Thursday, April 28, 2011

Things I like #4: ordinary things made extraordinary

Rather than spend a long time trying to describe this one, I'm going to give you two very different examples.

The first is a story I recently heard on Escape Pod called "The '76 Goldwater Dime", written by John Medaille and narrated by the always-excellent Norm Sherman. It's about a guy who collects coins. And what could be more ordinary than that? But these coins, boy, they certainly are not ordinary. I can't really say much more without giving it all away -- go and listen to the episode. Or, heck, you can even read it in its entirety (it isn't very long) at the link I provided above.

My second example isn't even a story. I read about it in a post on Jeff Vandermeer's blog. Some of his Finnish fans had created t-shirts and hockey jerseys for a fictional team called the Tallahassee Tentacles, named for Jeff's home town and the frequent occurrence of squid in his fiction. I'm Australian -- sport is a pretty ordinary, everyday part of my life. I really liked the way the Tallahassee Tentacles turned that on its head.

The trick, of course, is that nifty transformations like this don't make a complete story on their own. I think you could argue that "The '76 Goldwater Dime" would have functioned better as a piece of flash fiction, and although the Tallahassee Tentacles hint at a story, they aren't one yet.

Still, they're a great hook to drag people like me in.

That thing I read once on the internet

I'm a citizen of the networked world. Or something. I read stuff on the internet all the time, think 'man, I really must remember that', and then immediately forget it. Sometimes I send myself an email, or save a text file somewhere, or star an article in my RSS reader, but those things never work. So I'm going to try something new: I'm going to make a list of internet-writings I want to remember here on the blog.

Really, this post is for me. I'll come back to it (probably) and update it in the future, but I'm unlikely to call out the fact that I'm updating it. Maybe you'll find something that interests you here too, but I'm just going to call that a bonus. You cool with that?

So here's the list:

    Wednesday, April 27, 2011

    Adding to the Hugo noise

    Here I go again, complaining about lists on the internet...

    So you may or may not have heard that this year's Hugo nominees have been announced. A couple of years back, I decided to read all of the nominated novels, to see if I agreed with the eventual winner (short answer: I did). Last year, I was lucky enough to attend Worldcon, so I made a point of reading all of the nominated fiction so I could make an informed vote on the Hugos. This year, I'm intending to do the same.

    I can't really comment yet about the nominees in the Best Novella, Novelette or Short Story categories. To the best of my knowledge, I have only read one of them: Ted Chiang's novella The Lifecycle of Software Objects. I liked it well enough, but I don't think it was his best work. There are five nominees in various categories from Asimov's, so I'll have to go digging through my pile of (sadly) unread back-issues to find those ones.

    I do want to say a few words about the Best Novel category, despite also having read none of them. First, it's pleasing to see that four of the five nominated books were written by women. The gender balance typically isn't great in that category. Only fifteen of sixty-two Best Novel nominees in the last decade were written by women (and a bit of foreshadowing here: four of them were Lois McMaster Bujold novels, and two Connie Willis novels). A nominee list dominated by women can only mean good things for the genre.

    I have to admit, though, that the list isn't particularly exciting me. I'm unsurprised to see The Dervish House by Ian McDonald there, and I'm looking forward to reading it. I had also planned to read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin, so I'm happy to see it on the list. I haven't heard anything about Feed by Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire), but I'm very willing to approach it with an open mind.

    The last two nominations are the ones that leave me a little dismayed. Blackout/All Clear is actually two books by Connie Willis, adding up to a combined total of something like 1200 pages in the US hardcover editions. The books are set in the same universe as her earlier Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, both of which also won Best Novel Hugos. I'm a little confused how two books got nominated as one entry. Maybe they're both very worthy, but even given how much I enjoyed To Say Nothing of the Dog, the thought of reading a further 1200 pages in the same setting doesn't fill me with excitement.

    And then there is Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold. A quick skim of her Wikipedia page suggests this is the thirteenth Miles Vorkosigan novel. I think it is the eighth in the series to be nominated for a Hugo (four of them won). Perhaps it's just my own ugly prejudices in action again, but I find it hard to believe that the thirteenth book (or nineteenth, or twenty-fifth, depending how you count it) in a series can really be that good.

    I guess it feels like the last two entries -- Blackout/All Clear and Cryoburn -- are obvious nominations, given to beloved authors because they put out another book. Of course, I shouldn't judge before I've actually read them, so here is my promise to you: I'll report back as I work my way through each of the novels. Except possibly Blackout/All Clear. I just don't know if I can hack it.

    Tuesday, April 19, 2011

    The problem with lists is...

    A few posts ago I mentioned a new column by John DeNardo over on the Kirkus blog: How to Start Reading Science Fiction. This is a topic that interests me, since I sometimes worry that modern SF is essentially impenetrable to a new reader. Part two of the column has been posted, and it is a list of 10 Accessible Science Fiction Books.

    I'm a little reluctant to dive in and start criticising. Obviously I was never going to agree with everything on the list. That's the nature of lists, and it seems to be the nature of the internet that an awful lot of it is full of people arguing about lists. 

    But I am a little disappointed by DeNardo's choices. Unfortunately, it's because I've only read two of them. I was kind of hoping that I'd be familiar with more of the list, so I could try to judge whether or not I thought it was indeed full of genuinely accessible SF books (and, honestly, what exactly that means).

    The two books that I have read are Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, and The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Ender's Game absolutely deserves to be on that list, in my opinion. Not only is it a great book, but I think it's very accessible. Particularly to young readers. It's one of the few Hugo Award-winning novels I can name where I know a bunch of non-SF readers who have read it, and enjoyed it.

    I'm somewhat more sceptical of The Road appearing on that list. Not because it isn't a great book -- it is a great book, and you should all rush out and read it right now. I also think that it absolutely qualifies as a science fiction novel, although that's not where you'll find it in the book store. My concern is that I'm not sure it is representative. If I gave a new SF reader The Road and they loved it, I have no idea what I would recommend next. Would they ever read another SF novel like it?

    I'm not sure if this is just me being down on the quality of most SF writing. Maybe I am. Or maybe I'm guilty of elevating The Road above genre fiction just because it comes from the literary fiction section of the book store. But that is almost certainly a topic for another blog post. One I may never write.

    On the plus side, at least now I've got a few more books to add to my reading list!

    Saturday, April 16, 2011

    Elizabeth Bear stole my idea

    This is one of those cases where I think I finally really understand something that I've known intellectually for a long time.

    A while back, I had the kernel of an idea for a story (or perhaps a game). I'm not sure where the idea came from. It was about a generation ship which had undergone some calamity on the long voyage to a new star. Knowledge was lost, either due to damage or the passage of a large amount of time, so that perhaps the original purpose of the mission had passed into myth. I hadn't got very far, but possibly the story would be about the people trying to rediscover, and perhaps resurrect, that mission.

    Then I read Elizabeth Bear's Dust, and realised she'd already done it. And done it really well. And that's fine -- I certainly don't feel like I have some sort of privileged ownership over the idea, and there are plenty more where it came from. Besides, Elizabeth Bear is a much better author than I almost certainly ever will be. It pleased me to see an idea that I thought was cool turned into such a fun book.

    That's probably where my thinking on the issue would have stopped, but I've just started reading Greg Bear's latest book, Hull Three Zero, and you know what? It's the same idea. The execution of the two stories is obviously completely different, but one could even imagine that both Elizabeth Bear and Greg Bear had been given the same writing prompt before they wrote their novels.

    So, today's lesson: it's not the idea that counts, it's what you do with it. I mean, obviously I always knew that, but I don't think I really knew it until now. And if anything, this makes me want to go back to that idea, and see how my own version turns out.

    Do you think this is what they were talking about at the "Has SF eaten itself?" panel?

    Thursday, April 7, 2011

    Let's just pretend this is content

    I'm trying to form my thoughts on Elizabeth Bear's Dust into something coherent that I can present here. I could just review it, but I think I'd rather tease out some of the connections I'm seeing with the novellas "The Tear" and "The Days of Solomon Gursky", both by Ian McDonald. I'm just not sure how to do that (or even if the connections are actually there).

    So, while I continue to ruminate, I'm going to direct you to the Kirkus blog to keep you entertained. John DeNardo has posted the first of a six-part series entitled How to Start Reading Science Fiction. This is relevant to my interests because, as I've mentioned before, I have friends who find modern science fiction completely impenetrable, or completely uninteresting, and frequently both. I'm intrigued to see how John goes about introducing the genre, and particularly whether he sticks to the classics or talks about modern stuff.

    (I should also say that I found out about this from the always useful SF Signal.)