Friday, March 30, 2012

Mieville, Embassytown, Priest, etc.

I had always intended to spend this evening writing a blog post about why I love China Mieville's books, but then Christopher Priest posted his vicious (but wonderfully delivered) opinions on this year's nominees for the Arthur C. Clarke award. Embassytown [2011] by China Mieville is among them. I really enjoyed it. Christopher Priest clearly did not.

It seems a bit silly to let this stall me, but it has. Priest is significantly less qualified than I am to judge what I like, and that is really all I'm ever talking about here. Some of what he wrote is just plain nasty, and generally I prefer not to dwell on that sort of thing. What's stopped me in my tracks, though, is that there are some ways in which I completely agree with him, and that's caused me to ponder more carefully all the things I think I disagree with.

So the post I had intended to write is now going to be interspersed with some thoughts on where my opinions differ from Christopher Priest's, and perhaps also where they align. It's worth noting before I start that I'll be focussing specifically on Priest's comments about Mieville and Embassytown; I have read none of the other books that Priest mentions in his post.

My favourite thing about China Mieville's novels is that they make science fiction or fantasy feel lively and new. I think he does this partly by messing around with genre tropes (sometimes specifically undermining them, as in Perdido Street Station [2000] and Un Lun Dun [2007]), and partly through sheer, gleeful inventiveness. The things he writes are at once recognisably of their genre, and energisingly different from anything I've read before.

(It is interesting to me that I appear to be attracted to Mieville's writing for his indebtedness to the genres in which he writes, whereas Priest considers this a deficiency: "he is restricting his art by depending too heavily on genre commonplaces". I think that Priest would argue that this implies I am an unsophisticated reader of genre fiction, and though I'm reluctant to agree, he may be right.)

I'm also really fond of Mieville's prose. I think it's pretty clear that he is in love with words, and that's a wonderful way to be. You can see it most overtly in Un Lun Dun's word games, but I think it's there in everything he's written. The names he has chosen for space travel and the people who perform it in Embassytown, for example, are clever and rich with meaning. I enjoy reading his words, on a line by line, sentence by sentence basis, and that's actually quite rare in science fiction and fantasy.

("A better writer would find a more effective way of suggesting strangeness or an alien environment than by just ramming words together," says Priest. This criticism is pretty much directly opposite to my views on Mieville's writing. I think I'm of the opinion that word games are fun, and that names for things matter. Besides which, it's quite possible to ram words together badly, or uninterestingly, and I think that Mieville does neither. But it seems to me that Priest's contention that "it is exactly this use of made-up nouns that makes many people find science fiction arcane or excluding" might be worth further thought.)

Perhaps my enjoyment of Mieville's books comes down to this: they are heavily informed by his love for the literary weird. Weird fiction, it seems to me, is about making the familiar appear strange. I find the idea of it intoxicating, and I think Mieville is an expert at it. There are few feelings that I enjoy more than "I never thought of that" (or, perhaps "I never thought of it like that"), and that sense pervades Mieville's novels. 

(Now here's the part where I point out that I have not loved every one of Mieville's books. Un Lun Dun was fun enough while I read it, but not much more than that, and I found Kraken [2010] difficult to fully engage with. While I enjoyed The City & The City [2009] very much, and still consider it a worthy Best Novel Hugo winner in 2010, it didn't excite me to quite the same extent as his other novels.

Two of Priest's criticisms may be relevant here. The first is that Mieville's characters are "weakly drawn". I'm not sure I'd be so emphatic about it, but I think there's some merit to the observation. It pains me to admit it, but I don't think I can recall the names of any of the characters in Mieville's novels. Bearing that in mind, it may be significant that the three books I didn't love as much were in genres I have no strong feeling for -- YA urban fantasy, urban fantasy, and the crime novel respectively. Priest again: "he is restricting his art by depending too heavily on genre commonplaces".)

So there you have it. I'm not actually sure if this post has been particularly readable. If not, I apologise. I had intended to talk about my love for China Mieville's books, but Christopher Priest's outburst turned it into a conversation with myself about my own opinions. I don't know if they've been firmed up, but they've certainly been challenged, and that can only be a good thing. 

(As a counterpoint to Priest's evident distaste for Embassytown, I recommend reading this review of the book by another grand master of the genre, Ursula K Le Guin. Her reaction to Mieville's neologisms is particularly interesting: very different from Priest's, and much closer to mine.)

Incidentally, this June is the tenth anniversary of the publication of The Scar [2002]. It remains my favourite China Mieville novel, and so I might take that as an excuse to re-read it, and talk about the experience here. If anybody felt like reading along with me, I'd enjoy the company!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Choosing books for travel

I hope you'll forgive me if this post is a little self-indulgent. I'm jumping on a plane tomorrow to fly to New York, and so I thought I'd talk about the books I've chosen to take with me. It's something I think very carefully about. There are guidelines (often ignored) and goals (frequently missed).

The ideal travel book, in my opinion, is a mass-market paperback of middling length. Too thick, and it'll be a nuisance to carry. Too thin, and it'll be over before the plane has boarded. Thin trade paperbacks are okay, but hardcovers are right out. It should be engaging, but not all-consuming, so that it doesn't drag too much of my attention away from my surroundings. I want to enjoy it, but I also want to feel like it's okay to leave it behind when I'm done, in a youth hostel or train station, for someone else to enjoy.

I think the only time I've ever hit all these things perfectly was with The Lies of Locke Lamora [2006] by Scott Lynch.

I tend to prefer authors I'm familiar with, so that I know what to expect. There's not much worse than realising an hour into your flight that you hate your book. Having said that, I always include a complete newie in my luggage, in the hope of a pleasant holiday surprise. I also like to bring a mix of genres, although I generally stick with (old reliable) SF for my actual airplane books.

How many books to pack depends entirely on where I'm going. If I'm travelling to non-English speaking countries, I pack more. If the explicit purpose of the travel is relaxation (on a beach, say), I pack more. If I'm going somewhere like New York, where it'll be easy to find things to read, I feel like I can get away with fewer. Bare minimum is four books, and I've carried as many as seven.

So what have I packed this time? In my hand luggage, I've got two books: In the Mouth of the Whale [2012] by Paul McAuley, and Undertow [2007] by Elizabeth Bear. I'm actually faintly surprised that I chose the McAuley. Though they should be right up my alley, I have a somewhat troubled relationship with his novels. I think that's why I'm carrying the Elizabeth Bear as a backup.

In my checked luggage is The Kingdom of Gods [2011] by N. K. Jemisin, and The Intuitionist [1999] by Colson Whitehead. I'm reading the former because it was nominated for this year's Nebula Award. Actually, I'm reading it because I enjoyed the previous books in the series -- The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms [2010] and The Broken Kingdoms [2010]. I'm reading it now because of the Nebula Award. And The Intuitionist is my wild-card. I knew as soon as I heard the premise -- the Intuitionists and the Empiricists, competing schools of elevator inspectors! -- that I had to read it.

I came very, very close to packing Last Call [1992] by Tim Powers, but I ran out of space. I still wish I could find a way to fit it in.

So what's your system for choosing travel books?

Monday, March 12, 2012

One of China Mieville's tricks

I'm building up to trying to say something interesting about Embassytown [2011] and China Mieville. That's going to be difficult for me. The temptation is just to gush uncritically. While I'm working on that, I thought I'd allow myself a very little gush over a world-building trick that Mieville uses, which I just adore. 

Every now and again, Mieville mentions names for things -- pieces of technology, or types of magic, or places -- that have nothing to do directly with the story. They often don't ever appear again. They're rarely explained or clarified. They just exist, as far as I can tell, to hint at a world outside the story. Here's an example from Embassytown:
Those who serve on exot vessels, who learn to withstand the strange strains of their propulsion -- of swallowdrives, overlight foldings, bansheetech -- go even farther with less predictable trajectories, and become even more lost.
That bit I've highlighted, that's what I'm talking about. Sentences like that make me kind of giddy. What are swallowdrives? How might they work? Who might use them? But -- deliciously -- we never hear about them again.

It's quite possible that everyone does this in their science fiction and fantasy, and I just don't notice. If that's the case, then it's probably because there's an art to the way Mieville does it. It's not just a random combination of words, but one carefully chosen to provoke exactly my response. 

Names matter. And China Mieville is very good at naming things.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Best Novel Hugo 2012 nominations

I've just submitted my nominations for the 2012 Best Novel Hugo. They are:

It's probably not a very surprising list, given what I've said here previously, but I'm quite pleased with it. If these were the five books that appeared on the final ballot, I'd have real difficulty choosing a winner. That may seem like a statement of the obvious, but it isn't; in a different year, I would have been very happy to nominate Grail by Elizabeth Bear or Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey, knowing full well that I wouldn't vote for them to win.

It's also a list that makes clear many of my preferences, and I suppose that's as it should be. There's more science fiction than fantasy, and the fantasy I did include -- Among Others and Mechanique -- isn't very traditional. Mechanique in particular is pretty genre-bendy (io9 called it "a steampunk/post-apocalyptic/magical-realist/paranormal adventure"). If I were hell-bent on classifying it, I'd probably rather call it weird fiction than fantasy.

Four of the five novels on my list are stand-alone, and the only one that isn't (The Quantum Thief) is the first book in a series; none of its sequels have appeared yet. I've also veered towards the literary end of the genre(s). That doesn't surprise me, but I'm still not sure how I feel about it.

If these were the five novels on the final ballot, I have some guesses about how the voting would go. Interestingly, at least to me, they're pretty much all based on my perception of the Hugo voting community, and not the novels themselves. 

I'd pick Embassytown to win -- I think Hugo voters like China Mieville, and they tend to prefer science fiction over fantasy. Among Others would have to be in with a chance, though, thanks to its loving nostalgia for the science fiction genre. Nostalgia was a prominent feature on last year's Hugo ballot, and I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of Hugo voters have reading histories quite similar to the protagonist in Among Others.

I don't see any way that Soft Apocalypse could win, mainly because it's quite confronting. My feeling is that books like that, no matter how good, don't win popularity contests. Probably Mechanique faces similar difficulties. The Quantum Thief could be a bit of a dark horse. Normally I'd call it unlikely, because it's a demanding read. But it is rich with science fictional ideas, and that is something that I suspect the Hugo readership likes.

Anyway, enough speculating about a list that may correlate only weakly with the actual final ballot. The official announcement of the nominees is a month from today, on April 7th. What do you reckon the odds are that George R. R. Martin's A Dance With Dragons will make an appearance? And that it'll go on to win? And that I'll be grumpy about it?