Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Science? Pfft.

I'm currently reading The Highest Frontier [2011], by Joan Slonczewski, and I've run into something that I don't recall reading before. The Highest Frontier is a science fiction novel, set in America (well, an American orbital habitat) something like a hundred years in the future. The book features a powerful political faction, the Centrists, who don't believe in outer space. Rather, they believe that the Earth is surrounded by a vault on which the stars are painted (the Firmament).

This wouldn't be particularly surprising if Slonczewski were writing a post-apocalyptic novel, but she isn't. She's writing plausible (although, I hasten to add, not predictive), moderate-future hard SF. No knowledge has been lost to cataclysm, at least as far as I can tell. The Centrists -- and this is the bit I find really interesting -- don't believe in the core conceits of the genre they're in.

There's no question that the Centrists are wrong; the novel isn't set in a universe where the Firmament literally exists*. But their wrongness is sort of beside the point. Their belief in the Firmament is irrational, but they are people, and they are powerful (the president is a Centrist), and so they cannot just be dismissed.

It's worth noting that although there is a connection between Centrism and religion in The Highest Frontier, it isn't a one-to-one relationship. There is, for example, a prominent religious character who doesn't believe in the Firmament. The Centrists aren't caricatures, and it's not just code for 'science good, religion bad'. 

I think this is an interesting subject for hard science fiction to confront, and I don't thing I've seen it done before**. How do you deal with people (not simply bad guys) who cannot be persuaded by science? That is, after all, exactly the problem we're facing now.

I'm only about half way through the book, and very interested to see how it plays out. This is just one of a great many issues and ideas that Slonczewski has raised so far; I'm yet to work out if it is a prominent one, or just an intriguing part of the background.

* Although that sort of thing has been done, and well. You might consider reading Mainspring [2007] by Jay Lake, or a number of Ted Chiang's short stories -- "Tower of Babylon" and "Exhalation" in particular.

** Anyone got any suggestions for things I've missed?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Soft Apocalypse, by Will McIntosh

If you've seen the films Requiem for a Dream or Funny Games you'll know what I'm talking about when I say that I thought Soft Apocalypse [2011] was really good, but I'm not entirely sure I can recommend it. It's difficult, sometimes outright upsetting, but really compelling.

Soft Apocalypse is about Jasper, who is an ordinary college-educated American kid, living during end of the world. This isn't the catastrophic apocalypse of all-out nuclear war or total environmental collapse. Instead, it's the slow, relentless decline of climate change, resource shortages, never-ending armed conflicts, sustained economic retreat, and (bio-)terrorism, all piling up.

The book starts in the near-future -- Spring 2023 -- and things are already bad. Jasper's parents were killed in water riots in Arizona, and he and his cohort are having to face up to the fact that their sociology and English literature degrees are worse than useless. Jasper is homeless, hungry, and has no prospects for employment. It only gets worse from here.

I think this book is about whether, and to what extent, it's possible to maintain your humanity while the world slowly comes apart around you. Jasper and his friends aren't gun-toting survivalists, they're just ordinary people. If you put aside finding the next meal, Jasper's pre-occupation is the perfectly average search for someone he can love.

With a few notable exceptions, I'm not really a fan of post-apocalyptic novels. I have trouble suspending my disbelief when it comes to civilisation being wiped in a single stroke. I wasn't raised with a fear of nuclear armageddon. Even if I can swallow the premise, I often can't relate to the characters. They're like superheroes whose special power is self-reliance.

Soft Apocalypse has neither of these issues. The end of the world is perfectly believable (if not necessarily in the specific details, then in the general form), and the characters are perfectly average. That makes it chilling. McIntosh doesn't pull any punches, either. Sometimes that makes it difficult to read, but I don't think it's really gratuitous. Is it possible for something to be necessarily gratuitous?

I'm not sure that I'm selling it very well, but I think this is a really good book. I'm particularly keen to hand it to a non-SF-reading friend, to see how they respond to it. I think the impressive prose -- bleak and naturalistic -- would be perfectly at home in a mainstream literary novel. Nevertheless, the book does contain some fairly science fictional ideas (largely as set dressing), and I'm fascinated to know if somebody unfamiliar with the genre would find them jarring.

If you hadn't already guessed, I'll definitely be nominating Soft Apocalypse for the Best Novel Hugo Award this year. I don't think it stands any chance of winning -- it's published by a small press, and it is a confronting read -- but it absolutely deserves to be on the ballot.

(Interesting little aside: much of the book is set in the city of Savannah, Georgia, which was also the setting for John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

I (plan to) nominate...

As part of my Worldcon membership last year, I'm entitled to nominate for the 2012 Hugo Awards. In past years I haven't bothered, mostly because I didn't really feel qualified. This year, though, I actually read a few books that were published in 2011, and are therefore eligible for 2012 Hugo Awards:

The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi*
Mechanique, by Genevieve Valentine
Planesrunner, by Ian McDonald
Grail, by Elizabeth Bear

What's more, I've got some sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read:

Soft Apocalypse, by Will McIntosh
The Highest Frontier, by Joan Slonczewski
Among Others, by Jo Walton
Embassytown, by China Mieville
The Islanders, by Christopher Priest

The deadline for nominating is Sunday March 11 -- I'm going to try to get through as many of the 2011 books as I can before then, to see if I think any of them are deserving of nomination. 

I'm going to be strategic about the order in which I read them. The Islanders will be last because, honestly, I don't think it has a hope of making the final ballot. My vote won't make much of a difference there. Neither will it make much of a difference for Among Others or Embassytown, both of which I expect to see on the final ballot. That makes Soft Apocalypse and The Highest Frontier the most interesting ones, and so I'll tackle them first.

The Quantum Thief (my favourite science fiction book of 2010) and Mechanique (my favourite fantasy book of 2011) are already on my nominations list. I may yet nominate Grail, which I enjoyed very much. I don't think I'm ever going to be truly comfortable nominating the third book in a series, though. I'm just not sure how well it stands on its own. Besides, I'm only allowed to nominate five books.

I'll let you know how I go!

* This one is in on a technicality -- it was first published in 2010, but it was first published in the US in 2011.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Best books I read in 2011

Right. Time for me to tell you about the best books that I read in 2011. No point mucking around -- let's get to it, hey?

Science Fiction: The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald

This was an insanely difficult choice, and that makes me happy. Both of my honourable mentions would have made worthy picks -- Anathem by Neal Stephenson is the sort of experience that'll stay with me for a long time, and Elizabeth Bear's Jacob's Ladder series (Dust, Chill, and Grail) is some of the best space opera I've ever read.

In the end, though, I'm going with The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (my review here). That's mostly because I think it's more accessible than Anathem. Either you've already read Anathem (or you're planning to), or you'll never consider it; I doubt my recommendation will change that. But I might just be able to convince you to give The Dervish House a look.

Honourable mentions: Anathem by Neal Stephenson, the Jacob's Ladder series by Elizabeth Bear.

Fantasy: Mechanique, by Genevieve Valentine

Calling Mechanique a fantasy novel feels like a gross oversimplification -- it's more like a horror-tinged post-apocalyptic science-fiction-ish fantasy. With a hint of steampunk. Or something. Whatever you want to call it, it's great. 

The Mechanical Circus Tresaulti is a last bit of magic in a world ground down by endless war. But the magic has a sinister edge, and the Circus fights constantly to hold itself together, against the world and against a simmering internal conflict between two of its performers. 

The characters here are rich and complex, but the writing is sparse and sharp-edged. The story is grim, but really compelling. It's Genevieve Valentine's first novel, and I can't really recommend it enough. I'm really hoping it pops up when awards season rolls around in 2012. 

Honourable mentions: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin, Zoo City by Lauren Beukes.

Other Thing: the Eclipse anthologies, edited by Jonathan Strahan

I didn't read enough literary fiction in 2011 to call it out separately, but I did read a bunch of comics and games and short story collections, so I've decided to go with Other Thing as my last category. I want to recommend to you the Eclipse anthologies, edited by Jonathan Strahan -- I read Eclipse One and the better part of Eclipse Three in 2011, and Eclipse Two a few years back.

They are a series of non-themed genre anthologies, and I think they're a really great way to expose yourself to a wide variety of unusual, interesting stuff. I've discovered a number of new favourite authors in the Eclipse anthologies, as well as read some really great stories. The absence of strict genre boundaries is really refreshing -- it makes starting each new story a small adventure. A great way to broaden your reading, I reckon.

Honourable mentions: Ghostopolis, a graphic novel by Doug TenNapel, and Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, a storytelling game by Daniel Solis.

So that's it! Time to think about which books I'm going to nominate for the Hugo Awards in 2012...