OK, so this really should be relegated to the news section, but Iím way too jazzed about it to wait. This yearís Tiptree Award results are out, and one of the two joint winners is Light by M. John Harrison. Hooray! Further details in Miscellany below.
Having got the important stuff out of the way, the other big piece of news is that my job in the US is coming to an end at the end of March. Consequently I will moving back to the UK in April (just in time for Eastercon). Iíll also be going back to my freelance business for at least a while. I donít really want a full time job unless it is in the Bay Area, and thatís an economic disaster zone right now.
The good news is that I will have a lot more time to devote to this magazine than I have for the past couple of years. The bad news is that money is going to be tight for the foreseeable future. Iím sure I can keep the web site running, and Iím confident that Iíll be able to get a fair amount of contract work in the energy economics field. However, if anyone knows of any work going in the SF field Iíd be very grateful for some contacts. Iím hoping to get at least enough income from that to make the costs of running Emerald City tax deductible. I donít expect to make a profit, but if it could not be a drain that would be good.
Thanks to everyone for not objecting to the new mailing list system. Hopefully it has started up without too many hiccups.
Meanwhile Iíve been making the most of my last few weeks in the US by attending a rather special convention. Read onÖ
In this issue
Critical Keys Ė Cheryl slums it amongst academia in Florida
Searching for Copernicus Ė An overview of the critical theory debate from ICFA
Mystery Movie - William Gibson goes guerilla marketing on the Internet
Making Mickey - Cory Doctorow rebuilds the Magic Kingdom
Apocalypse Now - Lyda Morehouse gets the Second Coming underway
Veniss and Fur - Jeff Vandermeer's far-future city is anything but cuddly
Teenage Rampage - Wil McCarthy and friends escape from summer camp
Mists of Time - Gene Wolfe's fantasy masterpieces reissued
Just Do It - M.M. Buckner combines an action hero with the future of the brain
A Tale of Two Places Ė Nicola Griffiths fights crime in Atlanta and Oslo
Short Stuff - A new collection from the masterful Ray Bradbury, and a return to Conjunctions #39
Miscellany - More award news
Footnote - The end
Given that I had enjoyed the Foundation conference in Liverpool so much (see Emerald City #71), it seemed natural that my next target for new con-going experiences should be the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA to its friends). Every year that small part of the US (and European) academic community that devotes itself to SF, fantasy and horror descends upon Fort Lauderdale in southern Florida to swap notes, exchange ideas and listen to each otherís papers. A bunch of authors tag along to do readings, see what is being said about them and generally veg out by the pool, and of course the event is haunted by that rare breed, the SF critic: John Clute, Gary K. Wolfe, and so on. And now me.
At first sight ICFA looks just like every other SF convention, but it doesnít take you long to realize that the crowd of young people in jeans and t-shirts are all literature students. Many, if not most, of them are also fans of a sort and, surprise, they end up doing most of the work. However, they could probably benefit from serving on the committees of a few well-run fan conventions before doing this job.
ICFA isnít obviously badly organized; it has too little ambition for there to be much to go dramatically wrong. It just isnít as slick as one might expect from a small, specialist convention that happens in the same place every year. It is about the same size as Wiscon, but nowhere near as professional. There are simple things that it could do better, such as posting schedules outside the program rooms, or making sure that they have no more than 5 people on a panel. A local area guide should be easy to produce, but there isnít anything, which is a problem for newcomers stuck at an airport hotel. And so on.
It also isnít a convention that I would recommend to the casual fan. There isnít a lot to do here aside from listen to papers and readings and relax. There is a book room, but it comes over as very strange until you realize (thank you Mr. Hartwell for explaining this to me) that most of the content is in fact donated by the attending authors. All of the proceeds go to the convention, which is very nice, but it leads to a very eclectic mix of books, very little brand new stuff, and a preponderance of galley proofs. They do have signings and readings, but thereís nothing like an art show and all of the programming is very academic. The closest it got to a big show this year was a Charles De Lint concert, which probably only happened this year because De Lint is the writer Guest of Honor.
The other really big event is the annual dinner that takes place on Saturday night. Being hotel catered, it canít be recommended for its culinary excellence, and it reminded me very strongly why we no longer have a banquet for the Hugos. Thankfully ICFA only has a few awards to present, and on the evidence of this year no one feels the need to take the opportunity of presenting an award to drone on forever about it (though I gather that this was in part a reaction to excessive droning last year). Most of the awards are, of course, for scholarship, but I do want to make mention of the Crawford Award, which is for a first publication in fantasy literature. This was deservedly won by Alex Irvine for A Scattering of Jades. It was Alexís birthday too, which was kind of nice.
My thanks are due to L.E. Modesitt for an entertaining dinner conversation. He used to work for the Environmental Protection Agency and consequently we had a common interest in electricity generation and the bizarre workings of Washington. We also spent a lot of time bemoaning the poor job that most fantasy authors do of creating believable economic and political systems for their books. I can see that Iím going to have to read some of his books.
One thing I have been trying hard to avoid thus far is say that the event is literary, because it isnít. There is an entire programming track devoted to film and TV. This was brought home to me in the first panel I attended, which was called "Fandom and Academia". All of the panelists were academics, and all of them claimed to be fans. But they were all people who, should they make that assertion on the SMOFs mailing list, would face an irate Leah Zeldes Smith loudly proclaiming that they were "not part of our community". They were fans of Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Buffy, comics, even Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals (Phantom of the Opera is a horror story, OK?). Even though academics will happily debate angels on pinheads just as obsessively as fans, there was little of the internecine rivalry that we see in Fandom.
What you do get is a lot of fascinating and informed debate. Some of the program is, of course, highly academic, and perhaps rather off-putting to people whose only interest in SF is casual entertainment. However, as I hope the following article will show, many interesting issues are raised. Personally I had a wonderful time.
Which just about sums it up. Or, as Kevin put it, Iím just as at home at ICFA as he is at SMOFcon. I guess that the nits I like to pick are of a rather different species than those normally found at a SMOFish gathering, but I must point out that picking them around the pool over a few strawberry daiquiris is rather more fun than doing so in a hotel room. If SMOFcon were in San Diego every year Iíd be much more inclined to go.
So, I shall be doing my level best to be back next year, especially as the very wonderful Elizabeth Hand is going to be the writer Guest of Honor. For next time I think I should remember to pack better for the Florida weather (warm and humid outside, freezing cold in my hotel room), and I really must find out what the mosquitoes find so attractive about my feet, those being the only parts of me that they were interested in consuming. Oh, and if anyone starts posting blackmail photographs of me eating crabs at the Rustic Inn, I deny everything. It is all part of my ambition to be reincarnated as a sea otter, OK?
(My photos of the event are on the Emerald City web site, but Iíve left out all of the really embarrassing ones.)
Searching for Copernicus
This article has grown out of the conversation at a couple of panels at ICFA. The first was a panel entitled Cross Pollination in Modern Fantasy. The other was the regular SF Theory Round Table, which this year focused on a paper by Gary K. Wolfe that was published in Edging into the Future: Science Fiction and Contemporary Cultural Transformation by Veronica Hollinger & Joan Gordon (eds.). Both of these panels were essentially about the breaking down of boundaries between genres, and between genre fiction and the mainstream. The title of the article comes from some comments by John Clute who claimed that we donít really have a critical theory to handle this sort of fiction, and that we are waiting for some Copernicus-like figure to come forward and give us a framework in which it can be understood. Wolfeís paper from the round table can be seen, at least in part, as an attempt to provide that sort of critical framework.
Now some of you may be asking yourselves why I am bothering to put this sort of thing in Emerald City. There are several answers to that, the most obvious one being that it is my magazine so I can include things that interest me. However, thatís a pretty poor excuse, so here are some (hopefully) better ones. Firstly, I think that the only way I can give you a good idea of the flavor of ICFA as a convention is to recount some of the debate that went on. And second, I think it would be useful (at least for me, and hopefully for you as well) if I had some sort of critical framework for Emerald City within which I could justify my views about the books I review. It isnít enough for me to simply say, "this is a good book" or "this is a bad book". I ought to have some sort of basis on which I make those judgments. Hopefully this article will move us along the way to achieving that goal.
The cross-pollination panel spent a lot of time discussing the Conjunctions #39 anthology, reviewed in last issue and again below. As you may recall, this publication has been the subject of considerable controversy because many people felt that it somehow betrayed genre literature by pandering to mainstream expectations. The argument as to whether the works should have been more aggressively typically genre is one I addressed last issue, and I wonít go into it again here. However, it has also been claimed that some of the works were in fact not fantasy at all, and that is an issue that I will be addressing eventually.
Wolfeís paper covers very similar ground because it examines a continuum of genre writing that ranges from one extreme in which the works are focused very precisely on the typical expectations of work in that genre, and the other extreme in which writers make use of genre ideas but mix them up, blend them, distort them and subvert them in the interests of producing an interesting story. Most, if not all, of the authors whom Peter Straub selected to write for Conjunctions #39 habitually write in the latter mode, and it is that mode of writing that Clute was referring to when he made his remarks about needing a new Copernicus.
Whilst I agree in principle with Clute, I think he has the wrong scientist. Copernicus worked at a time when modern science was very fuzzy indeed. He, and those who followed him (particularly Newton) produced a solid and functional set of theories that explained how the world worked, almost. We have had theories like that in genre literature for some time. Our version of Newtonian physics is the rigid view that there are set genres: science fiction, fantasy, horror, crime, romance and so on, and that all works can somehow be shoehorned into one of those categories. Where things seem a little blurry we invent sub-genres: science fantasy, feminist SF and so on. What we are looking for is not a Copernicus, but an Einstein. Someone who can work with relativistic concepts within genre fiction. Or perhaps more accurately a Heisenberg. As we shall see, where the famous Uncertainty Principle tells as that as soon as we observe a particle we affect its properties, so the categorization of a work of fiction may be affected by how we read it.
One of the reasons that we have got to this Newtonian view of fiction is the ghettoization that genre fiction has suffered, most particularly in America. If you look, for example, at South America you will see writers happily using fantastical tropes within their writing without being castigated as mere genre hacks. In Germany today, one delegate informed us, the marketing categories of "science fiction" and "fantasy" are being abandoned by bookstores. Wolfe suggests that the invention of the pulps by Hugo Gernsback and his ilk did a dreadful disservice to SF by creating the concept that anything using SF, fantasy or horror themes was, by definition, fit only for the pulp market. (Incidentally, Wolfe claims to be quoting Brian Aldiss here. Aldiss wasnít actually in the room when the comments were made, but he was at the convention and Iím sure he would have taken steps to correct matters had he not agreed with what Wolfe had said.)
Iím not sure that Gernsback is entirely to blame, because there is a very convincing argument in Wolfeís own paper in Conjunctions #39 that explains how Victorian novelists created a fashion for rigid realism within their work and how this has influenced critical attitudes amongst British and American academics. However, there is no doubt that there has been a rigid quality hierarchy within the publishing industry. Serious works were published in hardcover; light reading appeared in paperback; and absolute trash appeared in the pulps. Thankfully that distinction has now largely broken down. For example, it used to be the case that the ratio of hardback to paperback prices was around 10-1. Now it is only 2 or 3-1. Genre fiction is routinely published in hardcover. And of course pulps no longer exist. If there is a modern equivalent it is perhaps the rash of e-book companies, mostly thinly disguised self-publishing operations, which can be found on the Internet.
While we are on the subject of marketing, there is an important distinction to be drawn here between a marketing classification and a critical theory. Publishers and bookstores can and will continue to invent their own labels with which to describe a particular work. They will do this without any regard for what us critics say, because their objective is to sell books, not to discuss them. Indeed, as an excellent paper by Janice Bogstad at ICFA pointed out, bookstores will often apparently mis-file particular works based on the purchasing patterns of their customers. Works that would have automatically been categorized as SF or fantasy had they been written by a male author are often listed under romance if the author is female because it is believed that they will sell better that way. (Bogstad remarked that last she looked romance accounted for 40% of fiction sales in the US.)
The distinction between marketing categories and critical theory is important because at least one person has badly confused the two. An essay by L. Timmel Duchamp due to be published in the forthcoming (Wiscon special) edition of Extrapolation strongly attacks Wolfe for his remark in the paper that "feminist science fiction" isnít a particularly useful critical term. Now of course if you are interested in promoting feminism (as Iím sure Duchamp is), then it is very useful from a marketing point of view to be able to label specific works as "feminist". Wolfe would not disagree with that (and yes, I have talked to him about it). Nor is he suggesting that authors should no longer address feminist themes in their work. What he is saying is that, from a critical perspective, such terms have outlived their usefulness. Indeed, I might add, if we were to conclude that we needed "feminist science fiction" as a specific critical category, we would almost certainly be led to including such terms as "environmentalist SF", "Libertarian SF", "Marxist SF", "right wing loony with big guns SF", "wish-washy middle-of-the-road Social Democrat SF" and "I donít want to have to think about politics SF". That way, as they say, lies madness.
Let us return, then, to the substance of Wolfeís paper, and the discussion at ICFA. One of the ideas that came across in the cross-pollination panel is that of genre as a series of boxes imposed on fiction by people who have expectations as to what that fiction should be. These boxes are created by many groups of people. The most obvious are publishers and bookstores who are seeking means of more effectively selling their wares. Libraries also create boxes for similar reasons: directing customers towards what they are looking for. Agenda setters such as Duchamp also wish to create boxes so as to identify works that support their particular political aims. Most importantly, fans create boxes, because they have a tendency to like what they like and get upset if their favorite authors move too far away from expectations. And, sadly, many writers create boxes for themselves. Wolfe related an anecdote from his first visit to a World Horror Convention where he was literally horrified to find it full of writers whose sole ambition seemed to be to imitate the more obvious features of a Stephen King novel. There are, of course, many people who will tell you that the way to succeed in a writing career is to write to publisher/market expectations, following a Mills & Boon style template for your work. Believe me, that is not the way to get a good review from Gary Wolfe in Locus, nor is it the way to get a good review in Emerald City.
I think that my one genuinely constructive contribution to the debate was to suggest a slight change in terminology. Rather than think about boxes, I suggested that we should think instead of membranes. The efforts of various groups of people to confine fiction within these membranes sets up a creative potential gradient across them, and consequently the more creative writers will keep drifting through them by some sort of literary osmosis.
Here we arrive at Wolfeís concept of a continuum. At one end we have those writers who work rigidly within the expected genre boundaries. Wolfe calls this "implosion", but I prefer the term "fossilization". At the other extreme are those works that continually penetrate the genre membranes and subvert expectations. Wolfe calls this "evaporation", but Locus reviewer Russell Letson came up with an approach that compared the effect to breeding of cats or dogs. Under the control of humans, these animals can be persuaded to adopt a wide range of specific forms, but left to themselves in the wild they will interbreed and end up all looking pretty much the same. You can see what Clute means about us struggling for terminology here, but hopefully Iím getting the idea across.
As a side note here, one thing that we did discuss was that certain genres lent themselves more to fossilization than others. In particular I am thinking of crime and romance fiction. In the former a crime is committed and (probably) solved. In the latter a woman falls in love and (probably) gets married. Science fiction and fantasy, on the other hand, allow a much wider range of plot structures, and consequently are much more prone to drifting away from expectations and penetrating the genre membranes. This will probably get me a bunch of irate letters from mystery and romance fans, but letís remember that this is all exploratory. If Clute and Wolfe see it only as a work in progress, Iím not going to claim that I have the answer.
The final stage of the process, as Farah Mendlesohn cogently pointed out at the round table, is to define precisely what we mean by Wolfeís definitions. If we donít know what it means for a work to be "science fiction", we canít decide whether or not it has somehow drifted away from that and blended with some other genre. That opens up a whole new can of worms, but I notice that I have gone on for more than 3 pages already on this subject, so perhaps I should give you guys a break there and continue with this next issue. It does, after all, give you all a chance to respond. Also I probably need more time to think about it. Wolfe himself wasnít at all clear in the original paper, concentrating more on his implosion-evaporation continuum than on what things were imploding towards or evaporating from.
So, more next month, including coverage of a paper by Farah Mendlesohn that addresses the classification issue. In the meantime if you want to read Wolfeís original paper you can buy the book in which it was published.
Edging into the Future: Science Fiction and Contemporary Cultural Transformation - Veronica Hollinger & Joan Gordon (Eds.) Ė University of Pennsylvania Press Ė hardcover
It appears piecemeal, fragment-by-fragment, a different site each time. No one can trace the uploads. There are places on the Web where you can leave things anonymously, and every so often a new segment is found at one of them. The film features a man and a woman. They walk, they look, they are aware. They never say anything. They do not touch. Around them, their world is indistinct. Sometimes there is a longer shot, showing that they are in a city, but it is unclear which one. Perhaps it is Viriconium. It could be anywhere.
And that, of course, is the problem. Someone has made these movie segments. That someone has a vast amount of talent, and presumably access to some sophisticated and expensive equipment. Such people are rare, and their styles are generally well known. The producer of "The Footage", as it has become known, has left no clues. The camera work, the setting, even down to the clothing and hairstyles of the actors give no hint as to where, by whom, or even when it was made. Aficionados hold that The Footage makes up part of the greatest movie ever made, but all we have of it are fragments. We don't even know if it is a complete work being released piecemeal, or a work in progress. We don't know in what order the fragments should be viewed.
William Burroughs would no doubt be fascinated, were he around to see it. But he doesn't appear as a character in this new novel by William Gibson, and Gibson's interests are only tangential to literary theory. Structure is not an issue in Gibson's world. Image is everything. All life is advertising, and control comes not through sequences of words and pictures, but through pattern recognition.
Far more creativity, today, goes into the marketing of products than into the products themselves, athletic shoes or feature films.
Oh look, I sneaked the title of the book in there when you weren't looking, subliminal like. Pattern Recognition. There is an idea: it lodges in our minds, we associate with it. Human beings, for all our pretensions, run on automatic pilot most of the time. And that is why people like Cayce Pollard are so valuable. Our heroine (for 'tis she) has an innate ability to differentiate between logos that will click with our primate gray matter, and ones that will pass into obscurity. To a marketing company she is worth her weight in gold. But even the best campaign still has to be managed. You still have to orchestrate generating a buzz. And where The Footage is concerned, the marketing industry is in awe. There is, as yet, nothing to sell. Nothing has been productized or monetized. And yet the world is already obsessed with it. The Footage is, in so many ways, a work of genius.
So Cayce (and apparently the name is generally pronounced "Casey", but she prefers to call herself "Case", because it amuses Gibson to see critics falling over themselves to find some subtle connection between her and the hero of Neuromancer) finds herself in search of the mysterious producer. And because she is a heroine all sorts of strange and dangerous adventures ensue. It is a good thing that her father was a US Secret Service agent, so she's had some education in the espionage business.
"But wait", I hear you say, "isn't this William Gibson - aren't we expecting a cyberpunk book? Where's the SF?"
Sorry folks. Pattern Recognition has about as much SF as Cryptonomicon did, which is to say "nothing" if you believe that SF must have aliens and rocket ships, or everything if you believe that any book that is obsessed with technology must be SF. Do I care? Do I want to get into nit-picky arguments about genre definitions? No, not after having just subjected you to an essay on the subject. I just want to read the book, and I want you guys to read it too because it is wonderful.
OK, but you expect more than that from me, so I'd better justify myself. And I'm not going to do that by quoting the Neil Gaiman blurb on the back cover that says that Pattern Recognition is the best thing that Gibson has done since Neuromancer. Neil happens to be right, but blurbs don't allow you room for justification and reviews do.
To start with the prose is deliciously rich and liquid, like warm, melted chocolate. Gibson has always been good, but in the past he's always been edgy. Pattern Recognition just flows. In addition he knows his stuff. Much of the story is set in London, a place he clearly knows very well and views with a wry and entertaining foreigner's eye. Being a mystery, the book has to be spooky and perturbing, yet fascinating enough to get you hooked, and so it is. If, like Cayce, you are allergic to logo overload (and in the case of Tommy Hilfiger I agree entirely) then you might get fed up with the constant product placement that is such a Gibson trademark, but personally I think it is a small price to pay.
And finally, Pattern Recognition is great book because it aggressively addresses fundamental questions about how we live today. It is about a world of constantly changing fashions, a world in which Heisenbergís Uncertainty Principle tells us that as soon as we try to grab hold of something we will fail to understand it because the mere act of grabbing it has changed it.
The book doesnít do any of this obviously. Indeed, there are times when one gets the impression that the whole message has been so subtle that Gibson has somehow inserted things subliminally into your consciousness without you realizing it. You will go away thinking about various ideas, but never know where they came from. Also he makes the argument without any obvious closure, by which I mean that the book doesnít come to a specific conclusion about the world the way that All Tomorrowís Parties did. And perhaps that also is the point.
Pattern Recognition - William Gibson - Putnam - hardcover
Cory Doctorow is a former winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (that "not a Hugo butÖ" thing) and a highly respected author of short stories. He is also the Outreach Coordinator (which I suspect means Head of PR) for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which gives him a heck of a lot of street cred in certain areas of fandom. So when his first novel appeared, I pounced upon it eagerly. Seldom have I been more disappointed in a book.
Part of this may be my fault, in that the book is set in, and is about, Disney World. I have never understood the fascination that other people have for theme parks, and the thought of a theme park run by the abominably saccharin Disney Corporation is enough to make my stomach churn. Doctorow, on the other hand, seems fascinated by them. If you happen to agree with him, try thinking about what it would be like to have to read a novel about the joys of collecting antique Barbie dolls, or a romance novel in which the star-crossed lovers are the author's pet hamsters. I mean, who cares, right?
Personal preference aside, however, technically the book is very poor. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a fairly short book, barely over 200 pages, and it has a structure that is far more suited to a short story than a novel. That is, it has a very linear plot with a twist at the end, and none of the richness that you expect in a longer work. I guess that's understandable from someone who has written lots of short fiction and is just producing a first novel, but I expected better.
The plot goes like this: our hero, Jules, is a fan of Disney World and manages to get a job there thanks to his relationship with Lil, the daughter of a well-respected park family (Iíll get onto some of the sociology later). But the park is under attack. A bunch of high tech hotshots, fresh from their triumph of setting up a new Disney park in China, want to give the original a dramatic make-over. Jules and Lil fight to save their favorite old rides, but they find themselves up against a highly competent opposition that will apparently stop at nothing, not even murder.
So along the way, Jules gets assassinated. Not that this matters much, because in the world of the story he can have a clone grown and his mind restored from a back-up. But then what? If this were a mystery novel, Jules would investigate the crime and expose the villains. In fact he makes no attempt to do so, and we find out nothing more until the murderer confesses at the end of the book for no more reason that to provide the author with the type of dramatic twist that a short story demands. And both the reason given for the murder and the alibi that the perpetrators have seem remarkably flimsy to me. As this is basically all there is to the plot, I wasn't too impressed.
OK, but is the back-story any better? As I have intimated, the novel is set in a world in which a certain level of emortality is achieved through cunning use of cloning and nanotech. This isnít a new idea, and Doctorow makes little attempt to explore the implications. There's this really dumb piece of blurb on the back (from Rudy Rucker who really should know better) which says that Doctorow "starts out at the point where older SF writers' speculations end." Clearly Rucker hasn't read Brian Stableford's magnificent Fountains of Youth, which looks at the implications of emorality in way more depth that Doctorow does. Stableford doesn't use precisely the same technology as Doctorow, but Richard Morganís superb Altered Carbon does, and it is a gripping thriller as well. If we want to talk about being on the cutting edge, letís go back to 1996 and Ian McDonald's Necroville. Or for something totally off the wall that deals with the sort of American myths that a Disneyland novel might be expected to touch upon, Kathleen Ann Goonanís magnificent Flower Cities series. There's nothing new or cutting edge about Doctorow's use of science.
Where I guess he may be able to claim some originality is in the sociology, in that his society is based around the concept of Whuffie. A little bit of research revealed that this is an idea developed by net geeks and highly popular in those circles. Rather than a society that runs on money, they want a system based on reputation. With sufficient computer technology it would be possible for everyone to have a Whuffie rating that depended on what other people thought of them. Consequently Bill Gates would have zero Whuffie because everyone despises his software, and really competent tech geeks would be rich in the stuff.
This is the sort of idea that works well amongst peer groups such as net geeks. Indeed, when I'm working as a consultant and journalist I am, to a large extent, working in a Whuffie economy. And given that Doctorow appears to be a proponent of Whuffie society, one might expect his book to promote the idea. In fact it does exactly the opposite. The clear message that comes through from reading Magic Kingdom is that in the wider world those who become rich in Whuffie are those who are good at politics and spin, just like in our money-based society. The sort of passionate, committed but somewhat socially dysfunctional character represented by Jules (and by rather a lot of people in fandom, including myself at times) would end up down and out in a Whuffie economy.
The book also contains some interesting lessons about business practices. Jules and Lil represent a certain type of geek attitude that is devoted to perfection of a particular, probably outmoded form of technology. This isn't unique to programmers; you can see the same sort of thing in devotees of steam trains. This type of attitude only thrives in a bureaucratic, tradition- and process-oriented operation such as the park is presented to be. The bad guys, in contrast, are a focused, committed, results oriented business group that comes in with new ideas and wipes away the old practices. You get the impression from reading the book that they didn't need to murder Jules, they would have won easily anyway.
Possibly Doctorow is being very subtle here. Just maybe he is gently mocking the idea of Whuffie and other treasured sacred cows of geekdom. Perhaps he is trying to get his audience to think outside the box by setting them up as the heroes of his book and showing them how they would fail. Iíd like to believe that. But if he is doing that then heís doing it rather too subtly for me to be certain about it, and given the sloppy job heís done on the structure on the novel I'm far more included to believe that heís just confused.
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom - Cory Doctorow - Tor - hardcover
When I read Lyda Morehouse's first novel, Archangel Protocol, I was completely boggled by the audacity of it. The trouble was that there were sequels in the works, and when you are already massively over the top there is only one way to go, and that's to go for broke. Can Morehouse pull it off again? You betcha!
Think I'm exaggerating? Letís remind ourselves of the plot. So Deirdre McManus and the Archangel Michael have defeated the virtual angels plot of virtual Presidential candidate, Etienne Letourneaux. The USA is safe from fundamentalism, virtual or otherwise, for a while. But Satan (or Morningstar as Morehouse prefers to call him) thinks he has got one over on God. For he has so corrupted Michael in the ways of the flesh that the archangel wants to stay on earth with Deirdre. Little does Morningstar know that this is all part of God's plan, which happens to involve a miraculous baby and the end of creation.
The new book, Fallen Host, picks up with Gabriel explaining to Morningstar about what is going on. Just in case he wants to repent and surrender now. The Fallen One, however, is outraged. What have those poor humans done to deserve being wiped out just to satisfy His sense of fulfillment of prophecy? OK, so humans might be annoying little monsters at times, but if God wants a fight, he'll get one. Now what did those prophecies say was the next step? Ah yes, recruit an Antichrist.
Almost as soon as I tore Heaven in two, God retook control, He co-opted Hell as a place to send the souls of those mortals that didn't pass muster on whatever sick little experiment He was running down here on earth.
See what I mean? This is completely wild. And it doesn't stop there. A novel needs a little more than one fallen angel as a character. So does a prophecy for that matter. Hence we are introduced to Monsignor Emmaline McNaughten, Inquisitor, of the American Catholic Church. The Pope doesn't much like the American habit of ordaining women, but McNaughten happens to be the most technically savvy of his Inquisitors, and is therefore just the person he needs to find out whether AIs have souls.
In addition, you can't have a proper apocalypse without those Four Horsemen. The fact that in this case the name refers to a Japanese thrash polka band fronted by a Yakuza kitten who performs naked hidden behind her cello is beside the point. They are here, so the End Times must be coming, right?
And finally, we cannot forget our AIs. The star of the show (and prime candidate for the Antichrist if Morningstar has his way) is Page, the self-aware software system that runs the independent, pirate Internet, mouse.net. With its creator, Mouse, in prison for his part in the virtual angel scam, Page is an innocent child alone in a world of monsters, both human and immortal.
I suppose I should not wear the chador. But, my gender is slippery. Like the quality of light on the LINK, I experience gender by my design. I am always neither, always both. Most people call me "him," because my father is male, and it is simpler to choose one gender to describe an entity. But, I've checked: I'm composed of both ones and zeroes.
I had some reservations about Archangel Protocol, but still loved the book. Fallen Host, I am happy to say, is a vast improvement. I loved it, and my only reservation is that the plot twists got a little over-complex at the end. That and that fact that my favorite archangel, Uriel, had such a small, walk-on part. Aside from the sheer wonderful wackiness of it, Morehouse handles her characters well, especially the temptation of Page, and she has a fabulous dry sense of humor that gets her through places where the plot gets too wild.
The only real question left is where all of this is going. The final volume, Messiah Node, is coming, and a showdown is inevitable. Who is going to win? Will Morningstar save the wold from destruction? Will Michael side with him for Deidre's sake? Will God turn out to have a cunning and loving plan that is simply making use of Morningstar? And most importantly will Morehouse let up briefly on the bizarre plotting and dry wit and give us a moral interpretation of the tale? The grand finale is going to be really tough to get right, but having read Fallen Host I have every confidence that Morehouse can get the job done.
So why wasn't this book on the Philip K. Dick award shortlist, huh?
Fallen Host - Lyda Morehouse - Roc - softcover
Veniss and Fur
Ask anyone in the industry who makes best use of the city in horror and fantasy ficton and they will probably mention China Miéville's New Crobuzon. However, while my admiration for China is boundless, I would be tempted to suggest that the true master of the cityscape is in fact Jeff Vandemeer.
Regular readers will remember me frothing at the mouth over Vandermeer's wonderful, squid-haunted fantasy city of Ambergris (see City of Saints and Madmen). Now heís back with an entirely new location, one set in the far future but still recognizably fantasy.
Veniss is surrounded by high walls to keep out the pollution. It is supposedly largely self-sufficient, but is collapsing from the inside thanks to relentless petty political disputes. Nicola, a highly paid programmer, lives in luxury in high towers and tries her best to keep the city running. Her twin brother, Nicholas, is a penniless and struggling artist who prefers to haunt the fashionable restaurants and cafes of the canal district where, in happier economic times, giant space craft would quench their hulls and dock. Neither of them, however, know Veniss as well as Shadrach. Nicola's ex-lover was born and raised below ground in the vaults and tunnels where the proto-Morlock underclass of Veniss is ground beneath the wheels of industry. When Nicholas becomes desperate enough for cash to try to cut a deal with the notorious bioneer, Quin, only Shadrach has the experience and courage to dare to save him, to venture into Veniss Underground.
The Garbage Zone was a revolving beast that ate is own dark trail and was never fully gorged on what it found there. Once it had been AI, but now it was just an old beast, and a slow beast, and it had no eyes to see the dim white, the dim black, rags of flesh that traversed the piles, the mountains, of its moveable feast. [...] With a grinding of gears it swallowed ton after ton, some it burned, some of it expelled from its gullet down into a deep hole where it was crushed flat. But most of it was reduced down into raw materials and expelled by eruptions from the beast's blowhole, to be used by above level, which would in turn send its products below level to captive commercial markets waiting to use them, and once used, once more thrown out, so that the beast not only ate itself, it ate the leavings of its leavings: it ate the world forever. Lucky then, that it had no sense of smell.
I don't normally quote such large chunks from books, and Veniss Underground itself is fairly short, less than 200 pages. However, Vandermeer's prose is so delicious that I felt I just had to share some of it with you. That was one of my favorite passages, combining eloquence of description, a delightful expression of the horror of industry, and a neat injection of humor to leaven the brutality. I wish I could write like that.
All that, and I haven't got to the plot yet. So far we have just seen a far-future world wallowing in the mire of century upon century of careless pollution left by ceaselessly rampaging industry. It is nice material for horror, if anything involved with horror can be nice, but where is it going, what is the story?
Quin. It all comes back to the mighty Quin. Little is known of his origins. Few have even seen him in the flesh, for he prefers to operate through remote copies of himself. The one thing that is known for sure is that he is a master of bioneering, a gene sculptor of rare and unusual talent.
Quin makes critters. He makes critters that once existed but don't now (tigers, bats, sheep, elephants, dolphins, albatrosses, seagulls, armadillos, dusky seaside sparrows) or critters that never existed except in myth, flat media or holos (Jabberwocks, Grinches, Ganeshas, Puppeteers, Gobblesnorts, Snarks) or critters that never existed at all until Quin created them (beetleworms, eelgoats, camelapes).
But the best thing he does - the Liveliest Art of all, for my purposes - is to improve on existing critters. Like meerkats with opposable thumbs.
Quin, then, is the eminence gris of Veniss, the dark genius whose products are all the rage (those meerkats make such wonderful servants) but whose activities are so gross and socially unacceptable that he hides himself Underground. What, you might ask, is the price of selling your soul to a man like this, a man whose hobby appears to be to build creatures that out-do the worst imaginings of Hieronymous Bosch? And what might such a man think of those whose appetites his more commercial products are aimed at?
"That is why the human race is dying - too limited an imagination. No thought for the consequences."
Ultimately then, Veniss Underground is a sort of environmentalist novel about unchecked technology. But it is also far more than that: a beautifully written and fabulously imagined piece of weird fiction that magnificently combines tropes from SF, horror and fantasy. Jeff Vandermeer is fast becoming one of my favorite writers.
By the way, Jeff tells me that in addition to the main trade paperback version there will be a limited edition, signed hardcover of Veniss Underground available from Nightshade Books. It includes an afterword that throws new light on the history of Quin, and on where some of the imagery in the book came from. Jeff also has some short stories set in the Veniss world that will be available in a collection sometime soon. And UK readers who don't want to import via Amazon can get a British publication from Pan in October.
Veniss Underground- Jeff Vandermeer - Prime - publisher's proof
Violence, violence, it's the only thing that will make them see sense.
Mott the Hoople
Let us suppose, for a moment, that emortality is possible. People can, barring accidents, live forever. Sounds good, doesn't it? But suppose further that you are a teenager. How old do you think you would have to be before your centuries-ancient parents would finally admit that you had grown up and stop treating you like a child? And note that you would never, ever inherit anything. Suppose once more that you were a prince, and the thing that you would never, ever inherit was the throne of the Queendom of Sol: to be precise, dominion over the entire solar system. Well, maybe even that might be bearable in exchange for a playboy lifestyle. But let us finally suppose that in a fit of unbearable cruelty your parents consigned you to months of confinement in that abominable American form of torture known as "summer camp". Of such slights are revolutions born.
Wil McCarthyís new novel, The Wellstone, is set in the same world as The Collapsium, but it is a very different book. The Collapsium, you may recall, is a baroque comedy designed to demonstrate the fabulous uses of the amazing technology that McCarthy postulates: building materials made from lattices of tiny black holes, programmable matter and so on. In contrast, The Wellstone is an amusing but very serious examination of the society postulated in The Collapsium. The technical explanations are confined mainly to traditional astrophysics, and the way-out stuff is consigned to a set of appendices at the back. The book might be a little difficult to follow for anyone who hasn't been through all of the explanations in The Collapsium first, but it is also a definite sign that McCarthy is developing well as a writer.
The plot, as intimated above, involves the son of the heroes of The Collapsium. Bruno de Towaji and Tamra-Tamatra Lutui are now safely established as a royal family, but their attempt at producing offspring has been rather less successful than Bruno's scientific inventions. Young Bascal is a sullen, rebellious lad who is convinced that he must upset the cozy society of his parents for the good of oppressed teenagers everywhere. First, however, he has to escape from summer camp, and given that it is on an artificial planetoid somewhere out near the Kuiper Belts, and the fax machines (read "transporters") are disabled, that is none too easy.
Fortunately Bascal is a bright lad, and one of his fellow camp inmates, Conrad Mursk, the hero of the story, is also technically savvy. Given that nothing in the Queendom is built without some Wellstone component, and that Wellstone is wholly programmable matter, building a spacecraft is not beyond the realms of possibility. Thanks to an early, botched escape attempt and a certain amount of fortuitous accident, Bascal also has the assistance of Xmary (short for Xiomara) who, being female, is relentlessly practical and sensible, in stark contrast the Bascal's pack of irresponsible lads. A career in space piracy beckons, or at least a scandal of such epic proportions that parents everywhere will have to sit up and take notice.
If messing about with Wellstone and heading off into space were all there was to the book it would just be another dull piece of hard SF. But McCarthyís ambitions are way beyond that. Much of the book is an intelligent examination of the group dynamics of a pack of teenage boys. It isn't exactly Lord of the Flies, but it is rather less painful to read as a consequence. McCarthy leavens the raw horror with humor, but doesn't back away from the terrible things that the boys do to each other.
Another central theme of the book is the ongoing combat between the moral and practical Conrad, and the reckless but potentially far-sighted Bascal. Conrad just wants to make the point to their parents and get everyone home safe. Bascal, in contrast, is prepared to sacrifice everything, even all of their lives, to make his point as loudly as possible. This battle, of course, is further complicated by the fact that all of the kids are emortal. Their parents will have back-ups of them in their fax machines at home. Well, probably. But, to come back to the arguments in David Brinís Kiln People, is it right to allow a living being to suffer simply because they can be resuscitated form a copy that will have no memory of that pain? McCarthy even manages a far more cogent and pithy comment on Whuffie society than the Cory Doctorow book reviewed elsewhere in this issue.
"Meritocracy can be cruel," her Da was fond of saying. "It takes a hundred years to build a life, and six months to ruin it if you play your hand badly."
All in all I really enjoyed this book. McCarthy combines the absolute cutting edge of physics with some good characters and much thoughtful exposition on social issues. That is precisely what a science fiction book is supposed to do. It looks like there will be a sequel too, because there is a framing story in which, far in the future, Conrad goes to seek out the retired Bruno and beg his help to sort out the terrible consequences of Bascalís rebellion. Given that the main story of The Wellstone presents the rebellion as a great success, McCarthy clearly has more interesting ideas up his sleeve. Iím looking forward to it.
The Wellstone - Wil McCarthy - Bantam - softcover
Mists of Time
Iím doing this largely from memory because I donít have the time to read two whole extra novels this month. Of course I could wait for the next issue, but I wanted to get to this straight away. It isnít often that you get two of the greatest fantasy books ever written re-issued. They have been out of print for some time, so now is your opportunity to go out and buy them.
Whose work am I talking about? Gene Wolfe, of course.
I have decided to write again. I have just read the last of what is written on this scroll, but I do not know whether it is true or even how long it has been since I wrote it. I read because I noticed the scroll in this chest today when I got out a clean chiton, and I thought if I ever needed to write something I would use it. I will write first who I am. I think this only tells who I was.
Some of you will recognize that immediately. For the benefit of everyone else, the writer is Latro, a mercenary soldier. From what other people say about his appearance and accent, Latro believes that he is a native of the area we now call Italy, possible from that pesky little city state called Rome. But he has been serving in the armies of the Greeks in their wars against the Persian Empire. At some point he sustained a serious wound to the head. As a result, he no longer has any short-term memory. The only way that he can remember who he is, where he is, and what he did yesterday, is to write it all down each evening and read it again in the morning.
In compensation for this dreadful wound, Latro has been given a miraculous gift. He is able to see the Gods and other supernatural beings. If he touches them, others can see them as well. Consequently the books each follow two paths Ė one a journey through the historical Greece of the Persian Wars, and the other a Homer-esque view of the same story that, for the most part, only Latro can see, although most of his friends and adversaries firmly believe in the supernatural.
I have to say that these books are not the easiest things to read. Latroís constant problems with his memory, and the confusion caused by his being able to see things that no one else can, make the action very difficult to follow. You have to work hard Ė harder even than in reading Wolfeís massive New/Long/Short Sun series. Nor does Wolfe make any concessions. For example, although we know that the setting is ancient Greece, the geography is unfamiliar. Where are these cities called Rope and Thought? After a while it becomes obvious that they are Sparta and Athens, and probably they are literal translations of their Greek names, but you have to work to reach that understanding.
The original books were titled Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete. As I said, they have been out of print for some time. Now they have been re-issued as a single volume, Latro in the Mist. There doesnít appear to be any additional material, but if you havenít read the books before the new single volume is a much easier way of getting hold of them than scouring second-hand shops. David Hartwell, who edited the new edition, tells me that it is also less confusing to read the whole thing in one go, rather than have to work yourself into Latroís mind twice.
In my opinion, these books are the best things that Wolfe has ever done. Iím not alone in that view either. For Wolfe fans these books the sheer complexity and haunting beauty of the books is awesome. Give them a try, please. Fantasy doesnít get any better than this.
Latro in the Mist - Gene Wolfe - VHPS Virginia - softcover
Just Do It
One of the things that makes me most nervous about book reviewing is when an author writes to be and asks me to review their debut novel. Sure it is flattering, but what if I donít like it? Thankfully in this particular case my worries have ceased, because M.M. Buckner is someone whom I expect us to be hearing a lot more of as her career progresses.
Some of you may remember that one of the things that really gets me exercised about a book is when an author deliberately makes their lead character unreasonably stupid for reasons of advancing the plot. Buckner has managed to pull this off brilliantly. Her heroine, Jolie Blanche Sauvage, is by no means smart. She is reckless, impulsive, and absolutely determined to try do the right thing. The greatness of her heart becomes legendary; most of the time her brain doesnít follow. But because she is so caring and determined she manages to acquire a group of smart and devoted friends who keep digging her out of the messes she rushes headlong into. It all works very well, which is a considerable achievement for a first novel.
I'm a girl who always keeps hoping. What I've learned is, when in doubt, make the boldest leap you can think of, and youíll usually land safe. Not everyone agrees with that, I know. It takes resolve.
The other larger than life character in the book, and she is also very nicely drawn, is the villain: obsessive neuroscientist, Judith Merida. Merida cunningly outwits Sauvage at every turn, only to be undone when our heroine does something utterly rash and unexpected. Merida is also very much not your run of the mill bad guy. She has "mad scientist" written all over her, but rather than cackle and gloat she does the whole thing with a combination of charm, cattiness and motherly attentiveness that makes her incredibly creepy. Traditional mad scientists say things like, "Aha! Mr. Bond, I have you now, soon you will die horribly!". Merida is more likely to say something like, "there, there, Jolie pet, it isnít your fault you are so stupid, you just take a quiet rest in this cell while I complete my triumph."
The rest of the cast of the book are nowhere near so vibrantly drawn, almost as if Buckner exhausted herself with her main protagonists. But there is one other that I must mention, the object of their rivalry, Jin Airlangga Sura. Our token male sex object turns out so be the Sensitive New Age son of a powerful corporate president who wants nothing more than to put the world to rights. But, having been brought up in power and luxury, he expects to do it all himself. Consequently he is a sucker for Meridaís proposed new nanotech surgery that, she claims, will make his brain massively more powerful and (here comes the marketing hype) put him in tune with the quantum vibrations of the universe. She calls the technique Hyperthought.
There, got the title in at last. As you might have expected, given where you are reading this, Hyperthought is a science fiction book. But it is an SF of a type that you donít really expect to see coming out of a US publisher. The world of Hyperthought is one that has barely survived environmental collapse. Mankind lives entirely underground, and the world is rules by massive, geographically-based corporations, the dot-coms. Buckner has a Gibson-eqsue feel for slang. Thus Sauvage is a "surfer" Ė not someone who surfs the Internet, but someone crazy enough to make her living by venturing onto the surface of the planet. Sura, because he is a senior manager of a dot-com, is a "Commie". Neat.
The Pacific welcomed me like a hot sulfur bath. Thank the Laws, my suit filtered out the stink. Under the surface, even with a powerful headlamp and metavision, I could see only dim outlines and shadows. Swimming through that murk was like plowing through gelatin. Above me, breakers crashed against the cliff, churning with fleshy clots of refuse.
The story takes place against a background of growing social unrest and revolution that, for reasons of historical synchronicity, is centered on Sauvageís native Paris. Most of the action, however, is set in Godthaab (Greenland), Sydney and the drowned remnants of San Francisco. I donít suppose anyone at Ace expected the book to be coming out at a time when the French were more hated in America than the Russians, but then again I donít expect this book to be bought by the sort of people who insist on eating their burgers with "freedom fries".
Cleverly, Buckner does not have Sauvage and Sura lead the revolution, she simply plants their story in the global media and makes them a catalyst. It is all very well done, and Iím very impressed. The science behind hyperthought is never well explained, but it isnít much used so it doesnít really matter. For a first novel, this is very impressive. And it is only about 200 pages too. Thank goodness not every new writer thinks that a 500-page epic is expected of them.
Hyperthought - M.M. Buckner - Ace - softcover
A Tale of Two Places
My main objective in adding a review of a mainstream book to Emerald City is to draw attention to mainstream authors who are writing works with SF and fantasy elements. However, occasionally I shall reverse the process and feature mainstream books by people who have made their reputations in genre fiction. Anyone who suspects that this is a cunning excuse for me to review the latest books by Nicola Griffiths will be absolutely right.
Despite having two successful SF novels, and one Tiptree Award, behind her, Griffiths has decided that she is more comfortable writing thrillers, and on the evidence of The Blue Place, who can blame her? The cover calls it "a novel of suspense", and while the book does star an ex-police officer and begin with a murder mystery, that is a much more accurate description than calling it a crime story. If you are looking for some complex tangle of clues with a Holmes or Poirot-like figure ready to unravel them, this is not the book for you. If instead you would like the complexities to be about the characters of the people involved, and the atmosphere to be one of anxiety rather than mystery, this is essential reading.
One Peachtree Center rose diagonally across from the window: arrogant, too big, erected without any consideration for neighbours, its open metalwork spire glinting wasteful and golden in the late morning sun. To the left was another [...] monstrous tower with its buff-coloured stone and mean, prisonlike windows, linked by those silly glass sky bridges that Dornan, a friend of mine, refers to as gerbil tubes.
Of course it canít all be like that, and one of the beauties of The Blue Place is its sense of place. Most of the action occurs in two very distinct geographic locations. The first is Atlanta, where Aud Torvingen used to be a first rate cop until she got eased out for excessive violence. Atlanta is a place of money, of human power, and of games of deceit. Into one of those games falls Julia Lyons-Bennet, an art dealer who has done nothing more than simply note that a picture passing through her hands might possibly be a fake. She has no idea that the thread she is tugging at will lead through money laundering to drug dealing and hired killers. All that stands between her and the abyss is Aud.
This countryís bones and flesh are made of rock and its blood is the ice-cold water of glacier melt. The world is a dark place, and three of the four seasons are winter.
Place number two is Norway, Audís ancestral homeland and the place where she spent most of her childhood. In Norway the people are open and friendly, but the land is deadly. Growing up in the USA, Julia will have assumed that the world was a safe place. In Norway little Aud will have learned to watch her step on the ice, least a crevice open up or a troll fancy her for breakfast.
Well, maybe the trolls are only childrenís tales, but they serve to warn the little ones of the dangers that can lurk around every corner in a beautiful but deadly world. Yet I note in passing that Griffiths used to teach womenís self-defense courses. Part of the message of this book is that trolls can and do lurk around the corner.
There is, however, a third place in our story. It is the Blue Place: a place of deadly calm in the midst of violent action. The place where Audís mind, and the mind of any trained killer, goes when action calls. It is a seductive, adrenalin-fueled place, ruled not by anger, but the cold, clear, focused need to survive.
Did I say that this was a novel of suspense? You betcha! But it is also a novel with a message. You are not safe. No one is ever safe. All you can be is prepared.
The Blue Place Ė Nicola Griffiths - Avon - hardcover
Sometimes the normal behavior of the publishing industry is turned on its head. This new collection by Ray Bradbury was first published in the US in 2003, but I got it as a 2003 British publication from Earthlight. One More for the Road is, as we have come to expect from Bradbury, a collection of magnificent gems. If all short stories were this good Iíd be reading them all the time. There is very little science fiction in it, and despite the filing instructions to booksellers printed on the back, very little traditional fantasy. In many of the stories strange and magical things happen, but most of the tropes of fantasy literature are missing. All that is left, and this of course may be the most powerful fantasy trope of all, is a sense of wrongness. In fact it is a very particular sense of wrongness: that felt by a man at the end of his life.
The stories in One More for the Road almost all deal with age and with looking back with sadness on youth. They are not so much stories of failed lives, but stories of lives in which the litany of regrets has grown to overwhelm the potential for hope. It is a grim but understandable view of old age, and one that I think SF books on immortality have yet to come to terms with.
To begin with these visions are merely sad, sometimes depressing, sometimes tinged with hope. But as the book goes on they become more and more concerned with sex. Bradbury, it seems, is locked into the worldview of a generation of men for whom women were utterly alien beings. They were things to be desired, to be captured and owned. They were things that never lived up to the fantasies that you had of them during the chase, who nagged you mercilessly when you failed to live up to their expectations, and who would throw you out on your ear or betray you with some young buck if you failed to reform. Bradbury doesnít seem to have any idea how to come to terms with this, and one of the stories, "Well, what do you have to say for yourself?" is one of the best arguments for becoming a lesbian I have ever read, though I doubt that he intended it that way.
What that leaves us with, is a beautifully wrought collection by one of the worldís masters of short fiction, but also a book of considerable sadness and which will probably have most male readers heading for a bar to try to wash its images away on a tide of whiskey. Iím hoping that Bradbury is simply a man out of time, and that the real world has moved beyond this.
One More for the Road Ė Ray Bradbury Ė Eathlight - softcover
More Ab Fab
As promised last issue, I have been dipping further into Conjunctions #39: The New Wave Fabulists. To a certain extent, this is hardy necessary. The stories that I mentioned last issue make the publication more than worth the difficulty of tracking it down. However, what I have read has been so good that Iíve wanted to carry on reading. So what have I found this month?
Seeing John Kesselís name in the Tiptree honors sent me immediately to his contribution. "The Invisible Empire" is most certainly not the sort of story that I could imagine Ray Bradbury writing. Joanna Russ yes; Sheri Tepper yes; Bradbury no. Most feminist SF by women isnít this full of hatred and violence. "The Invisible Empire" is a tale of a group of women in what appears to be 19th Century America who, outraged at how their sex is treated, form a vigilante band that seeks out and punishes men who have been violent towards women. It isnít one of the best stories in the collection, but it is stunning to see a man write such a tale.
The editor of the collection, horror writer Peter Straub, has contributed his own tale. "Little Red" is a story of a man who might be The Messiah and who might be simply a rather saintly but seriously geekish jazz fan. The hero of the tale is generous to a fault, but utterly obsessed with record collecting. Vinyl, of course. He lives in squalor, surrounded by his collection, and does his laundry twice a year, yet those whom he befriends value his counsel like gold and swear that miracles occur around him. The story is, I think, an examination of what it means to be good, and also how one comes to deserve beneficence. Whatever, it is heartwarming.
In "The Dystopianist, Thinking of His Rival, Is Interrupted by a Knock on the Door", Jonathan Letham produces a highly amusing tale of a man who writes stories for Utopian Fiction magazines with titles such as Expectant and Encouraging (someone at ICFA mentioned Uplifting Tales, but I canít find that one in the story). Letham also gives a well deserved plug for one of my favorite Marvel characters, Black Bolt of The Inhumans. Some of the other stories are not up to the standard of the rest of the collection, but then it would be too much to ask that the entire book should be brilliant.
Conjunctions #39 - Peter Straub (ed.) - Bard College - softcover
A Hugo Contender?
Amongst the freebies handed out at ICFA were copies of the October issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. This contained one of the stories that has appeared on the Best Novella section of the Hugo Recommendation Lists that I hadnít managed to read. It is "The Drive-In Puerto Rico", by Lucius Shepard. It turns out that the title refers to a restaurant on a small Caribbean island and pits a retired war hero, Colonel Maurcio Galpga, against the thuggish enforcer who keeps the current regime in money and power, Colonel Felix Carbonell. Given the appalling job that CNN is doing covering the Iraq war, one is tempted to think that leaving American journalists to be tortured and killed by local bullyboys might not be a bad idea, at least until they agree to report the CIAís role in brining Carbonell to power in addition to complaining about his behavior. But there is the local population of the island to consider as well so Shepard probably does the right thing. His characterization is magnificent, and the story is entertaining, but I donít think it stands up against the stories on my list.
The winners are:
M. John Harrison, Light, Gollancz, 2002; and John Kessel, "Stories for Men", Asimov's, Oct/Nov. 2002.
The short list (a.k.a. honorable mentions):
Eleanor Arnason, "Knapsack Poems", Asimov's, May 2002; Ted Chiang, "Liking What You See: A Documentary," Stories of Your Life and Others, Tor, 2002; John Clute, Appleseed, Tor, 2002; Karen Joy Fowler, "What I Didn't See", scifi.com; Gregory Frost, "Madonna of the Maquiladora," Asimov's, May 2002; Shelley Jackson, The Melancholy of Anatomy, Anchor, 2002; Larissa Lai, Salt Fish Girl, Thomas Allen, 2002; Peter Straub (ed.), Conjunctions #39: The New Wave Fabulists.
For further details about the award and the judging process, see www.tiptree.org.
I have no idea why Laurie Marksí Fire Logic isn't on that list. Very strange. But hey, Mike Harrison won a US-based literary award, all is right with the world.
Peanuts fans around the world may be unaware that "It was a dark and stormy nightÖ", the famous first line of Snoopyís never-to-be-finished novel, is not original. It is in fact the opening line of The Last Days of Pompeii, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Hence the name of the award for truly awful opening lines, sponsored by the English Department at San José State University. This yearís results have just been announced and as usual there are some absolute gems. Here are a few selections.
In 10th place: "As a scientist, Throckmorton knew that if he were ever to break wind in the echo chamber he would never hear the end of it."
In 6th place: "Although Sarah had an abnormal fear of mice, it did not keep her from eeking out a living at a local pet store."
In 5th place: "Stanley looked quite bored and somewhat detached, but then penguins often do."
And the winner: "The sun oozed over the horizon, shoved aside darkness, crept along the greensward, and, with sickly fingers, pushed through the castle window, revealing the pillaged princess, hand at throat, crown asunder, gaping in frenzied horror at the sated, sodden amphibian lying beside her, disbelieving the magnitude of the frog's deception, screaming madly, ĎYou lied!í"
I donít think I can follow that.
That wraps it up for another month. Funny how these issues keep on bloating on me. I guess it will happen even more in the near future while Iím getting the business cranked up again. Which hopefully will be good for you readers.
Next monthís issue will, of course, come live (or at least freshly deceased) from Eastercon. Catching up on the UK books will probably have to wait for May because Iím giving a bunch of training courses in the two weeks straddling Easter and will consequently be very busy, so I want to get most of the reading (and writing) done before that starts. However, I am hoping to include Richard Morganís Broken Angels (postal services willing) and the new Justina Robson novel, Natural History. Iíve also got a promising new space opera from Australian writer, Scott Westerfeld, and Brian Stableford masquerading as Brian Craig. The mainstream book of the month will be Summerland by Michael Chabon. And not forgetting the return of Elric of Melniboné. Blood and souls, Lord AriochÖ See you in a month or so.
Love Ďní hugs,