Life is so hectic at the moment that I’m barely able to get a blog post out a month. I’d like to blame the kids, but really I’ve spent most of my time playing and discussing and giggling over the worst cricket game ever made. Ashes 2013:
I’ve also recorded a new episode of Writer and The Critic with my lovely co-host Kirstyn McDermott. That should be dropping into people’s RSS Feeds or equivalent in a couple of days. And I have been reading. Quite a few books actually. Here’s what I thought of them.
Books You Should Go Out and Buy Right Now and Read!!!!!
I’m going to say more about this book on a future episode of Writer and The Critic, but in short I loved it. It’s a crime novel set in the 80′s that involves communism, the Occult and a soupcon of Chasidism (it’s the first novel I’ve ever read that references Qlipha. Madonna would be proud!). Dawn is a fucking awesome character. Not because she’s in your face or wields katanas or ‘takes no shit from anyone’. But because she’s angry – justifiably so given her fucked family situation – and it’s her anger and frustration that fuels the narrative. There’s no redemption here and no sweet endings. Instead what we get is a short novel with the impact of a sledgehammer to the face.
Trucksong by Andrew MacRae
Just like the Mamatas this book isn’t about redemption or happy endings. And like the Mamatas there’s an anger that drives the narrative (though nowhere near the intensity of Love Is The Law). I’m generally not a fan of post apocalyptic novels, I think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road says everything that needs to be said about what happens to society after the shit hits the fan. But with Trucksong I make an exception. Partly it’s because of the world building on display. The post cyberpunk vibe of self aware trucks and gigacities and the fusion between body and silicon. This is the only novel you’ll ever read that has trucks shagging each other. But really I loved this book because on a sentence by sentence level the writing is beautiful and the language – the ocker-isms that litter the novel and the neologisms – give the story a genuine sense of place. This is Australian science fiction at its best.
Five Autobiographies and a Fiction by Lucius Shepard.
Lucius Shepard is genuinely one of the best writers in the SF/F/H field. And I don’t mean that he writes really cool stories but that the actual writing has a depth and complexity that you simply don’t find in most genre work. This is a collection of six novella / novelettes. While I didn’t love all of the pieces in the collection, I was never disappointed by the writing. If you haven’t read Shepard before – and you really should – this is as good a starting point as any.
Honorable Mentions But Still Very Much Recommended
Time Travel. Martian kibbutzim. A robot Golda Meir. This short novel is extraordinary – a bizarre mix of Burroughs, Bradbury and PKD. And while the ending for me was a confused and surreal mess (I probably need to reread it), the questions it raises about how the Holocaust changed the Jewish people are thought provoking. In many ways it’s a very personal novel and possibly (though maybe not) you need to be Jewish or Israeli to get the full impact.
It’s described as a novel, but it’s more a novella. It’s my first taste of Daniel Woodrell and I’ll be coming back for more. It’s based on a true story of a dance hall in the Ozarks that burned down in the late 20s killing 42 people. The little snippets describing the goings on of some of the people who died in the fire are heart breaking. The language and lyricism of the novella might be off putting for some (I’d read a sample) but it hit the spot for me.
Maybe you need to be Irish to appreciate all the jokes, but I still found plenty to laugh at. I’d describe this as Ireland’s answer to Forrest Gump but that would be a massive insult to what’s a smart, satirical novel that even foreshadows the Global Financial Crisis. I’m still tossing up on the funniest bit of the novel – the bit where our main character is mistaken for Stephen Hawking or when he has sex on a camel. I’ll definitely be buying the sequel.
I didn’t hate it and at times I enjoyed it. But I’m not sure I totally appreciate what Harrison is doing here. Maybe after reading Empty Space the penny will drop.
I normally enjoy Fowler’s work but this simply didn’t do it for me. For a thriller it’s far too long and there are too many side steps and tangents. Just as I thought the book was picking up pace, the novel would stop dead to describe a part of London or reflect on the main character’s shopping habits. Unlike Joanne Harris’, who in the foreword questions why this book never found a market (given how AWESOME is it), I think I know the answer. It lacks focus and never seems to be entirely clear on what it wants to be. Because it’s Fowler it’s readable and at times enjoyable. But only read it if your a die hard fan of his work.
Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.
Stolen from Goodreads (and probably the back of the novel)
On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.
Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was the Justice of Toren–a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose–to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.
The buzz for this book has been enormous and as a result Ancillary Justice has been discussed and reviewed to death.* Which is a good thing because the novel deserves the attention it’s been getting. Not just because it’s a half decent book but because the reviews and discussions have prompted further talks about gender and class and colonialism. It certainly got me thinking.
Interestingly, if not for the buzz I might not have finished Ancillary Justice. I found the opening third to be tough going. And no it wasn’t because Breq kept referring to everyone as “she” whether male or female. Rather I found the detached tone of the novel – a deliberate choice from Leckie given that her narrator is and was the AI for a star ship – off putting. I didn’t care about anything or anyone.
And then there’s an event that happens about a third of the way through and from that point I was hooked. It also helped that this event leads to a momentum shift in the novel. Unlike a couple of the reviews I’ve linked to, I also found the frenetic last third to be not only a good deal of fun but also where Leckie’s themes around class, colonialism and gender come together. Yes, the book ends just as its getting good – but hey that’s why you’re going to pick up the second novel.
In this twitter discussion, my mate (and excellent critic) Jonathan McCalmont found less to enjoy about the novel feeling it was twenty years out of date. Maybe he was referring to authors like Banks, Greenland and Meaney or LeGuin, Russ and Tiptree who’d already staked claims in the SF sandpit of sentient spaceships, gender games and colonialism. But even if he’s right, I have no problems with these issues and tropes being dusted off and given a fresh coat of paint. If there was a dialogue between those authors back twenty years ago that conversation has well and truly dried up.
Leckie’s novel reignites the debate, get us talking about whether the use of “she” in the book is just an affectation, an annoying authorial tick or commentary about how much gender defines how we interpret the world. Her attack on colonialism is also a reminder that we all still swallow the benign homogeneity of Star Trek’s Federation without comment. And Breq’s relationship with Seivarden shows us the class divide that’s emerged, a symptom of annexing other cultures and races. (And by the way the world building in this book is definitely one of its strengths).
Ancillary Justice will be nominated for a Nebula. It’s also odds on favorite to get a Hugo nod. It will probably be up against Neil Gaiman and John Scalzi, but that’s OK because I think it will give these books a run for their Hugo vote. Because of the voting packet more people will be exposed to the ideas in this book whether they’re new or twenty years old. And that’s got to be a good thing.
* I’m no expert on these things, but if the buzz was started by anyone it was Liz Bourke’s glowing review for tor.com in September. Her opening paragraph –
It’s not every day a debut novel by an author you’d never heard of before derails your entire afternoon with its brilliance. But when my review copy of Ancillary Justice arrived, that’s exactly what it did. In fact, it arrowed upward to reach a pretty high position on my list of best space opera novels ever.
– resulted me in immediately pre-ordering the novel. Possibly that also says something about how much I trust Liz’s opinion.
(The John Scalzi blurb on the top of the novel probably didn’t hurt the book either).
Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.
I have a love / hate relationship with this blog. Deep down I want to be writing long, ponderous reviews about the stuff I’ve been reading. But living in the real world, with kids and work
and Fifa 14 and pod-casting taking up my time I’ve come to the realisation that I don’t have that spare 90 minutes I need to knock out a half decent review.
And anyway, it’s not like this blog attracts thousands of hits everyday. I’m no Scalzi or Vox Day (take care with that link). But my ego – which is very healthy – wants you to know what I’ve been reading. So I thought I’d compromise. Give you a snapshot of what I’ve recently finished each month and provide you with friendly suggestions of those books you should be reading and maybe those that you should avoid.
I’ll be doing this monthly, but for now this is the late September / October edition.
Books You Should Go Out and Buy Right Now and Read!!!!!
The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison
It’s not genre so for some of you it will be a non-starter. And for those sensitive about novels that deal with bad shit happening to children, this may not be for you (I’m in that category, but the quality of this book transcended any triggery moments). The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, with its mouthful of a title, is heartwarming without being soppy and laugh out loud funny while also having tragic-you’ll-ball-your eyes-out moments.
What I really loved about it was its positive take on disability and the fact that its a story about redemption without being overly moralistic. This is very much a story about life with all its colors and shades and hues and if it seems messy at times that’s because it’s reflecting what actually is.
If you want a feel for the novel then have a listen to Evison’s reading on this episode of Books of the Nightstand. It was hearing this that compelled me to buy the book.
A Tale for The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
I’m not going to say much here coz I’ll be recommending it for a future episode of Writer and the Critic. (Yes, we will be recording a new episode soon… ish).
Honorable Mentions But Still Very Much Recommended
Familiar by J. Robert Lennon
It’s the third novel I’ve read this year that’s done a take on alternative realities and the multiverse (and all by ‘literary’ authors). Like the Ruth Ozeki, this is a beautifully written novel that plays fair with its central conceit until the very end were it seems to completely run out of gas – or maybe I just didn’t get it. In anycase, at its core it asks the very disturbing question as to whether a life could be made better by the death of a child. The character work in this book is worth the entry price. I’ll definitely be reading more stuff by Lennon.
Insane City by Dave Barry
Unashamed fun. And hilarious, even if some of the gags have that ‘Dad’s humour’ vibe to them. It’s sort of a cross between the Hangover films and Meet the Fockers, but that’s selling it short. You’ll zip through it in a day and feel happy afterwards. The bits between the stoner friends and the multi-zillionare who has mistakenly taken dope fore the first time are priceless. Especially the zillionare haggling to buy a pizza shop just so they’ll deliver to satiate his craving for munchies.
Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery.
Fuck this is a dark and angry book. I wish I could do it justice with a proper review but instead read this one I prepared earlier by James Bradley. The only reason it’s not in my ‘You Must Buy It Now and Read’ category is the bleak, unflinching ending that was even too much for me. Again, if danger to kids is a problem for you, you might want to give this one a miss. But if you want a book that strips away the artifice that is the American Dream and shows the primal savagery underneath then this this is the book for you. (OK, I’m not selling it but depressing ending aside, this is an astonishing piece of writing).
Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh
I don’t buy the world-building entirely (the economics don’t seem believable to me), but this is a fun SF novel based on a Hugo award winning story. This review on Strange Horizons more or less sums up my thoughts. Could get Hugo love.
The Sounds of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez
Because I’m an ignorant Australian I found this novel set in Colombia before, during and after the drug wars to be enlightening. Whether it was the style or the characters or an issue of translation for whatever reason I didn’t entirely engage with the novel. But I’m still glad I read it.
Night Film by Marisha Pessl
There was plenty of hype about this novel when it was released earlier this year. It even came with its own app. However, if there was ever a book that’s style over substance this would be the one. The novel is essentially the obsessive search for an auteur director and finding clues in his work that might link to the death of the director’s daughter. It tickles around the fringes of genre and tries to pull off the whole paranoid / I’m not going mad shtick, but it all falls flat.
Redshirts by John Scalzi
The three codas are the best thing about this Hugo winning novel. They’re smart and funny and lovely to read. The extended joke that comes prior to the Codas did elicit the odd chuckle but the meta was there to service the gag rather then do anything clever or surprising.
Dying Is My Business by Nicholas Kaufmann
For whatever reason I expected this book to be a different and innovative take on the urban fantasy genre but for most of its journey Dying Is My Business felt like it was treading well worn ground. I never engaged with the view point character, Trent. He’s died nine times in the past and yet struggles to deal with the possibility of magic. He’s meant to be an enforcer for a Mafia king pin and yet he seems mostly incompetent (the first time we meet him he’s recovering from dying for the ninth time after tracking down a target). And a number of the ‘plot twists’ should be obvious for anyone with basic reading comprehension. That said, the book is not actively bad and what saves it is a couple of intriguing plot wrinkles at the end. As those wrinkles are directly linked with Trent, and given he demonstrates actual competence toward the end of the book, I’m willing to give the sequel a go.
Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.
Beth lives alone on a desolate housing estate near the sea. She came here to rebuild her life following her husband’s return from the war. His memories haunted him but a machine promised salvation. It could record memories, preserving a life that existed before the nightmares.
Now the machines are gone. The government declared them too controversial, the side-effects too harmful. But within Beth’s flat is an ever-whirring black box. She knows that memories can be put back, that she can rebuild her husband piece by piece.
Like so many novels published throughout the year, the release of James Smythe’s The Machine has come and gone without much discussion. There have been reviews, for example this one by Niall Alexander on Tor.com and Simon Savidge’s very positive review on his blog. In fact of the six and a half reviews* I found in my three minute skim of the internet, all were lavish in their praise of the novel, noting that this was Smythe’s best books and one of the best novels of 2013.
And I agree. While I can’t say with any certainty that it’s Smythe’s best book – I haven’t read his three other novels – The Machine is one of the strongest novels I’ve read this year. It’s the sort of book that should be featuring, ad nauseam, on all the major awards list next year. But other than the Clarke Award and possibly the BSFA, the book is unlikely to get much award love.
If I was the ranting type I’d go on and on and on about how the lack of buzz for books like The Machine is precisely why Science Fiction as a genre is floundering. But I’m not sure I really believe that. Yes, there’s a case to be made that the current crop of writers still haven’t escaped the gravitational pull of Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein. But the fact is that while books like The Machine might come and go, making only the smallest of ripples, they still get published. And for me, above all, that’s what’s important. That there’s still a market for books that don’t fall into the well worn groove of third person omniscient and linear narratives and deal with difficult, uncomfortable issues.
The Machine is written in present tense. It doesn’t use quotation marks for dialogue. It deals with issues of memory loss and identity and the friction between science and faith. The setting is bleak – a future Britain that’s suffering from the effects of global warming. And it’s unrelenting. Claustrophobic. Your stuck in the head of the main character, Beth, privy to her obsessive need to give her husband, currently in a vegetative state, back his memories.
Take the following paragraph:
The class are almost completely silent as they watch the video: there’s a naked woman, comedic in all other respects (unfit, flabby, unattractive), climbs a fence, to the top of her kitchen extension, and then scrambles, sobbing, to her roof to escape the flood; but, mercifully, none of the class laugh. The bodies of dogs and cats in the street, floating down. The dead being dredged out onto boats. When the video ends there’s only minutes until their first class and they leave quietly. Beth goes to lunch and sits alone, on a table at the far end. She sees Laura, who makes a beeline for her. Laura doesn’t ask to sit next to Beth – and why would she? They’re not children – but Beth finds it strange, how relaxed Laura is immediately. She starts talking about her life, how she argued with her boyfriend the previous night.
As Niall Harrison puts it, it’s that switch between the ‘startling nuggets of information’ – the flood – and the ‘mundane’ – sitting down to have lunch with Laura – that defines the style and intent of this novel. As Beth burrows further into the rabbit hole, that intense focus somehow narrows further. This should be off putting, close to unreadable, and yet Smythe somehow pulls it off. It’s because you feel for Beth. Her anger and frustration, her desperate desire to use The Machine to re-create her husband like he was before he went off to war, before he was shot in the head, before he came back to her wounded both physically and psychologically, before he became a test subject for The Machine. You want her to succeed. You want her to find some sort of peace in a world that’s going through a gradual apocalypse. You can’t turn away.
But more then just sympathy for Beth, the world she lives in feels more then just a cobbled together thought experiment. It feels real. This sense that life will go on, the mundane will still occupy most of our lives, even while everything goes to shit. And while the Sfnal mechanics of The Machine is never fully explained – at times it feel more organic then mechanical, the idea that it’s actually alive – this doesn’t undercut or undermine the stark reality of Beth’s claustrophobic environment.
In a perfect world, there would be buzz for this book. We would be talking about the themes, about Smythe’s deliberate narrative choices, about the fractious relationship between Beth and Laura, Beth and her husband, Beth and the community. And maybe if the book appears on peoples end of year lists or gets nominated for the odd award next year there’s a chance at a second dip. But whatever the case I’m just glad that complicated Science Fiction novels like these still get published.
I’m not sure whether I’ll have time to dip into Smythe’s backlist but I’ll certainly be looking forward to whatever he writes next
* The half refers to Niall Harrison’s brief thoughts on the Strange Horizon blog.
Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.
In MOBIUS DICK, physicist John Ringer, receives a mysterious text message that triggers an investigation into the development of new mobile phone technology in a research facility outside a remote Scottish village. Already the world is becoming a very different place: amnesia, telepathy, false memory and inexplicable coincidences all seem to be occurring more frequently with humorous, brain teasing results. Could quantum experiments have caused the collapse of our universe’s space-time continuum? Could the multi layered text we are reading come from another world altogether?
Why am I only now finding out about Andrew Crumey? For months I’ve been hearing praise about his new novel, The Secret Knowledge, and like J Robert Lennon, another author whose only just popped up in my literary crosshairs, I feel like I’ve missed out on something special.
In rectifying that I went and purchased Crumey’s 2004 novel Mobius Dick. There’s a quote on the front cover from Time Out (John O’Connell) that says:
It would be nice to think that this magnificent piece of work stood a chance of winning the Booker. It’s certainly my novel of the year.
It didn’t get nominated for the Booker. But nine years a later, in a massive twist of no particular importance, a book about quantum mechanics, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for The Time Being, did get a Booker nod. I’ve read both. If I had to collapse a wave function I’d say that the Ozeki is the slightly better book. They’re both very similar dealing with two separate, quantumly diverse narratives that entangle at the end – but in terms of character work – also known as the ability to cruelly manipulate tears from Ian Mond’s eyes – the Ozeki wins. I’ll discuss the Ozeki some other time, maybe even on a certain podcast.
Mobius Dick is the sort of book that will annoy some genre fans who will see it as someone from the outside (AKA literature) trying to get their hands dirty with a bit of genre. It’s the sort of criticism that notes the thinness of the plot, the amount of gratuitous sex, and then ends by saying that for those people serious about science fiction, there’s nothing new to be found here.
Crumey. of course, is fully aware of the genre antecedents. There’s a Man In The High Castle vibe to the book evidenced by Harry Dick, an amnesiac suffering Anomalous Memory Disorder (that is he remembers a past that never existed) and excerpts from Heinrich Behring’s Professor Faust. Proving to be the best parts of the novel, Behring’s novel at first seems like factual account of Schrodinger’s discovery of wave mechanics during his stay at Arosa in 1926. But we later find out [spoiler] that Behring’s book is a fiction, an alternative of what might have happened. As he says in his ‘afterword’:
The world I describe in Professor Faust – with its altered past and imaginary future – is quite deliberately one that could not possibly exist. Who could believe such a thing as a female Prime Minister of Britain, or a movie actor elected President of the United States? It would be difficult to be more evidently ironic without lapsing into farce.
So yes it’s all been done before. There’s nothing new to see here. And yet Crumey’s take on parallel worlds and quantum mechanics overflows with the passion of someone who has a PHD in theoretical physics. This isn’t someone borrowing genre tropes for his literary novel about quantum mechanics, rather this is someone who’s having a great deal of fun with the what if’s posed by the many worlds view of physics.
And if you don’t entirely catch on to all the literary references – ranging from Melville (of course) to Jung to Schumann – or the fact that Professor Faust and Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain are very alike – then that’s OK The James Bondian storyline involving physicist John Ringer and his frightening discovery of what’s going at a hush, hush secret facility in remote Scotland keeps the pages turning.
But those sections, as exciting as they are, are the least interesting parts of the novel. It’s clear that for Crumey that the heart and soul of the book is his passion for smart people and brilliant ideas, intermingled with the subversive idea that there’s a thin quantum line between what is and what could have been.
I’ll certainly be reading more books by Andrew Crumey, and next on my list will be The Secret Knowledge.
Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.
Here’s a couple of projects you might be interested in supporting.
The first comes from Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein, two of my favourite people, who have joined together to edit an anthology of diverse YA stories. They’ve gone to Pozible (the Australian Kickstarter) to raise the funds ($12,000) and after 6 or so days they’ve exceeded $2,500. So go forth and support Kaleidoscope.
Unlike Kaleidoscope that’s just under 10 grand away from it’s goal, Harry Connolly’s The Great Way Kickstarter reached its $12,000 goal in about eight hours. Going by Connolly’s blog this came as a bit of a shock. In fact he’d commented only moments after going live with the Kickstarter that maybe the $12,000 goal was a hill to high. $31,910 later and he’s now started introducing stretch goals.
So while there’s no urgency to fund this project, I mention it because Connolly is the perfect example of the mid-list writer who’s being forced to look at other avenues to publish his fiction. The fact that he’s attracted 680 backers and more money then he would likely have got if he’d sold the series to a traditional publisher, should interest other mid-list authors in his situation. In other words writers who have been previously published, who have a fan following, but don’t sell enough books to grease the churning cogs and wheels of the publishing industry.
Also, going by his blog – I’ve never met Connolly – he seems like a good bloke. The sort of good bloke and good writer who deserves more than to just be a forgotten author we vaguely remember a decade from now.
And finally, Strange Horizons. It’s hard to tell from the Fund Drive rocket ship on their home page, but it looks like they may only be $650 short from reaching their $11,000 goal. So with a day to go, if you haven’t donated how about you send a few dollars to this brilliant, important, wonderful website. One of the few genre resources on the web that I actually use.
Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.
Stolen from Goodreads:
Retired from his fighting days, John Perry is now village ombudsman for a human colony on distant Huckleberry. With his wife, former Special Forces warrior Jane Sagan, he farms several acres, adjudicates local disputes, and enjoys watching his adopted daughter grow up.
That is, until his and Jane’s past reaches out to bring them back into the game–as leaders of a new human colony, to be peopled by settlers from all the major human worlds, for a deep political purpose that will put Perry and Sagan back in the thick of interstellar politics, betrayal, and war.
While I was reading The Last Colony, the third and final novel in the Old Man’s War trilogy*, I kept muttering to myself –
“In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri.”
– after a while Jules told me to shut the fuck up, which I did. But those famous words from Saint Douglas kept ricocheting around my skull. Because if there was one thing you can say about John Perry and his wife Jane Sagan, it’s that their larger than life; more real and courageous and outspoken than anyone else in the novel, except maybe their adopted daughter Zoe.
And while it’s always nice to draw clean lines between the goodies and the baddies, the fact that Perry and Sagan are so perfect drained all the suspense and tension from the novel. There was never a moment that the narrative fooled me into thinking that John and Jane’s audacious plans to undermine the Colonial Union while saving the Last Colony from devastation was going to fail. This was a real man. And this was a real woman. And anything they did would be brave and moral and absolutely succeed with only the odd secondary character getting knocked off in the bargain.
The irony is that Old Man’s War Universe is one of dubious morals, political back stabbing and casual genocides. In among all the shiny technology and new colonies there this dark undercurrent. This is typified by the Colonial Union keeping the people of Earth in the dark over the many threats facing humanity. They do this partly to quell the possibility of dissent but also so they can easily harvest the aged and infirm with the promise of turning them into fighting fit soldiers with one helluva sex drive.
So I get it. John and Jane are the moral contrast to the amoral and at times vicious nature of the Colonial Union. They’re a symbol of hope and rebellion against the monolith. But fuck me, this novel would have been ten times more interesting if it didn’t always feel like the cards were stacked in Perry and Sagan’s favour. They always seem to have the right resource to call on, whether it’s a smart techy bloke who can hack into an encrypted system when the plot requires it or the fact that their daughter has become an object of devotion for a race of powerful aliens or the Jane Sagan gets her ‘super powers’ back at just the right time. It makes for a predictable and ultimately unsatisfying novel.
And yet I have to credit Scalzi’s ability to keep me reading. Even though I might have rolled my eyes on occasions – the Joss Whedon-esque snappy dialogue gets old very quickly – the sheer exuberance of the story telling meant I still wanted to know what happened next. I never want to be so cynical that I can’t appreciate and acknowledge great story-telling.
Scalzi’s popularity is directly linked to this cinematic style of story-telling. The descriptive passages may be thin on the ground – especially the aliens – and yet you can picture every scene clear and crisp in full HD with 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound.
While I will skip Zoe’s Tale (unless someone tells me that its more than just a retread of a story I’ve just finished) I am curious to see how Scalzi treats the Old Man’s War Universe when the perfect duo of Sagan and Perry aren’t present. Because the potential is there for some dark, morally ambiguous and entirely more crunchier stories. I’m just not convinced that Scalzi is interested in plumbing those depths.
We shall see.
* Well, OK, maybe not the final novel set in the Universe given the publication of Zoe’s Tale and The Human Division. But the three books, starting with Old Man’s War, do form a self contained trilogy.
Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.
I can’t find a decent description of Herovit’s World online. But really there’s not much to know –
The novel tells the story of Jonathan Herovit, hack extraordinaire, whose written 92 pulp science fiction novels under the name Kirk Poland. Jonathan is a drunk, a misogynist, is in a loveless marriage with Janice and struggles with the responsibilities of fatherhood. He’s also just coming to terms with the fact that the books he writes are stinking piles of shit.
Some of you may know Barry Malzberg from such science fiction novels as Beyond Apollo and The Falling Astronauts. But most of you will know Malzberg from the recent kerfuffle over his and Mike Resnick’s column in the SFWA bulletin.
In his time (which seems to cover a ten year period between the late 60s and late 70s) Malzberg was a reasonably prolific Science Fiction author who wrote about 35 novels. Herovit’s World came out at the height of his career, a period where he published 11 books between 1973 and 1974. I note this because in Herovit’s World Jonathan talks about churning out 7 Survey Team books a year. And while Malzberg never reached this feat I do wonder whether Herovit’s World was as much a cautionary tale about his own career and output at it was a jab at the Science Fiction community.
Now, I’m no SF historian and my knowledge of what was going on in 1974 in the US is patchy at best. But going by what I’ve been told and what I’ve discovered through my stumbles on the internet, it seems that with the emergence of the New Wave in the early 1970s (imported from the UK) there was very much a shift from the old guard to the new. This is very much in evidence with the 1974 nominations for the Nebula Awards – the year this book was eligible - where New Wavey type novels like Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Disch’s 334, PKD’s Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said and T.J. Bass’s very odd The GodWhale were nominated.
It’s possible that Herovit’s World is very much Malzberg’s attempt to shake up the old guard (writers and fans), to make them see that the golden age is over; that all this talk about SF predicting the future is bullshit; that no-one over the age of 12 takes the field seriously. As Janice says to Herovit while in the process of leaving him:
[Janice says] ‘God, how I hate science fiction. I hate everything about it. I hate the people who write it and the people who edit it, and don’t forget the idiots who read it. And the word rates and the conventions and what people say to you if you’re married to someone who writes this crap.”
‘It’s an honourable field. It foretold the splitting of the atom and the moon landing.’
‘Like hell it did. It was just a lot of crap, all of it, and a couple of lucky guesses.’
But it’s also possible that Malzberg, who would publish many more SF novels after this one, is simply reminding himself that his work isn’t high art.
What I can be sure of is that when I heard Malzberg speak about 1950s Science Fiction with Gary Wolfe on the Coode Street podcast it was clear to me that he loved and adored the genre. But then we all get nostalgic as we get older, disregarding those earlier times when we thought everything was shit and most of the books we read were worthless.
As a satire, though, Herovit’s World is a failure. Oh yes there’s the odd wink and nudge, especially when we get briefly introduced (through a flashback) to V.V. Vivaldi – the L Ron Hubbard analogue of the novel. I’m sure there are other nods and in jokes scattered throughout the book, most of them so out of date that only the crustiest of fans will recognise them. And of course the hackery that Herovit writes – of which we get a number of samples – is the worst type of pulp. But even back in 1974 I’m sure most readers would have recognised it as such.
It also doesn’t succeed as a portrait of a man who’s on the brink of total mental collapse. We hate Jonathan Herovit from the moment we’re introduced to him. He’s arrogant, has an ego the size of the planet and treats his wife and child like dirt. The fact that he has writers block and is only now dimly realising that he’s wasted his entire life on pulp novels doesn’t make me want to hug him. This is a man who will savagely rape his wife because he feels he’s entitled to sex. This is man who’s quite happy to go off and be a guest lecturer at a College on the pretext that he will get plenty of pussy in the bargain. This is a man who shies away from any responsibility, to the point where he mentally gives up and allow his pseudonym to take over.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s no attempt on Malzberg’s part to make you feel sorry for Herovit. It’s clear that Malzberg hates him as well. But as a result I’m not sure what I meant to take away from this nasty screed. That Science Fiction writer’s of the mid 1970s were a bunch of misogynist, alcoholic and selfish bastards who were always on the lookout for tail? And if so, is Herovit’s World an angry critique of the men’s club that SF was – and still is? I’m not sure. Malzberg’s characterisation of Janice is anything but flattering but then we only see her through Herovit’s twisted world view.
No matter how I play it over in my head my feelings toward Herovit’s World are conflicted. I want to hate the book and love it and throw it away and make others read it. Maybe this is a sign of a great novel. Maybe this is a sign of confused critic reading a book 40 years past its sell by date.
Whatever the case I’m going to leave the final words to Janice, in my view the hero of the novel:
‘How can you all take yourselves so seriously? You really believe this garbage. You write about the problems of the universe and alien invasions and space flight and worlds being blown up and the fate of the galaxy, and you can’t even straighten out your own lives or make more than a penny a word. All you do on your own time is complain about the lousy pay and the lousy editors and get drunk at those conventions. I think you’re all insane… I’ve had a lot of time to think this out over the last few months, and I mean it. There’s craziness in the field; it’s just right into the middle. Once you start writing this stuff you’re out of your head already.’
Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.
On Sunday, Kirstyn and I recorded episode 32 of Writer and The Critic. During our discussion of Every Day by David Levithan, Kirstyn quoted from this review by Sara Polsky. Assuming Kirstyn doesn’t edit it out, you should hear me cutting her off mid-sentence to babble on about the Strange Horizon fund drive.
What I wanted to say, and what I think gets lost in the flurry of words as I belatedly realise that this probably isn’t the best moment to mention the fund drive, is that Strange Horizon’s has played an important role in our podcast. Whenever Kirstyn or I are looking for intelligent, erudite criticism about a specific genre novel, Strange Horizons is the first place we check. And more often than not we find ourselves quoting or linking to the review. (In fact we’ve referred to Strange Horizon reviews in four of the last six podcasts!)
In short Strange Horizons is an amazing resource. Not only does it provide – free of charge – the best criticism on the web, but it also publishes some fine fiction and some thoughtful blogs. Take this recent one by Renay which offers insight into the irritating phenomenon of authors intruding into book blogging discussions about said author’s work (and then check the comments to see an actual example taking place!!!)
Look, I’m not prone to bouts of melodrama or have ever been accused of overstating my case. I mean just listen to Writer and The Critic and you’ll hear the measured words of a slightly plump man who always thinks before he speaks. But, it would be a FUCKING DISGRACE if Strange Horizons was unable to reach it’s $11,000 goal. Because while we all moan and groan about the lack of diversity, about the death of science fiction, about the lack of quality criticism, here is a place where you can read some of the most innovative and out of the box speculative fiction on the web; a place where criticism IS NOT the privilege of a bunch of crusty old white guys but is shared amongst the many and diverse voices that our community has to offer; a place where ideas can be developed and argued and broken apart and put together again.
So please donate. Because in the midst of all the shitty flame wars and arguments and vicious debates, Strange Horizons is a haven of sanity and really good things.
Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.
Cassie Zukav has always been a bit of a weirdness magnet. Strange things always happened to her, even before she came to Key West for vacation and never left. She’s dealt with sea monsters and nixies and dragons, and shares her room with the ghost of an old wrecker captain, whom only she can see and hear. Now she spends her days leading scuba diving jaunts and her nights at Mayor Fred’s Saloon watching the house band, 1812, rock the joint. But when 1812 takes a break, they’re replaced by Jötunheim, a band everyone but Cassie loves. Their lead singer is Loki, the Norse trickster god, who is trying to bring about Ragnarok-the end of all that is. Cassie learns that she’s a Dís, a fate goddess, from Odin himself, the Allfather of the Norse gods. She’s the only one who can stop Loki from destroying the world. And then things get really weird…
I first came across Keith DeCandido’s fiction when he wrote “UNITed We Fall” in Decalog 3: Consequences. Going by his extensive bibliography this was one of his first pieces of published tie-in fiction. Since then DeCandido has written scads of the stuff, authoring books in the Doctor Who, Buffy, Star Trek, Supernatural and recently Leverage universes. And I haven’t even mentioned his comics, of which he’s written many, most of it in the Farscape-verse.
With so much TV Tie-in fiction it would easy to label DeCandido as a hack for hire, someone who can knock off a Star Trek novel in his sleep. But I’ve read a couple of his TV tie in novels and can say with total confidence that when he writes in any given universe he does so with passion. Books like The Next Generation Q &A are written with a deep knowledge and love of the subject. And they are rollicking rides. If you have any interest in the universes DeCandido plays in then I recommend his TV work.
But what about his original fiction? Although I own a good chunk of Keith’s non TV tie in work – his Dragon Precinct and SCPD novels – this collection is the first piece of his original fiction I’ve read.
The first thing that strikes me about Ragnarok and Roll is that Keith is a born story-teller. While he’s no great stylist (and to be fair I don’t think that’s his intention) through dialogue, character interaction and a keen sense of timing, DeCandido immediately engages the reader. You’ll have no problems tearing through these eight stories on a lazy Saturday afternoon.
And that ability to tell an entertaining story, to understand pacing and humour and suspense isn’t something we should downplay. In fact – and I don’t mean to sound patronising – newbie writers could do allot worse than see how DeCandido structures and paces a story. How he doesn’t rely on exposition and explanation. How at the forefront is his focus on character interaction and sense of place. The reason I gave a shit about any of these stories was because DeCandido knew exactly when to pull the strings.
The second thing that struck me about Ragnarok and Roll was how this was an urban fantasy where the main character didn’t (a) angst and moan and (b) wasn’t in the middle of a love triangle. Cassie Zukav’s adventures were refreshing in that they were just that, adventures where strange shit happened and she and her friends put things right. Yes, Cassie might be a fate goddess but that doesn’t mean she can’t have a job, have friends and enjoy her life. And it’s the idea that life goes on between the crazy, wacky adventures that grounds Cassie as a real person.
And then there’s Key West which DeCandido brings alive through an obvious love for the place. DeCandido’s Key West isn’t a one to one match for the actual island – he’s played around a little with some of the bars and eateries – but if anyone in Florida was looking for a copywriter to sell the place (not that it needs much selling coz I believe it’s a pretty popular tourist attraction) then Keith would be your man.
Actually, it’s his love and passion for Key West that highlights the main fault of this set of linked stories. Cultural Appropriation. Yes, those two words that no author since 2009 wants to ever hear linked to their work. Unfortunately, I think the stories on Ragnarok and Roll fall foul of cultural appropriation in two ways both general and specific.
(Before I go on, please stop now and read and Aliette de Bodard’s recent essay on her blog about writing ‘the other’. The rules she describes should be stapled to the walls of any writers office – if they’re considering developing any story that features cultures not their own).
The general relates to Cassie’s Jewishness. In the opening few stories mention is made that Cassie is Jewish, which is perfectly fine. The problem is that the mention of her cultural identity feels like an afterthought, something that DeCandido uses to differentiate rather than explore. Now, to be fair Keith does make it clear that Cassie – and for that matter her family – are not observant Jews –
We weren’t the most observant Jews ever, either, so the high holy days tended to come and go without much going on.
– and so one shouldn’t expect Cassie to be thinking about her faith and her culture throughout the course of these stories. And anyway, I can hear someone saying, why does every character in the existence of literature need to bring their cultural baggage into every story?
Well… putting aside the strawman element of that question I would argue that our culture, even if we’re mostly apathetic to it, still plays a part in who we are. But even if we don’t want each story to scream out: CASSIE IS A JEW! CASSIE IS A JEW! I expected Keith to do something with that cultural identity, even if it’s little more than Cassie wondering what it might mean to be both Jewish and a fate goddess. From a religious viewpoint, the two are oil and water and that conflict has the potential to generate both character development and story.
Of course I’m willing to accept that the above says more about my own hang ups then it does about Keith’s choices as a writer. My excuse is that there are very few self identified Jewish characters in genre fiction. And so when one appears I do sit up and take notice. In this case there was bugger all to notice.
Still, it’s not the only instance of cultural appropriation in the collection. The second is more specific and involves the Calusa.
I know very little about Native American traditions and culture. What I do know is that the use of Native American spiritualism in genre fiction – whether it’s Indian burial grounds or having a wise old Native American provide cryptic advice to our heroes – is a well worn and offensive cliche. And it was annoying and frustrating to see Keith fall into this trap with his 3-part Cayo Hueso story-line.
We find out in this, the longest piece in the collection, that the Last of the Calusa – a powerful entity that’s been awoken by Loki – is taking its revenge on its enemies – essentially anyone who has Native American blood and lives in Key West. Although I don’t know anything about the internecine battles between Native American tribes, making the Last of the Calusa – a real tribe that was really wiped out – a vengeful spirit discriminately killing other Native Americans was not only an awful cliche but showed a lack of cultural sensitivity.
This story might have been saved if it was other Native Americans saving the day. But their involvement is next to nil. Instead, two white Jews and Odin – can you get more European? – stop this terrible Native American spirit.
And this is why people should read what Aliette de Bodard says. Because if you’re going to use another culture, whether as the good guys or the bad guys, you really need to understand what water you’re treading in.
I have a couple of other minor quibbles. The Table of Contents in the ebook are, for some reason, in the back of the book not the front. And while I know the first couple of stories are reprints from elsewhere, consideration should have been given to editing out the couple of paragraphs that repeat what we already know about Cassie and her friends.
This review is long because I actually gave a shit about Cassie and her adventures. Cultural appropriation aside, I enjoyed them. They were fun. I hope Keith writes more. I also hope he explores Cassie’s Jewishness – though no need for a story about her facing the Golem… really – especially in regard to being a fate goddess. And I also hope people give the series a go. Keith knows how to tell an engaging story and that’s not a commodity that as common as you’d think.
Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.