Monday, December 29, 2008

Amy's music :: MGMT - Oracular Spectacular

MGMTTime for me (Amy) to post some miscellanea, namely, here's a music review. For a tangential SF/F reference, I bought this CD in August during Worldcon here in Denver.

At the end of the year, we see many best of the year lists. NME (New Musical Express), a music weekly magazine from the UK, lists their Top 50 Albums of the Year. NME is arguably on the cutting edge of new, alternative music.

NME's 2008 Album of the Year was Oracular Spectacular by MGMT. It's a debut album made by a couple of guys, Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, who started out making tunes for themselves at Wesleyan University. MGMT make catchy, hippy, pop music.

Noteworthy songs off Oracular Spectacular include “Kids”, “Time to Pretend” and the disco-ish “Electric Feel”.

“Kids”, which was in addition dubbed NME's The Track of the Year, contains for a chorus these interesting lyrics:
control yourself
take only what you need from it
a family of trees wanted
to be haunted

“Time to Pretend” begins with these lyrics:
I'm feelin rough I'm feelin raw
I'm in the prime of my life
Let's make some music make some money
find some models for wives

I'd recommend MGMT’s album Oracular Spectacular, despite it being more electronic dance than what I usually listen to. The music won me over, and I was pleased to see that it wowed the critics over at NME.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Kimberley Ann Duray Is Not Afraid by Leah Bobet

Strange Horizons logoThe story recommendation of the week is "Kimberley Ann Duray Is Not Afraid" by Leah Bobet, a short story published on-line at Strange Horizons on September 29, 2008.

In the debate over what rights to afford the LGBT community, one issue that often comes up is to what extent people choose their sexual preferences. To some folks, it is easier to justify discrimination against gays if being gay was a matter of choice, and not something one was born with like skin color. (Why anyone should wish to justify discrimination against gays I am unable to explain.)

But what if skin color were a matter of choice as well? In "Kimberley Ann Duray Is Not Afraid," the technology exists to transform people physically so as to change their apparent racial identity. The eponymous protagonist works at the Bruce Clinic, which performs this controversial procedure. Until now, she has been "pro-choice," believing that making skin color alterable enables society to put racial conflict behind it. But she is beginning to doubt her own views, and as someone in an interracial marriage, the issue troubles her deeply.

Bobet portrays this internal conflict with subtlety. "Kimberley Ann Duray Is Not Afraid" does not dance around the underlying questions, however. It addresses race issues head-on, and does so in a thought-provoking way. It effectively shows that embracing diversity means something more than being color blind.

Canadian author Leah Bobet has published some three dozen short stories and nearly as many poems. She has appeared many times at Strange Horizons, and has also sold stories to such top-notch print publications as Realms of Fantasy, Interzone, and Clockwork Phoenix. Let us keep an eye out for more of her work.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Fire and the Night by Philip Jose Farmer

Fire and the NightFor any of you concerned about such things instead of properly focusing on your holiday celebrations, the Book of the Week is Fire and the Night by Philip Jose Farmer. This was scheduled to be our Book of the Week a number of weeks ago, before BOTW's obituary function unfortunately kicked in.

Philip Jose Farmer is best known as a science fiction writer (and is one of my all-time favorites), but Fire and the Night is a mainstream novel about an interracial couple, published in 1962 when such relationships were not widely accepted socially. Fire and the Night features one of my favorite opening lines: "Danny met Mrs. Virgil at the Gates of Hell, where she led him in." Small press Regency Books made its niche in the publishing market printing such controversial books. Not that there was a large enough market for this kind of social criticism to make any money. Regency Books was funded by the publisher's successful lines of soft-core pornography, produced by ridiculously talented authors and editors, some of which I will contemplate exposing you to next week.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Shoggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear

Asimov's Science Fiction March 2008My story recommendation for this week is "Shoggoths in Bloom" by Elizabeth Bear, a novelette first published in the March 2008 issue of Asimov's, and now available on-line here.

In the past five years, Elizabeth Bear has published fourteen novels and closing on fifty short stories. That would be impressive if she were writing crap, but to be able to write her award-caliber fiction at that pace is simply absurd. I only started reading her stuff last year, and I despair of ever catching up.

As Cthulhu fans will know from the title, "Shoggoths in Bloom" is an homage to H.P. Lovecraft. An earnest professor in the late 1930's studies great, amoeba-like shoggoths found off the coast of Maine and finds more than he bargained for. I know it's sacrilegious, but to my reckoning there is far more of this sort of thing around than we really need. Yes, Lovecraft was ahead of his time, and still worth reading today despite his obvious flaws as a writer. But if you are interested in his work, you can find it pretty easily; there is little need for today's authors to continue adding to the Cthulhu Mythos.

I will forgive Elizabeth Bear in this case, however, for two reasons. First, "Shoggoths in Bloom" is such a beautifully crafted story that it would make for excellent reading even if you never heard of H.P. Lovecraft. Second, Bear tells the story convincingly through the eyes of an educated African-American in the 1930's, who must silently endure being called "boy" by the ignorant locals, even as he reads with horror of the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Germany. Bear manages to relate the Cthulhu background to this context, a most fitting reworking of the Cthulhu Mythos, since Lovecraft himself was an intolerable racist and anti-Semite. (Don't bother arguing the point -- the man had a cat named "Nigger-Man," for heaven's sake.) Bear handles her social message very adeptly without ever lecturing her reader.

I'll have another story involving race relations to recommend next week.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Boris Karloff: The Frankenscience Monster by Forrest J. Ackerman

Boris Karloff: The Frankenscience MonsterThe Book of the Week is Boris Karloff: The Frankenscience Monster by Forrest J. Ackerman. This book was done as a tribute to Boris Karloff, but now it is our Book of the Week to honor Forrest Ackerman, who passed away earlier this month at the age of 92.

Forrest Ackerman was the greatest sci-fi fan of all, "Mr. Science Fiction" from the early days of the genre. Indeed, Forry was the one who coined the term "sci-fi," for which writers and other fans still love him, even if they don't always love the word. (For years, the term "sci-fi" was verboten among serious readers because of its association with monster movies and other Hollywood crapola. In recent years the word has become acceptable again, perhaps because Hollywood has lately managed to produce some decent SF/F like the Lord of the Rings films and Battlestar Galactica.)

Forry Ackerman edited and translated many books and magazines, notably the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. He appeared, usually briefly, in many movies. (Perhaps his most notorious film work was for the horror movie Incubus. For some bewildering reason that film was made in Esperanto, and when star William Shatner declined to learn the language, Forry did the voice-over. So if you get the DVD of Incubus -- just the kind of dreadful film Ackerman loved -- and watch it in Esperanto, you will see William Shatner speaking with Forry Ackerman's voice.) Forry also served as agent to many writers and filmmakers, both great (Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov) and not-so-great (Ed Wood).

Most importantly, Forrest Ackerman accumulated the world's greatest collection of science fiction books, magazines, and memorabilia. His home, the fabled "Ackermansion," was legendary among fans, containing some 300,000 collected pieces. This includes one of the best collections anywhere of SF books and magazines, for example a first edition of Dracula signed not only by the author Bram Stoker but also by the greatest actors to ever play the role including Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, and certainly the greatest collection of sci-fi movie props in the world. What happened to the famous robot from the classic silent film Metropolis? It's in the Ackermansion. The monster masks from The Creature from the Black Lagoon and This Island Earth? They're in the Ackermansion. The rings worn by Bela Lugosi in Dracula and Boris Karloff in The Mummy? In the Ackermansion. The gold idol Indiana Jones finds at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark? You get the idea.

The award given annually at the World Science Fiction Convention to honor an influential sci-fi fan is officially called the "Forrest J. Ackerman Big Heart Award." Forry will be dearly missed.

Friday, December 12, 2008

SF/F Reviewers

John Ottinger at Grasping for the Wind has assembled a list of SF/F book reviewers on the web, which is a pretty handy reference. Here is the list so far, inserting (per John's invitation) our sites, Fantastic Reviews (book reviews and author interviews) and the Fantastic Reviews Blog (short story recommendations, mini-reviews, books of the week, and miscellanea):

The Accidental Bard
A Dribble Of Ink
Adventures in Reading
The Agony Column
The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.
Barbara Martin
Bibliophile Stalker
Blood of the Muse
The Book Swede
Breeni Books
Cheryl's Musings
Critical Mass
Dark Wolf Fantasy Reviews
Darque Reviews
Dave Brendon's Fantasy and Sci-Fi Weblog
The Deckled Edge
Dragons, Heroes and Wizards
Dusk Before the Dawn
Enter the Octopus
Eve's Alexandria
Fantastic Reviews
Fantastic Reviews Blog
Fantasy Book Critic
Fantasy Cafe
Fantasy Debut
Fantasy Book Reviews and News
Fantasy and Sci-fi Lovin' Blog
The Fix
The Foghorn Review
From a Sci-Fi Standpoint
The Galaxy Express
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Grasping for the Wind
The Green Man Review
Highlander's Book Reviews
Jumpdrives and Cantrips
Literary Escapism
Michele Lee's Book Love
Monster Librarian
Mostly Harmless Books
My Favourite Books
Neth Space
OF Blog of the Fallen
The Old Bat's Belfry
Outside of a Dog
Pat's Fantasy Hotlist
Piaw's Blog
Post-Weird Thoughts
Publisher's Weekly
Reading the Leaves
Realms of Speculative Fiction
Rob's Blog o' Stuff
SF Diplomat
Sci-Fi Songs [Musical Reviews]
Severian's Fantastic Worlds
SF Gospel
SF Revu
SF Signal
SF Site
SFF World's Book Reviews
Silver Reviews
Speculative Fiction Junkie
Speculative Horizons
Sporadic Book Reviews
The Sword Review
Tangent Online
Temple Library Reviews [also a publisher]
The Road Not Taken
Urban Fantasy Land
Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic
Variety SF
Walker of Worlds
Wands and Worlds
The Wertzone
WJ Fantasy Reviews
The World in a Satin Bag

Foreign Language (other than English)
Cititor SF [Romanian, but with English Translation] [French]

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Willpower by Jason Stoddard

After a week off for Thanksgiving, we have a very fun story recommendation for the week: "Willpower" by Jason Stoddard, from Paul Raven's Futurismic web site.

Along with a lot of interesting columns and blog posts, Futurismic publishes one piece of original fiction per month. Under the direction of fiction editor Christopher East, Futurismic's stories this year have included some nice, quirky work by the likes of Douglas Lain and Eliot Fintushel.

Jason Stoddard is Californian, but is perhaps most familiar to British SF fans, as much of his best work first appeared in Interzone -- although he has also had stories in places like SciFiction, Strange Horizons, and The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Stoddard has recently been an advocate for "positive" or "optimistic" science fiction, the kind to be featured in the anthology Shine now being assembled by Jetse de Vries.

"Willpower" is a great example of positive science fiction, set in a "post-scarcity" future. One thing that is scarce is a full-time job, since so little actually needs doing. Our protagonist Michael is one of the great many unemployed who rely on the government's "willfare" system to find short-term work. He stumbles on a willfare listing placed by an astronaut who wants someone to take his place on an upcoming trip to Mars. This is appealing to Michael, who has long been hooked on a role-playing game set in a Mars reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom.

The light-hearted story of "Willpower" centers on how Michael tries to beat the system to wrangle his way onto a mission to Mars for which he is completely unqualified. This makes for fun reading, but Stoddard also weaves in a little message. At its core, "Willpower" is about how someone can become so enthralled by a fantastic story that he will do whatever it takes to make the story come true. That is a moral that should resonate with any SF/F reader.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Glass by Daryl Gregory

illustration by Owen Smith for GlassMy story recommendation of the week is for "Glass" by Daryl Gregory, from the Technology Review, published by MIT (illustration for the story by Owen Smith). (Free registration is required to read the story.)

Daryl Gregory is one of science fiction's rising stars. For a lot more about him, you can read my interview with him, or my review of Pandemonium, his excellent new novel.

Like much of Gregory's work, "Glass" addresses issues of psychology and neurology. Recent research suggests that certain "mirror neurons," activated on observing actions of someone else, are strongly linked to empathy. In "Glass," scientists have developed a drug to stimulate these neurons and are testing it on sociopathic prisoners sorely lacking in emphathy. "Glass" is quite short and tightly written, yet manages to raise interesting practical and ethical issues about the effects of such a drug. Ending on a nice twist that I did not see coming, the story gives the reader its own little jolt of empathy.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Scratch One by John Lange (Michael Crichton)

Scratch OneThe Book of the Week is Scratch One by Michael Crichton (1942-2008), under the pseudonym John Lange. This is a very hard to find first printing, paperback original, published in 1967.

Scratch One was the second of eight novels Crichton published as by John Lange. The Lange books were sexy thrillers, commonly featuring half-naked women on the covers. Scratch One follows a lawyer who is mistaken for a secret agent while traveling through Europe, and before long he has to start acting like one.

While Michael Crichton's early work under pseudonyms was well-received in the mystery community -- A Case of Need as by Jeffery Hudson even won an Edgar Award for best mystery novel of the year -- Crichton's great commercial success came only when he switched to science fiction. This is perhaps surprising, as his anti-technological bent is atypical of the SF genre, but Crichton found a lucrative niche writing science fiction that appealed to non-SF readers.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton

The Andromeda StrainThe Book of the Week is The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, in honor of Mr. Crichton, who passed away last week at the age of 66.

Michael Crichton was a Harvard-educated doctor who found fame and fortune as a writer. His books have sold well over 100 million copies, and an even greater number have seen the films and television shows he wrote, directed, or produced. Crichton enjoyed success with suspense stories set in the corporate world (Rising Sun, Disclosure), historical fiction (The Great Train Robbery, Eaters of the Dead [filmed as The Thirteenth Warrior]), and medical dramas (Five Patients, TV's ER), but throughout his career science fiction has been his bread and butter. Among other SF premises, Crichton has given us a deadly disease from outer space (the BOTW), berserk robots and nanomachines (Prey, the film Westworld), an alien spaceship on the ocean floor (Sphere), cloned dinosaurs (Jurassic Park, Lost World), a time travel story (Timeline), and a politically charged thriller about global warming alarmism (State of Fear, famously denounced by Al Gore in Congressional testimony).

The Book of the Week is the first paperback printing of The Andromeda Strain (1969). The story was adapted to film in 1971, and again as a miniseries in 2004. The Andromeda Strain is often described as Crichton's first book, but in fact, Crichton had previously published a mystery novel and a series of sexy thrillers under pseudonyms. You will see one of those next week.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Female Touch

pink penI just looked over the story recommendations I've made for the first couple months of this new feature, and I discovered that of the eight different authors I've picked so far, seven have been women. This was not at all deliberate. I have just been tossing out stories I liked as I came across them, and the authors' gender never crossed my mind.

I believe this is just a statistical oddity, not a reflection of any unconscious bias I have in favor of women authors. Certainly if I were to put together a list of my all-time favorite writers it would be a male-dominated lineup, although Ursula LeGuin and Connie Willis and Octavia Butler would feature prominently.

Still, it demonstrates how many outstanding female authors there are in the field today. As more of these women work their way up the ranks, I suspect the recent underrepresentation of women in major award nominations will become a thing of the past.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Times Literary Supplement Gets It Right

The New York Times Book Review continues to subject us to übertwit Dave Itzkoff, the science fiction reviewer who delights in expressing disdain for the field about which he knows so little -- just this past Sunday he sneered at "the 25-cent bin of genre fiction."

Meanwhile, the Times of London shows its junior how it's done, printing this review by Tom Shippey of Anathem by Neal Stephenson.
I haven't read Anathem so I won't comment on Shippey's conclusions about the novel. (I suspect I would have a less positive reaction. I am a slow reader, so tend to be unforgiving of authors as long-winded as Stephenson has become.)

Whatever you think of Stephenson's recent work, SF/F readers have to love this description of the concerns of modern science fiction:
One of the great things about (much) science fiction is that its authors really mean it. They do think, for instance, that the human species is doomed to exhaustion and dieback if it does not get itself into space, and soon, while we have the technology and the resources, a window of opportunity shuttered by NASA’s inept bureaucracy. They really do believe that humans could be educated to their full potential and far beyond the levels reached by the tick-the-box grading systems of modern colleges, if we exploited available computer- and nano-technology. To them (some of them) mathematics is not just fiddling with abstractions but a guide to ultimate reality. Some of them think we need never die. In every case, though, there is strong awareness of the obstacles in the way of converting possibility to hard fact, some of them theoretical or technological, but even more of them social, financial, attitudinal.
Our future is upon us, and science fiction is one of the few fields encouraging folks to consider seriously what lies ahead. Shippey observes that "much science fiction, like Stephenson’s, has a missionary quality; its purpose is to get people thinking seriously about serious matters, not the trivia that fill modern versions of the unexamined life."

Shippey approves of this focus, although he is skeptical about how many readers out there can tackle what Stephenson is up to. Yet there are obviously many readers who feel up to the challenge -- Anathem hit #1 on the best-seller list compiled by that rag that employs Dave Itzkoff.

It is not surprising that Tom Shippey should engage in a thoughtful and respectful discussion of science fiction and fantasy. Shippey has won the World Fantasy Award and been a Hugo nominee for his Tolkien scholarship, and under the pseudonym John Holm he co-authored a trilogy of alternate history novels with Harry Harrison, beginning with The Hammer and the Cross. But for the Times of London to provide a forum for this discussion is encouraging indeed.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The Nymph's Child by Carrie Vaughn

Fast Ships, Black SailsMy story recommendation for this week goes to "The Nymph's Child," a short story by Carrie Vaughn.

You can find "The Nymph's Child" in Fast Ships, Black Sails, an original anthology of pirate stories from Night Shade Books, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Fast Ships, Black Sails boasts a very impressive array of authors, such as Michael Moorcock, Howard Waldrop, Naomi Novik, Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, Kage Baker, Garth Nix, Steve Aylett, Conrad Williams, David Freer & Eric Flint, and Rachel Swirsky. Note that some of these authors are better known for their work outside the pirate genre.

Carrie Vaughn has found great success in the past three years with her series, beginning with Kitty and the Midnight Hour, about a werewolf talk radio host. Even if you have wearied of werewolves and vampires, "The Nymph's Child" demonstrates that Vaughn is too good a writer to disregard.

"The Nymph's Child" is the bittersweet story of Grace Lark, who disguised herself as a man in order to sail, and became first mate and lover of the legendary pirate Captain Alan. But when their ship was captured and her officers executed, Captain Alan ordered Grace to live. It is fitting that the seafaring adventure is all told in flashbacks, for as we see, Grace's greatest acts of heroism come after the adventures are over.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman

Dance Hall of the DeadThe Book of the Week is Tony Hillerman's Dance Hall of the Dead (1973), in honor of Mr. Hillerman, who passed away last week at the age of 83. Tony Hillerman was a decorated combat veteran of World War II, a successful journalist for some 15 years, a professor at the University of New Mexico for over 20 years and, my godparents tell me, a great guy to play poker with. But he will always be best remembered as the author of the Leaphorn and Chee mysteries. Hillerman penned 18 novels following Leaphorn and Chee, Navajo tribal police officers. These books were excellent mysteries, but perhaps even more important for their insights into Native American culture.

This is the first paperback printing of Dance Hall of the Dead, which won the Edgar Award for best mystery novel of the year, the first of Hillerman's many awards, including being named "Grand Master" by the Mystery Writers of America in 1989. Second in Hillerman's series of Navajo mysteries, Dance Hall of the Dead starred Joe Leaphorn, but Jim Chee hadn't come along yet. The Leaphorn and Chee mysteries have been adapted to film in The Dark Wind (which starred Lou Diamond Phillips and was widely disliked by Hillerman fans) and to television in three feature-length movies in the PBS series Mystery! (generally better received).

Hillerman did write a few books outside the Leaphorn and Chee series, but I don't believe he ever wrote any science fiction or fantasy (although one could argue that some of the Leaphorn and Chee books have a fantasy element, since they involve reports of Navajo witchcraft or ghosts). Next week's Book of the Week will honor a recently departed author who regularly hit the best-seller lists even though he did write science fiction.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The Grand Wheel by Barrington J. Bayley

The Grand WheelThe Book of the Week is The Grand Wheel by Barrington J. Bayley (1937-2008), cover art by Don Maitz. This is my favorite Barrington Bayley novel, although admittedly I have not read most of his work. It is a first printing, paperback original, published in 1977.

In the future of The Grand Wheel, the entire galaxy is dominated by gambling syndicates, and our protagonist is unwillingly being groomed for a game with the future of humanity at stake. The Grand Wheel is well-written and thought-provoking, and more entertaining than many of the works of Bayley's better-known fellows in the "New Wave."

Next week we will honor another recently departed outstanding author, this one from the mystery genre.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Spider the Artist by Nnedi Okorafor

Seeds of ChangeMy story recommendation for this week is "Spider the Artist" by Nnedi Okorafor, a short story in the original anthology Seeds of Change edited by John Joseph Adams. ("Spider the Artist" appears under the name Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, but the author has recently divorced and now prefers to go by her maiden name.)

Seeds of Change is an original anthology of socially-oriented science fiction. Most of the nine stories are by familiar authors, including Ken MacLeod, Jay Lake, Tobias S. Buckell, Mark Budz, and K.D. Wentworth. But some of the strongest pieces in the book are by authors whom you may not know, but I suspect soon will: Nnedi Okorafor, Ted Kosmatka, Blake Charlton, and Jeremiah Tolbert.

Nnedi Okorafor has generated an impressive body of work in the last five years, yet has flown under the radar of many genre readers because both of her novels were targeted at young adults. Okorafor is American, but her parents immigrated from Nigeria, and her work strongly reflects that heritage.

"Spider the Artist" is set in near-future Nigeria, where eight-legged mechanical "Zombies" roam the country's oil pipelines. The Zombies are designed to protect the flow of oil from thieves and terrorists, but they will just as gleefully kill civilians who wander too close to a pipeline -- a great metaphor for how Nigeria's substantial oil wealth has only been a curse for most of its people.

In despair from her abusive husband, our first-person protagonist goes to the pipeline to play her guitar, and comes to form a bizarre bond with one of the Zombies, which she nicknames Udide Okwanka (Spider the Artist). As Udide's interest in music exemplifies, the Zombies are growing independent, a development that may be encouraging or dangerous.

"Spider the Artist" is a beautifully told story by an author who clearly has much to say.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The Star Virus by Barrington J. Bayley

The Star VirusThe Book of the Week is The Star Virus by Barrington J. Bayley, in honor of Mr. Bayley, who passed away last week at the age of 71.

Barrington Bayley was a British writer, part of the "New Wave" who wrote regularly for New Worlds magazine in the 1960's and 70's. His output tapered off after the mid-1980's, but he continued to publish occasionally into the 21st Century. Bayley was a very talented writer and his work, while never terribly successful commercially, was influential on many of his better known contemporaries such as J.G. Ballard, M. John Harrison and Michael Moorcock, who called Bayley "the most interesting SF writer of his generation."

Published in 1970, The Star Virus was the first of Barrington Bayley's sixteen novels. It is a space opera featuring a rather cynical and impulsive starship captain. The Book of the Week is the paperback original, published as half of an Ace Double, with cover by famed artist Kelly Freas. The other half of this Ace Double is Mask of Chaos by John Jakes, who wrote quite a lot of pulpish science fiction and fantasy (notably the Brak the Barbarian sequence) before finding much greater success with historical novels like The Bastard and North and South.

Next week's Book of the Week will be my favorite Barrington Bayley novel.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi

Fast Forward 2My story recommendation for this week is "The Gambler," a novelette by Paolo Bacigalupi. Paolo is the first author to garner two of my weekly story recommendations, which is fitting, since in my view no one today is writing better short fiction. (I suspect the two novels he has been working on are great as well, but he hasn't shared them yet.)

You can find "The Gambler" in Fast Forward 2, edited by Lou Anders (cover art by John Picacio). Just out from Pyr Books, Fast Forward 2 contains fourteen tales by some of the leading names in science fiction today, including Ian McDonald, Cory Doctorow, Mike Resnick, and Nancy Kress. As I wrote in my review of Fast Forward 1, the resurgence of the unthemed original anthology series is very encouraging for the SF/F field, in light of the major magazines' declining circulations. In addition to the Fast Forward series, there is strong work in the Eclipse anthologies edited by Jonathan Strahan and in the ongoing The Solaris Book(s) of New Science Fiction edited by George Mann. But Fast Forward is the best of the lot, in no small part because it has Paolo Bacigalupi.

Paolo's work is often praised for taking an unblinking look at important social and political issues. This is true, but it understates what he achieves in his fiction. First and foremost, Paolo writes beautifully crafted stories. He gets you to care about his characters and what happens to them. That is why his stories' messages are effective.

"The Gambler" is set in a near-future newsroom, when reporting is dominated by the ever-present need to draw net traffic, depicted in a great graphic representation called the "maelstrom." Our main character Ong, a political refugee from Laos, wants to investigate serious issues, but there is little room for such stories alongside the latest celebrity sex scandal. This is meaningful social commentary cleverly presented, but what makes the story work is that Bacigalupi gets you into Ong's skin early on:
Sometimes, when I wake in the night to the swish and honk of Los Angeles traffic, the confusing polyglot of dozens of countries and cultures all pressed together, in the American melting pot, I stand at my window and look down a boulevard full of red lights, where it is not safe to walk alone at night, and yet everyone obeys the traffic signals. I look down on the brash and noisy Americans in their many hues, and remember my parents: my father who cared too much to let me live under the self-declared monarchy, and my mother who would not let me die as a consequence. I lean against the window and cry with relief and loss.

Every week I go to temple and pray for them, light incense and make a triple bow to Buddha, Damma, and Sangha, and pray that they may have a good rebirth, and then I step into the light and noise and vibrancy of America.
It is not Ong's parents who need a good rebirth. Soon Ong will receive a huge career break. Whether he can take advantage of it makes for a terrific story, because you care about his fate.

All of which is not meant to minimize the importance of the issues Bacigalupi addresses in his fiction. Indeed, one reading of "The Gambler" is that Ong is a stand-in for Paolo himself, who no doubt has also been told that "no one wants to read about how the world's going to shit." Paolo writes about the world going to shit, but believe me, you want to read it.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Nerves by Lester del Rey

NervesThe Book of the Week is the 1956 paperback original edition of Nerves by Lester del Rey, with cover by legendary artist Richard Powers (with a less surreal illustration than most of his).

Nerves is a great example of a prophetic science fiction story. It concerns an accident at a nuclear power plant, similar to the Chernobyl disaster. The book describes the awful effects of radiation sickness in detail, and raises the concern that a nuclear accident might contaminate a large swath of the countryside. That would be impressive enough for a 1956 book, but the magazine version of the story first appeared in 1942. Lester del Rey was writing a cautionary story about the dangers of a nuclear power plant accident many years before the first commercial nuclear power plant was built.

The Book of the Week was published by Ballantine Books, one of the major science fiction publishers of the time. In 1977, the Ballantine SF/F line was renamed "Del Rey Books," in honor of Lester del Rey and his wife Judy-Lynn, who had become the lead editors at Ballantine. The Del Rey imprint remains one of the major SF/F publishers to this day. Next week, however, we will return to the much smaller Regency Books, with my favorite from that odd publisher's list.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The Luckiest Street in Georgia by Vylar Kaftan

Realms of Fantasy October 2008My story recommendation for this week is "The Luckiest Street in Georgia" by Vylar Kaftan, from the October 2008 issue of Realms of Fantasy magazine.

Miss Minette is 83. She sits in her rocking chair and watches her street. She sees everything happening on her street, and many things that have not yet occurred but will. And nothing bad happens to her neighbors when she is watching. Except perhaps for Tom across the way, the one person on the street Minette cannot change.

"The Luckiest Street in Georgia" is a short and simple story, yet thought-provoking with an emotionally satisfying resolution. Miss Minette is a well-drawn elderly protagonist, something of a rarity in science fiction and fantasy.

Vylar Kaftan is a new writer to watch. She has published some two dozen pieces of short fiction in the last five years, in small but high-quality venues such as Clarkesworld, Helix, Lone Star Stories, Paper Cities, and Sybil's Garage. (I won't mention that she was a tocmate of mine in the Glorifying Terrorism anthology, because pimping my one published story again would be pathetic.) "The Luckiest Street in Georgia" is Kaftan's first appearance in any of the genre's major print magazines, but surely not her last.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The Eleventh Commandment by Lester del Rey

The Eleventh CommandmentThe Book of the Week is The Eleventh Commandment by Lester del Rey, a 1962 paperback original, cover art by Leo and Diane Dillon.

This is from the Regency Books line, which we were discussing three months ago before being interrupted by the death of Thomas M. Disch and by the Hugo Awards. Regency deliberately sought out books with controversial topics and The Eleventh Commandment is no exception, heavy on the sex and religious satire. This was rather different from del Rey's usual fare, space opera and young adult adventures.

In two weeks we will finally get to my favorite Regency Book, but first, next week you will see why Lester del Rey is on the list of science fiction authors who had a remarkably prescient vision of an event decades in the future.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente

Paper CitiesMy story recommendation for this week is "Palimpsest" by Catherynne M. Valente, a short story from Paper Cities, an anthology of urban fantasy edited by Ekaterina Sedia (cover illustration by Aaron Acevedo).

"Palimpsest" explores the bizarre eponymous city, which seems to be Valente's answer to China Miéville's New Crobuzon. The story is absorbing from the opening paragraph, when four newcomers to the city meet at a fortune-teller's shop:
Four strangers sit in the red chairs, strip off their socks, plunge their feet into the ink-baths, and hold hands under an amphibian stare. This is the first act of anyone entering Palimpsest: Orlande will take your coats, sit you down, and make you family. She will fold you four together like quartos. She will draw you each a card -- look, for you it is the Broken Ship reversed, which signifies perversion, a long journey without enlightenment, gout -- and tie your hands together with red yarn. Wherever you go in Palimpsest, you are bound to these strangers who happened onto Orlande's salon just when you did, and you will go nowhere, eat no capon or dormouse, drink no oversweet port that they do not also taste, and they will visit no whore that you do not also feel beneath you, and until that ink washes from your feet -- which, given that Orlande is a creature of the marsh and no stranger to mud, will be some time -- you cannot breathe but that they breathe also.
As this excerpt suggests, Valente writes remarkably rich, lush prose. (The same is no doubt true of her poetry, which I have not read.) Usually I avoid authors with such an ornate style, because I find it annoying if not done just right. Thankfully, Catherynne Valente does it just right. She immerses you in her story without letting it become oppressive. Her two-volume fantasy The Orphan's Tales was a World Fantasy Award nominee and won the Tiptree Award and Mythopoiec Award, and there is every indication Valente is just getting started.

"Palimpsest" gives us a preview of Valente's forthcoming novel of the same title, scheduled for release in February 2009. I can't wait.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Pump Six by Paolo Bacigalupi

Fantasy & Science Fiction September 2008My story recommendation for this week is "Pump Six" by Paolo Bacigalupi, a novelette from the September 2008 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I already praised "Pump Six" in my review of Pump Six and Other Stories, but F&SF reprinting the story gives me an excuse to talk about it again, and this story deserves all the exposure it can get.

"Pump Six" is set in a near-future New York City in obvious decline. Infrastructure is falling apart, sterility is a rampant problem, and many of the children who are born turn out to be bizarre mutations. Yet New Yorkers seem absurdly unconcerned about all this. The main character is trying to keep the city's sewage plant operating, but he can't even convince his coworkers that wearing a smiley-face sticker does not protect them from the effects of polluted water. Bacigalupi eventually gives us a science fictional explanation for why people are behaving so stupidly. "Pump Six" is by far Bacigalupi's funniest story to date, but it is also just as effective a cautionary SF tale as most of his work.

Paolo Bacigalupi has only published eleven stories, but they are as strong a body of work as anyone in the field has produced in the last decade. (His twelfth story, "The Gambler," to appear in the forthcoming collection Fast Forward 2 edited by Lou Anders, is also excellent.) His stories are always beautifully written and usually address issues important to our collective future. Bacigalupi has been nominated for the Hugo Award three times, and I suggest "Pump Six" merits a fourth nomination.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The Folk of the Fringe by Orson Scott Card

The Folk of the FringeThe Book of the Week is The Folk of the Fringe by Orson Scott Card, cover art by Carl Lundgren. This is copy #159 out of the 475-copy special limited first edition with slipcase, published by Phantasia Press in 1989. The Folk of the Fringe is a collection of beautifully written short stories all set in near-future Utah, where Americans attempt to rebuild after the collapse of civilization due to biological war and global climate change. (Ironically, Card is today an outspoken global warming skeptic.)

This slipcovered limited edition was issued simultaneously with a much less expensive trade hardcover edition. The bookseller from whom I acquired the Book of the Week apparently did not realize that he had the far more valuable limited edition, perhaps because the signed limitation page is inserted at the back of this book instead of in the front. And so I got to add to my collection a book I had coveted but for which I hadn't been prepared to cough up full price. Of course, the bookseller gets the last laugh. The bread and butter of the used book trade is taking advantage of us poor suckers who hang out at bookshops hoping to find a rare first edition, but buying out the rest of the booksellers' stock while we look.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The Colorado Kid by Stephen King

The Colorado KidThe Book of the Week is PS Publishing's limited edition of The Colorado Kid by Stephen King. This is my coolest acquisition from the dealer room of the recent World Science Fiction Convention here in Denver. It is the first hardcover edition of The Colorado Kid, preceded by the paperback original from Hard Case Crime. I also have the paperback, but this numbered (mine is copy #5), slipcovered, limited edition is much the preferred edition, in no small part because it is signed by Stephen King as well as by the artist Glenn Chadbourne and by Charles Ardai, who wrote the introduction.

A slipcover is always a dead giveaway that a publisher is trying to get you to pay too much for a book. This time I was willing to do it, because my collection has been missing anything signed by Stephen King. The nice thing about a signed limited edition like this is you know the signature is authentic. Because he is so popular and because he does not do many public appearances, Stephen King is one of the few living authors whose signature is valuable enough for unscrupulous folks to bother forging.

Stephen King wrote The Colorado Kid for the Hard Case Crimes set of cheap, lurid, pulp-style mysteries. Charles Ardai, one of the creators of Hard Case, wrote to Stephen King's agent asking if King would write an introduction to Hard Case's first book. Ardai's introduction to the Book of the Week describes how he nearly suffered a heart attack when the agent called to say that Stephen King would rather write one of the books himself. The novel King wrote, The Colorado Kid, is not really lurid or pulpish, but nevertheless fits nicely into the series because it is in part an extended meditation on what is appealing to us about mysteries. Incidentally, The Colorado Kid has almost nothing to do with Colorado; it all takes place on a small island off the coast of Maine. Next week's BOTW will be a slipcovered limited edition I recently acquired on the cheap.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Daughter of Bótù by Eugie Foster

illustration by Jada Fitch for Daughter of BótùMy story recommendation for this week is "Daughter of Bótù" by Eugie Foster, from the August 2008 issue of Realms of Fantasy (story illustration by Jada Fitch).

"Daughter of Bótù" is a fairy tale with an Eastern flavor. It is the tale of An-ying, a rabbit transformed into a young woman, who quickly falls in love with a prince. The premise may sound routine but it soon turns into something memorable, thanks to Eugie Foster's gorgeous prose and to the twists the story takes as the love between An-ying and her prince becomes rather complicated.

In the past five years, Eugie Foster has published an impressive volume of interesting short fiction, commonly with an Asian setting and feel. Her collection Returning My Sister's Face and Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice is due out early in 2009 and is one to watch for.

The August 2008 issue of Realms of Fantasy has an impressive list of contributors, including Liz Williams, James Van Pelt, Carrie Vaughn, and Jim C. Hines, but even among such strong company, I found "Daughter of Bótù" the clear standout.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Asimov's Science Fiction June 2007

Asimov's Science Fiction June 2007The Magazine of the Week is the June 2007 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction, with funky alien cover art by John Allemand. This is the Magazine of the Week because it contains "Tideline" by Elizabeth Bear, this year's Hugo Award winner for Best Short Story.

Elizabeth Bear has recently burst onto the science fiction and fantasy scene. Her first story was published in 2003 and her first novel in 2005, but incredibly she will have released fourteen books by the end of this year, all of which have been well received. "Tideline," her first work to be nominated for a Hugo Award but one suspects not the last, is the moving tale of a derelict but intelligent war machine seeking meaning in its final days of consciousness before its batteries die.

Having now covered all of Denvention's Hugo winners for fiction, next week's Book of the Week will be the most collectible item I acquired in the Denvention dealer room.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Hungry: Some Ghost Stories by Samantha Henderson

My story recommendation for this week is "Hungry: Some Ghost Stories" by Samantha Henderson, from the April 2008 issue of Lone Star Stories.

"They gather in the kitchen sometimes," it begins. "Hungry: Some Ghost Stories" is an elegantly constructed series of short vignettes and one-line questions about ghosts and about the stories we tell ourselves and the memories that haunt us. It will only take you a few minutes to read, but I suspect will stay with you much longer. Samantha Henderson has been generating quite a bit of buzz with her short fiction, and her first novel Heaven's Bones is just out. "Hungry: Some Ghost Stories" is a good example of Henderson's distinctive style and flair.

Lone Star Stories has been publishing high-quality short fiction free on-line since 2004, but I am not sure it is finding all the readers it deserves. I fear that "Hungry: Some Ghost Stories" is especially likely to be overlooked because Lone Star Stories editor Eric T. Marin has for some reason labeled the piece as poetry. Apparently he deemed it a "prose poem," a term that strikes me as a non sequitur. I certainly enjoyed it even though I generally don't grok poetry. Whatever you call it, "Hungry: Some Ghost Stories" is well worth checking out.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Fantasy & Science Fiction September 2007

F&SF September 2007The Magazine of the Week is the September 2007 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (cover art by Bryn Barnard), in recognition of the cover story "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang, which won the Hugo Award for Best Novelette of 2007, presented earlier this month at a much better behaved Denver convention than the one going on right now.

Ted Chiang's fiction is very low in quantity and very high in quality. He began writing in 1990 and in that time has published only about a dozen pieces of short fiction, but those stories have garnered nearly universal praise and a host of major awards. "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" was Chiang's second Hugo Award winner (the first was his outstanding novelette "Hell Is the Absence of God") to go with three Nebula Awards and many others. "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" is a time travel story, but set in the Middle East of long ago with a nice Arabian Nights flavor.

Next week we will finish paying tribute to the winners of the Hugo Awards for fiction with the Best Short Story winner.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Asimov's Science Fiction December 2007

Asimov's Science Fiction December 2007The Magazine of the Week is the December 2007 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction (cover art by Michael Carroll) with cover story "All Seated on the Ground" by Connie Willis.

At the World Science Fiction Convention here in Denver earlier this month, "All Seated on the Ground" received the Hugo Award for Best Novella of 2007. This was the tenth Hugo Award for fiction of Connie Willis's illustrious career, making her the Michael Phelps of science fiction and fantasy -- the next highest total of Hugos for fiction is seven, by both Poul Anderson and Harlan Ellison. It was fitting that Connie received her tenth award so close to her Greeley home.

"All Seated on the Ground" was Connie's Christmas story for 2007, in which Christmas music proves the key to establishing contact with a stern alien race. Connie Willis Christmas tales are a fixture of Asimov's December issues. Some of her previous Christmas stories were collected in Miracle and Other Christmas Stories (which I reviewed for Fantastic Reviews - see my review). Next week's Magazine of the Week will contain the Hugo winner in the Best Novelette category.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: #1 by Leslie What

Electric Velocipede 14My story recommendation for this week is "#1" by Leslie What, a short story published in the Spring 2008 issue of Electric Velocipede (Issue #14).

"#1" is the character study of Mindy Simmons, a vain and self-absorbed woman. She has been asked to donate a kidney to save the daughter of a half-sister she barely knows. At first blush, she seems to resist this for contemptible reasons, including that the scar might interfere with her acting career. But her real reasons have more to do with resentment toward a mother who abandoned her in favor of her half-sister, reasons that come across as uncomfortably understandable and human. "#1" is a finely crafted, intriguing story by an author who has yet to receive the kind of attention her work merits, notwithstanding her 2000 Nebula Award for "The Cost of Doing Business." I haven't yet read Leslie What's new story collection, Crazy Love, but I am confident it's worth reading.

Electric Velocipede is a small but well-received fiction magazine edited by John Klima. The magazine just missed out on a Best Fanzine Hugo nomination this year and Klima is currently up for a World Fantasy Award. Incidentally, all of the fiction and poetry in Issue #14 is by women authors, so anyone who complains about underrepresentation of women in genre magazines ought to check it out.

When reading a magazine like Electric Velocipede, one can't help wondering why some of its stories did not appear in more high-profile publications. In some cases, the answer is simply that they weren't quite good enough; the stories in Electric Velocipede are not as consistently strong as those in Asimov's or F&SF. But the best stories in Electric Velocipede compare favorably with anything in the field. I suspect sometimes those stories lack specific elements the major magazines require to maintain their brands.

In the case of "#1," there is probably not enough of a science fictional or fantastic element for the major genre magazines. "#1" is set in the near future, but the only piece of future technology we see is a snazzy pair of shoes that can be switched to "PowerWalk" and allow you to zoom off like Usain Bolt. The story overall doesn't have much of an SFnal feel, and could have been rewritten as a mainstream story quite easily.

But then, why should it have to be? When Mindy turns her PowerWalking shoes on, she sees the rest of the world in a blur, while her own body is the only thing that appears solid. This is a terrific metaphor for her self-centered outlook. Converting the story to straight mainstream would have lost this effective image. On the other hand, the story has no need for the extra gadgetry that might have made it feel more science fictional. Thanks to magazines like Electric Velocipede, a wonderful story like this can appear just as the author intended.

Aaron's Story Recommendations of the Week

One reason I've posted fewer book reviews at Fantastic Reviews in the past several months is that I've been reading a lot more short fiction instead of novels. Even with the occasional anthology or story collection review, most of the short fiction I read does not end up getting reviewed.

Never one to pass up a chance to be a blowhard, I've decided to divert some of that short fiction reading into this blog, in the form of story recommendation posts. While I will happily point out strong stories I run across from Asimov's or F&SF, hopefully many of the stories I recommend will be from publications some of you might not otherwise have thought to check out.

My initial goal is to try to point out one strong story per week. How long I can hold to that pace will depend on whether I continue reading so much short fiction and how much of it strikes me as particularly good. I am not going to bother posting about stories I dislike, because what is the point of directing your attention to stories you might have missed that aren't so good?

If you would like to suggest any particular stories or magazines to me, feel free to comment on this post or to e-mail me at

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

The Yiddish Policemen's UnionThe Book of the Week is The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon, winner of the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel of 2007, presented at the Hugo ceremony in Denver last Saturday night.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a murder mystery set in present-day Alaska, but not Alaska as it really exists today. Rather, the novel assumes that the creation of Israel failed after World War II and many of the Jewish people instead settled in Alaska, dramatically altering the landscape. This is an example of alternate history, long considered a subgenre of science fiction -- for instance, Philip K. Dick won the Hugo Award for best SF novel of 1962 for an alternate history, The Man in the High Castle, in which the Allies lost World War II.

Michael Chabon is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author well respected by the literary mainstream. Mainstream authors commonly resist classification of any of their works as science fiction, for fear of catching sci-fi cooties. Michael Chabon has endeared himself to SF fans by refusing to follow this pattern and instead embracing genre fiction. He has been an advocate of genre fiction, often including science fiction and fantasy stories and authors in anthologies he edited. Chabon was not able to attend the Hugo ceremony Saturday, but he sent an acceptance speech read on his behalf, which contained the crowd-pleasing declaration, "I am a science fiction writer. I say that with great pride."

Next week's Magazine of the Week will be the Hugo winner for Best Novella, won by a Colorado author who has won more Hugo Awards for fiction than any other writer in the history of the genre.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The House That Fear Built by Cassandra Knye

The House That Fear BuiltCompleting our tribute to the late Thomas Disch, the Book of Last Week is the gothic romance The House That Fear Built by Thomas Disch and fellow SF author John Sladek, collaborating under the pseudonym Cassandra Knye. This is a paperback original, printed in 1966, and very difficult to find today because fans of Disch and Sladek have snatched up all the surviving copies.

Cassandra Knye is my favorite of Thomas Disch's several pseudonyms. Disch and Sladek used the name early in their careers to enable them to sneak into the gothic genre for a paycheck. Gothic romance was a popular genre at the time but has largely disappeared since, although today's paranormal romance subgenre bears some similarities.

Crossing genre boundaries is also the theme of next week's Book of the Week, honoring the winner of this year's Hugo Award for Best Novel.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

2008 Hugo Award Winners

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

"All Seated on the Ground" by Connie Willis

"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang

"Tideline" by Elizabeth Bear

Here are the fiction categories Hugo winners, the top awards, not a complete list of Hugos awarded. The Hugo Awards were presented last night, August 9th, at Denvention 3 in Denver, Colorado. We were there!

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Aaron's Book of the Week :: 334 by Thomas M. Disch

334Continuing our tribute to the late Thomas M. Disch, the Book of the Week is 334, probably Disch's most influential science fiction novel. This is the 1974 first paperback printing and first American edition of 334 (previously published in hardcover in England in 1972).

334 is set in a future New York City, where the welfare state has successfully (sort of) addressed most material needs, but has utterly failed to provide its citizens a fulfilling lifestyle. The story is told through several interrelated novellas. The title refers to the address of the housing project where the primary characters live, as well as to structural aspects of the book. In addition, the title hearkens back to the year 334, which one character visits in a drug-enhanced role-playing game (even though 334 appeared two years before Dungeons & Dragons, which popularized role-playing games), suggesting a parallel between modern America and ancient Rome's period of decline. 334 was a Nebula nominee for best novel, losing to Ursula LeGuin's classic The Dispossessed.

As an aside, beware the 1999 reprint edition of 334 released by Vintage Books. Some dunderhead editors at Vintage ruined many of Disch's ironic uses of language; for instance, in Disch's future America Marines wear black masks and are called "gorillas," which Vintage changed to "guerillas," eliminating the intended pun.

Next week, we will complete our Disch tribute with a hard-to-find gothic novel published under a pseudonym but written in collaboration between Disch and another of my favorite authors.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Echo Round His Bones by Thomas M. Disch

Echo Round His BonesContinuing our tribute to the late Thomas M. Disch, the Book of This Week is a signed copy of the first printing, paperback original of Echo Round His Bones, published in 1967. While this was the first appearance of Echo Round His Bones in book form, it was previously serialized in British "New Wave" magazine New Worlds, to which Disch was a regular contributor.

One fun thing about these Book of the Week postings is they prompt me to recall items I had forgotten were in my collection. I did not remember that I had anything signed by Disch, for I never had the pleasure of meeting him (we will assume it would have been a pleasure, even though by many accounts Disch was quite a cantankerous fellow), but this book had already been signed by Disch before I bought it second-hand.

Echo Round His Bones, in which a person reduced to a ghostlike form must try to save the world, is a bit primitive by Disch's later standards, although it does include some of the social commentary that would mark much of his later work. Next week, we will move from this minor early effort to Disch's single most influential book.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Fun with Your New Head by Thomas M. Disch

Fun with Your New HeadContinuing our tribute to Thomas M. Disch, his collection Fun with Your New Head was the Book of Last Week. (I didn't get around to it last week, but I can't just let everything slide because we have to finish our Disch tribute before the Hugo Awards are announced August 9.)

This is the 1972 first paperback printing of Fun with Your New Head, cover art by Gene Szafran. Disch was a prolific author of short fiction early in his career, and Fun with Your New Head was Disch's second collection of short fiction, appearing just after One Hundred and Two H-Bombs and shortly before White Fang Goes Dingo, Getting Into Death, and The Man Who Had No Idea -- and doncha love these titles? (Never mind that Fun with Your New Head first appeared in England under the humdrum title Under Compulsion.) Fun with Your New Head contains some of Disch's most memorable short fiction, such as "Descending," in which a department store escalator only goes down . . . and down and down and down, and "The Roaches," a rather darker version of the scene in the film Enchanted where the princess magically summons help from some cockroaches.

The Book of This Week will be a signed copy of one of Disch's early novels.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Aaron's Take on the 2008 Hugo Nominees :: SHORT STORIES

As is often the case, the short story Hugo nominees are a weaker group than the novelettes, I suspect because it is difficult at such a short length to draw the reader in deeply enough to create the impact one expects of an award-caliber story. As a result, the Hugo short story ballot typically contains an unfortunately high proportion of fluff pieces.

This year, that includes Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359? by Ken MacLeod, a fun far-future romp that had entirely passed out of my mind one day after reading it, and A Small Room in Koboldtown, a silly little SF mystery that I found well short of the level of Michael Swanwick’s best work. (Apparently many others liked it rather more than I did as it just won the Locus Award, although that may just reflect the asinine decision by Locus to change how they counted the votes after the ballots were cast -- note that Koboldtown had fewer total votes and fewer first-place votes than Tideline.)

A half-notch above those two for me is Mike Resnick’s Distant Replay, the simple but charming story of an elderly gentleman who meets a young woman remarkably similar to his late wife, and Last Contact by Stephen Baxter, in which the human race learns that the end of the world is nigh, with understandably sad results.

My favorite of the short story nominees is Tideline by Elizabeth Bear, the poignant story of a derelict but intelligent war machine struggling to find meaning in its final days. Even if the short story category is not terribly strong overall, Tideline would be a worthy Hugo winner.

Aaron's Ballot:
1. Elizabeth Bear – Tideline
2. Stephen Baxter – Last Contact
3. Mike Resnick – Distant Replay
4. Ken MacLeod – Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359?
5. Michael Swanwick – A Small Room in Koboldtown

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch

Camp ConcentrationThe Book of the Week is the first paperback printing of Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch. We are putting aside Regency Books for a couple weeks to pay tribute to Mr. Disch, who last week took his own life at the age of 68. Disch had three new books coming out this year, but was apparently nevertheless despondent over his failing health, the death of his partner of thirty years, poet Charles Naylor, and a series of financial and housing difficulties.

Thomas Disch was one of the leading voices of the New Wave of science fiction, which in the 1960's and 70's helped to lift SF out of its pulp roots with more mature themes and styles. I believe Disch will ultimately be best remembered for his New Wave SF, although his most commercially successful works were a set of horror novels (The Businessman, The M.D., The Priest, and The Sub). He also wrote historical fiction, gothics, at least one mystery novel, quite a lot of poetry, literary and theater criticism, and even some children's books, notably The Brave Little Toaster, adapted by Disney into the animated film. (Disch is also sometimes credited with the original concept for Disney's The Lion King. I cannot confirm this, nor am I sure it would be much of a distinction if true, since The Lion King was an uncredited but blatant rip-off of Osamu Tezuka's Japanese series Kimba the White Lion.)

Camp Concentration, first published in 1968, is my favorite Disch novel. It is a satire told in the form of the journal of a prisoner unwillingly made part of a government experiment to augment human intelligence, at the expense of a shorter life span. The experiment works rather better and worse than intended. Camp Concentration is widely regarded as one of Disch's three most influential novels, along with 334 and On Wings of Song, all three of which made David Pringle's widely-cited list of the 100 best SF novels of all time. Disch also wrote a great deal of short fiction, including the stories collected in next week's BOTW.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Aaron's Take on the 2008 Hugo Nominees :: NOVELETTES

As is often the case, the novelette nominees strike me as the best of the short fiction Hugo categories. All five of the stories are very good, and I find three of them particularly strong.

The two I would rate a half-notch below the others are Dark Integers by Greg Egan, which is a sequel to Luminous and to my tastes too much of a retread of the earlier story, and Finisterra by David Moles, which has some terrific SFnal scenery but does not come together quite as well as the top stories in this category.

I only wish the remaining three novelettes could all tie and share the Hugo, for they are all award-caliber tales. Two of the stories are rather similar, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang and The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairytale of Economics by Daniel Abraham, both of which have the feel of fantasy but are so rigorously developed as arguably to qualify as science fiction. Ted Chiang has long been noted as an author who writes very well even if he does not write very much; meanwhile, with his terrific series The Long Price Quartert, Daniel Abraham has emerged as one of the best fantasists in the business. Both tales make for thought-provoking reading, and even if you have a sense where the stories are going it is great fun watching these two outstanding authors get there.

It is a close call, but my favorite of the novelette nominees is Glory by Greg Egan. This is far-future hard SF as only Egan can do it, combining interesting hard science speculations, including a method of interstellar travel I’ve never seen before in the first two pages, with thought-provoking human issues. After several years away from the field, Glory is a wonderful return to form for Greg Egan.

Aaron's Ballot:
1. Greg Egan – Glory
2. Ted Chiang – The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate
3. Daniel Abraham – The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairytale of Economics
4. David Moles – Finisterra
5. Greg Egan – Dark Integers

Monday, July 07, 2008

Aaron's Take on the 2008 Hugo Nominees :: NOVELLAS

My two least favorite of the novella nominees are both by writers for whom I have great respect, so I readily concede that I may have missed something. Memorare by Gene Wolfe started with an interesting premise, exploring asteroids carved into elaborate memorials, some of which are booby-trapped, but went off in a direction – the protagonist unexpectedly bumps into his ex-wife in space and they enter a surreal hollow asteroid together – that I found uninteresting and contrived. Recovering Apollo 8 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a little piece of nostalgia, centering on a rich man’s obsession with recovering the corpses of the Apollo 8 astronauts from space. This is alternate history, as in real life Apollo 8 returned safely to Earth. I somehow missed the point of the exercise, and found the whole story rather tedious.

The other three nominated novellas are all very good, although I have to put Lucius Shepard’s Stars Seen Through Stone third out of the three, because the science fictional element seems disconnected from the rest of the tale. It feels as if Shepard wanted to tell a humorous story about a music producer working with a talented but personally unappealing artist, but had to throw in some space aliens so he could sell the story to F&SF.

All Seated on the Ground, in which choir music is the key to communicating with aliens, does not rank with my favorite Connie Willis pieces, as I found the first two-thirds of the story overlong and repetitive. Still, it has Connie Willis’s trademark wit, and things come together so nicely by the end that the tale well rewards the patience required at the beginning.

My favorite of the nominees for best novella is The Fountain of Age by Nancy Kress. Kress is for me an inconsistent writer, producing some stories I enjoy very much and others that leave me cold, but she was on when she wrote The Fountain of Age, in which a wealthy old man searches for his lost love, whose blood was the key to creating a futuristic Hobson’s Choice: stop aging for twenty years, but with certain death waiting at the end of that period. I found this to be very much an award-caliber story, effective on both an emotional and intellectual level.

Aaron's Ballot:
1. Nancy Kress – The Fountain of Age
2. Connie Willis – All Seated on the Ground
3. Lucius Shepard – Stars Seen Through Stone
4. Kristine Kathryn Rusch – Recovering Apollo 8
5. Gene Wolfe – Memorare

Aaron's Take on the 2008 Hugo Nominees :: NOVELS

Of the five novels nominated for this year’s Hugo, one is easily my favorite, one is far-and-away the worst, and the other three are difficult to rank.

Starting with the good news, I thoroughly enjoyed The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. For me, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union worked on every level. It is an excellent alternate history, cleverly following through on the implications of a single alteration of history – that the Jews who settled in Israel after World War II were driven off and relocated in Alaska – while at the same time using that variation on history to illuminate aspects of human nature and Jewish culture. The novel also works well as a murder mystery. Most importantly, it is an outstanding character study of Meyer Landsman, the detective seeking to solve the central mystery. Based entirely on the novel’s own merits, I would love to see The Yiddish Policemen’s Union win the Hugo Award. The fact that the author is a Pulitzer Prize winner yet would actually be pleased to win a Hugo is merely a nice bonus.

Moving to the bottom of the list, sometimes a singer writes a song that requires a voice stronger than his own, and he would be better off handing the song off to someone else to perform. That is what happened to Robert Sawyer with Rollback. In Rollback, an octogenarian couple undergoes rejuvenation therapy, but it only works for the husband, so he is suddenly sixty years younger than his wife physically. This would make for a heart-wrenching story, in the hands of a writer skilled in conveying complex human emotions. Robert Sawyer is not. His strength is scientific speculation, not human drama. His dialogue is wooden and dull, his characters so one-dimensional that it is obvious even Sawyer does not conceive of them as real people. Then again, perhaps it is best that the protagonist is such a non-believable character, otherwise I would have been very annoyed with him for moping through most of the novel over his terrible misfortune of being given an extra sixty years of life. A further disappointment with Rollback is that Sawyer's future year 2048 is terribly unimaginative, indistinguishable from the present day but for a few housecleaning robots and passing references to the weather being a little warmer than it used to be. Nothing else has changed, or if it has, the main characters are oblivious to it. They go around quoting Seinfeld and Star Trek and Lost in Space, but never make a reference to anything past the turn of the century. I hate to think that there are any people, even at the age of 87, so detached from the world around them; if there are, you wouldn't want to make them the viewpoint characters of a futuristic science fiction novel.

Ranking the remaining three novels is a close call for me. In the end, I’m going with Halting State by Charles Stross as my second choice, because it is successful as entertainment but also has something interesting to say. Halting State starts with a premise that sounds silly, the investigation of a crime that occurred within an on-line role-playing game. But the novel goes at it with such gusto that I found myself drawn in completely, and was easily able to suspend my disbelief even when the initial crime broadens into intrigue and espionage of global import. The novel is fun to read, and (in sharp contrast to Rollback) also has a lot of interesting speculation and commentary on our near future.

For me, the remaining two nominees suffered from opposite deficiencies. Ian McDonald’s Brasyl is an interesting novel. I like the concept of a science fiction novel about Brazil, alternating between past, present, and future timelines, interconnected through the device of quantum physics. Yet I found Brasyl rather difficult to get into. It takes the story too long to get moving, and the writing style of the present and future threads is off-putting. The entire novel is loaded with Portuguese terminology and the present and future scenes add an ultra-hip sensibility that I gather is meant to convey the feel of Brazilian culture, but for me made the novel too difficult to read.

Conversely, John Scalzi’s The Last Colony, about efforts to establish a new human outpost on a faraway world, is easy to read and quite entertaining but rather less ambitious than the other nominated novels. It is the third in Scalzi’s series begun with Old Man’s War, and suffers from Scalzi's determination to resolve various loose threads from the previous two volumes. The story does not present its individual characters with the kind of internal conflicts that were a strength of the prior novels (for example, Jared Dirac's identity crisis in The Ghost Brigades). The Last Colony has an enjoyably fast pace and some snappy dialogue, but a bit less to say than the earlier two Old Man books, notwithstanding all the galactic politics that come into play in the second half of the novel. Scalzi has a strong following and will surely get more shots at the Hugo; I would like to see him win it for a work with more depth.

Aaron's Ballot:
1. Michael Chabon – The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
2. Charles Stross – Halting State
3. Ian McDonald – Brasyl
4. John Scalzi – The Last Colony
5. Robert J. Sawyer – Rollback

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Some Will Not Die by Algis Budrys

Some Will Not DieCompleting our tribute to Algis Budrys (1931-2008), the Book of the Week is Some Will Not Die, cover art by Leo and Diane Dillon. This is the 1961 paperback original edition of Some Will Not Die, which is a revised and expanded version of last week's BOTW, False Night.

Some Will Not Die was published by Regency Books, a very small but interesting publisher, many of whose books are now prized collector's items. Algis Budrys was an editor with Regency and became editor-in-chief, taking over from Harlan Ellison, shortly after Some Will Not Die came out. Regency was the highbrow imprint of Greenleaf & Company, which made most of its profits from pornography (much of which was written by ridiculously good authors, often under pseudonyms, as I may work up the nerve to describe in greater detail in forthcoming BOTWs).

Regency Books deliberately sought novels that brashly addressed controversial topics of the day, including drugs and race relations. Next week's Book of the Week will be my favorite Regency Book, a novel involving race issues by one of my favorite science fiction authors making his first foray out of genre.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Aaron's Book of the Week: False Night by Algis Budrys

False NightContinuing our tribute to Algis Budrys (1931-2008), the Book of the Week is his first novel, False Night, published by Lion Books in 1954. Like all of Budrys's early books, False Night was a paperback original. Because Lion Books was a small publisher (whom BOTW devotees may recall for its early edition of Frankenstein ), this edition has become hard to find. Even harder to find, however, is the revised edition published under the title Some Will Not Die, next week's Book of the Week.

False Night / Some Will Not Die is a post-apocalyptic tale set after most of America's population has been wiped out by a plague. In its bleak and gritty approach to this subject matter, the novel prefigured Cormac McCarthy's recent Pulitzer Prize winner The Road, published over 50 years later. Of course, False Night is science fiction and The Road is not, for reasons that will make sense to you if you squint really hard and slap yourself sharply across the face three times.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Astounding November 1952

Astounding November 1952Continuing our tribute to Algis Budrys (1931-2008), the Magazine of the Week is the November 1952 issue of Astounding, cover art by Charles Schneeman. When published, the highlights of this issue were the second part of Isaac Asimov's serialized novel The Currents of Space and "Last Blast," a novelette by popular author Eric Frank Russell. But in hindsight, this issue was most important for launching the career of Algis Budrys, with his first story "The High Purpose."

Algis Budrys went on to become an important science fiction author for about the next ten years. After that, he wrote only sparingly -- although his 1977 novel Michaelmas was very well-received, and its premise of a media mogul who manages to assume control of global politics is perhaps more relevant today than ever -- focusing his energies instead on editing and reviewing. He was a long-time reviewer for F&SF and the Chicago Sun-Times. In recent years, he was the editor of Tomorrow magazine (where he rejected the first story I ever tried to sell, a truly dreadful piece that did not at all deserve the gentle note he sent me). He also managed the L. Ron Hubbard's Writers of the Future contest, which under his leadership became a very useful resource for aspiring writers, discovering such major authors as Stephen Baxter, Karen Joy Fowler, James Alan Gardner, Robert Reed, and Patrick Rothfuss, despite the Scientology baggage the Hubbard name carries.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Who? by Algis Budrys

Who?The Book of the Week is Who? by Algis Budrys, in honor of Mr. Budrys, who passed away Monday at the age of 77. (Incidentally, it was not really my intent to use BOTW as an SF/F obituary column, but it seems there are just too many authors, editors, and artists I admire who are now in their 70s, 80s, and 90s to avoid it.)

This is the first printing, paperback original of Who?, published exactly 50 years ago, with cover art by Robert V. Engel. In Who?, an American scientist traveling behind the Iron Curtain is badly injured, and Soviet doctors use cybernetic technology to save his life. But when he returns home, no one is sure if he can still be trusted or if the Soviets have brainwashed, modified, or even entirely replaced the man they knew. In its use of cybernetics, Who? prefigured The Six Million Dollar Man, but Budrys applied the concept to craft a political thriller with some interesting commentary on the Cold War mentality. The Cold War featured prominently in much of Budrys's writing, no doubt because it profoundly affected Budrys's life. Budrys was born in Lithuania and came to the United States in 1936 when his father was consul-general. His family was then exiled in America when the Soviet Union seized control of Lithuania.

Who? was made into a film starring Elliott Gould, originally called Who? but re-released under the absurd title Robo Man. This is one of two films based on Algis Budrys works; the other is To Kill a Clown, starring Alan Alda as a Vietnam vet who goes berserk. Both films are now rather obscure -- I couldn't find either at Netflix.

Who? was a nominee for the Hugo Award for Best Novel of 1958, reflecting Budrys's rapid emergence as one of the leading authors of the science fiction field. Budrys had only a few years earlier sold his first story, appearing in next week's Magazine of the Week.