Thursday, August 22, 2013

Two Cents on the Hugo: Its Worth?

(The red carpet for next week's Hugo awards...)
The Hugo, the Hugo, the Hugo, oh, the Hugo.  It’s the oldest award in science fiction and fantasy, it’s the most prestigious award in science fiction and fantasy, it’s washed out, it’s poorly organized, it’s as strong as ever; too much gender representation; not enough international flavor... and on and on goes the commentary.  Well, I will add my two cents for what it’s worth, using the Best Novel award as the prime example.

Simply put, the Hugo Best Novel Award is not an award for the best speculative fiction novel of the year.  It is an award for the most popular novel amongst the Hugo members who voted that year—an immensely more specific group than is implied by the hyperbole.  In fact only a few thousand compared to hundreds of thousands, if not millions who read in the genre, the next question is: who comprises that specific group? 

Being able to vote in the USA is not automatic.  In order to step into the booth November 11th, you must meet a list of criteria, including citizenship, lack of a criminal record, etc.  The Hugo is organized around the same basic principle: for those who want to vote, $50 is needed to get past the doorman and into the club.  So, as much as idealists would like to think that only politically savvy people elect a president, the truth is that a wide variety of interests determine who becomes ”the most powerful man in the world” (note the superlative).  And the same is true of the Hugo.  Amongst award voters each year are real fans of sci-fi and fantasy who have been there for years and can offer an informed, contextual view of the nominees.  At the same time, a large number of voters are in it for the fun, have only a minimal view of the field, or are simply fanboys who drool over scantily clad women warriors in bust defying armor—their $50 vote thought well spent.

Review of The Importance of Understanding by Lin Yutang

An unquantifiable transition, Lin Yutang’s coming to the US meant huge changes in the West’s perception of the East.  Making numerous texts available in English for the first time, he introduced the average Westerner to a variety of aspects of the Middle Kingdom. My Country My People, The Importance of Living, The Gay Genius: The Life and Times of Su T’ungpo, The Wisdom of Laotse, The Wisdom of Confucius and many other books made him perhaps the greatest Chinese cultural ambassador to the West in the 20th century.  Having published The Wisdom of China in 1942 as an overview of Chinese philosophy, in 1960 Lin set out to introduce Westerners to the literary and artistic mindset of China.  The Importance of Understanding is the result.

Despite the difference in content, The Importance of Understanding is written in the same format as The Wisdom of China.  Divided along thematic lines, the wealth of Chinese literature and culture is presented through a variety of selections.  Writings of Li Bai (Li Bo), Zhuangzi, Yuang Chunglang, Wang Shichi, and several others fill the first section called “Human Life”.  “Life and Death” contains writings by Shenfu, Cao Xueqin (of Dream of Red Mansions fame), Pan Ku, Tao Yuanming (perhaps China’s greatest poet), and others.  I could continue listing names, but this review would become too long, so I will limit myself to the section headings: “The Seasons”, “Nature”, “Human Adjustments”, “Women”, “The Home and Daily Living”, “Art”, “Literature”, “After Tea and Wine”, “Ancient Wit”, “Fools to this World”, “Wisdom”, “Zen”, and “Epigrams and Proverbs”.  At 450 pages, the book is bursting with the writings from the famous to not-so-famous minds of China to date.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Review of Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss

Number 33 of the Science Fiction Masterworks series, Brian Aldiss’ 1958 Non-Stop is indeed a classic of the genre (variant title: Starship).  Standing well the test of time, the story is vivid, brisk, and entertaining—facets complemented nicely by intelligent commentary and worthwhile purpose.  Aldiss examining human nature in unusual circumstances to say the least, the underlying assumptions nevertheless exist closer to reality than the majority of sci-fi.  Readily enjoyable on the surface, there remain several thought provoking undercurrents waiting for the reader to explore.

Non-Stop is the story of Roy Complain, a disgruntled hunter of the Greene Tribe in Quarters.  His brother lost to the tangles years before and wife abducted by a neighboring tribe in the first few pages, Complain must find a way to live without connections amongst his ragged tribe.  Every person out for themselves, resources are scarce and egos run amuck in their barbarian society kept only marginally modern by the random objects and devices they find behind closed doors and down abandoned corridors.  Old weapons, jars of colored dyes, technical manuals filled with schematics nobody can comprehend, little makes sense to the people, but somehow they survive.  One day unwillingly caught in a conspiracy, Complain finds himself on a journey through Deadways on a mission that none see the pertinence of save their crazy guide.

Review of The Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

Many are the reviews declaring Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun to be incomprehensible rubbish.  Certainly not a book (or series, depending how you look at it) for everybody, it does often require a puzzling out of the scenes and thoughts that Severian experiences and expresses—and knowledge of mythology, paganism, anthropology, and other historical and cultural elements doesn’t hurt.  Far from entertainment-lite, it’s definitely for readers who prefer the more thought-provoking side of genre.  Perhaps in response to comments about this perceived opacity, Wolfe published Urth of the New Sun in 1987 (four years after Citadel of the Autarch) as a pseudo-coda.  Not a continuation of the main storyline per se, the book is rather that last hammer blow which ensures the nail is properly set even if it was already flush.  (It goes without saying; do not attempt this book without having read New Sun.)

Hinted at but left to the reader’s imagination at the conclusion of Book of the New Sun, Urth of the New Sun is the story of Severian’s final judgment to determine whether he, and subsequently Urth, are commendable enough to have their dying sun revitalized.  The story opening on a spaceship of proportions nearly impossible to visualize, Severian is on his way to Yesod, the planet where he will plead his case.  Climbing the ship’s rigging to toss his memoirs from New Sun into space, not everything goes as planned, and Severian soon finds himself caught up in strange events: a murder, a hollow android, aliens, the Hierodules, and a zoo of strange proportions.  Eventually put on trial, characters from New Sun return to offer witness and testimony, and whether Severian and Urth are worthy of redemption is never a certain thing.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Grimdark: The "Real" Truth

There recently has been a (revival of the?) discussion regarding the place and value of sex and violence in books in epic fantasy.  The focus on a particular sub-sub-genre dubbed ‘grimdark’, authors, critics, reviewers, and others are voicing their opinion whether the images of sex, war, violence, rape, body parts being lopped off, etc. have a legitimate place.  I will voice my own—in a paucity of words.

Regardless of the genre or sub-genre or sub-sub-genre of literature, sex and violence have always had a place in media—printed or otherwise—as indeed they are part of our lives.  It may be glossed over or graphically exposed, but from the first books we have of the Greeks, to Shakespeare, to Conan, to the latest James Bond, the physical elements—by turns intimate and aggressive—exist on screen and page in varying quantities.  What varies, however, is the intent behind these elements, and this makes all the difference.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Review of Viriconium Nights by M. John Harrison

Viriconium Nights, a 1985 collection of short stories by M. John Harrison, is to Viriconium what Tales from Earthsea is to Ursula Le Guin’s eponymous archipelago.  Filling gaps in the larger picture that remained after major portions of the setting(s) had been published, Viriconium Nights adds details, reinforces themes, and ultimately links or contextualizes the previous Viriconium publications: The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, and In Viriconium.  Each of the stories, as abstract as it may be, works independently but should be located amongst the content published to date.  Accordingly, some revisit familiar characters and some bookend, some segue and while others offer vignettes into day to day life in the multi-faceted city.  The following are short summaries of the seven pieces in the collection.

“The Luck in the Head” – A story of surreal madness—in fact a near complete separation from plausibility—the poet Ardwick Crome is haunted by a strange woman who has a strange task for him.  Making the task all the stranger are his encounters with the mad poet Verdigris and the dwarf who is not a dwarf, Kiss-o-Suck.  In its madcap days, Viriconium comes to absurd, vivid life.

“The Lamie and Lord Cromis”  - It is a story about expectation.  But don’t read the story expecting it to be so.  Cromis’ journey with the dwarf Rotgob and Dissolution Khan in the hinterlands of Viriconium may easily be interpreted in another fashion.

Review of In Viriconium (UK) / The Floating Gods (US) by M. John Harrison

Some may say manipulative, others artful.  Some say subversive, others expansive.  Still others say opaque, and others colorful.  But no matter how you relate to M. John Harrison’s Viriconium, one thing remains true: it is a jewel presenting a different facet with each publication.  The third of four perspectives thus far, In Viriconium is no exception. (In the US, the title was changed to The Floating Gods.)

If The Pastel City is a work of classic fantasy and A Storm of Wings a piece of brooding surrealism, then In Viriconium must be magic realism—or at least somewhere in the neighborhood.  The overall story is largely realist in tone (setting, character, etc.), however, there are more than enough tweaks, twists, and scenes of implausibility that not all can be considered concrete.  Artists, astronomers, buffoons, fortune tellers, and poets abound, the novel is a superbly written piece of literary fantasy that brings Viriconium ever closer to the real world with one hand, pushing it away with the other.

Review of A Storm of Wings by M. John Harrison

This review needs to start with a caveat: readers with a genre-only background who loved The Pastel City and are looking for a continuation of that story in A Storm of Wings be warned: along with being someone who has voiced his dislike of worldbuilding for worldbuilding’s sake, M. John Harrison is a writer who challenges himself and readers.  This means, a couple of characters do return and the setting is still Viriconium, but presentation, mode, plot, pace—nearly every other literary category—has been approached from a different perspective.  Far more lyrically, emotionally and atmospherically dense than The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings is art rather than genre.  Be advised.  

Eighty years have passed since the Queen of the South successfully defended the onslaught of the North.  She still sits the throne while Tomb the Dwarf, the man who orchestrated the kingdom’s defense by bringing the Reborn back to life, has returned to roaming the deserts and wastelands, searching for old technology.  The Reborn have not had an easy time adapting to society.  The centuries they spent trapped in mental prisons, stuck somewhere between dream and reality, causes many to go into random psychotic fits or mad altogether.  Alstath Fulthor is one such Reborn trying to find peace with himself, his jaunts in nature one day bringing him into contact with Cellur the Birdlord.  A change in the air, the pair head into Viriconium for a talk with the queen.

Review of The Pastel City by M. John Harrison

M. John Harrison’s Viriconium is a quiet monument in speculative fiction.  Fully utilizing yet playing with genre, the books are fantasy without the magic and science fiction without the “future”.  Having the feel of Vance’s Dying Earth, the mythic plotting of Roger Zelazny’s works, and all told in a style that is vividly Harrison, The Pastel City, first of the Viriconium books, is a novel well worth seeking out for fans of either genre, but, as a warning, is nothing like the three books which follow in the setting.

Viriconium seeming a combination of the words “virile” and “encomium”, the setting of The Pastel City is far-future Earth; humanity survives in a detritus strewn world with remnants of past civilizations rising in unidentifiable hulks from the landscape.  Skeletons of steel buildings poke through the shifting sands of desert wastelands while people ride on horseback and fight with sword and knife.  Metal no longer minable, valuables, including weapons of old, like power blades, energy cannons, and airboats, are prized by the lucky who come across them, bolstering the forces of the queen of the north or south, depending on the side in humanity’s twilight hour.  The glory days of the Afternoon Culture years in the past, it is a new age in history that Harrison describes the transition of, mankind tested yet again to see if they will survive the hour.