Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A New Coat of Paint

I've made some much-needed changes to AtWQ's layout and functionality.  Not, as this post's title would suggest, to the extent of changing the template--I'd like to, but none of Blogger's other default templates are appealing (I don't even like the default version of my current template, which has a completely different color scheme) and I haven't got the HTML know-how (nor the visual sensibility) to write my own--but still some substantive changes.  Comments, suggestions for further improvements, and other thoughts are welcome.
  • I've replaced the blog's search feature with one powered by Google which, unlike the previous one, seems to actually work.  It claims to be able to search outgoing links and the blogroll, but so far these features don't seem to be working and I may remove them.

  • I've added a recent comments application to the sidebar (after trying Blogger's default widget, which doesn't have the option to display the post title, I went third party).  It's not as nice as Wordpress's implementation, but I think it'll do.

  • The blogroll, which to my shame has been updated maybe once or twice in the blog's existence, has been brought up to date and rearranged.  I may tinker with it some more--for example, right now all my LJ links are covered by a link to my friends page, but this seems unfair to the LJ writers I read and I may replace that link with individual links to their LJs.  I've also removed the links segment, most of which was out of date.

  • I've removed the about me segment, which was also woefully out of date--I haven't been a student at the Technion for four years, for example.  I'm also no longer as sanguine as I used to be about providing a link to my old Amazon reviews, most of which are best left to oblivion.  I would have liked to keep a link to my Amazon wish list, but can't quite decide where to put it.

  • The Elsewhere Online segment on the sidebar, which linked to my writing on other websites, has been moved to its own page, linked to at the top of the blog. 

Monday, May 24, 2010

Self-Promotion

My review of Kelly Link's YA collection Pretty Monsters appears today in Strange Horizons.  The very concept of a Kelly Link YA collection (and my previous experiences with her YA stories) put me right off, and if the book hadn't been sitting before me at reading week I probably wouldn't have picked it up.  But though, as I conclude in my review, Pretty Monsters is a mixed bag, there are some stories in it that it would have been a terrible shame to miss.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The 2010 Hugo Awards: The Short Story Shortlist

After two years of being a Hugo nominator, I've come to the conclusion that you can have interesting, in-depth discussions of this award and its nominees before they're announced or after, but that there isn't really enough to say to justify doing both.  For example, I've already written at some length about two of the stories on the short story ballot.  Which leaves me not only with less to say but also feeling a little tired of the topic.  After spending several months trawling through a sizable portion of the year's short fiction output, the actual announcement of the shortlists felt like a bit of a letdown.  Even though I have little to complain about, quality-wise, in the short story and novelette categories, the fact that a consensus had been reached about the stories that would be on them some time before the shortlists were announced, and that the shortlists mostly reflect this consensus, takes some of the fun out of writing these reviews.  (The exception, of course, is the novella shortlist, in which I've read only one nominee, but right now the easiest and perhaps only way of getting hold of all the nominated stories is the Hugo voter packet, which would involve becoming a Hugo nominator again next year.  To be honest, I was looking forward to a break, so it's possible that I'll give this shortlist a pass.)  So this year's short story post is going to be shorter than usual, starting with this change: I am not writing about the Mike Resnick story (PDF).  For years I've felt honor-bound to read Resnick's nominated stories, only to end up making the same criticism and expressing the same exasperation at their presence on the ballot, and this year I just haven't got the energy.  So let's just take it as read that I'm going to like least of all the nominees and move on to the others.

The one big surprise on the short story ballot--on any of the short fiction ballots, actually--is Lawrence M. Schoen's "The Moment."  Published in Footprints, a small-press anthology edited by Jay Lake and Eric T. Reynolds, as far as I was aware neither the story nor the anthology had garnered much in the way of buzz or critical attention, and its nomination seemed to come entirely out of the blue.  It would be nice to be able to report that "The Moment" is not only a surprise but a delightful one, but unfortunately reading the story only deepens my confusion at its presence on the ballot.  Footprints's theme is the discovery of the remnants of human civilization by aliens, long after we've died out or left the planet.  It's a neat concept, but Schoen's treatment of it doesn't extend much beyond neatness.  "The Moment" is made of up of a series of vignettes, each describing a stranger and more advanced form of alien life discovering a footprint on the moon, and at some point discovering the remnants of those who have discovered it before them.  There's some potential here, as the story extends to a futuristic setting a known and slightly disorienting fact of archeology--that what's left to us of the vast and complicated civilizations of the distant past is only the faintest and most inscrutable of evidence, which is often obscured by those civilizations' descendants--and Schoen's execution is, for a time, enjoyable, a riot of inventive descriptions as the aliens visiting the moon change and evolve, from a minuscule generation ship populated by identical clones who populate the grooves of the lunar footprint to an empire of sentient plants.  After a while, though, the parade of ever-stranger beings starts to pall and Schoen's inventiveness begins to seem a bit twee, and then comes the very ending, in which the purpose of the entire story turns out to be a mawkish paean to humanity's spirit of exploration.  Hugo nominated short stories are often not much more than vignettes, meant to capture a single impression or idea--a moment--but Schoen tries to sustain this single note for too long, and for too insipid a reason.

Will McIntosh's "Bridesicle" (PDF) is told from the point of view of Mira, who has woken up after her death in a car accident in a "dating center," where lonely men offer to pay for her resurrection from cryogenic suspension in exchange for her hand in marriage.  As I wrote in my Strange Horizons short fiction review, this premise doesn't quite work:
Why doesn't Mira know about the dating centers if she's got cryogenic insurance? Why buy cryogenic insurance at all if she can't afford to be revived? Why, most of all, go to all the trouble of storing and then reviving dead women in a world in which live ones sell themselves into marriage all too often? For that matter, why are there only women in the "dating center"? "Bridesicle" works because it's not at all subtle about paralleling real-world mercenary marriage arrangements, and because, no matter how contrived and manipulative it is, Mira's predicament is too stark and too horrifying to be denied. The bulk of the story is spent in her brief respites from oblivion, which are often decades apart, in which she desperately tries to please her current wife-seeker. Along the way, we learn more about Mira's life before her accident, itself no picnic—guilt-tripped into integrating the preserved consciousness of her domineering, homophobic mother into her own, Mira was unable to mourn the death of her partner or try to find a new one. Again, there's a lot of obvious manipulation going on here, and again, that manipulation is effective despite its obviousness. The story's ending is perhaps a little too neat, with Mira having found a way not only to be revived without selling too much of herself, but to be reunited with her lover, but it's a victory that is just partial and just costly enough to be believable.
For the third year running, Kij Johnson is the author of one of the most talked-about genre short stories of the year, and for the third year running, I find myself left out of the party.  The difference being that in previous years, Johnson's stories--"The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change" in 2008 and "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" in 2009--left me cold because I found them both charming but effervescent, and I certainly can't apply either of those adjectives to "Spar," her story on the 2010 Hugo ballot.  The story's first sentence--"In the tiny lifeboat, she and the alien fuck endlessly, relentlessly."--sets the tone.  "Spar" is the story of a nameless woman who is stuck on alien lifeboat with an alien passenger, the sole survivors of a collision between their spaceships, and its entire narrative is the description of how she and the alien--a non-humanoid, boneless, slimy blob--have nonstop sex.  But is it sex, or rape, or assault, or masturbation?  There is no possibility of communication between the woman and the alien, no way to know if it is responding to her actions, seeking her pleasure or pain, if it recognizes her sentience or even existence, or if it is sentient itself.  I like "Spar" a great deal better than either "Dogs" or "Monkeys" because it is such a well-done, concentrated bit disturbing and disorienting writing (Alvaro Zinos-Amaro has a nice write-up of it in Strange Horizons), but like those two stories, I find myself hesitant to join in the near-unanimous praise of it (it has already won this year's Nebula award) because really, there's so little here.  I'm honestly of two minds here, because on the one hand, "Spar" knows what it wants to do--to disturb and unsettle--and does that job very well--and on the other hand these strike me as if not modest then at least very narrow ambitions, and I'm more interested in stories whose scope is a bit wider.

N.K. Jemisin's "Non-Zero Probabilities" is the perfect antidote to the creepiness of the McIntosh and Johnson stories.  A low-key, deliberately mundane story about a woman trying to live an ordinary life in the shadow of an extraordinary event, the story sometimes seems to go out of its way to be pleasant, an effect it achieves through the character of its protagonist, Adele, a no-nonsense young woman who knows how to protect herself--in this case, from the never-explained transformation of New York into a realm where one in a million chances crop up nine times out of ten--but who is also open to new experiences and new relationships.  As I wrote in Strange Horizons,
"Non-Zero Probabilities" is more a character piece, studying Adele's adaptation to her altered landscape, than a worldbuilding piece, but nevertheless Jemisin does a good job constructing that landscape, outlining the dangers and wonders of this new world—Adele waits for an auspicious day to hire a car to go to Ikea, but on the other hand, cancer and AIDS patients have experienced miraculous recoveries. What's most enjoyable and refreshing about "Non-Zero Probabilities" is that despite describing a New York that has reverted to A Simpler Time—no one drives, everyone eats locally because out of town food supplies are sporadic, people know their neighbors—it is decidedly unsentimental about the city's transformation. It ends with Adele weighing both the good and bad aspects of her altered life, and leaves it to us to decide whether a return to normal would be a good thing.
Given the attention that both have received, I'm guessing that the Hugo will go to either Johnson or Jemisin.  I prefer the latter, but can certainly see arguments for the former.  Either way, there's no denying that these two stories, and the McIntosh, make for an interesting shortlist.  They're very different--two are SFnal, one a fantasy; two are futuristic, one contemporary; two do a lot of worldbuilding, one is a chamber piece; two set out to unsettle, one to make the unsettling mundane--but all three are women's stories, and all are imbued with an ambivalence towards wonder--be it technological or magical--and with a deep-seated doubt about its ability to better our lives, that I'm not used to finding on Hugo shortlists.  I'm not saying that this is the direction I'd like to see the award move in exclusively, but it's a refreshing change, and so long as I can count on Mike Resnick continuing to show up on award shortlists, it's nice to know that other, more thoughtful kinds of genre work also have a place on the Hugo ballot.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Horns by Joe Hill

I picked up Joe Hill's second novel, Horns, with the clear understanding that it would be my make-or-break experience with this author.  Hill wowed me with his debut collection, 20th Century Ghosts, a work that sits alongside Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others and Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners on the shelf of essential genre collections of the last decade, whose stories were both of and about the horror genre, constantly asking what it means to write or consume a genre rooted in misery and fear.  If 20th Century Ghosts skewed towards the literary end of the genre, Hill's first novel, Heart-Shaped Box, leaned towards the pulpy end, touching only lightly and with less nuance on the questions that were at the heart of his short stories.  It was a good book, but not a very interesting one, and with Horns I hoped to discover whether the writer Joe Hill wanted to be was one I would want to follow.  My results are mixed.  Horns is a better book--tighter, better written, more engaging--than Heart-Shaped Box, and though still primarily an entertaining rather than thought-provoking work, it delves more deeply into its central questions, which are here about issues of theology as much as they are an investigation of Hill's genre.  The answers that Hill gives, however, are at best puerile, at worst deeply objectionable.

Hill's crowning achievement in Horns is its beautiful, instantly captivating structure.  The book launches readers straight into its action--the story's opening paragraph tells us that the protagonist, Ignatius "Ig" Perrish, has woken up with horns, and within two short chapters both he and we understand their power.  Under the influence of the horns, the people Ig meets tell him their darkest secrets and most shameful desires, and lose the self-control and better nature that held the latter in check, leaving them open to Ig's influence for better or worse.  Hill also wastes no time in establishing Ig's background--a year ago, his childhood sweetheart Merrin Williams was raped and murdered.  Ig was blamed for the murder, but when the forensics lab processing the evidence from Merrin's crime scene burned down the investigation was terminated, leaving Ig a free man but, in the eyes of everyone who knows him, including his and Merrin's families, a guilty one.  Since then he's cut himself off from his former life and spiraled towards self-destruction, but now, with the horns' power, he sets out to discover the truth about Merrin's murder.  The investigation at the heart of the novel, however, is not a whodunnit--the perpetrator is revealed within less than a hundred pages--but a whydunnit.  The novel moves back and forth through Ig and Merrin's lives, constantly complicating our understanding of them and their relationship--we learn, for example, that hours before her death Merrin broke up with Ig because she felt trapped by a decade-long relationship that had left her with no opportunity to explore other lovers or become her own person--as we close in on the reason for Merrin's death.

There are two issues with Hill's choice of structure.  The first is that Merrin's killer, whose point of view in the weeks leading up to the murder takes over the novel in its later chapters, is such a broad caricature of reactionary, misogynistic evil that one almost senses Hill ticking boxes on a form: he's a former bedwetter, he tortures animals, he hates his mother (and later, when she becomes ill, tortures her to death), he's a racist, he's a homophobe, he's anti-choice, he's a Republican.  This is better, I suppose, than having a villain who is a left-wing, gay feminist, but what it smacks of is an author who is aware that violence against women is the bread and butter of his genre and that there is something creepy and exploitative about this fact, and who overcompensates for his choice to make a rape-murder the crux of his novel by turning his villain's misogyny up to eleven.  It's not that I wanted to sympathize with or understand this character, but Hill's construction of him is familiar from so many other authors who have gone down this path that there were hardly any surprises or revelations in the pages the novel spent inside his head.

The second issue is that though we spend a lot of time getting to know Ig as a teenager and in the last days of his relationship with Merrin, post-transformation the character is something of a blank.  His purpose is to explore the people around him and use his powers to plumb the depths of their souls, but on the question of how, or even whether, he feels about turning into a demon the novel is frustratingly silent. Early in the story, for example, Ig has a hellish meeting with his family, in which he learns that to a one they all hate him and believe that he's guilty of Merrin's murder, and snaps, attacking and seriously injuring his grandmother.  We never learn how he feels about this--guilty, pleased, scared?  This would work if Horns were merely, as the novel's final chapters strongly suggest, a superhero's origin story, tracking the process by which Ig the person is subsumed into Ig the rooter out of sins, who punishes people for the crimes they've committed and tries to steer them away from the ones they want to commit, but it sits less well with a more prominent theme in the novel, Ig's struggle with The Problem of Evil.  Raised a Catholic, Ig had a reflexive and thoughtless belief in the church's teachings until Merrin's death shook it out of him.  In the novel's key scene, Ig hears voices in a fire, and delivers a sermon to a crowd of snakes that encapsulates his new take on religion.
Merrin and I were to each other like man and wife.  But she wanted more than me, wanted freedom, a life, a chance to discover herself.  She wanted other lovers and wanted me to take other lovers as well.  I hated her for this.  So did God.  For simply imagining she might open her legs to another man, He turned His face from her, and when she called to Him, as she was raped and murdered, He pretended He did not hear.  He felt, no doubt, that she received her due. I see God now as an unimaginative writer of popular fictions, someone who builds stories around sadistic and graceless plots, narratives that exist only to express His terror of a woman's power to choose who and how to love, to redefine love as she sees fit, not as God thinks it ought to be.  The author is unworthy of His own characters.  The devil is first a literary critic, who delivers this untalented scribbler the public flaying He deserves.
Assuming that this is not simply another attempt by Hill to weasel out of responsibility for structuring his novel around the rape and murder of a woman by hanging a metafictional lantern on that fact, what are we to make of this strange passage?  The Problem of Evil is a tough one, and should be approached with an appropriate tough-mindedness, but if we're to take Ig's sermon seriously--and given that the only person who might argue with it, Ig himself, is almost entirely absent from this part of the novel we have little choice but to do so--then Hill's treatment of it is depressingly wishy-washy.  I can respect a character whose suffering leads them to believe that God doesn't exist or that God is evil.  I can even respect a character whose response to suffering is to side with evil--one of the few subplots that really worked for me in Jesse Bullington's The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart was the one about a man whose family is murdered by the title characters, and who is so incensed by the thought that while his loved ones, who died unshriven, are in purgatory, the brothers might see heaven if they confess their sins before dying, that he sells his soul and knowingly becomes a demon.  Ig's response to suffering, however, is not simply to lay all evil in the world at God's feet, but to minimize the devil's wickedness.  In his cosmology, God is a sadistic prig who punishes fornication with rape and murder while the devil has all the best tunes, winks at the sins of the flesh, and throws a good party.  It's hard to associate any depth of grief or rage with such a juvenile moral outlook, which smacks of teenage short-sightedness--Mom and Dad are evil because they set rules and boundaries, while the cool uncle who lets you smoke and drink is the good guy.

Implicit in Ig's take on God is the belief that drinking and screwing are worse sins than murder and rape, and though there are, of course, people in the world who believe this, our glimpses of Ig's upbringing and religious background don't suggest that he was raised in such an environment (in fact, when his parish priest comes under the influence of the horns, the man gleefully confesses to adultery but castigates Ig for Merrin's murder).  So it's unclear why he should have decided that Merrin's death was punishment for wanting her sexual independence (again, this is where a deeper exploration of Ig post-transformation, or even immediately following Merrin's death, would have made for a much stronger book), but to be fair to Hill, the novel's ending explodes this take on the murder when it reveals that at the time of her murder Merrin was ill with the same type of cancer that had already claimed the life of her sister.  In a letter to Ig, Merrin expresses the fear that, like her sister, she will spend the last months of her life succumbing to her darkest impulses, allowing fear and bitterness to take her over and poison her relationships with the people she loves.
I would like very much to believe in a Gospel of Mick and Keith, where I can't get what I want--which is you, Ig, and our children, and our ridiculous daydreams--but at least get what I need, which is a quick, sudden ending and the knowledge that you got away clean.
This is, to put it mildly, a problematic twist.  Again, in all fairness to Hill, he does not use the fact that Merrin was dying or the fact that she desired a quick death to minimize the awfulness of the death she got (though, of course, the devil's progressive acceptance of her right to want other lovers is somewhat undermined by her confession that she only ever wanted Ig).  By the time we learn these facts about her we've already witnessed the rape and murder first hand and know that she fought for her life (on the flip side, we also know that for what it was, Merrin's death was mercifully quick).  But if Horns just barely avoids the creepy implications of making a rape and murder the solution to a woman's problems, it doesn't avoid the complete collapse of Ig's theology under the revelation that Merrin's murder was God giving her what she needed.  If God--not the devil, and not her actual killer--is responsible for Merrin's unnatural death, shouldn't he be held even more responsible for the cancer that caused her to need it in the first place?  And are we to understand that all of the people in the world who suffer fates as terrible as Merrin's, or worse, are getting what they needed?  Ig's construction of God as sadistic and judgmental is immature, but it's replaced by something risible--the notion that all the evil in the world is part of God's convoluted, Rube Goldberg-ish plan to do good.  Hill is by no means the first author to try to solve The Problem of Evil with this horribly over-literal take on the platitude that God works in mysterious ways--see also Signs and the ending of Battlestar Galactica--and like the authors of those works, he only ends up compounding it.  This is why the equivalence he draws between God and a horror writer is so wrongheaded.  Fiction, famously, has to make sense where reality can simply be, and whereas the revelation of a clever underlying plan, however horrific its components, can give meaning to a work of fiction, to overlay that plan on reality is an act of unspeakable callousness.

A glance through the novel's other reviews suggests that for many reviewers, the simple fact that Horns offers sympathy for the devil is innovative enough to set it apart from other works of horror.  Perhaps the reason that I don't share their enthusiasm is that the devil plays almost no part in Jewish tradition, a fact that Hill himself touches on when he has a character point out, near the end of the novel, that in non-Christian religions the devil is sometimes God's ally.  As far as Judaism is concerned, this is putting the cart slightly before the horse.  The word satan appears several times in the Bible, meaning adversary, and in the book of Job--an ancient treatment of The Problem of Evil which Horns quite consciously parallels--he is God's servant, but it was probably much later that the term came to be associated with the Christian devil, who is a force for evil.  What Hill tries to do in Horns is to have the best of both worlds.  The creature that Ig transforms into gets to keep the Christian devil's outer signifiers--horns, red skin, flaming nostrils, pitchfork--while playing the Jewish devil's more mundane, more tolerable role as a heavenly prosecutor.  That, and the forced comparison to the book of Job, which forces its readers to accept their inherent inability to comprehend the universe as God does, only serve to show up the shallowness of Horns's engagement with The Problem of Evil.

This might sound a bit strange given the drubbing I've just given it, but I did genuinely enjoy reading Horns.  It's a quick and absorbing read, and while I was caught up in Ig's adventures and his quest to avenge Merrin the problems with its theology didn't bother me very much.  It was only once I finished the novel and thought about it for a bit that it became so deeply objectionable, and I imagine that for a lot of readers who won't choose to take that step Horns will simply be another enjoyable read from Joe Hill.  For my part, I think I'm going to leave him alone from now on, and wait to see if he's once again acclaimed for something more thoughtful like the stories in 20th Century Ghosts.