Friday, July 31, 2015

Review of Lost Pages by Paul Di Filippo

Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Harlan Ellison’s “The Deathbird”, Rick Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death, Philip K. Dick’s VALIS, C.M. Kornbluth’s “MS Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie”, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen—on and on goes the list of works interacting with the idea of fiction while being fiction.  Each with their own vector to how speculative fiction might be meta’d, none to date, however, have engaged with the spectrum of the genre’s roots in the same fashion as Paul Di Filippo’s 1998 collection Lost Pages.  Kafka as super hero, PKD as a paranoid hardware salesman, Dr. Strangelove and his souped up Cadillac—and many other pieces of speculative fiction’s history flash through this collection of short stories that transcend the page and touch upon the real world.  Chris Brown calling Di Filippo “Mixmaster of the Cranial Museum”, Lost Pages is an exemplary text.

Fiction about fiction a potentially pretentious undertaking, Lost Pages is anything but.  Di Filippo as knowledgeable of the genre’s history as he is a part of it, the collection is wholly in respectful yet mischievous dialogue with the field. Bouncing amongst a variety of touch points, the stories play with the lives and works of known science fiction authors, by turns intelligently, interestingly, poignantly, and always enjoyably.  Rather than merely inverting norms or switching out simple aspects of history, Di Filippo engages with the writers, their works, and their biographies to produce complex stories with more than one level of conception.  Thus, it’s best to get the caveat out of the way: if you are interested in reading Di Filippo but have little knowledge of science fiction beyond the past decade, don’t waste your time.  Lost Pages is for the genre connoisseur.  (There are other good places to delve into Di Filippo for the unsaturated—aka non sf nerd—e.g. Ribofunk, The Steampunk Trilogy, and Cosmocopia.)

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Review of Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

In the coming two years, the Indian space program (ISRO) is set to explore the moon, the sun, and Venus.  All research and development for these projects is ongoing while the surrounding population continues to be measured to the nearest one-hundred million because nobody can count to any greater point of accuracy the sheer number of homeless, starving, and dying on the streets.  Add to this the cows (and disease) feeding on unremoved heaps of trash in the streets, people defecating in public, and infrastructure that’s a far cry from first world standards, and the question must be asked: why is India spending billions of dollars on space technology?  Does the knowledge gained have any direct effect on the quality of its citizen’s lives? Would the billions be better invested in medicine, urban infrastructure, housing, and other amenities of life the West takes for granted?  And while we’re at it, why too is the West investing in similar projects when we too are far from solving our own issues?  Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2015 Aurora answers these questions—definitively. 

Robinson pretty much wrote the book on Martian terraforming (ha!), and by that same token Aurora may very well be the greatest generation starship story ever told.  Touching, pertinent, purposeful, epic, realistic, passionate, responsible, important—all seem adjectives suitable to the novel, up to and including, perhaps, being Robinson’s best ever.  (When I’ve finished his oeuvre, I’ll get back to you on this one; only a few more to go.)

Monday, July 27, 2015

Review of The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley

In the course of introducing each of the stories in his classic Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, Bruce Sterling laments the death of cyberpunk.  Published at what would be considered the middle of the cyberpunk wave (looking strictly in terms of what was published when), Sterling’s words may seem misguided.  But that would be to miss the point: Sterling was referring to the artistic death of the subgenre.  Any wave needing to recede into the ocean before it can officially be considered over, the latter half of cyberpunk is indeed more imitation than cutting edge.  Sure, slight adjustments, changes of angle, and fuzzy connections to other sub-genres were introduced. But as a whole, the most unique ideas of cyberpunk came about when the wave was moving toward the shore—a moment Sterling seems to capture in Mirrorshades.  Epic grimdark another such wave of genre, Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades, given its unoriginal outlay, must be considered as washing back into the ocean.* 

“On the coattails of a dead man, she’ll ride, she’ll ride… On the coattails of a deadman…”  So run the lyrics of a Primus song.  With Tom Waits’ baritone haunting the background, it’s a dirge that echoes The Emperor’s Blades epic grimdark re-re-rehash.  If you’ve read George R.R.Martin, R. Scott Bakker, Ken Follett, Joe Abercrombie, etc., etc., then you’ve read The Emperor’s Blades.  Staveley brings some writing chops to the table (more later), but the offering is threadbare in terms of singularity.  Even the series’ title hints at the passing: Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne.  Having to resort to a negative adjective, you can almost hear the kettle drums booming in the distance.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Review of Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories by James Patrick Kelly

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: one of the aspects that sets science fiction apart from other genres is its continued heritage of short fiction.  A myriad of stories that approach life from all—literally all—manner of perspectives, the heritage is as dynamic as it is varied, and is truly a treasure just waiting to be explored by readers of only novel-length work.  And James Patrick Kelly is one of the best in short form.  Seeing his name the exposed reader knows they will be getting a well-thought out story written in effective prose that probes some of the bigger issues mankind confronts, almost always from a humanist point of view despite the window dressing.  Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories (1997), Kelly’s second published collection, is a perfect example of this outlay, and one of the reasons why science fiction in short form is as vigorous as it is.

Starting things off with a metaphysical slap is the title story “Think Like a Dinosaur.”  The mind possible to be separated from the body and shot light years into space, the novelette is the story of Michael Burr, a handler of humans on behalf of an alien group nicknamed ‘dinos’ due to their appearance who have gifted the technology to Earth.  A clone body receiving the psyche at the other end, the body that remains must be disposed of, hence Michael’s job as ‘handler’.  Unfortunately for Michael, his job doesn’t go as planned one day.  Presented a scenario both ethically and existentially challenging, its twist on reality etches abstract consequences in the reader’s thoughts.  Another story using a sacrifice theme is “Breakaway, Breakdown”; after spending months in orbit; a person faces the choice, literally of a lifetime. The physical effects of life in space often glossed over in favor of laser guns and space ships, the story proves humanity will have a lot more on its mind when looking to live among the stars than just how to build a spaceship or alien invasion.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Review of We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory

And again I find myself sitting on the fence.  This time around: was it a respectful usage of personal problems, i.e. something that raises awareness about contemporary psycho-sociological issues?  Or just a means to a way, i.e. an inappropriate usage of said personal issues to achieve commercial success?  But I get ahead of myself.  It’s best I describe the things I do know about Daryl Gregory’s 2014 We Are All Completely Fine, first.

We Are All Completely Fine outlays the mental and social issues of five people dealing with trauma in engaging, generally realistic (if not extreme) fashion.  A video game channeled through his sunglasses, a teenage boy has grown dependent on the zombies and post-apocalyptic background details the game overlays upon his view of the world.  An elderly man with hoarding problems was de-limbed by a family of cannibals and now lives in resentment in a wheelchair.  Images carved on her bones, a woman is haunted by a scrimshander—a bone etcher.  A writer wrestles with demons not only in his fiction, but in his real world, as well.  And a young woman with ornamental scars covering her body, attempts to deal with her past in a cult.  Meeting once per week in group session, the five slowly open themselves up, revealing their backstories to the others, all the while the trouble from their traumatic pasts leaks through into the real world.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Review of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Uber-evil villain vs. dynamic first person character study.  Epic title vs. small setting focused on character interaction.   Heavily operatic backstory vs. scenes with poignant emotion.  Hints at post-colonialism and cultural dis/integration vs. a me-me-me-and-only-me narrative.  Predictable plot vs. unconventional setup of dramatis personae. These are just some of the juxtapositions swimming in my brain after finishing N.K. Jemisin’s 2010 The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.  Pile on top of that a secondary world with numerous kingdoms (100,000 apparently); nobles and highborn vying for power; a country girl in the big city; secret passages through a skyborn city; arcane forms of magic that appear and disappear; trysts with gods; a murder investigation; secret love letters; a numinous pendant; the powers of dark and light...  and you’ve got the clear makings of a grand fantasy.  The substance beneath, however, is less clear.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the story of Yeine, a nobleman’s daughter from a minor kingdom who comes to the world’s capital, Sky, to find her mother’s murderer.  Immediately getting audience with her grandfather, the king Dekarta, she gets a major surprise: not only is she in line to inherit the throne, but will be in a three-way contest with cousins she’s never met for it.  Succession acquired by force, one-third of her competition, the pale, conniving Scimina, “introduces” herself that night.  An apparition of a bodyguard set on Yeine like a hound on a fox, a wild chase through the magical walls of Sky leads Yeine to a tower-top room full of gods, one of which, the boy Sieh, seems much more than his appearance would indicate.  The apparition catching up, Yeine learns it is Nahadoh, the Lord of Night.  Into his shadow her life is swallowed, her fate as future empress, following.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Review of The Invincible by Stanislaw Lem

I suppose I have followed the conventional route through Stanislaw Lem’s version of scientifiction.  Starting with Solaris and moving to the Cyberiad, and from there to His Master’s Voice, The Futurological Congress, and others, it wasn’t until later I read his ‘lesser known’ works, among them 1973’s The Invincible.  This is interesting as, in terms of genre The Invincible is one of Lem’s most conventional.  Holding to a different standard than spaceships blasting aliens for fun and games, The Invincible nevertheless utilizes a palette of familiar science fiction colors in creating its vision of humanity’s relationship to the external world.

Dispatched to locate its lost sister ship, the Invincible lands on the desert planet Regis III without a hitch.  The Condor not appearing on any orbital scans, the crew take to ground expeditions, their robots and tools in tow, attempting to locate the lost ship.  Quickly discovering it in what appears the ruins of a long abandoned city, investigation of the streets and buildings is immediately forgotten when the first human skeleton peeps through the sand.  Consternation developing apace, the men of the Invincible learn that the whole crew of the Condor died in what appears the onset of psychosis.  Bodies are found in the oddest positions and strange scribblings are gleaned from notebooks and soft surfaces.  But that is not the strangest of all.  A cloud appearing overhead with what look like metallic flies hovering within, the crew barely get back within shield range of the Invincible before a black rain starts falling.

Passing media on Ian Macleod....

I guess it's a couple years old now, but I stumbled across a nice interview with Ian Macleod today.  One of the tip-top writers (you may never have heard of) working today, it's a relatively interesting set of questions.  What most grabbed me was his answer regarding the topic why sf is less accepted by the literary community.  Probably because I feel the same way, his answer takes the broad view - as well as the genre to task for its aspirations.  I would add awards to the 'bad' list, but I digress... If you're interested in discovering why Ian Macleod is one of the best of the best working today, the interview will give you insight into the mindset he brings to the keyboard.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Review of The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

It’s official.  I hereby dub Paolo Bacigalupi, Captain Grimdark of science fiction.  Uncontent to swerve in and out of dystopia when telling his near-future stories of the Earth gone to hell, he rubs the reader’s face in the grime every step.  Scenes of violence and human misery, both manipulative and informative, string along stories of good people stuck in bad times.  Formula?  Set in the near-future, mix in some stereotypical characters, use a few simple environmental destruction plot devices to build sympathy, make cutting, realistic, and informed comments about contemporary politics and corporate greed that allowed the situation to happen, and voila, Captain Grimdark.  (Science fiction has captains, and fantasy has lords, natch.) 

Yes, Bacigalupi has struck upon a blueprint, and his 2015 The Water Knife is more of the same—the sixth in a row by my counting.  A mainstream corpus with science fiction blood, one can easily see Hollywood picking up the rights to The Water Knife and pushing the story of a drought-torn American southwest caught in water wars straight to the silver screen.  (They should wait for the hype of Mad Max to fade, however.)  Political fragmentation, human rights violations, greed and avarice, and tales of human suffering are front and center (with Keanu Reeves playing the lead role of Angel Valasquez, the titular corporate thug/secret agent/mercenary?).

Monday, July 13, 2015

Review of 9Tail Fox by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s first four novels are pure cyberpunk thrillers.  Edgy prose, fast action, and near-future galore, in a couple of ways they topped the pilot-light of the sub-genre, Mr. Gibson himself.  Branching out yet remaining within sight, the next three books saw Grimwood adding alternate history and an associated cultural awareness to his palette of fictional tricks.  The Arabesk trilogy tells the story of a young man trying to re-find his identity in a 21st century setting where the Ottoman Empire gained rather than lost power.  Extending his oeuvre yet further still, this time far-future, the next novel Stamping Butterflies found Grimwood again exploring hitherto unknown territory, all the while continuing to mature his innate writing talents.  At 9Tail Fox (2005), something of synthesis is achieved.  Returning to the detective noir of the early years yet focusing much deeper on character and subtlety of style, Grimwood delivers his most satisfying, humane, and well-rounded novel to date.*

I think I can count on two fingers the number of times I’ve copied the publisher’s backcover synopsis into my reviews.  But in the case of Night Shade Book’s 9Tail Fox it is so pitch perfect I cannot do otherwise:

“Bobby Zha is a sergeant in the San Francisco Police Department.  His years on the force have made him numb to the world, and the people around him, including his wife and daughter.  His sudden and unexplained murder leaves his family reeling, and the SFPD bewildered.  But nobody is more bewildered then Sergeant Zha, when a nine-tailed celestial fox comes to him in the moment of his death, and tells him he has one chance to put things right.  Now he’s trying to solve his own murder; trying to understand why he has been resurrected in another man’s body; and trying to repair the shattered pieces of his family’s life.  But his time seems to be running out...”

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Review of "Le Fleurs du Mal" by Brian Stableford

Brian Stableford, though perhaps best known for his science fiction, is also a scholar of fiction at large.  The isfdb lists more than 30 works of non-fiction under his name, the overwhelming majority of which are in some way linked to speculative fiction.  The first a study of the works of James Blish (1979), the latest is a collection of essays on decadence (2010).  But it is sixteen years earlier which saw Stableford digging into the latter subject, but in fictional form. The novella “Le Fleurs du Mal” published in 1994, Stableford uses ideas from the literature of the 18th and 19th century to tell a science fictional story that paints Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oscar Wilde in the technicolor of future bourgeoise.  Oh, and there’s a little Sherlock Holmes thrown in for good measure.

“Le Fleurs du Mal” (translated as “The Flowers of Evil”) takes Hawthorne’s short story "Rappaccini's Daughter" and cross pollinates it (sorry, couldn’t resist) with Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray to examine the human side of extended life for the affluent.  An idea fruitfully examined in other such novellas as Robert Silverberg’s “Sailing to Byzantium” and Frederik Pohl’s “Outnumbering the Dead” among others, Stableford puts his own spin on things by making the story something of a whodunit while focusing on the artistic, profligate side of genetic/biological manipulation of the human body.  Presented with an underlying purpose, the serial killer mystery mode is used to examine a future wherein the rich are able to rejuvenate themselves and genetics can be engineered across flora and fauna, that is, rather than thrills and chills.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Review of Eternal Light by Paul McAuley

Paul McAuley’s 1991 Eternal Light is a difficult book to write a review of.  Space opera through and through, going beyond plot rehash and still writing a meaningful review requires some effort.  What makes it unique?

Eternal Light is space opera modernized for the turn of the 21st century.  Eschewing the simplicity of the genre’s early efforts, McAuley goes beyond classic heroes and damsels in distress to present a multi-cultural yet action-oriented, solar-system spanning story that packs enough techno-gabble to warrant a hard sf subtitle.  Realistic too strong a word, McAuley nevertheless presents space action by turns gritty and conventional.  Delivered in a cold, dispassionate voice that matches the contraspace the ships zip through, there is no time for good and evil as an object is discovered flying into our galaxy.  Differing political and commercial interests attracted to the strange object, the main character is a woman who initially is looking out for her own prospects but is dragged into the race to be the first to explore it.  Risk on all sides, McAuley brings them together in a rousing climax.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Review of Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is an intriguing novel.  Having a structure that nicely suits its intents, possessing good, even enjoyable prose, creating imaginative tech and scenes, and escalating plot complementary to the coming of age of a young man, it’s only that its politics are so contentious that the novel is not regarded as a masterpiece (though I’m sure those who agree with its politics regard it as such).  Not for the contentious nature of its politics rather its straw man ideological conflict (the opposite of contentious!), I feel precisely the same about Kate Wilhelm’s 1976 Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. 

The writing on the wall, a rich family in the US sets up scientific laboratory to discover ways to avert humanity’s doom at the outset of Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.  Male and female fertility dropping, disease spreading, and environmental ruin taking hold, their lab discovers in the knick of time that cloning humanity restores fecundity, allowing the species to continue.  Thus, as the human population outside the lab dwindles to zero, a new generation—a generation of clones, enters the world. Eventually forming their own enclave as the originals die off, the clones settle into a society where conformity is not only the norm but expected.  Though the women set up in breeding programs with the hope of returning humanity to the state it once was, a wrench is thrown in the works with the birth of Molly.  An artist who sees the world differently, her clash with the clone society spells big changes for their community, and eventually the world.

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.