Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Recent Reading Roundup 21

2009 started with a bit of a reading slump, from which I've only recently started to come out, which is why there's been a bit of silence on the recent reading roundup front. The recent arrival of an Amazon order will probably help with that, but in the meanwhile here are some of the books I did manage to read in the first months of the year.
  1. The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway - I was expecting to get a blog post out of Harkaway's much-discussed debut, but instead I ended it completely uncertain of my feelings. I still can't decide whether the novel is wonderful, or just a whole lot of wankery, or a whole lot of wonderful wankery. Harkaway's story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in which the laws of the physics have been overturned, and most of the planet is a nightmare realm in which reality is fluid and disconnected from reason. The ragged remnants of humanity huddle behind the protection of the Jorgmund Pipe, a massive construction that sprays FOX, a reality-affirming agent, and creates a livable zone within the Pipe's confines. But now the Pipe is on fire, and the narrator and his friends, a crew of soldiers-turned-mercenaries and all-around badasses, have been recruited to put it out. If this all sounds rather fuzzy and nonsensical, then I'm describing it right--The Gone-Away World achieves its effect not through plot but through Harkaway's narrative voice, a relentless barrage of Neal-Stephenson-on-acid style verbiage, piling digression over digression, never failing to introduce even the most minor character by climbing half a dozen generations up their family tree or even the most obvious concept by reaching all the way back into the Paleozoic to explain its development (at one point Harkaway explains the original use of canaries in mine shafts), and always happy to geek out over all things laddish, loud, or cool. Plus ninjas. Lots and lots of ninjas.

    Happily, Harkaway has enough talent and chutzpah to pull this insanity off, and even at its silliest and most pointlessly digressive The Gone-Away World is never less than a hell of a lot of fun. But it's not at all clear to me that it's anything more than fun. There's nothing wrong, of course, with writing a stylish, frenetic, high-concept adventure, but so much effort has been put into The Gone-Away World that it's hard to believe that the novel doesn't aspire to more that that. Harkaway's constant circling around the issue of power and its abuse by those who possess it suggests that the novel is more than a bold performance, his attempt to say something meaningful about weighty matters, but I don't think manages to do so. What points or lessons can be discerned through the fog of Harkaway's narrative voice are somewhat on the obvious side--power corrupts, following orders is not an excuse, don't start a nuclear war--and the novel's humanistic climax, in which the characters reject the protection of the Pipe and prepare to build a brave new world with the denizens of the unreal world beyond it, feels like a betrayal of its earlier segments, which went to great effort to stress the Pipe's necessity and danger that the unreality outside it posed to regular humans, and which aren't contravened by the ending so much as they are simply ignored by it. Despite which, I enjoyed The Gone-Away World as more than a mindless, fun romp--there is some genuine cleverness here, and some moments of real emotion and insight--which leaves me wondering whether its style is in itself enough to give the novel substance, a question on which I go back and forth, so far with no conclusion in sight.

  2. The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett - There's a hell of a lot going on in this historical novel, set in Scotland during the early childhood of Mary Queen of Scots and revolving around the warring English and French efforts to secure her hand in marriage and thus ownership of her country, but I suspect that for most of its readers the novel rises and falls with its main character, Francis Crawford of Lymond. And for me, The Game of Kings fell. I find Dunnett's method of building and illuminating her character very offputting, relying as it does so heavily on blatant manipulation. In the first half of the novel, Lymond is made out to be not simply a rogue but a blackhearted villain, whose crimes in the past--betraying Scotland to the English and in so doing bringing about the death of his sister--are compounded by his actions in present--robbery, kidnapping, seduction, double-dealing and betrayal. Even if I hadn't been aware that Dunnett had written five more novels starring Lymond I suspect I would have realized that she was going too far, and that her only possible object in so doing had to be to make Lymond seem even more long-suffering and put upon when it was finally revealed, in the novel's second half, that he was innocent of the treason ascribed to him and that his unwillingness to proclaim that innocence stemmed from a deep-seated guilt at his complicity, however unwilling and beyond his power to prevent, in his sister's death, which led him to alienate his friends and family in the hopes that they would punish rather than embrace him. I resent this too obvious tugging at my affections, but more than that, I resent being asked to feel sorry for a character who clearly feels more than sufficiently sorry for himself.

    I think that for all his self-pity and Dunnett's obvious woobification of him I might still have been able to tolerate Lymond if I found him or the reactions to him more believable, but Dunnett uses a technique (which also occurs in Dorothy L. Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey novels, and annoyed me equally there) in which she establishes Lymond's personality and dysfunction by having all of the novel's other characters talk about him constantly, not with the prurient fascination one might expect from people who, like all of us, love gossip and good villain to hate, but with genuine insight. Real people simply do not spend that much time trying to understand another person's inner workings. I can almost accept this attitude coming from Lymond's mother, but not from the two women who become infatuated with him or the young man who becomes his disciple. The only character whose behavior towards Lymond strikes me as believable is his brother, who pursues Lymond relentlessly and mercilessly, long past the point where it becomes clear to anyone thinking clearly that there's more to the story of his crimes than meets the eye--his, at least, is a human reaction to Lymond's actions.

    It occurs to me that you can write a swashbuckling adventure, and you can write a character drama about an anti-hero who does terrible things for completely screwed up reasons but still remains believably human, but that it's very rare for novels to manage both (for some reason television has a better track record with this combination). Lymond should be completely screwed up--on top of his guilt and the effects of alienation from his nation and family, he spent several years languishing in a slave galley, and had to do terrible things to escape it and return to Scotland--but in Dunnett's hands he's merely attractively screwed up, his dysfunction simply another method of securing the reader's affections. All told, The Game of Kings gives off the definite whiff of an author who is far too infatuated with her main character to make him a real person (see, again, Peter Wimsey), and this left me feeling far too uncomfortable to go any further with the Lymond novels.

  3. God is Dead by Ron Currie Jr. - Currie's novel in stories, which imagines the repercussions after God, having taken the form of a young woman in a Sudanese refugee camp, is killed by a janjaweed gang, received rapturous praise from Victoria Hoyle in Strange Horizons and on several occasions afterwards, but I find myself less enthusiastic. Currie is a good, if unostentatious, writer, and achieves much with a quietly turned phrase (though on occasion he goes over the top, such as when Colin Powell visits the refugee camp shortly before God's death and starts speaking like his own caricature--"Ain't that a bitch, huh? I get the job because I'm black, and my boss won't talk to me because I'm black"). Some of the quieter pieces here are quite affecting, such as "The Bridge," in which a young girl's certainty about the shape her future is going to take and her ability to control it is contrasted with the first intimation that something fundamental has changed in the world, and "Indian Summer," in which, in the wake of civic breakdown, a group of young survivors huddle together in the home of one their members' parents and make a suicide pact. But Currie starts to lose me when he begins to imagine the world that rises out of the old world's ashes, not so much because his speculation isn't believable (it isn't, but this hardly feels like the point) but because it becomes more and more difficult to imagine the connective tissue between his world and ours, to picture the skipped steps that lead, for example, to a war between Evolutionary Psychologists and Postmodern Anthropologists, or an entire nation deciding to use nanite technology to erase all their unpleasant memories. By its end, God is Dead feels less like a novel about the effects of God's death and more like Currie indulging his taste for the weird in any direction that catches his fancy.

  4. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri - In a word, stunning. I actually don't consider myself much of a Lahiri fan, since I tend to get bored by the sameness of her stories and the narrowness of her focus. The same details seem to recur endlessly in her stories with only slight variations--a Bengali couple immigrating to the US in the 70s, the father a scientist or engineer, the mother a homemaker, their marriage arranged but nonetheless respectfully affectionate, a slow climb up the social ladder culminating in a house in the suburbs but always oriented towards the motherland in its rituals, in the friends the parents make, and in their connection to the family they left behind, the story told in the present day in which the couple's Americanized children are struggling with their own identity. In Unaccustomed Earth, however, she's reached a whole new level with her prose--already quite remarkable in Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake--which is so supple and delicate that it completely short-circuits my objections to the predictability of her plots. With a few breathtaking sentences, she creates wholly believable characters, people who may not be anyone special and whose problems and feelings are shared by many others, but whose undeniable humanity makes them utterly fascinating and completely sympathetic. Standout stories include the title piece, in which a father and his grown up daughter deal with their grief over their wife and mother's death, and the shapelessness of their lives in the wake of that death, "Hell-Heaven," in which the young narrator observes her mother's unrequited love for a young friend of the family, and "Going Ashore," the last in a trio of stories about the characters Hema and Kaushik (though I was less impressed with the first two stories), which effortlessly weaves together the characters' meeting and parting and real-world events such as the 2006 tsunami, but really, there's hardly a false note to be found in any of these stories.

  5. A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham - I've been a big fan of Abraham's short stories for about as long as I've been avoiding his fantastically well-received epic fantasy quartet The Long Price. Having finally gotten around to reading the first installment, I'm not sure that I shouldn't have stuck with the short stories. A Shadow in Summer, which revolves around a conspiracy to destabilize a flourishing city-state by killing its andat, a concept-made-flesh controlled by a magician (here called poet), who is the source of its economic supremacy as an exporter of wool and fabric, is well done, and its emphasis on economics and trade as the driving forces in an epic fantasy is refreshing (and, as in Abraham's Hugo nominated story "The Cambist and Lord Iron", very lucidly explained). I also liked the fact that the story was driven as much by raw emotion and hurt feelings as it was by delicate political maneuvering: the former trainee poet Otah wants to live a life of obscurity but can't stop wondering about the opportunities he walked away from and the world outside his city; his lover Liat is self-centered and ambitious, and when she's used as a pawn in the ploy to kill the poet and thus free the andat she has trouble seeing beyond her own hurt feelings and need for comfort and validation; her employer Amat learns of the plan to destroy her city and of the complicity of her own employer in it, and vows revenge more in retribution for the terror she suffered while fleeing the conspirators than for the sake of justice.

    Much as I enjoyed both of these aspects of the novel, they're not so well handled that I understand the praise lavished on it (especially when one considers that China Miéville has done much better work with both of them). In particular, I can't help but note similar problems with the characterization in A Shadow in Summer as I found in The Game of Kings. Though Abraham writes much better characters than Dunnett and isn't trying to make martyrs of any of them, he still achieves characterization more through talking than action. A great deal of the novel is given over to the characters musing about their angst and problems, perfectly articulating their issues in a way that struck me as wholly unbelievable. Many conversations--most especially those between the andat and the poet's young apprentice--also double as infodumps for Abraham's character work, and once again it strains credulity that people would spend so much time thinking and talking about other people (though again, Abraham does a better job than Dunnett, and in this particular example there is a much better explanation for the two characters' fascination with the poet--the andat wants to manipulate him into giving him his freedom; the apprentice wants to learn from his mistakes so that when the time comes he will have an easier time controlling the andat--than in The Game of Kings). I can't help but feel that A Shadow in Summer is considered remarkable for an epic fantasy or in comparison with other epic fantasy novels, whereas when I compare it to other fantasy novels, or to other character dramas which seek to illuminate their characters' inner conflicts and dysfunctions, it comes off enjoyable but shallow.

  6. The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien - Another novel-in-stories, this fictionalized autobiography blends fact and fiction to create a multifaceted, at times self-contradictory portrait of O'Brien's time in Vietnam. In one story, "Speaking of Courage," one of O'Brien's teammates returns home after the war still struggling with a failure of nerve which led to a mutual friend's death. Following that piece is "Notes," in which O'Brien discusses the genesis of the story and the real man who inspired it and eventually took his own life, but then in "In the Field," O'Brien himself takes responsibility for the death of the friend in question. Similarly, in "The Man I Killed," "Ambush," and "Style," O'Brien both does and does not claim to have killed a Viet Cong soldier with a grenade. These metafictional games aside, it took me a while to get into The Things They Carried, both because the individual stories are a little thin, and because I don't share the American fascination with Vietnam (I usually just find myself wondering what the Vietnamese make of the fetishization of the war in American popular culture). As I got deeper into the collection, however, and as an image began to form of the men O'Brien served with, it became clear that O'Brien was trying to do more than write about his buddies or about the senselessness of a war from which some of them never returned and by which all of them were damaged. The heart of the collection, I think, is the story "How to Tell a True War Story," which ultimately concludes that you can't, that any time you make a story out of the events of a war you've lost some fragment of the truth along the way. It's this metafictional quality--as well as the vividness of the portraits O'Brien paints of the men in his company--that I found most compelling about The Things They Carried, and which enables it to make a meaningful statement about Vietnam and war in general.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The 2009 Hugo Awards: The Novelette Shortlist

Of the three short fiction categories, the novelette shortlist is the one I most look forward to in my annual Hugo reviews. It's where the best stories are generally found, and its overall quality is consistently high. So I sort screwed myself this year by reading so many novelettes and nominating for the Hugo, because though this year's novelette shortlist is pretty impressive, it's also made up, with only one exception, of stories I read, liked, and then rejected in favor of others I liked better. It's therefore a little hard for me to feel excited about this year's novelette shortlist. I keep thinking that though this is a strong bunch of stories, it could have been much stronger, which oddly enough is even more disappointing than the weak short story shortlist.

The only story on the shortlist I hadn't read before the nominees were announced was Mike Resnick's "Alastair Baffle's Emporium of Wonders," which might go some way towards explaining why I took so long getting around to this shortlist review, but when I did finally read the story I was, relatively speaking, pleasantly surprised. In the Torque Control discussion of this story, commenters split their time between being baffled by its presence on the shortlist and being baffled by the effusive praise for it in the quoted reviews, but I think Rich Horton (who spoke warmly about the story in his own shortlist review, then backtracked somewhat in the Torque Control comments) gets it about right when he says that for a Mike Resnick story, "Alastair Baffle" is pretty decent. Sure, the story--in which two nonagenarians makes one last foray from their old age home to find the magic shop where they met as children--is mawkishly sentimental, blatantly manipulative and poorly written. But it isn't as mawkishly sentimental as "Travels With My Cats." And it isn't as blatantly manipulative as "Down Memory Lane." It certainly isn't as poorly written as "A Princess of Mars" or "All the Things You Are" or "Article of Faith." (If there's one compelling reason for me to stop writing these Hugo short fiction reviews, it is that because of them I have inadvertently become something of an expert on the short fiction of Mike Resnick.) "Alastair Baffle" is merely somewhat less than mediocre, and though obviously this means that in a sane world it never should have made it onto the Hugo ballot, the fact is that Mike Resnick stories are going to make it onto the ballot. Like the sandwiches in British train station cafes, they are how SF fandom pays for its sins, and this particular nomination is a great deal less embarrassing than many others, some of which have even earned Resnick a win.

Like the Kij Johnson story on the short story ballot, James Alan Gardner's "The Ray-Gun: A Love Story" was getting a lot of positive buzz in the final months of 2008, including appearances on several best of year lists and the Nebula final ballot. And as with the Johnson story, I find myself left out of the party. "The Ray-Gun" is a sweet, nicely done story about a boy who finds a ray gun, the relic of a distant, alien war which has fallen to Earth. Being a science fiction fan, he's convinced that having found the ray gun makes him special, and destines him to a future as a superhero or an interstellar warrior. But for all his preparations, and all the sacrifices he makes for the sake of his special destiny, Jack's life is thoroughly ordinary, and the secrets he keeps damage his relationships until he finally has to choose between the ray gun and an ordinary life. This description makes "The Ray-Gun" sound angsty and dramatic, but as the subtitle says this is a love story, and its tone is light, bordering on fairy tale-like, with short, declarative sentences ("Jack wondered where the weapon had come from. Had aliens visited these woods? Or was the gun created by a secret government project?") defusing most of the potential for high emotion.

The result is pleasant but not very exciting. If I had to guess, I'd say that it's the appeal to so many readers' own experiences as young science fiction fans, convinced that any minute their life was going to transform into something out of their favorite stories, that is at the root of "The Ray-Gun"'s appeal (though by the same token it's not much of a stretch to view the ray gun as a metaphor for being an SF fan, and the story's ending, in which Jack and his new girlfriend send the gun to the bottom of the ocean, as saying that if you want to get a girl, you'll have to give up that creepy science fiction habit). I can't say that I think nostalgia and sentimentality are, on their own, good enough reasons to give a story a Hugo nomination, or indeed to lavish it with all the praise that "The Ray-Gun" has received.

Metafictionality rears its head again, somewhat more successfully, in Elizabeth Bear's "Shoggoths in Bloom." On the eve of WWII a black university professor comes to Maine to study the shoggoths, Lovecraftian monsters which seem to defy the fundamental laws of biology and evolution. It's a nicely atmospheric piece, and does a good job tying together the protagonist's investigation of the shoggoths and his dark musings about racial prejudice--which is expressed genteelly in the behavior of the local fishermen and violently in the Kristallnacht riots, which take place shortly after the story's beginning--most particularly in the choice the protagonist faces in the story's end, between the freedom of one persecuted minority and another. I liked "Shoggoths in Bloom," but unlike other Lovecraft pastiches such as Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald" (PDF) or Charles Stross's "A Colder War," I also can't help but feel that my never having read Lovecraft is a barrier to fully appreciating it. For example, I assume that the story's emphasis on racism is supposed to be intensified by knowledge of Lovecraft's own well-document racism, and I'm wondering if there are other nuances that have gone over my head because I lack the proper grounding. I'm not sure how fair a criticism this is--and maybe the distance I feel from the story has nothing to do with Lovecraft and everything to do with the story itself--but the bottom line is that "Shoggoths in Bloom" leaves me somewhat cold, impressed by Bear's technical achievement in creating her pastiche and grafting it to the real world, but not genuinely moved.

Our final foray into metafiction comes from John Kessel with "Pride and Prometheus," (PDF) which melds together Jane Austen and Mary Shelley's most famous novels when it tells the story of the meeting between Mary Bennet, the priggish, know-it-all sister from Pride and Prejudice, and Victor Frankenstein, escaping his creation to England in one of the interludes in Frankenstein. It's a neat premise, and Kessel gets a lot of mileage out of it, playing clever metafictional games by mashing together two novels which respectively represent the genesis of realism and romanticism, naturalistic fiction and genre, and drawing comparisons between the proscribed position of women in the period he's writing about (and it is surely no coincidence that the two novels he's chosen were both written by women) and the reprehensible manner in which Frankenstein treats his creation. Though she's initially drawn in by his grief and mysterious manner, Mary, who in Kessel's hands becomes wise and level-headed (which will be very gratifying to Austen fans like myself, who feel a little guilty for laughing with her creator at the bookish, socially awkward Mary), ultimately sees Victor as a user, with the story drawing a parallel between his abandonment of his creation and Kitty's abandonment by a local cad.

If I have any complaints against "Pride and Prometheus" they are first that Kessel hasn't really got the Austen-ish voice right. His pastiche rings hollow, emulating Austen's grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure but lacking the spark that imbued her writing with so much humor. Perhaps more importantly, there's the plain fact that "Pride and Prometheus" is barely even a genre story. That's not always a problem--Kessel's story is a hell of a lot more SFnal than Karen Joy Fowler's "What I Didn't See," which quite rightly won the Nebula in 2004--and if nothing else "Pride and Prometheus" has once again reminded me to be grateful for the broadness and inclusiveness of the genre short fiction scene, since I can't for the life of me imagine what mainstream short fiction magazine would publish this story. But with a shortlist already stacked to the rafters with metafictional games, literary pastiches, and appeals to the reader's nostalgia and fannish affection, Kessel's story, which unlike "Shoggoths in Bloom" doesn't do much besides be metafictional, is somewhat devalued. Finally, given my chilly response to Bear's story, I can't help but wonder how much of my positive response to "Pride and Prometheus" has to do with my previous familiarity with the novels Kessel is drawing on.

Thankfully, we have Paolo Bacigalupi on the ballot to give us a much-needed dose of actual, future-set science fiction. "The Gambler" is narrated by Ong, a refugee of Laos's totalitarian regime now living in the US and working as a journalist. His narrative alternates between the present, in which he is in danger of losing his job because his stories, about government corruption, looming environmental collapse, and the plight of the people of Laos, don't generate even a fraction of the hits on stories about celebrity scandals, and the past, in which his father is hounded to death for printing pamphlets which tell the truth about Laotian regime. What I liked best about "The Gambler" was the comparison it drew between the two situations--in totalitarian Laos, bad news is suppressed; in the free West, it's ignored. There's a distinctly Bacigalupian nastiness to this comparison which is absent from the rest of the story, in which Ong is faced with a choice between compromising his principles and writing fluff, and continuing to write the stories he thinks are important and risk losing his job and visa. For all the harshness of this choice, "The Gambler" is atypically gentle and low-key, and its ending holds out hope for a miraculous reversal of Ong's predicament.

Writing about the story a few months ago at Torque Control, Niall Harrison suggested that Ong's dilemma in "The Gambler" represents Bacigalupi "[dealing] with his reputation for miserablism," but I sincerely hope this isn't the case since, while Ong is on the verge of losing his job, Bacigalupi's miserablism has made him one of the most celebrated writers of genre shorts of the last few years. Instead, I suspect that Bacigalupi is trying on new styles after becoming almost synonymous with the angry, confrontational tone of stories like "Pop Squad" or "Yellow Card Man," but I'm not sure this one works for him. Or maybe my problem has less to do with the story's tone and more to do with the simplicity of its plot, which establishes Ong's situation but doesn't go any further with it. I was blown away by "Yellow Card Man" because after introducing us to its protagonist's difficult situation, it changed that situation by having the protagonist make a choice that simultaneously reaffirmed his will to live and tarnished his soul. "The Gambler" is more delicate than that, which I think might be the reason why, as Niall observed yesterday, it didn't arouse much discussion. Everyone likes it--as well they should, since it's a very good story--but beyond the fact that they like it there's really not much to say.

Once again, my ballot for this category:
  1. "The Gambler" by Paolo Bacigalupi
  2. "Pride and Prometheus" by John Kessel
  3. "Shoggoths in Bloom" by Elizabeth Bear
  4. "The Ray-Gun: A Love Story" by James Alan Gardner
  5. No Award
Even taking into account the fact that I would have preferred other stories on this ballot, this is an odd shortlist, dominated by nostalgia and references to classic SF. But then, when I look at the stories I would have preferred to see here, I'm not sure they're much different. "The Ice War" by Stephen Baxter? War of the Worlds during the Enlightenment. "How the Day Runs Down" by John Langan? Our Town with zombies. "The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm" by Daryl Gregory? Superheroes meet communist totalitarianism. "Legolas Does the Dishes" by Justina Robson? A Shirley Jackson pastiche with Tolkien references. Maybe there's something in the water, or maybe we're all in a bit of a nostalgic mood. Either way, this is all the more reason for Paolo Bacigalupi to take the Hugo and remind us that science fiction is supposed to be about what happens next, though I still wish his nominated story was a little more forceful in its speculation.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The 2009 Hugo Awards: The Short Story Shortlist

I made a slight tactical error in my reading of this year's Hugo-nominated short stories when I prefaced it with a reading of Jhumpa Lahiri's recent collection, Unaccustomed Earth. The forced comparison with Lahiri's achingly immediate, scrupulously detailed prose would be unkind to almost any author, and the stories on this year's short story ballot--traditionally the weakest of the three short fiction categories--were no exception. Still, though it may be unfair to condemn the writers on the short story ballot for not giving Lahiri's limpid prose and deft characterization a run for their money, I do think it should count against the shortlist that none of the stories on it were able to remind me why, when all's said and done, I prefer genre shorts to mainstream ones. As astonishing as I found Lahiri's stories, I tend to grow rather weary of the New Yorker-friendly style of which she is so emblematic, and look to genre short fiction for qualities that mainstream short story writers often seem to disdain--plot, adventure, humor, any hint of the numinous or unusual, but mainly the willingness to look beyond the narrow confines of one's immediate environment. A good short story ballot should have reminded me that there are more stories to be told than the ones about unhappy, middle class families, and made me sigh with relief that there are still authors out there willing and able to do so, but this year's short story nominees just made me want to run right back to the suburbs.

We begin our odyssey with perennial Hugo nominee Mike Resnick. The narrator of "Article of Faith" is a priest who at the beginning of the story takes ownership of a new cleaning robot for his church, and, on a rather poorly explained lark, starts giving it religious instruction. When the robot asks to participate in church services the priest, and later his congregation, react with horror and confusion. The premise of "Article of Faith" begs comparison with a whole raft of Asimov robot shorts of a roughly similar ilk, and Resnick's construction of the robot character--anthropomorphic, human-named, soft-spoken, deferential but insistent on puzzling out the logical inconsistencies in the narrator's theology--is also heavily reminiscent of Asimov's robots. Which means that on top of failing in the traditional Resnick ways--plodding prose, obvious and predictable plot, shameless and blatant manipulation--"Article of Faith" fails by falling so very short of Asimov's standards.

Asimov was no great stylist, and his characters were paper-thin, but his robot stories had a lightness to them, an effervescent wit and gentle humor that are completely absent from Resnick's clomping, heavy-handed immitation of him. Add to this a simplistic and borderline reactionary treatment of religion--when arranging the wedding of a pregnant parishioner, the narrator muses that "it's not my job to judge them, only to help and comfort them," which sounds plenty judgmental to me; when the robot questions why services are held on Sundays instead of Tuesdays, the narrator's "first inclination was to say Force of habit, but that would negate everything I had done in my life," which, oh God, I don't even know where to start; then, of course, there's the blatantly telegraphed 'forgive them for they know not what they do' (no, really, he uses the actual quote) ending. There's been a discussion of Resnick's nominated novelette "Alastair Baffle's Emporium of Wonders" at Torque Control, during which there's been some attempt to pin down just what it is that makes him such a bad writer. A lot of good suggestions have been made, but to my mind his greatest failing is and has always been the one encapsulated by "Article of Faith"--his ability to take a subject that underpins some of science fiction's seminal works, write his own spin on it which is neither innovative nor unusual nor particularly good, and send it out into the world without a hint of embarrassment or self-awareness.

Misunderstood robots also appear in Mary Robinette Kowal's "Evil Robot Monkey," which beats "Article of Faith" hands down in terms of prose and its ability to elicit emotion, but which also isn't really a story at all but piece of one, a thousand-word vignette in which Sly, an uplifted monkey, rails against his handlers and their refusal to ackowledge his personhood. Kowal is a good enough writer that Sly's plight is compelling, but that doesn't change the fact that "Evil Robot Monkey" doesn't do anything beyond establishing that plight, or that it does so in ways that are both trite and familiar. Once again, this premise, of artificial creations gaining a measure of personhood only to see it, and their desires and aspirations, denied, has been at the heart of a significant portion of classic science fiction, and in order to be worthy of a Hugo nomination I think a story ought to do more than simply tip its hat to these works and then stop. In a way, I find Kowal's nomination even more baffling than Resnick's. Hugo voters either like him or his particular brand of sentimental pap, but as far as I know Kowal hasn't amassed that kind of following yet, and it's hard to imagine a non-story like "Evil Robot Monkey" arousing enough passion to make it onto the ballot on its own rather flimsy merits.

Kij Johnson, meanwhile, does seem to have something of a following. Last year, praise for her story "The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change" seemed to be on everybody's lips. I read "Trickster Stories" when it was nominated for the Nebula and found myself underwhelmed. It was charming and well-written. I was impressed with the way Johnson handled her inventive premise, neither shortchanging nor belaboring it, and couldn't help but be taken in by the gentle melancholy that suffused the story. But I didn't particularly like it, nor did I see why it had garnered such praise. I'm telling you all this because my reaction to "Trickster Stories" is also, word for word, my reaction to "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss," Johnson's story on this year's short story ballot. It's a nice piece with a slightly surreal premise--Aimee owns a carnival act in which 26 monkeys disappear into a bathtub--but so gentle and unassuming that it's hard to believe that, once again, so many people have fallen in love with it. There's nothing wrong with "26 Monkeys," and Johnson's voice and style are unusual enough that I can sort of see how she might deserve recognition for them, but I can't help but think that there are much stronger, more interesting, more passionate stories out there that ought to have had her spot on the ballot. Still, I'm willing to admit that this is probably a case of me being the wrong reader for the story.

Johnson's story makes for an interesting counterpoint to Michael Swanwick's "From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled," which is good old fashioned Proper SF, set in the far future and on an alien planet, and featuring interplanetary intrigue, cataclysmic destruction, fights to the death, a mad scramble across hostile, alien terrain, and bug people. Swanwick is a pro at this stuff, and "Babel" finds him very much on top of his game. It's exciting and well-done, cramming a hell of a lot of exposition, action and description into every single sentence until it draws a meticulously detailed portrait of two civilizations, their history, their cherished values, and the often fraught interactions between them. Still, given all the pyrotechnics and grand adventure involved in getting us to its end, "Babel" is somewhat underperforming.

Underpinning the story is a discussion of the economics of the two species--humans, represented by the diplomat Quivera, have an information-based economy, while that of the bug-like Gehennans, represented by the sole survivor of the recently destroyed Babel with whom Quivera flees its ruins, is based on trust--but Swanwick's descriptions of of these systems are messy and difficult to follow, and I found myself unpersuaded by his conclusions. "Babel" ends with one half of its unlikley partnership sacrificing himself to save the other, and in order to safeguard the precious (in many different senses) cargo they are carrying, but it's left to us to decide whether the survivor acted as an adventure hero would and honored his friend's dying wish, or whether he cashed in on an unexpected windfall. Obviously Swanwick is trying to undermine the adventure plot, and remind us that in the real world, it's cold hard numbers, profit and loss, that drive our decisions, but this feels like a petty sort of 'gotcha!' to the readers, whom Swanwick has worked hard to invest in the adventure aspect of his story only to snatch the rug out from under them at the last minute. I can't help but compare "Babel" to last year's Hugo-nominated novelette, "The Cambist and Lord Iron" by Daniel Abraham, which so much more intelligently and elegantly managed to fuse adventure and economics into a single, satisfying whole, without ever resorting to wagging its finger in the readers' faces as Swanwick seems to be doing.

Which brings us to Ted Chiang's "Exhalation," a story about which I've been going back and forth since I first read it some six months ago. Writing about it here, I called it "a chilly thought exercise of a story," but then concluded that Chiang's chilly thought exercises are "cooler, more inventive, and more interesting than just about anyone else's chilly thought exercises." That's still the dilemma I struggle with when it comes to this story--does the neatness of Chiang's SFnal invention counteract the story's chilliness? An interesting discussion centered roughly around this question developed in Torque Control's "Exhalation" post, with Niall Harrison passionately making the case for the story by arguing that
“Exhalation” feels to me like a kind of story that is truly unique to science fiction, and that that uniqueness, that taking advantage of its chosen form, is something to be celebrated. “Exhalation” tackles an idea that is inhuman in its remoteness by creating a literally inhuman world to express that idea — even second time through, I got a tingle from phrases such as, “every day we consume two lungs heavy with air”. If its plot and characters are subordinate to a different act of creation, I say: given how complete that act of creation is, so what?
And there is some truth to that. Certainly there are moments in "Exhalation" in which the sheer neatness of Chiang's ideas and the strangeness of the world he's created are almost overpowering--I'm thinking mainly of a scene in which the narrator dissects his own brain--but as a whole I can't say that the story swept me away as it did Niall. I appreciate it--indeed, I nominated it for this category--but I can't entirely love it, and I agree with the consensus in the Torque Control comment thread that as exceptional as it is, it is also a lesser Ted Chiang story. Whether that's a meaningful censure is something I'm still uncertain about, though I can't help but wish "Exhalation" was up against more worthy competition. That it is the best story on this year's short story ballot says more about the rather unimpressive raft of nominees than it does about Chiang's accomplishment.

Since I'm a Hugo voter this year, we might as well make this official. My votes for this category will be:
  1. "Exhalation" by Ted Chiang
  2. "From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled" by Michael Swanwick
  3. "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" by Kij Johnson
  4. No Award
Honestly, the toughest decision I had to make when making up this ballot wasn't the order of stories on it, but deciding how high the No Award vote should go. This is a profoundly unimpressive list of nominees, and though I take some comfort in the knowledge that Chiang's victory is very nearly assured, it's hard not to feel that, once again, the short story category reflects poorly on the award as a whole, and casts a pall on nominees and winners in all categories.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Self-Promotion

I was very impressed with John Langan's recent story "How the Day Runs Down," and even put it on my Hugo ballot, so I was quite eager to read more of his work, but Langan's collection Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters proved something of a disappointment. I talk about the reasons for this, and for my continued interest in Langan's writing despite being disappointed, in my review of Mr. Gaunt at Strange Horizons.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Endings and Beginnings

So, the master plan for April is to start moving away from the recent all TV, all the time theme of this blog and return to your regularly scheduled book-blogging (though in the interim you might want to read these very interesting discussions of BSFA-nominated short fiction at Torque Control), but this week was an interesting one in the TV annals, comprising an early death, a late death (though both, I would say, somewhat overdue) and a resurrection. Here are my thoughts.
  • ER - The long-running hospital series came to an end this week after a fifteen-season run, and though I've been at best an occasional viewer for the last ten of those, it was hard not to feel a little misty this week, thinking back to those first five seasons and my deep devotion to the show during them. It's not that ER was the first 'grown-up' series I became invested in--that was either St. Elsewhere or LA Law--and it's not that it was my first fannish show--that was either original flavor Star Trek or The Next Generation--but it was the series that first got me excited about television. For a while there, before everyone started copying it and before the show itself started surrendering the very things that made it unique, it was the most unusual show on TV--intense, almost cinematic in its visual sensibility, relentless in its pacing, and making the unusual plotting decision of dividing most episodes into several plotlines which followed different doctors and patients and hardly ever leaving the confines of the hospital. I remember watching the first season episode "Love's Labor Lost" with my heart in my throat and my jaw on the floor. I had no idea television could do anything like that, and when the episode credits rolled I felt shell-shocked and wrung out. I don't think it's overstating it to say that much of what we take for granted on TV today, and mainly the cinematic visuals and pacing of shows like 24 or Battlestar Galactica, dates right back to ER.

    Of course, ER hasn't been that series for a long time. It very quickly started focusing more on its characters' personal lives than their jobs, telling stories outside the hospital, and finally became a well done but traditional character drama set in a hospital, with occasional pulse-pounding traumas and, at least twice a season, a major catastrophe set in the ER or involving the main characters. Melodrama, rather than adrenalin, became the hook with which the show landed its viewers. ER mellowed, and the same thing happened to its characters, many of whom reappear in the finale: Benton the robotic perfectionist who never showed a hint of emotion; Weaver, who hobbled up to Mark Greene in the second season, stole his fries and told him he was going to make her chief resident; Corday, who showed up, took one look at Benton, and went on the hunt; Carter, the boy-king. All of them are now comfortably middle-aged, settled down with kids and more respectable, less time-consuming jobs, living happy but unremarkable lives. Like the show, and most of the characters who followed them, they started out young and edgy, full of piss and vinegar and attractive personal issues, and gradually their rough edges were worn off and they found a comfortable equilibrium. It's understandable that a finale summing up fifteen years would veer towards sentimentality, and some of the sentimental touches in the episode were very well done--using the actor who played Benton's son Reese as a toddler to portray him as a teenager; recreating the pilot's first shot of a sleeping doctor in the on-call room woken by a nurse whose silhouette is the only thing we see of her; most of all, Rachel Greene arriving at the ER as a prospective medical student--but the ER finale celebrated this mellow, middle-aged show, not the young punk I fell in love with, so that even though I feel moved at this ending, I think the finale of my ER came a long time ago.

  • Life on Mars US - I gave up on the American remake a few episodes into its run, finding it preachy and heavy-handed and missing the vastly superior British cast. Apparently I wasn't alone, because the show has been canceled after only 17 episodes (which, to be fair, is one episode more than the UK version made), but with enough time for its writers to film an ending which was, apparently, the one they'd planned from the beginning. The finale leaves me in very little doubt that I did the right thing by dumping the series. It's corny, overdone ("look at those cavemen go," Sam's mother mutters when Gene and Ray huffily leave the room after interrogating her), and worst of all, it seems to have transformed Gene Hunt into a lovable teddy bear who dispenses sage advice and gives hugs to men and promotions to women. So really, the only thing worth noting here is the ending, in which (SPOILERS from here on in) we learn that Sam is actually an astronaut on a manned mission to Mars in 2035, whose virtual reality environment, meant to keep him entertained during two years of suspended animation, has gone screwy due to a meteor storm. He wakes up to find that Annie, Ray, Chris and Gene are his crew, and that Gene is his father--a good father to make up for the nightmare figure of Vic Tyler in 1973.

    I've seen some positive responses to this ending, and for the life of me I can't figure out why. As problematic as the original Life on Mars ending was, it at least had bite. 'It was all a dream' is a reviled resolution because it means that none of the character's choices have meaning--such as the US version's Sam deciding to stay in 1973 before the simulation ends--but the UK ending added a twist by having Sam choose to go back into the fantasy after waking up. It might not have been a decision we agree with--I basically had to invent an alternate interpretation of it in order to make it palatable--but it set consequences for the characters' choices, whereas the US Sam gets to have everything--the friendship and camaraderie of his crew and life in the right, enlightened time and place--without paying a price, because he was never in any danger to begin with, and no matter what choices he made in the simulation his story was always going to end the same way. When I wrote about the American Life on Mars pilot I said that it seemed to have reversed the UK original's priorities. If the UK Life on Mars was a 70s cop show fueled by an improbable genre premise its writers had no idea how to successfully resolve, the American version was a genre series that told cop stories. After all my harping about Battlestar Galactica it feels churlish to call TV writers to task for trying to write a science fiction story, which the US Life on Mars undeniably was, but that laudable attempt doesn't change the fact that their ending was pointless and meaningless. The UK Life on Mars wins in a knockout.

  • Cupid - Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas returns with a remake of his short-lived mid-90s series about a man who is either the exiled god of romantic love or a lunatic, who is hell-bent on matching one hundred perfect couples, and the psychiatrist trying to bring him back to earth and protect the people whose lives he meddles with. The original Cupid had a devoted following which I was never a part of. I found the show cute, but not much more than that. I certainly didn't see the mad chemistry between the original leads (Jeremy Piven and Paula Marshall) that, according to hardcore fans, is completely lacking between their successors, Bobby Cannavale and Sarah Paulson. Which is not to say that I'm terrifically impressed by either of their performances--Cannavale is playing standard variety zany with very few unique touches, and Paulson, who has been magnificent in dramatic roles on Deadwood and Serenity, either needs to stop doing comedy entirely or do a different kind of comedy, as she is completely annoying in a role that feels like Harriet Hayes minus the Christianity.

    Still, the actors aren't the issue so much as the writing, and my main problem with Cupid remains the same as it was a decade ago--who the hell wants to watch a romantic comedy of the week show? I'm more a Claire than a Trevor by nature. The romantic relationships I've enjoyed watching on TV are the ones that slowly simmered and built up to something strong and lasting--John Crichton and Aeryn Sun, or, since we've been talking about ER, the way that Doug Ross and Carol Hathaway took three years to find their way back to each other on that show. The meet cute, experience complication, overcome complication, ride off into sunset never to be seen again format doesn't hold much interest for me, and neither does the prospect of romantic tension between the leads which can never go anywhere. I watched the new Cupid because Thomas earned my loyalty with Veronica Mars (see also Party Down, which is basically The Office in a catering company, only not as funny and a great deal more uncomfortable to watch), but I don't see any reason to keep watching.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

April's Links

No jokes here, I promise.
  • Just when I thought I was out: SF Signal's latest Mind Meld asks contributors, including myself, what they would have done to fix the Battlestar Galactica series finale, though many take the same tack I did and spend more time talking about the series's overall problems. Several interesting perspectives here, such as a medieval historian who talks about the series's treatment of religion (though I strongly disagree with her conclusions), and even a few people who thought the finale was perfect just the way it was. Sadly, no contribution from John C. Wright, who is always good for a laugh.

  • Over at Torque Control, Niall Harrison has started a series of discussions of award-nominated short fiction. He's starting with the BSFA nominees and will move on to the Hugos shortly, but his first subject of discussion, Ted Chiang's "Exhalation," is on both shortlists. As I say over there, I'm probably going to save most of my thoughts for my upcoming Hugo nominee roundups, but the discussion of Chiang's story is very interesting and might make me rethink my position about it.

  • OK, this one is probably a joke, but if it is it's very well done: the TARDIS gets a makeover. (Via SF Signal.)

  • Is anyone else baffled by the Chuck love-in at TWOP? Chuck is a cute show (though I'm growing less and less patient with its treatment of female characters), and after an increasingly stultifying second season the last few episodes have really picked up and tapped back into the qualities that used to make the show fun and charming (see also Heroes), but it's hard to imagine anyone being as passionate about it as the regular recapper and the author of this essay are. The Chuck/Sarah relationship as a major draw of the series? Their tedious on again, off again is a huge part of why I'm seriously considering not returning to the show next year.

  • Finally, on a more sombre note, this has been widely reported already, but I wanted to add my sad response to the news of Andy Hallett's, AKA Lorne from Angel, death. It's sad enough that he died so young, but apparently he spent the last years of his life battling illness, which is heartbreaking. Niall wonders what a good Lorne tribute episode would be, and aside from the obvious suggestions such as the Pylea triptych and "Spin the Bottle," I'm partial to his scene in "Epiphany," which perfectly encapsulated the character and his role as Angel's wise counselor.