The Half-Made Links (2)

Short Story Club: “Second Journey of the Magus”

Once more, here’s the story; it seems to have missed out on any coverage in the print Locus, so here’s Lois Tilton:

With this powerfully disturbing tale of faith and doubt, MacLeod joins a notable list of authors who have reimagined the temptations of Christ. It is not really an alternate history; Jesus’ choice has taken the story entirely out of history into eschatology. This vision of Jerusalem transformed by a Satanic Christ is strongly unsettling in its resemblance to the heavenly city of so many pious imaginations. But the conclusion may leave the reader puzzled as Balthasar finally makes his own choice, which the author leaves us to imagine. Recommended.

… and since I’m writing this before I go on holiday, at the moment that’s your lot. What did you think?

The Half-Made Links (1)

London Meeting: Diana Wynne Jones discussion

Tonight’s BSFA London Meeting is a discussion of the work of Diana Wynne Jones, featuring Charles Butler and Farah Mendlesohn.

As usual, the meeting will be head in the upstairs room of The Antelope: 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

There will be people in the bar from 6-ish, with the interview starting at 7. The meeting is free, and open to any and all — not just BSFA members — and there will be a raffle with a selection of sf books as prizes.

Short Story Club: “Elegy for a Young Elk”

An earlier than usual kick-off for Hannu Rajaniemi’s story, because fairly shortly I will be leaving for the airport and a two-week holiday. (Fear not! I have scheduled the other short story club posts ahead of time. Plus I’ll probably be online at points.) Anyway, Jason Sanford has tried to claim this story as Sci-Fi Strange; but is it actually any good? Over to Gardner Dozois, in the August Locus:

Also first-rate in the Summer issue is Hannu Rajaniemi’s “Elegy for a Young Elk”. Rajaniemi is a writer who cranks the bit-rate up about as high as it can go and still remain comprehensible (although there will almost certainly be some who think that this doesn’t remain comprehensible). Said by some to out-Charles Stross Charles Stross, this slender story, set in a post-Apocalyptic future society where posthumans with godlike powers are at war, manages to jam enough high-concept into a few pages to fuel a 400-page novel.

Lois Tilton is more lukewarm:

A lot of neat images here in a world transformed into something fantastic and not very explicable. There is a fragmentary story about Kosonon and his son, and parental guilt, but mostly this is a world incomprehensibly transformed and a man trying to find his place it in.

Pam Philips liked it, but can’t pin it down:

When I re-read it to make sure of the details, the story clicked. I was sucked right in and couldn’t stop reading from beginning to end of Kosonen’s quest to regain his lost poetry. I love the way he proves he has it back, with an act that skates the melting edge between scif-fi nanotech and magic. It had me wondering if the magic in the story had cast some spell of confusion on me the first time. Or maybe I was just awake on the second try. I’m still annoyed by who the lord of the city is, but if it were someone else, the ease of Kosonen’s choice at the end wouldn’t make sense.

Alex at Not If You Were The Last Short Story On Earth feels similarly:

Hannu Rajaniemi, Elegy for a Young Elk is… one of those stories where words fail me. I just flail my hands in the air, saying “it’s just… good… and… a bit weird but good weird. Y’know?” The idea of post-humanity and AIs taken in a really awesome direction, with the humanity still achingly there. Also, a talking bear.

Chad Orzel:

I liked this better than the previous entries in the Short Story Club, though I suspect this is more to do with it not pushing buttons of mine than any absolute quality of the story. As with “A Serpent in the Gears,” this is an excellent example of providing backstory without infodumping, though many serious gaps remain (the exact nature of the apocalypse remains a little unclear, and there are some dangling references that never quite get explained). The language is very evocative, and while it mostly uses the time-honored dodge of describing but not quoting the important poetry of the story, the bit that is quoted is perfectly fine (allowing for the fact that I am not generally a poetry person).

This does suffer a bit from a kind of incompleteness that I suspect is an unavoidable consequence of the form. It’s got a reasonable plot– Kosonen is given a quest, which turns out to have more personal significance than he expected, and its completion is different than what was presumably intended. Kosonen remains something of a cipher, though– there are hints of character there, but for the most part, he seems to do what he does because it wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise. The narrative sort of floats above the core of the character, never really providing all that much depth.

Matt Hilliard’s take:

The star of the story, for me, was the magic lamp genie nanomachine device commanded by poetry. Generally I have a tin ear for poetry, but I actually was pretty impressed by the narrator’s train poem. But the poetry business was also the biggest disappointment since it was only used once. Well, once, and then sort of at the end, which almost ruined the story for me. In a great story, Esa would have been trapped and died, but his father would have used an epic poem to recreate something like him out the magic bean nanoseed. In this story, Esa uses magic quantum something or other to hide from the city’s magic guardian firewall. This was an enormous cop out of an ending. If this firewall was so easily duped, why couldn’t he escape before? I suppose the story implies his mother is helping out from her end, but come on.

And Evan also tries to puzzle out the ending:

This story was good. It was coherent, it managed not to over-explain, it was about real-feeling people and realistic relationships. Rajaniemi has the storyteller’s spark. It was a bit baggy, like it was told at the granularity of a novel, rather than a short story. It’s satisfyingly low on exposition. There are many moments where the writing is quite nice.

There are two takes on the ending, I think. Either the sky-people planned the entire affair to go off the way it did, or they didn’t. I like the former theory better. A bit of theater, allowing Kosonen to move on and his son and the quantum girl to finally go free in a way that makes them less dangerous to the people around them (presumably they’re reduced somewhat by translation into poetical form). The setting here then is a neat bit of work, but doesn’t really get behind the story and push. It’s stronger if you’ve read “Deus Ex Homine”, I think.

If the latter is the case, then the story is unfinished, the ending makes very little sense, the setup is stupid, and Rajaniemi is betrayed by the allure of his setting, much like I was.

He also says:

There’s a longer discussion to be had, now that the singularity thing is just about wound down, but I am not sure that this story is the right tee for kicking it off.

OR IS IT? Over to you.

How to Finish a Review

By popular demand! Or at least by one request. It turns out that I don’t think there are neat little identifiable gambits to end a review with, at least not in the same way that I think there can be gambits to open with, so this post is less glib. Endings, at least for any review of more than a few hundred words, are about synthesis, which means they’re probably going to have several of the features identified below. The mix will depend on the focus of the review; I don’t think you can pick most of these and bolt them on to a generic review. It’s more a case of recognising the sort of review you’re going to write, or occasionally the sort of review you’ve written, and what it needs to wrap up satisfactorily.

1. Evaluation.

Not, actually, as important as you might think; it’s going to be hard to get to your conclusion without having made it pretty clear what you think of the book. But a straightforward endorsement or dismissal can be a nicely emphatic full stop.

2. Summation.

Again, more common than it is necessary. After a long — I’m talking several thousand words — review of a book that identifies a goodly number of positives and negatives, you might want to recap. But even then you might just be repeating yourself (perhaps the most boring way to start a conclusion is: “Overall…”) or not examining your own views hard enough: how many books are you really that split-down-the-middle on?

3. Culmination (narrative)

All synopsis, being selective and partial, is criticism. Not all criticism is synoptic, but if yours is, you’ll probably need to talk about the ending of the work being discussed; and structuring your review so that you talk about the book’s ending in your conclusion — even if only in affective terms, rather than in specifics — can be pretty effective.

4. Culmination (thematic)

There’s a good chance that, by the time you reach your conclusion, you’ve already written this: the perfect encapsulation of the book’s central thesis (either what works about it or what doesn’t), the verdict that all your examples point towards. So go back and steal it, and save it for the conclusion, where it will look like everything you’ve been saying about the book coming neatly together.

5. Culmination (yours)

That is, of the argument you’re making — about the book, the author, the genre, whatever — rather than the argument the book is making. Particularly useful for structuring reviews of short story collections, and again, you’d be amazed how often you write it half-way through without realising.

6. Slingshot.

Works particularly well with the Jeopardy opening: you answer your question, and identify the next question, leaving it for the reader to answer

7. Speculation.

In which you suggest answers to the next question. Characteristic of reviews of series fiction: where is it all going?

8. Reframing.

In which your last paragraph attacks the issues you’ve been discussing from a new angle, and hopefully the parallax generates some light. One way of doing this is to save your “A third of the way into the book…” and use it at the end of the review, rather than the start. Another is to talk about The Larger Point: open the review up to consider the author’s body of work, or the genre as a whole, if you haven’t been doing so to that point. In fact, now that I think of it, you could probably use any of the opening gambits in this way, as long as you haven’t deployed them already…

How to start a review

1. Jeopardy.

Think of your conclusion: the one thing you want anyone reading your review to know about the thing you’re discussing. Now think of the question to which your conclusion is the answer. (This works best if you have something more interesting to say than simply, “it’s good” or “it’s bad”.)

2. About a third of the way through the book …

What scene or event encapsulates the book’s strengths (or weaknesses)? Describe it. Make the person reading your review share your enthusiasm (or frustration).

3. Kick it LRB-style (version one).

Potted history of, or meditation on, the author’s career to that point.

4. Kick it LRB-style (version two).

Potted history of, or meditation on, a category of which the book is an example. (Useful when LRB-style version one is inappropriate, e.g. first novels.)

5. Bear with me for a minute …

Anecdote or trivia that illustrates something about the book under review, and thus makes it relatable for the reader. Works best if the nature of the link between the two things remains opaque until the moment you illuminate it. Use with caution in reviews of less than a thousand words.

6. Narcissism

A bit like option 5, but requires a stronger relationship with the audience, since the anecdote or trivia is about you, or your experience with the book (or another book by the writer), which is less likely to be of interest to a passing reader.

7. Here is some brilliant writing.

A bit like option 2, but you’re showing off the specifics of your subject’s prose. If you do this, you have to make at least one substantive point about the writing per sentence quoted. OK, you don’t have to, but you should.

8. Ronseal.

Offer up the most pithy summation of the book you can manage. The danger here is that if it’s too pithy, nobody will read on to get the detail.

9. Previously, on this book …

Ah, the synopsis. Almost always necessary at some point; but if it’s your opening gambit, it’d better be interesting.

10. Everyone else is wrong!

Quote one (or more) other reviewers about the book, then argue with them. The more high-profile the reviewer the better — as long as you can back up your claims. (Everyone else being right is also possible, but for obvious reasons trickier to pull off.)

Short Story Club: “A Serpent in the Gears”

We’ll begin with Rich Horton, in the January Locus:

Beneath Ceaseless Skies opens 2010 with a very fine Margret Ronald story, “A Serpent in the Gears“. It’s the story of an expedition — by airship, naturally, this being a story with steampunk elements! — to a long-isolated country. We learn that the isolated country is occupied by mechanical beings (or partly mechanical beings). The expedition, from a wholly organic nation, has both scientific and diplomatic purposes. And it has a spy — the narrator. Besides spies and airships there are dragons, a strangely preserved Professora, and, for the narrator, a crisis of loyalty.

Lois Tilton also liked it:

Another blimp, this one in a fantastic steampunky setting. The dirigible Regina is attempting to cross Sterling Pass into the forbidden valley of Aaris, which is defended by automatic gun emplacements and giant flying hybrid-mechanical serpents. Many of the passengers onboard are spies claiming more or less truthfully to be scientists. The narrator, Charles, posing as Colonel Dieterich’s valet, is a spy from Aaris.
Crammed full of Neat Steampunk Stuff, delightfully witty prose, and high adventure.

The VanderMeers have also picked it up for their Steampunk Reloaded anthology.

Pam Philips enjoyed it:

There is so much to be revealed, though, it takes nearly half the text to get the setup done. The latter half is an action sequence, with battles alternating with revelations, climaxing with one big revelation. Everyone gasps, takes a breath, and — that’s it. That’s it?

I love the inventiveness. I love the imagery. I really hope this is meant to be the first chapter of an adventure novel. And then maybe a movie, though a movie producer would probably tack on a different ending and blow stuff up.

Matt H also thinks it feels “more like a prologue to a novel than a standalone story“:

Is this just a matter of taste? To some extent, it must be…in the past I’ve noted I expect more out of short stories than a lot of people seem to. But I think in this case, at least, I can point to story-specific reasons for my reaction. The story provides closure on two issues: the Regina‘s mission and the nature and origin of the narrator. The narrator’s unique circumstances are strongly hinted at all the way up to where it is confirmed about halfway through, so it wasn’t really a twist. I think my ambivalence about the Regina‘s mission comes straight from the narrator, who summarizes it in a paragraph or two and then goes back to the stuff I came away from the story interested in. If the narrator doesn’t care whether the mission succeeds or fails, why should I?

It doesn’t help that “Aaris Valley” was the thinnest part of the world building. We’re told it’s an insignificant backwater, but then it turns out that multiple countries have spies aboard the Regina with objectives we assume (for they are not actually given) are sinister. And then at the end, a militant and expansionist Aaris is a thought to be a grave threat. Just how big is this valley? None of this is clear, so neither are the stakes of the mission.

And for Evan it’s an interesting failure:

The story here moves along quickly, with deftly sketched characters straight out of steampunk central casting. We’ve a valet with a secret, an expedition into an interdicted country, vaunting overconfidence, and eventually an awakening to a grave danger. Everything flows smoothly and is topped off by a fine action sequence.

And yet… The story is somehow weightless, taking each element of the subgenre that is uses out of the box and placing it just so. Noting new is originated and nothing is actually said (I suppose that one could argue that the statement is that aggressive hegemonizing swarms are bad, or that individuality is important, or that loyalty is more important than kind, but all these seem to go without saying). We are told a story. It is fluent, complete, and hollow, concerned primarily with manipulation of scenery and furniture. No element of the standard building blocks is questioned, or goes unused (it’s even hinted that somewhere out there are magicians, although we never seem to see any).

With some more thoughts on steampunk here:

This is not steampunk at its worst, but all genre writing at its worst. The same point could have been made of the post-Tolkein fantasy boom from the late 70s to the early 90s (the hangover of which is still with us today), or the endless dreary cyberpunk follow-ons that have taken up most of the intellectual airspace in between now and then, or the mini-booms in epic fantasy, dark fantasy, the new space opera, etc., etc., etc.. Paranormal romance and steampunk are just the latest iterations and there’s fairly little that’s interesting to be said about them specifically. These are basically the publishing equivalent of momentum trading. Something equivalent will always be with us.

Your thoughts?