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I caught the science fiction/fantasy bug as a child on books largely published before Star Wars and Indiana Jones changed everything. Dystopia was a big thing then, the horrific technological apocalypses of John Christopher, the fantasy of Lloyd Alexander which involved stuffing bodies in cauldrons and Susan Cooper where protagonists risked being swept away by old forces. Fisk's A Rag, A Bone, A Hank of Hair, stands out as well.

So when I read that some of the authors on my to-read list were published in short-story form doing young adult dystopian and apocalyptic fiction, I just had to dive in. As with most anthologies, this collection is a mixed bag of stories and themes. Datlow and Windling make it clear in the introduction that they're mixing dystopian and apocalyptic fiction, the former characterized by social systems gone wrong, the latter inclusive of technological and ecological disasters. (The two can often be found in the same work.)

The collection includes some gems. "The Great Game at the End of the World" by Matthew Kressel mixes the absurd with the horrific. "The Easthound" by Nalo Hopkinson was most chilling for me, an unusual werewolf apocalypse. "Valedictorian" by N. K. Jemisin builds tension around school anxiety. Sarah Rees Brennan successfully merges technological and fantasy dystopia in "Faint Heart."

Then, there are competent but less thrilling stories. "You Won't Feel a Thing" by Garth Nix was too tied in with earlier novel work to stand on its own. Revis's "The Other Elder" is a tease for Across the Universe . Yolen--another writer of my youth who delivered surprisingly dark science fantasy--drew me to the book, but is included via a one-page poem.

The stories are generally dark, but usually without being graphic or explicit. Violence is a big part of many worlds, sexual assault less so. Many stories touch on teen and young adult sexuality, including gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters. Many of them are political to varying degrees.

Overall, After provides a good collection of progressive dystopian and apocalyptic SF&F. The included fiction stands up well with its more "adult" contemporaries. The worst stories are interesting, the best are page-turners. The diversity of stories includes ecological cyberpunk, zombie horror, space opera, pandemic, and metaphysical horror.

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Picked this up because it was on sale and a recipient of a World Fantasy Award nomination. Only about 1/3rd of the way through it, but it's interesting so far.

Although it's firmly a "companion animal" novel, it manages to avoid the more syrupy, wish-fulfillment aspects of the subgenre by making the companion animals into a visible stigma associated with crime and guilt. The result adds a bit of conflict back into an idea that's been often justifiably criticized as pretty ponies and pocket dragons. There's also an implicit social metaphor in making the companion animal a visible sign of a criminal past.
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Loving it...

Meanwhile, here's the Cramps take on the subject.

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Failing to complete one story? Start another one based on a dream!

Ended up watching several episodes of Pawn Stars between naps. Most cognitively disturbing thing after the cut.

Read more... )

Footfall

Oct. 20th, 2010 02:46 pm
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I'm trying to get into Footfall by Niven and Pournelle on the recommendation of a co-worker. It's a bit hard because the cold-war politics feel extremely dated, and I've noticed that almost every female character introduced gets at least a sentence describing her sex life, even when it has nothing to do with to plot (so far). A short list:
  • The Air Force captain who's flirting with the astronomer and did something in the gazebo. 
  • The congressman's wife who's not getting enough.
  • The general's wife who thinks about how her husband is so vanilla and has an affair with the journalist.
  • The ex wife of the survivalist who reminisces about sex on the beach and is invited to the compound in case they need to recruit a single man.
I suppose there's a reason behind this but I can't see it yet.
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Boneshaker by Cherrie Priest

Not much to say about this. The opening and closing of the novel makes up for a lackluster second act.

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

This is a book I have mixed feelings about. Where it's good, it's really good. However, it often declines into highly pretentious meta-fictional author wank (including a scene that paraphrases Genesis), at which point I roll my eyes and push to the next section.
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House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

I've found that there appear to be two flavors of space opera running at the moment. The first involves tragically short-lived humans running around the galaxy at impossible speeds faster than the speed of light. The second involves tragically immortal humans running around the galaxy at improbable speeds just shy of the speed of light. Reynolds specializes in the immortality flavor which makes narrative somewhat interesting when you know that the big conflict is going to happen 40,000 years from now after a 39,999-year nap.

He's an author I can only take in small doses, because a fair chunk of his work seems to be about how immortality lets people be horrifically terrible to each other.

Elric: The Stealer of Souls by Michael Moorcock

These works are unashamedly campy. Unfortunately my dive into them was cut short by a bad coffee spill that ruined the book. I swear, it's not because I was laughing at the following passage:

Then they were in sight—racing through the rain. A man frantically spurring an equally frighted horse—and behind him, the distance decreasing, a pack of what first appeared to be dogs. But these were not dogs—they were half-dog and half-bird...
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Was sick yesterday and just finished up Brain Plague. Unfortunately, Slonczewski doesn't appear to be publishing currently which means she's mostly out of print.

So there's good and bad there. On the positive side, I think she's done her homework in looking at the ways in which gender and sexuality could be radically different. The book focuses on a single POV character Chrysoberyl, a struggling artist who agrees to be host to a community of sentient microbes. Her microbial community comes from the notorious artist Titan, who Chrysoberyl describes as "medieval" in his heterosexuality. Titan's heterosexuality is later elaborated as predatory and callous in his treatment of others.

Chrysoberyl herself initially harbors some prejudices of her own in regards to human relationships with AI sentients and uplifted non-homo primates. So perhaps the suggestion is made that in a multi-species society that gender dichotomies becomes a bit less pronounced.

I suppose this falls into the "Everyone is Bisexual" trope, although in this case, it's not played for titillation value. Serial monogamy appears to be the norm, and with same-sex couples being more common than mixed-sex couples, it's a refreshing break. There is a romance subplot, but Slonczewski partly resists some of the familiar heterosexist tropes in regards to development. Slonczewski nicely evades the "Anything that Moves" idea that usually goes along with bisexual societies. Chrysoberyl herself has eyes primarily for love interest Daeren and an awkward lingering attraction to an ex-lover.

On the other side, for a hard science fiction (*) novel that centers so much on physical and chemical aspects of cognition, it glosses over the issues that human gender and sexual preference might be physical and chemical. I'm not convinced that technology that makes biological and physical sex trivial to change would necessarily make it socially and psychologically trivial as well.

I suppose many of these concerns can be read as still existing in the subtext. When Chrysoberyl meets the sentient Dr. Sartorius in the context of his long-term relationship, he appears as an idealized human male. Likewise, Daeren expresses anxiety regarding her sexual history and offers to become female. But characters are a bit too glib about offering to make that kind of change with respect to romantic partners.

(*) Like all hard science fiction, it has its share of biological and physical handwavium.
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Bone Dance went out of print, and now back in print. Beautifully done apocalyptic science fantasy.
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Dinnie, an overweight enemy of humanity, was the worst violinist in New York, but was practicing gamely when two cute littel fairies stumbled through his fourth-floor window and vomited on the carpet.

“Sorry,” said one.

“Don’t worry,” said the other. “Fairy vomit is no doubt sweet-smelling to humans.”

Twee is the word that came frequently to mind when I read this book. It sits at weird intersection that I don’t quite know how to really describe. The book is loaded with characters that are flawed, but presented in a charming way. Although the fact that everyone is living in desperate circumstances is a bitter-sweet undertone. The action centers around comic misunderstandings in a manic search for an increasing number of MacGuffins. The narrative does seem to have some issues with figuring out how the timing of all the madcap events link up together, and it’s not really resolved until the very end.

I'm a bit frustrated as a writer right now. I know bootstraps and all and I should just make the time to do it. But I'm starting to think that perhaps I should focus a bit more on smaller pieces rather than novels. The bad news is, most of my smaller pieces turn out to be, well, dirty and often fanfic as well, so I need to get over my quams about being one of those writers.

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I picked up Dies the Fire after hearing S. M. Sterling talk at a robust and brainy panel discussion and Dragoncon. I had wanted to pick up his Nantucket series that plucked the entire island of Nantucket out of time, but Barnes and Noble didn't have the first volume in stock.

Lovers of "hard" science fiction will probably be frustrated with the entire premise. Simultaneously to the disappearance of Nantucket, electrical, explosive, and steam technology over the entire planet Earth instantly stops working. No explanation and mechanism is given in the novel, and the token engineer/scientist of the novel blames "Alien Space Bats" in a brilliant call-out to fandoms of alternate history. Of course, I've long been of the opinion that most science fiction involves an Alien Space Bat somewhere in the plot.

A bit harder of a leap for me is the concept that the Wiccans and members of the Society for Creative Anachronism will inherit the Earth, or at least a large chunk of the American Northwest. I'm not convinced that chain and scale armor is really superior to the modern armor used by police and military forces. Perhaps more importantly, if there is anything the modern military understands well, it's logistics and support. Granted, one protagonist is a ex-marine who transforms a group of refugees into a fighting force, but people with similar skills would be living in most cities.

But the first novel in the series follows the parallel development of ex-marine Mike Harvel and Wiccan High Priestess Juniper MacKenzie from refugees to charismatic feudal political leaders. Along the way, the book touches on themes of leadership and mythology. While MacKenzie rather quickly leverages the shared common ideology of her coven into a farming collective, Harvel rather reluctantly accepts the romantic notions of a Tolkien fanatic to become the legendary Lord Bear. There are certainly historical referents for both. Along the way there is a ton of swashbuckling swordplay.

It's a fun read assuming you can put your disbelief on hold on key parts. And I like the way that Sterling plays coy about the existence of magic within the world.
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Doing a lot more reading again.

The Sharing Knife by Lois McMaster Bujold was picked up on one of my failed quests to find a local bookstore that's reasonably science-fiction friendly. It's a bit of an odd duck that keeps defying expectations. Dar Redwing Hickory is a Lakewalker, a career monster-hunter in a far post-apocalyptic future that rather deliberately looks like the early American frontier. Fawn is the plucky farmer runaway with a bun in the oven. It starts off as if it might be a Fantasy-Romance, but then gets rid of the sexual tension midway through the first volume with the obligatory "I never knew it could be like that" sex scene. From there it morphs into something very different, an exploration of inter-cultural marriage and conflict. Later on, we have another theme of Dar discovering his gifts as a mid-life career switcher. Each of the four volumes has its own monster, but the monsters take a back seat to the intercultural dynamics of trying to find new solutions for the monster problem.

At least one of the delights of this series is the setting. As with many post-apoc fantasy novels the apocalypse is set in the mythic past, with little more than scattered remains of cities and interstates as reminders of the current-day. Both Famer and Lakewalker culture are somewhat idealized views of the past. The Farmers and River folk are based off the American frontier of the early 19th century, with Daniel Boone's flatboat cited as a key source. The Lakewalkers are a bit more original: semi-nomadic mages and monster-hunters. It certainly is an alternative to the pseudo-medieval views of many fantasies. It's a good, light read.

The Ruins

Sep. 2nd, 2008 05:23 pm
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The Ruins seems to be a novel that people love or hate. Personally, I picked this one up on the basis of the Stephen King cover blurb to find myself highly disappointed.

The premise seems like the opening to a joke, four Americans, a German and a Greek go hiking the the jungle to find themselves stuck on a hill and surrounded by murderous Mayans. As with most horror, the monster is just a plot device to get the characters well along the process of self-destruction. It's a formula that's worked well for Lost. The problem is that it's really hard to actually care for any of the characters involved. A key difference is that Lost works by giving us typecasting and then revealing that our characters are more complex than what we see at first glance. In The Ruins, what you see is what you get: the pragmatist is just a pragmatist, the jerk is just a jerk, and the ditz is just a ditz. Worse, two pivotal characters are never given the benefit of the first person narrative.

So if the protagonists are rather lame, what about the other leg of a good horror story, the monster, the malevolent force that transforms a simple survival story into a horror story? Here, what we have is a plant, a big pile of vines and weeds, something between Audry from Little Shop of Horrors and the pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. However it lacks the humor of Audry or the sense of a growing threat that Body Snatchers. You don't get the same sense of psychological sadism that drives Stephen King's It. Nor do we have a raw juggernaut of malevolent biology that is Ridley Scott's Alien. The vine is something that is in between those two extremes, and is a lesser antagonist for it.

What we are left with, is a lot of text about bodily fluids and functions: urine, feces, blood, vomit, drool, bile, lymph, semen, tears, sweat. Just about everything but menstruation is experienced by our tourists, and slurped up by the vine in a running plot device that become more comic with repetition.

But still, I finished it, which is more than I can say for my last attempt at Anne Rice. It's a disappointing horror novel rather than a bad one.
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Ok, admittedly this is probably going to be a very unpopular opinion. But I just have to get this off my chest here.

Rowling didn't do anybody any favors by keeping Dumbledore in the closet in her primary text. In fact, what she just revealed is that she is yet another person in a long tradition of authors who were more than happy to write gay characters, as long as it's entirely in the realm of subtext. It is also part of a rather irritating tradition of giving characters a queer subtext only to kill them off on the road to a series conclusion.

It's not that I expect Dumbledore to live out of the closet. But a large chunk of the series involves skeletons dragged out of closets to set the stage for current events. And if one of those skeletons just happens to be a dysfunctional same-sex relationship, then it should be given the same level of scrutiny that we see with just about everyone else.
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It's been a while since I read this one, and I'm overdue for blogging about it. I saw the movie adaptation of Nightwatch a while ago, and somehow though the quirks of the local library system ended up getting the second book in the series first.

Just like Harry Potter or the Dark is Rising, Lukyanenko's world is inhabited by the forces of Light and Darkness. Unlike those other urban fantasies, the forces of Light and Dark responded to the horrors of WWII by engaging in a strict truce. The first novel, Nightwatch, is told from the point of view of the light other Anton, who is drafted from a computer programming job to hunt vampires and stop an explosive vortex of bad energy. Daywatch flips the formula on its ear by telling the story from the point of view of the dark others.

The narrative consists of three interconnected stories. In the first story, Alisa, a dark witch and lover of the head of the Moscow day watch, sacrifices all of her powers in an apparently trivial battle. She is sent to the Young Pioneer camp on the shores of the Black Sea to feed on the nightmares of children. While human for the first time in years, she falls in love with another camp counselor, with tragic results. The first story is, in my opinion, one of the best bits of urban fantasy ever written, and fully establishes Alisa as a character, and the ideology of the day watch.

The second and third stories are a bit less fleshed-out in my opinion. In the second story, Vitaliy, a dark mage with no understanding of his past is driven towards a destiny that he can't understand. In the third story, Anton, the hero of Nightwatch, and Edgar, a dark mage, both come to realize that they've been played as pawns in a larger plot by their leaders. Over and over again Lukyanenko returns to the metaphor of a chess game. Modern chess games are known for their protracted stalemates and positional moves for tiny advantages. Both the light and the dark seek to create ways to permanently shift the balance of power, and they are not afraid to sacrifice their own people to do it. The third story establishes the Inquisition, a group of others that enforces the truce between light and dark, as motivated by a fear of the consequences of open warfare between the two. A representative of the Inquisition tells Anton, "You obey out of fear, we obey out of horror."

But I think that one of the strengths of Lukyanenko's vision in these books is that he's actually thought though the scenario and the kinds of diplomatic detente that would be involved in having actual occult magical societies living in our midst. He effectively light and dark as foils for exploding the traditional fantasy view of good and evil. The light may be grounded in good intentions, but are manipulative in their actions. The dark espouse freedom, but end up pushing an "every man for himself" philosophy. Although some of the discussion suffers a bit from expository dialog, it is overall a good read.
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For those of you who are sick of Potter Mania, I review Scar Night by Alan Campbell, and Neverwhere on video.

To some degree it's not fair to compare the two. While dark gothic fantasy has its roots in Lovecraft and Stoker, Neil Gaiman can be credited with inspiring much of its current revival. And the structure of the two is very much similar.

Read more... )
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One of the first things I do when I hit the library is check the new science fiction bookshelves, then I hit the non-fiction bookshelves. This week, tucked next to a confessional work documenting 20 of the author's one nigh stands, :(, was Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics by Jennifer Baumgardner. I've not had a chance to get into it yet, but the first few chapters leave me with a mix of hope and frustration.

Read more... )

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