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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