them. So it was with some trepidation when I received an Advance Review Copy of the eighteenth volume of the George R.R. Martin-edited Wild Card series, Inside Straight a couple of months ago. Unlike certain other readers who read and reviewed it (most of them favorably) months ago, I decided to wait until a week or so until the scheduled January 22 release date.

The premise of the series is this: In 1946, there was this alien virus that was released on earth, a virus that still afflicts the populace every so often. Somewhere around 90% of those who contract the virus die from it, the majority of the survivors are deformed in some fashion and have been labelled as "Jokers" (I'm presuming that this is a play off of a capriciousness in the odds, these card-related names), while the fortunate few, called "Aces," are granted various supernatural powers, akin to those seen in comic books. The present volume, Inside Straight, opens in 2007 and is the beginning of a planned three-volume story arc, one that while it references the past (the iconic Jet Boy of the original 1946 period is referenced throughout this novel in many ways, for those curious to know these things), it is self-contained enough that newcomers to the series such as myself can read and enjoy it.

This novel is a very collaborative effort. Martin has assembled eight other writers (Daniel Abraham, Melinda Snodgrass, Carrie Vaughn, Michael Cassutt, Caroline Spector, John Jos. Miller, Ian Tregillis, and S.L. Farrell), most of them based in the environs of Albuquerque, New Mexico, to develop the story arc and the next generation of Aces. When I read that these books are collaborative efforts, I thought this would indicate a more fractured storytelling approach. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the authors' contributions are melded together into a unified plot that contains some very richly-drawn characters.

There are two plot strains running in this alternate 2007 world. The first, which opens the novel, concerns the clandestine operation in which a mysterious Ace infiltrates the compound of the newly-reestablished Muslim Caliphate and assassinates the charismatic religious/political leader of the Arab world. The second deals with a much more important matter for millions of Americans, the first reality TV show starring Aces, called American Hero. There are 28 contestants, divided into four groups (naturally, these are the card-related Hearts, Diamonds, Spades, and Clubs), with the usual asinine "obstacle courses" and immunity challenges and American Idol-like Ace judges, followed by the Real Worldesque "confessionals" and scenes of the contestants engaging in all sorts of tawdry and vicious behaviors that viewers of reality TV shows today have come to expect and perhaps enjoy.

While one might expect there to be quite a bit of dissonance between these two main plot strains, the authors here do a very good job of juxtaposing the situations occurring and the character reactions with one another. It becomes quite obvious about halfway through the novel that one of the main themes of this novel is that of what constitutes being a "hero." The reader has already read a half-dozen chapters dealing with those who want to use their powers to make money or to become famous, but what about those who dream of saving the world or making a difference?

The writers do an excellent job of presenting these questions from various angles. From Daniel Abraham's blog-like chapters starring Jonathan Hive, a blogger/journalist whose Ace power is the ability to transform parts or all of his body into hundreds of wasps, we get to see certain aspects that tie in the Middle East and reality TV strains. From Ian Tregillis, we see how a false accusation can really eat at the spirit (and body) of a shy and awkward teen, as he really wants to do good but others have judged him to be among the lowest of the low. These are just two of the character-centered "chapters" (each author with the exception of Abraham's blog entries and Snodgrass's opening and closing chapters gets a single chapter to develop a character and a situation), but they serve as excellent examples of how this book (and presumably the upcoming trilogy) addresses major cultural, social, and political issues in a way that is not too preachy or too trite.

It was this depth of character analysis in relation to a very complicated setting that impressed me most about this book. These were some well-planned characters and the way that each writer managed to work his or her individual styles into the main storyline in such a seamless fashion really impressed me. Inside Straight grabbed my attention almost immediately, presented quite a few twists and turns in the various character dynamics, and the way that the action unfolded was very well-done for the most part. However, there were a few weak points. Towards the end of the novel, as the Middle East situation takes over most of the spotlight, I couldn't help but question the facileness in which certain characters were just able to enter what amounted to a war zone. But that and a few other issues revolving around how one contestant (Stuntman) confronted another (Rustbelt) are minor in comparison to the story's final impressions. The question of "What constitutes being a hero?" is answered quite well, with an very well-done juxtaposition of one group of contestants with another group at the end that serves to underscore the true answer to that question. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: January 22, 2008 (US), Hardcover

Publisher: Tor

Christopher Barzak, One for Sorrow

Adolescence just sucks pure ass. Having just completed the last vestiges of it recently, looking back, there's just so much shit that teens go through. From the constant physiological changes that can make you a stud or condemn you to the loser reject pile for the next decade to the struggling to find a strong self-identity that is both different from and similar to the childhood one is leaving, adolescence simply is not a pleasant matter for a great many teens. To understand why books such as J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye or Charles Bukowski's Ham on Rye resonate so much more with a certain subset/age, I have come to believe that it is because such novels tell those readers, "Hey, I get ya. I know where ya've been and yeah, it all sucks donkey dong. So now what, right? $64,000 question, that."

Couple the ethos behind those seminal novels with the rather grim happenings of the early 21st century America, with its "downsizings," its fractured families, its increasingly commercialized social structure, and what is there for a teenaged boy to do, trying to make his way through life, confronted with those who seem to be little more than cogs in the machine? What does one do when faced with a horrific murder on top of the usual crap, a real shit mayonnaise on top of that crap meat sandwich? And when there's a ghost involved? Aw shit, where do we begin?

In Christopher Barzak's debut novel, One for Sorrow, he addresses these concerns in a very moving and bittersweet fashion. When I first started to read this novel, my thoughts were that it had to take an author just emerging from adolescence to write such a novel, as this reads like a survivor's tale. Those initial reactions were only confirmed the more I read.

The stories didn't matter, I told myself. Most of those kids didn't know how to see themselves yet, let alone a ghost. (pp. 27-28)
One for Sorrow revolves around a fifteen year-old boy, Adam McCormick, and how he deals with growing up in the Rust Belt, somewhere near Youngstown, Ohio. In this novel, we experience all sorts of crappy situations from Adam's point of view, from his mother's paralysis, the constant and sometimes bitter arguments between his parents, the uncertain job future, and the near-constant mental torture that his older brother Andy inflicts upon Adam. It is this setting, so gloomy and sometimes painful to read, that acts as the backdrop for a very wild year in which Adam discovers that a classmate, Jamie Marks, who was nicknamed "Moony" and was considered strange, had been brutally murdered and buried underneath a tie of an old railroad track. Adam soon discovers that there are ghosts and that there was an appeal to befriending a ghost such as Jamie.

After all, the dead don't mock you for being a loner. They don't gossip or spread slander about any real or imagined mental disorders. They just are what they were when they died, and underneath their obsessions with one facet or another of the living, they just are close to the living, as Adam remarks when he is introduced to the ghost of Fuck You Frances, who killed her parents back in the 1930s:

No death's head stood beneath the tree like I'd imagined. As I came closer, I saw a small girl, face round, lips full, her hair tangled from not having combed it in years. Her dress was in rags, just like the story Gracie had told me. But other than that, she looked normal. Just poor and dirty. I guess I was a little disappointed. This was the crazy girl who had murdered her parents? She didn't look scary. She just looked sad. (p. 108)
All the while, the reader gets this sense that Adam's interactions with the dead just isn't healthy for him. Barzak does a masterful job in juxtaposing this with Adam's conflicted relationships with the living, in particular with Gracie, the girl who discovered Jamie's decaying body three weeks after his murder. As the story progresses, Adam walks the razor's edge between living life and becoming little more than a living ghost trapped in a want/need cycle of desiring what he cannot have.

Below is a scene near the end of the novel in which Adam is confronted about this in a session with his therapist:

"Way," he said, totally mocking me, but I laughed. "That's nice to hear," he said. "You have a nice laugh."

I suddenly felt weird. I'd never thought about my laugh before. "I have a nice laugh?" I said.

"Yeah. Very boisterous. Not self-conscious."

"My dad's always yelling at me to wake up," I said. "I guess that's what I am. Not self-conscious. Unconscious."

"Fathers are like that," said Kurt. "They don't know what to say to their kids sometimes. Especially to boys. Especially boys like you."

"Like me?"

"Well, you're not typical."

"You mean how I'm not so good with people," I said.

"Well, sort of. And you're different in other ways too."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, to be completely honest, you've got some problems, Adam. People don't always understand that, but they can sense it. They're afraid it's something they can catch, so they steer clear. You can hardly blame them. And well, you're not typical in lots of other ways too."

I could tell he wanted to say what these other ways were, but I didn't want him to be like everyone else, trying to tell me who I was and how I should think about myself. Everyone seemed to always be doing that to me. So even though I mostly appreciated his conversation and what he was trying to tell me, I told him I understood and didn't need to hear anything else. He said I didn't know what he was going to say, but I told him whatever he was going to say was more about what he thought than what I thought, and he nodded and said that was true. Even the most well-intentioned people don't know what's best for you. Sometimes you've got to be able to listen to yourself and be okay with no one else understanding (pp. 284-285).
One for Sorrow concludes with a partial, non-"sunny" extrapolation from this pivotal conversation. While it'd be too much of a spoiler to describe the ways in which Adam seems to have changed throughout the course of the novel, I believe I can say safely that his changes throughout the course of the novel reflect the various tumultuous stages that a great many teens undergone. While I do not know if I'd as far as certain other reviewers who have lauded this as The Catcher in the Rye for the early 21st century (just with a ghost story twist), I do believe this is a very emotional and powerful novel that hopefully will mark the beginning of a very productive writing career for Barzak. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: August 28, 2007 (US), Tradeback.

Publisher: Bantam Books

Saturday, January 12, 2008

White Noise

I recently read two articles that made me wonder (use the old Exedrin headache commercial numbers here for how often this occurs) about the level of "white noise" that certain things seem to be generation in the various communities that exist under the nebulous "spec fic" umbrella. The first is a recap of 2007 by Strange Horizon contributors:

The problem—and the big trend I'd draw from 2007—is that the niches have less and less to do with each other. Sites like Pat's Fantasy Hotlist and Ambling Along the Aqueduct both serve their communities very well, but their concerns are miles apart. We may well wind up with a field that's too fragmented to grasp whole.
There is something to that. Having read both sites on occasion, one would think that there is barely any unifying element between the two, yet they are both "spec fic" sites. Is it a matter of where finding one's niche is leading to further and further fragmentation of a "SF Identity"?

Whether or not that might be the case, it was quite apparent to me after reading the latest SF Signal Mind Meld that even defining what "science fiction" is might be as much a sign of a fractured identity, with resulting "white noise" from those cracks and fissures. The more I read such attempts to "define" the area and what is and what is not a part of "SF," I cannot help but to get this mental image of a group simultaneously defining itself as what it is not and then trying to include almost everything under the sun. Compounding this issue is the knowledge that a great many books that might be better served by being identified as sui generis (such as Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, for example) are now being "claimed" by some as being part of this or that movement.

Perhaps it's a marketing-driven problem, or perhaps it is related to an increasing need to label and to classify just about everything "just so." I wonder what the late Michel Foucault would have made of all of these classification schemes for certain strains of fiction writing if he were asked to do a revision of The Archeology of Knowledge. Or would it be best to just admit that there's some "white noise" (which Don DeLillo so famously used as a title for an outstanding book) out there clogging our perceptive nodes and leading to some gaps in our own personal quests to find that je ne sais quoi somewhere around the corner or over the rainbow?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Ekaterina Sedia, The Secret History of Moscow

There's just something about a city that sparks the imagination. As a child, I would often wonder what lurked between those massive buildings or what might be crawling in the city sewers. Would there be those mythical alligators there, or something else. As I grew older, my fascination with cities changed a little bit. The traditions and the unique characteristics of citizens of various cities started to fascinate me. Growing up near Nashville, TN, I got quite inured to "Music City USA." It was quite amusing to hear tourists (after all, even those of us who live in the furtherest reaches of the 615 area code identify with the city more so than with the state) try to talk in exaggerated drawls (when after all, one of the defining traits of a Nashville-area native is the "drop" at the end of multisyllable words, something that was pointed out to me when I lived near Miami - not a drawl, but rather a tone shift that cuts off end syllables) and to parade about wearing although sorts of cowboy boots and huge belt buckles as if they were trying "to go native." But yet we would just smile, be friendly I suppose, while wondering what in the blue hell some of those people were on.

Cities have fascinating and often troubled histories. So much so that the older cities begin to secrete layers of historical clashes and cultural shifts, with elements of the old mutating to fit the needs of the present. Prod a bit under a city's surface and you are bound to turn up a few skeletons and other rotting vestiges of the older cultural orders. Perhaps it might be best to say instead that if one digs deep enough, one will find all sorts of mythical alligators lurking underneath the surface layer.

In Ekaterina Sedia's second novel, The Secret History of Moscow, one discovers a very rich and cruel history of Moscow. Unlike a Nashville, with its façade of friendliness, the Moscow that Sedia portrays is a very cynical and harsh place, distrustful of strangers and not quick to assimilate them. Set in the tumultuous years following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Moscow of this time is a dangerous and almost lawless place, where the new businesses were beset by mafioso types and a corrupt and inefficient government.

The story begins with two sisters, Galina and Masha. Galina, the older sister, seems destined to be an old maid (at least according to her mother), while Masha becomes pregnant at the age of 18. Living in a Soviet-era apartment with her mother, grandmother, and sister, Galina constantly is berated for not being this or that:

Of course she's too young, the mother said. But better too early than too late, and you know Galina: she's an old maid and I doubt there would be any grandchildren out of her, and really, I wish she would just have one out of wedlock, nowadays who really cares. I know she won't find a husband and I've resigned to that. But if she would just have a baby...Oh, I know, I told her a million times. But she's stubborn like you wouldn't believe, and I doubt any man would put up with that for long.

There was nothing there Galina hadn't heard before - to her mother, men were rare and precious prey that had to be snared with cunning and artifice. Galina couldn't remember when last their conversation hadn't turned into a lesson in making herself attractive - how she should dress nicer, and mouth off less and smile more. Maybe this way she would hold someone's attention long enough to get knocked up. Neither mentioned the premise of these speeches - that Galina was unlovable without artifice and deception. She tried to avoid talking to her mother lately. But the voice in the hallway continued:

I just don't want her to turn into a bitter man-hater, her mother said. Last time when she came home from the hospital (she could never bring herself to say 'mental institution') I had hope for a while. But now - I don't know if she should just go back or if there's nothing they can do to fix her. (pp. 8-9)
Already we can see the tension between the city/society (as expressed in the person of Galina's mother) and between the "modern woman" persona of Galina. Throughout this novel, this clash will be referenced on multiple occasions, sometimes subtly, other times quite directly. But there's another, more magical element that is introduced immediately following this section.

Masha is due to give birth at any moment and the family has not taken her to the hospital. Galina hears a scream and rushes into her sister's room, to discover a wailing newborn and a disappeared Masha. As she goes to look out the open window, she is confronted by a rather odd jackdaw, who seems to act more "human" than a bird ought to be doing. Fresh out of a stay in a mental institution for a breakdown, Galina is not thrilled with mentioning this to her mother, so she keeps silent. Her sister's body is not found.

This opening scene sets the stage. Later, when Galina meets up with Yakov, a policeman investigating a series of recent disappearances, she comes to discover that underneath the surface of 1990s Moscow lurks older and sometimes more sinister forces. As she and Yakov conduct their search, they come across an underground that in many ways resembles that of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere in its overlapping but rarely colliding worlds of the Above and the Underground, although in Sedia's novel there is not as much of a focus on the comic as there is on the tensions between older and newer beliefs. Below is quoted a scene where the mythological and the Soviet past meet:

A faint noise that grew for some time finally crossed into her awareness, and she listened to the quiet but powerful throb. It sounded as if it came from a great distance, and she guessed that close by it would roar, deafening. Like a waterfall, she thought, the waterfall of the escalator that brought her down to the overturned skeleton of the funeral barge - the subway station had foreshadowed what was concealed below, and she had to wonder if it were intentional.

People outside, the people the used to run things back in her remote pioneer childhood and who still seemed to be running them now, must have had a hand in the identical design of the above and below ground; suddenly Fyodor's words about the secret KGB dungeons did not sound as ridiculous. It made sense that the communists would find and harness the river Styx, perhaps turn it around and plop a hydroelectric station on it, squatting like an ugly cement toad and polluting cold black waters. Charon was dead, rotted to nothing in a labor camp some years ago, and his barge, raised to the surface, was cynically used as the skeleton of the train station below, and nobody ever knew. They probably still charged for the crossing though, and she dug through her pockets (pp. 62-63).
It is this appropriation of prior cultural beliefs, often in a cynical and manipulative fashion, that becomes a reoccurring theme in the novel. In addition, Galina and Yakov encounter rusalka, those water spirits that represent suffering as well as other life/death beliefs. The further they go, the more they (and the reader) encounter all sorts of violent and bloody reminders of Moscow's history. While I will not reveal the ending here, I will merely note that it keeps in spirit and tone with the beginning and the middle sections and that there is a sort of a circle that is completed on the final pages.

As a story, The Secret History of Moscow is best read as a multilayered conflict between the past and the present. This is not a simple or sugarcoated tale, as an outsider such as myself gets this mental image that the city itself, full of cynical regard for all, is as much of a character as are Galina and Yakov. As presented through the various mythological and historical characters that appear, the city looms ever cold and threatening as the story progresses. I found this to be intriguing and it certainly made for a thought-provoking read even after I finished this book. As an urban fantasy, Sedia's book captures the mood very well and the tensions between character and place are drawn out quite nicely, as evidenced in the passages that I cited above in in many others. While Sergei Lukyanenko's Watch novels might have captured the feel of a Cold War-era Moscow, Sedia's Moscow is more "alive" and fleshed out. A lot of attention was given to portraying the city's history quite well and while some other readers might argue that Galina's story is overwhelmed at times, I would argue that this is not the case. Rather, her tale is meant to be just one more facet of a much larger panorama that is unfolding and it is her interaction with these layers that made for an enjoyable drama. The Secret History of Moscow will appeal to fans of urban fantasies and particularly those of Gaiman's Neverwhere, although Sedia's work certainly has its own style and approach to her native city. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: November 1, 2007 (US), Tradeback.

Publisher: Prime Books
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