The OF Blog: August 2010

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

August 2010 Reads

Here are the books completed in August.  A lot of these are part of the Gollancz SF or Fantasy Masterworks series, so there are a bunch of reviews here and elsewhere already posted or will be written in the very near future.  Some are re-reads, but most are not.  I believe four languages (English, Spanish, Serbian, Portuguese) were read this month, with at least one book for each language.  And this is the infamous month of reviewing Goodkind, Stanek, and yaoi.  Now for the reads:

259  David Lindsay, A Voyage to Arcturus (re-read; already reviewed on SFF Masterworks blog)

260  Zoran Živković, Skrivena Kamera (Serbian; review in next month, I hope)

261  Zoran Živković, Cámera oculta (Spanish; see above)

262  Zoran Živković, Hidden Camera (re-read; see above)

263  Terry Goodkind, The Law of Nines (already reviewed)

264  Oliverio Girondo, En la Masmédula (Spanish; mindfuck poems)

265  Philip K. Dick, The Simulacra (already reviewed on SFF Masterworks blog)

266  George R. Stewart, Earth Abides (already reviewed on SFF Masterworks blog)

267  Jack Vance, Lyonesse:  Suldrun's Garden (already reviewed on SFF Masterworks blog)

268  Jack Vance, Lyonesse:  The Green Pearl (see above)

269  Jack Vance, Lyonesse:  Madouc (see above)

270  H.G. Wells, The First Men in the Moon (already reviewed)

271  Lucious Shepard, Life During Wartime (already reviewed)

272  Keith Roberts, Pavane (already reviewed)

273  Karel Čapek, R.U.R. (already reviewed)

274  Bisco Hatori, Ouran High School Host Club (already reviewed)

275  Yuiko Takamura, Caged Slave (already reviewed)

276  Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings (already reviewed)

277  Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates (already reviewed on SFF Masterworks blog)

278  Lord Dunsany, Time and the Gods (re-read; already reviewed on SFF Masterworks blog)

279  Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle (already reviewed on SFF Masterworks blog)

280  Tim Powers, The Drawing of the Dark (review forthcoming here)

281  Robert Stanek, Keeper Martin's Tale (already reviewed)

282  Mary Robinette Kowal, Shades of Milk and Honey (review in near future)

283  Fábio Fernandes, Os Dias da Peste (Portuguese; already reviewed)

284  Christopher Priest, Inverted World (already reviewed on SFF Masterworks blog)

285  Gustav Meyrink, The Golem

286  Kazu Kibuishi,  Flight:  Volume 7 (very good graphic novel anthology)

287  Sherri Tepper, Beauty (re-read; already reviewed on SFF Masterworks blog)

288  Ward Moore, Bring the Jubilee (already reviewed)

289  John M. Ford, The Dragon Waiting (already reviewed on SFF Masterworks blog)

290  Geoff Ryman, The Child Garden (review forthcoming here)

291  Walter M. Miller, Jr., Dark Benediction (review forthcoming on SFF Masterworks blog)

292  Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men (review forthcoming here)

293  Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo (review forthcoming here)

In Progress: 

Walter Tevis, Mockingbird

Miguel de Unamuno, Niebla (Spanish)

Imagining online reviewers and possible fictions they might write

There are several online reviewers who are either attempting to get their first fictions published or who are writers themselves.  Sometimes I find myself, when in a bit of silly daydreaming, associating these reviewers with certain styles of writing.  I thought it would be fun to list a few bloggers and what types of fiction I'd imagine them writing, then giving you the opportunity to add your own lists.  Here goes:

1.  Adventures in Reading - Short fiction pieces, something in the vein of an Elizabeth Bear or Sarah Monette.

2.  Neth Space - He'd totally update Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, while continuing to downgrade Pluto, sadistic scientist that he is at heart!

3.  Pat's Fantasy Hotlist - He'd write Goodkind fanfic.

4.  A Dribble of Ink - He'd write Stanek fanfic.

5.  Temple Library Reviews - He'd write weird fiction concerning vampiric gerbils.

6.  Dark Wolf's Fantasy Reviews - He'd write urban paranormal romance fantasies starring wolves as phallic symbols.

7.  Jacques Barcia - alpaca MMA cage fighting stories

8.  Fábio Fernandes - Brazilian cyberpunk horror stories involving a moose, a chihuahua, and a panda bear.

9.  Paul Smith - Liggoti and Cisco-influenced children's stories.

10.  The Speculative Scotsman - He's speculating...about Mongolian deathworms.

11. Speculative Horizons - My Little Pony slash fiction

12. The Wertzone - Long philosophical tracts on the glories of the great Cookie Monster

There.  Do any of these match up with what you'd envision these blogger/writers actually writing?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings

Ever since 2005, when his first epic fantasy novel, Elantris, was released, Brandon Sanderson has been one of the more prolific authors, with three YA novels, the (for the moment) standalone Warbreaker, the Mistborn trilogy, and now the beginning of a planned ten-volume The Stormlight Archive series, The Way of Kings, not to mention his work completing the final three volumes of the late Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time.  In previous commentaries on the Mistborn novels (linked to above), I spent some time praising Sanderson for some of his narrative choices, as well as noting a few perceived deficiencies in his writing, namely that of character interactions and dialogue, although I also noted that each of those novels showed a distinct improvement over what I found to be atrocious dialogue in Elantris.  When I began reading his most ambitious work to date, The Way of Kings, I was curious to see if Sanderson had continued to improve as a writer and as a storyteller.  For the most part, The Way of Kings continues to show Sanderson's development as a writer, although there are a few qualms that I have about the story itself.

The Way of Kings follows three distinct storylines, which until the end of this sprawling novel stay separate.  There is a conflicted old warrior storyline for Dalinar, as he begins to dream of conflicts four millennia in the past that contain elements that run counter to everything that he has believed in and fought for his entire life.  A second subplot is devoted to Kaladin, who is shown in both the "present" and in flashbacks several years before.  He dreams to be a surgeon, but ends up being a slave forced to participate in the most dangerous tasks in a near-perpetual war, that of pushing bridge across narrow chasms so the military forces of his slavers can cross to attack their non-human enemies.  The third plotline deals with Shallan, a daughter of an impoverished noble house who tries to dupe a sorceress and instead learns some secrets that threaten to overturn long-held beliefs.  Unlike his previous solo efforts, where the majority of each novel was devoted to a single character arc, this tripartite division means that the setting and the characters' interactions with the the realm of Roshar are much more complex than anything seen in Sanderson's earlier work.

Speaking of Roshar, it is obvious that Sanderson has devoted a lot of time and energy to creating a fully-realized setting.  There are a plethora of cultures, at least two magic systems on display (that of the Shardblades/Stormlight and Soulcasting), and a look at this burgeoning conflict between the fractured kingdom of Alethkar and the non-human Parshendi.  Unlike his previous novels, where there was a penchant to just dump everything out into the open and subject the reader to a series of infodumps to explain what is occurring, Sanderson displays a restraint here that serves to accentuate the moments of "magic" when they occur.  Sometimes, the better epic fantasies are all about the characters and their interactions with their settings rather than about the settings and those characters placed within them in order to have an excuse for showing off these settings.  As curious as the Roshar setting may be for those "worldbuilding" junkies who want to soak up the setting and its constructed powers, The Way of Kings succeeds as an opening volume because of the better-developed situations that these three main protagonists find themselves in.

Years ago on a now-deleted thread on Westeros, Sanderson and I had a discussion about his writing and what I perceived to be flaws in his approach toward developing the characters in Elantris.  I recall Sanderson mentioning that he is more of a prose minimalist, desiring to have the plot and action fill in the "gaps" left by the paucity of description and the brevity of character dialogue.  It was a very productive discussion, one that helped me understand some of what he was attempting to do with his fiction, but it does bear noting that Sanderson has improved on utilizing vignettes to develop his characters.  One particular scene struck me as being representative of Sanderson's progress.  Here Dalinar is talking with his dead brother's widow, a woman he had loved before his brother had discovered her:

Her hand was still on his arm.  She reached out with her safehand and closed the door to the hallway.  He almost stopped her, but he hesitated.  Why?

The door clicked closed.  They were alone.  And she was so beautiful.  Those clever, excitable eyes, alight with passion.

"Navani," Dalinar said, forcing down his desire.  "You're doing it again."  Why did he let her?

"Yes, I am," she said.  "I'm a stubborn woman, Dalinar."  There didn't seem to be any playfulness in her tone.

"This is not proper.  My brother..." He reached for the door to open it again.

"Your brother," Navani spat, expression flashing with anger.  "Why must everyone always focus on him?  Everyone always worries so much about the man who died!  He's not here, Dalinar.  He's gone.  I miss him.  But not half as much as you do, it appears."

"I honor his memory," Dalinar said stiffly, hesitating, hand on the door's latch.

"That's fine!  I'm happy you do.  But it's been six years, and all anyone can see me as is the wife of a dead man.  The other women, they humor me with idle gossip, but they won't let me into their political circles.  They think I'm a relic.  You wanted to know why I came back so quickly?"

"I - "

"I returned,"  she said, "because I have no home.  I'm expected to sit out of important events because my husband is dead!  Lounge around, pampered but ignored.  I make them uncomfortable.  The queen, the other women at court."

"I'm sorry," Dalinar said.  "But I don't - "

She raised her freehand, tapping him on the chest.  "I won't take it from you, Dalinar.  We were friends before I even met Gavilar!  You still know me as me, not some shadow of a dynasty that crumbled years ago.  Don't you?"  She looked at him, pleading.

Blood of my fathers, Dalinar thought with shock.  She's crying.  Two small tears.

He had rarely seen her so sincere.

And so he kissed her. (pp. 861-862)

This scene illustrates Sanderson's development nicely.  Whereas in earlier novels he might have had this just in dialogue and not inserted those small, subtle paralingual clues as to the characters' conflicted emotions, here in The Way of Kings he utilizes them to add depth to the characters.  No longer do the characters feel as though they are sketchy figures blurting out lines that ring hollow because of the lack of character development and scene "color."  The characters on the whole here display a "maturity" of development that was largely lacking in Sanderson's earlier stories and the three main plot arcs benefit tremendously here from this improvement in character sketching and development.

This is not to say that there are not weaknesses in The Way of Kings.  Due to the tripartite plot arcs, these arcs sometimes take hundreds of pages to develop toward anything approaching action.  Each requires its own setting and character development and as a result of the scene switching that takes place every few chapters, the narrative flow at times can feel a bit sluggish, particularly for the first half of this 1000 page novel.  This, however, is largely unavoidable due to the nature of the story and by the 3/4 mark, there is a lot more plot and character movement that makes for a comparatively faster-paced conclusion.  Although considering that this is an opening to a planned ten volume series, perhaps "conclusion" is not the best of words, as there are several intriguing developments that await further exposition and development in future volumes.  In addition, as improved as the characterizations are as a whole, there were still a few places where the character depictions felt a bit false.  I particularly noticed this with Kaladin's arc, as a few of his comments and reactions to events felt a bit too shallow and unsuitable for his character.  Perhaps Sanderson was aiming for more of a Spartacus or Ben-Hur vibe with his "well-to-do youth falls captive, is enslaved, and manages to rise up to fight for dignity" approach to Kaladin's character, but I was unconvinced a few of the times that Kaladin had interactions with others outside of his troop.  There was nothing spectacularly "wrong" with those few scenes, but rather this vague sense that something was "off" in the character and his interactions with his former "superiors."

The Way of Kings is a good, solid epic fantasy opener.  It will not wow its readers with spectacular battle scenes nor with its roguish characters, for that is not the intent of the tale.  It is a fine example of a conventional epic fantasy tale of discovery,  with characters becoming more aware of themselves and their environs.  It does not aim to be anything more than a well-told narrative and for the most part, it succeeds at reminding its readers of the better epic fantasies of the past thirty years or so.  Sometimes, all one wants to read is just a non-experimental tale that presents its conventional elements in an attractive format.  The Way of Kings succeeds at that and it will be an enjoyable read for those readers who desire a well-written "more of the same" rather than something completely novel to them.

P.S.  That is not a limited-edition cover for the novel.  It is a tribute to the sadly-deleted former Amazon page for the book, created years ago due to a miscommunication.  The fake reviews were a riot, and I preserved two here.

It's odd seeing late comers to a party trying to refine that party, no?

I pose that question in my title because that perhaps best explains my puzzlement at seeing several blog articles over the past week or so trying to define what is/was the "New Weird" and trying to identify who writes that.  I suppose I should just supply links to the offending blogs before commencing with a dressdown, so here are the offenders:

Sensawunda (parts one and two)

The World in the Satin Bag

Literary Musings

Now onto the eviscerations.

After reading these four posts, I was left wondering "are these three blind men grabbing elephant parts and trying to make sense of it?" and "why the hell are they talking about an informal "movement" that mostly died off a half-decade or so ago?"  I remember when the actual term "New Weird" began to be discussed wildly, way back in 2002/2003.  It never was a formal movement; just try to name any of the particulars associated with it who ever had a full definition for the work.  If anything, such a term deals as much with conflicts and arguments rather than anything that could be ascertained with any sort of definitive stance.  Some people formerly associated with it pretty much despise the term today, while others have gone from outright objection to being placed under that shredded umbrella to being resigned to being associated with the term.  It seems to me that it is ridiculous for those who didn't witness those arguments or at least researched what was going down during the turn of the century to proclaim with any degree of certainty that authors X and/or Y are parts of the New Weird without at least acknowledging the controversies surrounding their association.

Added to that is the inclusion of some rather odd choices, such as writers (Mervyn Peake in particular) who had been dead for three decades before ever the term "New Weird" was bandied about.  The historical inaccuracies are a bit odd, to say the least.  Just wish more time, care, and research had been taken before some of the assertions made in those linked articles had been made.

That's not to say there aren't some interesting postulations there.  Discussing elements that may be common in the associated New Weird acts is something that is worthwhile.  I just don't know if this is anything more than placing a cart before a horse, considering that the very term "New Weird" perhaps needs to be defined better than what I have seen in those articles.  As someone who is ambivalent to the very term (I often put it in scare quotes) due to the lack of anything common about them in a way that perhaps the chronologically-oriented American Golden Age SF or the Anglo-American New Wave scenes are, I just don't know if there is anything that really can be said other than "the New Weird was a term loosely tied to several American and British writers around the turn of the 21st centuries whose multivariate influences shared a few commonalities in terms of interaction with previous literary and cultural movements."  I am hesitant to call it a "movement," much less a coherent one.  I certainly do not think it is a valid term for the new writers of the past five years or so; too many variations in story, theme, and literary style and influence.

Perhaps others will disagree.  Maybe some will come up with something more than hastily tossed-together authors whose associations lack much in the way of either rhyme or reason.  But until more cogent arguments can be made for the "New Weird" being anything more than an informal series of connections that never coalesced into anything resembling a real literary "movement," I just can't help but to reject the arguments presented in the linked posts above.

Edit:  It was kindly pointed to me that in discussing this, that I failed to mention the anthology The New Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.  Although I had mentioned it in the Twitter discussion that preceded this post, it is a major, major brain fart on my part that I did not note that this anthology does contain not just samples of what usually is accepted as being NW, but it contains an introduction, found online, that discusses the term itself.  So perhaps I should be ready to accept what I might dish out as well?

As for my thoughts on the anthology, I did review it a couple of years ago.  Enjoyed it, agreed with most of the points made, just hesitant on a few others.  But yeah, leaving that out is rather bad and I'd rather just tack on an addendum/mea culpa than edit it in and pretend nothing had been left out unintentionally.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Ward Moore, Bring the Jubilee

I was born, as I say, in 1921, but it was not until the early 1930s, when I was about ten, that I bean to understand what a peculiarly frustrated and disinherited world was about me.  Perhaps my approach to realization was through the crayon portrait of Granpa Hodgins which hung, very solemnly, over the mantel.

Granpa Hodgins, after whom I was named, perhaps a little grandiloquently, Hodgins McCormick Backmaker, had been a veteran of the War of Southron Independence.  Like so many young men he had put on a shapeless blue uniform in response to the call of the ill-advised and headstrong - or martyred - Mr. Lincoln.  Depending on which of my lives' viewpoints you take.

Granpa lost an arm on the Great Retreat to Philadelphia after the fall of Washington to General Lee's victorious Army of Northern Virginia, so his war ended some six months before the capitulation at Reading and the acknowledgment of the independence of the Confederate States on July 4, 1864.  One-armed and embittered, Granpa came home to Wappinger Falls and, like his fellow veterans, tried to remake his life in a different and increasingly hopeless world. (p. 1)

With the possible exception of World War II, the largest number of alt-histories centered around the events and personages of the American Civil War.  What if Lincoln had not been as "headstrong," as many of his detractors had noted?  What if Maryland and Missouri had voted to secede in 1861, cutting off Washington, D.C. and most of the Mississippi River from Union control at the war's outset?  What if Buell had not arrived in time at Pittsburg Landing?  What if "Stonewall" Jackson had not been shot?  What if Lee's general orders had not been rolled up in tobacco and dropped, only to be discovered by Union forces before Antietam?  What if the Confederate forces had occupied the Round Tops at the onset of the crucial Battle of Gettysburg? 

These are the sorts of questions that have haunted historians as well as citizens on both sides of the conflict.  Although, as I said in my earlier review of Keith Roberts' Pavane, I have a professional wariness of alt-histories, sometimes these works, if they revolve around more than just a single person or event, can add something to our understanding of the historical event or era in question.  Ward Moore's 1953 novel, Bring the Jubilee, deserves to be placed in this categorization of rewarding alt-histories.  Its combination of events, trends, and awareness of social dynamics raises it above the level of a mere "what if?" hypothesis, as there are some disturbing elements explored in this work that certainly apply to American society of Ward's time and perhaps for our own as well.

Bring the Jubilee is written in a first-person, pseudo-autobiographical format.  The narrator, the young Hodgins M. Backmaker, born in 1921, narrates life in the defeated Union almost a century after its defeat at the hands of the Confederacy.  As a native Southerner who grew up hearing tales of the "Lost Cause," Moore's transference of the mixture of guilt, anger, and emotional depression from the gutted South to an imagined defeated North rings true.  From the KKK analogue, the Grand Army, to the widespread, deep economic recession that wipes out all of the early proto-industrial developments in the North during the antebellum period, the Civil War, now known as the War of Southron Independence rather than the War of Failed Southern Independence, has come to hold the same level of bitter significance for the Yankees as the Civil War has had in the South in reality. 

Moore also does a very good job extrapolating from the conditions he alters.  From the horrid treatment of African Americans in the Union (comparisons are made in a few places in the text to the Jewish Pogroms of the early 20th century) to the anti-immigration initiatives to the Confederate conquest of Mexico in the late 1860s, these events feel all the more "real" because of how well Moore hints at the root social causes:  scapegoats for the defeat, the need to appease the stronger powers around the shrunken Union, to the desire of the Confederacy to expand in order to preserve its polity and power. 

As strong as Moore's social historical extrapolations might be, some readers may find his narrator to be almost too invisible in the background.  Backmaker, as a historian, serves the narrative point of detailing the alt-history that has unfolded.  He is a witness, not an active participant, for most of the novel.  This narrative "invisibility," while it serves to accentuate Moore's imagining of how events could have unfolded differently, does make it more difficult later on in the novel when Backmaker becomes involved in a physics experiment in the 1950s that ends up with him playing a much more decisive role in the "Jubilee" than what had transpired for the first 80% or so of the novel.  This shift in the narrator's importance to the overall story was a bit abrupt, but yet it does circle back to a part of the introductory chapter that I chose not to quote.

Bring the Jubilee's strengths far outweigh its negatives.  Far from being a simple "what if?" alt-history, it is a well-considered, well-constructed argument for how social attitudes could change in the light of military defeat.  His defeated United States feels very plausible and the related world events around this time fit comfortably with Moore's takes on people, their fears, their desires not to rock the socio-political boat, and so forth.  Although the final two chapters may feel awkward in comparison to the first, Bring the Jubilee certainly is one of the finest alt-histories that I have read, one that is well suited to the "masterworks" label attached to its Gollancz edition.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Keith Roberts, Pavane

On a warm July evening of the year 1588, in the royal palace of Greenwich, London, a woman lay dying, an assassin's bullets lodged in abdomen and chest.  Her face was lined, her teeth blackened, and death lent her no dignity; but her last breath started echoes that ran out to shake a hemisphere.  For the Faery Queen, Elizabeth the First, paramount ruler of England, was no more...

The rage of the English knew no bounds.  A word, a whisper was enough; a half-wit youth, torn by the mob, calling on the blessing of the Pope...The English Catholics, bled white by fines, still mourning the Queen of the Scots, still remembering the gory Rising of the North, were faced with fresh pogroms.  Unwillingly, in self-defence, they took up arms against their countrymen as the flame lit by the Walsingham massacres ran across the land, mingling with the light of warning beacons the sullen glare of the auto-da-fé. (p. vii)

As a historian, particularly one who concentrated on cultural and religious history, I am very wary of any work of alt-history that introduces radical changes from a simple "what if?" scenario.  It is not because I think such speculations are fruitless.  After all, not much would be accomplished in historical studies if such questions were not asked daily of almost everything.  Rather, it is the sense that for many, perhaps for the authors as much as the readers of such alt-histories, there is a distortion that occurs whenever a focus is shifted to a singular person or event.  Unfortunately for me, Larry as Reader, whenever I have to confront these questions of possible historical distortion in a story, Larry as Historian intrudes upon the Reader/Text/Author interpretation triangle, muddying the waters of story analysis.

This certainly was the case with my recent reading of Keith Roberts' 1968 novel, Pavane.  Roberts certainly crafted a stirring beginning, as indicated by the first two paragraphs of his two-page prologue that introduces the vastly-altered 20th century setting.  The year 1588 certainly was a momentous occasion, as some date from it England's rise to international prominence, a position it maintained until the end of World War II.  There certainly were precarious conditions within the country, as Roberts does note, as well as conflicts with Spain and to a lesser extent, France.  But there are a host of other issues, ranging from social divisions that ran deeper than the newly-formed religious factions to the already well-developed sense of English nationalism, that make it difficult for this reader at least to accept that there was a blithe acceptance of the posited Armada conquest and the full and total restoration of the Catholic Church in England.

Sometimes reviewing a work means that the reviewer has to review his or her own biases and attempt to quell them, if they cannot be suspended for the duration of this piece.  For the most part, once I accepted that there was going to be a dissonance between my understanding of history and what Roberts uses as a catalyst for his story, I was resigned to the fact that I would be battling myself in an attempt to enjoy this story and to appreciate what Roberts does accomplish with his six interconnected stories and a brief coda.  Despite my misgivings about the rationale behind such an alt-history and despite my puzzlement over some of the implications of the imagined alt-choices that Roberts highlights, there are things of value within this story.

Most of the action of these stories takes place in the early to mid-20th century.  The Catholic restoration has been in place for nearly four hundred years, not just in England, but also in the formerly Protestant German states.  Technological advancements have mostly been halted, although there are some curious analogues to the Industrial Revolution.  The guild system is still largely intact and the populace has been redivided into ethno-linguistic lines (a restored Norman French, Middle English (!), Modern English, Welsh, Scots, Scottish Gaelic, and Latin are now the languages of Court and People).  There is steam transport, but the use and power of it is heavily regulated.  Learning is concentrated in the hands of the few, and the Papacy has as much influence as in the days of Innocent III.  It is an alien world to us, one that frankly seems unrealistic considering the developments in Catholic countries during the 15th-18th centuries (not to mention that of the Protestant-controlled regions during the same time), but the key to these stories is not to focus so much on the backdrop, but instead on the characters' interactions with this alt-environment. 

Roberts' characters shine in the stories contained within this narrative collection.  With very few characters appearing in more than one story, each of the characters that do appear in these stories typically find themselves confronting the world around them, questioning the order of things and in some cases, wondering about these apparently mystical "old ones" that appear on occasion, hinting at a different reality.  Roberts doesn't rush the telling of these stories; he allows the characters to "breathe" and to express their hopes and fears in such a fashion that the reader becomes more drawn to unraveling those little connections between the stories.  The prose is very well-constructed, as few words are wasted and everything builds up to a strong conclusion in the Coda.   If the reader can accept the plausibility of the narrative overarching the individual tales presented within it, Pavane can feel just like the slow, intricately-constructed dance after which the book is named.

But that is the key issue here.  Can the reader suspend his or her disbelief enough to enjoy the rich tapestry of stories?  For myself, I struggled throughout.  I did appreciate how well Roberts constructed his stories; I just could not accept the premise.  Even with the revelations at the end that overturned some of the conceits found within the linked stories, I found myself thinking far too often "this just is not plausible enough!" for me to gain full enjoyment out of it.  However, this is a highly individualized reaction and I could see for those readers who want well-constructed stories with interesting characters and prose that makes their concerns feel vivid and "alive" where Pavane would be just the sort of story for them.  Recognizing that a work may be a "masterwork" does not mean that one has to "like" it, of course.  For me, Pavane was a book whose merits were partially obscured by my own biases and skepticism about the premise behind the stories contained within it.  Those biases and skepticism were never fully overcome, thus lessening my enjoyment, if not my appreciation, for this work.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Biblical Terror and Other Weird/Punkish Book Porn

Eight books have arrived this week that I think might be of some interest to readers here.  Notice the groovy 1969 cover art for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy edition of Fletcher Pratt's The Blue Star.  I'm looking forward to reading Gail Carriger's third novel in her The Parasol Protectorate series.  Very witty writing.  This sounds intriguing, to say the least.  And a book on fairy tales that arrived today.

Heard some very good things about Robert Irwin, so I thought I'd try his The Arabian Nightmare.  In the middle is a review copy of an October 2010 release, She Naied a Stake Through His Head:  Tales of Biblical Terror.  Intriguing.  And then there's Raymond Queneau's 1940s novel, Saint Glinglin, that seems to be quite promising already a chapter into it.

My tenth translation/edition of one of my favorite stories arrived today.  Now I have French, English, Spanish, Latin, German, Catalan, Italian, Serbian, Hungarian, and Portuguese editions of The Little Prince, second only to my collection of Bibles in various languages.  Oh, and there's this steampunkish anthology that arrived a couple of days ago.  Anyone think it is worth reading?

So...which one of these books seems to be the "weirdest" to you?  Which one(s) would you most like to read?

H.G. Wells, The First Men in the Moon

As I sit down to write here amidst the shadows of vine-leaves under the blue sky of Southern Italy it comes to me with a certain quality of astonishment that my participation in these amazing adventures of Mr. Cavor was, after all, the outcome of the purest accident.  It might have been anyone.  I fell into these things at a time when I thought myself removed from the slightest possibility of disturbing experiences.  I had gone to Lympne because I had imagined it the most uneventful place in the world.  "Here at any rare," said I, "I shall find peace and a chance to work!"

And this book is the sequel.  So utterly at variance is Destiny with all the little plans of men.

I may perhaps mention here that very recently I had come an ugly cropper in certain business enterprises.  At the present moment, surrounded by all the circumstances of wealth, there is a luxury in admitting my extremity.  I can even admit that to a certain extent my disasters were conceivably of my own making.  It may be there are directions in which I have some capacity; the conduct of business operations is not among these.  But in those days I was young, and my youth, among other objectionable forms, took that of a pride in my capacity for affairs.  I am young still in years, but the things that have happened to me have rubbed something of the youth from my mind.  Whether they have brought any wisdom to light below it, is a more doubtful matter. (p. 1)

Ask most readers to identify works that H.G. Wells, and almost all will respond with The Time Machine or The War of the Worlds.  Quite a few might also respond with The Island of Dr. Moreau or perhaps even The Food of the Gods, but chances are slim that among the first books named would be his 1901 novel The First Men in the Moon.  There are likely several reasons for this.  First, it may be that this novel doesn't quite have the gravitas of his more well-renowned works, although this belief is belied by several passages in this short novel.  Second, there might not quite be the memorable scenes on par with those in his more famous works, although some might argue that the scenes with the heroes among the Selenites are certainly vivid.  If anything may account for The First Men in the Moon's relative anonymity, it may be simply that it was conceived as a satire and while Wells added elements of an adventure story to it, the tale's heart is a satire of 19th century SF and of certain dominant social attitudes at the time.

The First Men in the Moon reads like a pastiche of two of Jules Vernes' most famous works, From the Earth to the Moon and Journey to the Center of the Earth.  From the rather elevated language employed to introduce the work and to create a sense that this is a retrospective account rather than anything that would contain anything "threatening" to the characters to the mixture of the plausible and the ridiculous to explain how the protagonists manage to reach such fantastical places, there is certainly an echo of Verne's fiction in this book.  If anything, Wells takes such qualities and ramps up the pseudo-scientific elements to nearly ridiculous levels.  For much of the novel, the story borders on slipping from a satire of these late 19th century adventure/SF novels into the realm of a parody, or rather a weak attempt at a parody.  Bedford (the narrator) and Cavor (the scientist-leader) really do not come into their own until they come in contact with the underground Selenite population. 

The Selenites, whose insectoid bodies and alien cultures are so baffling to the intrepid explorers, signal the shift of the story toward something a bit more serious, as he begins to focus much more on people, their dreams and aspirations, as well as how easily their fears and superstitions can poison attempts to understand foreign ideas and cultures.  Written during the worst part of the Boer War in South Africa, much of the conflict that dominates the latter half of the novel references conflicts such as that while spoofing and undermining the concepts found in the first Edisonaides and other such thinly-disguised attempts to glorify the imperialist ambitions of that era.  Toward the end of the novel, all of this is summarized in a dialogue between Bedford and Phi-oo, the leader of the Selenites:

'You mean to say,' he asked, seeking confirmation, 'that you run about over the surface of your world - this world, whose riches you have scarcely begun to scrape - killing one another for beasts to eat?'

"I told him that was perfectly correct.

"He asked for particulars to assist his imagination.  'But do not your ships and your poor little cities get injured?' he asked and I found the waste of property and conveniences seemed to impress upon him almost as much as the killing.  'Tell me more,' said the Grand Lunar; 'make me see pictures.  I cannot conceive these things.'

"And so, for a space, though something loth, I told him the story of earthly War.

"I told him of the first orders and ceremonies of war, of warnings and ultimatums, and the marshalling and marching of troops.  I gave him an idea of manœuvres and positions and battle joined.  I told him of sieges and assaults, of starvation and hardship in trenches, and of sentinels freezing in the snow.  I told him of routs and surprises, and desperate last stands and faint hopes, and the pitiless pursuit of fugitives and the dead upon the field.  I told, too, of the past, of invasions and massacres, of the Huns and Tartars, and the wars of Mahomet and the Caliphs and the Crusades.  And as I went on, and Phi-oo translated, the Selenites cooed and murmured in a steadily intensified emotion.

"I told them an ironclad could fire a shot of a ton twelve miles, and go through twenty feet of iron =- and how we could steer torpedoes under water.  I went on to describe a Maxim gun in action and what I could imagine of the Battle of Colenso.  The Grand Lunar was so incredulous that he interrupted the translation of what I had said in order to have my verification of my account.  They particularly doubted my description of the men cheering and rejoicing as they went into battle.

"'But surely they do not like it!' translated Phi-oo.

"I assured them men of my race considered battle the most glorious experience of life, at which the whole assembly was stricken with amazement.

"'But what good is this war?' asked the Grand Lunar, sticking to his theme.

"'Oh!  as for good!', said I, 'it thins the population!'

"'But why should there be a need -?'

"There came a pause, the cooling sprays impinged upon his brow, and then he spoken again." (p. 158)

It is Wells' treatment of these scenes, not just in this particular moment but elsewhere as well, that elevates this novel from being just a parody and into a satire that not only has pointed things to say about early 20th century goals and aspirations, but something for us a century later, as sometimes we dream more of acquiring and seizing, by violence if necessary, than we do about learning how to live in brotherhood.  Although this sort of message is not an easy one to read (some may lament that it is "too preachy" or "too hippy-drippy"), it is one that Wells executes fairly well in this novel.  But social satires, particularly of beloved classics, as Verne's novels had already become by 1901, are not as well-liked as straight-up adventure tales and it is perhaps for this reason alone that The First Men in the Moon is not as well-known as many of Wells' other novels. 

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Lucius Shepard, Life During Wartime

One of the new Sikorsky gunships, an element of the First Air Cavalry with the words Whispering Death painted on its side, gave Mingolla and Gilbey and Baylor a lift from the Ant Farm to San Francisco de Juticlan, a small town located inside the green zone, which on the latest maps was designated Free Occupied Guatemala.  To the east of this green zone lay an undesignated band of yellow that crossed the country from the Mexican border to the Caribbean.  The Ant Farm was a firebase on the eastern edge of the yellow band, and it was from there that Mingolla - an artillery specialist not yet twenty-one years old - lobbed shells into an area that the maps depicted in black-and-white terrain markings.  And thus it was that he often thought of himself as engaged in a struggle to keep the world safe for primary colors.

Mingolla and his buddies could have taken their R and R in Rio or Caracas, but they had noticed that the men who visited these cities had a tendency to grow careless upon their return; they understood from this that the more exuberant your R and R, the more likely you were to end up a casualty, and so they always opted for the lesser distractions of the Guatemalan towns.  They were not really friends; they had little in common, and under different circumstances they might well have been enemies.  But taking their R and R together had come to be a ritual of survival, and once they had reached the town of their choice, they would go their separate ways and perform further rituals.  Because the three had survived so much already, they believed that if they continued to perform these same rituals they would complete heir tours unscathed.  They had never acknowledged their belief to one another, speaking of it only obliquely - that, too, was part of the ritual - and had this belief been challenged they would have admitted its irrationality; yet they would also have pointed out that the strange character of the war acted to enforce it. (pp. 1-2)

The 1980s were a strange time for the American people.  The country was still smarting over its failures in Vietnam and views of war and its purposes were perhaps the bleakest ever in American history.  Several movies about the Vietnam experience and its effects on the soldiers were made, ranging from anti-war movies such as the Ron Kovacs' autobiographical story, Born on the Fourth of July, to the Rambo movies to the Missing in Action movie series.  There were also TV shows such as The A-Team that referenced the war and the indignities that the returning soldiers experienced obliquely.  During this time, the American government continued to be engaged in covert operations in Central and South America to prop up anti-Communist forces in Chile, Colombia, Nicaragua, and perhaps most tragically, in El Salvador, which suffered from a thirteen year civil war from 1979 to 1992.  Several novels, realist and alt-historical alike, were written about these conflicts and the psychological traumas that they inflicted upon soldiers and civilians alike.  One of the strongest portrayals of this period and its mindset is Lucius Shepard's 1987 classic, Life During Wartime, which combines the psychological elements of Apocalypse Now with a close look at the small-scale wars in Latin America that perhaps can be viewed as the forerunners for today's conflicts.

Above is a quote taken from the book's introduction.  Shepard immediately removes the reader from his or her comfortable setting and places them in the midst of a conflict that has already embittered and stressed the combatants.  Notice how there are only last names given; no first names nor ranks.  There is a sense of superstitious cynicism about Mingolla and his two companions.  They are together only because they are forced together, and yet that force is not anything formal or commanded, but is an ad hoc reaction to what they have witnessed.  Already there are nicknames for locales - the Ant Farm could as well be Hamburger hill - and there is a tension present, as if at any moment the soldiers might snap.  Shepard sets the stage here for an insightful look at brutality, but he takes it further than what a contemporary war novelist might have written.

Mingolla, whose pre-war life is barely touched upon (he was a high school athlete who entered the military after graduating from high school) except to provide contrasts for his future development, is soon tested for an experimental new army group, the PsiCorps, a group of soldiers who, with the right drugs and training, are able to use their minds to influence thoughts and actions of those who are not gifted with this ability.  As seen in one early scene, this power disconcerts him:

The Cuban eased toward Mingolla's door, his progress tangible, like a burning match moving behind a sheet of paper.  Mingolla's calm was shattered.  The man's heat, his fleshy temperature, was what disturbed him.  He had imagined himself killing with a cinematic swiftness and lack of mess; now he thought of hogs being butchered and pile drivers smashing the skulls of cows.  And could he trust this freakish form of perception?  What if he couldn't?  What if he stabbed too late?  Too soon?  Then the hot, alive thing was almost at the door, and having no choice, Mingolla timed his attack to its movement,s stabbing just as the Cuban entered.

He executed perfectly. (p. 52)

Shepard's use of limited third-person perspective to show just what was happening to Mingolla during his development is superb.  Mingolla's thoughts, his reactions, all of this feels "natural" and not too rushed or too explicit.  Shepard integrates well the psychic training that Mingolla has received with the harsh brutality of the Guatemalan jungle warfare that is occurring between the American-led forces and the Cuban/Communist opponents.  But before the reader begins to think that this will settle into a sort of psychic/psychological game of cat-and-mouse, Shepard introduces a wild card:  the mysterious woman named Deborah, who may be a spy for the Sombra group, the counterparts to PsiCorps.  Shepard easily could have made Deborah into a sort of Bond seductress, but in one key scene about halfway into the novel, he shows the other side of the conflicts that Mingolla and others have been experiencing during the jungle campaign, one that is at least as brutal as anything the soldiers have undergone:

"Maybe I should tell," she said.  "Maybe it'll explain why I was so reticent with you at first."

"Back in Emerald?"

" see there were a lot of reasons I didn't want to get involved with you like this, and one was I was afraid it wouldn't be any good between us."

"You mean sex?"

She nodded.  "It hadn't ever been good for me, and I thought nothing could change that, not even being in love.  But it is good, and I keep getting scared it won't last."


"Because it's so perfect...the way you fit me, how you touch me.  And everything before was so imperfect."  She turned away as if embarrassed.  "When they brought us in for interrogation...the government..."

"Your family?"

"Yes.  She let out a sigh.  "Why they brought us in, I knew they'd rape me.  That's what they always do.  I prepared for it, and every day that passed, every day it didn't happen.  I grew more afraid.  I thought they must be saving me for something special, some special horror."  (p. 266)
Rather than just simply continued, tortuous rape, the Communist regime has something even more nefarious in mind with this delay and the subsequent raising of hope:

"I was beginning to think the major just wanted me to sit there and look nice.  Then about two o'clock he came to his door and said, 'Debora, I need you now.'  Just the way he'd ask a secretary in to take dictation, just that offhanded tone.  I went into the office, and he told me to take off my underwear.  Still very polite.  Smiling.  I was afraid, but like I said, I'd prepared for this, and so I did what he asked.  He told me to get down on my hands and knees beside the desk.  I did that, too.  I shed a few tears, i remember, but I managed to stop them.  He pulled out a tube from his drawer, some kind of jelly, and...and he lubricated me.  That was almost the worst part.  And then he dropped his trousers and came inside me from behind, the way you..."

"I'm sorry;" said Mingola.  "I didn't..."

"No, no!"  Debora's hands fluttered in the dark, found his face, cupped it.  "Sometimes I wanted you to do that, but..."  She sighed again. (p. 267)

Shepard manages to navigate between the treacheries of being too casual with such a scene and overplaying the brutality of the repeated rapes Debora had to endure before she would accept her training as a psychic agent.  Debora's inhumane treatment, underscored by the sheer callousness of the major's hum-drum approach to degrading her by utilizing sex as just another manipulative tool, contrasts nicely with the character development of Mingolla and certain other characters in the first half or so of the novel.  These vivid scenes serve not just to develop the mood, but to further the plot, until the narrative tensions builds to a crescendo that comes crashing down in a finale that lives up to the promise of the slow psychological buildup.

Life During Wartime is one of the best psychological SF stories that I have read.  Shepard's prose is outstanding through.  His characters feel "real" and their traumas, subtle and obvious alike, are woven into a taut plot that furthers its thematic exploration of war and the traumas inflicted by it.  There are very few weak points to discuss, if any.  Perhaps a character's arc could have been furthered a slight bit further, but it would be at best quibbling over what really is an outstanding work of fiction.  Highly recommended.

Perspectives, namely those in that rat's cage called review blogging

Been thinking a bit about perspective and its limitations ever since I began writing this morning my review of Christopher Priest's Inverted World for the SFF Masterworks blog.  Perspective is an essential element in our lives; it allows us to gauge the benignity or malicious of everything around us.  However, perspective is a limited entity and our perspectives are often skewed.  Sometimes, it's our endocrines that skew them (we get pissed more easily when the endocrines are high, or we jump at the smallest sounds).  Other times, perspectives can be skewed by our educational disparities, our upbringings, cultural differences, etc.

The same applies to discussing literature of all forms and stripes.  Sometimes, we just don't know what we know and we think we know more than what we really know (and yes, I realize that sounds like something Donald Rumsfeld might have said about the situation in Iraq several years ago).  But yet we often make the mistake of presuming that our perspective is the "privileged" one, that others who disparage our opinions are somehow wrong.  Sometimes, you get silly little spats like this one that broke out today over at the Speculative Scotsman.  I say "silly" because of several competing beliefs as to the "inferiority" and/or "superiority" of what amounts to modes of literary expression.  I say "little" because in the grand scheme of life, or even in the much smaller world of reading and interacting with a literary composition, it is tinier than a squirrel's turd (yes, my obligatory squirrel reference for this post).

I don't trust myself enough to remember when to carry out the trash, so why should I trust myself to have a godlike perspective on any subject?  Fallibility is a very human trait (errare humanum est and all that) and whenever I read long thread comments like that, I envision a sort of 24 hour news channel take on opinion discussing:  a bunch of people shouting at cross purposes, with no attempt at conflict resolution.  Much better to just laugh it off and take a deep breath, maybe go for a walk, rather than to continue to perpetuate blather.

Another, much less serious issue related to perspective is a curious interview that Aidan Moher did with Jeff VanderMeer recently.  Although on the whole I found the interview to be entertaining, there were times that it felt as though Aidan asked some rather strange questions.  For instance, there are several references to me in there.  While I suppose I could be flattered by being considered important enough to have things I said raised in interviews with established, acclaimed writers, for those wanting to know what VanderMeer had to say about his writings and his editorial projects, questions about what an online reviewer and erstwhile anthology editor had to say about anything is rather odd.  I'm not that important, nor are a lot of the things I have to say going to be interesting to those who want to hear about the author's own opinions.  Sometimes that happens, though.  Online bloggers read something that interests them and they sometimes assume that would be interesting to an audience much larger than their own. 

It certainly is an insidious thing, believing that our Lilliputian matters are much larger than what they are.  Sometimes, it just might be better to assume that you're wrong until you can prove to some that you are maybe only partially wrong.  Even that skirts close to perception warping.  Maybe just doubting that anything is as vital as it might seem will just have to suffice for now.  Pardon me while I worry about this baby squirrel that fell out of a tree near the house.  I worry that it might be dead.  That is more important at the moment than arguing over the qualities of various literary modes.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

New site's first awards polling for best 2009-2010 fiction

Tuesday will mark the one-year anniversary since the large wotmania fansite shut down.  In the interim, a successor, more general fantasy/other writing site, Read and Find Out, sprang up.  Although I am not a moderator/administrator at that site like I was for wotmania's Other Fantasy section, I still participate there on occasion, sometimes raising a bit of hell just for the hell of it.  But this time, I'm just blogging about the site's first annual awards for fiction released in the 12 months since the site opened.  I nominated several of the books that appear on the final ballot and I think it would be interesting to see how people who read this blog would vote.

I'll list most of the entries below (I'm deleting the site-specific ones, even one that includes me, because I think it would have little interest to most reading this) and you can either register over there (it's free and takes all of about 30 seconds) and submit your responses in response to the thread linked to above, or you can just "vote" here and I'll be sure to let those in charge over there know what people chose.  It might be interesting to see if there is a difference in voting and that could be helpful for the people running the site (obviously, they don't mind me posting this, or else I would have used more faux-revolutionary language in this post about rising up and...something and something), so just vote in a Top 3 fashion and let's see what the people at this blog choose.

Oh, and you can forward this along to others as well, if you yourself want to stir up a bit of trouble, I suppose...

Voting will close at midnight RAFO time (currently British summer time, if you're not sure) on Sunday/Monday coming (that's 29/30 August, depending on how you look at things).

So here they are, the nominations for our inaugural Book & SF/F MB Awards.

You can vote for up to three books, with your first place vote counting as 3 points, second place as 2 and third place as 1. If you vote for fewer than three books, your vote is obviously counted as a first place, or first and second place, vote.

RAFO Book Awards:

* Book of the RAFO Year
Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson ~ The Gathering Storm
Jeff VanderMeer ~ Finch
A.S. Byatt ~ The Children's Book
Caitlín Kiernan ~ The Red Tree
Elizabeth Bear ~ By the Mountain Bound
Laini Taylor ~ Lips Touch: Three Times
Mike Allen, ed. ~ Clockwork Phoenix: New Tales of Beauty and Strangeness
Kristin Cashore ~ Fire
N.K. Jemisin ~ The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

* Best Fantasy
Robin Hobb ~ Dragon Haven
Jeff VanderMeer ~ Finch
Zoran Živković ~ Escher's Loops
Michal Ajvaz ~ The Golden Age
Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson ~ The Gathering Storm
Elizabeth Bear ~ By the Mountain Bound
Laini Taylor ~ Lips Touch: Three Times
Mike Allen, ed. ~ Clockwork Phoenix: New Tales of Beauty and Strangeness
Kristin Cashore ~ Fire
N.K. Jemisin ~ The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

* Best Sci-Fi
Caitlín Kiernan ~ The Red Tree
Cherie Priest ~ Boneshaker
Michal Ajvaz ~ The Other City
Elizabeth Bear ~ Chill
Paolo Bacigalupi ~ The Windup Girl

* Best Other Literature (basically, all the other genres)
AS Byatt ~ The Children's Book
Terrence Holt ~ In the Valley of the Kings (collection)
Paul Auster ~ Invisible

* Best Non-fiction
Stephen T. Asma, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears
Umberto Eco, The Infinity of Lists/The Vertigo of Lists
Mark Bould and China Miéville (eds.), Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction

* Best author blog/twitter
Stephen Fry
Nick Harkaway
Brandon Sanderson

* Most anticipated book (as of yet unpublished)
Nick Harkaway's new book
Second volume of Stephen Fry's autobiography
Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson ~ A Memory of Light
Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (eds.) ~ The Weird: A Compendium of Dark and Strange Fictions
Catherynne M. Valente ~ Deathless
Lyda Morehouse ~ Resurrection Code
Lois McMaster Bujold ~ Cryoburn
C.S. Friedman ~ Legacy of Kings - (the conclusion to the Magister Trilogy)
Elizabeth Bear ~ The Sea Thy Mistress (conclusion to the Edda of Burdens trilogy)
Elizabeth Bear ~ Grail
N.K. Jemisin ~ Broken Kingdoms
Catherine Asaro ~ Carnelians
Janny Wurts ~ Initiate's Trial

Carlos Gardini, Tríptico de Trinidad

Tierra seca, aire polvoriento, piedras desmoronadas.

La tierra crujía bajo sus pies, el aire le quemaba los pulmones, las piedras le entorpecian la marcha.  El mayoral Séptimo perseguía a los ejotes entre las ruinas de Pampa del Desamparo.

En el cielo encapotado, el Arco de Urania vibraba a la luz de los relámpagos.  Las convulsiones del cielo se reflejaban en el camafeo profético que el mayoral llevaba colgado del cuello.  Sin detenerse, Séptimo alzó el camafeo, miró los caracteres labrados. (p. 11)

Dry earth, dusty air, crumbling rocks.

The earth crunched under his feet, the air burned his lungs, the rocks obstructed his movement.  The shepherd Séptimo sought after string beans among the ruins of the Plain of Abandonment.

In the cloudy sky, the Arc of Uranus vibrated to the light of the lightning flashes.  The sky's convulsions were reflected in the prophetic cameo that the shepherd wore hanging from his neck.  Without stopping, Séptimo lifted up the cameo, looking at the embroidered characters.

This beginning to Argentine writer Carlos Gardini's most recent novel, Tríptico de Trinidad, is emblematic of his narrative approach.  Divided into three sections, Gardini utilizes series of three, in his construction of scenes, in his cosmology, and in his characterizations, to create a narrative effect that resonates as the story progresses.  From the very beginning of this book until its conclusion 261 pages later, I found myself being drawn in by Gardini's rhythmic prose.

Gardini has won several Spanish-language awards, including the UPC for short fiction twice, over his career and in this 2010 novel, he displays a mastery of prose and theme that few authors have managed to achieve in any language.  The story is, on the surface, a rather simple one:  The leader of the city of Trinidad, the Ducásima (a mage and visionary who protects the laws and soul of the city), has been poisoned.  The Axis of the World is in danger.  From the search for the antidote for this poison, the story blossoms into a reflection of the nature of the world created and an exploration into the motives found within us.

As I note above, there is a lot of symbolism that surrounds the number three.  Gardini does an outstanding job exploring the cosmology of this Trinidad setting, questioning not just how and why there is a divine-like figure, but also on how societies are organized, how people interact, and how we view the world surrounding us.  There are many odd adventures that befall the characters involved in this quest for the antidote.  Although some may lament that these characters are not "well-developed," it appears that Gardini purposely keeps them at a near tabula rasa level in order to accentuate the dissonance that exists in several of the scenes.  In particular, I enjoyed the scenes involving the catechumens and the themes regarding religion and belief that Gardini explores there.  It is not a typical fantasy quest adventure, where the heroes seek an object.  Here, it seems the quest itself serves as a realized metaphor for how we humans seek to establish order and to create systems of understanding for the wild, chaotic world around us.  Although there are times that these thematic explorations get a little confusing, on the whole, I found myself entranced by the story.

I would cite more of Gardini's prose to show how he uses tripartite symbolism to drive this story, but there is much lost in translation, unfortunately.  But perhaps this one little chapter opener, for the 17th chapter, might underscore this point:

Basilisca habla, Séptimo escucha, Ostremón mira los frisos de la sala conciliar. (p. 117)

Basilisca speaks, Séptimo listens, Ostremón looks at the friezes of the conciliar room.
There is almost a chant-like rhythm to passages like this and Gardini employs this to great effect later in the novel.  This creates a greater awareness of the philosophical and cosmological questions that are being raised throughout this novel.  This greater awareness in turn causes the reader to focus not just on the story at hand, but the underlying motives behind the story.  Gardini's poetic repetitions thus serve to create a sort of ripple effect through the narrative, as little scenes end up being magnified due to how they are presented and this in turn adds a gravity to the work that would otherwise be lacking if it were told in a more conventional fashion.

It is very difficult to discuss this novel without wanting to devote thousands of words to its themes and their applications throughout the text.  Constrained by the limitations of reviews as opposed to literary critiques, I find myself circling around the edges of this book here in this review.  Not wanting to "spoil" the reading experience for those bilingual readers such as myself who may be curious about a "deep" fantasy work, all I can say is that Gardini is an extremely talented writer who has created one of the deepest, most philosophical fantasy novels that I have ever read in any language.  There are no real good comparisons to what he has accomplished here.  Perhaps I could cite some of Gene Wolfe's works, but those are more oblique references to human cosmologies than what Gardini has written here.  In less than 300 pages, he constructs a vivid setting, introduces some intriguing conflicts, and then tops it off with a conclusion that has the reader wanting to re-read the entire book in light of what is revealed.  If that is not a strong testimony to what Gardini has accomplished here, then I would be hard pressed to think of anything better to describe this outstanding novel. 

Today is the OF Blog's 6th Anniversary

After nearly 1500 posts and hundreds of thousands of visits and close to a million page views according to one of several stat counters I check for amusement's sake, it's that time on Sprockets vhere ve dance...

Oh, and to see how far this blog has come, see the quasi-mission statement in the first post back in 2004!

Expect a few more posts later today, but for now, just a simple announcement/celebration is needed.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Who is this writer?

Quotes from the introduction to a famous book, with slight edits in order to remove the author's identity:

"These books baffled contemporary critics who were used to the conventions of realist fiction."

"They were particularly critical of the language used in the books."

One critic wrote "that the quasi-archaic vocabulary was 'only preserved from general derision by the author's evident and pathetic conviction that he is doing the right thing.'"

This author said that his works "should not be read as allegories."

And this author is "now rightly acknowledged as 'the man who invented fantasy.'"

Have any idea who this author might be?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Fábio Fernandes, Os Dias da Peste

According to many, we exist today on the threshold of a "singularity" event, where advances in technology and how we relate to that technology will become so rapid and so widespread that in a matter of decades, some believe, human life itself may change so profoundly as to make it impossible for a person living today to understand an individual born fifty years from now.  Our perspectives, our "grounding points" for understanding our evolving world, all of that will change so completely as to make it as difficult to comprehend past and present as it would be for homo habilis to understand Snooki from Jersey Shore

OK, maybe it'll be more difficult than that, but there are those who believe that we may be on the cusp of developing true artificial intelligences.  How would these intelligences develop?  What about the advances in computer hacking, in computer viruses and "worms"?  What if instead of a world where a technological Garden of Eden may be emerging, what if we were instead living in the days of a new Plague?

These latter questions are addressed in Brazilian writer Fábio Fernandes' Os Dias da Peste (or [In]The Days of the Plague in English), which was released in Brazil in late 2009.  It is the story, told via Artur Mattos' journals, blog entries, and podcasts over a span of six years (2010-2016), of not just how the first AIs evolved, but also about our ragged and sometimes self-destructive interaction with technology.  In these dozens of entries spread over 183 pages, Fernandes explores how intertwined we have become with our technologies.  In a world where social networking has exploded over the past five years (after all, there will be several readers from around the globe who will recognize the name "Snooki" and have some concept of that person), problems do develop as much as wonderful solutions to the age-old problems of distance, language, and cultural barriers.  Artur expounds upon these problems, such as viruses, trolls, and the limitations of communication, in several of his entries, many of which are insightful and which felt more akin to personal essays than a fictional monologue recorded on a blog or podcast.  In reading several of these entries, I was reminded, not altogether favorably, of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, with its misanthropic character who questions the nature of the emerging society, although Fernandes' Artur is more sociable and the critiques here differ from those of that great Russian short novel.

I raise this comparison not to praise or to condemn Fernandes' story, but to note that Artur is such an odd character (compounded by the utilization of blog/podcast-type versions of chapters) that at times it is difficult to connect with him.  There were several times, especially when Artur was listing literally dozens of prominent philosophers and late 20th/early 21st century SF writers, that it felt more that Fernandes was just tossing in names to create an illusion of depth rather than trusting in Artur's character to develop those connections with societal concerns that the authors cited expressed in their writings.  Unfortunately, there were several times in the reading of Os Dias da Peste where the narrative flow grinds to a halt while the reader processes paragraphs-long citations of Artur's (and perhaps Fernandes') favorite authors.

In feel, if not so much in the actual dialogue, I was reminded of some of the earlier cyberpunk novels, which is not a surprise, considering Fernandes' background in translating of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.  This novel is not a straight-up updating of that narrative mode's concerns, although there are a few elements, particularly in the more direct discussions of how technology and human cultures have merged, where there is a sense of kinship to say a Neuromancer or SchismatrixOs Dias da Peste also shares with these novels a sense of hesitancy over the direction that we are taking, that perhaps with the coming technological glories there may also lurk a Trojan Horse of new ills that may spoil everything.  Fernandes explores this sense of unease in Artur's writings, but he wisely leaves things hanging in his conclusion to the novel.

On the whole, Os Dias da Peste is a flawed novel.  Although Artur was an interesting character, there were times that he seemed to "disappear" too much into the subject material of several of his entries.  As noted above, there were times that the narrative flow was interrupted by the rather too copious citations of American (in this sense, mostly from the US, but a few from Brazil and Argentina) SF literature, some of which contained surprising errors (such as citing Cory Doctorow as a US writer, rather than a Canadian one).  I sometimes had the impression that Fernandes did not "trust the story" as much as he perhaps should have, as there are several promising sections that do hint at a great novel.  But on the whole, I felt as if there were a semi-opaque barrier between what I grasped and what I sensed the story was moving toward.  Perhaps the language barrier could be behind some of this (although my understanding of written Portuguese is near that of my knowledge of Spanish now), but I believe this "barrier" deals more with the perceived flaws with the story execution than anything else.  Os Dias da Peste thus is a novel that contains some interesting ideas, but its flawed execution of those ideas make it less than the excellent novel it could have been.  I would recommend it for those who enjoy cyberpunk and more "hard" SF literature if it were available in English, but my recommendation cannot be as effusive as I wish it could have been.

Ray Bradbury turns 90 today

Hard to believe it's been almost 25 years since my grandmother gave me a 1957 Book Club edition of The Martian Chronicles, but for most of my life, I've been a fan of Bradbury's writings, even if I have yet to review one here at this blog.  But yeah, I thought I'd just post a little bit about it to see who else is a fan of this.  And speaking of fans of his work...

I'm not as much of a fan as Rachel Bloom seems to be, though.  Although it must be noted that she really is a fan of his works as well and this video apparently was intended to be a sort of v-card for him.  Rumor is that Bradbury did indeed enjoy this umm..."love video" quite a bit.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Ballantine Adult Fantasy series

Now that I've completed reading all 50 books on the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks series (although I do plan on re-reading some in order to have reviews of all 50 by mid-2011), I went looking for a similar publisher's list to see if there was anything similar in scope.  Sure enough, I found the 1960s-1970s Ballantine Adult Fantasy series of releases and re-releases, most of them edited by Lin Carter.  I noticed that while there was some overlap, it was not too large, plus it contained several books that I thought were high quality stories.  So now I have a new reading challenge that combined with the Gollancz SF Masterworks and the re-reads/reviews of the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks, should keep me occupied through at least the end of 2011, if not 2012 and the coming of the Mayas or Nostradamus' worldwide-killing trumpet blast or something.

Below are actually two lists:  one done just before Carter's arrival and some lacking the unicorn symbol that was associated with the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, and one containing books selected by him.  As usual, bold for own/read, italics for own/not read, and plain for those I don't own/haven't read.

Series Preface (pre-Carter)

THE HOBBIT, J.R.R. Tolkien. August, 1965.
THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, J.R.R. Tolkien. October, 1965.
THE TWO TOWERS, J.R.R. Tolkien. October, 1965.
THE RETURN OF THE KING, J.R.R. Tolkien. December, 1965.
THE TOLKIEN READER, J.R.R. Tolkien. September, 1966.
THE WORM OUROBOROS, E.R. Eddison. April, 1967.
MISTRESS OF MISTRESSES, E.R. Eddison. August, 1967.

A FISH DINNER IN MEMISON, E.R. Eddison. February, 1968.
THE ROAD GOES EVER ON, J.R.R. Tolkien & Donald Swann. October, 1968.
TITUS GROAN, Mervyn Peake. October, 1968.
GORMENGHAST, Mervyn Peake. October, 1968.
TITUS ALONE, Mervyn Peake. October, 1968.
A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS, David Lindsay. November, 1968.
THE LAST UNICORN, Peter S. Beagle. February, 1969.

THE MEZENTIAN GATE, E.R. Eddison. April, 1969.

Series Proper


1. THE BLUE STAR, Fletcher Pratt. May.
3. THE WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD, William Morris. July.
4. THE SILVER STALLION, James Branch Cabell. August.
5. LILITH, George Macdonald. September.
6. DRAGONS, ELVES, AND HEROES, Lin Carter, ed. October.
7. THE YOUNG MAGICIANS, Lin Carter, ed. October.
8. FIGURES OF EARTH, James Branch Cabell. November.
9. THE SORCERER'S SHIP, Hannes Bok. December.


10. LAND OF UNREASON, Fletcher Pratt & L. Sprague de Camp. January.
11. THE HIGH PLACE, James Branch Cabell. February.
12. LUD-IN-THE-MIST, Hope Mirrlees. March.
13. AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, Lord Dunsany. March.
14. PHANTASTES, George Macdonald. April.
16. ZOTHIQUE, Clark Ashton Smith. June.

17. THE SHAVING OF SHAGPAT, George Meredith. July.
18. THE ISLAND OF THE MIGHTY, Evangeline Walton. July.
19. DERYNI RISING, Katherine Kurtz. August.
20. THE WELL AT THE WORLD'S END, Vol. 1, William Morris. August.
21. THE WELL AT THE WORLD'S END, Vol. 2, William Morris. September.

22. GOLDEN CITIES, FAR, Lin Carter, ed. October.
23. BEYOND THE GOLDEN STAIR, Hannes Bok. November.


24. THE BROKEN SWORD, Poul Anderson. January.
25. THE BOATS OF THE `GLEN CARRIG', William Hope Hodgson. February.

26. THE DOOM THAT CAME TO SARNATH, H.P. Lovecraft. February.
27. SOMETHING ABOUT EVE, James Branch Cabell. March.
29. HYPERBOREA, Clark Ashton Smith. April.
31. VATHEK, William Beckford. June.
32. THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY, G.K. Chesterton. July.
33. THE CHILDREN OF LLYR, Evangeline Walton. August.

34. THE CREAM OF THE JEST, James Branch Cabell. September.
35. NEW WORLDS FOR OLD, Lin Carter, ed. September.
36. THE SPAWN OF CTHULHU, Lin Carter, ed. October.
37. DOUBLE PHOENIX, Edmund Cooper & Lancelyn Green. November.
38. THE WATER OF THE WONDEROUS ISLES, William Morris. November.
39. KHALED, F. Marion Crawford. December.


40. THE WORLD'S DESIRE, H. Rider Haggard & Andrew Lang. January.
41. XICCARPH, Clark Ashton Smith. February.
42. THE LOST CONTINENT, C.J. Cutcliffe-Hyne. February.
43. DISCOVERIES IN FANTASY, Lin Carter, ed. March.
44. DOMNEI, James Branch Cabell. March.
45. KAI LUNG'S GOLDEN HOURS, Ernest Bramah. April.
46. DERYNI CHECKMATE, Katherine Kurtz. May.
47. BEYOND THE FIELDS WE KNOW, Lord Dunsany. May.
48. THE THREE IMPOSTERS, Arthur Machen. June.
49. THE NIGHT LAND, Vol. 1, William Hope Hodgson. July.
50. THE NIGHT LAND, Vol. 2, William Hope Hodgson. July.

51. THE SONG OF RHIANNON, Evangeline Walton. August.
52. GREAT SHORT NOVELS OF ADULT FANTASY #1, Lin Carter, ed. September.
53. EVENOR, George Macdonald. November.


54. ORLANDO FURIOSO: The Ring of Angelica, Volume 1, Translation by Richard Hodgens. January.
55. THE CHARWOMAN'S SHADOW, Lord Dunsany. February.
56. GREAT SHORT NOVELS OF ADULT FANTASY #2, Lin Carter, ed. March.
57. THE SUNDERING FLOOD, William Morris. May.
NOTE: Lin Carter's list stops here.
58. IMAGINARY WORLDS, Lin Carter. June.
59. POSEIDONIS, Clark Ashton Smith. July.
60. EXCALIBUR, Sanders Anne Laubenthal. August.
61. HIGH DERYNI, Katherine Kurtz. September.
62. HROLF KRAKI'S SAGA, Poul Anderson. October.
63. THE PEOPLE OF THE MIST, H. Rider Haggard. December.


64. KAI LUNG UNROLLS HIS MAT, Ernest Bramah. February.
65. OVER THE HILLS AND FAR AWAY, Lord Dunsany. April.

Only around a third of these do I own and/or read.  Looks like I may have some promising reads ahead of me, considering how many other stories by several of the authors above that I enjoyed.  Which books on these lists have you read or want to read?

This book ought to interest a few

Those in the know will know why I bought this.  Those wanting to know will find out soon enough.  This will be the sort of thing you'll want to read, perhaps over and over again.  And if this seems "weird" to you, well, sometimes, checking out "weird" things, especially compendiums, may be in your best interest.  More news in the near future.

So I noticed some wished that I had covered the illustrations in Stanek's book

Really, you'd think people would know better than to challenge me to post more from Stanek's objet de merde.  Well, here are three illustrations taken from that book.  In this first one, notice the strange armor.  Is it to protect a crooked shoulder?  Are genetic deformities part of the world of the Ruin Mist?

You'd frown too if you had to wear an outfit that make Björk's dead swan dress look tasteful in comparison.  Poor animal not only died to make that fur coat, but its head has to stay on her shoulders.  Might explain the image on the staff as well.

Remember how I said in my review that there was an illustration of what almost looks like a spitting image of an Irish priest in a pantheistic setting?  Now you can see the vestments, with the helpful addition of tracking arrows.  Oh, and as a bonus, you can read one full page from the glossary.  This is just so full of win, isn't it?
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