Monday, August 24, 2009

Notes and Notions

(I used to call this type of post "Bits and Pieces." I like the new name better.)

Let's start with TV. Mad Men has returned for the third season. Set in the tumultuous year of 1963, this season has started slow. The various storylines (both new and old) have a deliberate pace and succeed at setting mood and tone as they slow ratchet the tension. At this rate it may be season's end before all this tension comes to a head. And speaking of tension, one can't really watch the new season without thinking about the world-shaking events that are soon to occur. The question is: When in the season arc will the Kennedy assassination happen? Will the writers wait for the end or place the tragedy in the middle of the story? Which is the best dramatic choice? Personally, I hope they deal with it sooner rather than later. Right now, watching Mad Men is like watching the first act of any Pearl Harbor story. We're just waiting for the bombs to fall.

I realize I've reduced the subtle and complex drama of Mad Men to rather simplistic terms. The show has never been a historical drama. It's a period piece and good one. The characters and setting are rich and the themes of identity and artifice are wholly integrated into the drama. But the atmosphere of the show has always had a fin de siecle quality. A way of life is ending. Big changes are coming. A modern audience can't help but think of 1963 in this way. I'm sure, then, that the writers will work hard to either make us forget the imminent changes about to befall the characters or satisfactorily make those changes part of the drama. Either way I'll be watching.

(One last note about Mad Men. The show has certainly made me less interested in HBO's True Blood, a series that has all the subtlety of a travelling circus. Compared to Mad Men, True Blood is nothing but melodrama and loud, horny characters. Let's face it: Where Mad Men is delicate, True Blood is gaudy; where Mad Men is nuanced, True Blood is coarse. What's more, True Blood has become increasingly superficial; there's just nothing to care about in the show. (Probably because it's not "about" anything.) I watch it now from a distance and with some impatience. Mad Men, however, fully involves me, emotionally and intellectually.)

Books: I recommend Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente -- a beautifully written fantasy about a magical city accessed through dreams. This one was wholly captivating. I also liked Positively Fifth Street by James McManus--an exciting, real world look at high stakes poker. Less interesting was World War Z by Max Brooks, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, and The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. All these books have gotten rave reviews and there is much to like in them. But World War Z lacked any narrative drive (you have to really be into zombie fiction to appreciate it); The Magicians featured a highly unlikeable protagonist who failed (in my opinion) to grow up by the end; and The Knife of Never Letting Go was aimed at a young audience and lacked any kind of subtlety (which is OK, really, but the first-person urgency of the narrative became wearing after a while).

Comics: I've read some great illustrated work over the past two months and I'm saving my reviews for a separate post. Look for it soon.

More on David Foster Wallace: We are approaching the first anniversary of Wallace's death. No doubt we'll be hearing more about Wallace's life and his last, unfinished novel (The Pale King) in the weeks to come. Wisconsin Public Radio has already put together a wonderful tribute which can be found here. Go give it a listen. I cannot recommend this program highly enough (the excerpt of Wallace's Kenyon commencement address alone is worth your time).

A few months ago I clumsily attempted to express what Wallace's loss meant to me. Recently, I found the perfect remembrance of Wallace by Sven Birkerts in Agni. I'm ending this post with his words. Where I stumbled, Birkerts dances:

"We are fortified by the work of our writers, by their specific books, but no less important is the sense we have, so long as they are alive, that they are with us, in our midst, engaged, taken up with seeing and thinking and processing--with writing. They make up an important part of the invisible but pervasive and perceptible sum-total that we recognize as our culture. When they die, we feel a terrible diminution, a suction of available energies withdrawn. As if suddenly we all have that much less purchase on reality. The air feels thinner and our gestures of thought feel heavier, more cumbersome, less part of a common purpose."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Overlooked Books

I just got back from a trip to Armadillocon in Austin and I realized I've been heading down for that con (off and on) for over 20 years! Armadillocon has always been a fun little SF convention with an emphasis on books and reading (which is why I like it so much).

I got to thinking about all the great books I've read in the past few decades and decided to put together a list of genre books that have been either overlooked or forgotten over the years. These are books that I consider top-quality science fiction. Most of them are out of print (but can readily be found online or at local used bookstores--I think I've seen most of these titles at my local Half-Price Books within the last year).

I have a few comments about each book but, to be honest, it's been so long since I read some of them that I can't remember a lot of plot specifics. I do know that each of these books was vastly entertaining. I know also that each provided a thorough sense of wonder, either by introducing me to some new concept or by providing such a well-built plot or setting that I couldn't help but react with awe. So, with further ado . . . .

Memoirs of an Invisible Man by H. F. Saint (1987). Forget the movie and check out the best invisibility story ever written. Nick Halloway is made invisible after a science experiment goes wrong. Even though he can't be seen, Nick learns that when the government is after you, it's pretty hard to stay hidden. This one is a real page-turner. I've always wondered why Saint never wrote another book. Was the name H. F. Saint really a pseudonym for another, better-known writer? I mean, the name seems awfully suspicious. (Does anyone else think of H. G. Wells when they see it?) Oh well. H. F. Saint--whoever you are, wherever you are--I love your one and only book.

Terraplane by Jack Womack (1988). This came out after the big "cyberpunk" boom when fans of that subgenre were looking for something new and original. Along comes Womack with a book that featured savvy tech agents from a corporate-dominant future travelling back in time to an alternate past where FDR was assassinated and slavery didn't end until the beginning of the 20th century. Add to that a wonderful jargon that demands a careful reading and you've got the first "post-cyberpunk" cyberpunk novel. Excellent.

Voyage to The Red Planet by Terry Bisson (1990). There's a heck of a lot of good Mars books out there but few critics mention this minor classic from Bisson. The book is a lighthearted look at a corporate sponsored trip to Mars. (Actually Disney has bought NASA and now wants to make a film on Mars. So of course they send cast and crew on location!) The book has great humor but also really good SF. And it has a wonderful ending. This one really belongs next to Robinson, Bear and Benford in the SF Mars library.

Evolution's Darling by Scott Westerfeld (2000). The closest thing to an Iain M. Banks "Culture" book not written by Iain M. Banks! Evolution's Darling is a sweeping space opera about an AI ("Darling," of the title) that gains sentience and becomes involved (in more ways than one) with Mira, an assassin whose job it is to kill an artist who works (possibly illegally) with AI's. Westerfeld has made quite a name for himself as an author of teen and young adult books (the Uglies and Midnighters series) but this book is explicitly "adult" (emphasis on explicit). But it is also a mature book, one that deals deftly with the themes of sentience and identity. This is high-quality SF.

On by Adam Roberts (2001). This is a book that has really stayed with me. The premise of the story is that, once-upon-a-time, gravity on Earth turned sideways. (I know, sounds weird, but Roberts includes a whole appendix that spells out the possible science behind the idea.) Anyway, the flat ground suddenly became a world-size vertical plane. (The book's opening line perfectly establishes this dangerous setting: "On Tighe's eighth birthday one of the family goats fell off the world.") The story echoes the books of Gene Wolfe in that it features a young male protagonist who finds himself on a journey of discovery, soon learning that the world is far more interesting, dangerous, and technological than he ever expected. The book's concept is quite unsettling. What if the world did turn sideways? Friends and family who live but a few miles from you would suddenly become inaccessible (if they even survived the initial disaster). This is one of those books you keep thinking about long after you've finished it.

OK, so that's five books. I see I have ten-year gap in my list. Not to worry, I've got more overlooked books to talk about. But they'll have to wait for another post.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

2009 Hugo Awards

The results for the 2009 Hugo awards can be found here. Here are some comments on a few of the winners:

Best Novel went to The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. (I guess when you win the Newberry Medal, you better win the Hugo!) I can't offer much comment on the winning novel since I didn't read it or any of the other nominees. (Which is unusual since I typically have read 2-3 of them.) Much has been made of this year's list of mediocre nominees. Again, I can't comment specifically; but I can say that the best genre books of 2008 that I read were: The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick, The Hidden World by Paul Park, Pump Six and Other Stories by Paulo Bacigalupi, Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams, Matter by Iain M. Banks and Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. Surely one of these books at least deserved nomination! (Tender Morsels has been nominated for World Fantasy Award, though. So good news there.)

Best Short Story went to "Exhalation" by Ted Chiang. The best choice, absolutely. A stunning story.

Best Novelette went to "Shoggoths in Bloom" by Elizabeth Bear. A good story but this award should have gone to “The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Best Novella went to "The Erdmann Nexus", Nancy Kress. I haven't read it. I thought "The Tear” by Ian McDonald would have grabbed this award.

Wall-E won for best dramatic presentation, long form. I think this easily the best choice. The Dark Knight was also nominated. Another classic, yes. The best super-hero film of all time, yes. But Wall-E was superb science fiction. And that's where the Hugo should go.

Dramatic Presentation: Short Form went to Dr Horrible's Singalong Blog by Joss Whedon. A fine choice and an excellent DVD (the audio commentary, alone, is worth it). But I would have given the Hugo to "The Constant" from LOST-- the first great science fiction episode from the series.

Best Professional Artist went to Donato Giancola. Wow, I would have given this to Shaun Tan in a heartbeat.

Best Editor: Short Form went to Ellen Datlow. I would have given the Hugo to Jonathan Strahan for all the great work he did last year. I'll be rooting for him next year.

Best Semiprozine went to Weird Tales. Really? No Locus? Or Interzone? Or how about New York Review of Science Fiction? Hmmm.

So that's it. Not that exciting, really.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Review: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Vol. 3

I've got to say that I'm pretty pleased with Jonathan Strahan's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 3. At least two-thirds of the book contains excellent short fiction. And the rest of the stories are very good, too. In fact, there are really only one or two entries that might qualify as clunkers. That's an amazing percentage, one you don't often see in "Best of the Year" anthologies.

I usually pick up Gardner Dozois' hefty Year's Best Science Fiction and dutifully make my way through it. In the end I'm amazed at how many stories strike me as mediocre. I always think, "If Dozois eliminated half the stories in the collection he'd really have the 'best of the year.'" Sure, the book would be smaller, but it would also be stronger. As it is, the mediocre (and downright bad) stories detract from the good ones.

Strahan gets it, though. And he's hit upon a great formula. Combine the year's best Science Fiction stories with the best Fantasy stories. Put it all under one cover you get a doubly strong book.

I think fans of good writing appreciate the rewards of both Fantasy and Science Fiction, especially as the line between the genres has been blurring of late. The effects of both SF and Fantasy are the same: a sense of wonder, the thrill of fully-realized worlds, the insightful perspectives on our own, everyday life. It really doesn't matter if a story fits some rigid genre definition as long as it's told well and has fully realized characters.

So Strahan's latest anthology is a good--no, a great--one. I won't review every single story here (I'm satisfied with commenting on the book as a whole). But I will point out a few stories that I think are particularly good: The best story in the book is "Exhalation" by Ted Chiang, a story of impending environmental doom in a closed universe. It is wonderfully written, from its science-fictional "problem-solving" approach, to its moving contemplation on the meaning of life. Bravo! Other outstanding stories include: “The Dust Assassin” by Ian McDonald, “The Gambler” by Paulo Bacigalupi, “Machine Maid” by Margo Lanagan, and “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" by Kij Johnson. But there are so many other good stories here, including contributions by Robert Reed, Ted Kosmatka, Peter S. Beagle, Garth Nix, Michael Swanwick, John Kessel, and Kelly Link. (And, really, I could go on and list just about every author included but I'll stop here and let you to look at the table of contents for yourself.) This is very strong book.

Whether your taste tends toward one genre or the other you will find plenty to satisfy in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 3. And if you're a genre purist and only want to read SF or Fantasy (but not both), well, I still doubt you'll find a better collection anywhere else. Plus, who knows? You might discover good stories aren't limited to only one genre. Go ahead! Get the book and then select something different from the menu! You'll thank me later.