Friday, July 28, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Ace Double D-15

JunkieThe Book of the Week is Ace Double D-15, by far the most collectible of the Ace Double line. Published in 1953, Ace D-15 combines two early novels in the "juvenile delinquent" genre: Junkie by William Lee and Narcotic Agent by Maurice Helbrant. Junkie is the important one. Junkie was a first novel, detailing the unknown author's real-world struggles to overcome his heroin addiction. The book was ignored when published, but retroactively became famous when William Lee turned out to be the pseudonym of William S. Burroughs. After writing Junkie, Burroughs managed to overcome his addiction and become a hugely influential Beat Generation author, famous for such avant-garde works as Naked Lunch and Nova Express. Among the many artists Burroughs influenced were a number of authors in science fiction's New Wave and cyberpunk movements, and British SF magazine Interzone is named for one of his books. (You knew an SF connection was coming, didn't you?)

The story is that Burroughs had little interest in writing, but Allen Ginsberg encouraged him to give it a try, and Burroughs decided that if their friend Jack Kerouac could get a book published, it couldn't be all that hard. Junkie was rejected by all the publishers to whom Burroughs submitted it, and might never have been published except that Ginsberg was admitted to the same psychiatric hospital as the son of the owner of Ace Books, who persuaded his father to give the book a chance (although Ace insisted on cutting out the descriptions of Burroughs' homosexual experiences). This sale in turn prompted Burroughs to start work on Naked Lunch, and his career quickly took off from there.

Next week's Magazine of the Week will honor mystery writer Mickey Spillane, who passed away last week. And, yes, there will again be a science fiction connection.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Aaron's Take on the Short Fiction Hugo Nominees :: NOVELLAS

The novellas are the strongest category of short fiction Hugo nominees this year, yet even this group is marred by one clearly undeserving nominee, “Identity Theft” by Robert J. Sawyer. Sawyer is not a poetic author, but we forgive him because his ideas are so interesting. Unfortunately, there is nothing about “Identity Theft” interesting enough to distract from his clunky writing. It is a science fiction mystery involving a technology that allows human consciousness to be copied into an artificial body. Sawyer tries to raise a moral issue as to the disposal of the original copy, but other authors have addressed the same dilemma far more effectively, see for instance James Patrick Kelly’s “Think Like a Dinosaur” (and Sawyer himself already addressed the issue in “Shed Skin”, a Hugo nominee last year). Sawyer handles the mystery elements of “Identity Theft” very poorly. In particular, he fails to give any convincing motive for the murder driving the plot. What’s worse, his ungainly writing style interferes with the whodunit – it is supposed to be a major clue that one of the characters speaks in a stilted, unconvincing way, but all of Sawyer’s characters speak in a stilted, unconvincing way.

“Burn” by James Patrick Kelly is a well-written story combining social commentary steeped in irony (on the world of Walden, a pastoral society modeled after Thoreau battles suicide arsonists, holdovers from the planet’s prior civilization), interpersonal drama (Spur, the protagonist, is unable to make his marriage work even though he and his wife still care about each other), and light-hearted humor (Spur inadvertently makes contact with a 12-year-old offworld VIP, who promptly travels to Walden and disrupts everyone’s lives as a lark). However, to my mind these different elements of the story do not blend comfortably, and the reader is left with an uneven whole that is less than the sum of its parts.

Ian McDonald’s “The Little Goddess” takes place in Nepal and, like his acclaimed novel River of Gods, India of the near future. It is the first-person narrative of a young girl marked by a time-honored Nepalese ceremony as the receptacle of a goddess. Her personal struggles parallel her people’s challenge to reconcile ancient traditions with the modern world. Her tale is very interesting on an intellectual level, but I found it difficult to develop much emotional attachment to the character.

“Inside Job” by Connie Willis is a charming story in the author’s romantic comedy mode. Rob is a professional skeptic, dedicated to debunking phony psychics and mystics everywhere. Among the things he is skeptical of is whether his ex-actress coworker Kildy could actually be attracted to him. The two come upon a medium who seems to be able to channel the spirit of notorious skeptic H.L. Mencken, and each time she does Mencken promptly berates her audience for believing in such an obvious charlatan. “Inside Job” has all of Connie Willis’s usual wit and irony, and is a whole lot of fun to read.

As much as I enjoyed “Inside Job”, the highlight of this category, and to me the best of all the Hugo short fiction nominees, is “Magic for Beginners” by Kelly Link. Kelly Link won both a Hugo and a Nebula for “The Faery Handbag” last year, and “Magic for Beginners” is a far better story than that one. The story begins with a group of teenaged characters on an offbeat TV show who themselves are obsessed with watching an offbeat TV show, and things just get stranger from there. The story-within-a-story format has been overused in recent years, but Link handles it absolutely beautifully; the two (or more) layers of the tale complement each other wonderfully, and the reader never knows just where one story ends and the other begins. “Magic for Beginners” is surreal and very real. It is incomprehensible and everything fits together perfectly. It is very funny and oddly disturbing. It is post-modern silliness that makes a serious statement about adolescence. It is chock-filled with symbolism and anyone who reads it to analyze the symbolism is missing the point.

“Magic for Beginners” is a masterpiece of slipstream fiction. (You don’t think it’s slipstream? Ask yourself whether the woman at the end is really a vampire or just someone wearing plastic teeth. If you don’t know the answer – and you don’t – the story is slipstream.) The only question is whether the Hugo voters are prepared to embrace slipstream, or will be biased in favor of a true SF story like “Burn” (or “Identity Theft”, perish the thought). Even though there is much to admire in some of the other nominees in this category, it will be an injustice if “Magic for Beginners” does not carry the award.

Aaron's Ballot:
1. Kelly Link – Magic for Beginners
2. Connie Willis – Inside Job
3. Ian McDonald – The Little Goddess
4. James Patrick Kelly – Burn
6. Robert J. Sawyer – Identity Theft

Predicted Winner:
Kelly Link – Magic for Beginners

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Aaron's Take on the Short Fiction Hugo Nominees :: NOVELETTES

Even though the Best Novelette nominees include one bad story and one weak one, they are still a stronger group than the Best Short Story slate. Taking the bad news first . . .

The most that can be said for “TelePresence” by Michael A. Burstein is that it is not quite so atrocious as his short story nominee “Seventy-Five Years”. In “TelePresence”, which concerns a virtual reality classroom that turns deadly, Burstein is at least trying to address an issue worth considering: equality in education. (Never mind that he addressed the same issue in the same way in his 1995 story “TeleAbsence”.) But whatever point he has to make is undercut by his awkward prose and stiff characters. To give just one of a great many examples, this is Burstein's description of a teenage murder victim, from his protagonist's point of view:
Catherine Harriman's body lay slumped in her simulator. Her head hung to one side, with her tongue lolling out of her mouth. Her eyes were frozen open, glassily staring at nothing.
How horrible, he thought.
What is the last line doing there? Are we readers so dense we need it explained to us that the murder of a young woman is horrible? Perhaps I could forgive such sloppy writing if Burstein had something interesting to say on the subject of school violence, but he offers no new insight at all. The murderer's ultimate explanation of his motive is so unconvincing that I honestly thought for a moment Burstein meant it as parody.

Burstein’s unconvincing details make matters worse. For instance, he sets his story in California but seems to know nothing about the place. Anyone who has lived in California could have told him that a group of public school commissioners from Sacramento would not be all-white, would not be thrilled at the prospect of traveling to Los Angeles, and would not panic at the sensation of an earthquake in virtual reality. Combine this lack of basic research with Burstein’s amateurish prose, and this story’s Hugo nomination is another embarrassment to the field.

While not quite so embarrassing, it is difficult to figure how Howard Waldrop’s “The King of Where-I-Go” got its nomination. There is no SF element for over half of the story, just a series of tangents about how iron lungs and linotypes work. When it finally arrives, the SF element proves to be a tired, and surprisingly straightforward for Waldrop, time travel scenario. I think the tale is designed to produce a sense of nostalgia, with lots of old pop culture references à la Harlan Ellison’s “Jeffty Is Five”, but it did not work for me on that level. Waldrop is too skilled a writer for me to call this story bad, but it sure ain’t good.

Thankfully, the other three Best Novelette nominees are all worthy of award consideration. They also make for a nice cross-section of the SF/F genre, as they include a light-hearted science fiction romp, a somber dystopia, and a high fantasy.

The romp is Cory Doctorow's “I, Robot”. Ostensibly a detective story, the plot is really just an excuse to take us on a dizzying tour of a future world in which the West and the East have followed different approaches to A.I. technology, with the West’s approach showing some unintended consequences of Asimov’s Three Laws. Doctorow says he wanted to expose the “totalitarian assumptions” underlying the Asimov universe, but he gives the East’s approach a pretty creepy outcome as well. I suspect this story may have the best chance of winning the award, simply because it is very fun to read. I have to rank it third, however, because I never came to care about the characters as I did reading the two remaining nominees.

“Two Hearts” by Peter S. Beagle is the high fantasy, in which a headstrong young woman seeking to defend her village against a marauding gryphon enlists the aid of characters from Beagle’s classic The Last Unicorn. The story is very enjoyable and elegantly written. It also takes a bittersweet look at the ravages of time that is far more effective than anything in “Down Memory Lane”, discussed yesterday. My only qualm about giving the award to this story is that it really is a companion piece to The Last Unicorn, not a stand-alone story. In particular, if you haven't read the novel, this story will seem to have a deus ex machina resolution. Then again, what excuse does anyone have for not having read The Last Unicorn by now?

“The Calorie Man” by Paolo Bacigalupi is the dystopia, set in a future in which food shortages are so severe that wealth is measured in terms of calories. The world is dependent on an American megacorporation’s patented genengineered grain for food and energy because – rather suspiciously – plague and pestilence have wiped out all of the world’s other grains. Our protagonist, a refugee from a devastated India, travels the Mississippi River in pursuit of a faint hope of changing the status quo. Like “I, Robot”, “The Calorie Man” proceeds from interesting, if unlikely, speculations about where future technology could lead us. Unlike “I, Robot”, it shows us this world through the eyes of people with whom we can identify strongly. Paolo Bacigalupi doesn’t write very much, but he does write very well. I would dearly love to see him write more SF, and what better way to encourage him than to give him a Hugo Award?

Aaron's Ballot:
1. Paolo Bacigalupi – The Calorie Man
2. Peter S. Beagle – Two Hearts
3. Cory Doctorow – I, Robot
4. Howard Waldrop – The King of Where-I-Go
6. Michael A. Burstein – TelePresence

Predicted Winner:
Cory Doctorow – I, Robot

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Aaron's Take on the Short Fiction Hugo Nominees :: SHORT STORIES

I hate to emphasize the negative, but my main reaction to reading all of this year’s short fiction Hugo nominees is disbelief at the number of outright turkeys that have been short-listed for science fiction’s most prestigious award. The short story nominees are a particularly weak group.

Let’s begin with the adequate and work our way down. “Tk’tk’tk” by David D. Levine, about a traveling salesman sent to an alien world that has no use for his products, is not a story I would have picked out in advance as award-caliber, but at least it is clever and amusing. That’s all it takes to be my hands-down #1 pick out of this disturbingly feeble list of nominees.

The only other nominee I can stomach is “The Clockwork Atom Bomb” by Dominic Green, which shows how technology can provide simple solutions to problems while at the same time creating much bigger ones – say, a waste disposal system that could end up disposing of the whole world. After these two solid if unremarkable stories, things go downhill fast.

You know how in Hollywood disaster movies, they put a little child in jeopardy as a cheap way of tugging at your heartstrings? That’s all there is to Margo Lanagan’s “Singing My Sister Down”. The story consists entirely of the slow, cruel execution of a young woman, about whom we know next to nothing, for a crime we are told of only in the most vague terms. “Singing My Sister Down” is written with style and craft, enough so that I won’t be surprised if it wins the award, but there is just something missing here.

Despite my problems with “Singing My Sister Down”, I have to rank it ahead of Mike Resnick’s “Down Memory Lane”, ostensibly a story about Alzheimer ’s disease. Like much of Resnick’s short fiction, “Down Memory Lane” is heavily sentimental, but it lacks the skillful prose that often allows Resnick to pull such sentimentality off. Instead, Resnick gives us six pages of tired clichés and platitudes ("Physical beauty fades, but inner beauty never does."), followed by two pages of journal entries that read like a dumbed-down condensed version of Daniel Keyes’s brilliant “Flowers for Algernon”. This is a shockingly weak effort by an experienced, usually capable author.

But there are even further depths to this barrel. “Seventy-Five Years” by Michael A. Burstein is a flat-out bad story on every level. Burstein’s writing is awkward as always, comprised mostly of solid oak dialogue between characters telling each other things they already know. The story consists of our protagonist confronting her ex-husband senator and threatening to expose a secret that will ruin his presidential aspirations. Why? Because he has proposed changing the release date of census data from 72 years after the census to 75 years after the census, and as an historian she thinks this would set a bad precedent. Even if historians actually give a damn about the release date of census data, which I find hard to believe, Burstein cannot possibly expect his readers to.

Where has the Hugo nomination process gone wrong? “Seventy-Five Years” should not have been nominated for a Hugo Award. It is not one of the five best short stories published last year. It is not one of the 100 best short stories published last year. I suspect there are more than 100 stories from last year that were not published – slushpile rejects and rough drafts abandoned in writers’ workshops – that could top “Seventy-Five Years”. I am sorry to be so harsh, but the trend of nominating crap for Hugo Awards has got to stop.

Aaron's Ballot for Best Short Story:
1. David D. Levine – Tk’tk’tk
2. Dominic Green – The Clockwork Atom Bomb
3. Margo Lanagan – Singing My Sister Down
5. Mike Resnick – Down Memory Lane
6. Michael A. Burstein – Seventy-Five Years

Predicted Winner:
Margo Lanagan – Singing My Sister Down

Monday, July 17, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Ace Double D-413

The Man with Nine LivesWe complete our tribute to Harlan Ellison with the 1960 first printing, paperback original of his fourth book and first science fiction book, Ace D-413. This book combines his short novel The Man with Nine Lives (cover art by Ed Emshwiller) and a collection of short stories titled A Touch of Infinity, which includes his frequently reprinted novella "Run for the Stars."

The reason for the two titles and covers is that this is from the old Ace Double series of books. Ace Doubles printed two books back-to-back -- flip one over and you see the other. Anyone who has held an Ace Double in his or her hand A Touch of Infinitywill agree that there is a compelling urge to open the book to the middle and find the page where the printing flips upside down. The Ace Double line included science fiction, mysteries, westerns, juvenile delinquent books, and mainstream fiction. The Book of the Week is among the more sought after of the Ace Double series, but nowhere close to the value of the most collectible Ace Double. And yes, Steve Merker, this one I have a copy of, as you will see next week.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Amy's Silent Movie of the Month :: The Red Lily (1924)

The Red LilyThis month’s silent movie is The Red Lily, an emotional drama from 1924, running time 81 minutes. The movie was co-written and directed by Fred Niblo. It stars Ramon Novarro, best known for playing the title character in the epic Ben-Hur (1925); Enid Bennett; and Wallace Beery who would go on to become a major star in the 1930s.

The Red Lily is the tale of two young sweethearts who become separated by cruel circumstances. It begins in Brittany, France, in a country village. Marise La Noue (Enid Bennett) and Jean Leonnec (Ramon Novarro) hope to marry. When Marise’s father dies suddenly, she becomes a pauper and she is forced to live with her awful next of kin. Jean's rich father doesn't want his son marrying a penniless girl like Marise.

Marise escapes her relatives. She seeks refuge in the house that was formerly her home. Jean sees Marise's candle in the empty house and he investigates. Marise cuddles with her boyfriend Jean by the fireplace and they fall asleep. Although they do nothing improper overnight, it is scandalous.

Jean takes Marise on a train to Paris, where they hope to start a new life together. Unfortunately things go all wrong for them. When Jean goes out seeking someone to marry them, two men force Jean on a train back by to Brittany. Meanwhile Marise waits alone in the train station. By the time Jean is able to return, hours and hours later, Marise is gone. Marise wrongly assumed that she was abandoned.

Life in the big city of Paris takes a tragic toll on both Marise and Jean. They can't find each other. Marise works jobs that go from menial, to unsavory, to disreputable. Jean who wrongly thought the gendarmes, the French police, were after him, gets involved in crime with the thief Bobo (Wallace Beery), and gives the gendarmes reason to chase him.

Jean continues to looks for Marise, the girl with the face of an angel. But when an injured Jean is saved by a bedraggled Marise, he doesn't recognize her. When she tries to get close to him, her shuns her. Marise cares for Jean even though he treats her badly. After Jean throws Marise into a bar's backroom with an ugly man, and she fights the man tooth and nail, he realizes she is not a mere streetwalker.

Eventually Jean recognizes Marise, when it's nearly too late. The former sweethearts, who each lost their innocence, are in the end together. There's a nice happy ending.

The Red Lily is a fine silent drama. There are many striking scenes. Yet it shows decadent places and is far from cheery. I cared for the couple's fate and was drawn into their story. All the acting was well done. Enid Bennett made you feel for her wronged character. Handsome Ramon Novarro had screen presence. I would recommend this movie.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Rumble by Harlan Ellison

RumbleContinuing our tribute to Harlan Ellison, the Book of the Week is the 1958 first printing, paperback original of Ellison's first book, Rumble (later retitled Web of the City), cover art by Rudy DeReyna. As the first edition of Harlan Ellison's first book, Rumble is a notable collector's item, prized by both science fiction fans and collectors of "juvenile delinquent" paperbacks from the 50's and 60's. It is not, however, Ellison's most valuable book -- that honor belongs to his pseudonymous pornographic book Sex Gang, of which you will be relieved to know I do not have a copy.

Rumble is a novel based on Ellison's experiences in a Brooklyn street gang. Ellison joined the gang after he was purportedly expelled from Ohio State University for punching out a professor who said he had no talent. For ten weeks Ellison passed himself off as a 17-year-old Italian named Cheech (21-year-old Jews were not welcome in the gang) to research this book. Like a significant portion of Ellison's work, the novel is not science fiction; indeed, Ellison often resists classification as a science fiction writer. Notwithstanding his objections, next week's Book of the Week will be Ellison's first science fiction book.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Alone Against Tomorrow by Harlan Ellison

Alone Against TomorrowThe Book of the Week is the first edition of Alone Against Tomorrow (1971) by Harlan Ellison, cover art by Brad Johannsen. Alone Against Tomorrow collects 20 Harlan Ellison stories on the theme of alienation. Since this is a favorite subject of Ellison's, this book contains some of his best work, including "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream", "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman", and "Pennies, Off a Dead Man's Eyes".

I purchased this book by mail from the author, who signed and inscribed it for me. It remains the only signed copy I have of any of Ellison's books, which leads us into a typical Harlan Ellison anecdote. When Ellison was a guest of honor at a horror convention in Denver, I went to his scheduled book signing. Ellison had to leave before he could get to the end of the line, but he assured the rest of us that we could grab him at any time during the convention to have him sign our books. When I actually tried to do this an hour later, he very loudly berated me for my audacity and stormed off. This did not offend me as much as it probably should have, since all of Ellison's fans know that his absurdly snappish temperament is part of Ellison's shtick. Even into his seventies, Harlan Ellison has never discarded his self-image as a young rebel. Next week's Book of the Week will be an early Ellison book about young rebels.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

2006 Hugo Award nominees for Best Short Story

This year's Hugo Award nominees for Best Short Story:

"Seventy-Five Years", Michael A. Burstein (Analog Jan/Feb 2005)
"The Clockwork Atom Bomb", Dominic Green (Interzone May/Jun 2005)
"Singing My Sister Down", Margo Lanagan (Black Juice, Allen & Unwin; Eos)
"Tk'tk'tk", David D. Levine (Asimov's Mar 2005)
"Down Memory Lane", Mike Resnick (Asimov's Apr/May 2005)

For the Hugos Awards, written fiction is divided by length into four categories. Short Story is the shortest length category, 7,500 words and under.

The L.A.CON IV website has a list of all the 2006 Hugo Nominees including many links to stories and authors.