sci-fi

Readings: Vowell, Liu

Personal kerfuffle in my life still has not settled, and so there was little time for reading and writing, and even things like Twitter and other social interaction have fallen by the wayside. I need this month to be over, out like a lamb or however it would like to go.

I have re-read Sarah Vowell’s Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. Rather, I re-listened to it, because her audiobooks are narrated by herself and a crew of various star guests (like Nick Offerman as George Washington), which makes them more like audio play productions. It is excellent.

three bodyOther reads were on the speculative fiction side, the first one being Third Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu. It got a lot of buzz and love last year, but it happened during the time when I briefly fell out of love with hard sci-fi. Third Body Problem reads like science fiction from the Golden Age, eager to cram all of the science and ideas inside. It reads stilted, emotions plainly explained, all character motivations delineated, everything over-described. And therein lies my beef with Third Body Problem. It’s not that I need a pure ‘show don’t tell’ approach, but I need my science fiction to be more of a novel and less of a guidebook. I don’t think it’s translation. Perhaps this is just Cixin Liu’s style. Sadly, I will never know, Chinese being one of languages I am not going to master in this lifetime.

And yet it is not a terrible book. In fact, it is rather smart in its ideas and connections. I wanted to keep reading despite being annoyed by the style, and I do not regret finishing it (that’s the kind of blurb you want for your novel, ‘did not regret finishing’). I might even read the second one (The Dark Forest), if only to see how different it is with a different translator.

And now I am off to finish Rob Spillman’s memoir, All Tomorrow’s Parties, a book that feels familiar even though his life is quite different from mine. Next after that, Joe Hill’s Fireman, out in May. Quite excited about this one.

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Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

There is naught on Pluto but magicians, Americans, and the mad.

It seems that most of my favorite authors are the ones with whom I have an uneven track record of book enjoyment. I think it’s a sign that they try something different each time they write a book, and sometimes different works for me and sometimes it doesn’t. I love China Miéville, but I don’t love all his stuff. Same for Murakami. Same for Guy Gavriel Kay.

Same for Catherynne Valente. My favorite of hers is still The Habitation of the Blessed. I did not like her Deathless as much as I had hoped to. For some reason, I could not get through her Orphan’s Tales books (even though it seems that for most people, these are the books that got them into Valente’s work). Her novella, The Bread We Eat In Dreams, blew me away. And now there’s Radiance.

radianceRead the first sentence on the flap of its dust jacket: ‘Radiance is a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space-opera mystery set in a Hollywood – and solar system – very different from our own.’ It’s the type of novel that in book reviews earns descriptors like ‘experimental’ or ‘audacious’, which is code language for ‘too hard to read and sell to customers’.

I like those ‘audacious’ books that are many genres at once, mostly because if you want to write a mystery set in an alternate Solar system, then what does it really matter whether it’s mystery, or sci-fi, or alternate history? I like when people write in ‘whatever the fuck’ genre.*

I also really like stories that are non-linear or stories that try unusual formats, and in that sense Radiance is rather perfect. There are film scripts, interviews, transcripts, newspaper clippings. To use this method of storytelling for what appears to be a murder mystery is actually not that unusual or far-fetched (Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun is told largely in interviews, to use one example), but it is a neat way to avoid omniscience when unraveling a puzzle and deliver emotional punches using seemingly unemotional narration.

And there’s also the setting. I never doubt that Catherynne Valente can work magic with the setting. Her words build amazing worlds, and this one is no exception. The planets are habitable (and Pluto is back on the roster), and Hollywood has moved entirely to the Moon to make their silent movies with starlets whose skin is turning blue because of silver in the water. How is it that we are suddenly living on Mercury? Does it matter? This is not the time to complain about handwavium, suspend your disbelief and be immersed.

And yet how is it that I cannot gush about this book? Maybe there were too many things going on at the same time, or maybe the format got a little too audacious. At one point I had this eerie feeling that I was endlessly watching the Tevye’s dream scene from Fiddler On the Roof that I so dislike. I could not tell what was going on. I think that perhaps for me, Valente’s style of writing occasionally gets in the way of the story. It seemed perfect in The Habitation Of The Blessed, but here it was not on my brainwave length. Perhaps this multitude of formats and time jumps required a tighter grip on the pacing of the story, and Valente’s own genius and not being afraid to play with her own creation did the story itself a disservice.

But in the end, you should try it. Who knows, maybe alt-history space decopunk mystery is exactly your jam.

*What is even genre? Wait, let’s not. Rhetorical question. Moving on.

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?)

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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

Genre fatigue and how to cure it

I have never been a strictly speculative fiction reader, but for many years, spec fic comprised probably about 80% of my book diet. For the purposes of this post, I am going to assume that fantasy, urban fantasy, many flavors of sci-fi, and variations on the new weird belong in the same broad category. I don’t want to get into the quagmire of ‘what is genre?’ discussion at the moment, and I want to have room for my pretty varied reading tastes even within said genre. I started with fantasy (the book that started it all was Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams, if you’re curious), slowly making my way into sci-fi territory, and finally settling somewhere in the weird and slipstream area. At this moment, I can only describe my reading preferences as ‘books where strange stuff happens’.

I wrote about my genre reading here for many months (which is basically decades in Internet years). I run a sci-fi and fantasy book group. I read a lot of genre blogs. I voted for Hugos (though not this year). I still gravitate first to sci-fi and fantasy section in any bookstore I visit. But for many months now, the genre has not been my best friend. I have what I call ‘genre fatigue’. It’s not just a fantasy fatigue or hard sci-fi fatigue. It’s this generalized unwillingness to read widely in what I previously considered my area of expertise. I burned myself out on swords, dragons, spaceships, AI, nanotechnology, cyberpunk, dystopias (though I think everyone must be burnt out on those), you name it. Maybe I feel like I’ve read every possible permutation of character/setting/plot one could have in speculative fiction. Maybe I just need a heavy dose of reality in all my reading.

What genre fatigue might look like

What genre fatigue might look like

Part of this deviation from genre is due to having a vast sea of non-genre books in my vicinity. Most of the galleys in my room are not genre. Most of the books I buy and sell at work are not genre. Even my library hauls are now heavy on things like plays and poetry. For a while in the past few months, I read mostly non-fiction. Or only poetry and comics. Sci-fi and fantasy were paradoxically still okay in comics form (even though, as Warren Ellis says, there is even less realism in those*).

These days, the fatigue seems to be abating. Perhaps I’ve had my fill of what one could call mainstream fiction. I picked up a fantasy book last week to deal with some depression crap. But I still read very widely outside of the genre, and I doubt speculative fiction will comprise as much of my reading as it used to. There is no real cure for genre fatigue. I don’t think there needs to be one, it’s not a life-threatening condition. Now, general book fatigue, that’s an emergency situation, but I’m not there yet.

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*Here’s the full quote from Ellis’s Orbital Operations newsletter from 8/16:

Suspension of disbelief is inherent in the comics form because we pick up a comic already understanding that we’re seeing a heavily filtered and codified representation of the world.  Real and irreal use the same visual codes.  Unreal figures in comics are made of the same stuff as the real ones.  Talking about the systems of the world is just telling stories that try to explain how the world works.  Picking up a comic, you already know that at least one person is essentially lying to you.

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.

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

Short Story Sunday, 5.4.14: Yu and Granta #127

yu

I gushed about Charles Yu’s Sorry Please Thank You here a couple of years ago.  Last month, I picked up his earlier short story collection called Third Class Superhero. It’s pretty classic Yu: he has a particular style and particular way of writing short stories, and he does it well. I found the pieces in Third Class Superhero to be a bit more homogeneous than his later stuff. Some of them are quite beautiful, but overall this volume did not make much of an impression on me. Maybe I should reread Sorry Please Thank You to see if his later stories are still quite as good as I remember them to be.

My read this afternoon will be this:

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Granta #127: Japan. Looks like a good lineup of authors (click to embiggen if need be):

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I, of course, have a soft spot for Japanese literature or stories about Japan. It was my third country of residence (albeit for a shorter amount of time than the others).