sci-fi

Readings: back to the fandom

IMG_0901Holy hobbits, Batman, is that a Star Wars novel in my hand? Haven’t read one of those since about 2004, also known as that distant period in my life when I read virtually all Star Wars novels available at the time. I started with Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire and went on from there. No, it’s not some weird episode I’m terribly ashamed of and evidence of which I tried to erase from my Xanga and Livejournal accounts. I’m perfectly fine with the fact that I was deeply into books set in that universe. I was never really into any other movie- or TV-based book series. Never got into Star Trek, or Doctor Who, or Buffy (I read most of the comics for that one, but I still would rather watch the series). Getting into Star Wars books might have something to do with the quality of the movies, but mostly it was about the fact that I liked that universe and characters and lore.

Eventually I had read everything I wanted to read, and I was not very much into the New Jedi Order books, so I stopped. But here we are, with Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig. I enjoyed Wendig’s other books (see my old review of his Mockingbird), and I trusted him to give me a fun Star Wars novel. In true Wendig fashion, there is a lot of stuff happening, and at one point you start thinking maybe there’s too much stuff happening. There are interludes that exist mostly to give you snapshots on the post-Return of the Jedi world (Aftermath is set right after the battle of Endor and the destruction of Death Star II). There are a lot of characters, most of them new, some old (Akhbar being one). In fact, I sort of had to finish it in three days or fewer lest all these people disappeared from my head between readings. It all comes together in the end and sets things up for the next book (this is the first of a trilogy). Plus, there is a little bit of Solo and Chewie, some delightful Easter eggs, and Akhbar basically telling everyone all the time how the remnants of the Empire are devious and should be approached with caution.*

What’s amusing is that Aftermath made me feel as if I were back in 2003 playing Star Wars Galaxies (remember that was a thing?). I think most of the places in the book exist in my head as they were in the game. Meeting people like Akhbar feels like finding them in game. To be honest, I remember all the races and species and what they look like mostly thanks to SWG and Knights of the Old Republic. Game nostalgia is a thing; someone should write a paper on that. (Remember how much time we used to spend waiting for the stupid shuttle?)

cantina

By the way, my sci-fi book group is reading Heir To The Empire in January. We aren’t ashamed of that either. Zahn’s books are good.

*IT’S A TRAP

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Reading update: Scalzi, Atwood, Leckie

It’s been a pretty good week in terms of reading. After deaccessioning some of my book collection, I once again picked up a pile of books at work because of the powerful bookstore mind control aura, and thus had to initiate a new phase of the ARC Pile Demolition Project.

I also realized that my job now includes a number of rather tedious solitary tasks that are perfect for listening to podcasts and short fiction. I have a notoriously bad history with audio books, but short fiction is just short enough to hold my attention. Clarkesworld is currently my favorite when it comes to short stories on audio.

Paper books were also consumed this week:

Lock In by John Scalzi. In my opinion, this is Scalzi’s best book so far. I’ve read most of his stuff, though I did not finish the Old Man’s War series (not because it wasn’t good, it just sort of went the way of all unfinished series, even good ones). I do not belong to either Scalzi super fan camp nor to his haters/detractors’ camp. I was not impressed with Redshirts, but I enjoy most of his books, and I definitely enjoyed Lock In. This one has great ideas and a setup that for the first 100 pages or so will make you feel like your brain is about to turn inside out.  As is with all Scalzi’s books, it’s fast-paced, dialogue-rich, and yet it’s much less funny than his other fare. It is very much social sci-fi, as it touches on health care legislation, minority group culture, and relations with Native Americans, among other things.

stonemattressStone Mattress by Margaret Atwood. Atwood is, as always, snarky, pithy, bold, and honest. This collection could almost have a subtitle of ‘people obsessed with sex’. Well, of course they are. In this case, most of these people are older, with a slew of marriages, divorces, children, and other assorted life experiences on their dance cards. The first three stories are interlinked, but the rest are standalones. Atwood is damn good whether she sticks to mostly realism, or wades into fantastical. This is out on September 16th (look! I read an ARC!)

My short story obsession continues with something like four anthologies and  collections in progress/rotation. I also rediscovered my long-dormant love of horror, so dark and disturbing tales will crop up in my post in the next few weeks. If short stories are your thing too, you can join Matt at Books, Brains and Beer for his Jagannath readalong, which is a fantastic little collection of stories.

I have also attempted to consume my bookgroup book for this month, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. This is my second attempt, and it is with great sadness that I announce my inability to get past page 50. This book is now officially the Ulysses of my genre reading. I really wanted to like it, and there are some interesting themes in it, but the prose seemed so bland that I felt my eyes just moving along the page without capturing any meaning.

Also, my laptop keyboard gave up the ghost and now types zeroes between every letter. Useful for my KGB missives, not so useful for blog posts. It’s going to be that kind of week.

Curiosity killed the explorer: A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias

One cannot meddle in the affairs of other species across interstellar distances without spacecraft.

All kids allegedly want to be marine biologists when they grow up. I don’t know if this is really true, but I did want to be one. I remember having a lovely illustrated encyclopedia of marine life that I lugged everywhere for at least one whole summer. I knew it by heart. I can still see it in my mind, usually opened to the cephalopods section. I still harbor deep love (One! Two! Two marine puns!) for things with tentacles.

Crustaceans were not really my thing. But objectively I could see they were also fascinating. If they are your thing, however (and not just with garlic butter), you will enjoy A Darkling Sea. Crustacean aliens are one of two alien groups you will meet within. The other one is not an underwater species, but it’s equally as odd.

All action takes place on the planet humans call Ilmatar. It is covered in a thick sheet of ice with a layer of ocean underneath. A group of humans occupy a base on the bottom of the ocean, where they study Ilmatarans, an intelligent underwater species. Having a base on the bottom of the ocean, of course, is not as easy as just plonking down a bathyscaphe Captain Nemo-style. There are pressure and temperature challenges, to name just a couple of things. There are little infodumps throughout the book that tell you how you, too, can send a team to live and do science under the sea.

Where the explorers go, conquerors and exploiters always follow.

darklingIn a nutshell, this is what another alien species called Sholen think of humans’ attempts to study the Ilmatarans. They consider humans ‘a stain on the world’ of icy Ilmatar. Sholen have an uneasy truce with humans: as long as humans don’t disturb (and Sholen determine what that means) the underwater aliens and don’t interfere with their life and culture, they can conduct their studies. Unfortunately, this arrangement crumbles when one of the humans decides to go out and take a closer look. It sounds like fun and games until a group of Ilmatarans capture him. For science. They don’t really mean him harm, but not being human, they are not up-to-date on human physiology, and so they end up dissecting him out of curiosity.

There are many layers to this book. Sholen are not simply meddling ‘grand panjandrums of alien contact’. The couple sent to Ilmatar to investigate the researcher’s death face their own political hurdles at home, and their decision about whether the death is an accident or not can have serious consequences. Ilmatarans have a pretty complex society themselves, and different groups of Ilmatarans end up having different types of interactions with both human and Sholen.

Curiosity is really the thing that ties the novel together. Humans are curious about Ilmatarans, Ilmatarans are curious about humans, certain humans are also curious about Sholen (for example, how their foodmaker works, not to mention their leader/follower relationships that hinge entirely on pheromones, physical contact, and sex). It’s a powerful force that appears to tie all the cultures together.

A Darkling Sea is a nice mix of adventure, first contact, cultural miscommunication, and a slew of other themes that don’t seem like tropes mostly because the book is a lot of fun to read. Plus, it has some neat discussion of language and writing systems, if you are into that sort of thing (see ‘sound writing’ on page 204), as well as amazing descriptions of food. Doesn’t your mouth just water when you read this:

The meal began with subtle vegetable tastes mixed with stimulants, progressed to strong spices and disinhibitors to improve the conversation, and wound up with aphrodisiacs and a mild narcotic with a blend of pickled fruit flavors.

Or maybe this is more up your alley (or underwater trench):

There are cakes of pressed sourleaf, whole towfin eggs, fresh jellyfronds, and some little bottom-crawling creatures Broadtail isn’t familiar with, neatly impaled on spines and still wiggling.

Rebuilding the TBR pile

There are times when I start five or so books and then get mired in a seemingly endless, yet completely unsatisfactory, readathon. I get busy and forget about three of those, and the other two turn out to be mediocre, or just not the books I want to read. I read two chapters of one and a few pages of the other. This goes on for days.

And so this is where we are now, with five books stuck in progress. It is clearly time to give up and rebuild the currently reading and TBR piles.

Here are the new candidates:

justcity

Reading decision was made for me by Tor with this shiny e-arc (the book is out January 2015)! I did not particularly like My Real Children, but Walton remains one of my favorite writers. Getting my hands on this is a cause for celebration. It involves time-traveling Pallas Athene, Apollo, and Sokrates, among others. Besides, I was just saying a few days ago how much I love deities in my SF.

Next is The Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias. I seem to recall reading good things about this one when it came out.

darkling

I think I am in the mood for a first contact story. I also enjoy weird aliens. I’m just a few pages in, and these appear to be crustacean, or at least have pincers.

And so as not to get carried away, I am going to stop at two.

Reading in the genre and James Morrow’s Madonna And The Starship

I spent most of last week walking around town (with a brief detour to Baltimore), listening to genre podcasts, reading books, and making lists of more books I would like to read. I drafted a couple of posts and maybe even started a story. In other words, business as usual. All this reading and listening led to an examination of my own genre reading habits. In my weird mind, SF sub-genres are very loosely organized along a spectrum, with epic fantasy on one end and hard sci-fi on the other. Or maybe it’s a system of coordinates. Whatever it may be, it is not a value scale by any means. As I inspect my TBR stacks and books long overdue at the library, I realize that while I read quite widely in the genre, anything that belongs on either end of this spectrum does not get read all that much anymore. I used to read a lot of epic fantasy, and I went through the space opera phase, but now my tastes veer towards more nebulous books. Books that mix genres, the New Weird stuff, slipstream, just Strange Fiction (whatever that may be). Stuff that gets nominated for Shirley Jackson Award, which I simply call Disturbing Fiction. I don’t want just sword and sorcery, I want sword and sorcery and spaceships together. Or maybe sword and sorcery and meta-fictional twists. I don’t really want to start a genre nomenclature conversation, I just want to point out that my own tastes gravitate towards the less easily defined stuff.

Another category I don’t tend to read much is humorous or satirical sci-fi/fantasy. I’ve read my share of Sir Terry, but only when nothing else would do. I love Douglas Adams, but again, only when I really feel like it. Vonnegut is a wizard, but his books are not the ones I would just pick up. And yet when I sat down to write my not-yet-existent story, I realized that the resulting product was very much in the Pratchett/Adams style. I might want to write disturbing dark fiction, but what comes out on my screen has talking space shrimp and (probably) witty dialogue.

madonnaAnd so I decided I might as well read and re-read some funny books. I picked up James Morrow’s The Madonna And The Starship (you can see a full review by Michael Dirda here). It’s set in the 1950s, aka golden days of television, when every show was broadcast live, and its main character is Kurt Jastrow, a writer for one of those live television shows. The show, which includes a scientific demonstration for children, is apparently popular not just in the US, but also on Qualimosa, a planet inhabited by sentient lobsters (see, space crustaceans are always in vogue).  The lobsters are into all things rational and anti-religious, and so they are delighted by the science show, but also rather disturbed by a religious show aired on the same network. The Qualimosans therefore decide to eradicate this religious madness by killing everyone who watches the religious show during the next broadcast. Various hijinks ensue to persuade the lobsters not to vaporize millions of humans. The book makes fun of sci-fi kids shows (rooted in ‘bedrock implausibility’), sponsored broadcasts, blind adherence to any kind of point of view, depictions of aliens, you name it. It’s a delight to read: ‘heartless aliens, promiscuous death rays, casual slaughter — this was science fiction at its worst.’ It mentions all these things, plus it has giant genocidal blue lobsters from outer space. There is, perhaps, too much of what Dirda calls ‘retro-fun’. There are some in-jokes in the book, but I wonder how many people will get them (I certainly didn’t). It’s still a fun read, as a satire novel should be.

I leave you with a friend I made at the National Aquarium a few days ago. She is not a crustacean, and no, she is not from outer space, and she probably doesn’t care about your religious beliefs (she is also asleep in this picture). Might have anti-social tendencies, though.

octopus

Reading update: apocalypse now, or in six months

lastpoliceIt seems like I’ve only been reading apocalyptic fiction for the past two weeks. Not specifically either post- or pre-, but it definitely involved ends of worlds, either global or more localized. This is a lot for a guy who says he is not a fan of dystopias. Yet recently, my friend and I had a discussion about dystopian fiction, and he said that he would not read the book if the cover said ‘dystopian’, but would read it if it said ‘post-apocalyptic’. Maybe that’s how I pick my books too.

And here we go again with the apocalypse, this time with Ben H. Winters. The main idea is rather simple: an asteroid is going to crash into our planet in a few months and basically bring on the end of the world. The consequences of this crash, however, are far from simple, particularly if you are a police detective.

countdownDetective Henry Palace is at the center of all three books. He is one of those good-guy characters that, despite being very much on the lawful good side, are not annoying and actually seem quite human and well-developed. An asteroid is going to destroy life as we know it in six months, so what’s the point of solving crimes? Most of the cases are suicides anyway. But no, Palace goes on, doggedly pursuing leads and looking for evidence.

Both mystery and sci-fi genres mix pretty well together in the series. The books also pack a solid emotional punch. Hank has a sister who seems to like getting herself in trouble. He has a dog he ‘inherited’ from a drug dealer. The dog is the most bad-ass bichon frisé you’ll see in fiction (note: this is also the only time you will see the words ‘bad-ass bichon frisé’ in the same sentence). There’s always a dim hope that maybe, just maybe, the astronomers were all wrong and this asteroid will just pass by. Or that maybe there is no asteroid. Or maybe the humanity will come up with some scheme to avoid it. Humanity does hope pretty well even as it falls apart.

worldoftroubleI read The Last PolicemanCountdown City, and World of Trouble one after another, which in itself is quite strange for me, since I like to space my series out. Yet I finished all three in a handful of days, as if an asteroid was really about to collide with our planet, and I had only so much time. In my defense, these books do feel disturbingly real. In fact, they gave me an ongoing feeling of doom. After finishing the first one, I almost called my work and said ‘I can’t come in, the world is ending’. As a bookseller I should be allowed to take days off due to book trauma, right?

I will stop here and point you to the blog that started me on these books. Matt at Books, Brains and Beer has excellent reviews for both The Last Policeman (if you haven’t read the series yet), and of World of Trouble (if you have).

‘This orangeless world’: Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

mandelSometimes I think all people read the same books. After selling copy #788 of Goldfinch, it’s hard to believe otherwise. Booksellers are not immune to this condition. We tend to get influenced by reps, by publishers, by panels at conferences. That said, putting ‘BEA buzz book’ sticker on a book is most assuredly not the way to make me read it. But making my friend and fellow bookseller do it, that’s the way. So I guess I’m not immune to herd reading either, I just like it more personalized.

Station Eleven turned out to be interesting and smart, although my friend also told me that it had apparently been done before, sort of. It’s not a big deal. After all, Hunger Games was also pretty good without being very original. In Station Eleven, a highly virulent strain of flu ends the world as we know it soon after an actor collapses on stage while performing King Lear. A theatre company travels this post-apocalyptic world, staging Shakespeare’s plays at various communities that sprang up after the pandemic. There is much jumping in space and time, and various characters turn out to be personally connected to other characters in a variety of interesting ways. I kept reading because the writing was excellent and the story was well-plotted and well-paced, with lots of neat tidbits. Perhaps it’s not much of a compliment to describe a story as ‘neat’ or ‘tidy’, but that’s what it felt like: ‘the pieces of a pattern drifting closer together’. I’m in general a fan of non-linear storytelling, and Station Eleven hit all the right notes with me.

What struck a particular cord for me is that Station Eleven, at its core, is the story of immigrants. The members of the company seemed like refugees from a different world. Some were children when the world ended, others were much older, and it was fascinating to see how different characters viewed the new world depending on their past experiences: ‘I haven’t thought of an airplane in so long’. It seems quite similar to immigration: someone who moved to a country when they were a child will have a different worldview than someone who had to immigrate when they were a teenager or already an adult. In Station Eleven, one of the characters finds herself wondering ‘if it was better or worse to have never known any world except for the one after the Georgia Flu.’

Station Eleven is out on September 9th. Mere weeks stand between you and a great post-apocalyptic novel. Read it even if it doesn’t seem like your sort of thing.