Archive for November, 2009

The Knight, Gene Wolfe

Posted in books, fantasy with tags on November 26, 2009 by Matt

This is the first half of a “novel in two volumes”, so I’ll just make a few notes here and wrap it all up when I get through The Wizard, which is near the top of my reading pile.

Somehow this story takes a premise that dates at least to Mark Twain, a young boy from the American midwest transported to a magical fairy-world, and manages not to make it seem trite; at least as long as I was immersed in the story. Luckily, there’s very few jarring incidents in the story to break the spell and make me step back and think about how primitive a skeleton underlies the flesh.

One of the jarring elements, though I suspect it’s intentional, is the way the protagonist clumsily integrates himself into a new culture. Coming from middle America, he’s not prepared to bow and simper before knights or haggle with shopkeepers. Magically grown into the heroic adult body of the knight Sir Able of the High Heart, he mostly gets through this by bullying those he encounters. Those bullying incidents make it difficult to wish Able well, despite the way they’re subtly presented in his own re-telling. However I expect to see Able grow out of his bullying ways in the second volume, which would turn what starts out as an unsympathetic rendering of the protagonist into a carefully played thread of character development. (But Stephen Frug’s review implies this may not happen.)

And then, this is Gene Wolfe. If you’re looking for an unreliable narrator, you’ve got it. If you’re looking for layers and mysteries behind what is presented on the page, they’re there. If you swoon for poetic prose, well, in this case Wolfe has done an excellent job of mimicking the style of a teenaged writer without allowing clumsy construction to interfere with the story.

I’m looking forward to see how this story wraps up.

The Compleat Werewolf, Anthony Boucher

Posted in books, sf, short story collections with tags on November 15, 2009 by Matt

Anthony Boucher is best-known in the SF world as one of the founding editors of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. As a writer he’s better-known for his mysteries and reviews, but this is a collection of science fiction and fantasy stories.

The balance is mostly toward contemporary fantasy, but with a bit of a science fictional flair. The fantastic elements are presented as mechanistic and analyzable, and the story often resolves with the characters coming to a “logical” new understanding of whatever magic they’ve encountered. And the science fiction stories have an element of the fantastic, as the technology is so advanced, at least relative to the time of writing, as to achieve Clarkian magic.

Many of the stories are pessimistic, usually involving protagonists’ wishes being fulfilled, but not delivering the hoped-for satisfaction. In “We print the truth” a newspaper editor wishes that his paper will only print the truth, but doesn’t reckon on the truth only extending to the limits of his circulation. In “Snulbug” a captive demon’s ability to travel to the future doesn’t grant the summoner the expected power to benefit from predictive knowledge.

Most of the stories are clearly dated, with the formal but terse diction of the 1940’s, and the purely anglo American male cast of characters, with women appearing mostly as scenery and objects to be won as prizes. Only Molly of “We print the truth” really breaks this mold, though even she can be pigeonholed as the tomboy type, ignored by the hero to his great embarrassment when he realizes her feelings for him.

One exceptional story, that would stand up well today, is “They Bite”, a dark fantasy in which dangerous desert dwellers turn out not to be the legends the protagonist believes them to be. And even the other stories, though they show their age, clearly rank with the best SF (broad sense) of their era.

Eclipse Three

Posted in books, sf, short story collections with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2009 by Matt

I was able to “sneak” in to the World Fantasy Convention here in San Jose last week in the guise of press. It was great fun to meet some local authors, and I got a post for Metblogs out of it. I also got to sit in on a couple of readings and about half of Gordon Van Gelder’s panel on 60 years of F&SF magazine. To come to the point, though, this collection from Night Shade Books and editor Jonathan Strahan was my take-home from the dealer room.

“The Pelican Bar”, Karen Joy Fowler A willful young woman (as they used to say) is sent away for to a tough-love camp in Mexico, which turns out to be particularly brutal, and from which she dreams of escape. The story’s well-written, and especially strong in exploring the Norah’s psychology and internal dialog, but I never quite caught on to the motivations of the reform camp operators — why they ran the camp as they did, what they were gaining from it, and why they eventually allow Norah her freedom.

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Asimov’s, January 2010

Posted in magazines, sf with tags , , , , , , on November 6, 2009 by Matt

Marya and the pirate, Geoffrey A. Landis Space pirate Domingo Bonaventura attempts to hijack a water shipment on its way across the solar system, but runs into unexpected problems. As usual from NASA scientist Landis, the technology is all kept pretty close to the present day and seems very plausible. He doesn’t quite break out the greek letters to explain it, but he goes pretty deep into the technical details. And yet, he also works in a pretty exciting plot revolving around a major systems failure on a Earth-orbitting space station. The one glaring flaw its the wildly unbelievable relationship that develops between the pirate and the sole crewmember of the captured vessel. The story is a throwback practically to the 1940’s with its tech-heavy plot, which is great, but I don’t think the equally retrograde assumption that any female character is automatically available to our hero needs to be added to complete the nostalgic tone.

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The Word for World is Forest, Ursula K. Leguin

Posted in books, sf with tags , on November 2, 2009 by Matt

The Word for the World is Forest was originally (1972) published in Again, Dangerous Visions. Le Guin developed it into a 1976 novel of the same name, but the copy I read has only a 1972 copyright, so I guess it must be a reprint of the novella version.

The story revolves around the colony world of Athshe, where Earth humans (one of several human races in Le Guin’s Ekumen) are exploiting the native human people and forest resources; disguising their avarice and brutality behind a facade of standard procedures and official protocols.

Roughly every third chapter is told from the point of view of Davidson, one of the most brutal of the human colonists. He refuses to recognize the natives as human, and wishes his commanders would simply recognize what he sees as “reality” and give him a free hand to use whatever means or methods can most efficiently harvest the timber the colony is meant to return to Earth. These chapters read today as somewhat heavy-handed in their depiction of the military-industrial mindset. But to me they had more interest as what looks a lot like a direct attack on the practical hyper-competent hero of golden age SF.

From the title, I had expected the book to dwell more on ecological issues. But, while ecological destruction by the colonists is a major issue, its just one of several conflicts going on in the story. I had also expected a more downbeat ending, probably with ecological impacts spiraling out of control, something the colonists ought to have expected if they had only reflected on the quirks of the native language. Thankfully, instead of pushing through with the plotline implied in the title, the story took a direction and came to a conclusion I hadn’t anticipated.

Another point of interest here is that the story does something that is surprisingly rare in SF, and shows a culture in the midst of a major technological upheaval. A major plot element is the introduction of the ansible, a means of instant communication across interstellar distances, eliminating the light speed barrier to communication. Rather than take the new technology as established, Le Guin shows it being introduced for the first time to the colony world, where some colonists disbelieve it, others pretend they can ignore it, and some fall right into line with the instructions coming to them from Earth over the ansible link. Unfortunately the introduction of the ansible points out what is possibly the the one critically unbelievable aspect of the whole story: the idea of a colony seperated from its homeworld by a 27 year lightspeed gulf continuing to follow any orders at all from back home.

Even with these few faults, its clear why the story was so well received in the early 70’s, and the story can still be read as an important comment on its time (and on the SF of the time), even if it doesn’t have the ageless quality that would maintain its relevance today.