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!