Friday, February 27, 2009

Aaron's Books of the Week :: The Centaur and The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike

The CentaurThe Books of the Week are the first paperback printings of The Centaur and The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike (1932-2009). A couple weeks back, before being sidetracked by flu, strep, and other distractions, BOTW raised the question whether recently deceased award-winning author John Updike had ever dabbled in science fiction and fantasy. Regular readers of this column knew better than to doubt it.

Updike wrote science fiction on at least two occasions, The Poorhouse Fair (1959) and Toward the End of Time (1997). More important to his career were Updike's fantasies. Several of Updike's books included elements of fabulation and mythology, notably National Book Award winner The Centaur.The Witches of Eastwick While one may debate whether to call a book like The Centaur "fantasy," there is no doubt that the label applies to The Witches of Eastwick, in which three modern-day women develop magical powers with the help of a diabolical figure (delightfully played by Jack Nicholson in the film).

Beginning next week, we will pay tribute to one of my all-time favorite authors, Philip Jose Farmer, who passed away February 25, starting with his first published story.

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The Harpooner at the Bottom of the World by Catherynne M. Valente

Sometimes when I'm reading, a passage is so elegantly written that I feel the need to stop and reread it out loud. Tolkien makes me do this occasionally. Ursula LeGuin often does. I just came across a story by Catherynne M. Valente, "The Harpooner at the Bottom of the World", which I felt compelled to read out loud the entire way through.

That makes for an automatic and immediate story recommendation of the week, even if I've already done one this week. (I need to make up for a couple weeks I missed with flu and strep anyway.) Catherynne Valente thus becomes the second author to garner two different story recommendations, joining Paolo Bacigalupi.

"The Harpooner at the Bottom of the World" originally appeared in Spectra Pulse, a promotional magazine issued by Bantam, which it supposedly gives away at conventions, although I've never seen a copy. Thankfully, "The Harpooner at the Bottom of the World" is now available through Valente's web site.

"The Harpooner at the Bottom of the World" illustrates the strengths of Valente's writing, particularly her amazing use of language and her wonderful knack for the story-within-story framework, which she successfully employs here in only a couple thousand words. The framing story tells of a remote archipelago where women inscribe a story on their bellies during pregnancy. The story-within-a-story is that ritual tale, about a woman harpooner "who had known both of the sorrows which are deepest" -- which Valente never identifies -- who travels to the upside-down archipelago at the bottom of the world, where "the dead and the unborn dance together in the blue and black shadows, hand in hand."

Read "The Harpooner at the Bottom of the World," fall in love with it, and then go buy Valente's new novel Palimpsest.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Jaiden's Weaver by Mary Robinette Kowal

This week's story recommendation is "Jaiden's Weaver" by Mary Robinette Kowal, the reigning John W. Campbell Award winner for best new writer.

"Jaiden's Weaver" appears in Diamonds in the Sky, an on-line anthology of science fiction stories illustrating concepts of astronomy, which Mike Brotherton assembled on a grant from the National Science Foundation. A few of the stories are reprints but most are original, and the original tales come from an impressive list of contributors including Kowal, David Levine, Wil McCarthy, Jerry Oltion, Alma Alexander, Jeffrey Carver, and Daniel Hoyt. Because the stories are meant to be instructive to students, several of them have a young adult feel.

"Jaiden's Weaver" falls in that category, and it is as good an example of YA science fiction as has seen print since Robert Heinlein was still with us. Set on a habitable ringed planet, "Jaiden's Weaver" illustrates the concept of planetary rings. The rings come into play, but the story is mainly about a young woman, Jaiden, desperate to acquire her own teddy bear spider. Her earnestness will put veteran SF readers in mind of Kip from Have Space Suit--Will Travel, yet the tale feels fresh, particularly when Jaiden starts giving parental advice, and should appeal to contemporary young readers.

I enjoyed "Jaiden's Weaver" from start to finish, and now I can't wait to read it to my daughter.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Mini-Review :: Empire by Orson Scott Card

EmpireTor hardcover - 340 pages
Copyright 2006
Rating: 4/10
(Not Bad, But Not Recommended)
Mini-review by Aaron Hughes

I didn't get around to doing a full review of Orson Scott Card's Empire when it came out late in 2006, but in my recent review of Ender in Exile, Card's latest novel, I mentioned in passing that I thought Empire was marred by Card force-feeding the reader his political views. As someone who is generally a great admirer of Card's work, I wanted to explain this negative comment more fully.

Empire is a near-future thriller about the outbreak of civil war in the United States, a war fought not between geographic areas but rather along ideological lines. Special Ops Major Reuben "Rube" Malek and Captain Barholomew Coleman struggle to hold the country together through a crisis, including the assassination of the president and the invasion of Manhattan, precipitated by hatred between American conservatives and liberals. (The novel ties into a video game, but the only indication of this in the text are a few graphics-friendly elements such as the two-legged mechanized tanks that occupy New York; the story appears to be Card's creation.)

Empire is capably written and features engaging characters in an exciting story, punctuated by plot twists you will not see coming. Yet the book is a failure, because it is impossible to enjoy if you do not share Card's political views, and difficult to enjoy even if you do. The book is far too burdened with Card's contempt for modern liberals, especially the media and academics:
The media has forbidden us to remember the falling towers. They don't allow us to see the footage. It's like their slogan is, "Forget the Alamo." I'm tired of being obedient to their decision to keep us blind.
Either directly through the narration or indirectly through his mouthpiece Rube, Card continually expresses disdain for the Left:
Princeton University was just as Reuben expected it to be -- hostile to everything he valued, smug and superior and utterly closed-minded. In fact, exactly what they thought the military was.
Even though I agree with many of Card's political points, taken together they undercut the purported message of Empire, that liberals and conservatives should stop viewing each other as the enemy and find common ground.

At times Card attempts to be even-handed, but he can't get his heart into it. So he shows an ultra-right general spouting pig-headed, homophobic rhetoric, but we soon learn he was only feigning bigotry. Card emphasizes that Rube's wife is a Democrat, but she never actually says anything that reflects a liberal viewpoint. (The closest she comes is to chastise Rube for denouncing left-wingers too harshly.)

It is all too obvious which characters' politics mirror Card's. The most telling giveaway is the novel's plot. At every turn, conservatives try to hold the country together while liberals gleefully help to break it apart. Two days after the assassination of the President by terrorists, a military force seizes Manhattan and slaughters the NYPD. Incredibly, Card shows American liberals supporting these invaders, merely because they call themselves "progressives" and denounce the 2000 election. How could anyone who experienced 9/11 believe that would be the prevailing reaction?

Through the story of Empire, Card is doing exactly what he claims to be counseling against: demonizing his political opposition. Card wrongly views the American Left as the enemy, nor does he understand his enemy very well.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Amy's music :: Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend

Vampire WeekendCounting up, as opposed to a countdown, NME's #4 album of 2008 is Vampire Weekend by Vampire Weeekend. Rolling Stone magazine rated this as the 10th best album of 2008. It was released little over a year ago.

Vampire Weekend are from New York. They met at Columbia University and produced this, their debut album, after graduation. The band members are Ezra Koenig (lead vocals, guitar), Rostam Batmanglij (keyboard, guitar, vocal harmonies), Chris Tomson (drums) and Chris Baio (bass guitar).

The New York Times in a review called Vampire Weekend "Preppie Afro-pop". The band label their own style as "Upper West Side Soweto". To me music seems a mix of genres including Afrobeat, ska-punk, and calypso.

In their music there are repeated sequences of notes on guitar, pulsing keyboards, and racing drums. Various songs feature harpsichord, violin, cello, mellotron, and hand drums.

Notable songs off the album are "A-Punk", "Oxford Comma", "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" and "Mansard Roof".

"A-Punk" is a catchy tune, clocking in at a mere 2:17. Musically it's like ai!-ai!-ai! punk, but lyrically it's from a different world. Here are the first two verses:
Johanna drove slowly into the city
The Hudson River all filled with snow
She spied the ring on his honor's finger
A thousand years in one piece of silver
She took it from his lilywhite hand
Showed no fear - she'd seen the thing
In the young men's wing at Sloan-Kettering

"Oxford Comma" begins with these lyrics:
Who gives a fuck about an oxford comma?
I've seen those English dramas too
They're cruel
So if there's any other way
To spell the word
It's fine with me, with me

Other song lyrics mention such things as Pueblo huts, Louis Vuitton, the Khyber Pass, Darjeeling tea and Peter Gabriel. There is nothing about vampires.

It's difficult to dislike Vampire Weekend. Their music is upbeat and listenable. Yet I wasn't truly hooked by their mixed-genre music or their quirky college-boy lyrics. Nonetheless, I'll admit it's a likable album.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Book Review Teaser :: Ender in Exile by Orson Scott Card

Ender in ExileNew on Fantastic Reviews is Aaron's review of Ender in Exile by Orson Scott Card.

From Aaron's Review of Ender in Exile :
"Ender in Exile is a good but not great book by a great, not just good, author. It is the latest entry in the saga of Ender Wiggin, a series that began in the mid-1980's with Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead. Those two novels managed the unprecedented and still unduplicated feat of sweeping the Hugo and Nebula Awards in consecutive years, and together they form one of the major landmarks in the history of science fiction."

"Twenty years ago, on the strength of Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead as well as the Alvin Maker series and outstanding short fiction such as "Unaccompanied Sonata" and "Lost Boys", Orson Scott Card was very widely regarded as one of the leading authors in the SF/F genre. Today his books still sell well but he does not garner the same sort of acclaim and awards, and a surprising number of critics and fellow authors are dismissive not only of his recent efforts, which even a devoted fan must admit are not as consistently powerful as his earlier work, but of his entire body of fiction."

"Sadly, I suspect much of this disdain is politically motivated....."

To read the entire review -> Ender in Exile

In addition, to sort out where Ender in Exile fits in the Ender series, we've set up this Ender Chronology diagram.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Act One by Nancy Kress

Asimov's Science Fiction March 2009The story recommendation for this week goes to "Act One" by Nancy Kress, a novella from the March 2009 issue of Asimov's.

Late in "Act One," the narrator asks, "Is it wrong to genetically modify human beings?" This is an important question, one about which our society is currently in collective denial, apparently believing we can keep that genie in the bottle. "Act One" is set in the near future, as the technology is becoming available to genetically modify people, either by gene therapy in utero or by delivery of a gene-altering retrovirus. This technology will be developed not far in the future and it will be used, despite any laws we pass against it. "Act One" delves into some of the implications of tinkering with the blueprint for a human.

What's more, these implications are addressed in the context of an absorbing story, involving engaging and complex characters. Particularly compelling is the main protagonist, Barry Tenler, perhaps the best-drawn dwarf character I have seen in science fiction (depending on whether you think Miles Vorkosigan qualifies). He is resentful of his stature and the pain he endures daily but he soldiers on admirably; yet at the same time he is definitely a flawed human being who has made some regrettable decisions in his life -- far more interesting than the traditional plucky little person, a Hollywood stereoptype Barry himself mocks in the story.

As "Act One" begins, Barry is the manager of a beautiful actress whose career is in a tailspin. To prepare her for a role in a film about children who have been genetically altered for increased empathy, they visit a covert group bent on modifyinging mankind for greater compassion, a group prepared to act as ruthlessly as necessary to achieve this end. Is this justifiable? Nancy Kress gives no pat answers, but she asks the question in a fascinating way.