Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

February 26, 2011

Literariness & Science-Fictionality

Filed under: essay — Tags: — Sam @ 12:00 am

Every so often (by my calculations, it’s on an average of once every 3.6 days) the SF blogosphere erupts with grumbling indignation over some mainstream critic or novelist’s impingement upon genre. Said impingement takes one of two forms; either the critic, whom we shall for the purposes of brevity refer to as Birdbolt, entirely dismisses genre as an irredeemable morass of tedium and invention, or he (Birdbolt is more often male than not) claims some author that SF regards as its own as literature, and often uses a phrase closely resembling “transcending the limitations of genre”. The latest breath of oxygen for this charcoal-burning pastime is this article in the Guardian by John Mullan, which is effectively an attempt to claim literary fiction for a worthwhile thing-in-itself—an recognizable artistic body of work of commercial value, or in other words a “genre”. Of course, Mullan in his role as Birdbolt doesn’t use that word; in fact, he specifically says:

What is literary fiction? It is not genre fiction. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a historical novel. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, the leading British prize for science fiction. Yet you only have to think about these two examples to see how they escape their genres.


December 14, 2010

Some recent reads

Filed under: review — Tags: , — Sam @ 10:31 pm

Surface Detail – Iain M Banks

A story of the harrowing of a virtual Hell, and associated shenanigans. To those who’ve read more of the Culture novels than I have, a particular line at the ending may fall less resoundingly flat. Also: gold does not float in mercury just because it has a lower atomic number. Gold sinks quite hard in mercury, because it has a much higher density. Also, gold dissolves in mercury. Otherwise, good.

Amity – Jeremy D Brooks

A sysadmin has his life destroyed by an internet site where anonymous people compete to outdo each other in sick and tasteless humour, and virtual vandalism. Not for anyone offended by, er, much of anything. Free to download here, though I don’t know for how long.

Winter Song – Colin Harvey

An entertaining planetary romance, though it would be improved by cutting the initial space-battle sequence with its (sparse) infodumps on future society and going straight to the bit where our protagonist wakes up on a cold planet, taken in by an abandoned colony with a Norse-like culture, trying to deal with the sentient computer download in his head. The central female character is good, very competent and not just a love interest, but the other women she’s contrasted with are all either sexually manipulative or shrewish & jealous. (eARC – Angry Robot)

Damage Time – Colin Harvey

A future cop story, and a book about a man trying to find himself after having his memories stolen. Strangely for this genre, the protagonist only loses his memory halfway through, which means that a lot of the usual impact of the plotline is lost. I’m not at all convinced it works. There’s a creditable attempt to counter some transphobia, notably through the mouth of a liberal imam (who explains about khuntsa), but that’s rather counteracted by the appalling ignorance about trans issues that the characters display, and which isn’t countered by the text. Both this and Winter Song also show poly families and bisexuality as the norm in their futures. (eARC – Angry Robot)

WTF FTW and Makers – Cory Doctorow

The more interested an author is in making political, economic, or social points, the more likely they are to resort to Idiot Ball plotting. Doctorow is a definite example of this, and it’s frustrating, but since those points are what drives Doctorow’s writing in the first place we’ll have to live with it. WTF is about gold farming in developing nations and union-forming; Makers is about interesting things you can do with 3D printers, techno-junk, and the vast untapped forces of geek nostalgia. Like all Doctorow’s work, you can read them for free here.

November 13, 2010

Gwyneth Lewis – The Meat Tree

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Sam @ 4:44 pm

Seren Books, 2010—part of the “New Stories from the Mabinogion” series. Paperback, 256 pp., £7.99.

The Mabinogion is the mediaeval Welsh myth cycle; it comprises the Four Branches themselves; the four native tales; and three romances. There are several English translations available online, linked from the Wikipedia page above, and they’re well worth reading. You don’t need any familiarity with the original to read this, and I’d be really interested in hearing from someone who came to the story fresh with this version. For me, it’s in my blood & bone; I read it in English and in Welsh before I was fifteen, living in the same green valleys where it’s set, so when I was reading this I had the ghosts of a half-dozen different versions reading over my shoulder.

The Meat Tree is a version of the Fourth Branch, called in most translations “Math son of Mathonwy”; here it’s “Blodeuwedd” after the woman made from flowers to be Lleu’s bride, and Lewis’s narrative moves away from the traditional masculine-centred tale of magic and war towards a story centred on relationships—sexual & familial, through love, hatred, resentment, and obligation—and on what it means to be a flower and what it means to be meat. Gwydion and Gilfaethwy’s journey to Annwn, and the War of the Pigs, is passed over in a paragraph, but we hear a lot from Blodeuwedd herself and from Aranrhod. None of the women are given much page time in the original, and are mostly positioned as villains, victims, or (usually) both, so this is a good change.

Trigger warning: the myth deals with rape and incest, and this version doesn’t sugar-coat it.

The framing story is explicitly science-fictional, with two people going to board an unknown derelict near Mars. Campion is an Inspector of Wrecks, a fussy old man nearing retirement who sublimates himself in his work; Nona is an up-and-coming young student, sent out for some practical experience. The wreck looks like an old-time Earth ship, but it’s come from entirely the wrong direction; that’s the first mystery we see, and the story keeps circling back to it.

Inside, there are no bodies, and nothing in the logs to indicate what happened. There’s a clunky old VR immersion unit, though, and our protagonists decide to experience it in order to reconstruct what was important, what the crew valued, what might have happened.

The whole book is told through the crew logs; we open with the Inspector of Wrecks, in his distinctive (and very Welsh) narrative voice.

Is that working now, I wonder? I hate these thought recorders. They’re good in very confined spaces, where you don’t want to overhear the idiotic things your colleagues say to their families back on Mars, but I think they’re overrated. But, there we are, I’m Old School. The trick is to keep the unconscious out of it as much as possible and pretend that you’re talking to yourself.

We alternate between his narrative, Nona’s, and the shared channel they use when exploring the wreck and in the VR environment. The VR sessions themselves are done at a remove, because all we have is the log, with the two of them discussing what’s happening and trying to analyse both the story and the game system—the story behind the story.

Lewis is an extremely accomplished poet (Torchwood viewers will know her work through the inscription on the Wales Millennium Centre, Creu Gwir Fel Gwydr O Ffwrnais Awen) and she uses the myth to examine ideas about storytelling, imagination, and the writer’s process. More than that, though, the story is about itself, about this Welsh national myth, with its tricks and transformations and the struggle to claim independent selfhood. It has a great deal more in it, but in the end, it’s mythlore; it has a whole peoples’ world in it, and there are a great many perspectives on it.

Science-fictionally, it works well; the framing plot is an interesting twist on the old “something comes from outer space, and it’s not what it seems” plot so popular in Golden Age SF, and both the story-within-a-story and the game-that’s-more-than-a-game have been used to good effect recently as well. (I’m thinking of The Habitation of the Blessed, and Stross’s Halting State, respectively—though that’s the only similarity with the latter.)

The only issue I have with Lewis’s SF writing is that her explanations of her future technology are occasionally a little clunky.

Inspector of Wrecks: No, it can’t be. I’ve heard old-timers talking about something like this, but I’ve never seen one. I think it’s something called an audio-cassette player. There’s even a tape in it. Early personal entertainment system.
Apprentice: You’re kidding, when technology was still outside the body? That’s hilarious.
Inspector of Wrecks: See those couches? I bet they’re old VR systems.
Apprentice: VR?
Inspector of Wrecks: Virtual Reality. Before you swallowed the nano-synaptic dream tablets for training and recreation.

The formatting is from the book there, incidentally—the whole thing is written in the style of a play script, and I’d love to hear a radio play á la Under Milk Wood. Her characterization is amazingly expressive; the Inspector of Wrecks came fully formed from his first words. Nona was less real for me, but I think that’s at least as much because I have more trouble empathizing with her.

Overall, I recommend this highly; it’s very accessible poetic criticism, it’s a new (and woman-centred) take on the mediaeval myth, and it’s good SF.

November 8, 2010

Jasper Fforde – Shades of Grey

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , — Sam @ 6:42 pm

Fforde is one of the most quintessentially English novelists writing today. His humour is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, without gag lines or signposted comedy moments, but it has a delightful quality of extended surreality, and utterly absurd passages that nevertheless make complete logical sense in context.

The premise of Shades of Grey is completely science-fictional, and follows a rather English tradition of dictatorship novels, more or less started by 1984. Fairly far (probably, anyway) into the future, society is seemingly happy but regimented and controlled by the sinisterly manipulative Government. Much of history has been suppressed, and nobody knows what’s really going on, but if our hero and his antisocially rebellious (but nevertheless extremely attractive) girlfriend can avoid being sent to the Mysterious Government Facility for reeducation, they may get to the bottom of things.

Fforde’s take on the System, here, is unusual and very English—it’s run not by a legion of faceless oppressors, but by The Rules, which are followed because they’re The Rules, and because they’re obviously right. (Well, except perhaps for the one about the spoons.) Of course, the Rules are labyrinthine and complex, and there are a great many loopholes and inconsistencies. For instance, even persons engaged in heavy manual work must wear a collar and tie, but shirts are optional. Libraries have been denuded of most of their books in successive Great Leaps Backward, but staffing levels are required to be maintained. Despite the mass simplification of the world, new cultural tropes grow up, and the human tendency to name & categorize is in full force—as ably demonstrated by Caravaggio’s Frowny Girl Removing Beardy’s Head, and the Museum of the Something That Happened.

Society is organised chromatically, from Grey through Red to Purple, but it’s not a strict hierarchical ladder—the classifications are awarded by the amount of colour perception one has, and unexpected genetics can change a family’s status quite quickly. Since the society depends on all the colours, Red-perceptors have as vital a function as Yellows or Blues, despite a formally lower status, so there’s some interesting social crosslinking going on.

The way the colour technology & the influence of colour on society is introduced is entirely immersive, since the whole book is narrated by a smart but rather gormless teenager who already knows all of this and assumes we do too. As I’m rather a fan of this particular kind of worldbuilding, it worked well for me, and having a clueless protagonist is a very good way to introduce the truth about the world (well, something a bit closer to the truth, anyway) to both of us at the same time.

If you’re already a Fforde fan, you’ll almost certainly enjoy this, though it has far fewer pop-cultural allusions and a strongly SFnal ancestry. If you haven’t read Fforde, and this is the kind of SF you like (mindbending rather than -blowing, and rather funny) then you’ll probably enjoy this. If you don’t enjoy this, there may well be something Not Entirely Right about you.

George RR Martin & Lisa Tuttle – Windhaven

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , — Sam @ 5:50 pm

This is a paste-up job—three linked novellas, revised & continued from an original story in Analog of May 1975, The Storms of Windhaven. The first, which is essentially the original novella, is your basic story of a girl longing to join the elite hereditary caste of flyers properly. Their wings, made from the solar sails of the crashed starship which brought all their ancestors to Windhaven, are getting rarer every year as flyers are lost at sea, and Maris—the adopted daughter of a flyer, but forced to hand over his wings to his genetic heir—is determined to bring in new blood so that anyone can challenge a flyer for their wings.

She succeeds, of course, and keeps hers after all, while her stepbrother gets the musical career he wanted all along. So far, so Pern without the dragons.

The second novella, however, shows us some of the societal consequences of this massive change. The new academy, named Woodwings after a popular cautionary tale, isn’t thriving too well; it’s been seven years and not produced any flyers yet. Maris has returned to teach, but there’s a controversial new pupil, determined to win wings and become one of the flyers he hates, rejecting all their traditions. We get to see a lot of social ruptures on a very personal scale, and some vicious political infighting. Again, it ends on a happy, successful note, but it’s very clear that there are a lot of societal changes yet to come.

The third follows Maris still, to the island of Thayos, where she gets caught up in politics between the flyers and the land-born ruler. The text brings in the classic 1970s SF motif of the songs that change everything, and the power of musicians, but it’s also thoroughly problematized—it’s made clear throughout the three novellas that songs sung of heros may not show what happened, but it doesn’t stop them being true.

November 1, 2010

Lois McMaster Bujold – Cryoburn

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 1:16 am

This is a new Miles Vorkosigan book, and it’s a big departure from the previous ones—unsurprisingly so, given the trajectory of the series so far. I don’t think I can review it without spoilers for the first half of the book, so let me say now that it’s good but takes work to read.

It’s set seven years after Diplomatic Immunity, and opens in media very much res, with Miles stumbling barefoot and hallucinating through a vast underground catacomb of cryogenic notquitecorpses. We learn quite soon that he’s on a mission to investigate a potentially dodgy commercial transaction, and that brings up a lot of thinly disguised metaphors. Kibou-daini is a world where nobody is willing to die; they expect to go into cryogenic storage instead, and await a cure for whatever ails them. Since they are not dead, they can still vote; the cryogenics corporations hold their proxy votes, leveraging them into huge amounts of political power. (There’s a reason so much of the architecture of Kibou-daini is Egyptianate…)

Economics comes in too, and there’s a lot of financial trading between companies. The frozen citizens, in fact, have become commoditized much like mortgages. It’s revealed, halfway through, that many of the people in cryogenic storage will not be revivable; much like the subprime bubble, what was thought to be a fungible commodity—and thus a good one on which to base financial trading—becomes abruptly non-fungible. I’d have liked to have seen a more detailed look at how this abrupt shift affected the world, though.

The other thing I’d have liked to see more of (well, any of) is the Vorkosigan home life. We hear second-hand from Armsman Roic about how Miles and Ekaterin, and their four-by-now children, are adjusting, but his recollections have the affectionately-stereotyped quality of a family reminiscence, and it doesn’t give either her or the children screen time. And I would have loved to see what Aral is like with his grandchildren, but instead we have another book of Miles regretting being away from his home & family.

What we do get is a pre-teen zoologist Urchin, his little sister, and their cryogenically sequestered mother. Which is as much as to say, a woman in a refrigerator. Whom Miles rescues. Well, she’s a woman; of course he has to rescue her. It’s what he does. It would have been very good to read some narrative from her, but instead we get some Miles, some of Jin (the aforementioned zoological urchin), and some Roic. It feels rather as though Bujold’s setting Roic up to be Miles’s Sergeant Lewis, and to get his own series now Miles has ascended to nigh-unchallengeable levels. None of the antagonists in this book seems to be in Miles’s weight class, which is sad; he’s always done by far his best work against the odds. As a result, he’s quite a bit less, er, engaged with the mission environment than in previous books.

Overall: recommended, but don’t expect the same as before.

October 11, 2010


Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 9:17 pm

Because I need to close some tabs, here’s a set of miscellaneous SF-related links for you.

September 8, 2010

Akačehennyi on a Diet of Dreams

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 12:36 pm

By Kayleigh Ayn Bohémier. This is a blog novel, available here under a Creative Commons license.

It’s a dense, flavoursome book, making use of the blog medium—it’s basically in the form of a journal, with text formatting (including blacked-out text and nonlinear idea-clouds) and occasional embedded audio files without transcripts. I suspect it would make a screen-reader go screwy from time to time, but then a lot of SF does that in any case, with the density of odd words & names.

There are quite a lot of those here, since it’s thoroughly immersive, and the worldbuilding is decidedly non-Western. The viewpoint character, Salus Kobsarka-Nitannyi Niksubvya is a dark-skinned lesbian minority-immigrant, just beginning work with one of her political heroes.

You must forgive me when I make embellishments because I do not really remember the cirrus clouds in the sky or my thoughts as I dressed this morning, only the blue sky and the sun-shaped links I clasped around my dreadlocks. When I pose in front of the mirror every morning, I pull the transparent gyena up over my hair. To me, the gyena always suggests more … tantalizing … like the opening of a seductive dance in a film. A confession? While Kelis and I were engaged, I often lamented that she would stop wearing it after the wedding. I think that the bronze hair ornaments look beautiful beneath it no matter what any hotàkhi Shiji woman says.

It’s about a world shaped by colonization, oppression, and the struggle against them, but it isn’t about the oppressors at all; the plot circles around some of the consequences of this, the inevitable factionalism and complexity that you always get with real people and real situations. Mostly, however, it’s about relationships—romantic, sexual, professional, family, friendship—and the tensions between those and with principles or ambition. Between felt affinities and known affinities, perhaps; the truths of the heart and the truths of the mind, which can only be reconciled when one achieves akačehennyi.

There’s a glossary at the back of the book (well, insofar as blog novels have a back) which explains all the unusual words; if you’re the sort of person who likes those, it’s comprehensive and useful. Personally, I prefer to avoid them until afterwards, and enjoy figuring the words out from context. Nitannyi is a semi-stranger in the culture of the novel (a half-blood immigrant, brought up in the canyon dark) and I find the mixture of things she explains to us and things that are normal to her extremely good mind exercise. She’s also keeping this journal partly to improve her Tveshi, and Bohémier evokes that sense wonderfully in the language.

This book reminds me of Le Guin’s Hainish novels, but it’s very much a story told from the inside rather than from the outside. Definitely recommended, and to reiterate: it’s free online, so you have no reason not to give it a try.

May 29, 2010

Marc Stiegler – Earthweb

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 1:30 pm

Another very characteristic offering from the Baen Free Library. Actually, I’m giving an unfair picture of the Library with these posts—there are some extremely good books in there, and I should post with some positive recommendations soon.

This one, on the other hand, will not be one of them. It reads as though Stiegler had found a comprehensive list of things to avoid doing if you don’t want to give offense, and then treated it as a how-to manual.

The main plot involves a series of huge death-dealing spaceships full of killer robots, which are called (without any explanation whatsoever) Shiva I to VI. Now, it might be possible to argue that this is a reference to Jewish mourning practice, but given the literary antecedents of huge unmanned spaceships on periodic courses through the solar system, it doesn’t wash.

Teams of dedicated and highly trained people, referred to as Angels, are sent up to perform suicide commando raids on the huge killer spaceships named after a Hindu god. Can we say “problematic”, boys and girls? I thought we could!

It’s not as though that’s the only offensive aspect, either. The national stereotypes are thick on the ground, from the flighty spendthrift South American woman (Hispanic, not indigenous, of course) to the upper-class British journalist whose foppish manner conceals a razor-sharp mind. Admittedly, the Chinese scam artist shows no discernable Chinese characteristics; he’s just a generic American like the entire rest of the book.

There’s an autistic child who’s treated only as a plot coupon (they use the phrase “idiot savant” in earnest), and all his implausibly miraculous accomplishments are laid at his mother’s door instead. And, of course, the reason she’s doing it is to earn enough money to find a cure for his autism.

In related disability news, though, there’s a prominent example of wheelchair non-fail—a character who’s lost both legs is treated entirely normally, and not made an object of pity. Of course, his Manic Pixie Dream Girl (who’s also a lethal killing machine, of course—you didn’t think this kind of book would let a heroine get away without that?) doesn’t hesitate to commandeer the controls when she wants to take him on a date.

All in all, this is really rather a special book, and only worth reading for curiosity value. Once I’d finished it, I ended up going straight to the bookshelf for Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark, for a thoughtful, sensible, nuanced treatment of autistic people instead, and I recommend you do the same.

May 23, 2010

Michael Z Stephenson – Freehold

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , — Sam @ 5:56 pm

You know the kind of book where you have to keep reading just to find out how bad it can get, and then when you’re done with it you have to take a long shower? This is one of those.

It’s a preachy lolbertarian wish-fulfillment cacotopia, explicitly pro-torture, pro-terrorism, and pro-war-crimes. It’s also a prime example of the fine art of making your imagined future society look good by erecting strawman dystopias as a comparison—for example, one of the proud boasts the Freehold of Grainne make is a 96% adult literacy rate, much better than Earth under the UN. (That’s right, the UN has somehow morphed into One World Government.)

It has cleared up one minor mystery, though. I’d always vaguely wondered what perfect lolbertarian societies had instead of taxes; it turns out that it’s insurance for everything under the sun.

This is a Baen Free Library book, available to download or read online for free, but I strongly suggest not doing so.

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