Sunday, August 31, 2008

What King Canute Did For Me

Since the month is winding down, I decided to glance at my statistics.

(Notice how I'm implying that I don't constantly check the stats? That I'm cool and collected, unconcerned except occasionally with my audience?)

August has my highest page views for the past year (as far back as Sitemeter-for-free goes) and my visits are currently 213 under February 08, which is the high in that category. It's slightly possible that I'll get that many views on a Sunday in the middle of the Labor Day weekend, but I don't expect it.

Still, it seems that picking a fight with seventeen people simultaneously is a good way to build one's traffic. I keep trying not to take those lessons to heart.

Oh, well. The numbers go up and down, and it's not like Antick Musings has any coherent focus in the first place.

The Times When You Wonder If Any Of It Is Worth It

1) You dither for seven weeks, thinking and writing about an interesting but not-completely-successful novel.

2) You finally finish a complicated, seventeen-hundred word review of that novel, highlighting some aspects of the author's style and career that don't seem to have been noted before.

3) One of your readers boils that down to "Andrew Wheeler thinks you're into bondage."

4) Shrug and move on.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Three Minor Books I Just Read

On the one hand, none of these three books really warrant a full-length post. On the other, I've caught up on nearly everything (except the movie The Wife and I saw last night), so there's no other posts I'm working on for today. So here are three minor books I just read, all stuffed together because they were the easy little books from my last book-shopping trip and because they all have extensive art.

First was Scouts in Bondage and Other Violations of Literary Propriety, edited by Michael Bell. This started as a display in the front window of Bell's store, the Cadburn Bookshop of Lewes in the UK. It then turned into a book by the smallish British outfit Aurum Press, was something of a success there, and eventually made its way to this side of the pond for an October 2007 release from Simon & Schuster.

Scouts in Bondage collects photographs of the covers of old books that are now funny, for various reasons -- some deeply British (such as the Spanish travel book Tossa), many prurient (like The Day Amanda Came), some merely odd (Book of Blank Maps, With Instructions), and some where I can't discern where the humor is supposed to be (as with Cookery for the Middle Classes and How to Speak Japanese Correctly).

It's a short book -- ninety-six pages -- and it contains probably about fifty covers. It takes about half an hour to read, if one takes a lot of time examining each cover and laughing heartily. I expect it's mostly sold as a gag gift; it's hard to justify spending money on something this frivolous for oneself. (Although I did.)

I also note that the font used in this book has a truly massive number of obvious ligatures -- the usual ct and st and th, but also is and et and as and at. Especially in its italic form -- as used in displaying titles -- this is a very, very scripty font, and I'm surprised that a book with such an attention-ctching font doesn't have a colophon to explain what that font is.

Next was The Dangerous Alphabet, the third picture book written by Neil Gaiman and the first of his not to be illustrated by Dave McKean. (The previous, Gaiman/McKean, books were The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish and The Wolves in the Walls.) This one is illustrated by someone billed as Gris Grimly, which smells an awful lot like a pseudonym to me.

Dangerous Alphabet is a shorter and simpler book than Gaiman's previous books for kids; it's appropriate for most ages, though really little kids -- the usual audience for an alphabet book, actually -- probably won't enjoy it. It is an alphabet book, organized into thirteen rhyming couplets that almost follow the usual alphabetical order.

A boy, a girl, and a gazelle set off for no obvious reason, run into trouble, and eventually escape -- that's the plot. Gaiman has some good wordplay in the middle, but it feels like a previously existing piece of poetry that was repurposed as the text for a children's book; the pictures play off the words, but not vice versa.

Grimly's art is grotesquely detailed, and fits precisely with his nom de plume. The book as a whole is just adequate, though, since the art and text don't actually have all that much to do with each other. For fans of Gaiman's previous picture books, this is a disappointment.

Last was the new Pearls Before Swine treasury collection by Stephan Pastis, The Crass Menagerie. It contains what seem to be all of the strips from 1/24/05 to 8/6/06, which also were collected (without color on the Sunday strips) in the smaller collections Da Brudderhood of Zeeba Zeeba Eata and The Sopratos.

All of the PBF treasury collections so far have commentary and notes from Pastis on at least some of the strips, which is a feature I really enjoy. (There's still the same number of strips per page -- three dailies or one Sunday -- which means it's purely added content. That appeals to all of us, doesn't it?)

And the strip itself is what it is -- it's still young and energetic enough to be changing a bit, having new characters and new situations coming in and out of it, and I'm still enjoying it. (There are older, more ossified strips that I still enjoy in the paper -- like Dilbert -- but that I've stopped buying the books.) This book sees the introduction of both the Guard Duck and the little Vikings, and the introduction and death (at least for now) of the killer whale. It's a pretty dark comic strip, yes, but life isn't all Family Circus, is it?

Friday, August 29, 2008

MishMosh MangaMix

In this week's "Manga Friday" column for ComicMix, I reviewed three very different manga series: Nightmares For Sale, Sola, and S.S. Astro.

Movie Log: Smart People

Smart People is yet another thoughtful, small movie about a family with problems -- you can each supply two or three other examples of the form.

If I remember right, it sat on the shelf for a while between filming and release, and it does feel a bit lopsided. (I have a sneaking suspicion that it was edited in the wake of Juno and in preparation for Sex and the City by making it focus more on the characters played by Ellen Page and Sarah Jessica Parker.)

Dennis Quaid is Lawrence Wetherhold, a complete asshole of an English professor at Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh; he's completely stopped trying to connect with his students or even remember their names some years back. He's the center of the movie, but he's also a complete prick, and that's a problem. Yes, he is a widower, but his assholishness isn't obviously related to the loss of his wife -- which seems to be several years in the past -- and it doesn't feel like anything temporary.

Smart People seems like it's going to be about a six-month period in Lawrence's life; at the beginning of the movie, he ends up in the hospital after a fall and concussion, and is told that he won't be able to drive for six months. So he'll be seeing a lot more of his ne'er-do-well (adopted) brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), and possibly of the head doctor of the ER, Janet (Parker), who was his student at least ten years before.

But Chuck's scenes are mostly with Lawrence's uptight high school senior daughter Vanessa (Page), whom he first tries to teach to lighten up, and then runs away from.

Lawrence does begin a halting, sputtering romance with Dr. Janet, which is difficult to take seriously. Lawrence is a shaggy mess physically, always shuffling around, and I've already mentioned how unattractive he is as a person. It's exceptionally difficult to see what Janet finds attractive about him -- and she's in the position of running back to him several times. Their romance is one of the hardest things to swallow in Smart People.

Chuck and Vanessa's relationship is similarly odd, though Vanessa does confront Chuck about that -- which makes it odd within the movie, and thus acceptable.

Lawrence also has an older son, James (Ashton Holmes), who doesn't get much screen time. James is dating a young woman, Missy (Camille Mana), who is also in at least one of Lawrence's classes and is the student representative on the committee searching for the new head of the department (which Lawrence heads). I suspect at least a couple of scenes of these characters were cut out of the movie; it looks like they should have been more important than they are. (James, in particular, is a cipher; he scowls at his father and squabbles with his sister but hardly anything else.)

Smart People is one of those movies where every scene is at least decent, and all of the acting is well above par, but either the script or the editing failed to bring everything into focus. It's worth seeing if you like this kind of movie, but it's not more than middling for the category.

Quote of the Week

"Accurate prediction of the future, of its technologies and traumas, has always seemed to me to be the least interesting thing about science fiction. So Arthur C. Clarke predicted the global satellite network -- so what? He also predicted the widespread use of hovercrafts and the dominance by 2001 of the commercial Earth-Moon space trade by Pan Am Airways (d. 1991). Such prescience, or the obligation to display it, is even more than bad writing, it's the element of a work of sf that most readily dooms it -- regardless of whether the predictions turn out to be right or wrong."
- Michael Chabon, "Introduction: Chaykin and Flagg!" in Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!

Good News for Silverberg Fans

Two of Robert Silverberg's best novels -- no, scratch that, two of the best novels of the twentieth century, which both happen to be science fiction -- are coming back in new editions from two different publishers.

Tor will be publishing a new edition of Dying Inside, which could be the greatest SF novel that the young Philip Roth never wrote, in March of 2009.

And IDW -- a comics company that's expanding more and more into books without pictures -- is bringing back Silverberg's lovely and elegiac Nightwings today.

The books that Bob Silverberg wrote between about 1967 to 1972 -- Thorns, Up The Line, Downward to the Earth, Hawksbill Station, The Man in the Maze, Tower of Glass, The World Inside, The Book of Skulls, and more -- are the greatest sustained burst of excellence for any SFF writer in the history of the field, and nearly unmatched in all of literature. Nearly every book he wrote in that period is as good as anything SF has ever produced, and I'd say that Dying Inside is a book that every student of 20th century literature simply has to read. I'd love to see them all come back into print -- maybe through a few Library of America volumes -- but even these two are a great sign.

And, if you haven't read them yet, what are you waiting for?

Saturn's Children by Charles Stross

Charles Stross is one of the most interesting writers in the SF field today, but there are things that we don't go to Stross for -- human warmth and compassion, for example, have been pretty rare in his work so far. Saturn's Children reads like Stross's attempt to stretch his work, and write himself into those areas. As such, it's fascinating but only partially successful.

Stross dedicates Saturn's Children to Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, explicitly making Saturn a homage to their stories. But Stross's choice of materials is oddly idiosyncratic: most writers would want the clarity and thoughtful ideas of early Asimov intersecting with the muscular prose and clean, externally-focused characterization of early Heinlein. But Stross instead chooses Asimov's most nitpicky rules-lawyer logic-chopping and the unbridled kinkiness and emotional prolixity of late Heinlein.

Saturn's Children, on the surface, is a retelling of Heinlein's Friday using more rigorous, Asimovian controls on the robots. It's set in a solar system, a few hundred years hence, populated entirely by a bewildering array of humanly-intelligent "emotional machines" after the human race quietly -- and awfully quickly -- died out. But this immediately runs Stross into consistency issues. His robots are raised like organic beings rather than programmed like machines -- except for the times that he needs hard-wired robotic control over them, when they immediately revert to a more Asimovian command-based system. He tries to have it both ways depending on the needs of a particular scene: his robots have psychological depth and real emotions, except when he needs someone to push a button and make them Asimovian automatons obeying unbreakable laws encoded into their very brains.

Similarly, he resorts to supernaturally effective tech when it helps his plot: there's something called a "slave chip," which works perfectly even when a robot doesn't know she has one installed, and which forces her to completely obey the person who installed that chip in her, even when she doesn't know who that person is. The slave chip clearly does not make the possessor obey everyone, and it doesn't tell the possessor that it exists or who she has to obey -- it just cuts in when the plot-appropriate person makes demands (even if that person might only be posing as the person who installed that chip).

One more related objection: robots are given their orders in plain language, conversationally. These orders are, in best Asimovian fashion, unbreakable...except that they're not clear enough to be unbreakable in the old Asimov style, so the robots must use their own best understanding to interpret and carry out those orders. And yet no robot is ever seen to be working around his orders, like a corrupt butler -- that possibility doesn't seem to even exist in this world. Freedom is an alien concept to the solar system of Saturn, as it often is in Stross's fictional worlds; he's one of our chilliest and most fatalistic writers, writing scenes where only a limited number of (unlikely to be successful) actions are ever possible.

The core issue behind all of those objections is that Stross has incorporated both the Asimovian Three Laws style of robot control and a late-Heinleinian conception of human psychology (with all the attendant requirements for lots of kinky sex of the sorts the author finds most interesting). Having two models of mind in one book is one too many. Either his robots are born and taught like humans -- possibly with some slightly different "robot" or "future" psychology invented by Stross -- or they're programmed like machines. Saturn's Children insists, repeatedly, that both of those are true -- that its characters had to grow up and learn to have their current capacities but also can be easily and quickly programmed via chips and verbal commands. That they have pseudo-human psychological damage caused by vicious traumatic experiences and push-button control of their internal states.

Saturn's Children is the story of Freya Nakamichi-47, the last-born of a line of very humaniform -- pneumatically femme-form, I should specify -- artificial organisms created originally to serve the sexual desires of humans. Sadly, Freya herself wasn't even created until after the human race died out, so her entire life has been one gigantic case of blue balls. (Saturn's Children is Stross's most sex-soaked book, but -- for good or ill -- he hasn't changed his geekier-than-thou diction, so the descriptions of sex are wrapped in elaborate technological jokes and obscure references; no one is likely to become aroused by reading this book, and the careless reader will miss half of the sex scenes entirely.)

Her name is the first, and most blatant, connection to Heinlein's Friday, but Freya's skills are nowhere near Friday's. (Stross is far more interested in incompetence, or rather the impossibility of beating experts, than Heinlein was -- but I'll get back to that later.) Saturn's Children is the story of Freya's inadvertent -- and mostly unwilling -- tour of the solar system. (There's a fascinating comparison to be made of Saturn's Children with John Varley's very similar Rolling Thunder, but this parenthesis is too small to contain it.) Freya begins the book by inadvertently insulting an aristocrat (by her very existence) on Venus, and then has to flee the wrath of her new enemies.

(Stross has the leftist Brit's irrational hatred for aristocrats -- "aristo" is essentially the word for "villain" in this book -- and all evil flows from the inevitable and unstoppable concentration of power in the hands of those nasty and unscrupulous enough to seize it and declare themselves rulers. These "aristos," though, don't seem to be hereditary -- there hasn't been time for generations of these very, very long-lived creatures -- so they're just petty dictators and kleptocrats. But those words don't strike horror into the bones of Stross's expected audience the way "aristo" does. Stross does have an explanation as to how this state of naked Darwinian competition came into existence, but it's just another example of a very familiar Stross expectation -- again, I'll come back to this.)

Freya finds love, of a sort, eventually, but, before that, she finds a series of Penelope-level travails and threats that become ever more pointed at her mental integrity and sense of self. Stross writes all of this with a seriousness of tone, and a tight focus on Freya's own roiling mental state, that keeps the reader from detaching from her torments. We're in her head throughout; what happens to her is happening to us, so it's less amusing to those of us who aren't masochists. We feel for her in the end, as she gets a happy ending that's a tad too conventional (and another Heinlein homage), but we've been wrung out by all that's happened to her before that.

Lois McMaster Bujold recently wrote that SF novels were "fantasies of political agency," and that idea can be applied to Stross. His novels and stories, almost to a one, are fantasies of bondage, and Saturn's Children is the novel where that tendency comes to its fullest flowering. Stross is a hard science fiction writer at the end of a long and gloomy British tradition, and so is obsessed with limits, with restraints: his novels are more about what can't be done than what can. The godlike Eschaton in his first novels is terrified with its own end, and enforces its loose rule on all humanity to maintain its own existence. The "Merchant Princes" novels are dense with argument, political and economic, about how people behave -- and themselves have darker, more violent object lessons in that same area. In all of Stross's novels, action is difficult and wrapped in turmoil; the inevitable end of everything is always in sight.

There's also been explicit, sexual, bondage in Stross's work as well, most notably in the "Laundry" novels and stories. It's come up in his work enough that one starts to uncomfortably wonder about the author's own proclivities, before starting to whistle and distracting oneself with other things consider it the inevitable extension of Stross's Hard SF obsession with limits; in a Strossian universe, everything will eventually be tied down so that it cannot move, and everything will, as it were, be fucked.

In Saturn's Children, Stross has made the implicit bondage of the laws of physics -- especially those old Cold Equations of space travel -- into the explicit bondage of sex: Frey is used and abused repeatedly, sometimes more consensually than others, sometimes more pleasurably than others. But the linkage is undeniable: to Freya, space travel is always about getting tied down and fucked. Even more so, the entire reason for her existence -- the reason for the existence of the entire series of organisms she is part of -- is to be inextricably bonded, body, mind, and soul, to whatever human being claims her. (All of the "emotional machines" have similar controls, but Freya's Rhea-class siblings are the most blatant: they exist to unconditionally love, and be fucked by, humanity.) Life is bondage; life is getting fucked, or fucked over, by whomever is in control. Since Freya is a sexy femmebot, her fucking is more direct than that of her less humaniform kin, but they're all fucked equally.

It's hard to read Saturn's Children as a fun romp through the solar system with that subtext dragging everything down; even Freya's eternally chipper attitude starts to pall when there's always one more scene of her being trussed, physically and/or emotionally, to suit someone else's needs. But, for readers who have tired of the same old whips-and-chains scenes, Saturn's Children opens up whole new vistas of torment and control.

The title puzzles me, I must admit: the most famous child of Saturn is of course Zeus, who escaped being devoured to kill his father and free his siblings. If the emotional machines are the children of the Titans of humanity, then there was no Zeus; Saturn died of natural causes. These emotional machines -- these children of Saturn -- live, irrevocably, in the shadow of their forbears, building what they all know instinctively know can only be an age of Silver, which will never match the Titans' age of Gold. Perhaps this is yet another example of the Strossian gloom; another height that can never be reached again, as all past energy is permanently lost and the universe tumbles on towards its eventual suffocating death.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

In Which I Blog About How Much I've Been Blogging Lately

This is horribly meta, but I just noticed that (prior to this one) I've made 86 posts this month, which is the second highest total for any month in the nearly three years I've been doing Antick Musings. (The highest: June of 2007, when I was trying to avoid thinking about my unemployment by cataloging links as Blog in Exile, and ended up with a record 123 posts in thirty days. I doubt I'll ever beat that.)

I'm not quite sure why August is so bloggy this year -- maybe just because I've been catching up on book and movie posts that I'd gotten behind on -- but it is. So if you've felt like I've been that much more verbose lately, it's not just you.

The third highest month was last September, when I had a lot of energy and enthusiasm from my then-new job.

The lowest months are, in order, October 2005 (when I started the blog), December 2005, and May 2007 (when the axe fell).

This exercise in navel-gaving has been brought to you by the Eagle Hand Laundry. Does your eagle have dirty mitts?

Incoming Books: 28 August

I haven't done one of these posts since April 12th, since I haven't been on a big book-shopping trip since then. (I've been living off the mail and the library for a while, in a so far futile attempt to slow the growth of my to-be-read shelves.)

But I went back to the Montclair Book Center today, finding some of their shelves (especially in the children's section) a little sparser than I expected, but I still managed to buy more books than I'll be able to read in the next month:

I did grab something for each of my two sons -- for the ten-year-old Thing 1, Sideways Arithmetic From Wayside School, and for the seven-year-old Thing 2, some random "Henry and Mudge" book.

I forget where I heard about it, but I finally saw a copy of Scouts in Bondage (edited by Michael Bell), and grabbed it. It's a collection of covers from books of yore -- printed large and in color -- that now sound funny. Some examples: The Humour of Germany, How Nell Scored, and 50 Faggots.

I'd vaguely known that Lawrence Block's new novel was Hit and Run, but I hadn't kept track of it -- so I was surprised to see that it was already published. I'm really getting out of the habit of knowing when things are publishing these days.

There was a great panel at Readercon on revisions by editors that turned into a discussion of what Gordon Lish did to the Raymond Carver stories collected in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and it made me really want to read that book. (I'd hit a couple of Carver stories when I was in college, and we didn't get along well at all. But I think I'll appreciate them more now.)

I finally bought Don DeLillo's 2007 novel about 9/11, Falling Man. (I picked it up and looked at it on every trip to the library for about six months, but never checked it out.) Maybe I'll even read it; I've read all of DeLillo's other fiction.

It's sad to see that George MacDonald Fraser's last book is The Reavers -- not the book itself, which I hope will be excellent, but that there won't be any more from him. But there is one last Fraser novel, and that's something.

Ian Frazier, author of the wonderful Coyote V. Acme, and many other books (both funny and not), has a new book of comic essays, Lamentations of the Father. The cover is more than a little off-putting, but I bought it anyway.

I've been slowly picking up all of the new Penguin editions of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, with an eye to reading a chunk of them in one big gulp. So this time I got From Russia with Love.

I read two great Stewart O'Nan novels late last year -- Last Night at the Lobster and The Speed Queen -- but I hadn't picked up anything else of his since. The Book Center had one copy of A Prayer for the Dying, which I'd figured I'd read next of his anyway, so I took that as a sign.

I've heard good things about Ed Park's Personal Days -- yet another serio-comic novel of modern business, a niche I'm coming to be very interested in -- so I bought it.

And I accidentally got a second copy of Paul Theroux's The Pillars of Hercules, because I hadn't crossed it off my list. Well, now I have the choice between a hardcover and a trade paperback when I finally get around to it, so it's not that bad.

Neil Gaiman has a new book for kids out, with illustrations by Chris Grimly. It's called The Dangerous Alphabet, and it looks less particular and special than The Wolves in the Walls or The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, but I bought it anyway.

And last was the new treasury-sized collection of Stephan Pastis's Pearls Before Swine strip, The Crass Menagerie. This one has lots of commentary from Pastis, like the first two treasuries, and I'm particularly happy since I managed to avoid the temptation to buy one of the two smaller books that has all of its cartoons doubly reprinted here. (I really like Pearls Before Swine, but I think I can stand just having all of the cartoons in permanent form once.)

Zotting Around the World

HarperCollins' big and impressive trade paperback collection of Scott McCloud's great '80s neo-superhero comic, Zot!, has been published, and I just reviewed it for ComicMix.

The book is Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection: 1987-1991, and I urge you to buy it as soon as you can.

(And, if you don't believe my burbling, would you trust Chris Roberson?)

A Field Guide to Surreal Botany edited by Janet Chui and Jason Erik Lundberg

I've mentioned before that I'm a sucker for fake non-fiction -- Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials, the "Terran Trade Authority" books, Dragons: The Modern Infestation, For Want of a Nail -- so whenever something new in that area comes along, I'm sure to jump right on it. I was a big fan of The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases when that came along a few years back, and I jumped right into A Field Guide to Surreal Botany when I heard about it.

It's a slim volume, only seventy-six pages long, with botanical and ecological descriptions of forty-eight plants that, strictly speaking, don't actually exist. The Field Guide is divided first by region, into sections covering the unexpected flora of The Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia and the Pacific, and then dives into plants that are more wide-ranging, in a Worldwide (Unlimited by Region) section.

The last section is where the book comes off the rails, as much as it does: the earlier sections all have plants that are slightly unreal, and mostly ones rooted in the particulars of people and places, of societies and ecologies. The last section has the obviously supernatural plants, the ones that go everywhere and have super-powers, that sometimes read like their author's ego-trips run wild.

But, before that, come the specifically placed botanical specimens, which are all well-crafted and some of which have a real eerie power. (Particularly items such as the Teslated Salishan Evergreen and the Whistle Tree.) Some of the others are quite amusing, in a very dry way, like the Lautokan Ear-blossom Plant.

The Worldwide section does start with the funniest description in the book, that of the Big Yellow Flower of Unnecessarily Obvious Information, but also has embarrassing things like the Library Plum and the nigh-omnipotent Sembla, both of which invoke alternate universes for inadequate purposes.

Chui has also provided a watercolor illustration of every single plant in the book, which accompany the descriptions. They're precisely detailed and excellent as botanical illustrations -- not exciting, of course, and so different from the illustrations we're used to in SFF books -- and add greatly to the air of verisimilitude of the book. (As does the general design, down to the darkened and fly-specked pages.)

The contributors are mostly names I don't recognize -- which could mean that they're mainstays of the small press or that they're entirely new -- with Jay Lake as the only real above-the-title participant. (Though he's credited, the same as everyone else, via a table of all of the entries in the back.) The other people I've heard of, for various reasons, include Vera Nazarian, Livia Llewellyn, and Christopher M. Cevasco. The complete list of contents and contributors is available on the book's website.

A Field Guide to Surreal Botany does contain some entries that I would describe as clunkers, but the book is mostly consistent, and quite good. It's not a normal anthology, and I doubt any of the pieces will turn up anywhere else. So, if this idea intrigues you -- and particularly if you enjoyed the Lambshead Guide to Diseases -- you'll need to either try to track Surreal Botany down at a convention or buy it directly from the publisher. (It's not available at any of the major online booksellers, and it certainly won't be in any brick-and-mortar chain stores.)

Star Wars Melds My Mind

Even after my epic grumpiness last week, the SF Signal guys continue to ask me to participate in their "Mind Meld" features every now and then, which is very broad-minded of them.

Today the question was "Is it time for Star Wars to go on hiatus for a long while, or is there hope the new, live-action TV series will breathe new life into the series?"

And the answers included mine, plus such smart and thoughtful people as Keith R.A. DeCandido, John C. Wright, Lou Anders, and Bruce Bethke.

You can read what we all wrote at SF Signal, and complain vociferously that we Got It All Wrong there if you like.

Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi

I've greatly enjoyed all of Scalzi's novels so far -- devoured them quickly, with great fondness and usually a sly smile on my face the whole time through. But, at the same time, the common universe of most of them -- what I guess we can call the "Old Man's War" universe -- has been annoying me more and more with each book, with implicit assumptions that keep leaping out of the text and slapping me in the face, like some rude halibut, before dropping back into the stream of consciousness.

(My apologies for that horrible metaphor.)

I've written about this universe here several times before: review-ish posts on Old Man's War, The Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony, and "Ruminations on the Old Man's War"-iverse. Reading those again, I can see my discomfort with the unexamined assumptions of that universe -- or, to be more precisely, with the badly explained bases of that universe -- rising and rising as Scalzi wrote more and more in that setting but didn't deal with what I saw as the gigantic Chekov gun on the mantelpiece.

Zoe's Tale is essentially the other side of The Last Colony; it retells many of the same events, and is set in almost exactly the same time-frame, but focuses instead on Zoe Boutin Perry, the adopted daughter of John Perry and Jane Sagan. I might be obsessed with the background of the universe, but the real inherent problem of this book was Zoe -- it's written in her first-person voice, and she's a teenage girl with some major crises in her past (such as the death of her father and every other human she knew when she was very young). If Scalzi hadn't been able to write believably in Zoe's voice, the whole book would have fallen apart.

But he could, and it didn't: Zoe's Tale is just as slick and entertaining as Scalzi's earlier novels, with yet another series of plausible but unlikely events spun out in a master storyteller's voice. It's the thinnest and least of the Old Man's War novels -- and I do hope he keeps his promise to let the setting sit for a while, this time -- but it's still splendid SF entertainment, a story of good people feeling their way in a less-than-good world. (Though I still insist that the world is not nearly as bad as it should be, given Scalzi's premises.)

Again, the plot of this book is very much the same as the plot of The Last Colony, only from Zoe's point of view -- it begins on the new colony world Roanoke, flashes back a bit (earlier, I think, than Last Colony did), provides some more detail on events in Last Colony through Zoe's perspective and experiences -- in particular her deus ex machina alien diplomacy mission -- but ends pretty much where Last Colony did, for the same reasons and with the same people. It doesn't provide any major new information about this universe, though it does flesh out Zoe as a character considerably -- its major reason for existence is as a test bed for Scalzi to demonstrate that he can believably write a teenage girl.

At this point, I would normally be foaming at the mouth and complaining about the plausibility of the solar systems in this book, but I'm not. What helped me make peace with Zoe's Tale is a talk Sarah Monette gave at Readercon this year, in which she laid out a theory of fiction, on a continuum from Realism (stories that aim at a resemblance of the real world) on to Contrarealism (works that are set in worlds that both the author and the reader know are impossible). In between, Monette had two other modes of fiction: Pararealism and Surrealism. Surrealism is hard to define specifically, but we all pretty much know what it is: it thrives on juxtapositions and generally isn't meant to be taken as real in the first place.

Pararealism, though, is Monette's invention, and I think describes a useful strategy in fiction: elements that are not like real life at all, and yet are taken as realistic within the confines of a particular tradition or work. Sitcoms are intensely pararealistic, as is farce in general -- they're filled with things that are broad cartoons or stereotypes of human behavior, exaggerated to an extreme degree for the form, but accepted as real. Musicals are pararealistic, as are pornography and most comedians' stand-up routines.

Science fiction also can be quite pararealistic, despite all of the fannish mania for "hard science" and so on. FTL drives are impossible, as are time machines. Are they "grandfathered" into SF, or is it just that they're useful for telling certain types of stories, so we accept them? As the genre goes on and a body of standard furniture arises, those elements become pararealistic: things that we accept as real for the space of a piece of fiction. And when one reader (such as me) keeps complaining about those elements, it's because he is trying to read Pararealism as Realism. SF is less intrinsically Realist than it likes to pretend it is; even the really hard stuff has a lot of assumptions about human behavior that come right out of the '50s. And what Scalzi is writing isn't Hard SF in any of its flavors, despite a surface sheen (and the tendency of some readers to take any SF books with military hardware in them as Hard ipso facto) -- it's a kind of Space Opera of Manners, drawing heavily from the Galaxy tradition of the '50s (Frederic Brown, Robert Sheckley, and so on) and the continuation of that tradition through writers like Keith Laumer. Scalzi's Colonial Union is no more a working polity than Laumer's CDT was, and to expect it to behave as one is to misread the intentions of the book and the author.

Thus freed, I 'll be able to fully enjoy Scalzi's future novels without picking their premises apart -- at least I hope so. Sadly, this epiphany happened after I finished reading Zoe's Tale, so I spent much of my reading time with that book making tortured faces and trying to concoct a workable backstory in my head.

I still think The Ghost Brigades is Scalzi's best book, and I'd like to see himself stretch himself more in that area, to lay off the quick-talking smart-ass narrators who always come out on top of the situation and to try writing some people who can't talk their way through everything, and whose moral compasses either aren't absolutely infallible or aren't identical with the default reader's. But Zoe's Tale sees Scalzi doing again what he does well -- a bit too much "again," since it does retell his last novel quite closely -- and is just as engaging and diverting as his previous books.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow

Arma vriumque cano, sang the poet,
Though Barlow makes it canine.
Singing of men and arms, tooth and claw,
Of red red blood and the men who spill it
And the werewolves of Pasadena.

(I joke: it's always Los Angeles,
Centerless city of cars and men in cars.
Men turning to wolves, wolves wanting to be men.)

Werewolves are real, biting and scratching

Anthony Silvio's just this guy, see?
Needs a job, gets a job, working at the pound
Caring for the lost dogs, the stray dogs
And, unknowing, for the dogs that aren't dogs

Werewolves are real, changing and fighting

Weredogs is better: big bruisers,
Mutts and bulls and retrievers and hounds
Man-sized, running free from heaped clothes

Werewolves are real, in the unreal land of LA

Dogs have packs. Dogs have territory.
Dogs piss around the edges and snarl for show
A pack has one woman, one bitch
Two bitches fight -- no bitches fight
Every pack needs a girl
Sister/mother/whore to love and fuck

There's more than one pack in LA
Going to be a lot of pissing

Lark's got the smart pack, the plan, the way
Growing steady, keeping quiet
Smells two other packs
Not ready for attack, betrayal, murder

Lark survives pack's slaughter
So does the girl -- call her "the girl"
She runs away, meets Silvio:
Just a cute girl
Just a guy at the pound
Just a coupla kids in love

Lark hides in Silver Lake
He's Bonnie's dog Buddy
Can ya believe it?
Plans are good -- "good dog" is better

Then there's this cop, Peabody
Circling outside the dogfight
Not a dog, barely honest
Cop enough to add two and two
Slick enough to slide into trouble

There's three packs in LA
And Mexican druglords
And a girl who came north,
Surfing doggie style in Baja,
Until her pack got killed
By Mexican druglords

There's a lot of killing
The wild ones don't live to be old

Two of Lark's dogs
Playing tournament bridge in Pasadena
They get good, get in deep
With some ol' Mexicans

Add crystal meth, cooked in stinking houses
(Dogs can smell real good)

Shake down to taste, stir well with
Doublecrosses by threes and fours
Semiauto rounds and teeth at the throat

There'll be flowing blood in LA tonight
Bitten and shot and cut and scratched
Enough red to sink the town

It ends in tears and gunshots
As any good noir must
Does Silvio get the girl?
Does he get his own changing skin?
Does anyone come out alive?

Just read it.
How often do you find
A werewolf novel in verse?
Verses much better than mine.
(But if this is doggerel,
What then is wrong with it?)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

No Referrals, Please

Someone recently asked, in comments on a post linking to some other publishing person complaining about submissions, if editors were likely to pass on projects to other editors at the same house.

I hemmed and hawed a bit, and said it was possible but not likely.

Editorial Ass, who is a real editor who gets real submissions (unlike Marketing Manager me), explains exactly why this is unlikely, and why she hates when people ask about it.

Another way to put the lesson: if there's "someone else at the house who might like this project more," find out who that is ahead of time and submit it to that person.

The Trouble With Tom by Paul Collins

Most biographies start with their subject's birth, but not The Trouble With Tom. Paul Collins isn't out to tell the story of Thomas Paine's life, but of the posthumous adventures of his body (and works), so Paine kicks off in the middle of the first chapter.

Tom Paine was an unpopular atheist and an embarrassing relic of the extremes of revolution by the time he died on New York's Burrows Street in 1809, so there was no chance of his being buried in consecrated ground in or near New York City. After being mourned by a mere six people, Paine was laid to rest in the corner of a field he had owned in New Rochelle, marked by a stone that the locals immediately started to break apart. Within a decade, the few remnants of Paine's headstone were mortared into a nearby wall -- and his body was dug up and spirited away to England, supposedly to be reburied as part of a grand monument.

The Thomas Paine monument never came to be, and Collins tracks the dispersal of Paine's mortal remains from that point, as a lock of hair goes here, a skull there, and some random bones elsewhere. Collins's focus is on the people rather than the mementos, so The Trouble With Tom never gets grisly; he's more interested in the afterlife of Paine's ideas than with his moldering bones. And the people who come to possess pieces of Paine did so because they cared about his ideas -- most of them were his followers, though a few wanted a token to show that their aristocratic ideas had triumphed over the democratic rabble-rouser.

Collins traveled to all of the locations associated with Paine's posthumous adventures, finding a gay bar here and a chip shop there, digging up a few new facts a hundred and fifty years later but mostly just seeing them for himself. He's also read a ridiculous number of books about Paine -- his "Further Reading" section at the end is nearly forty pages long -- and has informed opinions about them.

The Trouble With Tom is the kind of nonfiction book the world needs more of: detailed and authoritative in its facts, clear and engrossing in its style, uniquely particular in its subject. Let's see fewer biographies of the same old dead people, and fewer dull explications of the same old topics, but many more books as sprightly and informed as The Trouble With Tom.