Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My old foe

I'm attempting to edit the first of my SSWriMo stories, "Beacons", and an old enemy of mine has once again reared its infuriating head: tense. I have this horrible habit of switching tense without realising I'm doing it. This used to be a problem when I was writing history essays at university, and it has enthusiastically carried itself over to my short stories.

It's frustrating, because I seem incapable of getting it right the first time, and have to read pretty closely to pick it up in editing. And then a whole lot of verbs end up changing.

Grumble, grumbled, grumble. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

City detective spots trend

Looking back over the list of books I enjoyed most this year, I noticed a couple of trends. The most pronounced is that six of the eight books I mentioned are urban novels. Actually, in the majority the city was basically an extra character -- Finch and The City & the City in particular. The second trend is that half of the genre novels I listed were detective stories. Two more of them featured law enforcement prominently.

Looking back over the complete list of things I read this year, it doesn't look like urban detective stories were all that common. They just turned out to be the ones I really enjoyed.

I think it's pretty obvious why I like urban novels: I live in the city (or, at least, very close to it). I also think that urban genre fiction is going through a bit of a renaissance at the moment, particularly in fantasy. That makes sense, I think. Ours is a largely urbanised society. Cities are what we -- both authors and readers -- know.

I'm less sure why I've enjoyed the detective stories so much. Maybe I'll get back to you on that one.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Best books I read this year

It really is tough finding time to do anything productive in December, isn't it? The SSWriMo debrief that I promised is coming -- I have re-read two of the three stories I wrote during November, and the good news is they're not as bad as I feared they might be. I'm plugging away at some edits to the first one, "Beacons". I don't think it will be long before I'm ready to unleash it on anyone who will promise to read it and give me feedback.

For now, I thought I'd give you my picks for best books that I read this year. It was a good year all round -- I read lots of stuff, and lots of it was good.

Science Fiction: The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi

I've already spoken at length about this one, so I won't go on about it too much again. I'm not sure if it was actually the best SF book I read this year, but it was certainly the one I had the most fun reading. It was full of the sorts of things I like in my science fiction. I'm excited for more novels from Rajaniemi.

Honourable mentions: The City & the City, by China Mieville, and The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. Both deserving Hugo Award winners this year.

Fantasy: Finch, by Jeff Vandermeer 

This one is about a detective called Finch, living in the conquered city of Ambergris. The city is falling apart, infested by the fungal technology of its conquerors, the equally-fungal gray caps. Finch, who is technically a gray cap collaborator, is called in to investigate the unusual murders of one of the invaders and a human man. Things spin wildly out of control from there.

This book just drips with atmosphere. It is beautifully written, almost post-apocalyptic. Grim, but really compelling. It reminded me a little of Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville. If the New Weird exists as a genre, Finch certainly sits well within it.

Honourable mentions: Sun of Suns, by Karl Schroeder, and Kraken, by China Mieville. I expect to see Kraken do very well at next year's Hugo Awards.

Literary Fiction: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer 

Typically I steer well clear of 9/11 fiction. I only read this one because I joined a book club, and I'm glad that I did. It's about a young Jewish kid called Oskar trying to deal with the death of his father in the World Trade Center attacks. Oskar finds a key in his dad's stuff, and sets about trying to methodically work out which lock in New York it opens. Scattered throughout Oskar's story is the story of his grandparents, both Holocaust survivors.

I doubt I can really explain how lovely this book is. It's sad, and charming, and hopeful, and I think you should read it right now.

Honourable mention: Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates. One of those few cases where the film adaptation actually does the book justice.

What did you read this year that you really enjoyed?

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi

I wanted to talk about Hannu Rajaniemi's first novel, The Quantum Thief, because I think it is the kind of science fiction that I'd like to write.

This isn't a review, but I feel like I should say a few words about the plot. The book is about the master thief Jean le Flambeur. In the opening chapter, he is sprung from prison (a prison of the mind, where he plays out the Prisoner's Dilemma endlessly, against himself) by Mieli, a woman from the close-knit communities of the Oort Cloud, and her ship Perhonen. They need le Flambeur to steal something, but in order to do so he first needs to retrieve his old personality and memories. He hid them, even from himself, on the moving Martian city of the Oubliette, where personal information is tightly controlled and the seconds in your life are a commodity. Of course, once le Flambeur arrives, the great young detective Isidore is immediately on his tail.

So what do I like so much about it? I'm just going to say straight off that Rajaniemi has, I think, a very literary writing style for a science fiction author. His prose feels pretty sparse, but in a way that is quite pleasant to read. I think that's something I'm unlikely to be able to emulate, though. I tend to be wordy.

The book is really about exploring possible societal responses to things like immortality, and the digitisation of the human mind. Transhumanism, I guess. Mostly this is done through the lens of the Oubliette, where society has chosen one set of rules to deal with these issues. There are plenty of hints to other cultures and their responses to the same questions, though, generally as they come into conflict with the Oubliette and the characters trying to solve a mystery within it.

The real treat, though, is that those questions are explored pretty much entirely through the characters. Mieli is an outsider in the Oubliette, confused by its social norms. Isidore is very much part of the system. And le Flambeur is caught between the two, trying to work out how he used the Oubliette's social system to hide from everyone, himself included. It never feels like Rajaniemi is lecturing us about the ideas he's interested in; they're just explored naturally as the plot unfolds. 

That's a neat trick -- I think all science fiction writers aspire to it, but often with limited success. I'm not sure exactly how Rajaniemi does it. Lots of detailed world-building, probably. He's clearly got a knack for thinking through plausible responses to his world-building, too. It's too common, in my opinion, for a piece of technology or an idea in a science fiction story to leave society essentially unchanged.

Rajaniemi has clearly thought long and hard about what it means if your mind and personality, as well as everything you see and hear, can be hacked, uploaded, backed-up, transferred, pirated, and all those things we can do with data. That's cool. He's also come up with a fast-paced, exciting plot that keeps the pages turning. Just because you're exploring ideas doesn't mean you can't blow a few things up along the way.

It's not perfect, though. There are a couple of pitfalls I'd like to avoid (although if Rajaniemi can't, there's probably no hope for me!). The first is that the book is very demanding. Science fiction tends to have a pretty steep learning curve; it can take a while to have any clear idea what's going on. This is especially true in The Quantum Thief. Rajaniemi didn't shy away from using new words to describe new concepts, and while it generally added to the feel of the book, it did make it quite dense. A glossary would have helped, and none was present. Really, though, I'm not sure if you haven't already failed if a glossary is necessary.

There are also interludes scattered throughout the book whose reason for being there took a long time to reveal itself. A less patient reader might have been turned off by these bits. Then again, a more attentive reader than I might have worked out why they were there much sooner.

Rajaniemi also played a game with perspective which I found a bit jarring. le Flambeur's parts are told in first person, everybody else's in third person. I'm not really sure why he did that. No doubt there's a clever reason, but it's buried too deep for me, and it just sort of got on my nerves.

The book also suffers a little, in my opinion, from first-book-of-a-series syndrome. While the central plot (retrieving le Flambeur's personality) is wrapped up by the end of the book, very satisfactorily, there is an epilogue that clearly sets the scene for the next novel. I really do prefer the Alastair Reynolds/China Mieville method for writing a novel series: same setting, different plot and characters.

Woah, this got long. And I feel like I just scratched the surface. Suffice it to say, I thought The Quantum Thief was an amazing book, and I know it's one I'll be coming back to again. If anyone out there has read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts on what Rajaniemi did well, and what (if anything!) you didn't like so much.