Friday, August 28, 2009

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveler's WifeInspired by the film version released last week, the Book of the Week is The Time Traveler's Wife (2003) by Audrey Niffenegger. This is the signed limited edition with cover art by Niffenegger, who is a visual artist as well as a writer, which I prefer to the standard cover with the empty shoes.

One of the strengths of science fiction is that it can be used to tell traditional kinds of stories in new ways. The Time Traveler's Wife effectively uses science fiction to tell a romance story. The unpredictable nature of time travel creates difficulties for the story's lovers, while also offering a metaphor for problems people encounter in more mundane relationships. Audrey Niffenegger was not the first to use time travel to frame a love story -- see for example, Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson (filmed as Somewhere in Time, starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour) -- but The Time Traveler's Wife is one of the best science fiction romances of recent years. It drew a very large readership, including an awful lot of people who enjoyed it but somehow still think they don't like science fiction. Some will even argue whether it is science fiction at all, even though the SF element is stated right in the title of the book.

Next week we will get back to honoring this year's Hugo Award winners.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The Wide, Carnivorous Sky by John Langan

By Blood We LiveThe story recommendation of the week is "The Wide, Carnivorous Sky" by John Langan, an original novella from the vampire anthology By Blood We Live, edited by John Joseph Adams.

By Blood We Live is mostly a reprint anthology, with just two original pieces, but they are two good ones, "The Wide, Carnivorous Sky" and "Foxtrot at High Noon" by popular Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko. While the other tales are reprints, they come from a remarkable array of talented authors and John Joseph Adams has drawn from quite diverse sources. (I had only read one of the 33 stories before, Stephen King's "One for the Road.") Themed anthologies can sometimes become tiresome but -- as he did in his anthologies Seeds of Change, Wastelands, The Living Dead, and Federations -- Adams avoids that pitfall by his knack for combining excellent stories with varied approaches to the theme.

"The Wide, Carnivorous Sky" is a great example, putting a memorable spin on the vampire legend. A group of American veterans first encountered the creature at the heart of the story while in the midst of combat in Iraq, and have since been plagued by a strange telepathic connection with it. The thing drinks blood and has the other key traits of vampires, but oddly inverted or distorted, for example it can only emerge in daylight and the soldiers believe it sleeps in an orbital chrysalis.

The best horror fiction creates a sense of dread from everyday sights and sounds. By having his monster appear out of an open sky and return to a lair above our heads, Langan manages to make the sky itself a source of dread:
Davis had stared at the sky before--who has not?--but, helpless on his back, his spine a length of molten steel, his ears full of Manfred whimpering that he was gonna die, oh sweet Jesus, he was gonna fucking die, the lieutenant talking over him, insisting no he wasn't, he was gonna be fine, it was just a little paper cut, the washed blue bowl overhead seemed less sheltering canopy and more endless depth, a gullet over which he had the sickening sensation of dangling. As Manfred's cries diminished and the lieutenant told--ordered him to stay with him, Davis flailed his arms at the ground to either side of him in an effort to grip onto an anchor, something that would keep him from hurtling into that blue abyss.
John Langan's first novel House of Windows is forthcoming from Night Shade Books, and his collection Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters was a Stoker Award nominee this year. Look for "The Wide, Carnivorous Sky" on horror award shortlists next year.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Asimov's Science Fiction October/November 2008

Asimov's Science Fiction October/November 2008The Magazine of the Week is the October/November 2008 issues of Asimov's Science Fiction, which contains this year's Hugo Award winner for Best Novella, "The Erdmann Nexus" by Nancy Kress. (The cover is retro, classic pulp art by Virgil Finlay.)

"The Erdmann Nexus" follows Henry Erdmann, an aging physicist in a nursing home, who is suffering strokelike incidents. He learns that others in the home are having similar episodes, and gradually comes to realize that they are all undergoing a remarkable transformation. Nancy Kress has been a regular fixture on the Hugo ballot, with eleven nominations since 1990, and "The Erdmann Nexus" is her second win (after the novella "Beggars in Spain," later expanded into a Hugo-nominated novel, about a new technology that allows folks wealthy enough to afford it to forgo sleep). She has also won four Nebulas and a host of other awards. She will be a guest of honor at MileHiCon here in Denver in October.

We'll get to the Hugo-winning novelette next, but first a science fiction novel that recently hit the big screen.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The Wedding Gift by Jacqueline West

The Wedding GiftMy story recommendation this week is "The Wedding Gift" by Jacqueline West, from the June 2009 issue of Ideomancer.

I loves me a good ghost story, and for me the key is a light touch by the storyteller. "The Wedding Gift" is a ghost story, but Jacqueline West tells it with great subtlety. The tale builds tension quickly, even though no supernatural element ever appears but for some strangely behaving birds. Equally subtle is the characterization, delicately hinting that our protagonist Drina's relationships with her cold fiancé and her well-meaning but domineering grandmother have left her vulnerable to the visitation that occurs.

Jacqueline West has published over three dozen poems, including two Puschcart Prize nominees, but only six pieces of short fiction to date; here's hoping there is much more to come from her. Ideomancer has been around since 2002, publishing such excellent authors as Christopher Barzak, Samantha Henderson, Ted Kosmatka, Yoon Ha Lee, Sarah Monette, Ruth Nestvold, M. Rickert, Rachel Swirsky, and Greg van Eekhout. Leah Bobet is editor and has taken the reins as publisher this year, by all indications without missing a beat.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard BookThe Book of the Week is The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, which over the weekend won the Hugo Award for best science fiction or fantasy novel of 2008. The novel had already won this year's Newbery Medal for young adult fiction, making it the first novel ever to win both prestigious awards.

The Graveyard Book follows Nobody Owens, raised from infancy by the (mostly) friendly ghosts of the local graveyard after his parents were murdered. The Graveyard Book is a wonderful showcase of Neil Gaiman's witty and charming voice, and is certain to be enjoyed by readers young and old for a great many years to come, especially if Hollywood does a good job with the film version currently in production. This is Neil Gaiman's fourth Hugo Award, his second for best novel (the first was for American Gods) and his second for a work of young adult fiction (after "Coraline," also adapted to film earlier this year).

The Book of the Week is a stated first edition (library binding) -- note the absence of the Newbery seal which appears on later copies of the book. I believe this is the true first edition, slightly preceding the British edition and the Subterranean Press limited edition. The cover and interior illustrations are by famed comics illustrator Dave McKean, who often worked with Neil Gaiman earlier in his career, when Gaiman was primarily known for his graphic novels, particularly the popular Sandman series. While it's not worth a fortune just yet, I am expecting the BOTW to appreciate significantly in value over time, as copies are snatched up both by science fiction collectors, who like to have firsts of Hugo winners, and by YA fiction collectors, who covet firsts of Newbery books.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Blighted Heart by Aliette de Bodard

Blighted HeartThis week's story recommendation is "Blighted Heart" by Aliette de Bodard, from Issue #22 (July 30, 2009) of e-zine Beneath Ceaseless Skies (cover art by David Renn).

"For years my city gave the hearts of maidens to the corn-man to awaken him," the story begins. Our narrator is Metlicue, chosen for this sacrifice by the village priests, who proceed unaware that in defiance she gave her virginity to a soldier the night before:
I felt the first cut like a violation. Pain burst in my chest, would not cease. I screamed and screamed until my voice was raw. No. No. I never asked for this! I saw a priest lift out a bloody, pulsating thing dizzyingly high above me, and a sensation of emptiness spread from the hole in my chest and swallowed me.

The priests placed my heart, still beating, in the mouth of the effigy. One of them spoke the healing spells over me. I rose, shaking, numb all over, stared at the corn-man.

His eyes opened.
Metlicue is left without a heart, her emptiness a wonderful metaphor for the alienation felt by those who have been molested or traumatized, but the story only builds from there. For Metlicue's act of defiance has in turn destroyed the innocence of the corn-man, on whom her people depend for good fortune and plentiful harvests, and Metlicue will have to face him again. "Blighted Heart" is a powerful, beautifully written story, and a great example of why de Bodard was the runner-up for this year's John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, losing out very narrowly to David Anthony Durham.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies hasn't gotten a lot of attention yet, but it has been publishing some excellent authors, such as David D. Levine, Yoon Ha Lee, Marie Brennan, Holly Phillips, Stephanie Burgis, Richard Parks, among many others. It pays professional rates, has held strictly to its publishing schedule (a two-story issue every other week) for nearly a year, and provides audio versions of many of its stories. Check it out!

Friday, August 07, 2009

Aaron's Book of the Week :: West of Eden by Harry Harrison

West of EdenThe Book of the Week is West of Eden by Harry Harrison, in honor of Mr. Harrison, who this year was named Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Harry Harrison is equally at home writing serious science fiction, such as his famous cautionary tale of overpopulation and ecological decline Make Room! Make Room! (filmed as Soylent Green), and humorous tongue-in-cheek adventures like The Stainless Steel Rat and Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers.

The Book of the Week is a signed first edition of West of Eden, my personal favorite Harrison novel, published in 1984. It is an alternate history, the subgenre of science fiction that asks what if some historical event had happened differently. Typically the branching off point is in the recent past -- What if the Nazis has won World War II? What if the North and South had reconciled at the beginning of the Civil War and joined forces to fight against England (Harrison's Stars and Stripes Forever!) -- but in West of Eden history branches off 65 million years ago, the time when an asteroid or comet is believed to have hit the Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs. West of Eden shows how the world might look today if that had not happened, with newly evolved human beings struggling against the intelligent descendents of the dinosaurs.

The Hugo Awards will be presented this weekend, so our next BOTW will pay tribute to one of the big winners.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The Curandero and the Swede by Daniel Abraham

F&SF March 2009My story recommendation for the week, and possibly for the month since I'm off my pace recently and I don't much expect to read a better story this month anyway, is Daniel Abraham's "The Curandero and the Swede: A Tale from the 1001 American Nights", a novelette from the March issue of F&SF.

"The Curandero and the Swede" begins with a young man nervously introducing his Yankee fiancée to his traditional Southern family, but proceeds from there into a series of nested yarns retold by his eccentric uncle. The stories are each enjoyable independently, but blend together to make some fascinating points about the American experience and about the importance of storytelling.

With his Long Price Quartet -- the final volume of which, The Price of Spring, is just out -- Daniel Abraham has emerged as one of the strongest voices of 21st Century SF/F. His last short piece, "The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics," was a Hugo nominee, and "The Curandero and the Swede" is every bit as good, if not even better.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Arslan by M.J. Engh

ArslanThe Book of the Week is Arslan by M.J. Engh, to honor Ms. Engh, named this year's Author Emerita by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Next week we will see this year's new Grand Master.

I'm mostly not crazy about the "Author Emeritus" award, since it seems a backhanded compliment: dear author, you're pretty good but not quite good enough to be a Grand Master. I think it is appropriate for Engh, however, since her science fiction is of the highest quality but too small in quantity for her to be named Grand Master. In a career that began with a short story (under the pseudonym Jane Beauclerk) in 1964, Engh has published only three science fiction novels, Arslan, Wheel of the Winds, and Rainbow Man, and a children's fantasy, The House in the Snow. Engh also publishes historical non-fiction under her full name Mary Jane Engh, notably In the Name of Heaven: 3000 Years of Religious Persecution.

The BOTW is the first printing, paperback original of Arslan, published in 1976. Written in the middle of the Cold War, Arslan tells the story of a dynamic, brilliant leader from a third-world country who schemes his way to control of both the Soviet Union and the United States. Most of the novel takes place after he has taken power, and shows his relationship with the small-town folks in Illinois where he randomly decides to settle. Disturbing and rather graphic for 1976, Arslan is best remembered for Engh's ability to simultaneously portray the title character as profoundly evil yet oddly sympathetic.