Thursday, April 21, 2011

30 Days of Genre, Days Eight and Nine

Day 8: "Best fan soundtrack:"

I'm not sure what this means; I initially thought it meant "if you made up a soundtrack, what would it be?" Maybe? I decided to poke around on the tubes and discovered that this one stumped a lot of people. What is means, apparently, is a fan-made soundtrack/mix tape for a book. Uh, I have no idea! So, for the heck of it, here is a quick soundtrack for reading a book I just completed, Sam Sykes' Black Halo:

The Waterboys - "The Madness is Here Again" (Lenk's Song)
The Real McKenzies - "Drink The Way I Do" (Demos' Song)
Garmarna - "Njaalkeme(Hunger)" (Katarina's Song)
The Magic Numbers - "Let Somebody In" (Dreadaeleon's Song)
Esbjorn Svensson Trio - "Believe Beleft Below" (Asper's Song)
Alice in Chains - "Last of My Kind" (Gariath's Song)

Oculus Infernum- "Let the Pain Begin" (longfaces' theme)
Oingo Boingo - "Don't Know How to Party" (lizardfolks' theme)

Apocalyptica - "Harvester of Sorrow" (general mood)
Rob Dougan - "Furious Angels" (great to listen to during contemplative character moments)
While Angels Watch - "Obsidian Blade" (coda)

Day 9: "Saddest scene in a genre novel:"

So many to choose from. There are classics like poor dumb Boromir trying to redeem himself after being a massive tool in The Fellowship of the Ring. There are scenes such as the ones in The Wolves of Memory where you feel awful for Sander Courane as he shambles along with his dead lover in his arms trying to make sense of it all. So many moments where plans fail, lives are ended. . . I think the problem for me is that I read a lot of heavy novels and sadness is woven into them, much like life. It is hard to pick one.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

30 Days of Genre, Day Seven: A Very Special Couple

Day 7: "Favorite couple in a genre novel:"

My initial thought: I have no idea.

This seems like a rather romancey question, and since I rarely read books for the romance, or think in terms of couples, I don't have a good response to this one. Weirdly, I can think of a few from other media, such as Derek Wildstar & Nova, Kitty & Peter, or Deckard & Rachel. But in genre literature, a favorite does not come easily.

My first response? Jaxom and Ruth, the focus couple of Anne McCaffrey's The White Dragon. Both put-upon by life (Jaxom an orphan, Ruth a runt), they end up being the outsiders who win the day. They love each other, go to great lengths for one another, work well together, and their bond is strong enough to see them through some rough times and gives them the sand to be heroes. They are not trusted, sometimes overprotected, and few seem to understand their connection at first. But they overcome social convention and long odds to contribute significantly to the wellbeing of their world.

I read the series in high school my sophomore year, and then re-read the third book several times, because I loved the two of them together. Whelan's cover, with all the little fire lizards hanging around, is as clear in my mind as the day I first set eyes on the book. Those fire lizards were for me an odd validation of Jaxom and Ruth's love, of the projection of it to others who were often ignored and disparaged. And their relationship was very straightforward; as Ruth put it: I am the white dragon. You are my rider. We are together. But they were not just for each other; their relationship was crucial to Pern. It made more sense to me then, and still does now, than a lot of the romantic unions people cite as their favorite.

30 Days of Genre, Day Six: Stoopid Eye. . . .

Day Six: "Most annoying character:"

This one was easy too: it's Sauron, from The Lord of the Rings series.

The reason is as straightforward as the character's motivation: Sauron is a one-dimensional non-character, a plot device. His ring is more interesting than he is. He has spent ages trying to do this one thing, to rule everyone, with apparently no good plan for doing so and no reason to do so other than "I'm Sauron." From being a servant of Morgoth until the end of the series, all he does is try and try and try to be a jerk of the highest order.

We never really find out why; the fact that he is thwarted constantly is about all the motivation he is given. He tries to conquer the will of all, his overly-elaborate plan fails because of his apparent arrogance and misunderstanding of human (and elven and dwarven) nature, he fades and then starts revving up to do it all over again. He is the meanest, most thick-headed one-trick pony of all time.

He is there to power the central conflict of the series, true, but one of the failings of Tolkien's saga is that there is a fairly rich cast of characters on one side, and on the other are teeming hordes, a sniveler, a guy who can't commit, and a mustachio-twirling mega-villain that for unfathomable reasons the rest follow. I resent Sauron because I want there to be more complexity and motivation on the other side. The contrast is too stark, too essentialized, and most of that comes from the figure of Sauron, who is evil incarnate, but a very stereotyped, unexplicated evil that has nothing to substantiate it but the biggest chip on one's shoulder in the history of the Universe.

(Pardon the lateness; laid down with child last night and dozed off)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

30 Days of Genre, Day Five: Who Am I?

Day Five: "Character you feel you are most like:"

This one is very easy: Thomas "Tuds" Tudbury from the Wild Cards series, a.k.a. "The Great and Powerful Turtle." The Turtle is a shy, nerdy boy who can only use his Ace powers while ensconced in a shell that armors him and allows him to view the world through cameras. His confidence falters when face-to-face with people, when he cannot seal himself away. When I read this story I was at a low point in my life: jobless, living with my parents in a crumbling inn in New England, dealing with a nervous breakdown, and completely thwarted by life. I immediately identified with the Turtle in a way that has not happened since.

The Turtle is the superhero I had always wanted to be, and given his personality, I could see myself being a hero. I was desperately looking for something to relate to, and the Turtle gave me an idea of a person that did that for me. I was so much like him, requiring thick layers of protection to do anything significant or creative, always undermining myself, and always stumbling towards the future. That such a character could do that gave me hope. It took me some time to act on that hope, but certainly the seed was planted in my mind through the adventures of the character.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Some Reviews: Growing Up and Keeping Your Mind From Leaking Out of Your Ears

I've been so caught up with reading, column writing, and chipping away at fiction that I have fallen a bit behind writing reviews. I have one in progress for SF Signal and another for Functional Nerds, but here are two that have no home:

1) The Bird of The River, by Kage Baker: I feel bad about this one. I received this book as part of the Ranting Dragon Locus Challenge, but did not finish the book in time. But I did both vote in the Locus Poll and now, present the review! The book itself is a nice hardback edition but the cover is a bit irritating, since it portrays a scene that does not actually occur in the novel, and shows the title river ship as being some little pleasure craft or something, when in truth it is a huge vessel and a community unto itself. Do not let the cover fool you: there are no orc-like creatures in this book, and no heroines with their. . . capes?. . . blowing in the wind as they look heedlessly forward. Eliss would never miss someone boarding her home like that!

The novel is a combination of secondary-world fantasy and a mystery within a gently-tweaked bildungsroman. The central character is Eliss, a teenage woman who is trying to keep her drug-addicted mother alive and care for her younger brother, Alder, who is of mixed heritage. She helps secure her mother a job on one of the large trading ships that sail the river, but tragically her mother dies soon after that, and Eliss is forced to find a way to make herself useful on the ship. She quickly finds out that her talent for perception and her sharp mind make her a valuable asset for The Bird of the River as it makes its way up the perilous river. As the ship journeys to river's end, she helps a shipmate investigate a suspicious death and struggles to adapt and thrive as she enters adulthood.

The plot of the novel is nothing new, and while the prose is very clean and straightforward it is not especially evocative. The world that Baker has created has some interesting flourishes but is neither of epic scale nor of great ethnographic depth. The humans, known as the Children of the Sun, live and sometimes fight with the Yendri, the green-skinned folk who live in the wilderness and are merchants and healers,, and the "demons," feral humanoids who seem to primarily be bandits. The god known only as the Blacksmith is the "father" of the Children of the Sun, who have surnames such as Ingot and Riveter, but religion is a peripheral concern in the novel. The world is not particularly rich, and the story not of great complexity.

But Baker uses these as a backdrop for excellent characters and for situations that test them. What is distinctive here is that Baker creates a story of a young woman's maturation that you empathize with, frequently surprising you by not going for the melodramatic or grim outcome. Eliss does not have an easy life, but she is no Chosen One, no victim, and an active participant in her own future. Eliss' choices matter, and she makes many of those choices with intelligence and discernment. She is still a child in some ways, but her keen eyes and mind serve her well as she navigates the hazards of the river and of life. Tragic things happen, but she is never devastated by them, and learns how to move on and continue making a life for herself. The Bird of the River is heartening without platitudes, engrossing not because of flashy magic (which there is very little of in the book) or epic conflicts, but because you come to care for Eliss and her world and thus feel some empathy for her situation, reveling in her triumphs and wincing at her missteps, but feeling that she, and you, are two humans on a journey together.

This is not a novel of high adventure, of vast philosophical discourses, or of searing emotional trauma. People go about their lives quite normally for the most part, and while this is a fantasy world, and there is a mystery, what grabs you is the lived feeling of the story, small details of people's lives, their quirks and satisfactions. Beside Eliss my favorite character was the boy Wolkin, who is one of the most believable and spirited young boys I have encountered in a fantasy novel. He is funny, dorky, sometimes a bit dim, and full of life. Although few of the characters are fully developed, even those in supporting roles feel like people, with quirks and histories. Baker deftly creates a lived-in world without a lot of marvels, but with a lot of ambiance and earthiness.

The novel's progress is slow and easy, although also brief. The prose brings you along at a leisurely pace, slowly adding details and rhythms to the life of the characters that provides more weight to the world than long discourses or descriptions could. You understand how things work with subdued aplomb, and that allows the reader to engage the characters more fully. While not a character study, it is a novel that is about people, and about how the little choices in life can eventually create a major shift, or open up a new path. Eliss' development from desperate opportunist to reliable ship hand and friend is a pleasure to watch, and you feel emotionally rewarded in the process. Although the ending is a little forced and involves a form of deus ex machina, what matters in the end is that Eliss has grown up and changed her future. The ending perturbed me somewhat, but I greatly enjoyed the journey that I took with Eliss and her shipmates.

2) Open Your Eyes, by Paul Jessup (Full disclosure: Paul and I exchange ideas and bon mots frequently online, and he sent me a copy of his book to read). Let me disclosure something further: Open Your Eyes is a careening, lunatic carousel of space opera, surrealism, and ontological instability. Alternately sublime, ghastly, astonishing, and occasionally awkward, this is a bold short novel with heaps of inventiveness and lots of risk-taking. Jessup's embellishments and contortions of story and image don't always work, but there are no dull moments in this work and it constantly strives to surprise and provoke the reader.

This is also a book whose story is not elaborate but, unlike Baker's plain prose Jessup's writing intentionally disturbs our perspective, play with our minds, and disassembles anything we might take for granted. But this is not just textual acrobatics or trickery; Jessup's novel plays with ideas of identity, action, and desire by both interfering with reality and upending our expectations. From the ecstatic opening scene to the surprising sudden ending, the reader must navigate a dizzying world of starships made of bone and duty, wax-fingered doll constructs, infectious languages, and conniving AIs, a startling milieu that is absurd and sensual, delirious and harsh; a world where every character has secret longings and feelings of disconnection, and is in a constant struggle to not be overwhelmed or destroyed by the forces around them or their fellow-travelers.

Open Your Eyes is not a story about connection; it is a story about dissonance, about how trust, expectations, and longing can undo us. It is about how our yearnings can blind us, trip us up, and open us up to a message of lethal conformity. When the alien language (represented by a nonsensical mantra) overtakes a character, it annihilates them, not bodily, but intellectually, emotionally. Submission to the language, which seduces with its repetitiveness, removes everything a person is from their body. And characters do not become infected accidentally; they open themselves to it, often unwittingly, in their myopic pursuit of some petty or unattainable goal. For all of the strangeness and bewilderment in the novel, it has an underlying substance to it, a point that arises again and again as the characters betray themselves.

It has overtones of despair and echoes of nihilism, but the story is propelled along not just by the characters fumbling after their desires, but by sheer human tenacity, which is set in constant struggle with both the viral language and the inevitable failure that death will bring to all of their quests for fulfillment. The characters struggle to live, to not just achieve some goal or dream but to arrive at a moment of completion, of reunion with something that they cherish, that they hope will restore them. All of them fail except one, who only transforms when she gives up her desires and allows something new to take hold and illuminate the world. This transformation ends up setting the world right in some sense, but only by allowing the unexpected to flourish.

There are some uncertain moments in the novel, partly due to vagaries in the prose, but more often due to the flaws and inconsistencies of the characters. They are unreliable actors, as we all are, and their shortsightedness, their obsessive focus on what they cannot have, creates most of the conflict in the novel. Sometimes it is unclear what is happening, and there are a few moments that I wish were more clearly presented, but what emerges in this novel is a profound message: that regardless of how unlimited technology, possibility, and potential may be, unless people are willing to expand their vision, to appreciate and understand the wonders around them, they will only succeed in facilitating their obliteration. When you refuse to engage the world around you, see circumstances for what they are, or appreciate that your desires do not trump all other contingencies, you ontologically keep your eyes closed, and miss what your life can truly be.

30 Days of Genre, Day Four (The Guilty Pleasure)

Day Four: "Your Guilty Pleasure Book:"

As I have noted elsewhere, I don't have a lot of "guilty pleasures," because I try to own up to what I read and watch and enjoy. And because, in a way, being a fan of fantastika means that anything I read with that designation is thought of as a guilty pleasure by many "ordinary" folk (and sometimes, by connoseiurs of the fantastic as well). Which make me sad for them, sad that they feel they have to label anything not "mainstream" or validated by some hegemonic cultural agreement to be somehow innocent or upstanding as something to feel "guilty about." Certainly, the idea of guilt has a range of meanings, from severe judgment to joking, but the notion that we should feel in some form (even playfully) ashamed about our choices of art seems more about the reinforcement of rather stolid norms than about looking at our pleasure from different angles.

Generally, I would put some of my sword-and-sorcery reading and movie watching in this category. It's less a question of feeling apologetic than talking about pleasures that deviate from certain standards. I have read sword-and-sorcery since I was a teenager and despite some of its excesses I often find it more satisfying as pleasure reading than epic fantasy or urban fantasy. Why?
"While lurid and often emotionally stunted, there was a genuine pleasure to be had in the adventures of these flawed protagonists. Problems could not always be solved with wit or moral fiber; destiny and the favor of the gods could be a right pain in the ass. And the frequent delightful skewerings of upper classes and power structures appealed to me . . . .

While these tendencies often arose in other fantasy subgenres, they were fully realized in S&S. Panache and excess were encouraged and could be used for tragic and comic effect by writers, made more intense by the often small-scale, personal stories being told. The visceral intimacies, the sensuality of all aspects of life, and the suddenness with which fortunes could change and lives could be lost were heady."
It is that distinctive combination of overflowing fecundity and bold indulgence in the pursuit of avaricious adventure with resistance to political, social, and cultural norms that has kept sword-and-sorcery appealing to me.

Fortunately, the requirement is for a "book," not a novel, so I will put forth the Flashing Swords anthologies, specifically the first volume, which is a collection of novelettes that give the reader a variety of approaches. In one book you get the sly fun of Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, the stylish decadence of Vance's Dying Earth, a great saga-like tale from Poul Anderson, and a brutal introduction to Amalric the Mangod by Lin Carter. It is a mixture that for me codifies the manifold pleasures of sword-and-sorcery, and also demonstrates some of the things that make me uncomfortable sometimes (such as the palpable testosterone in Carter's story). Flawed heroes in imperfect worlds try to survive and sometimes do a bit of good, challenging powers beyond their ken; the stories are rich, lunatic excursions into other worlds, quintessential S&S.

Friday, April 15, 2011

30 Days of Genre, Days Two and Three

I am apparently behind, so I will catch up with a double dose today!

Day Two: "Your Favorite Character"

Characters are particularly important to me, and because of this, there are a lot of them that I love. The Spike, from Delany's Triton, and Mouse from his book Nova both had a big impact on me in high school. Severian and Thecla from Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series were characters who surprised me but kept me engrossed in the world they moved through. I have a soft spot for Samwise Gamgee, for sure, and I think he and Eowyn are the best characters in Tolkein's saga. Jirel of Joiry and the Dowager Royina Ista from Bujold's Paladin of Souls were two incredibly strong characters that taught me about persistence. The scoundrel Aiken Drum from Julian May's Saga of Pliocene Exile was a character whom I could never pin down, whom I both admired and reviled. Most recently, I fell for Eliss, the young woman struggling to make a life for herself in Kage Baker's fine novel The Bird of the River.

But the one I return to again and again is Haviland Tuf, from George R. R. Martin's Tuf Voyaging. Watching his transformation from merchant into semi-divine power, and the moral quandries of his actions, is always both a delight and a sobering thing. His quirkiness slowly gives way to something weightier, and he turns out to be a very provocative, deep character. Martin does a great job making us sympathetic towards Tuf, while also realizing the burden that his accidentally-acquired power puts on him.

Day Three: A Genre Novel That is Underrated:

I'm struggling with this one. I think a lot of novels are underrated, because the criteria used to evaluate some of them are often not how well-written they are, or what concerns underlie the story, or other considerations of the novel as a novel. I find that when I recommend books to patrons or friends they often come up with reasons to not take the recommendation based on other criterion, like the Jim Butcher fan who thought that the Stainless Steel Rat would be "too sciency" or the Marion Zimmer Bradley admirer who thought the Kushiel books would not be "mythic" enough. Or, conversely, the Dom DeLillo reader who wanted something a little lighter and scoffed at Chabon and Lethem for their geekishness. we all approach stories with different idea and expectations in our heads.

So here are four works to consider. The first is P.C. Hodgell's God Stalk, a fantasy novel from the early 1980s that is fun, well-written, and has some bite to it. Next is R. A. MacAvoy's Tea with the Black Dragon, which is lovely in every respect, gently magical and very character-driven. C. J. Cherryh's Faded Sun Trilogy is a set of novels that combine powerful themes, from belonging to genocide, with excellent writing. Finally, Michael Moorcock's Oswald Bastable books (starting with The Warlord of the Air) are both crackling good stories and riffs on some classical romantic motifs by skewering imperial dystopias, the notion of progress, and even the heroic memory.

It is easy to forget how many great stories are in fantastika's past, and I think that we need to appreciate more of these books to more fully enjoy the genre.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

30 Days of Genre, Day One

Over at the blog Bibliotropic Ria discusses a meme that I found interesting, regarding the history of one's appreciation for "genre" fiction (which I took to mean fantastika). There's a different topic for 30 consecutive days, and I thought it would be fun to do, so here I go!

Day 1: First "genre novel."

I've tried to figure this out on several occasions, from tracing my history with Conan and other barbarians to considering my start as an SF reader, from remembering when I first saw Frank Frazetta's art to looking at my relationship with space opera. I'm not sure that I can really point to that one book that did it. Last year I wrote a comment over at SF Signal about the subject:

"But what drew me to the genre in the first place? I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family (and was a childhood evangelist, but that's another story), and we were expelled from the church for my father's assorted transgressions (also another story). I entered high school completely unprepared for the real world (I had been partly homeschooled, partly religious schooled, and had attended 13 different schools in-between before 9th grade), and I retreated almost immediately into books.

After exhausting the biographies of veterinarians and pet detectives, I was unsure where to go next. My cousin gave me a copy of Lester Del Rey's Rocket Jockey, which I found to be unlike anything I had read before. The book imagined things that had not happened, maybe could not happen, but that were treated as fact. I had heard to things like this, of movies such as Star Wars (which I had been banned from seeing, along with most movies in theaters). The book looked ahead and made a world out of things that might occur. I was hooked by the idea of looking at the future that way.

Uncertain how to find more books like that, I wandered the aisles of the library until something popped out. That led me to Space Cadet, which I checked out of my high school library and carried around so often that it became a derisive nickname for me. Brooks' The Sword of Shannara, which was accessible and appealing to a youngling unexposed to such imaginings, was another gift from my cousin. From here I dove into Heinlein's juveniles, Asimov, and many of the classics, and these sustained me in my freshman year until I discovered my history teacher's shelf of wonders. "

When I compare this to other writings, I realize that my chronology is mixed up. I actually read Rocket Jockey twice, the time of religious fervor in-between having partly erased the memory. All I really remember from that first reading at the age of 5 was the rocket ship, and the meteorite punching through the ship's hull. I think that was the earliest book I read, but it's hard to say that that first reading was what put me on the path. What little chronology there is in the space opera piece is vague, especially when I remember reading a couple of Heinlein's seminal works, such as Space Cadet and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in high school (and in fact carried the former book around so much that it became a derogatory nickname for me).

I was exposed to SF and fantasy before and after my family's religious phase, and while I romantically like to draw narrative connections between them, I did not really become a reader of fantastika until I was in high school and came under the influence of my history teacher Mr. Cahoon, he of the cabinet of book wonders. There's no doubt that Rocket Jockey was important, but so were the planetary romances of Burroughs. Heinlein gave me a lot of words to dive into, but so did Poe (and I was profoundly affected in middle school by Lorne Greene's readings of his works, especially "The Cask of Amontillado"). And yet I did feel really brought into the genre until I read Le Guin and Delany, and had my skull cracked open by their imaginations. For me, it took a number of books to make me a fan, and later writer, of genre literature.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A little ephemera and a bit of vociferation

1) My new column at SFSignal turned out well, and has gotten some good comments. I really did try to be lighter, but Foucault got in the mix.

2) My first review for the gentlefolk at Functional Nerds is up, covering Ben Aaronovitch's Midnight Riot. Which I liked enough that I will try to read Moon Over Soho when I can. They're fun and have good writing, not wooden and rote like the Dresden books nor squick-inducing like Laurell Hamilton. I'm hoping the second book improves on Aaronovitch's strengths, particularly his flair for good characters and his capacity for deftly presenting a scene with concision (although I thought that fell away in towards the end of the novel).

3) I've read a number of posts and opinions on these here interwebs that have put more gears spinning and clurichauns dancing in my head. Paul Jessup has been writing about epic fantasy on his blog and we have had a few twitter and email exchanges about the subject. These were set off by Daniel Abraham's discussion over at Orbit. Paul is curious about the need for war to often be the instigation for a given epic's plot arc, and he makes some compelling observations about the idea of what an epic can be.

I have talked about the idea of epic fantasy before, but Paul's hypothesis brings up some fresh issues for debate. I have maintained that power is a big part of the epic fantasy, and that the assumption is that "epic fantasy" is about world-shaking conflicts and consequences. As Paul pointed out (and I mentioned as well), the way that the word "epic" if often applied in the genre does not reflect its roots or even many of the classic works that stand as exemplars of the term. The word "epic" is often used, honestly, more in a Hollywood way, to denote huge, overwhelming, vast, sweeping, and thus has more to do with the effect of war movies than the literary echoes of the word. It is also an adjectival modifier that accentuates the significance or awesomeness of a work, or casts it in the mold of a conventional large-scale secondary world saga.

Epics can be much more than that, especially if they hearken back to the idea not of the quest, but of the journey. There is a point where the vast epic becomes comfortable, and lacks the emotional power of a classical epic. The potential for poetry gets lost in the blood and intrigue; the potential for magic is lost, as magic becomes a weapon or a rationalized system, instead of moments of wonder. There are not only depths that epics can plumb, but stories of different sorts of bravery and cunning, dealing with foes that are just villains, but the we recognize from our own travels through life.