classics

My very brief love letter to Stoner by John Williams

Now that my best of 2015 list is out, it is time to tell what my non-2015 favorite book of the year was.

FTGF9510Stoner by John Williams was for years a shameful hole in my reading list. It is no more. And that is truly the best book I’ve read this year. It is a quiet book. It seems so plain and unassuming that it should be boring, and yet it’s not. It is beautiful and thoughtful. It is a great book for anyone regardless of reading taste.

I am not going to say that I wish I had read it sooner. I read Stoner in one day, lounging in an unexpected 68-degree December weather in the park. It was the best day. Maybe I’ve been waiting for that day so I could have this perfect reading experience.

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‘Driven mad by crowding and uncertainty’: Downbelow Station by C. J. Cherryh

downbelowI tried reading a couple of C. J. Cherryh’s books (Foreigner and something else I can’t recall now) about 10 years ago. Could not get through them.

My bookgroup, through a semi-democratic process, decided on Downbelow Station for next month*. Well aware of my past record with Cherryh, I eyed the 500-page volume with some trepidation.

Apparently, I needn’t have worried. I got through it (I know, a ringing endorsement). Maybe it was me, maybe it was the book itself. The reason I’m not saying I liked it or that it changed my mind about Cherryh is because I still find her writing somewhat dry. The beginning of Downbelow Station is a mountain of exposition. If you manage to climb it, you’re (mostly) in the clear. Very often the narrative followed the clipped ‘and then some things happened’ route. Cherryh’s style seemed too terse overall, and I had difficulty picturing what was happening in my mind. I did not like Pell’s aliens. I’m somewhat willing to forgive the ‘primitive but friendly’ native population thing due to 1981 pub year, but still. It’s not 1881 pub year.

It did help that I was obviously in the mood for some thick sci-fi when I picked this one up. Sometimes you need a book with lots of spaceships, trade routes, and the resulting complicated politics. In that regard, Downbelow Station succeeded. It is a book set against a backdrop of two entities, the Company and the Union, engaged in an interstellar war. Ships arrive, asking for permission to dock at Pell’s orbiting station. And arrive. Some with civil unrest on board, bringing more and more problems to an already overwhelmed station. There are many parts to the plot, and some of them seemed confusing or unnecessary (who are those guys who took the spaceship to talk to the Union people? I still don’t know). It’s one of those books where you feel the urge to visit Wikipedia to just figure out all these story arcs. Basically, Downbelow Station is rather like a 19th-century novel. It is sprawling. It is not particularly fast-paced. It is mostly about people and people’s interactions. And yet, the book often felt to me like a giant game of chess, distant and mostly about the mechanics of play rather than the pieces themselves. It didn’t  help that most of the people in it were fairly unpleasant.

It was a bit of a slog until page 250 (hey, I still have trouble abandoning books). Somewhere right in the middle of the novel, however, the book changed. The pieces were in place, the character creation part was done, now we could actually play. And at that point I found myself unable to put the book down. The last 200 pages I read almost in one sitting. Plus, the ending went quite far in redeeming the book in my eyes.

While I was not entirely enamored with Downbelow Station, I might read some more books set in the same universe. I might go on to Cyteen and Regenesis. Or maybe the Faded Sun novels that my coworker has been trying to get me to read for years.

 

* I felt like I was violating some sacred rule of my bookgroup by reading this book at least 3 weeks in advance, as opposed to the night before the meeting. I did wait till after the bookgroup to post the review.**

** No, I am not going to explain ‘semi-democratic’.

Vintage Sci-fi Month: A Different Light by Elizabeth A. Lynn

Vintage Sci-fi Month is almost over, and I thought I’d make the concluding post about a book that I have not seen widely reviewed: A Different Light by Elizabeth Lynn. We are right on the cusp here, as it was published first in 1978 (the arbitrary cut-off for the Vintage Sci-fi month was set at 1979). There are some mild spoilers ahead.

890337A Different Light is a short book, but it’s not a quick one. The plot is not its strongest point (which is why I think I can’t really spoil it for you). Where it really shines is in the way it talks about human emotions, dying, and loss.

The main character is Jimson Alleca, the only person on New Terrain who has cancer. Everyone else gets their predisposition to it detected and corrected at birth. Jim has his managed with drugs, but he will never live as long as other people, and he cannot leave the planet because it would kill him.

Jim is disillusioned and tired. He is an artist, but he is tired of his own art and doesn’t feel he can create anything new. He wants to go off-world, to see ‘a different light’. Yes, he knows it would mean cutting his lifetime even shorter than it is, but at this point, he does not particularly care. He is suffocating where he is.

Jim gets his chance when his ex-lover Russell reappears after 14 years of being away. Russell is a daring star captain, and he is the source of both space and emotional adventures in this book. He is on a mission to steal something very valuable from a different planet for a client. He is also very much the object of Jim’s love, hurt, and anger.

One thing that is almost always mentioned with regards to this book is that it gets major LGBT props: Jim is bi, but this is never stated openly. There just doesn’t seem to be one ‘more accepted’ sexual orientation in Lynn’s universe. He dates Keiko, who is a female pilot, but he is also obviously in love with Russell. Gender is not important.

A Different Light is ultimately a book about loss. From page one you realize that this book is written as a a snapshot of ephemeral human life. It shows you that nothing lasts, and that’s why reading it feels like a bittersweet ache.

If nothing mentioned above makes you want to read it, pick it up because it has some beautiful writing. I leave you with this sentence:

She leaned over the observation railing, watching the space where the ship had been, head on one side, as if she were listening to the wind rushing in to fill the space.

I doubt I’ll have time to read and write about something else for the Vintage Sci-fi Month before it’s over, but as always, if you need more vintage goodness, head to Little Red Reviewer’s blog. Big thanks to Little Red for hosting this vintage sci-fi experience and for letting me read some stuff I otherwise wouldn’t have picked up!

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‘The sun sank in accordance with the old ritual…’: The Dying Earth by Jack Vance

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Vintage Sci-fi Month is still going on, and here’s my official post for it. For more vintage goodness, including some good essays on what the hell vintage sci-fi is, head to Little Red Reviewer’s blog.

The Dying Earth is such an integral part of the genre that it feels as if you’ve read it even if you haven’t. It’s like getting all the Star Trek references in conversation even if you haven’t seen a single episode. You absorb it by osmosis, though in this case the message got a bit garbled, methinks. Let’s look at the Wikipedia page for The Dying Earth, shall we? Turns out, it was voted one of the best novels in the 1987 poll conducted by Locus magazine. Novels? Wait a second. Sure, all the parts of it are set in the same world, and there are the same people who keep popping up, but really, if you go into it expecting a novel, you will be very confused. What is even more confusing is that the omnibus edition I own says ‘All four Dying Earth novels in one volume’. I suppose that’s because short stories and novellas don’t really sell. Plus there is this new cover. It’s beautiful, but somehow does not match the contents.

dyingearthAll of the above shouldn’t really matter, except that expectations do affect your reading experience, and I can just picture people starting The Dying Earth and throwing up their hands, going ‘WTF is this? And why do I feel like I’m reading some ancient sagas?’ Well, it’s because you are. Reading sagas, that is. The Dying Earth is not a novel. It’s not really even a collection of short stories. It’s a collection of myths. People obey strange unwritten rules and speak in riddles. Archetypes abound. People go on quests. There are wizards. It’s like Silmarillion, but for a different universe and mythology. Once you know that, you can relax and immerse yourself in the Dying Earth universe. And it’s a fantastic place. Vance is a master when it comes to the creation of setting and atmosphere. In The Dying Earth, his writing has a lyrical, wistful quality to it. It’s the style perfectly suited to the content, to the idea itself of the sun being slowly extinguished. It has a certain finality to it, and a sense of loneliness. Anything is possible and yet the time is running out. People are ‘feverishly merry’.

The stories all have a common theme (besides the Earth dying), and that is acquisition and preservation of knowledge and how to use it in the time remaining. The first story starts by Turjan of Miir going on a quest because he is promised knowledge at the end of it. The other stories continue with the idea of traveling to gain wisdom, to find something new, to boldly go, as it were.

As fun as these stories are, I don’t think the omnibus is for reading from cover to cover. I myself found it easier and more enjoyable to read Vance in small doses. So that’s my caveat to the reader: Vance is for tasting, not for binging.

Oh, and if ‘you can only hold four spells in your head’ idea takes you back to your D&D days, here’s a great little piece on The Dying Earth as it relates to gaming. My friend said he was reading The Dying Earth books in order to know his ‘geek heritage’.

Finally: is it actually sci-fi? Or is it fantasy? You see, the lines were much more blurry in 1950. It’s both, or it’s neither. See my note about it being a collection of myths.

New pile of old books

Yesterday I had a few hours in NYC, and I chose to use them wisely, to wit, by taking the F train down to Brooklyn and buying some old sci-fi from Singularity and Co. January is Vintage Sci-fi month, after all. It is probably just as well I no longer live in New York. I used to work one subway stop away from their store, and I have a feeling every day would have been an opportunity to ‘stop by and browse’, meaning ‘spend a lot of money on books instead of groceries and rent’.

Here’s a picture of the haul for your book porn enjoyment:

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And here’s the list:

Harlan Ellison, Deathbird Stories
C. J. Cherryh, Foreigner
Gregory Benford, Timescape
Roger Zelazny, Creatures of Light And Darkness
Robert Silverberg, Dying Inside
Thomas M. Disch, Fundamental Disch

A few notes: my purchases were heavily influenced by my recent reread of Jo Walton’s Among Others (here’s my post about it and her work in general). It remains one of my favorite SF books, and, being meta-fictional, it comes with an added bonus of book lists (real books, mind you).  In fact, there is a list of all books mentioned in Among Others on Walton’s blog. Silverberg and Zelazny were bought expressly with that book list in mind.

Foreigner is also a Jo Walton-related purchase. I confess I read it about 10 years ago, and I did not like it. Looking back, however, I realize it was just the wrong book at the wrong time — I was in Japan, going on some silly school trip with a bus of teens to Kochi city, and I was quite starved for books in English (e-readers not being ubiquitous then). I grabbed the first book I saw on my boyfriend’s shelf and took it with me. I didn’t even have that much time to read in Kochi, and so my experience of Foreigner was very fragmented and haphazard. A few years later I read Walton’s review of it on tor.com. The review is by no means glowing, and it does confirm my own feelings about Foreigner, but it did make me want to read the series, which means giving the first book a second chance.

Disch has been on my to-read list for a while, and I grabbed the comfortably-titled Fundamental Disch. Besides, look at the cover, how could I not?

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The cherry on top here, however, is Ellison. It was entirely an impulse purchase based on title, cover, and the fact that it was on the staff picks shelf (based on personal experience, staff picks are the way to go when in doubt). It also turned out to be 1st edition and therefore more expensive, but hey, I’ll pay a bit more for Ellison. I’ll be honest: every time I read him, it disturbs and unsettles me to no end. I also feel slightly stupid and clueless, as if there is some hidden message in his stories that I am just not getting and unlikely to get. So we’ll see how this one goes. It does come with a disclaimer:

0109141059

Oh dear.

While not a review, this is a post for Vintage Science Fiction Month. Follow the link to the Little Red Reviewer’s blog for more vintage goodness.

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Blurbs! Le Guin, Smith, and Ball

I’m not going to make any reading/blogging resolutions for 2014, but I will inaugurate the new year with some short reviews of books read in the past couple of months.

latheMy bookgroup obviously can’t get enough of Ursula Le Guin. The Lathe of Heaven is the third Le Guin we’ve read in the past couple of years. I confess, I am not the greatest fan of Le Guin. I couldn’t get through the Earthsea books. The only book that appealed to me was Left Hand of Darkness. I could appreciate her contribution and importance to the genre, her lovely writing style, but the books themselves just didn’t do it for me. Well, The Lathe might be the book that breaks the streak. I was so excited and engrossed I busted out sticky notes and pencil to write down quotes: ‘What sane person could live in this world and not be crazy?’ (page 44) or ‘…a man who saw a miracle would reject his eyes’ witness, if those with him saw nothing’ (page 65). In The Lathe, a man named George Orr discovers he can change reality with his dreams. He attempts to suppress dreaming with drugs taken illegally using his friends’ Pharm Cards, and is assigned to undergo ‘voluntary therapy’. His therapist, however, after witnessing Orr’s ability firsthand, proceeds to augment reality by controlling Orr’s dreams via hypnosis and the invention called the Augmentor. The Lathe is one of the most deeply philosophical sci-fi books, raising questions about destiny, free will, and shared reality.

raslThe new Jeff Smith was the first book I read in 2014, and it was a great choice. Here I am, recuperating from December retail madness, half brain-dead, when this giant tome falls off the reading pile and lands in my lap. Coincidence? I think not. There’s noir, and there’s science, and Nikola Tesla, and dimension-jumping thief who used to be a physicist. Plus it’s Jeff Smith, so the fast-paced story is combined with sharp cartooning skills.

jesseballThe last blurb is for a book that is, strictly speaking, not speculative fiction, but bear with me. A couple of months ago I read the new Jesse Ball book, entitled Silence Once Begun. This one is due out in late January. The plot is pretty much revealed in the first few pages, so there isn’t much I can spoil for you. A man Oda Sotatsu brings to the police a signed confession that states that he is responsible for disappearance of eight people. Oda is jailed and convicted. But is his confession true? The story is told entirely through interviews with family members, prison staff, and other people involved in this trial. The book is partially based on true events. It’s unsettling and rather creepy (which is a good thing). Ball also captures the tone of Japanese literature perfectly. Silence Once Begun reads as if it is translated from Japanese. I love Japanese lit, and part of what I love about it is the style and tone, so this book hit all the right notes for me. (Another book about Japan that hit all the right notes was A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, which is now shortlisted for Booker. Go read both.)