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.