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.



Book review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

Published: June 2012

Where I got it: started reading it on my lunch at work and then had to take it home. You know how it is.

As geeks, we sometimes take our fandoms too seriously. That said, we are also quite capable of making fun of our obsessions. John Scalzi, a master of witty dialogue, does exactly that in his latest novel, Redshirts. It is a bona fide feast of geekery, starting from the title itself and ending with coda number three (it made Wil Wheaton cry, according to The New York Times. May I say this again: THE NEW YORK TIMES, which usually shuns genre like it’s an alien plague, had a piece on John Scalzi and Redshirts?).

Scalzi is obviously not the first person to think of a story told from the point of view of expendable little guys whose only purpose is to die in the name of drama (see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). Quoting from the novel itself, ‘So same concept, different spin’. He does it quite well, however — it’s a great story full of narratives within narratives and (intentionally) terrible science that will either make you laugh or make you nostalgic (admit it, you are on Netflix now, adding all of TNG to your queue). It is more than just a satire — there are some emotional moments and forays into ideas about the nature of reality and existence.

And yet it is not my favorite Scalzi book, and I wouldn’t say it’s his best. First, I am not sure how much bang for your buck you’d get if you have never seen Star Trek or deeply don’t care about that particular part of geekdom. Second, while at times it is indeed hilarious and brilliant, at other times it just feels padded and even a bit dull. The problem, of course, is this — take out some parts and the book becomes a novella, which I don’t think was the goal here. It has three codas and, while I understand the reason for their existence, I think they are all too long. They also, in my opinion, wrap up everything too well. My feeling is that this particular book would have benefited from leaving some threads untied and some things unsaid.

I’ll give it 3 out 5 phasers set to stun. It did entertain me quite a bit, but I would have preferred a tighter book.