Monday, December 22, 2008

A tympanic membrane three sizes too small

I really like most aspects of the Christmas season- the lights, the decorations, other people giving me stuff, even the weather.  In fact, there’s really only one thing about the season I don’t like: that infernal music.

Traditional Christmas songs are fine.  What I can’t stand are the hideous modernized version of Christmas music, usually in some half-assed generic rock and roll or jazz style, that is endlessly piped into the sound system of seemingly every place of business within traveling distance of my home.  I go grocery shopping, it’s there.  I go to the mall, it’s there.  I go to the dentist, it’s there.  It never ends.  And my exposure is fairly limited; at least I’m not subjected to it at work.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to work at something like a grocery or department store and have to hear it for hours on end, day after day.

Is it just me?

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Monday, December 15, 2008

The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt

The Court of the Air is a novel by Stephen Hunt, combining elements of Victorian steampunk and fantasy. It was released in the United Kingdom in 2007, but didn’t reach the United States until this year. The follow up, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, is already out in the UK and will hopefully be reaching the US before too long.

Millennia ago, the world was in the throes of an ice age, and the people living on the surface were the slaves of the underground empire of the Chimeca and their monstrous gods. Eventually, the Chimeca were overthrown and the ice receded, allowing the nations of the surface to flourish again. Magic, steam power, and industrial technology exist side by side.

Above all other nations stands the Kingdom of Jackals, secure thanks to the Royal Navy and its flying aerostat warships. The Navy served the kingdom well in its recent war with the “Communityist” Commonshare of Quarter shift, a nation that has fallen under the rule of a brutal collectivist regime and seeks to spread its revolution by force. The Quartershiftians were forced back, and now the rulers of the Commonshare have sealed off the borders with a deadly magical “cursewall” to keep any invasion out- and to keep their own starving people in. Despite their military supremacy, the Jackelians are a mercantile people with no interest in conquest, preferring to attend to their own affairs.

The book tells the story of two teenage orphans from Jackals. Molly Templar is a resident of a grim orphanage in the capital of Jackals. The orphanage manager apprentices her out to a brothel, but her first customer turns out to be an assassin after her life. She flees back to the orphanage, only to discover that it has been attacked and all her friends slaughtered. Desperate, she flees into the underground warrens beneath the city, a legacy of the ancient Chimeca.

Oliver Brooks is a young man who lives with his uncle, a merchant, out in the country. As a child, Oliver suffered extended exposure to the fey mist, which can give people powerful supernatural gifts- or leave them violently insane or monstrously deformed. Oliver seems to have remained normal, but like everyone exposed to the fey mist he is considered a potential public menace, kept under government surveillance and forbidden by the state to travel far from home. His life is shattered when his uncle is murdered, and he himself is framed for the crime. He is rescued by a mysterious man named Harry Stave, an agent of the Court of the Air, the Kingdom’s enigmatic and ancient protectors. Oliver too must flee his home, and finds himself pulled into the deadly intrigues of Quartershift, Jackals, and the Court.

As the two young fugitives struggle to survive, they discover that they have key roles to play in a coming struggle involving agents of Quartershift, a revolutionary Communityist conspiracy against Jackals, traitors within the Kingdom, and the bloodthirsty worshipers of the ancient Chimecan gods, who seek to unleash something far worse than even the totalitarian horror of the Commonshare.

The setting is an interesting hybrid, magical but with the sort of grimy feeling you would expect from a story about orphans in the Industrial Revolution. The world of the story runs on a combination of magic and a sort of alternate physics. There is plenty of mundane technology that works on natural principles-firearms that propel bullets with exploding plant resin, skyscrapers held up by the pressure from pneumatic pumps, vast computer databases based on moving mechanical parts instead of electronics- but not natural principles as we know them.

The historical parallels are obvious, e.g. Jackals is an industrializing commercial nation with the world’s mightiest navy, and its enemy Quartershift is a former monarchy now ruled by brutal, oppressive revolutionaries, but this serves as a sort of initial framework and springboard rather than a straitjacket. There’s a lot of little nods to real history in the setting- the Oliver Cromwell-like historical figure who broke the absolute power of the ancient Jackalian kings, the practice of orphanages renting out their charges as a cheap disposable workforce, the “sun god” of pre-Revolutionary Quartershift, and so on-but nothing like a one-to-one correspondence. There are some strong hints that the story is actually set on a future Earth after some world-reshaping cataclysm, but it’s not made explicit.

I loved this book. It does a wonderful job of combining an exciting story and a great and imaginative setting. Hunt manages to make things detailed and evocative while simultaneously keeping the plot extremely fast-paced. The story and setting continuously build at breakneck speed, with events progressing and escalating while the setting offers new ideas at a relentless pace; the book sometimes seems on the brink of careening out of control, but it never does. You’d expect a book to seem either rushed, disjointed, or overstuffed when it simultaneously incorporates steampunk-style technology, a fantasy analog of 19th-century Europe, bloodthirsty cultists, sorcerers, assorted political intrigue, communist revolutionaries, ancient civilizations, a race of sapient steam-powered robots, and malevolent Lovecraftian deities, but Hunt does a great job of making everything work together. This kind of frantic pace and sheer density won’t appeal to everyone, but I thought it worked beautifully.

I really can’t recommend The Court of the Air enough. It’s one of the most exciting and inventive fantasy books I’ve read in some time, and one of my favorite books of 2008. I can’t wait to see what Hunt does next with the series.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Book reviewer link meme

John at Grasping for the Wind is compiling a master list of science fiction and fantasy book review blogs.  Here's how he explains it:

what you can do is take the following list and stick it on your website, then add yourself to the list, preferably in alphabetical order. That way, I will be able to track it across the web from back links, and can add each new blog to my roll as it comes along. So take this list, add it to your blog, and add a link to your blog on it. If you are already on the list, repost this meme at your blog so others can see it, and find new blogs from the links others put up on their blogs. Everybody wins! Be sure to send the list around to others as well. There is an easy to copy window of all the links and text at the bottom of this post to make it even simpler to do.

You can get the HTML for the most recently updated version of the list right here.

And, now here it is:

The Accidental Bard
A Dribble Of Ink
Adventures in Reading
The Agony Column
The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.
Barbara Martin
Bibliophile Stalker
Blood of the Muse
The Book Swede
Breeni Books
Cheryl's Musings
Critical Mass
Dark Wolf Fantasy Reviews
Darque Reviews
Dave Brendon's Fantasy and Sci-Fi Weblog
The Deckled Edge
Dragons, Heroes and Wizards
Dusk Before the Dawn
Enter the Octopus
Eve's Alexandria
Fantasy Book Critic
Fantasy Cafe
Fantasy Debut
Fantasy Book Reviews and News
Fantasy and Sci-fi Lovin' Blog
The Fix
The Foghorn Review
From a Sci-Fi Standpoint
The Galaxy Express
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Grasping for the Wind
The Green Man Review
Highlander's Book Reviews
Jumpdrives and Cantrips
Literary Escapism
Michele Lee's Book Love
Monster Librarian
Mostly Harmless Books
My Favourite Books
Neth Space
OF Blog of the Fallen
The Old Bat's Belfry
Outside of a Dog
Pat's Fantasy Hotlist
Piaw's Blog
Post-Weird Thoughts
Publisher's Weekly
Reading the Leaves
Realms of Speculative Fiction
Rob's Blog o' Stuff
SF Diplomat
Sci-Fi Songs [Musical Reviews]
Severian's Fantastic Worlds
SF Gospel
SF Revu
SF Signal
SF Site
SFF World's Book Reviews
Silver Reviews
Speculative Fiction Junkie
Speculative Horizons
Sporadic Book Reviews
The Sword Review
Tangent Online
Temple Library Reviews [also a publisher]
The Road Not Taken
Urban Fantasy Land
Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic
Variety SF
Walker of Worlds
Wands and Worlds
The Wertzone
WJ Fantasy Reviews
The World in a Satin Bag

Foreign Language (other than English)

Cititor SF [Romanian, but with English Translation] [French]

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Monday, December 8, 2008


I just wanted to assure any readers wondering about my absence that I have not been slain in a gangland assassination or died an ironic death entombed beneath a pile of old Jack Vance paperbacks that came crashing down on me when their weight proved too much for my cheap self-assembled bookshelves to withstand.  I’ve just been plagued with computer problems, and my computer usage has thus been limited.  I should be fully operational and writing on a timelier schedule soon, though, provided the damn thing doesn’t become sentient and murder me in my sleep.  Which, considering my usual luck with electronics, is a serious possibility.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Devil's Eye by Jack McDevitt

Jack McDevitt has become one of my favorite writers in the past few years, with his combination of plots focused on mystery and discovery, his knack for the small but effective detail of setting or character, and his skill at including the mundane nuts-and-bolts aspects of events in a way that makes things more interesting and believable, creating a story of exciting events that still seems to take a place in a world where you can easily imagine regular people going about their lives.  The Devil's Eye is the fourth book in Jack McDevitt’s series about far-future antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his pilot and assistant, Chase Kolpath.  (Preceded by A Talent for War, Polaris, and Seeker.)  I’d personally recommend reading the Alex Benedict series in order, but each book is quite accessible on its own, including this one.

Benedict receives a strange and frightened message from Vicki Greene, a celebrated young horror author.  Benedict has never met her, but she asks for his help, and soon Benedict discovers that she is transferred a large sum of money to his bank account.  He tries to get in touch with Greene to find out what she wants, only to discover that she has undergone a voluntary mind wipe, a procedure usually used on unreformable repeat criminals that irrevocably destroys memory and personality.  Baffled by these events, Benedict feels obligated to find out why Vicki Greene turned to him for help, and just what it was that terrified her so much.

The search quickly takes Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath to the distant planet of Salud Afar, an isolated world in the galactic halo far outside the boundaries of the Confederation that unites most of humanity.  It has been only a few decades since the people of this world threw off the yoke of a brutal dictatorship that ruled the planet for centuries, and the nations of Salud Afar still struggle to escape either falling into chaos or returning to the old regime, still looked back on fondly by many citizens.  Meanwhile, tensions between humanity and the Ashiyurr, the only others sapient species humanity has ever encountered are growing, spreading fear across the isolated world.  There, under an all but empty sky, 20,000 light years from the nearest human planet, Benedict and Kolpath hope to retrace Greene’s steps and find out who or what drove her to destroy her own mind.

The Devil's Eye is an enjoyable entry to the Alex Benedict series, continuing its predecessors’ style of science fiction historical mystery.  The central mystery is intriguing and unfolds at a good pace.  Like much of McDevitt’s work, the story maintains a sense of groundedness, for lack of a better term, that is uncommon in science fiction.  The main characters are interesting but still relatively normal people with ordinary interests and concerns-I can envision them hanging out with friends or just puttering around the house on an idle weekend more readily than I can most fictional characters.  The same is true of the setting, aided by the fact that the Alex Benedict books are all narrated in first-person by Chase Kolpath.  This made me feel more immersed, and has the dual effect of both making the future portrayed seem more tangible and making Kolpath’s forays into places and events outside her normal experience seem more ominous and eerie.  In general, I like how McDevitt uses the first-person perspective, and he's good at incorporating seemingly inconsequential details into Kolpath's narration- her occasional asides about her world's entertainment and pop culture, for instance- that make the character more alive and more sympathetic.

The book is not horror, but much of it does have an eerie and sinister atmosphere.  The world of Salud Afar is an appropriately creepy environment, its night sky utterly black and empty except for a single star, the eponymous Devil’s Eye.  The planet’s society, strewn with the physical and psychological scars of a brutal police state that existed within living memory, gives the feeling of a “haunted” world, still living in fear.

The Devil’s Eye is like the first book in the Benedict series, A Talent for War, in that the mystery revolves around a specific person who the reader comes to learn about and sympathize with without ever “meeting.” I liked this personal aspect, as it gave more emotional punch to the secrets Benedict and Kolpath unravel.

The Devil's Eye is well worth reading for McDevitt fans, and for people who like science fiction with a strong mystery element.  I look forward to seeing what McDevitt does next.

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Out-of-Context Conversation Theatre

I'm standing in line at the store last week, and there's a fellow behind me on a cell phone.  I pay him no mind until I hear him say:

"Yeah, we're having him shot in Salt Lake City next week!"

Well, that piqued my interest.  He was silent for a moment, and then followed up with:

"Yeah, yeah.  We're bringing a crew up from California."

Now, I know criminal overlords don't openly discuss gangland slayings on their cellphones when they're in line at Walgreens.  But I was still slightly relieved when I heard him start talking about camera equipment a few moments later.

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Saturday, November 8, 2008

Science fiction and the space program

Not long ago, at least by this blog’s glacial standards, SF Signal and its weekly mind meld feature featured the question of whether or not science fiction has held back the real-life exploration of space, as recently claimed by astronaut Buzz Aldrin. The idea is that science fiction and unrealistic portrayals of space travel make the real thing seem boring and disappointing by comparison, diminishing the public’s interest in real space travel.

I find this implausible for a few reasons. The biggest is that I don’t think science fiction has enough influence on the public consciousness to be a serious factor in the way Aldrin suggests. Everyone has heard of Star Trek and Star Wars, but I don’t think the average person compares what they hear about real space travel to science fiction, even subconsciously. The people who are sufficiently immersed in science fiction to seriously make that sort of comparison seem if anything to be more likely than average to be in favor of space travel, in my experience, so if science fiction has any effect it seems more likely to be the opposite of what Aldrin suggests.

Another problem is that unrealistic or fanciful portrayals of other forms of technology don’t seem to have retarded their development or diminished public interest. The portrayal of computers and the Internet in movies is frequently ridiculous, but that doesn’t seem to have harmed the development of computers or the public’s interest in them; people don’t turn their noses up to real PCs because they don’t act like the ones in movies. The same could be said of weapons, surveillance technology, or forensic science, to name a few.

More generally, exaggerated or idealized depictions of a thing usually make people more interested in that thing, not less. I’d be shocked, for instance, if the movie Top Gun made viewers less interested in military aviation, or if movies about idealistic political crusaders and reformers made viewers less interested in real politics, or if Kill Bill made people less interested in katanas. In my experience, seeing an idealized fantasy version of something is what strengthens interest, both because it initially draws attention and because it makes people want to make the fantasy reality.

A personal example: I know plenty of long-time students at the martial arts school I go to who first became interested because of martial arts movies. Martial arts movies are seldom very realistic; even the relatively down-to-earth ones are often a lot smoother and prettier than the real thing. The movies also usually fail to convey what being on the receiving end of a punch to the gut or a triangle choke feels like, and leave out things like watching someone vomit because they got kicked in the groin on the day they forgot to wear their cup. Nevertheless, there is no doubt in my mind that martial arts movies have increased public interest in the martial arts and the number of practitioners. To give another personal example, I cover local government for a small newspaper. I see the nuts-and-bolts of real politics on a regular basis, and I can assure you that seeing it up close is a lot less likely to inspire enthusiasm about politics than watching The West Wing.

If anything, I think more realistic science fiction is less likely to inspire interest in real space travel than more fanciful SF. I love hard science fiction, but I think that most people- and especially impressionable kids- are more likely to say, "Wow, space is really cool!" from watching Star Trek then from watching a realistic portrayal of space flight, with all its limitations. This is by no means a criticism of hard SF; it’s not science fiction’s job as a genre to push any particular viewpoint.

If SF does hurt public appreciation for science, it would be not by presenting unrealistic science and technology that leads to disappointment with the real thing, but through the heavy reliance of media SF on "science gone wrong/tampering in God’s domain" type stories. This sort of plot and theme is far more common in movies and television then in science fiction books, I think due to a combination of who produces written SF vs. media SF and the constraints imposed by the different forms. However, this trope never involves space flight, as far as I’m aware. (I suppose the movie Event Horizon could be considered an exception, but I doubt anyone watched that movie and thought, "We should abandon all research into spacecraft propulsion to make sure nobody accidentally opens a gateway into Hell.") It’s almost always applied to biological science and technology, or to robots and computers.

There are several factors leading to lack of public enthusiasm for space travel, I think, but science fiction is not among them. I have my own ideas on that front, but this post is long enough already.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Andy Remic podcast

Here's a nice coincidence: I'm currently reading Andy Remic's novel War Machine (and loving it so far), and I just discovered via Fantasy Book Critic that Remic will is putting out his novels War Machine and Spiral on the internet as podcasts, read by Andy Remic with background music provided by rock band the3 m1ss1ng.  They'll be coming out at about a chapter a week on

I think this is a really cool idea.  I especially like the musical aspect- I've written before about the combination of music and books, and the idea of a book "soundtrack," so it's great to see it actually being made a reality.  I look forward to seeing how this progresses.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Worlds colliding

You know, I hate to turn into one of those grumpy old codgers carrying on about how ridiculously long the holiday season has gotten nowadays.  Nevertheless, I have to ask: why, when I went to my local Walgreens a full week ago, October 6th, were they already selling Christmas cookies?  Christmas cookies, mind, in a store with an entire aisle dedicated to Halloween candy and decorations.  Please to explain.  I don't want to see the different holidays bleeding into each other like this.  By early December, they'll probably have the Easter candy out.

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Monday, October 6, 2008

The Battle at the Moons of Hell by Graham Sharp Paul

I've got a review of Graham Sharp Paul's debut novel over at Crucial Taunt.  Have a look.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

In which I fall to the Dark Side

Tamara Brooks lists the the ways she'd would would misuse the Force.  She's a fan of the Jedi mind trick, but leaves out the best power of all: Using the Force to choke people!

Someone cut in front of you in a line? Force choke. A fellow passenger on the bus won’t stop blathering into a cell phone? Force choke. An intoxicated would-be pick-up artist at your favorite bar won’t take the hint? Force choke. Next-door neighbor keeps having noisy parties at 3 in the morning? You guessed it.  Most of life’s daily annoyances would vanish like Yoda's corpse.

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Monday, September 15, 2008

A geek by any other name

Alastair Reynolds has an interesting post on some science fiction fans’ aversion to the term “sci-fi.” I myself do not use the term much, but I’ve never shared the intense dislike of the term some people have. It’s in the URL of my blog, after all.

I do find the aversion understandable, however. “Sci-fi” is often used in a derogatory, belittling, or patronizing context- those “check out these weirdos” articles that pop up in newspapers when there’s a sci-fi convention in town, for instance. Thus, I don’t think the analogy Reynolds draws to audiophiles who get upset when people say “hi-fi” instead of “high-fidelity” really works- no one uses the term “hi-fi” while laughing or sneering at high-fidelity stereos or their owners.

There may be a regional difference shaping our differing perceptions. Reynolds is from the United Kingdom, while I’m from the Midwestern United States, and I don’t know how “sci-fi” is used in the British media.

All in all, I think it’s a useful term- catchier-sounding and more concise than “science fiction,” more readily understandable and identifiable to the uninitiated than “SF,” less likely to set my teeth on edge than “speculative fiction.” I’d hate to abandon a good word just because some people use it in an obnoxious way.

I wonder if part of the hostility to the term comes from the desire of many fans for greater mainstream respectability and recognition of science fiction as “real literature.” It’s a desire I sympathize with, but not one I consider attainable. There seems to be a common belief that written science fiction (and fantasy) could triumphantly burst out of its “ghetto” if only it were presented better- book covers that don’t look so embarrassingly science fictiony, fewer aesthetically displeasing male nerds at cons, whatever. Thus, the word “sci-fi,” with its popular connotation of schlocky movies about bug-eyed men, may strike some people as the source (or part of the source) of science fiction’s image problem, which suggests that the problem could be solved or ameliorated if we got people to say “science fiction” or “speculative fiction” instead.

This is futile, even if it were somehow possible to get everyone to use some other word or words. Even if people stopped saying "sci-fi,” the euphemism treadmill is relentless.  Whatever term replaced ‘sci-fi” in the public mind would quickly gain all the negative connotations of its predecessor- and those negative connotations are not going to go away.

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Book Review: Unholy Domain by Dan Ronco

I've got a review of Dan Ronco's novel Unholy Domain over at Crucial Taunt.  Have a look.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Badly belated book meme

Back in the late Jurassic era, I was tagged with a book meme by John at Grasping for the Wind, and I figure better late than never.

Nightstand/Table: Nothing. I don’t like to read in bed.

Reading at the Moment: I like to read a lot of books concurrently, usually a few fiction and a few nonfiction. That way I can jump around according to my mood. Currently reading:

Saturn Returns, Sean Williams

Soldier, Ask Not, Gordon R. Dickson (Nostalgic for me- read a bunch of Dorsai books from the library when I was a kid and just starting out with science fiction.)

Bone Song, John Meaney

The Constitution of Liberty, F.A. Hayek (Last read this one in high school. Quite the chick magnet, I was.)

Unholy Domain, Dan Ronco

Annals, Tacitus (Which now has a largish Guinness stain on it, due to my fondness for reading at the bar and my poor hand-eye coordination.)

Political Writings, Benjamin Constant (Compilation of several works, including The Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation and Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments)

Can’t Put Down:

Gathering Dust: I have two used bookstores within a relatively short distance of my house. When I take an interest in an author, I head to the used bookstore, find their supply of that author, and just clean them out. I then stockpile these books in my home, like a survivalist accumulating ammunition and canned food to sustain him in case a Russian first strike wipes out civilization. Thus, I have a truly colossal backlog of books I have yet to read.  I'm trying to pick up my reading pace, because I don't want to accidentally knock over one of my stacked cheap plastic storage boxes and meet my doom buried alive beneath an avalanche of Jack Vance paperbacks.

Secret Indulgence: Faeries' Landing, an appallingly cute manga series.  It looks a bit odd on the shelf next to my Hammer's Slammers books, but it's funny, and I like cute, damn it.

Looking Forward To: The January Dancer by Michael Flynn, The Devil’s Eye by Jack McDevitt, The Gods Return by David Drake

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Sunday, September 7, 2008

Please to explain...

Could someone tell me why the Saturday Chicago Tribune had a front-page story- the top of the front page, no less- on the phenomenon of the "neckbeard?"  I've written on some fairly ridiculous topics in my time, but I know better than to put them on the front of the eighth-largest newspaper in the United States.

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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Ideology and science fiction

Lou Anders has an interesting post (found via SF Signal) on people's enjoyment of books being affected by the religious or political views expressed in the book.  I can't think of a book that I otherwise would have liked that I disliked because of its political, ideological, or religious content, though maybe that has more to do with my reading choices than any innate tolerance; I really couldn't say.

There are two ways I can think of for a book or author's ideological stance to diminish a reader's enjoyment, and I think people almost always talk about only the first, which is when a person finds the author's viewpoint morally or intellectually objectionable in itself.  This is the kind Anders is talking about, I think, and is the kind usually discussed when the issue comes up.  Orson Scott Card is probably the most prominent example of an author some people won't read for this reason.

There is another way in which I can see a book's stance or viewpoint marring someone's enjoyment of the book, however, particularly in regards to politics.  Every adult who is not oblivious to the society around him has an ideology, consciously embraced and held or otherwise.  Political ideologies do, of course, have a purely moral component, beliefs about how things should be.  However, in large part, an ideology is a set of beliefs about how the world works, a sort of physics of society. Can government central planners do a better job of creating prosperity than the market economy?  Can despotic foreign countries be turned into successful democracies through invasion?  Will increased welfare spending have undesirable cultural effects on the recipients?  Is human nature as we know it fixed, or would it change significantly under different socioeconomic conditions?  These are questions full of moral significance, but they are not themselves moral questions.

If a character in a story is forced to watch as his beloved family is slaughtered and never feels any distress about it, most readers would think, "Hold on, people don't work that way."  If you're reading a science fiction story where normal people routinely survive 500-foot drops in Earth's gravity without being harmed, the implausibility of it will make it harder to believe in the world of the story, and thus harder to enjoy it.  My father, an attorney, can't watch TV legal dramas for more than five minutes without yelling at the television.

Politics can be similar.  When someone's ideology clashes with yours, he doesn't just disagree about moral values, he disagrees about how the world works, and how people work.  Thus, when reading a work of fiction, a violation of one's ideological expectations can be jarring in the same way that poorly done characterization, bad science, or technical mistakes can be.  If you believe that unregulated markets inevitably result in monopolies and plutocracy, a story with a world based on libertarian assumptions about society and economics will be that much harder to buy into.  If you think that the state is by nature an exploitative institution, a setting where the government works the way good-government liberals say it does (or can) is not going to be believable.  You won't believe in a setting based on a free-love paradise if you believe promiscuity causes unhappiness and social breakdown.  And so on.

There are ways around this.  (Perhaps everyone in the free-love paradise has been genetically engineered so that they don't feel jealousy or form strong pair-bond ties.)  And you can still enjoy a story even if you think it's based on bad assumptions about society and human nature, if it's other virtues are enough to compensate.  Nevertheless, I don't think it's at all unreasonable for enjoyment of a story to be affected by these factors, any more than it's unreasonable for it to be affected by the realism of characterization or science.

This goes deeper than bad physics, for me and I think for most people.  It's relatively easy for me to imagine that the laws of physics are other than what they really are, so that FTL travel or whatever is possible.  But ideology is in large part about the causal laws of human beings, and it's much harder to bracket what I know about human beings than it is to temporarily put aside what I know about physical science.  I can read about and contemplate special relativity, or not, as I choose; I can't stop living in a human society and thinking and feeling with a human mind.  Almost everyone has strongly held beliefs about how people work that are fundamental to their worldview; most people don't have such beliefs about science, even if they like the subject and are knowledgeable about it.

Of course, people who care about the subject mostly agree about the laws of physics, except on the cutting edges, and there's fairly broad agreement about at least the basics of how most people behave, at least on the individual level.  Ideology is far more contentious.  Most people would be intolerant of a story, if allegedly set in the real universe we know, where people enjoy being tortured or rivers flow uphill, but such intolerance never shows itself because everyone agrees on those points, and so there are no stories like that to be intolerant of.  There's plenty of opportunity to be intolerant where ideology is concerned, on the other hand, because no comparable consensus exists.  Whatever you believe about politics and society, the world has plenty of people who believe things that will strike you as the equivalent of "rivers flow uphill," and who would say the same thing about your beliefs.

So, yes, my enjoyment of stories can be, and has been, affected by the ideological stance or assumptions in a book, and I don't think there's anything unreasonable about that.  (Though I do my best to bracket that aspect when writing a review, since "Are the book's setting and events in accord with John Markley's social and political views?" is probably not a question SF fans are dying to know the answer to.)  Now, I don't give this consideration a huge amount of weight.  There are far too many different authors with different views for me to limit myself to people who agree with me, and my reading would be greatly diminished if I decided that, say, Iain M. Banks was too doctrinally impure to read.

What about you?  Has this issue affected the way you read or experience fiction?  If so, how?

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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Book Review: Sly Mongoose by Tobias Buckell

Mr review of Tobias Buckell's Sly Mongoose is up at FantasyBookSpot.  Have a look.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

British and American SF

io9 has an article entitled “Charles Stross Explains Why UK Scif Is More Hopeful Than US Scifi.” The title left me baffled, as if I had seen an article entitled “Stephen Hawking Explains Why Siberia Is Hotter Than the Photosphere of the Sun.”

My impression has long been that British science fiction is darker and more depressing than what’s produced in America. Stephen Baxter is generally quite downbeat, as (to a lesser extent) is Alastair Reynolds. If I had to describe the mood of either author’s works in a single word, it would probably be “bleak.” Peter F. Hamilton is more upbeat, but I still don’t think I’d call him optimistic.

Even more positively portrayed futures usually seem to be used as setting for dark stories. Neal Asher’s Polity universe is very optimistic in most respects-life is very good for the great majority of humanity- but the plots and events are usually pretty dark. Iain M. Bank’s Culture is perhaps the most utopian society in science fiction, but it’s largely there as a backdrop for some of the most depressing stories in science fiction.

I haven’t read Ken MacLeod, but my understanding is that a number of his books portray an anarchosocialist future society in a pretty positive way, so there’s that. Still, darkness seems to be the general trend.

I’m not saying this as a criticism of these authors; I like dark. But I’m wondering: Is my assessment correct, or is there some big strain of optimistic British SF that I’ve missed?

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Book Review: Slanted Jack by Mark L. Van Name

Slanted jackI became aware of Mark L. Van Name more or less by chance. I was browsing at the bookstore not long ago when I stumbled upon the newly released paperback version of Van Name’s debut novel from Baen Books, One Jump Ahead. Nothing else at the store was really grabbing my attention that day, and I didn’t want to go home empty-handed, so I bought it out of curiosity. It paid off, and I ended up enjoying the novel a great deal. Slanted Jack is the sequel to One Jump Ahead, continuing the story of Jon Moore and Lobo. Both books are self-contained stories, and those who haven’t read One Jump Ahead can read Slanted Jack without being lost or confused.

The story is set in the far future. Human settlements have spread out from Earth through a series of mysterious interstellar jump gates discovered by humanity, linking together numerous habitable worlds. Rival governments and corporations compete politically, economically, and sometimes militarily for dominance of new worlds and the wealth they bring. Jon Moore, a courier and former mercenary (and the book’s narrator), is enjoying some time off when he is approached by his old associate, the brilliant conman known as Slanted Jack. Jack presents a young boy named Manu Chang, who Jack says is descended from inhabitants of Pinkelponker (the captain of the generation ship that first colonized it made the mistake of letting his young son choose the name), a planet that has been quarantined since a catastrophic mishap involving nanotechnology research laid waste to the planet over a century ago. The inhabitants of Pinkelponker were rumored to be developing strange abilities, and Jack says Manu has powers of precognition. The leader of a strange religion based around Pinkelponker wants a chance to speak with Manu, and will pay handsomely for an interview. All Jack wants is a little help from Jon providing security to make sure the cult doesn’t try anything.

Jon knows better than to trust anything Jack says, but he can’t say no: Jon’s deepest secret is that he himself is a native of Pinkelponker, kept alive for over a hundred years thanks to the nanotechnology experiments performed on him as a child. He can’t turn down anything that might be a link to his lost home, and he doesn’t want to see Manu becoming a test subject for some bizarre cult. Unfortunately, what should be a straightforward job goes bad, and Jon finds himself in a dangerous web involving the cult, a vicious crime boss, Slanted Jack, illegal arms deals, and the Expansion Coalition government.

Jon’s conscience won’t let him abandon Manu to the designs of his pursuers, and he needs a way to dissuade his own enemies, preferably without a bloodbath. He is accompanied by a woman named Maggie Park, who finds herself drawn into events when she helps save Manu’s life when the interview went awry. Also with him, of course, is Lobo, the artificial intelligence of Jon’s heavily armed ship, and his closest ally. He’ll need all the help he can get.

Slanted Jack is a highly enjoyable story and a fine follow-up to One Jump Ahead. It successfully combines action, humor, an interesting setting, and some very enjoyable characters. A lot of my reading is of authors who are on the dark or grim side of things, and while Slanted Jack has some dark moments, it is one of the most refreshingly fun books I’ve read lately. It feels good-natured, for lack of a better term, in a way a lot of other modern science fiction doesn’t.

Virtually every device in human space, from military vehicles to household appliances to vending machines, has at least a rudimentary artificial intelligence, communicating with other machines electronically or at ultrasonic frequencies. Most of them are not very bright, and spend most of their time complaining about their owners or bickering with other machines. This is important to the story, since Jon has the unusual ability to listen in at their frequencies and communicate with them, which often provides a valuable source of information- most people don’t watch what they say in front of the coffee machine, after all. Van Name also uses it very effectively for humor- this is the first book I’ve read in a long time that has actually made me laugh out loud. My particular favorite is a point in the story where Jon visits a sporting goods store and has a run-in with a megalomaniacal rocket luge ranting at length about his superiority over other, lesser luges.

(This sort of thing is why I love to write about science fiction. What other subject would give me an opportunity to type something like “megalomaniacal rocket luge?”)

While the book has a great deal of action and is often quite exciting, it is for the most part a good deal less violent than most modern action/adventure science fiction. Despite his possession of a military surplus combat vehicle with a rather bellicose AI, Jon tries very hard to achieve his goals without killing people. This might make the book a good choice for younger readers, or for people who want an action-oriented story but are put off by the amount of violence in authors like Neal Asher or David Drake.

I liked the characters a lot. Hero and narrator Jon Moore is an enjoyable and interesting person, and the interactions between Jon and Lobo work well. Slanted Jack himself is by turns amusing and infuriating, and entertaining either way. There are some interesting minor characters, such as the Zyun brothers, mercenary triplets with eerily synchronized minds, and George, the aforementioned megalomaniacal luge. Maggie is also an interesting character, and some of the later scenes involving her are quite poignant.

I would definitely recommend this book to science fiction fans, especially those who want something that isn’t fluff but still offers a break from some of the darker, grimmer material that’s very common right now. If you like fun action/adventure science fiction, you’ll be well-rewarded by Slanted Jack .

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Tobias Buckell interview

OK, here's something I'm pretty excited about.  Part one of my interview with Tobias Buckell is online at Crucial Taunt.  The interview was a good bit bigger longer than my regular Crucial taunt review column, so stay tuned for part two of the interview next week!

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Books-to-movies meme

I’ve been tagged by Aidan Moher with the meme “Science Fiction Movies Based on a Novel.”

The rules are as follows:

Copy the list below.
Mark in bold the movie titles for which you read the book.
Italicize the ones that you’ve watched.

1. Jurassic Park
2. War of the Worlds (The old movie version, with hovering Martian ships instead of tripods. Watched that one religiously as a kid.)
3. The Lost World: Jurassic Park
4. I, Robot
5. Contact
6. Congo
7. Cocoon
8. The Stepford Wives
9. The Time Machine
10. Starship Troopers
11. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
12. K-PAX

13. 2010
14. The Running Man
15. Sphere
16. The Mothman Prophecies
17. Dreamcatcher
18. Blade Runner(Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)
19. Dune
20. The Island of Dr. Moreau
21. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
22. The Iron Giant(The Iron Man)
23. Battlefield Earth
24. The Incredible Shrinking Woman
25. Fire in the Sky
26. Altered States
27. Timeline
28. The Postman
29. Freejack(Immortality, Inc.)
30. Solaris (I’ll claim partial credit. I rented the Russian version a few years ago, but gave up on it after the “driving down the highway with nothing happening” scene entered its fourth hour.)
31. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
32. The Thing(Who Goes There?)
33. The Thirteenth Floor
34. Lifeforce(Space Vampires)
35. Deadly Friend
36. The Puppet Masters
37. 1984
38. A Scanner Darkly
39. Creator
40. Monkey Shines
41. Solo(Weapon)
42. The Handmaid’s Tale
43. Communion
44. Carnosaur
45. From Beyond
46. Nightflyers
47. Watchers
48. Body Snatchers

If you want to do this one yourself, consider yourself tagged.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The stigma of imagination

Jake Seliger has an interesting post about remarks made about fantasy by Patrick Kurp, in which Kurp says:

Fantasy feels like a cheat, an evasion, a con game for stunted children. I read to know the world, in particular the human world, even to celebrate it, not to slum in another. Ours feels sufficiently mysterious and wonder-filled, so ghosts, witches, aliens and magic spells come off as kitschy, redundant gimmicks.

I strongly recommend Seliger’s post. He gives an interesting defense of fantasy that is worth reading.

I’m interested not so much in Kurp specifically as in what his remark suggests, because I think it shows an important part of the reason why fantasy and science fiction is so looked down upon, a question that’s been on my mind lately. Calling something childish or the like is, of course, a common attack leveled against fiction that does not take place in the real world as we know it (or its past), as well as a common criticism of people who read such fiction. Why?

I think it largely boils down to this. Children often have vivid imaginations, and so imagination is strongly associated with children in our culture. Children tend to have all sorts of traits that are not appropriate for adults. People often have a need to prove themselves grown up, to others and perhaps to themselves. Thus, use of imagination beyond imagining fairly mundane real-world events is disreputable. As a result, it’s often not enough to simply say, “SF doesn’t interest me,” or even to say that SF is all aesthetically bad; some psychological or moral fault must be ascribed to SF and/or its readers.

It’s worth noting that the small number of speculative works that have gained respectability are usually social/political commentaries, satires, or allegories, e.g. 1984 and Brave New World. (Or the new Battlestar Galactica, for that matter.) Imagination is more excusable when the imaginative elements of a work are only a stand-in for something about the present-day world, merely sugar to help the medicine go down. Some SF fans themselves seem to implicitly accept this, arguing that SF should be respected because of its potential for metaphor or allegory.

Things are likely aggravated by the fact that most modern fantasy, like science fiction, is heavily based on system-building and logical extrapolation: if X were the case (X being “magic is real” or “time-travel is possible” or whatever), what would happen? Logic and systematizing, as I’ve said before, are disfavored personality traits; having a strong interest in them is considered to be mostly the preserve of nerds, weirdoes, and losers. Fantasy is (obviously) not connected to science in the way science fiction is, but it often shares science fiction’s rational approach to a great extent.

That might explain why magical realism is usually considered legit literature: it has imaginative elements, which is iffy, but it doesn’t compound the sin by thinking about the imaginative elements rationally. Weird stuff just happens, and people and the world in general don’t respond realistically. (I’m not saying this as a criticism; different forms of literature engage different aspects of the human mind to different degrees, and that’s perfectly legitimate.)

Similarly, while mystery is often highly rational in orientation, it does not usually imagine things that could not happen today (or in the real past, for historicals.) Mystery is Genre rather than Real Literature, but it is still far more respectable than science fiction or fantasy.

Respectability for fantasy or science fiction is most likely a hopeless cause, at least in the current cultural climate. It has the stigma of childishness and Nerd Cooties at the same time. A genre might be able to get away with one; you won’t get away with both.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I've moved!

Hey, everybody. Thanks to the folks at FantasyBookSpot, I now have new hosting and have set up shop at Please update bookmarks or links accordingly. I hope I'll see you there!

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Gender in science fiction publishing

My unfortunate habit of taking a week to finish chewing over something I’ve read before commenting on it strikes again. (I’m one of those people who always think of devastatingly witty comebacks two days after the conversation is over.) Last week over at SF Signal, they asked the following question for their Mind Meld:

Gender imbalance in genre fiction publishing is an ongoing point of discussion in the blogosphere. Is there an issue here? If so, then what are possible solutions? What can readers, writers, editors and publishers do to rectify the situation?

I’m going to focus here on science fiction, both because I know it better than fantasy and because it is much more male-dominated. I’m also going to focus mostly on American society, since I actually know enough about it to speak on it with some confidence.

I think the discussion is hampered by the widespread and largely unexamined assumption that a gender disparity in publishing or awards constitutes, in itself, proof that something objectionable is going on within the publishing industry. Everyone except Mind Meld contributor Andy Remic and (at her own blog) Cheryl Morgan thus pays little heed to the elephant in the room: for whatever reason, men and women tend to differ in the stuff they like.

It makes no difference whether this is because of innate differences or socialization; science fiction editors control neither human evolution nor the history of Western culture.

Of course, there are women who like stereotypically male interests and men who like stereotypically female interests, but whatever the cause, the general trend is obvious. Because of this omission, it’s somewhat surreal to observe much of the discussion of this issue; I feel like I’m reading a historian who’s trying to explain the last 60 years of American foreign policy without ever acknowledging the existence of the Soviet Union.

It’s important to keep in mind that this does not require any unbreakable iron laws about what men and women can write or want to write; it merely requires a tendency. People often act as if disproving the existence of the former disproves the latter, and so end up attacking strawmen. For instance, in his contribution to the Mind Meld, Hal Duncan writes:

…even if you take the most "masculine" paradigm for what SF/Fantasy is meant to be (and I don't) there's no reason that can't be written by women (other than the possibility that, well, maybe they're not interested in writing that sort of bollocks). There are male Romance writers. And in SF you had Alice Sheldon writing so "masculinely" as James Tiptree Jr. that Silverberg argued she couldn't possibly be a woman. In this context, it seems to me you're really just dealing with a lot of presumptions and prejudice about the capacity of a writer of a certain gender to tell a particular kind of story. I don't buy the idea that female writers aren't going to be just as good at writing to that market.

Well, yes, there are male romance writers. The obvious question is, How many, compared to the number of female romance writers? Yes, it’s foolish to say that no female writer can write well in a stereotypically male genre, but that’s not at issue.

Feminists have argued for years that girls in American schools are discouraged from pursuing math and science; I think that’s true, though I suspect it has more to with the peer environment than the teachers, and I think innate factors come into play as well. In any case, if women have indeed been discouraged from taking an interest in science by our society, then it is to be expected that there will be fewer women interested in science, and thus fewer women reading or writing science fiction, especially hard science fiction. Indeed, the feminist critique of the way girls are educated and socialized and the claim that the disparity in science fiction publishing and awards must be caused by publisher discrimination are in conflict; if women in present-day America were writing quality science fiction in the same quantity as men, that would be a good reason to believe that American society and education doesn’t discourage females from pursuing math and science, which most feminists would likely find a surprising result, as I would I.

Now, I agree with those who say that it would be good if girls were given more encouragement and support by our culture in areas like math and science while they’re growing up, but that’s a culture-wide issue. Growing up, being a known geek in school is rough on boys in American culture, but my impression is that it’s even worse for girls. As long as they pay a higher price for nerdy interests, they will “buy” less of them.

Of course, the decision-making process at publishing companies isn't the only place in SF, nor the most likely one, where sexism might come into play. I’ll be posting some more on this issue shortly, so I hope you’ll stick around. I would also highly recommend Cheryl Morgan’s very interesting post about this issue.

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Monday, July 7, 2008

The problems of science fiction in movies

A few weeks ago, John Scalzi had an article at SciFi Scanner, arguing that movies widely considered classics of science fiction cinema are not at the level of the classics in other genres. This got me thinking more generally: why are so many science fiction movies bad? I don’t think it’s just a matter of most movies in general being poor- there’s plenty of horrible dramas, comedies, action movies, etc., but there are still lots that I like, whereas the pickings in science fiction are very slim.

First is a problem inherent to the genre: science fiction is usually just ill-suited to film, in my opinion. Science fiction tends to be much more setting-based than other forms of fiction, be it “genre” or “literary.” In a two-hour movie, you just can’t build that much of a world. You can show what a world looks like, but that’s not the same as the way the written story can really show you its guts and workings, or just a slice of them. The same is largely true of imagined technologies. Thus, science fiction has to a great extent become simply a subgenre of action movies, or sometimes horror, with generic sci-fi tropes used for coolness factor or visual pizzazz.

This also has the effect of reducing the talent pool, since many science fiction writers would likely chafe under the limits of the medium even if Hollywood treated the genre more respectfully than it does. Imagine if, for some strange reason, a large percentage of jokes were just inherently less funny when shown on a screen, or couldn’t (even in the absence of any censorship) be made at all. This would hurt comedy films directly, of course, but it would also discourage talented comedians from wanting to do movies in the first place; a greater number would remain in vaudeville or radio or stand-up. Comedy films would have to be graded on a curve, if they were still made at all; we would probably have some dramatic films with comic relief, but few full-fledged comedies, and even fewer good ones.

The other major issue that no one really insists that science fiction movies be good. Generally speaking, Hollywood neither understands nor respects the genre. Gregory Benford wrote an article for Baen’s Universe addressing this. (A subscription is required to read all of it, but the preview has the relevant quote.) Benford recounts a meeting with some producers who wanted to adapt one of his ideas as a movie:

We had gone over the whole plot structure, the breakdown into three acts (a Hollywood commandment, Act I ending at 30 minutes and II at 90 minutes in a two hour film)—plus character, logic, setting, the works.

Everything seemed set. Everybody agreed. They thought that the female lead character seemed particularly right, a match of motivation and plot.

Then the producer, a woman in her thirties, leaned across the lunch table and said, "She's just about right, now. Only . . . how about, halfway through, she turns out to be a robot?"

I looked around the dining room, at the murals depicting famous scenes from old movies, at stars in shades dining on their slimming salads in all their Armani finery, at the sweeping view of little purple dots that danced before my eyes because I had neglected breathing after she spoke. "Robot . . . ?"

"Just to keep them guessing," the producer added helpfully. "I want to really suck the juice out of this moment."

"But that makes no sense in this movie."

"It's science fiction, though—"

"So it doesn't have to make sense," I finished for her.

There’s more at the link.

Hollywood can’t be fully blamed for acting like that, though. There simply aren’t enough people who actually care strongly about the specifically science fictional virtues of science fiction to make that group worth catering to very much- not with the budget of a modern feature film, anyway. Thus, science fiction serves mostly as a way to amp up the degree of visual spectacle possible in movies, especially action movies. Perhaps more cynically, it also allows a greater degree of sloppiness- it’s science fiction, it doesn’t have to make sense.

The fans can’t be blamed for being few in number. Some of them can however, be blamed for something else. Put simply, there are many science fiction fans who will simply consume whatever slop is put on their plate, at least where movies and (even more so) television are concerned. That’s somewhat understandable, especially where TV is concerned; SF is a niche genre at the best of times, and until fairly recently there was almost no SF on television. Even in movies, there are usually only a few big science fiction films a year. One can’t condemn a starving man if his palate is less than discerning.

Of course, the problem is much exacerbated by the fact that many people get their science fiction only from visual media, or if they read, only read media tie-ins, and thus have to take what they can get. Simple rule of relationships, whether personal or narrowly economic: the more willing you are to just walk away, the more power you have. But for those who like (or love) science fiction but don’t read much, there’s simply nowhere to walk away to. And of course, even people who do read a lot would often like to see what they love in other formats.

So, simply put, Hollywood doesn’t make much good science fiction because Hollywood doesn’t have to. People respond to incentives. If people in the market for a new automobile were just as likely to buy a tinfoil-covered cardboard box with the word “car” written on the side as they were to buy an actual working motor vehicle, the major car manufacturers would probably let their quality standards slip.

The problem is probably insoluble, given cultural constraints, because I don’t see any realistic way to change the incentives. I suppose the most effective way of combating this problem would be to get more science fiction fans reading, so they have more alternatives to what Hollywood puts out and thus less reason to tolerate mediocrity in movies. That would require a lot more people to get interested in actually reading for fun, though, which doesn’t seem to be in the cards any time soon. The relative weakness of science fiction film compared to other genres is probably something we must resign ourselves to.

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Review of Hyperion

My new column at Crucial Taunt, about Dan Simmons, is now up.

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Friday, July 4, 2008

Perhaps I'll feel better once I've blown something up

I love the 4th of July. Growing up, several of my summers revolved principally around the massive horde of illegal fireworks and flammable materials my friend who lived next door possessed, so this is usually a great day for me. Unfortunately, the universe delivered an emotional straight knee directly to my groin earlier this week, so I’m less celebratory than usual. Neither getting a copy of Neal Asher’s Polity Agent from ebay nor spending last night at my local bar getting Phenylethylamine Girl (previously introduced here) to laugh at my goofy childhood anecdotes has been able to lift me out of my bad mood.

On the plus side, I see that Tobias Buckell linked to my Crystal Rain review at Crucial Taunt. Look for the next edition of my column there in a few days, and a new review here as well. Reading Buckell actually helped some poorly organized thoughts I’d been having for a while about race and science fiction to finally congeal, so watch for that too.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Review of "Crystal Rain" by Tobias Buckell

My new Crucial Taunt column is up, reviewing Tobias Buckell's Crystal Rain. I'm currently reading his second book, Ragamuffin, which is fantastic so far.

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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Everything is better with death metal!

My apologies for the silence. Real life intruded rather nastily over the last few days.

Interesting post at Boing Boing- the new Neal Stephenson book Anathem has its own original soundtrack CD. I’ve long thought that it would be cool if books had soundtracks, either an original score or just a compilation of appropriate music. I know the cost would be prohibitive, unless perhaps you limited yourself to old public domain recordings, but I can dream.

I often listen to music while I read. I don’t pick music according to the book- I have a big CD collection that I just rotate through, keeping about six albums in my changer at a time and listening to each a few times before swapping them out- but sometimes the book and the music synch up in cool ways. During one of the climactic parts of Glen Cook’s Soldiers Live, for instance, I had Amon Amarth’s Fate of Norns on, and it was just perfect- epic military fantasy and Swedish death metal. Can life get better than that? No, sir. Well, not legally.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

My preciousss...

I am almost never willing to pay the cost of a new hardcover book. I made one of my rare exceptions recently, however, because Alastair Reynolds’ The Prefect is out in the United States. In the other Revelation Space books we hear a lot about the golden age of Yellowstone and the Glitter Band, but all we ever saw was the decaying wreckage of that society. Writing my post about utopias in science fiction has put me in the mood for this sort of thing. I’m enjoying it quite a bit so far, and it definitely seems to have that Alastair Reynolds weirdness/creepiness I love.

Equally cool- cooler, actually, because it was free- is the ARC of Tobias Buckell’s Sly Mongoose that just came in the mail from FantasyBookSpot. I just recently became a Buckell fan after I read Crystal Rain and loved it, so I’m definitely excited about this one.

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

New Forgotten Lore column: Neal Asher

My new article on Neal Asher is up at Crucial Taunt. Have a look.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Glen Cook group

I should have mentioned this when I posted about my Glen Cook article, but it slipped my mind at the time. If you’re on Facebook, I run the Glen Cook fan group there. Come on over and join us.

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Monday, June 9, 2008

Yes, I actually sit and think about stuff like this

John Scalzi recently had a post on an interesting subject: What sets off your urge to nitpick ?

Here’s mine, and it’s a weird one. One of my “gateway drugs” into science fiction was Star Trek: The Next Generation. Unfortunately, I now find Star Trek somewhat bothersome due to the fact that, as it is usually portrayed and described in the show, the transporter doesn’t actually move your body from one point in space to another- it destroys your body and assembles a new one at the target site. It doesn’t even have to be the same matter- remember the episode where it turned out that Commander Riker had a clone produced by a transporter mishap? No one on the show ever acknowledges the disturbing implications of this: Taking the explanation for the transporter at face value, most of the characters are killed several times a season, sometimes several times an episode, and replaced by a newly created doppelganger with the same memories as the original.

In fact, we’ve never actually seen the real Jean-Luc Picard- he was killed years before the series began. Perhaps his constituent atoms were absorbed into the ship’s replicator system- which is said to incorporate transporter technology- and turned into the very cup of Earl Grey tea that his replacement unwittingly consumed later that day.

Damn it, why couldn’t Gene Roddenberry just bite the bullet during the original series and pay for a few seconds of shuttle landing footage when the crew goes to a planet, instead of throwing the transporter in at the last minute? I ought to be able to relax and ogle Marina Sirtis in the comfort of my own home without having to deal with the sort of unspeakable metaphysical horror built into the very foundations of the Star Trek universe.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Glen Cook review

My new Forgotten lore column is up over at This week it's about Glen Cook and the omnibus collection Chronicles of the Black Company. I hope you like it.

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Wednesday link roundup

So, now I know how I and everyone I love are going to die: at the cold steel hands of rebelling cyborg monkeys. Futurismic reports that scientists have inserted electrodes into the motor cortex of a Macaque monkey with its limbs restrained, which then successfully used thought alone to retrieve a marshmallow with a mechanical arm. I’m estimating an over/under of eight years before the bulk of humanity is exterminated, with the survivors enslaved and sent to toil 16 hours a day in the marshmallow quarries under the watchful (electronic, infrared-vision equipped) eyes of their gleaming metal Macaque overlords. Adjust any long-term career plans accordingly.

Over at, they’ve got “5 Awesome Movies Ruined by Last-Minute Changes.” Ironically enough, I caught a few minutes of the original theatrical version of Blade Runner, one of the listed movies, on television a few nights ago. I have to disagree with the Cracked writer’s claim that Ford sounds like he’s reading his lines for the voiceovers at gunpoint; I think “acting while in a deep coma” captures Ford’s tone better. He achieves an almost “Richard Burton in Exorcist II” level of utter indifference. They also mention “So I’m the Asshole” as a possible alternative title for Richard Mattheson’s I Am Legend, which I believe was the original working title for Oedipus Rex before Sophocles changed it due to negative feedback from test audiences.

There’s no reason for me to link to this Peter Watts post, except that it contains the phrase “propels himself anally” and I have the maturity of an 8-year old.

News from the Glamorati has a feature on “15 Celebrities Who Sang… But Shouldn’t Have.” Not surprisingly, Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space tops the list. Joey Lawrence, who was inexplicably famous for a few weeks when I was growing up, also makes an appearance. Sadly, they leave out John Carradine’s poignant interpretation of the theme song of Night Train to Mundo Fine (AKA Red Zone Cuba.) Then again, they are talking about celebrities who sang, and I’m not sure the noises Carradine makes during the song that plays in that movie’s credits technically qualify. Perhaps there will be a “15 Celebrities Who Croaked Out Anguished Groaning Sounds While Musical Instruments Played in the Background…But Shouldn’t Have” list in the near future.

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Friday, May 30, 2008

New articles: John C. Wright and Jack McDevitt

Over at, I have a review of Jack McDevitt's Deepsix. Meanwhile, at Crucial Taunt, you can see my my review of John C. Wright's "War of the Dreaming" duology. My first two Crucial Taunt columns, a review of Michael Flynn's The Wreck of the River of Stars and a look at the "Revelation Space" universe of Alastair Reynolds, are now archived there as well if you want to see them. Let me know what you think.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Science and fantasy

There’s a good post by Mike Brotherton at Science Fiction and Fantasy Novelists arguing against the idea of a dichotomy between fantasy and science fiction, in which fantasy supposedly is (or should) be about things that are not amenable to rational analysis. I’ve never agreed with the idea, which I hear from time to time, that fantasy and magic become less fantastical or magical if they follow rationally explicable rules. Aside from the fact that a truly unscientific world would probably be incomprehensible to minds built for a causal, rule-governed universe, it’s bad for the narrative- you can’t have drama without constraints on what the characters can do, and the characters can’t have constraints if just anything can happen. (This is known in literary theory as the “Superman Just Invents New Powers Out of Nowhere Every Five Minutes” problem.)

A rather large caveat: just because phenomena follow rules doesn’t mean they need to be explained, necessarily. H.P. Lovecraft was a materialist who expressed that worldview in his fiction- his monsters and “gods” were generally beings with unimaginable technology or subject to alternate physical laws, but not “supernatural” in the sense of being apart from the material universe. Nevertheless, Lovecraft did not go into much detail- we don’t learn just what the Colour Out of Space was, or how Cthulu’s biology allowed him to survive being rammed by a boat, or why the Great Old Ones can only awake when the stars are right, and we’d probably sink into gibbering lunacy if we tried to fit that knowledge into our brains. There’s nothing wrong with leaving things unexplained, or even saying that some things in the story are beyond the capability of humans to ever understand. But they should be in principle understandable, even if not from a human perspective. This approach also calls for some caution, since “this fictional world is a place where some things are beyond our comprehension” can degenerate into “stuff happens for no reason aside form the author writing himself into a corner” if care is not taken.

Even a supernatural, animistic universe is potentially amenable to scientific analysis, though perhaps without the rigor of physics. If earthquakes are what happens when the land spirits quarrel with each other, a knowledge of plate tectonics won’t help you predict earthquakes- but studying how the land spirits think and interact might. That would quite an interesting setting, actually- a world where humans understand and control nature not through the hard physical sciences, but through psychology and sociology. If someone wants to go to the trouble of writing an entire book about it and then give me half the money for the thirty seconds of work I contributed, knock yourself out. And, more conventionally, fantasy magic is rule-based- say certain words or perform a certain ritual or whatever and get a certain effect, even if the actual mechanism is not understood.

More subjectively and personally, with a very few exceptions (such as some horror stories, where the unknown nature of the horror makes it scarier) I’ve never understood the idea that explaining something makes it less interesting or less impressive. The little glowy thingamabobs in the night sky are pretty, but knowing that they’re colossal nuclear reactors putting out enough energy to be seen trillions of miles away makes them much cooler, and in general the night sky is more sublime when you have a sense of the true scale of it. I’ve spent over a year childishly infatuated with a woman working at my neighborhood bar, which is pretty damn stupid, but my excitement when she stops to talk with me and my inane attempts to amuse her with my horrible jokes and patented Guinness Mustache embarrass me slightly less when I think of how the flood of phenylethylamine in my brain that turns me into a mumbling idiot around her is an adaptation forged over millennia of evolution that promotes the survival of the human species. (I acknowledge that this is not a terribly romantic sentiment.)

Brotherton also hits one of my pet peeves- stories where the skeptical “scientist” character keeps insisting that blatantly supernatural events must have a mundane explanation, no matter how untenable the notion becomes in the face of mounting evidence. To be fair, a certain amount of this is probably realistic- people don’t give up a strongly held view of the world easily. It often gets taken to ridiculous lengths, though.

It’s especially annoying if the character lives in a fantastical world and has been frequently exposed to supernatural events in the past, yet once again becomes a dogmatic materialist every time another clearly supernatural phenomenon comes along. “Look, I know we’ve previously encountered vampires, werewolves, nymphs, Goetic demons, leprechauns, the Wandering Jew, valkyries, the prophet Elijah, tengu, nephilim, the Spear of Longinus, Satan, our own time-traveling past life incarnations, and the entire Aztec pantheon. But the idea that ghosts might be real is just absurd!"

Update: Edited to fix a typo.

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