Sunday, December 29, 2013

Best of 2013

These books are the ones that I'm prepared to call the best of 2013 - that is, that I read in 2013. I offer you no guarantee they were published in 2013, mind.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith: Unlike the other books I've picked, this one isn't remotely new, but this sprawling coming-of-age story reminds me of Edgardo Yunque, whose Lamentable Journey was written around the same time. Alas, Yunque is no longer with us, but thankfully Smith is.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: This book, popular enough that you don't need me to introduce it, is fantasy verging on magical realism, quite long, and surprisingly small-scale in its resolution.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson: Most of the time I was reading this, I didn't actually enjoy it. What impressed me at the time - and the reason I don't forget it - is the wide range of human habitats Robinson describes. Any one on its own would be lauded as inventive; taken together, its a startling vision.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: The best book I read all year? Likely not. Perhaps it's on here because I was singularly unimpressed with the movie and expected so little of the novel it was based on. The ultimate vision of the novel and the movie are as different as the visions of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Blade Runner, and the Russian nesting-doll structure of the book is a far more carefully crafted piece of work than the haphazard chronology of the movie.

Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke: A book I likely would have never heard of if I hadn't been faced with a limited English-language selection at the bookstore at Iguatemi Florianopolis, this book tells the story of a Chinese village devastated by the AIDS crisis - with the government's complicity. That the story is told by a ghost makes for a interesting narrative structure without making the novel a part of the fantasy genre.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Starboard Wine

Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction
by Samuel R. Delany

It was with high expectations that I went to see the American Museum of Natural History's newest planetarium show on dark matter, because - well, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, mostly. But I came away disappointed. About 4/5 of the show was spent presenting background information necessary to understanding the concept of dark matter, rather than exploring what it might be. Wouldn't planetarium audiences already know that stuff? After all, I had first heard of dark matter at a presentation by a friend studying astronomy back in college, and I was no scientist.

But another friend, also an astronomer, recently reported after a planetarium talk she gave that adult audience members were unaware of the fact that galaxies give off their own light, rather than reflecting the light of our sun!

This sheer lack of of basic scientific knowledge is one reason Delany posits to explain why some readers, even avid ones, don't enjoy science fiction. He discusses at great length how a reader might parse the sentence fragment "monopole magnet mining operations in the outer asteroid belt of Delta Cygni," especially a reader less fond of science.

Yet SF readers often "read around" what they don't know - to whit, it never occurred to me that "Delta" Cygni would represent the fourth star in a system, although my experience with the naming conventions of fraternity and sorority chapters should have led to ready extrapolation.

But reading SF requires more than an acquaintance with science; it requires, in Delany's phrase, a different set of reading protocols than realistic fiction. The reader must engage in world-building along with the author, learning from scant clues how objects and society behave. Even SF readers can lose this facility and enjoy only L. Ron Hubbard, paranormal urban fantasy, or Star Trek novelizations - to choose a few examples from folks I am personally acquainted with.

Starboard Wine is, ultimately, about how one reads SF, and how it is a genre defined by these reading protocols rather than by a setting, as Westerns are, or a plot structure, as romance novels and mysteries are. (Of course, being a collection of essays, the book is about many different things. One of these things is an evaluation of the work of several writers. I am less qualified to comment on these, having read (for example) no Sturgeon and precisely as much Heinlein as I want to.) It follows his earlier collection, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, which I found myself wishing I had with me: Delany spends much time here discussing how SF and mundane fiction compare, and I wanted to refresh my memory on how he fits fantasy as a genre into this schema.

The essays are nearly as old as I am, and the recently revised edition is thoughtfully updated with footnotes as well as an introduction by another author, although I found the former of much more interest than the latter. This chronology is startling only insofar as one realizes that Delany's three-decade-old thoughts on SF are still far ahead of how a good number of fans conceptualize the genre today. I would like to read his most recent collection, About Writing, although its focus is less SFnal. It would be nice to see an up-to-date collection of his latest thoughts on the genre, which at present are scattered.

Sunday, December 8, 2013


Sheri S. Tepper

Today I wandered the science fiction aisles of Barnes & Noble and came away empty-handed. This happens often enough that I sometimes wonder if I really like the genre. To be sure, B&N had some books that I like but have already read, and they had an interesting sequel on the New Books shelf - although not the first book, and I'm rather strict about order. Yet, overall, my impression was that speculative fiction is apparently all urban fantasy (in the vampires-and-werewolves sense) or daring space expeditions (in the warmed-over Star Trek sense).

Therefore, it's always reassuring to find an author that I do like, especially when it's an author with a substantial backlist. On one hand, I wonder why I didn't know about them sooner, but on the other, I'm just glad to find more to read. The latest instance of this is Grass by Sheri S. Tepper, another book that ended up on my Amazon wishlist without any recollection on my part of how it got there.

Tepper is a feminist and environmentalist and an autodidact whose writing bats far above her education level. If I were an English professor or con organizer, I'd prepare some thoughtful analysis of the ideology of Grass as compared to Nicola Griffith's Ammonite and Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow (perhaps contrasted with Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead?), but I'm not, and you can't make me.

Grass is the story of a world with humans and other sentient lifeforms that the humans don't understand too well. A virus that threatens humanity all across the universe serves as a MacGuffin for the exploration of morality and responsibility.

There are a few miscues - Tepper seems to have a hard time sympathetically portraying characters in opposition to the "right" side, which is problematic when writing in head-hopping third person. The protagonist's husband and daughter, in particular, come off with all the believability of cardboard. And there is what I swear is a reference to an Elton John song at one point. It wouldn't jar so if it weren't the only 20th-century wink in the entire book.

Still, Grass is engrossing, and even when you can see where it is headed, it journey remains an interesting one. I'm curious to read the next book in the trilogy, as it takes place on another world, with other characters.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Between

The Between
Tananarive Due

Say what one will about Amazon - and I have plenty to say - one area in which it excels is in delivering out-of-print, hard-to-find books. Sometimes these books are available elsewhere electronically, but if you want paper in your hands, Amazon will usually succeed where even Powell's fails. Whether the books deserve to be out-of-print and hard-to-find is an entirely different matter.

The Between was championed somewhere, at some point, by a writer who I trust, if I recall correctly, although not to me specifically. From there it moved to my Amazon wishlist, and eventually to my doorstep. It's a novel that could better be described as speculative fiction verging on horror than as fantasy, insofar as fantasy conjures up elves and quests. Instead, it is almost a realistic novel, set in our everyday world, with a little bit of spirit haunting.

The book reminded me strongly of Neil Gaiman, which isn't to suggest that Due is derivative; The Between was published in 1995, about when Gaiman's first solo novel was being written. But you could take Due's novel and repackage it with Gaiman's name and have a best-seller on your hands. (Of course, Gaiman could publish a book consisting of photos of his bowel movements, and his loyal readers would rush to praise it. That he doesn't is a testament to the fact that, in addition to being a good writer, he appears to be a decent human being.) Instead, it received modest critical acclaim and eventually fell out of print.

The SFF community likes to depict itself as egalitarian, enlightened, and not prone to celebrity worship. Not like those mundanes panting for the next installment of the Kardashians or Teen Mom, no sir! But speculative fiction fans are not free of sexism or racism, and they're as likely as everyone else to lionize the writers that already have been idolized by others. Gaiman is a handsome, goth/rock-god-looking white man, in a leather jacket with rumpled hair. And Due is a black woman, full stop. While she's continued to publish, she's never achieved the level of success that would return her backcatalog to print.

Yet The Between is a highly readable story, accessible both to genre fans and readers of realistic fiction. It's the story of one man whose world is starting to crack, and it's the story of him struggling to hold his marriage and family together. It's the kind of book a lot of readers would enjoy, if they knew it existed.