Monday, March 27, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: 1984 by George Orwell

Nineteen Eighty FourThe Book of the Week is the first American edition with red dust jacket of 1984 by George Orwell, pseudonym of Eric Arthur Blair. A landmark work of science fiction (don't try to deny it) and perhaps the most important dystopia ever written, 1984 is far too famous to require any synopsis, but I will give you this note on the title: It is often said that Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948, and created the book's title by reversing the last two digits of the date. This is demonstrably false, since Orwell's original manuscript bore the title 1980, which he pushed back to 1982 and then to 1984 as completion of the novel was delayed. Orwell also considered the alternative title The Last Man in Europe.

1984 was first published in England on June 8, 1949 and in the United States on June 13, 1949. That five-day difference makes the British first edition the more valuable (even though there were more copies of the British edition printed), but the first American edition is also a prized collector's item, especially in the coveted red dust jacket. The 20,000 copies of the first American edition were printed in both red and blue dust jackets. Neither color has priority, i.e., neither one can fairly be said to have come "first," but the red dust jacket is much more valuable, because hundreds of thousands of copies of subsequent editions also had the blue cover. In explaining to a friend why your copy of a book is worth hundreds of dollars and theirs is worthless, flipping three pages and pointing to the small "first American edition" notation is much less satisfying than being able to say, "Well, this one's red, donchasee?"

Next week, we return to our history of the pulp magazines, with an early copy of the very first science fiction magazine ever published.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Book Review Teaser :: The Draco Tavern by Larry Niven

Draco TavernRecently added to Fantastic Reviews is Aaron's review of Larry Niven's latest book, the science fiction story collection The Draco Tavern.

From Aaron's review of The Draco Tavern:
"A fun subgenre of science fiction and fantasy is the intergalactic tavern story, in which different species or fantastic creatures gather together for a drink and to swap tall tales...."
"The Draco Tavern is a collection of Larry Niven's SF tavern stories, which Niven has been writing since 1977. In The Draco Tavern, Earth of the near future has been contacted by a galactic civilization teeming with different types of intelligent life. Dominant among these are the Chirpsithra, resembling twelve-foot tall lobsters, whose huge spacecraft facilitate interstellar trade. The Chirpsithra boast that they own the galaxy, but thankfully they prefer planets around red dwarf stars, so they have no interest in conquering Earth....Rick Schumann, our unflappable hero...builds a tavern to cater to the tastes of the various species visiting Earth...and before long every alien comes to Rick's."

To read the entire review: The Draco Tavern

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

KindredWe complete our tribute to Octavia E. Butler with the hardcover first edition of Kindred (1979, cover art by Larry Schwinger). I've bemoaned the fact that Octavia Butler was underappreciated due to the mainstream's disdain of science fiction, but Kindred is an exception. Over the years, Kindred has come to receive significant attention outside the science fiction genre, and is now required reading in many black history courses. Kindred tells of a modern black woman who travels back in time to the antebellum South and encounters her ancestors, one of whom is a white slave-owner. It is Butler's novel most overtly informed by her experiences as an African-American girl, watching her widowed mother work as a maid to support her family, entering houses through the back door, politely suffering employers' bigoted comments about "colored people."

Kindred was Butler's fourth novel but her first breakthrough success, and was thus published before she had developed much of a fan base. Because of that, and because Kindred has become famous both inside and outside the science fiction genre, the first edition is very rare. This book is one of two recent prize additions to my collection. The other will be next week's Book of the Week.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Hugo Nominations

Hugo Award nominations are out, and congratulations to all the nominees. The nominations for Best Novel are:
Ken MacLeod, Learning the World
George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows
John Scalzi, Old Man's War
Charles Stross, Accelerando
Robert Charles Wilson, Spin
We at Fantastic Reviews did rather more poorly than usual predicting these nominees. In early February, we predicted the novels we thought we be nominated, and we got only two right: A Feast for Crows and Spin. We did at least peg Accelerando and Learning the World as contenders, but the nomination of Old Man's War caught us quite by surprise.
At the time, we thought Accelerando's chances would be hurt by the fact that it is a fix-up of short stories, several of which have previously had their chance at the Hugo Award. From the buzz of the last couple weeks, we already had an inkling we were wrong about that.
As to omissions, the biggest surprise to us is that Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman is not on the list. It is apparent that, notwithstanding George R.R. Martin's nomination, the voters had a strong preference for science fiction over fantasy this year.
Other than that, there is no easily discernible pattern to the nominations. The four SF nominees are all quite different in style. The nominations are split between two Americans, two Brits, and a Canadian.
Who will win? Hey, don't look to us for predictions!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Patternmaster by Octavia E. Butler

PatternmasterWe continue our tribute to Octavia E. Butler with the first paperback edition of her first book, Patternmaster (1976). Patternmaster is set in a distant future in which humanity has substantially evolved, but people neglect the potential benefits of their new abilities in favor of using them to dominate and enslave one another. Butler went on to write four more novels set earlier in the history of this bleak "Patternist" world.

Incidentally, for all my Rodney Dangerfield gripes about how science fiction and fantasy get no respect from the mainstream, this book is an example of how SF publishers have greatly contributed to the problem with the ridiculous covers they put on their books. Here is a book by a talented young (at the time) African-American woman, whose elegant writing explores important issues of morality and race relations. What does the publisher put on the cover? Mutant baboon Rambo.

While the collector in me loves covers like these, since garish covers tend to enhance books' and magazines' value to collectors, the SF fan in me detests them (no offense to cover artist Clyde Caldwell, who sure draws a good mutant baboon Rambo). Thankfully, SF publishers have been toning down the cover art in recent years. If you check out Octavia Butler books in the bookstore today (which I encourage you to do), you will see much more appropriate cover art. Hopefully, this trend will give SF fans a fighting chance to win over converts from the mainstream. With luck, next week you will see an Octavia Butler book that has been very well received by mainstream readers.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler

Parable of the TalentsContinuing our tribute to Octavia E. Butler, the Book of the Week is Butler's Parable of the Talents. This is the sequel to Parable of the Sower, in which a determined young black woman named Lauren Olamina fights to survive a ruined future America, and ends up creating a new religion and planting the seeds of America's resurgence. In an amusing twist, the sequel Parable of the Talents is narrated by Olamina's daughter, who deeply resents that Olamina neglected her family while she was busy saving the world. You just can't please everyone.

Published in 1998, Parable of the Talents was awarded the Nebula Award for Best Novel by the members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. The Nebula Award and the Hugo Award are the two most prestigious awards in science fiction. The writers vote to decide Nebula winners, while the fans attending the World Science Fiction Convention vote on the Hugo. Not surprisingly, the writers and fans often have different tastes, but Octavia E. Butler was one of 20 authors to date in the history of science fiction to write fiction with broad enough appeal to be multiple winners of both awards. These 20 names read like a who's who of modern science fiction. (And they all have something else in common: not one of them appears on the list of ten favorite books of Dave Itzkoff, the New York Times Book Review's new science fiction columnist. For more on this jackass, see my two previous posts on this blog.)

Monday, March 06, 2006

More on Dave Itzkoff

We've been poking around, trying to figure out where The New York Times Book Review dug up a science fiction columnist who detests modern science fiction. Dave Itzkoff is a thirtyish editor and freelance writer who started as a low-level staffer at porn-lite magazines Details and Maxim. After that he was an associate editor at Spin magazine, but word is he was recently canned. He has published a memoir of his time in the soft-porn industry called Lads, the highlight of which we are assured is the line:
I don't mean to brag, but I can masturbate to anything.

As far as we can determine, Itzkoff has absolutely no background in science fiction. Whatever expertise he has is in pop culture and music. This is consistent with the The New York Times Book Review's obvious attitude that science fiction is a form of pop culture, not literature. Naturally, Itzkoff will not wish to write anything that might disabuse the Times of that condescending, ignorant notion.

Reaction to Dave Itzkoff Column in The New York Times Book Review

The New York Times Book Review has a new science fiction columnist, Dave Itzkoff. In his first column yesterday, he explained that he thinks modern science fiction is terrible, and really, what other qualification would you need to write about science fiction for The New York Times Book Review? He says he cannot in good conscience recommend new science fiction (which he calls "sci-fi") to anyone outside the genre, "because if you were to immerse yourself in most of the sci-fi being published these days, you would probably enjoy it as much as one enjoys reading a biology textbook or a stereo manual."

Here is our response to Mr. Itzkoff's column:
Editor, The New York Times Book Review:

Dave Itzkoff, your new science fiction columnist, is not only as contemptuous of modern science fiction as your other reviewers, he is just as ignorant of the field. No one knowledgeable of written SF uses the term "sci-fi," which the genre has long since abandoned to monster movies and Flash Gordon serials. More importantly, no fair-minded person could possibly read the work of the top SF writers of the past generation, such as Ursula K. LeGuin and Connie Willis, Iain M. Banks and Dan Simmons, James Tiptree, Jr. and James Morrow, and liken it all to "a biology textbook or a stereo manual." Given that Itzkoff's list of his ten favorites contains only two books of prose fiction from the past forty years (one by an author with whose work Itzkoff admits he is not "completely versed"), one must wonder how much of the best recent work he has even read.

One of SF's outstanding authors, Octavia E. Butler, recently passed away without ever receiving the attention her work merited. This lack of recognition resulted from prejudice, ironically not prejudice against her as an African-American woman, but as a science fiction writer. There is no shortage of SF reviewers like me would love the chance to dispel that prejudice in The New York Times Book Review. How sad that the Book Review prefers to print a columnist masquerading as an expert to reinforce the mainstream's ignorant disdain of science fiction.

Aaron Hughes

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Amy's Silent Movie of the Month :: Broken Blossoms (1919)

Broken BlossomsThis month's silent movie is Broken Blossoms (1919) (or The Yellow Man and the Girl), running time 90 minutes. It is a silent drama, or perhaps I should say melodrama, directed by famed early movie pioneer D. W. Griffith. The screenplay was adapted from the story "The Chink and the Child" by British author Thomas Burke, which is in the book Limehouse Nights.

Broken Blossoms contains child abuse, an inter-racial relationship, drug use, and racism. Yet despite the serious subjects, there is a poetic quality to this film.

The setting is poverty-stricken east London. Prizefighter Battling Burrows abuses his illegitimate daughter Lucy. He goes out drinking and carousing. Poor Lucy doesn't have enough money, or enough tin foil, to even buy the flower she wants. Lucy is so downtrodden that to she has to push up the corners of her mouth with her fingers to smile.

The gentle but disillusioned "Yellow Man", Cheng Huan, has noticed sad Lucy on the streets. After Lucy falls into his shop, injured from a beating by her father, he nurses her back to health. The Chinaman shows Lucy only kindness, and nothing untoward happens, unless you count longing gazes. Yet Batttling Burrows can not accept that his daughter was with "the Chink".

Lillian Gish is heart-rending in the emotionally demanding role of the girl Lucy Burrows. Twenty-three year old Gish plays a fifteen year old. Donald Crisp is convincing as her brutish father Battling Burrows. Richard Barthelmess, interestingly a Caucasian actor, ably plays the gentle Chinese man.

Broken Blossoms ends tragically. It doesn't have a happy Hollywood ending, far from it. The movie was successful, both critically and financially. I would recommend this memorable, but sad, silent movie.