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.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Two observations


I never read chapter titles. In fact, I often don't even notice that a book has them -- I'm two thirds of the way through The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin, and I only just realised each chapter has its own name. This has got me wondering about their purpose. Are they intended to set expectations for the chapter? How is my reading of the book affected by skipping them? 

It's probably too late to start with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but next time I read a book with chapter titles, I'm going to try to pay closer attention. 


The odds that I will read a sequel decrease rapidly as time elapses since I read the first book. This is true even of books I enjoyed -- Steph Swainston's The Year of Our War is a good example. I loved it, but I still haven't got to No Present Like Time

I think this is because my expectations regarding initial confusion periods are different for sequels. When I'm reading fantasy and especially sci-fi, I expect to be confused while I work out the rules under which the story operates. That's cool; it's just part of reading those genres. 

When I'm reading a sequel, however, I expect things to be instantly familiar. My memory isn't excellent, so the only way I can guarantee that familiarity is if I just read the previous book in the series. And given a choice between re-reading books just so I can get to the next one, or reading something new, I'll usually just pick something new.

Is this a lack of trust on my part? Maybe. I imagine that every author is working hard to get me back up to speed at the start of a sequel, so if anything the initial confusion period is probably shorter than in the first book. I'm going to try testing this soon, hopefully -- I really want to get to Chill, the second in Elizabeth Bear's Jacob's Ladder series.

(Incidentally, I think this initial confusion period might be one of the barriers that keeps new readers from SF. I don't think the mainstream genres train you to cope with that feeling.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Hugos 2011: Feed, by Mira Grant

So. Zombies.

Look, I love a good zombie movie. But honestly, they interest me in novels and short stories just about as much as vampires do. Which is to say generally not much, although I'm willing to make the occasional exception. Usually those exceptions are reserved for authors I already like, or a premise that seems genuinely different.

Mira Grant's* Feed definitely falls into the latter category. For a start, it isn't your standard zombie apocalypse novel -- it takes place decades after the Kellis-Amberlee virus caused the first zombie outbreak. And it didn't lead to the end of the world; American society goes on, albeit locked behind layers of security and in a perpetual state of fear.

And the main characters are bloggers. The first bloggers ever to officially follow a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. It's kind of like The West Wing with zombies. And a Republican instead of a Democrat, and bloggers instead of the President's staff, and… yeah, really nothing like The West Wing.  But American politics is kind of fascinating to me, and so it's a great hook to drag me into the story. Grant's premise is good.

And so is her execution (heh). The book is very, very readable. Grant writes well. I don't mean that I revelled in the beautiful way she rubbed words against each other. Rather, I think this book is an excellent example of invisible prose -- the words fly by as if you're hardly reading them, leaving you to race along with the plot (and with the entertainingly caustic narrator, the 'Newsie' Georgia Mason).

The plot itself is, I suppose, a fairly conventional conspiracy thriller. I find that sort of thing very readable, in much the same way as I find procedural cop shows on television very watchable. I didn't think it was a particularly surprising conspiracy -- it was fairly obvious who the bad guys were -- but that's okay when the execution is so good. I may not have been surprised, but I will say that I cared when bad things happened to the bloggers (and bad things certainly did happen to them).

The zombies, and the world that the survivors live in, are a fairly obvious metaphor for the War on Terror and modern-day, fear-ridden America. I'm not going to say much about that -- it's there, it's not unexpected, it's not particularly ground-breaking, but it also isn't hammered to the point of irritation.

I do think the book is too long. The edition that I'm reading is 570 pages. It didn't ever lose me, but the thriller-shaped plot seems much better suited to something about half the length. The book is paced to keep you flipping the pages, and fortunately I had enough free time to consume it quite quickly. If I'd been forced to read it slower, it might have suffered. The danger of a reduced length, though, is that it might have come at the expense of the world building, and that's what initially drew me in.

As is often the case when I sit down to attempt a review, I feel like I'm focussing on the negatives at the expense of the positives. I would never have picked this book up were it not for the Hugo nomination, but I'm glad that I did. It was an enjoyable read from start to finish, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I cared about the characters when it all reached crisis point. Would I recommend it to everyone I met? Nope. But I would recommend it to anyone who liked zombies and at least one of politics, political journalism, or thrillers.

There's a sequel -- Deadline -- due out in the UK in a few weeks. I honestly can't tell you if I'll ever read it, but if somebody handed it to me I probably wouldn't have any objections.

* Mira Grant is a pseudonym for Seanan McGuire, winner of last year's John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer**. It feels weird talking about Grant like she is a real person.

** Not a Hugo.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Hugos 2011: got to start somewhere

I have started my Hugo reading today, with Mira Grant's Feed. I'm doing my level best not to pre-judge, but I'm just saying: Ms. Grant (or Ms. McGuire, whatever), you're going to have to work hard to carry me happily through a 570-page zombie novel whose main characters are bloggers. I wish you luck!

Also paid for my supporting membership at Renovation, this year's Worldcon. I'm probably going to need that Hugo Voter Packet to get my hands on all the novellas and novelettes!

Added 5 May 2011: wait, it's a novel about a presidential campaign in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse? Your task just got easier, Ms. Grant!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Things I like #5: smashing genres together

Aside from both being really good space operas, Elizabeth Bear's novel Dust and Ian McDonald's novella "The Days of Solomon Gursky" don't really have a whole lot in common. There is a connection, though, and with hindsight its so obvious I'm kicking myself for not noticing it sooner: although both are clearly science fiction, they've both got a healthy dose of fantasy mixed in.

I'm not just talking Clarke's Law ("any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"), although there's certainly some of that in there. I mean that each of them appropriates some of the trappings and stylistic conventions of fantasy. Dust has warring noble houses, a quest, mythical creatures (well, technology dressed up as a mythical creatures). "The Days of Solomon Gursky", in its later chapters, starts to feel as much like mythology as science fiction.

That's the connection it took me a silly amount of time to see: genre-mashing. I think the thing that clarified it for me was reading Greg Bear's Hull Three Zero. It was a much straighter science fiction novel, despite (I feel) plenty of opportunity to throw something else into the mix. And it just didn't capture my imagination like Dust did.

It doesn't just have to be science fiction and fantasy, either. The books that got me back into reading science fiction were Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space and Chasm City, both space operas smooshed with gothic horror. China Mieville seems to specialise in this sort of thing. Karl Schroeder's Virga series of novels, Finch by Jeff Vandermeer, The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. A great many of the novels that have left me feeling like I just read something really exciting whacked genres against each other.

I really have no idea how difficult it is to write something like this. I suspect very. But I'm going to have to try. I wonder if it is something that the authors set out to do consciously? I'd guess yes for Lies of Locke Lamora and maybe Dust, but perhaps no for the Alastair Reynolds novels, but those really are guesses.

Yeah, I know, there's not a lot of deep insight in this post. I suppose time will tell whether that's because I'm just starting out at this sort of thing, or because I lack the capacity for insight. I'm hoping for the former!