Monday, September 27, 2010

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Nine Bodies of Water by Monica Byrne

Fantasy 9/27/10My recommended story of the week is Nine Bodies of Water by Monica Byrne, published today (how's that for service!) at Fantasy Magazine.

Managed by Sean Wallace, Cat Rambo, and an outstanding staff, Fantasy Magazine is one of the best sources of fiction on the web, along with plenty of interesting interviews, reviews, and other non-fictional material. Fantasy has a distinctive style of literary fantasy, of which "Nine Bodies of Water" is an excellent example.

In "Nine Bodies of Water," our protagonist Alba is overwhelmed by a miserable series of ill fortune, followed by an amazing stroke of seemingly good luck. A child's nursery rhyme triggers visions of where the combination may lead. All her possible futures seem unhappy, but it is not obvious what lesson Alba should draw from that. This is a neatly constructed, gracefully written piece, with more underneath the surface than is immediately apparent.

Fantasy tells us nothing at all about Monica Byrne [update: Fantasy has since added a bio for Byrne, as well as an interesting interview], but there are no secrets in the Google Age. Byrne is a Clarion graduate, with stories forthcoming in Shimmer and Electric Velocipede. Which means soon she will be a famous, award-winning author, able to abandon that Master's in Analytical Geochemistry from MIT (seriously) and spend her days just making up stories. And it all started with a coveted SROTW.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The Lesson of the Scribe by Holly Schwartz-Coignat

First Line Spring 2010My story recommendation of the week goes to "The Lesson of the Scribe" by Holly Schwartz-Coignat, from the Spring 2010 issue of The First Line.

The First Line is a print magazine, which selects a different opening line every issue and requires each submitting author to begin her story with that line. The magazine is predominantly mimetic fiction, and the few genre pieces are mostly by non-genre authors who don't much know what they're doing. Yet I give The First Line credit for at least attempting first lines that lend themselves to fantastic approaches. That includes the Spring 2010 issue, in which all the stories begin with the line, "Working for God is never easy."

To me, the story that engages with this premise most successfully is
"The Lesson of the Scribe." It tells the poignant tale of a brilliant Hebrew scribe of ancient Jerusalem, whose work is destroyed when the city is overrun by Babylonians. Schwartz-Coignat effectively conveys the bittersweet satisfaction of writing something beautiful that now will never be appreciated, and she nicely ties that into the theological implications of the scribe's story. Looking back on his apparently futile work in the service of God, the scribe wonders if he failed to appreciate the early advice he received: “Know that there is a difference between truth and honesty.”

Holly Schwartz-Coignat is an American living in southern France, whose work has appeared in mainstream publications such as The Battered Suitcase and With Painted Word. According to her writing blog, she has also been experimenting with genre work. I had to laugh at this statement: "It's the first time I've written specific genre fiction, the first time I've really NEEDED a plot, driven characters and action. Not just an internal struggle." Let's hope she develops a taste for writing real fiction, the kind that tells an actual story——it is obvious from "The Lesson of the Scribe" that she has the talent for it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Lost Canyon of the Dead by Brian Keene

cover of The Living Dead 2Two words: zombie dinosaur.

Our first ever zombie dinosaur story recommendation of the week is "Lost Canyon of the Dead" by Brian Keene, from the anthology The Living Dead 2, edited by John Joseph Adams. Even without the zombie dinosaur, I would recommend "Lost Canyon of the Dead" for its terrific voice, simultaneously funny and frightening and nostalgic for the Old West, right from the opening lines:
The desert smelled like dead folks.

The sun hung over our heads, fat and swollen like that Polish whore back in Red Creek. It made me sweat, just like she had. It felt like we were breathing soup. The heat made the stench worse. Our dirty handkerchiefs, crusted with sand and blood, were useless. They stank almost as bad as the desert. Course, it wasn't the desert that stank. It was the things chasing us.

We'd been fleeing through the desert for days. None of us had a clue where we were. Leppo knew the terrain and had acted as our guide, but he died of heatstroke on the second day, and we shot him in the head before he got back up again.
Zombie fiction is all the rage right now, and in "Lost Canyon of the Dead," Brian Keene does it awfully well.

The Living Dead 2 is John Joseph Adams' second big zombie anthology, which might have been overkill except that this volume has a different focus. The first Living Dead was a reprint anthology, collecting Adams' favorite zombie tales from over the years. The Living Dead 2 is predominantly comprised of original fiction, and even the reprints are mostly from the last two years. So this book is a great way to sample some of today's best zombie stories, written at the height of the fad.

The past decade has seen Brian Keene emerge as one of the top names of horror fiction. He has made a closet industry of zombie stories, with a trio of zombie novels beginning with Stoker Award-winning first novel The Rising, stories in no fewer than five recent zombie anthologies, and The Last Zombie comics. Collectors out there may want to grab a copy of his latest book, A Gathering of Crows, since it was published by Leisure Books just before Leisure killed its mass-market line, so copies may soon become scarce.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made by Eric James Stone

Analog Sept 2010My story recommendation for the week is "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" by Eric James Stone, from the September 2010 issue of Analog. "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" takes a strong SFnal premise and uses it as the framework for an interesting moral dilemma.

Eric James Stone has become a regular in Analog in the past five years, and has appeared in many other publications, such as Apex, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Jim Baen's Universe. As an aside, he is the only author I am aware of to appear in two different volumes of the annual Writers of the Future anthology. I presume he was a "published finalist" one year, before becoming a full-fledged winner the next year. (The intricacies of the WOTF contest are fascinating to me at the moment, as I am currently a finalist myself.)

Analog (once known as Astounding) is the old gray lady of science fiction magazines. I confess that for years it's been my least favorite of the major magazines, but a couple more tales like "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" could change that in a hurry.

The setting of "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" is the interior of the sun, which is inhabited by "swales" or "solcetaceans," huge plasma creatures who can harness solar energy to create interstellar portals. Harry Malan is sent to Sol Central Station for business——as the site of the portals, the sun naturally becomes a center of commerce——but as a Mormon it also falls to him to serve as president of the local LDS branch, most of whose members are converted swales. (This neatly explains why Harry is on the station and in contact with the swales even though he knows little about them, prompting others to lecture him without it being too obvious an infodump.) Harry's presence is an irritant to attractive scientist Juanita Merced, who disapproves of the Mormons' interference with the solcetaceans.

Harry is contacted by a swale member, Neuter Kimball (literally a neuter, one of the swales' three genders), who fears it has sinned by being forced into sex by another swale. Harry learns that the swales have no laws or taboos against rape, since sex is always physically pleasurable for them and cannot lead to unwanted pregnancy. He determines to persuade Leviathan, the largest and most influential of the swales, to prohibit forced sexual activity. Dr. Merced believes this a fool's mission, but is excited at the opportunity for close inspection of the 38-kilometer Leviathan.

At first I found it difficult to credit that a human religion could have much appeal to aliens of such awesome size and power, but Stone reveals why some of the relatively weak among them are drawn to Mormonism, when Harry relates his initial conversation with Leviathan to Neuter Kimball:
"She told me she is the first and greatest of all swales. Isn't that true?" I asked, suddenly worried that I'd been taken in by a swale con artist.

"She told you?" Neuter Kimball said. "We are not supposed to talk of it to humans, but if she has revealed herself as a god to you, then that is her choice."

"A god? Leviathan is not a god. She's just . . ." I stopped. What was I going to say: an ancient immortal being who created an entire race of intelligent beings? If that didn't fit the definition of a god, it was pretty close. "Neuter Kimball, if you believe Leviathan to be a god, why did you join the Church?"

"Because I do not want her as my god."
Harry's efforts to persuade the swales to adopt an aspect of human morality leads him and Dr. Merced on a fascinating and entertaining journey. Typical of Analog, the characterization does not have great depth, but Stone gives the two main characters enough personality for some amusing banter, and he handles the devout Mormon businessman and the atheist scientist with equal respect. This story should work for readers of any religious background.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: It Shall Come to Pass on a Summer's Day by Lenora Rose

Who the hell is Lenora Rose? How does an author who has never appeared in any publication I've ever heard of suddenly pop out of nowhere with a story as beautiful and powerful and thought-provoking as It Shall Come to Pass on a Summer's Day, in the September 2010 issue of Ideomancer? Could she really be a new pseudonym of Catherynne Valente or Rachel Swirsky, or Ursula LeGuin for that matter?

"It Shall Come to Pass on a Summer's Day" is narrated by a selkie with the gift(?) of prophecy. As he awaits his pregnant lover he foretells what lies ahead of them. The story is told in future tense, not because Lenora Rose is showing off that she can do it, but because that is exactly how this story needs to be told. The protagonist foresees the future, including his own attempts to use his prophecies to manipulate the future, but the best he can apparently hope for is to survive to a bittersweet end:
Or he may come bid me be a man and talk, though even in that possible fate I cannot see what I would ever have to say to him, who will have over forty years of honest love where I have a handful of days.
This is a gorgeously written piece that manages in less than 1,500 words to engage with the implications of being able to see the future in unique and memorable fashion. Here's hoping to see much more of Lenora Rose in our future.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Aaron's Take on the 2010 Hugo Nominees :: NOVELS

cover of The Windup GirlThe biggest problem with this year's best novel category is that there is only one rocket to go around. I like to see the Hugo Award go to a novel that is unique and memorable and thought-provoking and superbly written. Three of this year's nominees, the Bacigalupi, Miéville, and Valente novels, meet those criteria for me.

Out of a very strong field, my #1 choice is The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Bacigalupi is only the third author of the past 25 years to see his first novel nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and The Windup Girl is just the sort of once-in-a-generation reading experience that suggests. The novel combines an absorbing story with one of the most fascinating settings I've ever encountered, Bacigalupi's vision of future Thailand. Paolo Bacigalupi will be one of the leading voices of the SF field (and all of literature) for as long as he wants to be. A Hugo Award would be a great way to urge him on to a very long writing career.

China Miéville's The City and the City also features a tremendously inventive setting, the coexisting cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma. The way the inhabitants of both cities learn to unsee one another is fascinating and a powerful metaphor for how people manage to train themselves to avoid facing what is right in front of them. I enjoyed this novel throughout, even though the murder mystery plot is not entirely successful.

Catherynne M. Valente writes in a lush, ornate style that I would detest, except that she does it so exceedingly well. Palimpsest is a beautifully written novel, with striking imagery and a great deal to say about love and sex and the barriers that separate all of us. Valente is one of the very best authors in our field, and I am delighted Palimpsest received a Hugo nomination.

For me, whether I enjoy Robert J. Sawyer's work usually turns on if the ideas of a particular book are interesting enough to overcome the clunky writing. The ideas in WWW: Wake, including a blind woman gaining sight as she encounters an emerging intelligence existing in the Internet, would be strong enough to pass that test but they didn't have to, for I didn't find the writing of WWW: Wake clunky at all. In particular, I would not have thought Sawyer up to the challenge of conveying what it might be like for a blind person to gain eyesight for the first time, yet I found those passages in this novel very powerful and moving. Still, Sawyer can't quite compete with Paolo and China and Cat.

I enjoyed Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, a steampunk zombie adventure that has a lot more going for it than that gimmicky hook might suggest. As described in more detail in my review, Boneshaker is most entertaining, even if not tightly written, but does not compare favorably with the other outstanding works in this category. The same is true for me of Robert Charles Wilson's Julian Comstock, about which I will say nothing more, because I must confess the novel didn't catch my interest enough for me to finish reading it.

With the range and quality of works on this ballot, this is an exciting time to be a science fiction and fantasy reader. I wish I were down under right now, to see one of these outstanding authors receive his or her well-earned recognition.

Aaron's Ballot for Best Novel
1. Paolo Bacigalupi - The Windup Girl
2. China Miéville - The City and the City
3. Catherynne M. Valente - Palimpsest
4. Robert J. Sawyer - WWW: Wake
5. Cherie Priest - Boneshaker
6. Robert Charles Wilson - Julian Comstock

Aaron's Take on the 2010 Hugo Nominees :: DRAMATIC PRESENTATION, LONG FORM

The Hugo Awards are only a few hours away, which makes this my absolute last chance to declare in advance (barely) what should win, rather than whining about what should have won.

One of the most closely followed categories is Dramatic Presentation, Long Form (i.e., SF movies), even though the creators of the nominees often couldn't care less about the Hugo Awards. More to the point, the nominees often suck.

This year, however, we have a very strong slate of nominees, nearly rivaling the 1983 ballot, which included such classics as Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and E.T. In many a year, District 9 would be my hands-down first choice for the dramatic presentation Hugo, but this year I had to stick it down at #4 on my ballot, in favor of even better films.

Before we get to all that good stuff, however, let's dispose of the one nominee I disliked, the 2009 version of Star Trek. I acknowledge that this movie was entertaining, but I just hated it, largely because I am a big fan of the original Star Trek series. And this movie is emphatically not Star Trek. The one-dimensional characters: not Star Trek. (Compare the moronic Romulan villain in this movie to the Romulan commander in the "Balance of Terror" episode.) The ridiculous woo-woo science: not Star Trek. The cartoonish visuals: not Star Trek. The huge water pipe in the Enterprise's engineering section, the lack of handrails on the Romulan ship (plus knee-deep water--apparently it had one of those huge pipes too, and it froze), the fistfights and swordfights between characters who are carrying phasers, all of that would be at home in a Star Wars prequel or maybe Galaxy Quest but please don't call it Star Trek. The sad thing is most of this could have been fixed with a few lines of dialogue here and there, but the makers of this film didn't care enough to bother. This film is an old-style Hollywood assault on its viewers' intelligence, as bad as any 1950's black-and-white skiffy you can find.

With that rant out of the way, let's get to all the good news. I enjoyed District 9, an intelligent film with something to say about race and class barriers. The film had an interesting look, juxtaposing all-too-familiar slum areas with the visually striking alien creatures. But the movie can't make up its mind whether it wants to pretend to be a documentary——too much of the footage obviously would not have been available to the hypothetical documentary filmmakers——and I think it was a mistake to make the main character such a twit at the outset.

Up is another delightful success from Pixar. The movie features a grumpy old man protagonist and pulls it off remarkably well. And hearing the dogs' thoughts——"I will go get the ball!!! And then I will bring it back!!!"——was worth the price of admission by itself.

Moon is a cleverly written film, with some memorable twists. Sam Rockwell gives an unforgettable performance. The slow pace and grand visuals (despite the low budget) are a marvelous tribute to a prior generation of movies such as 2001 and Silent Running. I especially like the way the GERTY emerges as sort of a converse of HAL from 2001. This is a terrific movie, and I will be happy if it wins the Hugo, even though it is not my #1 choice.

My top choice is the highest-grossing film ever, Avatar. This movie is 37 different kinds of awesome, and I can't believe how blasé many fans of SF literature are about it. Some complain that the film is a rip-off of Ursula K. LeGuin's The Word for World Is Forest and Poul Anderson's "Call Me Joe." But to me, for Hollywood to draw inspiration from Ursula LeGuin or Poul Anderson is a very good thing. This film is visually stunning but also intelligent. The storyline may be fairly standard and straightforward, but the movie treats it with enough respect that it works. I can't remember when I last enjoyed a movie this much, and I hope the Hugo voters were not too snobbish to give Avatar the recognition it deserves.

Aaron's Ballot for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
1. Avatar
2. Moon
3. Up
4. District 9
5. Star Trek