||[May. 5th, 2004|10:09 pm]
A combination of a lack of time and the fact that I've lost most of my notes for the month (I really must learn to write things up as I go along) mean that all you're getting this time around are brisk bullet-points. Well, that's the plan, anyway; we'll see how I do as I go along.
Turning things around from the normal order, I'll start with the short fiction. I didn't get as caught up as I'd hoped; I still have a backlog of F&SF, and there's a Third Alternative sitting around somewhere, too. On the other hand, I am now up to date with Asimov's and on the whole, I think the magazine is having a decent year.
- That said, the February issue, however, was disappointing. The two short stories - Jack Skillingstead's brief, sharp-edged, choose-your-own-destiny morality tale 'Rewind', and Mike Resnick's 'Travels With My Cats', a poignant examination, via the discovery of a magical book, of the impact a life makes - are both good, but the longer stories are all sub-par. I really don't like the issue's novella, R. Garcia Y Robertson's space adventure, 'Long Voyage Home'; events move along briskly enough but I didn't find any ideas of any real consequence, and certainly none that were fully explored. Of the novellettes, Tom Purdom's 'Romance for Augmented Trio' is certainly the strongest, playing effectively with the debate between romance and intellect arising out of its 'Casanova in spaaaace' premise. Matthew Jarpe's linguistics-based first-contact story, 'Language Barrier' is adequate but I didn't feel it brought anything new to the material; and 'At Ten Wolf Lake' by William Sanders is an exploration of a world where bigfoots and kobolds are real...and treated as just another ethnic minority; I felt it was entertaining, if lightweight, and thankfully didn't overmake its point.
- By contrast, the March issue is worth seeking out, even if you don't ordinarily read the magazine. Robert Reed opens the proceedings with the fascinating 'A Plague Of Life', which, via a subtle family portrait, imagines a world in which the biological controls on aging and mortality are somewhat different. Hard on its heels comes a short story from Gene Wolfe. 'Pulp Cover' plays Wolfe's traditional narrative tricks in service of an exploration of what alien abduction might really be like, and by extension what science fiction is really all about. In many ways it's a quiet and simple tale, but nonetheless effective for that:
So I thought I ought to warn people, and now I have. While I was telling all this, the man who's going to write it showed me one of his old pulp magazines. It has a monster with great big eyes and tentacles on it, and this monster is chasing a girl in a one-piece tin swimsuit. But it's not really like that. It isn't really like that at all.
Other excellent stories come from Chris Beckett and Ian McDowell (because there weren't enough Ian Mcs, clearly). 'Tammy Pendant' is a hard-edged story of reality-shifting, set on a UK council estate; it caused something of a stir when the issue came out, even causing Asimov's to be removed from some US school libraries. I suppose I can see why, although it seems to me something of an overreaction. 'Under The Flag Of Night,' in complete contrast, is a swashbuckling tale of black pirate magic and the search for a magic cauldron that may or may not be the holy grail. Bags of fun from start to finish - this is how to tell an adventure story - and it handily sidesteps the inevitable Pirates of the Caribbean comparisons. This issue also contains three other average-to-good shorts, and only one - Sarah A Hoyt's fey 'What She left Behind' - that disappoints.
- The April/May double issue runs the gamut of quality, as the double issues often do. Pick of the bunch for me was William Barton's 'Moments of Inertia', which starts off at the end of the world and picks up from there for a cosmological jaunt steeped in the history of sf (think riffs on your godlike beings and your omega point), and evokes a tangible sense of wonder at the baroque romance of the universe. Not far behind is a novella by Gregory Feeley: 'Arabian Wine,' set in the Venice of the 17th (or thereabouts) century is an alternate history in which nothing really gets altered, and historical inevitability is reaffirmed. Trader Matteo is scheming to bring greatness to himself and Venice via means of either the import of coffee to Europe (the arabian wine of the title) or the development of some form of steam-driven engine. Feeley draws a complex drama out of competing economic and trade interests; it sounds dry on paper, but in fact is lush, and atmospheric, and very, very readable. The issue's second novella, 'Incident At Goat Kill Creek,' is a Coyote novella from Allen M Steele, but as much as I liked the early stories in this series, and as much as this is a step up from recent Coyote installments, I'm pretty much forced to conclude that the law of diminishing returns has set in with this series. The frontier planet in space has been done before, and done with greater subtlety; the ideological clash is interesting, but none-too-delicately handled, and as time goes on each story stands less and less alone. I also found the issue's novellettes a let-down - Mary Rosenbaum's 'Tracker,' a far-future romance of humans in the shadow of their posthuman descendents, is the sort of thing I normally enjoy, but somehow failed to grab me, and 'Leaving His Cares Behind Him' is yet another Kage Baker story that rolled off me like so much water off a duck's back. Maybe it's something in her rhythms. Of the short stories, most notable for me are Judy Klass' 'We'll Have Manhattan', which tells of the repopulation of a post-dirty-bomb Manhattan by criminals and the mentally unstable, and 'Wealth', another Robert Reed story, this time dealing with the place and meaning of money, as a market-AI looks to invest in real estate. Not Reed's best, but well worth a look.
Nine actual books this month: five novels, two non-fiction, one novella, and one short story collection.
- There's an old but accurate quote from almost twenty years ago about Bruce Sterling's space opera extravaganza Schismatrix, which goes something like this: 'this book takes the cheap beer of space opera and boils it down into a jolting postmodern whiskey.' Steph Swainston's The Year of Our War feels like it's trying to do something similar for epic fantasy. It clearly is that strain of the genre - there are kingdoms, immortals, epic battles (Our Hero is Jant, the Messenger of the Emperor, one of the Circle, chosen to guard the Fourlands against the Insects...you get the idea), plus most tellingly of all a map in the front of the book - but it is also clearly something different. It weighs in at under three hundred pages, for starters, but is filled with a sense of alien-ness - dammit, of wonder - that is rare in this sort of story. Everything about it is kinetic: the linguistic playfulness (somehow managing to infuse the characters with a modern idiom without ever jarring); the brutal, panoramic battle scenes; the constant moral choices facing the characters; and the deep, abiding sense of the reality of this world. Not a book, perhaps, that is completely successful in all that it attempts, but like everything else with an Edward Miller cover it's certainly worth reading, and as a signpost marking the direction of current fantasy you couldn't ask for better.
- The Book is a short novel from Serbian writer Zoran Zivkovic, and it could not be more different. The conceit is that Earth is home to two forms of life: humans, and books. This is a satirical, postmodern fantasy told from the point of view of a member of that second species. The opening litany of complaints against humanity will have any booklover alternately cringing and laughing out loud; Zivkovic precisely nails the habits of a dozen different types of reader. Subsequent sections (notably a cynical sideswipe at the publishing industry) are less effective, but this is Zivkovic, so it's always going to be worth reading.
- Interestingly, this month I also read, quite without meaning to, two other books that function as pleas for the importance of books, and books as artefacts in and of themselves. Fahrenheit 451 is one, and that's under discussion elsewhere (hint, hint); the other is Francis Spufford's memoir of a reading childhood, The Child That Books Built. I say 'memoir', but it's really more of an essay, loosely framed around Spufford's progression as a reader, that deals with the meaning and nature of language, and of stories. His experiences don't quite map with mine - I too loved the Little House On The Prarie books, and Swallows and Amazons, but it seems I missed out entirely on the dominance of Puffin books. And we came to sf in different ways, too; Spufford discovered it with relief after floundering around in the fields of classic literature, whereas I think I graduated to the Asimov on my dad's bookshelves before I'd reached my teens. Still, even without perfect resonance this is still a thought-provoking read, and highly recommended (particularly if you want to understand what all the fuss about sf is; on that, I think that he might just be spot on).
- I've said before that I think Spufford might be the ultimate geek liason; he translates from us to them, but also, and equally importantly, from them to us. This is obvious in The Child That Books Built, and it's obvious in The Backroom Boys, his secret history of the British boffin. Six tales of British engineering in the last fifty years, firmly embedded in their social, historical and technological context. The subjects covered are diverse - rockets to mobile phones to genome sequencing. My favourite was the chapter on the making of Elite, which to my mind better than any of the others captures the particular mindset of the boffin.
- Yevgeny Zamyatin's We is 'the Russian 1984'; although of course, given that it was written in about 1920 it's more accurate to say that 1984 is the English We. It's a dystopia, then, and for my money more effective than Orwell's - the eradication of individuality, and the triumph of stern rationality, is more complete, and more chilling. One of the interesting consequences of this is that the novel doesn't feel Russian in the way that 1984 feels English (interesting too that both, and Brave New World, are totalitarian dsyopias; I'm trying to think of a similarly significant anarchist dystopia and failing). It goes without saying that it's a classic.
- Greg Benford's new novel, Beyond Infinity is not a classic. In fact, it's distinctly average; a far-future twilight-of-humanity adventure that wants to be on the level of Clarke or Stapledon or Wells but falls far short.
- I also found Arthur Bradford's short story collection Dogwalker underwhelming; blackly humorous in places, but disconcertingly smug in others. These are stories of bizarre circumstance and coincidence, but too often they're nothing else - just incident, with no development or conclusion. The best is the longest: 'Dogs' tells of a dog that gives birth to a man that fathers dogs, and is in a way strangely touching.
- Michel Faber's novella 'The Courage Consort', on the other hand, is perfect. I think I mean that: as a story, in itself, it's a work of art. Others may possibly have better writing, might conceivably have more engaging characters, or might theoretically have a more interesting conceit; I can't think of any that are more balanced, or more beautiful. If you read nothing else I ever recommend, read this. And it's not even sf!
Up next: a desparate scramble to get Maul and Darwin's Children read before the Clarke award ceremony. Then Peter F Hamilton, Ken Macleod, and with any luck issues of Interzone and Postscripts.
I seem to have done quite well on the film front this month.
First there are the zombies: Dawn of the Dead, the original, which is overlong and overslow; Dawn of the Dead, the remake, which is utterly daft but has a killer opening end-of-the-world sequence; and Shaun of the Dead which, as you might expect from the team that brought you Spaced is equally but differently daft, and is such an effective parody that I think I will be hard-pressed to take a zombie film seriously ever again.
Then there are the highly anticipateds: Kill Bill 2, which is a Tarantino film rather than a Tarantino-does-action film and all the better for it; and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind which, despite the disconcerting closeness of a couple of the characters to people I have known in the past, remains clever and honest and touching - and probably the best film I've seen so far this year.
On the TV front, 24 is firing on all cylinders: all the plot threads are tightly woven together, and all are interesting in their own right. Several have had simply astounding moments of drama, particularly...well, no, I can't spoil it. But with four episodes to go, if they can keep this level of quality running through to the end, I think season three will stand clear as the best so far. Of Smallville, meanwhile, I watched one weak episode - 'Resurrection' - and one killer - 'Crisis' which takes an honest-to-goodness sf plot driver (message from the future telling of disaster) and spins a tight story around it. Will wonders never cease?
Up next: the last of Angel. For real, this time. Season finales all around, in fact - Smallville and 24 in particular. I'd also like to find the time to watch some Jeremiah. At the cinema I'm looking forward to The Day After Tomorrow, I still want to see The Butterfly Effect, and I suspect I'll end up checking out Troy...
Two albums this month: The Divine Comedy's Absent Friends is a step down from their last album, Resurrection. It's less lush, less engaging, and (bar one or two tracks) less memorable. On the other hand, The Stands' debut, Logic Will Break Your Heart' gets better every time I listen to it. Think Doves playing songs by the Strokes. Think Kings of Leon with the melodic sense of the Bluetones. Think (so I'm told; personally I'm too young to know) New Order. Just ace; and they're pretty good live, too.
There was a radio 4 dramatisation of We, but I missed the concluding part. What I heard was good, though, if - of necessity - very differently emphasised than the book.
Up next: new albums by Ash and PJ Harvey! Hurrah!