London Meeting: Gwyneth Jones

The guest at tonight’s BSFA London Meeting is Gwyneth Jones, author of Bold as Love and many other books, and winner of the 2008 Pilgrim Award for SF Criticism. She’ll be interviewed by Tanya Brown.

As usual, the venue is the upstairs room of The Antelope, 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

The meeting is free (although there will be a raffle), and any and all are welcome. The interview will start at 7pm, although there’ll be people in the bar from 6 onwards. (Annoyingly, those people won’t include me.)

Fan Funds Are Go

Two of the fan funds have recently announced the opening of races for 2009:

Damien Warman announces the opening of the Get-Up-and-over Fan Fund, for Australian fans wanting to visit the UK for Eastercon LX:

The next Get-Up-and-over Fan Fund is now open for nominations. If you know what this means, are an Australasian fan, and have a desire to attend the sixtieth British Eastercon, LX, then you need to contact me. You’ll need to find three nominators in Australasia, two nominators in Europe, and send me a 100 word platform and an AUD25 bond.

Nominations will close on or around 8 September, and ballots will be immediately distributed. Voting will run until shortly after Novacon.

And Bridget Bradshaw announces the westbound TAFF race for 2009:

Nominations are now open for the 2009 Europe-to-North America TAFF race. The winner will attend Anticipation, the Worldcon, being held on August 6-10, 2009, in Montréal, Canada.

If you don’t know what the fan funds are, try TAFF in Thirteen Paragraphs. Some of my favourite convention memories are meeting the fan fund winners and watching them put koalas in their beards – I look forward to meeting the Australian fan who wins GUFF, and voting for the fan we send over to Canada in 2009.

n Things Make a Post

Mike Glyer tagged me for a meme a little while ago. It’s the “which sf novels that have been made into films have you read?” list. Bold if I’ve read it, italicized if I started but didn’t finish.

  • Jurassic Park
  • War of the Worlds
  • The Lost World: Jurassic Park
  • I, Robot
  • Contact
  • Congo
  • Cocoon
  • The Stepford Wives
  • The Time Machine
  • Starship Troopers
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • K-PAX
  • 2010
  • The Running Man
  • Sphere
  • The Mothman Prophecies
  • Dreamcatcher
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
  • Dune
  • The Island of Dr. Moreau
  • The Body Snatchers
  • The Iron Giant/The Iron Man
  • Battlefield Earth
  • The Incredible Shrinking Woman
  • Fire in the Sky
  • Altered States
  • Timeline
  • The Postman
  • Freejack/Immortality, Inc.
  • Solaris
  • Memoirs of an Invisible Man
  • The Thing/Who Goes There?
  • The Thirteenth Floor
  • Lifeforce/Space Vampires
  • Deadly Friend
  • The Puppet Masters
  • 1984
  • A Scanner Darkly
  • Creator
  • Monkey Shines
  • Solo/Weapon
  • The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Communion
  • Carnosaur
  • From Beyond
  • Nightflyers
  • Watchers

(I’ve assumed that “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Body Snatchers” both refer to The Body Snatchers, and combined accordingly.)

Just for once, I’m not too bothered about doing badly on one of these lists, since there’s not many books on it I actually want to read and haven’t. (Although, yes, I probably have read more Michael Crichton novels than strictly necessary.) Some of the entries, as noted at SF Signal, look a bit dodgy; the one that jumped out at me was The Thirteenth Floor, although it looks like that may have been based on a comic. I assume films like The Prestige and Children of Men don’t make the grade because they didn’t take enough money. Of course, the adaptation I’m looking forward to most at the moment is Blindness.


F&SF are doing another one of their blogger giveaways, this time of the October/November double issue. Since I don’t have a subscription at the moment (yeah, yeah, I know), I put my name in the hat, and was lucky enough to receive a copy. So far I’ve only read M. Rickert’s story, “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter’s Personal Account” and, while I’m not as completely bowled over as Chris Barzak, it’s definitely a powerful story.


Other recent reading, and future plans: I’ve finished Benjamin Rosenbaum’s The Ant King and Other Stories, and am working on a review, although depending on how it turns out I’m toying with submitting it to the Virginia Quarterly Review Young Reviewers Contest rather than posting it here. Like Liz, I’ve read Anathem and enjoyed it; I’ve submitted my review to IROSF. I’m currently reading, on the one hand, Kairos by Gwyneth Jones (in advance of her BSFA interview on Wednesday) and, on the other hand, The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson, with the aim of writing a series of posts about various heroric fantasy stories for early next month. It’s the Gollancz Ultimate Fantasy edition, the best thing about which — as with the SF4U titles — is not the pretty cover (although that’s nice) but the fact that the text has been re-set so as to be legible. After that lot’s out of the way, I’ve got a number of review commitments for various places: Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi, Going Under by Justina Robson, Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon, Dogs and Nano Comes to Clifford Falls by Nancy Kress, The Quiet War by Paul McAuley and (if I’m honest, the one I’m most impatient to get to) Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod.


And now, some links:

The Host

The Host coverThe most depressing thing about Stephenie Meyer’s first science fiction novel, set in a future in which billions of humans have had parasitical aliens who call themselves “souls” implanted into their brains, is how throughly an interesting premise has had its body stolen by the mind of an emotionally stunted fairytale. Two choices on Meyer’s part prop up the story. The first is to begin after humanity has well and truly lost. Doing that skips over most of the familiar antecedents and suggests a story that will be as much about accomodation — about coming to terms — as it will be about resistance. The second choice sets up exactly that: the narrator is one of the souls, Wanderer, who discovers that the consciousness of her host, Melanie, is lurking in the back corridors of their shared mind. Although Mel begins to assert herself fairly quickly, the initial stages of the novel are successfully alienating, and some aspects of Wanderer’s coming to terms with her new humanity (such as her initial assessment of human language as “choppy, boxy, blind and linear”, compared to what she had access to in her previous life as an underwater sentient tree) are vividly done. So much of the book is good medicine: sadly, it comes with much more than a spoonful of sugar.

The Host, you see, is a novel in which everything is special. It is not enough, for example, that humans be sufficiently willful that they are hard to subdue, and sufficiently emotionally intense that occupation be disorientating for the souls; they must be the most willful species the souls have ever encountered, and their emotional reactions must be the most emotionally intense the souls have ever encountered, such that Wanderer (the narrator) is driven to wonder how any soul could survive in a human host. (And this is not to mention humanity’s “physical drives”, the like of which the souls have never seen, although in fact Meyer does a very good job of not mentioning them for most of her book’s six hundred-plus pages.) Nor can the narrative simply be the story of a soul and a host wrestling for control of a body: it must be the story of an extraordinary soul, who has lived many lives on many worlds, and an equally extraordinary host, so secure in her identity that, one soul asserts, she would have “crushed” any soul other than Wanderer in days.

To an extent, the snowflake-ness of all this can be justified. Melanie is only 17, and has just experienced her first love, while for Wanderer’s species altruistic urges are as powerful as the base physical ones that afflict humans. A better recipe for rose-tintedly seeing the best in everything is hard to imagine, and in fact the novel’s very last move could be read as an acknowledgement that nothing about the book’s story is as special as Wanderer tells us it is. But long before you reach that point, the sheer density of exceptionality becomes suffocating, and leaves you with the feeling that some of the most interesting implications of the novel’s premise are never being drilled to any great depth. The division between Melanie and Wanderer eschews anything resembling a reflection of the real complexity of memory, for instance; Melanie’s remembrances are simply a collection of home movies.

The true target of the novel is revealed in a conversation between Wanderer and her therapist who, in a nice touch, turns out to have been a front-line soldier during the initial colonization period. Describing why she kept a human name, and how she ended up bonding strongly enough with her assigned partner to maintain the relationship after the war, she says:

“At first, of course, it was random chance, and assignment. We bonded, naturally, from spending so much time together, sharing the danger of our mission. [...] We lived every day with the knowledge that we could meet a final end at any moment. There was constant excitement and frequent fear.

“All very good reasons why Curt and I might have formed an attachment and decided to stay together when secrecy was no longer necessary. And I could lie to you, assuage your fears, by telling you that these were the reasons. But …” She shook her head and then seemed to settle deeper into her chair, her eyes boring into me. “In so many millennia, the humans never did figure love out. How much is physical, how much in the mind? How much accident and how much fate? Why did perfect matches crumble and impossible couples thrive? I don’t know the answers any better than they did. Love simply is where it is. My host loved Curt’s host, and that love did not die when the ownership of the minds changed.” (41-2)

As noted above, we already know by this point that Melanie was travelling with a man she truly loved, name of Jared. Actually, that’s being too kind: we have been bludgeoned over the head with the fact. The first time Wanderer gets caught up in Melanie’s memories of Jared, she says that despite the intimidating similarity of human faces (only “tiny variations in color and shape” to tell them apart by), “This face I would have known among millions” (10). Another memory recalls Melanie’s first meeting with Jared, after months of trying to survive with her younger brother, Jamie, during which, despite thinking he’s soul-possessed and out to get her, she has time to note his iron-hard abs and prominent cheekbones. Nor does Melanie object too strenuously when Jared’s his first action on realising she is also a free human is to kiss her, with only “I’ve just been alone so long!” (33) as an excuse. She focuses rather on his gentle voice, and how “He seems to realize how brittle I am, how close to breaking” (34). And this is only the beginning: originality of phrasing is not Meyer’s strong point, and once the relationship gets going, there’s really a lot of talk about how Jared’s touch sets Melanie aflame, and similar cliches of burning passion. Again, some of this — and some of the (for Wanderer) terrifying intensity of Melanie’s memories in general — can be attributed to the excitement of youth. But a lot of it seems to just be trying too hard. Jared says things like, “Neither heaven nor hell can keep me apart from you, Melanie” (84), after only a month of acquaintance, and without any detectable irony; never is the necessity of the relationship seriously questioned.

The questions the novel is interested in, clearly, are those identified by Wanderer’s therapist: whether Melanie’s love will transfer to Wanderer as completely as Wanderer’s therapist’s host’s love transferred and what such a transfer might mean. So it’s no surprise at all that Melanie’s yearning persuades Wanderer to go AWOL in an attempt to find Jared and Jamie (“I could not separate myself from this body’s wants”, 88), nor a surprise that she succeeds (thanks to directions to a secret hide-out in the Arizona desert memorized by Melanie); nor is it even a surprise that Jared, Jamie, and the plucky band they’ve hooked up with in Melanie’s absence are not best pleased to see Wanderer.

Nevertheless, what follows — when Meyer has moved all her pieces into place, and can just let them bounce off one another for a few hundred pages, with Wanderer’s struggles to fit in among a small community of survivors and deal with human emotions as the notional centre of gravity — is when the novel is at its most successful. The relationships that Wanderer (with Melanie as the devil on her shoulder, a dynamic that becomes increasingly appealing) builds up with various members of the community are largely well-handled, from the surrogate-mother role she adopts with Jamie to a genuine, if tentative, friendship that develops with the group’s pragmatic-yet-secretly-kind leader, Jeb. (Sometimes it seems as though Meyer is being cheerfully blatant about her use of central casting extras: the community’s Doc is exactly as crotchety yet honourable as you’d expect a character called Doc to be.) Wanderer’s relationship with Jared is, as you’d expect, fraught, recalling the reactions of human crew on Battlestar Galactica on learning that a close friend is a cylon (or, perhaps more aptly, recalling the reaction of Buffyverse humans to vamped friends). Wanderer is gradually accepted as a sort of teacher, giving the community (and, of course, us) the chance to learn things about her people that were heretofore unknown. We get more detail on the evolution and biology of souls, explaining why it is they were so horrified by the brutal violence of normal human affairs (indeed, it was a dramatic decrease in crime and unpleasantness that led to humans noticing the arrival of the souls in the first place). We get glimpses of a possible future in which humans and souls co-exist, such as an apparently loving family in which two souled parents are raising an unensouled child. There’s a lovely conversation about television at one point, in which it is revealed that all human shows up to and including The Brady Bunch have been censored due to their sexual and violent content. The new ones all have happy endings: “you have to consider the intended audience” (477).

That the novel stays readable right up to the end is something of an accomplishment, because the further into her story she gets, the more Meyer seems determined to undermine its integrity. (Maybe she thinks she’s considering her audience.) There is an odd inconsistency, for example, between the emphasis on Melanie-as-Melanie’s athleticism, on Wanderer-in-previous-life’s adventuresome feats, and the way in which Wanderer-in-Melanie’s-body turns into a weakling girl whenever the plot requires it: she is rendered helpless by the sight of a gun, and finds digging a hole in the ground an impossibly intimidating physical feat. Such a retreat to traditional gender roles — because of course Jared is a powerful leader of men — can’t be entirely unselfconscious on Meyer’s part, given the discussions elsewhere in the novel about alien societies with different constructions of gender; but it does seem odd. Similarly, there are moments in which the sf elements of the story are betrayed to lend a frisson of sensationalism to the relationship between Wanderer and Jared: at one point, Wanderer is forced — forced! — to kiss Jared, hoping the intensity of the contact will re-awake Melanie’s personality within her; at another point, Jared is forced — forced! — to scar Wanderer’s face, to provide her with a convincing alibi. Of course, the souls’ medicine can heal said scar right up.

But these are passing moments, and to be kind, you could argue that one way of parsing the novel’s trajectory is that it’s about Wanderer learning to escape from the neutered narratives of her kind. Sadly, she never quite does, and even with a six-hundred-page run-up the novel’s closing stages, which lean heavily on Wanderer’s propensity for selflessness, become tedious, not least because Wanderer’s final choice is rigged so as to make everyone else believe in it, too. In the last fifteen pages, Wanderer is put on a pedestal that threatens to burst out of the stratosphere; as I mentioned earlier, the book’s final move undercuts this somewhat, but it’s too little, too late. If Melanie is the devil on Wanderer’s shoulder, then Wanderer is an angel; and angels are even harder to believe in than souls.

Speculative Japan

Speculative Japan coverI’ve got a new review up at Strange Horizons: Speculative Japan, edited by Gene van Troyer and Grania Davis. It’s a somewhat belated review, in that the anthology was actually published this time last year to mark the first Worldcon held in Japan, but it’s an interesting book, worth reading and (hopefully) talking about. Not that it’s been entirely ignored until now — I was pleased to see the Hugo nomination statistics, for instance, which revealed that what is probably my favourite story (“Where do the Birds Fly Now?”) got ten nominations for Best Novelette, while another story (“Hikari”) got the same number of nominations in Best Short Story.

Anathem

The problem with trying to review Anathem is that to give the details of exactly why it is so great would give away half the fun of reading it. I’ve never read a Neal Stephenson book I didn’t like, but there are definitely areas where he is weak – endings, for example, also resisting the urge to cram all of his copious research into a book wherever he can, and while I like the parts where he spends four pages describing, eg, the removal of Randy Waterhouse’s wisdom teeth, I can see it’s not going to work for everyone. The good news is that Anathem is a distinct improvement over his past works in that it has a plot, an ending, and tells a self-contained story in only 900 pages, which compared to the Baroque Cycle seems positively restrained.

The first three hundred pages or so are an intense piece of world-building and scene-setting. This is not Earth, but it’s something like it, and Stephenson dumps you straight into this world a few steps removed from our own, with just enough resemblance to our language for you to almost understand. I spent the first fifty pages flicking back and forth to the extensive glossary, but when it starts to fall into place it’s worth the effort.

The “religious” communities of this world are not based on belief in a higher power, but belief in logic, and the mathematical laws of the universe. (Holding what we would term religious belief is optional, and as much a matter for debate as any other part of the world.) The monks and nuns (“fraas” and “suurs”, as they are named in this world) live in their monasteries and convents (or “maths” and “concents”), discussing and debating for years, and stepping out into the secular world once every decade, hundred years, or thousand years to mingle with the people outside. It’s a very convincing, detailed world, all told in the first person, and when the outside world starts to encroach upon the sheltered, unchanging world of the concents you feel for the bewildered monks having to deal with the changes it brings. The middle part of the book is a little slower, although it does introduce Fraa Jad, probably my favourite character because of his habit of dropping bombshells into the conversation as though nothing has happened, while being completely aware that’s what he’s doing.

The dialogues between the monks take up large parts of the book, and here’s where the brilliance lies – they allow Stephenson to digress, tell stories, explore physics and the universe and philosophy, but rather than being interesting sections which don’t advance the plot, they are an absolutely integral part of it, and every time I felt my interesting in the abstract nature of the dialogues flagging they tied them right back into the plot.

If there was an area that disappointed, it was that in a book filled with many good characters, the main love interest is underdeveloped compared to almost everyone else, and the romance comes right out of nowhere and never really convinces. It’s a necessary part of the development of our protagonist from innocent, cloistered youth to the more worldly-wise figure he is at the end, and with the first person perspective it’s probably intentional that he doesn’t spot her attraction to him until it’s right in front of him, but even afterwards she doesn’t get developed as much as many of the other characters. While I appreciate the proper ending to the book, it’s almost too sudden a finish, and after nine hundred pages of buildup I could have stood to have a few more pages of epilogue.

Anathem is probably not going to win over anyone who didn’t like Snow Crash or Cryptonomicon, but it is a return to proper SF, and a return to form after the slight disappointment that was the Baroque Cycle. It’s funny, filled with characters you feel for and root for, and a hymn to the wonders of a world where logic is the key belief, without being blind to the problems and failures that would ensue. There’s no doubt that Stephenson thinks it would be a better world than ours.

Twenty Epics

For anyone who didn’t click through, yesterday’s post about essential sf books of the last twenty years provoked quite a lot of discussion, plus the suggestion that we repeat the experiment with fantasy books. For me at least, this is a somewhat more daunting prospect, not just because I’ve read less fantasy than sf, but because fantasy seems more a much more diffuse category. Terry points to this discussion about “essential reads in literary fantasy”, which may provoke some thoughts, although it’s not limited to the last two decades. Possibly also useful for reference are the winners of the World Fantasy Awards for best novel, best anthology and best collection.

Graham Sleight’s already offered his first-draft list:

  • Aegypt sequence (1987-2006), John Crowley [I know it falls slightly outside the period, but just considering the three in-period novels would be silly.]
  • Rats and Gargoyles (1990), Mary Gentle
  • Moonwise (1991), Greer Gilman
  • The Ends of the Earth (1991), Lucius Shepard
  • Was (1992), Geoff Ryman
  • The Course of the Heart (1992), M John Harrison
  • Wise Children (1992), Angela Carter
  • Glimpses (1993), Lewis Shiner
  • The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993), Michael Swanwick
  • His Dark Materials sequence (1995-2000), Philip Pullman
  • Waking the Moon (1995), Elizabeth Hand
  • The Physiognomy (1997), Jeffrey Ford
  • Declare (2000), Tim Powers
  • Perdido Street Station (2000), China Mieville
  • The Other Wind (2001), Ursula Le Guin
  • Stranger Things Happen (2001), Kelly Link
  • Coraline (2002), Neil Gaiman
  • The Salt Roads (2003), Nalo Hopkinson
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004), Susanna Clarke
  • Map of Dreams (2006), M Rickert

Lal also mentioned some fantasy novels:

  • The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, Michael Swanwick (1993)
  • A Game Of Thrones, George R. R. Martin (1997)
  • Perdido Street Station, China Mieville (2000)
  • Declare, Tim Powers (2000)
  • Galveston, Sean Stewart (2000)
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susannah Clarke (2004)
  • Worldstorm, James Lovegrove (2005)

Taking these into account, and engaging in some further consultation, here’s my suggestion:

  • Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay (1990)
  • Tehanu, Ursula Le Guin (1990)
  • The Course of the Heart, M John Harrison (1992)
  • The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, Michael Swanwick (1993)
  • Was, Geoff Ryman (1992)
  • Assassin’s Apprentice, Robin Hobb (1995)
  • His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman (1995-2000)
  • A Game Of Thrones, George R. R. Martin (1997)
  • The Physiognomy, Jeffrey Ford (1997)
  • Last Summer at Mars Hill, Elizabeth Hand (1998)
  • Perdido Street Station, China Mieville (2000)
  • Ash, Mary Gentle (2000)
  • Stranger Things Happen, Kelly Link (2001)
  • City of Saints and Madmen, Jeff VanderMeer (2001)
  • Coraline, Neil Gaiman (2002)
  • The Light Ages, Ian R MacLeod (2003)
  • Trujillo, Lucius Shepard (2004)
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004)
  • Map of Dreams, M. Rickert (2006)
  • Discworld, Terry Pratchett (ongoing)

Now: over to you.

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