Saturday, July 23, 2016

Playing Both Sides Against the Middle: Politics and Money in Contemporary Genre Publishing

This is essentially an extension of my review of Alter Reiss' Sunset Mantle.  Not entirely review material, however, more commentary, I decided to post it separately.

There is, perhaps, one angle to Sunset Mantle that can be appreciated: its indirect reminder how two-faced Tor.com is. Sorcerer of the Wildeeps (a 2015 Tor.com publication) is as shallow as it is deep. Wilson takes a tried and true sword & sorcery tale and imbues it with ideas germane to contemporary discussion on manhood, violence, race, and other issues. On the other hand, Sunset Mantle, with its clear belief in upholding personal honor over communal respect, revenge over diplomacy, blind retaliation rather than considered decision, and might-makes-right dominance rather than compromise—traits in leadership often leading to the socio-political problems our world is facing as a result—indicates Tor.com’s interests do not lie in humanism, rather in commercialism. While blog posts engendering progressive political discussion and mature genre novellas like Sorcerer of the Wildeeps appear from Tor.com, so too do contrasting works such as Sunset Mantle. SJWs cheer Tor.com at the main gate, all the while opposing political ideals are peddled from the loading dock. This is known as playing both sides against the middle...

Review of Sunset Mantle by Alter Reiss

Little Johnny, if we have A, B, and C, what comes next? “D!” Correct Johnny, good job. And what is two plus two? “Four!” And following upon daytime? “Nighttime!” Good, what a clever fellow. And what happens after a brawny hero is slighted by an evil lord? “He rips out the man’s guts in glorious revenge, and takes power for himself!” Good job, Johnny! You’re such a smart little guy…

It’s possible the reader can end their reading of my review of Alter Reiss' 2015 Sunset Mantle, here: the novella is as formulaic as epic fantasy/grimdark can possibly be. Even Johnny knows the score. And there is nothing else to compliment—no rich prose, no subversive elements, no lush setting, no plot twists, no... Told in rudimentary fashion, an idyllized man (brute strength, honor, intelligence, blah, blah, blah) takes revenge on those who tried to cheat him, and, of course, gets the woman and a seat of power. The end. Those interested in further commentary may continue.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Review of Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett

Fairy godmother Desiderata Hollow has passed away, leaving one unfinished task to her successor Magrat Garlick: go to the city of Genua and prevent a girl from marrying a prince. Oh, and she also leaves strict instructions that Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax are not to be traveling companions on the trip, nor ever to touch the fairy godmother’s wand. In a tussle of skirts and vests, boots and broomsticks, the three—Magrat, Nanny, and Granny (would it be any other way)—set out on the journey. Throughout the stages of their trip, strange reflections appear in mirrors around the women. Someone meddling in the affairs of the peripatetic trio, it’s a good thing Nanny Ogg also brought her tomcat Greebo along for the trip. His brawn is needed when marriage time approaches.

Traveling through the Discworld equivalents of France, Spain, New Orleans, and beyond, Pratchett has a riot riffing off European and American culture. Like your grandmother’s first trip outside her comfortable little village, the three elderly ladies find themselves at a loss for language, cosmopolitan panache, and knowledge of local cultures every step of the way. Eating strange foods, drinking exotic alcohols, and running with the bulls, they never find themselves lacking in the confidence needed to keep pushing ahead, however. Plowing into every new situation with humorous innocence, Pratchett takes advantage of mispronounced foreign words, cultural taboos, and and an overall blind perseverance to get his trio into Genua in time for the proposed wedding.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Review of Paingod and Other Delusions by Harlan Ellison

For anyone with a passing knowledge of speculative fiction’s history, there is an awareness that Harlan Ellison, love or hate the man’s personality, is a writer to be experienced not summarized. You may encounter this review and get a perspective on the fiction, but encountering it first-hand is an entirely different bucket of frogs. When he's on, he's on—a prose master that grabs a thread of story and runs headlong with it, the narrative voice undeniable. (And when he’s not on…) So, forget what Ellison says off-screen and just read his stories. There are none like them, anywhere, and his 1965 collection Paingod and Other Delusions is a prime example.

The collection opens on the title story “Paingod.” A tale of the god Trente, deliverer of pain to the huddling masses ("the one who dealt out the tears and the anguish and the soul-wrenching terrors that blighted life from its first moment to its last"), changes are afoot in the heavens when he begins to have a sense of empathy. Looking down upon two particular men, their stories feed into his beliefs, and ultimately inform his final stance on the subject of suffering. Myth twisted, this story is not what the reader might expect given the opening. More suffering, this time indirectly at the hands of a particularly regimented government, “’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” may be the most representative Ellison story in the collection. Telling of a non-conformist and his experiences at the hands of an extreme-rote ruling body, the man’s ultimate fate in the system falls somewhere between Nineteen Eighty-four and A Clockwork Orange.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Review of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

Short Review: Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker is the same type of story but notably better from nearly every perspective.  Why read Pulley’s novel?

Long(er) Review:  There’s a lot hyperbole heaped on Natasha Pulley’s debut novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (2015), and I have no intention of repeating it.  Is it enjoyable?  For most readers, probably yes.  Is is light entertainment that desperately wants to be a mainstream success?  Citing the overwhelming lack of originality and high number of familiar pathways the story takes, yes.  Witty?  On occasion, but generally rather pedestrian.  Beach read?  Sure, why not.  Anything of substance below the surface?  Zilch.  Like cotton candy?  (Sweet on the tongue but dissolving in an instant.)  For certain…

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Review of “The Drowning Eyes” by Emily Foster

What is it these days with stories that are obviously YA (i.e. juvenile content) marketed as adult fiction?

“The Drowning Eyes” by Emily Foster (2016) is the story of Shina. Lone survivor of a pirate attack that killed her fellow weather-workers (called Windspeakers), she sets out on a quest to recover a magical item stolen from their school. Catching a ride on a north-bound ship, the journey proves as fun as it is dangerous with the raucous crew. Sea waters tempestuous and pirates bloodthirsty, Shina goes through hell and back again developing her nascent weather controlling powers to save the Windpseakers from oblivion.

While SJWs are sure to rave for the surface elements, if it isn’t obvious from the plot introduction, “The Drowning Eyes” remains a trite piece of contemporary, substance-less fantasy. Foster checks most boxes for political correctness (Feminist elements? Matriarchal society: check. Racial diversity? People with non-white skin: check. LGBT___ elements? Lesbian captain: check.). But unfortunately, it also checks a lot of the boxes laid out in the guidebook for writing low-grade mainstream fiction. High school level dialogue? Check. Formulaic plot? Check. Likeable (i.e. non-realistic) characters? Check. Serviceable (at best) prose? Check. Faceless evil? Check… This is a round about way of saying, no matter how progressive several of the story elements are, the whole cannot be said to be an examination, or even commentary on, contemporary socio-political issues. The name of Shina’s ship the Giggling Goat, the novella is light entertainment—at best.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Review of Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard

The annual Burning Man gathering in the deserts of Nevada is by turns surreal and decadent. Artistic expression prized most, the concepts and presentations which result belie extravagance and dynamic creativity. Massive sculptures, mutant vehicles, pyrotechnics, electronic music—its for hippies and connoisseurs alike. Though more staid (i.e. European) and fantastical (i.e. science fictional), J.G. Ballard’s 1971 collection Vermilion Sands nevertheless takes a similar variety of perspectives to art in a desert community setting. Ballard likewise dynamically creative, I assume Burning Man is green with envy at the possibilities of his fictional scene.

Catering to a mosaic of people in the languid heat of the desert, Vermilion Sands is a resort town where tourists and poets, merchants and artists, actresses and retirees live in indolent leisure, clashes evolving on occasion from their circumstances and personality issues. Catalyzing the collection is the variety of arts individual to each of the stories. Sonic sculptures, cloud carving, photosensitive paint, emotionally-retentive domiciles, singing plants, living cloth, poetry machines—Ballard uses the possibilities of science fiction to describe fantastical scenes wherein art and humanity intersect in surreal fashion.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Review of “’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison

In the introduction to her collection of poems and essays Dancing at the Devil’s Party, Alicia Ostriker writes that any good artist’s m.o. is defiance of norms. (I paraphrase.) There may be no writer who takes this idea to heart like Harlan Ellison. His personality controversial enough, he walks the talk in his fiction, however, of which his 1965 novelette “’Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman” is a prime example. Non-conformity in absurdist terms, Open Road Media’s re-release* of the story in 2016 provides a strong representation of Ostriker’s view.

Prefaced by the (loosely styled) essay “Stealing Tomorrow,” Ellison describes mankind's primitivism in the face of civilization, and the instinctual desire to rebel against that which is rational. The essay setting the tone, “’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” goes on to tell the story of a non-conformist flouting the legal and social mores of a society governed by the clock. A satirical representation of the freak scene happening in American counter-culture of the 60s, the conclusion forms a Nineteen Eighty-four body with A Clockwork Orange head.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Review of The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

For a lot of people, Lauren Beukes’ second novel Zoo City put her name on the genre map. Nominated for and winning awards, her semi-cyberpunk Johannesburg with animal familiars was a success. The actual quality of the novel a touch more equivocal, it was certain, however, latent talents were bursting to be developed. The follow up novel, 2013’s The Shining Girls, reveals the next step.

A very dark, very visceral, very brutal story, The Shining Girls is about a time-traveling serial killer focusing on women. Locked up in that sentence is the potential for cheese—and from some aspects the novel doesn’t escape a little stink. But it does in others, Beukes’ talents stepping up to provide substance worth the time. Ignoring the shimmy-shammy of explaining time travel to cut to the heart of her schema, Beukes tells the victim’s stories, and how their arcs through life are cut unnecessarily short by one deranged man.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Review of The Ophiuchi Hotline by John Varley

The Ophiuchi Hotline will be precisely what many readers of science fiction desire and perhaps expect: a dynamic tour of ideas. Shooting around the solar system and beyond, mysterious aliens have wiped civilization from the Earth, and what they’ve allowed to remain survives on tech doled out via the eponymous channel. Humanity divided into two camps: those who prefer the new state of humanity and those seeking revenge, the clones of one women, all named Lilo, find themselves in the thick of the factions, trying to make sense of reality getting to the bottom of who precisely the Invaders are, and their plans for humanity.

Post-human before it was a thing, The Ophiuchi Hotline must certainly be considered proto-cyberpunk. There are aliens and space travel which limit the full taxonomy, but highly+advanced plastic surgery, genderless humans, free sexuality, cybertech, dubious techno-commercial interests—all combine to give the novel something of the flavor of Schismatrix meets Neuromancer, even as the alien takeover wrangles the plot.