science fiction

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.

Advertisements

Welcome to my madness: I join the Exegesis read along

Nicolette at Book Punks started a rather brave and possibly unsound quest to read Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis in a span of one year, accompanied by a selection of his novels. You can see the schedule here. A few similarly courageous souls signed up for this,  and I am joining the crowd a few weeks late, but early enough to catch up.

In a strange twist of fate, as these things go, I am not entirely unprepared for this journey. Once upon a time I took a rather unusual college course. It seemed to be at odds with the rest of the faculty’s offerings (this was Department of Psychology), and I still can’t easily describe what it was about or why I took it. It is still taught, by the same professor, a fact that doesn’t really surprise me, because it was one of the highest-rated courses on offer, and probably still is. On the surface, it was an attempt to explain how we view the world and the models we use to do it. What it actually consisted of was an overview of everything from neurophysiology to myths to studies on anxiety and fear to Jungian theories to alchemy to the Bible, all tied and brought together in a variety of ways, with assignments that required us to write personal narratives and readings ranging from Dostoyevsky to articles from neuroscience journals. It sounds like a hot mess, but oddly enough, it wasn’t. In fact, it’s probably the only course that stayed with me past college. Maybe we were all drinking Kool-Aid, maybe we were all rebelling against strict reductionist tendencies of the majority of the department, maybe we were genuinely interested in learning something that seemed almost mystical, or maybe the professor was rather persuasive. It was the same course that later led to burying myself in books on Jung and alchemy, and now I am reminded of it again, as it makes my diving into PKD’s Exegesis both oddly familiar and exactly the kind of thing I would want to do.

CbScaVpUYAEIc1u

And so, onward into the darkness.

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?)

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

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.

—-

*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.

On the horrors of old age: My Real Children by Jo Walton

A few days ago I tweeted this: ‘I’m on page 156 of this book, and I still don’t know how I feel about it’. The book in question was My Real Children by Jo Walton.

myrealchidlrenTruth is, I finished it, and I still don’t know how I feel. It is by Jo Walton, so I liked it (because I like her writing style), and yet I didn’t. My Real Children is the most political book by Walton I’ve read. It is true that all novels are political, but I feel that in My Real Children this combination is heavily skewed to the political rather than the novel side. There is a way to skillfully work politics into fiction (and Walton has done it before), but, unfortunately, in My Real Children, the message took over the medium. I agree with its message, and yet I did not like the way in which the message was presented. It did not read like a novel.

It is by no means a terrible book. The characters are very well-done. Walton is a skilled writer and hooks you with the first few pages, so you want to sit down and find out what happens next. The first chapter lured me in because it seemed to ask: ‘what is it like to age and lose your memory? is it like living in different realities?’

Patricia Cowan is very old and confused. She remembers living two separate lives, with two separate families and children. Pat seems like an ultimate unreliable narrator: ‘her brain could not be trusted’. We get both her biographies in full, and herein lies the problem. There is no unreliable narrator. Patricia’s lives are reported as if on a biography channel or in a history book. The stories go on in a rather dull and linear manner that seem at best plain and at worst too predictable. Her lives are also where the book’s political messages lie. My Real Children is feminist/LGBT/human rights sci-fi at its most outraged. One Pat lives married to Mark, ‘this terrible smug man’, who demands she bears children even as it endangers her life. Another Pat struggles for acceptance of her relationship with a woman: ‘I hate it when people won’t acknowledge my family as real’. There is also alternate history, with things happening in slightly different way than in our world. But whereas Walton was brilliant at alternate history in Small Change books (Farthing and its two sequels), here her lists of events seem tiresome and therefore not as memorable or important.

But the main theme in My Real Children is aging, and how terrifying it is to lose your ability to care for yourself, to lose your memory and your connection to other people. Both Pats are scared of losing their mental faculties and becoming entirely dependent on families, and they fight old age and dementia the best they can (as opposed to becoming ‘resigned to being old and sort of mummifying in it’). As I get older, I find that I am drawn to the exploration of aging in fiction and older characters. It made me a little sad that I did not enjoy this book as much as I had wanted to.

My Real Children is a sad book by itself, and its sadness is amplified by the book’s end being simultaneously its beginning. Pat is old and confused when we first meet her. The rest is history. Or rather, histories.