Monday, August 31, 2015

Review of Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey

Speculative fiction is indeed like a vast city.  There are the luxuriant parks and discrete villas of staid literary fantasy, industrial wastelands with miles of aged pulp factories (many with a fresh coat of paint but same product), the hard sf quarter and its high, barbed-wire walls, the ghettos and slums of overt horror, the Bohemian block of New Weird, the old city and its alternate history, the recently constructed apartment blocks of urban fanasy, the endless suburbs of epic fantasy (and the grungier side-streets of grimdark), the shining, multi-story commercial district with latest releases, and, of course, the lengthy, wide open boulevards of mainstream genre.  In my ramblings through the city, perusing books available on the boulevards, I’ve encountered many titles, looking for those which will end up moving to more respectable neighborhoods.  There is one that has routinely appeared (seemingly on opposite ends of the city and unlikely corners), enough to make me take interest: Jacqueline Carey’s 2001 Kushiel’s Dart. 

Praised by a wide spectrum of genre, Kushiel’s Dart seems a winner from both men’s and women’s point of view.  From fans of paranormal romance to epic fantasy, erotica to historical fiction, a wide range of readers profess its qualities.  Having now read the novel, I understand the boulevard appeal.  The pace is neither too fast or too slow.  The setting is fully tactile.  Introduced slowly and developed with plot, the characters brew into life.  It’s sprawled across a European-esque continent and featuring a recognizable yet altered Christian myth.  Relationships and social interaction are handled with a deft, revelatory hand.  Titillating the reader, sexuality is a key component.  The prose, while occasionally purple, is a sight or two better than a lot of other commercial efforts these days.  And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the heroine is a strong, semi-relatable (at least understandable) character who consciously bends when the circumstances require so that at opportune moments she can go rigid and get what she wants—anything but standard fantasy heroine fare. 

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Review of Galaxies by Barry Malzberg

Science fiction has taken a long journey to get where it is today.  From the pioneering days of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells in the 19th century to the introduction of the pulps in the early 20th, from the blossoming of full, quality novels in the mid-20 th to the anything-goes milieu of the late 20th and early 21st century, we have seen a wide variety of sf.  But there is one very meaningful bump/explosion/event that occurred along the way: the New Wave.  The point in any artistic movement when it achieves the complexity of self-awareness and can therefore explore itself along lines from intra to meta, for a few years in the genre’s history works of unparalleled artistry appeared.  Utilizing a never before seen variety of techniques, New Wave writers took disregarded genre norms and struck out in many complex literary directions.  One was metafiction, and there may be no greater example of such a science fiction text than Barry Malzberg’s 1975 masterpiece Galaxies.  It just ain’t your grandpappy’s sf.

“To define terms at the outset, this will not be a novel so much as a series of notes toward one. Nevertheless pay attention.” So states Malzberg at the opening of Galaxies.  Simultaneously a story and self-consciousness of the story, the reader is taken on a trip through the philosophies and ideologies underpinning science fiction and the experiences of Lena, captain of a starship loaded with cryosleep corpses, as she pilots toward a black hole.  The cover capturing more of the pulp sentimentality than the novel’s New Wav(iness), the image at least leaves the door open enough to let in the wider implications beyond Lena’s ‘story’.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Review of Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

One of the big problems I have on this blog is writing reviews for books whose authors obviously have good intentions, often intentions I’m full in support of, but who have failed to, or cannot execute them properly.  I want so much to like many books for how high they grasp, but chapter by chapter, sometimes line by line, too many elements of quality writing are missing to say they’ve grabbed anything but empty air.  The real effect does not match the desired effect.  Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s 2015 Signal to Noise puts me in such a quandary.

Paranormal romance just a label, it’s entirely possible to write within the sub-genre and achieve living, breathing humans whose lives and stories have an effect or meaning beyond the page.  Within the sub-genre it’s also possible to write cheesy melodrama. Signal to Noise is an attempt at the former that unintentionally hits upon the latter—the heart of the quandary.

We are introduced to Meche as she is returning to Mexico City in 2009 to attend the funeral of her estranged father.  Earbuds tucked in and iPod in hand, she distances herself from her mother and friends, and reluctantly goes about organizing her father’s record collection and notes for a book he’d always intended to write.  Cutting back to her teenage years in 1988, a time when being young meant rebelliousness, listening to music only you know is cool, hanging out with your pals, eating chips and drinking soda, and dealing with all the crap that teenagers deal with, the novel describes a year in Meche’s highschool life—a troubled time personally, but a time in which she and her closest friends discover they can weave spells with records.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Review of The Explorer by James Smythe

The moment.  And after.  That tingle, and fade.  The presence of wonder, but later, its pale shadow...  Turning the last page of James Smythe’s 2012 The Explorer, ideas flashed through my mind of the positive things I would say, where the novel succeeded, the reasons for the strong impression.  But by the time I sat down to the keyboard to write, the impression had shifted.  What I thought was full, breathing content had transitioned.  Mesmerized by fine, literary style, what had glittered subtly became a little spotty.  A fine structure exists, an ambitious work that took talent and time to create, a swathe of suspense is built, but what was actually created?  Is it essential?  Is it significant?  Is there something that transcends the text?

Like Stephen Donaldson’s Gap into Conflict:The Real Story, Smythe sets a major challenge to himself at the outset of The Explorer: to tell the tale in a chapter or two, beginning to end, then settle in to really tell the tale.  A journalist, Cormac Easton, is selected to document the voyage of the Ishiguro.  A joint corporate effort to renew mankind’s interest in space by sending some of us further into the black void than we have ever gone, Easton awakens from cryosleep to discover the captain is dead in his capsule.  In the days that follow, the other crew members also start dying, leaving the journalist alone on a ship hurtling through the bleak emptiness of space.  Power supply, life support, mental stamina—everything drawing to a critical head as the limits are tested, Easton awakens to find himself… on the journey, again. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Review of Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

What does a company do when its image is getting old, when people are too familiar with its appearance and style?  How does it revitalize without spending the money it’s been losing due to its fading fa├žade?  Re-brand, of course!  They leave the core elements alone, but lacquer on a fresh veneer in the hopes of re-generating interest.  McDonalds has had several different mottos, advertizing campaigns, and put Ronald in differing situations in an attempt to keep things fresh.  But forever backing profits are Big Mac, fries, and a shake.  This reminds me of Saladin Ahmed’s The Throne of the Crescent Moon (2012).  Arabian magic, desert cities, and a wholly Middle Eastern feel flashing brightly across the eye, at its core nevertheless resides the tried-and-true framework of traditional sword and sorcery.

Doctor Adoulla is a man sixty years old, overweight, and a hunter of ghuls.  His native city Dhamsawaat, for all its elegance and squalor, has recently seen a rash of the murderously macabre phantasms.  His young dervish assistant Raseed an expert swordsman, together the two go into the desert to find the evil that is creating the ghuls.  Running into Zamia, a young female Bedouin with shape shifting powers, the three form a loose band after a victory over a particularly ferocious group of ghuls.  Complicating the hunting is that a Scarlet Pimpernel-esque man calling himself the Falcon Prince is appearing at surprise times in the city, fomenting revolt against the evil khalif and his young son.  Everyone’s story coming to head (you guessed it, at the throne of the crescent moon), evil flies before the magic and martial prowess of Adoulla and his team.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Non-Fiction: Review of This Is Me, Jack Vance! by Jack Vance

There are many constants to the fiction of Jack Vance.  Imaginative and unpredictable plotting, dialogue of the humorously esoteric, and travel of the most exotic, there is a certain, indefinable joie de vivre that seems to perpetually bubble just below the surface of his stories and novels.  Having now read Vance’s (rather short) autobiography This Is Me, Jack Vance! (2009), the reason becomes imminently clear.

A mix of light biography and travelogue, Vance’s record of himself is filled with the people, places, and accomplishments most prominent to his mind—what he calls in the introduction “a ramble across the landscape that has been my life.”  From the opening sentence “I was born in San Francisco…” to the closing, a dedication to his wife, Vance skips the mundane details to recount the events and experiences that cling closest to memory, and the people who shared those times with him.  Thus despite his life covering nearly the entirety of the 20th century, almost no world history is contextualized, everything kept personally salient.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Review of The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold

Robert Heinlein’s “—All you Zombies—“ and “ By His Bootstraps” are considered classic works of time travel fiction.  Simplistic to say the least, Heinlein drew some looping lines on a board, twisted and tweaked a little here, waved a hand there, and converted the result into stories.  Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity is likewise considered a classic of having the power to move through time.  More complex line-drawing games with a humanist agenda, it nevertheless remains a feature of its era while attempting to grasp beyond.  It’s David Gerrold’s 1973 The Man Who Folded Himself that tops them.  An immensely humane and literary work of time travel, how it is not a classic alongside Asimov and Heinlein is a testament to the legacy of science fiction that has prevented it from being viewed with legitimacy from without. 

Rather than producing a mere paper exercise, David Gerrold takes all the aspects of time travel—grandfather paradoxes, multiple selves, alternate realities, beginnings and ends of time, redoing regrettable decisions—and expands them into a revelatory experience that begins with the personal and ends with the universal.  Part bildingsroman and part recognition of the human condition, The Man Who Folded Himself is a fine example of when the genre is on point it can do things and say things that achieve literary fiction.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Review of Unicorn Mountain by Michael Bishop

When I lived in Prague, I couldn’t help but admire the Czechs and their respect for the written word. Riding the subway I saw many people who had taken the time to make a brown paper cover for their literary investment.  While reading Michael Bishop’s 1988 Unicorn Mountain, I couldn’t help but think of doing the same.  Unfortunately, it was for a different reason: protection of Michael Bishop’s and my self-respect. 

Pause, just for a moment, and take a look at the cover to the left.  What you are looking at is a disconnect between not only the literal, but also the proverbial book and cover.  Grafton Press going in one direction and Michael Bishop headed in the opposite, the book’s actual content is a heart-touching story of loss, homosexuality, small-town ranching, Native American culture, and perception of AIDS in the 1980s—not a My Little Pony film novelization.  Intelligent, emotional, and 100% relevant, the cover in no way portrays the truly human stories just behind it. (Bantam Spectra’s is the only respectable cover to date, but even it does not fully capture the book’s sentiment.)

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Review of Undertow by Elizabeth Bear

Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest (1976) is a (novella extended into a) novel that features an alien planet invaded by humanity and exploited for its resources, the natives forced into labor.  An open allegory regarding the United State’s involvement in Vietnam, it is a compact novel that remains focused on three main points throughout: corporate/political greed, respect for traditional cultures, and the need to find reconciliation between the two.  Elizabeth Bear’s 2007 Undertow is precisely the same story, but with additional focus on science fiction/fantasy concepts, added character viewpoints, and all upgraded for the 21 st century.

The Ranid peacefully inhabited Greene’s World, that is, until humanity colonized the water planet, discovered omelite, and put them to work extracting the valuable resource.  An amphibian species, the Ranid swim the great ocean of Greene’s World in harmony with the planet but are no match for the weapons and technology of the Charter Trade Company.  The Ranids who can remain in hiding do, but there is a significant portion pressganged into working the platforms and undersea tunnels mining the precious material. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Review of Fools by Pat Cadigan

At the current point in humanity’s technological evolution, the body is largely plastic. We have no cure for cancer or the common cold, but if anyone wants bigger breasts, hair implanted, bones sculpted, fat sucked out, or many other types of cosmetic surgery, the body can be re-molded.  The brain, however, remains a mystery.  We have drugs to counteract some conditions and very specific types of brain surgeries are possible that do not immediately induce death (lobotomy!), but as a whole, altering personality, memory, interests, and other such aspects of the mind is simply not possible.  Pat Cadigan’s 1988 Fools imagines precisely this world of possibility—including all the little flaws and imperfections.  Miles beyond turning a penis into a vagina, what a world it is.

To say Cadigan’s vision of the future is a twisted version of reality is only the beginning.  Fools plays with actuality by shifting between reality and virtual reality, and further yet, realities within virtual reality.  Consciousness smeared across personal memory and the memories of others, self-developed skills and those implemented from others, and mind-to-mind and mind-to-machine connections, the combination is a milieu of mentality that must be read to be believed.  Not for the feint of heart, Cadigan slips the reader slowly into the waters of surreal consciousness, but once they’re in, it’s head to toe, the world taking on a dreamscape hue. (But do ignore the cover.)

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Non-Fiction: Review of Journey Without Maps by Graham Greene

I think it’s fair to say most everyone middle-aged and older in the English speaking world has heard the name Graham Greene.  Writing in nearly all forms and many of his books adapted for the silver screen, he is one of the main literary figures of the 20 th century.  The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana, The Honorary Consul, and The End of the Affair are major novels that deftly mix sharp prose, subtle drama, and interests that delicately combine personal and political concern. 

Set in a variety of locations far adrift from his native Albion, many of his novels travel the world.  And the settings are not without personal knowledge; Greene himself visited many of the places he would later set his novels in.  One of his first published works is the record of a one-month trip in Liberia in 1935.  Greene calls Journey Without Maps (1936) his quest to find Joseph Conrad’s ‘heart of darkness’, but there is speculation that the trip may have also served to kill a few other birds, government work and supplementing fiction sales among them.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Review of Kraken by China Mieville

China Mieville entered the fiction scene quietly.  King Rat was an unconventional horror novel that gained some recognition through award nominations, but little success commercially.  Perdido Street Station the book that put Mieville’s name on the map, readers who could overlook its lexical diarrhea discovered a unique story of hitherto unknown proportions in genre—no mean feat in the 21st century.  Bas-Lag a fantastical, fertile setting, Mieville penned two additional novels in the milieu, the storylines gaining integrity with every step.  (Even if Iron Council was messily executed, its ideas transcend the simplicity of Perdido’s aim to be “a good monster story”.)  The follow up to Bas-Lag, The City & the City (2009), saw increased focus on social/political ideals, but was bundled with tight prose and a refined structure to produce Mieville’s most accomplished novel to date.  It’s thus with Kraken (2010), the next novel, a regression can be observed, and if not regression, at least reversion.

Hearkening back to the urban horror/fantasy of King Rat, Kraken is a unique romp through London that swims with undersea monsters and cults.  Mieville (thankfully) abandoning his ‘why use one word when twenty esoteric will do’ approach to storytelling, Kraken is a focused plot that works its way lucidly, patiently, one paranormally Weird step at a time through arcane magic, supernatural gangsters, and of course, the mother of all giant squids in Mother London. Taking a seemingly innocuous natural history museum and turning it on its fantastic head, all sorts of the esoteric emerge from the woodwork as the apocalypse descends on the kidnapped cephalopod.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Review of The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson

Obsessed perhaps too strong a word and concerned certainly too light, expressing J.G. Ballard’s interest in humanity as it faces catastrophe is, suffice to say, involved.  The first four novels of his career delving into a variety of human responses to a selection of “environmental” disasters (the quotes due to the fourth, The Crystal World), Ballard openly stated in interviews that such scenarios were among the best means of cutting to the bone of psyche.  Apparently also a believer in such premises, Robert Charles Wilson penned The Chronoliths in 2001, and in doing so produced a text equal in quality to Ballard’s disaster novels, laying bare another perspective on humanity’s reaction to extreme change.

The Chronoliths is the story of Scott Warden, a down-on-his-luck husband and father who has the bright idea to forgo his career as a computer programmer and move his family to Thailand to research and write a book. The move failing in nearly every way, his daughter contracts a bacterial illness that destroys her hearing, his research never really takes shape, and he burns through more money than what he earns.  To top it all off, riding through the jungle one day he and erstwhile friend Hitch Paley are witness to the sudden and seemingly miraculous appearance of a strange ice-blue monolith.  By the time he’s done being interrogated by the Thai military and returned to Bangkok, Warden’s wife has left for the US and he must scrounge for money to get a ticket home.  Divorce proceedings awaiting his arrival stateside, he is forced to rebuild his career from the bottom.  Though maintaining a relationship with his daughter, the years grow more uncertain as one after another the extraordinary chronoliths appear around the globe.