Friday, July 3, 2015

Review of Grainne by Keith Roberts

Every once and a while you read one of these books: after the first few pages you’re thinking, well, this has got promise...  And the deeper you go, you’re smiling a little to yourself, observing: it’s got potential to be a masterpiece. Let’s see where the author takes this…  And by the time you’ve finished—the last chapters like narcotics burning in the bloodstream—your brain is glowing with ideas and your head is shaking itself in disbelief, wondering if literature gets any better.  I don’t suspect everyone will have the same reaction, but Keith Roberts’ 1987 Grainne is one such book for me.  Problem is, the body left in such a state of fuzzy warmth, it makes defending this point difficult: where to begin?

It’s probably best to start with James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  The semi-autobiographical story of an Irish boy who grows up to find his place in the world and art, he leaves home under troubled circumstances to discover life for himself and learn how his creative talents fit within it.  From one perspective, Grainne is very similar.  The story of one Alistair Bevan, he too makes the decision to break away from family as a youth to pursue what he thinks best for himself.  Studying art at university and developing writing skills in his free time, Bevan’s initial steps into the professional world are timid and half-confident at best.  His creations unsellable and publishers rejecting the stories, he lives a dissatisfied life among the lower rungs of society, barely making ends meet.  Bevans a pseudonym Roberts used at the beginning of his career, the character arc, and the obvious facts Roberts was both writer and illustrator (Roberts provided the cover and chapter headers for Grainne) put the novel on par with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in more than one way.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

And now back to the show...

After three weeks of semi-relaxing vacation, I return to blog land - and three months of upcoming paternity leave.  (God bless the EU for having less focus on work-work-work and allowing parents to spend months with their newborns rather than weeks.)

I don't watch a lot of films, it's thus that long flights become something of a binge session - if I can stay awake.  On my flights this vacation I was able to catch four films, three of which contained so-called 'speculative elements' (much the same as well water may contain 'trace elements of bacteria').  One of the films was wretched - and seemed to intend itself to be that way.  Two had me thinking - one still and the other not for long, and the last was one of the better science fiction films ever made.  In no particular order, they are:

Jupiter Ascending - Gods help us...  John Carter was a Disney production that intended to capitalize on: the superhero market, marketing and special effects, and innocuous pulp elements - romance, action, aliens, and drama - of Burrough's original story.  The cheese flowed, but the film was at least watchable.  Jupiter Ascending is unwatchable.  It's horrendous.  In Burrough's time it might have flown; in today's world it doesn't get off the runway.  This is surprising as Jupiter Ascending has the same background elements of John Carter, - that is, save the originality of Burrough's idea.  And therein lies the difference.  The cheese flowed, and flowed, and flowed, and flowed in predictable fashion. (I called three scenes in a row at one point.)  I winced innumerable times and finished watching only to see how bad it could get.  (Answer: really bad.  The concluding scene may make certain folks vomit.)  The most contrived of plots possible, the most predictable, mundane dialogue I've heard, and a rollerblading space elf combined to make me believe the producers were thinking the market was ready for what may be the most camp presentation the genre has ever seen.  Uggh.

Monday, June 8, 2015

After these messages....

For that thimbleful of readers who regularly make their way to my blog, Speculiction will be on a 3-week hiatus whilst I gallivant about the globe. Be back in July!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Review of Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

It was a brisk autumn afternoon in the grungy backstreets of Johannesburg.  Moving in fits and starts, a draft manuscript of Charles Stross’ latest Laundry Files novel danced along the pavement, buffeted by the wind.  The margins full of notes, he was undecided how heavy to lay on the tech and magic. Should I go all out, from www brain implants to wizards, or keep things relaxed, just a little social media and a touch of voodoo?  At the same time and place, Philip Pullman, pique on his tongue and time to kill, was looking for a place to relax into a pint or two.  But just as he spied a promising pub, the draft manuscript whipped up and slapped him in the face.  Peeling the papers away and holding them at arm’s length, he entered and sat down, ordered a glass of bitter, and took a look at what fate had sent his way.  Immediately intrigued, he didn’t notice when the beer arrived.  So absorbed, in fact, he began scribbling his own notes—character needs animal familiar,a strong, toothy one—but which? Crocodile? Alligator?... And this one? Mongoose?  Sloth?  Pullman so deep in concentration, it took the man sitting at a nearby table several tries to get his attention.  “Hi, my name is Bill Gibson.  Looks like you’ve got some run ons, hanging clauses, and more than a few over-indulgent metaphors there.  Let me see if I can’t help you tighten up that story a little—give it an edge you can cut with, you know?” The rest, as they say, is Lauren Beukes’ 2010 Zoo City.

The above introduction would seem to render Zoo City imitative rather than original. That was only half the intention.  By setting her story in a fully realized, near-future version of Johannesburg, giving her main characters singular voices, and having her own thematic aims, Beukes transforms the tropes and styles of Stross, Pullman, and Gibson into a combination of her own making.  The influences are readily apparent, but the creation is of its own design—at least mostly. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Review of The Stars Seem So Far Away by Margret Helgadottir

I am far from the most knowledgeable person on the subject, but in my web wandering and scattered reading it has certainly come to my attention that post-apocalyptic YA fiction is ‘a thing’ (or at least recently was ‘a thing’).  A sub-genre niche publishers and authors have rushed to capitalize on, the number of titles in the sphere has risen sharply.  But as with all such rushes, one must pick and choose carefully; quality requires weeding from quantity.

Margret Helgadottir The Stars Seem So Far Away (2015, Fox Spirit Books) is post-apocalyptic YA fiction.  Part of the third-wave of such texts, it wears its taxonomy on its sleeve.   But the devil is in the details. 

The Stars Seem So Far Away is ostensibly a collection.  But it quickly becomes apparent that the stories function more like point-of-view chapters, creating a cycle that rolls toward an all-inclusive conclusion.  A handful of teens anchoring this overarching story, Aida, Bjorn, Simik, Nora, Zaki, and a couple of others start at different points in a Europe torn apart by catastrophe and plague, but eventually wind up together in the same plight.  Foregoing the sensationalist details that many other post-ap YA novels seem to focus on (looking at you, Bacigalupi), Helgadottir keeps the spotlight on the young people, their interrelationships and emotional stances, and their reactions to the events they experience traversing the scarred landscape, trying to stay alive and find a better life.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Review of Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

Ellen Kushner’s delightful little 1987 fantasy snack Swordspoint is a difficult book to review.  Plot-centric, review content could be a simple rehash of the storyline.  To avoid this, I will suffice at saying the novel is a theatrically-moded story centering on swordsmen and the surrounding lords and ladies in an unnamed Renaissance-ish land.  Character appropriately (even uniquely) built and located in a larger web of intrigue and personal strife, Kushner does a fine job unveiling her story, suspense and subsequent revelation in keeping quality-wise.  From a plot point of view, the novel is wholly enjoyable and best to be discovered by the reader.

But where Swordspoint is deserving of further commentary starts with the subtitle: A Melodrama of Manners.  Pleasingly underscoring the story in a phrase, the comedic elements are indeed tucked inside a subtly tongue-in-cheek tale that purposefully and delicately treads the line between maudlin and mimetic.  Kushner finding a fitting pseudo-Victorian tone and holding tight to it from the beginning to end, the arrogant nobles and desperate rogues are given voices that uphold an outlay to be enjoyed for its humor and paid attention to for plotting.  In other words, the reader knows what they are reading is not intended as serious literature, but at the same time wants to keep reading for the wit inherent to the text and the obvious intelligence guiding the undercurrents of character and plot. 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

"Ohh, say can you see, by the..."

It's rare that I get personally political on this blog, but yesterday, perusing through the news on Yahoo, I came across the banner you see above.  The second story is about Texas lawmakers passing a bill that would allow people to carry guns openly in public with the proper licenses, blah, blah, blah.  The fifth story, as the byline reads, is about a few hundred Arizonians rallying against Muslims. And yes, people brought their guns, as Arizona is also a state you are allowed to openly carry with the proper licenses, blah, blah, blah.  Thankfully, nobody was shot.

I'm an American.  I do not have the stars and stripes tattooed on my forehead, but there are certainly aspects of America that I love.  I love the creativity, the energy, and the general state of freedom one has to spend most of their money as they see fit, including on traveling sea to sea to see some of the world's most beautiful places.  The gun thing, however, is just fucked up.  Another way of putting this is, what do you get when you cross mass weapon availability with the inherent characteristics of humanity?  Answer: a whole lot more death, violence, and grief that could be avoided were you to take away the guns.  Idiots do a lot less damage with only a knife - and its impossible to get rid of the idiots.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Review of Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick

Science fiction yet to settle on the name of post-cyberpunk fiction (at least as far as I know), I have heard it called both the Singularity Age and the Accelerated Age.  While I am inclined to call it the Anything Goes Age (like post-60s jazz), it nevertheless is possible to point to a larger than average number of post/trans-human texts in the 90s and early 21st century.  The tech boom of the 90s bolstering the belief that scientific developments would take humankind to uncharted territory, likewise came a boom in texts sporting humanity at complete odds with its animal origins, technology the link to something beyond explicable only in fantastical terms.  One of the earliest novels fully identifiable with this movement is Michael Swanwick’s surreally obtuse, colorfully mythopoeic, and fantastically science fictional Stations of the Tide (1991).

Written in Swanwick’s lexically dynamic hand, Stations of the Tide is the story of an unnamed Bureaucrat and the urgent investigation he’s tasked with.  The planet he lives on, Miranda, is subject to major tidal flooding every 200 years, and with the tide due to arrive in a week’s time on what’s called Jubilee Day, it’s imperative that he locate and apprehend the man Gregorian to avert disaster beforehand.  The populace under tight control, the government believes Gregorian has come into possession of proscribed technology—technology capable of hampering humanity’s efforts at achieving higher ground for the flood.  With the clock ticking, the Bureaucrat heads out to find his man, three-legged helper briefcase beside him (yes, three legged helper briefcase).  Trouble is, in such a technically saturated world it’s troublesome telling reality from virtual reality, hallucination from fact, and ultimately, truth from lies.  Where will he be when the tide bells ring?

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Review of In the Distance, and Ahead in Time by George Zebrowski

Unusual for a non-retrospective or non-best-of collection, the ten stories contained within George Zebrowski’s In the Distance, and Ahead in Time (2002, re-released by Open Road Media in 2015) appeared over a twenty-five year period.  Opening with the first he ever published, the moody “The Water Sculptor,” and closing with one of the last stories he published prior to the assemblage of the collection, “Between the Winds,” it is in some ways, however, a style retrospective. Covering a variety of the author’s themes and motifs and revisiting the settings of some of his novels, it serves as a reminder, overview, or introduction to Zebrowski.

The collection is divided into three sections: Near Futures, The Middle Distance, and Far Futures.  And the stories begin brief, almost vignettes hinting at larger concepts, and move to novelette length, digging ever deeper into character, setting, and the ideas inherent.  Colonization, post-humanism, aliens, mobile worlds, post-apocalypse—a number of typical sf tropes permeate the stories, some with more than one.  Similar to Brian Aldiss, however, they always possess Zebrowski’s controlled, probing voice, attempting to go further into the artifice to get at the human implications beneath.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Review of The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson

At some point in time it’s natural for a person, most likely during adolescence, to look around at their family and ask: “How’d I get mixed up with this bunch?” Genetics not automatically leading to harmonious relationships, there is indeed something deeper in humanity that allows people to get along with some better than others, regardless of blood.  Creating a new social order, Robert Charles Wilson’s simple but effective The Affinities (2015) works with this seeming paradox, ideas ricocheting around the mind, throughout.

Redefining the term ‘family,’ The Affinities works from the premise that a new social algorithm allows a good chunk of humanity to be categorized into affinities—not groups of similar personality, rather diverse, poly-compatible groups that have a good chance at “successful social engagements.  Wilson’s sociologist in the novel locating “the boundary between consciousness and culture,” holistic collaboration becomes the key.  Twenty-two different affinities are identified, of which 60% of the population fits comfortably within one or another.  Entrance is determined by the person’s ability to suit an underlying formula for group holism, new social divisions develop and grow across North America as people come to appreciate the affinities ability to give them a true sense of family, and all the incumbent advantages.