Archive for March, 2009

John Scalzi, Zoe’s Tale

Posted in books, sf on March 31, 2009 by Matt

Right up front let me say, this is a good book. But, it’s nominated for the Hugo, so being a good book is no longer in question. I’m not going to try to convince you its worth your time to get and read this book. The question now that its up for one of the big awards is, is it the best book of the year?

Scalzi is probably the best active writer at channeling the ghost of Robert Heinlein, writing in a breezy, fast-paced style that can keep you up late; but he does a change up on the Heinlein model by presenting capricious military government with significantly more circumspection and ambiguity of judgment.

And, yes, this is a fast-paced interstellar adventure, just like you’d expect from Scalzi. It’s witty and engaging, but with a thread of serious speculation and significant character development run through it, like you’d expect from Scalzi and demand from the “best” book of the year (as if there can be any one best book of the year). But, lots of people think this is the best book of the year, so I’ll pick some nits.

First, a plot hole you could drive a truck through. That’s the idea of taking away all of everyone’s electronics too keep the new colony of Roanoke hidden from hostile aliens. This plot device is handy for setting up the social structure of the colony, but doesn’t hold up well under scrutiny. First, there’s a shielded information center where computers can be used, but the shielding technology required is “rare enough that we only had enough of it for a converted cargo container.” Unfortunately for plot believability, the technology we’re talking about here is sheet metal. Second, lots of signal generators are let loose anyway. The colonists use “manual tractors”, presumably run off engines with spark plugs in them, and Zoe’s alien bodyguards keep their decidedly high-tech conciousness collars. Maybe this point is covered in The Lost Colony, a previous novel that covered the same events from a different perspective, but if so this is one (maybe the only) place where Zoe’s Tale fails to stand on its own as a novel.

A second weakness is more substantial. In the acknowledgments of the book and an interview at Tor’s website and blog posts, Scalzi has said the most important aspect of the book, at least for him as a writer, was writing it from the point of view of a 15-year-old girl. While he does capture the kind of spunky juvenile heroine that’s enjoyable to read, I have to say Zoe’s voice owes an awful lot to Scalzi’s own personal voice. Don’t believe me? Go read a few posts on Scalzi’s blog. Really, go read them. Don’t worry, I’ll wait. … Scalzi’s voice makes for an entertaining read, but after reading the Tor interview, I had been expecting something really unique.

So, that’s a couple of digs at what’s really a good book. In fact, its an excellent book. I’m glad I read it. But I can’t call it a contender for the best of the year.

Interzone 221

Posted in magazines, sf with tags , , , , , , on March 26, 2009 by Matt

I didn’t realize it had been so long since seeing a new Interzone, but looking back this is only my third issue since starting the blog. Compared to last time, this one is a bit more even. All the stories are really sharp, professionally written pieces. There’s no clumsy work, but there’s no dramatic standout like Eugie Foster’s “Sinner, Baker, …” in #220. Or maybe the fact that the issue is so strong just makes it harder for one story to rise above the others.

The magazine starts off with Will McIntosh‘s “A Clown Escapes from Circust Town”. It’s about clown who’s been somehow genetically engineered just to fill the role of clown in a themed city, in a world where the response to economic collapse was for every town to pick a theme and try to capture the tourist trade. Naturally, things got nasty in a “soylent green is people” kind of way. When I step back and think about it, the premise is really not especially original — From Logan’s Run to “Sinner, Baker, …” I mentioned before, there’ve been lots of stories about people living in captive societies without realizing it. But this is well written, and the p.o.v. character of Beaners the Clown is compelling and believable, so I’ll take it.

The next story is “Fishermen” by Al Robertson, about a painter captured by pirates in what seems to be the early Renaissance. The main talking point of this story will be the explicit Christianity of the painter’s themes, but I read them as mostly stage-setting. You simply couldn’t honestly place a painter in Europe in that time period without making his paintings religious in nature. Like the first story, the plot here is something that’s been done many times before, but once again the presentation is professional and the characters are believable, making for an enjoyable read.

“Saving Diego” by Matthew Kressel is the second top-tier stories in the magazine. The protagonist travels across the inhabited galaxy to help an old friend quit a powerful drug addiction. The drug turns out to be more than just a brain-altering chemical, and the traveller ends up being caught by it himself. Flashbacks to the earlier lives of the two friends are handled deftly as is the slow revelation of the nature of the drug. A highly recommended story.

“Far & Deep” by Alaya Dawn Johnson is yet another really outstanding story for this Interzone. On an unnamed Pacific Island, where fisherwomen coax jewels from particular sea creatures and elders hold a power called “geas”, a young woman must deal with the death of her mother, who was something of a wild element in the (literally and figuratively) insular society and therefore a social outsider. The island and its culture are well drawn, and the somewhat uncommon perspective of seeing the outsider through the eyes of a sympathetic third party gives the story additional depth.

Next, Paul M. Berger gives us “Home Again”, a very short story positting a very unusual form of interplanetary travel. The clever travel concept meshes well with a character story about the traveller’s family.

Finally, the fiction selection is wrapped up with Bruce Sterling‘s “Black Swan”. In which the p.o.v. character who might be a kind of author stand-in (he’s a blogger and technology writer) goes from globetrotting investigative tech reporter to interdimensional traveller. Most of the appeal is atmospheric, as Sterling draws two views of the same Italian piazza and cafe in two alternate realities, making both seem real. Another enjoyable story.

The magazine finishes with a Bruce Sterling interview by Ian Sales, and the usual reviews. The reviews are even-handed, but didn’t reveal anything I’d like to go out and read except The Best of Gene Wolfe, but I would have wanted that, reviewed or not.

Other reviews of this issue: The Barking Dog, Suite 101

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, John McWhorter

Posted in books, history, linguistics with tags , on March 22, 2009 by Matt

I saw this book in the store, and of course I was immediately grabbed by its fantastic title. After reading a couple of paragraphs I knew I had to read the whole thing.

In Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, John McWhorter shows that the grammar of English (as opposed to its vocabulary) has been much more influenced by contact with other languages than is widely recognized. McWhorter argues first that the Celts, who inhabited Britain before the invading Angles and Saxons brought the seeds of English there, have influenced the language more than is usually acknowledged, but these influences have been mostly neglected because they affect grammar rather than vocabulary, which is easier to study.

The second influence McWhorter explores is that of the Vikings who invaded Britain beginning in the 8th century. Since these Old Norse-speaking invaders would have learned English as adults, they would have spoken a simplified form of the language, with fewer word endings marking case (subject, object, etc), for example. These changes only became apparent in the written record with the rise of Middle English as a literary language in the 12th century. McWhorter argues that written Old English was a scriptural language largely divorced from the contemporary spoken English, much like medieval Latin or classical Chinese. Only when the written language began to more closely reflect the spoken one, in Middle English, hundreds of years after the changes actually happened, did these simplifications appear in the written record.

In demonstrating that these causalities have been dismissed by mainstream linguistics, McWhorter walks a thin line. He wants to show that he’s considered the prior literature, and that his ideas are original, but he has to avoid boring readers who aren’t interested in this academic debate. Mostly he succeeds, although the occasional arguments that have no use but to establish academic precedence are somewhat distracting when they occur.

A late chapter investigates the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, largely demolishing the idea that the grammar of our language can enforce certain “channels” of thought. I read most of the chapter thinking “but,… but,…” thinking of examples of vocabulary that at least greatly simplifies thinking about certain concepts (for example, bokeh in photography was largely ignored by westerners until the desire to consider the idea was so great that we adopted the word for it from the Japanese) until McWhorter got around to conceding that vocabulary does have some influence on our ability to reason in detail.

Overall, a really interesting book, and one that added a lot to my understanding of where the English language comes from.

P.S. McWhorter gets extra bonus points for this editorial on NPR about the recent change in the meaning of the word “troop”. I initially had much the same thought — using “troop” to indicate a single person rather than a group of them, is somewhat demeaning to those people, especially since we often use the word to talk about soldiers who’ve been killed in battle. I’m somewhat more accepting of the word now, seeing as we do seem to need some word to talk about armed forces members without distinguishing between soldiers, seamen, marines, and airmen; for example, when we don’t know for sure which branch of service as given “troop” was part of.

Robert Silverberg, Unfamiliar Territory

Posted in books, sf, short story collections with tags on March 20, 2009 by Matt

After reviewing Silverberg’s work in the July 1971 Amazing, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a closer look at a prolific author I hadn’t paid particular attention to before. I picked up Unfamiliar Territory in a used bookshop in San Francisco. It’s a British publication from 1973, and includes stories from 1971 through ’73.

The collection starts with “Caught in the Organ Draft”, which is, as they say, pretty much what it says on the tin: an extrapolation that lets Silverberg address a major social issue of the time.

“(Now + n) (Now – n)” is a bit more complex, macguffin-wise, if a bit less meaningful in relation to present society. The p.o.v. character has the unusual ability to communicate with his past and future selves, 48 hours backwards and forwards in time. He uses this ability to make a fortune in the stock market. But then he meets a woman and becomes smitten with her, although his gift goes away whenever she’s nearby. It’s a fun ride, but the ending is actually so predictable that it surprised me.

“Many Mansions” in contrast, is a time-paradox story that takes a decidedly different tack, using a somewhat staccato, disjointed literary style to simultaneously convey the emotional separation between a married couple and the dissonant effects of their various time-travelling attempts to rid themselves of each other by going back to interfere with their grandparents. An uncommonly interesting look at a very common theme.

“What we Learned from this Morning’s Newspaper” and “In Entropy’s Jaws” are two more stories on the theme of time travel or time paradox. The first is about what we might do with information from the future, and is a solid story, if not a masterpiece. “In Entropy’s Jaws” is more ambitious, attempting to bring about a philosophical conclusion about the nature of time, but not convincing me in the end.

“In the Group” and “Push no More” are stories on a theme that seems to have been “in the air” at the time — science fictional sex. “Push no More” looks at the normal hormonal urges of a young teenager, with a telekinetic twist. With current sensibilities about pre-adult sexuality, I doubt this story would be printable today. “In the Group” is the more graphically sex-themed of these stories. It explores the relationships that might apply given a technology that lets several people simultaneously share a physical and emotional experience. Both of these are interesting for dealing frankly with a theme we’ve obviously become much more prudish about over the last 38 years.

“Caliban” is a somewhat Twilight Zone-style story about an ugly an who is re-awakened in a far future populated only with beautiful people. In “Caliban”, Silverberg, as in The Second Trip, once again gives a character my birthday, March 11, in this case exactly 50 years after mine. Unfortunately I can’t find anything in the online biographies that explains his use of this date.

Finally, “The Wind and the Rain” is a story that still seems current, reflecting the cyclical return of a theme to the public consciousness. It’s about a far-future team sent to Earth to speed up the natural process of renewal after the planet has been ecologically destroyed by human activity, a story I could easily see appearing today.

“Some Notes on the Pre-Dynastic Epoch”, “Good News from the Vatican”, “The Mutant Season”, and “When we Went to See the End of the World” round out the collection with four more professional and well-written stories.

Taken together these are an excellent look at the work of a professional who has written hundreds of stories in his career. If the collection has two major themes, they’re the liberation of sexual themes in ’70s writing, and exploration of the long-running sf theme of time travel paradox. Definitely the collection has aged well; certainly much better than “The Second Trip”.

J. G. Ballard, War Fever

Posted in sf, short story collections with tags , on March 14, 2009 by Matt

War Fever is an anthology of J. G. Ballard‘s short fiction from roughly 1975 to 1989. I’d been wanting to read some more Ballard for a while, having heard of him as one of the premiere figures of the “literary” branch of SF writing. Indeed, I only found this book in the library shelved under literature, not with other SF. And the stories here do straddle the line between literature and genre writing, even crossing so far into the world of “literature” as to lose my interest in a couple of cases.

One immediately obvious feature of this collection is Ballard’s experiments with non-narrative formats in his writing. One of the most extreme examples is “Answers to a Questionnaire”, which is exactly what it sounds like: A series of answers to unseen questions, from which we have to piece together a story. The story in “Answers” does come together cleanly and effectively. More extreme in form and less effective in storytelling is “The Index”, which is putatively the index to a lost biography, of one of the greatest hidden actors of the 20th century, someone who has a hand in every historical development, though the public rarely hears his name. While its momentarily interesting to try to piece together a story from the various index entries, the need to order the entries alphabetically makes the piece unnatural, as Ballard has pushed, for example, entries meant to convey a picture of the subject’s love life, toward the front of the alphabet, and entries that indicate his political mechanations to the middle of the alphabet, etc. Other stories in the collection are presented as reports, recorded voice memos, and even a set of footnotes to an otherwise missing manuscript.

If anything holds the book together, though, its a theme of distortions of time and space. In “Report on an Unidentified Space Station”, a group of space travelers explore an abandoned station, which seems to grow in size with every dispatched report. In “The Enormous Space”, a man responds to the setbacks of his life by isolating himself in his house, which again seems to expand over time as the narrator’s isolation from the outside world is deepened. And in “Memories of the Space Age”, a curious disease has infested Florida, causing time to stretch around its sufferers. The protagonist’s search for a cure for the disease, if that is in fact his goal in exploring the affected region, is eventually lost as he is separated from reality by his disconnected sense of time.

Ballard’s narrative voice in these stories is generally distanced from his subjects, and in some cases is outright detached, as in “The Largest Theme Park in the World”, where the presentation is in a form reminiscent of an encyclopedia or news magazine article. In the stories of disconnection and disassociation from reality, the distant authorial voice feels appropriate, but in other stories it becomes a distraction from the plot and characters.

In addition to “Memories of the Space Age”, there are a couple of other standout stories. “Love in a Colder Climate” is an interesting look at the consequences of a second sexual revolution, and “Dream Cargoes” is the story of a boathand who becomes captain of a ship carrying a cargo that could change the world, again picking up the theme of isolation from society and disconnection from time.

The collection is certainly worthwhile reading, but its probably best to be careful about the pace of reading it. Taken too quickly, the distant disconnected narratives might start to run together; while read over a long period of time, the thematic connections between the stories could be lost.

Amazing, July 1971

Posted in magazines, sf, time warp on March 11, 2009 by Matt

What we have here is a time capsule magazine. Everything here seems to fit very well in its time.

First, and taking up nearly half the magazine, is the first half of a two-part serialization of Robert Silverberg‘s novel, The Second Trip. The first thing that shocked me about this story is the deja vu effect, since I’d read it before and utterly forgotten about it. A second amusing point is that the protagonist’s birthdate is stated as March 11, 197<cough><mumble>, making him exactly my age (Happy Birthday, Nat Hamlin!). I remember when I read this before thinking of it as just the kind of “adult” (How long ago did I read this thing? Must have been a long time) science fiction I didn’t really get. To me then it was overly concerned with clinical psychology and the emotional consequences of the sexual revolution. Now, the story still seems dated, and I still can’t appreciate the ’70s’ fascination with psycoanalysis. But I do have a better appreciation of why the sex and sexual politics were, and still are, an edgy commentary on changing social norms. I don’t know if I’d call this a recommended read, but its at least achieved the status of an interesting historical document.

The second story is James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Peacefulness of Vivyan”. This one is pretty much the reason I bought the magazine, since I have the idea that Tiptree wrote a ton of good stuff that I haven’t gotten around to reading. The story is about a kind of child-like or otherworldly character poking about the wilderness areas of a couple of neighboring planets. Vivyan seems to wander about, investigating biological curiosities here and geology there. Meanwhile the fate of a third neighbor world is darkly hinted at, but not revealed. Finally, some of the mystery is cleared up, but more with hints and nuance than with bright arc-light clarity. The mysterious story and conclusion are somewhat preminiscient of the Gene Wolfe style, which would only really make itself known a year later. A good story, but it didn’t really live up to my hopes for all that undiscovered Tiptree I should be reading.

“Bohassian Learns”, by William Rotsler, is a short piece on the birth of what seems to be an example of that sf staple, a superman, or successor to homo sapiens. This story is professionally written, but its such a well-worn premise that even the wild destructive potential of Rotsler’s superman doesn’t really make the story stand out.

Pg Wyal’s story “Border Town” has a kind of counter-culture vibe, and a gonzo attitude that reflects a whole different aspect of 1971 than the rest of the magazine. Something like Firefly, if it had been written 35 years earlier and seen through psychedelic glasses. A troupe of three interstellar crooks are trying to pull a fast one on the natives of a backwater border town. The story’s nothing special but the enthusiastic (acid-fueled?) prose makes it a fun read.

“The Worlds of Monty Willson” by William F. Nolan is a very short alternate-worlds story with a fairly clever ending. Probably even when it was new, it would have been written and read as a stylistic throwback to the golden age.

The final story is a true throwback, a reprint of David H. Keller’s “The Lost Language” from 1934. The story is about a boy who grows up silent, but apparently intelligent. Eventually he begins to write in an unknown language, which is finally decoded by means that could only have been super-science (meaning, pure fantasy) when the story was written. It’s a fairly readable story despite the archaic tone, but one central premise, that no written language can exist without a correspondence to a spoken language, is easily refuted, and should have been even in 1934, by anyone aware of the use of Chinese characters by numerous east Asian cultures whose spoken languages are utterly unrelated.

Asimov’s, April/May 2009

Posted in magazines, sf on March 6, 2009 by Matt

This month’s double issue of Asimov’s,their 400th issue, starts out only average, but ends strong with exceptional entries by Deborah Coates, Damien Broderick and Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

First up is “The Great Armada” by Brian Stableford. This wraps up a sequence of four stories in which the intellectual notables of late 16th century England deal with an alien invasion. This highly divergent history is fascinating, and seems to be carefully constructed. Seeing characters out of history written as personalities rather than just names behind accomplishments adds to the enjoyment of the stories. However, having read two of the previous stories I no longer experienced the same fascination on reading this one. Stableford does a good job of wrapping up the alien invasion and tying up the plot, but now that the milieu has become familiar rather than novel the story didn’t grab me.

Next is “True Fame” by Robert Reed. This story riffs on the idea of anonymity in a world where our electronic footprints follow us forever. It ends with a moral dilemma for a somewhat amoral character. A thought-provoking story.

The third story is “An Ordinary Day with Jason” by Kate Wilhelm, about a woman who marries in to a family with an inherited ability to teleport. Since this ability initially manifests in childhood by the creation of an actual stairway in the teleporter’s vicinity, there’s great risk of discovery of this family’s special talent. The conflict is largely internal, in the wife’s decision whether to accept her husband and son’s unusual gift, and the husband’s roundabout way of informing her of it. However, the outcome never seems to be particularly in doubt, so there’s not much to draw the reader onward after the macguffin itself is discovered.

Next up, Chris Beckett‘s “Atomic Truth” enters territory not often covered in SF magazines: a realistic portrayal of the experience of the mentally ill. One of the two main characters is a schizophrenic(?) in a world where most of the population spends most of their time cut-off from those around them by virtual reality goggles. Unfortunately excessive direct exposition on the details of the goggle technology distract from the much more interesting story about people who either by choice or by nature are cut off from direct relationships.

“The Armies of Elfland” by Eileen Gunn and Michael Swanwick is a stylistic thrill-ride through a world where elves have conquered the human world, keeping only a few children alive, more or less as pets. Gunn and Swanwick apparently wrote this as a sort of live action demo for a workshop, and as one crazy element is piled on top of another I can imagine one of these writers finishing a paragraph and turning the story over to the other with a “how are you going to top this?” grin. It’s fascinating and fun to read, wondering how the absurdities of the story can be jelled together, and in the end it is amazingly successful.

I might have been wrong to say SF rarely deals with mental illness; paranoia is certainly a common theme, and Jack Skillingstead’s “Human Day” continues that tradition. The story regards a man who’s locked himself in a bunker to wait out some kind of catastrophe, and who’s now built a remotely operated robot dog to return to the outside world and find out what’s happened. Throughout the story its unclear whether the catastrophe is real or a production of Raymond’s imagination or delusion. A Twilight Zone trick ending wraps it all up.

“Cowgirls in Space” by Deborah Coates begins the strong finale of the magazine. The story is about a group of childhood girlfriends and trick horseriding teammates who’ve drifted apart. Long ago they discovered a mysterious alien object, and now that another similar object has been found in China they’re drawn back together in their midwestern home town. The story is told in a voice somewhere on the edge between authentic dialect and hammed-up rusticism, but after a page that becomes less distracting and the characters of the five women and their challenge in dealing with the found object takes over. This is an excellent story.

Damien Broderick‘s “This Wind Blowing, and this Tide” is another fine read. The story is about Myeong-Hui Park, a unique character, a purveyor of alternate scientific theories and psychic of some kind, who must deal with orthodox scientists investigating a mysterious ancient spaceship found on Titan preserved blanketed in flowers in a “stationary field”. Broderick does a nice job dealing with, and thoroughly exploring, the non-western psychology of the central character, without overwhelming the story with cultural trivia.

Not really part of what I consider the fantastic finale of this magazine, but fun and short, Nancy Kress‘ “Exegesis” imagines how far-future generations might interpret Gone With the Wind. There’s no drama here, but its nice to see the science of linguistics brought into the world of science fiction.

Finally, “The Spires of Denon” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch finishes off the magazine on a high note. Like many of Rusch’s recent stories, this one again features cave diving as a plot element, but unlike in a few others, its not required to carry the whole story. This story centers on an archaeological dig run by an unscrupulous scientist, a security professional who’s much more than the flunky he’s hired to be, and an enigmatic outsider whose goals aren’t clear until the end. While this adventurous story is largely plot-driven, the characters too hold mysteries, as we’re not sure until the end just how unscrupulous our archaeologist is, or what the outsider is really after. Another fine tale to keep us waiting for the next issue of Asimov’s.