|For the Record: Reading List, 2008
||[Jan. 1st, 2009|12:01 am]
A Year of Reading Science-Fictionally
This year turned out to be what was probably the most science-fiction-heavy year in reading I've had in a very long time. I didn't plan it that way, but that's how things turned out.
Mind you, there was some interesting discoveries in other genres, in particular, Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me.
Anyway, if you're interested in the words-on-paper that have occupied my mind over the course of 2008,
- The Year's Best Science Fiction: Ninth Annual Collection, 1992, St. Martin's Press, Gardner Dozois, ed.
I stumbled on this at a Salvation Army store not long before Christmas, while hunting for a new mouse for my computer. Didn't find the mouse, but picked up a number of books - it's hard to go wrong when the hardcovers are $1.00 apiece. And Dozois' series should be required reading for anyone interested in short-form science fiction.
This anthology seemed to me strangely unbalanced. The stories in the last quarter or so struck me as weaker than the preceding three quarters. But still, it's a volume chock-full of good reading, no question.
- Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days, 2003, Gollancz, by Alastair Reynolds.
How nice! A duplex of novella's, that mid-length form that is oh! so difficult to market.
Both stories are set in Reynolds' "Chasm City" universe, though neither require previous experience with the writer's world to experience.
Both also illustrate the pleasures and the problems that come, built-in, with most genre fiction.
That is, while I've really enjoyed what I have read of Reynolds before (which is most of what he's written), I now realize I can barely remember any of them.
Similarly with this volume. Both stories are well-written and engaging, but both (and especially the first) suffer from being, well, genre works. They follow a familiar structure and though his characters are more fully-sketched than most, they are still sketches and not true characters.
Long story short: If you like space-opera, Reynolds writes excellent space-opera - but it's only space-opera, if you know what I mean.
- Sundiver, Bantam Spectra, 1980, by David Brin.
Speaking of space-opera, discovering Startide Rising and The Uplift War late last month made me salivate for more Brin. Yes, I do like space-opera.
This is Brin's first "uplift" novel and, I think, his first published novel, period.
As probably befits any first novel, Sundiver is far less ambitious than its follow-up, Startide Rising, and is a stronger novel for it. Brin limits his view-point characters to one person, and the plot to a single narrative mystery. Brin's strengths are all in evidence and his weaknesses kept under control.
- City Come A-Walkin', Four Walls Eight Windows, 1996 (original: 1980), by John Shirley
Much Ado About Nothing
I somehow came late to cyberpunk, not reading William Gibson's seminal novel, Neuromancer until the late 80s or early 90s.
I don't remember much about the book at this point, but I do know what my reaction to it was was I closed it: Is that what all the fuss was about?
Sure, Neuromancer came dressed in a (ahem) gritty, decaying urban guise, all cynicism and punk-rock, but beneath the mohawks and shabby leather was, I thought, just another take on the old science fiction trope of the Lone Hero battling impossible odds.
New bottle, old wine; if I wanted escapism I prefer that it spam the galaxy, not the back alleys of San Francisco, thank you very much.
Still, when I came across a copy of John Shirley's apparently even-more seminal 1980 novel, City Come a Walkin', with a foreword by none other than Gibson himself, I picked it up.
Gibson's foreword acknowledges City as a vital influence on his work. "I was somewhat chagrined, rereading it recently, to see just how much of my own early work takes off from this one novel."
If my own memory of those few novels of Gibson's that I've read is true, his acknowledgement is legitimate. Shirley's novel is set in San Francisco's punkish demi-monde, circa the year 2000, a bleak, nihilistic world of violence and self-destruction, heading quickly to becoming ruled, quite literarly, by organized crime.
Until the City itself, product of its citizens' collective unconscious comes to life and walks into Stu Cole's club, The Anesthesia on a crowded Saturday night.
Shirley write's a staccato noirish prose and his chapter titles are self-consciously funky. Too funky - "Wun!", "-Tew!", "SEV-uhn!" &cetera. But maybe they're appropriate, because when stripped of its style, what's left is a novel that might have made for a decent Frank Miller comic during his Ronin Phase - ie, stylistically interesting, but ultimately derivative and shallow in terms of content.
Club owner Stu Cole is the protagonist, an upright, arts-supporting businessman who is resisting the influence of the Mob, a cabal which has infiltrated the computer-run economy and is poised to take it over completely.
For reasons which never do become clear, "City" chooses Cole to be his human accomplice as "he" begins a bloody campaign to quite literally eliminate the gangsters.
We then follow through a series of adventures, in which he fights a losing battle against City's control of his own self, culminating in his transformation into some sort of being who can wander time and space, though this reader at least never did understand why or how that happened.
Shirley certainly appears to deserve Gibson's introductory credit for writing the first cyberpunk novel, but the question of why cyberpunk itself deserves any attention remains an unanswered question in my mind. As I said, I prefer a little more imaginative meat on my escapism than is provided by a nihilistic worst-case vision of what might happen, "if this goes on".
- Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Dell Magazines, April 2008, Stanley Schmidt, ed.
- God Is not Great: How Religion Changes Everything, by Christopher Hitchens, McClelland & Stewart (2007)
There must be something in the air. Hitchens' anti-religious, pro-atheist screed is part of a minor flood of similar works to come out in the past couple of years, perhaps most notably including Richard Dawkin' superior entry into the field, The God Delusion. Like Dawkins' volume, Hitchens' work was clearly inspired in part by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and its tangible culmination on September 11, 2001, but also by the loud Western (and especially, American) resurgence of militant and usually fundamentalist - i.e.,, Biblical literalist - Christianity.
As an atheist, I can only appreciate this counter-reaction by educated and forthright public intellectuals who have decided that the very idea of religion is a dangerous one and that a decades-long truce of tacit "respect" for whatever anyone chooses to believe, no matter how morally outrageous those beliefs, needs to end. The liberal belief that one ought to respect a person's right to believe whatever he or she wants is one thing; it is quite another to profess respect for a particular belief itself. And it is particularly galling to be expected to respect the beliefs of those who explicitly call for your death, or predict your beliefs will result in (quite literal) eternal hell-fire you, if you don't agree with their savage, superstitious and ignorant creeds.
But I'm sure I need say no more; the title and subtitle of Hitchens' volume make it pretty clear what the book is about.
As I have, among the resurgence in atheist polemics, read only Dawkins' version, I am forced to compare Hitchens' take on it with his. And admit to finding it lacking.
God Is not Great is an angry, one-note screed. Well-researched, clearly-written and admirably to the point, Hitchens' nevertheless comes across as angry and righteous, without the leavening of wit, humour and style that make Dawkins' similar work a much more pleasurable read and a richer educational experience. (It is interesting to note that professional writer Hitchens' prose and general style are inferior to professional scientist Dawkins'.) Whether it is therefore a less-effect polemic is another question. Despite my stylistic misgivings, Hitchens' book is a powerful indictment of the very idea of religion, in that they (all of them) are based on premises for which there are in fact zero evidence.
If you're already an atheist, you don't really need to read either of these books (nor, presumably, any of the others in the recent spate of similar volumes), though occasionally availing oneself of what my father calls "prejudice reinforcement" can be a balm to the proverbial soul. Particularly if one is constantly among believers, I can imagine it might be a comfort indeed to have at hand a tangible reminder that one is not alone.
Whatever its faults, God Is not Great is an easy, brief read, lucid and logical. Anyone whose faith is wavering, or who remains on the Agnostic fence might well benefit from it. Whether anyone truly devout would even get past the first couple of chapters is another question entirely. But yes, recommended.
- The Chalice and the Blade, by Riane Eisler, HarperCollins (1987, Epilogue 1994)
I've long maintained that, while far from the being the "best of all possible worlds", socially, Canada in the late 20th and early 21st centuries arguably represents the best humanity has had to offer thus far, with legal equality for all races and between men and women, close to legal equality for gays and lesbians and, on the street, an argumentative but live-and-let-live attitude among an extremely heterogeneous population. By long-term historical standards we are doing very well and arguably better than any society that has ever existed (for simplicity's sake, let's leave first and third world economic disparity out of the equation).
Among other things, the criteria upon which I base that judgement is an intuitive mix of such things as economic disparity between rich and poor, acceptance and intermixing by and among people of different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds, and especially, the status of women - i.e., if you step outside at night in a big city, the more women you see walking around by themselves, the higher the probability that city is a safe one, with a reasonably robust social infrastructure or "civil society".
In other words, I see in this country an historical, clumsy lurching towards a future world that will truly be one of liberty and justice for all for the very first time in history.
Having, with so many, believed that civilization (defined here as city-dwellers, including government more complex than those found in hunter-gatherer societies) first emerged in the "fertile crescent" only five or six thousand years ago as savage, war-like city-states, which immediately set-upon conquering and/or slaughtering their neighbours, Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade offers a provocative analysis of recent archaeological discoveries, one that asserts the late Neolithic Age harboured actual cities (of up to 100,000 people(!) and a Mediterranean/European civilization with sophisticated trading relations. And more, that these were cities without defensive walls or much at all in the way of weaponry.
When my mum pushed the book on me, I resisted, thinking it would be yet another piece of feminist historical fantasy, of some Golden Age when a universal Matriarchy ruled over all under the beneficent gaze of the Great Goddess. I had to force myself through the first chapter, but was gradually won over enough to at least take her thesis seriously (although, having now had the chance to glance over her website, I am less sure than I was about her general credibility. As they say, more research is required before I come to any firm conclusions. But I digress).
In short, Eisler does not claim that the late Neolithic civilization(s?) she describes were matriarchal, although she does assert that a Goddess appears to be the primary divinity. Rather, her thesis is that those cities were structurally organized differently from all known historical civilizations, in which a top-down hierarchy is the structural basis of organization. In Eisler's view, these society's were instead organized according to a "partnership model", which featured cooperation rather than coercion as the organizing principle.
Although some of these cultures (in particular the late civilization on Crete) apparently possessed at least a rudimentary written language, most if not all the evidence Eisler presents is based on physical rather than textual evidence. Thus, by definition, her conclusions about ways of life are inferential and deductive.
Nevertheless, that evidence seems to me to be compelling. And mostly, because of what isn't found in the digs, rather than what is. No defensive fortifications; no weapons, save for those appropriate for hunting; no significant differences in the size of habitations; little or no depiction of warfare; no monumental palaces or other buildings suggestive of extreme hierarchy; no significant difference in the lavishness of grave-sites. She further asserts that the artistic evidence (painted pottery and frescoes, for instance) suggests that men and women played roles in all aspects of society, from the ceremonial to sports and even, to some degree, in work.
She claims that these civilizations flourished for about 3,500 years, from circa 7,000 B.C.E. to 3,500 B.C.E. when Crete was over-run by one of the patriarchal barbarian hordes we know so well from everything from the Bible to general history.
If her reports of the archaeological findings are true, The Chalice & the Blade appears to me to make a strong case for the idea that the common view of our past is quite simply wrong.
Eisner believes the findings summarised above are not only of historical importance but are also important in that they provide "proof" that humanity is not foredoomed to exist according to a hierarchical model (or "dominator model") of civilization. She believes that knowing something different existed in the past will help us to build a better (and different) tomorrow. (As she repeatedly points out, in a world bristling with nuclear weapons, there will be no future history for humanity if we don't find ways other than war to settle our conflicts.) But as modern feminism and other progressive movements have shown in the past few decades, we are quite capable of imagining a different future without having recourse to a similar past; nevertheless, it can't hurt to know that - yes! - things were different once upon a time.
It is as a prognosticator that she lost me towards the end of the book. The final chapter provides an overview of what a future Partnership Civilization might look like and here Eisner does in fact come across as a naive, New Agey, thinker, with all the silliness that implies (she goes so far as to predict that her future will include "improved yoga techniques").
Unfortunately, I am not (yet) in a position to judge the quality or honesty of the evidence Eisler presents, but the book is copiously foot-noted and I caught no significant errors in areas in which I do have some knowledge. On the surface, she makes a very strong and very interesting case for her historical thesis. So, despite my reservations, this is a provocative and exciting look at what - to me, at least - had hitherto been a long chapter in human history about which I had been almost entirely ignorant. Recommended, if only for now.
If anyone out there can point me towards recent archaeological findings which might support or refute her, I'd be most grateful.
February - May 31, 2008
It's true: somehow, simply keeping track of my my reading during the above-noted period became problematic. I have even less interest in examining the reasons for that lapse than you do in reading about them. However, there may be clues in my general journal entries. Onward.
- The Ancestor's Tale, undated (why would a publisher do that?) but post 2004 and pre-2006, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, by Richard Dawkins.
Dawkins at his enthusiastic best. An evolutionary primer for layman, Dawkins (I suspect, loosely) models the book' structure on The Canterbury Tales as a series of vignettes marching backwards in time towards 39 distinct "meetings" between ourselves and our forebears, rather than, as is usually done, forwards from the first, hypothesized self-replicating ... something, towards humanity. (I said "something" rather than "life-form" because, as Dawkins does not hesitate to confront, neither "life" nor "gene" among quite a few common terms are actually all that well-defined, scientifically.
His reasons for looking backward instead of forward include the hope of dispelling the idea of evolution as a process with a goal; he makes clear he could have written the book from the point of view of any animal living today, as a frog is just as "advanced" from an evolutionary stand-point as a 43 year-old human male. Humans are only one branch among many, all which lead back to an ancestor common to us all.
In any case, this is an excellent introduction to the (nearly) the latest findings in the study of evolutionary biology, as well as genetics and the life-sciences in general. Dawkins is an excellent science writer, with an almost chatty style that never condescends while simplifying and never over-simplyfying. He is often funny and sometimes respectfully argumentative while being generous indeed when it comes to giving credit where it is due.
- The Selfish Gene, revised edition 1989, Oxford University Press, by Richard Dawkins.
I've been meaning to read this for a couple of years, following an argument with my brother about sociobiology, in part because I'd been waxing enthusiastic about The Ancestor's Tale on my first go-through of it.
As I recall, my brother insisted that the "selfish gene" is concept that inherently supports social-darwinian policies, racial and sexual stereotyping and, in general, that it is supportive of anti-progressive ideas. Dawkins himself, to my mind, supported none of these things and so - at last - I got around to finding out for myself.
(Incidentally, the idea that genes matter is one that has long been self-evident to me - and one that has gotten me into political hot water since I was in high school at least. Simply put, it was (and is, now better-supported, I think) my belief that (a) we are physical beings, each of us physically unique for one another, (b) that our brains are also physical beings and so, so is our intellectual capacity and therefore (c) just as each one of us is shaped somewhat differently on the outside, so are we "shaped" differently on the inside. Just as (for instance) my potential height was at least in part a product of genetics, so too was my potential intelligence, however one defines the latter. So yes: with me, Dawkins is preaching to the converted.)
The Selfish Gene is one of Dawkins' earliest books. He had not yet fully-mastered a populist style, but it is still easily accessible to the layman and he was already quite willing to get down-and-dirty with antagonists, as well as to give generous credit to those who positively influenced his thinking.
At heart, Dawkins' "selfish gene" is a metaphor and it is important to remember that fact. Genes (whatever, exactly, a gene is) do not "want" to do anything at all in the human sense. They simply "do what they do" and those that "do what they do" more successfully are, by definition, those that leave more descendents after them than the "less fit". But Dawkins maintains that genes and, at least, "lower" organisms behave as if they are selfish. In other words, the do not stop to consider whether what they do is "fair" or "nice", only whether what they do will get them food or a mate (and if you've ever watched a fly banging forever against a kitchen window, they don't appear to think very much at all; though much the same could be said about a number of human behaviours. I digress).
Long story short, Dawkins believes the bases of our behaviour all (or almost) all stem from very simple win/lose scenarios that, over evolutionary time, have favoured "selfish" behaviour.
Does that mean that altruistic behaviour is illusory or doomed? No. To the first point (and it's been a couple of months; I hope I'm not putting my words into his mouth), the fact that we can think about the long-term repercussions of our actions means that we can choose a non-darwinian course of action (as we prove every time we use a condom; our genes "want" to create a fetus); to the second, well, the jury is out (see my thoughts on Peter Watts' novel, Blinsight, below). In the short run, purely selfish behaviour seems like an excellent strategy; take what you want, when you want it and smash anyone or anything that gets in your way.
But in the long run?
I've heard it said that weather is much harder to model than, say, all the galaxies and stars in the universe; and that human society is harder to model still.
Given the complexity of society, along with the complexity of the ecosphere in which it resides, the idea that cooperation rather than pure competition might be a better long-term survival strategy is by no means obviously wrong. And in fact, Dawkins examines this in some detail, starting with game theory which often suggests that long-term stable strategies indeed require players to cooperate rather than go for the jugular at every opportunity.
Whatever your opinions, this is a thought-provoking book and one deserving of a careful reading, not a knee-jerk condemnation. I recommend it especially to those who would prefer to believe that there is no such thing as "human nature". If nothing else, it will force you to hone your arguments well.
- Asimov's Science Fiction, February, 2008, Dell Magazines, Sheila Williams, ed.
I bought it for the conclusion of Allen M. Steele's Galaxy Blues and it enjoyed that well enough. But most of the rest of the magazine's contents left me cold at best. You'll hear this again: why do I keep buying this damned magazine?!?
- Asimov's Science Fiction, April/May, 2008, Dell Magazines, Sheila Williams, ed.
Oi. Why indeed? Only Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "The Room of Lost Souls" is worth recommending; even Norman Spinrad's usually excellent book column was a disappointment. Nevermind. Onward.
- Medea: Harlan's World, Bantam Books, 1985, Harlan Ellison, ed.
Far from perfect, this is nevertheless an anthology that should be on every budding SF writer's shelf.
The book began as a university seminar in the 1970s. The conceit, the four writers would create a world and plot out a story while on-stage in front of an audience.
Using physical and biological parameters provided by Hal Clement, Larry Niven, Poul Anderson and Frederik Pohl, five writers then sat down - after getting the specs a couple of hours before - to talk about stories and Story, a more or less verbatim transcript of which is included.
The bulk of the book are the stories that came out of the discussions, and they make for a better than average anthology in and of themselves. But it is in watching SF writers thinking through the world-building process that makes this an almost must-have volume.
- Manifold: Space, Del Rey, 2001, by Stephen Baxter.
A good read. I think I discussed it in greater detail last year, so will forego further commentary here.
- Transcendent, Del Rey, 2001, by Stephen Baxter.
Ditto. But very good hard-stuff.
- Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Dell Magazines, May 2008, Stanley Schmidt, ed.
- Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Dell Magazines, June 2008, Stanley Schmidt, ed.
- Blindsight, Tor 2006, by Peter Watts.
Still excellent (if depressing) on re-reading. Watts' views on the nature of consciousness (if indeed it is real at all) and on whether or not (if it does exist) it is likely to be a viable long-term evolutionary strategy are thought-provoking in the best tradition of hard SF, while his prose is quietly stylish and his attention to character very strong.
- Starfish, Tor 1999, by Peter Watts.</i>
Watts' first novel establishes the themes seen in the later Blindsight.
No space opera, Starfish is a near-future novel set deep under the ocean, in the (literally) high-pressure world of the San Juan de Fuca Rift in the Pacific Ocean, where a bioengeneered crew - altered to breathe seawater and to withstand the tremendous pressures of the deep - is building a power station designed to take advantage of the geo-thermal power available at the unstable meeting point of two continental plates.
The crew, in fact, is made up of neurotics and near-psychopaths, victims of violence or perpetrators (or both), in effect experiments by the company that hired them, as it has been found that normal people tend to crack under the pressure and isolation.
Besides the environment, Watt has another science fictional element to add to mix - an ancient form of life, once a competitor with DNA, that may be a harbinger of doom for the world as we know it.
Excellent stuff. And since it is the first part of a trilogy, for once I'm pleased I came to it late.
- The Salmon of Doubt, Macmillan 2002, by Douglas Adams.
In some ways, this is a very sad book. A compendium of short published pieces, unpublished bits recovered from Adams' computer following his untimely death in 2001, and the first 11 chapters of The Salmon of Doubt, which would have been the third Dirk Gently novel.
This is an uneven volume, as one would expect. There are flashes of Adams' comedic genuis and a few genuine duds. Recommended only for Adams' completists; casual fans of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy will probably be disappointed.
- Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Dell Magazines, July/August 2008, Stanley Schmidt, ed.
- Red Mars, Bantam, 1993, by Kim Stanley Robinson.
I know, I know, I've read this (many times) before. To tell you the truth, I will again.
Robinson's genuinely epic story of the colonization of Mars eschews just about every science fictional narrative cliche. Simply by killing off three of the most book's most apparently heroic characters (and, in two of the cases, most appealing to this reader), me messes with the SF reader's expectations.
- Babel-17, Ace, 1966, by Samuel R. Delany.
One of Delany's early novels, this short one is still well-worth reading, even if it only hints at the genius that was to explode with Nova and Dhalgren.
A self-conscious space-opera, Babel-17 subverts the adventure genre exploration of language and its effects on consciousness.
In terms of style and SFnal idea-content, Delany's vision of our sociological future feels a great deal more plausible and prescient than, say, Clarke/Kubric's sterile and all-male 2001: A Space Odyssey.
- Maelstrom, Tor, 2001, by Peter Watts.
Sequel to Starfish, Watts bleak vision of a slow-moving end of the world is compellingly readable, and remarkable for his sympathetic portrayal of Lenie Clarke, who has every reason to be angry with the Powers That Be (her brain was edited, replacing her own childhood memories with those of one spent enduring horrific abuse, just for starters) but who the reader nevertheless knows is spreading a plague across North America that will - if it isn't stopped - ultimately lead to the destruction of all multi-cellular life on earth.
Since there is a sequel, I'm not giving much away by telling you that Clarke survives.
- Behemoth: B-Max, Tor, 2004, by Peter Watts
Back under the ocean - the Atlantic this time - the surviving Rifters and a settlement of former Powers from before the world fell apart maintain an uneasy truce between the two communities. But another war looms and meanwhile, the plague appears to have mutated, threatening those few who have managed to survive the devastation.
- Behemoth: Sepuku, self-published, by Peter Watts.
According to the author, the above-two volumes were intended to be a single book. In the introductory note to B-Max, he writes,
Unfortunately you don't hold all of [Behemoth]. Behemoth is being released in two volumes, several months apart. I wish this were not necessary, but new policies have resulted from recent changes in the publishing industry. Henceforth, books by midlist authors will not receive wide distribution if they cost too much - that is, if they weigh in at more than about 110,000.
Behemoth is over 150,000 words long, and was almost complete by the time this policy came into effect. Hacking away a third of it was not an option (believe me, I tried). If Behemoth were to be released as a single volume, it would be automatically excluded from about half the U.S. market - essentially an act of professional suicide. A two-part release was the only alternative.
From what I've been able to gather, the second volume never was released. Fortunately (for us) and unfortunately (for Watts, unless enough of us go to his site and pop something bucks into his Paypal link), Watts has designed to put all of his novels online.
Reading on a computer screen is far from ideal (though he also has PDF files available), but this novel is well worth it, a satisfying conclusion with - somewhat to my surprise, given the downbeat tone of the rest of the series - possibly even a glimmer of hope amid all of the gloom.
If you like thoughtful, exciting and intellectually-provocative SF along with protagonists who are definitely not square-jawed heroic stereotypes, find something by Watts now (preferably something in print, if possible).
- Bet Me, St-Martin's Press, 2004, by Jennifer Crusie.
When you get down to it, what is pornography but a wish-fulfillment fantasy? Usually, it's "boy fucks girl" without any of the foreplay. But there are other wish-fulfillment fantasies than just sex. For teen-age boys, there are super-heroes and sword-swinging barbarians. And for women, there are Romances.
One of you (you know who you are, you wonderful, naughty girl!), in correspondence, suggested I have a go at a Romance and so it was that I found myself walking home from the library with Jennifer Crusies's novel, Bet Me, weighing down my knapsack.
Romances are usually dismissed as "fluff" or "crap" or any number of mean-spirited slurs. And it's true: Bet Me does not deal with Today's Geopolitical Situation, or The War In Iraq, or Global Warming, or anything of that shit. It's unabashedly escapist and unabashedly formulaic. Though I think the marketing is a bit of a cheat - it's more Romantic Comedy than Romance, or so I believe.
"Minerva Dobbs knows that happily-ever-after is a fairy tale, especially with a man who asked her to dinner to win a bet, even if he is gorgeous Calvin Morrisey."
Minerva is an actuary, working for her father's firm. She's heavier than she wants to be and dresses like a stereotypical puritan. Calvin is a man with a past, a man who has run away from every woman he's gotten close to.
And when she (having over-heard the bet) accepts his invitation to dinner, the story begins. They spar like Cary Grant and Kate Hepburn did in The Philadelphia Story.
Min is a 32 year-old woman trying to diet her way to the anorexic American ideal of woman-hood - and failing. She has curves and she's never going to lose them. Cal is a man who tells her she's beautiful as she is, who sees through her defences and who even encourages to her to eat some carbs from time to time.
Nevertheless, complications ensue, her fault, his fault, and (as possibly the weakest part of the novel, due to the machinations of his and her ex-girlfriend and boyfriend, respectively) the fault of plot complications.
Does the boy get the girl in the end? Well, d'uh. It's a Romance. Bet Me is a book full of clever, witty dialogue we can only wish happened in real life; it's monstrous families and the people who rise above their damage to over-come that parental abuse. It's True Love against all the odds, and Crusie does it wonderfully.
If Crusie's Bet Me is not about to knock Jane Austen off her pedestal, it is nevertheless a delightful, a tasty, bit of froth. Despite some of my misgivings about the plot, I was more than able to willingly suspend my disbelief and just enjoy the ride, laughing out loud every few pages.
Why the hell can't Hollywood do this sort of thing anymore? Pornography of the mind, of the long term. It's clever, it's fun, it's a great ride. And what's wrong with that?
- Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Dell Magazines, Septmber 2008, Stanley Schmidt, ed.
- Buddy Holly Is Alive and Well on Ganymede by Bradley Denton, AvoNova, 1992
- Green Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson, Bantam Spectra 1994
Holds up extremely well and I really do intend to pen a proper critical appreciation some time very soon now.
- Maul, by Tricia Sullivan, Night Shade Books, 2006
Picked this up based on a hand-written recommendation at Bakka-Pheonix and still don't know what to make of it. Is it a poorly-written, confused novel that doesn't know whether it's SF or a Girl's Own Adventure, a social satire or a confusing whither nano-biotech? It's been well over a month since I finished it and I still have little to say about it that doesn't end with a question-mark; I think I'll have to give it another read-through.
- Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, Bantam Spectra 1997.
- Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Dell Magazines, October 2008, Stanley Schmidt, ed.
A more solid issue than has been the rule for the past few months, but the finale to David R. Palmer's Tracking got my dander up.
- The Iron Dream, by Norman Spinrad.
For thoughts, also see here.
- The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham, Penguin 1968.
Palmer's effort (above) notwithstanding, nobody ends the world the way Wyndham ends the world!
- Ysabel, by Guy Gavriel Kay, Penguin Canada, 2007
I want to have liked this novel quite a lot more than I actually did; and in fact I suspect it is a better novel than I think/feel that it is. And that the problem, if any, lies with this reader and not with the author in either intent or execution. Perhaps this will finally spur me to write my "why I don't like fantasy even though my favourite book is The Lord of the Rings essay.
- Titan, by John Varley, Berkley, 1979.
Quitting smoking leads this reader to indolence and a desire for the security of the past. Varley's delightful, and surprisingly feminist-oriented, adventure was just the ticket. And the sequels also hold up very well.
- Wizard, by John Varley, Ace, 1987.
- Demon, by John Varley, Ace, 1987.
- Steel Beach, by John Varley, Ace, 1993.
- The Golden Globe, by John Varley, Ace, 1998.
- The Midwich cuckoos, by John Wyndham, Penguin 1971
A cold-hearted look at survival of the fittest in a decadent age. For once, Wyndham doesn't end civilization as we know it, but it's a near thing and as quietly sardonic as ever.
September - November
- Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Dell Magazines, November 2008, Stanley Schmidt, ed.
This issue saw the first part of Robert J. Sawyer's new novel, Wake, about which I had this to say at the magazine's forum.
- Meditations on Middle-Earth, edited by Karen Haber, St. Martin's Griffin, 2002
Yeah, I know, I've read it before. Consider this collection to be a sort of comfort-food for Tolkien aficionados, a series of pens&eautees about a novel that has been an inspiration for all manner of writers. One of these days I'll pen my own appreciation, something that would be appropriate for a new edition.
- Future: Tense, by Gwynne Dyer
Kind of interesting to go back to Dyer's 2004 analysis of the 2nd Iraq War. Though history has rendered some of the specifics moot, his basic premise, that for the good of the international order,, the US must lose the Iraqi war seems a far-sight less radical than it did when it was first published.
- Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Dell Magazines, December 2008, Stanley Schmidt, ed.
- Dirk Genlty's Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams, Pan 1987
- The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, by Douglas Adams, Pan 1988
Yes, I'm sorry Adams died too soon as well. You don't have to know and love the Hitch-Hiker books to enjoy these equally-warped and funny offerings.
- Tolkien: Man and Myth, by Joseph Pearce, HarperCollins, 1998
An interesting literary biography, with a heavy emphasis on Tolkien's religious beliefs. It is not a completely look at Tolkien's oevre, or even on The Lord of the Rings itself, but it doesn't pretend to be. Pearce makes a strong case for something that has never been in much doubt — that Tolkien's Catholocism greatly influenced his writing — but that certainly bears analysis.
- Anathem, by Neil Stephenson, HarperCollins, 2008
Stephenson's latest door-stopper is a strangely satisfying read, one that nevertheless breaks most of the rules of popular fiction, not least because the plot doesn't really get moving until somewhere after page 400. That said, I enjoyed it tremendously and heartilly recommend it. Niall Harrison's review at the Internet Review of Science Fiction came very close to saying almost everything (and more) I might have wanted to, so I'll leave it at that.
- The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien, George Allen & Unwin, 1979
Yeah, yeah, I know ...
- Looking for Jake, by China Mieville, Ballantine Books 2005
I've been hearing a lot of good things about Mieville for some time now. An avowed socialist and a writer reputed to have brought a lot of good new things to fantasy, I approached this with a fair degree of anticipation. But this collection left me nearly as cold as most fantasies do nowadays.
By its nature, fantasy — and prehaps especially urban fantasy set more-or-less in a recognizable world — requires a suspension of disbelief I'm just not much interested in making any more.
Mieville is a much better writer than most working the SF&F furrows, but I still find myself simply uninterested by most of the stories in this collection.
I am tempted to go back to a collection of Bradbury's or Ellison's to see whether stories that I know once thrilled and excited me now leave me as cold as do their modern-day descendants.
- The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien, George Allen & Unwin, 1979
Finished the second book and, possibly for the first time in my life, The Return of the King remains unopened.
- Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Dell Magazines, January/February 2009, Stanley Schmidt, ed.
Now this was an excellent issue of American SF's grande dame of magazine's!
Richard A. Lovett: “Excellence”: Well-told, good voice, intriguing to find out what story *is*, if not cautionary tale of getting caught. Like that it simply told a story without forcing the reader to any particular conclusion. Only caveat is that I was not convinced that fake ID would fool Olympic folks in this day and age.
Rajnar Vajra, “Doctor Alien”: Good but not exceptional Vajra – which means one of the best novelettes of the year anyway. Story – brilliant human surprises alien(s!) – is a little more Analog-formulaic than I expected from Vajra but was still very engaging. Aliens intriguing both in terms of tech and biology (and translator’s argot sometimes quite funny).
Dave Creek, “Zheng He and the Dragon”: Convincing use of 15th century Chinese voice, good detail, well-written. Saw the denouement coming, but didn’t care too much; the story was better than the plot’s ironic destination.
John G. Hemry, “Rocks”: Not so good. Figured out the ending mid-way through the story. Found the various “creation” scenes tepid and trite.
Richard Foss, “To Leap the Highest Wall”. Well-told alternate history story, good dialogue and excellent small touches, such as Mac gaining Yeager’s respect. Again, the climax was not a surprise and, personally felt it was a little jingoistic, but place emphasis on *felt* - it worked in context and my taste, in this case, is not a criticism of the story.
Edward M. Lerner, “Small Business”: Classic Analog story, free-market politics and high-tech, wrapped in a thin sandwich of characterization. The reader doesn’t really get to know the characters, let alone care about them, but that doesn’t much matter. The ending is a foregone conclusion, the pleasure comes from finding out how Lerner gets us there, along with some cute wordplay to force a laugh at the final line.
Robert J. Sawyer, Wake: The third episode builds wonderfully towards the climax. Though I missed [Chinese dissident], Caitlan seems more real all the time and the developing web-consciousness is very intriguing. Excellent stuff!
Kristine Kathryn Rusch, “The Recovery Man’s Bargain”: Easily the best story this issue, it ought to appear in next year’s best-of-the-year anthologies and deserves a place on the Hugo and Nebula ballots. Rusch’s story at first seems to be a typical lone-space-ranger adventure, but subtlely becomes something very different, a literary coming-of-(middle)-age story in which success isn’t what it seems, nor is defeat.
Kevin Walsh, “Neptune, Neptune, Neptune … But Not Neptune”: A solid overview of the state of the art in extra-solar planet-detection and theories of solar system formation.
Jeffery D. Kooistra, “The Alternate View”: The sub-title, “Energy Crisis Redux: A Polemic”, is well-labelled, perhaps to the detriment of Kooistra’s point, the nuclear power is the alternative fuel of the (near and middle) future. I’m sceptical that Kooistra’s “back-of-the envelope calculation[s]” tell the full story, but the piece nonetheless ought to make nuclear-sceptics at least think again about their opposition.
- Worldwired, by Elizabeth Bear, Bantam 2005
Another writer I've been hearing about for some time, and on whose journal, matociquala, I've been lurking for close to a year, so I was more than a little pleased to find Worldwired.
I was less pleased when I realized it it is the third book in a trilogy rather than the stand-alone novel the cover-copy (sort of) makes one think it is. On the other hand, it works as a stand-alone, and was a reasonably interesting piece of hard and political SF.
That the American Bear chose to tell the tale from the point-of-view of Canadians — Canadians who are Players in this middle-distance future — was certainly a pleasant surprise to this reader. I'll be looking for more of her work.
- A Lion Among Men, by Gregory Maguire, William Morrow 2008
Another fantasy, another series, another book whose reason for existence (if one avoids the cynically-presumptive answer of "Commerce!") lies beyond either my imagination or my intellect.
The book came to me courtesy of the Globe and Mail and my full response will, apparently, mark my first professional publication.
But since I have yet to receive the cheque or to actually see the review in print, I'll believe it when I see at least one of the two.
Meanwhile, A Lion Among Men is a "literary" novel in fantasy's clothes. The characters all sound alike and they all sound the product of a four-year "creative writing" degree, all irony and self-consciousness with barely a hint of a fucking story. Give it a miss.
- Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Dell Magazines, March 2009, Stanley Schmidt, ed.
Naturally, the highlight of this issue is the conclusion to Sawyer's Wake, which was good enough to draw a few tears at the end. The editing, however, was something else — two of the novel's four plot-lines simply ... stopped. Presumably, this will be repaired in the book version, but I was left wondering what the hell was going on in China and what in the world happened to the Bonobo/Chimp hybrid.
- Midnight Robber, by Nalo Hopkinson, Warner Books, 2000.
Bias alert: I know Nalo Hopkinson. It would be a stretch to claim a close friendship, but we've socialized and we exchange hugs when we see each other. Had I not liked this novel, I would most likely have noted it here, but otherwise passed it over in silence. I did like it, though — a lot — but think it only fair to let you know the context in which I write about it.
One of SF's major claims is that it is a "literature of ideas", whether exploring the possible implications of new technologies or the ramifications of therefrom. Implicit in both is that the reader should be prepared for something new and unexpected — but most of the time, the cultural subtext is entirely mainstream, western and white (not to mention, usually male, though that at least seems to be less and less true as time goes by) and no matter how exotic or alien the background, most SF and fantasy reads like it was written by Some White Guy in a small apartment somewhere in Middle America.
|Midnight Robber, by Nalo Hopkinson|
# ISBN-10: 0446675601
# ISBN-13: 978-0446675604
Nothing wrong with that, but you'd think a literature at home in the past, the future and on other planets might be a little more willing to play with language and cultural assumptions more than it usually is.
Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robber does both, and in spades.
On the level of the plot, Midnight Robber is a fairly standard coming-of-age story, female version.
Tan-Tan is eight or nine years old, and a real daddy's girl, when her daddy — mayor of Cockpit County on a world long since colonized by a Caribbean diaspora — murders his wife's lover and the story, Tan-Tan's story, really begins.
The world of Toussaint deals with its dangerous criminals through exile. Not to another continent, but to yet another world entirely, New Half-Way Tree, with no way back. New Half-Way Tree, or at least the small part of it in which the novel is set, is a jungle world, full of exotic and sometimes dangerous life forms, including at least one other intelligent species, the Douen, an avian species with a remarkable (and surprising) sexual dimorphism.
The power in Midnight Robber comes not from its setting (though that is more strange and better thought-out than many another book set on an alien world) or its plot-turns (though here too Hopkinson's story finds nearly virgin forests where most plow well-furrowed ground) but from its subtle characterizations and, especially through its use of language.
Though she's been a Torontonian since the 70s, Hopkinson was raised in Jamaica and Trinidad before coming to Canada as a teenager, and she has clearly reached back to her roots to tell this story.
It takes some getting used to, if you're used to SF's standard "plain prose" style. A significant portion of the narrative — and all the dialogue — is written in (what reads to me like) a sort of creole. I'm ashamed to admit that the opening pages stopped me more than once before I managed to break through the mental barrier.
Oho. Like it starting, oui? don't be frightened, sweetness; is for the best. I go be with you the whole time. Trust me and let me distract you little bit one anasi story:
It had a woman, you see, a strong, hard-back woman with skin like cocoa-tea. She two foot-them tough from hiking through the diable bush, the devil bush on the prison planet of New Half-Way Tree. When she walk, she foot strike the hard earth bup! like breadfruit dropping to the ground. She two arms hard with muscle from all the years of hacking paths through the diable bush on New Half-Way Tree. Even she hair itself rough and wiry; long black knotty locks springing from she scalp and corkscrewing all the way down she back. She name Tan-Tan, and New Half-Way Tree was she planet.
The main narrative is written in something closer to standard Canadian English, but small twists of usage and slang serve to remind us that we aren't in Toronto anymore.
Tan-Tan's story begins with privilege and falls from exile to exile. When she hides in a basket in order to see her father, Antonio — a monstrous but entirely human figure — decides to take her in exile with him, the first of his genuinely abusive acts.
Antonio is a weak man, and so a proud one, given to rage and violence and as Tan-Tan grows closer to womanhood the reader, dreading it, is not surprised when his abuse becomes sexual. Over the course of the first half of the book, Antonio grew from a character I disliked to a man I loathed. Hopkinson is too good a writer not to empathise with her characters, even when they are monsters.
But this is a coming-of-age story. Tan-Tan escapes her father, running away into the jungle and that is when the novel really comes into its own, both as science fiction and as genuine bildungsroman. Hopkinson juggles world-building with psychological growth while always telling a fascinating story with an almost poetic prose in a way few writers can manage. The "legends" of the Mightnight Robber, interspersed with the main narrative, feel entirely real, as do Tan-Tan's own closely-related adventures.
This is science fiction as it it is meant to be: literary, rigorously imaginative, emotionally intense and moving, and utterly believable, no matter how strange its setting.
- The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-fifth Annual Collection, Gardner Dozois, ed, St. Martin's Griffin, 2008.
Really, there isn't much to say about this latest instalment in Dozois' long-running anthology that isn't implicit in its table of contents. Any "best of" list is bound to be personal and ideosyncratic but Dozois once again produces a volume that really makes the reader feel as he or she was been gifted with something approaching an objective "best".
If you're a science fiction reader, you need this anthology; if you're not, it would be an excellent place to start.
- Red China Blues, by Jan Wong, Doubleday/Anchor 1997.
Jan Wong's memoir of more than a decade spent living in "Red China" is a fascinating and emminently readable personal account of some very interesting times indeed.
Wong, a third-generation Canadian who didn't even speak Chinese, decided to pursue her version of 1960s radicalism by moving to China to help forward the revolution there. At the time an avowed Maoist, she learned the hard way just what it means to live in a grip of a totalitarian society. She lived through the end of the Cultural Revolution, saw the death of Mao and the rise of Deng Xiaoping, including the first stages of Deng's "communism with a capitalist face."
This isn't an in-depth history, but it's a valuable first-hand contribution to our understanding of the nature of totalitarianism and should be required reading for any youngster who's certain he or she Understands It All.