Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Reading generously

I like to complain about modern movies being too long. Ninety minutes is enough, most of the time, and three hours is usually just unnecessary. I also like to complain about books being too long. A little while ago, I finished reading a pleasant novella by Connie Willis called Uncharted Territory [1994], and I was all geared up to write a post about how that (17,500 to 40,000 words) really is the perfect length for science fiction.

And yet here I am reading Anathem [2008] by Neal Stephenson -- all 932 pages of it, plus glossary and appendices -- and having a great time. In part, precisely because it is so long.

I'm sure some of my willingness to give it a shot is down to trusting that Neal Stephenson will take me places I want to go. But part of it is that I consciously decided that I felt like immersing myself in a massive book. It probably doesn't need to be as long as it is, but before I even started reading I'd decided to consider its length a feature, rather than a bug.

I think sometimes it's worth reminding myself that there's an element of choice in the way that I read anything. As a deliberately extreme example, I can choose to read Dan Brown the way I read Cormac McCarthy, but I'm inevitably going to be disappointed. Or I can go in to that hypothetical Dan Brown novel completely aware of what it is, and what it is trying to be, and hopefully have some fun.

Perhaps that sounds like making excuses for bad writing. I don't think that's what I'm trying to say, though. I think I'm suggesting that I can accept averageness in one or more aspects of a novel, provided there are others that hold my interest. That may mean I'm a less discerning reader than I could be, but I hope it also means that I have fewer outright bad reading experiences than I might otherwise.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Genre accessibility rears its head again

I've recently started watching the TV show Community. It's great. You should watch it too. Not so long ago, though, it appeared to be in danger of cancellation.  A friend pointed out this article in The Atlantic Wire, which discussed a few of the reasons the show might have found itself in this position. The first item on their list was that it is so tightly wound around itself and its geeky subculture that it is difficult for a new viewer to penetrate. "No welcome mat," they said.

That's probably a fair comment. But the clever knottiness is what makes the show so great. If you take that away, you're not going to be left with the same show. So what's the right thing to do? Stick with the vision and risk cancellation, or try to make it more approachable and risk losing the thing that makes it so great?

My answer? Stick with it. If Community gets cancelled, at least it will have been great -- and its own thing -- to the end.

You can probably see where I'm going with this. That's basically the same criticism that is often levelled at science fiction (frequently by insiders): that it has become so deeply wrapped up in itself that it is essentially inaccessible to the new reader. I've mentioned before that this sometimes worries me.

Thinking about Community has got me looking at the problem slightly differently, though. Of course I want science fiction literature to thrive, and I'd love it if everyone enjoyed it as much as I did. But, to take an example, The Quantum Thief just wouldn't be the same book if Hannu Rajaniemi had attempted to make it approachable for everyone, regardless of their familiarity with the genre. And that, I think, would have been a shame.

I'm certainly not suggesting that science fiction authors should give up on trying to engage with the outside, and just turn inward. Engagement is obviously necessary to keep the genre lively, and hopefully at least a little relevant. And, yes, perhaps it's also necessary to provide a new generation of readers with the background they need to really enjoy books like The Quantum Thief (although I'm uncomfortable with with slightly elitist tone in that last sentence). I think all I'm saying is that lack of accessibility to a wide audience is not necessarily a flaw.

Still, it does make me sad that I won't ever be able to share The Quantum Thief (and books like it) with the vast majority of my friends.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Backstory, and Vast by Linda Nagata

Hi! Long time, no post. I'm sorry about that. I'll try not to let it happen again. Let me get back in the swing of things with something long, rambling, and lacking in concrete conclusions, eh?

I just finished reading Vast [1998] by Linda Nagata. It's the fourth book in a series called The Nanotech Succession. It's also the first book in the series that I've read. I chose to start with that book for three reasons*. The most relevant is that I was interested to see what it was like reading a sequel without any knowledge of its forerunners.

I should say that Vast isn't a sequel in the strictest sense, since it is intended to stand on its own. Nevertheless, I'm pretty sure that it shares at least one major character with earlier novels in the series, and that it heavily references events and places from them.

Nagata has done a wonderful job -- I really enjoyed the book. I never felt lost or confused, and I was always clear on the characters' motivations. The science fictional ideas that underpin the book were introduced naturally. There's a lot of looking backwards, but I think that's a deliberate choice, not an unintended consequence of being the fourth book in a series.

All the same, I never quite managed to shake the feeling that events in Vast would have had more impact if I'd read the earlier books in the series. That got me thinking about worldbuilding. A while ago I read a quote by M. John Harrison (via China Mieville and Warren Ellis), in which he laid into the whole endeavour. You can read the whole (short) thing here, but I'm going to repeat part of it:
"Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done."
I love complex, rich worldbuilding -- it's part of the reason that I'm such a fan of Ian McDonald, China Mieville and Neal Stephenson**. But I wonder if the act of trying to write it all down and codify everything somehow deadens it a little. Could that perhaps be what I was picking up in Vast

I think I believe that worldbuilding and backstory should exist solely to serve the present narrative, but how can they do that with complete freedom if they're already set in stone? Is some quality of Vast smoothed over by the existence of the earlier books in the series? I have no idea. Probably I'm just imagining that there's something there (or not there) because I know those other books exist.

But still, it does make me want to experiment. Build a world, and then write stories in it. Write stories in a world I haven't built yet. See if they feel different.

* The second reason was that Vast is the book set farthest in the future, and I particularly like far future SF. The third reason is that Alastair Reynolds spoke highly of it, mentioning specifically that it stood on its own merits. Call it a best case for my experiment.

** Maybe what I love about the worlds those authors build is that there's so much in them that I don't understand, or that isn't fully, laboriously, explained? Maybe that's also why epic fantasy isn't really my favourite thing?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

You have mail

I'm in the mood for space opera. So, here are two delivery runs for TransGalaxy Class D Freight crews -- the bravest, craziest, most desperate cargo haulers in the galaxy. Just add protagonists!


Summary: three TransGalaxy ships, three packages, only one of them legit.

Setup: the Silicon Sceptre is the symbol of the First Warlord of Aarn. Its bearer commands the Aarns, their armies and their glorious space navy. The current Grand Warlord, Hanaarn XXIV, has just died in his sleep. His son and heir, Hanaarn XXV, is across the Frontier Zone fighting as a mercenary in the Belt Wars. The old Warlord's brother, Hanaarn XXV's uncle, takes the opportunity to launch a coup, and seize the Sceptre for himself.

But the old Warlord's loyal batman sneaks the powerful artifact off Aarn, and rushes to place it in the hands of the rightful heir. Aarn security forces are in hot pursuit, and so three TransGalaxy ships are hired to hide the true bearer of the Silicon Sceptre.

  • Off to a bad start -- as the three TransGalaxy ship crews leave the briefing, Aarn security forces attack!
  • Sabotage! -- there's a traitor on board, and he/she/it has rigged the reactor to blow!
  • The exchange -- half way to the delivery point, the three TransGalaxy ships meet to swap cargoes, further complicating things for the pursuers. But one of the Captains is in the pay of the Aarns!
  • "You’re the traitor!", "No, you’re..." -- tensions are high on board the ship.
  • The Belt Wars -- the delivery takes the crew right into the middle of a war zone, in a dense asteroid field. Some fancy flying -- and fighting -- is required.
  • "Thanks, but no thanks." -- they’ve found Hanaarn XXV, but he refuses to sign for the Sceptre.


Summary: the Ghost Fleet is a myth. It isn't real. Nevertheless, the client wants a package delivered to its Admiral.

Setup: the Bandeth Sector is a shipping hazard. It's a complete mystery why ships go missing as they pass through it -- a black hole or other navigational hazard, or maybe pirates? The locals, though, swear it's the Ghost Fleet of Bandeth, led by the vicious (and long dead) Admiral Iron Xil.

In reality, the Sector is home to a huge Leviathan, a giant living creature attracted to radiation put out by fusion drives. Iron Xil is a crazy old Ahab, leading a small flotilla of ships on an endless hunt for the Leviathan. The myth of the Ghost Fleet is carefully cultivated to keep the galaxy's big game hunters away. Of course hunting a single beast for a hundred years will drive anyone a bit crazy...

  • The client -- just who is this guy anyway, and what could he possibly be shipping to a myth?
  • "We don’t talk about that here." -- the crew arrive on the borders of the Bandeth Sector and start asking questions. The locals don't like talking about it.
  • "Oh no, I’m not going back there!" -- the crew meet a survivor of a trip through the Bandeth Sector, with potentially useful information, but he's a little reluctant.
  • Ship graveyard -- there's three things about the ships in this graveyard: first, they've been smashed by something huge. Second, they've been carefully stripped for parts. Third, they're dangerous to navigate!
  • Leviathan! -- it's only a matter of time until the beast itself is attracted to the TransGalaxy ship!
  • Boarding action -- okay, now the crew have tracked down the myth, how exactly do they get him to take the package?
  • "Of course, now I can’t let you leave..." -- Iron Xil is revealed as just a man, and that's a secret he needs to protect.

Any comments?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Navigating NPR's Top 100

Just a really quick one today, in which I steal content from elsewhere. I posted a little over a month ago about NPR's Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books. The folks over at SF Signal have quite rightly pointed out that the list is long, consists of books that vary greatly in style and content, and doesn't come with a handy guide.

So, T. N. Tobias has prepared a nifty flowchart to help you find the sort of book you're looking for. Shrunk down really small, it looks like this:

Useful, no? Even if you've read most of the books on the list, it's always interesting to see how someone else chooses to sub-divide books. For example, I'm not sure I would have defined Iain M. Banks' Culture series by its humour.  My favourite book in that series, Use of Weapons, was actually pretty grim.

Also: people seem to like their Military SF!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Help! Space opera written by women?

I was at Galaxy Books today, shopping for a gift. I've had a bit of a hankering for space opera recently, so I figured while I was there I'd pick up something to satisfy that urge. Naturally, I went looking for something written by a woman.

It turned out to be a real challenge. I don't often go into bookstores completely cold, but space opera has always been easy to find: just look for the books with spaceships on the cover. And, honestly, if you just cast your eye casually across a shelf in the science fiction section, you're bound to see lots of spaceships.

I noticed today that whenever I let my eye wander to a random section of shelf, I'd end up staring at a book written by a man. I eventually had to start working my way systematically through the shelves just to find the books written by women. Obviously I knew that there were more science fiction books written by men than women, but I think I've avoided being directly exposed to that fact this year by always going in prepared, with a list of specific authors I was looking for. Today really brought home how huge the gender discrepancy is in sci-fi publishing; suddenly, my male-dominated reading history seems a bit unsurprising. Which is sad.

(Also, is it just me, or are science fiction novels written by women much more likely to have people -- especially women -- on the cover than science fiction novels written by men?)

I ended up walking out the door with Undertow [2007], by Elizabeth Bear. I expect I'm going to enjoy it -- Dust [2007] and Chill [2010] have been two of this year's highlights for me -- but I confess I was a little disappointed. I already know Elizabeth Bear is great; what I was looking for was space opera written by somebody who was new to me.

So, if you're reading this, help me out! Throw your suggestions for good space opera written by women into the comment thread below. I tried Google, but I just came up with lots of lists of books written by men. What should I be reading?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Missing the obvious

Last time, I said this:
I can't actually think of any examples of myth-chasing plots in fantasy or sci-fi off the top of my head, unless you include the vast number of fantasy stories which feature prophecies.
I clearly wasn't thinking too hard about the sci-fi, because there's one obvious myth-chasing plot that turns up all the time. It's based on the Fermi Paradox, which basically goes like this: given the size of the universe, and even moderate probabilities for the emergence of intelligent life, where are all the aliens?

There's a huge amount of sci-fi on this topic, although a lot of it doesn't really qualify as myth-chasing. In David Brin's Uplift series, for example, the explanation for the Paradox forms the basis of the setting, but it isn't really a mystery. Sometimes, though, it's all about trying to chase down the solution to that puzzle. Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series is an excellent example, and perhaps that's why I like it so much. My recollection is that first book in the series -- Revelation Space [2000] -- even begins on an archaeological dig.

Oh, hey, look: Jo Walton wrote an article on the Fermi Paradox in science fiction for Tor.com. So there you go.

I've also been pondering the possibility that the Big Dumb Object story is somewhat related to the myth-chasing plot. There are obvious differences -- the Big Dumb Object isn't exactly something you have trouble finding! But the process of unravelling its purpose, and how it got from there (wherever there is) to here, is not entirely dissimilar to piecing together the truth behind a myth. Maybe that's a bit of a stretch, though. What do you think?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Things I like #6: chasing myths

I blame Indiana Jones. Or possibly the The Goonies. If there's a plot that I'm a total sucker for, it's the one where the protagonists go off chasing a myth that -- gasp! -- turns out to be real. It's pretty clear I'm not alone, since this is a storyline that turns up again and again: the National Treasure movies, the Mummy movies, The Da Vinci Code [2003] by Dan Brown, the Uncharted video games, the Supernatural TV show, and probably dozens more examples.

So what's the appeal? The easy answer is familiarity. All of the things in the list above rely on that for their success, with varying degrees of cynicism. I think it's no coincidence that a lot of them aren't actually very good. "Everybody loves Indiana Jones, right? Let's do that, only different!" might be enough for a diverting 90-minutes (or 300 pages), but it's probably never going to be more than that.

I don't want to suggest, though, that the myth-chasing plot can never rise above the level of nostalgic light entertainment. I'm pretty sure I don't think that's true -- I mentioned my love for the Mellified Man story arc in my review of The Dervish House [2010] by Ian McDonald. It's a perfect example of this sort of plot. So what makes it better than the awful National Treasure movies (aside, obviously, from the quality of the writing)?

I think the first place that myth-chasing plots fall down is that they go for the obvious targets: the Ark of the Covenant, the Spear of Destiny, Shambhala. And then, of course, they add Nazis. A big part of the joy for me in reading about the Mellified Man was that I'd never heard of it before. History is absolutely full of neat little things like that, which provide excellent leaping-off points for this sort of plot. Take the Baghdad Battery, or the sixteenth-century mechanical monk. The best of these stories seem almost unbelievable. I love being surprised by history.

When they're done well, myth-chasing stories actually give you two interrelated narratives, both of which are important. The first is the myth itself: where did it start, how did it weave its way through history, how was it changed and distorted by that passage, how did it eventually pass out of sight. The second is the story of the myth-chasers, trying to piece together this damaged and fragmentary trail.

It seems to me that those two interconnected narratives leave you with a lot of scope for interesting structural tricks. They also demand that you write intelligent protagonists, since we're talking about puzzles that have gone unsolved for a long, long time. I'd say this is a pretty common failure point for myth-chasing plots. 

I'm not sure where I come down on the need for realism. Clearly I'm not a stickler for it, otherwise my love for The Mummy wouldn't be so deep. But ambiguity is often much more interesting. It's never really discussed whether the Mellified Man actually has miraculous healing powers, because it's mostly besides the point. I suppose it depends on what sort of story you're trying to tell.  

I'm particularly interested in how you might use this sort of plot in fantasy or science fiction. It's easy enough to write about the Holy Grail, but what if your setting doesn't contain familiar legends to fall back on? It's a much trickier game then, particularly in anything shorter than a novel. You need to build up the myth, and then take it apart again. 

Incidentally, I wonder what the Holy Grail story might look like five hundred years from now? Does the arrival of Wikipedia mean these myths will essentially cease to evolve?

I can't actually think of any examples of myth-chasing plots in fantasy or sci-fi off the top of my head, unless you include the vast number of fantasy stories which feature prophecies. Can you think of any? Suggestions welcome in the comment thread, or via ambiguously worded postcard mailed to the usual address just before the Nazis snatch you!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hugos 2011: the shouting

The winners of the 2011 Hugo Awards have been announced, and just for future reference, I'm bad at picking them.

Actually, that's not really fair. Obviously when I was voting I went for the entries that I thought should win. If you'd asked me instead to pick the entries I thought would win, I think I would have guessed right in three of the four fiction categories (and I would have had no idea what to pick from the Best Short Story list). I really must remember to make predictions alongside my votes next year.

So here are my rapid-fire thoughts on the Hugo results, which I've had roughly an hour to digest. Let me get the facetiousness out of the way first: the Best Doctor Who Episode Hugo went to a Doctor Who episode, and the Best Girl Genius Story Hugo went to a Girl Genius story. To their credit, I understand the Foglios announced that they would be withdrawing Girl Genius from contention for the Best Graphic Story Hugo next year. It remains to be seen if that will turn it into an interesting category. My guess is if there's a Fables book eligible in 2012, it will win. Unless Neil Gaiman writes another comic book. 

Best Novel
Winner: Blackout / All Clear by Connie Willis
Where I ranked it: didn't read it
My pick: The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
Where it came: fifth

I'm trying pretty hard to resist the temptation to comment on this result, since I didn't actually read Blackout / All Clear. I liked the one Connie Willis novel I've read, a whole lot, but 1100 pages just seemed excessive. I kind of feel like I should give it a shot now, though, so I can have an informed opinion.

It's somewhat disappointing to see my pick -- The Dervish House -- come in last, particularly since I think it was overwhelmingly the best science fiction novel (that I read) on the ballot. That last place result is a little misleading, though, since the official stats show The Dervish House came third after the first redistribution of preferences, and was actually only three votes behind Blackout / All Clear after the first count. I think The Dervish House was the most challenging book on the ballot (that I read), so perhaps it's unsurprising that it got killed on preferences.

Best Novella
Winner: The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
Where I ranked it: second
My pick: "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window" by Rachel Swirsky
Where it came: third

Okay, so honestly, I don't think I ever expected Rachel Swirsky's story to win. It's a fantasy story, for a start, and my feeling is that Hugo voters generally prefer the science fiction. There's also a bit of feminism about it, which is another thing that I think Hugo voters don't typically like. And to top it off, Ted Chiang is beloved of the Hugo voters: this is his eighth Hugo nomination, and his fourth win. I'm okay with this result. I don't think it's Chiang's best work, but it is an interesting story, for sure. 

It is also interesting to me that "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerephon" by Elizabeth Hand came in last, fairly convincingly. I thought it was a pretty strong story, but it was (almost?) completely devoid of science fictional or fantastical elements, which seems to have ruled it right out of contention.

Best Novelette
Winner: "The Emperor of Mars" by Allen M. Steele
Where I ranked it: second
My pick: "Plus or Minus" by James Patrick Kelly
Where it came: third

I think the obvious love for the history of science fiction on display in "The Emperor of Mars" was a huge factor in its win, and you know, I can get behind that. It wasn't a challenging story, and to be frank I'd be surprised if it went down in history as one of the greats, but it did make me smile. I'm not sad to see it win.

The second place went to "Eight Miles" by Sean McMullen, which means the two stories paying direct homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs took out the first two places. Bodes well for the forthcoming John Carter movie, eh? I know I'll be going to see it, although I refuse to comment on whether that's because Taylor Kitsch is in it!

Best Short Story
Winner: "For Want of a Nail" by Mary Robinette Kowal 
Where I ranked it: second
My pick: "The Things" by Peter Watts
Where it came: third

I really don't have much to say about this one -- I've already commented that I thought the Short Story nominees weren't particularly strong this year. In general, I like Mary Robinette Kowal's stuff, so I'm happy for her that she's taking home her first Hugo.

So that's it for another year. I think if I have a closing comment, it's to encourage you to look beyond the winners to the list of nominees. Blackout / All Clear won both the Hugo and the Nebula this year, but if you read only that one you'll be missing out on some really great novels.

Oh, and congratulations to all the winners!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The history, it's crushing me

Brace yourselves: this post contains footnotes and a graph!

I may be a little bit slow, but I'd like to talk today about NPR's Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books, which was announced on August 11. This was a popularity contest: first, they asked readers to nominate their favourite science fiction and fantasy books. Then, with the help of a panel of three experts, they narrowed the list of nominees to a few hundred books. Finally, they asked people to vote.

I'm just going to get this out of the way before I go any further: there are a lot of really great books on that list. You could do worse than use that list to guide your science fiction and fantasy reading. Of course, I think you could do a lot better, but that basically just means it's a list on the internet, right?

Here are four things I could complain about, but which I'm going to (mostly) skip. 1: The gender balance isn't good -- by my count, only 15 of the 100 entries were written by women. 2: Is Jules Verne really the only non-English, non-American writer on the list? 3: Why do we always group science fiction and fantasy together on lists like this? 4: The decision to allow series to count as one entry, while perhaps practical, has produced some bizarre results. Do all 14 books of The Vorkosigan Saga deserve to sit at #58? What about the 33 books of The Xanth Series at #99?

Instead of talking about all that stuff, I'd like to focus on the thing that I first noticed: the science fiction portion of the list seems to be dominated by older books, whereas the fantasy portion is full of newer stuff. I checked my gut feeling by finding the year of first publication for each of the entries in the list. I tried to include every book in a series written by the original author (1), and I split them up into fantasy and science fiction as best I could (2).

I ended up with 276 books, 177 of them fantasy and the remaining 99 science fiction. Here's a graph (I know! A graph!) showing the number of books published per decade since the 1920s (3) in each category:

See what I mean? Only 10 of the science fiction novels on the list were written in the last decade (that's roughly 10%), whereas 74 of the fantasy novels (that's 42%) were written since 2000. The most popular decade for science fiction novels in this list was the 1990s, although it's interesting to note that if you exclude sequels, the most popular decade for science fiction becomes the 1960s. Even excluding sequels, the 2000s remain the most popular decade for fantasy in this list.

I suppose this probably isn't surprising, although it does make a little sad. We do seem to be in a bit of a heyday for fantasy (4), and we do seem to constantly hear about science fiction sales being in decline. I could spend a while speculating on the reasons why older science fiction books dominated this survey -- aging readership? A decline in visibility on bookstore shelves? A more demanding audience? -- but I'm not sure how useful that would be. 

It is interesting to ponder, though, whether this is a result of a decline in the accessibility of science fiction to the average reader. That's certainly something I worry about, and it's perhaps suggestive that two of the five original (non-sequel) science fiction novels in the list that were written post-2000 are quite mainstream (The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger).

Instead of teeth-gnashing, though, I want to try making a suggestion: next time you're nominating or voting for a list like this, when you're reminding yourself to think of female writers and writers from places other than England and America, give a bit of though to novels that were written in the last decade. And if you're planning to collate a list like this, why not restrict it to novels written after 1990? Because we all know that Fahrenheit 451 and Stranger in a Strange Land are worth reading by now, right?

What would you put in your post-1990 Top 10?

I'm pretty sure I'll be back here soon -- by my reckoning, the 2011 Hugo Award winners are due to be announced in about 7 hours!
(1) That means none of the Brian Herbert/Kevin J. Anderson Dune books, no Brandon Sanderson Wheel of Time, no Eoin Colfer Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and none of the various Foundation spin-offs.

(2) We could probably argue the toss on a few of these. Where I didn't know, or wasn't sure, I tried to use the Wikipedia entry for a book (or series) as a guide.

(3) There were five books in the list published prior to 1920, all of the science fiction. The first was Frankenstein, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, in 1818.

(4) It's worth nothing here that young adult books -- Twilight, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, His Dark Materials -- were specifically excluded from this survey. It's just a guess, and maybe a pessimistic one, but if they'd been included I suspect they would have been more likely to nudge SF books out of the top hundred, rather than fantasy ones.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, by Daniel Solis

Last time I said I was going to talk about something a little bit different: a story-telling game by Daniel Solis called Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. I'm just going to jump to the end and tell you now why I want to talk about: because it's really, really lovely.

There are other reasons why I think it is worth discussing here. For a start, I really like playing games, and I'm sure that preparing plots and characters for them has an impact on the way I write. The connection between Do and writing stories is particularly strong -- 'story-telling game' is a very accurate descriptor. I'm also hoping I can introduce Do to people who might not ordinarily hear about something like this. But really, I just want to talk about it because it's lovely.

Let me start with a picture I totally stole from Daniel Solis' website:

Why am I showing it to you? I'm showing it to you because the whole book looks like this. Beautiful illustrations of flying Pilgrims and letters falling from the sky and giant fish towing entire planets. The art totally captures the happily meddlesome whimsy that I love so much about this game. It's just an absolute joy to flip through.

So what's the premise? In all of the worlds floating in the sky, whenever people find themselves in trouble that they just can't sort out, they write a letter. Maybe they hide the letter somewhere secret, or tie it to a shooting star, or give it to a passing sparrow, but somehow it finds its way to the Flying Temple at the centre of the universe. These letters are given to young monks-in-training, leaving the Temple on their big coming-of-age pilgrimage.

The Pilgrims fly out into the worlds, and try to solve all of these problems. Thing is, Pilgrims are always getting into trouble. They can't help it; it's in their nature to drop out of the sky and starting messing around with things. With the best of intentions, of course, but we all know where that leads! Sometimes they resolve the situation to everyone's satisfaction (the game calls this a parades ending), sometimes they're run out of town by the angry villagers (a pitchforks ending). No matter what, they try to leave each world a better place.

See what I mean? The premise of Do just makes me want to hug it.

To play Do, you start with a Letter (the book includes sixteen to get you going). This Letter describes the problem your Pilgrims are trying to solve, at least as it's seen by the letter-writer. It comes with a list of ten to thirty goal words; if you manage to include all of them in the story you write, you get a parades ending. If you don't manage to use them all by the end of the game, it's pitchforks for you.

Each turn, you draw stones from a bag to tell you whether you can write a sentence about your Pilgrim helping someone, or about getting herself out of trouble. The other players at the table might also get a chance to describe your Pilgrim getting herself into trouble. The stones you draw also tell you whether you're able to include one of the goal words from the Letter in your sentence. Once one player collects eight or more stones, the game ends. That's basically it -- the rules aren't complicated, and they certainly aren't competitive. This is a collaborative experience.

Each player creates their own Pilgrim. Pilgrims have two names, like Pilgrim Bouncing Trumpet or Pilgrim Purple Abacus. The first describes how your Pilgrim gets into trouble (Pilgrim Bouncing Trumpet gets in trouble by being over-enthusiastic), and the second how your Pilgrim helps people (Pilgrim Bouncing Trumpet helps by rallying the people to action). As you respond to Letters, your Pilgrim will grow, changing either the way she gets into trouble, or the way she helps people. Eventually, she'll make a decision about her Destiny: does she stay in the world, or return to the Temple as a full-fledged monk?

Underneath all of this loveliness, I think it's fair to say that Do is actually a really great tool for teaching people about writing stories. Obviously you're not going produce wonderful pieces of polished prose playing Do, but there's a lot of great stuff here about coming-of-age stories, about character growth, about the inventive interpretation of a premise to create an engaging story. It seems to me like exactly the sort of game you'd want to be playing with your kids. Or, really, with anyone who can sit still long enough!

There's so much more I could say -- Do, for example, was a real success of the patronage funding model, raising a surprising amount of money from fans (like me) to pay for its publication. One of the results of that process was The Book of Letters, which is a supplement consisting of a whole bundle (a sack, you might say) of Letters written by the people who backed the game during its funding drive. It's a great little resource, and I expect that you'll see Letters written by fans popping up all over the internet.

In fact, I think I might try my hand at writing one right now.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Hugos: it's all over but the shouting

Just a quick update today. The voting deadline for this year's Hugo Awards was yesterday. The hard reading work is done; now we wait until August 20th to find out who won. Over on his livejournal, Nicholas Whyte has gone to the trouble of collecting together the voting intentions of a whole bunch of bloggers (myself included). I recommend popping over to take a look; it's pretty interesting. Most of the categories have clear front-runners, and they're generally the ones I picked. I wonder if they'll go on to win?

I'm going to take advantage of Nicholas' work to read up on some of the lists that differed wildly from my own. That should be a fun exercise. 

I'm also reminded that although I've spoken separately about each of the Best Novel nominees I read, I haven't discussed them together. My final vote was: 1) The Dervish House, 2) The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, 3) Feed, 4) No Award. I did read Cryoburn, but I didn't get to Blackout/All Clear before the voting deadline. With that caveat, my feeling is that The Dervish House and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms were clearly superior to the other nominees. I'd be happy if either of those books won.

And if you're interested, at least at the time of writing the vast majority of the nominees in the shorter fiction categories (Novella, Novelette, Short Story) are available online, so you can still have a read and see what you think.

With any luck I'll be back later this week, with something a little different. I'm planning to talk about Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, a storytelling game by Daniel Solis. Here's a sneak peak: I think it's cool!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

I am powerless to resist your marketing-fu (also: Zoo City)

Why no post last week? Thank you for asking! The boring reason is that I was flat out busy, but the marginally more interesting reason was that I was reading outside the genre. I did briefly consider putting together a post about the ways in which The Plague [1947] by Albert Camus is a science fiction novel. I think you could make a fairly convincing argument, but I'm not sure if there's anything to be learned from it. Maybe I'll keep that one in my back pocket for later.

I was reading the Popular Penguins version of The Plague. This series has really plain covers, and is printed on low-quality paper, but the books are very cheap (by Australian standards). That got me thinking about marketing. I do about half of my book shopping online, and half in bookstores (high five, Minotaur in Melbourne, and Galaxy Bookshop in Sydney!). Mostly I go looking for particular things, but I do sometimes browse, in the interests of broadening my horizons a little. So what makes me grab a book off the bookshelf, and what tips me over into buying it?

For a start, I am completely powerless to resist picking up a book with a Stephan Martiniere cover. I don't always buy it (in fact, sometimes I think to myself "oh-ho-ho no, you're not going to trick me so easily!"), but I'm sure I read somewhere that the odds of a book purchase increase dramatically if the book is lifted off the shelf.

Once I've picked it up, though, I'm really not sure what tips me over into the purchase. I basically ignore cover quotes, unless they're written by somebody whose work I really (really) like. And honestly, blurbs rarely make a book sound good. A lot of the time they make it sound like a collection of badly glommed-together cliches.

Which brings me, I suppose, to gimmicks. I've recently picked up a few books published by Angry Robot Books: Zoo City [2010] by Lauren Beukes, Servant of the Underworld [2010], and Harbinger of the Storm [2011], both by Aliette de Bodard. I've noticed they have this little box on the top right of their back covers, entitled "FILE UNDER". It lists the genre (Zoo City: urban fantasy, Servant of the Underworld and Harbinger of the Storm: fantasy), and four little dot points about things in the book. It's hard to explain, so I'll just provide the lists for the two books: 

Servant of the Underworld: Aztec mystery, locked room, human sacrifice, the dead walk! 

Harbinger of the Storm: Aztec mystery, nation in chaos, magical overlord, flesh-eating demons! 

Zoo City: gangster shamen, symbiotic familiars, teen star missing, everything breaks.

I'm very willing to concede that I'm a total sucker, but I think this is marketing genius. Any one of those phrases would probably make me think "hey, that sounds kind of cool". Put four of them in a list like that, and I just have to know how the author is going to make them fit together. Even when, if I think about it objectively, the phrases mostly seem pretty cheesy ("everything breaks"?!). It wouldn't particularly surprise me if lots of readers of science fiction and fantasy responded the same way; I think we're often quite susceptible to the cool-sounding hook.

We'll see how I go, but I may come back and say a few words about Zoo City, which I finished off a few weeks ago. It's been getting a lot of good press -- for a start, it won the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award. The short version of my review is this: if you like urban fantasy, even just a bit, you should read it. It's got all the things you like in that (sub-)genre, including a tough, smart protagonist with an excellent name. The setting -- largely, the slums of South Africa -- is engagingly different, and Beukes' crisp, somewhat journalistic writing style lends the whole thing an air of believability that urban fantasy often lacks. This doesn't read like a television show or movie, it reads like real life.

Strangely, the "FILE UNDER" list for Zoo City differs between my copy of the book and the Angry Robot website. On the website, it reads: black magic noir, pale crocodile, spirit guardians, lost stars. Having now read the book, I actually like that list better, although it does perhaps seem a little more genre-heavy than the one that appeared in print. "Pale crocodile", while completely appropriate, is a particularly interesting choice. I'd love to speak to the person who picked that one, and ask her why.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Woah, woah, we're half way there

Remember January? Everything was a different shape then. My terribly short career as a geophysicist was just coming to an end, and I lived in a different city to the one I live in now. Crazy times. It's totally fair enough, then, if you've forgotten that I posted in January about wanting to read more novel-length genre fiction written by women. I had noticed, you see, that my bookshelves were completely dominated by men, and I couldn't think of any good reason why that should be the case.

I've no idea what caused that gender imbalance in my reading, which I suppose means that unconscious bias was a very real possibility. So, I figured that maybe if I made an effort to hunt out genre fiction written by women I could train myself out of a bad habit. The year is half over now, and I thought it might be interesting to reflect on how that's all worked out so far.

Here's the short version: great!

The longer version is a bit trickier. In fact, I've been trying for a little while to work out what to say in this post that isn't just a statement of the screamingly obvious. The task (summarise my feelings on the genre fiction written by women that I read this year) sort of invites me to make generalisations ("genre fiction written by women is like this…" or "genre fiction written by women differs from genre fiction written by men in these ways…").

But the books written by women I've read this year include hard SF, sociological SF, a time travel comedy, high fantasy, urban fantasy, space opera, and a zombie thriller. All sorts of stuff. Just about the only generalisation I feel I can make is that the instance of female protagonists is higher than you'd find in a random sampling of genre fiction I've read over the last few years. That's not a particularly insightful observation, though, and anyway I think we can all agree that more female protagonists can only be a good thing.

I feel like everything I (should?) need to say is contained in the following: I've read thirteen novels this year. One was kind of crappy, three were solidly average, and I really enjoyed the remaining nine. Ten of them were written by women. Three of them -- To Say Nothing of the Dog [1997] by Connie Willis, Slow River [1995] by Nicola Griffith, and The Dervish House [2010] by Ian McDonald -- were fantastic, and I'd recommend them enthusiastically even to people who don't typically read SF.

Has this exercise changed my reading (and purchasing) habits? I suppose time will tell, but I suspect (and hope) the answer is a resounding yes. If nothing else, two authors have been added to my automatic-purchase list: Elizabeth Bear and N. K. Jemisin. I'm very keen to read more by Nicola Griffith, Lauren Beukes and Nancy Kress. And soon I'm going to have to make a difficult decision: do I read Justina Robson's Natural History [2003] or Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang [1992] next?

So there you have it. If there's a lesson in my experience so far this year, it's that there's a lot of great genre fiction being written by women, and we should all be reading and talking about it. And surely that's as obvious as something that's very obvious indeed.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

On the other hand...

Last time, I was talking about my love for stories that are dense with ideas. I said, amongst other things, this:
There is joy in a tightly focussed story, which explores a small number (one?) of characters, or a situation, or a single idea in depth. But those aren't the stories that make me want to rush out and write.
And that immediately made me think of Cosmicomics [1965, 1968 in English] by Italo Calvino. It's a book of short stories, each based around a single piece of science, and I think they're the very definition of charming. They may not make me want to write, but they do make me want to hug myself happily and smile at strangers.

If you've never read Cosmicomics, I really think you should.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

You, ma'am, are an inspiration

Sometimes I get this itchy, unsettled feeling. I have trouble sleeping, and I find it difficult to focus on any task that requires my full attention (in other words: I suck at my job for a little while). This is a sure-fire sign that I've been neglecting my imagination, and I need to make something, as soon as possible. Playing around with Lego helps, but something more substantial -- a comic or a story -- is much better.

I also sometimes get this feeling when I'm reading. Particular books bring it on. It's happening right now, with Chill [2010] by Elizabeth Bear. Which isn't a big surprise; I got the feeling when I was reading Dust [2007], the previous book in the series, too. This time, though, I've been thinking about what it is specifically that Chill is doing that inspires me to want to make something.

Maybe you haven't read Chill, so here are some other books that did the same thing for me, in the hope that you'll be familiar with one or two of them: The Dervish House [2010] by Ian McDonald, The Scar [2002] by China Mieville, Singularity Sky [2003] by Charles Stross, The Diamond Age [1995] by Neal Stephenson, and METAtropolis [2008] edited by John Scalzi, with stories by Scalzi, Jay Lake, Elizabeth Bear, Karl Schroeder and Tobias Buckell.

I think it might be density of ideas. Reading each of those books (well, I listened to METAtropolis) I felt like I was running to keep up with a huge array of concepts, or characters, and all of their implications and connections and complex interactions. I like that feeling. It's a sort of breathless excitement, like the whole edifice requires my focussed attention, otherwise it will rush ahead without me and I'll stop understanding what's happening. Or maybe it isn't that, maybe it's that those books are so crammed full of ideas that I want to chase after every one of them, even when the narrative is driving me in a particular direction.

There is joy in a tightly focussed story, which explores a small number (one?) of characters, or a situation, or a single idea in depth. But those aren't the stories that make me want to rush out and write. I wonder if this sort of idea-dense writing is a carefully cultivated style for those writers, or if it just seems natural to them to throw so much stuff in? How hard is it to keep everything under control? I remember the first Ian McDonald novel I read, Necroville [1994], just left me confused, and no other book by Charles Stross has excited me quite the same way as Singularity Sky did (although I've liked a number of them a lot).

So have you read any of the books in my little list up there? Can you see connections that I've completely missed? And (this is my favourite question) can you recommend books that you think might give me this feeling again?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Is fun good enough?

Let me draw you a diagram:

That's basically how I see literature. Three (overlapping) categories: the Good, the Fun, and the Bad. Simple, eh?

The Bad is pretty obvious: that's the crappy stuff that really don't want to read. It might be terribly written, or horrendously derivative, or maybe just boring. Ending up in the (tiny) overlap between the Bad and the Fun is pretty much always an accident -- I don't think you can really aim to fall into that bit.

I'm going to struggle to describe what should go in the Good circle, but I'm sure you know it when you see it. This is the circle in which (I think) authors of literary fiction try to land. For me, lots of different types of books fall into this category. Things I actively enjoyed (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close [2005] by Jonathan Safran Foer). Things I admired, even if I found them difficult (The Road [2006] by Cormac McCarthy). Even things I disliked, but recognise as objectively Good, or at least important (I'm looking at you, Moby Dick [1851] by Herman Melville).

Fun books are something else again. These are books that aren't going to win any great literary acclaim, but which you really enjoy reading. I think a lot of  people's favourite books fall into this category. I also think this is where a lot of genre fiction lives. Alastair Reynolds is an excellent example -- I really love his stuff, but I'm (probably) never going to suggest we should be giving him the Man Booker Prize.

Which books end up in the Good/Fun overlap is, I suspect, even more subjective than the other categories. I'd put most of Charles Dickens' stuff in there, but I doubt there are heaps of people these days who would agree that Dickens is fun. Some examples of genre fiction I'd include here are The Dervish House [2010] by Ian McDonald, The Scar [2002] by China Mieville, and The Quantum Thief [2010] by Hannu Rajaniemi. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if other people shunted them out of the Good/Fun overlap into one category or the other (although I'd get punchy if you tried to shift them over into the Bad category!).

So why am I going on about this? Well, I really want to believe that the Good and the Fun categories are both (equally?) valuable. I'm pretty sure I believe it when I'm reading -- I loved The Dervish House, but its good-ness didn't make me enjoy the very fun Dust [2007] by Elizabeth Bear any less. I have real difficulty internalising it, though, when I sit down to write.

Obviously I'm not expecting the things I'm writing now to be worthy of the Good circle. It's far too early for that -- I've got a lot to learn, and lots of practice to do. The problem is I have difficulty believing that anything I ever write will be worthy of the Good circle. That makes it difficult to get motivated; no matter how hard I try, I will never, ever be Ted Chiang. And if I can't ever write anything Good, why bother writing at all?

I have to keep reminding myself that there's that big circle in the middle, filled with many of my favourite books, that is just as worthy as the scary circle on the left. There is nothing at all wrong with writing things that are fun. If I concentrate on doing that, maybe I'll be lucky enough to occasionally sneak something into the Good/Fun overlap. But even if that never happens, that doesn't (necessarily) mean that I am a bad writer. That, after all, is what the circle on the right is for.

I want to finish up by saying that there's another reason, aside from the navel-gazing, that I decided to talk about this here. I think the little Good-Fun-Bad Venn diagram provides some useful insight into the reviews I write. I'm really scoring on two different, but overlapping, things: how Good a book is, and how Fun it is. Which category you consider most important is, I think, a matter of taste. And, importantly, I don't consider books that fall into the overlap between Good and Fun to necessarily be superior than books that end up in one category or the other.

(Also, I just wanted to draw you a diagram.)

Monday, June 20, 2011

Oh no, not more awards discussion!

Yup. The Hugos aren't even cold yet, and I'm already talking about another award. I've been catching up on episodes of the StarShipSofa podcast, and I just got around to #178, which contains three of the four nominees for the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Award for Best Short Story. The nominees were "Flying in the Face of God" by Nina Allen, "The Shipmaker" by Aliette de Bodard, "The Things" by Peter Watts*, and "Arrhythmia" by Neil Williamson. The winners were announced at Eastercon on April 23rd this year; Aliette de Bodard took out the Best Short Story category.

It's a little tricky to compare this shortlist directly with the Hugos -- the BSFA defines a short story as anything shorter than a novel, so the Hugos have three categories (short story, novelette, novella) where the BSFA Awards have only one. Nevertheless, I want to note three things, one in brief and two in more depth. First, I think "The Things" is the weakest of these four stories. That's interesting, because I think it's pretty much guaranteed the Best Short Story Hugo this year.

Aliette de Bodard had "The Jaguar House in Shadow" on the Best Novelette Hugo shortlist. I didn't think very much of that story (too much like a fragment from a larger narrative). "The Shipmaker", however, I loved. Part of that is probably because it was about a Chinese spaceship, and the woman responsible for building it, which is a combination of ideas practically tailor made for me. What was really striking, though, is that "The Shipmaker"  takes place in the exact same setting as "The Jaguar House in Shadow" and yet (in my opinion) suffers from none of its flaws. I intend to go back to both of them later, and do a comparison to try and work out why one of them worked so well for me, and the other failed.

I've been thinking recently about a 2009 novella written by Jay Lake, called Death of a Starship. Not so much the story itself (which was really fun), but the title. I'd love to write a story under that title. It's a phrase that sparks off all sorts of nifty ideas. And, as it happens, it's a title that could have worked for "The Shipmaker". Perhaps not really well, but it wouldn't have been completely inappropriate.

Lastly, "Arrhythmia" by Neil Williamson was interesting because it's pretty much exactly what I was talking about in my earlier post on music in SF. This is a story about music, and the way it permeates life and grinds you down and inspires you and all that stuff music does. Unfortunately, I don't think it's a great story -- it's very obvious -- but it was fascinating to see how Williamson tackled the ideas I was having so much trouble articulating earlier.

I haven't even mentioned "Flying in the Face of God" by Nina Allen, which I really liked. I'm not sure what the rules are for nominating for a BSFA Award, but whoever the nominators are, they did a great job this year.

Next time, promise I'll talk about something other than awards! 

* This was the story that wasn't included in StarShipSofa #178.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Hugos 2011: Cryoburn, by Lois McMaster Bujold

I feel like I've been a bit negative around here recently, and I'm about to do it again, so I'm going to keep this one short. I've spent quite a bit of time in the last week queuing for movies at the Sydney Film Festival, and I used that time to knock over Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold. This is (I think) the thirteenth Miles Vorkosigan novel. I haven't read any of the other books in the series.

I'm guessing Vorkosigan has a large fan base, because I can think of no other reason why this book would make it on to the Hugo ballot. I suppose it is an okay airport novel, and I probably wouldn't have thought too badly of it -- or thought about it much at all -- were I not comparing it to The Dervish House and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

Miles Vorkosigan, Imperial Auditor, is so supremely talented that it is obvious from the very first chapter he will prevail. There is no tension at all, and in fact the plot twists -- if you could even call them twists -- are telegraphed well in advance. My overwhelming impression is of comfort reading. Characters we are assumed to know, being as Good and Strong and Clever as always, succeeding as we know they must.

If you're a Vorkosigan fan, I'm sure you loved it. And no doubt you were pleased by the dramatic epilogue, which set the stage for book fourteen. For the rest of us, there's really not much here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hugos 2011: ettes and las

I have now devoured the Best Novelette and Best Novella Hugo nominees, and so I thought I might talk a bit about them. I'm not going to go through all ten of them in detail. That would probably be boring for you, and then I'd feel guilty for boring you and I'd apologise too much and you'd get angry at me for all the apologising, and that's not a situation from which I'm particularly good at recovering. So I'll try to avoid it by sticking to some more general comments.


It's probably true that I've read less classic science fiction than I should. Nevertheless, hang around long enough and you'll pick up a few things, and so even I spotted just how nostalgic this year's Best Novelette nominees are. Both "Eight Miles" by Sean McMullen and "The Emperor of Mars" by Allen M. Steele pay obvious homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels*, and "Plus or Minus" by James Patrick Kelly is clearly a response to Tom Godwin's classic "The Cold Equations". Nostalgia isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's not particularly exciting. And that's pretty much sums up how I feel about this year's Best Novelette nominees.

I wanted "The Jaguar House in Shadow" by Aliette de Bodard to be my favourite, because it seemed the newest. It is set in a future where a powerful Mexican empire dominates Central (and South?) America. Unfortunately, it felt like a fragment of a larger story. I think a lot of the interesting aspects of the setting were unexplored for no other reason than de Bodard had done it somewhere else.

In the end, I think I'm going to pick "Plus or Minus" for the award -- it's a fairly interesting story, and I think it works as a modern response to a classic. "The Cold Equations" (and, arguably, classical physics) is all about absolutes, whereas things get fuzzier in "Plus or Minus" (and, I suppose, modern physics). My second choice would be "The Emperor of Mars". Sure, it's just a love letter to classic sci-fi, but it's whimsical enough to make me smile.


Two of my favourite authors appeared among the Best Novella nominees this year, writing in two of my favourite sub-genres: Ted Chiang, with the hard SF "The Lifecycle of Software Objects", and Alastair Reynolds with the space opera "Troika". Imagine my surprise, then, to find myself falling instead for "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window", a high fantasy story by Rachel Swirsky.

I have an idea that Rachel Swirsky is a writer of sort of romantic sci-fi and fantasy. If I were being uncharitable, I'd call it faeries and unicorns sort of stuff. I think maybe that's an inaccurate assessment -- my sense of her writing may have been coloured by her tenure as editor of the fantasy fiction podcast PodCastle. The premise of "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window" seems to fit the bill, though: a sorceress from a matriarchal society, where only women can perform magic, is bound to linger after death, conjured up through the ages by all manner of people seeking wisdom and power.

Thing is, the characters in this one (especially Naeva, the narrator) are so well drawn I got quite swept up in it. The writing is really lovely, and I'm a fan of stories told in snippets across generations. I think Swirsky was writing about prejudice, amongst other things, but I really appreciated that the story wasn't heavy-handed with its themes. So many of the shorter works on this year's Hugo ballot seem kind of obvious, but Swirsky's story was much better than that.

As it happens, I really enjoyed reading through the Best Novella list this year. I do think it's a great length for sci-fi. It's particularly interesting to me that the two novellas I had the most fun reading -- "Troika" by Alastair Reynolds and "The Sultan of the Clouds" by Geoffrey A. Landis -- were the ones I ended up ranking fourth and fifth (second-last and last), but I think I'll ponder that a little more and maybe talk about it later.

So there you have it. I'm confident I have now read enough to submit informed votes in all of the (non-visual) fiction categories. Nevertheless, I'm still planning to tackle Lois McMaster Bujold's Cryoburn, and hopefully some of the Best Graphic Story entries. I'll let you know how it goes!

* It's right there in their titles: "… of Mars" was the pattern for the titles of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom stories, and the word "Barsoom" means "Eight[h] Planet" in Burroughs' fictional Martian language.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Hugos 2011: the short stories

I just got through reading the nominees for this year's Best Short Story Hugo. I don't like sounding negative, but I'm just going to say it: I wasn't particularly impressed.

I'm unfamiliar with Carrie Vaughn, and "Amaryllis" doesn't really make me want to rush out and read any of her other work. It's a story about the captain of a fishing boat in a resource-scarce community. She's had a tough life, we're told, but I didn't see any sign of hardship. There was a conflict with a bullying official that was resolved so quickly and simply it barely seemed like a conflict at all. I'm not sure how this one ended up on the ballot.

I am familiar with Kij Johnson's short stories. She was nominated in this category last year for "Spar", which I enjoyed very much. Well, not so much enjoyed as found compelling. Anyway, this year's nominee, "Ponies" seems so obvious that I really don't know what to say about it. It's a very short piece, about using girl's toys as a tool for enforcing conformity. Not much here, and none of it very interesting.

Mary Robinette Kowal's "For Want of a Nail" is a bit better than the previous two. It's about a young woman on a generation ship who is in charge of maintaining her family's AI. When she accidentally breaks its wireless connection, she stumbles on to a startling secret. Which is actually a pretty good setup, and I like the way Kowal writes, but the problem is the story gets a bit jumbled. The world building feels like it doesn't make sense, and the story manages to undermine its own message about the choice between senility or death. The result is a bit frustrating.

The pick of the list is "The Things", by Peter Watts. It is, I gather, a re-telling of the 1982 John Carpenter film The Thing from the point of view of, umm, the Thing. I haven't seen that film, so I had to take the story on its own merits. What I saw was a story about a very alien alien struggling to understand a group of humans who were reacting very badly to it. Watts' writing is kind of punchy, while I quite like. I do think "The Things" is held back a little by over-reliance on its source material, though. There were bits I struggled to follow, since I know nothing about the film's chronology. And honestly, I don't think those bits added much to the story.

So there you have it. My vote on a fairly average shortlist is for "The Things", with "For Want of a Nail" a fairly distant second. A quick google pops up tables of contents for three 2010 Year's Best anthologies, edited by Rich Horton, Jonathan Strahan, and Gardner Dozois. I am unsurprised to see that the only story from this shortlist which appears in all three is "The Things". Apart from "Amaryllis" in Dozois' Year's Best, none of the others appear at all. I'm okay with that.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Hugos 2011: The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald

Only twice in my life have I had any desire to visit Istanbul. The first time was during a Roman history course at University. The second time was just now, as I finished The Dervish House.

The Dervish House is about lots and lots of things. It's about economics, terrorism, religion, nano-technology, Istanbul, revolution, migrant communities, and history. It's about patterns, and choices. And most importantly, it's about a boy imprisoned by his heart condition, an ambitious young commodities trader, a Greek economics professor long since driven from academia, the owner of a gallery of religious artefacts and curios, a lost and broken young man, and a young woman trying to both escape from, and prove herself to, her family. 

Reading this book felt like learning. The good kind of learning, where you're exposed to interesting ideas and places, and pleasantly surprising little stories. The book is full of remembrances and flashbacks, which serve both to drive the plot forward and illuminate the characters. Each one feels like a lovely little story-package, enjoyable both for its role in the novel and as a fragment itself. The re-telling of the creation of the Mellified Man of Iskenderun, for example, is a piece of writing that will stay with me for a very long time. Just thinking about it makes me smile.

I think it is fair to say that this is a book that requires some work from the reader, and that may not be to everyone's taste. There's a lot of ideas to keep straight here. I said before that I think McDonald's writing is very information-dense, and The Dervish House is no different. It's important to add, though, that the book is about how the characters interact with those ideas -- this certainly is not the type of science fiction where ideas are more important than people.

If I had one criticism, it's that the ending felt a little too inevitable. Perhaps it was telegraphed a bit early. I didn't really have that wonderful moment, like in Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog, when all the plot threads coalesced into a suddenly brilliant whole. But it's really a minor criticism -- once I got into it, I just wanted to keep reading and reading. It may not all have fit in my head, but I would have read this book in a weekend if I could.

The Dervish House is currently my vote for the Best Novel Hugo, absolutely. When I travel, I love to stay in a place long enough to get a feel for what it's like to live there. The Dervish House felt not only like travelling to Istanbul in 2027, but to the lives of six people quite unlike me. It made me feel smart, and engaged, and it made me happy.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

My planet-sized spaceship is relevant

It's been a bit quiet around here this last week, but for all the right reasons. I'm really deep into The Dervish House, and finding it a little bit hard to imagine spending my science fiction time thinking about anything else. Which is great for me (I'm loving this book!), but maybe not so great for you.

So I'm going to do that thing again where I send you off to read something that I found somewhere else on the internet. Over on SF Signal, they have an occasional series called Mind Meld, where they ask a random assortment of speculative fiction writers a single question. Recently, they re-posted a Mind Meld in which this was the question:
Q: In his review of The New Space Opera, Alan DeNiro observes that, while much of science fiction in general has moved into the mainstream, the space opera sub-genre is still firmly entrenched with the confines of the science fiction field. Given this, how do authors of space opera respond to the challenge of keeping the form relevant?
This one really grabbed my attention, for a few reasons. On paper, I think space opera is the sub-genre of SF that I love the most. It's the one that I get most excited about reading. Big ideas, crazy adventures, Big Dumb Objects all over the place. Lots of cool stuff.

But, I have a sneaking suspicion that it's also the sub-genre of SF with which I am most often disappointed. Maybe disappointed isn't quite the right word. Underwhelmed? I read very few space opera stories these days that stay with me beyond the actual reading. Fun while they last, but they don't leave anything behind. Which naturally leads me to wonder: is that a problem with the sub-genre, or just the writers (or stories) I'm reading? Is it even a problem at all?

The other reason the Mind Meld grabbed my attention was I'm not even sure what the question ("how do authors respond to the challenge of keeping the form relevant") means. Was space opera ever relevant? What does 'relevant' mean in this context? Is it something all science fiction should necessarily strive to be?

I should note here that clicking through and reading the Alan DeNiro review that prompted the Mind Meld question does provide some helpful context. My sense after reading it is that DeNiro thinks relevance is crucial, and he doesn't have much time for space opera. My own recollection of reading both The New Space Opera [2007] and The New Space Opera 2 [2009] is that I loved them. I realise now, though, that I can recollect very few of the stories in those anthologies. Perhaps that's a sign?

My own writing has not been going particularly well recently, and I suspect that part of the problem is that I'm worrying myself too much over things like relevance and layered meaning. But that is almost certainly a topic for another blog post. 

I'll be back later this coming week with my thoughts on The Dervish House, so stay tuned!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

You got your music in my SF

Today I thought I'd talk about some half-formed ideas regarding music in science fiction. This line of thinking was sparked off by a few things, one of which was listening to the Tad Williams story "The Tenth Muse" on StarShipSofa (episode #164, although I first read it in The New Space Opera 2, edited by Dozois and Strahan [2009]).

The story is set in some unspecified far future (I assume), aboard a wormhole-travelling starship. One of the central characters is a linguist, and he's got a love for opera. There's a scene where he talks through Don Giovanni's encounters with the Commendatore in the Mozart opera, with the music playing in the background. It stood out for me, because (listening to) music is a big part of my life, but I feel like it is largely absent from the SF that I read.

I was originally going to say that I think it's a bit of a cop out to decide that your denizen of the 24th century (or whatever) loves Mozart, or The Beatles, or The Black Keys. That's not really fair, though -- it can be a very useful tool, precisely because you can hope your reader will be familiar with the music you're writing about. And honestly, I think that most attempts to invent the music of the future end up sounding ridiculous (I'm looking at you, Star Trek).

I don't think that means that there's nothing you can do with music in SF, beyond referencing real-world examples. When I say that it's a big part of my life, I'm not really talking about particular artists. They're kind of beside the point. Music is important to me because it's with me nearly everywhere I go, scoring a lot of my daily life. It also connects me with other people, a great many of them total strangers. At gigs, via music journalism on the internet, even just listening to whatever is playing at the local cafe.

I'd love to see this sort of thing feature in science fiction. The way that music interacts with the everyday, and informs the way a character sees the world. I can't tell you how many times the right (or wrong) piece of music has altered my mood, and my outlook on what's happening around me. No doubt this is tricky to do -- I'm in awe of people who can write interestingly about music -- but I'd love to see someone try.

Which brings me to "Lester Young and the Jupiter's Moons' Blues", a novelette by relatively new writer Gord Sellar. This is another one I heard on StarShipSofa (episode #71), although again I'd read it first (in Asimov's SF July 2008 issue). If I'm remembering correctly, it's an alternate history (future?) story about 1940s jazz musicians performing for our alien overlords, out around Jupiter's moons. This story is about music, in the way that I'm grasping to describe here. You should read (or listen to) it.

Sellar notes on his website that Vernor Vinge said this story was to jazz as hard SF is to science. That's what I'm trying to say. I want more of that. Is it out there and I just don't know about it?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Novel vs novella: who would win in a fight

Last time, I said this:
Next Hugo nominee off the shelf is The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald. I'm a little nervous about starting it, actually. I adore McDonald's novella-length fiction, but I've got a much more fraught relationship with his novels.
Predictably, I suppose, I never really thought about why. Well, one chapter (about a tenth of the page count) into The Dervish House, the reason seems pretty clear: there are a lot more characters to keep track of in his novels.

McDonald's writing is very information dense. As in rich, not crammed full of sciencey content. There's a lot of texture to his words, and he doesn't shy away from using foreign language or invented terms. I like that; even when I don't understand everything, I feel like I'm getting a feel for a place and its people. It is, however, a lot to take in.

McDonald's novellas -- at least, the four that I hope I'm recalling correctly* -- all have a single protagonist. In contrast, the first 45 pages of The Dervish House introduce us to no fewer than six POV characters. That's on top of the science fictional Istanbul, which is basically a character in its own right. While I'm quite content, happy even, to roll with the initial confusion about setting in McDonald's novels, for some reason I get hung up on keeping track of the characters.

I wonder if this hints at how McDonald approaches writing the two different lengths. I can imagine that a character's narrative arc forms a strand; one strand, and you have a novella. Four, five, six strands, written and then twined together, form a novel. Seems to me that way of thinking might make for a useful tool.

* "The Days of Solomon Gursky", "The Tear", "Vishnu at the Cat Circus" and "The Dust Assassin", all of which you can find in Year's Bests, edited by either Dozois or Strahan.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Hugos 2011: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N. K. Jemisin

I'm not going to write a review of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I don't think I'm very good at reviews, and there are lots of them on the internet anyway. Like here, or here. Or here. Instead, I'm just going to say a few words about my impressions.

I liked The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms better than Feed. Mainly, I think that's because it feels like there's a lot more going on. More depth to the ideas, and to the prose. There are similarities in underlying themes -- both books seem to contain reactions to the prevailing sense that we need to be protected from some amorphous evil outsider, potentially at the cost of some of our freedoms. I think those themes are explored much more subtly in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

The stars of the book are Gods -- of night, war, wisdom, trickery -- jammed down into the bodies of mortals as punishment for losing the Gods' War. That's a difficult concept for an author to deal with, I think. On the one hand, you've got to make them alien enough that the reader believes they're immortal beings (at least one of whom existed before time), the embodiments of ideas. On the other, they have to be comprehensible enough to make interesting characters. Jemisin handled this balancing act really well.

The prose was pretty attractive, too. Certainly more than just functional. Jemisin played a few tricks with structure, which could have been confusing, but managed to resolve themselves at pretty much exactly the right time. Her narrator was believable, and although she was perhaps one of the least interesting characters, I was never bored with her.

Both Feed and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms have sequels. While the former -- Decline -- doesn't really interest me, I do intend to read The Broken Kingdoms. That's mostly because it sounds like it's going to be a completely different type of novel to the first. Almost entirely new characters, in a completely different situation (away from the halls of power). That the sequel isn't just more of the same bodes well for Jemisin's chances of becoming one of my new favourite fantasy authors.

Next Hugo nominee off the shelf is The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald. I'm a little nervous about starting it, actually. I adore McDonald's novella-length fiction, but I've got a much more fraught relationship with his novels.