Sunday, April 30, 2017

Review of The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

It’s for certain the case that the deeper an author gets into a setting that the more possibilities and avenues to expand the setting pop up.  For some authors its planned out all along, to extend and explore various storylines and characters through the world they’ve created in a series of stories or novels.  And sometimes it’s unplanned.  Sometimes an author looks back at the world they’ve created and realized something’s missing—a story still needing to be told.  In The Year of the Flood (2009), Margaret Atwood looked back to her earlier novel Oryx and Crake and decided to tell the other side—what was happening in the world beyond the titular pair, what role did in fact God’s Gardeners play in the circumstances that brought about the global pandemic, and what was life like outside the affluent, protected bubble of life in CorpSeCorps?

A parallel sequel rather than a sequential one, The Year of the Flood features storylines occurring at the same time as those of Oryx and Crake.  Unknown whether Atwood planned it all out in advance, Oryx and Crake did end on an open note that left room for, but did not by default require more.  What was added, however, makes the larger story much more immersive.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Review of Genrenauts: The Shootout Solution by Michael R. Underwood

Where fantasy literature was once written as fantasy, no need for pretense, in the contemporary glut of such fiction a self-awareness has appeared (some would say ‘natch’).  An author can no longer write of dragons or princesses without a century’s worth of stories using the same tropes tagging along behind, often in intentionally conspicuous fashion.  Given Michael R. Underwood’s Genrenauts: The Shootout Solution (2015), the glut has reached a point where even the commonality of the tropes themselves can be the subject of fiction.  (Can everybody else see the writing on the wall?)

Leah Tang is a struggling comedian who identifies herself through the fiction she reads, namely mainstream fantasy novels.  Ostracized by jocks while on stage one night, after the show a mysterious bystander makes her an offer seemingly too good to be true: to join a team of genrenauts who make excursions into genre settings, yes, to save the world (the real world, just in case you were confused) from destruction.  Her first assignment Wild West Land, Leah heads off to adventures unknown…  Actually, all too well-known given it is stereotypical wild west...

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Review of Explorer by C.J. Cherryh

Inheritor, the concluding volume of C.J. Cherryh’s first Foreigner trilogy, was something of a disappointment, particularly the final sections.  What had been a staid, considered three volume series, in a few moments resolved itself in a flash-bang of prototypical pulp hash, complete with human-alien sex happiness.  Precursor and Defender, the first two novels in the second Foreigner trilogy, likewise lay down a staid, considered storyline, thus raising the question whether the third and concluding volume, Explorer (2003), will follow in the footsteps of Inheritor?  (Spoiler: no.)

Cherryh using the gap between novels to traverse the length (and boredom) of space, Explorer opens with space ship Phoenix arriving in Reunion Station space.  A couple of surprises await.  First is an alien space ship parked quietly to the side.  The second is somehow more surprising.  Communications opened with the Pilot’s Guild on Reunion Station and its general, Braddock, there is an unexplained reluctance to allow Saban, Jace, Bren and the remainder of the Phoenix crew to board Reunion and get the fuel they need to make the return trip to the Atevi home world.  Saban’s tough manner not making things easier with Braddock, the situation quickly escalates when it’s learned that the alien attack that supposedly occurred years before has ongoing repercussions, meaning the Phoenix’s return, let alone survival, is anything but certain.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Review of New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2017 novel New York 2140 is something of a return for the author.  Having started his career in fiction with an abstractly connected trilogy of near future science fiction novels depicting a post-apocalypse, dystopia, and ‘utopia’ respectively, often called the Orange County series, he used three very different future histories of Southern California to examine social, economic, environmental, and political issues.  His later novels going to Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and deep space, New York 2140 looks back to the Orange County series for method, moves to the East Coast for setting, and, unsurprisingly, finds that a lot of the issues requiring address in the 80s still require visionary imagination in 2017.

After a decades-spanning series of Pulses, the Earth’s ocean waters have risen 50 feet.  New York City, like the remainder of the world’s coastal urban areas, has found its landscape entirely changed.  Lower Manhattan a gridwork of canals rather than streets as a result, the super-scrapers are now being built in upper rather than lower Manhattan.  Completing the migration, the city’s wealthy and affluent have also moved up-town, leaving the crumbling inter-tidal zone to those who can make life happen. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Review of "Proof of Concept" by Gwyneth Jones

“Proof of Concept” by Gwyneth Jones is the story of Kir.  A young woman living on a 23rd century, over-populated Earth with all the encumbent environment and social problems, she has something the majority do not: an AI named Altair living in her head.  A scientist cum reality tv star, Kir gets the chance of a lifetime when she agrees to live deep below the Earth and participate in a project called the Needle, doing her part to research FTL travel.  Seemingly mankind’s only hope to escape the cauldron of pollution and poverty it created on the surface above, things start to get weird when Kir’s colleagues begin dying one by one. 

If that paragraph seems to pack a lot of ideas, indeed Jones’ novella does.  “Proof of Concept” is at times sardine-like.  The story style is dense and blocky, with movement neither smooth or flowing.  Jones immersing the reader without introduction to the 23rd century, it’s an experience to grope through—seemingly with intention, given the parallels to the subjectivity of information in Kir’s world.  (That being said, I have read other of Jones’ short fiction, and it had a similar style.)  Close reading is required.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review of "The Enclave" by Anne Charnock

Anne Charnock’s 2013 novel A Calculated Life was a quiet success.  A human dystopia, Charnock discreetly melded an engaging storyline to material that reflects on the direction the upper class is moving with technology.  No zombies or savage survival to sugar the senses, the main character’s plight traced the suspense inherent to her rather specific circumstances through a personal search for meaning in the protected niches of an affluent city.  Charnock returning to the novel’s setting in 2017, the novella The Enclave addresses a part of the story A Calculated Life briefly touched upon, but through the eyes of new characters wildly different circumstances.

Where A Calculated Life featured the symbiant Jayna and was largely set in an urban environment, The Enclave takes place in the ‘burbs and is told through the lives of a young boy and his overseer.  Not an American, white picket fence suburban existence, the enclaves (as they are called by the locals) are home to the underclass—people who do not want or cannot take advantage of the biological and medical technology available in the city.  Caleb is a boy in the enclave who has been sold into indentured labor to Ma Lexie, a woman whose small crew runs an operation turning trash and recyclables into cheap clothing.  Ma Lexie recognizing his talent, she immediately sets him to work sewing clothes and selling their goods in the market.  Ma Lexie’s treatment of her crew both gentle and rough, Caleb gets an occasional slap for his transgressions, but at the same time has a relative degree of freedom that many other indentured servants, like those he tosses bottle message to from his rooftop hut, don’t.  Big choices eventually placed upon the shoulders of a small boy, Caleb’s time in the enclaves comes to a head: he must decide his future.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review of The Map & the Territory by Michel Houllebecq

One can make some assumptions about the stereotypical ‘high brow French literary novel’.  It will have art and artists.  It will have relationships with sexual issues.  It will have a detached, affected tone remarking mildly on minor revelations while savoring cynicism—as if existence were something strange, something to look at with a raised eyebrow. Stereotypes taking time to cement themselves in cultural mindset, however, Michel Houellebecq’s 2010 novel The Map & the Territory thus comes as something of an anachronistic surprise. 

Clinging to these traditional bulwarks of ‘high brow French literature’, The Map & the Territory sets two artists front and center: one is the fictional Jed Martin, a photographer cum painter who starts small but comes to some success, and the other Houellbecq himself.  Martin falling in love (or something resembling love, that ‘high brow French literary’, distance from existence again…) with the sexy Russian beauty Olga in the early part of his career, the relationship quickly goes south, and Martin finds himself alone.  Perfect opportunity to shift to a new phase in your artistic career you predict?  You would be correct.  Martin goes on to channel his sadness at the doomed relationship (or something like sadness…) into a hugely successful series painting fictional scenes from the lives of contemporary luminaries, scenes like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discuss the Future of Information Technology.  Houellebecq one of the luminaries nominated to have his likeness rendered in oil on canvas, Martin meets the brooding writer, and the two strike up a friendship (or something like a friendship…)  Things get a bit shaken up when Houellebecq is found brutally murdered, meaning the police need to speak to Martin to find out why.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Review of Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

Where o’ where, and how o’ how, I kept asking myself while reading Tom McCarthy’s 2015 Satin Island, is this novel going to tie itself in to its title?  A Joe Anybody corporate guy leading the way, his relatively mundane job, his obsessions with common media headlines, his standard work travel, his quotidian rendezvous with a girlfriend, his attempts to contextualize himself in this mix—nothing seemed related to textiles or archipelagoes.  But in an instant—a homophonic miscollocation—the title coalesced, then recoursed through the novel, making everything clear, or more precisely, clearly unclear. 

Capturing the skew, the kilter of 21st century “reality”, Joe Anybody (who asks the reader to call him U) works for the Company.  His office in the basement among ventilation shafts and blank walls, U is tasked by his motivational speaker cum CEO with the Great Project: to define contemporary anthropology—to unlock the logic underpinning present-day Western social behavior.  Using his formal training as an anthropologist as launch point, U digs into headlines and observes humanity with a strange, detached inititiative.  Even stranger is the positive response he receives from peers and others in business as he travels around the world, presenting his work to date.  Though U himself only distantly feels it, there doesn’t seem full cohesion of his project and the world beyond…

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Review of The Great Courses: How Great Science Fiction Works by Gary K. Wolfe

There is a lot of us/them in the science fiction community, the common perception being that the literati draw a line in the sand between genre and literary fiction, no crossing allowed. (For the record, I view mainstream fiction—Lee Child, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, and other popular “realist” writers—as being the same beast as mainstream science fiction. Literary fiction is a different animal.) “They don't review our books.” “They don't put our books on award ballots.” “They don't take our books seriously.” Yes, us/them. What most of the science fiction community doesn't realize (predominantly because they rarely if ever actually read literary fiction) is that literary fiction is not a club intended to keep the riff-raff out. It has a commonly enough agreed definition (see here or Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms), and if looked at closely, does not specifically exclude any genre, let alone science fiction . This is what makes Gary K. Wolfe's The Great Courses: How Great Science Fiction Works so damn bothersome.

One of the introductory quotes in K. Wolfe's lecture series is: “Most of what we'll be discussing in this course is the literary side of science fiction... and what makes for a great science fiction story as opposed to a run-of-the-mill space adventure or monster tale.” Like Aldiss before him, Wolfe then launches into how Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne pioneered early science fiction. Well enough. But then, Wolfe gets into the pulp era, and it's here the aspiration to distinguish “great science fiction” from the “run-of-the-mill” variety begins to trip up. And it only gets worse. By bringing more and more mainstream sf writers into the mix, K. Wolfe stumbles.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Review of Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton

Time.  Sometimes you just don’t have enough, and others it’s all you’ve got.  The latter is is the situation of the two main characters in Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 debut novel Good Morning, Midnight.  One stranded at an Arctic base and the other stuck on a long space flight from Jupiter, the human mind is given the freedom to conjure the breadth of its available material, to look in closer detail things it might have skipped over in the past, and perhaps, come to some higher sense of self-understanding.

Augustine is an elderly man stuck in the middle of a promise to himself to complete his life’s ambition: a theory of astronomy that will put his name in history books.  Accordingly, he has spent his life living at remote observatories, standing at telescopes and radio arrays, gathering and sifting data, never thinking about a normal life or family, or even colleagues around him.  The beginning of the novel finds him aged seventy-eight at the Barbeau Observatory in the Arctic, when an emergency strikes.  A major cataclysm affecting the world beyond, the Observatory is evacuated by the military.  But Augustine chooses to remain behind to complete his life’s ambition, and in doing so, is forced to reckon with time, solitude, and questions about what kind of person he has been.