Saturday, August 30, 2008

Fantasy & Science Fiction, October/November 2008

Following a similar experiment a couple of years ago, the folks at Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine offered a copy of their most recent issue to anyone willing to blog about it, and, after taking a look at the issue's table of contents, I happily took them up on their offer. With stories by Geoff Ryman, Stephen King, M. Rickert, Robert Reed and several others, this seemed like a not-to-be-missed entry in the magazine's history, and I was looking forward to writing an exuberant piece about some top-notch short fiction. Sadly, the further I got into the October/November issue, the less I found to be excited about. The big names have turned up, to be sure, but only one of them has delivered on the level I'd expected.

Last time I wrote about a F&SF giveaway issue, I complained about the magazine's nonfiction content, and specifically its datedness. What was the point, I asked, of reviewing Ian McDonald's River of Gods months after it had been nominated for the Hugo as if the magazine's readers had never heard of it? It was pointed out to me, however, that there is a contingent of subscribers who are not online, and for whom F&SF is their only source of genre criticism. These people might very well have been hearing about River of Gods for the first time, as it had only recently been published in the US.

Fair enough, though for the sake of these readers I wish the magazine's book reviews were a little more interesting and thoughtful, but what is to be made of Lucius Shepard's film column? In an issue sent out in August, to be sold in bookstores in the fall, Shepard turns his focus to the summer phenomenon of comic book films, and decides to write about... Iron Man, which he derides for being silly and incoherent. I realize that there are probably lead time issues here that I'm not privy to, but you can't talk about comic book films at the end of the summer of 2008 without talking about The Dark Knight--a fact which is powerfully brought home by Shepard's numerous unfavorable comparisons between Iron Man and The Dark Knight's prequel, Batman Begins. Shepard has nothing to say about Iron Man that hasn't been said countless times already, including in many venues which even offline F&SF readers will have been likely to see, and in addition his review is mean-spirited, trotting out a fanboy caricature who lobs low-ball arguments--you don't get it man, you're out of touch!--about Iron Man's merits for Shepard to knock aside, so that even I, who didn't think much of the film, found myself wishing him off my side. Given F&SF's long lead time I simply don't understand why the magazine bothers to write about current films, especially if its reviewer has so little to add to the discussion.

Still, nonfiction isn't the reason for F&SF's existence, and once I was done puzzling over Shepard's movie column I happily turned to the stories in the October/November issue, only to be puzzled once again. A few of the stories here are exercises in tone, effective but ephemeral. Carol Emshwiller's "Whoever" is narrated by a woman who wakes up with no memory, and spins a story to explain her circumstances, venturing further and further into the realm of the fantastic as she does so. Steven Utley's "Sleepless Years" is narrated by a suicide who is being used as a test subject in experiments in reanimation. Terry Bisson's "Private Eye" is an erotic piece extrapolating from the webcam phenomenon to a world in which one can, for a fee, see through another person's eyes. All are well-written and successfully put us in their characters' heads, but that's really all they amount to. Less impressive are the two humorous pieces in the magazine, Albert E. Cowdrey's "Inside Story" and Scott Bradfield's "Dazzle Joins the Scriptwriter's Guild" (a third piece, a short-short by Laurel Winter titled "Going Back in Time," is probably intended as humorous but doesn't really come close). Both rely on stereotypes and clichés for their humor--the soullessness of the Hollywood filmmaking apparatus in Bradfield's story, the funny accents and love of greasy food of lower-middle and working class New Orleans residents in Cowdrey's--but neither crackles on the page. Cowdrey, at least, is trying to do something more than just entertain, as the supernatural occurrences in his story take place among FEMA trailers and in dilapidated and abandoned neighborhoods still patrolled by the National Guard, but he tells us nothing that we don't already know.

Michael Swanwick and Tim Sullivan are almost unique in the issue for trying to tell actual stories rather than striking a single emotional tone, the former with the short story "The Scarecrow's Boy" and the latter with the novelette "Planetesimal Dawn." Sullivan's story is good old fashioned SF, taking place in a mining colony on an asteroid, and paying great attention to the realities of survival in space. The story kicks off when a scientist and security officer on routine patrol become stranded when their vehicle malfunctions, and have to scramble to avoid the boiling dawn, then complicates when the two fall through a temporal anomaly. I feel a little guilty saying this, since stories of this ilk are, allegedly, not only the meat and potatoes of science fiction its bricks and mortar, the kind of hardcore, scientifically oriented stories that are at the foundation of the genre, but "Planetesimal Dawn" is boring. The characters are crudely drawn--the defeated scientist, the plucky security officer--and Sullivan's focus on mechanics (of the temporal anomaly, of the alien mining facility the characters find once they traverse it, of the alien spacecraft one of them visits) drowns out any urgency or sense of wonder his story might have elicited. It comes off like a mission report rather than a story. Swanwick's story, in which obsolete robot servers put out to pasture rally to save the life of a lost child, might have gone to the other extreme, and been slathered in sentiment, but, perhaps because it's such a short piece and perhaps because the title character is enjoyably down to Earth, he pulls it off, and even makes us care for his characters, who are trying to make moral decisions within the imposed framework of their programming.

I was interested in the October/November issue of F&SF, however, because of four names--King, Reed, Rickert and Ryman. The first is something of a surprise on a F&SF cover. If you look at the publication credits in King's upcoming short story collection, you'll find high-paying, prestigious mainstream markets like The New Yorker and The Paris Review. According to the introduction to King's story, "The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates," he was inspired to submit to the magazine after reading it regularly as part of his duties as guest editor of Best American Short Stories 2007 and being impressed with its content, but were I feeling uncharitable I might wonder if he didn't realize that he had a throwaway piece on his hands which Esquire wouldn't bother with. "Bargain Rates" is, as its introduction calls it, a Twilight Zone piece--something weird happens, the end. It's not bad, but not nearly as good as King's short stories can be (and in recent years I've grown more and more convinced that he is at his best in the short form), and in its language in particular feels almost lazy--as if someone were imitating King's folksy, conversational style and falling a little short of the real thing.

More disappointing is M. Rickert's "Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter's Personal Account," but then I expect a great deal from Rickert, who has a knack for combining present day events with SFnal speculation and a possibly unhealthy dollop of cynicism about human nature. She does all that here, imagining a world in which abortion has been made retroactively punishable by death, and in which women are rounded up by the hundreds and thousands to pay for abortions performed years or even decades ago. As the title indicates, the story is narrated by the daughter of one of these condemned women, who has fled rather than face her punishment, to her family's everlasting shame. It's an effective piece, as, indeed, how could it help being? Mass executions! Gross miscarriages of justice! Institutionalized misogyny! Young women brainwashed into a Handmaid's Tale-esque attitude of seeing themselves as nothing but walking wombs! It is also, however, shamelessly manipulative and unsubtle, a piece aimed only at people who agree with its politics, and one which encourages them to sneer rather than think.

Robert Reed has been churning out short stories at the rate of several per year for some time now (which leads me to wonder whether it isn't time for a single-author collection). He's a consistent presence on Hugo and Nebula shortlists, and justifiably so--his novella "A Billion Eves" was one of my favorite short stories last year--but with the sheer bulk of material he produces it stands to reason that there are also plenty of also-rans in the mix. The novelette "Visionaries" is, sadly, one of these. It's also an oddly metafictional piece, narrate by a science fiction author who occasionally produces pieces which don't even seem to be properly stories, but glimpses into the life of a wholly unremarkable man who happens to live several decades in the future. In short order, the writer is contacted by a shadowy group within the SFWA, who pay top dollar for what they believe to be a genuine glimpse of the future. "Visionaries" touches on many of the hot-button topics that regularly crop up in the SF blogosphere--the declining fortunes of SF magazines, the internal politics of the SFWA, associate members of that organization with hardly any publishing credits to their name who nevertheless turn up at every official gathering, resentment of new writers and their media savvy, what may very well be a dig at free online fiction, and, of course, the capacity of science fiction to actually predict the future. Though there is a more accessible sub-plot that runs through the story, in which the narrator tries to affect the life of one of the people he glimpses in his visions, it is overpowered by what feels like a succession of inside jokes with very little substance. That said, I think I'm going to have to give "Visionaries" a little more thought, because I can't help but suspect that it does have a larger point that I'm missing.

Geoff Ryman is less prolific than Robert Reed but a great deal more dependable--I don't think I've ever read a poor or uninteresting piece of short fiction by him. His novelette "Days of Wonder" is no exception, an utterly original take on the post-apocalyptic, post-human future familiar from so many other stories. The narrator is a horse, and yet not a horse--a genetically engineered creature whose species was created just prior to humanity's destruction along with many other altered animals, who possess sentience but are also ruled by their biological nature, at least until the narrator's throwback friend, Leveza, starts questioning the natural order of things--why should the old and sick be sacrificed to predators on migration? Why can't truce be made with those predators? Why can't technology be used to prevent the need for migration at all? The result feels at first like a Tiptree-esque story about intelligence and free will at war with, and ultimately overpowered by, biological determinism, but this is Geoff Ryman, and if there's anything more predictable than that his stories will be good it is that they'll have a happy ending. Fortunately, the ending of "Days of Wonder" feels earned, not least by the clever SFnal mechanism driving the story and its gradual revelation, which are both far too much fun for me to spoil here, but also by Ryman's refusal to draw the kind of stark division between human and animal nature that Tiptree so often did. When Leveza is cast out of the group, animal instinct is mingled with human emotion, and with the all too human tendency to enforce conformity and, when pushed too far, to cast out anyone different or rebellious. "Days of Wonder" ends up asking a lot of questions about both human and animal behavior, pointing out that the two are a great deal more similar than we'd like to think while still holding out the possibility of rising above our worst impulses--whether biological or emotional.

Fantasy & Science Fiction's October/November issue is worth reading for Ryman's story, though you'd probably get as much out of it if you skipped the rest of the issue and just read this one piece. It's clear that the issue was intended to draw in new readers and potential subscribers--it marks the beginning of F&SF's 60th anniversary celebration, and clearly the big guns were trotted out just for this purpose. It's a shame, therefore, that the authors in question seem to have, one by one, failed to live up to the promise of their names and bibliographies.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Vacation in Bohemia

  • In a word: lovely.  Which encompasses both the experience--I've been in need of some decompression, and it was a chance to spend time with my family and celebrate both my mother's birthday and my brother's discharge from the army--and the setting, for which I need offer no more evidence than the following:

  • On the other hand, dear God is this city expensive.  I've been to many popular tourist destinations in my day, and especially with the Euro so strong at the moment it was clear that this was not going to be a cheap trip, but much as I enjoyed Prague it was hard to escape the impression that this is a city out to bilk tourists for everything they have.  The $3 water bottles (closer to $7 in the real tourist areas), the exorbitant prices at restaurants (which, surprisingly enough, returned to Earth almost as soon as we left the realm of tourist attractions), and most of all, the price of entry to almost every attraction, often completely out of proportion to the breadth of the exhibit in question and the care taken in its presentation.  (Notable exceptions: the Jewish Museum, which for a not-unreasonable fee offers access to all the synagogues in the Jewish quarter and the extremely well-curated and presented exhibits within them, and the Museum of Decorative Arts, also in the Jewish quarter, which was both relatively cheap and so comprehensive as to be nearly overwhelming.)

  • For those craving roller-coaster rides, may I recommend the escalators on the Prague metro, especially those at Namesti Republiki station?  Long, steep, fast, and just that bit off level, plus the stations themselves double as wind tunnels.  Fun.

  • The internet, making my life funnier since 1995: On Tuesday, Jeff VanderMeer sends Niall Harrison a Facebook friend request.  Niall reads Jeff's profile and learns that Jeff and wife Ann are going to be in Prague on Wednesday, on their way to Parcon.  Niall text messages me, I e-mail Niall my particulars, Niall forwards them to Jeff, and the upside is that on Friday I had a lovely breakfast with Ann and Jeff at their hotel, which turned out to be just around the corner from mine.

  • Also on Friday: Shabbat services at Prague's reform congregation Beit Simcha, whose members meet in what was once a coal cellar.  A tiny service--half locals, half tourists, and barely even a minyan--which tickled my nostalgia bone as it reminded me where our congregation was just fifteen years ago, if you replace coal cellar with classroom at local college.  Where, to be fair, we still meet, though nowadays we have a rabbi and much higher attendance, so here's hoping Beit Simcha manage to take that step forward as well.

  • Books read: Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve (great premise but skews far too young), Spook Country by William Gibson (I liked this book better back when it was called Pattern Recognition), and on the plane, 2/3 of Allegra Goodman's Kaaterskill Falls (beautifully written but, to me, less interesting in its topic than Intuition).  More thoughts, I suspect, next time I do a recent reading roundup.  I did not get around to reading the latest Fantasy and Science Fiction giveaway-in-exchange-for-blogging issue, but I'm quite looking forward to it as the table of contents is very promising, including stories by Geoff Ryman and Stephen King.

  • Books purchased: because of the aforementioned high prices of everything, I restrained myself to just The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano, Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris  Strugatsky, Excession by Iain M. Banks, and a short story collection by Karel Capek.  I am also in receipt of two issues of Weird Tales, courtesy of Ann VanderMeer.

  • While I was gone: Stargate: Atlantis was cancelled, which frankly is a bit of shock.  What is the world coming to if formulaic mediocrity can't survive indefinitely on TV?  Not to fear, another spin-off series, Stargate: Universe, which from its premise sounds like the Voyager to Atlantis's Deep Space Nine, is in the works (the preceding is not to be taken as implying that Stargate: Atlantis's quality is in any way comparable to that of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; I make no such assurances about Voyager), but I think I may finally be done with the franchise.  This does, however, leave me with the question of what the hell I'm going to watch next summer.

  • Of course, assuming it gets a second season, the answer to previous question would be The Middleman, which despite a cute but rather stiff pilot has turned to be quite delightful--think The Avengers by way of Pushing Daisies.  The last episode I watched, featuring Kevin Sorbo as a 60s-era Middleman frozen in time, was hilarious.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Hello, Goodbye

Just popping my head in to say that I'm going to be vacationing in Prague for the next week--doing my part to make the internet just a little bit deader than it is right now.  As ever, I won't be receiving e-mails, and though I might be able to see comments to the blog I probably won't get around to responding to them before I get back.  Be good.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Recent Reading Roundup 17

The summer doldrums are hitting me hard--all the interesting movies have been and gone, for one thing, and there's still nothing to watch on TV. So, have some books.
  1. Farthing by Jo Walton - I've resisted Walton's extraordinarily and almost universally liked novel for some time now, having been so singularly unimpressed with previous offering, Tooth and Claw.'s policy of releasing selected books from their catalogue under CC licenses, however, inspired me to give Farthing a look and, well, it looks like my first instinct was right. The novel suffers, in fact, from much the same flaws as Tooth and Claw. It has an inventive premise--a Christie-esque country house mystery told in an alternate universe in which Britain made peace with Hitler and, in the late forties, is slipping, much like the rest of the world, into fascism and institutionalized xenophobia--and is for a time energetic and enjoyable, but soon begins to flag and drag, giving the impression of a short story stretched out to an unnatural length. Farthing also reminded me very much of Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Like it, it uses a specific and highly stylized type of mystery story--in Chabon's case, the Chandler-esque noir mystery--to describe an alternate universe. And as in The Yiddish Policemen's Union, in Farthing these two different genres end up undermining one another.

    The mystery pastiche keeps rigid control of Farthing's plot and overwhelms the alternate history, but when stripped of its padding it's a very straightforward story that ends up exactly where we expected it to end. The whole novel, in fact, would have wrapped up in less than a hundred pages if only the two main characters--the Scotland Yard detective who arrives at Farthing manor to investigate the murder of a prominent politician, and the family's youngest daughter, a black sheep who, against her parents' wishes, married a Jew who quickly becomes the prime suspect--talked to one another and shared one specific piece of information, which the readers are made privy to almost immediately after the murder but which the detective only learns near its end. Of course, the Farthing mystery ends up where it does because that ending serves the goals of the alternate history--to discuss the lure of fascism, the compromises people make in order to secure their own safety, and the ease with which democracy slides into tyranny. Given this premise, there is only one way for the mystery to unravel--with the discovery of a vast, far-reaching conspiracy whose members have infested every level of society and every institution within it. Farthing, in other words, isn't a whodunnit, because everybody dunnit. Michael Chabon is a good enough writer that, though The Yiddish Policemen's Union suffers from just these flaws, it remains a supremely enjoyable reading experience. His prose, characters, and most of all his irresistible sense of humor smooth over his shaky plotting and construction. Jo Walton, unfortunately, isn't as skilled. Her prose is no more than adequate, her characters somewhat roughly sketched, her political observations are neither sharp nor devastating, and there's very little snap or crackle to the novel. I doubt I'll give her another try.

  2. Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee - I've been reading so much of Wharton's fiction in the last few years that it only made sense to learn a bit more about her life, especially from a biography as well-received as Lee's has been. I don't read a lot of non-fiction, so this may simply be my ignorance talking, but I found Lee's choice of structure a little disorienting. Each of her chapters focuses on a single aspect of Wharton's life--her interest in gardening, or interior design, her affinity with French culture and tireless efforts on behalf of French refugees during the first World War--to the exclusion of all others. So that, for example, in the chapter discussing Wharton's close friendship with Henry James and his circle of friends, Lee might casually mention that, at the same time as the events she's describing, Wharton was also struggling with her disintegrating marriage to Teddy Wharton or her unhappy extramarital affair with Morton Fullerton, but only expand on these matters in their own chapters. It's an approach that takes a bit of getting used to, as does Lee's exhaustiveness, her insistence on describing Wharton's life in minute detail, lingering on the layout of gardens she admired, the itinerary of continental trips she planned, and events in the lives of her casual acquaintances. Some of this information is quite interesting--Edith Wharton is as much as snapshot of Wharton's social set and its transformation over the 75 years of her life as her own novels were--and some of it is extremely tedious, and had me wishing for the end of the chapter so that the next, and hopefully more interesting, topic could be gotten to.

    Nevertheless, Edith Wharton emerges fully formed from this biography, a fascinating, fiercely intelligent, opinionated, frequently overbearing woman whose interests were varied and wide-ranging, from gardening to philosophy to politics to social gossip, and who seems to have had limitless amounts of energy, encompassing in a single life something like half a dozen careers while also battling a mentally ill husband, an untrustworthy lover, a disapproving family and her own self-doubt and neuroses. As Lee describes her, Wharton is larger than life and yet a wholly believable and flawed person (especially when it comes to her conservative, and towards the end of her life disappointingly reactionary, political opinions). Lee interrupts each chapter with a selection from Wharton's bibliography, observing how real-life events influenced the writing of her novels and short stories, how each of them developed from its embryonic form as a sketch in one of her notebooks and then laboriously came to life, often evolving as a result of conversations with Wharton's literary friends or readings in her home. Though it's hard to escape the conclusion that Lee's juxtaposition of fact and fiction is calculated to create a specific impression of Wharton's life and state of mind, these readings do provide insight into Wharton's writing as well as her character. I can't say that reading Edith Wharton was an unalloyed joy--it's at least twice as long as I would have liked it to be, and at points quite tiring--but I walked away from it with a more comprehensive understanding of who Edith Wharton was and what interested her, which is, after all, what I was looking for.

  3. Drown by Junot Díaz - I found this collection of short stories, Díaz's first published work which, more than a decade ago, sparked interest in his writing and had several literary bloggers waiting breathlessly for his first novel, in a used bookstore a few days before purchasing that selfsame novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Given the enthusiasm and awards that surrounded Oscar, I naturally read it first, and was extremely impressed, but though the same ease with language that made Oscar Wao such a delight to read also characterizes Díaz's extraordinarily polished short stories, I can't help but wish that I'd read them first. The stories in Drown feel like rehearsals for Oscar Wao. Like the novel, they take place in the Dominican Republic or among people who have emigrated from it to the US (several of the stories are narrated by Yunior, almost certainly the same character who narrates Oscar Wao and Díaz's alter-ego), and like it they deal with the racism and misogyny that infect Dominican society as well as the limited options that poor, working class immigrants and their children have in American society--all issues which Díaz went on to explore at greater length in his novel, so that at times Drown feels like a tray of excellent hors d'oeuvre served after a lavish and filling meal. My unfortunate timing notwithstanding, Drown is an excellent collection--the title story in particular, in which a young man repeatedly resists all efforts to get him out of his neighborhood and a life heading quickly towards a dead end, is quietly devastating--and worth reading in its own right.

  4. The Orphan's Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice by Catherynne M. Valente - I read In the Night Garden, the first half of Valente's doulogy (really a single novel split in two), in which the titular orphan, an outcast in the garden of the Sultan's palace, spins tales for a curious prince, a couple of months ago, and was very impressed with her intricate layering of stories and eventual creation of a fully-formed and lovingly detailed mythology. For all my enjoyment of the first volume, however, I wasn't entirely eager to read the second. It seemed to me that Valente's point, inasmuch as she had one, had been made in the first volume. She had established that all stories were one story, that no story ever truly ends and that one character's ending merely sparks another character's adventures. And she had given the traditional fairy tale forms her own twist, highlighting the limited roles of women within them, their resistance to anyone different or acting outside their predefined roles, and creating in her own imaginary universe a place for those who are different, damaged, marginalized and monstrous. It seemed unlikely that In the Cities of Coin and Spice would have much to add to any of these themes and concepts.

    And this is, in fact, what I found. There are a few wry meta-observations on the nature of stories in In the Cities of Coin and Spice, which I don't remember from In the Night Garden, but these are a few minor notes in a 500 page novel. More importantly, the orphan's stories, which had already been feeding into each other, so that a character introduced in one would pop up in the next and be mentioned in the one after, turn out to have single, culminating point which feeds back into the frame story about the orphan and her prince. No single climax, however, could measure up to the 1,000+ pages of buildup, chock full of wide-ranging, elaborate high adventure, which Valente has taken us through, and one walks away from In the Cities of Coin and Spice thinking not of that climactic revelation but of all the other interwoved, endlessly recursing, self-referential stories preceding it. In other words, more of the same. That same, however, was supremely enjoyable in In the Night Garden, and no less so here--everything that made the first volume in the duology an irresistible read, most particularly Valente's ability to spin a story that is simultaneously as familiar as our umpteenth reading of Snow White and something all its own, and keep us constantly aching to know what happens next, is still present in its second volume. Valente could have stopped spinning yarns after the first volume and produced a work no less compelling or remarkable, but by the same token she could have kept going for a third and a fourth. And this may very well be her point--after all, the story is never truly over.

Monday, August 11, 2008


My review of The X-Files: I Want to Believe, appears today at Strange Horizons. Shockingly, it is not positive. If you've clicked through from there you might also be interested in my posts about Wall-E and The Dark Knight.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Extremely Loose Interpretation of the Term 'Review'

Reviews of The Dark Knight are cropping up all over, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Rick Norwood's at SF Site is, by far, the weirdest. It starts out normally enough, commenting on the film and praising, in particular, Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker. Then, at about the halfway point, we get this:
Is The Joker on drugs? Heath Ledger died from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. Was he taking drugs when he played The Joker? I don't know, but I hope not. Good as The Dark Knight is, it is not a film worth dying for.
Believe it or not, it gets even more mind-boggling. The review proceeds in what can only be called a stream of free associations, as Norwood muses on drug-addled artists of the past, America's hypocritical attitude towards drug use, George W. Bush's drug history, and racism. Each thought is only tangentially related to the one before (or indeed to the sentences preceding and following it), and has absolutely nothing to do with The Dark Knight. "Sorry if this review has been a downer," Norwood says in his concluding sentence, but what he should be apologizing for is using the word 'review' to describe what we've just finished reading.

I'm not a regular reader of SF Site (this review was pointed out to me by Niall Harrison), but I do read their book reviews on occasion, and usually like what I find. I especially like their end of year readers' and editors' polls, which can be relied upon to provide a pair of interesting lists and an even more interesting comparison between them. But their media coverage sucks. Their television column is a joke (and, unsurprisingly, also by Norwood), not much more than a glorified TV Guide inset, and this review simply screams editorial negligence. I don't know which would be worse--that Norwood's editor waved his Dark Knight review through without reading it, or that he or she did read it and thought it publishable. Either way, if this is the kind of care and attention SF Site gives its media reviewing, it might as well not bother.