Wednesday, April 30, 2008

On Bad Reviews

I am contemplating a bad review.

Perhaps I should explain.

I don't mean either someone else's review that already exists, or a review that's done badly -- I mean that I have been thinking, this afternoon and evening, about committing a bad review, about taking arms against a disappointing book. (Though I'm not so arrogant as to think I could end it.) I finished reading a new novel on my train ride home, and I have to say that it didn't come all together in the end -- instead, to my mind, it flew apart at great velocity and left a big mess. And, since I'm "reviewing" everything I read these days, when I finish something, I start to think about what I'd say about it. (The percolation process from reading to reviewing is running about ten days to two weeks right now, which is a healthy span of time -- judgments should be considered, not shouted out immediately.)

But, since the human mind loves nothing so much as itself, after a little while -- after thinking up some disconnected phrases, a few factual attacks and stylistic flaws, after thinking up the bones of that bad review -- I turned to thinking about bad reviews in general. Are they useful, or not?

My early years in the field were in the heyday of SF Eye, a criticalzine that I loved, uncritically, in those days. SF Eye's claim to fame, at least to me, was that it would give negative reviews. Looking back, they were probably snottier and nastier than I remember, and revelled in tearing down what they saw as the idols of the field. But, given that the main review outlets in SFF avoided saying anything negative -- it's long been rumored, and often denied, that Locus has a specific policy against running any reviews with any serious criticism -- SF Eye was necessary. Someone had to point at the shit and say, bluntly, "this is shit."

We're all Young Turks when we start, ready to tear down whatever is in most need being torn down and very ready to point out the Emperor's lack of clothes. But then time goes on. We meet some of those writers -- people whose work we like, whose work we don't much like, whose work we try not to admit that we haven't even read -- and find that we like and dislike them in ways entirely separate from their books. And, mostly, they're nice people who we want to be nice to.

So when Nice Writer X's new book is a bit disappointing, do we say so? How about if it's lousy? Or what if it's actively stupid? I spent about a decade writing promotional copy for SFF books, but I had the great advantage of always being able to pick the ones I wrote about -- there was always something that I liked, so I could write about that honestly. But if I'm saying something about every book I read, some of them are going to be dogs.

On the one side, a reviewer always wants to be honest. If I liked a book, I want to say that -- more, I want to explain what I liked about it, and, as best I can, how I liked it. And I want to avoid soft pedaling a book I didn't like.

But I've also gotten to a point in my life when I like to think of myself as an adult. And adults don't cause offense inadvertently (as someone once said about gentlemen).

I'll still probably say some critical things about the book in question -- look for the review in ten days or so -- but, if I can manage it, none of it will be gratuitous (unlike SF Eye), and all of it will be for a purpose.

So that's the point: I complain because I love. Really.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow is better known these days for his opinions than for his fiction, a dangerous place for a novelist to be. Those opinions appear daily at Boing Boing, where the chorus of approval -- and some complaint; it is the Internet, after all -- is immediate and loud. So when word came out that he'd turned his hand to a novel about some of his obsessions -- freedom of information, the right to privacy, and the current "anti-terrorist" nanny state -- no one was particularly expecting a fair and balanced treatment. Little Brother's status as Doctorow's first book for the Young Adult market did nothing to dispel those expectations -- adult writers have been stomping all over YA for the last few decades when they have A Message to promote.

So the first thing to note about Little Brother is that it stacks the deck in an unexpected way: near-future San Franciscan high school student Marcus Yallow, who snuck out of school to play an Artificial Reality Game with his friends, is caught up in a Department of Homeland Security dragnet very early in the book, and shanghaied to a secret prison. So much is to be expected, yes?

But this is in the immediate aftermath of a major terrorist attack: persons unknown have just blown up the Bay Bridge, and thousands are dead. Little Brother takes place in the weeks and months afterward, in a city that's just been hit, and hit hard.

Let me repeat that: the DHS is running around abusing civil liberties and locking people up -- we all expected that in a Doctorow YA novel called Little Brother -- but they're doing it because of a 9/11-level attack. And so a lot of the readers of this book will feel that some degree of panic and overreaction is acceptable, or at least expected.

I settled back at that point, because it was clear Doctorow wasn't going to be satisfied with kicking around a straw man for four hundred pages; Little Brother sees him create a world where repressive government measures would be substantially more justified than our own...and still demolishes all of the arguments in favor of repression and fear.

But let me back up a bit: before we get to Marcus's incarceration, we first have to sit through a chapter or two of infodumps about every piece of technology or newish idea Marcus encounters. He doesn't explain how the BART works, but he does feel the need to go into detail on the security arrangements on his cellphone. It feels like he's explaining everything created after 1995, which made me wonder if Doctorow was really writing for teens. (I can't imagine that they enjoy having everything they already know explained to them.) That opening reads more like a dispatch from teen-land for clueless oldsters.

(The first fifty pages or so of Little Brother also function as a fictionalized catalog of the things liberal, geeky Westerners thought were terribly cool and/or important in late 2007; it'll be a very interesting time capsule in twenty-five years. Doctorow settles down into his characters at about that point, though, and what infodumps follow are more central to the plot.)

So Marcus and his friends are captured -- "arrested" isn't the appropriate word, since it's not by the cops and they certainly don't have their rights read to them -- roughly questioned, and Marcus is set free before too long. But he soon finds that the mildly repressive society he had known, the security measures that he's come to know (and counter whenever necessary) are being replaced by tighter restrictions and a paranoid bunker mentality on the part of San Francisco's new federal overlords.

For quite a while, I thought Little Brother took place not only in the future -- it's set in the school year of 2009-2010, from internal evidence, and a never-named Republican white male is president -- but also in an alternate world where all of the old-fashioned media in San Francisco are run by right-wing fascists who love security theater and hate kids. That didn't fit what I knew of that city, but Marcus is young and hot-headed, so he tends to think of the world as being made up of slim, cool, young smart people (his friends and followers) and nasty ugly old fascists (his deluded father, and, by extension, every other adult). He turns out to be not entirely right in that assumption by the end, which was a nice touch. Looking back at Little Brother, the local politicians also seem to have completely disappeared. This is presumably because Doctorow wanted to both write a story about one kid against the system and to set that story in our recognizable world, but it made my agitprop meter buzz like crazy once I noticed.

To be fair to Doctorow, Little Brother is a first-person novel; it all comes to us through the mind and prejudices of Marcus Yallow. Marcus is a good kid: thoughtful, committed, and only about as bullheaded and self-righteous as is normal for someone his age. Writing in his voice allows Doctorow to rail against various nasty surveillance and security measures -- gait-recognition cameras in the schools, random police checkpoints on roads and mass-transit, police informants on every corner -- in the strongest possible terms. Marcus is a teenager, with the usual teenager's impatience with everything in the world -- he wants things to happen now, and he hasn't been worn down by a thousand petty complaints like those of us older than him. But he can be like a raw nerve, all feeling and pain, and there were times when I wished he would calm down a bit (or, worse, that Doctorow would stop ratcheting through the worst possible reactions of both sides to every new situation).

To get back to the plot, Marcus wasn't in that secret DHS prison very long, but he's there long enough to become radicalized -- just learning firsthand that there is such a thing as a secret DHS prison in his backyard is enough for that. So he might have been vaguely interested in methods of sneaking out of school before, just to hang out with his friends and play games, but now he wants to smash all of the surveillance and security apparatus, because it hurt him. So he works up a secret network to connect like-minded kids, which leads to DHS moles in that group, so he moves to something more like a classical cell network, and so on.

If you're not equally passionate -- and that's very passionate -- about the same causes Marcus is, and as devoted as he is to damaging a wide variety of security procedures, Marcus Yallow can be a little hard to completely agree with. He is very much a teenager -- self-absorbed and utterly convinced of his own rectitude. Little Brother is on his side, but that doesn't mean everything he does is smart or right, or that his rhetoric is useful or positive. And just because the other side is doing stupid, counterproductive things doesn't mean that Marcus's efforts to thwart those efforts are smart or productive. And the ways that the outside media twist his words and ideas against his cause is very familiar in this election season -- Doctorow knows well the ways of spin.

(As a side note, I wish Doctorow hadn't explicitly had another character comment on Marcus's whiteness halfway through; Marcus is relatively common as an African-American name, and keeping Marcus an everyman had power. My mental image of him was fuzzy, but I thought it at least half-likely that he was black, and I was sorry to lose that possibility.)

I've been avoiding talking about the plot, because it's basically a spiral -- Marcus (aka M1k3y, his far-too-1337 online alter ego) monkeywrenches some stupid DHS policy, the kids rejoice, the adults grump, things get worse and more oppressive in San Francisco with new DHS polices, and then we start again. Along the way, he loses touch with his original friends from the beginning of the book, and makes new, more radical connections, including a hawt girlfriend. I assumed Doctorow did this deliberately; it follows the standard pattern for radicalization. Marcus is not actually a terrorist, since he's not killing people, but -- and I write this the day after the Sean Bell verdict -- I can't believe that all of these manipulated confrontations of ordinary citizens with angry, armed men end peacefully. By the law of averages, his plans would have led to at least a couple of shooting incidents, and probably some deaths.

As I said, even if you agree with Marcus's ideals -- even if you go along with Doctorow that his fictional version of the DHS is evil and needs to be stopped -- there can be a lot of collateral damage along the way. (And Marcus, as a teenager, is not all that good at noticing.)

But Little Brother is a bracing read, a classic "if-this-goes-on" tale of things that keep getting worse as well as a clear vision for standing up peacefully for what you believe in. It's a major SF novel by an important writer, published at exactly the right time. I hope a lot of teenagers do read it -- as well as people old enough to vote this year.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Time Magazine Hires Idiots

Lev Grossman in the April 24th issue, during the course of an article about Stephenie Meyer (whose name they spelled wrong in the illo caption, to boot):
There's no literary term for the quality Twilight and Harry Potter (and The Lord of the Rings) share, but you know it when you see it: their worlds have a freestanding internal integrity that makes you feel as if you should be able to buy real estate there.
The word you're looking for is "worldbuilding." It does exist; you just don't bother to pay attention.

Edit, two hours later: What Grossman is ignorant of is the fact that there is an established body of criticism concerning fantasy works -- or, worse, that he feels free to ignore it. Why is it that a writer for something as respected as Time magazine doesn't even realize he knows nothing about his subject -- or, again, feels that he can completely ignore that ignorance?

Lev, this is your homework: get a copy of the Clute/Grant Encyclopedia of Fantasy and look up "Polder" and "Wainscot." Read those entries, and follow whatever links interest you, for at least two hours. Be ready to show your work.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/26

Last week saw very little activity in my mailbox, and the weekend saw me intensely busy and mostly away from home. Which adds up to a short post that's also late -- so I hope the three people who enjoy this didn't mind waiting...

The one thing I received for review last week that I haven't already mentioned was Kat Richardson's Underground, the third novel in her "Greywalker" contemporary fantasy series. I believe I've only met Ms. Richardson online -- and this is one of the series that I haven't gotten time to read so far -- so I have nothing flashy to say about it. But Underground will be published by Roc on August 5th in hardcover, which is a bump up from trade paperback for this series and a good sign.

Also in the mail last week: Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro, Vol. 1, which I reviewed for ComicMix before the week was over (Comics publishers! That could be you! Write to the e-mail to your left for my address!); and a finished copy of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, which I'd just finished reading, and which I'm still struggling with a review for (look for it this week, I hope).

So I don't bug out of here that quickly, here's what I special-ordered from the library last week -- all things I expect to review here or for ComicMix in the near future:
  • Penny Arcade, Vol. 1: Attack of the Bacon Robots -- the first two years of the popular webcomic by "Tycho" and "Gabe," as published on paper by Dark Horse in 2005. Sure, the full Penny Arcade archives are available online, but it's just easier and more pleasant to read them in a book than to click "forward" every twelve seconds.
  • Rex Libris: I, Librarian by James Turner was only available from one library in my whole county, which shows that too many librarians either aren't paying attention or just aren't self-indulgent enough. Darn librarians with their self-abnegation. It's a comic book about a two-fisted librarian -- how can you go wrong? Slave Labor published this in 2007.
  • Megan Kelso's The Squirrel Mother is a collection of short comics stories that Fantagraphics published in 2006. Kelso's art looks very familiar to me, but I can't quite place where I've seen her stuff before. I hope reading it will help me remember -- looks like good stuff.
  • And last was Get a Life by Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian, which Drawn & Quarterly published in 2006. This book collects their earliest "Mr. Jean" stories, about the life of a French literary man (somewhat like themselves, though it appears Jean is a novelist, not a cartoonist). A quick glance at the introduction shows that they started the series of stories in 1989, though this book is only copyright 2006. (Once again I have to mention that, when I rule the world, full and detailed previous publication information will be required for all books.)

Monday, April 28, 2008

A Busy Weekend

I'm backed up on reviews again -- I've got three things half-written for here, and another one not even started, plus three more not even half-written for ComicMix, and three more not started -- because I had the kind of weekend that kept me away from the computer. (I usually get in some solid hours on a Sunday to bash these things into shape.)

Yesterday was both my sons' Cub Scout Pack's annual Soapbox Derby and the day we were supposed to go away to Great Wolf Lodge in lieu of a birthday party for my older son, Thing 1. (It was his choice; he wanted to go to GWL instead of the kid party, so that's what we did.) We were secretly hoping it would rain heavily early, so the Soapbox would be pushed back to its rain date and we could head out early, but that didn't happen.

So the Soapbox -- in which the scouts race in various dad-built cars with very crude steering down a hill towards the local First Aid Squad Building -- went on. The Wife was in charge of the refreshments stand, but mostly ended up wrangling cars for the races, and I went from a "catcher" (down at the end of the course, to help the cars stop) to a "loader" (dragging cars over to the starting area, getting the kids in and secured, and shoving them up the starting ramps). It was a fun day, with more physical activity than I'm used to, and all the boys had a good time. And as soon as it was done, we were off.

I might have mentioned Great Wolf before -- it's essentially an indoor waterpark with a hotel wrapped around it. The room rates are steep, but the rooms are very nice and large, you get free admission to the waterpark, and they don't mind outside food as much as they say they do (as long as you are discreet). So we had a cooler full of stuff in the room, and a large "towel bag" with lots of food under the towels, which helped us avoid spending a fortune on food there.

Officially, you can check in at 4, and check-out the next day is at 11. But the water park is open 9-9, and you can often get into your room early. Even if you get there before your room is ready, they'll hold bags and you can go to the water park. Similar, on check-out day, all you need to do is take your stuff from your room to your car. So a one-night stay could be two full days in the water park, if you want to and plan it right.

(We didn't plan it right, because of the Soapbox Derby, but the original scheme was to get there Sunday at about noon and leave Monday at 3 or 4 -- as it was, we got there at 5 on Sunday and left at 6 on Monday.)

And then the rain we'd hoped for yesterday hit today, in buckets, as we were driving home. So we got home later than expected, exhausted and waterlogged. So that's why there's nothing substantial here for the last couple of days...maybe later in the week?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Nebula Winners

I wasn't there this year -- a damn shame, since I wanted to get back to Austin after WFC, since it's a great city and my cousin lives there (and her daughter is just over a year old now) -- but that's the way of the world, isn't it?

The winners are an impressive list this year:
  • NOVEL: The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon
  • NOVELLA: "Fountain of Age", Nancy Kress
  • NOVELETTE: "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate", Ted Chiang
  • SHORT STORY: "Always", Karen Joy Fowler
  • SCRIPT: Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro
  • ANDRE NORTON AWARD: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling
As previously announced, the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award (which really should come with a cookbook) went to Michael Moorcock.

SFWA has decisively shown that the claim that they never give awards to "outsiders" is untrue -- Chabon isn't quite an outsider, but Rowling definitely is. And Ted Chiang is now 4-for-4 on Nebula nominations; is that anyone's best record ever?

One other question, since I can't google quite the right collection of words: was Pan's Labyrinth one of the scripts available for SFWAns to read online?

(In related news, SFWA has also announced the results of this year's leadership election. The most important thing to note is that Andrew Burt lost.)

[via Locus Online and SF Scope]

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Yet Another Link to ComicMix

I reviewed yet another book for ComicMix today -- I'd originally sent this one through for Thursday, hoping to hit every weekday, but they needed the content more for sleepy Saturday -- and telling you about it is an excuse for another post today.

The book is Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow by James Sturm and Rich Tommaso.

Ping: Paul Stevens

Paul, if you're out there, I thought I had your e-mail but I don't. Drop me a line at acwheele at optonline dot net when you have a chance.

The rest of you, just move along with your business. {Jedi hand wave} Nothing to see here.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Manga Friday Totes that Barge and Lifts that Bale

This week's "Manga Friday" feature by yours truly at ComicMix features my bewildered response to a little book called Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro, Vol. 1.

And how some people think I'm some sort of manga "expert" in a world with people like the totally awesome Shaenon K. Garrity, I'll never know. (I'll be cribbing from that article for the next six months, I expect.)

But there I am; I may not be an expert, but I hope I'm at least entertaining.

My New Favorite Word

Nick Mamatas anatomizes "fantatwee."

Made me laugh out loud: "Your prize for being picked on in junior high school is a magic wand and a green button that lets you touch boobs."

Made me think:
Unfortunately, fantatwee is all about second-order escapism. Many great stories have elements of escapism, but also a twist of a thematic screw that lets the reader know that not everything is strawberries and cream. Hard choices get made. Misery abides. In the film version of Return of the King, Frodo may have had a big pillowfight with his friends and then moped about the house for a bit. In the book, he was a shattered man, utterly alienated from his communitarian society. That's what you get for saving the world from doom.

Quote of the Week

" 'What ho!' I said.
'What ho' said Motty.
'What ho! What ho!'
'What ho! What ho! What ho!'
After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation."
-P.G. Wodehouse, "Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest" in My Man Jeeves

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Locus Award "Nominees"

Locus has released lists of the top five items in each category of their annual awards -- which could be considered a finalists list, but for the fact that Locus only knows what #s 2-5 are because they've already tallied up the winner.

I'd list them all myself, but they're several dozen other places on the 'net already. (And I threw my back out again this afternoon, so I want to get out of this chair and somewhere more comfortable to watch Hogfather.)

So, no deep commentary from me this time. I did vote for the Locus Awards this year, and this looks like a solid list.

Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural by Jim Steinmeyer

Charles Fort was a one-trick pony, but it was a damn good trick. His four famous books -- The Book of the Damned, New Lands, Lo!, and Wild Talents -- all collected odd, unusual facts, which Fort arranged in various patterns to poke fun at scientific certainties or to bolster various odd theories.

Steinmeyer, most of the way through this exceptionally engaging biography, makes the point that no leader can choose his followers, and that goes double for Fort. Steinmeyer was referring to Tiffany Thayer -- the puppyish founder of the Fortean Society: always underfoot, overeager, and with a marked tendency for drooling approval -- but it applies equally well to hundreds or thousands of "Forteans" over the past few decades. They might not all be humorless, they might not all be anti-science, but they rarely seem to really understand how equivocal, humorous, and conflicted Charles Fort really was.

To be blunt, most people know Fort as a crank, if at all. But Fort wasn't a crank, or not purely a crank -- his theories were always half-joking. And the main purpose of his work was to unearth spiky facts -- the kind that don't fit the accepted theories -- and see what he could do with them. (Though Steinmeyer also describes what's known about Fort's two lost books, written before The Book of the Damned -- X and Y -- and those sound like more traditional crank books, with potted explanations for everything.)

Steinmeyer draws heavily on the previous major biography of Fort, Damon Knight's Charles Fort, Prophet of the Unexplained, but he's also done some serious original research, particularly in digging into Fort's relationship with Theodore Dreiser. He's a careful and thorough writer, restrained in attributing emotions or actions to Fort that he can't back up; I didn't find a single "he must have," the hallmark of the lazy or sourceless biographical writer.

In fact, there are places where I actively wanted Steinmeyer's speculations. For example, Fort married Anna Filing in 1896, when she was twenty-six. When he died in 1932, he left Anna as a widow...and no children. Steinmeyer resolutely refuses to speculate about their private life, but pure childlessness, in that era, is an anomaly to be at least noted.

If I were a professional book reviewer -- which I am not -- I would have given you a potted life story of Fort, essentially this book in miniature, and avoided talking about Charles Fort as a book entirely. (This is because even professional book reviewers can feel guilt when they come to criticize something they've just been cribbing from.) Instead, I'll just say that if you're interested in Fort's life, Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural is written with life and energy, and is just as long as it needs to be. Go read that book instead of some critic's regurgitation of it; it might take a little longer, but it will be more pleasant and enlightening.

And if you don't know who Fort is, click on this link below marked The Book of the Damned for the new omnibus edition of his four great books and see for yourself. In some ways, Fort is one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time -- all the more so because what he was writing wasn't fiction.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

This Is the Saddest Comic I Know

Today's review at ComicMix: the wrist-slashingly depressing ACME Novelty Library #18.

A word of warning: never read Chris Ware under the influence of alcohol or while operating farm machinery.

Powers Vol. 8: Legends by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming

I'm continuing my saunter (about two years behind everyone else) through the independent superhero/cop drama by two guys who aren't happy with just being called "Mike." Legends feels a lot like a transitional story: it incorporates and integrates the events of the last two books, showing the audience the consequences and setting up the next change in the superhero status quo. There's also a fair bit of fanboy received wisdom in the background of Legends; the credo of tens of thousands of grown men wearing Spider-Man underoos and collecting "action figures" of superheroines in hooker wear.

That's an awfully long-winded way to say that, in the aftermath of volume 6, The Sellouts (the next book, Forever, was a very extended series of flashbacks) superpowers have been outlawed, so...everybody say it with me! "Only outlaws have superpowers!!!!"

And thus "the city" that Powers takes place in is almost a lawless hell-hole, with murders of cops being common and the neighborhoods a battleground for turf wars among three supervillain-led gangs. Deena Pilgrim, one of our two viewpoint characters, has come out of a coma at the beginning of this book, and quickly goes back to work, tracking one particular cop-killer.

At the same time, Retro Girl (the universally beloved superheroine whose murder was the center of the very first Powers storyline) seems to have returned -- at least, someone wearing her costume is flying around "the city" apprehending criminals and doing good. Christian Walker, our other protagonist (who used to be the superhero Diamond until he lost his powers), knows who the new Retro Girl is and tries to help her once he sees that he's not going to be able to get her to stop.

And then Pilgrim gets captured by one of the gangs, and tortured by the powers of one of the leaders, which causes something that I wish I could say was unexpected. But it's not; what happens to her is exactly what does happen in superhero comics. Powers thus continues its movement from being a cop story set in a world of superheroes to yet another superhero story that happens to have cops in it. It's still pretty good, but stories about superheroes are already far too common in comics; we don't need yet another one. We do need stories about cops.

Ah, well: I'm sure I'll still track down the ninth volume to see what happened next.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

One Way to Start Fights to title a book Fantasy Classics.

(Shades of "for the fairest," yes?)

But this particular Fantasy Classics is a collection of comics adaptations of stories by Mary Shelley, H.P. Lovecraft, L. Frank Baum, and others, edited by Tom Pomplun, from the "Graphic Classics" series. And that might cut down on the screaming and hair-pulling just a bit.

Anyway, I reviewed it at ComicMix today.

Singularity's Ring by Paul Melko

So many SF novels, particularly first novels, seem to be built out of novellas these days that you'd think it was the forties all over again. (And, yes, you can always see the joins, even with the most skillful writers.) Singularity's Ring is one of the more elegant examples, but it can't hide the fact that the first few chapters really are episodes, and nearly separate stories from each other.

Maybe I'm exaggerating -- the characters are the same, the background is the same, and the chapters follow very quickly in time. And maybe I only notice it because the copyright page alerted me that the first two chapters were originally published as the separate stories "Strength Alone" and "Singletons in Love."

But even if the story is somewhat episodic as it gets going, it's compelling, presenting believable characters in an odd but plausible world. (One thing I'm particularly impressed by is Melko's very contingent near-future; so many SF writers present their worlds as "this is what must happen," while Melko's is the product, like real history, of a dozen accidents and specific moments, not all of which his characters know.)

It's a hundred or so years in the future, and most of humanity is gone. One faction -- presumably the highest-tech First World types -- formed an AI-mediated Community, burned through a frighteningly speedy technological growth spurt, built a Ring around the earth complete with a number of skyhooks, and then all keeled over dead, presumably uploaded to the Singularity. Soon after, or at roughly the same time -- and maybe caused by someone falling over in a lab; it's not clear if anyone knows -- the Gene Wars began, and vast numbers of people died in that, as well.

When everything settled back down after the die-offs -- this is yet another vaguely Utopian medium future that we can only get to by killing off 90% of the human race, and it's depressing that we're still getting those after the glut in the '90s -- the world was left as a number of insular communities, either deliberately denying modern technology or isolated enough never to have gotten it, and one dominant faction that had been genetically engineering humans into "pods." Melko never explains how or why this happened, but the appeal of pods -- each a group of two to five humans who function as a unit, tempering each others decisions and always seeking consensus -- is obvious in a world destroyed by war and sudden death. A pod is a radical form of personal democracy, the person as polity, linked by pheromones and a shared history into the legal person of this new society.

Pods started out with duos, then trios. When Singularity's Ring opens, quints are cutting-edge technology, with only a few "prototypes" growing towards maturity. One such quint is Apollo Papadopolous -- Strom, Meda, Quant, Manuel, and Moira -- training in a Rocky Mountain location and competing with several similar groups to be the captain of their society's first starship, the Consensus. Perhaps they'll even be the whole crew; Singularity's Ring occasionally takes note of the fact that its "people" take up more space, need more resources, and can do more jobs simultaneously than current individuals, but only in passing -- that people have two to five very different bodies is normal in this world, so the accommodations to that fact aren't remarked on.

The first five chapters of Singularity's Ring are each narrated in first person by one of the members of the pod, so we get to know them as individuals as well as pieces of Apollo. A pod isn't really a hive-mind; it's the combination of all five working together -- it doesn't have thoughts separate or "above" its components, but is formed by all of them thinking together. The core of the pod philosophy, as we see many times in Singularity's Ring, is that word "consensus." I can't be sure that pods were created to avoid rash, runaway decisions like the ones that sent the Community off into wherever-they-went, but it certainly seems that way.

So we get to know Apollo, in all of his/her facets, and we get to slowly know his world. (I had big questions about this world that weren't answered until late in the book; I mention that in case you, too, read it and start wondering about some big things early on.) The book doesn't go in the way the flap copy would lead you to expect, though the title is a big clue. As often happens in near-future SF, Singularity's Ring is finally about How We Got There, and our protagonists end up being a very, very important person indeed. There's danger and intrigue, and even something like a love story -- those of you who have read "Singletons in Love" will know that my "something like" is meant very loosely -- as the parts of Apollo learn the deep dark secrets behind their world.

I still think the world of Singularity's Ring is weird and only vaguely plausible, but Melko doesn't present it as something perfect and shiny, or as the only possible future, which makes it that much more believable. His writing is compelling, and his viewpoint characters subtly different from each other. I do wish that SF novels didn't feel compelled to answer all of the questions of their settings -- spy novels usually don't devolve into geopolitical explication -- but mine may be a minority taste. Singularity's Ring is a fine SF novel, substantially better than most first novels, and I'm looking forward to what Melko does next.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Call In the G-Men!

My review today at ComicMix: Rick Geary's recent comics biography of J. Edgar Hoover.

For reals, homes. The publishing world is not only stranger than we imagine; it's stranger than we can imagine. And that fact always comforts me.

A Springy Musical Meme

Instructions via Keith R.A. DeCandido, and, before him, the great Internet hivemind:

Music meme: List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they're not any good, but they must be songs you're really enjoying now, shaping your spring. Post these instructions in your LJ along with your 7 songs.

1. The Dollyrots, "Because I'm Awesome" -- A pop-punk gem with great attitude; just the song to sing along to in those first days when you have the windows rolled down.

2. Harley Poe, "Corrupting My Better Half" -- Through some sort of space-time warp, this song fell out of the Violent Femmes's first album and landed in 2006. I haven't heard anything else from Harley Poe yet, but I will.

3. Rachel Smith, "Juanita" -- I have an odd weakness for quiet songs driven by a concertina, and I've heard several of them lately. This is the best of that lot, a lovely song from a woman with an almost-conversational voice.

4. We Are Soldiers We Have Guns, "Songs That No One Will Hear" -- A gem of a song, with a female singer whose voice is almost too sweet and fragile...but never too much so.

5. Blaggards, "Drunken Sailor" -- On the other side, here's an old sea shanty. The Blaggards sound like the Pogues after ten years as the house band for some Austin honkey-tonk.

6. The Shondes, "Let's Go" -- Another tough song with unconventional instrumentation -- fiddles are another sound I love to find in unexpected places -- from a Brooklyn band with attitude and chops to burn.

7. Bodies of Water, "I Guess I'll Forget the Sound, I Guess, I Guess" -- This is what '70s art rock would have sounded like if it had been made by ex-madrigal singers rather than ex-art college kids -- a big song with sharp highs and lows and wonderful harmonies that builds and builds to a magnificent finish.

8. Creature, "Bridgette Bardot" -- A brand-new song that sounds like one of the more bizarre manifestations of '80s Euro-disco; a call-and-response song about Bardot, more or less, that almost manages to make me want to dance.

9. Elis Paprika, "No Me Vas a Callar" -- Well, it's mostly in Spanish, so I have no idea what it's all about. But it fucking rocks, and that's all that matters.

(Sorry, I got carried away. And I also avoided the songs I listed in "Fingertips" back in December, even though I'm still listening to a lot of those a lot of the time. Links on songs are either to legal free download pages or to official YouTube videos. Hope you find something you like, or are inspired to do something similar on your own blog/LJ.)

In Which I Fail To Get It

A couple of days ago (I was lackadaisical about keeping up with my feeds this weekend), Jay Lake wrote the below paragraph, in linking to a news story about that West Texas polygamist sect that is completely different from every other religious group, because they are evil, and everyone else is good:
"Girls in the west Texas polygamous sect enter into underage marriages without resistance because they are ruthlessly indoctrinated from birth to believe disobedience will lead to their damnation[.]" How is this different from any other religion? That's a serious question, not snark. The followers of virtually all religions raise their children within their religious framework, and impose the moral and behavioral rules of their faith on their children. Why is this different? If you're going to give social approval to religious upbringing, where does the line fall in picking-and-choosing? From my atheistic point of view, it's all indoctrination, after all.
Various people immediately jumped on Lake for being nasty and anti-religion and mean to cuddly little bunnies and unappreciative of their personal soulful connection to Invisible Pink Unicorns and Lake, being a polite man, backed off and apologized.

I, however, am not polite. This was also the weekend in which an old man, selected by a bunch of other old men (of which he was then one) to be head of a huge organization, came to my area to insist that everybody just shut up, stop thinking for themselves, and do what he says. (Or else they'll be tortured for all eternity by an all-loving supernatural being who created everyone and knows everything.)

In other words, he taught that "disobedience will lead to damnation."

All other Christian denominations that I know of also teach that "disobedience will lead to damnation."

The Muslim sects that I'm familiar with teach that "disobedience will lead to damnation."

Judaism is built on a vast interlocking set of detailed rules, and "disobedience will lead to damnation."

So is the problem merely that Lake is pointing at the most egregious example, and nobody likes to see their own ox being gored? Because it certainly looks to me as if every major religious tradition comes down to "these are the rules you have to follow, and if you don't you'll be tormented for all eternity." And that's exactly what the crazy Texas polygamists are saying, only with their own specific set of rules...but every group has a slightly different set of rules.

The responses all seem to be "well, all the people I know would never play the eternal damnation card...oh, sure, it's there, hidden in the religion somewhere, but only Republicans would actually mention it to the darling little children." Which is hogwash. All Catholics get a solid diet of hell, and so do Muslims. It varies by Protestant denomination, but, unless you get way out to Unitarian Universalists, there's some hell in the mix. Hell is part of the religious equation.

Look, I won the Bible Olympics two years running at my Church in my mis-spent youth; I know what a happy, positive, non-Hell-centric religion looks like. But Hell is still there; damnation is one of the underlying themes. If you don't like that, perhaps you need to reconsider your allegiance to a Supreme Being that insists on it.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/19

Another impressive stack this week, so I'll dive right into it without tormenting any publicists first:

The book that made me happiest when I opened its package this week was Yoshihiro Tatsumi's Good-Bye, third in the series from Drawn & Quarterly reprinting his Japanese comics from the early '70s. Tatsumi was in the forefront of the gegika movement, pushing manga in the direction of more realistic, downbeat stories about modern people's actual lives. The first two books of Tatsumi's from D&Q -- The Push Man and Other Stories and Abandon the Old in Tokyo -- were among my favorite books of the past two years, and I wasn't expecting to see this book for review. D&Q will publish it in July; start saving your pennies now.

The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard by Eddie Campbell and Dan Best, from First Second, will be published in August. This looks like its essentially Campbell's follow-up to The Black Diamond Detective Agency; he did all of the art, and Best is credited as the co-writer. It's the story of a famous acrobat, creator of (and namesake of) the leotard, and I expect that it's at least based on true stories, if not precisely non-fictional itself.

Alastair Reynolds's new novel is The Prefect, coming from Ace in June. I've had a copy of the British edition for close to a year, and haven't managed to read it yet -- I hope I can get it in before it publishes here. This novel returns to the universe of the Revelation Space trilogy, in Yellowstone's system before the Melding Plague hit. The title character is Tom Dreyfus, a cop who discovers that his current investigation is part of something much larger and more dangerous than he expected.

From Glen Cook's "Garrett Files" series -- Cruel Zinc Melodies, from Roc in May. This is the twelfth in that long-running series about a tough hard-boiled PI in a fantasy world; I read one of them, many years ago, and it didn't quite take.

Omega Sol is a new SF novel from Scott Mackay, which Roc will publish in May. It's about one of those great Hard SF staples, the Enigmatic Alien Artifact -- in this case, towers on the Moon that are turning our sun into a red giant much more quickly than it should be.

And also from Roc in May is Thomas E. Sniegoski's A Kiss Before the Apocalypse. (Oddly, I remember him best for the Bone side-story he wrote, Stupid Stupid Rat-Tails, which is one of the purest comedic romps in comics form that I've ever seen.) This book looks much more serious; it begins yet another urban fantasy, about a Boston PI who is actually the angel Remiel.

Algonquin Books published Jack O'Connell's novel The Resurrectionist earlier in April. It's a literary fantasy novel, but it's hard to say much more about it without reading it. (The materials about it -- back of the galley, publicity letter -- have lots of details and specifics that don't sound like anything in particular; that's the trouble with writing a book that isn't in any existing genre, so there's no shorthand to explain what it is.)

Publishing at the end of April is the first volume of Osamu Tezuka's series Dororo, which I've already reviewed for ComicMix (through the magic of PDF and wide Internet pipes). It's published by Vertical. I liked it, though not as much as some of Vertical's other Tezuka books, and I thought it would be a good introduction to Tezuka's quirkier side to readers of more popular manga.

The Martian General's Daughter is the new novel by Theodore Judson, whose first novel Fitzpatrick's War got great reviews a few years ago (and which, shockingly, I've yet to read). This new book was published by Pyr at the beginning of April. I doubt very much that it's a traditional Military SF book, though it does seem to have a lot of war and fighting in it.

Kate Elliott's new novel is Shadow Gate, second in the "Crossroads" series after Spirit Gate. Tor published it on April 15th. It also has a magnificent Michael Kaluta cover, which is almost worth the cost of admission all by itself.

Orson Scott Card's massive new collection of short stories, Keeper of Dreams, was also published by Tor on April 15th. It contains twenty-two stories from the past decade, including a story that had been accepted for Harlan Ellison's long-delayed The Last Dangerous Visions anthology.

The renowned Science Fiction Book Club has just published an original anthology called Galactic Empires, edited by the possibly-even-more-renowned Gardner Dozois. I'm particularly pleased to see this not only because the program of original anthologies was a source of particular pride in my days at the club, but because Gardner dedicated this book to Ellen Asher (the once and forever Editor-in-Chief of the SFBC and eternal uncrowned queen of all science fiction) and myself. Thanks, Gardner. Having my name associated with a book containing new novellas by Peter F. Hamilton, Neal Asher, Robert Reed, Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, and Ian McDonald is a great honor.

Last this week is a book that's #2 on The New York Times's bestseller lists as I type this. (At least, it is for now -- who knows when the whims of the Times will decide that fantasy is unworthy of the list and stop tracking it, as they already do with religious books, computer books, and several other categories?) That book is Jim Butcher's Small Favor, the tenth in the "Dresden Files" contemporary fantasy series. It's published by Roc, and, obviously, is already available everywhere. And I started reading it almost as soon as it came in the door.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

ComicMix Rundown

More of my ComicMix posts that I've neglected to link to so far:

On Thursday, I reviewed three books for kids: Gumby Collected #1 by Burden and Geary (which you won't be able to find at Amazon, so no link -- try asking at your local comics shop), Guibert's Sardine in Outer Space 5: My Cousin Manga and Other Stories, and Sfar's Little Vampire.

On Friday, my "Manga Friday" feature covered the first installment of a series called Kaze No Hana, the first volume of the new Tales from the Crypt, and the third volume of My Heavenly Hockey Club.