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.