Friday, October 9, 2015

Review of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr.

Indulge me for a moment—just a moment.

Jane Tiptree Jr.’s 1990 His Smoke Rose Up Forever is a quality collection of short stories spanning the writer’s career. Almost but not quite a best-of, its major themes are brazen and challenging, including: alien juxtaposition, dominance in cultural relations, gender dichotomy, mortality, and the female proclivity for physical and sexual violence toward men.  The language on point throughout, nihilism regarding humanity’s overall chances of survival as a result of female misanthropy has never been so rigorously portrayed in fiction.

Now stop.  Did you blink at anytime reading that paragraph?  Yes, I confess.  I switched the gender indicators.  Reverse all the male, female, etc. and voila, you’ve got a true summary of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.  Feel better now, don’t you?  It’s ok for men to be the cause of humanity’s downfall and to have their evil deeds magnified in heavily politicized terms, but not ok for women.  Thus, in terms of the collection’s location in gender discussion, it makes for... interesting discussion.

Though there are some outliers (which I will get to), the lion’s share of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is bound up in men committing violence toward women, of male fantasies that end in rape or murder, and of masculinity that plays itself into the downfall of humanity.  “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain,” for example, features an epidemiologist (a man) who travels the world giving lectures, spreading a virus along the way. His reason: fantasies of a woman appearing in his dreams.  “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!” is the story of a woman trodding a post-apocalyptic landscape and is raped along the way.  As she lays dying, she dreams of a woman who is… raped.  “With Delicate Mad Hands” is the story of a young woman who is assigned to a space ship, and after some time aboard, is gang raped by her shipmates and captain before a more tragic fate takes hold.  And in perhaps Tiptree Jr.’s most famous story, “The Screwfly Solution,” an entomologist researches eliminating a particularly pesky insect by creating a pesticide that wipes out its females.  In his life outside the lab, the entomologist has fantasies of murdering his wife while a strange cult, the Cult of Adam, sweeps the land, killing all women.  

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Review of The Free by Brian Ruckley

Brian Ruckley’s debut The Godless World trilogy got its foot in the grimdark door a few years before the idea really took hold in epic fantasy.  Something of a misfortune for Ruckley, his trilogy remains one of the better in the sub-genre, but under-read due to the later success of George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Luke Scull, Jeff Salyards, Brian Staveley, and others.  Possessing a strong Scottish-ish (or at least Medieval loch and highlands) feel, Ruckley proved able to do something beyond plot and set scenes: endow story and character with something resembling real emotion—not something typically on the grimdark checklist.  Moreover, his gritty style is more natural, more organic.  Unlike the manipulations of Abercrombie or the contrived cheese of Scull or Salyards, the fates of Ruckley’s characters unravel inherent to plot rather than being insular events intended solely to shock or surprise.  Smaller in scope and the emotional edge perhaps blunted slightly, Ruckley’s 2014 The Free marks a return to grimdark.

A stand-alone novel (very welcome in this day of never-ending series), The Free is the story of a band of mercenaries fulfilling one last contract and the young man who joins them as contract bearer.  That contract the capture of a man who committed the most grievous of injustices against a small village, the leader of the Free, Yulan, has personal interest bringing the man down, and thus he and his motley group of clevers and battle-hardened fighters go about the commission with teeth set.  But when a nearby school of magic undergoes internal upheaval, a rogue sorcerer throws a wrench in the Free’s plans.  For Drann, the contract bearer, life goes from chaotic to outright frightful as everything collides in a powerful climax that shakes and trembles the story to its very foundations.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Non-Fiction: Review of Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer

I recall in high school an English teacher admonishing we students to invest in Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.   I ignored her, of course, but years later, when doing more writing than I ever intended as a teenager, picked up a copy at a table sale, somewhere, for a quarter.  Thinking to have a laugh, I opened it that night to see what my teacher had been on about.  Soon enough, I was caught—“Yes, that’s it!” and “They’re completely right!” the statements coming to my brain time and again reflecting on the problems with my own writing.  Having just finished Jeff VanderMeer’s 2013 Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, I can’t help but imagine that if my high school teacher had recommended it, my history would have been different. 

There are writing guides and there are writing guides.  Some are for a specific purpose, e.g. Scott Meredith’s poison—ahem, prescription for mainstream fiction Writing to Sell, and some are to shore up specific issues a writer may have, such as David Madden’s Revising Fiction.  Threading the tight gap between horn-rimmed glasses strictness and loose practicality, Wonderbook is, as VanderMeer writes in his intro, a “general guide to the art and craft of fiction first and foremost, but it is also meant to be a kind of cabinet of curiosities that stimulates your imagination.  Packed to the gills with gorgeous illustrations, diagrams, and art (the striking cover is literally only the beginning) as well as input from a wide range of authors, it aims to be advisory, illustrative, engaging, insightful, and above all, informative.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Review of Deja Vu by Ian Hocking

One of the main characters in William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive is the titular Mona. A drug-addicted prostitute wandering the Sprawl, she accepts an offer too good to be true, and loses her identity in the process: the surgeries she undergoes confuse any sense of self not already rattled by narcotics.  Gibson’s novel classic cyberpunk, the gritty noir of near-future permeates her story.  Revisioning Mona, Ian Hocking’s re-released Deja Vu (2014, Unsung Stories) tells a fast-paced cyberthriller about a young woman with a similar identity crisis. His Mona, however, is agent of her own future.

Saskia Brandt is Hocking’s Mona, and at the outset of Deja Vu is pressganged into a job she would rather not do but is forced to take due to past decisions: she is to track down a murderer.  Whisked away to London, she finds herself paired with the cynical Jago, and together the two begin putting together the pieces of David Proctor’s story.  A brilliant professor caught up in affairs over his head that result in the death of a colleague, Brandt tracks Proctor at her own peril, and in the process learns which past decisions haunt her today—and tomorrow.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Review of Kindred by Octavia Butler

I’ve bought Octavia Butler’s 1979 Kindred, I’ve read it, I’ve greatly enjoyed it, but I don’t know if I’m in a position to review it.  A middle-aged white American male, I can talk until I’m blue in the face about the importance of the novel regarding black history in my country, but in the end, the most important thing is that the reader switch windows to their favorite book seller’s site and purchase the book to fully experience the text.  Rich to the point of bursting with socio-cultural importance, the novel ranks alongside the works of Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and other writers who have been key to giving the African American voice in fiction.  Tackling slavery, its legacy, and contemporary race relations head on, Kindred gives pause in a multitude of ways.

Like the best works of speculative fiction, Kindred uses genre tropes as a springboard to something grander.  Though technically a time travel story, Butler never goes into the details of shifting characters back and forth in time.  Dana Franklin, a contemporary American black woman, and her husband Kevin, a white man, are taken through bizarre temporal shifts to the American south circa 1815—the heart of of nearly every kind of racial injustice and oppression one can imagine.  The pair finding themselves on the plantation of Dana’s great-grandparents, owned by one Rufus Weylin, they must live through the nightmare of slave life from a 20th century perspective. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Review of Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guangzhong

When living in China, one of my great joys was to go to the bookstore and peruse the tiny shelf of works available in English. (You just never knew when some locally translated text would pop up unavailable anywhere else in the world.)  My education entirely lacking in anything resembling Asian culture, discovering lesser known Daoists like Liezi, new material from major poets like Tao Yuanming, Li Bai, and Du Fu, and, of course, the four major novels of the Chinese canon was like a thousand breaths of fresh air.  Not put off by the size of each novel (each is in excess of 2,500 pages—yes, 2,500) ,I set about discovering what the Chinese sense of “novel” meant.  I ended up reading each twice.

I won’t say that Romance of the Three Kingdoms stands out from the other three; each is utterly unique, and therefore comparable only in general terms.   What I can say is that The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is the one that had that power center in my male brain most engrossed.  Literally kingdom sweeping, it features the hallmarks of epic literature (and has been rightfully called the Chinese Iliad by the West).  Emperors, wars, grand expanses of time, honor, heroism, glory, wisdom—all begin to scratch the surface of the multi-threaded and multi-generational story that novelizes the real-world transition from Han to Jin dynasty China.  The country splitting apart amidst civil war and forming itself into three loose factions, more than a century of time passed until the day they were united into a Chinese whole, again.  But the story lies between.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Review of No Enemy but Time by Michael Bishop

Mankind is a creature which occupies itself predominantly in the present.  Smoking, murder, alcohol abuse, poor diet, resource wastage—all of these habits and behaviors alleviate the moment but do nothing to bolster the idea a human is aware of, or concerned with, the long term existence of itself or the species.  Moreover, it’s fair to say that when one does bring in the long view, “recent” history and near future remain the focus.  Our primitive roots left to esoteric niches of science (archeology, anthropology, and the like) available almost exclusively in museum corners and textbooks, dinosaurs seem to get more attention than cromagnons.  But yet our slumped, hairy forbears are an essential part of the evolutionary formula that has brought homo sapien sapien to its current point of existence, for better and worse, and will always be, no matter what humans evolve into.

Extending the scope of genre fiction far beyond its most commonly held parameters, Michael Bishop’s 1981 No Enemy but Time goes back 2 million years in Earth’s history.  Though ostensibly a time travel story, reducing the narrative to that simple code would be a mistake; its content defies genre convention. 

But the novel does begin on such readily accessible terms.  Inspired by vivid dreams of the Pleistocene, Joshua Kempa has put in serious time studying after work and become a self-made scholar of the era.  His dreams, though occasionally invaded by anachronisms, have proven largely accurate when compared to existing research, and have allowed him to be recruited into a time travel project by the loquacious Dr. Blair.  After a short training period in the African bush, Kempa is dropped into the middle of the veldt 2 million years ago.  Among his meager supplies a data transponder, he goes about documenting the flora, fauna, and habilines he finds there.  But it’s when joining a tribe of the proto-humans that his life in the Pleistocene truly begins.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Pyrite Age 2: Pulp Rides, Again

Stop and imagine for one moment the internet existing in the early 20 th century, the time when science fiction and fantasy were fresh and new and flooding the market.  The Lovecraft clique re-tweeting the day’s bits of racism and xenophobia.  The sheer number of forums devoted to Barsoom rehash and predilection.  The Gernsback website reading like a Japanese mail-order catalogue.  Bloggies expounding the latest exploits of sss-hot Conan (those abs!).  Backwater livejournals pointing out the towering magnificence of Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker (to no avail).  Hard sf Reddit threads going through Verne novels with a fine-toothed comb.  The majority of media, however, would have been devoted to reviews of the latest magazine releases. As cotton candy as content was, it was the heart of the era.

Amazing Stories, Astounding, Planet Stories, Astonishing Stories, Air Wonder Stories—these and many, many other magazines were where sf&f was happening.  Featuring a handful of stories, some advertizing, and bits of non-fiction or media coverage, they satisfied that craving for “science, in fantasy form!”  I will not rehash what others have put more eloquently (see Brian Aldiss’ The Billion Year Spree, for example), but suffice to say this realm of ‘scientifiction’ drew far more inspiration from Captain Irrational and King Lurid than Mr. Wordsmith or Prof. Humanism.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Review of Venus Plus X by Theodore Sturgeon

2015 and (part of) the rave in genre is gender busting.  The space opera fare of Ann Leckie’s Anciliary Justice ignores sex in its pronouns.  Kameron Hurley’s ultra-violent samurai-Medieval fantasy The Mirror Empire inverts the standard male-female power relationship and has a unisex warrior.  And Alex Dally MacFarlane is doing her darndest to promote the elimination of binary gender from sf. These novels and views championed as fresh perspectives, sometimes even ground breaking views that are revolutionizing the way we see the world and genre, it’s as if the history of the field never existed.  But the fact the gendered elements of Leckie and Hurley’s novels are like sprinkles on a cake—superficial at best—is all the more concerning.  Does the modern generation of science fiction and fantasy readers truly consider them in-depth examinations of gender and society?

Rewind to 1960 and the rave is how speculative fiction is beginning to transition from the uber-modernism of the Silver Age into concerns more directly relevant to civil rights issues of the day.  With the emergence of writers like Algis Budrys, Robert Sheckley, Joanna Russ, Brian Aldiss, Harlan Ellison, Ursula Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, and others, the concerns of the Cold War, discrimination, sexism, race, and other topics more directly affecting people in the Western world were starting to be addressed.  Enter Theodore Sturgeon’s 1960 Venus Plus X.  About a man visiting a world of humans where the physical notion of male and female does not exist, it puts to clean shame the contemporary conception of what a robust examination of non-gender in fiction can be.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Review of Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

Semi-quotidian human lateralness (with shades of destruction).  That is the (admittedly oblique) plaque on the wall beneath David Mitchell’s 1999 debut novel Ghostwritten.  A fusion of multi-cultural flavors, it spans the globe, stretching from everyday soul to soul, telling stories that culminate in something approximating an encompassing vision—if you squint.  The authorial voice striking, the prose bounces and burns across the spectrum of individuals—not always in parallel with circumstance, but certainly with verve. 

Clever (occasionally too clever for it own good), Ghostwritten is a rich meal of a novel with the occasionally empty but enjoyable calorie.  Using an uncommon approach to novel form, Ghostwritten is less a single narrative and more a mosaic of everyday peoples’ stories.  Connected via chance and those quirkly little circumstances that throw strangers together, the people are far from heroes and villains.  The element of chance only a part of the premise, Mitchell seems more intent on using the device to tell the fate of ordinary people in the context of violent history, that is, rather than rubbing the idea of fate itself in the reader’s face.  I am only partially convinced the nine stories flow into a singular, coherent whole, but then again, life does not allow us that, either.